Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tears for Fears (War Horse and Melancholia)

Most of the cinephiles I know really love Steven Spielberg, which surprises me, because the more movies I see (often from their own recommendations), the flimsier his work becomes. Yet even the lot of them are straining to praise War Horse, one of Spielberg's flimsiest films to date, along the bottom middle rung of his oeuvre. A case could be made that it's his John Ford movie: a yarn about a young Irish Englishman (Jeremy Irvine) who trains a horse to plow his father's farm, then follows the steed, named Joey, into the hell of the First World War. Adapted from a children's book by Michael Morpurgo (and previously an acclaimed stage play), War Horse has an episodic narrative that's fairly unconventional and daring and might have developed into something interesting, had the filmmakers realized who their protagonist really is.

Our putative hero - for the front and back halves of the movie, at least - is Albert Narracott. Unformed and untested, yet brave and resilient in the googly-eyed Ethan Hawke manner from Dead Poets Society, Albert gets a crash course in the school of hard knocks after his essentially decent yet stubborn alcoholic father (Peter Mullan) purchases Joey at a village auction, outbidding his villainous landlord (David Thewlis, wasting his talent) with an absurd sum. We know the landlord is a monster because he dresses in fancy clothes, wants to be paid his monthly rent, and scoffs when Albert trains Joey to plow a fallow field. So incredible is this last development that all the villagers, with apparently way too much time on their hands, gather round to gape at the sorry spectacle - until it starts raining and Albert and Joey finally succeed at their task (because nothing says victory like soggy trousers). This is Spielberg at his vintage-worst, piling on the obstacles rather than trusting the inherent drama to suffice. (Lest we think rain is the farmer's friend, a subsequent storm comes soon after to flood their crops.)

Just as things seem to be veering into the miserablist territory of Frank McCourt - with Emily Watson (as Albert's patient, suffering mom) ready to lead the way - good news arrives: It's war! Sadly, Albert is still too young to serve, but Joey isn't, and Papa Narracott gets out of debt by selling him to the Irish cavalry. The horse, I mean, not his son. The narrative picks up a bit as Joey comes under the ownership of kindly Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), who played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris, and his Zelda this time out is friend and commanding officer Maj. Stewart (the sonorously voiced Benedict Cumberbatch, from the terrific BBC series Sherlock and on his way to becoming a big star). In the movie's best sequence, Nicholls and Stewart lead a Light-Brigadish charge against a German garrison, and Joey and his equine companion, the beautiful black Topthorn, are captured by the enemy.

I won't recount my year-old post on my issues with Spielberg, except to revise a statement that couldn't have been more wrongheaded. "Spielberg is a unique enough stylist to avoid obvious homages," I wrote. "You don't think of anybody else's movies while watching his." Having invested a fair amount of time this year to furthering my knowledge of the history of cinema I know this to be untrue, and as War Horse began to split into a series of vignettes I thought of not only the works of John Ford but also contemporary westerns like The Outlaw Josey Wales. The difference is those films have a clear and consistent point-of-view, whereas Spielberg and his screenwriters (Lee Hall and Richard Curtis), after leaving Albert for nearly the entire middle of the movie, won't commit themselves to their obvious choice of protagonist. What makes Carroll Ballard such a great director of "animal movies" (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma) is he never anthropomorphizes them; he takes them on their own thrillingly mysterious terms. Spielberg makes a few feints toward depicting events from Joey's point-of-view (mostly overly expressive closeups of the horse's eyes that look suspiciously like half-assed CGI) but drops the idea every time it's raised, his insecurities as usual getting the better of him.

What's left then? A series of aimless episodes featuring a gallery of barely sketched-in German, French, and English characters. (Ford usually made his supporting players colorful.) Spielberg makes a heartening effort to humanize the Jerries this time - his disinterest in taking sides admirable - but having all the characters speak English gets confusing (not to mention ultimately Anglocentric for all the generous dispersal of empathy), and leads to botching what should be the film's highlight. Joey gets trapped in the barbed-wire mesh of No-Man's-Land, an English soldier leaves his trench to retrieve him, and a German soldier follows from his side of the battlefield to assist. Not trusting the power of the image, Spielberg has the two engage in enough Richard Curtis-y banter to anticipate Hugh Grant popping up through the gaseous mist. ("I-I-I say, th-that's qu-quite a horse you've g-g-got there. Tally-ho. Pip-pip!") By this time Albert has reappeared, serving his country with honor, yet blinded right before a climactic reunion that's a variation on the emotional climax of A Little Princess.

"Climactic" of course is a relative term, because the Fates must conspire yet again to keep Albert and Joey apart for as long as possible. There's another interminable auction, a forgotten character emerges to outbid Albert for the horse, then, after spending a windfall, comes the thrilling denouement: "Never mind." After thanking Mr. Deus ex Machina, and receiving not only his beloved four-legged friend but also his father's sash from the Boer War (which makes its rounds through the narrative like Vin Diesel's unlucky letter in Saving Private Ryan), Albert returns to the Narracott farm with Natalie Wood Joey in tow, a gorgeous sunset in the distance. I didn't care much for War Horse, but I did like the tentative handshake Albert's father offers to welcome him home. It's the kind of simple gesture filled with emotional heft that Spielberg has largely abandoned. Encouraging as it is to see him return to classical filmmaking, following an overlong stretch of brutalist showmanship, he's still stuck creatively between these poles, a remarkable director tangled in mesh.

