Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Centurion (2010)

The Romans vs. Picts action thriller Centurion might seem like nothing more than B-movie schlock, but there’s no denying that it’s got a few things going for it. At the top of the list is its star Michael Fassbender, a promising actor who’s made a name for himself recently with roles in films like Inglorious Basterds, Fish Tank, and Hunger. It also doesn’t hurt that it was directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Doomsday), the British horror auteur whose three previous films have shown him to be one of the few filmmakers around who actually respects and understands the history and fans of the genre. Throw in Olga Kurylenko as a mute warrior princess, the striking scenery of the Scottish highlands, and a little true history (the film is based on the legendary disappearance of Rome’s Ninth Legion), and there was a chance for Centurion to be memorable. But while Marshall’s hand for directing bone-crushing violence and tense chase scenes certainly doesn’t disappoint, the end product turns out to be the most generic genre exercise he’s attempted yet.

Fassbender stars as Quintus Dias, a Roman centurion serving in the legion during Hadrian’s ill-fated attempt to conquer the modern day United Kingdom. As the film opens, the takeover has turned into something of a quagmire, thanks to unforgiving weather and the presence of the Picts, a group of savage Celtic warriors who use guerilla tactics to repel all invaders. After their Ninth Legion is slaughtered in a surprise attack, Dias and a ragtag group of survivors take off across the countryside with a small war party led by the trident-carrying Etain (Kurylenko) on their trail.

This cat-and-mouse chase aspect of the film appears to have been the necessity of a small budget more than any kind of bold stylistic choice, and Marshall makes it work as best he can. He delivers on a few nice moments of tension, particularly a battle in the woods that leads to a Butch and Sundance nod where the characters are forced to jump off a cliff into a rushing river. Still, the attempt to make the small group of soldiers represent the entire strata of Roman society is hackneyed at best, and at its slower points the movie seems to be about nothing more than guys running through the woods with swords. A few attempts are made at building character—hell, they even introduce a beautiful witch living alone in the woods to add some sexual tension—but none of it ever amounts to more than the requisite pre-death talk of wives and future plans of starting farms and retiring from the soldier game. The striking scenery of the Scottish highlands is often the film’s saving grace, but beautiful as those hillsides may be, I eventually got tired of watching the characters sprint across them during long helicopter shots.

As it turns out, the film’s best moments all come early on, when Dias is still with the Ninth Legion and their charismatic leader, General Titus Virilius. As the General, Dominic West (probably known to most as McNulty from The Wire) steals every one of his scenes, and his presence in the film only succeeds in making it clear how uninteresting and incomplete a character Dias ultimately is. This portion of the movie also features the film’s best action scene, when the Ninth is ambushed on a forest road by an army of Picts. Marshall’s eye for carnage is spot on, but he tends to sacrifice coherence for gore a bit too often, to the point that the battle eventually degrades into one close up of a stabbing and throat slashing after another, with no real regard for continuity or the spatial positioning of any of the characters in the frame. That the blood is often CGI only adds to the confusion, as it has a tendency to make every action scene seem just a little too much like a video game. Still, no one could say Marshall doesn’t have a gift for portraying the brutality of ancient weapons, and throughout the film he continually ups the ante on creative ways for his characters to die by the sword.

Unfortunately, new and interesting uses of a trident can only carry a movie so far, and in the end Marshall fails to bring something new to this genre in the way he has with his other films. If anything, his big accomplishment here is that Centurion has none of the vaguely jingoistic underpinnings that taint so much (American) action cinema. Neither side—Picts or Romans—is presented as being morally superior to the other, and a bit of last minute double-dealing calls into question any easy ideas of heroism or victory. In Marshall’s world, there seems to be no constant righteousness or cause, and death only begets more death. That might not seem like much, but it’s pretty heavy territory for this kind of film to venture into, and hints at how Marshall just might be the next John Carpenter. Centurion, then, seems to be a sort of transitional film for him. Given more money for the production, it’s hard to say what kind of big budget madness he might have been able to concoct, and given less he probably would’ve spent a little more time building tension and writing decent character interaction. As it is, I can't help but think that Centurion had just enough of a budget to be mediocre.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Prophet (2009)

There’s an old argument that troubled kids only truly learn to be criminals once they’re sent to prison. Jacques Audiard’s 2009 film A Prophet takes this idea to its logical extreme, showing us how a French Muslim named Malik (the excellent Tahar Rahim) turns from a naïve street thug into a mafia kingpin during a seven-year stint in the joint. It’s a sprawling film (among other things, it’s been compared to both The Godfather and the epic TV series The Wire), and Audiard never misses a step in his depiction of the intrigue and violence of the French prison system. It’s only when he tries to build a larger thematic arc around his story that he falters—but as an engrossing crime thriller, A Prophet is near perfect.

Tahar Raheem plays Malik El Djebena, an orphaned street kid who’s sentenced to a seven-year prison sentence for attacking a police officer. Once on the inside, he’s approached by a group of Corsican mafiosos led by Cesar Luciani (Niel Arestrup), and forced to perform a hit on an Arab snitch. From there, wide-eyed Malik ingratiates himself to the prison’s criminal element, serving as the “eyes and ears” of Cesar’s outfit by moving seamlessly between the Muslim and Italian inmates.

Audiard’s style is impeccable, especially in the way that he constructs the prison’s hierarchy. He never throws his audience a lifeline to easily understand the narrative, but the immediacy provided by his camerawork and the seamless editing by Juliette Welfing ensure that the audience is never too overwhelmed. Unlike a lot of crime films, the pace here never gets bogged down in details or unnecessary exposition. For Audiard, action is story, and as Malik continues to perfect his reputation as a criminal operator, the film only keeps raising the stakes. Once Malik starts getting day-long work releases for good behavior, the intensity of the story ratchets up considerably, showing how our hero manages to pull of it assassinations and prisoner exchanges by day, only to return to the safety of a prison cell at night.

The film’s greatest asset is its performances, particularly from Raheem, Arestrup, and Adel Bencherif as Ryad, Malik’s contact on the outside. Raheem’s performance is especially impressive considering that we’re never given much information about who Malik is or what motivates him. He arrives in jail as a blank slate, and it’s only through the things he does and the decisions he makes that we begin to understand the breadth of his conviction and ambition. He’s nearly matched by Arestrup as Cesar, the slick old lion of the Corsican mafia, who manages to be at turns both despicable and utterly pathetic. The relationship between he and Malik serves as a lynchpin for the majority of the film’s character-based drama, and despite Cesar’s cruelty, there is something almost heartbreaking about the way things end between them.

Audiard’s approach to constructing his criminal underworld is impeccable, but he plays fast and loose with his themes, and his attempt to construct some sort of overarching thesis around Malik’s actions never quite pans out the way it should. For example, the fantasy sequences between Malik and the ghost of Ryeb, the man he kills early in the film, add almost nothing, and a series of scenes that try to establish Malik as the “prophet” of the title are particularly muddled. But as a portrait of the prison system and the inner workings of the criminal underworld—that is, as an intensely realized, dynamic genre film—A Prophet is unmatched. It may not add up to more than the sum of its parts, but those parts prove to be more than enough to build a compelling film.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Winter's Bone (2010)

The independent film Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), a destitute Ozarks teenager on the hunt for her crank-cooking, absentee father in the backwoods along the Missouri-Arkansas border. It's a film that's been praised for its realism, but this seems a bit off base. Winter’s Bone is certainly a good film, but it works more as a kind of larger-than-life, southern gothic thriller than it does as a Ramin Barhani-esque exercise in site specific cinema. At its heart, this is a well-observed genre film that often transcends the familiarity of its story thanks to its excellent performances. And while the sense of place that the film manages to cultivate is certainly worth noting, it’s the complex character interactions and director Debra Granik’s unique eye for the grotesque that are truly most memorable.

Granik shot most of the film in muted grays and blues, and this dour color palette, along with the handheld camerawork and Dickon Hinchcliffe’s original score, helps to build an almost constant feeling of dread. As Ree delves into the local underworld of trailer park chemists and speed freaks, Granik succeeds in building the kind of menacing, trust-no-one atmosphere that’s usually only found in suspense and horror films—and to great effect. The missing person case at the center of the story has led many to compare Winter’s Bone to a noir detective film—Daniel Woodrell, on whose book the film is based, is known to refer to his writing as "country noir"—and this is true enough. It views that genre through the prism of the Ozarks in the same way that a movie like Brick used a high school setting. But along with the detective story, Winter's Bone makes heavy use of horror tropes, particulary in the way that it builds tension and makes use of mystery. It has just as much in common with Last House on the Left as it does The Big Sleep, especially by the time we get to a late scene involving a chainsaw.

