Sunday, August 30, 2009

Tarantino's War

After seeing Inglourious Basterds (a day before I did), my dad predicted: "The debate on this one ought to be good." Indeed, varying, polarizing, and downright heated opinions have been flying everywhere, even amongst my own ranks. (My dad generally disliked the movie; my mom loved it.) Yet nearly everyone seems to agree that the best exchange of ideas has been between Dennis Cozzalio and Bill R. Both love the movie, yet each has his own distinct impressions on it, and a few heavy-hitters (namely esteemed professional film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Esquire culture critic Tom Carson) entered the fray in the comments sections. Here are links to their extended four-part discussion: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Meanwhile, Ed and Jason Go to Nazi-Occupied France -- with a few prior stops through the whole Quentin Tarantino directorial oeuvre -- reportedly this week at The House Next Door. The Howard/Bellamy conversations are always fun and this one promises more of the same. I will post links to the two-part discussion when they arise here and here.

For what it's worth, here are my own capsule reviews of QT's body of work:

Reservoir Dogs (1992). Tarantino burst out of the gate with this swaggeringly confident and savagely funny heist flick in which the heist happens offscreen, showing us instead the events that occurred before and after. Most of his grand obsessions (with one notable exception: women) begin here: bluffing machismo; movies; music; crime; loyalty; torture; Mexican standoffs; the relativity of time; and the delirious pleasures of talk. Grade: A-

Pulp Fiction (1994). Whereas Reservoir Dogs was an impressive debut, this deeper, twistier, more resonant take on L.A. lowlifes was positively revolutionary. Three darkly funny stories and a couple of digressions wrap around and intersect. Tarantino's tough guys (who aren't as tough as they think they are), led by John Travolta's major comeback, are in ample supply; but this time a handful of female characters (namely Uma Thurman's gangster's wife) add dimension and nuance. The film is also loaded with QT's love of contradiction: renowned for its explosive bursts of violence, Pulp Fiction ends with its most horrific killer (a magnificent Samuel L. Jackson) keeping the peace. Grade: A

Jackie Brown (1997). Faced with the pressure of high expectations (and a likely critical smackdown), Tarantino wisely went small-scale and adapted Elmore Leonard's leisurely crime novel for the screen. A meme that's been floating around the last few years claiming this to be better than Pulp Fiction I find absurd: Jackie Brown is a bit static and poky; in places you can almost sense the director's hesitancy and weariness. But it's also one of his most touching pictures, anchored by the middle-aged near-romance between Pam Grier and Robert Forster. "I've never seen a young filmmaker alive to an older woman's beauty in quite the way Tarantino is here," wrote Charles Taylor. "It's not coarse; but it's not a chaste appreciation." Ditto the movie. Grade: B+

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003). Part One of the pinnacle of QT's Uma Thurman preoccupation departed from his earlier films in actually being as bloody as some viewers accuse all of his pictures of being. The action scenes are extravagant but a little relentless, and there's a nasty undercurrent to the enterprise (most notably a near-rape scene) that initially left for me a bad aftertaste. Yet the movie improves retroactively after seeing Part Two, its cartoonier aspects acquiring substance. Grade: B

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004). Tarantino cleverly undercut expectations with a climax to his grandiose two-part revenge flick that featured minimal violence. Memorable set-pieces (a swordfight inside enclosed quarters, a harrowing escape from a grave) are scattered throughout as before, but this time the characterizations and themes grow deeper. Taylor called this "a comedy about fidelity," and David Carradine's Bill is less a mythic monster than a wounded Shakespearean patriarch, never more so than the look in his eyes when he knows the jig is up.  Grade: A-

Death Proof (2007). Originally the second-half of a Grindhouse double-feature ode to scuzzy exploitation films, this idiosyncratic picture is itself split in half. The first hour, following Kurt Russell's stuntman/serial-killer's casual stalking of a quartet of small-town women, ends with a graphic and disturbing climax where the killer's muscle-car becomes a deadly weapon. In the second hour, however, another foursome -- all in the movie business, two of them stuntwomen -- turn the tables and defeat the predator at his own game. At times deliberately tedious, Death Proof is ultimately fascinating and revelatory (and, with Russell's climactic screams, bloodcurdlingly funny). To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it rises below exploitation. Grade: B+

Inglourious Basterds (2009). Tarantino rides the whirlwind in this staggering war movie without war, an artful crowd-pleaser. I just saw Basterds a second time, and as I suspected its dizzying array of characters, stories, ideas, styles, languages, visual references, musical cues, and moods all settled into something coherent and substantial. The underlining theme beneath the surface of all of QT's films that he consciously began to map out in Death Proof -- the transformative power of cinema -- is fulfilled and then some here. Don't miss this enthralling, one-of-a-kind masterwork. Grade: A

Friday, August 28, 2009

Bad Habits (Two Lovers and Doubt)

