Saturday, December 29, 2012

Last Chance, Fancy Pants

Django Unchained is not a very interesting movie. This is not a criticism. Wait a minute, yes it is. What it isn't, though, is a condemnation. I walked into Quentin Tarantino's new film with no small amount of trepidation, having heard from parties with whom I share a strong affinity for Tarantino's work that Django Unchained was the unambiguous nadir of his career. My trepidation was cut by the fact that, as someone who believes that Tarantino has gotten better with each new film since Reservoir Dogs, his first, in 1992 (this gets dicey, not only because I'm not a big fan of 2007's Death Proof, which alone throws off the graph, but also because I still haven't decided if Kill Bill Vol. 1 is better than Jackie Brown on its own terms or only when taken as a whole with Kill Bill Vol. 2; in any case, the second Kill Bill is better than the first, and I'll be publishing my complete findings in some journal of some sort in the future), that I found it difficult to understand how he could have suddenly shit the bed so thoroughly. Well, callooh callay, in my view he's done no such thing. And yet...

So what the film is, is it's a revenge story ("Again!?" some will balk; "Feh!" I will say back to them) about a black slave in 1858 America named Django (Jamie Foxx) who is violently freed from his chains one evening by a German one-time dentist, now bounty hunter named King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz loathes slavery, but enters into a bargain with Django wherein, for legal reasons, Django will remain his slave on paper while the two of them hunt down a trio of slavers named the Brittle Brothers -- Django knows what these men look like, having dealt with them, or having been dealt with by them, before, and Schultz doesn't -- for which service Schultz will pay Django and then set him free. At first a seemingly reckless lunatic, Schultz proves himself to be exceptionally smart and sly, not to mention free with his money, so Django agrees. The first forty-or-so minutes of Django Unchained is taken up with this hunt, and then with Django and Schultz's bonding, which is both personal and professional after Django becomes Schultz's full-time bounty hunting partner. Along the way, Django reveals that his goal is to find and free from slavery his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Moved by this, and by stories of both Django and Broomhilda's torture at the hands of a variety of slave traders and plantation owners (including Bruce Dern, in a cameo), Schultz offers to help in this quest, which eventually leads them to the plantation of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the vile, sadistic, pretentious (in the true meaning of the word), crafty, charismatic, monstrous, and all sorts of other things you'd want in a good villain, Southern dandy who owns Broomhilda. In addition to that, Candie's also deeply involved in the sport of "Mandingo fighting," the definition of which you can piece together if you've ever seen Richard Fleischer's controversial and much maligned 1975 film Mandingo (unfairly maligned on moral grounds, I'd say, without thinking it's actually all that good), and which you might figure out anyway, but which in any case is the practice of forcing two slaves to fight each other to the death, and betting on the outcome. It's dog fighting, but with people, in other words. This is the door through which Schultz and Django will enter Candie's world, taking on the guise of two men interested in buying the finest Mandingo fighters Candie has for an outrageous sum, with their true eye towards scooping up Broomhilda, their true quarry, as a kind of afterthought, or so they hope it will seem to Candie. This plan puts Django in the position of playing the part of a black slaver, a free black man who sells and abuses his own people. This, Django tells Schultz, is the lowest form of scum on earth, and once the wheels of this plan are well into motion, it will set him directly on a path towards a showdown with Candie's house slave, the painfully obsequious, but also terrifying and smarter than his boss, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).
The question now is, how is it? Well, to begin with, I think the film contains, among a lot of other good ones, three terrific performances in those given by Foxx, Jackson, and DiCaprio. Foxx plays Django with a great deal of stillness, which is by now a clichè when describing this kind of performance, but Foxx goes beyond stillness, if that makes any sense. At least as much of the film is spent by Foxx playing the role of a black slaver as it is on a man on a cold-eyed quest for revenge and salvation, and it's in the former spot that Foxx really shines. He plays what he believes to be the scum of the earth exactly as Schultz instructed him, full out, and in doing so becomes a genuinely frightening character. He goes so far that Schultz becomes uneasy, as did I -- how far is Django's desire to save his wife going to push him? At one point, when Candie consults with him about how to handle a runaway slave, pretty goddamn far, although in practical terms Django's stance on the issue might be the only possible one. It certainly does produce a ripple effect, however. Jackson, meanwhile, as I said is terrifying, but he's only terrifying when Candie isn't looking or isn't around. Stephen works entirely for Candie, lives for him and licks his boots, not literally but only just barely. In this role, Stephen, who knows he's smarter than Candie, has to always be watchful, and always cruel, and always willing to sell his own people down the river, or personally torture them into either submission or the grave. In his three major roles with Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and now Django Unchained, Jackson is always physically transformed in really striking, unforgettable ways (his look in Jackie Brown was described by Tarantino as looking like the Devil in a Mexican horror film), and here he's quite effectively done up to resemble a cartoon, or perhaps an old woodcut, version of an elderly house slave, with his ring of white hair around his bald head, topped with another lonely cotton ball of hair just above his forehead. Always hunched and hobbling with a cane, Jackson plays Stephen as a loud, funny, pathetic creature who plays up the pathetic side to hide the cruelty from those for whom he'd like it to be a surprise.
Finally, there's DiCaprio as Calvin Candie, and, well, I think DiCaprio is absolutely tremendous here, in a role unlike anything else he's ever played. As someone who has always genuinely liked DiCaprio as an actor, I'm not surprised he was able to pull this off, but it was very exciting to see him actually do it. Though I don't necessarily share them, I understand the reservations some people have voiced over the years that DiCaprio was sticking himself in a dour rut, playing a series of tortured, near-humorless human disasters for Martin Scorsese and others. He's pretty much always good, so why complain, is my view of it, but in Django Unchained he's given all sorts of things to play that he's never done, not least of which is unfettered villainy, and he tears into it with abandon. Candie's urbanity and sophistication is largely a put on (Candie is a Francophile and he prefers to be called Monsieur Candie, Schultz is informed by Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie's attorney, but when Schultz tells Moguy that he would be delighted to converse with Candie in French, Moguy asks him not to do that because Candie cannot speak French, and therefore Schultz would only embarrass him), and DiCaprio plays this, as well. There's some nice humor to be mined from small moments that show Candie quickly extracting himself from conversational bear traps in which he is intellectually or culturally out of his element, but Tarantino and DiCaprio never pile it on or make too much of it. And when the time comes for Candie to blow his lid, DiCaprio can roar and froth and frighten with any of the best villains from recent history. In the spirit of honesty, I have to say that DiCaprio's involvement was for me one of the most intriguing aspects of Django Unchained, and his bold, funny, ferocious, and in some ways unexpected performance didn't let me down even a little bit.

