Saturday, December 29, 2012

Best Favorite Films of 2012: A Big Year For Small Gems

I can't on good conscience do "Best" lists, seeing probably less than 10% of the new releases over the year. I'm very selective of what I go to see and not infrequently disappointed by what I do, so I wonder if having to view the truly bad films would make me go easier on the merely mediocre. Whatever the case, this year I found the heavily hyped "big" movies often underwhelming (two of my favorite filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, whiffed big-time), yet several small gems impressed and delighted. Consider then the following a sample survey of the Year In Film.

Favorite Film: Friends and family scared me away from seeing The Grey (they hated it), until I halfheartedly caught up with it near the end of the year on DVD. For a while into the picture it seemed they were right. Even though I admired the craft of the movie (the plane crash is a model of economy), I thought the early wolf attacks, while terrifying and upsetting, were staged for nothing more than cheap thrills. Then somewhere along the way, the film stopped looking like a survivalist docudrama and turned into something more mysterious and substantial. Richard Bellamy on Twitter perceptively cited Jack London ("To Build a Fire" comes vividly to mind), and I also recalled what one critic said  about Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (reportedly a far gentler movie): It's a poetic allegory about a dying man coming to terms with his own mortality. I disliked Joe Carnahan's ballyhooed 2002 debut Narc and avoided all of his A-Team, Smokin' Aces Hollywood product since, but now he has my attention: His work in The Grey, anchored by Liam Neeson's stirring performance, has the diamond-hard integrity of Peckinpah at his peak.  

Other Faves: Moonrise Kingdom turned out to be a fragile classic, more beautiful and delicate than any of Wes Anderson's previous films while miraculously avoiding their pitfalls. Leos Carax's Holy Motors was the year's best movie about movies, a self-reflexive subject that's growing tiresome, but which Carax navigated with thrilling unpredictability. David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis was a sleek, masterful satire about an unfeeling robot (Robert Pattinson's billionaire limo-rider) who yearns to be a real boy. 2012's most impressive debut goes to Kleber Mendonca Filho's Neighboring Sounds, an Altmanesque survey of economic stratification in urban Brazil; while the nimble action-thriller Haywire was Steven Soderbergh's most entertaining, unfussiest work in over a decade. Forget the perfunctory plot: the real story was about a pointy-headed nerd-director falling in love with Gina Carano's physical prowess and staging her action scenes with verve and alacrity.

Also: Mia Hansen-Love's Goodbye First Love was a touching, observant film about the pain and joy of young romance, and Terrence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea the same - yet even better - about a middle-aged affair (with Rachel Weisz winning the year's Kirsten Dunst-in-Melancholia Award for most unexpected great performance). Last and possibly least, Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts was the wisest and most generous of the year's obligatory naval-gazing American indies. It's also the kind of movie a lot of other people don't like, and has the kind of setting (college campus) and theme (the precipice of middle-age) that together may make a blind spot for me. So be it.

Favorites of 2011 I saw in 2012: I was very glad to see Asghar Farhadi's superb A Separation at Ebertfest, a docudrama-thriller whose gradual revelation of its central event keeps expanding your understanding of what happened (and of Iranian culture in general) and shifting your loyalties even as it expertly tightens the screws. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was, for me, an immeasurably superior adaptation to the slow-as-molasses BBC miniseries, whittling down its visual syntax to a fine blade. Finally, The Big Year, David Frankel's uncommonly gentle comedy, makes some keen observations about the loneliness of obsessives and the bonding and competitiveness that derive from shared obsessions (rather topical, I thought). Among numerous lovely touches, Steve Martin's acceptance of facing "the abyss" is his most moving moment ever on screen.

Favorite Revivals: For the second full year, the Indiana University Cinema was the place to be (if you don't live in New York, Chicago, or L.A.) for revivals of classic films. Things peaked early, with a January screening of Once Upon a Time in the West, a 35mm presentation introduced by the supervisor of the restoration, retired film preservationist Barry Allen. Other delights were seeing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (2K DCP) with my dad, followed by Casablanca (2K) and The Third Man (35mm) with both my mom and dad. 2012 also ended on a high note, with a ravishing 2K digital restoration of The Leopard. As the laments over digital grow increasingly tiresome (as do the "See, I told you so!" reports of technical foul-ups at screenings, from folks forgetting all the occasions where film reels have broken or unspooled), the quality of both film and digital at the IU Cinema reinforces that it's the skill and experience of the projectionist that matters most. 

I'm Probably Overrating: The Avengers. Admittedly, it's a bit messy, with too many superheroes to keep track of, some more interesting (e.g., Mark Ruffalo's Hulk) than others. But it's still a rare comic-book movie that possesses a genuine's artist's worldview, and Joss Whedon's light touch with so much character and incident was a balm following more heavy-handed affairs (see below).

Everyone Else is Overrating (But I Still Liked It): I might have enjoyed Richard Linklater's Bernie more had I not read so much about the plot in advance. Nevertheless, Jack Black's finely-tuned performance as a kind-hearted self-aggrandizer and murderer (on the heels of his fine work as a completely different character in The Big Year) is a showcase for his unappreciated depth and range.

It's Not That Bad: John Carter. Can a motion picture cost $250 million and still qualify as a "B"-movie? I'm somewhat skeptical, yet Andrew Stanton's old-school sci-fi epic feels lively rather than bloated, silly instead of self-important. That's a compliment.

And there were disappointments:

Biggest Load of Hot-Air: The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson's loud, posturing postwar/Scientology/male-bonding character study huffs and puffs on a whole bevy of topics without saying anything remotely insightful about any of them. It's never a good sign when scenes from the trailer not in the final cut looked more intriguing than what remains onscreen. 

Biggest Load of Hot-Air (Comic-Book Version): The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan stumblebummed his way through another grim portrait of the Caped Crusader, only this time with greatly diminished returns, trotting out a half-assed allegory of the financial crisis and Occupy Movement (see Cosmopolis for a superior take) so we never forget, as always, that he means Serious Business. It's been a long time since I've seen a movie repeatedly blow one potentially stirring moment after another.

Most Inexplicable Comparison to Alan J. Pakula: Argo. Ben Affleck's lame Iranian hostage-crisis thriller reduces a fascinating real-life incident to a stockpile of Hollywood cliches. Brilliant!

Betrayed By Its Own Ending: Friends with Kids. For the majority of its running-time, Jennifer Westfeldt's anti-romantic comedy challenges cultural assumptions of marital superiority, only to validate them with a deeply phony cop-out climax.

Good Will vs. Wretched Excess: Peter Jackson's The Hobbit returns to Middle-Earth without the heart and emotion of the original trilogy. Turning a feather of a story into a sledgehammer, it plays like a padded DVD Extended Edition released theatrically. Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained starts strong before getting uncharacteristically bogged down in its own unconvincing plot developments (some convoluted nonsense about an offscreen character named Eskimo Joe), rather than following through on the freedom-vs.-power, working-outside-the-system vs. manipulating-from-within friction between Jamie Foxx's bounty hunter Django and Samuel L. Jackson's plantation servant Stephen. It's the kind of glib, shoddy work Tarantino's critics have always accused him of delivering, but hadn't until now.

A Good Movie with One Unfortunate Distraction: the Dardenne brothers' The Kid with a Bike is a lovely, touching, well-acted film. And the entire drama hinges on a recurring plot device so irritating that more than once I blurted out: "Geez, kid, get a lock!"

Other Bummers or Near-Misses: Gary "Mr. Literal" Ross's visually incoherent The Hunger Games is the year's most breathtaking demonstration of directorial ineptitude. Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress has some witty early moments yet repeats itself and bottoms out by the end. Walter Salles's On the Road is a well-made adaptation of material that no longer speaks to me. Oliver Stone's silly Savages makes a lot of noise without going anywhere. The low-budget indie sci-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed has a few nice offbeat touches and won over some admirers, but for me Mark Duplass's dealbreaker performance is the definition of anti-charisma.

