Thursday, May 31, 2012

Down in the depths on the 90th floor

No va.  The movie, not the car.
I'm serious:  Tower Heist (2011) should be taught in film school.  It has the worst, clumsiest, most textbook-awful exposition in many, many years.  I mean, there is actually a scene in which the loveable old doorman tells Ben Stiller he is about to retire and he is shore lookin' forward to that there pension, you bet and by golly.  And the guy rased the subject -- it didn't flow out of any previous dialogue or dramatic situation.  It was if he thought, "Oh, crap, I forgot to drop that exposition into this scene.  I better get it in here now."  There are a dozen examples of information dropped like steaming cups of boiling lead over a film that is not very light on its feet to begin with.

Does Eddie Murphy care about anything anymore?  He's not even good at being Eddie Murphy anymore, even as a supporting guest star.  Producers, you can save a lot of money and hire Jay Pharoah to be Eddie Murphy.  Add to that Alan Alda's sweaty incompetence as a villain, and you have an filmgoing experience that resembles going to see a friend in a community theater production and concentrating with all your mind to find things you can mentioned you liked about it.

About Mr. Alda -- we refer to our great movie villains as "the man/woman you love to hate."  The greats -- Basil Rathbone, Alan Rickman, Kevin Spacey, Cruella DeVille all relish their badness, revel in it.  They are unrepentant and unapologetic.  Alda constantly looks sorry for being so mean, and one expects him to follow his wickedest lines with, "I'm sorry, I didn't really mean that.  I've been so stressed lately.  How can I make that up to you?"  It's just not in his enjoyable but fairly narrow range as an actor.  He can be a narcissistic shit, but he just doesn't have that psychic mustache he can twirl.

I'm sure the producers congratulated themselves on not making Gaborey Sidibe the subject of any fat jokes, instead making her a super-competent safe cracker.  Except that she then embarks on a "hilarious" liaison with Eddie Murphy.  Why do I know it's supposed to be "hilarious."  Because she's fat.  And fat people wanting and getting sex is always unquestionably funny, right?   It's not like they're regular people or anything.

It is left to Matthew Broderick, who has evidently graduated from quirky if adenoidal young leading man to burned-out and/or grumpy adenoidal middle-aged man, but there is no doubt that he is still as deft with a wisecrack as he was on Broadway in Brighton Beach Memoirs back during the Reagan administration.  He should be glad to have been moved from starter to reliever, because he is a natural clean-up man.

Look, if the picture comes on TV on a Friday when you have nothing to do and the alternative is to go around to your wife's sister and choke down her bone-dry carrot cake, watch this movie.  Come to think of it, you still could read a book.  Maybe a book about screenwriting, which the people who made Tower Heist have clearly never done.

White by you (get it? bayou? see what I did there?)

  Elia Kazan almost completely dismissed his studio films made prior to Panic In The Streets (1950), but Pinky (1949) deserves better, and certainly is worthy of more attention than the cringe-inducing Gentlemen's Agreement (1948), the plot of which was summarized perfectly by one cynic (I paraphrase):  "Don't be mean to Jews, because they might turn out to be Gregory Peck."

But indoors or out, Kazan put his trust in actors, even when he didn't care for them or their training, and he was almost always repaid for that trust.  Pinky might be the great exception.  In the book-length interview Kazan:  The Master Director Discusses His Films, Kazan talks about his pleasure in working with Ethel Barrymore, how he learned to overcome Ethel Waters's hostility and racism, and his disappointment at the blank quality of Jeanne Crain's performance.*  Crain, a lily-white young woman from Barstow playing a mixed-race woman from a Deep South backwater had neither professional nor personal resources to draw on to create her character.  Kazan is quite right, that her work has a blank quality.  But this is an example of his misapprehension of the quality of film acting.

Kazan liked strong, demonstrative actors like Brando, Dean and Clift.  They give carefully worked-out performances, with explicit psychological through-lines and subtexts.  Contrast them with the Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks actors -- John Wayne, James Stewart, Cary Grant.  We're not talking about charisma and star persona here, I'm talking about acting.  All of these actors have a sense of incompleteness in their acting, of something missing, unexplained, even undefined which is supplied by the audience.  They leave room for the film audience, which a tense and detailed actor like Clift never does.  Many of the best actors in film do work that was undetectable to the people watching them being filmed, that only the camera could see, actors such as Gary Cooper, Greta Garbo and Steve McQueen.

In Pinky, stage vets Barrymore and Waters are acting up a storm.  Paradoxically, Barrymore playing an imperious tyrant is far more charming and loveable than Waters as a sweet Aunt Jemima grandma.  Given that Barrymore was a nice person and Waters was not, this effect might be attributed to film's X-ray qualities.  But in both cases, the actresses are visibly, palpably acting.  Crain simply performs the actions, speaks the word the story requires.  The audience has the opportunity and ability to provide the emotion.  Moreover, it is only logical that a black woman who has spent her adult life passing as white would have developed a mask, a cosmic poker face; she would avoid displaying reactions that would be a telltale giveaway of her identity.  The suppression of her selfhood is the greatest tragedy of her situation.  Acting in the Actors Studio sense of the word would have damaged the film.

Yes, the picture is shot on obvious stages and Joe August's lighting is quite theatrical.  But it suits the folktale nature of the story -- there are aspects, questions of inheritance and the transfer of property that are pre-echoes of Ossie Davis's play Purlie Victorious, which is explicitly meant to ape the modes of folktale and fable.  Pinky may have arrived at that style by inertia and indirection, but that does not make the film's creative choices invalid. 