As for the rest of the film, it is, again, not very interesting. But does it need to be? I don't know, but it's not. Tarantino was correct in dubbing his previous film, Inglourious Basterds, his masterpiece, and it would be an unpleasant claim of entitlement to be upset that Django Unchained is not better than that. Still, Inglourious Basterds was, in addition to all the other things it was, such as relentlessly entertaining, very, very interesting, even fascinating. I'm talking in terms of pure filmmaking here. That film (which I wrote about extensively here, with my pal Dennis Cozzalio) was endlessly inventive and strange, with a structure that was terrifically confident and precise, at the same time as it was being wild and off-kilter. In Django Unchained, Tarantino seems to shy away from that kind of adventurousness in favor of a much more accessible form of anarchy. And what's wrong with a little accessible anarchy, you ask? Nothing too much, I suppose, except that stretched to well over two hours and coming from the man who gave us not only Inglourious Basterds but Kill Bill (the both of them, together), it can rapidly become a little disappointing, and, finally, sort of limp. You can see Tarantino straining to bring something new into this film, but having little idea how specific scenes should or will work within the whole. For instance, in the first half of the film, he drops in what has to count as a comedy sketch involving a band of proto-Klansman led by (a very good) Don Johnson that starts off funny, when I thought it was going to be a throwaway joke, and becomes absurdly out of place as it keeps going and never stops. I think it has never stopped. Tarantino cuts away from it, so I think it might still be happening, with the two jokes introduced repeating themselves long into the morning hours.
Then there's the anarchy, or what passes for it here. Last night I was listening to a podcast review of the film, and one of the hosts, who was quite taken with it, called it Tarantino's "least splattery" movie to date. If by "least splattery" he meant "second most splattery," then I have little choice but to agree with him. But waves and bursts and fountains of blood are Tarantino's anarchy here. I'm not at all opposed to graphic violence in movies, as I believe I've made clear many times before, but Tarantino seems to be at a point with Django Unchained where he believes everything goes at any time. By which I mean, he believes everything will always work.  And for much of the film, I might not have found fault in this particular case, right up until the part where I do. The deal is, there's a sequence, Django Unchained's equivalent to Inglourious Basterds ingenious tavern scene, that begins as a dinner with all the main characters at Candie's plantation. From the moment two characters remove themselves from the dining room to discuss what one of them has recently discovered, to the point where another character chooses to make a sacrifice (for those who've seen the film, this could mean one of two moments, but I mean the latter of the two), I was thinking, in regards to some of the unnervingly negative things I'd heard about the film, "Well, I'm not really seeing the problem here." The whole sequence is pretty exquisite, to my mind, and features the best acting not only of Jackson and DiCaprio, but of Christoph Waltz, who otherwise is rather unfortunately giving the same performance he gave in Inglourious Basterds, only as a good guy this time. But anyway, it's riveting stuff. Then, however, the one character makes a decision, and the film resets to basically do it all again, violently, again, with more red on white spray. And so the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is something of a botch, not entirely ruinous, but needless and kind of dull -- needless and dull, that is to say, before in the final moments it becomes almost insulting. What Tarantino makes Kerry Washington and Jamie Foxx do in that time is close to appalling, not on any sort of moral or ethical grounds or any nonsense like that (briefly: the morals of Django Unchained are something of a hot topic right at the moment, but I found them to be no more or less fascinating than in your standard revenge plot. The film's racial component is what has a lot of people stroking their chins, but my views on it here are no different than they were for Inglourious Basterds, and I'm afraid I don't have a great deal of interest in hashing all that out again), because morals or ethics or whatever don't actually enter into the thing I'm trying not to describe because it's the very end of the film, and am therefore tying myself into knots about. But here's what it is: Tarantino turns his film into a cartoon. It was basically that already, but not significantly or unpleasantly more so than Kill Bill Vol. 1 (the Tarantino film this most resembles). Here, though, it's the kind of cartoon so many of Tarantino's harshest critics have accused him of making, that is, one with no weight or seriousness as a piece of art, a live action cartoon as reference-factory. "What you just saw doesn't matter," Tarantino seems to be saying here, and this is exactly the kind of thing I, as a Tarantino fan and defender, have always argued he never does. Yet here, he does it, and it was an uncomfortable thing for me to witness.

Where that leaves the film, or where that leaves me and the film, I don't know. "I liked it," is what I would say to anyone who asked me. There are some wonderful things here, and I was rarely bored. But what it puts me in mind of, now that I sit here struggling with it, is David Lynch's Wild at Heart. I've always said that Wild at Heart is Lynch's worst film precisely because it's the only time where Lynch seems to have caved into both the hype and criticism of his previous films, and made a movie that is in effect composed of all the easy reductions of his previous work -- all they are, are weird violent sex fantasies, or whatever and etc. In his own way, I'm beginning to fear that's what Tarantino has done with Django Unchained. Tarantino beats Lynch in that this is not a bad film, nor is it even Tarantino's worst. But speaking as a fan, a certain uneasiness can't help but set in.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Imagination

So, who is Tom Ripley? When I ask this question, I must limit the scope to Patricia Highsmith's original novel, as well as to Anthony Minghella's 1999 film adaptation, as well as -- and this is more to the point of today's post -- René Clement's 1960 adaptation of the novel, called Purple Noon. The Clement film was released last week as a gorgeous Blu-ray by Criterion, and in the lead up to that release I was moved to finally -- finally! -- read Highsmith's novel and rewatch as much as I was able to of Minghella's film. And there, as it pertained to "research" prior to watching Purple Noon, my focus had to stay. I haven't read any of the other books of what I've recently learned is sometimes referred to as the "Ripliad," Highsmith's series of five novels, which she wrote over the course of pretty much her entire forty-something-year career, about a quite appalling and very clever murderer. I've seen the two adaptations of the third book, Ripley's Game, Wim Wenders The American Friend with Dennis Hopper as Ripley, and Liliana Cavani's Ripley's Game, which stars, as it was foreordained, John Malkovich. (The second Ripley novel, Ripley Under Ground, was turned into a film in 2005 by Roger Spottiswoode, with a screenplay co-written by His Eminence, Donald E. Westlake, and starring the not-quite-as-foreordained-as-John-Malkovich Berry Pepper as Ripley. To my knowledge, no one in the world has ever seen this movie.) But so, with that needless bookkeeping aside, I'm left asking "Who is Tom Ripley" because how the man is depicted in the Minghella and Clement films, and how those depictions do or do not match Highsmith's original, is something that people who care about this stuff care about quite a lot (I'm not judging, for I, too, care).

It's perhaps to be expected that Minghella ends up taking it in the teeth a bit, in comparison to Clement. The idea is that Minghella portrays Ripley as altogether too emotional, too damaged by others, too empathetic, even, and that Ripley as originally imagined by Highsmith was more of a cold-blooded alien, using humans and their weaknesses however he saw fit. The Ripley that exists in subsequent novels may well be like that, but in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Minghella is not that far off when he shows him to be an awkward doofus scrambling for acceptance. I might as well dispense with the important elements of the plot now: Tom Ripley (Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Alain Delon in Purple Noon) lives in New York (San Francisco in Purple Noon), just barely getting by, when he's approached by the wealthy Herbert Greenleaf (James Rebhorn in Minghella's film, barely there at all in Purple Noon) and asked, because Mr. Greenleaf has an inflated sense of the relationship between the two, to go to Italy, Mongibello specifically, and talk his son Dickie (Jude Law in Minghella's, Maurice Ronet in the Clement film, in which he is, for some reason, named Philippe Greenleaf) into returning home. Mr. Greenleaf will pay him to do this, and Tom agrees, seeing all sorts of potential in this situation. Once there, Ripley's psychopathy and sociopathy begins to bleed through -- in Highsmith and Minghella, Ripley is clearly sexually attracted to Dickie, and he soon idolizes the shallow young man, whose relationship with another American expat, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow in the one, Marie Laforet in the other) Tom dismisses as being one-sided on Marge's part. In Minghella's film, it might well be; in Highsmith and Clement, it's harder to say. In any case, Dickie is not one to idolize, but not because Tom is better than Dickie. Try telling that to Tom, though, who soon feels rejected and hated and angry. He decides to murder Dickie, not only out of vengeance, but also because Tom, a gifted mimic and forger, sees that with some hard work and imagination, he can take Dickie's place, and live Dickie's life, and spend Dickie's money. Not with Marge, who he intends to let down, as Dickie and via the Italian mail system, as gently as possible, which is to say, what Ripley would consider gently, which is to say, not very gently. Throw in a smug pal of Dickie's who becomes supicious, named Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman/Billy Kearns) and some Italian police, and you have the basics down.
Now, Minghella is not wrong, if his degree of faithfulness to Highsmith is of paramount importance, in making Ripley somewhat sensitive. It is true, however, that he goes overboard (this is something I talked about with Bryce Wilson as I was reading the novel, and he was correct). One of the unappealing things about his film, which is only really unappealing after you've read Highsmith, is how unpleasant he makes Dickie. Clement does this too, to a degree, but as we'll learn Clement is doing all sorts of different things in Purple Noon. In Minghella's film, Dickie is mean and thoughtless and selfish and brutish. In Highsmith, he's just kind of shallow, really. Freddie Miles is also much worse in Minghella's film -- he's barely in the Highsmith novel -- and (here's a spoiler for you) when you consider that these people, as victims, account for both the murders Highsmith included, you do sort of have to ask why Minghella felt compelled to push our sympathy so far in the direction of their murderer. Highsmith, who from what I understand was a genuine misanthrope in real life, does not do this. What interests her about Tom Ripley in that first novel is depicting a man who has always had the capacity to commit murder inside him but wasn't really aware of it, and then when the moment comes he finds without any surprise that he's entirely capable of taking another person's life. From there, her novel is about existing with this, not on the killer's conscience, but simply as something that is now part of his life. It's a thing he can and will do again, and he's fine with it. It's like suddenly discovering you have a talent for music. That's the skin-crawling brilliance of Highsmith's novel.

