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.