Saturday, April 2, 2011

Choo-Choo Choose Me (Certified Copy and Unstoppable)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Certified Copy, Abbas Kiarostami's delicately ambiguous fantasy about what Jonathan Rosenbaum might call "the psychological accommodations of marriage," has prompted some predictably unequivocal interpretations about the nature of the film's central relationship. Do Elle (Juliette Binoche) and James (William Shimell) know each other or not? Are they married? To each other? Or are they engaging in some elaborate role-playing, transforming from strangers to a 15-year married couple over the span of one day? I've read compelling arguments in favor of all of these interpretations and others. Yet the more certain the argument comes across, the less I trust it. Perhaps appropriately, this is how I've come to regard most real-life couples when they talk about themselves.

Certified Copy is something along the lines of Before Sunrise/Sunset: The Whole Bloody Affair, a flowering romance and an attempted rekindling occurring simultaneously onscreen, flowing seamlessly from one to the other. James, like Ethan Hawke's character in Before Sunset, is a semi-celebrated writer touring a book across continental Europe, only here it's Tuscany instead of Paris, only here he's Anglo instead of American. Elle, the owner of an antiques shop, bears a middle-aged resemblance to Julie Delpy's cerebral, insecure young Frenchwoman. The two meet during a slyly staged opening sequence at a book-signing, which starts late -- thanks to the tardy author -- and is subsequently interrupted by an impatient child and a ringing cellphone. The book that James is promoting (titled Certified Copy) posits that replicas of original works of art have their own value. Later (the next day, in the movie's timeframe, which occupies the rest of the film), Elle chauffeurs James to a nearby Italian village to either court him, interview him, or challenge him, possibly all at once. He agrees to go with the caveat that he must return for a train with a 9:00 p.m. departure time.

The 70-year-old Kiarostami has entered an Altman-esque phase of his career that makes the burned-out mutterings of an early retiree like Steven Soderbergh seem foolish. While the latter has become (as quoted by Matt Damon) bored with story and interested only in form, the legendary Iranian filmmaker nimbly brings story and form together. There is plenty of deadpan visual wit in Certified Copy, not least of which the implication that the chasm between men and women is as wide as the commingling of ancient Roman art with 21st-century social media. Like Richard Linklater, Kiarostami plays with our concepts of time; yet he goes even further by undermining our notions of reality. Midway through the movie, a coffee-house barista mistakes Elle and James for being married. Elle encourages the assumption, then James appears to play along. By film's end, after encountering several couples at every conceivable stage of a union (newlyweds, middle-aged, elderly), their shared fantasy has become an apparent reality. The Englishman's remedial French and Italian language skills turn suddenly fluent. The Frenchwoman shares with him a son. Together they arrive at the hotel where they celebrated their honeymoon fifteen years ago. Yet James still has to catch that train.

Nothing brings out the drearily literal-minded faster than a dash of mystery, especially when that mystery delves into a topic everybody thinks he or she knows with absolute certainty. Close-Up (1990), one of Kiarostami's most famous films, chronicled the elaborate fraud of an unemployed Iranian man pretending to be a celebrated director: the actual participants reenacted their own roles in the drama, yet Kiarostami depicted them with such respect and empathy (not least of which the troubled con-artist himself) that the movie registers far above the facile is-it-real-or-isn't-it trickery that passes for documentary filmmaking today. Similarly, in Certified Copy, I don't get the impression that the director is out to play games with us; I think he's suggesting just how thoroughly romantic couples play games with themselves. (Steven Santos has similar thoughts about this.) Taken in this light, Kiarostami's film becomes a critique of Rosenbaum's subjective view of shared reality, albeit a critique filled with compassion for individuals like Elle and James, when external forces inevitability intrude on their internal designs. "Time is a lie," Ethan Hawke says near the start of Before Sunset. Certified Copy takes that wondrous, troubling evocation even further: Time is a lie agreed upon.

Sometimes a hack reaches a point in his career -- mainly due to the fact that he still has one -- where critical contempt melts away, replaced by a sudden rise in esteem. Occasionally this about-face is warranted: Samuel Fuller is one example; John Carpenter another. And then there's Tony Scott, whose runaway train opus Unstoppable has been hailed as "an action symphony," not to mention "a hymn to stylish, unpretentious competence," one made with "old-school professionalism." I'm not sure which notion is funnier -- that the director of Days of Thunder and The Fan is mounting symphonies and hymnals, or that the man every bit as responsible as Michael Bay for bringing eyesore lighting and incoherent staging to contemporary action cinema is now kicking it old school.

