Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the DL: Shouldering the Pain

Well, readers of Coleman's Corner in Cinema, I just want you to know that there will be no new postings for the next week or two, depending on how bad my shoulder injury is. Almost exactly a year ago I injured my scapula muscle in my right shoulder quite badly. After a couple of agonizing weeks, the injury finally subsided.

Beginning on Saturday, this injury returned. I'm not exactly sure why, but it is clear that I reinjured the same muscle.

This is a very debilitating injury. Walking down a hallway is very painful, and simple physical movements such as bending over or turning one's head are excruciating.

Reading from a computer screen and typing are both toilsome in this condition.

As a result, there will be no new postings at CCC for a while.

I try to look at the silver lining in such situations. My silver linings here are that if this injury had to occur, in a way I'm glad it happened now, as I personally believe the last four or five weeks at CCC have very possibly been the most rewarding time period of blogging I have experienced. During this period of time, beginning in the last days of September and characterizing all of October until now, I was able to--in my own mind, in any event--maintain a consistency that helped make the process more fun than ever, achieving a prolific solidity in this month that was enjoyably engaging.

It is possible that writing more, and sitting in such a position while doing so, helped aggravate my previously long-forgotten injury, but I, like my doctor, are unsure of what could have caused the injury to resurface at this time.

My greatest silver lining, however, is that the only position in which I feel as though I'm not in agony is sitting on my couch, watching films. So film-viewing will not slow down for yours truly, at least I hope not, but in a condition that causes one to take ten minutes to roll out of bed, much activity beyond that is very unlikely. So, as I attempt to allow the body to heal, I will also give the mind something of a rest, and a chance to recharge its batteries, at least with regards to cinematic writings (again, I'll be sure to watch a lot of films during this time since it's the most painless, passive act I am capable of now).

So, blogging brothers, and sisters, please excuse my general absence at your venues as well for a little while.

For the readers at Coleman's Corner, doubtless starved for more and more from this blogger, heartbroken at this tragic news (haha), I suggest you look at some old CCC material. Perhaps this is an ideal time during which you can catch up with reviews and other items you have missed. One place you may want to visit with Halloween fast approaching? My only all-out horror movie review, perhaps. However, you can go anywhere. Perhaps you just saw a classic I reviewed for the first time, or a new release I tackled in the summer has come out on DVD. Or what have you.

I will periodically go online during this period when I'm feeling up to it and check in on comments, to which I will reply.

Take care.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ballast (2008)

Writer-editor-director Lance Hammer's rhythmically enervated debut feature-length picture, Ballast, set in the absorbing setting of the Mississippi delta, is an authentically impressionistic piece of verite filmmaking set at such disciplined, taut and intimate parameters that the film's occasionally lengthy intercises only further engage the perspicacity of the more sensitive viewers. While Ballast will not sweepingly capture every heart or mind—the film's chaste stylistic shaping and lucidly intelligible but unadorned narrative forbid less rewarding mass appeal—but for those substantially more receptive to the film's deceptive fathomage, the rewards are many. Hammer's technique is dusty, with a light melange of dailiness and dolefulness providing an irreplaceable balance, but he does not resort to what one may fear, namely an oppressively depressing disposition that would slowly sabotage his efforts. What one finds with Ballast is actually an honest, uncompromisingly related tale of ordinariness. Tragedy is an ubiquitous fact and facet of life, and Hammer allows for that transitory realization, always to be overtaken by the utilitarian strain of consciousness, to linger with an abnormally humane resonance.

Three people are at the heart of Ballast. Gracefully introduced is James, a boy frequently riding a motorbike, who, in a fit of discontentment and boredom, charges at a flock of geese. Hammer's apparent etching of the film's major first movement gorgeously plays out in this symbolic, cinematic and narrative overture, as the boy's untamed recklessness will yield results as disparate and uncontrollable as the flock of birds he unthinkingly disturbs. Vocally reticent, the boy, James (JimMyron Ross) allows his actions to speak most loudly, and when he acts impulsively, others suffer consequences. James' father commits suicide. The father's twin brother, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Sr.), finds himself victimized by the wayward boy, who points his own uncle's gun at him to extort money with which he can buy drugs from a small group of thuggish dealers. Soon the actions of James will lead to considerable problems for his mother, Marlee (Tarra Riggs).

The film's simple but urgently unfurled plot provides the three characters to organically blossom like flowers, blooming in their respective elaborations and in relation to one another. Hammer's pacing is almost unfailingly exquisite, harnessing every sensible tool that will heighten his picture's maximally engrossing and convincing verisimilitude, creating muted tension and poetically sharp beats of characterization. Definitively drawing highly appropriate conclusions about James, Lawrence and Marlee, Hammer gives the three semblables a backdrop of musty environs, dankly irriguous cotton fields and pluviously humid conditions that behave like a retractable scrim for the American neo-realistic play to proceed. As exterior forces appear malevolent in their nature against these three, Hammer carefully portrays their triangular relationship as a breaking of bread, and extensions of olive branches. An important shot during which James rests in the foreground while Lawrence and Marlee discuss the boy's fate allows for the adults' heads to remain, in the distance, unfocused, perceptibly communicating the viewpoint James possesses. Naturalism in camerawork prevails but the lighting is accentuated with a bluish-gray tinting, with the utilization of lens filters that leave the screen finally glaciated. Lol Crowley's cinematography endows the characters with apt penumbras of asperous hues.

What one most vividly recollects after immediately taking Ballast in is the creditableness and authenticity. These laudable attributes are quintessential to the picture's success, and they entirely transcend the limitations of what could be making mundane points about the under-class depicted herein. The film is far removed from all forms of editorializing. What lingers most is how it reminds one of the behavior of oneself, reminding the viewer, for instance, just how much time one spends on the floor during childhood. Or how mothers usually only want to know that a child will assist in cooking dinner or help in other ways, not necessarily intent on seeing the child completely follow through with the nascent activity of selflessness and love. The universality behind the film's blunt sincerity serves partly as an invitation, and most importantly as an indubitable axiom, made as forged cinematic writ.

One cannot help but to consider films Ballast resembles in intention and design. From David Gordon Green's George Washington to Charles Burnett's wonderful Killer of Sheep (Tarra Riggs's Marlee recalls Kaycee Moore's mournful attractiveness paradoxically festering, nevertheless marked by severely pained comprehension that impacts her entire comportment), to the films of the Belgian Dardenne brothers and naturally to the classic Italian neo-realist pictures that inspired these and many other filmmakers, evidently including Hammer. Using nonprofessional actors like Robert Bresson, Hammer allows the surety of the people his camera captures to foist the filmic umbrella of immediacy and idiomatic truthfulness. The selection of non-actors here is retroactively surprising, as Michael J. Smith, Sr. is both literally and figuratively dominant, his husky and amply bulky frame visually imposing itself on the boy and mother in a way that subconsciously conveys the intrusive and intimidating position he unenviably stakes in their lives, blamed as he is by Marlee for the mutual fate that has swallowed all three in the wake of tragedy. Riggs is touching as Marlee, oscillating between sternness and coldness for Lawrence and loving warmth for James. Ross has the natural charisma of a child, but tempers it with a grounding of physical movement, leaving the lasting impression of a boy nearly always uncomfortable with himself.