But Minghella wore his bleeding heart on his sleeve, and he seems to believe that if a person is living a sad life, which is how Highsmith portrays Ripley in the early parts of her book, then that life must be so sad, and so unfair that any victims left in the wake when the person living that life kicks back, must have had it coming, if not in strict moral, eye-for-an-eye terms, than at least in some karmic sense. If we're to sympathize with Ripley even after two murders (but not after three, Minghella having added one at the end, rather effectively, it must be said, and in a way that does sort of cut into the queasy empathy he'd been building up to that point) then his victims have to be a couple of real assholes. This is the sort of thinking that gets people like John Dillinger and Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde turned into folk heroes, and it's one of the time-honored movie cliches I'm least fond of. The curious thing about ending up feeling this way about Minghella's film -- a film I used to like a lot more than I do now -- is that it is, in terms of plot, quite faithful to the novel. It's not even unfaithful to the spirit, really, at least for a while. But my problem, fundamentally, is that what interests Minghella about Ripley is not as interesting as Ripley is, as he was originally conceived.

So where does this leave René Clement and Purple Noon? Clement achieves that weird thing that great filmmakers sometimes do, which is to adapt a great novel and remain more faithful to it by diverging wildly from it. Clement doesn't lose his mind and move the action from Italy to Antarctica and set it in 1980 (note: in 1960, 1980 would have been the future), but he does change a lot, some of it subtle, some of it rather bold. To begin with, Purple Noon kicks off with Ripley not only already in Mongibello -- Mr. Greenleaf's extremely brief appearance comes at the end -- but he's already locked into his relationship with Philippe and Marge. There's no build, Tom Ripley doesn't appear to be harboring an uncomfortable obsession with Philippe, no apparent hatred for Marge (quite the opposite, in fact). The key scene from Highsmith's novel, when Dickie stumbles on Ripley dressed in Dickie's clothes and just basking in them for various reasons, which Minghella also mines for all it's worth, occurs something like twenty minutes into Purple Noon, so that it's significance is not at all the same. Clement allows for some kind of strange sexual component when he has Delon, before Maurice Ronet as Philippe Greenleaf walks in, kissing his own mirror image, but whatever's going on in Ripley's head at the moment, which Highsmith would make clear to the reader if not to the somewhat muddled Ripley himself, and Minghella would probably have someone state outright, is left, by Clement, in the character's head. Purple Noon is not an act of psychoanalysis, which to varying degrees the other two versions of the film could be regarded as.
Not long after, we will learn that Ripley's plot all along has been to murder this man and take his identity. He tells Philippe as much, and then follows through. Minghella portrayed it as an act of passion, for Highsmith its status as a planned act lasted only a couple of hours, from conception to execution. In Purple Noon, Ripley could have been thinking about this for weeks. This changes Ripley utterly, or perhaps strips him to his core. It's hard to say which. Possibly neither. Pretty clearly though, in Clement's version, Philippe Greenleaf may not have been his first murder, which even in Highsmith we know for a fact Dickie was. In Purple Noon, Ripley does not discover that he's okay with committing murder, rather, he's always been okay with committing murder. Even if Philippe's his first victim, his own ease with it had long ago been worked out in his mind. As Ripley, Delon portrays the occasional moment of panic, where appropriate, but otherwise he's extraordinarily certain of himself. And why shouldn't he be? There's a conceit to Highsmith's premise, having to do with Ripley's physical resemblance to Dickie, which she pushes about as far as it can go, and perhaps further, and which Minghella really doesn't quite bring off, that Clement, Delon, and Ronet nail beautifully. There's no doubt in my mind that Delon's Ripley would fool the people he fools in Purple Noon, and without any kind of conscience to hold him back, why shouldn't his confidence be soaring? In Highsmith, Ripley only becomes truly comfortable with his own safety at the very end; Delon plays Ripley as though safety was his due. Clement takes this as an opportunity to eventually pile on the irony, in his biggest departure from the original novel. This is not Highsmith, but it is extremely interesting.

The other thing about Purple Noon that noses it well ahead of Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley is that it's just wonderfully made. I'd say a lot of this has to do with the fact that Clement made his film only seven years after Highsmith's book was published, and therefore his Mongibello would quite naturally resemble Highsmith's far more closely than Minghella's almost-forty-years-removed, art-directed-to-shit approach (I'm not knocking Minghella here, I basically like his work, but this is the deal with period pieces), but also take, for instance, the murder of Freddie Miles. There's nothing wrong with the way Minghella handles it, but Clement's framing, and clinical noting of odd details, recalls Highsmith's chillingly plainspoken style. Actually more to the point is that here Clement's editing and shot choices put me in mind of Jean-Pierre Melville, which, if there's higher praise I'd like to hear it. But that is the way Clement approaches this story of a murderer -- the way Melville approaches his stories about thieves. Stylistically, anyway, but when dealing with murder, the criminal mind becomes far less fathomable than it would be if all that was happening was some money was being stolen. This is why, for all its many and significant differences, Purple Noon feels more like Highsmith than Minghella's more surface meticulousness: Clement doesn't pretend to try and make us understand Ripley, and he knows that Highsmith was only fooling you into thinking you did.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Pop

One of my favorite movies from 2009 is Dogtooth, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou, about a husband and wife, mostly the husband, who have constructed a bizarre alternate reality for their three adult children to grow up in, one where the meaning of words as we – those of us fortunate enough to have not been doomed to exist in this family – know them have been altered, with the purpose, one assumes, of making the son and two daughters easily controllable, and making them unfit to live in the actual world beyond the high walls that surround the family home. Dogtooth is quite a bit stranger, and darker, and funnier, and more unsettling, than that brief description indicates (it also puts me in mind of the excellent episode of the new The Twilight Zone from the 1980s called “Word Salad,” featuring Robert Klein as a man who wakes up one day to find the English language gradually turning into gibberish), and, so it should logically follow, it made me very curious about this Yorgos Lanthimos character, and what his whole deal is.

After watching his most recent film, Alps from 2011, which is being released on DVD tomorrow by Kino Lorber, I’m no closer to knowing what his whole deal is, but whatever it is I’m still on board. Once more co-written by Lanthimos and Filippou, Alps very much resembles Dogtooth, not least because once again language comes in for a...beating? I don't know, but it seems clear that Lanthimos and Filippou look at the whole concept of verbal communication somewhat askance. In this film, four people -- two hospital works, a rhymic gymnast, and her coach -- have formed a group their leader (Aris Servetalis) has dubbed "Alps." It's not an acronym, but rather meant to refer specifically to the mountain range. The idea is that no other mountain range can replace the Alps, but anyone would be happy to have one of the Alps' peaks step in and sub for, say, Mt. Kilimanjaro. The Alps are irreplacable. And what the Alps, the group of four people, I mean, do, is they make contact with the families or friends of the recently departed and, for a fee, will play the role of the deceased for a period of time until the grief of those in mourning passes. Such is the idea, anyhow.

What's pretty key here, though, is that the premise of the film (if you don't know what it is going in) doesn't become clear until after Servetalis has pitched his idea to name the group "Alps," which, at the time, may not seem like such a big deal, beyond the fact that Servetalis chooses the name of the Alps highest peak as his own inter-group nickname. Pretty arrogant, but he's the boss, so fine. But then you know what this group is all about, and his explanation for why "Alps" is a good name becomes almost breathtaking in its presumption. So if these four people are the Alps, and nothing can replace the Alps but the Alps can replace anything, then as far as Servetalis is concerned his group is better than the dead people they're replacing. When you come to learn what kind of a person Servetalis is (he's a scumbag), this makes some kind of sense. But I mean, Jesus Christ.
In terms of plot, there isn't much. Like Dogtooth, Alps is a series of scenes that depict what it's like to be in this group, and to be the kind of person that's in this group. And I don't mean "a group like this," I mean this group. Lanthimos is nothing if not specific, and he portrays the four main characters as being quite a bit removed from normal human society, steady jobs or no. The film opens with the rhythmic gymnast (Ariane Labed, who has a very Dogtooth air about her, even though she wasn't in that film) practicing her routine to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana." When she's done, she explains her missteps to her coach (Johnny Vekris) by saying she would really rather perform to a pop song. Her coach responds by saying she's not ready for that, and if she keeps this up he'll break every bone in her body and then she won't be able to perform to anything. Later, the meek, frightened, desperately sad gymnast attempts to win the goodwill of her coach by stripping off her top and contorting her body into, I guess, gymnastic poses, while extolling his many virtues. As desperately sad as her character is, so is this scene, not least because it's very clear that this very thing has been demanded of her before.