Lars von Trier's Melancholia suggests that the end of the world is preferable to the values our world holds dear: following that premise to its audacious conclusion, he's become an optimist. I make that claim somewhat facetiously and completely hesitantly, this being the first von Trier film I've watched from start to finish. I've seen parts of Dancer in the Dark and Dogville and found them fascinating, yet to be perfectly honest, they're the work of a filmmaker who scares me a little. Making me afraid is a talent I respect; I still haven't screwed up the courage to see Antichrist, yet Melancholia is a relatively accessible depiction of the apocalypse. Unlike Spielberg during the latter half of his career, von Trier isn't working against his gifts. He's elevating his art into a stark clarity reminiscent of how Kael characterized late-period Luis Bunuel: growing almost fond of his characters' foibles.

Robert Altman also springs to mind, as Melancholia begins with the most scabrous nuptials since A Wedding. It's funnier than Altman's vision too, albeit mordantly so, making random observations of bad behavior on the fly rather than rubbing our noses in it. Kicking off with the perfect image of a stretch limo struggling to navigate the sharp turns of a long road leading to a country estate, von Trier casually introduces a patently eclectic ensemble through the eyes of bride Justine (Kirsten Dunst): her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), her sister/hostess Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), brother-in-law and estate-owner John (Kiefer Sutherland), young nephew Leo (Cameron Spurr), her unscrupulous boss (Stellan Skarsgard), and her estranged father and mother (John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling). I think I surrendered to von Trier's vision the moment I saw Rampling appear at the swanky dinner reception wearing a casual t-shirt, offering a toast where she declares herself vehemently opposed to marriage. The first cracks in Justine's smiling facade begin to emerge - Dunst's sunny screen persona has never been put to more effective use - and gradually she goes out of her way to lose her job and husband over the course of the evening.

This, it turns out, is only the prelude, as the second act switches to Claire's point of view with the dire news of a planet - the titular Melancholia - approaching Earth. A fine actress, Gainsbourg nonetheless seems miscast, and not just because she and Dunst aren't physically convincing as sisters. Claire, we learn during the wedding sequence from her and Justine's mother, "seems bewitched" by her opulent lifestyle, and Gainsbourg doesn't do bewitchment. She's a clear-eyed pessimist - von Trier's stand-in - and her mounting sense of doom about the world's end comes too naturally to her. Dunst, however, is sensationally good as Justine comes to accept her fate more readily than she did her marriage. Melancholia is described as a "friendly" looking planet, and funnily enough it is, its luminousness a reflection of Dunst's own.

I've neglected to mention other pleasures, some significant (the acclaimed overture of not-quite-still surreal tableaux foreshadowing events to come), others incidental (John Hurt teasing a waiter by stealing spoons at the reception), yet all coming together in as impeccably structured a narrative as I've seen all year. Like Michael Tolkin's The Rapture, another modestly-scaled (if conceptually very different) vision of the end times, Von Trier keeps his scope small while managing to pull off startling effects: a rain of hail on Claire and her son, for example, as she attempts a getaway. To where? is the critical question, for it becomes clear that there is nowhere to hide...except there sort of is. Accessibility and friendliness notwithstanding, Melancholia becomes a unnervingly haunting and unsettling experience. As Justine and Claire struggle to hold it together, so too does the movie. Like a number of great films, Melancholia comes very close to being a bad one: watching von Trier navigate that line is part of the thrill.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

High and Low (The Descendants, Bridesmaids, and Horrible Bosses)

(Warning: Spoilers.)

This weekend
I saw three 2011 comedies - one a new theatrical release, two recent to DVD - all of which address, with varying degrees of seriousness and success, the effects of our lingering economic recession and/or the consequences of privilege. The summer blockbuster Bridesmaids pivots around a battle royale between Kristen Wiig's financially struggling maid-of-honor and Rose Byrne's obscenely wealthy usurper of the bride-to-be's affections, whereas the surprise hit Horrible Bosses follows a trio of desperate friends (Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Andy Sudeikis) in an increasingly convoluted scheme to kill their misery-inflicting employers (Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell). Meanwhile, off the mainland, Alexander Payne's The Descendants spends a few hectic days in the life of a Honolulu attorney (George Clooney) following a tragic accident that leaves his wife in a coma as he's about to lead a contingent of cousins into a lucrative land deal. Clooney's Hawaiian-shirt clad, flipflop-wearing Matt King is untouched by economic woes - in an early voiceover, Matt informs us, as we watch him in business meetings, that "the wealthiest, most powerful people in Hawaii dress like beach bums." Yet as he learns of his soon-to-be-late wife's adultery while trying to help his two young daughters hold it together, we learn that even Matt is far from unscathed.

