Saturday, December 26, 2009

Fight the Future (Avatar and Southland Tales)

Consider two directors, James Cameron and Richard Kelly: two careers going in different directions, the line between them thinner than one might think. Each has a singularly distinct vision; each dabbles in sci-fi-fantasy; each thumbs his nose at the studio system by following obsessions that go right over the edge to worlds beyond. Yet Cameron has made a habit out of transforming certain folly into unfathomable success, while Kelly lately is seen as squandering his talent into quantum stinkers. Where does one go right where the other goes wrong -- and how are we defining right and wrong anyway?

Avatar is being called many things, yet what's being overlooked is how fascinatingly it fits into Cameron's body of work as well as being (for him) something completely new. I don't mean only the technological advances, which are truly eye-popping. (Avatar is my first ever "IMAX experience," and first time I've worn the special glasses in twenty-five years; suffice to say things have improved slightly since Jaws 3-D.) Cameron still knows how to craft a story that engages an audience -- one that's sneakily subversive at that. Aliens was a gung-ho Reagan-Era war movie that undercut its own machismo by having all the male characters get their asses kicked, to where Ripley and the alien mother were left standing. Avatar features more chest-thumping love of weaponry and stuff that blows up real good; yet its main character, the paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who provides a low-key, emotionally direct center), gradually comes to join forces with the Na'vi tribe he's supposed to be working against. If audiences are noticing the implications of the thinly-veiled Iraq War metaphors -- with American soldiers getting knocked off by the dozens at the climax -- they don't seem to mind.     

Conversely, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, which came out in 2006 about a year after a hostile reception at Cannes, wears its politics on its sleeve. Set in a "future" (2008) that is in some ways more outlandish than Avatar's (where there are still wheelchairs and cigarettes and a white majority), Southland Tales begins with a nuclear attack on American soil and ends with what may be the Second Coming. Yet it's not an unsettling experience like Michael Tolkin's The Rapture. The tone is joshing, buoyant, satirical, which may have worked had Kelly bothered with any kind of narrative coherence. Instead, he sets up clearly defined sides in a conflict -- reactionary Republicans vs. neo-Marxists -- only to muddy the waters by showing many of his characters working both sides of the fence. Similar to the original Manchurian Candidate, Southland Tales suggests that the extremist factions of the left and right have more in common with each other than anyone else. Problem is, he has nobody remotely "normal" for the audience to identify with.

In Avatar, Sully's disability -- and his refusal to let the loss of his legs get the better of him -- puts us on his side immediately; he's an unremarkable but wholly sympathetic protagonist. Additionally, by writing a strong character for Sigourney Weaver (scientist Grace Augustine, who creates the "avatar program" -- native alter-egos -- in order to get better acquainted with the Na'vi), Cameron proves once again that he's one of the few male filmmakers who know how to write women. His casting has become almost Tarantino-esque, offering meaty parts to non-A-list actors like Worthington, Weaver, the problematic Michelle Rodriguez (as a soldier who comes to question her mission), and best of all Stephen Lang as Col. Quaritch, the military commander of the invasion of the planet Pandora, where the Na'vi reside. Lang managed to create a fleshed-out character in Public Enemies despite Michael Mann's best efforts to keep him trapped in the amber of the frame with about eight lines of dialogue (seven of which he utters at the end). He does better by Cameron, who makes Quaritch a sadist, yes, but also a man who is true to his word.

In general, Avatar demonstrates that James Cameron is an underrated screenwriter. Yes, his dialogue is as lousy as ever (his favorite line still being "Oh, shit!"); but he's surprisingly deft with structure and characterization. Unlike Southland Tales, which goes in about fifteen directions in the first thirty minutes, Avatar has a clear thoroughfare from start to finish, and its characters manage to have easily understood exteriors with suggestions of depths beneath. If Giovanni Ribisi's capitalist opportunist in Avatar is less subtle than Paul Reiser's progenitor in Aliens, he nonetheless reveals serious misgivings, more shadings than you normally see from this kind of character in this kind of movie.

James Cameron hasn't an ironic bone in his body; how could he to make a movie that employs cutting-edge technology to trumpet the simple virtues of people of the land? His tall, blue, long-tailed Na'vi, who looked ridiculous in the previews, win you over out of the director's sheer conviction: Sully comes to love them, and so we love them too. Richard Kelly, on the other hand, almost seems to want to alienate his audience. His famous debut, Donnie Darko, picked up a large cult following, I suspect, because its convoluted time-warp plot was attached to an interesting and engaging central character. (I haven't seen his latest effort, The Box.) Southland Tales multiples the ensemble along with the narrative contortions: it's a cheeky joke that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Nora Dunn, Justin Timberlake, Christopher Lambert, Jon Lovitz, and just about every other B- and C-lister figure in a film that begins with "Chapter IV" and leaves out vital pieces of information until the end. But the cherry on top was casting Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star -- which, as Robin Williams might say, is like Gandhi on catering. (Gellar, as with that other thrice-named Sarah, Ms. Jessica Parker, always wants to give the impression that she's naughtier than she's actually willing to be.) Southland Tales managed the unlikely feat of pissing off both French and Americans because it indicts all sides of its argument under a thick layer of irony.

Yet a funny thing happened last week, when Southland Tales finally crept to the top of my Netflix queue: I adored it. The movie is long and ungainly, with more than a few awful scenes and various off-putting grotesqueries. Yet beneath the ironic gaze, Kelly shows real affection for his characters and gives his performers a lot of line to take risks, some of which come off beautifully. Johnson is charmingly neurotic as Boxer Santoros, a movie star with a case of amnesia and family ties to the Republican Party. Scott is a revelation as doppelganger police officers Roland and Ronald Taverner. Miranda Richardson displays wicked cunning as Boxer's mother, the head of a Patriot Act extension called USIdent. Former SNL regulars Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn dig into their roles as neo-Marxist nutballs, while Jon Lovitz has a startling cameo as a trigger-happy cop. And as it turns out, Gellar's overstudied, anti-sensual acting style proves a perfect fit for Krysta Now, who dreams of leaving the pornography industry for the holy land of talk shows and energy drinks.