As in many horror films, certain players are often mythologized and built up by other characters long before they’re actually shown onscreen. It’s a classic technique for building tension and a sense of foreboding, and Granik plays it to perfection, especially in the case of Teardrop (John Hawkes), Ree’s meth-addicted, caged tiger of an uncle. With his jailhouse tats and his mercurial, just-as-soon-kill-you-as-look-at-you demeanor, it’s Hawkes who’s the film’s most memorable character, and Granik honors him by giving him a wonderful, hauntingly unresolved last scene. He’s nearly matched by Jennifer Lawrence, a 19-year old actress whose previous major credit was, of all things, The Bill Engvall Show. She brings a quiet dignity to Ree that is unusual for someone of her age to be able to pull off, and whether she’s skinning squirrels, chopping wood, or acting as a caretaker for her two young siblings and her mentally ill mother, she always seems totally authentic. Likewise, her command of the grit and flow of the backwoods dialect seems effortless, especially when compared to the kind of “aw shucks, ya’ll” histrionics so many Hollywood actresses seem to fall prey to when they try to go full redneck.

It’s this kind of attention to detail that helps Winter’s Bone maintain a veneer of authenticity, even in the cases where the set design seems all too staged. In many scenes, the filmmakers seem to be going out of their way to achieve a sense of realism through decoration—every coffee table is perfectly littered with crack pipes, guns, beer cans, and spent cigarettes, and every yard seems to have just one too many cars up on blocks—but it’s actually their excellent attention to character interaction that ends up getting the job done. See the way Ree’s neighbors, knowing she and her siblings are hungry, bring over some spare deer meat for them to eat (and after Ree had previously admonished her brother by saying “Never ask for what oughta be offered”), or a wonderful scene between Ree and a benevolent Army recruiter. In each case, Granik succeeds in building a world that operates by its own rules, moral codes, and blood ties, and it’s through this that a true sense of place emerges. After all, classical detectives like Sam Spade never invoked the name of a common cousin, or spoke about how he and another character “share some of the same blood,” as a means of getting the information he needed. In Winter’s Bone, these ties serve as their own kind of currency.

This intricate network of familial connections and sense of community—however perverted it may be—are the most interesting things on display here, and they definitely help to overshadow the film’s faults—particularly the ending, which, save for the possible fate of one key character, is a bit too easy. Still, there’s very little in Winter’s Bone that isn’t earned, and despite its generic trappings, there isn’t an exploitative moment on display here. The attempts at realism certainly aren't among its strengths, but that's not the point. It works precisely because of the familiarity of its story. If there's any transcendence to be found in Winter's Bone, it's in the ways that a universal tale—the gumshoe on the trail of the missing person—is reinterpreted by such an exotic environment.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Eclipse (2009)

The theme of being haunted is pervasive in The Eclipse, a beguiling Irish film from director Conor McPherson. It’s likely to be categorized as a horror film—and with good reason—but the hauntings on display here are more than just supernatural. Characters are plagued by memories, grief, romantic encounters, and guilt, and that emotional horror often proves to be just as gripping as the more classic “gotcha” moments, which are few in number but always unexpected and remarkably effective. The result is a horror film in the vein of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant or Repulsion, a story where the terror is borne not out of violence or visceral shocks but out of character, conflict, and emotional stress.

The Eclipse’s main character is Michael Farr (Ciaran Hinds), a wood shop teacher from a stormy village on the Irish coast. Farr has yet to come to terms with the death of his wife a few years earlier, but he busies himself with his two young children and his work at the town’s annual literary festival, where he volunteers as a driver. When the film opens, Farr begins dealing with another kind of specter in the form of his wife’s invalid father (who, by the way, is still alive), whose ghost begins to manifest itself inside his house and in his dreams. He finds the perfect counsel for his problems in Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a popular writer of ghost stories who is in town for the literary festival. Their relationship flourishes thanks to their shared experience with the paranormal, but it’s complicated by the presence of Nicholas Holden (Aiden Quinn), a bestselling American writer who claims to be “haunted” by a brief affair he and Lena had months earlier.

Director Conor McPherson’s background is in the theater, but there is nothing stagey or stuffy about The Eclipse. Playwrights have a tendency to attempt to accomplish too much through dialogue, but McPherson’s approach is nothing if not uniquely cinematic. He lets his exposition build through small character actions and sly uses of set design, and his camerawork is entrancing, full of luxurious tracking shots and morbid framing that often recall Kubrick’s The Shining. The film’s moments of pure horror are few and far between, but when they come they are genuinely terrifying, thanks in no small part to some chillingly effective sound design. Still, McPherson’s boldest stylistic choice is the way he refuses to conform to any kind of traditional generic construct. He has a very particular story he’s trying to tell (specifically, the ways in which people choose to confront and move past grief) and he has no reservations about using everything from drama, horror, romance, and even slapstick comedy in order to get at it.

McPherson’s cause is no doubt helped by the exquisite trio of actors he has at the center of the film. Hjejle and Quinn are both wonderful, especially Quinn, who is clearly having a great time playing the pompous Holden. He’s a character we’d love to hate, but Quinn brings an emotional truth to the role that complicates any easy conclusions we might like to form about the kind of man he is. Still, this film ultimately belongs to Hinds, the wonderful Irish character actor who is a reassuring presence in any movie in which he appears. He’s an intimidating figure, but he brings a gentleness to Farr that is completely disarming, and this helps him succeed in gaining the audience’s trust right from the start. Any time you have a horror film with a genuine emotional core, it’s easy for the attempts at suspense to feel out of place, or worse yet, to cheapen the drama. But Hinds is so believable and so genuine that his performance manages to heighten everything around him.

At scarcely an hour and thirty minutes long, The Eclipse doesn’t waste a single scene. Its emphasis on character over plot is likely to lose some viewers, but those who are able to adjust to the story’s peculiar rhythms will be entranced. It’s structured like a great short story in the way that its characters, themes, and style are all so expertly intertwined. But at the same time there is a distinctly mysterious, evasive quality to the ideas it presents (like the provocative notion of a person’s ghost appearing prior to their death), which only seems to grow in complexity and meaning after the story is over. You’re not likely to be able to get The Eclipse out of your head easily—it’s the kind of film that will haunt you.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Collapse (2009)

One of the most ubiquitous types of modern documentary is the “everything you know is wrong” movie. These are films which shun any attempt at objectivity in favor of giving a very specific viewpoint, usually in the vein of explaining just how screwed we all really are. We’ve already had movies about how our government is corrupt (No End in Sight), our economy is broken (IOUSA), our food is toxic (Food, Inc.) and our lives are controlled by private interests (The Corporation), and that’s just to name a few. Now comes Collapse, the most recent documentary from the director Chris Smith (American Movie), which synthesizes all these arguments into one Grand Unified Theory of paranoia about just how severely our modern world is under attack from forces beyond our control. It’s definitely some heavy stuff, but it’s also endlessly fascinating. Not only does Smith give us a stunning primer on the major problems facing the 21st century, but he also provides us with an intimate portrait of a man on the edge, a modern day street preacher whose obsession with saving the world seems to constantly be at odds with his own wellbeing.

That man is Michael Ruppert, a former L.A. narcotics cop who’s well known in certain online circles for his work as an investigative reporter/conspiracy theorist (depending on who you ask). A chain-smoking everyman with a bad comb over and a few extra pounds on him, Ruppert has made his name thanks to an investigative newsletter and website he ran called From the Wilderness. From predicting the financial crash to breaking the story of the cover-ups surrounding the death of Pat Tillman, Ruppert has been on the cutting edge of the underground news cycle for several years—something he claims has made him public enemy number one of the powers that be. Considering Ruppert and the film’s basic hypothesis—that overpopulation combined with a looming energy crisis and the illusory nature of the financial system is likely to lead to large-scale societal collapse—this probably isn’t all that surprising.

Make no mistake—Collapse is Ruppert’s movie. The entirety of the film’s original footage consists of one long Errol Morris-style interview with him. As Ruppert expounds on his theories about peak oil, government corruption, and the looming collapse of the financial system, Smith uses stock footage and charts and graphs to articulate his points, along with black and white intertitles (“OIL,” “ELECTRICTY,” “COMPOUND INTEREST,”) to help organize the monologue. Ruppert’s theories are certainly provocative, but the majority of his argument shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent more than a few hours trawling the internet. What’s really compelling about Ruppert is the way he’s able to synthesize all of these issues (his take on the financial system, for example, is as succinct as it is devastating) and convincingly explain what their long term effects might be. Smith’s film doesn’t go out of its way to fact check anything he says, but it’s easy to see why Ruppert might intimidate those in power: he’s scary-articulate, well-read, and comes from a respectable family of former military/CIA workers. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to write off as a crank (and many people have), but he’s just so damned erudite, so rational even when presenting his most bizarre theories, that you can’t avoid letting at least some of his ideas seep into your subconscious.

