Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2005)

They say that only popcorn movies open in the summer, but how would the Carlton and Cumberland keep going if that were true? On one weekend this summer, Last Days and 2046 and The Aristocrats all opened – a true embarrassment of riches. With film festival articles starting next week I can either ignore this summer bounty or else speed through it, and I’m choosing to do the latter.

Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers was one of the season’s most high-profile films, and one of its best. The plot of so-laidback-he’s-hardly-there Bill Murray visiting a stream of old girlfriends has an easy sweetness, bolstered by wonderful performances from all concerned. For some of its length it’s a little underwhelming, with the director’s deadpan minimalism seeming like an affectation rather than a meaningful worldview. Ultimately though it all comes together, placing Murray at the centre of a significant perception shift, and allowing you to see the craft and nuance behind the movie’s every element. The Life Aquatic showed that Murray’s impassiveness, if overly indulged, can sink a film, but Broken Flowers is an excellent contrivance – a complex and rich character study of a near non-character.

Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is an astonishing work of cinematic design – one of those films that rapidly exhausts your powers of absorption on first viewing. The director reportedly reedited the film continually over a period of several years, and the result is an extraordinarily intricate tapestry of memory and association. It takes off from Wong’s In the Mood for Love, based around the same late 60’s Hong Kong setting, but the canvas now involves multiple women, multiple moments of loss and regret, and an occasional evocation of future worlds. The film uses time as an accordion, thrilling you with its structural sophistication; it’s also emotionally enthralling and immensely evocative. 

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days continues his somewhat admirable minimalist vein, following the demise of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star in long, vague takes. But Van Sant always seems vague in interviews about what this approach is specifically meant to yield. The film seems to me most effective as a deadpan comedy, functioning on simple incongruity, with any more complex payoff being almost entirely a matter of personal inclination. In contrast, The Aristocrats sold itself as perhaps the most verbally obscene movie ever made, with a hundred comics or so riffing on the same dirty joke. I found it interesting and well-constructed, but (perhaps inevitably) not very funny. Indeed, with its artful blending of old timers like Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers with (I guess) the contemporary cream of the crop, the film achieves a peculiar sense of familial warmth. It reminded me of those scenes in The Sunshine Boys where the old timers discuss how words sound funnier with a “k” in them.

Don Roos’ Happy Endings is another ambitious collage of contemporary life problems, strenuously liberal in its foregrounding of abortion, gay parenting, calculated promiscuity and so forth. It ends on a rendition of Just the Way you Are, and the song’s gooey tolerance is about as much of a philosophy as the movie possesses. Wes Craven’s Red Eye can hardly be analyzed to the extent of his Last House on the Left, but it’s one of the year’s most engaging genre pieces – tight, unpretentious, putting across an unremarkable plot with surprising attention to tone and background colour. As a secondary point, it confirms how the once-transcendent horrors of 9/11 have now become another all-purpose ingredient in the thriller pantry.

The 40 Year Old Virgin is a pleasant little comedy, effectively tapping the eternally rewarding waters of male idiocy in all matters involving women. Steve Carell is a great asset in the title role, even if the movie gets too many of its laughs simply from how he pronounces such words as “ho” and “nasty.” November is an extremely minimal psychological creep piece, seemingly set mostly (if not entirely – it’s not altogether clear) within Courtney Cox’s mind. It exhibits a fair bit of finesse, but doesn’t seem relevant to anything at all outside its own self-absorbed coordinates. The Lost Embrace is an Argentinean film set around a young slacker-type guy and his acquaintances in a down-at-heel Buenos Aires mall. As it proudly proclaims at the end, nothing changes much in the course of the movie, and yet totting it up afterwards you register dozens of small readjustments and transformations, cumulatively adding to a warm portrayal of life percolating within tight parameters. Of course, this is often the raw material of small films, but this one’s ramshackle sensitivity lifts it above the norm.

Rize is a minor documentary, although effective in depicting how a frenetic brand of dance provides an enclave of hope in Los Angeles’ worst urban neighborhoods. Murderball, another documentary, about wheelchair rugby, is perfectly packaged for easy gratification – it’s the epitome of the new breed of documentary, almost indistinguishable from fiction. Beyond the obvious (man, those wheelchair rugby players are really serious) I’m not sure what anyone would learn from it. The Bridge of San Luis Rey comes with a bizarrely over-ample cast (de Niro, Keitel), and sweeps them all off the bridge through endless windiness and limited sense of purpose. Saraband is classic Ingmar Bergman, an often-magisterial study in the precariousness of bonds, stunningly intuitive in every respect.

Hustle and Flow, about a pimp who turns to rap music, is a rather bizarre mixture of gritty urban expose and feel-good fantasy. It has a real plaintiveness at times, and the music is great (I even bought the soundtrack album), but even at its most repellent (usually in its depiction of women) it stirs in a little sugar. The Island has pretty good plotting in a textbook kind of way, but comes across overall as one of the all-time great examples in how Hollywood turns great ideas (in this case about human cloning) into junk, with an initial shallow dedication suddenly thrown aside for the sake of truly stupid stunts and set-ups.

The Beautiful County, about a Vietnamese man’s voyage to find his long-separated father, is always interesting but marred by pervasive simplicity and melodramatic tendencies. The Syrian Bride, about a marriage on the Golan Heights, also seems somewhat schematic, sometimes feeling more like a blueprint than an actual movie, but to me at least the situation it depicted is so intriguing and informative that its obvious faults take on lesser significance.