What is more, Kelly knows how to stage big payoff scenes -- whether they be Timberlake's shellshocked Iraq War veteran lip-synching to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done," or Rebekah Del Rio's spine-tingling interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner." (Both sequences suggest he could make one hell of a great musical.) And for all his wayward digressions, Kelly shares Cameron's gift for bringing various strands together for a rousing climax. Avatar ends with a climactic battle on Pandora between the heavy artillery under Quaritch's command and the Native-American-style of combat of the Na'vi. It's unabashedly exhilarating spectacle. Yet the final hour of Southland Tales -- involving urban warfare on the ground and a mega-zeppelin and floating ice-cream truck in the air (trust me, it makes sense) -- has such a poetic lyricism I hope Kelly learns it as a lesson that narrative clarity need not be the enemy, no matter what David Lynch tells him.

The over-the-top vitriol toward Southland Tales -- a movie not even grade-inflater Roger Ebert could love -- confirms two things: the French have lost their sense of adventure; and thanks to PR wizards who know how to manipulate the hype machine, actual cinematic disasters are so rare these days that on the rare occasion critics get a whiff of blood they circle like sharks for the kill. Richard Kelly hasn't yet earned the props of James Cameron, whose dynamic with film critics largely depends on him snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (When the occasional Kenneth Turan attempts to take him down a peg, it plays into the director's me-against-the-world persona even after he tries to use his power to get them canned.)

That's the narrative the self-crowned "King of the World" has crafted for himself in recent years, one that's become so iconic it's easy to forget that Cameron's only bona fide flop -- The Abyss -- remains one of his most interesting works to date. That movie, beneath all its special effects wizardry, remains a rather poignant examination of marriage, a pet theme that Cameron returned to again in True Lies and hasn't looked back since. Like Titanic, Avatar revolves instead around young romance -- love fills the seats when it's burgeoning instead of dissolving. I don't begrudge Cameron the shift in focus; for being such a blowhard off-camera, with a fair share of troubled marriages to strong women with whom he shared professional partnerships (Kathryn Bigelow, Gale Anne Hurd, Linda Hamilton), he's sincerely devoted to his characters, never cynical or contemptuous, patient enough with their stories that occasionally -- as with a scene late in Avatar, when he eroticizes the sixty-and-still-got-it Weaver -- he surprises us with an indelible image.

Visually, Avatar moves into uncharted terrain for its director, veering from his patented blacks and grays to bursts of gorgeous reds, purples and greens. Yet the switch from shiny-cool surfaces -- dazzling though it is -- doesn't take away the sense that something vital remains lacking from Cameron's palette, that he's repressing things that matter to him in order to connect to a larger audience. I got a big kick out of Avatar; it's a captivating entertainment. Yet had I seen it in 2-D, as a regular movie than an "experience," I doubt I'd have been as wowed.

Groundbreaking though James Cameron's films are, they don't age well. (The exception being the original Terminator, which creates a potent mythic universe with a buck-fifty budget in under two hours of screen time.) His movies are very much of their moment, and almost quaintly exist for the big screen. Whereas the qualities of Lawrence of Arabia still hold up on TV (whatever it lacks otherwise), Titanic's flaws magnify as its visual-emotional impact shrinks. I'm betting the same fate is in store for Avatar; after a few years, I can't see even its most ardent fans gathering around at midnight to watch it the way Donnie Darko's do. Easily distracted, by then they'll likely have moved on to the Next Big Thing.

Will Southland Tales eventually garner its share of devotees? Ed Howard reported that the teenagers in his audience "seemed surprisingly appreciative of Kelly's weirdo opus, suggesting that suburban America is ready for this film, if only they'd heard about it." My hunch, though, is Richard Kelly's satirical/political/theological/ philosophical/sociological/comic-book pastiche appeals to a very limited niche; that for all his flaky brilliance, he could use a dash of James Cameron's populism if he hopes to remain relevant (i.e., employed) as a filmmaker. I don't begrudge Kelly's artistic choices any more than I do Cameron's. This comparison isn't about creating a false dichotomy in which one is preferable over the other. But clearly the future of cinema is preferring one style as it leaves the other behind. And I think it is in cinema's best interests for all species of film to have a fighting chance to survive.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Together (A Christmas Tale and Up)

Are the French now making American movies better than Americans are? Last year, they gave us the taut "wrong man" thriller Tell No One (based, fittingly, on an American novel). Now, A Christmas Tale takes the dysfunctional family home-for-the-holidays to a higher level than The Family Stone or Home for the Holidays or countless other half-assed dramedies ever dreamed of. Superficially, the members of the Vuillard family may sound familiar: mother Junon (Catherine Deneuve) maintains a stoic reserve while dying of leukemia; father Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) weathers tragedy with gentle humor, loyalty and warmth; big sister Elizabeth (Anne Cosigny) is a successful playwright yet a frazzled mother of suicidal son Paul (Emile Berling); middle child Henri (Mathieu Almaric in a remarkable, propulsive performance) is a forever-in-debt gadabout and cad; and the youngest, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), is happily married to Sylvia (Chiara Mastioanni), who secretly harbors a mutual attraction with Ivan's cousin Simon (Laurent Capelluto). Like the Tenenbaums, they return home as adults who haven't fully outgrown their resentments, insecurities and desires -- all heightened by Junon's search for a bone marrow donor among them.

After an hour of borderline soap-opera theatrics and unnervingly deadpan humor, with another ninety minutes to go, I was leery that A Christmas Tale was going to wear me out. Yet the movie begins to work an almost imperceptible magic. Writer-director Arnaud Desplechin mixes a naturalistic style with sudden flourishes that never feel out of place. Characters talk directly to the camera or provide voiceovers that offer clues to their deepest thoughts and feelings, but not everything is spelled out for us. The film's central mystery -- Elizabeth's loathing for her brother Henri, whom she banished for five years -- is at once self-evident and maddeningly unexplained. Their entirely subtextual relationship is balanced nicely by the hearts-on-their-sleeve Ivan/Sylvia/Simon triangle, which builds to a surprisingly mature and joyful consummation. (Imagine the histrionics and/or hijinks in a Hollywood version.)

