Sunday, June 12, 2011

Past Imperfect (Midnight in Paris)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

Remember, in Annie Hall, the scene at a Hollywood party, when one of the guests says about a studio exec: "He gives good meeting"? Owen Wilson gives good double-take. His abashed likability as an actor rests partly in his lazy drawl of a delivery, slightly in his busted nose, and largely in reaction shots that range from touching ("Please stop belittling me," his insecure, depressed writer tells Gwyneth Paltrow in The Royal Tenenbaums) to sublime (a genuine sense of joy and wonder at Jackie Chan's fleet footwork in Shanghai Noon). Wilson plays another writer, named Gil Pender, in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a successful Hollywood hack on vacation in Paris with his materialistic fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her well-off, freedom-fries loving parents (Mimi Kennedy and Kurt Fuller). Wilson's double-takes get a workout when Gil, alone on a midnight stroll, is magically transported back to 1920s Gay Paree, where he meets the luminaries of the "The Lost Generation" -- among others, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein -- a fitting happenstance for our hero, being a lost soul himself.

"The best Woody Allen movie in years!" seems to be the response to every other Woody Allen movie these days. But the critics seemed to mean it this time, following a successful premiere at Cannes. (Not always a sure thing for Franco-centric movies -- see Inglourious Basterds.) Midnight in Paris is the first Allen film I've seen in a movie theater since Hannah and Her Sisters, and only one of a handful that I've bothered watching over the last couple decades. I liked the sunnily cynical Vicky Cristina Barcelona and admired the grim Match Point, but Midnight in Paris goes deeper than those films, and in a disarmingly casual manner. You would expect Gil, who hopes to break from screenwriting by penning a serious literary novel (which we learn is about the owner of a "nostalgia shop" that sells old clocks and other pieces of antique ephemera), to be wowed by his fantastical encounters with his heroes, and he is. What makes the premise work, however, is that Gil's bug-eyed wonder gradually gives way to the realization that these icons were once people too.

You come to see Allen's intentions through the fact that nearly every actor underplays: Tom Hiddleston makes a suave Fitz; Corey Stoll, as Hemingway, achieves an effect best described as subtle machismo; Kathy Bates is effectively low-key as Stein, who offers Gil useful advice on his book. (Getting Kathy Bates to downplay anything is quite an accomplishment.) Occasionally a broad caricature -- such as Alison Pill's twangy Zelda Fitzgerald or Adrien Brody's delightfully daffy Salvadore Dali -- pops up to provide a dash of color, but the context of every scene takes Gil's magical visitations at face-value. In one of the film's most buoyant moments, Dali is joined by his friends, the young Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel (Adrien de Ven) and the American artist Man Ray (Tom Cordier), and the trio of Surrealists are intrigued by yet completely unskeptical of Gil's story.

Separated by a few generations, Gil is nevertheless ID'd as a kindred spirit to these artists of yore (who also include Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Josephine Baker, and T.S. Eliot), and he feels an incontrovertible itch to leave his fiance and her overbearing family and settle in Paris. It's unclear whether Gil has it in him to be great, and the movie could have used a few scenes with him at a laptop (or typewriter) applying his craft, but it's refreshing that a passage from his book that we do hear (recited by Stein) sounds truly promising. (Few things are depicted by Hollywood as unconvincingly as talent.) Gil's prose also captures the attention of one of Stein's guests, Adriana (Marion Cotillard) -- mistress first to Picasso, then Hemingway -- with whom Gil falls in love.

Midnight in Paris really starts to hit a groove once Wilson and Cotillard are together onscreen: the former, whose dialogue sounds initially like it's written for Woody's vocal inflections, finds his character's center; the latter, who is in danger of getting typecast as an otherwordly presence, "the Magic Frenchwoman" (being the most beautiful actress currently in movies will do that to you), becomes flesh. Adriana, unlike Gil, sees nothing special about the time she lives in; at one point, she and Gil hitch a carriage ride back to an even earlier historical era, the Belle Epoque, where she is awed by the likes of Degas and Gauguin -- who, tellingly, are as disappointed by their generation as she is hers and Gil his.