Pinky ought to be a lot more dated than it is.  I was especially impressed with the character of Pinky's white fiancee, played by William Lundigan, doing some of his best work.  The man is unafraid to be seen embracing and even kissing a woman who is perceived as black in her hometown, but is nonetheless eager to move to another city in which her racial identity can again be secret, and they can live "normal" lives.  The film is remarkably frank that there is no "normal" path for a black person who looks white, and that is, for the most part, as true (if for different reasons) in 2012 as in 1949.
* Kazan did not cast the film, having taken it over from John Ford as a favor to Darryl Zanuck.  Various reasons have been given for Ford's departure, from his disaffection with the script to clashes with Waters.  It was probably not racism, as Ford was a secret progressive, and made an explicitly anti-racism film, Sergeant Rutledge in 1960.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A star is found

David Carr tells his colleagues What Is
Page One: Inside The New York Times (2011) is either metafilm if you are a philosopher or Pirandellian if you favor theatrical analogy.  The title promises a PBS-style process piece about how a newspaper is turned out.  But the film is about a newspaper reporting its own death and (it hopes) resurrection.

We get a little process -- a couple of Page One meetings, what All The President's Men called budget meetings -- but the bulk of the film focuses on the Media News department reporting on the dissolution of print media both at the hands of digital media, which certainly destroyed the classified advertising business which was the economic basis of all local newspapers, as wellas by the blindness, greed, fear and incompetence of the managers of traditional media.  It is notable that the Times, after a decade of mistakes and attempted cover-ups now so courageously charts the course of the cancer that may just kill it.

So far, we have a good episode of Frontline.  But what happens in Page One is what often separates theatrical documentaries from television nonfiction, the arrival of a star performer.  In this case, it's David Carr, a too-good to be true beat reporter who literally keeps his head down, yet plows ahead toward the facts driving his stories and devlin-take-the-hindmost.  It helps that Carr has his own dramatic biography, touching the absolute bottom of addiction and desperation and coming out the other end, the most conventional and humble of suburban single dads.  He is a compelling character, with a raspy voice doubtless damaged by living on the street and/or cocaine addiction, an odd compulsive forward tilt of the head and a Columbo-like disingenuous manner of interrogating his targets, like a cat carelessly toying with a mouse, delaying the moment of the kill.

Clearly Carr has no animus toward the malefactors of the media, but he has no hesitation in calling out greed and stupidity, and backing up his claims with names, dates and numbers.  It's a wonder that he isn't now being fictionalized into a character for a new USA Network series (maybe he is). 

There are a lot of other good, well-meaning folk, Carr's bosses, whose names can be found in other discussions of this film, but to me, Carr's unintentional wresting of the spotlight from the historical trends and concepts with which the filmmakers undoubtedly embarked proves one essential truth of film narrative -- character beats ideas every day of the week.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let the teeth do the acting

Stress, early 20th-century style
 I don't remember whether it was on the commentary track or in a separate interview, but I remember Jeffrey Jones, commenting on his highly costumed and bewigged appearance in Sleepy Hollow, that he had decided to use an acting technique he had learned as the Emperor in Amadeus:  "Let the wig do the acting."  It was a joke, but his point was that, if you really look like you're from the 17th century, you don't have to "act" 17th century-ish.  The audience will have enough to go on to place you and you can go about your business creating the character.

And although two very fine actors, Michael Fassbender and Viggo Mortensen are portraying two titans in medical history, respectively Jung and Freud in the film A Dangerous Method (2011), they are all upstaged by Keira Knightley's teeth.  Actually, Ms. Knightley is quite upstaged by her own teeth.

Evidently the storm has passed.
In her defense, Ms. Knightley is re-enacting contemporary recountings of a female affliction called "hysteria," which means "my woman parts are making me crazy."  It's fairly unusual for an actor to have to conduct historical research to reproduce the systems of a disease.  And dis-ease -- lack of comfort in one's own skin -- is what it truly consists of.

As you might glean from these stills, her performance is not without risks.  As with any film directed by David Cronenberg, the entire film embraces risk; perhaps the greatest is that it makes the famous and once-controversial Freud a cautious, almost colorless character, and, most surprisingly, in the person of Viggo Mortensen, who gave Cronenberg such memorably dangerous performances in A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, films which, if you have not seen them, I strongly urge you to seek out.  Knightley is the whole show here in one of the most theatrical, non-cinematic performances anyone has gotten away with in the last few years.  It is a little hard to believe that a young woman of her era could discuss her own sexual problems in such a calm and clinical way, but the indicators are that this is true and that the woman in question, Sabina Speilrein, was a successful pioneering therapist in her own right.

Speaking of theatrical, the film runs toward long takes of dialogue -- I can't think of a Cronenberg film with so little overt physical action.  But it is hardly surprising as the screenwriter is the playwright Christopher Hampton, one of the wordiest of wordsmiths, given to adaptations and therefore has a bit of the pedant built into his writing as a matter of course; moreover the script was from a play adapted from a script.  No matter how you dress it up, this is a movie about people talking in rooms.

Except when they're spanking each other, which is probably why this film didn't attract the Merchant-Ivory fan base for very polite historical psychological drama.  It's neither completely genteel nor utterly grotesque like a film by Peter Greenaway.  Too dull for the shock fans, too raw for the Masterpiece Theatre crowd.