Desplechin introduces themes so off-handedly you're not even aware of their presence until near the end, when Junon finds a potential donor and says, half-jokingly, that she's "taking back what's mine." A Christmas Tale is about the give-and-take between parents and children, between siblings, between all blood relations. Elizabeth sees Henri (rather excessively) as evil -- a parasite returning to devour his host. Desplechin shows us that the truth is much more complicated; yet in one of his closing images, an astonishing close-up of Henri's eyes, he suggests it's there if we dare to look.

After a brief misfire with Cars, Pixar has returned cannier than ever at branding quality more than actually delivering it. Like WALL-E, Up was hailed as a towering masterwork before anyone actually saw it, and anyone who begged to differ was the type who likes to steal babies and kick puppies. (They've learned from Uncle Walt well.) The company's predominant techno-boys (gender emphasis intended) are such wizards at what they do nobody bothers to notice that their storytelling prowess has only two gears -- manic zaniness and heartfelt schmaltz, forever shifted and never blended. 

The first half of Up is, like WALL-E, about its protagonist's lonely life of solitude; and I might have been more affected by the montage of Carl and his wife's happy marriage up to her death if I hadn't read about it beforehand in twenty-five reviews. The second half, where Carl tries to fulfill her dream of living in South America by taking flight in a balloon-powered house with a (yawn) kiddie stowaway on board, doesn't embarrassingly implode like the third act of WALL-E did. The movie remains lovely to look at and shows off Pixar's knack for sight gags: I laughed at the talking dogs and giant bird even as I never stopped wondering what the hell they were doing in this story. Up is ultimately pretty thin stuff; and for all its hot air about adventure and dreams, as oddly impersonal as nearly all their other films. (The exceptions are Brad Bird's, which have other problems.) When Carl pulls his floating house through the jungle, my mind left his limp narrative and leaped to memories of Fitzcarraldo and the thought that the mad, bug-eyed Klaus Kinski was more fantastical than anything Pixar could ever concoct.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

I Aughtn't Make a List, But What the Hell: The Best Films of 2000-2009

Maybe it's my history major talking, but frequently I find myself looking at movies from a dual perspective. The first question I ask myself, whether leaving the theater or ejecting the DVD, is, "How do I feel about this film?"; the second question, immediately following the first, is, "How will this film hold up over time?" I'm not claiming a superior outlook. It's just that often I find critics fall prey to the same limitations as many journalists: they are so focused on the present, on the hype, on the here and now, they are unable to step back and examine their own points of view within a broader context. Invariably, then, I'm skeptical whenever someone or something that exists in the present moment is declared the greatest ever (cf. Roger Ebert comparing the 2009 year in movies to 1939, though at least in hyping films as varied as Precious, Collapse, and Avatar, he's equal opportunity with overpraise). Too often, that ostensibly awesome someone or something goes as quickly as the moment is gone.
Will my favorite films of the Aughts become classics in twenty, thirty, fifty years time? Who knows. (Additionally, would I be peevish and didactic if I reminded everyone that 2000-2009 is not a decade, that that would be 2001-2010? I would? Okay, I won't then....) It's just as likely that certain films or filmmakers I despise (hello, David Lynch!) seem likely to have staying power. I can only acknowledge my own biases -- for starters, that the Aughts have been dismal for movies in many ways. Too much loud, empty spectacle. Small-scale HD has been a bust. Almost nobody knows how to do comedy or musicals (or musical-comedy) anymore. More and more talent has fled to television. Filmmakers won't stop shaking the fucking camera. Enough with glaring lighting already. Even the most successful films barely stay in theaters long enough to register.

All that said, the movies mentioned below -- grouped into prominent themes -- have stayed with me. All are examples of great moviemaking that slipped through the cracks.

1. Subverting genre. The late 90s and much of the 00s have featured tiresome meta-movies overloaded with smug, winking irony, but some filmmakers showed deep affection for their respective genres while still managing to undermine our expectations. Bong Joon-ho's wildly unpredictable shifts in tone were on full display in Memories of Murder (2003) and The Host (2006). The former is a based-on-real-events police procedural about South Korea's first documented serial-killer case, with a mismatched pair of city-cop/country-cop archetypes and elements of pure goofiness and farce that ends with an emotional wallop that explodes said archetypes. The latter is an exciting, hilarious, and tragic monster movie about a creature that comes out of an American chemical drop in Seoul to wreak havoc on the city. Joon-ho pulls off Spielbergian flourishes like a dazed man escaping from an experimental lab only to stumble in the middle of American soldiers enjoying an outdoor cookout, yet his satire is packed with more political bite.

Robert Altman, whose bite was often worse than his bark, entered his autumnal period in a relatively tempered mood worthy of late Bunuel. Gosford Park (2001), Altman's sly contribution to the British murder-and-a-spot-of-tea genre, employs one of his finest ensembles (including Clive Owen, Kelly Macdonald, Maggie Smith, Jeremy Northam, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Helen Mirren) to reveal the blood ties beneath the stratified social classes. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) has lost some esteem over the last few years (while Hulk has enjoyed a little revisionism), but I still its pent-up "psychosexual fury" exhilarating to watch. Finally, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009) didn't have much to say about World War II; but it had plenty to say about how World War II movies have colored our collective memory of that war -- and did so by empowering its traditional victims and leaving gung-ho American soldiers along the sidelines. It's possible Basterds may end up looking facile to me in a few years, but at the moment no movie has lingered longer in my mind this year.

2. Unconventional romance. What is typically one of my least favorite genres (to quote the Minister in The Princess Bride: "Wuv! Twue wuv!") offered some surprises. Before Sunset (2004) took its long-awaited premise of reuniting Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy after ten years and may have proved the provocative concept that "time is a lie." Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), with an ingenious script by Charlie Kaufman and sublime direction by Michel Gondry, started from the inside of Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's tempestuous relationship and startled with what it revealed as it worked its way out; while Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000) started from the outside of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung's tentative non-romance and unforgettably refused to burrow in, suggesting everything and revealing nothing. 