And no, I’m afraid I didn’t see Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Nor The Wedding Crashers, although I did think about that one. And now on to the film festival,

Two women

In Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida, set in Poland in the early 1960’s, Anna, a young woman on the verge of becoming a nun, leaves the convent – the only world she’s ever known, since arriving there as an orphaned infant - to visit her last living relative, her aunt Wanda, who’s long refused to take any interest in her. Wanda initially remains distant, beyond informing Anna for the first time that she’s Jewish and showing her a single photo of her mother, but later she mellows, and when Anna (or Ida, as she now learns she was originally named) decides to search for her parents’ unmarked grave, Wanda volunteers to drive her.

Anna and Wanda

The film quickly comes to resemble, for a while, a very stark mismatched-couple road movie: the young woman largely silent, self-contained; the other a dominating force of nature. Wanda was formerly a state prosecutor and official heroine of the post-war rebuilding; now she’s a judge, heavily dependent on booze and cigarettes, often on the look-out for male companionship. But of course, they occupy their separate spiritual and earthly poles less securely than one might initially think. In the course of their journey, Anna meets the first young man she’s ever been interested in; Wanda simply starts to run out of whatever it is that’s been keeping her going. In reopening the stories of the dead and forgotten, they necessarily reconfigure their own.

Pawlikowski was born in Poland, but came to prominence with a couple of films in Britain. He lost a lot of time due to personal and creative difficulties, before returning a few years ago with The Woman in the Fifth, a Parisian supernatural enigma with Ethan Hawke. Despite some intriguing details and a well-sustained tone, the film ultimately seemed largely worthless, the doodling of a man needing to get his name back out there yet with nothing left to say. Against this backdrop, Ida seems like a personal retrenchment of sorts, not only back to his homeland, but also back in time, restricting itself to modest means, black and white imagery and an unusually short running time (just 80 minutes).

It’s a remarkable success, providing the classic pleasures of the consciously sculptured art film while also seeming new, at times even unprecedented. In his New Yorker review of the film, Anthony Lane evoked Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Holocaust, which covers some of the same historical and geographical territory, and had been echoing in my head too. When I grew up in Britain, not so long after the events of Ida, the war was still heavily prominent (tiresomely prominent, was how I saw it) in popular culture and everyday discourse, but very much from the perspective of the puffed-up victor – it was almost impossible not to succumb to a caricatured view of the Nazis, and very easy not to think much about the substance of the Holocaust.

The stink of blood

Ida, in extreme contrast, examines a land where the stink of blood has barely been washed away, and where the culpability for wartime atrocities lies too widely and deeply to have been more than superficially purged, especially given the drabness of the new postwar society. The prospect of devoting one’s life to God seems here like mere social abdication rather than a road to enlightenment, but it’s not clear that anyone else has any better prospects; when the young musician, for instance, tries to articulate his dreams for the future, they quickly peter out. The dilemma of determining what to do with 0ne’s life runs throughout the film: the gaping mysteries in one’s past may provide an obvious source of direction for the present, but once those have been closed off, what then?

Pawlikowski composes the film simply but precisely, often placing the characters at the bottom of the picture with a large expanse of space above them (on several occasions forcing the subtitler to place the translation at the top of the screen), suggesting the unequal negotiation of the people and their environment. Consequently, although the film’s long, bumpy, closely-framed final shot retains some mystery regarding the details of what happens next, or what underlies it, it’s cinematically very powerful; the contrast with the prevailing style suggesting a new form of personal engagement even if, again, Poland as it exists at that moment may offer only limited ways of putting it into action.

I couldn’t help thinking too as I watched the film of current events in the Ukraine, especially as I saw it on the same day as the minor flap about Prince Charles’ comparison between Putin and Hitler. The fact that his stray remark, if only for a day or two, occupied more attention than the events themselves seems to illustrate again the mass craving for narrative simplicity, for pretending one can meaningfully engage with mass upheaval and human pain and dislocation through the prism of the same celebrity trivia that seems to provide our portal into everything else. I don’t know how one should assess Putin on the evil dictator scale, if it’s worth constructing such a thing, but his very existence, in such close proximity to the western Europe that we generally regard as another (if quirkier and perhaps longer suffering) version of our modern selves, constitutes a horrifying threat to our most basic modern assumption, that we’ve moved past certain kinds of dangers and traumas.

No Lessons to Offer

In his New York Times review of the film, A. O. Scott says: “Ida starts out, for the audience and perhaps herself, as an empty vessel, with little knowledge or experience of the world. To watch her respond to it is to perceive the activation of intelligence and the awakening of wisdom.” He concludes: “I can’t imagine anything more thrilling.” But while addressing the personal story at the centre of the film, this overlooks all else that happens around it, and seems like too optimistic an evaluation of what might realistically come next. For Ida’s generation of young women, it would be decades until Poland would offer life opportunities commensurate with a fully activated intelligence, and many worry that for her present-day counterparts, the continent might already be deep into a new age of squandered opportunity.