But if this is a harbinger of things to come from Ms. Knightley, who seems to have been justified in leaving the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, her future looks not only interesting, but rather brave.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Under my head

A passel of young'uns snapping their whippers
As far as I can tell, the 2011 remake of Footloose is a pretty good for what it's meant to be, an excuse for tweeners to get out of the house and dream about how exciting it will be to be in high school.  (This sort of fantasy is always accomplished with the help of 27-year-old actors pretending to be 17.)  It is competently put together, with some moments of visual excitement which may be attributable to the skills of director Craig Brewer, who has made much more challenging films prior hereto (Hustle and Flowand Balck Snake Moan).  I am sure this was driven both by the paycheck and genuine affection for the original 1984 film, an affection I cannot feel, as I was already too old for the first film when that one came out.

Yet I see many films for which I am not the target demo, yet they reach me in some way.  I didn't mind Footloose, I didn't dislike it, yet I find it difficult to write anything about it because it felt like just a bunch of bits of film edited together so they would last an hour-and-three-quarters.  Nothing specific was communicated to me.  I know that was just me-- the film inspired both pleasure and displeasure from many, but I just felt a pleasant numbness.

What makes a film land or not land for any individual viewer?  I could say that I think the whole premise is phony and artificial -- that towns don't outlaw dancing, although specific religious sects do.  Director-co-writer Brewer tried to increase the plausibility factor by putting the fatal accident that triggers the repression at the front of the film (after a quite energetic title sequence), but a film like this is not meant to be believability, and such things almost damage the film.  I'm reminded of films that Laurel and Hardy made in the 1940s at the major studios, rather than the independent Hal Roach studio where they had done their best work.  The studios changed their make-up and lighting to be more natural and beelievable, and in the process destroyed much of what was charming about Laurel and Hardy.  They were always strange and fantastical characters, and to put them in the real world revealed them as aging, overweight men who seemed to be so simple that they should have been under medical supervision.  No longer golden fools dancing in the moonlight, they were old and pathetic.

Moreover, the film is not a musical.  Musicals I like.  Musicals I understand.  They have a special grammar and logic that appeals to me and bypasses the rational mind.  But Footloose wants to be rational.  The key, turning point scene consists of the villain and the hero making speeches.  Not singing, not dancing, but talking.  Talking about dancing.  But talking about dancing is not dancing.  This is an out-and-out confession that the filmmakers do not know how to make dance dramatic, or indeed even narrative.  Instead, dancing is appliqued onto a story of generation clash, and the same script could be used (and doubtless will be) for tagging, skateboarding or hang-gliding or whatever those wild kids want to get up to.  It would be unsurprising to see Tuesday Weld show up as a troubled teen.  In any event, the film is a romantic melodrama with comedy overtones and a lot of footage of young people dancing.  But not a musical.

The dancing, need I point out with overmuch emphasis (as Peter Cook said), is devoid of narrative content.  The boys and girls dance because they want to dance, because they are young, and because both in movies and the real world, dancing is a socially acceptable form of public foreplay -- almost communal foreplay.  Consequently, the single best sequence in the film is the "Let's Hear It For The Boy" montage in which the non-dancing comical sidekick gradually learns to dance, and with attitude and style.  That sequence alone gives me hope that Mr. Brewer will stop his flirtation with music and make a real full-out musical someday. 

Thus I think the best audience for this film are groups of happy 8 and 9 year olds watching the movie in large basement rec rooms watching the screen and aping the dance steps as they go along, although I shudder to think of the kiddie hip grinding that is likely to ensue.  Maybe the film should be issued in a karaoke dancealong version.

Ultimately the point is that there is no point in reading anything anyone writes about Footloose.  Because it is called Footloose, the name of a 1984 film, you know almost exactly what this is and you are capable of deciding whether you will like it or not, based on that fact.  That it is decent and professional is gratifying, but irrelevant, and people like me are irrelevant as spectators.

I hope it earns Mr. Brewer the privilege of making something closer to the heart -- his and mine.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Terror in contemplation

At the end of the first act of A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, two old friends of the main characters suddenly show up at the house late at night, quite unexpectedly.  The friends simply want to stay.  Why?  They are afraid.  When they are in their own house, they are afraid?  Of what?  They don't know.  So they come to stay, indefinitely.  Later, they leave suddenly, for no apparent reason.

 But that was an Important New York play, not genre entertainment.  In genre, specifically "horror", the idea is to induce fear, or at least memories of fear in the viewer.  This usally is accompanied by a certain risibility, either out of the social embarassment inherent in being reminded of our own natural propensity to be afraid, even when it makes sense to be.  Or the audience could be laughing because the movie is laughable, often the case in horror (that is, the film is literally incapable of stirring horror because the conventions have been so terribly flouted-- the thing to be feared is so patently unconvincing that the audience's suspension of disbelief is stretched past the breaking point).

Take Shelter (2011) inverts the horror genre (which Boris Karloff rightly preferred to call "terror").  It does not aspire to induce terror in the viewer (except perhaps as an ancillary effect) but to observe the onset and effect of terror on its protagonist.  It goes so far as to keep the terror vague and unnamed.  It could be alien invasion, severe weather or anxiety attacks.  Or two of those.  Or all of them.  Or none of them.

Some writers might want to analyze the effects in this film, which I find immaterial, or add up and decipher the clues about what Michael Shannon's Curtis is sensing.  The film could be The Birds or Close Encounters ont the one hand or it could be Shock Corridor on the other.  OK, nowhere near as vulgar and crazy as Shock Corridor, but the protagonist could still be crazy.

The real trick the film pulls off is that virtually nothing happens.  Oh, Curtis buries a container in his back yard and gets fired, so there are money problems.  His daughter is deaf and there's some hashing out her education and Curtis's connection to her.  But mostly it's nothing, not even at the dramatic climax of the film.