3. Community works. My fondness for ensemble acting reached early heights with Yi Yi (2000), Edward Yang's intimate epic depicting a year in the life of a Taiwanese family and their relatives and hangers-on. I've liked a couple of Wes Anderson's movies and disliked a couple others, but The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), about a melancholically dysfunctional family led by a scheming patriarch played by Gene Hackman, appears to be holding up as a defining comedy we'll someday be watching on TCM. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga received plenty of attention for its special effects yet too little for the contributions of an impassioned cast. All three films feature this, yet I'm slightly partial to the first of the series, The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), for Sean Bean's powerful performance (leaving a void that's never quite filled), and for arguably the most emotional moment of the series: the look on Ian McKellen's face before he falls, and the subsequent look of Viggo Mortensen when he realizes he's now in charge. 

4. Returning to form. While some filmmakers found something new in hoary genres, others turned in fresh work by returning to classical moviemaking. Martin Campbell's stellar Casino Royale (2006) reminded us, through old-fashioned (read: competently staged) action sequences and the emotional anchor of Daniel Craig and Eva Green, why Bond matters. A Serious Man (2009) continued the Coens' recurring interest in formalism (honed in No Country for Old Men) but with the added touch of personal biography. Last but certainly not least, Paul Thomas Anderson's polarizing There Will Be Blood (2007) had such an odd and unsettling effect it seemed to be misread even from those who liked it. Yes, the cinematic influences (Kubrick, Stevens, et al.) are there. But Anderson reached back even further to late-19th/early-2oth century literary naturalism, creating a cinematic equivalent to those big flawed epics focused squarely on megalomaniacal, uncompromising men. In so doing, he made a movie like nothing else he'd ever done, like no other movie anyone has ever done. Of the many movies released in the Aughts, There Will Be Blood towers above them all.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Beasts Within (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Observe and Report)

Some actors are so right for their roles the two become inseparable; ditto their voices in certain animated films. Once you've seen Wes Anderson's delightful Fantastic Mr. Fox, it will be impossible to hear anybody but George Clooney's deep, smooth vocals coming out of the titular character, a chicken-stealing fox who's almost as clever as he thinks he is. Clooney has played variations of this fast-talking slickster before -- notably in live-action cartoons like the Coen brothers' O' Brother, Where Art Thou? -- where his charisma is sometimes trumped by smugness. Yet animation, as it did for Robin Williams in Aladdin, brings out Clooney's strengths while negating his shortcomings. He is every inch this Mr. Fox, whose stop-motion herky-jerkiness only adds to the movie's charm.

I'm sure the original Roald Dahl book is one of those I read as a kid without remembering anything about it, but this screen adaptation weaves the author's subversive spirit into what is still in essence a Wes Anderson film, drawing out his strengths as a filmmaker while keeping his flaws at bay. The script, by Anderson and Noah Baumbach, retains Dahl's relatively straightforward story about Mr. Fox's struggle for survival vs. the three nastiest farmers in Britain -- Boggis, Bunce and Bean. Yet they also add, as one character says, "subtext" in the form of Anderson's recurring obsession with familial dysfunction and dynamics. Mr. Fox has a tenuous relationship with his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep), who wants him to give up a life of crime, not to mention with his eccentric adolescent son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, who manages to be as strange and offputting as he is in the flesh). Many Anderson alumni -- Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson, an especially memorable Willem Dafoe -- lend their voices here, which has probably helped prompt agnostic critics like Owen Gleiberman to claim that the director "has always been making cartoons; he just confused the issue by putting real live actors in them," and to hope that he continues foraying into animated films.

I'm not convinced by either point. For me, Wes Anderson has made one classic comedy (The Royal Tenenbaums) fueled by the tension from the characters' longings to burst out of the trappings in which they are framed. (Violence -- or the threat of it -- is an oft-undiscussed element to his movies, one that's made more palatable by a whimsical tone than George Miller's relentless intensity approach in the flawed but brilliant Babe: Pig in the City; but it's always there, from Richie Tenenbaum's suicide attempt to the severing of Mr. Fox's tail.) And I think there's an even greater live-action film in him yet. Fantastic Mr. Fox is invigorating, lively and filled with high spirits -- adjectives I would not apply to his inert "road" pictures The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited -- and his melancholy sensibility, akin to Charles Schulz, is a refreshing tonic to the exhausting mania whipped up by Pixar (which has branded "quality" more than actually delivered it) or Mr. Motion-Capture Bob Zemeckis. Yet like Zemeckis, I think there's a danger of Anderson becoming a prisoner of the medium. Whatever his predilection for irony, it's clear that he longs to make a connection with an audience. Whether or not Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds (and the slow roll-out is as usual, I think, a mistake), here's hoping he keeps trying.              

For a brief shining moment last spring, Observe and Report was that rarity, a talk-about lightning rod of controversy, a dark comedy about a mall cop with delusions of grandeur that mined shocking violence and sexual depravity for humor. First dates were ruined, vitriolic screeds (and the occasional defense) were posted, tempers flared. Then, a week later, Crank: High Voltage and 17 Again came out and moviegoing returned to comforting doldrums. I'm not out to make a big case for the movie; it's too calculatingly unhinged and cinematically inept to win me over. Yet the young writer-director Jody Hill works with a kind of feverish incompetence. (Glenn Kenny memorably wrote that he "makes Kevin Smith look like Otto Preminger," but Smith is far too much the slacker poseur to be as invested in his characters or story as Hill is here.) And he's aided considerably by the fierce conviction of Seth Rogen's performance, easily the finest of his career. Rogen's mentally troubled Ronnie falsely sees himself as a gun-toting sheriff in a lawless town; yet he asswhupps drug-dealers and develops a touching rapport with the wheelchair-bound mall employee Nell (Collette Wolffe), so he's not a total dunderhead. Hill's problem is he doesn't distinguish between Ronnie's reality and everyone else's -- the former bleeds (literally) into the latter without logic or irony. In sum, Observe and Report puts me a quandary: it's a bad movie that's got something.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Pushing Our Buttons (Drag Me to Hell, Coraline and The Brothers Bloom)

(Spoilers within.)