Allen takes his central idea so much further than cutesy-poo "What famous person would you like to have dinner with?" gimmickry that the opportunities he misses become more glaring. He wastes a gifted comedienne in Rachel McAdams, and blows a potential comic goldmine by not having Inez go back with Gil and interact with his idols. Better still would have been sending her family back: the always-priceless Kurt Fuller -- no slouch at reaction shots himself -- would have been more than game. Instead, Allen falls back on a few easy Tea Party jabs, without realizing that contextualizing their worldviews within the world might offer something more revealing. (To put it another way, the only thing funnier than Sarah Palin lecturing about Paul Revere is imagining her actually meeting Revere himself.) Faring marginally better, despite the relative thanklessness of his role, is Michael Sheen, unrecognizable as a buff, bearded know-it-all whose vanity Inez finds irresistibly attractive. It might have been fun sending him back in time too, so he could quarrel with historical figures about the facts of their own lives.

Happily, Midnight in Paris follows Allen's main throughline and becomes, quite by accident, very much a movie of the moment. Our cultural nostalgia blender continues to be on puree -- the Spielberg self-homage Super 8 only the latest in what strikes many of us who endured the 1980s as a return to a past not worth revisiting. Yet I have to admit that Allen's movie has given me pause: Were those of us who grew up experiencing Spielberg's (and other filmmakers') early movies more fortunate than we realized then or now? I've also been pondering the message of the equally timely, most recent South Park episode: Does begrudging contemporary moviegoers the pleasures of even a pale imitation of our 80s cinematic experience -- or refusing to recognize that that imitation may even have its own value -- make me, to use medical parlance, "a cynical asshole"?

I think that blog-pal Sheila O'Malley's affectionate yet not uncritical attitude toward nostalgia, best exemplified in her semi-regular "Diary Friday" pieces, is akin to what Woody Allen is getting at in Midnight in Paris. Cynics have accused Allen in recent years of casting younger actors, whether appropriate to their roles or not, as a means of getting his movies made, and they're not wrong. (Ditto his move to European settings, where it's evidently cheaper than shooting in New York.) Watching Owen Wilson, though -- as I did with Rebecca Hall in Vicky Cristina Barcelona -- I realized that there's nothing jaundiced about Allen's attitude toward the young generation of actors: he feels genuine affection for them. Yet it's easy to forget that Wilson, while certainly spry compared to the 75-year-old director of his movie, is now in his early-40s, on the cusp of middle-age and, as we all know, a battler of some personal demons. He looks in better shape than when he appeared in The Darjeeling Limited a few years ago, but the quiet despair of his character feels so authentic that when Gil finally finds relief it carries over to the other side of the screen.

After seeing Midnight in Paris, I reentered the real world in an unusually sanguine state of mind, a sense of calm and patience staying with me for the remainder of the day. In this lucid state, my mind drifted to Wilson's funniest line in The Royal Tenenbaums. "We all know Custer died at Little Big Horn," his Eli Cash, author of American historical fiction, says. He continues, "What my book presupposes is...." and then caps it with a wonderfully goofy flourish: "...maybe he didn't?" Eli is a lost boy and a tortured soul, reshaping history without really understanding it. Gil, more wisely, comes to terms between recognizing the past and living in the present, and learns that the middle-ground between those poles may be found on a long boulevard in a lovely walk through the rain.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Lost Causes (Carlos and Duck, You Sucker)

Carlos (2010) may be the least glamorizing biopic -- and/or portrait of a revolutionary -- I've ever seen. Oftentimes this sort of film employs a subjective point-of-view: the director will depict the destructiveness of the character, yet filter it through a sheen meant to suggest how the character sees himself. Because the subject of a biopic is usually self-destructive as well, this also tends to dilute the harm done to others. Not so with Olivier Assayas's approach. He's crafted what looks like a straightforward gritty docudrama with the tale of Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, the Venezuelan Marxist who became known as Carlos the Jackal, arguably the most notorious world terrorist prior to Osama Bin Laden. Whereas Bin Laden's ideological primitivism was vividly clear, Carlos (inhabited flawlessly by Edgar Ramirez), as depicted in the movie, adopts Palestine, socialism, anti-imperialism, and any other cause du jour on the table at any given moment. He leads a ragtag, surprisingly polyglot network of Arabs, Germans, and Japanese, and the sharpest critique of the movie is how implicitly it shows terrorists using legitimate social injustices as a means to channel their own violent frustrations and self-aggrandizement: Carlos and his team don't always seem to fully comprehend the issues they're fighting for, but they feel very strongly about them.

