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.