Have Yet to See: Zero Dark Thirty and Tabu. Both coming soon to Bloomington. And Soderbergh's Magic Mike, which I missed in theaters, is up next in my Netflix queue.

Can't Bring Myself to See: Les Miserables, which many have despised and a few defenders went in ready to love in advance and have told everyone else to shut up and so there. Maybe Tom Hooper will prove me wrong when I finally catch up to it, but I doubt it. I'm more interested in Lincoln, due to the participation of Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner, but something keeps holding me back. I may finally give in before the year is up, but right now the thought of Spielberg and speeches is too much to bear. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

More on The Big Year, with notes on the Extended Edition

I've become a little obsessed with The Big Year, the birding comedy I reviewed just three weeks ago and have seen a couple more times since. The movie isn't a towering masterwork, but it has the ability to shake the bad thoughts out of your head, a quality some of us could use these days, and which you're not going to get out of something like Au Hasard Balthazar. I'm not a birder - or even, really, much of an obsessive - but whatever granular inaccuracies the movie may have, it seems to get the essence of birding right. Although the film pokes some gentle fun at its subject, it's surprisingly respectful, even reverential on the whole. A cast that features Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson may promise the kind of big yuks (or, given their recent collective track record, unfunny ones) that The Big Year has no intention of delivering, yet David Frankel, who directed, offers something more: a sustained, sublime bliss.

The Blu-Ray (recently purchased, as a Christmas present for myself) of The Big Year contains both the Theatrical Release and an Extended Edition, and the two offer a vivid comparison of the choices filmmakers make in post-production. The theatrical version runs 100 minutes, the extended 103 - either one still about 40 minutes shorter than the average Judd Apatow joint. The additional three minutes don't provide any more laughs; they're mainly superfluous character development scenes that the movie is better for having cut (e.g., a phone call from Black's ex-wife). Frankel, who did fine directorial work on HBO for a number of years (most famously on Sex and the City, but also two of the best episodes of Band of Brothers: "The Breaking Point" and "Why We Fight"), as well as the brisk, entertaining feature film The Devil Wears Prada, is a modern-day comedy director who obviously understands the value of editing. Fashion and birding aren't exactly topics that lend themselves to the term "fast-paced," yet both The Devil Wears Prada and The Big Year move swiftly, not as wild knockabout farce, but through character beats that cumulatively build narrative momentum. (Frankel's editor on both films is Mark Livolsi, who does a stellar job; yet watching Livolsi's work on Cameron Crowe's plodding We Bought a Zoo or Vanilla Sky suggests that Frankel is the prime mover for how nimbly his own films move.)

With a plot involving a trio of protagonists, a timeframe that covers 365 days, and a milieu expanding across the country, The Big Year offers some enormous editorial challenges; yet the most significant difference between the extended and theatrical version isn't anything we see but what we hear. The theatrical, which I saw first, features extensive narration from Jack Black, who plays the blue-collar birder Brad Harris, and an early in-and-out voice-cameo from John Cleese, whom Brad cheekily introduces as "this English guy" who briefly and loftily explains what a "big year" means in the world of birding. The theatrical release's narration foregrounds Brad as the main character, yet it also offers some occasionally incongruous phrasing and moments where Brad tells us about his principal competitors, retiring billionaire Stu Preissler (Martin), and big-year record-holder Kenny Bostick (Wilson), even though he couldn't have known what they were up to when he wasn't present.

The Extended Edition explains these oddities: Brad wasn't the original narrator. It was John Cleese, whom I am calling "John Cleese" because he never appears as a character onscreen. He plays, in fact, an omniscient narrator, whose voiceover in the extended version provides a kind of ironic counterpoint to what we see onscreen. Cleese's supercilious tone appears designed to resemble a ornithologist giving a presentation at an academic conference, the idea seeming to be that we should regard birders as possessing the attributes of a particular "species." I encourage you to see the extended version, but only after viewing the theatrical release, because the former - however clever the original narration may have sounded on the pages of Howard Franklin's script - is instructively disastrous on the screen.

While the J.C.V.O. levels the playing field between Brad, Stu, and Kenny - viewing each of them equally, objectively - the ironic detachment severs the movie's emotional connection, which Brad, as the most sympathetic character, provides. Consequently, even though Martin and Wilson come across as slightly more secondary in the theatrical release, they make stronger impressions there than in the extended edition. (This is Steve Martin's most committed performance in two decades, and possibly - particularly in his scenes with Black - his warmest ever; and the prickly qualities of Owen Wilson's Bostick, when viewed through Brad's eyes, come across as the temperament of an uncompromising artist devoted to his craft.) Cleese's inflections, while amusing for the "history of the big year" segment, intrude on the genuine passion and affection that The Big Year has for its subject. So while some of Cleese's scientific jargon sounds a little strange coming out of Black's mouth - much of it is rephrased or eliminated, but bits and pieces sometimes slip through - Black gets the emotions right, and that's what counts.

I don't know if the changes were the decision of the filmmakers or the studio, but they enhance the impact of the movie considerably. Even if nobody saw it. It's easy to denounce a studio's lack of imagination in the release of a movie that's a tad unconventional - a movie about birds that features no scenes where characters are crapped on from on-high is undeniably a tough sell - and I certainly did, but I'll give Fox 2000 Pictures and its financial partners a token of credit for being at least adventurous enough to green-light the picture in the first place. The Big Year didn't give them a hit; but it is a movie that deserves to be seen. It has my favorite line of dialogue from any movie all year. ("Fallout.") And it contains my favorite montage since the one where Anne Hathaway goes to work in an array of outfits in Frankel's Devil Wears Prada. In The Big Year, it comes during the middle portion of the movie on Attu Island (actually the Yukon), a remote hinterland that offers some of the best birding in the world. As the birders collectively set out, the names of the species they find are captioned on the tundra; and Frankel's scoring of this sequence to Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" becomes the most elating use of a major pop hit since U2's "With or Without You" in Tell No One. Like much of The Big Year, the words of the song aren't important to the scene; it's the feeling that's transcendent.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Flocked Together (The Big Year)

You may faintly recall the previews for The Big Year (2011), the Steve Martin/Jack Black/Owen Wilson birding flick that came out about a year ago - "dumped" is more like it - on American theater screens. With more than a whiff of desperation, the trailers emphasized the comic stylings of the stars and featured a couple of scenes (fake-looking birds mock-attacking a shrieking woman, Martin and Black doing a jig) that made the movie look like a strenuously wacky farce. (It may have included James Brown's "I Feel Good," I can't remember.) Like everyone else I gave The Big Year a wide berth, finally catching it recently as a what-the-hell Netflix pick, and I'm here to report it's a real find. It's a lyrically paced, beautifully shot, meditative comedy about three lonely men who become friends or, at least, respected rivals over a shared obsession. No wonder Hollywood didn't know what to do with it.

What Hollywood did do right (before the movie's release) was give $40 million to a talented director to shoot a thoughtful script about an unconventional subject with a familiar-faced cast on one gorgeous location after another. (Canada doubles convincingly - sometimes for U.S. locales, sometimes for itself - for many of the trans-American regions.) Directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs) and written by Bill Murray's Quick Change co-writer and -director Howard Franklin (adapting the 2004 book by Mark Obmascik), The Big Year chronicles an annual competition among devoted birders to see and identify the most species of birds. The rules are...none. The winner gets...nothing. It's all done on an honor system (photographs are often taken, but unnecessary), with prestige accorded among only the inner circle.