Pawlikowski says: “I wanted to make a film about history that wouldnt feel like a historical film a film that is moral, but has no lessons to offer. I wanted to tell a story in which everyone has their reasons; a story closer to poetry than plot.” But as with all great films, the end result goes beyond what he consciously planned; if there are no easily-extracted lessons, it may be not because the plot is so small, but because of its vastness.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Playing for time

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2006)

Inside Man almost earned more money in its first weekend than any previous Spike Lee movie in its entire run, and this seems to be exactly what the director needed. Lee could maintain a career making low-budget movies like Bamboozled and She Hate Me, but he clearly thinks he should be one of the preeminent American directors, and that takes money. So here he delivers a generally smooth heist thriller, sufficiently self-effacing that some reviewers hardly see his signature there at all. This counts as an overall victory, and if the payoff might be another Jungle Fever or 25th Hour further down the line, then I guess we can view matters with equanimity.

Inside Man

In Inside Man, Denzel Washington plays the lead detective on a hostage situation – a group of masked thieves has taken over a bank, and they’re sitting tight while activity swirls outside.  Clive Owen is the leader of the gang, and Jodie Foster is a smooth power player parachuted in by the bank’s owner (Christopher Plummer) to keep tabs on some personal interests. The film is mostly a procedural – a meticulous rendering of the police operation and of the interplay between Washington and Owen. Along the way, matters encompass war crimes, power politics, racism, institutional corruption, and – to an only minor degree – trouble at home.

In other words the material certainly has a potential scope that needn’t be beneath Spike Lee, and indeed for much of the time he does a highly intriguing job of ventilating the action through his customary technical acumen and imagination. The film incorporates flash-forwards (to subsequent interviews with the released hostages), fantasy visualizations, some direct-to-camera narration by Owen, and occasional use of Lee’s patented technique for divorcing a shot’s background and foreground. He has a great feeling for human interaction, with a very naturalistic portrayal of the police activity, and the film is uncommonly (if you didn’t know it was Lee) alive to racial diversity. This all confirms his continuing power as a filmmaker almost uniquely capable of accessible provocation.

Still, the movie left me feeling rather flat. Up until the last twenty minutes or so its promise seems intact (although it’s a little too long drawn out). Then the police get a breakthrough, and the film enters a different mode. Events now occupy a broader canvas, but also start feeling rushed and abbreviated, and the strands laid down earlier seem cursorily knotted together. The film has no ultimate institutional revelations, and even on the basic level of the plot delivers quite a bit less than it once seemed capable of. So that’s that.

Spike Lee’s Future

I couldn’t help thinking it would only have taken some modest adjustments to fix these issues, which raises the question of Lee’s continuing ability to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of his own work. His last fiction movie She Hate Me was generally derided, and indeed had a lot of stuff that barely made any sense, along with undistinguished execution. But beneath all of that, the film’s project was rather unique – to investigate the possibility of a new paradigm for black men, one divorced from corporate servility and traditional sexuality, forged in the memory of undervalued black men who went before (the security guard who blew the whistle on the Watergate burglary is a frequent if insufficiently thought-out reference point). She Hate Me often had the feeling of a voyage of purgatory, although with Terence Blanchard’s melancholy music consistently suggesting a more ornate or elaborate odyssey than was visible on the screen. 

A director as talented as Lee should surely have been better attuned to some of the film’s obvious problems. But his films are far more works of instinct than of deliberation. As his critical status diminishes and his general celebrity status solidifies, he seems to spread himself thinner and thinner – the internet movie database lists 40 directorial credits of various kinds going back to 1977, but 18 of those belong to 2000 onwards. He makes videos, documentaries, concert films, TV shows, and now blockbuster movies. Just like the mastermind of Inside Man, this activity seems largely arbitrary, as if stalling for time until he can execute his real plan. Or until he identifies for himself what that plan is. But I think he’ll get there.

Thank you for Smoking, based on the popular novel about the tobacco lobby, is tremendously entertaining to watch, although thinking about it afterwards – and despite Aaron Eckhart’s great central performance as the lobbyist with a well-developed sense of moral relativity, who could argue Bush into turning Democrat - I find reservations piling up somewhat more easily than superlatives. So here goes. Although the movie moves breezily from Washington to Hollywood and many points in between, taking shots at senators and agents and big business and the press, I never really felt it had much ultimate point or specific satiric purpose (maybe that was clearer in the book). The closing lines reach for some concept of personal responsibility that didn’t seem integrated into the whole. It often plays like a series of sketches, lacking much sense of the world beyond the frame. A key plot point, where the lobbyist spills his secret to a seductive reporter, seems particularly hampered by excessive sketchiness. And perhaps most bizarre of all, no one in the movie smokes – something that adds to the sense of sterility, and seems pointlessly contrived at times. All in all, I would have preferred a more allusive approach to the material – like the job Spike Lee did on Bamboozled. I doubt that many will agree with me on this. Oh, did I mention that it’s tremendously entertaining?

Basic Instinct 2

The reviews for Basic Instinct 2 were so bad that the studio might be thinking of burning the negative, but I went to see it anyway. I had a hunch critics might be missing something (by the way, I’m the guy who wrote the only basically positive review of Gigli in existence). Well, I was wrong. It’s a tedious, sadly unimaginative concoction, set in a drearily evoked London, in which a psychiatrist (the charisma-free David Morrissey) slowly gets pulled into Sharon Stone’s web. Stone’s acting is obvious and campy and she barely seems integrated into the rest of the film. It’s all too restrained, squandering all opportunities for provocation or even titillation. I was particularly disappointed with this aspect, since I had this vision of a gung-ho Stone exposing something about neurotic British sexuality. But although the movie contains a fair bit of analytical blather, it’s generally an idea-free zone.