It’s no surprise that Ruppert’s personal character helps dictate how you interpret his message, because at it its heart, Collapse is nothing if not an in-depth character study of a man who has dedicated his life to signaling the alarm about where he believes our planet is headed. It’s especially telling that Smith includes no other interviews outside of Ruppert. None of his critics are given the space to rebut him; none of his ideas are backed up by scientific testimony. It’s just Ruppert. And even though he’s a compelling interview, you can’t help but begin to think that Smith is giving him just enough rope to hang himself. Early in the film, Ruppert is unflappable, listing off bullet points and quoting scholars and scientific facts as though he’s reading them from a book. But as the film progresses he starts to loosen up a bit. His rant becomes more profanity-laced; he smokes more; he even cries on camera. Whether this was a natural progression or just a bit of clever editing on Smith’s part is hard to say, but it is incredibly revealing. We start to see just how personally invested Ruppert is in his quest. By this point we’ve already learned about the sacrifices he’s made in its service (he claims to have been shot at; his office has been burglarized; he’s been harassed; and we’re told he’s in financial trouble), but it’s when we begin to realize the psychic toll it’s taken on him that it becomes clear that Collapse is really more about the man than it is the message. Ruppert’s theories of societal collapse may or not prove to be true, the filmmakers seem to be saying, but there’s no denying that its effects are already far too apparent in his own life.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"A Memory of a Memory": The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)

If there’s one thing the movies have a unique capacity for conveying, it’s memory. Whether good or bad, recollections of the past tend to stress the emotional, the visual, and the visceral—often at the expense of the truth of what really happened—and what more concise summation of the cinema is there than that? In its better moments, director Juan Jose Campanella’s The Secret in Their Eyes proves this sentiment quite elegantly. This is a film that is haunted by memory; a film where the triumphs, tragedies, and missed chances of years prior serve as the backdrop for a mystery that has burdened the characters and helped shape the people they’ve become when the story opens. The main character’s decision to reach into the past and try to get closure makes for some truly compelling, wonderfully cinematic drama, and it’s only the filmmakers’ compulsion to neatly tie up every loose end—to remember every detail—that ends up making it all just a bit too clever for its own good.

The film follows Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), a retired Argentine court officer who reopens a long-abandoned case with an eye toward writing a novel about it. Through some excellently framed flashbacks, we’re taken back to 1974, when then-federal justice agent Esposito was assigned to the rape and murder of a young schoolteacher. Campanella has a gift for plotting the police procedural aspects of the story, and it’s entrancing to watch how the young Esposito, along with his supervisor, Irene, and his perpetually drunk colleague, Sandoval, got sucked into the case. As the evidence piles up, the story unfolds as part thriller, part fugitive chase story, and (rather unnecessarily) part history of Argentina’s transformation into a military dictatorship. Throughout it all, the film continually flashes back to the present day, as Benjamin tries to consult Irene, now a judge, on his book, all the while skirting around the prospect of rekindling the latent relationship they let slip their fingers years before.

The Secret in Their Eyes
was the surprise winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film, and it’s easy to see why: it’s got the slick production values of a Hollywood film (Campanella is best known for directing American dramatic television) and a nuanced, literary story adapted from a book by Eduardo Sacheri. But where the film really succeeds is in the powerful performances of its main actors. The most prominent is surely Ricardo Darin, a renowned actor who seems to be Argentina's answer to George Clooney, but he’s matched by Soledad Villamil, who plays Irene with a tenderness and intelligence that helps her steal more than a few scenes. As Sandoval, the excellent Guillermo Francella is often used for comic relief, but his performance is helped by the script, which provides more than a few scenes that elevate him from just the boozy office jester to perhaps the most sympathetic, tragic character in the whole of the film.

Campanella, who is otherwise a bit guilty of making his presence known with his flashy camerawork, allows these great performances to speak for themselves. You could easily picture a lesser production having a stilted narration to help describe the emotions Esposito experiences during the lengthy flashbacks, but Campanella is confident enough to let his actors tell us all we need to know with awkward pauses, nervous laughs, and fleeting glances. This is especially true of the platonic romance between Irene and Esposito, both in the flashback scenes and in the present day. It’s to Darin and Villamil’s credit that they’re able to make the regret of the years spent longing for one another feel palpable—and even with some pretty egregious old age makeup holding them back.

The Secret in Their Eyes moves along like a dynamo during the flashback scenes, and while they’re still building, even the present day stuff doesn’t feel intrusive. But like so many films that start in medias res, it is a little jarring when the tale set in the past reaches its peak and the audience suddenly finds itself thrust back into the present day. It’s a tough way to plot any story, since the writer is essentially forcing two separate endings into the same script. Ironically, things here aren’t helped one bit by the fact that the climax to the flashback story seems entirely fitting and complete. Once we’re left with just the present day story, Campanella tries to get around any dramatic letdown by saving his biggest and most absurd plot twist for the last few minutes. You’re not likely to see it coming, but you are likely to think it belongs in a different movie.

Fortunately, this tendency is only peripherally present for the rest of the film, and whenever the plot drifts too perilously close to more tired dramatic territory, it’s saved by its performances and it’s director’s unabashed love for visual storytelling. For better or worse, Campanella never wastes an opportunity to embrace a filmic moment, whether an engrossing (though admittedly far-fetched) interrogation scene, or a foot chase at a soccer match that unfolds through a mesmerizing, 5-minute long tracking shot that, no doubt with the aid of some digital stitching, moves from helicopter shot, to crane shot, to steadicam—and all in the middle of a packed stadium of extras. Does such a sequence have any right showing up in this kind of movie? Probably not, but like so much of The Secret in Their Eyes, there's also no denying that it's engrossing, classically entertaining filmmaking.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Dennis Hopper and the "Russian Suicide Chair"

As a tribute to the recently departed Dennis Hopper, here he is in 1983 performing a stunt sometimes called the "Russian Suicide Chair." The idea is that if you set up dynamite in a perfect circle and blow it all up at the same, the explosions create a safe zone in the middle where a person can sit and be unharmed. It's a perfect example of the one of a kind character we just lost in Dennis Hopper. The explosion is at 1:50 if you just want to skip to the good stuff.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gangster Theatre: 44 Inch Chest (2009)

Malcolm Venville’s directorial debut 44 Inch Chest plays like a 70s British gangster movie that’s been converted into a stage play. Save for the opening scenes and a few flashbacks, the film takes place almost entirely in a rotting building on the wrong side of London. Spurned car dealer/gangster Colin Diamond and four of his friends have gathered there with the intention of torturing and killing Diamond’s estranged wife’s boyfriend, who they’ve kidnapped from a posh downtown restaurant and stuffed in a wardrobe. But the overemotional Colin, still reeling from being dumped by the love of his life, is hesitant to do the deed, and needs some psyching up from his pals. This sets the stage for some of the most delightfully profane criminal shop talk since Sexy Beast (which, as it so happens, was written by the same duo--Louis Mellis and David Scinto), all of it delivered by an all star cast of British talent including Ray Winstone, Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson, Stephen Dillane and John Hurt.

Like the best of David Mamet’s work, the high points of watching 44 Inch Chest (the title is never explained, but it somehow just feels right) all stem from seeing these great actors deliver such powerful language. Part of what made Sexy Beast such a perverse joy to watch was the way Ben Kingsley was able to wield dialogue like a weapon, spitting out insults and expletives like they could make a visceral, physical impact. Mellis and Scinto achieve a similar feat here, especially thanks to Dillane and Hurt, both of whom really seem to be enjoying themselves as the two more unbalanced members of the crew, Mal and Old Man Peanut. Wilkinson plays Archie, the straight and narrow of the group, while the always wonderful McShane is slyly funny as Meredith, a gay high roller with an ultra-cool demeanor and impeccable sense of style.

These characters all fall into neatly framed archetypes around the emotionally shattered Colin, who’s played with an endearing desperation by Winstone. In fact, enough of the film takes place in Colin’s head (in flashbacks and fantasy sequences) that it’s tempting to hypothesize that his buddies might not exist it all, but rather work as projections of his own fractured personality. Either way, they all form a great group dynamic, and their rambling dialogue, which tackles everything from Meredith’s sexual proclivities (Peanut makes a point of regularly calling him a sodomite) to the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, ultimately forms one of the more elegant explorations of masculinity that has been offered up at the movies in some time. It’s rare that you get a movie that goes this deep into the emotional and romantic troubles of such hardened characters, and the fact that it’s coming from such an unexpected source makes a lot of the more tender dialogue have that much more of an impact.