While duos are a staple of most screenplays, from buddy movies to romantic comedies, I often find more interesting rare films that feature a lead trio. (I know romcoms often feature "romantic triangles" - and, who can forget, Harry Potter - but the deck is usually stacked against one of the characters.) Something about triangulation lends itself unexpectedly well to narratives ranging from L.A. Confidential to The Big Year: we get to see the characters as individuals and in pairs; the scenes stay fresh and varied and inform one another. In The Big Year, Brad Harris (Black) is the underdog birder, a low-level nuclear power-plant employee who pulls together his meager savings for a shot at the world record. Stu Preissler (Martin) is a wealthy entrepreneur whose efforts to retire (and have a "big year") are thwarted by turmoil within the company he founded. Kenny Bostick (Wilson) is the defending record-holder who thrives on competition, to the chagrin of his wife back home. As Brad, Stu, and Bostick (referred to with derisive irritation by his last name, a la "Newman" on Seinfeld) trek from one end of the country to the other - a middle passage on frigid Attu Island is a highlight - we meet their fellow birders (including Rashida Jones, Jim Parsons, Anjelica Huston, Tim Blake Nelson, and TV weatherman Al Roker) amid pauses with their families (Dianne Wiest and Brian Dennehy as Brad's parents, JoBeth Williams and Rosamund Pike as, respectively, Stu's and Bostick's wives). 

The Big Year
does a nice job grounding the principals in their disparate worlds. (Dennehy, in particular, puts an expert spin on the so-very-tired disapproving father routine that eluded good actors like Chris Cooper in October Sky and Robert Patrick in Walk the Line.) It's tough to make integrity and decency appealing onscreen - or at least that's what Hollywood tells us, as an excuse to never try it - yet The Big Year is most compelling when it envelopes us in the (mostly) world of birding and the silence and patience it demands and accords. Brad and Stu's friendship is touchingly developed, and brings out Steve Martin's best work in eons. (Martin has always been more of a soloist than a team player, yet he connects with Black, even when the latter a few times oversells the wide-eyed self-pity.) As Bostick, Wilson reminds us of his ability to play unlikeable and yet remain engaging in spite of it. The movie teases us with suggestions that Bostick is a cheater, yet when it's revealed that he plays by the rules, the character becomes more interesting and earns a grudging respect.

Even tougher to pull off, The Big Year makes the world that the trio share look - for all its obstacles - alluring. The problem with obsessives is they frequently mistake telling you all about themselves for actually sharing why they love what they love, and in convincing you why you should too. (To put it another way, their emotions about a particular subject seem to matter more to them than the subject itself.) The Big Year isn't a great film, but it's precisely the kind of good one that recalls enough of the pleasures of what used to be known as conventional narrative filmmaking to seem almost quaint. (It also continues the curious, time-honored tradition of experts enjoying a movie about their specialty that critics and mainstream audiences ignore -- see also medieval historians on The Thirteenth Warrior.) Frankel and Franklin keep the narcissistic yammering to a minimum. Wisely, instead, they invite us into their movie, teach us the terrain and the lingo ("fallout" is given an amusing connotation), show how different people can forge a common bond (what else besides birding could bring James Wolcott and Jonathan Franzen together?), and give us reason to stay.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Off-Road, All-Terrain (Holy Motors)

Here we go again: Leos Carax's Holy Motors (2012), like The Artist, Hugo, and Argo over the past year, is a "love letter to movies." It's about the power of cinema, you see, a dominion the medium's most dogmatic (read: insecure) supporters grow ever more insistent is indomitable and all-encompassing, a claim nearly as tedious and tunnel-visioned as the rash of preliminary obits they're quick to lash out against. They seem to not consider that some of their most revered auteurs made films that skeptically deconstructed movies (Welles, Altman, De Palma), or the possibility that Carax has crafted an epitaph as well.

The plot of Holy Motors is already famously indescribable - the closest approximation being it's about a day in the life of a mysterious individual, Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who assumes the identity of various characters (father, beggar, hit-man, dwarf, etc.), as he's driven around Paris in a white stretch-limo. Yet if the story is hard to classify the film's mood-trajectory feels familiar, largely comic for the first half before veering into melancholy and tragedy in the second. Oscar has nine "appointments" throughout the day (I assume he accomplishes all of them, I lost count), and those that draw the biggest laughs and provide the most energy occur in the opening hour: a dwarf kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes) during a fashion shoot; a motion-capture sex scene, with Oscar donning an Andy Serkis-like suit; an enthralling "Entr'acte featuring Oscar leading a group of accordion players around in an Aaron Sorkin-like circle. The tone shifts, however, during a quiet passage where Oscar portrays a father disappointed that he captures his daughter in a lie; then progressively darkens, without really deepening, through a string of scenes where Oscar is "killed," as well as a wistful musical interlude featuring Kylie Minogue.

While I think Carax's film is too insular and calculatedly bizarre to earn emotional resonance (although Lavant's scenes with Edith Scob, as his devoted chauffeur, come close), it's fair to interpret - via the later passages, the physical weariness of his lead actor, the expressions of longing for a past where the cameras weren't small - that he sees cinema less as a vital, indestructible force than in the throes of a death-grip. Or, perhaps, like Paul Schrader, he sees cinema as not dying but changing - like Oscar, morphing into a different form. (Holy Motors was shot entirely on digital; and, sorry again, film purists, but the 2K DCP version I saw looked gorgeous.) The climax - or, rather, one of them - where Oscar plays papa to a house of chimps, could be seen to symbolize the medium in an evolutionary state.

What saves Holy Motors for me isn't any semblance of depth but that its best parts embody mischief. The film has an ornery spirit and a sense of a nutty fun, most notably in that dwarf sequence, when Lavant runs through a cemetery where the tombstones feature website URLs, and the director/photographer of the fashion shoot seems to be there for a pointed jab at David Lynch's worldview. "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty! Beauty!" he shouts excitedly while photographing Mendes; then, when he spots Lavant's demented leprechaun: "Weird! Weird! Weird! Weird!" As with all of Lynch's films, critics are showing off their collective imagination by calling Carax's "dreamlike" (described as such in at least 14 of 26 reviews linked by Metacritic). But Holy Motors is nothing like a dream. It feels utterly, completely a movie, in all its glories and limitations.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

You Oughta Be in Pictures (Argo)

The most haunting moment I've ever seen Ben Affleck deliver as an actor comes at the end of Chasing Amy: his back to the camera, having parted ways with Joey Lauren Adams, there's something about his hunched-over, defeated body language in that moment that's surprisingly moving. It has since occurred to me that most of Affleck's best moments in front of the camera have been with women, and his near-deferential air with actresses (and not just J-Lo, who has always demanded deference) has become his best quality behind it.

With Amy Ryan and Michelle Monaghan in Gone Baby Gone, then Rebecca Hall and Blake Lively in The Town, Affleck is the rare male director attuned to the nuances of his female performers without a hint of sadism or masochism. Argo doesn't have quite the same level of memorable female characters - it's more of a guy's picture, with Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin heading the cast - yet it still offers the best role for Clea Duvall in eons. She plays one of six Americans who in 1979 managed to flee the takeover of the embassy in Tehran and eventually escaped the country. I haven't seen Duvall in a movie since her memorable bit part as the prison witness who offers a key lead near the end of Zodiac, yet as always, she plays her character with total conviction. There's also an impressively tremulous performance from the strawberry-blonde Kerry Bishe as another of the escapees, and a good scene with the poker-faced Sheila Vand as an Iranian servant who may or may not reveal to the authorities that her employer, the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber), is harboring the six. Even with extras, like the terrified woman who is captured at the embassy, Affleck never lingers on the moment with anything resembling the Male Gaze. He attempts to treat everybody with respect.