And yet it plays.  Part of this may be due to Mr. Shannon, who has developed from an offbeat day player to a haunted, virtually Shakespearean leading man (albeit in this case, Shakespearean despite being almost completely inarticulate).  He proves the old saw that essentially films are about faces.  The picture above gives a bit of a hint.

Incidentally, Jessica Chastain has now become, for me, a Don Cheadle Actor.  This category has nothing to do with Mr. Cheadle's talent or his style.  It is simply that Don Cheadle's presence in a film as a fairly reliable guarantee that the film will not be insufferable crap; that it had the potential, at least at the outset, to be a very fine film.  Many, many times it is, but even if it is not, it still repays viewing.  The day Don Cheadle appears in a Transformers movie I will pull my knit hat down over my eyes and sit in the corner, mumbling and rocking and peeling the labels of empty Jack Daniels bottles.  (I hope Mr. Cheadle does not hear about this and does not have a cruel sense of humor.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Another year of the dragon

Mara Rooney and Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander
American remakes of recent European films are the Pat Boone records of movies.  Pat Boone built his early career covering Fats Domino and other rhythm and blues artists, taming the beat, slicking up the rough-edged harmonies and most importantly smoothing out the primal sounds of the lead vocals on the originals into the caramel of late-50s mainstream pop.  Just since I started this blog I've written about Chloe, Everybody's Fine and Let Me In, all of which were perfectly acceptable, inoffensive and completely unnecessary.  Essentially, all these films exist merely because American filmgoers are ignorant, lazy, illiterate pigs who can't be bothered to see a foreign language film, because they can't wrap their heads around the idea that people not only DO live differently than they do, but that they want do; that they think differently and see the world differently.  Americans, especially those stuck between the costs, see America as the norm and all the other people of the world as deviants who would like to be American if they could.

Admirably, the makers of the American version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011) figured out that they weren't going to make all the Nazi stuff play unless the setting remained in Northern Europe.  (Although, when, in 1982, I bought the house in Northern New Jersey that I still live in today, the garage had stacks of KKK and Nazi Bund literature which I disposed of in an hysterical panic, fearing bad mojo for the house I had bought.  Today I wish I had turned over at least a few copies to the town Historical Society--especially since we are probably one of the most liberal towns in the US.)  The cold, the isolation, the dark history, all would be tough to translate.

By and large, if one has seen the Swedish film, there are few surprises or novelties in David Fincher's remake.  It is disappointing to see who slavishly Fincher adheres to the Charlie Chan rule, whereby, the best known second-tier star in the film is always the perpetrator.  Here, Stellan Skarsgard has to be the villain, because he's the only supporting actor I've heard of.  Oddly, given the international cast here, he's not as convincing at being Swedish as many of the others.

Here's the only reason to spend two-and-a-half-hours on this still-sloppy-mess of a plot -- Mara Rooney as Lisbeth Salander.  Where as Noomi Rapace was certainly ferocious and strangely beautiful enough, even with the language barrier, I could feel the calculation in her performance.  Mara Rooney is clearly far more professionally accomplished simply because she never gave the impression she was acting.  She almost seemed to shy from the camera.  It is astonishing how unattractive, physically and morally, she was willing to be, especially when you realize that she was the rather pretty and bright girl that Jesse Eisenberg blew off in the first scene of The Social Network.

If Zuckerberg had been nicer, maybe she wouldn't
have become a crazy Swedish hacker
There is none of Rapace's tentativeness, the sense that she might completely retreat and shut the film done.  Rooney feels like a far more fearless actor, a more dangerous adversary and a more loyal friend that Rapace's more fragile creation.  Perhaps that is what makes Fincher's film American -- Rooney's Lisbeth's willingness to accept risk, both physical and emotional.  There are losses; Salander's triumph over the pervert who controls her money is less shocking and less surprising.  Of course, I wasn't surprised by the events of the story--that should go without saying. But I was unsurprised that Rooney's Lisbeth would easily best her molester, because her inner strength was always evident.  It also makes her sexual liason with Blomquist less offensive, because in the remake it seems clear that Lisbeth is--in addition to satisfying her own physical desires--manipulating and controlling Blomquist, not just surrending to proximity and convenience.

It concerns me that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who did such counter-intuitive yet effective work on Social Network created such a New-Wave-Mickey-Mouse score for Dragon Tattoo, telegraphing plot points and emotions.  I presume that they and Fincher have picked up nice paychecks on this little effort and will soon return to more personal and characteristic work.  On the other hand, David Fincher has signed for a biopic of Steve Ross to be written by Aaron Sorkin, so perhaps there is more deja vu in our filmgoing future.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Idiot savant or idiot idiot?

This is not a special effect.
Johnny English Reborn (2011) is a perfectly agreeable, if anachronistic slapstick Bond parody.  Given that it is now in home video, if you choose to watch it, it will be merely a matter of adding it to your Netflix queue or dropping a buck at Redbox, and not $28 at the nearby MegaPlex 3000, there is no reason for you not to do so, unless you don't care for laughter or entertainment.

But it IS anachronistic.  How can we keep kidding Bond movies 40 years after the fact?  They are not only no more or less funny than they always were, but Mike Myers has clubbed that particular dead horse beyond recognition, with diminishing returns.  (Yes, I know the leaping-off place is Michael Caine's Harry Palmer character, but believe me, the Myers films are kidding Bond not Palmer.)  And that's not to mention Inspector Clouseau, Maxwell Smart or the hero of the OSS 117 films played by Jean Dujardain.  (We will not discuss Jack E. Leonard as The Fat Spy.)  The woods are full of inept spies.