I read somewhere that director Michael Caton-Jones started work on the film within six days of completing another picture, and the thing frankly feels like the product of someone desperate for a long nap. And this basic instinct, at least, does transmit itself to the audience. You know, Spike Lee’s pulled off some pretty steamy scenes in his time. He could have done way better.

Heightened states of being

Only Lovers Left Alive is Jim Jarmusch’s most potentially outlandish choice of material, resulting in perhaps his most transcendent film. The subject is vampires, one of the most over-examined states of being (or unbeing) in film history I suppose, and Jarmusch doesn’t try to deny the genre’s long shadow: the film has blood lust, fangs, references to wooden stakes through the heart, and so on, although these don’t always bear their usual ominous weight. But the film’s genius lies in a remarkable inversion. Vampire films (most films about anything, for that matter) usually exist in a heightened present, the vampire’s supernatural characteristics serving to amplify their threat to the prevailing order. Jarmusch, on the other hand, perceives the condition as facilitating or necessitating a more luxuriously intense engagement with both past and future, the present being merely the bridge between the two (they refer to the rest of us as “zombies,” embodying the flipped perspective on who’s closest to death in the ways that count). His film has a remarkable sense of freedom from momentary distraction and impulse, supported throughout by one outstanding creative decision after another.

Only Lovers Left Alive

For example, half of his central vampire couple, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), lives in what looks like an all-but-abandoned part of Detroit, the eerie symbol of an America struggling to transition between different eras. At times, following his nighttime drives, the film feels almost like a documentary (although Jarmusch conceded in a Sight and Sound interview that the film’s take on the city is “limited and somewhat unrealistic”), taking in former theatres now converted into parking lots, environmental hazards, even Jack White’s childhood home: “Little Jack White!” exclaims his companion Eve (Tilda Swinton) in delight. There are still pockets of culture though, although they’ve become almost surreptitious – one of the film’s many delights is in depicting the black market as driven by vintage musical instruments and vinyl records more than by drugs. In the film’s first extended scene, Adam’s regular “supplier” Ian brings him a new stash…of classic rock guitars.

Adam’s lair is a feat of production design, resembling a particularly chaotic recording studio from a few decades ago; he sees our current moment as one of lost respect for science and tangibility, and it drives him almost to despair. Eve, who’s a little older (by which I may mean several centuries), has a more serene grasp on things, taking a more intense and lasting pleasure in mankind’s cultural achievements, less preoccupied by its failures. As the film starts, she’s in Tangiers, her preferred location, but comes to Detroit (on a night-time flight, naturally) to help him out of his depression. The project is interrupted when her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives from Los Angeles; whereas Adam and Eve take a practical approach to their need for blood, setting up steady supply relationships with willing doctors, and regarding the neck-biting method as hopelessly old-fashioned, she’s happily regressive, making little attempt to control her impulses, and so is intensely dangerous.

Hipster-variety bloodsuckers

The film is striking enough that Karen von Hahn, the Star’s fashion columnist, wrote a whole piece on it, referring to the protagonists as “hipster-variety bloodsuckers” and concluding: “As in-the-know, super-discerning scenesters like Jarmusch would appreciate, not only are vampires essentially way cooler than zombies, it’s ultimately the exclusivity of cool itself that will never die.” It’s indeed true that Jarmusch might be one of the more vampire-like of directors: he’s looked much the same for thirty years or more (the early white hair helped), and seems fully immersed in his own creative world, which feels like it should be largely nocturnal even if it actually isn’t (maybe that’s the influence of his early film Night on Earth). I don’t think he’s ever made a film that wasn’t good to watch, although I can see how they might sometimes seem rather unapproachable, locked inside a set of aesthetic codes that couldn’t possibly mean as much to anyone else as they do to the director. It takes time to perceive how Jarmusch regards the usual trappings of “realism” as just clutter and convention to be stripped away, how his familiar “deadpan” approach to things isn’t a pose but a mode of investigation.

You might argue that there’s almost nothing in his work about what you might call “normal” life as we usually perceive it. But maybe that’s a representation of the same thing I mentioned, of seeking to transcend confinement in an overly hyped present. Only Lovers Left Alive has an intriguing preoccupation with the notion of fame: the fourth vampire in the film is Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), here the real writer of everything we attribute to Shakespeare, and Adam has made similar anonymous contributions to the Western canon (helping out Franz Schubert for one). In the present he wrestles with wanting his new work to be somehow heard by others, while resisting any kind of personal attention.

The essence of cool

Of course, it’s only good self-preservation strategy for a non-aging vampire to remain out of the public eye, but it doesn’t seem like only that; it feels like being widely recognized and the accompanying distractions are inherently corrosive to one’s Self. Actually, having a measure of fame, like Jarmusch, while remaining seemingly in control of one’s agenda, might be the real essence of cool, and not something that necessarily comes easily (in that same interview, he described his sense of time as precious and limited, remarking how he avoids shows like Breaking Bad because he’s afraid he’ll get addicted).

On one of their night time drives through Detroit, Eve remarks how the city will rise again, when the American south starts to run out of water. It’s a matter-of-fact observation, and all the more chilling for that; actually, it’s unusually politically pointed for Jarmusch. But the evocation of a land of pointlessly lush lawns built in the middle of deserts, of capitulation to ludicrously unsustainable values, provides a strong implicit contrast to the values that underlie his film.

