Sunday, September 28, 2008

Burn After Reading (2008)

Burn After Reading is a film so obvious that it is sly, the kind of comedy that operates on a plane not dissimilar from a hebetative kitchen sink melodrama or nonstop scare-a-minute horror picture. As a comedy, it shares with Joel and Ethan Coen's The Ladykillers the characteristic of having characters that seem to belong to a live action cartoon with over-the-top people doing over-the-top things (unlike Raising Arizona, for instance, which was just about entirely a live action cartoon). What makes Burn After Reading sly, however, is what it means as the newest Coen film, a kind of natural progression made whole from their very first feature film, Blood Simple, to now. In that caliginous Texas noir, Ray and Abby found their own extramarital transgression directly leading to Julian Marty's unleashing of beastly, sweaty malevolence personified by Loren Visser. In Raising Arizona, the proverbial Pandora's box is opened by H.I. and Ed, whose selfishness and egocentricity allow for sheer madness to ensue, the brunt of which is gradually visited upon them. Jerry Lundegaard's inept schemes and delusions of grandeur culminate in nothing but misery, despair and horror for those he thinks he loves, or at least is supposed to; in Fargo, Carl Showalter and Gaear Grimsrud represent the untamed id doubtless residing within Jerry. Their evil is not mitigated by Jerry's culpability, but it does comprehensively, and almost mathematically, complement his weasely, rakish desperation and venality. Llewelyn Moss rings the dinner bell for the one-man scourge of peccancy and callousness, Anton Chigurh, when he steps beyond the natural circumscriptions of his ontic life in the Coens' culmination of thematic delving and artistic growth, their Rosetta Stone opus, No Country for Old Men.

What makes Burn After Reading markedly different from these pictures, however, is the utter banality in which the Coens soak their characters. Chad Feldheimer, played with rambunctious frivolity by Brad Pitt, and Linda Litzke, given life by a mopey, self-esteem-starved Frances McDormand, are so base, so moronic that their evil almost goes beyond banality, into a kind of cinematic statement that makes all of those spiritually forlorn guests on “The Jerry Springer Show” seem almost understandable. Which is not to suggest that Chad and Linda are so self-immolating, or perhaps more importantly, so uninteresting as countless people seen on that or other such shows—just that they are in their respective ways as shallow and thickheadedly self-interested as anyone who has ever gone through the Coen universe. And it is, importantly, their misdeed that catapults most of the action of this screwball comedy that hits one like a screwdriver and boundlessly ricochets like a rubber ball.

The Coens have always been pugnacious in their clear disdain for the trappings of acceptance and the possible compromise that that may bring. Frequently labeled as misanthropic or nihilistic by their more passionate or in certain cases malapert detractors, with Burn After Reading they seem more readily accepting of the scorn, creating characters that are so ill-tempered, obnoxious and almost ridiculously harebrained that the picture seems to almost giddily supply those critics with more ammunition with which to fire at the writing-directing brothers. What many of these detractors seem to either ignore or not understand is that the Coens have a singular ability to hypostatize their greatest thematic interests and most vital concerns. The oft-repeated criticism of their characters behaving in ways dictated by the self-evidently deontic philosophical underpinnings of their pictures, enlarged with ornamental idiosyncrasies and often bizarre peculiarities, betrays a basic misreading of their art. No great empathetic author can hate his or her characters, and the Coens display an unabated love for their inventions in all of the cumulatively astonishing, merest detailed etchings that they so magnificently produce.

Men who detested their characters would not allow them to shine as brightly as this, no matter how despicable many of their actions may be. Easily the most tender figure in their latest, the ineffectual but earnestly well-meaning gym manager, Ted Teffron (Richard Jenkins), stands out as a counter-persona to the multiple ciphers like Chad, Linda and most resoundingly George Clooney's pathological tomcat, Harry Pfarrer. His bitterly sad unrequited love for Linda is nothing short of heartbreaking, made all the more dissatisfying in its futility when the purblind Linda remains completely oblivious to his comments. A woman determined to superficially improve her body through multiple surgeries, her desire to extract a princely sum through blackmailing a former CIA agent named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) is heightened by the unnecessary “need” for surgery money.

Malkovich's performance is perfectly in his wheelhouse. His incendiary temperament, caked over by a vicious, imposing demeanor, recalls past Malkovich turns, but he's so naturally efficacious in the role that one becomes almost wholly appreciative of the veteran actor's efforts. He plays Osbourne as the smartest and most justifiably self-righteous disgruntled CIA man. He's arrogant and angry, a once-dutiful soldier whose exhaustion in the face of profluent inanity, which by its nature swallows him whole, leaving him with the half-delusional ambition to work on his memoirs. His is a more sensible character arc, and its stinging keenness along with the frigid and domineering iciness of his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), stands as a faintly realistic counterpoint to the more unintentionally cutting attributes of the other characters. One of his most puissant lines comes in his first scene as he receives awful news. Told by a colleague that he suffers from a drinking problem, he turns the tables: “Fuck you, Peck, you're a Mormon, next to you we all have a drinking problem.” Note the greater emphasis, capsulized by this one line, made broad—in many ways, both thematically and stylistically with characterization—on “we all have a... problem...” It's an excellent forewarning that this is the most pervasively quotidian examination of the intricacies of a fallen world the brothers have offered—the bare quintessence of their cinema—and as such, in many ways, the most bleak and depressing.

Where Burn After Reading may not optimally succeed is, interestingly, in its comic aspirations. Asseverating a certain free-wheeling cinematic demeanor, this is a film that truly takes its time to get rolling, the humor derived as it is from madcap scenarios as anything. By the time Chad meets Osbourne in a car, however, the snowball effect amasses a certain high-pitched funniness, especially as Pitt enjoys his finest scene, playing a dummy trying to act a specific part. The Coens' greatest weakness may be their comic broadness, their at times gleefully, ebulliently peerless ability to twist just about line, word, physical appearance into something distinctly funny (Chad's spiky, frosted hair; Harry's... harry beard; Osbourne's round, shiny egghead perfectly capturing the man's supposed sagacity), their precocious but occasionally far-out preciousness (Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were most negatively impacted by this trait). There are many wonderful, over-the-top sequences and outrageous character back-stories and oddities in films ranging from Raising Arizona to Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski to No Country for Old Men. Much of the incongruence of Burn After Reading's humor may stem from its lack of transparent beckoning for laughs. Carter Burwell's score is somberly suspenseful, like a standard spy thriller, never issuing a single comic note. Emmanuel Ubezki's crisp, autumnal cinematography is likewise muted and tinged with chilly darkness. Joel and Ethan Coen allow the situations and characters to provoke the laughs.

J.K. Simmons plays an unnamed CIA supervisor who, with another analyst of the agency, represents a kind of chorus, remarking on the insanity and insensibility of the twisting, surprisingly complex and multi-threaded story, which coils around itself. Simmons' character has no idea what is going on, and that is one of the points. The Coens give Linda and Chad the opportunity to inspire hellfire with their wanton disregard for their own actions. By the time the film is finished, the picture makes less sense than ever. All that is certain is bad choices have been repaid with merciless karmic “justice,” the meaning of which finds the loosest possible definition here. Doomed cash-grabs are an essential ingredient to the Coens' tales of this fallen world lending a stage to the darkness enveloping the light. This is where satire and reality meet, and the meaning of the former becomes hazily vague. Simmons' final words seem like they could be truly uttered by a real-world spook. In its own way, Burn After Reading's coda leaves a grim punctuation not unlike No Country for Old Men's. The steely-eyed Gaear Grimsrud was unresponsive to Marge's words—“...for a little bit of money...”—and that, again and again, the Coens instruct, is the point. There are those who do what they do, and those who may oppose them, or at least fall victim to them, and, as the Coens conclude this black comedy, a dominant patina overtakes the audience's gaze. It may be funny in its own way, but it is also a note of almost cannibalistic apocalypse. There are fewer and fewer innocents to be found, and the guilty are more obtuse and foolish than ever.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Broken Blossoms (1919)

David Wark Griffith was a sensitive and daedal man whose oeuvre has been cast in the harsh and pitiless light of racism for decades because of his breakthrough masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915). His was a groundbreaking role in the art form of cinema, and his body of work invites many exhaustive examinations that clearly break apart from simply, pejoratively dismissing the man's art as backwards and unsightly, a kind of uninviting moralistic didacticism. That is a limited reading of the man's legacy, however, not just as the founding architect of modern cinema, the great, classic purveyor of close-ups, a legitimately indispensable filmmaker with a legacy as rich and intimidating in its import as any before or since, but as a man whose pictures were an illumination of his mind and soul, however flawed it may have been. The everlasting impact of Griffith's cinema is almost impossible to overrate, much less to over-analyze.