I wish I could say the rest of the movie was as refreshing. Looking back at my review of The Town, I see that I praised the film in spite of its being "a compendium of cliches,"so why am I panning Argo for offering more of the same? Maybe it's because a true-to-life story brings out my bullshit detector, makes me less inclined to grade on a curve. Although I am not overly literal with historical facts, and I understand that movies need drama, conflict and tension to hold our interest, there is still a difference between a film that develops these elements plausibly and organically and a film that blatantly tacks them on. The preposterous third-act of Argo begins with CIA operative Tony Mendez (Senor Affleck) having a Dark Night of the Soul, because the weenie bureaucrats back home in the States have pulled the plug on his crackpot plan to whisk the American Six out of Iran under the guise of being a Canadian film crew. Following a long, drunken evening where Mendez tours the city to the stirring tune "Freedom Isn't Free," and an awkward rendition of "Pearl Harbor Sucked, and I Miss You," Gentle Ben in the morning calls his boss (Bryan Cranston) and tells him that by golly they're going for it anyway. On the way to the airport, he explains to the Six that the Tehran Airport will be just like a Ron Howard movie, a hackneyed situation at every turn: no reservations for their flight the first time they're checked, then suddenly they're in the system the second; the obstacles placed in front of Hollywood movie-people John Chambers (Goodman) and Lester Siegel (Arkin) on the way to a ringing telephone; the wimpiest hostage who comes through with a convincing description of the movie to the Revolutionary Guard at the final checkpoint; the stalled clutch on the airport shuttle on the way to the plane; and a climactic chase on the runway so madcap it lacks only the army of monkeys from Crystal Skull.

That movie buffs are familiar with these cliches only adds to their admiration, however, the more reality-based, practical-minded of them comparing Argo to 1970s thrillers like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor. While Affleck is clearly fond of those films, he, unlike Pollack and Pakula, is gun-shy about truly hurting his characters or troubling the audience. Argo is comparably fair-minded about the Middle East to other contemporary movies, blaming the U.S. for its handling of the Shah, yet nests this perspective in a chase narrative so textbook an exec like Griffin Mill would approve. ("Political doesn't scare me. Radical political scares me. Political political scares me.") Argo co-opts Alan Rudolph's pitch at the beginning of The Player down to a 'T': Affleck has made a movie that is "politely politically radical, but it's funny...and it has a heart in the right spot. It's a funny political thing. And it's a thriller too, all at once." Argo also departs from 70s cinema by emphasizing American ineffectualism and self-interest over conspiracy. I do believe that that view is closer to how it all went down; but it's also why I part ways with the comparison.

Ever since Adaptation, the more extreme cinephiles have eagerly plunged down the rabbit-hole with "meta" readings of movies like Argo that are, even peripherally, about movies. For them, Argo resorts to cliches because Affleck deliberately aims to turn an important historical event into a B-thriller - a more charitable way of saying that he made the movie "bad on purpose." (The question that's always left dangling: Wouldn't that intent be a tad reductive?) Spike Jonze, of course, did make the third act of Adaptation intentionally terrible; pumping up the melodrama was Charlie Kaufman's way out of his own dilemma (the real Kaufman's and Cage's version) of adapting an "unfilmmable" book. We're talking about Iran here, not orchids, of course; so what's Affleck's excuse? Probably the fact that the real escape somehow made it through the airport without incident. I get that an easy flight home wouldn't be too compelling onscreen. But Affleck strikes me as far too earnest a klutz to be fully conscious of his own effects, much less that he's presenting them as any kind of wily ironic commentary.

Although I enjoyed Hugo and Inglourious Basterds, I would like to humbly suggest a lengthy moratorium on movies that are "Love Letters to Movies," or ringing endorsements of "The Power of Cinema." Both qualities have been somewhat mystifyingly attributed to Argo because, I guess, it weaves a bad Star Wars ripoff into its plot - nostalgic satire being rather toothless, yet still wish-fulfillment for fans of Affleck's buddy Kevin Smith who appreciate that Affleck, unlike Smith, can operate a camera. Yet because it has come to our attention - ad nauseum on Twitter and elsewhere - that the term "overrated" offends the delicate sensibilities of the Word Police, I will instead offer Argo the backhanded compliment that in its own boneheaded way I think it's kind of brilliant. Mainstream audiences don't give a damn about love letters to movies; they understandably want the hearts and flowers delivered solely to themselves. Argo provides this and more to casual moviegoers. It conjures a memory in a way that is relevant to the present, yet with a greeting-card-like sentiment that goes down easy for liberals and conservatives alike. It's a movie that knows how to push our buttons. I'm not a fan of the practice, but I have to half-respect a filmmaker who is aware that they're there, waiting to be pushed.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Town and Country (Neighboring Sounds and Liberal Arts)

Kleber Mendonca Filho, the director of Neighboring Sounds (2012), is intensely quiet in person, with a manner that suggests he isn't sizing you up so much as taking you in, like a refracting telescope. I met him a few weeks ago on a research visit where I work, which I mention not to name-drop (because we all know of no critics who do that), but to convey how the pleasures of his debut film capture the essence of the filmmaker behind it. Neighboring Sounds covers a few days in a neighborhood of Recife, Brazil, and it's the kind of ensemble picture that shines light on a particular character or group of characters before focusing on the next. A respectable businessman named Joao (Gustavo Jahn) negotiates with his thief cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda) for a CD-player pinched from the car of his new girlfriend, Sofia (Irma Brown), only to get another stolen player back instead. Both are related to a powerful patriarch (W. J. Solha) whose casual sovereignty over the neighborhood must be entreated by Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos), head of a security team that begins patrolling the area for shady customers. Mendonca Filho is interested in all of these people as well as the hangers-on around them, like the group of tenants at a meeting voting whether or not to can a security guard sleeping on duty. He has a good ear for idle talk and a keen eye for authenticity, as when a housewife down the block (Maeve Jinkings) lies down on the couch, exhausted from a howling dog keeping her up all night, as her children give her a vigorous massage.

There aren't as many characters in Neighboring Sounds as there are in films like Nashville or Short Cuts, yet the movie sustains a sophisticated visual and aural technique (plenty of panning zooms, or zooming pans) that envelopes you the way Altman's films often did. It doesn't resonate as much as those movies - or films like Inarritu's Amores Perros and Haneke's Cache, both of which Mendonca Filho also appears to reference - but Neighboring Sounds still offers a fascinating glimpse of a foreign culture filled with a few sparks of recognition.

Liberal Arts (2012), the deeply likeable new comedy from writer-director-star Josh Radnor, showed me a slice of life I know all too well. (I caught it - as you may - on On Demand.) Jesse Fisher (Radnor) is a 35-year-old admissions officer at a university in New York who returns to his alma mater in rural Ohio to commemorate the retirement of his mentor (played by Richard Jenkins). The Ohio institution is never named but take my word for it that it is Kenyon College, located in Gambier, about an hour into cow country northeast of Columbus. I taught there for a couple of summers and recognized every square inch (all twenty-seven of them) of that tiny, beguiling campus; (I also have reason to suspect that the Jenkins character is based on a recently retired former colleague, but I need to confirm that.) Radnor knows it even better. He went to school there, and both his his camera and his script are lovingly attenuated to the details of campus life: the way you can feel lonely at a party yet comfortable by yourself at a bookstore or neighborhood bar.

Jesse strikes up a friendship - and, later, when he returns to New York, an epistolary correspondence - with Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), a 19-year-old theater major whose name suggests the kind of Manic Pixie Dream Girl that the character, as written and played, thankfully belies. She's a real person, not a fantasy; and Radnor navigates all the traps deftly, aware of the obstacles in such a relationship but also not automatically nullifying the possibility of its working. Liberal Arts could have been a Doc Hollywood kind of comedy, where the protagonist finds happiness in a utopia far away from the big city. But if New York bewilders Jesse at times, he sees beauty and potential there too.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Best of Both Worlds (Paris, Texas)

Paris, Texas: It took me an embarrassingly long time to catch the double-meaning of the title. An actual town in an actual state, certainly - somewhere that means something to the vagabond main character throughout all his wanderings. But the comma can also be read as Paris AND Texas, specifically the international/psychological space that the movie inhabits. Palme d'Or winner of the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, the film is a resplendent journey through the American southwest. Written by a buckaroo yet directed by a Teuton, Paris, Texas depicts this country, at a simultaneously particular yet universal time and place, with an insider's voice and an outsider's view. 