This colorful dialogue and excellent grasp of character and theme is no doubt what drew such exceptional talent to this film, and rightfully so. But where 44 Inch Chest suffers is in the way of plot. All the great language and character dynamics can only take you so far--at some point we need to see these people actually do something. Throughout the film I kept thinking about what a wonderful play this story would make: take 5 total badasses, put them on a stage, and let them devour scenery for ninety minutes. Unfortunately this same approach doesn’t work so well on screen. We need to see these characters act on the impulses they set up so elegantly through dialogue, but director Venville never gives them the chance. This decision relegates 44 Inch Chest to being more of a showpiece for great acting than great filmmaking, but given that the acting is so superior it’s enough to keep the movie snappy and somewhat entrancing, even at the same time that it’s all nowhere near as rounded as it should be.

Friday, April 30, 2010

That Evening Sun (2009)

One of the most celebrated stylistic devices in literature is the trick of the unreliable narrator, where the reader comes to learn that the character relating the story cannot be trusted. This kind of plot point has been translated to the movies in countless ways, but it’s most often employed in films like Fight Club, where we only learn in the last few minutes how batshit crazy our main character really is. Plot-wise, 2009’s That Evening Sun might be about as far from a movie like Fight Club as you’re likely to get, and it doesn’t even use narration. But thanks to some sly, wonderfully moving storytelling and a towering performance from Hal Holbrook, it’s able to achieve a similar effect—not through wild twists and fractured narrative, but through the revelations provided by living, believable, and tragically flawed characters whose complexities only build and unfold as the story progresses.

The film follows a man with the delightfully Southern name of Abner Meecham (Holbrook), a strong-willed, ill-tempered, 80-plus year-old Tennessee farmer who might as well be the Dixieland version of Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski from Gran Torino. As the film opens, Abner’s just busted out of the nursing home he was committed to and walked the 20-plus miles back to his sleepy tract of land. He arrives to find his house inhabited by Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), a local ne’er-do-well who rented the place from Abner’s son with the intention of becoming a farmer and turning life around for his wife and daughter. We’re never told just how well Choat and Abner know each other, but it’s hinted that their families have a past. Whatever the history, the two immediately clash: Abner is furious that the homestead he tended with his late wife has been taken over by a “white trash…loafer,” while Choat carries a grudge about the way he’s always been treated by Abner, whom he sees as a stubborn, bitter old man. After his son (Walton Goggins) is unable to convince him to leave the property, Abner sets up camp in some old slave quarters located in a ramshackle cabin mere feet from the main house. He and Choat start doing their best to make each other's lives miserable, setting the stage for a Southern Gothic feud that’s destined to turn violent.

The biggest pleasure of That Evening Sun is the way the narrative and the characters unfold as leisurely as the humid Tennessee afternoons depicted in the film. Each player is like an onion where the layers are slowly peeled away to reveal new traits and elements, which keeps our view of them in perpetual flux. Director Scott Teems does a magnificent job of building the drama by continually setting up character roles and then immediately subverting and complicating them. We’re led to believe that Abner represents the proud, gentlemanly Old South and Lonzo the slovenly, troubled redneck, but as the story progresses and the themes of manhood, familial responsibility and redemption start to build, we come to realize that each man is not so easily pinned down. What’s more, they’re probably more alike than either would like to admit.

This is most apparent in a key scene late in the film, where a line from Abner’s son suddenly throws into doubt nearly everything we know and believe about him and his idealized relationship with his wife (played in some artfully handled flashbacks by Holbrook’s actual spouse, the late Dixie Carter). Rarely is there a film where the viewer’s total understanding of characters and themes is so radically changed simply by the utterance of a single, seemingly innocuous line, but that is exactly what happens here. (One person in the nearly empty theater in which I saw it actually gasped aloud when they heard it.) It’s a subtle moment, and Teems, working from a short story by the celebrated writer William Gay, wisely underplays it to the point that I’m sure that no small amount of viewers will miss it entirely.

Of course, none of this would work so well if it weren’t for a universally excellent cast led by Holbrook, a criminally underrated actor who turns in what might be one of the very top performances in a long and storied career. He doesn’t deliver a false line in the entire film, and every word he speaks feels like it has the weight of a full lifetime of love, loss, and hardship behind it. Still, at the same time that Abner is a flawed and fully realized character, we are consistently—and wisely, I might add—kept at an arm’s length from him. We’re not told why he was put in the home or how his wife died for a good portion of the film, and when these revelations come, they act as the major catalyst for the way our understanding of the conflict is refigured and reinterpreted.

Holbrook gives the standout performance, but he’s nearly matched by McKinnon, a deeply talented actor whose chameleon-like qualities have established him as a phenomenal artist at the same time they’ve kept him effectively hidden from the mainstream. He’s as hyperbolically good as ever here, turning in a performance that wouldn’t have been out of place in his 2004 directorial debut Chrystal, another languidly-paced Southern drama that’s similar in tone and style to That Evening Sun. Carrie Preston is understated and touching as his long-suffering wife, while Mia Wasikowska (of Alice in Wonderland fame) has an equally interesting turn as his daughter, a shyly sweet girl whose bemusement with the ornery Abner makes for a few quite funny scenes. Rounding out the cast is the great Barry Corbin as Thurl Chessor (this film deserves an award for colorful character names), Abner’s charmingly detached neighbor. You might remember Corbin as Ellis, the cat-keeping philosopher-hermit that Tommy Lee Jones visits at the end of No Country for Old Men. He was great in that film, and he brings a similar kind of homespun wisdom and pitch-perfect diction to his role here.

Teems’ direction is unobtrusive and understated throughout—he realizes how good his cast is—but he deserves credit for the way he manages to build mood and atmosphere through his gorgeous widescreen landscape shots and slow camera moves. His fleeting cutaways during Abner’s reveries about the past are also exceptional and wonderfully staged. This preoccupation with the lyrical does make for the film’s one noticeable flaw—an ending that is perhaps a bit too unfinished for its own good—but this kind of philosophical open-endedness should always be appreciated, especially in a film that is otherwise as narratively straightforward as this. That Evening Sun is haunting, thematically complex, character-driven, and literary in the best since of the word—all of which make for an experience that is truly moving. Most important of all, though, it achieves it all without ever sacrificing one ounce of authenticity. And that, simple as it may sound, is not something you see too often.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Flame and Citron (2008)

Most people in the U.S. probably haven’t heard of the film Flame and Citron, but in its native Denmark it was a cultural phenomenon, as it backed up its sprawling story and record-breaking budget with an equally epic take at the Danish box office. It’s a moody, noir-ish tale about two reluctant heroes of the Danish Resistance (something else we’re not familiar with stateside) who went by the code names Flammen (Flame) and Citronen (Citron, or Lemon). Together with a small but dedicated group of underground freedom fighters, the duo became notorious for “liquidating” Nazi officers and the Danish traitors who collaborated with them. As Flame says at one point: “all we can do is shoot them one by one, until there are none left.” And indeed they do. The resulting film is an entrancing drama that plays like a lovingly crafted historical portrait with a dash of Leon: The Professional thrown in for good measure.

Getting the information, manpower, and materials to perform these assassinations often proves to be a Herculean effort, and makes up a good part of Flame and Citron’s storyline. Back room deals are made, documents are forged, equipment smuggled. We learn about it all through a narration provided by Flame (real name: Bent), a headstrong 23-year-old with a shock of red hair and a deadly serious demeanor. He’s the triggerman on the jobs, while Citron (Mads Mikkelsen, in the film’s best performance) is usually the driver. Citron, we’re told, has been in the resistance since its early days, and to look at him, with his perpetually greasy hair and weary pallor, you’d think he carries the weight of its success on his shoulders. He and Flame are the two stars of the resistance, and while their whole outfit is built to run like a Swiss watch, mistakes are often made: innocents are shot, trusted allies turn traitor, and Bent’s girlfriend, a femme fatale-ish secret agent, proves to be both his worst enemy and the only person he can trust.

This murky atmosphere, where bonds are tenuous and people must be taken at their word, provides Flame and Citron with many of its best moments. Among these is a conversation Bent has with an erudite German whom he is sent to kill, and who may or not be on his side. In a nice twist, the man goes on a rambling Socratic dialogue as a means of talking Bent out of pulling the trigger, and in the process touches on many of the film’s major themes. For these, director Ole Christian Madsen takes a page from Jean Pierre Melville’s legendary 1967 eulogy for La Resistance, Army of Shadows, in examining wartime morality and what is won and lost in the process of resorting to evil methods to combat evil. Likewise, the inner politics of the resistance movement are also highlighted, though perhaps with less subtlety: each meeting between the duo and their bosses in Sweden plays less like a historical document than it does like an action movie prerequisite, with Flame the loose cannon who would much rather reach for a Sten machine gun than a peace treaty any day.