The character who you might for a while think is the most with it is played by Aggeliki Papoulia (now she was in Dogtooth). She works in the hospital with Vekris, and it's through her that most of their clients are found. This would suggest that if Vekris is the president of Alps, Papoulia is the vice president (how these two ever hooked up with the gymnast/coach team to form this group is never explained, a good creative choice, as far as I'm concerned), and perhaps Vekris does consider her his second-in-command, but whether he does or doesn't, Papoulia is coming apart at the seams far more than even the gymnast. Papoulia's mental collapse, which takes the shape of her disturbingly close bonds with some of the clients, forms whatever narrative Alps has.

But there's so much more that's strange and interesting about this film. For one thing, I mentioned language, and how once against Lanthimos and Filippou mess with it. This comes from the lines the Alps have to memorize -- they're basically actors, after all -- in order to closely approximate the dead people they're stepping in for. We see them rehearse, not just among themselves, but with their clients, and it turns out the Alps are terrible actors. But somehow the repetition of words spoken by the deceased gets under the skin of at least Papoulia, even after the words have been repeated so often that the context falls away and it all becomes the spluttering of a madman, or madwoman. And speaking of acting: from Vekris's point of view, the process of successfully completing an Alps project involves almost no emotional buy-in, but rather the focus is on minutiae (which they're not even consistent about -- one dead man wore a certain kind of eyeglasses that Vekris demands the client provide, but the fact that the deceased was bald, and the Alps planning to step in is not, doesn't concern him) about the deceased's life and interests. When Papoulia or Servetalis home in on a hospital patient they think might soon be shown across, they pepper them with banal questions, such as "Who is your favorite actor?" The answers are always American, or anyway Hollywood (Jude Law is in there once) actors, and you wonder, with this kind of shit taking up all their planning, how any of their jobs can ever work.

And I don't know that they do. Much of the film's dark humor comes from seeing some of these in progress, and it's always absurd. What's more interesting to me, however, and this was also the case in Dogtooth, is that whatever his intentions, Lanthimos's brand of very dry surrealism does not finally reflect anything back at the viewer. The members of Alps are crazy, but this doesn't necessarily mean that anyone else is. Dogtooth was about a crazy family that had chosen to isolate itself from society, and very few people from the regular world get a look in (granted, one of the few who does has a lot of problems herself). That's not what Alps is about, but Lanthimos tells the story in a way that still isolates them, and in some cases we see reactions from the sane world to their behavior, and those reactions are not at all unlike what I'd expect from myself, or you, or anybody else. As for anyone buying into their services, well, grief does funny things to people. In any case, those services, it turns out, are not as close to Hospice-for-the-grieving as a thumbnail sketch might make you think. Knowing Servetalis's character as we eventually do, it's hard to not see them, or at least him, the mastermind, as chillingly, bewilderingly, delusionally mercenary. I give this business six months, tops.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Prepare the Death Cell

For a long time, the existence of Pete Walker was only known to me by a few striking movie titles, which I otherwise knew nothing about: Die Screaming, Marianne, Schizo, Frightmare. It wasn't until recently that I actually got around to watching any of his movies (or to learning that they were the work of the same director). Of the Walker films I've seen, the best one is easily Frightmare, which unfortunately does not turn up on the new Pete Walker Collection box set from Kino Lorber, but what the set does include is hardly without interest, even if it's a decidedly mixed bag, and even though the interest is sometimes fleeting. If nothing else, though, I was able to compare the Kino Blu-ray disc of House of Whipcord with the standard DVD from Shriek Show that I already owned, and boy does that DVD look shitty now.
Die Screaming, Marianne - I'm going to take these in the order in which I watched them, which means I'm beginning with this title, from 1971, written by Murray Smith and starring Susan George as the title character, a woman who, when we first meet her, is running from somebody or another, is treating hip motorist Christopher Sandford quite rudely, all before entering into a relationship with him as preparation for treating him even worse. As it happens, though, she has a very good reason for doing almost all of this, as Sandford is attached to two people from Marianne's life who wish her ill -- a corrupt judge, played by Leo Genn, and his daughter Hildegarde, played by Judy Huxtable. These two happen to be Marianne's father and sister (respectively, of course), and the relationship between the judge and Hildegarde is such that, even without their murderous intentions towards Marianne, would inspire hopefully anyone to steer very, very clear. Anyhow, it all has to do with inheritence, and this rather disappointing plot point can almost function as a synecdoche for this rather disappointing film. Walker is an interesting filmmaker, because he's been slotted into a sleazy, British grindhouse category, but in the commentary track for the actually quite violent Frightmare, he says something about not being interested in the nudity-for-its-own-sake aesthetic that so many of his peers trafficked in. That knowledge helps you understand why Susan George remains clothed throughout, even during a steambath scene, and anyway this isn't my complaint about Die Screaming, Marianne, though it's sort of related. The complaint is that the film has craziness, in terms of narrative and visual content, on its mind, but it never actually goes crazy. It's strangely muted, even when everyone starts dying. I think this ties in to Walker's lack of interest in old-fashioned sleaze, but a film called Die Screaming, Marianne should offer something else in its place. It's a thing I've noticed with Walker that he really takes his time in moving his story along, but he doesn't always do so in an engaging way. Plus that title is just a lie. The judge and Hildegarde may well want Marianne dead, but I don't think it interests them particularly if she does so screaming or not.
Schizo - Okay, now we're talkin'. The back cover of the Kino set describes this 1976 film, written by David McGillivray, as "Walker's spin on Psycho," but I actually think that's an oversimplification. Not that Schizo is as complex or anywhere near as great as Hitchcock's masterpiece, but the only real resemblance it bears to the earlier film is the title. In this one, Lynne Frederick (a gorgeous -- and tragic -- woman who I somehow don't recognize from film to film and always have to look up, after which I say "Oh, it's Peter Sellers' wife!" or, more often, "Oh, it's the girl from Phase IV!") plays Samantha, an ice skater who, when we meet her, has just become engaged to Alan (John Leyton). Samantha being famous enough to have this fact published as news, it comes to the attention of William Haskin (Jack Watson), a creepy man, recently released from prison, who immediately begins stalking her. This stalking includes posing as a member of the catering staff at Samantha's wedding, placing a bloody knife on the cart bearing the wedding cake, and preparing to wheel it out to the bride and groom before the head of the catering staff stops him, and he flees. So this is the sort of thing that happens, and Samantha assures everybody that she knows this man, that he was her mother's lover, and she witnessed her mother's murder at the hands of this maniac when she, Samantha, was just a child.

But the film is, in my view, a good deal more interesting and strange than that summary would imply. For example, the film has a twist which Walker seems entirely comfortable signalling to the audience, early and often, which only helps to allow the dread of its reveal to creep in earlier. You could have the twist, and let it just be a twist like any other twist, so that after the reveal the audience goes "Oh, okay, that's a surprise I guess, good job everybody," or you can allow at least the possibility of it into your film earlier and allow the effect to spread. Of course, the "possibility" turned into a certainty well before anything was blatantly confirmed, but it was fun to watch the performances of key players change once the idea was introduced. Plus this film is, like another Walker film I'll be writing about in a minute, just crazy enough to add a supernatural element to a film where nothing of the sort belongs. Basically, there's a psychic in the film, who's an actual psychic, and this fact has, at the end of the day, almost no bearing on the story's outcome. I have to say, I liked that. Because, well, why not do that?
The Comeback - This 1978 film, also written by Murray Smith, is easily the most insane Pete Walker film I've seen. Even more insane than Frightmare, because the insanity of that film is a good deal more coherent. Here, American pop singer Jack Jones plays American pop singer Nick Cooper, who is trying to embark on the recording of his first album in six years, while being aggressively, in a happy businessman sort of way, pushed along by his agent (David Doyle). Nick and his wife Gail (Holly Palance) have recently divorced, and Nick has rented, or had rented for him by his agent, a sprawling country home in England. The caretakers there are Mr. and Mrs. B, and they're played by Bill Owen and Sheila Keith. Sheila Keith, known for being so memorably, terrifyingly off her nut in Walker's earlier Frightmare, is not exactly a calming presence this time around, and The Comeback becomes something of a murder mystery as the audience, and Nick, try to figure out who from a very small pool of suspects could have murdered Nick's ex-wife.