Compelled to explain his new-to-DVD movie Two Lovers (memo to filmmakers: not a good idea), director James Gray said, “What I was trying to get at....was a lack of irony. A lack of distance. Authentic emotionality....It’s not like one person is a jerk to the other person and then the movie is talking down to the characters, like ‘Look at them, aren’t they both idiots? Let’s laugh at them.’" Hey, you don't have to ask me twice!
As with his last picture, the wannabe 70s gangster flick Bring on the Remember the We Own the Night, Two Lovers is a showcase for Gray's specialty: navel-gazing melodrama. He's a filmmaker who has earned a cache of respect among critics for "sincerity," though his brand of earnestness reminds me more of a guy from college who spent over a year cornering unsuspecting strangers into hearing him babble about getting dumped by his girlfriend. The movie has a groaning, thudding obviousness. Troubled young Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) fails to commit suicide via a plunge off a bridge into a freezing river, and like all dry-cleaner employed gents on the brink of a mental breakdown manages to attract not one but two ravishing beauties -- the brunette (read: stable) Sandra, and the blonde (read: crackpot) Michelle. Sandra (Vinessa Shaw) is a proper Jewish girl who earns the approval of Leonard's parents (Moni Moshonov and a wasted-as-usual Isabella Rosellini), while Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a walk-on-the-wild-side legal assistant newly moved into Leonard's apartment complex. Leonard ardently pursues Michelle -- who is involved with a married man -- while keeping Sandra on the line.

Gray labors to remind the viewer that his universe is oppressive and grim, yet it's also a benevolent utopia where a man stands up a woman for lunch and she loves him for it, or breakdances at a nightclub and the other gal mysteriously doesn't flee the scene. We're not supposed to laugh at any of this, but we're sure as hell not asked to laugh with the film either. And, seriously, how can anyone fail to giggle with Joaquin Phoenix onscreen? Even before the actor's disconcerting offscreen spiral, I found his gurgling, red-eyed style hard to take. For all his cringeworthy emoting in Two Lovers, Phoenix seems oddly disconnected from genuine thought or feeling. To be fair, all three principals are far too old for their characters, though Shaw has a lovely presence. She's an actress to watch, just preferably not in a James Gray movie. 

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's Oscar-grab adaptation of his own play, is also bullshit, but it's the kind of sleek Hollywood turd that flushes easily. Like many classic stage productions, it's a battle of wills between diametrically-opposed adversaries. Meryl Streep's Sister Aloysius is a brass-tacks nun who runs her Catholic middle-school with draconian resolve. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Father Flynn is a progressive priest who challenges Sister A's authority but also takes what may be an improper interest in the school's first black student. (The year is 1964.) Plots are hatched, voices are raised, and the movie goes nowhere with its conceit.

Most famous for scripting Moonstruck, Shanley's last directorial effort was the equally charming and criminally underrated Joe vs. the Volcano (1990). His work here is more polished -- the editor Dylan Tichenor and DP Roger Deakins contribute some momentum and gloss -- and Streep sets off sparks of malicious wit: that she is the spitting image of my seventh-grade music teacher is the highest compliment I can offer. (Never was a children's choir been more terrorized.) Most of the ensemble falls short of her example. Hoffman is as miscast portraying a charismatic priest as is Joaquin Phoenix impersonating a recognizable human being; while Amy Adams, as the younger, impressionable Sister James, struggles to be the audience surrogate but carries her nagging indecisiveness with all the gravitas of Arnold mediating an argument on Diff'rent Strokes. ("That's a good point, Dad!....That's a good point, Willis!") Still, all the performers are working against the grain. With heavy, portentous symbolism embedded in every scene (blown light bulbs, gusting winds), it's a wonder any of them hit their marks without being wheeled by dollies.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why We Film (Inglourious Basterds)

(Note: This review discusses specific plot points. Do not read if you don't want to be spoiled.)

To explain why I love Quentin Tarantino, who better to do so than the jabbery film geek himself? "I don't want people coming out of my movie with only one idea of what it's supposed to be about," he says, in essence, on the Reservoir Dogs DVD commentary. "I want a million different people to come out with a million different ideas, as if they've each seen a million different movies." This generously democratic ideal -- embedded in all of his films, including his latest, Inglourious Basterds -- helps me to forgive Tarantino's many flaws. Not there's any shortage of criticism: I've already heard Basterds described as "irresponsible" and its director "an embarrassment," among other things. I can respect and acknowledge the validity of some of the charges while still considering it so far the movie of the year.

One swipe against Tarantino that is always off the beam -- and this where, I think, a certain myopia informs the basis of all attacks -- is the accusation that he makes testosterone-packed action movies as sop for his "fans." If anything, he's gone out of his way to alienate whatever fan-base may exist: Reservoir Dogs concluded with its colorful ensemble whacked, Pulp Fiction with its ultimate badass playing peacemaker instead of pumping lead; Kill Bill Vol. 2 followed the blood-splattery Vol. 1 with what Charles Taylor astutely called "a comedy of fidelity," one with barely any violence at all; Death Proof, originally the second-half of a three-hour Grindhouse epic, subverted the B-movie genre to which it was ostensibly paying tribute. Inglourious Basterds has been hyped as a Dirty Dozen-ish WWII flick; yet with typical perversity, Tarantino has made a war movie wherein its warriors are along the periphery rather than at the center.

That center is occupied instead by Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young French-Jewish woman who escapes the clutches of a cunning Nazi "Jew-hunter" named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), changes her identity, and becomes the owner of a cinematheque in German-occupied Paris. This character brings to the fore a fistful of Tarantino's pet themes: the power and vulnerability of women; the issue of race via Shosanna's love interest, the African-immigrant projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido); and, of course, the director's uncontainable enthusiasm for movies themselves. You see this love by how tenderly Shosanna cleans the letters of the titles on her marquee. (Robert Richardson's cinematography, light-years above the visual drabness of QT's earlier pictures, practically caresses the images.) Yet as she attracts the unwanted attentions of a wide-eyed German war hero (Daniel Bruhl) and, subsequently, that of the Third Reich's high command to co-opt her theater for a premiere, Tarantino is also reminding us of something too often forgotten: that movies -- that art -- can be dangerous.