Still, Flame and Citron is ultimately less about the inner workings of the Resistance than it is about the plight of its two main characters. Thankfully, Mikkelsen and Thure Lindhardt, as Flame, are up to the task of really carrying the dramatic heft. By this same token, the script manages to pile on just enough character development that when the action scenes do come—most notably a Scarface-esque last stand that has to be seen to be believed—they actually mean something. This is not to say that the film doesn’t occasionally veer into the kind of treacly territory native to both the historical drama and the action movie, but thanks to the strong performances, it does manage to largely stay grounded in the more honest, human drama. All flaws aside, Flame and Citron is well worth watching. It‘s more carefully crafted and thoughtful than most movies of this genre, and it provides a cutting look at an underground battlefront of WWII that most North Americans (myself included, I must admit) probably weren’t aware existed.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Serious Man (2009)

The Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man is undoubtedly their most difficult film to date. Not only is veiled beneath so much Jewish dogma as to be nearly inaccessible to a goy such as myself; not only does it feature a throwaway fable set in the 19th century as its opening scene; not only does it pile on one theme and allusion after another; but it seemingly makes no suggestion about how we’re supposed to interpret any of it. Nowhere in the film is there any overt evidence of an authorial guiding hand as far as theme is concerned (what do these guys really think about religion, anyway?), which is something of an accomplishment in and of itself. The end result is that the viewer ends up feeling just as overwhelmed and beleaguered as Michael Stuhlbarg’s Larry Gopnik, the Minnesota physics professor at the center of the film whose entire life unravels over the course of a few days.

This existentialist approach to storytelling has been the driving force behind all the critical discourse on the film. Theories were proposed left and right, but all it takes is to read a few of the notices of the movie (like Roger Ebert’s surprisingly rambling mess of a review) to see that a lot of critics simply didn’t know what the hell to make of this thing. They seemed to split evenly into two camps. There were those who stood in awe of the film’s narrative complexity and technical precision, like Ebert; but there was also a small but vocal group, including the Village Voice’s Ella Taylor, who wrote it off as jumbled and nihilistic. Both of these strike me as pretty lazy positions to stake out, but when a movie is this perplexing it usually ends up driving people to extremes. The shock and awe crowd made a lot of vague references about the story’s relationship to Kabbalah and the book of Job. Just how similar the two really are is beyond me, but I doubt I’m much different in this regard from most of the people who’ve offered their opinion—truth be told, the whole Job-referencing business smacks of being the kind of critical thread that gets appropriated an repackaged to the point of irrelevance. As for the nihilism folks, they’re missing the point entirely. Sure, the Coens do take a sadistic delight in putting their main character through hell, but that’s something they’ve been doing throughout their entire career. Haven’t these people seen Fargo or No Country For Old Men or even The Big Lebowski?

In saying this I’m making it sound like I have some great understanding of what this movie is really getting at—which, of course, I don’t. Like the anecdote Larry’s Rabbi tells him at one point in the film, there may not be any true answer about what it all means. And maybe that’s the point. You bring to this kind of film what you will, and while I could ramble about what I think the film is saying about fate and goodness and the ways one’s morals can be compromised by circumstances outside their control, it’s hard to say if anyone else would understand or agree with me.

What I can say for sure is that there’s no doubt that the Coens, whatever you think of them, are as masterfully controlled and aesthetically aware here as they’ve ever been—on this count I guess I’m with the “standing in awe” crowd. I’ve never been their biggest fan—which is why I’m writing about this thing now instead of six months ago—but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said they were gifted filmmakers. No Country For Old Men was, for me, one of the most technically perfect movies I’ve seen in the last few years, and A Serious Man matches it shot for shot. Every angle, ever cut, every musical cue bespeaks two filmmakers at the top of their game. That it’s all in the service of something so frustratingly indeterminate is no doubt what’s turned some people off of it. Still, the fact remains that, difficult though it may be, this film is utterly hypnotic. If you can latch onto its visceral, concrete aspects, then the philosophical riddle wrapped up in an enigma at the center of it just becomes icing on the cake.

Todd McCarthy (no longer, as of a few weeks ago, it seems) wrote in his review that A Serious Man is “the kind of movie you get to make after winning the Oscar." True enough, but considering the film’s paltry $15 million at the box office, you have to wonder if it’ll take more gold statues before the Coens can go this deep again. For the sake of film culture, lets hope it doesn’t take too long.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Save the Tiger (1973)

After letting it languish on my Netflix queue for several years, I finally got around to watching 1973’s Save the Tiger, the film for which Jack Lemmon won his Best Actor Academy Award. The film follows two days in the life of Harry Stoner, an L.A. clothing company owner who’s knee deep in a midlife/financial crisis. It’s the kind of gripping, personal film that I wish got made more often, and beyond being as shining an example of the old “character over story” adage as you’re going to get, it’s proof of a few things:

1) That the early 1970s were the last truly great period of American cinema. It was a time when the country was getting over a war, directors had insane amounts of freedom, and movies like this seemed to be the norm. So many of my favorite films, from Five Easy Pieces to The Long Goodbye to The Conversation, came out between ’70 and ’74, and Save the Tiger might as well be slotted right into that list. This a movie that’s as inextricably tied to its particular milieu as Easy Rider, and it tackles a subject matter and a kind of character that movies of the time just weren’t addressing. Lemmon’s character is a WWII vet, well into his forties and stuck between the old guard (represented by his business partner Phil, who’s played to perfection by the great Jack Gilford) and a counterculture that’s still in full swing. He can’t seem to find satisfaction in either one, and he’s been reduced to musing about the good old days of his youth, when he played in a band and big league pitchers still used a wind up—a preoccupation that’s played to perfection in the movie’s final scene.

All of this is expressed in a style that’s almost literary (the film’s adapted by Steve Shagan from his novel) at the same time that it’s got some clever stylistic touches, like the dead soldiers from Harry’s past who materialize in the crowd when he gives a speech at one of his fashion shows. It’s hard to pinpoint, but movies from the seventies seemed to briefly exist in a happy medium where they were able to tackle edgy content and present imperfect characters, but still do it in a classical style that allowed actors of Lemmon’s caliber to really light up the screen. I’m not sure when that died out, but the last great example I can think of is Network, from 1976.

2) That Jack Lemmon was one of the greatest screen actors of that or any era. It’s a shame that a whole generation—my generation, as it were—remembers this guy best from the Grumpy Old Men movies, because he truly was one of the most singular screen presences of all time. Who else could claim as varied and universally excellent a resume as Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses, The Player, The China Syndrome and Glengarry F-ing Glen Ross? He won the Oscar for Save the Tiger, and thankfully it might be one of the few cases where an actor actually won an award for his greatest role, and not for some phoned in performance a few years before he died. Lemmon is simply pitch perfect here, and even though he’s spouting off heaps of dialogue in every scene, he never once strikes a false note. He was always the kind of actor who could chew up scenery and completely mesmerize an audience when he wanted to, but he also knew when to dial it back. This is exemplified perfectly in a late scene where Harry talks to one of his craftsmen, a holocaust survivor played William Hansen, who tells him of how he’s content in his life as long as he has his wife and a job he’s good at. It’s maybe the best scene in the movie, and even though Hansen’s stealing it right out from under him, Lemmon’s smart enough to just sit back and let it happen. Few great actors would’ve been willing to do that, but Lemmon clearly believed in this story, enough that he was even willing to waive his fee and work for scale.

3) That John G. Avildsen is one of the most unique and unsung filmmakers of his generation. Sure, he made the Karate Kid movies and Rocky, but he has never been hailed as a legitimately great director. This a shame, especially when you consider that with Save the Tiger and Joe, he made two of the defining films of the early ‘70s. At the time, the culture was so divided that it was hard to make something truly subtle—you were either on the side of Midnight Cowboy or The Green Berets—but Avildsen explored a strata of American society that just wasn’t being talked about. He hasn’t done much later in his career (his last film was a Van Damme action flick), but in the early ‘70s he was bookending these hippie zeitgeist death-of-the-American-dream character studies with Troma films. Troma films! Now that’s what I call range.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"We Are All Guilty": Death in the Garden (1956)

It’s always a thrill to go back and watch the early films of a director whose biggest successes came later in life. It’s this very pleasure that’s made it such a joy to catch up with some of Luis Bunuel’s films from the 1950s, many of which were only released on DVD for the first time last year. Most of the films come from the period when Bunuel was working in exile in Mexico, and they all display that very Bunuelian characteristic of being delightfully subversive and political at the same time that they often masquerade as straightforward adventure stories. 1956's Death in the Garden, which I just caught up with, is a perfect example. While it might not display the same feel for the surreal as the movies he made in France, it does show that, among his many other talents, Bunuel was a master at spinning a good ‘ol fashioned yarn. Beyond all else, it's proof that even when he was working as a hired hand within the constraints of a studio system, Bunuel was no less adept at making something incisive, thoughtful, and downright weird.