Or you'd think that's what it would be like, except Gail's murder, which happens in the opening minutes of the film, goes undiscovered by the rest of the characters (barring whoever did it, of course) for a very long time, and when someone finally does find out about it, they're promptly iced, as well, so that The Comeback continues to have no living characters who are even aware that any murders at all have taken place. In the meantime, Nick tries to record his album while thinking he's either going mad, or that this giant house is actually haunted. At night he hears a woman crying, but can find no one, or he'll open a door and find a desiccated corpse in a wheelchair (Jack Jones's reaction to this sight is actually pretty convincing), but it's not there when next he looks, and so on. The Comeback, as I've said, offers up only a very small number of possibilities for the killer's identity, and I had one person pegged for it, and ended up being wrong. Well played, Pete Walker, although the reveal of it all is so ridiculously arbitrary (why does the killer wear that costume? For whose benefit?) that the film's other similarities to Italian slasher films ended up being underlined by the end. And then it throws in a ghost! A real one, I mean, very briefly. Just for...I don't know. Well, I kind of do, but this habit of adding one supernatural element to a non-supernatural horror film, which does not factor into the plot, is certainly an odd way to go, and Pete Walker has done it at least twice.
House of Whipcord - It's appropriate, or convenient, to close out with this 1974 film, written by McGillivray from Walker's own story, as it's the best of the four films in this set. I'd seen it once before, but this time around I found it to be quite a bit better than I'd remembered. It stars newcomer Penny Irving as a not entirely inhibited -- as opposed to uninhibited -- young fashion model who, at a party one night, catches the eye of Robert Tayman as a man called, or probably calling himself, Mark E. Desade. This guy, who dresses like he's Dracula from a 1970s Marvel horror comic, is plainly no good, but instead of butchering her, as you might expect him to do, he whisks her away to the titular house, where a doddering old judge (Patrick Barr) and his cruel wife (Barbara Markham) imprison young women whose morals they -- particularly she -- view as vile. This vileness can manifest in actions as minor as appearing topless in public, but if these terrified young women violate the prison rules -- and this is not, it must be noted, in any way an official prison -- three times, they're executed.

This kind of non-humorous, meaning it doesn't even try for jokes, horror satire is not entirely my bag, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit this is a pretty damn good one. Again, the premise of House of Whipcord, plus that title, would seem to indicate a sleaziness which turns out to be the actual goal, but as Walker likes, however unintentionally, to defy such expectations, the film is in fact relentlessly grim, and eventually gets to a point where even if the villains get theirs, all hope has already been drowned anyway. Barbara Markham takes the Sheila Keith role this time around (although Keith is here, too, playing an evil prison guard -- I bet she was very nice in real life), and manages the chilling requirements of the part quite handily. There's a religious base to what her character and the judge are up to with this private, secret prison, but curiously Walker doesn't lay that stuff on as thickly as you might expect. For one thing, whatever his beliefs, the judge is not entirely convinced by the rightness of his wife's extremes, but he's too old and out of it to really object, or to understand his own place in things, while his wife is more concerned with the ruthless bureaucracy and logical, to her, pursuit of revenge that follows the breaching of same, than anything else. There's some effective religious imagery, of the ironic kind, but Walker is content to go easy, and let the premise just play itself out. This is all to the film's benefit, which, as I say, manages to be truly and disturbingly shocking by the end. Walker can be hugely inconsistent, but when he hit on something good, he could be fascinating.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Good Gone Days

Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate has a reputation that it can hardly be expected to live down to. Or rather, it had such a reputation, one you all know about: it bankrupted United Artists, Vincent Canby dubbed it an "unqualified disaster," Roger Ebert threw up his hands and claimed you couldn't even tell what was happening on-screen, Cimino had it pulled in order to frantically edit out a full hour in the futile hope of salvaging some level of critical and commercial success, and so forth. The point being that a revisionist take on the film was bound to happen at some point, and from what I can tell that revisionism has been going on for a good couple of decades now. The most persuasive voice in defense of Heaven's Gate has always been, for me anyway, F. X. Feeney's, so it's a little surprising to see him absent from the special features of the new Criterion release of the film. But it's the film that matters, obviously, and the Criterion Blu-ray is gorgeous, and goes a very long way for allowing Cimino to make his own case, all by himself.

Not that it's perfect, or anything. In fact, Heaven's Gate begins with a twenty minute prologue set at the 1870 Harvard graduation ceremony, and it's a testimony to something or other, nothing good, that in the course of this sequence it was proved to me that not only was it possible for me to be bored by both Joseph Cotten and John Hurt, but to be bored by them rather quickly. Each of them gets a speech: Cotten as the Reverend Doctor representing the Harvard faculty telling all these young dudes a bunch of boring old people stuff, and John Hurt as Billy Irvine representing all these cool young dudes with his valedictorian speech telling those old people what's what. Also made clear from this sequence is that Michael Cimino is not funny. Billy Irvine is a hopelessly obnoxious class-clown-type dork, but the only way Cimino was able to communicate to me that he was meant to be funny was by constantly cutting to Kris Kristofferson as Jim Averill, Billy's friend and fellow graduate, laughing his damn guts out at all of Billy's random capering. However, crucially, the one thing this prologue does achieve is it successfully sets a tone, or rather a pace, which the rest of the film, the full three-plus hours that follow, hews to, but because once Cimino skips the action ahead twenty years, and Heaven's Gate becomes his particular form of beautiful and infernal Western, it all suddenly makes sense. Anyway, it's just Cimino being Cimino, this being roughly the same structural idea he had when he began The Deer Hunter with a sprawling wedding before it moved to Vietnam. Even Billy Irvine becomes interesting once Heaven's Gate really gets rolling.

The film is a (highly fictionalized, it must be said) recounting of the Johnson County War, which was an 1892 range war between rich cattlemen and European settlers who the cattlemen viewed as encroaching on their land. Which they were, but the cattlemen drew up a hit list and hired, in essence, hit men to check off the names. Cimino politicizes this even more than the true story would already be naturally by, for instance, claiming that President Harrison was in on the whole hit list idea. Somewhat hypocritically, because this isn't really like me, I'm able to look past, or forgive, or get over, Cimino's silly need to ramp up history, and look at the film as a vast wash of Vilmos Zsigmond at his best, all brown and smokey and yellow and red, Cimino's strange rhythms, violence, Isabelle Huppert, the barely sketched moral journey of Christopher Walken's Nate Champion (I actually mean this as a compliment, it being of a piece with Cimino's approach to storytelling, which can work if you let it), "The Blue Danube," Sam Waterston saving his role from Snidely Whiplash-dom by virtue of simply being Sam Waterston, the endless final battle that caps off with a horrific suicide, which I first saw, I can only assume due to a momentary slip in adult supervision, on TV at my aunt and uncle's back in 1980-something, and which I've never forgotten, and that awful little twerp Billy Irvine, whose conscience is not entirely different from that of Kristofferson's Averill, but where Averill's spine is steel, Irvine's is at best tin, and watching him pop up throughout the film beside Sam Waterston's evil cattleman Frank Canton and stumble through Hell and allow it to spread, is almost fascinating. I say "almost" because Cimino can lay Irvine's persona on a little thick, but when people complain that they don't see the "point" of the character, I always want to say, and would if I ever talked like this, that they have just expressed the "point" of Billy Irvine rather succinctly.

Another famous, or semi-famous, or infamous, takedown of Heaven's Gate back in 1980 came from Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News, who told Tom Brokaw that the film contained nothing worth looking at, and further had no great performances. Her first point is rubbish, but she's not wrong about the second thing, and it is a bit strange to see so many great actors in a film as epic as Heaven's Gate contain no performance that is...I can't say "no performance that is memorable," because there are a number of good performances here, but nothing knocks me out on an acting level. I'd say Walken comes closest, and Huppert, and even Waterston, who does kind of stick in the brain, and Kristofferson is typically solid, but every human being, and therefore every performance, is ultimately beaten down by Cimino's manic attention to detail. It's kind of petty to hold that against the film, though. If Heaven's Gate doesn't move me, and ultimately it doesn't, not in the way I'm moved by the films of, say, John Ford, one of Cimino's major influences, I nevertheless find it a very easy film to become lost in. There's a shot in Heaven's Gate where Cimino's camera is panning along the main street of a town, and as it's passing a photographer taking a picture in the middle of the road, the flash from the photograph sends up, and back, a gust of smoke that keeps pace with Cimino's own camera. It's a breathtaking shot. Sitting on my couch, I almost gasped. There's a lot of that in Heaven's Gate. I'm not complaining.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Clothed in Immense Power

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner's Lincoln begins with a short battle scene depicting black Union soldiers and white Confederate soldiers hacking away at each other in a vast field of mud and brown puddles. As a visual metaphor for what's to come, this could be, and probably has been, considered a bit on the nose. However, when you consider that what's to come is very specifically and even literally about stopping that very thing from happening anymore, you kind of have to step back and say "Well...you're not wrong." On top of that, you have the battle itself, and how it's portrayed. These soldiers aren't crouched behind trees or hedges, firing gusts of smoke at each other. No, this is after that, and the two armies have slammed together, and here, for I think maybe the hundredth time, Steven Spielberg proves himself to be one of the smartest, observant, and unflinching directors of visceral and cold-blooded violence working today, of any status, working with any level of budget, or wielding any amount of power. These soldiers are shown as being absolutely desperate to kill their enemy, and doing so without a rifle, or rather without the distance between you and your target needed to make a rifle effective, proves much more difficult than you'd think. The most striking image from this battle scene shows a Confederate soldier being beaten and pushed down into the mud, the three or four Union soldiers above him stepping on his face to drive him under the muck and water so that he'll choke or drown or whatever will happen to him that will finally stop his heart. Spielberg is very willing and able to juxtapose the clear righteousness of one side with the brutality they're called upon to engage in. This makes that brutality either just, or just a fact, or maybe something else, depending on the film, and depending on you. I'm nearly certain that virtually no other filmmaker has the balls to do this the way Spielberg does it, but he made Hook that one time, so fuck him I guess.