Whereas most pictures tend to accumulate suspense, dutifully mounting the “jeopardy” at hand for the characters rigorously embedded in the film, Hammer works entirely against such formulaic trappings. Rather than tighten the noose, he allows it to slacken, jumping off of a first act almost seemingly besotted with the threateningly present hand of violence, in two or three drastically different forms of the self-inflicted, only to give the mundaneness that follows a proper context. It is out of this pit of self-destruction, both straightforwardly suicidal and circuitously extraneous, that James, Marlee and Lawrence dig. The first act, with its more incendiary and pernicious obstacles, gives heft to and supplies ambient context for the asomatous restoration that follows. For his part, Hammer varies the speed and pitch of the film's progressing arc of assiduous empathetic treatment of his characters. Displaying an expansive and erstwhile range of compositional framings, shooting James in close-up in one shot, followed by a medium shot of Lawrence, or a long, distant statuary shot of James in the foreground in a tree observing Marlee and Lawrence conversing, Hammer effectively demonstrates an eloquence of form that is occasionally deeply resplendent.

Ballast tells a story, and it has a message, but both properties to this most welcome creation are only parts of the larger artistic agenda. The film has a headstrong obtuseness to it, a blindness, that is necessary to make this docu-drama virtually immaculate in its austerity and unwillingness to spoon-feed. The personal conditions that lead to the film's brutal beginning are never deeply examined because, firstly, the picture is about the aftermath, not the build-up (in a reversal of Gordon Green's Snow Angels and The House of Sand and Fog and countless other indies of varying shades of monochromatic grimness), and the psychological resurrection, not the death, and secondly, because the viewer can resourcefully intuit the details of the back-story with little difficulty.

Where Ballast goes, how it operates and what its destination holds in store for its three main characters—all can, or at least, should, be written about in merely oblique language, enticing those who wish to partake in the rewards of the risk. Hammer overwhelmingly presents the viewer with the predicated root of artful construction. With his debut work, he goes back, almost in time, almost with a naivete, a refreshing guilelessness. With Ballast, he takes the mythical glories of creative expression, of dramatic conception, back home. He observes.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Narrow Margin (1952)

Detective Sergeant Walter Brown is a man made up of inclement parts, but morally salubrious when weighed as a sum, a whole. His gruff, stoically shielded oafishness gives him a kind of impervious protective coating. Thick-shouldered, lantern-jawed, hardboiled and gravel-voiced, he is in so many physical ways, the embodiment of the cop belonging to the genre of film noir, and while less garrulous than another detective sergeant, Dave Bannion in the next year's The Big Heat, Brown is just as fearlessly principled and perilously heedless in his gritty determination and unbending righteousness. Like Bannion and Lieutenant Leonard Diamond in The Big Combo three years later, Brown is temerarious when confronted by the insuperable odds of the thuggish gangsters who are his foreordained foes, his innumerably faceless bete noire. Brown is played by noir natural Charles McGraw, whose verbal and visual asperity serve as a comprehensive lamina at all times.

The dame, a spitfire vixen of doubtful ethics, is literally and figuratively defined by the man to whom she married, a killed crime boss named Frankie Neall. Mrs. Frankie Neall, or Mrs. Neall, as she will be called, must be protected by Brown on the trip from Chicago to Los Angeles so she can testify to the grand jury about the graft and corruption she knows about. Her moral mercurialness contrasts perfectly against Brown's tautly linear code of ethics. Made out to be cheap, unflatteringly ostentatious and routinely shrill, Mrs. Neall is a real piece of work, as the protagonist might say. It's a role demanding a fine actress to play it, and in that role queen of Hollywood B-movies Marie Windsor radiates, taking what could have become a character soused in annoyingly cacophonous embroidery, and making it into a fully fleshed-out, indelibly personable figure of reason and sensible reaction. Windsor is a B-movie treasure, repeatedly and reliably turning in gutsy, candidly authentic performances in her pictures, often stealing the show in small supporting parts. Here she is given a full stage on which to work and she is, behind the surface of rasping scratchiness and calculous persona, smashingly elegant.

The film is The Narrow Margin, a 1952 B-noir thriller that works with a precision and exactitude that very few features ever find. At 72 minutes, the film is blessed with perfect pacing and laudably controlled direction by Richard Fleischer, one of the more under-appreciated directors of his era. Fleischer's command is exquisite, and conveyed early on. The economy of setting and action is remarkable, breathlessly taking the viewer through a brief battle before anyone would probably expect the action to begin—Brown's aging partner is fatally gunned down as the two cops are simply endeavoring to take Mrs. Neall down a staircase—to the discomforting confines of a train, on which the great bulk of the film plays out, with Brown navigating his way through the maze of deceit, treachery and minacious evildoing aboard with the cop and moll.

Character actors such as the sunny Jacqueline White as a woman named Ann Sinclair, the corpulent Paul Maxey as a humorous but possibly fiendish passenger named Sam Jennings and the peculiarly miry Peter Brocco as a loathsome mob confederate who offers Brown a juicy bribe, show up, aiding the film in suspensefully portraying the labyrinthine train (which in reality was depicted from inside the interior studio by bouncing and moving the camera, giving the effect of a speeding train) as one overwhelming receptacle of malice and intrigue. Brown must decipher the reality of the situation, and Fleischer in a later interview would say that he directed McGraw by telling him to act as though the pressure was waxing at every moment, stressing the cop out almost to the breaking point with every narrative and train track turn.

One of the thematic interests at work is the old bromide about never judging a book by its cover. As Brown and his partner discuss the woman to whom they are assigned before meeting her, they make a bet. Brown believes Mrs. Neall will be a low-class tomato with an ugly personality; his partner, older, more sensitive, wants to believe otherwise, and so they wager five dollars on it. Mrs. Neall behaves in a manner entirely fitting Brown's conception (though she does not exude a clueless ditziness or a true sluttiness), causing Brown to ask his partner to give him the five bucks he suddenly owes him. Brown conjectured before seeing Mrs. Neall that she would be just another example of the unkempt human debris he must confront on the job—only in the form of a “sixty-cent special... poison under the gravy”—and by the way Mrs. Neall acts, he believes he has found precisely the woman he figured he would be stuck with. As the relationship slowly deepens, however, defined as it is by the ceaseless struggle to keep the woman alive, Brown gradually empathizes with the woman he is charged with protecting, though his eyes tend to wander to the far more dapper and sprite of a lady, Ann Sinclair, at one point angering Mrs. Neall, who herself comprehends just how repulsed Brown is of her in so many ways, seeing her as a meretricious distraction (“My partner's dead... and you're alive... some trade,” the cop bitterly philosophizes). Fleischer, working from a screenplay written by Earl Felton, which would be nominated for Best Original Screenplay by the Academy Awards for its crackling dialogue and tightly wound narrative pacing and ingenuity, commendably presses the point down like a ceramicist molding clay, without ever clumsily crushing the creation with an overdone thesis.