When she packs to leave Tangiers for Detroit, Eve’s luggage consists entirely of old books in multiple languages; she runs her finger over their pages, apparently absorbing their beauty and meaning as if through a straw. She must have read them before, if not memorized them, but her communion is as much with the books themselves, as privileged objects; even if we don’t understand the details, it’s a wonderfully sensuous moment. On the other hand, unlike Adam, she also sees the virtue of having an iPhone. Jarmusch in no way denies the possibilities of our current cultural and technological moment, but he’s surely puzzled at the undead state of those who choose to see nothing else.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

War stories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2010)

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in being able to see a bit of the world – every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island, much of Europe, Israel, Australia, China, Japan, South Africa. But I’ve never been to any of the red states that voted for George W Bush. I’d been to places like New York, Boston, Washington, Seattle and San Francisco, and at some point in the early Bush years it occurred to me this was all blue territory. I started to make a joke out of this, and then it became established as part of my identity, so it’s difficult to imagine breaking it now.

My Lefty Views

I guess I have to admit, not that it’ll be a surprise to anyone, to being one of the liberal elite: one of those artsy big city types who can readily be accused of moral relativism and indifference to decent core working class values. I’m not religious – I don’t believe in any of it. I can enjoy talking to friends about their beliefs, but I wouldn’t last a week in a stridently church-going environment. I don’t like the iconography of pick-up trucks and fast food and malls and sports bars (I’ve sometimes been accused of not liking any of the things most people like). I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Wal-Mart, not more than once anyway. Not long ago I was in a packed bar in Alberta where, as far as I could tell, I was the only guy drinking wine (and one of the very few not wearing any form of headgear). I don’t like the military culture. I “support our troops” in the obvious sense that I don’t wish them any ill will, but I’d rather support them by bringing them home and not putting them in danger for questionable purposes. I absolutely hate gun culture, and particularly detest the self-serving intersection of beliefs that encompasses religion, guns, low taxes…I guess basically the Fox News/tea party agenda. Actually I’ve never seen Fox News, and I’ve never tried to seek out what’s said on there, so it also bugs me I seem to know so much about it.

I guess you get the point. This is a necessary background to explaining my reaction to two films I recently watched on cable (they’re also readily available on DVD - neither of them received a release in theatres here): The Lucky Ones and Grace is Gone. They’re quite similar in tone and broad content. Grace is Gone portrays a Minnesota Home Depot worker whose wife is serving in Iraq. When he’s notified of her death, he can’t bring himself to tell their two young daughters, and puts it off, driving them instead to a Florida amusement park. In The Lucky Ones, three soldiers – two on leave, the other at the end of his tour of duty – end up sharing a rental car to get home. One of them gets a divorce request from his wife virtually as soon as he enters the house; another was injured and is paranoid about his masculinity; the third doesn’t have much going beyond a bunch of half-baked ideas and dreams.

Grace is Gone

Both films obviously have an element of contrivance to them – yet more road-trip movies. But I must admit I found them almost as anthropologically instructive as a movie from Mongolia or Sierra Leone would be (well all right, that’s overstating it a bit). In Grace is Gone, the father (played by John Cusack) seems initially like a standard-issue Bush republican, a limited man who doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t really know how to talk to his daughters. Over the course of the film though, we realize this is almost as much voluntarily assumed as culturally imposed: he’s a frightened man, shaped in part by past disappointments, and feeling emasculated by the role reversal (an early scene has him as the only male member of a support group for spouses), and if he can’t believe in the ultimate rightness of things, then he says (in one of his few introspective moments), we’re all lost. His wife’s death forces him to recalibrate, but he has no idea how, grabbing almost randomly at the Florida trip idea. In the end, inevitably, he’s undergone some growth, but it’s just about as limited as you’ll ever see in a film of this kind.

The Lucky Ones is more ambitious and accomplished. It’s more explicit about the constant financial strain on the average American; the oldest of the soldiers (played by Tim Robbins) has a house that’s mortgaged to the hilt, and his old job isn’t there anymore. Rachel McAdams’ character isn’t portrayed as being very bright – she has the random knowledge of someone who’s just picked stuff up here and there. She’s honestly and unshowily religious though, at one point wandering into a church service as others might into a mall, standing up and asking the preacher to pray for her companions. Afterwards they’re invited to a local shindig, and Robbins gets propositioned by a woman whose husband likes to watch. The proximity of formal propriety against sexual pragmatism is unforced, but utterly convincing, reminding us for example teen pregnancies are higher in the Bible belt than in the dreaded liberal strongholds. Life, basically, just isn’t very rich: you can’t blame people for wanting a little more.

The Lucky Ones

Like Grace is Gone, it conveys an honest respect for the act of soldiering, but it’s more explicit about the underlying compromises (in tough times, the signing bonus virtually seems like a way of bribing the poor to fight a war cooked up by the rich). It also conveys the dislocation of coming home to an environment where, all the “supporting the troops” lip service aside, people don’t really care about you, mock your injuries or your lack of knowledge of the latest cultural crap, or force you to listen to their glib analyses of what you’re doing wrong. As the end of The Hurt Locker suggested in a flashier way, for all your fatigue and fear, home becomes the foreign land.