With Lillian Gish, his muse, his obsession, he sketched the beauteous portrait of innocence and chastity with its myriad shadings. In The Birth of a Nation, the virginally white—in multiple ways—Southern women represented sheer purity, and with purity in Griffith's cinema comes fragility and vulnerability. What most of his films boast is a startlingly antediluvian perspective, boiled down to its essence by the superlative craftsmanship the director possessed, the ne plus ultra of silent cinema, is the melodramatic but compositionally—and thus, cinematically, numinously—appropriate shooting techniques that marvelously marinated the archetypal stories he told with stunning dexterity. What this film may most evidently be characterized as is a wondrous film made by a director at the height of his powers but unwilling to ostentatiously impose himself on the audience. The crosscutting that today still keeps film theorists and lovers of cinema rapt in attention simply on the basis of the craft in films such as The Birth of a Nation is minimized in its importance, arguably used more organically as an instrument to connote suspense, especially late in the film. The use of close-ups is made artistically vital in a way unseen before in Griffith's work, however well-realized his mise-en-scene was in so many pictures. As a trailblazer, then, it can be said that this film can be readily interpreted as the director's zenith, a compelling description of virtuoso reining in his own abilities to fluidly create his masterpiece.

Interestingly, Griffith was so hurt by claims of racism stemming from The Birth of a Nation that he felt especially driven when he made the sprawling and epic but highly messy Intolerance, representing a kind of spectacular folly. In contrast to any film before it, or after it, Broken Blossoms represents the pith of Griffith's cinema, a picture that, in its spellbinding manner, is a film so boundlessly inspissating feature, markedly singular in his filmography as a distillation of the master's thematic inquiries. What Griffith did, like so many other artists, was go back to essentials after wandering into the excessive complications of Intolerance, making what was visually and narratively a fundamentally pared-down motion picture. The present humility Broken Blossoms, however, though palpably rendered, is ironically brought about with an $88,000 budget, which at the time was no small sum. However, budgetary considerations notwithstanding, Griffith's recreation of London's benighted Limehouse District, with its cobblestone streets, smoky, foggy riverside alleyways and suffocating interiors, is splendid and convincing.

Gish plays Lucy Burrows, and at 23 at the time this film was shot, many have insisted that she was at least a little too old to play the part of the daughter of a prizefighter named Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). However, her size and age allow for greater acquaintance with her cowed manner in the menacing shadow of her father, whose possessiveness and at least modestly suggested incestuous behavior continually beat her down to the point of despairing exhaustion. The famed scene in which she forces herself to smile with her fingers manipulating her cheeks is a breathtaking and heartbreaking moment of almost shocking clarity. This, along with many other keynote moments, demonstrably illustrate the power, and, appropriately enough, purity of silent cinema.

Crisp quite ably portrays insecure but brash rage and volatility with considerable intensity. Referred to by the title cards as a lumbering, drunken and cruel “gorilla,” he dwarfs Gish, berating her and caustically or at least physically conveying loathing for the waif daughter. What makes Battling Burrows an interesting creation rather than merely a one-dimensional tough is Griffith's persistent emphasis on the character's inherent pitifulness. While he can be reduced to the figure of a goon, and his violence is deplorable, what makes the character true in this drama is his obvious backwardness.

Richard Barthelmess plays the Chinese Cheng Haun, referred to as “The Yellow Man” in the titles, a man who wants to educate and spiritually enrich the lives of the native Anglo-Saxon population of London. Meeting resistance and resorting to opium, called a “Chink” by Burrows and others, he is an outcast, the proverbial “outsider” in this society. He is unusually sensitive and caring, everything Battling Burrows is not, and he cannot help but notice the thin, comely waif as he looks out the window of his shop. Perhaps standing in for Griffith's desire to educate with the expansive Intolerance, and settling for the intimacy of Broken Blossoms, Haun's once-driving anagogic need to spread the word of Buddha beyond the borders of China, traveling to the Western world, Haun now has an opportunity to put his Buddhist beliefs into practice while being undeniably drawn to the abused Lucy.

Broken Blossoms, or The Yellow Man and the Girl, was based on Thomas Burke's story, written by Griffith as an explosive, almost feverish exploration of racial hostility, yes, but most substratively, it is about the potential, awful despoiling of pure, virginal femininity. Unlike The Birth of a Nation, however, Griffith's more naturalistic, yet ardently melodramatic, Broken Blossoms possesses the heretofore radical duality of presenting the “outsider” as the force of enlightenment, sympathy and benevolence and the direct surviving member of the “family” as a belligerent, violent and brutish thug. Before opting to utilize his patented close-ups, Griffith uses wide shots that gloriously detail the almost imprisoned existences of his characters, hidden behind metaphorical bars.

And it is in these reversals and dualisms that Broken Blossoms most emphatically breaks away from the earlier works of Griffith's. For a decade, from 1909 on, Griffith was most definitively interested and motivated by the conceptual paradigm of the family, most prolifically so in his Biograph years, when he churned out sometimes thorny but frequently benign portraits of this crucial thematic interest. Those Awful Hats, A Corner of Wheat, The Jilt, A New Trick, His Wife's Visitor, The Little Darling, Wanted, A Child, The Sealed Room, The Slave, His Trust and The Unchanging Sea, among many others, were all films that found as their catalyst, their focal point, their heart, some kind of visage of the family. With Broken Blossoms, Griffith almost brazenly employs both auto-critique and, in a certain way, reaches a kind of evolutionary plateau. Broken Blossoms forcefully essays the melancholic self-immolation of the family unit as a kind of poisoned well, devastated by the ruinous tending of same by the loutish grotesque.

The Birth of a Nation is still misunderstood, in that it is in many ways merely an extension of Griffith's fascination with the family, with the ideal of womanhood portrayed with sweeping lyricism and straightforward simplicity. Griffith's unsure sociopolitical and historical analysis in that film, inspired by The Clansman, is finally tied to his belief of people to whom wrong has been done, a point that brings with it the provisory that informs Intolerance and more indelibly, Broken Blossoms. While the threat of the mob of backwards ex-slaves carry with it the ungainliness of those considered to be the destroyers of civilization, Griffith's point is more nuanced, despite the provocative and regrettably and today embarrassingly simplistic and incendiary imagery, and finally much more intimate—the quality of which aided him in crafting a film built upon intimacy, even with its elaborate construction of sets necessitating a posh budget.

And that is finally the evanescent purity and beauty of Broken Blossoms, its raison d'etre made into magnificent silent film storytelling, filmmaking at its peak. As the story brings The Yellow Man and The Girl, Lucy together, Griffith sharply narrows the focus of the film's palette, bringing the two faces, Barthelmess's and Gish's, together, with devastating strength and piercing the almost cenobitically rendered emotionalism, brought to glowing warmth and epigrammatic and ephemeral wonderment. Finally the close-ups are used, and, viewing Broken Blossoms, it is no surprise many have credited Gish and not Griffith with creating them. They almost appear created for her. The film in which she stars, made by Griffith, is fortunately created for us, almost ninety years later, and ninety years from now, and one hopes forever, as a kind of shrine to the art of beauty, and, perhaps, the beauty of art.