Bold, startling, and more than a little demented, Inglourious Basterds certainly courts danger both narratively and thematically. The Basterds themselves, led by the southern-fried gentile lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are a cadre of Jewish-Americans dropped behind enemy lines (pre-D-Day, 1941-1944) to ambush German soldiers. With the notable exception of the brawny, bat-wielding Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) -- who becomes renowned in Nazi circles as "the Bear Jew" -- the Basterds are largely indistinct and best-personified physically by the comically wimpy B.J. Novak (who plays Ryan on The Office). No Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes or Telly Savalas to spice things up, though the Basterds do add to their ranks a thuggish kraut (Til Schweiger) with a homicidal contempt for the SS, as well as a erudite British officer (Michael Fassbender) who attempts to use his expertise as a film critic to infiltrate the Nazi ranks. (His specialty, he explains to his superiors, is German cinema.)

A filmmaker wishing to appease his audience would have put us through the familiar paces of the genre: training; colorful personalities; planning the attacks; violent catharsis. Tarantino largely dispenses with these tropes, jump-cutting from the introduction of the team to a scene after the Basterds have already earned notoriety. Although he does ultimately, as they say, deliver the goods (as with the Bear Jew's baseball bat), QT remains far more interested in the elaborate building of suspense than its release. The avuncular "Jew-hunter," Landa, is essentially a stand-in for the director, always three steps ahead of everyone else, casually toying with his victims before lowering the boom. But the scene that best explicates Tarantino's M.O. is a nerve-rattling set-piece in a tavern that features not Landa but rather a group of drunken Nazis, a trio of undercover Basterds, a vivacious German starlet (Diane Kruger), and a relentless German major who won't let a suspicious accent go. For nearly thirty minutes Tarantino adds one development on top of another, tightening the screws so far beyond the pale it would have made Hitchcock scream, "Enough!"     

The brutal tactics of the Basterds (who are encouraged by the part-Apache Raine to scalp their victims) and especially the apocalyptic climax in Shosanna's movie-house -- where a pair of disparate assassination plots finally dovetail in a manner that plays like a bizarre cross between The Dirty Dozen and Brian De Palma's Carrie -- have been derided by some. In a thoughtful critique, Daniel Mendelsohn accuses the filmmaker of playing a game of reversals -- of turning Jews into Nazis and Nazis into Jews and thereby cheapening the Holocaust via false equivalency. On the surface, I can see the author's point; and I would give it greater validity if tragedy didn't befall the heroes of the film as much as its villains. Moreover, the Nazis are not "tricked" into entering the cinematheque, as Mendelsohn claims; they bully Shosanna into hosting the premiere there, and she takes shrewd advantage of their manipulation. One could even go further and observe that the movie is held there in the first place because its star, Private Zoller -- the aforementioned Nazi hero who takes an unsuspecting shine to this closeted Jewish woman -- insists upon it in the hopes that it will impress the object of his affection. Tarantino has never been a political filmmaker; he's a deeply personal one whose love for character is as affectionate and observational as it is pitiless.

There are more levels and layers to Inglourious Basterds (and Tarantino's entire career) than its daffier critics are giving it credit for. (Nation's Pride, the monotonously violent Nazi film-within-this-film, is like a parody of what Tarantino's non-admirers believe his movies to be.) Armond White incoherently compares Basterds unflatteringly to not only love-of-his-life Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan but Frank Capra's Why We Fight propaganda series, as if Tarantino's picture shared the same universe with them. Even a relatively complimentary new article at Slate that asks if "one of the most overrated directors of the '90s one of the most underrated" today is another of the contrarian online mag's breathtakingly meaningless provocations. (I eagerly await: "Is Your Toilet Trying to Kill You?") If nothing else, we have a teeming ensemble of characteristically memorable performances. Pitt crafts a hoot of a caricature in Lt. Raine. The heralded Waltz (who won Best Actor at Cannes earlier this summer) fashions a Nazi unlike any Nazi you have ever seen. Amusing in a bit part is a nearly unrecognizable Mike Myers as the British mastermind of one of the assassination plots (a piece of stunt-casting reminiscent of John Candy in JFK), as are effective voice-cameos from Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson. In the most prominent female roles, Laurent and Kruger convey varied sides of Tarantino's own complex view of the feminine mystique.

Fortunately, Inglourious Basterds has much more going for it than a list of good actors. As Owen Gleiberman once described Pulp Fiction, it's a "feel-alive" movie, Tarantino's biggest mindblower since that revolutionary film (my head was spinning for hours after seeing it), and makes most movies today look gutless by comparison. If I'm troubled by certain elements, I'm less offended than I was by Saving Private Ryan, which Tom Carson notes pretends to be an authentic depiction of the historical record while actually glorifying cliches. Inglourious Basterds offers no such pretense. The deliberately misspelled title (in addition to being an in-joke about its creator's infamous illiteracy and a failsafe against nervous advertisers) tells us immediately that this is a film that establishes its own rules. Like Stanley Kubrick, the Coen brothers, and few others, Quentin Tarantino has proven himself to be a director whose movies hold up well over the years; like those other filmmakers, all creators of their own worlds, his movies exist outside of history and time. They're also more accessible than the product of most auteurs -- at least for someone like me, who was grinning all throughout his latest and who wants to see it again. There are possibly a million different movies here, each one worthy of analysis, and a few even deserving rebuke. For me, though, one rises above the others. Inglourious Basterds is a brilliant piece of crazy.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