Say this for Sam Raimi: he knows his way around a corpse. The best bits in Drag Me to Hell, his half-successful attempt to recapture the low-rent magic of his loosey-goosey horror comedies of yore, come in a pair of scenes where poor sweet bank officer Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) encounters the dead body of an elderly gypsy woman who put a curse on Christine after getting turned down for an extension on a loan. In the first of these scenes, Christine, having deep misgivings even before a demon starts wreaking havoc on her life (she rejects the woman's request in order to shed her reputation of being too nice to make the tough decisions for an open assistant manager position), arrives to make amends only to find herself in the middle of a wake. She accidentally knocks over the coffin, and suffice to say hijinks ensue. In the second, late in the movie, Christine digs up the body in a raging thunderstorm in order to reverse the curse, only to find the old crone even more resilient in death than she was alive.

I laughed out loud at moments like these, but Drag Me to Hell ended with my wishing it were more satisfying as a whole. Part of the problem is Christine's journey from passive cutie-pie to badass grave-digger: Lohman's performance is effective in individual scenes ("Choke on it, bitch!"); what's missing are the transitions, the gradations in her personality shift. The larger problem, I think, is Raimi himself, who earned heaps of praise for returning to his roots following the increasingly bloated Spiderman franchise, but to me he looked more like a wizard struggling to remember how simple spells are cast.

Although I'm no great fan of animation, one of its advantages is rendering more tolerable performers who might otherwise be anathema onscreen. Take Dakota Fanning (please!): an intolerable, overstudied young actress, yet completely serviceable at providing the voice to the titular character in Coraline. Or Teri Hatcher, smashingly good as both Coraline's mom in the "real" world and as the malevolently seductive button-eyed Other Mother in a parallel universe adjacent through the wall of Coraline's new apartment. I read Neil Gaiman's original book yet recall almost nothing about it, so I can't vouch for the authenticity of this screen adaptation. But it's an effectively creepy movie, well-directed by Henry Selick who also made (ahem) Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Freed from his overlord's easily distracted, overly labored whimsy (inevitably to return like a bad penny in the form of Alice in Wonderland), Selick taps deeply into the loneliness and resilience of his heroine and makes as evocative a recreation of childhood as I've encountered in recent memory. Bonus points: almost no songs.  

Without benefit of animation, Adrien Brody and Rachel Weisz, two of my least favorite actors, managed to charm the pants off me in the maligned heist comedy The Brothers Bloom. I knew from the previews that Weisz was playing the naive mark of a pair of con-men siblings, but to my delight Brody and Mark Ruffalo were cast against expectations as, respectively, the sensitive younger brother who wants out and the cynically manipulative older operator who talks him into (wait for it) one last score. Picking up an Oscar early in her career seems to have liberated Weisz, who plays her cloistered heiress with a hitherto genuine spontaneity. She lacks the overcalculated innocence of Glenne Headly in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and develops a sweet rapport with Brody, who has never been more appealing than when he's mooning over her. Reliable pro Ruffalo has the unenviable task of conjuring Paul Newman's Henry Gondorff from The Sting, and damned if he doesn't nearly pull it off. Rian Johnson nearly pulls off the entire movie too -- a type of farce that's difficult to appear effortless and rarely attempted anymore -- but stumbles in a homestretch that's at least twenty minutes too long.

Still, the many comparisons in the press to Wes Anderson seem off the mark (one unfortunate similarity, reducing the few ethnically diverse characters to non-speaking caricatures -- in this case Bang-Bang, the Japanese explosives expert for the Bloom bros. -- is redeemed by Rinko Kikuchi's richly amusing performance). If anything, Johnson's effort is closer in spirit to the other Anderson, one PT, of Magnolia (both prologues narrated by Ricky Jay) and Punch-Drunk Love (dogged hopefulness in the face of despair). As with Brick, Johnson's gift is weaving a veil of irony that pulls us closer to his characters rather than distancing us from them. The Brothers Bloom takes some missteps, but is better than its reputation suggests.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Everything, and So Much of It (Mad Men, Season 3)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

"I suspect (Matthew Weiner) is after something darker and more mysterious, something tied into the intersection of personal psychology and social change....a show which explores the systematic dismantling of and destruction of the authentic self, and its replacement by manufactured images and feelings, the very images and feelings Don Draper is so adept at creating."
-- Matt Zoller Seitz, commenting at The House Next Door

"They need a game-changer," I told a colleague shortly before the season finale of Mad Men, and well before Mo Ryan effectively dismissed the notion of game-changers on TV shows. "We hear that all the time (and) yet games remain unchanged," she tweeted, before later clarifying her point: "Many shows DO them well. It's when (Executive Producers) SAY game-changer is coming -- then 'meh' happens." It's always a delicate balance on television between shaking things up and keeping them the same. We viewers are a fickle bunch, bored by the status quo yet easily alienated by change. There are a limited number of options, all of which have spelled disaster for a large number of successful shows: add new characters; move to a new location; devise a major plot twist; or make a feint to change only to revert back to the comfortable and familiar.

Nevertheless, it seemed clear as we entered the homestretch of this year's Mad Men that something had to give. As a big fan of the first two seasons, I was pretty dismissive of the snarky naysaying by James Wolcott, the now defunct Newcritics, and others going against the grain; but this year I had to admit that the miniscule flaws they had pointed out from the start were beginning to magnify and multiply. While Season 3 still featured the usual share of stellar performances -- with January Jones a surprise standout -- too often Mad Men had been getting bogged down in its own self-seriousness, pregnant pauses, and ennui. Don and Betty's extramarital dalliances, a source of rich comic and dramatic fodder in the past, took a sharp turn into dullsville; and the crack supporting cast often seemed adrift, underused. How many times can Sal be spontaneously groped by closeted gay men before the social commentary takes a turn for the ridiculous? (Answer: twice.) Even the intriguing addition of Conrad Hilton as Don's daffy new billionaire client ("When I ask for the moon, I want the moon") had the effect of taking over the series the way George Hearst did Deadwood, putting its main characters in a ceaselessly reactive mode.