Mea Culpa

Well, things became rather quiet here at Coleman's Corner in Cinema, yet again. I could give myself many excuses, such as being quite ill for the better part of the previous week during which only the Kurosawa Test piece was posted and many other personal issues that prevented me from hammering much of anything out recently. The fact is, September has been quite the grueling month for this blogger, and CCC became a direct victim of that. So, it doesn't pain me to see the month winding down.

All I can do is renew myself, and say, um... Sorry.

Other victims of my time compression were other fine blogs that I would have loved to have visited as per usual.

And on that note... This is what happens when I'm out of the loop for just a few days. Congratulations to Sam Juliano for the creation of his new blog, Wonders in the Dark. I still owe Sam a certain review, and that is the one I will begin writing momentarily.

As soon as I feel as though I've caught up with myself here, I'll be sure to get back into my blog-visiting rotation. That may take a little while, so please be a little patient with me.

Thank you, the reader, as always.

Paul Newman, RIP

What can you say? An icon leaves us.

I just found out a little while ago.

I feel lucky enough that I wrote as much as I just did at Craig Kennedy's wonderful Living in Cinema, so excuse me for merely repeating myself:
"A giant, one of the most innately likable actors in the history of the cinema, a genuine movie star, but as Craig notes his acting was fierce, passionate and at times scary, especially when he was younger, but he held on to that onscreen power and gravity throughout his entire deservedly celebrated career. As others have said, however, his life beyond onscreen immortality has been a beautiful one, befitting such a strikingly handsome, in every way, fellow, imbued with grace and strength.
"Not unexpected, but it’s still an awful blow."

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Kurosawa Test

Last night I watched Akira Kurosawa's debut work, Judo Saga (1943). For five years, Kurosawa would make six pictures that demonstrated the master's seemingly congenital gifts of a magnificently skillful craftsman, including one sequel to his first film. With the meditative but crackerjack crime thriller Drunken Angel (1948), however, he reached a certain zenith as a brilliant filmmaker whose still-budding themes and abilities demonstrably gained traction and weight. The man himself knew it. "In this picture, I finally found myself," he said.
Taking the Kurosawa template for filmmakers, past and present, at which point do you think certain directors found themselves? Is it an intrinsically different process today, or does the increased freedom only muddy the line of progress? Certain directors, it seems, only needed one picture to find themselves, but what does such a pronouncement mean, precisely?
Drunken Angel is a certain culmination and beginning for Kurosawa. Playing out in a benighted, unsightly slum in Tokyo, the story focuses to a great degree on a drunken doctor whose crusade to drain a stagnant pool that engenders the conditions for mosquitoes to prey on people in the pool's proximity, and like a number of Kurosawa masterpieces, details the grinding, exhaustive experience of the unfortunate poor in Japanese society. As is the case with so many auteurs, Drunken Angel's importance becomes clearer in the hindsight of Kurosawa's later works. The violent ferocity of Stray Dog, the crusading spirit of Ikiru, the depressed milieu of The Lower Depths and Dodes'ka-den and many other touchstones familiar to those who have traversed the fascinating arc of such a rich body of work.
Judo Saga features many intrinsic thematic concerns that would haunt Kurosawa's films, and which may perhaps be boiled down to, why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there injustice, in all of its myriad forms? How does the human soul sometimes become corrupted? How does it find redemption, or at least some measure of it? What is the place in the modern world for the values of ancient and medieval Japan? Is modernity (the film is set in 1882) all that it is made up to be? Kurosawa may not have found himself yet but he had taken his first step, and an interesting one, with a film that sparks more curiosity today because we are privileged to see the development, to note the nascent technique, to find the artist before he found himself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Transsiberian (2008)

Transsiberian chronicles the unsteady and questionable progression of its maker, Brad Anderson, whose last feature film was 2004's The Machinist. That film's tagline read, “How do you wake up from a nightmare, when you're not asleep?” Anderson, with this pan-Russo train thriller, returns to the world of nightmares, though unlike that mercurially wrought piece of Kafkaesque and insular introspection, which truly did play like something of a particularly effective, extended Twilight Zone episode, buoyed by a fierce and rail-thin Christian Bale, Transsiberian takes on a more quotidian and straightforward storyline for its tale of lonely, grueling terror. Judging by Anderson's Happy Accidents, which played like a romantic dream, perhaps a phantasma belonging to Wong Kar-Wai, and The Machinist, which on its own limited terms may have sprung from a listless David Lynch reverie, Anderson is animated by the treacherous realm of the mind.

If it sounds as though Anderson's technique may exhibit indubitable potential while his greater vision is precarious and debatable, then at least he seems to know what he's going after. Transsiberian, however, does not so much aid in enlarging Anderson's scope, even if it would seem as though considerably more money was probably spent, what with all the effects involving a train, as it potentially grounds his concerns in the more traditional trappings of a Hitchcockian neo-noir. The results are at best mixed, or at least they are until the film begins to erode in its final reel, almost becoming the foreign-financed and -originated indie version of Flightplan, another movie that commenced as a skillfully and subtly cunning woman-in-peril thriller that succumbed to the paroxysmal spasms and throes of melodramatic convolution and excessive plotting that blankets the audience in dreary ennui.

And, dreary, this film is. Transsiberian stars Emily Mortimer (“Jessie”) and Woody Harrelson (“Roy”) as an American married couple working as missionaries in China. Jessie, we gradually learn, used to be a “bad girl,” suffering from chronically ruinous relationships and addictions before literally crashing into Roy—she drunkenly drove her car into his in a head-on collision as an indirect way of meeting cute—and now she is trying her best to sustain herself on good deeds and Roy's obliviously clueless but alluringly harmonious innocence and intimate stature as a borderline pollyanna. Harrelson seems game for his role, though there are limits as to what his character is given to do, and it is Mortimer, who remains strong throughout, who assumes the role of the protagonist almost instantly. (Harrelson's Roy seems quite ineffective, an unlikely hero, though he does strangely show up whenever the screenplay needs a man to take over and accomplish certain things that seem to be outside Jessie's grasp or strength capacity. At first this seemed like a possible commentary on the male-female symbiosis in thrillers such as these, but finally it seemed like just another example of same.) Like many married American couples abroad in the world of the silver screen, however, their union is suffering from problems. Roy and Jessie are finding themselves emotionally drifting away from one another, and while he desires to open the possibilities of having a child with Jessie, a prospect for which Jessie does not care at this time. Roy's brainstorm medicine for their ailing partnership takes the shape of their trip to China, and his insistence that they take the Trans-Siberian train from China to Moscow, motivated as it is by his concern for their marriage, ironically placing he and his wife in the crosshairs of the pitilessness of fate and misfortune.