The soldiers in The Lucky Ones do what they can to get on top of their lives, but it’s not much. America is increasingly a big lie – inadequate rulers, demented media, no meaningful public conversation, and just millions of exploited people at the middle of it all; its self-notion as still being the land of opportunity mainly a fog now in the way of seeing how limited and lost it all is. And maybe it’s better not to see anyway. It’s no surprise that the title of The Lucky Ones is meant ironically, but what a bitter irony it is. Of course, I know that’s not the entire story of the red states, any more than my Toronto is the same as everyone else’s, but it’s surely the one that matters most. Maybe I’ll go and see for myself, eventually. 

Change of plan

Our plan on a recent Saturday was to go up to Bloor and see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, which I’d been looking forward to for ages; everything was looking good to go and I decided to lie down for a twenty minute nap, easy to do as my wife said she was wide awake. I woke up an hour later, thirteen minutes before showtime, with Ally also fast asleep, her attempt to set the alarm, well, a failure. We rushed out and jumped into a cab, but the traffic was heavier than usual (the DVP was closed, and there was some kind of parade, oh, and God was toying with us) and eventually it became clear we’d miss the start, which I can’t stand to do, so we just turned round and came home. The big winners in this story are the cab driver, and also the dog, who wasn’t by himself for anywhere near as long as he was expecting. And also the restaurant on the next block from our place, that we ended up going to instead of the post-movie one we had in mind.

Blue Ruin

The losers, at least for that weekend, would be us, because we ended up watching Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin on demand (it’s also currently in theatres), and while it’s a respectable film, I can’t imagine it’s as stimulating as the Jarmusch would have been. The movie has a classic feel-good back-story – unhappy with where his filmmaking career was taking him, Saulnier put his family’s life savings, along with help from Kickstarter, into a showcase low-budget project. Sundance turned it down, but it was shown at Cannes, and it rose triumphantly out of the pack. Now in release, it’s getting lots of attention, and almost universal praise (95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes!)

For example, David Denby reviewed the film in The New Yorker, summing it up as “Saulnier’s successful attempt to build some creative space between the iron conventions of Hollywood revenge sagas and the informality of a movie made with friends” and finding fault only with the ending, which he thinks “overwhelms the modest, semi-parodistic realist style of this movie.” The British Sight and Sound went even further, saying the film is “surely worthy of the (John) Carpenter or even Jean-Pierre Melville comparisons you might care to throw at it.” It continues: “Yes, it’s modest in scale, but its craftsmanship is so genuine, its narrative so considered, its dramatic payoff so visceral, you can’t help thinking that if Saulnier can sustain this, we could be looking at the emergence of a major new filmmaker.”

A new space

In an interview in the same magazine, Saulnier talks about trying to “carve out a new space” by making a film “meant for the core genre audience, but (that) would also hopefully have enough story and character and raw emotion that it would appeal to broader audiences as well.” The genre in question is that of the loner/vigilante, entirely consumed by the desire for revenge for a past injustice, causing virtual rivers of blood to flow in his wake. Far from Charles Bronson territory though, the character here, Dwight, is a physically unimpressive drifter whose silence is that of a put-upon loser rather than a self-contained monolith. His life was derailed by the murder of his parents; when the perpetrator, Wade Cleland, is released from jail, a decade or so later, Dwight waits outside the prison, follows the Cleland family limousine that picks him up, and later stabs him to death in a roadhouse washroom. He gets away, but his car keys don’t, allowing the Clelands (who seem to operate entirely outside the usual operations of the law) to trace the vehicle back to his sister’s house (at which it’s registered) and so to set off a violent series of manoeuvres.

As everyone says, the film is distinguished by its attention to the contours of its central character and to surrounding detail; it’s the kind of movie in which, during a key and fraught conversation between Dwight and his sister at a diner, there’s a matter-of-fact interruption from a guy at the next table asking for the ketchup. It’s a very compact picture, lasting just ninety minutes, but somehow manages to feel both full of incident and yet relatively reflectively paced. And it’s forged from the duality of American culture; when he asks his sister if she has a gun in the house, she responds as if it’s the most absurd question possible, but to his best friend and the horrendous Cleland family, a household naturally accumulates guns the way you or I might stock up on cookies.

Awake at the right time?

Despite these strengths, I can’t really see what people respond to so enthusiastically in the film: this isn’t one of those occasions when genre conventions stimulate a filmmaker to achieve something transformative (the comparison with John Carpenter might be viable, but that with Jean-Pierre Melville seems just nuts to me). Dwight himself may be a well-conceived character of extremely modest traits, but he still achieves the usual Bronson-like feats of recovering at super-speed from nasty physical injuries, of outsmarting adversaries who seem better equipped for this in every possible regard, and so forth; the Cleland clan, for the most part, are garden variety monsters. At the end of the film, you can recite various moments and aspects that you liked, but beyond that, it’s hard to see where the experience really takes you. The film’s closing shots emphasize the placid normality that still persists in some of its earlier locations, suggesting how the disturbance that Dwight precipitated is ultimately localized, perhaps a necessary purging. But it also says in effect that the show is over, that we can put the whole thing back in the box and move on, that the “new space” Saulnier talks about is closing as efficiently as it opened up.