In his (mixed) review of Taxi Driver, Jonathan Rosenbaum called that landmark work the product of "four auteurs": director Martin Scorsese; screenwriter Paul Schrader; actor Robert De Niro; and composer Bernard Herrmann. If they don't register quite the same sex appeal, a distinctive quartet of talent and personality comes together nevertheless similarly in Paris, Texas. Director Wim Wenders earned his "German New Wave" credentials via films like Kings of the Road (1976) and The American Friend (1977), the latter a crossover thriller starring Dennis Hopper and adapted from Tom Ripley novelist Patricia Highsmith. (Wenders peaked in the 1980s with Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire [1987], then appeared to lose his creative mojo before semi-reinventing himself as a Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker with 1999's Buena Vista Social Club and last year's Pina.) Writer Sam Shepard was, at the time, best known for screen performances such as the ostensibly ill yet incongruously virile farmer in Days of Heaven and especially cowboy-pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff; on the New York stage, he earned acclaim as the playwright of Buried Child (1978), True West (1980), and Fool for Love (1983).

Actor Harry Dean Stanton, possessing "one of those faces" audiences recognized without knowing, had established an active career in movies and TV shows that were as varied (B-movies and Oscar-winners) as the characters were not: like Dennis Hopper, he specialized in nefarious types, before Shepard and Wenders offered him the role of Travis in Paris, Texas, "a name that still had sinister resonance" eight years after Taxi Driver's Bickle (as reminded by Nick Roddick in his wonderful Criterion essay), but a character that this time proved a showcase for Stanton's range. (That same year, of course, Stanton played what remains his most indelible scumbag, car-repossessor Bud in Alex Cox's Repo Man). Composer Ry Cooder was a virtuoso slide guitarist already with one memorable score to his name (Walter Hill's The Long Riders) before contributing to Paris, Texas an equally evocative sound. (As a screen presence, in Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder comes across as an irksome narcissist; as a contributor of music, he is sublime.) Add a notable trio from behind the scenes - assistant director Claire Denis, production assistant Alison Anders, and "adapter"/script-refiner L.M. Kit Carson - and it's even easier to see why Paris, Texas is a remarkable achievement, each scene like lightning in a bottle that keeps on striking.


The movie begins with a potentially groan-inducing element - a man (Stanton's Travis) who can't or won't talk, and can't or won't remember who he is or what has happened to him - and keeps walking the tightrope of pretension without stumbling all the way to the end. The sad fact that much of Wenders' body of work since the 80s conveys a degree of ostentatious irrelevance suggests that in Paris, Texas he was in full command of his craft or else his craft found the perfect balance with the naturalism of his collaborators. Filtered through what is, in my opinion, some of the most amazing cinematography ever to reach the screen (by Robby Muller, favorite DP of filmmakers as diverse as Jim Jarmusch and Lars Von Trier, as well as the man behind the camera for Repo Man), the movie's opening aerial shot of the Mojave Desert, followed by tight close-up of a face as ragged and haunted as the mountains looming behind it, paints the kind of portrait of America a European connoisseur of Americana like Milos Forman could paint if Forman had anything approaching Wenders' ecstatic eye. (With amusing accuracy, Charles Taylor once described the Larry Flynt director's movies as looking like dirty dishwater.)

Paris, Texas also leavens its narrative with subtle humor: after Travis faints with a mouth full of ice in a nearly barren cantina, a mercenary physician (German actor-director Bernhard Wicki, looking appropriately out-of-place) restores him to health before pawning him off to Travis's younger brother Walt (Dean Stockwell, exuding touching reserves of decency and patience). As Walt drives Travis from south Texas to L.A., the movie, for a while, looks like it's going to be a road-picture along the lines of late-80s films like Rain Man and Midnight Run, even sharing with those films what is, in retrospect, a stereotypical scene where a character freaks out on an airplane. (The version of this scene here, at least, transpires offscreen, as Travis and Walt are allowed off the plane with a tongue-lashing from the stewardess but no reprisals, a reminder of air travel's quainter days.) Travis also insists that he and Walt drive back in the exact same rental-car, a rather unnecessary character trait that never comes up again (and which Rain Man would also seem to crib a few years later in the conception of Raymond Babbitt), except as a plot device to forge the relationship between the brothers. For this, it succeeds beautifully. By the time they hit L.A., the movie has established its unhurried rhythms, and Travis's memory returns.

In an interview on the Criterion disc, Claire Denis reports that Paris, Texas was shot chronologically, with an unfinished screenplay. I'm unclear if the script's incompleteness occurred before the second act, at Walt's home in Los Angeles, where Travis bonds with his French sister-in-law Anne (Aurore Clement) and the eight-year-old child he abandoned that Walt and Anne have come to raise as their own (Hunter Carson, son of L.M Kit); or the final act, in Houston, where Travis reunites his son with his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski, rounding out the remarkable Euro-American cast). Regardless, Denis implies that production delays - the result of everything from depleted funds to uncooperative Teamsters - gave Wenders & Co. time to think the story through. In so doing, they avoided the melodramatic trappings of their own worst impulses (e.g., aborting a planned violent climax between Travis and Anne) and attained something different, something true.

While the L.A. interlude has an array of lovely moments - Travis encountering a hollering homeless man along an interstate (the kind of man he was perilously close to becoming), Travis donning his brother's fancy suit to impress his son after school (an understated display of physical comedy for Stanton) - it is in Houston where the film flirts with cringeworthiness only to reach transcendence. Travis and Hunter track down Jane at a peep-show-for-the-soul, where she and other women act out scenarios for lonely men behind a one-way mirror. Has there ever been a more unexpected great performance in all of cinema than Kinski's? (Is that hyperbole? So be it.) Previously window dressing for a Roman Polanski period piece (Tess), with a more recent string of fiascos to her credit (The Moon in the Gutter and The Hotel New Hampshire, ill-advised remakes of Cat People and Unfaithfully Yours), Kinski, sporting a convincingly unfussy southern accent, shares two crucial scenes with Stanton in the concluding section of Paris, Texas. During the first, which at the time seems fairly long (five minutes or so), Travis, speaking to Jane via telephone, establishes a tenuous connection with her behind the mirror. ("I don't mind listening, I do it all the time," Kinski tells him touchingly, looking straight into the camera, a visual motif straight out of the Jonathan Demme/Tak Fujimoto playbook.) But it's in their second scene, an astonishing twenty-minute sequence, where Travis lays his cards on the table. Stanton monologues, Kinski monologues, in between they dialogue, and the authenticity of the emotions overcome what could have been stagey schematics in lesser hands.

As Paris, Texas comes to its extraordinary close (and I defy you to name a more unsentimental movie that earns so many tears), the palette for the film undergoes a change. In south Texas and L.A., Travis is associated primarily with the color green; in Houston, Jane drives a red sports car, nearly always wears red. In the last act, Travis and Hunter wear red as well. Then, in the final scene, Jane and her son reunite, each wearing vernal colors; while Travis drives away, the darkened highway tinted crimson. Visually this could mean anything or nothing - had things ended bloody, as originally planned, the symbolism would have been obvious. As it stands, I like to think that the switch of colors are meant to show the lingering effect that the characters, separated once more, now have on each other. A mother and child are back together. A man comes out of the desert only to return to the unknown, yet thirsts no more.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

To Those Who Serve (The Master)

At the end of The Master, I felt something like Ralphie in A Christmas Story when he discovers that the secret message unscrambled by his decoder ring contains a mundane if shameless plug: "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine." Clearly my own code-cracker is on the fritz. Countless others, even those unsure if they liked Paul Thomas Anderson's latest masterwork, have taken on the diligence of Biblical scholars analyzing the Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovering an endless array of beguiling themes, hidden subtexts, and deep meanings. Many have seen the movie more than once, scrutinizing each frame far more seriously than Ralphie took his own comparably simple task. (What kind of Ovaltine? he failed to consider. Why the word "Sure" instead of "Certain?" How should it be drunk? With a spoon? Table or tea? In a cup? Paper or glass?) We will never know the true agenda of A Christmas Story. Conversely, I think too much is being made of The Master, a movie that is complicated, yes, without being particularly interesting or illuminating. I don't think it's a case of a filmmaker employing flash to conceal the emptiness of his story. It's the work of one unnecessarily getting in the way of a story that could -- and should -- be more involving than it is.