Yet Matthew Weiner has a knack for pulling off what Keith Uhlich has called the "Tarantino longueurs," when interminable stretches of inertia are suddenly energized by startling developments. This season's macabre comic classic, "Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency," climaxed with an upstart British exec's grisly rendezvous with a drunken secretary on a riding mower. (His superiors' solemn epitaph:"The doctors say he'll never play golf again.") And this Sunday's giddily dynamic finale, "Shut the Door. Have a Seat," was turbo-powered by Don Draper's refusal to be absorbed in a monolithic ad agency's plot to buy out Sterling Cooper and its colonizing overlords. At the heart of Mad Men has always been Don's sales-pitch, his ability to "find the emotion" behind a product and give people what they need; and the fun of the finale was watching Don pitch to people who know his machinations, to see Roger, Pete and Peggy tell him what they need -- the validation that Don has denied them.

Jon Hamm, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss, and John Slattery continued to shine in their scenes at the workplace. But it was back at the Draper residence that January Jones was a revelation. Betty's transformation from in-denial housewife to calling her husband on his elaborate pack of lies came in convincing gradations -- repression, role-playing (e.g., her stunning makeover in Italy), revelation -- to where, at the close of this season, she no longer bought his sales-pitch anymore. And yet, stuck with Henry Francis on the wrong plane to Reno, as it were, Betty seems right back where she started. That so many viewers find Betty loathsome (and side with Don under the "charming cad" clause) is, I think, a testament to the authenticity of Jones's performance, that she's gotten under people's skins deeply enough to provoke their defenses.

After three years of cultural Zeitgeisting, critical hosannas and innumerable Emmys, there has been the temptation to see Weiner the way Peggy sums up Don: "You have everything, and so much of it." So it's admirable to see that he hasn't grown complacent, or that he's not above lying to the press corps about whether or not the show would address the Kennedy assassination, which it did quite effectively in the penultimate episode. (I do hope the dramatic shake-up in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" ends the lazy comparisons of Mad Men to the plot trajectory of each season of The Sopranos. By now it's clearly a false analogy.) Season 3, while less consistent in quality than the previous two, took some interesting risks that paid dividends with a core of key characters, led by Don, leaving behind a familiar world and staking out an uncertain future. In so doing, Weiner & Co. left their viewers with more than what they wanted: they gave us what we didn't know we needed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lucky Man (25th Hour)

25th Hour (2002) is one of those movies that shoehorns a real-life tragedy onto a work of fiction, only with a fundamental difference: It works beautifully. Hurricane Katrina blows into Benjamin Button for no purpose other than to give the picture an unearned patina of awards-season relevance. Even though the aftermath of 9/11 has, on the surface, nothing to do with a pulpy tale about a drug dealer's last day of freedom before a prison sentence, it renders 25th Hour a movie haunted by squandered opportunities and the fragility of life.

Spike Lee is a filmmaker accustomed to cramming square pegs into round holes. With varying success -- ranging from masterpieces to stinkers -- he has made heavy-handed dramas that contain elements of slapstick farce, and whimsical musical comedies that explore socially conscious themes. He also has made documentaries like When the Levees Broke, a far most honest and artistic depiction of Katrina and its ramifications. His blowhard public persona continues to capture more attention than his films, which have become increasingly inconsequential and ignored. (Inside Man 2 -- really?) 25th Hour came and went fairly quickly from screens seven years ago, and I only caught up with it recently; but I think it's one of the defining films of the decade, warts and all.

Based on the novel by David Benioff (who adapted his own screenplay), 25th Hour stars Edward Norton, in one of his few performances in recent years where he gives a shit, as Monty Brogan, the aforementioned heroin dealer who chooses prison rather than rat out his Russian mafia employers. His two pals, Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Barry Pepper), are grinding their way through more reputable professions. Jacob is a nebbishy high school English teacher who finds himself tempted by a flirty-skanky student (the fearless Anna Paquin); Frank is a cocky Wall Street trader blithely unaware that the Gordon Gekko era is long gone. Monty's younger girlfriend, Naturelle (Rosario Dawson, charmingly awkward), he suspects may have turned him over to the cops. His bar-owning father (Brian Cox, proving he can do straight and understated) fumbles at a belated attempt to reconnect.

These people, who all care for Monty, nevertheless hover around him like constellations -- solitary while he's in perpetual orbit. Monty's only constant companion is his beloved dog, Doyle, whom he rescues in a prologue that conveys the tenderness beneath his bravado. (In a burst of typically colorful dialogue, Monty's Russkie sidekick inadvertently gives the dog his name when he confuses "Doyle's Law" with Murphy's.) 25th Hour is deceptively aimless for much of its running time: at times it plays like an inverted Last Detail with Meadows hauling Buddusky to the brig. Jacob and Frank take Monty (or does he take them?) to a strained nightclub party that spills into the dawn. Norton very effectively shows time closing in on Monty -- how, despite his deceptively cavalier attitude, he will never have enough of it. 

All of this would add up to a moderately entertaining B-movie, like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead with Hoffman unwisely hitting on Anna Paquin rather than Marissa Tomei. What takes 25th Hour to another level is how it captures the mood of New York City in the days following the fall of the towers rather than pretending the horror didn't happen. 2002 was a year when Hollywood digitally removed the World Trade Center from some of its movies. Spike Lee evokes the memory head on, in a stunning opening credits sequence that features the Tribute In Light, and conjures it again later in a scene played above Ground Zero from Frank's high-rise apartment.

These are moments where Lee communicates visually everything that needs to be said, moments that earned him praise from a few critics who normally can't stand him. Charles Taylor's laser-precision review hits all of its marks except the implication that the director has a newfound maturity here. Lee has always been sensitive and observational beneath the off-camera bluster. In Do the Right Thing, Mookie's racial harangue is just one of many tirades from the movie's representative ethnic groups, no more enlightened than the rest. (Also, Charley, John Savage's character isn't new to the neighborhood; he's lived there for years.) Monty has a superficially similar monologue in 25th Hour that starts by singling out everything he hates about New York before boiling down that loathing to his family, his friends, and finally himself. Like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee often invites being misunderstood from moviegoers who take his words and images at face value. In truth, he's a filmmaker with a gift for attaining perspective outside of his characters even as he's deep inside them.