So decisions must be made.  Clouseau is a supremely confident idiot who sales through adversity, triumphing by bizarre accident.  In the meantime, his ineptitude causes social embarassment for himself and physical harm to others, but rarely harm to himself.  He never becomes self-aware, and none of his gambits work the way he plans for them.  Same for Maxwell Smart, who alternates confidence and sheepish humility for Clouseau's oblivious arrogance.  Dujardin is physically capable--he can even intentionally kill, but he has wandered in from another era, and it is his sexism, racism and thick-witted intransigience that makes the OSS films funny.  The Austin Powers are more cultural send-ups.  Powers is also sexist, but the character's childlike enthusiasm excuses his worst behavior.  But Powers is not inept, just a bit culturally clueless and capable of catching up fast.

But Rowan Atkinson, perhaps the greatest combination of comic gifts -- body, face, voice and writing -- combined in a single person of any person alive, can not get Johnny English to settle on a single joke.  Bring him into a room with dangerous and/or breakable things, and they will go zooming and crashing around, causing financial and physical mayhem.  But minutes later, he can outwit and outfight an opponent using sly and clever tricks and even execute Bond-style witticisms--not vulgar burlesques of them, but actual wisecracks a la mode.  Sometimes he understands the mission, sometimes he doesn't and there is no way of predicting it.

Buster Keaton flirted with this problem. His character was frequently referred to by others as a dimwit or a dunderhead, but he had this fabulous intuitive understanding of the natural universe. Perhaps the movie Buster (not the real man) was the first Asperger's comedian, brilliant within his area of expertise, but lacking the ability to read other human beings, or master their strange social customs.  Somehow he made it all hang together.

Jerry Lewis does not and does not seem to be aware there is a problem.  His basic character has been described as a parody of a juvenile idiot.  But if it is necessary to become brilliant to pull off a momentary gag, Lewis will do it, because nothing is important to him as the gag of the moment, and if it distorts the character or the story, Lewis doesn't care.  His movies have Attention Deficit Disorder, which in turn, weakens the gags, since they are rooted in nothing.  For those of you, who get the reference, Jerry Lewis was the Larry Semon of the 1960s.

Atkinson has no such problem with Mr. Bean.  Mr. Bean is inexplicable, but consistent.  He is a child, but, like Harpo Marx, a child who has been around a little bit and seen some things.  But Johnny English, funny as it is, is always in danger of turning into Thirty-One Gags In Search Of A Movie.
One incidental note -- when did the English decide Gillian Anderson was English?  She's from Chicago, and her English accet is only passable, especially in comparison with a Gwyneth Paltrow or a Jennifer Ehle.  But she's done two Dickens mini-series and now this picture.  There have to be some working actresses in Great Britain between 35 and 55, surely.  Anderson isn't convincing to me as a Yank--what could she sound like to a Brit? 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Slacker liebestod

There is a time in most lives, between ages 12 and 15, when you become privy to, and fall in love with, the twin mysteries of life, sex and death.  They are both such intimate phenomena, embarrassing when they happen in public.  They are secrets kept away from us when we are very young.  Only those who have experienced them really know anything about them.  (You hear me, holy men and philosophers?)  They require their own special spaces.  They even become intermingled for a few of us during that tender period.  I can remember bonding with a girl in high school over the novel A Fine and Private Place, which takes place entirely in a cemetary, among the recently dead.  Not surprisingly, the novel was written by a 19-year-old.

This still nicely captures the pallette and tone of Restless
Death really, is the only truly satisfying conclusion to a love story.  The marriage altar, the traditional resolution, leads us into very unromantic territory, namely the hard work of daily living; living outside the bubble of the Romantic Swoon.  Romeo and Juliet teaches us everything -- that our parents hate our happiness, that we have to split from our gangs, and love is best when the end is certain.

Bleak?  Wouldn't have it any other way.

Restless (2011) clearly announces at the outset that it (a) it will be a morbid adolescent romantic fantasy (it begins at a funeral and early on announces the heroine's imminent death); and (b) it will only be judged by the rules of post-adolescent romantic fantasy, that the rules of real life are not to be applied.  For one thing,  Mia Wasikowska's character is clearly dying of the same kind of movie disease that carried off Ali McGraw in Love Story.  She never looks tired or drawn, her skin becomes more pink and glowing as the movie goes on and pain management for her growing tumor seems to be handled with an occasional brief visit to the oncologist.  (This is clearly not the cancer that our friends and relatives get, and we need to start a movement to allow middle class and poor people access to movie-character-cancer.)  No one is upset as to whether any of these characters are attending school, especially the not-dying boy and the woods of director Gus van Sant's North Portland are obviously hospitable to rambling teenagers at all times.

Know what?  It's okay.  It's that kind of movie and if you don't want to indulge in that kind of movie, then move along, there's nothing to see here.  Yes, it goes for all the cliches -- a bucket list (not identified as such), a lovers-doing-a-million-interesting-zany-things montage, it even has a passionate lover's farewell, but that last provides a key to the film's success, at least for its intended audience (i.e., 15-year-olds of all ages).   That farewell, which threatens to send the film into the goopy sentimentality it has side-stepped, is a fake-out, a goof, a rehearsal far preferable to the IV drip-droning-monitor death scene we know and love from television.

And on the plus side, the there is no phony will-she-or-won't-she live suspense to pull the story off-point.  It's not about cures, miraculous or otherwise.  The film has the courage to point out where it's going, like a narrator or a placard in a Brecht play and then...go there.  Itis not meant to inform us or give us insight into death.  Who has any insight into that undiscover'd country, from whose bourn no traveller returns?  Such stories are -- cliche alert -- always finally about the preciousness of life ("Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute? Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some." If you don't recognize that, Google it or ask your friendly neighborhood English teacher.)