Between the rugged masculinity of Brown and the pent-up, timorous sexiness of Mrs. Neall, is the efficacious technical prowess Fleischer so enticingly exhibits. Shot in only a few days, the film's soundtrack is made up from the robust sounds of the train, utilized to startlingly brilliant effect. Underlying the claustrophobic tension of the ensuing action is the moiling steam engine wheels, simulating the meticulous engineering of the richly layered plot, and the driving power behind Felton's commoving narrative. An unforgettable cutaway from Windsor's Mrs. Neall nervously furbishing her fingernails with a file to the roaring, mechanized synchronization and incessant repeated movement of the wheels of the train lingers forever in the mind of anyone who has viewed the spectacle.

The film is almost perfect, but perfection is in most matters impossibly lofty. A late major twist is at best questionable in its internal logic; the fate of an even more major character is negligently handled by the screenplay, abandoning any reasonable move to return to the emotional core of the film's largely highly successful story; there may be, for some, one coincidence too many. Yet those sore spots do not in the least sour the experience of this briskly traveled yarn of celerity. The themes resonate, and the characters are victoriously attendant in the mind of the viewer, as these two particularly well-drawn, superbly human individuals wrestle with each other and finally themselves. Film noir is an expansive genre, and the depth and breadth of its many spiritually vanquished and desperate figures, from the pitiless and periodically psychotic gangster to the shadowy informant to the hapless dupe, and from the feral femme fatale to the misunderstood vixen, and from the cop gone crooked to the one who allows his lawful uprightness to counterbalance all other deficiencies, are nothing less than amaranthine in their undying importance. Those onerous thematic undercurrents may be more difficult to delve into with a film so enjoyably fun and vibrant as The Narrow Margin, but they are just as easily appreciated, perhaps more so, distilled as they are as the exemplar beings, woven into the fabric of this, a supposed B-movie of valiant aspirations.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

W. (2008)

Comparing Oliver Stone's W. to his Nixon is probably a fool's errand. Over twenty years transpired between Richard Nixon's resignation and Stone's epic treatment of the man's life and political travails. George W. Bush still has around ninety days in office. His presidency, though considered by a majority of Americans to have had a deleterious effect on his country, has not been given sufficient time to be viewed with the (often nonexistent) objectivity of an historical perspective. Whereas at least a significant portion of the most unforgiving loathers of Nixon will admit that he possessed a certain intelligence, and had concomitant features that today seem extinct, such as a foreign policy shaped around realpolitik and (comparatively) limited interests related to matters defined as strictly pragmatic purposes, exerting a kind of statesmanship in “opening China” that would, likely admitted by at least some W.-boosters, befuddle the forty-third president. Nixon naturally invites the kind of hypnotically tragic play about his life, his deeds, his soul; Bush, meanwhile, may be best approached in a Strangelovian, fun-house mirror way. Marx was more correct than he knew with his timelessly written opening sentences of his The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in 1852: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He has forgotten to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”

W. suffers from almost every apparent problem you would likely think nearly inevitable when undertaking a kind of part-biopic, part-framing of the back-story of the Iraq War and throwing it all into one narrative. Noticeably absent: every other major occurrence of W.'s presidency. Stone's voice can be heard through the vicariously created Colin Powell (Jeremy Wright) as the general warns the president in Crawford, Texas, months before the invasion of Iraq, “This will become your first term, sir.” Evidently, Stone believes Iraq is Bush's presidency, period. Abu Ghraib is never mentioned (Guantanamo Bay is once), though lightly hinted at as a future scandal as Dick Cheney (a creepily intense but sternly understated Richard Dreyfuss) tells Bush about the ramifications of some of the details in a certain bill, which Bush glances at between voracious bites into his lunch meat sandwich, happily noting the number of pages (three). The narrative stops before Katrina. Before the Afghan insurgency became overwhelming, to the point of being considered more effective than the Iraqi insurgency. Before “The Surge.” Before most Americans knew “Osama” could rhyme with the name of a presidential hopeful. Indeed, the narrative just stops, abruptly, clumsily, as if the film were reveling in the inconclusiveness of the denouement. Stone, doubtless aware of this issue, brazenly has his picture conclude with the words “The End,” paradoxically conveying the open-ended, humorously inadequate destination of his own seriocomic snapshot of George H.W. Bush's (James Cromwell) black sheep-turned-presidential successor progeny.

If the finale is lackluster, almost necessarily so (but not to the point it is in Stone's film), what about the twisting road to that place? Brolin is unquestionably exceptional in his role—he, under Stone's direction, makes W. as complicated as possible, while never straining to adorn the man with qualities or attributes he so transparently lacks. Spoiled rotten as a teenager and young man, a frat brat screw-up at Yale, never applying himself to anything, including several “summer jobs” his father, Poppy, as he is called, attempts to give his son, he finally decides to follow his congressman father down the political road in 1977, running for the congressional nineteenth district of Texas after the Democratic incumbent leaves office. However, W. is chewed up by his Democratic rival in their debate, being “out-Texas'd” and “out-Christian'd,” as W. will later call it, by the mud-slinging Democrat. W. loses his bid, freshly determined to never allow the stinging bite of loss to reenter his political life. “I'll never allow myself to be out-Texas'd and out-Christian'd again,” he angrily vows once the reality of his failed campaign hits him.

Possibly the most truly comparative auteurist note of technique with Nixon, and other Stone features, is the director's affinity for symbolism. As Bush #43 throws a ball for Barney the dog to fetch, the “Boy Genius” and “Architect,” Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (Toby Jones) and White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer (Rob Corddry) metaphorically do the same with the president, throwing balls of sound-bites to the decider so he can win the American people over. As Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (a cartoon-like, over-the-top and grating Thandie Newton), Donald Rumsfeld (a wisely reserved Scott Glenn, conveying the mannerisms of the Secretary of Defense without ever resorting to caricature), General Tommy Franks (Michael Gaston), Cheney and others—sans Powell, the one voice of moderation with a uniquely small-c conservative outlook on the role of the military—all speak with assured bellicosity and arrogant woolgathering that reduces American foreign policy to blustery cockiness, all certain in their deluded minds that the invasion and subsequent war will be a rapid, triumphal affair, only to find themselves lost, having somehow aimlessly, walked off of the road like a doomed herd of animals on Bush's ranch. Stone cuts back to a long shot, determined to drive the equally comedic and frightening point home: these people are deeply lost. When David Kay is served up as being responsible for no one finding any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq months after the Iraq War's commencement, Rumsfeld (who himself will later be terminated, hours after the 2006 midterm election resulted in disaster for the Republican Party, days after W. told everyone Rumsfeld and Cheney would be around for the entirety of W.'s second term) and several others like the slimy Paul Wolfowitz—whose statement that the war would be paid for by Iraqi oil was hilarious at the time, depressing now—consume their slices of pecan pie, watching Kay fall on his sword for the sake of the president and his myrmidons (in reality, he is truly their myrmidon, a point Stone consistently hits, but never overwhelmingly so). In a room filled with deipnosophists, W. simply throws out less articulate points, discrepantly more edible for many Americans' consumption.