It's Sterling Hayden Day at Turner Classic Movies, where tribute is being justifiably paid to one of my all-time favorite actors. Hayden was a tough guy who had about eighteen other things going on beneath the barbed-wire. Unlike most toughies, he had a natural way with dialogue, a gift for gab, while still able to convey a tangle of roiling emotions, hints of weakness and uncertainty. This made him ideal for gangster pictures and/or film noir -- from the doomed antiheroes in The Killing and The Asphalt Jungle to, in his sunset years, unforgettable supporting roles in The Godfather and The Long Goodbye. Right now TCM is airing one of his most iconic performances --from Dr. Strangelove, of which I need say nothing -- but the rest of the menu throughout the day has some eclectic and surprising choices. I woke this morning to catch the second half of Terror in a Texas Town, Joseph L. Lewis's rivetingly oddball noir-western that climaxes in a unconventional showdown between the bad guy drawing a gun and Hayden chucking a harpoon. Would love to hear what Ed thinks of this one....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Notes 'n' Quotes

To your left is a new feature I'm testing, called "Quotables," wherein I will link to essays and comments of interest or amusement. Naturally, those two things are mutually exclusive. Neither I found in ample supply during Sunday night's third-season premiere of Mad Men. Didn't like the prologue, which played like a Spaghetti Warehouse production of Eugene O'Neill. Found other plot devices hoary (Pete and Ken's conversation on the elevator) and schematic (the fire alarm interruption). There were good things too -- Don Draper's refusal to judge other people, a fine quality that nearly compensates for all his bad ones. Mad Men is a tricky show to pull off and the slightest whim can upset the balance. Let's hope they smooth things out.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Rhythm of Images: In Praise of Editing

Lately I've had editing on the brain. Perhaps I've always had it. My first real job was as a teenage intern editor for a diocese newspaper, where I learned how egotistical bad writers could be with regard to their words. Not that good writers are wont of ego, but most good writing rarely comes to the page in its original form. There is much tinkering behind the scenes. At a young age I became interested in the rhythm of words, in how the "right" or "wrong" word can make a difference in the construction of a sentence, a paragraph, an entire piece. Even now, I'm wondering if "egotistical" is the best possible word for what I'm describing, if "possessive" or another term wouldn't be better. Re-read my posts and you may see many subtle changes from one moment to the next (such as the addition of this sentence). I'm never satisfied.

It's probably only natural that I've been an admirer of film editing for a long time too. I'm not an expert on the technical aspects of the subject. I'm less confident in talking about editing movies as I am editing prose, but I know what I like. As with writing, I think the best film editing is invisible, the kind of thing that you appreciate only after the fact. All good movies have a rhythm to their images both at the micro-level (the cutting within a scene) and the macro-level (how all the scenes are arranged together). Debra Winger's infamous grievance that her 1986 comedy Legal Eagles looked like it had been edited "with a chainsaw" may have been a little extreme, but it was an honest aesthetic reaction to the intricacies of a technique that more actors would do well to appreciate.

Last week I wrote about how Jonathan Demme's Swing Shift (1984) was damaged by Goldie Hawn-approved re-shoots and re-edits, and that Hawn's tampering may have harmed her own performance more than anything else. Steve Vineberg's original expose on the subject, which I encourage everyone to read in full, is the definitive word on how the structure of scenes matters in a movie. ("Demme's cut is the same length [as the studio cut] but seems to move twice as fast," Vineberg writes. "His editing gives it a flying density.") For an analysis of building structure within an individual scene, I recommend Steven Santos's recent essay on Hitchcock's The Wrong Man. Santos, a professional freelance editor, also had some perceptive thoughts in response to a quote attributed to film critic Steven Boone (scroll down to the comments), where the latter blames the reduction of movie editing to "newsmagazine pastiche" as primarily responsible for the latest Decline Of Cinema. I save the full reading to yourselves, but the short of it is that Santos, half in agreement, nonetheless takes a broader view of the problems regularly coming out of a production that even the best editors can't fix. (To which the always overexcitable Boone has taken a break from ranting about Christopher Nolan's fascistic tendencies* to post a rebuttal.)

(*Nolan's no fascist, but I acknowledge the editing in his Batman movies is dismayingly bad.)

It's here that I want to commend a film editor who should be a legend but isn't. At the age of 84, the Surrey, England-born Anne V. Coates has been editing movies for over 50 years and is still applying her craft: her last credit was The Golden Compass (2007); her next, Crowley, starring Harrison Ford, Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell, is due out next year. Coates has edited an impressive range of films from a variety of genres: the historical drama Becket (1964); the classical mystery Murder on the Orient Express (1974); David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980); the Bill Murray comedy What About Bob? (1991); the Clint Eastwood thriller In the Line of Fire (1993). She's been involved in some bad movies too -- Striptease (1996), Congo (1995), Raw Deal (1986) -- but nobody blames her for their ineptitude. Coates is the kind of editor who makes bad movies more tolerable and good movies even better. She has proven herself open to innovation and has helped to shape many memorable performances. I'm not a fan of Adrian Lyne's Unfaithful (2002), but it's a safe bet that the editing of that film -- particularly the sequence that cross-cuts Diane Lane on a subway train with the stirrings of her affair with another man -- helped Lane earn an Oscar nomination.