The film follows that classic setup where a group of people stranded in an extreme situation come to serve as microcosm for society at large. Bunuel being Bunuel, the extreme situation is a political uprising in a South American mining camp, and the stranded cast of characters includes a prostitute and (who else?) a Catholic priest. They’re both part of a group that’s taken hostage by a roguish French adventurer, who leads them into them into the jungle in order to escape from the local military.

It’s when the action gets moved to the unforgiving setting of the jungle that Death in the Garden really kicks into gear. Unlike a lot of directors, Bunuel doesn’t go out of his way to romanticize the beauty or purity of wild nature (just look at the film’s title). Instead, he portrays it as brutal and godless anarchy—a false paradise where any small misstep could mean death. This is all summed up rather succinctly in an early shot that depicts a snake being consumed by an army of fire ants, and it’s carried through as the weary runaways start to fall prey to the tests of the jungle one after another. Even more noticeable than the detail in which Bunuel documents the terrors of the wild is a high pitched squeal—insects? birds? a bad mic?—that accompanies a good many of the jungle scenes. It’s hard to say if it was intentional or not, but either way it definitely helps to give the viewer a sense of the intolerable conditions the characters are dealing with.

Bunuel’s camera and his blocking are pretty conventional—even stagy, at times—but the sophistication and audacity of his ideas makes up for what are otherwise some pretty forgetful stylistic choices. That being said, there are a few great little moments that remind you that this was the guy who had already made Un Chien Andalou, and who would later make The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. One of my favorites comes midway through the film when he abruptly cuts from a shot of the green labyrinth of the jungle to a soundless, stationary shot of cars driving by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at night. It’s a jarring transition that’s only made all the more affective when the shot cuts back to the jungle to show the character of Castin, an aging miner who dreams of opening a restaurant back in Europe, wistfully looking at a post card that depicts that very scene.

Thematically, Death in the Garden is certainly a rehash of several of Bunuel’s time-honored themes, but they are presented here with more restraint than they would be in his later films. First and foremost, as usual, is his antagonistic take on piety, which is personified here in the form of a naïve and well-meaning priest who seems oblivious to the fact that he’s being used to civilize the local Indians only so that they can be exploited for cheap labor. This is emblematic of the opinion that Bunuel—an avowed atheist whose iconoclastic position in the media often overshadowed the real subtlety of his theological ideas—seemed to hold on religion throughout his career. For him, it seems that the message of religion is not the problem. It’s that the figures in power—usually priests, politicians, and aristocrats—abuse it for their own gain at the expense of the masses, often without even knowing it. This, too, is expressed in a scene where the French adventurer called Chark is arrested and brutally beaten by soldiers who, in a darkly comic twist, stop off at the church for a quick prayer on the way to the jailhouse.

That’s the kind of subversive aside that all of these early Bunuel films manage to sneak in, and not just on religion, either. As a character says at one point in Death in the Garden, “we are all guilty,” and Bunuel made sure to be an equal opportunity social critic. Other movies (like The Young One, Simon of the Desert, and the early masterpiece The Exterminating Angel) target everything from racism and sexual abuse to the excesses of the upper class. That they’re always just as funny as they are incisive is only all the more proof of Bunuel’s untouchable position as the cinema’s greatest provocateur.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tourism Ads by Lars Von Trier

I'm not sure how long this has been around, but in light of my Antichrist discussion from a few days back it seems more than appropriate. The Onion never fails.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Antichrist (2009)

Like Transformers 2, which might have single-handedly garnered print film criticism a stay of execution, last year’s Antichrist is one of those movies where the critical uproar surrounding it seemed to overshadow the picture itself. The film, which tells the story of a nameless couple (played by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreating to their mountain cabin in order to get over the death of their son in some decidedly unhealthy ways, became notorious before it was even released. It’s Cannes premier alone, which was preceded by its director Lars Von Trier bestowing the mantle of “The Greatest Filmmaker in the World” on himself, was met with a substantial (for Cannes, anyway) amount of jeers and catcalls from the audience. Critics were polarized. Some called it a bold and challenging artistic statement, while others derided it as meaninglessly violent, misogynistic, and grotesque. Suffice to say, I had to see this thing. And thanks to Netflix watch instantly (these days you can get your Depravity On Demand), now I have.

I can’t really say what I expected going in. I’d avoided a lot of the conversation about the film, and besides some whispers about some particularly grisly activities that occur near the end, I knew very little about what Antichrist was actually about. So I was surprised to find that early on the film delivers some of the most strikingly beautiful (and yes, often gratuitous) imagery I’ve seen in some time. For a guy who once railed against the tricks of the cinematic trade when he formed the Dogme 95 movement, Von Trier certainly does possess a deft, sure-handed control of them. He mixes in just about every kind of stylistic tool at his disposal, from slow motion to jump cuts, handheld camera, and even subliminal images. But instead of coming off as muddled art house flash, all of this stylistic noise actually sort of works, and for a while the film is as gripping and atmospheric as the best of David Lynch’s work. The genre here is as much horror as anything else, and Von Trier manages to make the woods outside the couple’s cabin look deep and sumptuous like something out of a fairy tale at the same time that they’re creepy and unsettling. That they’re also filled with deformed deer, dead birds, and a mutilated fox that speaks aloud to Dafoe that “chaos reigns” only adds to the overwhelming feeling of dread and surreality that starts to form.

And then the last 20 minutes happen. Nearly all of the critical discourse on this movie has focused on the ending, so I’ll try to keep it as brief and mercifully vague as possible. But let's just say the movie, which to this point has been teetering on it quite skillfully, goes over the edge completely. The violence that happens is shocking—fucked up is probably a better way to describe it—but the real problem is that it’s also meaningless and uninteresting. Truth be told, half of what goes down is no more extreme than your average b-level horror film. But up to this point Von Trier’s made a movie that was so hauntingly vague, mysterious, and even beautiful that seeing such aggressive imagery manages to drain the film of any artistic credibility.

Suddenly, all of the preceding scenes, with their hyperactive camera and dreamlike editing, start to mutate into something hollow and almost laughably pretentious. And the story, which was pretty half-assed to begin with, suddenly seems the worst kind of art film trash. Von Trier’s smart enough—and big-headed enough—that it’s difficult to believe that it wasn’t all somehow intentional, but this doesn’t change the fact that it doesn’t work. He’s giving his audience answers to questions they didn’t ask, and in doing so he sabotages his own movie. For a great deal of its running time, Antichrist has flirted with territory that’s vaguely reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky. Von Trier certainly thinks so, and he even includes a dedication to the great Russian filmmaker in the end credits. But after the legendary blow-up his movie has in its final act, even this seems all too reminiscent of something an affected film school student would do.

Disappointing as it is, Antichrist is an important film for a variety of reasons. For one, it’s proof that even in today’s culture (whatever that means) movies still have the ability to shock and provoke controversy—even if for pretty base reasons. More importantly, though, this film is as good of an argument for the auteur theory as any in recent memory. It’s impossible to talk about it—either textually or as a cultural artifact—without discussing Von Trier and his more than questionable intentions. He’s stated that he conceived the film in the wake of the worst depression of his life, and you can’t help but attempt to delve into the guy’s mind and psychoanalyze him when talking about his movie. Whatever he is—and angry film critics have called him a lot of things—there’s no denying he’s an important artist. I guess we can only hope that next time he’ll use his powers in the service of more substantial material.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Willful Suspension of Disbelief

This is pretty good. An American physicist has become so annoyed by bad science in movies that he wants to limit Hollywood filmmakers to just one scientific "gimme" per film. Such a claim is patently ridiculous, but what's funny is that this very rule is supposed to be a part of screenwriting 101--you get your one chance to stretch, and from there you're supposed to stick to real-world logic. Of course, you can't expect your average Hollywood screenwriter to stick to classical story structure, let alone to what's scientifically plausible. To be honest, at this point I'd be happy if half the movies that came out managed to follow their own internal logic...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The House of the Devil (2009)

Last year’s The House of the Devil plays like an unreleased Tobe Hooper flick from 1980—the kind of movie he might of made in that forgotten period between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist. I don’t just mean that it apes the style of those films. I mean that it tries to present itself as one of them, right down to its retro poster and opening titles. In a humorous nod to the later 80s, there’s even a Footloose-inspired dance scene (set to none other than The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another). While it’s good for a laugh, all this can easily be written off as Grindhouse-style homage, yet another chapter in the increasingly annoying modern obsession with 80s culture. What’s surprising, then, is how well The House of the Devil manages to match those late 70s/early 80s horror classics in tone and style. Those directors (Hooper, John Carpenter, Wes Craven) prized suspense and build-up above all else. They were always giving the viewers a chance to scare themselves before they allowed the movie to do it for them. The House of the Devil picks up where those old masters of the genre left off—when was the last time somebody actually made a “stuck in a scary house” movie?—and the result is a surprisingly creepy little artifact of a film.