What Transsiberian may represent for Anderson, then, is the augmentation of his apparently budding theme of guilt that possessed the very soul of The Machinist. Jessie's guilt of feeling as though she does not deserve Roy's slightly grating and sometimes baffling naivete and goodness is particularly unnerving. When confronted with a younger, earthier, brusquer and handsomer man of mystery, a Spaniard named Carlos (Eduardo Noriega), traveling on the Trans-Siberian with his redhead American girlfriend (Kate Mara) and sharing a compartment she initially seems repulsed by the liberalness of Carlos' wandering eyes and suggestive glances, but eventually she warms up to his smoldering and seductive persona. Excavating certain themes from The Machinist, Anderson aims squarely at the selfishness of individuals too preoccupied by their own interests to care about those impacted as a consequence. Unlike that film, however, Transsiberian advances this single interest with greater thematic import, balancing the struggle in a familial dichotomy (Roy's abstract concept of a future family serving both as goal and ideal) against the roguish sensuousness represented by the untrustworthy Carlos. Like Fritz Lang's Clash by Night, the stage is set for a reversal of noir tropes: the hapless dupe, here given life by Harrelson, loses the supposedly long-tainted, morally self-doubting vixen to the masculine potency of the shady but carnally inviting and enticingly licentious figure. Unlike Lang's picture, however, the feminine force here is not a decisive, powerful figure but rather a woman seemingly trapped in perpetual adolescence and miserable fluctuations between self-pity and self-loathing, characterized by gratefulness towards Roy while simultaneously feeling mostly repressed resentment.

Throw in a brooding, cagey and menacingly omnipresent Russian narcotics officer interested in a shipment of heroin that is probably on its way westward on the same train as the two couples (an effectively unsettling and glowering Ben Kingsley), and it is almost difficult to understand just why such a story, so gravid with latently unearthed possibilities and so well-acted primarily by Mortimer in the central performance, so figuratively—and literally—(yes, does one go there?) flies off the rails. What at first was a tense, slow-boil multi-character study morphs into a dissuasive and pedestrian crime picture, made lousily rote with an improbable chase scene and blasé twist that the film seems to resign itself towards with unremarkable laziness and disinterest. Diametrically winding down, Transsiberian feels more like a train that has simply crawled to a stop after building and building, concluding on a note of narrative ambiguity concerning the fate of a major character, perhaps vainly hoping it can hold on to at least some of the credibility it seemed to unreservedly boast as its own in the early scenes.

Anderson's film does persistently harbor that intangible je ne sais quoi of nightmarish neo-noir--perhaps at least in part due to the expert cinematography the two films share by Xavi Giminez, whose playful light-and-dark shows make even the more mundane scenes innate visual accomplishments--but unlike The Machinist, which, for all of its (rightfully rendered) eerie isolation and despair, managed to stay on its most truthful and unaccompanied course, like one in the soundless, reclusive wee hours, walking through the pitch black, dodging furniture and walls, wandering the halls, finally groping the refrigerator handle to illuminate the kitchen, Transsiberian's destination seems positively absurd, as though it found itself out in the street two blocks from home. Without delving into the particularities of the plot, morally, the characters are almost all left off the hook, allowed to roam free without much in the way of consequence or even just lasting impact. Yes, the characters have gone through the grind, but no one seems much wiser for it. When one character remarks, “I love you. That means no secrets,” the line carries with it substantial inadvertent ethical penetration and brief emotional registration, but the film's coda seems to gleefully reject such statements and beliefs as tediously foolish and obstructive.

Despite the uneasiness of the conclusion, this train thriller features moments of wit and sequences built upon teasing filmmaking schemes that induce greater suspense. A character picks up a possible weapon while speaking to another but Anderson allows the scene to undramatically conclude. That, in turn, allows greater suspense to swell when it the theoretically endangered character's disappearance is noted by others. The film's character-based mystery becomes finely puzzling, then more tantalizing on differing levels, and the tempered sagacity of the film's first half finally struggles with the impression of the second, bowing out for fear of piercing beneath the proverbial skin. Like a shy man engaging a smart and beautiful woman whose luminescence momentarily beckons greater investigatory curiosity at the risk of crippling cowardice in the face of such intensity, the film seems to find itself intrinsically outmatched, and almost unworthy of its own nascent dreams. Like that fellow consumed by timidity, the film stalls, sputters, waves goodbye to all that with angst-filled melancholy, and, yielding to the self-imposed limits that belie the bravery it must employ in other pursuits, goes about the ridiculous and shameful ritual of settling for less, perhaps for little at all.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder owes so much to so many different films that have come before it, one might suspect it of being either too doctrinaire in its veneration of those past cinematic explorations of the behind-the-scenes workings of the nightmare factory of Hollywood, whether they be Vincent Minelli's The Bad and the Beautiful or Robert Aldrich's The Big Knife or Blake Edwards' S.O.B., or too blithely irreverent in its sending-up of war epics to properly absorb its own constructed conspectus of features of that kind. What Stiller has done, and succeeded tremendously at, is making a film that aims directly at all of the craziness that influences the actors of Tinseltown. Tropic Thunder encapsulates all of the idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of actors, whether they be of limited talent, attached to a certain genre of movies, or the haughty thespians who approach the art of their craft with statements of philosophical gravity and self-importance, though typically amounting to little more than the musings and recommendations of your latest fortune cookie.

Filling the roles of the former type, Stiller portrays fading action star Tugg Speedman, whose action franchise has run out of gas after being diluted with more and more feckless and wasteful sequels after one or two worthwhile entries (think of the Alien franchise as just one example of a long-ago sensational saga reduced to one instance of being watered down after another) and Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), a base comedian enjoying success with his abysmal Fatties comedy series. Speedman's recent adventure in the land of Oscar-bait pretentiousness, a risible drama about a mentally retarded farm boy called Simple Jack, received a chorus of jeers from critics and most likely received numerous Raspberries. Looking for something more amenable to his physicality, Speedman thinks the film Tropic Thunder is his best bet, based on the book of Vietnam War hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). Portnoy wants to prove he can play something other than a man whose success is derived from his fatty flatulence franchise.

Filling the role of the second type, Robert Downey, Jr. plays the volatile Australian multi-Oscar winner Kirk Lazarus, with steely blue eyes and blonde hair, who has himself physically transformed through a chemical skin treatment so he can play a black sergeant charged with rescuing Tayback. Downey, Jr. is adept at portraying risk-taking mavericks and skewering pretense. Therefore his dual role as actor and actor-as-character could not be better suited for the sardonic and flippantly free-wheeling star of Zodiac and this summer's opening tent-pole salvo, Iron Man. (A certain line seems to stand as a breaking of character on two different levels, as Lazarus, when called upon realizing just who he is, states, still vocally in character, “I'm the dude playing the dude disguised as the other dude!”) Lazarus's off-screen antics are modeled on Russell Crowe's bad-boy behavior. His remarks about the intricacies of acting recall the high-minded phraseology of Marlon Brando and other highly regarded actors who have spoken of the vocation in radiantly beneficent and almost pious altruism.

For approximately a year now, speculative theories about the failures of the war films that have been released have occupied many Hollywood spectators' thoughts. Do people not want to see films about the Iraq War? Is this limited to American moviegoers? If the main prohibitive has to do with the Iraq War, why did a film about World War II released in 2006 like Flags of Our Fathers perform so poorly? Tropic Thunder does not confront the question of the Iraq War's souring of the war genre, and films about terrorism, with the public, but it does make an exceptionally intelligent point within its first minutes. A sequence that pays satirical but almost loving homage to iconic and modern war films such as Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and Platoon makes a point easily read by people most responsive to the biting wit of satire. Anything ripe for satirical lampooning or parodying must be on some level adrift or at least construed as an institution, trend (artistic or otherwise) or way of thought that has been found wanting or at the very least exhausted. What Tropic Thunder reveals in those opening minutes is that the war film as defined as it has been must undergo the metamorphosis entailed in the inherently protean sarcous of cinematic art before it can be considered impressive. For those pondering the conspicuous shortcomings of the war picture in these recent years, this film serves as an equally persuasive compilation of pointed reasonings for the war film's recent decline and an affirmatively loving tribute to the pictures that today still standout in the last few decades.
Where Stiller's film metaphorically takes its gloves off to a certain degree is in its depiction of a ruthless, imperiously and hilariously profane Hollywood producer named Les Grossman, played in a “fat suit” by a bombastically aggressive Tom Cruise. The scenes that follow Grossman's caustic outbursts of rage and grotesque gesticulations are sublimely arresting; Cruise's performance is imbued with tumultuously vulgar swagger, standing as a dark and constant contrast to the effetely sensitive and weak introspectiveness of the acting troupe that is finally stranded in the jungle, attempting to fend for its collective life. Matthew McConaughey's performance as Speedman's persistent agent, Rick Peck, is, simply the best turn he's given in a long time.