 If bad editing is inevitably recognized (as Debra Winger demonstrated), good editing often goes unnoticed. Let's compare two movies that Coates cut, a pair of films that couldn't be more different and demonstrate her versatility and command.

"David Lean always used to say, "Have the courage of your conviction, tell the story your way. I'll respect what you did, although in certain instances I may want things another way." He would hold these shots of the desert, and I'd say, "David, you can't hold them that long." However, he said, "Wait until the music's on, wait until the whole rhythm is together." And he was right." -- An interview with Anne V. Coates (by Walter Murch)

1. Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Prior to David Lean's ravishing epic, Coates had dabbled mainly in B-movies like Forbidden Cargo (1954) and Don't Bother to Knock (1961). A lengthy biopic about an enigmatic war hero, then, was one hell of a change of pace. Her first and only Oscar win (out of five nominations to date), the 216-minute Lawrence (228-minute director's cut) is the kind of time-consumer that makes people wonder, "What exactly did they cut?"

The editing in Lawrence of Arabia has remarkable ebb and flow, a mix of longueurs punctuated by sudden jump cuts. One of my favorite examples comes late, following the massacre of the Turkish soldiers, when Lean and Coates abruptly transition from a closeup of Arthur Kennedy's camera bulb (seemingly an influence on Scorsese) to a rider on horseback bearing news of the conquest of Damascus. The most famous example comes early. A younger Lawrence in Cairo, newly assigned to "assess the situation" in the Arab desert, shows Claude Rains's diplomat his perverse trick with a burning match. "It's going to be fun, Dryden," Lawrence says. "It has been noted," Dryden replies, "that you have a funny sense of fun." With that, Coates cuts from Peter O'Toole blowing out the match --

-- to the sun rising in the desert.

 The conjoining of these two images establishes early on everything the viewer needs to know: the main character's eccentricity, masochism, and inherent unknowability, and how these will be simultaneously formed and broken by a pitiless environment. Throughout the movie, Coates's editing emphasizes the conflict between Lawrence's impatience for glory -- through jump-cuts -- and the patience needed to survive in the desert -- through long passages depicting characters moving vertically or horizontally (such as Omar Sharif's memorable entrance) from one end of the screen to the other. Lean was right about how the rhythm comes together; the whole of the picture is beautifully, organically conceived.

"I like having a little edge with the director -- you know, discussions and arguments. I think that's what editors are partly there for, like a sounding board....I knew that Steven did things in a fairly far-out way. So I said to him, "Stretch me." -- An interview with Anne V. Coates (by Walter Murch)

2. Out of Sight (1998). Steven Soderbergh's hugely entertaining adaptation of one of Elmore Leonard's patented comic thrillers achieves its effects largely through Coates's amazingly nimble editing. (This is also one of her five Best Editing nominations.) Whereas previous efforts to translate Leonard were mostly grinding affairs, Out of Sight moves briskly back and forth through time, always keeping the audience aware of where we are in the story. Part of this accomplishment comes from smart visual cues, like the color of the various prison garbs worn by Foley (George Clooney) and his buddies in different parts of the narrative. (Orange for present day, yellow for the past.) Coates and Soderbergh use other techniques (among my favorites being the dissolve from Jennifer Lopez's injured, bed-ridden Karen Sisco to Don Cheadle's sadistic Snoopy Miller strutting down a prison hallway like he owns the joint) and motifs (like close-ups of the repeated snapping of Foley's cigarette lighter) that transition, by turns gradually and suddenly, from one scene to the next.

Coates's deft cutting also makes Out of Sight more than just an amusing crime caper. At its heart is a love story between a Federal Marshal and a bank robber, between one character chasing the other from Miami to Detroit until both pause for a "time-out" in a hotel restaurant. Foley and Sisco discuss the improbability of their relationship, and Coates and Soderbergh cross-cut their conversation at the restaurant --

-- with a wordless montage of the pair in a hotel room going to bed together.

 Soderbergh has always employed a distinct emotional shorthand that, for its admirable refusal to lapse into sentimentality, frequently comes across as cold. But Coates (aided by Soderbergh's mini-freeze-frames) brings out the heat in this sequence. Not only does her editing smooth out the rough edges of the story (implausibilities that would likely be more jarring in another movie), it heightens what Steve Vineberg called "the mood of romantic expectation." Lopez and Clooney have never been better than they are in Out of Sight, and while the director, screenwriter, source material, and the actors' own abilities deserve plenty of the credit, watch the film again and pay attention to how the rhythm of the images enhances their more appealing qualities. How it makes them something in short supply these days: movie stars.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Desperately Seeking Swing Shift

To: Goldie Hawn
From: Your pal Craig
Re: Swing Shift: The Director's Cut

Dear Goldie,

How's it hanging?

As a devout reader of this blog, you will forgive me if I draw you out of anonymity for what should be a special occasion. You may not remember that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Swing Shift, the WWII-era dramedy directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Goldie Hawn. (That's you!) If so it's understandable: Swing Shift was a big disappointment, both in terms of box-office and artistic merit. Such a promising subject, too: the contribution to the war effort by American women, and the changes in the social fabric that resulted. Yet the finished product -- which I dimly recall seeing initially several years back, and dimly recall seeing again only two weeks ago -- is a schizoid amalgam of Demme's original vision and post-production tampering. (That's you.) Some good things came out of the experience: a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Christine Lahti; the origins of your impressively long-term relationship with Kurt Russell. But your movie is in danger of being forgotten entirely. Perhaps it's time for another reminder that an unreleased version still exists.