Elizabeth Banks plays Laura Bush, and she displays the innately dulcet, ambrosial texture of W.'s sweetheart, but the role is curtailed by Stone's currently pertinacious conventionality that used to not be so evident in his handling of relationships such as this. What does continue from Stone's earlier work is the Oedipal complex, made more alarmingly shallow than ever before, with W. tenaciously attempting to outdo his father, make his father truly express his love for his son (an awkward scene the day of W.'s gubernatorial inauguration in Texas hits the point, but Stone mistakenly undercuts his own drama by having W. voice the dynamic to his wife) and, in some vindictive combating against the one-term presidential fate of his father, to win the presidency and take out the “asshole who tried to kill my dad,” as he terms it to Rove and Fleischer, Saddam Hussein. Cromwell does not try to especially look or sound like Bush, Sr. but with those famed glasses (this writer would at the age of four, wear his father's glasses at the time of Bush #41's presidency, which were much like Bush #41's, saying, “I'm the president”) and stolid, well-bred demeanor, he captures what makes Bush, Sr. somewhat intriguing as a case study of power in the hands of “a political aristocrat,” as one off-screen news anchor describes him. Cromwell, a significantly taller man than Brolin, is allowed to tower over him, illuminatingly limning the overarching dynamic of their interactions with one another, and the psychological impact of Bush, Sr.'s towering over the eponymous son. Ellen Burstyn as Barbara Bush is another role minimized in importance, merely vacillating between her husband and her son, sometimes struggling to keep the two on speaking terms.

Where W. most trenchantly fails, however, is in the big picture department, as its subject might say: the film is disjunctively, sporadically cut up, again, like Nixon but unlike that finely tuned, monumentally expansive orchestral performance, W. resembles a dissatisfying, only ephemerally interesting sinfonietta, cut short. The film is troubled by “the vision thing,” as critics of Bush #41 remarked. There is only one scene in the whole film that feels like a comprehensively kindred spirit to Stone's earlier, more vital, more simultaneously intensive and sweeping works, and that is when Cheney stands up and makes his case for a lasting, imperial presence of America's might and power in the region of the Middle East. That is where Stone finally stops reenacting numerous scenes people who have followed the news know occurred, and digs deeper. W. is in so many different ways a filmic lark, made by a man attentive to the political, “psycho-historical” vein that quickens and decreases in pulsation, increasingly clogged and threatened by those edible bits thrown by this and many other members of the “managerial elite,” pace James Burnham, and, in this election season, those desirous of the reins of untrammeled, unconstitutional executive power.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rachel, Rachel (1968)

Coming off the heels of Hombre and Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman was becoming a greater star than ever before, but, never interested in merely resting on his laurels, the star turned to directing in 1968 with Rachel, Rachel. To do so, and to extract the $700,000 from Warner Brothers to make Rachel, Rachel, he had to acquiesce to several demands of the studio, including having two films added to his contract to the studio in which he had to star, for which he would receive a dramatic pay-cut, and the film's star, Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward, had to sign on for another film, for which she too would be paid far less than her usual salary. It was a heavy price to pay, but as Robert Osborne introduced the film for Turner Classic Movies on the day they selected to memorialize the recently departed actor-director, October 12, it was a price paid for this, a Newman family labor of love. (The film also has Newman and Woodward's daughter, named Nell Potts, playing Rachel as a rope-skipping haunted daughter.)

The eponymous Rachel Cameron, a thirty-five year-old second-grade spinster schoolteacher, is a repressed woman in every sense of the word—socially, physically, intellectually and most graphically, sexually. Woodward's performance as Rachel is heartbreakingly touching, occasionally bordering on the hyperalgesic—which is precisely appropriate for her onscreen creation, as Rachel's partially broken psyche almost paradoxically finds relief in the sensing of danger, pain, regret, guilt, like the person who wants to inflict self-injury so as to experience the consequential pain. That attribute likewise informs and is informed by the aesthetically and narratively sensitive texture Newman conjures. With a screenplay written by Stewart Stern, based on the novel “A Jest of God,” by Margaret Laurence, Newman makes his picture specifically empathetic in tone, allowing for Woodward's portrayal to shine brilliantly. Rachel is not so selfish as to simply use herself as a testing experiment, allowing the weight of hurt, dashed hopes and the slow, throbbing indignity of her biddable life, cast forever as caretaker, errand-runner and source of unwavering love and affection, for her domineering, overbearing mother (Kate Harrington), whose health conditions appear to exist so as to keep her daughter perpetually within her orbit.

Newman's direction is finely composed, wresting an understated comeliness and effete daintiness from his wife, while shooting much of the film in deliberate, but completely engaging, medium shots that hold Rachel in a kind of tenaciously taut frame, which in turn molds the turn into something resembling that of a prisoner, their sorrow usually confined to behind closed doors. When Rachel can no longer withstand the drudgery and pain inflicted upon her by her mother and the women with whom “Ms. Cameron,” as she is called, plays poker, she walks back to her room, having made “delicious sandwiches” for the group of loquacious older women, and disintegrates, weeping uncontrollably. It is in these scenes and others that convey the innermost agony of her life of tedium, detachment and malaise, that Newman goes in closer, quite literally, moving in to capture the unsightly reality behind the insufficiently shielded persona of schoolteacher, daughter and member of the community.

Sheltered to the point of insulation, Rachel seeks some passage out of her ennui, an opportunity to break free from the shackles that conspire to enslave her, finding what may be at once the first and last avenue on which to scurry away from this most crushingly faineant life. A friend, another schoolteacher from the same institution, the proudly Christian Calla Mackie (Estelle Parsons), cajoles Rachel into attending a service from an aggressive and fustian preacher, with disastrous results. Rachel finds herself awkwardly approached by Calla, sexually, rejecting Calla's passively, tractable advances, ensuring that Calla becomes self-pityingly apologetic towards Rachel when they encounter one another again.

Another character, spotted by Rachel when she was a little girl, named Nick Kazlik (James Olson), sitting, lonely, as his brother is carried away in a basket by Rachel's undertaker father—whose job gave the young girl another source of grief, being teased by boys, further isolating her—resurfaces in the film's more linear narrative. Something of a roue, he projects a calm, pleasant certitude of masculinity lacking in Rachel's life. Straightforward in his approach, he asks her to see a movie with him. At first she is too uncomfortable to follow through with what she believes she wants but finally she does see the movie with him, and after a tense scene in which she decides whether or not to go back to her mother like the obedient child, a constant reality in her life, or to go to “someplace” with Nick. The sexual encounter is portrayed as an experience of clumsiness, nervousness and unease.

The usage of flashbacks and sequences existing solely in Rachel's imagination—such as bravely taking a child she believes is being persecuted by the bullying principal of her school—was ahead of its time as is the subject matter itself. The voices in Rachel's head argue about many an issue, from her wanting to leave the school she detests, to whether or not she should or should not masturbate to go to sleep. A film of this nature today would have to be an “independent,” both in its “edgier” placement as a film of non-commercial pursuits and the nuts-and-bolts intimacy of the film itself. The depiction of the rara avis, the outsider and the socially suppressed, disconsolate woman is fully rounded, displaying a singularly evinced and perfervid melancholic character study while ardently refusing to cozen the viewer through reducing other characters to simplistic strokes. Nick's actions are unpleasant, Calla is a woman bewildered by her radically antipodean inclinations and Rachel's mother is a shrewish harridan but Newman ensures that the audience accept them as the real, pulsating people that they are, beneath the respective patinas of untrustworthiness, pushiness and querulousness.