Like the better cinematic satires of the past, Stiller's work accomplishes numerous cultural and societal endeavors. The controversy--stirred by people who supposedly took preemptive offense at Robert Downey, Jr.'s “black-face” performance--begun months before the film was released blindly assailed the skin-deep impropriety. What Downey, Jr.'s turn reveals, however, is vastly more insightful and remarkable than many likely believed was possible. Playing a Vietnam-era black man archetype, the sergeant has a hairdo complete with ostentatious sideburns that recalls Fred Williamson, gruffly barking orders to his men. Examining the Vietnam War's hand in accidentally assisting in equalizing the scales of American racial dynamics and shifting cultural awareness in the time of the modern civil rights movement, politicized by both “hawks” and “doves,” Stiller convincingly recalls the complex and varying portrayals of white-black soldiering in Vietnam War films ranging from Apocalypse Now to Hamburger Hill (the latter of which provides the line Downey, Jr.'s black sergeant regurgitates, “Ain't nothin' but a thang.”)

Practically every component of Tropic Thunder seems to have been assembled by Stiller to highlight the commendable but perhaps imposingly intimidating characteristics of certain films. John Toll, whose credits include Braveheart, The Thin Red Line and The Last Samurai, here lights with exquisite lushness that brings the jungle to cinematic life. The essential theme of revived spirits, symbolized and perhaps minimized by the allegorical framing device of professional career repackaging for the three main actors, takes on a fresher and brighter meaning juxtaposed with the honeyed “satire” that almost never touches high dudgeon but rather a more invigorating coming to terms with who we are. As in the aforementioned sequence of self-discovery for Lazarus, the film takes on the beleaguered psyches of the group of actors in a seductively laughable and ludicrous manner, while allowing the narrative to be sharply informed by the insecurities and anxieties that wrack these performers in a way that partly reminds one of films as diverse as To Be or Not to Be, The Seventh Seal and Day for Night.

If Tropic Thunder's bark is worse than its bite, and if it fails to emerge as one of the more viciously cutting satires to be made about the movie business, perhaps this was its destiny as a postmodern picture that, like other more recent satirical efforts, seemed to both condemn and congratulate consumerism and the amorality of the often ill-defined world of “big business.” What it lacks in bitterness, it more than makes up for in amusement, charm and bawdy hilarity. As one who has never found Stiller or his movies particularly enjoyable, this is a redemptive picture, charged by winning charisma and cognizance.

A Long Week's Journey into Weekend

Well, you may have noticed that I disappeared, went off the grid, vanished without a trace and became completely disconnected from all things Internet there for a few days.


Well, a tornado of school, personal matters, meeting with my best friend who only comes by my town approximately once a month for a few days, and yes, seeing movies... It all added up to two days of going on the Internet for an entirety of zero seconds; finding myself with no time to check in on movie blogs; and feeling too tired after reading, reading and more reading, writing, writing and more writing, all school-related, to put much effort into formulating thoughts about the films I watched.

With regards to the newest releases... On Monday I saw Transsiberian and Man on Wire across the bay in Berkeley. Thursday I was able to see Tropic Thunder, finally.

I'm not sure what I plan on doing first at this very moment. Nevertheless, I plan on getting back into it here at Coleman's Corner in Cinema, beginning today. Reviews will be appearing with regularity again after the several days of inactivity here--sometimes they do seem to come in bunches, don't they?--because my budgeting of time fortunately seems to be paying off now as I feel sufficiently caught up in other matters at this juncture.

The fact that I have yet to see Burn After Reading testifies to just how squeezed for time I have been recently.

As always, I thank the readers for their patience and understanding.

To paraphrase King Lear, "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to read a thankless blogger."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Shopworn (1932)

If any woman from the annals of American cinema could deservedly claim to embody female empowerment, it must have been Barbara Stanwyck. She was, at once, the most world-weary and ambrosially beckoning actress of all the great stars who emerged in the 1930s. What made her so subtly irresistible to so many men was that she could just as easily kiss you as kick you, so to speak, and she routinely did both. She wasn't smothering in her sexuality. She wasn't ostentatiously teasing or tempting. She wasn't an archetype like Mae West or Jean Harlow. She was usually cynical. Ironically, Stanwyck, whose performances were made up of forthrightness and emotional honesty, typically played dubiously deceitful women who shielded themselves with an almost impenetrable front of one sort or another. That dubiousness and deceitfulness was hard-earned, however; in role after role, the actress raised by her older sister in Brooklyn, straightforwardly won over the inherent sympathy of the audience, including men, by personifying the feminine backlash/uphill battle against a man-dominated world. Baby Face (1933) remains the frankest and most essential picture, capturing as it does Stanwyck's wisecracking, hard-as-nails frontal callousness that she had to wear like a uniform in her objective of penetrating the corporate world. Separated by a chromosome from her male counterparts and rivals, she triumphantly compensates by being singularly tenacious.

Stanwyck's portrayals of the hard-edged carnivore with the carefully protected winsome exterior of an innocent lamb foregrounded for the sake of the unsuspecting chumps, criminals, bullies and schemers were numerous. Her early films, especially beginning with her second feature and first “talkie,” The Locked Door (1929), Ladies of Leisure (1930), Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Night Nurse, The Miracle Woman (all 1931), Forbidden, The Purchase Price (both 1932), Ladies They Talk About and Baby Face (both 1933), Gambling Lady and A Lost Lady (1934), among others, all played to the delicious duality, turbid and dazzling all at once, of her “standard” character, the beleaguered but never even remotely beaten tough dame, with subtly differing shadings. (Interestingly, one of her best performances was of an entirely different kind of woman in William A. Wellman's underrated gem, So Big from 1932.) Whether she was Annie Oakley (1935) or The Lady Eve (1941), or a Ball of Fire (1941) or a Lady of Burlesque (1943), she was the walking, talking, dancing, prancing definition of the alluring darling-meets-women's liberation, the supernova sweetie who calculatedly reasoned just how much smooching and bedding down was necessary to wrap the hapless men of her world around her little finger.

The general rules of pre-code “women's pictures” apply to Shopworn (1932), a speedily-paced sixty-five minute film, which finds a young woman named Kitty Lane (Stanwyck) becomes a waitress at a greasy spoon restaurant near a college campus after her father is killed in a mining accident. The following lines of dialogue display the rigors, the trials and tribulations of her job, particularly when it comes to dealing with the men who swarm around her:

Toby: [tries to grab Kitty's hand, but she pushes it away] Say Kit, won't you go to the show with me tonight?
Kitty Lane: For what?
Toby: Well, you can't do much with a crowd around.
Kitty Lane: That's why I like crowds. [Fred calls out an order from the kitchen, and Kitty walks away.]
Toby: [following her] But Kit, there's a lot of things I want to tell you.
Kitty Lane: Only one, Toby. And the answer is "no."
Toby: Don't you know any three-letter words?
Toby: [good naturedly] Why you...
Toby's chum at diner #1: Hey Toby, come on! We got places to go!
Toby's chum at diner #2: Come on, cut the romance!
Toby's chum at diner #2: [as the crowd of young men leaves en masse, with Toby] Boy, you couldn't lure a woman out of a burning building.
Kitty Lane: [waiting on David at the diner] ... How come *you* never annoyed me?
David Livingston: Well, I don't like to compete with the whole college.
Kitty Lane: If I owned this joint I'd bust ya in the nose for that.
David Livingston: [looking up from the book he has been studying] Yes, and if I were your brother instead of a customer here, I'd spank you. I'd like to finish this chapter.
Kitty Lane: Well, go ahead, finish it someplace else where they burn incense or something.
David Livingston: Alright, I will. I don't like this place anyhow. You may be hot, but the coffee's cold. [gets up to leave]
David Livingston: Keep the change.
Kitty Lane: [throws David's coin on the floor; then, under her breath:] Pinhead .... Nitwit ....
Kitty Lane: [finds his hat on the chair] Hey, you forgot your hat. [runs after him]
Kitty Lane: Hey stupid, you forgot your hat!