In 1990, Sight & Sound published a piece by Steve Vineberg titled "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood," later included in his book on 1980s cinema, No Surprises, Please. I've razzed Vineberg in the not-too-distant past for his Paulette parroting, but I also must give credit where credit is due: his Swing Shift expose is a phenomenally-written, essential comparison between your version of the film and a bootleg VHS copy of Demme's original cut, viewed by Vineberg among others over the years. (If you or anyone else reading this knows where I can get my hands on a decent copy, please let me know.) Vineberg's piece is available online, albeit with a white-script on black-background design that's painful to read. As it remains the most persuasive and fascinating account of "how the building of a character - that is, the overall editing of her scenes - can completely alter the way an actor comes across," I'm going to excerpt some of the essential text (edited in places for momentum) here.

"Demme began shooting Swing Shift in the first half of 1983. Citizens Band (also known as Handle With Care) and Melvin and Howard had established his distinctly flaky, loose-limbed style, but this new project was the biggest of his young career. It starred one of Hollywood's most bankable performers, Goldie Hawn - who also takes a strong hand in the production of her own movies - and featured Kurt Russell and Ed Harris. A big-budget period piece, Swing Shift would begin the day before Pearl Harbor, end just after V-J Day, and focus on the introduction of a women's work force during the war; the action would take place in and around the MacBride airplane plant in Los Angeles.

"The large, promising cast Demme assembled included Christine Lahti, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter....and a few of his friends....If you'd seen Demme's previous work, and you saw how graceful a touch he had with actors, the thought of what he could do with a sensational cast like this one was enought to make you salivate. And Warners, viewing the film as a prestige picture and a potential blockbuster, planned to put it out at Christmas. It finally opened in May (1984), after a half-hearted, glossy publicity campaign that smacked of desperation. Demme renounced it, the press generally panned it and audiences failed to come out for it."

The main character, Kay (that's you), has a fairly straightforward though compelling arc. A sweet if sheltered woman who loves her husband Jack (Harris) but is also highly dependent on him, Kay, during her years at the airplane plant, learns a trade, befriends a free-spirited lounge singer named Hazel (Lahti), falls in love with a male co-worker, Lucky (Russell), and in sum becomes a different person by the time her husband returns home. As Vineberg puts it, "The movie's title doesn't just identify the hours Kay and her friends work at MacBride (four to midnight). It also tells us what happens to her during the war: her values shift, swinging her into a more profound (and more adult) understanding of the world."

Sounds great, doesn't it? But you couldn't leave well enough alone, Goldie. By all accounts, during pre-release screenings, you (and the studio) got nervous at Demme's politics, which reportedly takes a critical view of how women were exploited for manual labor and then abruptly dismissed once the war ended (not exactly Reagan Era material), and took umbrage at his characteristically inclusive ensemble approach. (Your producing partner complained that you came across as a "blonde extra" rather than the star.) Most of all, you panicked at the implications of Kay's infidelity, that your fan-base might reject your portrayal of such a character. So you removed or re-jiggered some of the original scenes and added new ones.

"In Demme's cut, we see Kay's feelings for her husband most clearly the night before he leaves, when she touches his face tenderly as he sleeps. She dedicates herself to keeping Jack's presence alive by writing to him, cherishing mementos of him, talking about him constantly - which, of course, is also her protection against the stirrings Lucky arouses in her. Lucky asks her out shortly after they've met, but she protests gently that she's married; the next time we see him approach her, she staves him off: "You've been asking me out every week for the last three months and I keep having to turn you down." At the jamboree, a stranger (Dick Miller) asks her to dance; when she automatically brings up the subject of Jack, he gets turned off and fades away. Lonely and blue, she listens to Lucky play trumpet on the bandstand and boldly approaches him on the pier afterwards, complimenting his performance.

He drives her home on his motorcycle, takes her inside ("I think I just heard you ask me in," he says, picking up on what she's too scared to say), and what follows is as candid and deeply felt a love scene as you'll find in any movie of the last decade. When Lucky begins to make love to her, she cries, frightened of her confusion about what she feels and what she thinks is right. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find him lying nude beside her, his arm across her chest; automatically, she pulls the blanket across him, as if someone were peeking in. It's a delicately funny gesture. The next night, they go out to a restaurant, and when she spots a neighbour across the room she runs into the street. He follows, but she begs him to leave her alone. "I'm married," she pleads. "Don't you understand? Don't you get it?"

Vineberg contrasts this with Hawn's version:

"We don't see Kay in bed with Jack, so her strong sexual need for him is not as firmly established. When Lucky approaches her at work, she says, "You've been asking me out every week for the last five months' (you can actually see Hawn mouth "three" while her post-dubbed voice says "five") - presumably so we'll applaud her lengthier period of celibacy. Kay's freak-out at the restaurant occurs before she sleeps with Lucky, so it looks like an outburst of terrified chastity rather than post-coital terror.

In the new order of scenes, Kay's approach to Lucky on the pier appears more innocent; maybe she's trying to make up for her outburst outside the restaurant. When he drives her home, he has to come inside, because it's begun to rain and he's getting soaked. The scene that follows is a dopey retread from dozens of screwball comedies: his clothes drying, he putters around in one of her dressing-gowns while he serves her one of his special omelettes. They end up in bed, but next morning they have a silly, unconvincing quarrel; she kicks him out; he comes back. Hawn strives hard to reduce the relationship between Lucky and Kay to something superficial and farcical. We're supposed to think she's making a mistake, but it's all right, because she'll go back to Jack in the end."