Like Das Boot, Carlos was released initially overseas as a TV miniseries (in Assayas's France) before a considerably cut-down version appeared in American theaters last year. I haven't seen Carlos Lite (reportedly 160 minutes), but the full three-part, five-plus-hour version (presently streaming on Xfinity) covers the 1973-1994 period of the Jackal's life, from his first, botched assassination attempt of a Zionist official to his ultimate capture by French authorities, and it never feels bloated. Assayas and his editors Luc Banier and Marion Monnier dash through several years at the beginning and end of the narrative, yet ingeniously slow things down in the middle to depict the central event of Carlos's career: his taking of hostages at the 1975 OPEC summit in Vienna. This fateful day, covered in over an hour of screen time, demonstrates both the audacity and foolishness of Carlos's methods. He threatens the Iranian and Saudi ministers with death, signs autographs, saves the life of a wounded German cohort (a sensitive performance by Alexander Scheer), and impulsively shoots an emissary in a physical struggle to show that he means business. The emissary, alas, turns out to be from Libya, transforming Qaddafi's previous sympathies instantly sour as his government refuses to grant permission to the Jackal's team to land their negotiated DC-9 on Libyan soil. The escapade veers into farce as the plane jaunts back and forth between Algiers and Tripoli, all the while wanting to go to Baghdad (where Saddam Hussein's friendly regime awaits) but not having enough fuel to get there. Carlos ends up revising his assassination plans, cutting the Saudi and Iranian ministers loose in exchange for $20 million -- a not inconsiderable sum, but a compromise that alienates him from his idealistic underlings and earns him a pink slip from a cold pragmatist boss (Ahmad Kaabour) fed up with Carlos's cultivated celebrity image.

Carlos is another example of Assayas's versatility, an eclectic resume that includes the meta-movie-about-moviemaking Irma Vep (with his then-wife Maggie Cheung), the skeezy Euro-thriller Boarding Gate (with Asia Argento), and the family-estate drama Summer Hours (with Juliette Binoche). Truth be told, I've always been an Assayas agnostic. His Summer Hours, heralded as a masterpiece by many, struck me as a nice nap; all of his films, in fact, have an overly thought-out quality that belies the director's efforts to appear freewheeling. (Summer Hours ends with a lengthy tracking shot past a "spontaneous" dance by a group of teenagers that could have been choreographed by Paula Abdul.) Some of these schematics come up in Carlos: When a detective tells his partner that he wants to follow up on a lead before a weekend with his family -- and, please, don't bring your gun -- you know he's a goner. (Ditto later with a woman whose pregnant belly is lingered on right before she answers the doorbell.) The refusal to romanticize Carlos, while on the whole admirable, also has a dramatic downside: the movie (scripted by Assayas, Dan Franck and Daniel Leconte) often has a skimming-on-the-surface feel. Carlos is a bit wanting on a psychological level; we never really get inside anyone's head.

The trade-off, however, is a compellingly broad depiction of how heads-of-state use a wildcard like Carlos, then dispose of him once he wears out his welcome. It's a tribute to Ramirez (a familiar face who has had supporting roles in Che and The Bourne Ultimatum) that he holds our attention without our sympathies for the complete running time. Carlos may be a bonehead but he's also a dangerous one; we comprehend the magnetic pull he has over his subordinates, particularly his wife and mistresses. His narcissism must have rubbed off a bit on me: Here I thought I had clever parallels all mapped out between this movie and Che and Munich, only to see Fernando Croce going typically deeper in calling the film an extension of Jean-Luc Godard's themes in his late-1960s La Chinoise and Sympathy for the Devil. Carlos captures the tragically misplaced ideology that those movies anticipated then, and the fatigue that we feel looking back now.