For me, at least, Anderson has toed this line before without quite stumbling over it. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood all won my admiration after trying my patience. (The general mainstream audience reaction has been less favorable: I felt palpable hostility and witnessed walkouts in the theater at all four of those films, especially irate Sandler fans on opening-day for Punch-Drunk.) Anderson likes the kind of Big Acting that features a lotta hootin' and hollerin', and his directorial style - hyped-up even when it's pared down - accentuates the histrionics of the performances and vice-versa. "(T)he courting of danger is what makes his films so exciting," Kent Jones has noted, and he's right. The Master shows the director as fearless as ever, and every inch as bizarre. Fleeing a pack of angry migrant workers, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) runs with the same loose-limbed huffing and puffing as Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love. Later, Freddie is awakened in a movie theater by an usher with a telephone: it's a call from Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) urging Freddie to come to England, saying he can't wait to see him; in the very next scene, Freddie travels across the pond to see Dodd, who greets him with, in essence, "What are you doing here? I don't want to see you." Then Dodd serenades Freddie with a stirring rendition of "Slow Boat to China," because that's how they in England say goodbye. (To paraphrase Indiana Jones, I preferred the Austrian version.) At this point in his career it is glaringly apparent that Paul Thomas Anderson is an immensely talented filmmaker. He also is one strange fucker.

The Master, however, is the first time I've found his talent and his strangeness at cross-purposes. The aforementioned phone call scene, for example, could very well be a dream, or the subsequent scene in England could be one, or both. Somewhere a team of specialists is hard at work on the answer. But in this instance and plenty of others in the movie, I'm not convinced it matters. A Mulholland Dr.-type dream logic works for Mulholland Dr., and it might have worked for a film about a religious cult that genuinely wanted to examine the effects of cultism. Anderson showed empathy toward John C. Reilly's gently devout police officer in Magnolia but he's been overtly cynical about spirituality ever since, first with Paul Dano's jackleg preacher in There Will Be Blood and now Hoffman's more polished, imposing Lancaster Dodd. Plainview towered over Eli in the previous film - their conflict, although compelling, was never a fair fight - but Dodd and Freddie tangle on a more level playing field. Or at least they should be, except that the characters, even within the same scenes, don't seem to be in the same movie. Hoffman and Phoenix certainly aren't acting in the same one.

But then Joaquin Phoenix has never worked for me, other than as Johnny Cash, where he had to walk the line (heh) and couldn't veer too far astray in the portrait of an American icon. I've often griped that actors receive too much praise when they play famous people, that it's harder to create an original character out of thin air (even if you base that character to an extent on an actual person, e.g., Daniel Day-Lewis channeling John Huston in There Will Be Blood). Why then can I not stand Phoenix's performance in The Master? As with Nicolas Cage nowadays, I'm admittedly predisposed to disliking him going into a movie, a still photo from a film enough to make me itch.

Yet I'd hoped that Anderson, like Robert Altman, could transform a familiar face, coax him into showing us something new. (Even when his actors go overboard, there are usually quieter moments - Reilly kissing Melora Waters in Magnolia, the orphaned baby tugging at Plainview's mustache in There Will Be Blood - to offset the melodrama.) As Freddie, Phoenix certainly shows us something more, every physical tic registering like a high-richter 'Frisco quake. Even non-fans of the movie have been wowed by this more-ness, enough to make me wonder: Why? More precisely, what is it about this performance that believably conveys an emotionally scarred war veteran who falls in with a fringe religion? After an initial, informal "processing" session that leaves a blissful smile on his face (one of the movie's best scenes), Freddie exhibits only a jaded attitude toward Dodd's faith. That he's also quick to pounce on anybody else who professes their own skepticism is the kind of contradiction that happens in real life all the time, and would have been fascinating for the movie to explore. Anderson, though, is content to leave it unanswered. Pure hypocrisy may be a satisfying interpretation for some, but I think it's a missed opportunity.

Even with Dodd - a more realized character, played by a better actor - there is either an inability or a lack of curiosity to go deeper into the character's core beliefs. A key scene where a guest questions Dodd's flim-flammery (and is subsequently beaten to a pulp by Freddie) devolves into an Actorly Moment where Hoffman sweats and hollers and calls the poor guy a pig fuck. Another scene features a follower calling Dodd's new book terrible (he too gets pummeled for his sins). Why then, other than intimidation, and an appealing openness to laughter (as long as it's not directed at him), do people follow this man? Unlike Robert Duvall's The Apostle, Anderson misses the point of authentic religious extremism, which is not that leaders and followers are hypocritical about their faith but that they're not. The myriad contradictions of their belief system - peace and violence, love and hate - all derive from the same place. It's well within Anderson's right to offer his own interpretation, but I think it's at the expense of his own narrative. As Pauline Kael once opined, real fanatics are much scarier.

It's entirely possible that I'm focusing on the wrong things. "With a movie," a dogmatic auteurist tweeted several months ago, "you could talk about the plot, or the characters, or whether the performances are believable or not. Or you can talk about The Film." Until then I never realized that you could approach a film without noticing anything that's actually in it - a viewpoint, as others have observed, with mysto-spiritual undertones. Only up to a point, however. As opposed to claims for Xenu, we have independent evidence that there exist entities called movie directors, and that one of them is Paul Thomas Anderson. Whether or not The Master is a great film invites a more qualitative response, but I'm skeptical of a line of argument that the movie is not aimless but rather, in sum, "about aimlessness." I used to find this sort of reasoning seductive myself (e.g., There Will Be Blood unravels in its final third to parallel the unraveling of its main character), but lately I'm finding it too easy, too convenient to say that a movie is reflecting its substance deliberately through its style. So I'm afraid a heretic is in your midst. I need more proof. I don't have enough faith.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Blogger Who Came in from the Cold

My first piece in a few years for The House Next Door, the official blog of Slant, is up: my all-time ten-best movies list. To coincide with the release of Sight and Sound's every-ten-year poll -- Vertigo, you may have heard, finally toppled Citizen Kane -- the editors at Slant asked their writers (those not asked to submit an S&S ballot) to contribute their own top-10s. Compiling my own list was agonizing and fun, and I could submit a new top-10 today with seven or eight different titles.

In particular, I'm already regretting not including Local Hero.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Coming in Threes (Savages and Design for Living)

The funniest moment at last week's screening of Savages came during the preview for the absurd-looking thriller Alex Cross, when Tyler Perry's wife asks sincerely, "Why would you want to leave Detroit?", and my friend's wife let out a belly-laugh that reverberated in the theater. Still, I disagree with the rap on Oliver Stone that he has no sense of humor: I chuckled all throughout his new movie; it's just often unclear what it is that he means to be funny. Are we supposed to snicker at Blake Lively's voiceover during the intro sex scene, where her character, "O," says of Taylor Kitsch's study war vet Chon, "I had orgasms; he had wargasms"? (James Wolcott tweeted: "That line was better when Norman Mailer said it.") Or that the characters are named O (short for Ophelia) and Chon? (I know, it's out of the book.) I'm pretty sure Benicio del Toro's pompadour is meant for laughs. It's the kind of eccentric touch that the actor is famous for, as is a scene with John Travolta's corrupt DEA agent, where del Toro, playing a drug-cartel henchman, removes the tomatoes from Travolta's sandwich before taking a bite out of it, adding a humorous edge to a murderous character.