Rachel, Rachel as a title is most fascinating in its implications, as the title card has the first enunciation made large and bold, the latter small and frail-looking. Is it a description of the adult Rachel against the young girl often highlighted? An echoing of the Biblical point, made plain in the novel's title, “A Jest of God,” underlined by the grotesque horror show of a religious service Rachel finds herself at? The nature of motherhood is an instrumental element to the film, including Rachel's own potentially maternal transformation. Is the lost child the Biblical Rachel looking for truly herself? Rachel, Rachel as a title is beautifully copious in its myriad meanings, including the connotation of scolding, most pointedly from Rachel's unremittingly punishing mother.

Sadly, Newman's directorial efforts have gradually fallen beneath the waves of obscurity, and are frustratingly difficult to find. This, Newman's maiden voyage of filmmaking behind the camera, is a lovingly elegant picture, grounded and exalted, all at once, by Woodward's ceaselessly arresting turn. Newman as an actor projected a rebelliousness and profound discomfort with the powerful institutions (sometimes reflected in the abstraction made wholly personal, like “mothers” and “fathers,” “school” and “church”), laden with falsity and blithe neglect people in all sundry aspects out of which those individuals are made, all of the somatic and the spiritual, the corporeal and the anagogic. Rachel, Rachel finds such interests made articulate, in an enrapturing, sotto voce cinematic speech.

Giving Oscar His Due

I rarely bring Oscar up, but I have written about him before. Back then I warned against premature Oscar "buzz" for a certain performance.

Now, I am questioning the readers of this blog: which performances have sufficient "buzz" at this juncture to be considered as possible nominees come winter?

I primarily ask because it seems like this Oscar season has been the quietest, most barren in a long time. We still have more than two months, but on the whole, this seems like a rather weak year for speculative Oscar hype, especially in terms of destined-for-Oscar performances.

The only three probable "locks" I can think of at this time are Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (best supporting actor), Penelope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (best supporting actress) and, despite not having been seen by yours truly, Angelina Jolie for Changeling (best actress--it's Eastwood, many think she should have been nominated last year for A Mighty Heart, etceteras).

Possible contenders would include Melissa Leo for Frozen River, Richard Jenkins for The Visitor, Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (unseen by yours truly yet again, so take this with an extra tiny grain of salt) and Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler as well as possibly Marisa Tomei for the same (again, unseen, so, please, do not take these glorified hunches particularly seriously).

I almost never bring Oscar up, but I am doing so now in the context of performances this year that were memorable, or Oscar-friendly. One of my favorite performances of the year was Andrew Garfield in Boy A, an ostensibly impossible long shot to be recognized.

It seems like no one is bringing up "Oscar" yet, and it's intriguing. Aside from the push to have The Dark Knight recognized, and a few of these aforementioned performances, it does not seem like there is much to fight over this year. Ironically, I will likely not bring Oscar up for a long time here, as others are able to follow the horse race with greater enthusiasm, passion and awards group-by-awards group coverage and analysis. It's seldom brought up here, and I tend to enjoy writing about it more as a reflection of the year, and the zeitgeist of that year.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nixon (1995) [Director's Cut]

With Nixon, Oliver Stone further excavates what he fervently holds as the parallel life of his own, the tumultuous time of the 1960s in particular, rife with a tangled web of American political conspiracy, earlier most pointedly drawn in his JFK, while creating an equally sprawling and intimate film with a darkly intoxicating narrative as densely brooding and forlorn as the finest Grecian, Shakespearean and Marlovian tragedies enhanced by evocative homages to that amaranthine non-chronological biopic template, Citizen Kane. At that narrative's plaintive heart is one man, Richard M. Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Nixon was a man of nearly limitless contradictions, and Stone courageously mounted a film worthily similar to its subject in its intentionally self-contradictory configuration, a work so rambunctiously vital, with countless techniques of nakedly, aggressively and floridly adorned embellishments, from cinematographer Robert Richardson's stirring confluence of the baroque and high-intensity, to the “psycho-history” of peering into not merely the corridors of power but the recesses of one man's tormented mind and soul, and the cyclonic aftermath of not merely his own orbit's conclusive reckoning but the very beastly nature of the office in which he served, to the behemothic ensemble cast so coruscating when members thereof are called upon to perform that serves in large measure as the broad canvas on which the completion of the central portrait is wrought.

Nixon commences like an expressionistic horror picture or possibly film noir. A thunderstorm has engulfed Washington, D.C., and appears to be centrally located above the White House. Stone's camera watches with intemperance, culminating in the first of many homages to the Orson Welles film debut masterpiece: the camera gradually pushes through the imposing black-barred White House gate. Cinema's greatest showmen understood film was in many ways the ultimate achievement in voyeurism. Working off of a screenplay written by Stone himself, and Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, the film's skeletal structure seems to bring the onlooker to the end of the tale, as King Lear is just discovering the truth of his progeny. Nixon sits stolidly in the corner of the Lincoln Room of the presidential palace, the ice cubes of his drink clinking as he raptly listens to his precious tapes, deciphering just how his presidency became shipwrecked. With a large fire roaring and the air conditioner on, Nixon is a man unsure of what he wants, and what he needs, only nebulously aware that the fate he finds confronted with is just as momentously catholic in its simple morality—impropriety is to be dealt with punitively (informed by his strict Quaker mother played by Mary Steenburgen in Whitter, California-based black-and-white flashback scenes that likewise crib from Citizen Kane, serving partly as a device of empathetic relation to the overburdened and often bitterly parented young Richard)—as it is apparently inescapable.

Hopkins does not so much transform himself into Nixon, like Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, but summon the man through sheer force of will. Hopkins's occasionally apoplectic volatility is what one will likely catch at first, but more probing looks will illuminate a thoroughly coagulated creation, doubtless stemming from the man. Hopkins uncannily captures Nixon's usual stance, his arms folded against his own back, his torso leaning just slightly downward, bringing his countenance into unclear focus, almost resembling a contemplative falcon, and modulates his voice pattern and tone to an approximation that carries the performer from one scene to another. Disheveled and sweaty, with the famed five o'clock shadow making its appearance at around noontime, Nixon often looks like a man who should be told to slow down. A tenacious bull, he cannot, and he refuses to allow any obstacle deny him the love he desires so. Stone posits that Nixon's harsh upbringing, set in a poverty-stricken Quaker family, during which the boy lost two of his brothers to disease, and lacking in the love he tenderly wishes to have in his life, made him chronically embittered, believing himself to be unworthy of such love if his (repeatedly termed) “saint of a mother,” Hannah Nixon, was so unbending in her disciplinary imposition and his nodular, emotionally distant father was so mulishly disinterested in ever conveying his love for his son beyond the necessities of working to put food on the table. Stone is known for many things but subtlety has never been one of them. Here he arguably overdoes his point, drawing Nixon's lifelong trajectory (to his resignation from office) in the unattainably shrouded context of his childhood pushing him to achieving greatness, with flashbacks to Whittier that many may consider tangential, and a shot of a ghostlike Hannah Nixon sitting down on a chair of the Lincoln Room, that would seem irrationally screwy in most films nominally about the same tale. Yet Stone's picture becomes larger than life in a way that proves Nixon's puissantly contested points about “bold moves” making the difference in history when electing to bomb Cambodia. Stone's cinema is about bold moves, and oftentimes they become overripe and undignified, resulting with himself supplying commodious ammunition to his detractors. With Nixon, however, the package is so seamlessly tied together, its myriad compendious components work almost flawlessly to forge an afflatus that finds transcendence in Hopkins's performance.