Known more for his artistically groundbreaking films than any semblance of political radicalism, Sergio Leone directed, around the same time as Carlos the Jackal's emergence, a movie that confounded critics and audiences in the immediate post-Bonnie and Clyde/Easy Rider era with both its retrograde classical style and mixed messages about "the revolutionary spirit." First, though, let's start with the title: When it comes to creating false impressions and turning off moviegoers, Suck, You Ducker Duck, You Sucker (1971) is about as bad as it gets. Leone had also suggested an alternative title, the only marginally better A Fistful of Dynamite, but preferred Once Upon a Time...the Revolution, which captures the true essence of the movie as the crucial go-between of a second trilogy that began with his masterpiece, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and culminated over a decade later with his final film, the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Whereas Leone's "Man with No Name" triptych (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) added a progressively darker, spiritual dimension to the American Western genre -- loved by audiences; hated, initially, by critics -- his "Once Upon a Time" trilogy forges the link between the decline of the frontier and the dawn of urbanity.

Once Upon a Time in the Revolution (yes, let's replace the ellipses with an "in") was a game-changer for Leone in more ways than one. The narratives of his previous films gradually evolved from focusing on a solo character (Eastwood) to a duo (Eastwood and Van Cleef) to a trio (Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach) to a foursome (Bronson, Fonda, Robards and Cardinale). Revolution wipes the slate clean. We're back to two protagonists this time: Mexican mercenary Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), and IRA terrorist John Mallory (James Coburn). Juan and John team up after the former's successful heist of a stagecoach in rural Mexico, and the latter happens by on a motorcycle. (One of Leone's many signals that modernity is fast approaching.) After Juan shoots out John's tire, the latter responds by casually unveiling a jacket filled with explosives (another cue). Following some patented Leone macho posturing -- Coburn shouts "Duck, you sucker" right before every dynamite blast; the director insisted that this non-catchphrase was common American slang -- Juan concocts a scheme to use John to rob a bank in the town of Mesa Verde. John agrees to the plan, only to reveal, once they get there, that he's enlisted an unwitting Juan as part of the Mexican Revolution.

I wasn't going to mention that Once Upon a Time in the Revolution reminds me of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom -- because, yes, it's a stupid analogy, but let me explain what I mean. Revolution is shot in a mannered classical style similar to that of West (a letdown to audiences after the break-the-rules "Dollars" films), yet it's also the most playfully free-associative of Leone's movies. Like Spielberg's maligned middle-film of the Indiana Jones series (we'll pretend Crystal Skull didn't happen), parts of Revolution seem to pop out of the director's unconscious. At times it even seems disinterested in its own story, preferring to indulge visual flourishes -- such as a priceless sight-gag of Steiger cutting a slit through an image of a political leader to reveal his own eyes -- that remind you that you're watching a movie. (Leone was actually going to hand the directorial reins of the film to someone else before a furious Steiger made him stick around.)

Once Upon a Time in the Revolution is so mischievous it's not difficult to see why some thought it wasn't taking its own ideas seriously. (More troubling, in actuality, is an early scene treating Leone's recurring preoccupation with rape in a bizarrely cavalier manner. Whereas Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West created the first and last three-dimensional female character in Leone's body of work, we're back in Cro-Magnon territory here.) Yet a streak of melancholy runs through the film, a grim awareness of the tragic sacrifices individuals make for their causes. The British film scholar Christopher Frayling, who provides terrific DVD commentaries for all but one of Leone's spaghetti westerns (replaced, for some reason, by Eastwood hagiographer Richard Schickel on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), explains on the Revolution track that the end of this movie anticipates the even darker atmosphere of Once Upon a Time in America -- a pair of films separated by thirteen years that thematically don't skip a beat. Once Upon a Time in the Revolution isn't flawless -- gauzy flashbacks to John's menage a trois relationship back in Ireland are guaranteed to provoke snickers -- yet it manages to enhance the overall trilogy while not being all of a piece itself. It's a grand epic, a forgotten yet essential film.