I could trot out a list of plenty of things wrong with 25th Hour, scenes where the tone is off, the tempo falters, or the performances fail. (I've seen Barry Pepper in about ten movies now, and I still have no idea if he's a good actor or not.) I couldn't care less. What matters for me about the movie is what matters for Lee -- how the little details add up to the big picture following September 11, another time the levees broke. In Unweaving the Rainbow, his tribute to Carl Sagan's ability to find the poetic in the scientific, Richard Dawkins wrote, "We're all going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born." You get a sense of what Dawkins means in the astonishing conclusion of 25th Hour -- which Mike D'Angelo brilliantly described as the climactic dream-vision of The Last Temptation of Christ "compressed to 10 minutes" -- where Lee sifts out hope from horror, poetry from rubble, culminating in a line of stirring force: "This life came so close to not happening."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

'We are Lucifer': A Halloween Tribute (Sorta) to William Peter Blatty

"... two novels of the Humorless, Thudding Tract School of horror writing are Damon, by C. Terry Cline, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty - Cline has since improved as a writer, and Blatty has fallen silent... forever, if we are lucky."
-Stephen King, Dance Macabre

"It's a shame that people perceive Catholicism as Mel Gibson and not more often as Will Pete Blatty....He's the smartest Catholic in the media. When he goes who are we going to have?"
-Commenter on the Internet Movie Database

Say what you will about The Exorcist - book or film - for King to single out William Peter Blatty as humorless is like claiming Julia Child wasn't into cooking. A black Roman Catholic theologian-vaudevillian-playwright-author-filmmaker, Blatty's first moment of fame was as a contestant who won ten grand while impersonating a polygamous Arab sheik on You Bet Your Life, hosted by Groucho Marx. (So the story goes: "When Blatty revealed it was a hoax....he told Groucho he did it because [announcer/straight man] George Fenneman had said that Groucho was an expert at spotting phonies. Groucho replied, 'That is incorrect, because I've had Fenneman in my employ now for 14 years.'") Later, Blatty co-wrote the screenplay to Blake Edwards' A Shot in the Dark, the best and funniest of the Inspector Clouseau movies, featuring a memorable sequence where Clouseau goes undercover at a nudist colony. He wrote the novel that became one of two films he directed, The Ninth Configuration, an odd amalgam of long stretches of broad slapstick mixed with deep theological ruminations. His literary sequel to The Exorcist, titled Legion, offers more of the same blend of humor and profound insight. (Blatty also directed the screen adaptation, known as Exorcist III.) William Peter Blatty has often brought the funny. And, as the IMDb commenter noted, he is, at nearly 82 years old, one of the few remaining American Catholic hardcore thinkers to have received his formal education before Vatican II. Stephen King finds Blatty drearily serious. I'd counter that he's just serious enough to know when to laugh.

But, yes, he is less known for this - 

- than he is for this:

It is also true that the latter isn't exactly choc-a-bloc with laughs. (Those would be reserved, largely unintentionally, for John Boorman's loopy Exorcist II: The Heretic.) But my mother, who introduced me to Blatty, adored the novel's prose style, namely the opening prologue where Father Merrin encounters some ominous foreshadowing in the Middle East. Blatty wrote the script for the movie directed by William Friedkin, and the collision between Blatty's grace and reflection with Friedkin's feverish technique is what makes the film compelling. Friedkin bashing is a popular sport these days (and was originally with Pauline Kael, who mocked both him and Blatty in her review), but I'm with Harlan Ellison that "there is a subterranean river of dark passion running wildly in the subtext of all his films - both successful and disastrous - that clearly marks him as an artist almost manic to rearrange the received universe in a personal, newly-folded way." I had a sense of this the first time I saw The Exorcist; and I felt it again even at a rowdy midnight Halloween showing during my freshman year at a Jesuit university. (The movie played in the cavernous theater where many of us attended the loathed and feared Father Donnelly's core Western Civilization course, and when the exorcism sequence began the audience started chanting, "Donnelly! Donnelly! Donnelly!") By the time Father Karras (a riveting performance by Jason Miller) makes the ultimate sacrifice, the theater had gone eerily silent. Later that night, drifting off in our bunk bed, my roommate interrupted the silence by muttering, "I don't want to think about that movie."

Despite Kael's claim that Blatty's work is "Shallowness that demands to be taken seriously," William Peter Blatty is a heady thinker, at least by cinematic standards. I would also argue, based on the only two movies he has directed, that he is a rare writer who understands the visual medium. His rhythms are odd and original; his eye attentive, at times ravishing. Both films, The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III, are incredibly uneven, but the best passages in them are breathtaking to watch.

The Ninth Configuration tells the story of an army psychiatrist (Stacy Keach) who arrives at a mental institution (a foreboding castle in the Pacific northwest) and engages in an escalating series of debates with an astronaut (Scott Wilson) who cracked up prior to launch. Leonard Maltin, a huge fan of the film, has marveled at its "eminently quotable dialogue," which recalls the nutball logic of Catch-22. ("I know my rights! I demand to see my urologist.") I recently saw The Ninth Configuration again for the first time in years, and the bizarreness of the enterprise came rushing back. What can be said about a movie that begins with a montage of the lush Oregon wilderness set to the country ballad "San-An-tone," or that stages its climax with a deadly brawl in what appears to be a gay biker bar, other than David Lynch owes an obvious debt?

Exorcist III pretends the first sequel never existed and makes a supporting character in the original movie and novel the central protagonist. Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott) hunts a serial killer in Washington, D.C., an investigation that starts as a standard police procedural and concludes with elements of the supernatural. (Jason Miller's now-deceased Father Karras makes a demonic reappearance.) Blatty's movie ultimately bottoms out: Scott, who would have been ideal for the part about a decade earlier, has a sluggish, distracted air. But he achieves a couple of jolting shocks (watch out for one in a hospital) and astonishing images like a police helicopter flying over a church. As a filmmaker, Blatty is fascinated by conflicting imagery that intersects the spiritual with the secular.