From there, Lincoln moves to a scene where Abraham Lincoln himself (Daniel Day-Lewis) is meeting in an informal, support-the-troops sort of way, with Union soldiers at camp. We see him speaking with four soldiers specifically (among them Lukas Haas, in a cameo), two white and two black (which, again...), who are trying to remember the words to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. As three of the soldiers depart to join up with their companies, the fourth, played by David Oyelowo, who earlier in the scene had directly voiced to Lincoln his concerns about the fates of freed slaves after the war, picks up the Address where the others had faltered. As he recites it, he smiles, turns, and walks away, finishing the speech as he leaves. This moment, the turning away with a smile a repeating one of the most famous speeches in American history to the man who originally delivered it, is not, I would say, a sign that Lincoln is going to be the work of the Good Spielberg, as I shall call him here for the sake of economy, the one who made Jaws and Munich and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and, well most of the rest of his film, but rather the Spielberg responsible for Amistad and War Horse -- the Sap, as perhaps I shall refer to him. But anyone who thinks that moment defines the whole scene hasn't been paying attention. The key to this scene, and the key it proveds to the rest of the film to come, is how Lincoln is introduced. The first words spoken by Lincoln in the whole film -- and I admit I may not have the line right, but it's close -- are "Which battalion are you from?" And these words are spoken off-camera. The camera will pull back from a shot of Oyelewo and Colman Domingo, playing one of the other soldiers, to gradually reveal Lincoln's shoulder, neck, the back of his head. Eventually, Spielberg cuts to a full shot of the man, sitting and chatting, but never looming, never reeking of importance or even history. There's even a hint here, in Day-Lewis's performance, of impatience, of Lincoln's wish that these men weren't so intent on talking his goddamn ear off. The first we see of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he's being a politician, and a tired one.
This, in very small nutshell form, is a big part of the brilliance of Spielberg and Kushner's film. One of the things that the director, the writer, and, probably more than them, Daniel Day-Lewis nail is the presentation of a man who weilds enormous influence and power, but who is not, perhaps, some kind of circus freak, or robot, or myth, or the kind of dope who is not exasperatedly aware that he is at all times on a public stage. Before going further, I'd like to note that after thinking about Lincoln for several days, and wondering how I might go about writing it up, it occurred to me that the real difficulty of explaining to those who haven't seen it what makes Lincoln such an absorbing, quietly thrilling, and, for me, deeply moving experience, is that it says a lot of things that are very trite but only if you say them. Meaning, Linoln expresses these things, and you see them but don't hear them. I now have to say them. I now have to say that while discussing his desire to pass the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery throughout the United States, however much this might jeopardize peace negotiations with the Confederacy, with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), Spielberg at one point has Day-Lewis's Lincoln on his hands and knees, in a slow, old (though at only 56 years of age, as Lincoln would have been at the time, maybe less old than clumsily tall) bent way, tending to the fire in the fireplace. Why? Because he's just a regular dude, guys! So perhaps you see my problem here. But the problem is mine; it is not Kushner's, or Spielberg's, and it certainly isn't Day-Lewis's, who inhabits the character with the full understanding that a man as great and who shleps around as much historical weight as Lincoln can only become more impressive the less he is mythologized.

Probably it would help me out a bit to get into what Lincoln is about, apart from the obvious. As I hinted at earlier, and as you all are no doubt already aware, Lincoln is not one of those hopelessly sprawling birth-to-death biopics that make me want to pull a Leland Palmer against my bedroom wall, but rather a very narrowly focused account of the last months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, during which time he sought to end the Civil War and/or pass the highly divisive and legally complex 13th Amendment. Meeting both goals was certainly the preferred outcome, but as the film makes clear, a negotiated peace with the Confederacy, who was by this time losing the war rather badly yet unwilling to cave in completely, would be not-quite-but-nearly impossible if what Lincoln offered them was, by their reckoning, less than nothing. But against the advice of Seward, for political reasons, and Hal Holbrook’s Frances Preston Blair, who wants peace more than anything, and even looked at askance by “rabid” abolitionists like James Ashley (David Costabile) and Asa Vintner Litton (Stephen Spinnell), who, under the tutelage of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), had been the amendment’s spearhead in the Senate, believing that Lincoln is simply playing chess, Lincoln is nevertheless determined. And however askance his underlings may view this move by the President, Stevens, a radical, is unwilling to succumb to their kneejerk cynicism -- he'd rather give Lincoln the benefit of the doubt, probably because at this stage it's the best shot they'll have of finally ridding the country of slavery. Alongside the war and politics, we see Lincoln at home, as much as he can be, with Mary Todd (Sally Field), still raw and spilling out everywhere after the death of their son Willie three years earlier, and their young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is fascinated with a collection of daguerreotypes of slaves that his parents occasionally have to take away from him as though they were toys he's spending too much time with. Later the three of them will be joined by their adult son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who quite frankly will piss around a bit with is whole "I'm a grownup now, Dad" act.
As you have probably gathered from the cast I've listed so far, Lincoln is rather packed recognizable faces and names, big and small, all talented, and pretty much all perfectly cast. In this way, and I suppose others, the film is very much like David Fincher's Zodiac, where the philosophy seemed to be, though I don't actually know if Fincher was thinking along these lines, that with such a vast collection of minor but important characters, it might behoove the filmmaker to help his audience out and cast good actors they recognize, in order to keep track. A lot of people smirk at this kind of casting, but I don't think they realize the lifeline they're being offered. Lincoln's cast boasts, in addition to those actors already mentioned, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Gloria Reuben, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, S. Epatha Merkerson, Walton Goggins, and others with whom I'm less familiar. But that's quite a lineup, and you know what, they're all good. For pretty much his whole career, Spielberg and his casting directors -- Avy Kaufman in this case -- have displayed an almost unerring sense for either the best choice possible for a given role, or at least the most interesting. Look at Jaws. Everybody in that movie. Truffaut in Close Encounters. Newcomers like Barry Pepper in Saving Private Ryan. Or odd choices that somehow just work, like Enrico Colantoni, then known best for starring in the sitcom Just Shoot Me, in a small part as the murderer who sends Gigolo Joe fleeing in A.I.. Even in Lincoln, Jared Harris is frankly badly miscast, on paper anyway, as Ulysses S. Grant, and while I'm not about to claim that Harris's actual performance proves that he was the only man for the job, his performance is still interesting. He ain't Grant, but he's interesting. On the other hand, IMDB informs me that appearing in Lincoln in the role of "Wounded Soldier" is Kevin Kline. This is maybe gilding the lily a bit.