But that is a topic with which the young had an ambivalent relationship.  On the one hand, they live intensely, passionately.  Each day is a month, each month is a decade, eons pass as they hurtle through different friends, enthusiasms, fashions and music.  So each moment is invested with incredible significance.  On the other hand, young people have a wobbly grasp of what a finite resource time is (who doesn't?), believe they will live forever and that there will always be time later for the difficult or the unpleasant things.  Maybe that is why they perversely enjoy rubbing their own noses in the unrelenting fact of death.

And if you want to enter Restless (a terrible title) in the proper spirit, you will have to be one of them, even if for only a brief return visit.

Don't grow accustomed to your face...

"...I said I'd make a woman and indeed I did," sings Henry Higgins in a reprise of "You Did It" (cutting off the song "Without You") late in the second act of My Fair Lady.  In that context, it was just an obnoxious solipsistic way of dismissing a woman's claim of self-sufficiency, by merely claiming that he had always wanted the woman to be assertive and independent, while in fact he could not tolerate anyone of any gender not bowing to his whim.

In short, it was meant to be funny and it was.

It's not funny and not meant to be in The Skin I Live In (2011) the creepiest and most perverse variation of the Pygmalion myth I've experienced (leaving aside straight-out horror movies, which are usually intentionally risible).  To use a phrase I loath, "SPOILER ALERT."  (I don't bother with this idea because (a) the concept of this blog is to have a conversation with the reader about films, not to review them, and respecting the distributor's marketing plans is not part of the agenda here; and (b) because the idea that the main interest in the narrative is the surprise in being caught up with the twists and turns is a 20th and 21st century perversion of the ancient art of storytelling, which consisted in keeping the listener rapt EVEN THOUGH the listener knew the story, knew all the stories, and wanted to see what you do with it.)

(Continuing this exegesis -- theatergoers do not want Hamlet to come out all different and surprising, and do not want their Mozart piano concertos to have trick endings.  These sorts of demands for endless novelty are, I maintain, MARKETING considerations, NOT artistic ones.  And there is research to show that people enjoy stories better when they already know the ending.  More of this in my next post.)

Luckily, Almodovar understands at the deeper level what he's doing.  The story, which is appalling as any Greek myth, tells of a man who mourns his dead wife by converting his hysterical and suicidal daughter's rapist into a fireproof replica of her.  Take that, Medea!  Represent, Oedipus!  Clearly this is not meant to be accepted as events that could have actually happened at any real time in any real place.  Almodovar signals this with the make-believe production design -- all solid colors, mostly primary, surfaces unblemished, a kitchen with no mark of ever having been used, a lecture hall that looks like it was completed minutes before shooting.  There are no signs or indicators of real life here, of the quotidian details of existence.  This is the stuff of myth, which is the only way Almodovar could get away with it (if only he did).

Two other observations and I think I'm done.  One is that the entire first half hour and the double meaning of the title are virtually a red-herring.  Much footage is devoted to the perfection of flame-proof skin, presumably as a reaction to the protagonist's wife's terrible death in a flaming car accident.  But that ultimately is of no consequence.  That gun that Almodovar puts in the drawer in the first act is never taken out again.  The experimental subject never encounters potential injury by fire, fire is no part of the plot.  Frankly, the details of gender-reassignment are of far more significance.  And when Banderas's boss tells him to stop this line of experimentation, he does, without complaint and without secretly carrying on, like any decent self-respecting mad scientist.

Yes, the title is there because of what the characters do, the guilt they bear, the burdens they carry, all the questions of identity that such a title raises.  But the double meaning it reaches for is by way of a cheat, of a plot situation that is simply grafted onto the story.  That really should have been re-thought.

Finally, I have no idea what Banderas is doing in this movie, other than that he has a history with Almodovar, they helped build each other's careers and there must be a sense of mutual obligation.  Because he is clearly miscast.  What Banderas does is contained fury.  That's his brand.  The script calls for contained madness, a note not within Banderas's range.  There is never a thing to suggest to irrational, or even really the dangerous quality of this character.  In an effort to contain the insanity of the story, Banderas exhibits a calm impassivity which registers as indifference, especially when he casually abandons the experimentation that is supposed to be the premise of the film.  Banderas's face does not yet have the visual complexity to convey two thoughts at once (compared to, for instance, an Anthony Hopkins or a Kevin Spacey), so for most of the film he seems to be merely obeying the script's dictates, without any conviction that there's anything to them.

Almodovar has always wanted to marry insightful drama with scenes of revulsion and horror, but backed to the wall on this film, he seems to have settled for the latter.  Pity the better film lying just under the skin of this one.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Death, beneath all

Private tragedy forced, painfully, into the public arena
The highest compliment I can pay to Life, Above All (2010) is that I was startled to learn that the film is based on a book, on a book by a man, on a book by a Canadian man.  It feels so authentic, so personal, so finely observed that it feels as if there is no distance between the finished film, its characters and the events of their lives.

And yet, for me, the film kept recalling that most formalized and schematic of modern dramas, The Crucible by Arthur Miller, because of the respective society's attempt to use shame to crush non-conformity or dissent.  What Life's protagonist, Chanda, has to navigate through is burden enough, especially for a 12-year-old, but its taking place under public scrutiny increases the pain exponentially.  The social stigma of and ignorance about AIDS proves more debilitating than the disease itself.