It is with the prim and proper David Livingston (Regis Toomey), giving an intentionally flat and somnolent a medical student at the nearby university, that Stanwyck's Kitty falls in love. She's from the “wrong side of the tracks”; he's a young man of privilege, with a scarily possessive mother worthy of Hitchcock (played to the hilt by Clara Blandick). This being pre-code, almost anything can happen. Kitty and David quickly fall in love: a modern segue begins the saga properly, as the viewer is thrown from the animalistic mating rituals to the actual glow of love.

Kitty wants to learn all of the “big words” David knows, and one evening he spies a piece of paper on which she has written medical terms from his oft-carried book. She is going alphabetically through the book's index and writing down words to which she does not know the meanings. The letter she is on is “E,” and among the words present on the paper David looks at and reads aloud from is “ejaculate.” The one-word statement, the reaction... David protests that he would never use such language. It is a jarring moment, another piece of persuasive evidence suggesting that pre-code Hollywood films were as adult as any kind of feature, however constricted and shaped by the sometimes regrettable unwritten “rules” of pre-code melodramas they may have been.

Just as it appears as though Kitty and David will enjoy imminent wedded bliss, David's dictatorial mother throws a terrible wrench in the proceedings, conspiring with a crooked judge to send Kitty to a draconian reformatory, while allowing her son to believe Kitty elected to take five thousand dollars as compensation for not being able to marry him, all in an effort to drive the two apart. The repartee between Stanwyck's hurt and incensed Kitty and the odious Judge Forbes (Oscar Apfel) demonstrably showcases the radicalism on display in more than a few “pre-code” pictures. Class distinctions are repeatedly made abundantly clear, but they are presented with dire cynicism and Depression-soaked bitterness.
Judge Forbes: [trying to bribe Kitty to give David up] I thought you'd prefer cash. Five thousand dollars. Merely for leaving town, immediately.

Kitty Lane: [She looks down at the bills in his hand, and slowly raises her head with a look of
anger and contempt in her eyes.] What are you trying to make of me--what you wish I was? Something cheap and common, something that money can buy? [her anger rising]
Kitty Lane: Well, you can't. Nobody can! You and the nice, decent people who sent you here are the real cheap ones ... trying to put a price on something there isn't any price for. [almost hysterical now]
Kitty Lane: If that's being decent, I'm glad I'm common! [crying and screaming]
Kitty Lane: If that's being rich, I'm glad I'm cheap, and I'm gonna stay cheap! Because no matter how cheap I am, I'm not for sale! [She throws the money in his face and runs out.]

Shopworn was directed by the appropriately named Nick Grinde, one of the largely individually unremembered workhorses at Warner Brothers, who churned out over fifty “B” movies of all types and genres, making fast-paced, modestly-scoped pictures with workmanlike ability. Where Shopworn's peculiar magic emanates from is its screenplay, which was worked on by Sarah Y. Mason (credited with the original story), Jo Swerling and Robert Riskin. Surveying their respective screenwriting credits, one can surmise with significant certitude that it was the writing contributions that ensured Shopworn was more than merely Stanwyck showing off her talents.

Mason aided in continuity for The Broadway Melody (1929) and wrote screenplays for films such as The Age of Consent (1932), Little Women (1933), The Age of Innocence, Imitation of Life (both 1934), Magnificent Obsession (1935), Stella Dallas (1937) and Golden Boy (1939) (the latter two Stanwyck-starrers), creating indelibly rich and traditional melodramas. Swerling would go on after Shopworn to write screenplays for Man's Castle (1933), Pennies from Heaven (1936), contribute uncredited writing for Gone With the Wind (1939), write The Westerner (1940), Lifeboat (1944) and help shape the screenplay of It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Riskin wrote the play of the Stanwyck-starring film Illicit (1931), The Miracle Woman (also 1931), contributing dialogue that snappily enlivened films for Frank Capra such as American Madness (1932), Lady for a Day (1933), It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Meet John Doe (1941). The three disparate sensibilities combined for a winning recipe in Shopworn, a breezy Depression-era melodrama that has a lot of fun and makes its points in practically the same cinematic breath.

As noted here with regards to Possessed (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932), many of the “pre-code” pictures starring women like Stanwyck, Joan Crawford and many others sadly mark the fragility of sincere artistic and societal advancement. The women of these pictures were routinely outwardly flamboyant and sensationally captivating, yet over and over they were called upon to draw back into their instinctively maternal shells and sacrifice the things they wanted the most in favor of what they knew was right for someone they loved. It's not an altogether implausible scenario, however repetitiously reenacted it became, standards and morals and actual real-life cynicism of a different kind colluded to frequently twist the characteristics of the woman at the heart of the film. In its concluding scenes, Shopworn, perhaps most bizarrely—comforting, rewarding, or absurdly naïve and unrealistic, take your pick—has its cake, eats it and has another one, too. It's more than a little ungainly at the finish line, but Stanwyck's potency and assuredness help to steer it away from being outright grotesque. She gives her character everything she has, and in doing so, lets her experiences as one of the ultimate go-getters rub off on all of her onscreen personas. This was a beautiful and sassy lady, the real thing, and she made her characters in their worlds just as genuine as she was.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A Girl Cut in Two (2008)

Claude Chabrol's languidly paced, fascinatingly crafted A Girl Cut in Two is most distinguished by its indistinguishable reflexivity of the director. The French New Wave figure has so often targeted the bourgeoisie that sometimes the sum total of his work can leave the impression of a boxer hammering away at a defenseless punching bag. An admittedly unfair, though not wholly illegitimate depiction, to be sure, but sometimes the very familiarity of a man's work betrays the limits of his evident interests and fetishized manias. That is where variety of tone comes in. Auteurs sustain themselves in no small part by continuing to build the scaffolding of their macro picture, which all too often becomes reduced to a single all-encompassing phrase by critics that frequently allows people to classify the filmmakers and their work* (often all too lazily by some unimaginative individuals) while altering the foreground and setting sufficiently so that their work remains vital and arrestingly provocative. (*Like any artist, philosopher or historical figure—one can have mixed feelings about the Athenian leader Pericles, and disagreements with Kant and Kierkegaard's laborious distinctions between morality and human naturalness don't inspire disregard for their indispensable contributions to excogitative examinations of ethics.)

Chabrol's latest is in many ways yet another pummeling of the pomp of the bourgeoisie, but as usual for the celebrated 78-year-old, his film is less acrimonious than simply stubborn in its observances, and for the most part gently satirical. Called a Hitchcockian thriller by some (it's not) and a black comedy by others (perhaps of only the driest sort), it elides scenes that would usually be of considerable import to many other filmmakers and leaves the general ripple that lingers after the closing credits that betrays Chabrol's mature and comprehensive understanding.