There are a couple of reasons for this laughable turn of events. First, Tony the Younger's long-standing and wholly earned rep as the less-talented of two filmmaking brothers has gradually dissipated with Ridley the Elder's disappearance into Hollywood's wilderness. (Last stop: Sherwood Forest.) Second, there's something quaintly appealing and faux-topical about making a movie about a locomotive wreaking havoc through the crucial swing-state corridor of rural PA, to the point where critics are tea-leaving bold statements about the decline of the American middle class. (I eagerly await the scholarly revisionism on Scott's body of work -- The Duality of Domino, et al.) All of this rather seems to be blinding folks to the fact that Scott shoots Unstoppable with the same cheapjack gimmickry with which he's made every other movie: zero flair for narrative momentum; utter indifference to establishing rhythm through editing; random jump-cuts, speed-ups and slow-downs; enough harsh exposure to make you wonder if the reels were turned on a shish-kabob.

Unstoppable is Tony Scott's fourth collaboration with Denzel Washington, and it may be the worst of a competitive bunch. In other movies, Spike Lee has sussed out Washington's star-power charisma (Malcolm X, Mo' Better Blues, He Got Game, Inside Man), Carl Franklin his debonair sex appeal (Devil in a Blue Dress, Out of Time), Jonathan Demme his coiled anxiety (The Manchurian Candidate), Norman Jewison and Edward Zwick his wounded dignity (The Hurricane, Glory), Antoine Fuqua his explosive rage (Training Day). Tony Scott takes one of the most beautiful people in show business, frames him in the same unflattering light every time, puts him through the same predictable motions -- and inexplicably Denzel keeps coming back for more. (Scorsese and De Niro they ain't.) In Unstoppable, Denzel is paired with the younger, whiter Chris Pine, who played Kirk in J.J. Abrams' even uglier Star Trek, so while his acting range is questionable, perhaps Hollywood is giving Pine bonus points for managing to appear even remotely handsome against heavy odds. Unstoppable is the young thespian's Training Day; he's even given a half-assed backstory with a renowned father and an estranged wife. Yet his total lack of charm or technique or interest may make one pine long for the bland eccentricity of Ethan Hawke.

Between Pine's ineptitude and Washington's laziness, there's not much by way of human qualities for the viewer to latch onto. Out of desperation, one may look to the toxic-chemical-carrying train (who goes by the ominous moniker "Triple-Seven") for anthropomorphic villainy. Somehow Scott screws this up too, unable to rouse himself for even the most elemental killer instinct that exploitation filmmakers once had down pat. (There's only one major fatality in the film, and while for Washington it's supposed to be Personal, the tragedy fizzles instantly.) As Unstoppable wends on, Scott cuts increasingly away from the action on the track to television newscasts that helpfully bring the audience up to speed (They're trying to stop the train), in case Rosario Dawson's exposition as the least-plausible railroad controller in America wasn't enough. And in case we needed prompting, all the supporting characters (Pine's wife, Washington's Hooters-employed daughters), stop what they're doing and glue their eyes to the nearest TV screens as though gawking at a Charlie Sheen special, pumping their fists and whooping it up while our heroes try to prevent a trainwreck of only slightly more significance. Christopher Nolan got rightly ridiculed for the unwieldy exposition in Inception; why does Tony Scott get a pass? No, wait: Scott is now an elder statesman, a classicist, an auteur; surely he's got something more profound up his sleeve. Could Unstoppable be entirely Chris Pine's dream? Or has Pine entered Denzel Washington's dream? Maybe they've both entered Rosario Dawson's dream, or -- even better -- she's entered theirs: Chugga chugga woot woot!


Unknown said...

Thanks for linking to my piece.

"Time is a lie agreed upon" is a great way to put what we're watching in "Certified Copy". I think once you let go of trying to logically explain the narrative, then you see how the movie is a timeline which details shift from scene to scene. Most mention the cafe scene because it's the most obvious turn. But it seems like they're playing out the stages of different relationships in the course of a day. Copies of copies. Fascinating film to contemplate.