There is much, much more, Goldie -- my favorite revelation being how a pointed moment in Demme's version, where the women are manipulated to "work harder" following an announcement of the casualties at Guadalcanal, was tinkered to come across as inspirational in yours. I concur with Vineberg that it's easy to see what you were up to: "On some level, Hawn seems to have understood Swing Shift as a protofeminist look at women on the work force in wartime," he writes. "But feminism to her means Private Benjamin: women proving they can be as good as men and twice as cute. (It doesn't mean, for example, sexual independence.)

"Demme asked her to play a woman who sleeps with two men and likes it, a woman who isn't always glamorous....but is always real. And she did it. But then she got scared and threw the performance away, reverting to something she must have thought would keep her fans happy. In the attempt, Hawn managed to turn her character into nonsense - you keep wondering why Kay can't seem to make up her mind about anything. The irony is that Hawn didn't just slash Demme's canvases, but her own as well. Her performance in the unreleased version of Swing Shift is easily the finest work of her career."

Not yet having seen Demme's cut, I can't vouch for that statement, nor for the opinion that his version "is extraordinary - one of the best movies made by an American in the 80s." But I think that we should be given the opportunity to decide for ourselves. It's a safe bet that you're nearing the end of your career, Goldie. Your IMDb page shows nothing currently in production, and the number of good films to your credit are -- let's face it -- few and far between. You still may not think much of Demme's version, and of course you are entitled to your opinion (though, as your old pal Burt Reynolds once demonstrated with his disparaging remarks about Boogie Nights, actors often aren't the best evaluators of their own work). But I firmly believe it's in your best interest to let it see the light of day. Wouldn't a DVD release of a Director's Cut be a golden opportunity to get your name back out there? If the movie -- and you -- are as good as Vineberg and many others claim, wouldn't it be lovely to be remembered for it?

Don't take my word for it. Ask Kurt. He seems like a level-headed fellow. Listen.



Sunday, August 2, 2009

Love, Not Necessarily ((500) Days of Summer)

(This post includes spoilers.)

Late in the buoyantly funny and tenderhearted (500) Days of Summer, our hero, Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), goes to a party hosted by the woman he loves, Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Having endured a wrenching breakup, now hopeful for a reconciliation, Tom eagerly walks up the steps to Summer's apartment (scored to Regina Spektor's plaintive "Hero"), and as he does the screen splits into two sections: one titled "Expectations," the other "Reality." The director, Marc Webb, lets both scenarios play out simultaneously, and the culmination is more than a clever gambit: it gets at the frustrating disconnect between whom those closest to us really are and who we want them to be. A creator of several music videos, Webb shows breathtaking confidence in the effects he pulls off (this one rivaling the fireworks bash in Adventureland as the scene of the year). Yet he's clearly not interested only in effects for themselves, but puts them at the service of the characters.

(500) Days of Summer has a memorable pair, though we get to know one better than the other. The original script, by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber (who wrote Pink Panther 2, but don't hold that against them), filters the story through Tom's perspective; and I wish the filmmakers had been even more generous in offering Summer's point of view. I get that she's supposed to be unknowable, but it's still something of a cop-out in the Age of Apatow; I may just be tired of movies that don't seem to consider that their female characters might actually have a point-of-view. (Judd Apatow, incidentally, is quite capable of depicting a persuasive feminine sensibility -- see Linda Cardelinni in Freaks and Geeks -- he just now chooses not to.) Having said that, at least (500) Days of Summer shows that its male protagonist's viewpoint is myopic, not entirely trustworthy, yet also evolving, in flux. An omniscient narrator amusingly warns us early on that "sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate" formed Tom's belief in true love -- in finding "The One" -- and from there Webb adroitly maneuvers the audience in and out of Tom's head, so that we comprehend his perspective without being asked to share it.

Gordon-Levitt is perfect for Webb's design, a rare young actor able to convey a complicated and resonant inner life. In the teen-noir Brick, Gordon-Levitt was cynical, dogged, subtly manipulative; here he's boyishly naive, with the kind of open idealism destined for disemboweling. A talented sketch-artist with once aspirations of being an architect, Tom now slums for a Los Angeles-based greeting-card company. His nerdy tie-and-sweater-vest combo is the out-of-place attire of a young man in dire need of loosening up, and Summer, newly arrived from Michigan as the company's administrative assistant, is played by Deschanel as the kind of young woman -- adventurous yet guarded, empathetic yet non-commital -- perfect for what Tom needs at the moment without necessarily being the perfect woman for him.

There are more than a few echoes of Annie Hall in (500) Days of Summer, namely in how the central relationship is depicted out-of-sequence. A digital counter frequently appears onscreen to inform us which "day" we are witnessing, with a background illustration turning bright or dark depending on whether it's before or after the breakup. Following Woody Allen's example, Webb finds the humor in the pain, even at the point where, to quote Alvy Singer, a relationship becomes "a dead shark." An audacious dance number after Tom sleeps with Summer for the first time hilariously jump-cuts to a grim-faced Tom staggering to work shortly after being dumped. (That dance sequence is viewable online, with the option of director's commentary, though if you don't want to be spoiled don't follow the link.)