Of course, it’s possible I’m not the ideal viewer for the film. I guess I’d rather see the movie that implicitly precedes it, the one that shows us Dwight’s years of struggle, and how he became so all-consumed by the idea of murdering Wade. Or maybe I’d rather see a Jim Jarmusch version of it, marked by his customary deadpan contemplation, multicultural connection, mysterious interplay, hints of the beyond, by his films’ implicit suggestion of an extreme malaise in the governing pace and engorged complexity of mainstream culture. Only Lovers Left Alive is a genre film too, about vampires, but by all accounts, nothing about it seems limited by that. I’d really like to find out, but maybe, as I’m not a vampire myself, I’ll never be awake at the right time.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Star Power

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

La vie en rose, a French biopic of Edith Piaf, could seem very much like a calculated attempt to borrow the Ray/Walk The Line formula – take an iconic but troubled 20th century icon, find a leading actor to pull off a career-defining transformation, and clean up at the box office and the awards alike. If so, one piece certainly worked like a dream – the casting of Marion Cotillard. Perhaps best known here as the beautiful love interest in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, she inhabits Piaf with scary, often heartbreaking precision. Indeed, between Cotillard’s work and the remarkably precise make-up achievement, I can hardly recall a performance that so precisely mapped a person’s inner and outer changes across twenty-five years or so.
La vie en rose
Of course, Cotillard has a lot to work with. Piaf’s life encompassed most of the personal tragedies one might ever have to grapple with (a childhood in a brothel, all kinds of people dying on her, addictions and ailments), and she was only 47 when she died. Most of these traumas are in the film - it skips over one of her husbands and her affair with Yves Montand, but this is a fairly typical kind of compression. More problematic, as many critics have pointed out, is writer-director Oliver Dahan’s overall structure, which does a lot of not-very-nimble jumping around in time. I never felt confused by this, largely again thanks to Cotillard, but it never seems like the best approach either. In particular, a major piece of her biography, belonging to her late teenage years, only turns up in the last few minutes, via a deathbed flashback. Maybe we’re meant to see this as the Rosebud moment that grants us the ultimate insight into her suffering, but if so it’s not at all well-handled.
Cursory research on Piaf underlines the role she played in the French Resistance, which is bizarrely absent from La vie en rose – indeed, you’d barely know there was ever a war. Absent this, the film doesn’t do that good a job of conveying why she became quite so important to the French (I thought Walk the Line had a similar limitation vis a vis Johnny Cash) – actually it spends a disproportionate amount of time on her travails in New York and L.A. It was a huge hit in France though, so I guess the audiences filled in the gaps for themselves. And despite these reservations, I have to say I was fairly consistently gripped, and often moved, by the film. Did I mention Marion Cotillard already?
Ocean’s Thirteen
In fact, La vie en rose emanates greater star power than Ocean’s Thirteen, despite the accumulated charisma of Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Pacino and others. Well, it ought to accumulate, but the real effect is more of a mutual dilution. The third film in Steven Soderbergh’s odd series, basically an exercise in mass-market pandering while somehow carrying hints of high-quality experimentation, hits the ground running and never lets up. Within a couple of minutes the gang has a rationale for pulling off a big job, this time directed towards a new hotel/casino built by kingpin Pacino; the logistics pile up, and the rest of the movie keeps the wheels turning. With so much functional stuff to churn through, and divided up among so many players, you look back and can’t remember anyone getting more than a couple of good lines.
Of course, everyone looks very cool and collected, and the movie never seems like a total waste of anyone’s time. You suspect though that the reasons for this are nowhere evident on the screen. In this sense it’s a very precise homage to the Rat Pack movies, which got made in the spaces in between the booze and the broads, but given the visibility of the current age, if there were anything juicy going on in the Ocean’s Thirteen dressing rooms we’d have heard about it long ago. Still, you suspect the series could go on forever, and still no one would know why. Final observation – apart from Ellen Barkin (hotter than ever), the movie is severely short of female presence; in fact the most visible woman (seen just on TV) is Oprah Winfrey, towards whom everyone is extremely respectful. Is that part of the experiment?
Another kind of female star power turns up in Luc Besson’s Angel-A. Besson, best known for Subway, La Femme Nikita and Leon (The Professional) is another titan at the French box office, as much as writer or producer than as a director; most of his recent output hasn’t been seen over here. Angel-A was his first directing gig in six years (Arthur and the Invisibles, which came out earlier this year, was actually made afterwards). Less bombastic than most of his other movies (to the extent of being shot in black and white), it’s a small-scale fantasy about a miserable small-time crook who’s diverted from the brink of suicide by an out-of-this-world beauty who seems just as desperate. Turns out she’s an angel – his guardian angel, sent to turn his life around.
I doubt whether six months ever goes by without some movie variation on the guardian angel theme – there was a particular spate of them a few years ago, scooping up Nicolas Cage and John Travolta, among others I forget. Angel-A fits happily into the genre – initially there’s a bit of mild rough stuff, and Angela is a feistier emissary than some of her predecessors, but as far as the underlying theme goes, this could easily have been called It’s a Wonderful Life, if that hadn’t already been taken.

The film does attract some distinctiveness by casting the short Moroccan actor Jamel Debbouze in the central role, and Rie Rasmussen (who is five inches taller than Debbouze) as the angel. Born in Copenhagen, Rasmussen slices through the movie in the miniest of dresses, suggesting a more scintillating concept of the next world than anything inherent in the dialogue. She and Debbouze do share some modest chemistry, but the movie renders her so chillingly “other” that Brad Pitt himself wouldn’t look worthy. A recent interview with her seemed to indicate a headstrong, self-defined, ambitious woman with no interest in playing anyone else’s game. I assume this means we’ll never hear of her again.