The supporting cast is audaciously perfect, endowing Stone's massively ambitious endeavor with a vivid tableau of grippingly convincing performances. In the film's role of an intermittently exhausted conscience, Joan Allen is nothing less than wonderful as Nixon's loving wife, Pat, whose subtle strength and durability sustain her husband, especially in moments of despair. James Woods is carnivorous as H.R. Haldeman, giving mere glances toward White House subordinates that perennially reinforce the unremitting reality that he has the president's ear, and is available to the president whenever Nixon needs a forthright sounding board and adviser. J.T. Walsh plays John Ehrlichman as a dutiful soldier plagued by growing doubt, which Stone considers one of the picture's more askew portrayals, meant in part to give the more hawkish Haldeman some contrast. Powers Boothe has the small but dramatically important role of Alexander Haig, who must at times help bring his president back into the reality of his situation. Bob Hoskins as the aging J. Edgar Hoover is menacing in a borderline mythomaniacal way that, like several of the more outlandish turns, vies to find a deeper, more diamantine truth beneath the exterior amplifications. E. Howard Hunt is played by Ed Harris, who makes his role more furtive and corpuscular than anyone else's, a kind of self-rationalizing beacon of quiet, blackmailing philosophizing. Paul Sorvino is eerily similar in appearance and vocal qualities to Henry Kissinger, playing all sides of the White House game, fastidiously applying Nixon as a tool himself for the foreign policy accomplishments he so doggedly pursues. E.G. Marshall's turn as John Mitchell, the man Nixon could have easily cut bait on and allowed to drown for the sake of the administration, is all-knowing; under his bulldog-like face, rests a mind plagued by uneasiness and a prevalent cynicism, brought about partly by his tempestuous wife Martha's unmaintainable outbursts of disregard for “Tricky Dick Nixon,” which continually embarrass. (Martha is played by Madeline Kahn.) David Hyde Pierce is ambiguously epicene, his words of warning (“...there is a cancer on the White House...”) serving to only incriminate himself in the eyes of Nixon. Ron Ziegler is embodied by David Paymer. John Diehl is a dead ringer for G. Gordon Liddy.

Excised from the theatrical cut is Sam Waterston as a demonic incarnation of Richard Helms, Director of the CIA. The film itself is introduced with a Biblical verse, Matthew 16:26, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” When Nixon takes the trip to Langley to meet Helms, Stone flashes with titles what is inscribed on the marble wall of the Central Intelligence Agency, from John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Revealingly, the entire quote that begins with John 8:31 has been halved; in its entirety, the Scripture reads, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”) Stone portrays Nixon's descent into the bowels of the CIA headquarters as a kind of journey into the pit of hell, where the festering devilish underworld master holds court and behaves with rogue capabilities. The sequence is bravura, flashing assassination attempts, successful and not, for which the Agency has been responsible (Castro, Diem, Trujillo) as well as covert operations in countries such as Honduras, while Stone heuristically underscores the operatic scene with some of John Williams' most arrestingly moody and ominous music. Nixon is portrayed as a man who actively fears flowers, for he fears death (a condition brought about by the untimely deaths of two of his brothers, pointed to with sympathetic verite and expressionism by Stone all at once), but Helms seems to keep a garden of flowers adjacent to his office so as to be reminded of “mortality,” as he calls it, of himself and everyone else, continually. Nixon, who sought to eliminate military bases in Europe (which he did), and reduce the defense budget significantly, is also interested in keeping the CIA on a leash, knowing what it is capable of, as he himself played an instrumental part in a covert operation called “Track Two,” the contingency op that was designed to go into effect if and when the Bay of Pigs mission failed in Cuba. In one of the film's most nightmarish and confrontational scenes, Nixon and Helms are two men wrestling over power, one determined to keep the other out of the loop as much as possible (so much so he has Nixon's man inside to keep tabs on the CIA Director fetch coffee and little else). Nixon wants the Agency to look into communist infiltration of the antiwar protesters in the streets, convinced that subvert forces are at work, equating the dilemma with Alger Hiss, whose scalp, he periodically reminds people, he extracted during the House of Un-American Activities era. Nixon also wants crucial files that have his name signed on them to be brought to his office, and all copies destroyed. Helms unctuously agrees to these minor concessions so as to retain his untrammeled clout, rhetorically twisting the president's arm to keep his self-sustaining autonomy, only needing the rest of the government to function so as to keep “the Beast,” as it will eventually be called, alive, making demands to the president in circuitous statements such as, when told by Nixon that the CIA will maintain “current levels of funding,” “current levels of funding may not be sufficient.” More than anyone else, Helms is portrayed as wretchedly venal wraith, bottomlessly malevolent, his eyes epiphanously revealed to be entirely black as he smells his flowers. Helms quotes Yeats' The Second Coming, taunting the president with the concept that the country they are charged with protecting is at a juncture not unlike the one Yeats so beautifully, movingly describes. Waterston's performance, the music, the overlapping dissolves of flowers blossoming connoting the exponential mushrooming of the organic phenomenon of which Helms speaks concerning “Track 2” (“...it was more of an organic phenomenon... it grew, it changed shape... it developed appetites...”), representing the timbre of the Agency, and of “the Beast” to be alluded to later—they could all be seen as parts of an excessively orchestral panoply of images, sounds, tempo, narrative and hyper-drama, but the velocious intensity and expressionism enhances the intellectualizing at the dark heart of Stone's snarling opus.