A lot of Savages plays like Stone finally discovered Breaking Bad but started shooting before the seminal fourth season, where the thrillingly dense narrative of Vince Gilligan's series had far more impact and nuance than Stone and novelist/co-writer Don Winslow's take on Caucasian wannabe drug lords taking on the Hispanic real deals. The third member of Chon and O's trinity, the Buddhist do-gooder Ben (Aaron Johnson), experiences the movie's harshest tests - on the naive worldview that he and his friends can profit from their product without consequences. An even sharper counterpoint to this than del Toro's Lado is the latter's boss, Elena (Salma Hayek), a rare instance of a woman running the drug trade. The misogyny rap on Stone lost its validity years ago, and Elena is another example of a strong Stone (anti-)heroine: Hayek's mercurial shifts between professional ruthlessness and personal emotion, particularly after her maternal feelings stirred by O, whom she kidnaps and holds hostage, is her finest acting since Frida.

The complex yet knuckleheaded plot - threats, double-crosses, bullets to the head, torture, explosions, the usual - would render Savages utterly forgettable were it not for Stone's playfulness. His style, which turned deliberately deadpan in the underrated black comedy W., is back in revved-up, overheated mode; yet the cinematography by Daniel Mindel, a veteran of the JJ Abrams/Tony Scott School of Ugly Visuals, features a vibrantly orange palette, never garish, with lens flares used sparingly for effect. Stone's politics are indeed on display again here, but his views on drugs are far more banal than his epicurean/bisexual side - which, as in Alexander, critics seem eager to ignore (or, at most, make quips about and move quickly on). Chon, Ben, and O are depicted as a loving, trusting threesome that astonishingly doesn't break down by the end. Stone isn't out to teach his young characters (and the audience) a lesson; he's with them completely, invested in their fates. "They must love each other," Elena tells O about her friends, "or else how could they share you?" It's the movie's most insightful moment, suggestive of the real revolution if it ever comes.

 The cleverest quip about Savages came from somebody who tweeted, in effect, "Finally, Oliver Stone's remake of Design of Living."  I laughed knowingly at this zinger, then promptly tracked down the Ernst Lubitsch film to know what I was laughing about. The movie was both what I expected and much more - a 1933 comedy so light and frothy it doesn't really sink in until afterward just how radical it is. Released the year before the Production Code started cracking down, Design stars the usually solemn Gary Cooper and Fredric March as a pair of American expatriates in Paris who fall for fellow yankee Miriam Hopkins, who finds herself equally in love with the two studs and decides to keep them both. Agreeing to keep things platonic, George (Cooper) and Tom (March) invite Gilda (Hopkins) to live with them in their low-rent bohemian studio, where she functions as a kind of counterintuitive muse to George's painting and Tom's playwriting. ("Rotten!" is her standard opinion.) Initial professional struggles lead to eventual success, but not before the three-way "gentleman's agreement" is put to the test.

With all due respect to Nora Ephron, the recipient of glowing epitaphs in the wake of her recent passing, a fundamental truth needs acknowledging: Her movies stink. Ephron's biggest successes, like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail (a remake of Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner) have a dismaying toothlessness completely antithetical to the acid wit in her literary essays; and they helped kill the screwball comedy - a genre in which a pair of crazies are stuck with each other because they realize normal life isn't for them - by ushering in the modern romcom - a genre in which a pair of drips get together because, by golly, it's Destiny! In Design for Living, it's a sign of Lubitsch's subversiveness - as well as screenwriter Ben Hecht's and original playwright Noel Coward's - that "normalcy" comes in the ludicrous shape of Max Plunkett (the marvelous Edward Everett Horton), Gilda's affluent, asexual boss with designs on marrying her. Making Ralph Bellamy's characters from the same era look virile, Plunkett isn't portrayed as a villain; he just represents the kind of life that Gilda can't fit into, no matter how hard she tries (even her name is pronounced differently from what you'd expect, with a "J" sound instead of a hard "G").

Everything about Design for Living is delightfully funny, from Hopkins' terrific performance (worthy of the best of Stanwyck, Hepburn, Dunne, and Lombard) to Cooper's charming awkwardness at playing light comedy. Yet Lubitsch finds room to slip in some truth and poignancy, sometimes on the fly, as when the impoverished George tells Plunkett, "I survive on miracles." It feels miraculous indeed that Lubitsch and Hecht's adaptation ever reached the screen and looks eighty years later more daring and groundbreaking than ever, compared to our bland, stunted Ephronic notions of what love can be.


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Into the Woods (Moonrise Kingdom)

Wes Anderson's 1965-set Moonrise Kingdom may seem like the director's quaint head-in-the-sand approach to a tumultuous historical period, yet all the elements of the era are there. The prepubescent sweethearts who run away together - Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) - from the New England isle they call home into Thoreauvian Nature are like characters out of a melancholy Hal Ashby comedy - outcasts and troublemakers poised to enter the counterculture. The generation gap is touchingly evoked by Suzy's parents, Walt and Laura Bishop (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), well-meaning yet troubled and plainly at a loss with how to deal with a child less equipped to deal with troubles of her own. (The depiction of Sam's foster parents is much harsher.) Authority comes in a few shadings: a decent if slightly ineffectual policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis); the reactionary social services representative, who helpfully goes by the name Social Services (Tilda Swinton); and the regimented ethos of the Khaki Scouts, as Sam flees the troop headed by the kindly Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) only to eventually stumble upon a much larger camp, run by the hard-nosed Commander Pierce (Harvey Kietel), that's like a middle-school spin on the Paris Island base in Full Metal Jacket.

All of this could be interpreted as allegorical, certainly, but I don't want to give the impression that that's Anderson's only objective, or even his primary one. Moonrise Kingdom creates a world too rich to be just that; it's the filmmaker's most fully realized universe since his parallel New York in The Royal Tenenbaums. On the commentary track for that movie, during the early scene where Pagoda tells Royal about his estranged wife's new suitor, Anderson said that he deliberately positioned Kumar Pallana so that he blocked the Statue of Liberty in the distance, wanting to avoid any recognizable landmarks in his version of the city (which for some reason pissed off Gene Hackman, when the actor realized what he was doing). The New England of Moonrise Kingdom is completely fictional (though hilariously detailed by Bob Balaban's exposition-loaded Narrator) the actual turmoil of the decade far away, yet it's his most emotionally connective movie since Tenenbaums, the last film Anderson wrote with his original screenwriting partner Owen Wilson (who has, of course, continued to act in most of his movies since). After Wilson came collaborations with Noah Baumbach, whose own films I've admired yet who seemed to bring out in Anderson an airless, inert quality and sourness of spirit in The Life Aquatic and parts of The Darjeeling Limited. If Baumbach and Anderson appeared a bad match, Roman Coppola, who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom (and formed part of the trio for Darjeeling), looks like a better one, leavening the darker themes - or perhaps synthesizing them - with sweetness and humor.


Auteur that he is, Anderson has received the usual round of stirring defenses from his most fervent admirers, even when it's clear that this time he doesn't need them. The most tedious have taken umbrage with those who don't like the movie "the right way"; others, responding to the criticism that the director needs to do something different, have trotted out the "What did you expect?" argument - specious, among other reasons, for suggesting that for a filmmaker, predictability is a virtue. While it's true that all the recurring methods and obsessions are all in place - deadpan dialogue, startling bursts of violence amid comic-strip paneling, the importance of bric-a-brac, the dichotomy of childhood dreams with adult disappointment - I think that Anderson is using them differently than he has before. (I almost wrote "testing them," but that would imply a strain that's nowhere evident in this seemingly effortless movie.) His films have treated kids and grown-ups with equal respect, all part of the same cultural framework. Here, more than any of his previous works, the spheres of each are blended together - sometimes comically (the sight of Keitel in khaki shorts), sometimes movingly (a bedside heart-to-heart between McDormand and Murray), always in perfect harmony.