If, like me, you've personally experienced or witnessed friends in emotional free-fall when their romantic hopes are dashed, (500) Days of Summer will provide plenty of shocks of recognition. (Once, in college, I came home from a long day of classes to find my roommate spread Christ-like atop his bed with REO Speedwagon blaring from the speakers. "Wild guess," I said, "You broke up?") The occasions when the movie's cleverness starts to wear heavy -- giving Tom a preternaturally bright, advise-dispensing kid sister possibly not a good idea -- are salvaged by scenes of genuine feeling, as when Tom's boss calls him into his office following an uncharacteristic downturn in his job performance. (One of his latest greeting cards reads: "Roses are red, Violets are blue....Fuck you, whore.") Tom's boss, whose name is Vance, is played by that expert in vileness Clark Gregg (who was the predatory small-town lawyer in David Mamet's State and Main). You expect a tongue-lashing, possibly even a pink slip when the scene begins. Instead, Vance sympathizes with Tom and offers him the chance to channel his depression into crafting cards for medical problems and funerals instead.

Moments like this make (500) Days of Summer -- if not quite in the class of Annie Hall and The Graduate -- more than just another tepid romantic comedy. So too do the complexities evident in Summer's feelings for Tom, and how the filmmakers find the right balance between refusing to justify her actions (there's a scene where she dances with Tom when arguably she shouldn't) without judging her. Deschanel has an an amazing breakdown scene after Summer watches the climax of The Graduate, its ambiguities, which Tom initially missed, suddenly becoming all too clear. Love isn't fair, the movie says, but even those who don't love us the way we want them to can still be an impetus for change and a source of inspiration. Earlier, when Tom and Summer play house in an Ikea store, it's a wonderful metaphor for how couples unconsciously test the dynamics of their relationship to see whether they're right for each other; even if they're not, the experience can prepare you for the next opportunity. The brilliant climactic punchline of (500) Days of Summer may suggest an affirmation that there is only one true love for everyone; yet the entirety of this gently perceptive comedy leaves you with the wisdom that there's room in our hearts for more.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Shitkickers (Mongol and RocknRolla)

Movies about Genghis Khan have been unsurprisingly scarce ever since John Wayne's disastrous foray in The Conqueror (1956). This was the last production financed by Howard Hughes, filmed in Nevada over a nuclear test site, starring the Duke in a role that may be charitably called a stretch, and co-starring Susan Hayward, who at one point features in a lavishly unerotic dances-with-sword scene that needless to say didn't make the final cut of That's Entertainment! (One can only imagine director Dick Powell's advice between takes: "Dance more Mongol.") The Conqueror vies with The Green Berets as the worst of Wayne's body of work; and one choice come-on he utters to Hayward -- "You're beautiful in your wrath!" -- competes with his five-second drawl as a Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told -- "Sharley this man was the sunna Gawd!" -- as his most regrettable. 

With the bar abysmally low, last year's quasi-epic, Mongol (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film), can't help but seem an improvement. Directed by the Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov, it's watchable enough, with richly textured cinematography making the most of the Asian Steppe locales. And the Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (who has some of the fierce dignity of Ken Watanabe) makes a visually splendid Temudjin. (Genghis Khan's formal name.) Yet in focusing solely on Temudjin's rise to power -- in barely over two hours -- Mongol chronicles the least interesting part of his life, which went on to conquests in China, Russia and the Middle East, even spreading as far west as Poland and Hungary after his death. Thanks to several Medieval History classes in college, including one memorably titled "Death and Violence in the Middle Ages," I know more about these events than anyone needs to; and it's probably a safe bet that Temudjin spent more time planning massacres than all the pining for love-of-his-life Borte (Khulan Chuluun, who is blessedly spared a sword-dance) depicted in the movie. It's clear, with the mix of lovey-dovey romance and thrust-'n'-grind bloodshed, that the filmmakers desperately hope to remind us of Braveheart. Still, let's be fair to the Great Khan: when it comes to brutality, Mel Gibson is a tough act to follow.

It's amazing how Guy Ritchie's movies add up to nothing. You sit there enjoying the groove, laughing at a good zinger, impressed by a well-staged bit of cleverness -- and then poof! The damn thing evaporates and you're left checking your watch. Ritchie's latest Brit-gangster comedy, RocknRolla, would have benefited from a 90-minute running time; at 115 it snaps like an overstretched piece of chewing gum.

This is not the fault of Gerard Butler who, as the dimwitted leader of a thug trio who far too self-flatteringly call themselves "the Wild Bunch," gives an appealingly self-effacing performance. Nor can I blame Tom Wilkinson, one of my least favorite actors, whose distinctly bland hamminess comes off somewhat livelier decked in Carl Reiner glasses and mouthing occasionally memorable lines like, "There's no school like old school, and I'm the fucking headmaster." As that implies, Wilkinson plays an aging, hot-tempered mob boss who figures in a plot that has something to do with a lot of money, a druggie son, and a stolen painting. I honestly can't remember what goes down in RocknRolla and if any of it made any sense while I was watching it, which wouldn't matter if the film were more than the sum of a few amusing parts. I cracked up at an extended chase sequence where the "Wild Bunch" is pursued relentlessly by a pair of indestructible Russian henchmen, and I would have enjoyed Butler's goofy dance with Thandie Newton (playing some kind of mob lawyer, I think) as much as Armond White did had Ritchie kept from cutting away every ten seconds. An end title rather presumptuously promises a sequel, as if this were a Bond film and not the withered fizz atop an opened can of Canada Dry. I'm eagerly in favor of mindless entertainment, but I draw the line at empty.