Between the disjunctive cuts, abstractly drawn, flirtatiously tawdry metaphors—Nixon vocally considers dropping a nuclear bomb on the North Vietnamese at a dinner with the higher echelon of his advisers and confidantes, including Kissinger, Mitchell, Ehrlichman and Haldeman, only to find his steak profusely bleeding all over his plate—there lies the heartache and despondency beneath Nixon and Nixon's encroaching, lumbering pugnacity. As in Marlowe's Edward II, the ruler finds himself locked away, devastated by the ignoble encirclement of which he finds himself at the center. Determined to never become a quitter, the boorish sentiment finds itself, in its own insular context, markedly compared to the stubbornness and resolve of a great leader. Stone recurrently casts Nixon in the proximity of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, beginning with the thirty-seventh president's first scene in the Lincoln Room. Nixon confides to Haig at the seven-minute mark, noting “the violence... the burning [of] draft cards... the war...” as Stone keeps his lens transfixed on the portrait of the sixteenth president, drawing one of the film's many grandiloquently doughty reasoning. Furiously speaking of himself in the third person—“Nixon has never been good at this kind of thing,” he says, fumbling with a disagreeable small item he must manipulate—he likens himself to the beleaguered Lincoln, surrounded by enemies, plagued by subversive, traitorous “elites,” as he refers to them, believing them to resent and revile him because he did not attend the right school and have nearly “everything handed to him” from his father like John F. Kennedy. Personally wounded by Kennedy's biting criticisms of him, condensed into the particularly stinging rebuke that Nixon “lack[s] class,” the narrowly lost race of 1960 enrages Nixon, whose run for the gubernatorial position of California concluded in another loss that, according to the film, compelled Pat to threaten divorce, as her husband had only been known to their daughters from television for years. In a moment of crystalline clarity, Nixon must bend to his wife's ultimatum, declaring that he will never run for office again so long as she promises to say nothing more about divorce. After declaring to the members of the media for whom Nixon blames his defeats—“I just wish you would print what I say once in a while”—that they will not longer “...have Nixon to kick around anymore,” a Citizen Kane-like newsreel plays, feeding the audience greater background information, and likening the presently failed presidential and gubernatorial candidate to Lincoln as in his younger years, another “small-town lawyer.” (Another Citizen Kane homage comes later, with Nixon and his wife sitting at a long table, separated by many feet, the mutual temperament and attitude chilly and detached.) Nixon will later compare himself to Lincoln, uniting the country again in a time of tumult and upheaval, lawlessness and suffocating hatred, when confronted by a black Democrat “plant” at a television show. During one of Nixon's more probing self-examinations in the White House, he almost chastises himself for making it to the White House by riding the dead bodies of John and Robert Kennedy, but in his mind the number of corpses is “four.” Haldeman, the only man present with him, questions, “Four?” Nixon is including his own two brothers. Nixon walks to Lincoln's portrait and asks, “Where would we be without death? How many bodies for you... Abe? Hundreds of thousands...” Stone flashes back to older brother Harold Nixon (Tony Goldwyn) who compulsively vomits into a bowl as he slowly, painfully dies of tuberculosis. Stone's marriage of black-and-white dark blood spewing against the white bowl to a molecular breakdown of human tissue wizened into shriveled, wrinkly raisins, which Stone transforms into the famed footage of the missile sites in Cuba that commenced the Cuban Missile Crisis, for which Nixon blamed his gubernatorial defeat, as Kennedy's ratings had increased dramatically in the wake of the crisis, and the thirty-fifth president had skillfully aided Democrat Pat Brown. The spinning, kaleidoscopic melange of the personal and the political—latently wrought with imagery of Nixon being taken to the hospital in a daze, his tireless mind racing to sights of Castro waving to crowds, his brother spewing blood into the bowl, his slow, romantic courtship of Pat, an image of Eisenhower's portrait, being mercilessly tackled and battered as a college football player in Whittier—creates a convergence of the pneumatic and the particular.

Stone's empathetic treatment gifts his tragedy with a profundity that leaves the the viewer haunted. The cumulative impact is finally greater than any one part, partly because the filmic scheme of Stone's is to enchantingly, magnetically draw the heterogeneous particles into a pasteurized, homogeneous cream with Hopkins's Nixon standing athwart the bombarding onslaught of the vicissitudes of fate. Stone creates an emblematic treatise of a man torn between the theatricality of politics, both internally and outwardly manifested, in the awkward manner in which he debated Kennedy in 1960 on television, sweaty and unkempt (one of his men prays that the election will not be decided like "a beauty contest," a relevant point to the election of 2008 and others) the way he tells someone in 1963, “I miss the public, going into the crowd, the acting of it... I've got to get back in the arena!” or how he has to maintain the virile, scary strength Kissinger notes as important in convincing the Vietnamese, Chinese and Russians that he is a man with whom they must reckon. At the dinner during which Nixon orders his bloody steak taken back, he berates the notion that he can show any weakness to the antiwar movement by issuing a statement of condolences to the students killed at Kent State, while willingly engaging the communist Mao Tse-tung as he and his advisers consider the Vietnam War lost. Nixon had called the antiwar protesters from colleges, the people storming the streets and making themselves a persistent nuisance “bums,” disadvantageously so, twenty-four hours before the infamous campus shooting. In private, however, with only Mitchell on the presidential yacht, Nixon confides that the kids gunned down at Kent State were “just kids...” who were merely “throwing rocks, John. Just rocks.” Nixon contemplates the vagaries of diverse young people, picked on because they are “Jewish, or Irish... or ugly,” he says, with a self-reflexive vulnerability. Eventually he will go to the Lincoln Memorial at approximately four in the morning, whimsically meeting a group of antiwar protesters, “kids,” as he calls them. As the antiwar protesters challenge Nixon on the merits of the war, describing it as a civil war between Vietnamese, Nixon asserts that the man for whom the memorial stands confronted similar issues—war, civil strife, hatred between the races. Nixon speaks of his family background, the Quaker religion for whom had been mightily important, decisive in the family's decision to join the Republican Party because Lincoln freed the slaves. A nineteen-year-old girl penetrates the issue at hand with stunning sagacity, as Nixon relates, clumsily, confusingly, that he himself cannot stop the war in Vietnam despite wishing to, as she listens to Nixon say that he hopes to “control” and “tame” the system that perpetuates the war. “You sound like you're talking about a wild animal,” the girl notes. The moment allows Nixon to experience an epiphany. “Maybe I am,” he says. As Nixon is taken away from the crowd of protesters by his swarming security forces and Haldeman, the president tells his closest adviser while being packed into his car, “A nineteen-year-old college kid figured something out it's taken me thirty years to understand,” he remarks with aroused fascination. “She called it a Beast. A Beast...”

Behind the “Checkers speech” in which Nixon humanized himself in an effort to exonerate himself of any corruption and wrongdoing in the public eye in 1952 so Eisenhower would keep him on the ticket as vice-president, behind the Watergate scandal of a “third-rate burglary,” as Nixon and several associates refer to it in scoffing terminology, was a man. That man was a highly complicated, intelligent and enigmatically thralling individual. Too many banal dramatists would have given their Nixon fangs, but Stone's humanistic robustness and unbridled motional careening has a peculiarly, osmotically endearing effect, making this imposing, packed 210-minute political thriller, personal odyssey, shockingly efficacious, remarkably stitched collage of sights, sounds and meditative cogitation a tremendously exhilarating piece of cinema, a keenly formed piece of cultural commentary and the definitively paramount accomplishment of its unblenching creator.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fort Massacre (1958)

1958 was an important cinematic point for the genre of the Western. William Wyler's highly polished The Big Country played to the familial undercurrents of the genre he had so expertly helped shape, but a few decades earlier in the silent-to-talkie era while indulging, quite successfully, in the thunderously operatic storytelling of his Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston-starring epic. That film was partly a declaration of what the genre could be, a point Wyler had originally wished to prove in a decidedly more intimate setting and vein with The Westerner (1940). There was Budd Boetticher's ruggedly solid Buchanan Rides Alone, starring long-time collaborator Randolph Scott as a man finding himself in the middle of a battle between warring families. Joseph H. Lewis's revenge oater, Terror in a Texas Town, starred Sterling Hayden as a man desperate to heal the wounds derived from the murder of his father. Anthony Mann's elegiac ode of the fallen hero confronting the wickedness of his own past(extracting one of Gary Cooper's greatest performances in the process) helped to propel the oppressively downcast tale of Man of the West (Lee J. Cobb's scene-stealing turn as the film's ostensible villain did not harm matters, either). Paul Newman displayed a raging magnetism, tumidity and indefinably nebulous menace and lethality as Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun. Cowboy took a more humorous, but nevertheless still darkly, almost schizophrenically complex stance in its depiction of authority, manhood and friendship between Glenn Ford's stoic dictator and Jack Lemmon's lightly comic abecedarian of the West.