What the movie lacks is the novel's collusion of ideas. Legion ends with Kinderman linking the theory of evolution with the Biblical Fall: "We are Lucifer," he posits - the shattered dark matter of the universe struggling to become whole again. I don't share the bulk of Blatty's beliefs. At his worst, his work is awkward and more than a little nutty. But he's an artist who has spent his career exploring, indulging and challenging his own obsessions, and that's no joke.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Culminating Experiences (A Serious Man, The Class, and Shotgun Stories)

(Spoilers for all.)

I fell hard early on for Joel and Ethan Coen's A Serious Man. It may have been the thrilling transition from a Yiddish folktale to 1960s America via Jefferson Airplane that hooked me; or when Professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) has to deal with an indignant student who won't take an "F" for an answer; or the time his encroaching, gun-toting neighbors return from hunting with a large bloody deer strapped to the top of their station wagon. While not Jewish, I have been accused of a persecution complex (they're always saying that!), have experienced emotional blackmail from undergrads (though, regrettably, not outright monetary bribery), and I once lived next to encroaching, gun-toting neighbors who tied a large bloody deer to a tree outside our door (in all fairness, it was Thanksgiving). A Serious Man proves the adage that by being as specific as possible art can become universal.

Lord knows the Coens are nothing if not specific. After fourteen films in twenty-five years, they have established themselves as enthusiasts of screwball comedy and film noir, masters of regional dialects, impeccable re-creators of cultural eras, traffickers of pitch-black humor in an uncaring universe. This last quality has earned them the frequent accusation that they have contempt for their characters. I don't think this is true, but A Serious Man is unquestionably their most personal film, as warm as it is merciless. Throughout, Larry is besieged by personal calamities (possible health problems and gathering storms), not insignificant injuries (infidelity from his spouse, anonymous hostile letters to his tenure review board) and petty insults (moving to a fleabag hotel, paying for his wife's lover's funeral). What's gone unnoticed in many reviews is that everyone else (his son, his brother) is enduring troubles as well. This gives Larry's determination to solider on a hint of backbone that compensates for his at-times infuriating meekness.

A Serious Man is, along with No Country for Old Men, the second Coen picture in three years to leave out their familiar stable of actors (Clooney, Goodman, Turturro, Buscemi, et al.), and the cast of mostly unknowns acquit themselves ably. Stuhlbarg is a winning, affecting presence as the tormented Larry; Fred Melamed is memorable as Sy Ableman, the unctuous lover of Larry's wife; Aaron Wolff, as Larry's son Danny, has a terrific sequence where he shows up stoned for his own bar mitzvah.

Perhaps it's the lack of stars that make the Coens seem more empathic this time around. Whatever the case, they've moved past their creative funk from earlier this decade (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), have honed their craft to the point where their effects -- occasionally strained in the past -- now feel effortless. A Serious Man is a great comedy, a model of elegant structure, with "Somebody to Love" the most original use of an overly familiar pop song since Wong Kar-Wai employed "California Dreamin'" in Chungking Express. This song, its lyrics lined with lingering questions, underlines the recurring theme of the film -- the "uncertainty principle" at the basis of Larry's convoluted mathematical theorems, or the hilarious suggestion by one character that Larry stop trying to decipher a circular argument and simply "accept the mystery." I've been off and on about the Coen brothers for their entire career and frequently don't trust my initial reactions to their movies, but with A Serious Man I feel no such ambiguity: It's a masterpiece.

Laurent Cantet's The Class, winner of the 2008 Palme d'Or at Cannes and a Best Foreign Film nominee this past year, is fabulous in a completely different way. The teacher here, a Parisian high school French instructor Francois Marin (played by real-life version Francois Begaudeau, and as I write his name I can almost hear that old man from Amelie emphasize, "Begaudeau, not Bedaugeau"), is no mild mannered Larry Gopnik. Faced daily by an unruly melting pot of middle-school students, Mr. Marin creates an atmosphere of civil disobedience: by making them follow certain rules (no wearing hats, hands must always be raised to ask a question), he lets them argue their points with more freedom and vocality than you would expect. He's a gifted, challenging teacher, but also one who employs the kind of withering mockery that (he is told more than once) sometimes crosses the line.

As a fictional year in the life of actual teachers and students, it's only natural that The Class take a documentary approach to its subject, with hand-held cameras that blessedly don't draw attention to their jitteriness. Cantet's focus is entirely on the classroom dynamics, with intimations but no concrete revelations of the characters' personal lives. A question of Mr. Marin's sexual preference is deftly volleyed back to the student with a reply that may or may not be true. A once engaged student turns sullen and disrespectful and back again without explanation. A troublemaker in the back row enjoys a brief artistic triumph only to revert back to hostility.

The final act of The Class gets a little creaky with the plot mechanics, narrowing its expansive themes down to an expulsion hearing, but it manages to subvert expectations anyway. The anticipated Rousing Speech, followed by Slow Clap, never materializes. And the incident that leads to the hearing is ugly and ambiguous, with Mr. Marin sharing the blame. It's a fitting irony that an uncompromising language instructor would misunderstand a word he himself fatally uses. At the same time, when you're under siege as constantly as he is, it's remarkable that he didn't slip up sooner. The Class is a probing, troubling study of the high price of small mistakes.

The makers of Bubble and Old Joy must have watched Jeff Nichols's Shotgun Stories (2007) resembling the kind of slack-jawed yokels they depict onscreen. A movie about economically despairing Americans with enthusiasms, hobbies, interests! The central narrative -- a deadly blood feud between two sets of brothers following the death of their mutual father -- holds your attention the way an effective plot device should. Yet the lovely passages in between, where characters go to work, coach basketball, count cards, play movie trivia, and cultivate relationships form the film's real subject.

The main trio of siblings (played without a trace of condescension by Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, and Barlow Jacobs) is developed far more than the other group (from their father's second marriage), and I think Shotgun Stories would have been even better had we been given more reasons of why they loved their father as much as the former brothers hated him. It's still a terrific movie, though, reminiscent in tone to Carl Franklin's One False Move -- a "masculine" story that doesn't neglect its female characters, a depiction of squalor that still acknowledges the ravishing beauty of its rural Arkansas setting. Most movingly, Shotgun Stories depicts the tragic consequences of violence while also radically suggesting, in the end, that familial devotion needn't make one trapped by fate.