The story is built on incident virtually without plot.  The net effect is that neither Chanda nor the audience know what to look forward to, which means we share her feelings of frustration and even hopelessness.  The film does end on a note of reconciliation, but it comes without preparation, and feels a bit tacked on, although, personally I'm a sucker for Zulu harmony singing, so it got to me.

My only other observation is that cinematographer Bernhard Jasper has taken the trouble to work out how to photograph dark-skinned people in dark rooms.  They are vibrant and present and far more visible than in many more celebrated films.  Cinematographers need to study this one as an example of how to shoot black skin--in fact, it might even have made some very sick characters look too beautiful!

Death hovers just below the surface of We Bought A Zoo (2011), which is probably not mentioned very prominently in the marketing materials.  But that may be what gives the film a peculiar gray emotional undertone, and gives the rather chaotic and sloppily assembled screenplay some unity and resonance.  Without the presence of death, this could be filed next to those made-for-Saturday-matinee movies they turned out in my childhood, like Clarence the Cross Eyed-Lion and Hello Down There.

It seems truly perverse that an intended family entertainment is so death-ridden, beginning with the death of Matt Damon's wife (before the story begins) which is the inciting incident for him to buy a zoo, and continuing through the acceptance of the death of old tiger as a healing mechanism for Damon to accept his own loss.  That may be kind of weird, but it is one of the things that unquestionably works in a script riddled with red herrings, cul de sacs, extra characters, scenes and situations.  It has the marks of a three-hour script having been cut down to two, and not all that comfortably.

One note in its favor -- the film literally features lions and tigers and bears and doesn't cute them up.  The only monkey is a fleetingly viewed capuchin, and most of the other animals seem hazardous or just not people-friendly -- exotic porcupines, snakes and camels.  The "awwww" factor has been reserved almost entirely for Maggie Elizabeth Jones, as Damon's 7-year-old daughter.  Jones is ridiculously cute without ever being cloying, although she is made to say the title of the film too many times.  (Under my son's secret rules, when you say the name of the film, the film must end.  Clearly this rule was promulgated under the influence of The Importance of Being Earnest.)  But there are some impressively scary shots of big scary teeth in POV shots which omit the principal actors, but had to pose some hazard for the photography crew, at least.

Ultimately, it doesn't make any sense.  It's never really clear why owning a very marginal zoo (are there such things in the US--privately owned for-profit zoos?  The real story took place in England) is such a happy resolution.  It just seems like buying more trouble.  Perhaps sensing this, co-writer-director Cameron Crowe cooks up a finale with the departed wife rejoining her now-happy family in the cafe where husband and wife first met.  Given that we have only seen Mom in still pictures or fleeting glimpses until now, the whole scene has an odd overhang, like a cantilevered canopy that threatens to fall on the people underneath.  The movie ends with scads of happy people in the happy zoo and Matt Damon having been kissed by Scarlett Johannson (the little hussy), and it feels fun, but it never ever really feels right.

Oh, and speaking of Miss Scarlett, in this film she takes on the new role (for her) of Workboots Girl.  Workboots Girl is the inverse of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she performs the same plot function.  Where MPDG unleashes the protagonist's inner desire for freedom and creativity, Workboots Girl teaches the dreamer How To Do Practical Stuff.  She is a bit like the Hawks Woman, but the Hawks Woman does not need the man, nor does the man need her.  Workboots Girl, on the other hand must solve the protagonist's problem, or she will not be.  In this Syd-Field-Robert-McKee, we must never have a character who is just enjoyable to be with--they all must have A Function in the Story Arc.  ("Arc! Arc!" The cry of the Hollywood development executive...)
One last thing--few directors or producers seem to realize how damaging it is to film to be deliberately unclear about where it is taking place.  There seems to be a fear that if a story is grounded in a particular geography, no one who lives anywhere else will relate.  This is too obviously ridiculous as to spend any time refuting -- all identification is rooted in specificity.  The events of We Bought A Zoo took place in England, but evidently Cameron Crowe would have been uncomfortable with that, or Matt Damon signed on early, but for whatever reason, the zoo got moved into some strange landscape that bears no resemblance to any urban-suburban-exurban environment in the United States.  There are no landmarks, no local characters, no sports teams, no TV stations, nothing to ground it anywhere.  The "charming cafe" where Damon met is wife is so generic that it can literally be in any town in the world.  So when you read that the factual basis of the movie has been completely twisted and distorted, you're not surprised-- this story really feels like it never happened, and it really never happened no place.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Squinting with your eyes open

Obviously, everything's going to be completely all right.
I don't have many observations to record about the chilly, dark spy picture Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011).  It seems to be less of a film, and more of a simulation of the experience of being a spy.  Nothing is stated outright, nothing is explained, no one is identified, no one reveals their thinking.  If anyone has feelings, you won't hear about it.

Even better, screenwriters Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan have dispensed with those two popular crutches of the modern spy film.  First, the voice-over of the protagonist, explaining the arcane non-verbal transactions going on.  You know the thing, "Sturgess gave me a glance that could only mean one thing" blah, blah, blah.  Second, the big explanation at the end, "You see, Collins, I knew as soon as I saw Verdoux wearing the ring, that Operation Fuzzball was going to be scrubbed, because..."  Clearly, the writers and director Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) decided to have respect for the audience and challenge them to lean forward and come to the film, instead of being overwhelmed by it, as in a Bond or Bourne film.