In keeping with the old-school horror style, The House of the Devil is downright slow for its first third. We follow Sam (Jocelin Donahue), a college student who’s dealing with the very everyday problem of having an annoying roommate. She’s found her dream apartment, but she only has a matter of days to get money for the down payment. Her desperate situation leads her to seek out an “easy” gig as a babysitter along with her best friend Megan (mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig, whose feel for meandering, realistic conversation actually fits into this milieu quite perfectly). These first 30 minutes do move by pretty uneventfully, but when the two arrive at the house for the babysitting gig—a byzantine mansion that looks more like a life-sized dollhouse than a place anyone would actually live—only to find that the couple in question doesn’t even have a kid, we know things are about to get weird.

This slow-burning approach is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work so well. Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, this is a film that wrings a lot of creep out of characters finding themselves in situations that slowly move from just plain old socially awkward to quietly terrifying. This is most apparent during Sam’s meeting with the owner of the house, Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan), an impossibly tall old man whose strangely passive demeanor only makes every pleasantry and overly polite remark he makes sound like a veiled threat. Noonan’s an old pro, and he’s perfectly subtle in the role, to the point that you don’t even blame Sam for eventually taking the job—especially after Mr. Ulman ups the pay to a few hundred bucks for an evening’s work.

Once Sam is left alone in the house—except for “Mother,” that is, who may or may not be sleeping in a bedroom upstairs—is when The House of the Devil really comes into its own. The film was produced by Larry Fessenden’s (The Last Winter, Wendigo) production outfit Glass Eye Pix, and like Fessenden, director Ti West has a real gift for pushing tension and mystery as far as it can possibly go. In this regard he owes as much to Hitchcock and Polanski as he does to guys like Carpenter and Romero, especially in the way he makes use of classical suspense (that is, the things the audience knows that the characters onscreen don’t) as way of building a sense of dread. He also manages to get an absurd amount of mileage out of some well-worn horror gags, from power outages and unsourced sounds to everyone’s favorite, the obscenely loud telephone that rings at just the right moment. Using every trick to its full potential, West manages to create one of the best 30 minutes of old-fashioned big screen horror I’ve seen in a long time. It's a movie that prizes atmosphere and suspense over gore, where every little bump in the night carries with it some real dramatic weight. Of course, when the violence does come, it’s quick and downright brutal, not unlike the first appearance of Leatherface in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Like most movies that work on suspense, The House of the Devil inevitably brings on a bit of a letdown when it finally lays its cards on the table. This is disappointing, but at the same time it’s a testament to how well West and company were able to build atmosphere: there was simply no way they could ever live up to the creepy bar they set for themselves. Still, none of this takes away from the kind of wonderfully low-budget horror this film achieves. It’s a classically made movie that deserves credit for not just stealing from the old school, but for taking ownership of the kind of style and approach that made those movies great. It harks back to the days when directors like Romero, Carpenter, and Hooper were king, and for horror fans there’s no way that can be a bad thing.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tommy Guns, Fedoras, and...Digital Video: Public Enemies (2009)

Just caught up with Johnny Depp and Michael Mann’s latest, Public Enemies, which very well might be one of the most cursory period piece/biopics I’ve ever seen. For a film based on such a revered and well-researched book (Bryan Burroughs’ Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34), Public Enemies chooses to gloss over nearly all of the details of what made its subjects tick, to the point that they might as well be cardboard cutouts wearing trench coats and fedoras. We get to know nothing about John Dillinger, who is supposed to be flamboyant and larger-than-life, but whom Johnny Depp can’t help but make just a touch too dark and brooding. This is all summed up in a scene early on where Dillinger meets Marion Cotillard’s character Billie Frechette (who, by the way, is the only actor in the film who succeeds in seeming like a real person), and immediately tries to get her to run away with him. When she protests that she knows nothing about him, he responds “I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey, and you... what more do you need to know?” It’s a good line, and would probably be enough to get any woman to drop everything and take off with Johnny Depp. But Mann seems to think that this is all we as an audience need to know, as well, and for the remainder of the film that throwaway line will stand in for character development.

This is even more egregious in the case of Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent on Dillinger’s trail, who’s played by everyone’s favorite stoic Christian Bale, who is so wooden here that you get the impression he was placed into each scene by stagehands along with all the other props. Depp has enough inherent charm and personality that he’s always able to inject a little life into an underwritten character, but Bale, who seems to have a congenital inability to emote (at least not at anyone other than his DP), is the last guy you want in that situation. We know his character is an FBI agent, and we know he wants to catch John Dillinger, but beyond that he’s a total enigma. God knows I’m not asking for the requisite domestic dispute scene where his wife, baby in hand, says something like “this case has made you a ghost in this house” (which, come to think of it, might be a line from Mann’s much better film Heat), but a little flair or personality somewhere would have been nice.

Mann’s not helping the cause stylistically, either. You would hope that he might add to the dramatic depth of the story visually, as he’s proven he can do in the past, but he insists on shooting Public Enemies (which takes place in the dust bowl!) in a jittery, handheld, and distractingly digital style. I’ve seen few movies where the lack of film texture and grain is so obvious--and so clearly missed. I'm in no way one of those people who thinks that digital video is the scourge of modern cinema. But even the high dollar HD cameras like the one Mann used are still not at the level they should be. There are still things that the traditional film format does better, and I cannot imagine a setting that is more anathema to being shot in digital video than 1930s Chicago. Everything looks too slick and hyper-real, especially considering that the settings could have looked downright sumptuous if the filmmakers has shot them in the right way.

This antiseptic style carries over into nearly every other aspect of the film, including the ways in which it tries to build dramatic momentum. The film is based on one of those sweeping non-fiction epics, and watching it, it seems like its origins are always far too apparent. It’s as though every scene is a reenactment of something that is described in a much greater and more perceptive way in Burroughs’ book. It plays like a documentary without the narration, to the point that even when the scenes are slick and well-executed, you keep waiting for Peter Coyote (is there a more ubiquitous V.O. actor out there right now?) to start talking over the action to fill in the historical details.

I’ll close by saying that, all other faults aside, Michael Mann’s feel for action is as good as it’s ever been. The bank robbery in Heat, and the ensuing gunfight in the streets, remains for me one of the most heart-pounding and tense action scenes ever committed to film, and though Mann never reaches that level here, he comes awfully close. At different points in the movie, especially in a scene that features George “Baby Face” Nelson literally going out in a blaze of glory, he delivers exactly the kind of weirdly poetic visual grammar that made Heat one of the most wonderfully operatic action films of the 90s. Public Enemies might be a misfire, but seriously, is there a film director out there more adept than Michael Mann at capturing the sheer mayhem of automatic weapons being fired off? I don’t think so.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Cold Souls (2009)

Cold Souls finds Paul Giamatti joining the weird list of actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves. As such, he stars as Paul Giamatti, a melancholy actor who’s having a devil of a time pulling off the lead in a Chekhov play. The problem? His own existential fears, guilt, and neuroses are getting in the way of him delivering a true, unburdened performance. He gets the answer to his problems in the form of an absurd company that offers a most unusual service: soul storage. By some never-explained technology, they’ve found a way to literally extract the human soul (it sort of looks like a grey blob of putty), and then place it in stasis in a storage locker. Free from the weight of their mortal quandaries, a doctor played by the great David Stathairn explains, the soulless are finally able to get down to the business of really living. Although skeptical, Giamatti accepts a brief soul extraction in order to get through the stress of performing on Broadway. But as you might expect, things don’t go so smoothly.

Cold Souls is supposedly based on a particularly bizarre dream that director Sophie Bathes once had, and it would have been much better served to go down that kind of abstract path, especially considering its premise. Instead, the whole thing is played oddly straight, and this gets in the way of it ever really paying off on its promising setup. We’re left with way too many questions, and some of the more interesting aspects of the story, like what its like to be “soulless” or how the soul really shapes a person’s world view, are either glazed over or written out of the script with throwaway lines. For his part, Giamatti certainly rises to the challenge of having to carry such a tough sell of a story. He provides the movie with all of its most memorable moments, and it’s his strange mannerisms and comic timing that allows it to remain pleasant and watchable even though it’s never as interesting as it should be.