Loosely based on the New York City turn-of-the-twentieth century affair involving Evelyn Nesbitt's triangular dual affair with famed architect Stanford White and the “mad millionaire” Harry Thaw, A Girl Cut in Two begins with a note of undiluted foredoom. The opening credits unspool against the windshield of a car in the point-of-view of a driver while a truncated piece from Puccini's Turandot ("In Questa Regia") plays over the soundtrack. The visual field is bathed in a tinting of crimson. Chabrol's methodology is a forewarning as well as an ostensible trap for the viewer—one may expect the picture to follow through with its initial promise of an outlandish oratorio. (The sequence also reminds one of a spermatozoa, a potentially powerful metaphor for male penetration of the female, contentiously at the heart of Chabrol's latest picture.) However, Chabrol's intentions are probably only meant literally. It is the cinematic equivalent of opening your film with the title card There Will Be Blood.

The titular girl is the 23-year-old Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (Ludivine Sagnier), a Lyon, France television “weathergirl.” In the film she soon finds herself inadvertently walking into a make-up room with acclaimed and popular novelist Charles Denis (Francois Berleand) having his face worked on before a television appearance. Denis' age is never disclosed but as played by Berleand in his mid-fifties, he must be at least around thirty years older than the weathergirl. Somewhat striking in its similarity to Elegy, which also portrayed a May-December relationship involving an eminent man some thirty years older than the highly attractive woman, partly due to its being the first “new” film seen by this blogger since that picture, A Girl Cut in Two's romance is finally more twisted. Befitting Chabrol's consummate interest in the challenges and pitfalls of perversity, sexual complications pertaining to Denis' relationship with Gabrielle neither support nor gainsay the claims of his rival so much as merely work as a counterpoint Chabrol coolly examines. Denis and his friends frequent a high-end sex club; eventually the woefully naïve Gabrielle finds herself the object of Denis' lascivious “games,” as she calls them.

Buttressed by his son Matthieu Chabrol's distressingly dissonant score, Eduardo Serra's serviceable cinematography and the screenplay for which he shares credit with Cecile Maistre, Chabrol creates a convincingly authoritative portrayal of a Stygian melange of lust, jealousy and hatred. Gabrielle's “mad millionaire” is Paul Andre Claude Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), son of a major pharmaceuticals magnate, whose insecurity manifests itself in his auto-sabotaging with Gabrielle while persistently pursuing the lovely young woman at the same time. Self-destructively hateful of Denis already, he becomes enraged when he learns that the woman he so desperately wants for the rest of his life has had her heart won over by Denis. Regularly biting at his fingernails, Gaudens detests his mother for never having loved him and spending such a disproportionate amount of her time bestowing charity to people she never knew.

Gradually, Chabrol's essaying of the class confusions and nuances—such as Gabrielle being glowingly appreciative of the artistic culture and witty gracefulness of Denis, as most recognizably conveyed by his habitual quoting of others, something she shares from her father giving her a book of quotations when she was a child—at the troubled heart of the story enhances his picture's integrity. The director's atavistic response to the excesses of the bourgeoisie may hang over the proceedings at all times, but A Girl Cut in Two nevertheless boasts a finer empathy characteristic of Chabrol's art. Gaudens, portrayed by Magimel as a spoiled, mildly self-loathing young man of volatile and dangerous instability, may repel many an audience but a monster he is not. He is in so many ways easily referred to as pathetic, and disgusting, but the rigors of his joyless, inherited life have simply poisoned him, forever corrupting his soul. His life is perpetually burdened by his nouveau riche status, doomed to vacillate between a patina of propriety and succumbing to the insecurities that plague him. Late in the film his mother informs Gabrielle—and the audience—that a childhood tragedy played a significant part in shaping him into the twisted person he finally became. The source of the tragedy is an open-ended but definitively sagacious questioning that circles back around to only affirm a certain righteousness to Gaudens' otherwise petulant and at times insufferably anguished bitterness.

The somewhat startling similarity to Elegy cannot go unremarked upon. Both begin in a roughly related place but advance quite differently from one another. Whereas Elegy portrayed an older male fantasy as a kind of partially therapeutic escape from the identicalness and grinding monotony of an older man's life—which began in its current form as an escape as well, from his past life of marriage and family—A Girl Cut in Two is icily mocking with the indirectly but prevalently caustic wallop of a scene with Gabrielle flaunting her body, wearing the tale of a peacock as she crawls on the floor to please Denis. What Gabrielle slowly comes to learn is that neither the highly talented, cultured but fundamentally irresponsible older man nor the apparently talentless, spoiled, arrogant and crazed but earnestly lovestruck younger man signify lasting happiness for her. What begins as a way of sealing herself off from the author and creating separation between she and Denis—accepting Gaudens' obsessively-followed fixation of wedding her—ends as a draining, hellish experience of captivity and heartache. After foolishly offering her husband some of the details of her liaisons with Denis and his friends, he compulsively asks her for more information, ensuring a wearying cycle of mania and sexual paranoia that sends him reaching for the easiest ways to combat his own neuroses.

Chabrol's newest film possesses all of the tropes entailed in revisiting the world of the rich and of the perversions of characters within and without the highest strata of society for which he is so well known. One may briefly blanch from the repeatedly visited pallor of this milieu in the context of the familiarity of it all. Chabrol fits neither with the most consistently shape-shifting directors, whose continual alterations to the “foreground” and “setting” entice and excite many a moviegoer, nor with the most abjectly iterant auteurs. Somewhere between these extremes, his films capably meet one's expectations while occasionally devouring them. The singular associative technique of the French icon is still present, still assiduous and still relevant. What makes A Girl Cut in Two most pleasingly surprising is its coda. At first, it seems Chabrol has lost his senses, and has made both the conditions of the story and the title of his film painstakingly literal. Commencing as a threateningly reductive sequence, Gabrielle becomes a magician's assistant, capitalizing on her newfound fame and, finally, infamy, and how deceptively pedestrian things appear to be when she is, naturally, cut in two, on the stage by a saw. Yet Chabrol uses a zoom-in close up (a recurring visual motif of this work) to at once devastate and confound the viewer. Gabrielle, after turning her head away from the crowd, is crying for the camera. Just as Chabrol's tight close-up seems to go on and last forever, finally it concludes. The shot is replaced by one of Gabrielle beaming, her lustrous emerald eyes and dazzling smile leaving a mark of great propriety and serenity, masking the sorrow inside. Deliciously, artifice is evaluated, commented upon and allowed to stand on its own for further examination by the audience. Few directors, whatever their age, are so courageous.

James Cameron to Reclaim His Crown?

James Cameron seems determined to reclaim his filmmaking crown as the King of the World in about fifteen months with Avatar.

At least, that's what his interview at would indicate.

When it comes to box office, no one should underestimate Cameron. If this film is as great an advance in cinematic technology as Cameron suggests, perhaps this is a movie that people will be looking at from afar as a potential major "event film". Or is it just hot air? Is there anyone anticipating this despite the fifteen month wait?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wells Falls in Hate... For the One Millionth Time

Jeffrey Wells has fallen "in hate" with Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom.

Since Wells more or less disliked and dismissed Brick, and, perhaps more importantly, confesses to walking out of the theatre in which The Brothers Bloom was being played, however, I will merrily ignore his opinion. If you read his slam, you'll see that he "fell in hate" with the picture because one of the Bloom brothers is referred to by their last name, and the other by their first name...

And because Rinko Kikuchi is "relentlessly sullen"--this is the guy who loved Babel! She wasn't sullen there? She was beyond sullen in the 2006 international omnibus picture. Maybe she actually speaks in the Johnson film and it was just too much for Wells, who says he wanted her knifed or shot or pushed into the ocean. And the final outrage? Character actor Robbie Coltrane is egregiously fat and we all know how much Wells loathes the "Jabbas" among us. And Wells eviscerates Johnson for so "obviously" wanting "to be Wes" Anderson. Well, even if that is true, I would rather follow a filmmaker interested in being the next Wes Anderson rather than becoming the next Michael Davis (before you race over to IMDb, he wrote and directed the Wells-approved Shoot 'Em Up). Yes, these all sound like perfectly fine reasons for abandoning a film "a little less than an hour" into its running time.