Werner Herzog

I’ve written about Werner Herzog several times in this space, but always in relation to a new film, meaning I’ve mentioned his earlier ones only in passing. When I was seriously getting into film in the early 80’s, he was a unique, vital figure, generating endless stories of bizarre personal conduct and foolhardiness, yet working too efficiently and sensitively merely to be categorized as a flake. Writing in 1980, David Thomson called him “exceptional” and “epically adventurous,” and I don’t think many would have disputed the assessment. Prophetically though, Thomson noted this: “as attention has fallen on Herzog, so his pursuit of extremism has become a little more studied; it does now seem more zealous than natural.” Soon after that, Herzog made Fitzcarraldo, a chronicle of a visionary who dreams of building an opera house in the Amazonian jungle; it’s most famous for the scene of a steamer being tugged over a mountain, which the director insisted on carrying out for real. The film received attention galore, but Herzog seemed to leave something in the jungle. He kept making pictures all over the world – mainly documentaries, as the funding for other projects dried up - but increasingly, no one cared.
Nosferatu the Vampyre
At some point though, Herzog acquired a new kind of stature, partly no doubt through longevity (he’ll be seventy-one this year), relentlessness and uncategorizable charisma (even playing supporting parts in mainstream films like Jack Reacher). A few of his films – Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams – achieved as much general recognition as documentaries ever do, and he even directed Nicolas Cage in the recent reimagining of Bad Lieutenant. Writing a few years ago in The Grid, Jason Anderson noted he’s become more famous than his films and warned that “trafficking in Herzog anecdotes or perfecting your impression of his accent is no substitute for making time to engage with the works themselves.” Whether or not that, uh, trap is one that many of us need to worry about falling into, his recent body of work is large and rich enough that even serious cinema aficionados might pronounce themselves major Herzog followers based solely on awareness of what came with his second wind.
But, to borrow a turn of phrase, this is no substitute for making time to engage with the films from Herzog’s first glorious fifteen years or so. I recently went back and watched four of them again (at least at the time of writing, they’re all available on YouTube), and it was like taking off the seat belt and letting myself be happily throw around by an artistic rollercoaster. The best known of the four is probably his 1979 version of Nosferatu the Vampyre, which sticks pretty close to the classic structure of Bram Stoker’s story; for a while as I watched it, I thought Herzog might (unusually for him) have been overly restricted by the demands of the narrative.
Even Dwarfs Started Small
But it gathers strength once the vampire leaves Transylvania and travels to (in this version) a small German town; his arrival unleashes a plague, and the film becomes a chilly vision of societal breakdown, the streets overrun by rats, and the eventual killing of the vampire overshadowed by squabbling about how to proceed in the absence of governing institutions (in this version, Van Helsing is for most of the way a failed skeptic rather than an all-knowing savior). Klaus Kinski – the star of many of Herzog’s films of this period – emphasizes the vampire’s anguish, an endless painful isolation without any of the sexually-tinged relish of many other interpretations, and in the end it makes complete sense as (in Thomson’s term) a pursuit of extremity, a tale both of supernatural transcendence and of extreme weakness and pitifulness.
Even Dwarfs Started Small, from 1970, was one of Herzog’s first narrative films, depicting an institution overrun by its inhabitants; every actor in the film is a dwarf, including those playing an instructor that gets taken hostage while his colleagues are away, and a passing motorist who stops to ask directions. Judging from the dimensions of the furniture and suchlike, it seems to be set in our world rather than a parallel one of smaller dimensions; there’s an air of science fiction to it though, and an increasingly apocalyptic undertone. The movie specifically evokes the Berlin Wall and the injustices of an oppressive existence; however, the freedom it celebrates is messy and unsustainable, encompassing bizarre parodies of normal interactions, anarchic excess, and hopeless destruction. It’s an engrossing viewing experience, although it’s not hard to see how some might view it mainly as a stunt (regardless that Herzog obviously invites the ambiguity).
Similarly, his 1976 film Heart of Glass is best known now for how Herzog apparently hypnotized many of the actors, to intensify the film’s strangeness. To the extent it has a story, it concerns an 18th century town, built around a glass-blowing factory, that falls into total disarray and madness after losing the secret of its perhaps mystically endowed primary product. For me at least it’s too strange to fully engage with, but it certainly illustrates the director’s relentless energy and fearlessness during the period, his ability to create unprecedented cinematic environments and effects.
Herzog’s lived comfortably in California for years now, but in the 70’s, he treated America very much as an outsider, certainly aware of its promise, but just as fascinated by its lies and fractures. In the 1977 film Stroszek, an oddball trio leaves Germany – essentially presented, for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, as an unlivable hellhole – to settle in Wyoming. Through family connections and easy finance, they initially make progress toward a better life, confirming the mythic promise of those vast spaces, but then it turns, swamping them with an impersonal cruelty that almost makes the specific victimization of their homeland seem comforting by comparison. Herzog ends the picture with some memorable images of grotesquerie, seemingly evidencing a deranged nation; at the same time though, it shows his tendency to grab at images rather than to construct an analysis. But then, in his famous phrase, this is a virtue constituting going for the “ecstatic truth” rather than the mundane “accountants’ truth”.

Those aren’t necessarily his four best films of the period (on this occasion I didn’t watch Aguirre Wrath of God or The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser), but they certainly showcase Herzog as a one-of-a-kind filmmaker; plainly more canny and rational than the extremes of the legend might suggest, but a kindred spirit to the little group who at the end of Heart of Glass, believing the world to be flat, can’t help but launch a boat to explore the edge of the abyss.