Still, despite the undeniable fun of Giamatti’s performance, Cold Souls is ultimately one of the most disappointing movies I’ve caught up with in a while, if only because the central idea of its premise was so fascinating. Discussions of the soul are a decidedly esoteric thing, and trying to tackle them in a movie that is so conventional in its presentation was bound to be problematic. It might have all been better served as a piece of literature or as a one-note short film, but as it is, Cold Souls seems like it’s always struggling to find something concrete and tangible to actually be about. That’s a problem that even some solid performances and a clever setup will never find their way around.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Favorites of 2009

It’s a little late for this end of the year stuff at this point, but I didn’t get to catch up with a lot of the big ’09 films until the very last minute. So consider the following my belated take on the ten best releases of the year. Also, I might as well start a tradition by once again including the ten best films, both new and old, that I caught up with on video this year.

1. The Hurt Locker

Someone finally realized that the way to make a movie about the Iraq war is to not mention any of the details specific to it. To watch this movie is to understand why Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant James character is so addicted to war: it’s just plain exhilarating. That might be a bit appalling if this wasn’t also one of the first films to truly address the #1 problem of all war movies: that for all their horror, they will always be way too cinematically exciting to really be anti-conflict. That it does that while easily being the most gripping film of the year only adds to its greatness.

2. Inglourious Basterds

3. An Education

People who say “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” apparently haven’t seen this film. It’s classically constructed, beautifully written, and features one of the very best acting performances of the year from Carey Mulligan.

4. Moon

5. Summer Hours

I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen even a single one of Olivier Assayas’ other films, but this was enough to make me want to go through his whole catalogue. A deeply moving and meaningful story that tackles subjects rarely covered in the movies. This also features my favorite ending of any movie this year.

6. Goodbye, Solo

7. Thirst

Korean priest-vampires having lots of kinky sex? Count me in! Seriously, though, beyond being one of the most gorgeous looking movies of the year, this one finds a way to take the now very tired concept of the vampire, strip it of all it pretensions, and make one of the most oddly moving morality tales I’ve seen in a good while.

8. Big Fan

Not only is it as creepy as it is funny, but it has the originality (that is, balls) to portray characters that most movies wouldn’t touch. Patton Oswalt also proves once and for all that he’s got the skills to be a truly great actor.

9. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

10. In the Loop

The year’s most scathing satire, this story of the political spin machine at work is full of delightfully obscene dialogue where nearly every other line is something so clever that you feel you should write it down.

Honorable Mentions:

Up in the Air, District 9, Zombieland, Sugar, Not Quite Hollywood, I Love You Man

Video Discoveries of 2009:

Le Corbeau
(1943) D: Henri Georges Clouzot
Elevator to the Gallows (1958) D: Louis Malle
The Young One (1960) D: Louis Bunuel
Le Trou (1960) D: Jacques Becker
Downhill Racer (1969) D: Michael Ritchie
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) D: Peter Yates
Wings of Desire (1987) D: Wim Wenders
Withnail and I (1987) D: Bruce Robinson
The Hidden (1987) D: Jack Sholder
Joint Security Area (2000) D: Park Chan Wook

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Werner Herzog’s awkwardly titled new film The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans might stand as one of the most interestingly bold choices ever made by a legendary filmmaker. The film, which is full of Big Easy heavies and a ravaged post-Katrina landscape, could be described as a shameless b-movie, but that doesn’t really do it justice. Think of it more as one of those mid-eighties cop movies starring Gary Busey if it had been made by the world’s most prominent art house director…oh yeah, on drugs. (That little post-script might as well be tacked on to every description of this film.) Plenty of directors are willing to touch a toe into the tepid water that is exploitation, but Herzog, never one for doing anything half-assed, dives in headfirst, filling his movie with hookers, dead alligators, mobsters, hallucinatory iguanas, and, weirdest of all, Nicholas Cage. In the process, he finds a way to inject some new life into the “burnt-out cop” movie while simultaneously not forsaking one ounce of his trademark eccentricity. Whether you like the movie hinges almost entirely on whether you’re able to embrace its particular brand of insanity, but if you are, then The Bad Lieutenant proves to be one of the most rewarding and downright fun movies of ‘09.

Nic Cage stars as Terrance McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who, in the aftermath of Katrina, saves a convict from drowning in a flooded prison. His act of heroism earns him a promotion to Lieutenant, but it also leaves him with chronic back pain that leads to a mounting number of drug habits—both legal and otherwise. Just as he’s really starting to spin out of control, Terrance gets put in charge of investigating the execution-style homicide of a family of immigrants. In typical Herzogian fashion, McDonagh becomes absolutely fixated on solving the case—that is, of course, when he’s not too busy raiding the police evidence room for heroin or shaking down club kids for coke. While Terrance’s search for answers in the case leads him to a local drug dealer called “Big Fate,”(Xzibit) he also becomes entangled with a group of would-be mafiosos while trying to protect his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) from a particularly unpleasant brand of customer.

Herzog shoots this all in the same kind of straightforward, low-budget style as he did Rescue Dawn. Some critics have complained about this, as though in order to really appreciate the fact that Terrance is snorting enough drugs to topple an elephant we need a shakier camera and some quicker pans. This, of course, has never been Herzog’s M.O. Even his grander films like Fitzcarraldo are relatively unadventurous in their visual stylings. He’s a guy much more concerned with just documenting the spectacle going on in the scene than he is with trying to enhance it with elaborate camera moves. That being said, The Bad Lieutenant does have some tricks up its sleeve. On a few occasions where Terrance is really flying high, Herzog switches to what looks like 8mm film to get a real feeling of detachment, and there’s even a bizarre shot sequence where the camera seems to ride on the back of an alligator as it waddles into the swamp. This is only one of dozens of shots in the film that depict the local wildlife (someone should write a book about how animals and insects function in the work of directors like Herzog and Luis Bunuel), from snakes and fish to imaginary lizards, the last of which makes for the film’s most absurdly hilarious scene when Terrance offhandedly complains “what the fuck are these iguanas doing on my coffee table?” to some fellow cops, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.

Beyond these little touches, Herzog’s style here is relatively minimalist considering the material. This is all for the better, as his laissez-faire approach lets us sit back and really soak up the glorious insanity of Cage’s lead performance, which Matty Robinson of the Filmspotting podcast more than appropriately referred to as “a big bag of crazy.” Cage is in his full-on manic mode here, devouring scenery in a way that would have made Klaus Kinski proud. The guy gets a lot of grief, and he probably deserves most of it, but even I can admit that there is not one other actor in the world of such a high standing that would have been willing to tackle this kind of a role. For what it’s worth, there also might not be a single actor in Hollywood better at playing intoxicated, or at somehow ingratiating himself to the audience in the process. When Cage isn’t slurring his way through a scene, he’s bouncing off the walls like a madman and speaking in a rat-a-tat fashion that sounds like a mix of a 1920s news reporter and someone with a broken jaw. He switches between the two in a way that borders on confusing, but this mercurial quality is only one more part of what makes his delivery so fascinating. Still, Cage’s real achievement here, beyond affecting some really hilarious mannerisms and facial tics, is in the way he manages to make us believe in Terrance and root for him no matter how many despicable things he does. This is a guy who’s willing to pull guns on senior citizens and blatantly break the law in just about every way possible, but we still believe that there is a method to his more than considerable madness. That alone is an award-worthy achievement.

In the final analysis, this movie belongs more to Cage, whose performance alone is enough to warrant repeat viewings, than it does to Herzog. But Herzog still makes some truly wise decisions in his approach here. Unlike so many directors, he always knows exactly what kind of movie he’s making. He lets the material speak for itself, and beyond throwing in a few little Herzogian touches here and there, he’s not going out of his way to put too much of an authorial stamp on the film. This is disappointing at first, but then a bit comforting: if Herzog had filled The Bad Lieutenant with dwarfs, extended takes of chickens, or other evidence of his classic preoccupations, it would have been sure proof that he’d started to become a parody of himself. But he doesn’t. He’s restrained enough to let the movie’s strengths, particularly its bizarre brand of humor—this is, at its heart, comedy—be its biggest statement.

I’ll close with this: descriptions and reviews of this movie have all stressed just how over the top and insane it is. With this in mind, I was convinced going in that I would inevitably be a bit disappointed with the crazy factor of it, if only because it had been pushed so hard by every critic in the country. Suffice to say, The Bad Lieutenant manages to live up to the hype to be every bit it as mind-blowingly gonzo as you would hope it to be. And that just might be one of the most oddly significant achievements in any film this year.