But of course the show is Daniel Day-Lewis. And I have to be very careful here. My inclination is to praise his work in Lincoln, and really his career, in terms that might be seen as insensible gushing. Then again if I pull back too much, I’ll be left with “He is good. He is good at acting” and my full appreciation of his performance will, I believe, be lost. So. As in so many things, there’s a certain amount of subjectivity at work, and especially in the case of Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln, because I think all Americans have some idea in their minds of what Abraham Lincoln was like. It’s an idea based on other actors who’ve played him, and certain contemporaneous accounts of the man that tell us, for instance, that his voice was somewhat high-pitched, and he liked to tell stories, and he was funny. All of that has been absorbed into both Day-Lewis’s performance and in Kushner’s script, but if that was all it was then we wouldn’t have the movie we have. What Day-Lewis manages here is to somehow confirm our vague notions of what Lincoln was really like (he was just a terrific guy, and so on) and show them up as almost hopelessly empty. It doesn’t escape me that in real terms, this is just another actor giving another performance, and except on a technical level, meaning that Day-Lewis was able to draw on more historical evidence about Lincoln the man than most actors have been able to, I have no more reason to believe that he’s any closer to the bone than, say, Henry Fonda was in Young Mr. Lincoln. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t leave the theater feeling as though I’d just been as close to seeing the real Lincoln talk and plot and joke and get angry and slam tables as I’m ever going to get. This kind of being the point, I think. And how does Day-Lewis do it? You might have to ask him that, though I doubt you’ll get very far. Just as an example, though, watch him in the scene where Lincoln tells the famous anecdote about Ethan Allen in England, and the picture of George Washington hanging in the outhouse. This is one of many times in the film where Lincoln tells a story either to amuse those around him and himself, or to do that as well as illustrating a point he’s trying to make, but I was particularly taken with this one because it’s such a famous joke (I’m assuming the story is apocryphal), and it’s written to be delivered by a man who is a gifted storyteller, as Lincoln, we’re assured, was. This is a very specific thing. It’s something Kushner can write well, but Day-Lewis has to tell it, and to tell it like a good storyteller would, with the right cadence and inflections, the body language and casual confidence that this bit is going to kill.
For the record, I consider the above to be another example of something that is not trite to do, but is to say. Fortunately, that's not all that's being offered by Day-Lewis. As it happens, I'm reading Some Do Not... by Ford Madox Ford (and I seem to be taking my own sweet time with it, but anyway), and earlier today I read a passage that I think is not irrelevant to this performance. It goes:

...for it is impossible to stand up for ever against the obloquy of your kind and remain unhurt in the mind. If you hunch your shoulders too long against a storm your shoulders will grow bowed...

There's a hell of a lot more that's bowing Lincoln's shoulders than just the accusations of dishonesty and selfish politicking -- there's the future of the country he's been elected to lead, as well as the future of the people who have been cruelly enslaved for generations. But it's all there, all of it, the accusations of dishonesty, too, and Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a man of great kindness, but that kindness has become very tired -- there's a beautiful moment near the beginning where Lincoln lays down on the floor next to his sleeping son before carrying him off to bed. However, there's not just warmth here; there's also fire, and at times the desire to hold onto his weary kindness slips, and he explodes, for instance at Mary when he thinks she wants all the grief over the death of Willie to herself, or he gets frankly really fed up by all these dinks in his goddamn cabinet who will not, first, acknowledge that they are all standing on the precipice of history, and that now (a hugely important word in the film, which you can tell even from the trailers) is the time to fix this country's moral compass, for once and for all. And second, you know, to recognize that he's the President of the United States. Tony Kushner's script is easily the best one Spielberg has had to work with since Munich, which was, hey look at that, also written by Kushner, but this one is great for reasons that you rarely see even in Spielberg's best movies. This is a film that loves the English language, and Kushner is obviously having a high old time messing around with the way it was spoken by smart, witty Americans in the 19th century. To my point, the line that Lincoln delivers near the end, when the chips are really down, about being a man who, as the President, "is clothed in immense power" is great in its fiery rebuke, and great as a moment when Lincoln advises that those who oppose him on this amendment should maybe stop kidding themselves.
Almost everybody with a major speaking roll gets some good lines thrown their way (and Kushner is willing to get into the dirt, too; he doesn't always go Arthur Miller-writing-The Crucible on his dialogue. I don't know how many times the MPAA allows you to use the word "fuck" and still maintain a PG-13 rating, but I counted two, and James Spader got them both), but the only actor allowed to tear off hunks as big if not bigger than Daniel Day-Lewis is Tommy Lee Jones. Jones, as so many people have already said, is pretty terrific here, but he's helped rather a lot by Kushner, who clearly loves Stevens, and what would at that time have been his radical politics, at least as much as he loves Lincoln. Who wouldn't come off well slinging the kind of shit Jones's Thaddeus Stevens hits his anti-abolitionist opponents with? Lee Pace, who plays pro-Confederacy Congressman Fernando Wood, gets his ass so thoroughly handed to him time and again by Jones that he must have wished that maybe his guy could have been written with that kind of swagger. But I don't know, man, you probably shouldn't have supported slavery like that.

Lincoln is being described as a film that finds Steven Spielberg reining in his style rather aggressively, and further that in terms of any style at all you will in fact only really find it in the dialogue and the acting. I think what these people mean, but maybe they don't know they mean it, is that Spielberg isn't succumbing to the creative impulses that drive him which those people don't happen to like. Because Lincoln is a fairly gorgeous film, visually. This is not only due to Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's approach to the lighting of their scenes, although their understanding of what rooms must have looked like at the time, with only candle and sunlight available for illumination, and how they use the natural result of that does at times reach Barry Lyndon levels of splendor. But there is a lot of grace in Spielberg's work here. There's a bluntness, too, as with the violence mentioned earlier, and a rather horrible sight witnessed by Robert Todd Lincoln at an Army hospital, but at times it's so elegant -- there's a shot involving Lincoln, Tad, and curtains, at a crucial moment in the film, that I'd count as one of the most beautiful things Spielberg has ever put on film. He, Spielberg, even gets weirdly stylized at a couple of moments. Anyone who has seen the film will know what I'm talking about here, but for the record I wasn't crazy about the candle bit, but rather liked Lincoln's dream. In any case, anyone who thinks Spielberg isn't pushing himself here isn't paying attention.

After I saw Lincoln, I made a joke to my wife, and then to other people because apparently I thought it was so damn funny, that went "Man, I really fucking hate John Wilkes Booth right now." It was a joke, but I meant it. In this film, Kushner, Spielberg, and Daniel Day-Lewis give such a specific personality, and such a specific life, to Abraham Lincoln, that witnessing just a portion of his existence spent under the burden to do good, made his assassination, which is in the film but not on-screen, absolutely infuriating, now almost 150 years after the fact. I realize there's a political component to film like this, one that reaches beyond 1865, but I do wonder if the complexity of that component has been fully recognized. The short version of my thoughts on this are that you can very easily bring in and take out some very flattering things to do with contemporary politics, or damning things, or whatever the hell you happen to feel like. But I believe that trying to open the film up like that does a disservice to its own narrow historical and moral focus, and to its specific subject. I left Lincoln thinking that there has never been another man like Abraham Lincoln, and our nation was deeply fortunate to have him as our President when we could not have done with anyone else. And some bastard snuck up behind him one night and shot him.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Capsule Reviews - Movie Theater Edition