Haven't seen 'Unstoppable', but, like your 'Salt' review, it made me laugh at how you respond to the critics who seem to inexplicably prop these movies up as a way to take down other directors who will eventually become the elder statesmen hacks of tomorrow when the newer hacks have to be taken down a notch.

We all know what Denzel Washington is capable of as an actor, but the man has become so Harrison Ford-level lazy in recent years that the guy from SNL who does an impression of him is doing a great job at pointing out his mannerisms as schtick.

Craig said...

Certified Copy is the kind of film I normally don't respond to as strongly as I did, a few scenes being a hair shy of precious or pretentious. For example, I'm not sure if the big diner argument is unintentionally exposing Shimell's inexperience as an actor or if Kiarostami is intentionally exposing the artifice of such arguments. But the movie worked for me as metaphor, like a David Lynch film that doesn't telegraph its own weirdness. As I always suspected, surrealism is more unsettling when it flows naturally, and when the director and performers play it with so much conviction. The movie can work on a literal level too, if one wants to take it that way: There's nothing about Elle and James that's any odder than what the Quaids are sadly playing out in real life.

As for Unstoppable, Charley Taylor once noted that the problem with Hollywood isn't a lack of great artists but a lack of talented hacks - the directors who used to make the decent movies to help us pass the time between the remarkable ones. There isn't an auteur around who could have made a better Bond film than Martin Campbell's Casino Royale: hackwork of the highest caliber, formally known as craftsmanship. That's an exception though, the rule being Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace, Phillip Noyce's Salt, and now Tony Scott's Unstoppable. These guys get praised for being veterans who ostensibly know what they're doing, and for employing relatively old-fashioned premises. But I'd bet there is nearly as much CGI in Unstoppable as there is in a typical sci-fi picture, and it's more distancing and distracting in a movie that takes place on terra firma. It's the timidity of the movie, however, that's truly dismaying, like Jaws with a shark taking tiny nibbles instead of entire bites.

I hereby nominate Tony Scott as keynote speaker for a Hollywood seminar: "The Hacks of Tomorrow -- Today."

Matt S. said...

"I'm not sure which notion is funnier -- that the director of Days of Thunder and The Fan is mounting symphonies and hymnals, or that the man every bit as responsible as Michael Bay for bringing eyesore lighting and incoherent staging to contemporary action cinema is now kicking it old school."

Ha! I think this single sentence has articulated everything I've found infuriating about Tony Scott for the last decade. He used to be someone you could easily dismiss; now there are folks composing elaborate encomiums about how he's eclipsed his brother, with a film like Domino being Exhibit A of his unpretentious mastery. I wouldn't hate Tony Scott if it weren't for the fact that it is now necessary to dismiss him more vehemently, thanks to his platoon of come-lately defenders. Great review.

Craig said...

I wouldn't hate Tony Scott if it weren't for the fact that it is now necessary to dismiss him more vehemently, thanks to his platoon of come-lately defenders. This makes my day, Matt. Thanks. Like you, I don't hate Scott that much. I barely think of him at all, until one of his movies comes out. "Unstoppable" looked like a tough thing to screw up, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Needless to say, when it comes to combining narrative momentum with a sense of visual space, Big Tony is not the young Spielberg. He's not even the young Jan de Bont.

Jason Bellamy said...

Nothing brings out the drearily literal-minded faster than a dash of mystery, especially when that mystery delves into a topic everybody thinks he or she knows with absolute certainty.

Well said.

The line about shared reality leads me to contemplate that a bit: this film would seem to suggest that there is such a thing ... or maybe that there isn't. It's telling that the film ends with them seeming as familiar with one another as ever, and yet they remain individuals. They share parts of their lives, but never all of it.

Craig said...

The ending quietly blew my mind: First, with the way Binoche stutters her final line (a reference to her sister's regard for her stammering husband...or is Binoche becoming her sister?); then, the following scene that you cited in your review, with Shimell's haunting gaze into the mirror/camera as the bells ring out behind him. I had to leave the theater quickly because I didn't want the bad vibes of the others in the audience to affect my reaction; I wanted to be alone and think about the movie for a while.