The story is often referred to as "complex", but it's not so much complex as it is sub-contextual. Here is a very visual film -- the soundtrack by itself would tell you almost nothing-- the very opposite of a standard spy film, which is all explaining and a couple of gunshots at the end.  But the story is relatively straightforward if you understand two things.  In LeCarre spy stories, there is no there there.  It's never about a secret that has to be stolen or protected.  It's about the process of security -- who works for whom, who is who really who they say, who can be trusted and who will betray.  What they are protecting is immaterial and never discussed.  Questions of loyalty are about the security force that claims your allegiance -- MI6, CIA, KGB, not the countries who have created and harbor these forces. And loyalty to the very idea of security and the discipline security requires.  And the time sequence shifts, but that is clearly laid out in the form of Smiley dictating a memorandum, so confusion as to time only lasts seconds at most--if you are paying attention.

The characters communicate in literal and dramatic code.  Information is conveyed by a look, a shrug, a cock of the head, or of the eyebrow.  But the film is not slow.  Information arrives rapidly and in profusion, once you understand how to interpret it.  It is quiet, but densely packed.

My favorite shot--a recurring sequence of a packet of papers rising, by itself, in a sort of document-dumbwaiter, acknowledging that information is the real protagonist, that data is more important than people in this universe, deserving of its very own private elevator.

The film has a wonderful visual uniformity, oddly reminiscent of Welles's The Trial.  It was interesting to learn that that uniformity was achieved in a similar way as it was in Welles's film.  Nearly all of The Trial was shot in a single abandoned railway station in Paris.  Nearly all of Tinker Tailor was shot in an abandoned military base in England.  This provided a number of structures with a wide variety of purposes and spaces, but a single gloomy aesthetic that supports the tone of the film perfectly.

That's really all I can say.  The film has been too brilliantly dissected and explicated by David Bordwell, and if you are a serious student of film, you have to read "Tinker Tailor:  A Guide for the Perplexed."

My own parting advice-- don't watch this for relaxation, but for stimulation.  Put away the wine and brew some coffee.  The film is worth a little lost sleep.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Cave-dwellers of New York

Tentative steps toward chaos in Carnage
 The very fine professional job that Roman Polanski and his excellent cast do in transcribing Yasmin Reza's play as the film Carnage (2011) is a good measure of the limitations of such inter-media transfers.

Perhaps I lack imagination, but I cannot fault what the filmmakers and actors have done.  I didn't see the play, but from all available evidence, this is an accurate, if culturally translated, representation of Ms. Reza's play, originally written in French for a Swiss theater director.  The setting feels completely accurate, the gradual setting of the sun (reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rope) evocative, the actors fully embody their characters (Kate Winslet now sounds almost more credible as an American than in her native accent, which sounds put on to please the folks back home), the staging and framing the usual meticulous Polanski job.  It is beyond cliche to point out Polanski as the poet of confined space, given Repulsion, Cul de Sac, and his previous play adaptation, Death and the Maiden.  But this confined space works in an odd way. At first, care is taken to keep it realistic.  In fact, the Kate Winslet and Christolph Walz characters are at pains to leave the space.

But then, after some intestinal and emotional vomiting, the liquor breaks out.  This is the great 20th-century theatrical deus-ex-machina, designed to get characters to say and do things they would not logically say or do, and also stay in place within the confines of the stage.  Let's say it straight out-- in 2012, using alcohol in a play is a crutch.  It was OK for O'Neill and Inge and Maugham and even Albee, but its time has passed and its mechanics are threadbare.

What happens at that point in Carnage is that what had been a meticulously detailed and realistic New York apartment became converted to a purely metaphoric and metaphysical space, a Huis Clos for the modern era.  But the problem is that the film remained tethered to the conventions of representational realism.  The play Carnage could have been used as the first half of a film, which developed and extended the ideas of The Exterminating Angel, about a class frozen in time and space, locked in a repellant embrace, continuing to decay

But Reza and Polanski make their living as entertainers.  A bit acidic, a bit cynical, but never truly disturbing to their middlebrow audiences of people like me.  So its characters begin their descent into primordial archetypes, to the very beginnings of human society, savage and needy, then the film abruptly stops before anyone's feelings get hurt, before cynicism converts to nihilism.  A shame, because I couldn't help feeling that a better ending could have been borrowed from that of  Fight Club, demolishing whole cities at a time.

Just to have seen Jodie Foster's face as she blows up a whole East Side luxury tower...that would have been a movie.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ripped off from the headlines

Somebody tell Errol Morris that somebody who saw a couple of movies made a cheesy imitation of a documentary, stuck Errol's name on it and called it Tabloid (2010).

Mr. Morris has two basic modes.  In one he puts two people or groups of people championing competing stories in front of the camera, lets them tell their stories and gently leads the viewer toward the most plausible version of events, sometimes with the aid of carefully identified reeactments, stock footage and shots of artifacts and locations.  In the other mode, he lets amiably odd people ramble on about their fixations, and we are invited to think, "Aren't these eccentrics charming?   Well, it takes all kinds to make a world."  There is no "other side of the story" in such cases -- the whole story is the wacky things these loveable people believe.

Tabloid botches the whole thing.  An idiot-maniac is permitted to drivel on in front of the camera at length with a story so silly and distasteful that you will have to watch the film at home, near a shower or bathtub.  No other perspective is offered, other than the so-called journalists who profited from spreading her delusions across the countryside.  So there is none of the interesting tension of conflicting versions of the story.  We get one, solitary, unitary deranged rendition of a deranged set of facts.

There are small Errol Morris flourishes -- big animated words on the screen, mock-ironic stock footage spliced in, real footage of the subject of the film (you notice how I avoid repeating her name) 35 years ago, younger and slimmer and just as crazy if not crazier.

If your idea of art or entertainment is being locked in a small room with a nut, have at it.  Include me out, thank you.