Hey, I’m back, with a blog post, even! And not one about how I haven’t blogged in a while! No, instead, since I’ve been going to the movies a lot lately, I decided to round up the last four films I’ve seen and review them in capsule form. By way of getting back on the horse, kind of thing. Some of these are probably out of theaters by now, but I really don’t give a shit.
Sinister (d. Scott Derrickson) - This horror film seems to be the Insidious of 2012, and this is not at all something to be proud of. Like Insidious, I was rooked into going to see it by lots of talk about it being a surprisingly effective piece of work, and I left thinking that there are a lot of people with depressingly low standards for their horror movies. It stars Ethan Hawke as a true crime writer who's on the scent of something big -- several families murdered in their homes over the span of a decades, and in each case everyone in the family was killed, except one child from each, who have all disappeared. Renting a home that once belonged to the most recent victims, and is therefore also a crime scene (all of this unbeknownst to his wife, played by Juliet Rylance), Hawke finds a box of home movies in the attic. These are all home movies taken by the murderer, and each one reveals some ghostly thrash metal guy lurking around the premises at the time of the deaths. All of this is a good enough premise, and I actually liked Hawke's performance well enough (along with Fred Dalton Thompsons' brief appearance as a sheriff, his was the only performance I did like). But Sinister is mostly idiotic. Attempts to show Hawke thinking hard about the facts of these cases settle on showing him pinning photographs of the victims to a board, and writing in his notebook things like "Who killed you???" and "Where is Stephanie???" If not for these notes, he might go off track and start trying to figure out if the company that made the camera is still in business. Beyond that, you have a twist that can only really be one thing, because -- and this is a spoiler, sort of -- somebody had to take the home movies, and if it wasn't the guy from Korn, then, well... Derrickson and co-screenwriter C. Robert Cargill try to gussy it all up with a cameo by Vincent D'Onofrio as an expert on ritual murder, who kindly lays out the ancient mythology that ties the murders together, all of which, by the end, means precisely fuck-all. Add to all this Derrickson's fumbling, half-stupid (only half, because he must do as he's been taught) use of horror movie music stings, including a final one that is legitimately insulting, and I'm left thinking that horror movies with vaguely but meaninglessly creepy titles that too many people give a pass to are about to actually become a whole thing that I'll have to learn to put up with.
Argo (d. Ben Affleck) - So I guess this is what Affleck's doing now, and I have to say I'm not against it. I'm a pretty big fan of his directorial debut, the Dennis Lehane adaptation Gone Baby Gone, to the point that I think it's really underrated, you guys, and was at least halfway on board with his follow up, another crime thriller called The Town. If I take issue with how Affleck, in that case, adapted Chuck Hogan's novel Prince of Thieves (mainly I have trouble with a bank robber writing a letter about how we all have to pay for what we've done while kicking back on a beach in Florida), I do so while acknowledging that Affleck's filmmaking chops are genuine. Now, with Argo, he's making the kind of film that a director makes to prove to everyone that he's no longer new at this -- he's established. This time, he has a true story to work from, about a CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Affleck) who, in 1980, has been tasked with coming up with, and executing, a plan to safely extract six American diplomats who managed to avoid becoming hostages when the US Embassy in Iran was taken over only to wind up in a limbo situation that could possibly prove more dangerous. The plan Mendez hit on was sort of loony tunes: set up a fake film production for a science fiction film called Argo, complete with script, real Hollywood professionals (Alan Arkin as the producer, John Goodman as the make-up guy), and get the six diplomats out by going to Iran, making everyone believe this was a real movie, and then basically folding the diplomats into the production and getting the fuck out of there. And it's good stuff. The opening, which depicts the fall of the embassy, is extremely well done, and Affleck does a good job at playing up, but never overplaying, the comedy that is unavoidable in situation like this. Arkin, it shouldn't at this point surprise you to learn, walks away with the film in those scenes.

It ain't perfect. The ending, which of course milks for the greatest suspense possible the extraction of the diplomats, is a bit silly in the way Affleck piles on the obstacles. Two or three could have been left out with no problem, especially the ones you can tell never actually happened, such as Arkin and Goodman needing to get to their office so they can answer a very important phone call and being held up by a PA who's frankly too big for his britches, if you want the honest truth. Also handicapping things is Affleck himself. His performance as Mendez is probably the worst, or anyway least successful in the film. I know Affleck is a not-untalented actor, but he plays Mendez as a man with no muscles in his face and a throat condition that renders his voice incapable of inflection. Because I do know that Affleck is better than this, the question then becomes "Why?" and I have to figure, in keeping with certain ideas illustrated throughout the film, the thinking was that Mendez was just a guy doing his job. He wasn't a movie hero, in other words, and Affleck -- correctly, I'd say -- finds the truth of people like him to be more heroic. It's just that I imagine the real Mendez looks and talks like a person. But never mind -- it may be Argo's biggest flaw, but it's almost thoroughly overshadowed by an otherwise slick and entertaining thriller.
Seven Psychopaths (dr. Martin McDonagh) - I have, let us say, some pretty significant ideological differences with Martin McDonagh, the successful playwright and writer-director of the films In Bruges from 2008 and now Seven Psychopaths. It is to the credit of one or the other of us (I'll say me, because I've had a rough day and could use the boost) that I've so far been able to get past them and appreciate the truly original and even moving mayhem of his film work. And Seven Psychopaths is even almost trying to make me dislike it, just in terms of plot. I don't know what it is about wacky hitmen stories that are believed to be too outrageous once cute dogs are added to the mix, but it's a shortcut-to-lunacy I'm about done with. Yet McDonagh makes it work, or makes it not not work. Seven Psychopaths stars Colin Farrell as Martin (this name is significant) as a Hollywood screenwriter struggling to get moving on a film he's writing called Seven Psychopaths. As the film sets this up, it's also setting up the concept of seven psychopaths, both real and maybe not real, maybe fictional -- the first one, "Psychopath No. 1," is a masked figure we meet in the first scene as he kills two Mafia hitmen played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt. These two things converge once one of the numbered psychopaths, mob hothead Charlie (Woody Harrelson) enters the picture, trying to find his beloved dog which has been stolen by Martin's crazy friend Billy (a hilarious Sam Rockwell), as part of a dognapping operation that involves his weird friend Hans (Christopher Walken) bringing missing pets back to their owners and collecting hefty rewards, these pet owners being Beverly Hills-type pet owners, which Hans will then use to pay for his wife's (Linda Bright Clay) cancer treatment. And yes, I know, but McDonagh is the master of some weird kind of alchemy that allows such nonsense to work. Not only is the film entertainingly bloody, and very funny, and not only is it great to see Christopher Walken play one of the three leads and be allowed to go all Christopher Walken up in this business, and not only is Harrleson wonderful, as is Tom Waits (he's another one of the psychopaths, one with a particularly strange backstory), but this whole thing actually turns out to be a not very subtle but nonetheless entirely engaging examination of these kinds of movies. Violent movies, revenge movies, to be specific. And more interestingly still is the realization that for all its gooniness, Seven Psychopaths is actually an extremely personal film, made by a man known for writing plays and movies like this, and wondering, finally, what the hell he's been doing with his life.
Flight (d. Robert Zemeckis) - The single best moment in Robert Zemeckis's new film Flight comes at the end of the plane crash sequence that sets the film's real plot in motion. The pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is, we know by now, a drunk, a drunk who has just been drinking and even sleeping off last night while his co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) takes the wheel. But when the plane begins to come apart during its descent, Whip snaps to, barking out instructions to his co-pilot and one of the attendants (Tamara Tunie), in an attempt to land the plane in a field. His plan is a crazy one and it pretty much works, but there's a moment when Whip can't do anything else, and the plane's mechanics have all shut down, and everything goes quiet. This massive aircraft is dropping into a field in complete silence, and it's very eerie, almost beautiful. Once that's over with, however...

Flight is not otherwise bereft of good moments. It's an intriguing story, too, a nicely ambiguous one about who is to blame for this crash, which, while successful in relative terms, nevertheless did take the lives of six people, including a flight attendant (Nadine Velazquez) with whom Whip had been partying the night before. We know Washington's character is completely fucked up as a person, but nothing he did seems to have caused the plane to malfunction. But routine toxicology tests still reveal what he's been up to, and his guilt, his duplicity, and his eventual full-on scumbaggery can be pretty fascinating. Any scene Washington shares with Bruce Greenwood as his friend and union rep, and/or Don Cheadle as his attorney, are pretty much bound to be gripping on some level, just by virtue of the acting talent on display. But Flight is still a terrible mess, sometimes shockingly clumsy, sometimes shockingly thoughtless. An entire subplot involving Kelly Reilly as an ex-junkie exists only so someone can walk in on a drunk or blacked-out Washington and be disappointed in him. Worse, the use of songs, from "Gimme Shelter" to "Feelin' Alright" to "Under the Bridge" to "Sympathy for the Devil" (played first when we meet John Goodman's character, Washington's likable pusher (Whip's into cocaine, also)) is almost perversely literal. If the Rolling Stones had ever recorded a song called "Flying a Passenger Jet While Drunk," Zemeckis would have been all over that.

And while it’s bracing to see the lead character in an expensive studio film played by a major star as a complete piece of dogshit (and it's also interesting to see two men, the ones played by Cheadle and Greenwood, pursuing an immoral goal, but not as villains, rather as guys doing their jobs), it would have been nice if Zemeckis could have followed through. To be clear, I don’t so much mind the redemption we get, as such, and in fact I like what he and screenwriter John Gatins pulled from their back pocket by way of a catalyst for this redemption. But minutes before Whip’s conscience gets the better of him, we saw this man not only at the very nadir of his selfish and debauched existence (signaled, by the way, with some slow motion and, would you believe it, a horror movie music sting, except in this case the monster is vodka), we’d seen him rewarded for it with further debauchery. Nothing could stop or change him, which is precisely what he’d been angling for this whole time. But then, nope, changed my mind, I feel bad now. I’ve heard some complain that the depiction of Whip’s alcoholism is over the top, but he’s not shown doing anything that a real person who’d achieved that ranking in alcoholism wouldn’t do. The problem is that it would appear that Zemeckis has very little sense for this kind of thing – not in real life, because what do I know, but as a filmmaker. I feel like the whiplash of going from A Christmas Carol to Flight actually ended up on film somehow.

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