Our premier satirist of contemporary American life, Payne - as any satirist worth his salt should - continues to receive (amid high praise) brickbats from some quarters accusing him of hating or condescending to his characters. A pair of questions arise immediately in response to this: A) Is this true?; and B) So what if it is? All of his films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and the "14e arrondissement" segment of Paris Je T'aime) walk a fine line between snarkiness and sentiment, and The Descendants is no exception. One seemingly minor scene in the film, a monologue by Matt's eldest daughter's spaced-out, semi-callous hipster friend Sid (Nick Krause), may crudely underline Payne's worldview: "Sometimes I watch old people or retarded people crossing the street, and they're so slow, and I get so impatient. And then I feel bad." I'm not suggesting Payne seconds that emotion, rather that he's ballsy enough to articulate its existence.

Complexity of feeling lies at the heart of The Descendants, even as Matt indulges in occasional slapstick shtick in tracking down his wife's lover. Clooney is very amusing while running in flipflops or peering behind bushes, yet he's never a cartoon. A slight crudity of execution was found even in Payne's best previous efforts, but his camera-sense and editing have improved by leaps and bounds in the seven years since his last movie (either that, or he's getting better cameramen and editors). This time there's a richness in Payne's visual palette to match the depth of his content, and the narrative rhythms (with impeccably timed dissolves and fade-outs) are lyrically in tune with the swaying Hawaiian music on the soundtrack. The Descendants doesn't ask us to feel sorry for rich people, but accomplishes something trickier. It's a glowing melancholy comedy about the roots between even the most estranged of family members, between ourselves and our ancestors, and between people and the land they inhabit.

Judd Apatow's apparent answer to those of us asking why the creator of Freaks and Geeks has repeatedly refused to create a female film character with the dimensions of that show's protagonist Lindsay Weir, Bridesmaids (produced by Apatow and directed by F&G co-creator Paul Feig) doesn't exactly take women on their own terms: it suggests that they can be as dirty-minded as men. That's progress of a sort, if not exactly news, I suppose. The movie is foremost a vehicle for Kristen Wiig, who plays Annie Walker, the aforementioned maid-of-honor and best friend to Lillian (Maya Rudolph). Lillian's engagement comes as Annie is still reeling from opening a high-quality yet unsuccessful bakery; unable to pay the rent, much less meet the responsibilities her role in the wedding party require, Annie finds her friendship threatened by Rose Byrne's affluent Helen Harris. Some of the funniest bits involve Helen's attempts to one-up Annie: a mailed invitation to a bridal shower is opened to reveal a fluttering butterfly; the shower itself is held at Helen's estate, with a long driveway interrupted by a butler offering tall glasses of pink lemonade.

Bridesmaids being an Apatow joint, the script (co-written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo) is extended upon to allow for plenty of ad-libbing. This showcases the gifts of comediennes like Wiig and Melissa McCarthy (who garnered the best reviews as Megan, the straight-shooting, libido-led member of the wedding party) but more often than not leads to a lot of dead air: the movie's already infamous pants-shitting, food-poisoning centerpiece was undoubtedly funnier with a packed audience than at home. Raunchy sentiment is by now an Apatovian specialty, and to Wiig's credit she finds a hint of pathos to go with her gift for occupying demented interior spaces. It's heartening to see her working with a full comic ensemble, even connecting semi-romantically with an impossibly likable police officer (Chris O'Dowd), and living in something like the real world. Bridesmaids is a mixed bag, but I have to give points to an underdog comedy that's shrewd enough to set itself in that biggest underdog of all cities (and home of my alma mater) Milwaukee. The interiors are phony (actually shot in California) but the exteriors are largely real - not unlike the emotional life of the movie itself.

Whereas Bridesmaids embodies the occasionally inspired, often deadweight improvisatory feel of contemporary comedy, Horrible Bosses attempts to be a classically intricate machine, and it's more clever and amusing than you might expect. Bateman, Day, and Sudeikis achieve a likeable, believably spontaneous rapport, yet the director (Seth Gordon) and the screenwriters (Michael Markowitz and John Francis Daley & Jonathan Goldstein) keep driving the narrative forward, with unexpected pleasures along the way. For every few jokes that go thud are a couple that are inspired: I laughed hardest at a running gag/deus ex machina featuring an automated GPS voice named Gregory (but really Atmanand) and the sublime explanation for the imprisonment of hit-man/murder-adviser Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx). Unlike most modern comedies, the second half of Horrible Bosses is stronger than the first: the movie doesn't have laughs exactly (other than the aforementioned examples), but rather builds a comic momentum mainly due to the expanding psychotic dimensions of Spacey's corporate sociopath. As a randy dentist going to jaw-dropping lengths to create an uncomfortable work environment, Aniston takes a page from the Sarah Michelle Gellar playbook, which is to say she wants to be seen as "daring" without really doing anything that truly bold actresses do to earn the title. On the other hand, Farrell is delightful (and all too brief) as a ne'er-do-well cokehead son who inherits a family business. Horrible Bosses weaves its disparate plot strands just enough to draw attention to the fact that it could have been a vulgar classic instead of a lively near-miss.