Elegy (2008)

No matter how sophisticated or highbrow, it would seem that every arthouse-destined film depicting the life of those who populate academia that does not belong to the today risible lineage of To Sir, With Love to Dead Poets Society, and from Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers and The Great Debaters depicts the life of the teacher in higher education and even the often tumultuous years of high school as a kind of glum, dismally joyless occupation. Perhaps it speaks to greater honesty in cinema this decade, or just the larger, trendy bitterness and cynicism that prevails in the “indie” world. Just in the '00s, films working partly as counterpoints to the happy, didactically predictable “classroom inspirational” tales that seem to come out every Christmas or January—extending to sports with Coach Carter (which was actually successful on its own terms with one of Samuel L. Jackson's better turns since the late '90s) to Glory Road to Gridiron Gang—films such as 25th Hour, or just this year's Smart People and The Visitor use the despairing “indie” reality of hopelessness and inadequacy the arts routinely finds in academia as “launching pads” for the bulk of their narratives. (The Visitor's sights are set on “inspiration” as well; Richard Jenkins' character's initial quotidian, disheveled appearance and spiritual vacuum are all present at the beginning to be drastically changed. It's a simple, rote drama but it shares with the more abrasive pictures such as 25th Hour the inversion of the teacher-as-mentor dichotomy as the conditions from which the narrative stems.)

Isabel Coixet's Elegy, based on a Philip Roth novel called The Dying Animal, is a pensively cheerless film with a selfish college professor named David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) at its center. It begins with measured, graceful subtleness and concludes like a standard 1930s Hollywood melodrama. Kepesh is a cowardly, irresponsible fellow, but he remains understandable because he's not a hypocrite. He enjoys a lifestyle that includes a twenty-year relationship with a former student named Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) based on, in her words, “pure fucking”—no sticky issues of the heart, no hurdles involving the entanglements of love, just... well, “pure fucking.” Kepesh intelligently pursues whichever female avatar that attracts his interest by hosting a cocktail party at the end of the semester, which as he says in voice-over is, “always a success.” At one such cocktail party, he speaks without the obligatory shield and formality of instructor to a most beautiful graduate student, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), who, at age eleven, immigrated with her parents from her native Cuba to the United States. Naturally, Kepesh's primary engrossment with the gorgeous Consuela is initially limited to the overpowering pulchritude the young lady so unabashedly possesses. Yet as he speaks to her about the arts, about life, and her, he comes to discover that she has a remarkable intellectual reservoir of insights and wisdom beyond her years. Most irresistibly, she has a sensibility and personality belonging to the “Old World,” as Kepesh tells his Pulitzer Prize-winning poet friend George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper) while playing indoor racket ball. “She is a woman who has to be wooed,” Kepesh excitedly relates, noting one of the great differences between her and every woman he has previously encountered. Kingsley's performance is quite solid all the way around, but works most thoroughly when his cynicism is wedded to the buoyancy that rocks his character in the form of Consuela.

Representing something far more enriching than just a routine conquest for Kepesh, Cruz's ethereally otherworldly beauty is simply the spark that set off Kepesh's infatuation. What Consuela infuses in Kepesh is what Cruz infuses in the film: a liveliness, an unpredictability, adding to the proceedings a sensorial gauze placed over the aforementioned dourness that appropriately seduces the viewer while seducing Kingsley's Kepesh. What Cruz proves here is that she could very well be the new Sophia Loren, an enchantress whose statuesquely ravishing physical attributes and endowments are merely the most visually alluring complement to the arresting deportment and presence of the lady. Her impact here is almost ineffably crucial, and though a substantial amount of that impact is derived from the provisory of the character—Consuela's entry in Kepesh's life is singularly important—much of the harmonic lightness of the film is intangibly wrought with startling incorporiety simply from her being.

Unfortunately, Elegy is committed not to fully exploring what is a deeply fascinating character study-cum-ephemeral love story, but to completing story arcs that only drag the picture down—and drag it out too long. The film is less than two hours long but by the time it ends, the audience has been beaten with recurring motifs and supporting characters whose roles are either too small or too large for the sake of the picture's much more satisfying forefront with Kingsley and Cruz. When Kepesh pusillanimously defies the hopes and dreams of Consuela, Cruz's character is intermittently washed out of the picture, leaving us with only Kepesh, his friend George, George's wife Amy (Deborah Harry) and Kepesh's bitter son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who has never forgiven his father for walking out on his family. Uninteresting subplots play out in the center stage and one-dimensional characters such as George and Kenneth are given greater superficial import, without leaving much in the way of lasting impressions. The only side character who leaves a mark is Carolyn, performed with delicacy and beguiling charm by Clarkson, whose balanced reaction of hurt and understanding to Kepesh's betrayal of her with Consuela leaves an emotional and thematic mark on Kepesh and the picture. The last act of the picture drags on and on, making the film feel as though it is approximately twenty-five or thirty minutes too long.

Elegy is bittersweetly didactic in its own way. George serves primarily as a spout of mostly well-meaning and sensitive remarks—a few of which are achingly accurate (his pointing to beautiful women being “invisible” rings quite true)—and Kepesh is portrayed by Coixet and Kingsley as a man who learns a nearly invaluable lesson from his dalliances culminating in finding the love of his life, Consuela. As such, the film is very much a mixed bag. Kepesh confronts the realities that haunt, that penetrate deeply, irrevocably. In the final scene between he and Carolyn, he wonders aloud whether or not they have grown up—scooping that meme from his friend George, who instructed him to worry about “growing up,” not growing old—and, the meaning to the realization that he and Carolyn have never truly talked with one another in an over twenty-year relationship of “pure fucking.” Carolyn, ever the realist, notes that it's not such a bad record. She says she knows people married for a longer period of time who have yet to speak with one another with any frankness or openness... or at all. The epiphany that inspires Kepesh, that his experience with Consuela, begun as a base desire to “fuck her,” as he noted in voice-over during the very first phase of the courtship resulted in an actual flowering of mutual respect and love.

The truest point to the film is that every relationship, especially one of any considerable duration and success, finds its equilibrium in the give-and-take not just incumbent on two people attempting to mold their lives around one another but the very complementary exchange most paradoxically present in the love of people of vastly different ages and backgrounds. As an older, literate man, a culture critic and college professor, he gifts Consuela with intellectual passion and sexual superiority (Consuela notes that his admiration and appreciation of her body surpasses those of men closer to her in age). She indelibly injects youthfulness and contradictory responsibility juxtaposed with his older, cynically careless egghead perspective. Unfortunately, the relationship becomes too great for the sake of Kepesh, who, in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, tells the woman for whom he jealously pines, “A future with you scares me.”

Workout Dialogue

I like working out quite a bit, almost daily, and naturally I like playing music, typically of the energetic, "heavy" variety when doing so.

Yet I've recently been thinking... What film has such impressively cutting, vicious and hard-as-nails dialogue that you could possibly play the film and listen to the lines while bench-pressing?

The one that comes to mind instantly is Sweet Smell of Success. You can understand why one of the characters in Barry Levinson's Diner is so obsessed with the 1957 noir drama that they endlessly quote lines of dialogue from it.

The lips of Burt Lancaster's J.J. Hunsecker are such a fountain of mercilessly biting, ferociously, rapaciously vile lines that will stick with you forever.

"You're dead, son. Get yourself buried."

"Everybody knows Manny Davis--except Manny Davis."

"See, I don't relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don't you just shuffle along?"

"Sidney, this syrup you're giving out... you pour over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker."

"I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're a cookie full of arsenic."

"The cat's in the bag. The bag's in the river."

It goes on and on...

"It's a dirty job but I pay clean money for it!"

So which film or films have such powerful, rhythmically intense dialogue that you could envision yourself working out to it/them?