So buoyant and delicate is Moonrise Kingdom that watching it reminded me of Michael Sragow's description of Wonder Boys: "(I)n its free spirit and avalanche of blending tones, it feels more organic than virtuosic... The oddball precision of the moviemaking makes you feel as if you're laughing in a dream - and you don't want to wake up." By now "dreamlike" has been applied to so many movies that the word has lost nearly all meaning. Yet Robert Yeoman's misty, soft-focused, green-brown palette - easily the finest work of his career - recalled for me another film: of all things, that "beautiful pipe dream," Robert Altman's western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. "I try to clutch the images to me even as they seem to evaporate like smoke," Charles Taylor said of McCabe. Moonrise Kingdom had the same effect - conjuring experiences I've never had, memories I never knew I wanted or needed.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Further Investigation: Kurosawa, Hitchcock, and High and Low

From the Dept. of Coincidences: About two weeks ago I had just exchanged correspondence with a friend about my favorite Akira Kurosawa film, the staggering High and Low (1963), when along came Peter Labuza's "Dial K for Kurosawa," a video essay on the very movie at Press Play. Labuza posits that the legendary Japanese filmmaker's approach to the subject - which may be loosely described as a kidnapping thriller - is similar in style to the director of Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Rear Window. The video segment of Labuza's piece deftly emphasizes visual echoes between High and Low and Hitchcock's body of work while the written portion expands on these notions: "Like Hitchcock, Kurosawa explores the roles of duality, ubiquitous guilt, and the incapacity to understand evil in a frightening and ultimately despairing fashion." At another point Labuza adds, "Kurosawa never mentioned the influence of Hitchcock in any of his interviews, but I can’t imagine watching this modern day crime story and not think of the master of suspense."

That I've seen High and Low five or six times without thinking of Hitchcock once may simply be a failure of my own imagination. But I want to be clear that I find "Dial K for Kurosawa" a lively, thoughtful work of criticism: free of insecure haughtiness or aggressive irrelevance, Labuza refreshingly puts his topic at the center (instead of himself) and considers every angle with depth and focus. If I ultimately don't buy the premise, it's still the kind of piece that allows you enough headspace to formulate and challenge your own ideas. For example, the coup de grace of Labuza's essay reveals that Ed McBain, the author of the novel King's Ransom, on which High and Low is based, was the nom de plume of Evan Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay for Hitchcock's The Birds. Yet this ending actually reads like a possible starting point for the entire essay -  Kurosawa and Hitchcock each adapted a movie from the same author; I wonder what they have in common? - hence the citing of "Doubles" (Strangers on a Train), "Staircases" (Psycho), "MacGuffins" (Notorious), and "Voyeurism" (Rear Window). Entertainingly as these parallels are conveyed, I can't help but wonder if any director (James Mangold, off the top of my head) could be used to draw a comparable analogy. For me, the real question between Hitchcock and Kurosawa has nothing to do with common denominators. It's rather: How do two great filmmakers use similar genre conventions in entirely different ways?

For those who haven't seen it (and, succinctly, for those who have), High and Low stars Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a high-ranking shoe company executive whose corporate takeover scheme is thwarted from an unlikely source - the abduction of his chauffeur's son. That Gondo's progeny was the intended target doesn't faze the as yet unseen kidnapper, who shakes down Gondo for a couple million anyway. Following a bullet-train rendezvous where child and money are exchanged - albeit not in the manner you would expect - the film turns from Gondo to the team of investigators assigned to the case and to the criminal himself, a disgruntled medical intern named Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki). Although there are strong suggestions of duality between Gondo and Takeuchi, particularly a striking image in the final scene (highlighted by Labuza) where their reflections are layered atop each other's faces, the link isn't nearly as explicit as the one between Guy and Bruno in Strangers on a Train (or, for that matter, between cop and crook in Kurosawa's Stray Dog). Stephen Prince, in his patently superb DVD commentary, believes that Kurosawa isn't equivocating Gondo's "crimes" with Takeuchi's, but rather illustrating Dostoevsky's belief (I'm paraphrasing) that the road to goodness lies in recognizing yourself in another person - even when that "other" is separated by prison bars.

Another of Prince's key observations underlines what strikes me as the film's true dichotomy - the individual vs. the collective. Kurosawa explores this theme via a radical transition in the narrative: the first half of the film focuses on Gondo in his swanky high-rise apartment; the second half follows a teeming ensemble of Yokohama investigators as they cover what feels like every square inch of the city in tracking down the kidnapper. In the apartment, Gondo's strength and stature is gradually undermined by the increasingly untenable position he finds himself in, which Kurosawa illustrates by surrounding him in the frame with as many other characters as possible. (Prince mentions not Hitchcock's Rope but Sidney Lumet's Twelve Angry Men as the primary influence here.) In the city, High and Low leaves Gondo offscreen for long stretches while the police force puts together the disparate pieces of evidence that eventually lead them to Takeuchi. Although the movie features many familiar faces from Kurosawa's body of work (including Tatsuya Nakadai, Isao Kimura, Takeshi Kato, and Takashi Shimura), it's astonishing how their formidable personalities are suppressed into a collectively functioning unit (as opposed to Seven Samurai, where each member of the group retains his distinct individuality). Prince notes that while Kurosawa was no longer the practicing Marxist of his youth, High and Low shows "that he never abandoned (Marxism) entirely."

It's fun to speculate what Hitchcock would have made of High and Low - microfilm hidden in a pair of high-heeled shoes? - yet any speculations serve to reveal more differences than similarities with Kurosawa. Hitchcock glided over the details of his plots quickly (perhaps because they often had holes in them); Kurosawa lingers on them in High and Low, to where the process of the investigation itself (more than the actual chase, which Hitchcock was inclined to cut to) is what becomes thrilling. Moreover, Hitchcock fetishized the visuals in his movies; Kurosawa - at least in High and Low - does not. Hitchcock's physical landscapes were frequently manifestations of his characters' psychological states. Kurosawa made films that did that too (most obviously Dreams), but what I love about High and Low, for all its style (e.g., the pink smoke that appears suddenly out of the black-and-white imagery), is how strongly tethered it is to the real world. You don't have to hear Stephen Prince point out Kurosawa's concerns with the economic disparity (following the 1950s postwar boom) in Japan, or lax punishments for kidnapping in his country, to see the director's preoccupation with then-contemporary issues. Nor would Hitchcock have likely used something as mundane as air-conditioning (unless it were a A/C unit containing microfilm) to indicate the festering class distinctions between Yokohoma's "Heaven and Hell" - High and Low's original title in Japan. I'm not suggesting Hitchcock wasn't interested in social issues or class differences, just that he was good at keeping his feelings about such things offscreen and to himself.

Kurosawa's wide-ranging style, near-cinema-verite one moment, expressionist the next - becoming most surreal in the famous "Dope Alley" sequence (and his intermittent, strategic use of shakycam and lens flares ought to shame proponents of nonstop "Chaos Cinema") - serves as a visual document for early-1960s Japan in ways similar to how Taxi Driver would capture New York City in the mid-1970s. The style of "Movie Brats" of the latter era - Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, et al - today seems almost as quaint as that of Kurosawa and Hitchcock were then. The time where filmmakers made movies about the real world, even while incorporating cinematic homages to their predecessors, seems to have been supplanted by filmmakers who make movies only about other movies. Perhaps as a conditioned response to this, much current film criticism seems uninterested in the relationship between cinema and the everyday - or even other fields of creativity, like painting or theater (at the most the occasional book, preferably comic), the way Farber or Agee or Kael did - and instead tries to forge connections between one filmmaker and another. "Dial K for Kurosawa" is one of the better examples of this - again, let me emphasize, I enjoyed the piece. And it's entirely possible that Kurosawa was influenced by Hitchcock; who wasn't? I just see more fitting subjects for this kind of pure-celluloid comparison than a film as resolutely earthbound as High and Low.