With that in mind, the grim, gritty and gruesome Fort Massacre, starring Joel McCrea and directed by Joseph M. Newman, most famous for The Island Earth and 1959's McCrea western The Gunfight at Dodge City, and written by Martin Goldsmith, plays a more bluntly, scabrously, unpretentiously role in the cornucopia of envelope-pushing western pictures. Most of the westerns of today are in one manner of speaking or another, largely reflections of past cinematic exercises in the maintaining of what is frequently referred to as the most durable American film genre. The westerns of this particular era were either brushing up against, or in some cases demolishing, the clichés and culturally-delineated stereotypes that had been in some ways necessities for the flowering of the genre, dating back to a time when cinema was conceived, a time many would consider the latter period of time in which the stories, characters and settings, loosely corralled as a greater ratiocination of a broader historical tale. (The propinquity of the birth of cinema and the sprawling time period can be viewed through the microcosm of W.S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery of 1903.) In 1956 John Ford himself had, with The Searchers, made a film that openly, but entertainingly, cast grave doubt upon several of the foundations of the filmic genus.

Fort Massacre's protagonist shares a number of similarities with John Wayne's Ethan Edwards. He is a bigoted, hateful and vicious man. The tragedy of Joel McCrea's Sergeant Vinson—his wife killed their children when confronted by savage Apaches, and was raped and murdered by them shortly thereafter—informs the bloodlust and the sweeping loathing he emits with rabidly turbulent ferocity. The film's opening credits play over a trenchant symbolization of untimely death: a cavalryman's rifle pointing skyward, the killed man's hat draped over the business end of the barrel. This, the film immediately warns, is a cavalry picture, in some ways not unlike numerous others, but unlike Ford's for instance, the picture is sans humor and pathos-churning sentiment. The singularly stark opening image will haunt the mindful viewer; the dramatic music by Marlin Skiles unsettlingly assisting the specter's endurably problematic existence, serving in this way both realistically and artistically as an ontic and spiritual tombstone.

The western picture has, with its outdoors staging ground, reliably related the ambivalently impartial cruelties of nature. A genre inherently communicating the heedless drive of culture amidst nature's unforgiving encirclement, many a western has detailed the unsightly struggle between the nominally tutelary forces of civilization and the sometimes devastating reality of the surrounding nature. This routinely perplexing battle between man and his earth finds rhythmical expression in Fort Massacre, which depicts tumultuous battles of survival between Christian, white, European-Americans and the worshipers of the earth and the mysteries thereof, American Indians. Sergeant Vinson and his beleaguered, water-deprived force of approximately fifty men of “C Troop” in the American southwest of July 1875, are the survivors of an Apache assault. Determined to find what his men consider a mythical waterhole for his men, and unafraid of a potentially suicidal attack against the Apaches who guard the waterhole, Vinson, like many an hubristic and dictatorial leader, commands his men to follow his orders. When confronted by a particularly whiny soldier about the regularly illogical actions of the sergeant, McCrea deliberately delivers an important line to underscore Vinson's psychology: “I'm a sergeant. I don't think. I follow orders and I give orders.”

A suspenseful sequence leading to the waterhole confrontation sublimely captures the essential conflict between the pragmatic soldiers and the earth's treacherousness. One soldier attempts to scale down a fairly steep hillside, but places his booted foot on a large rock that he accidentally pries out of the ground, sending it downward and creating sufficient noise to alarm several Apaches. Moments later, a member of “C Troop”—though ordered to not fire until Vinson has personally commenced firing—shoots a frightening rattlesnake several feet away from him. Ill at ease with the tormentingly unpredictable and hazardous environment in which they find themselves, the film delicately suppositions that these men are as much victims of the dirt beneath them and the firmament above them.

With the cosmic equipoise serving as a bludgeon against the conceited Vinson, as though summoned by the “heathen savages” reviled by many of the soldiers—though Vinson's detestation is unrivaled—his rage only waxes. McCrea's facial expression at the end of the waterhole battle, as Vinson eyes one last Apache, humbly and fruitlessly making every gesture to indicate surrender, captures the deadened soul behind the attractive commander's sternly mad, Ahab-like authoritarianism. With insentient resolve, Vinson kills the man, long after the battle has concluded, his men watching, betwixt and between horror and apathy. When Private Robert W. Travis (John Russell) questions why Vinson executed the last Apache, Vinson's answer is all one needs to absorb the projection he must enact to sustain his protracted quest of bloody vengeance: “...Those Apaches hate us, do you understand? They hate us so much they quit being human! Hate can do that... It swells up inside you until it pushes out every other feeling: pain, love, even fear. When a man gets like that, bursting with it, the only way for that hate to come out is through a neat, round bullet hole.”

Lushly brought to life with suitable cinematography by Carl E. Guthrie in CinemaScope, this outwardly glossy production with a wanly fleshed out supporting group of characters cannot truly compare to the historic accomplishment of Ford's The Searchers, which, with Wayne's iconic portrayal of familial-motivated dementia unleashed, spoke to many of the dramatic concerns of Fort Massacre two years earlier in a more thoroughly constructed filmic essay. However, McCrea's performance—which plays against the man's easygoing likability that served him so well throughout his long screen career—touches many of the same keystones at the vibrant heart of Wayne's Edwards. He has been poisoned by violence visited upon him by forces he believed to be only previously beyond his control; the intention to control the demons, within and without, given human dimension by the Apaches with whom Vinson does battle can only lead to tragedy. Whereas Edwards is searching (for home, for kin, for love), Vinson considers all such components of the good life to be forever gone, replaced with anagogic penury and earthly desolation. As Fort Massacre begins, it is truly Vinson for whom the rifle and hat representatively stand, for his is a life that has, in nearly all manner of speaking, already ceased to be.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

In Search of a Midnight Kiss (2008)

Despondently, Wilson (Scoot McNairy) vainly attempts to find an insta-soulmate on New Year's Eve in Los Angeles. His friend, Jacob (Brian McGuire), has told him the best way to find a girl is through the Internet. Wilson is frankly pessimistic about such a long shot working—the Internet these days has a bad rap when it comes to “online dating,” or efforts to find that special someone. However, with the advanced technology people are able to communicate with one another more speedily and directly from distances that would have previously forbade such romantically-minded endeavors. There were ads in newspapers before, but today some facsimile of love can be found with some clicks, including the typing arranging of one's telephone number or email address. If one thinks of In Search of a Midnight Kiss as the 2000s' answer to the '90s' Before Sunrise (though Richard Linklater may have something to say about that considering he released a sequel to Sunrise appropriately entitled Before Sunset in 2004), then one must note the careening state of affairs—in more ways than one—evidently wrapped in the dissatisfying decay of this particular time. The linkages to Linklater are more than thematic. Anne Walker-McBay produced many of Linklater's pictures, including the Before movies, and she played an ostensibly considerable role as producer in helping to shape this, Alex Holdridge's third film. Midnight Kiss being the first film seen by this reviewer, made by fellow Austin, Texas native Holdridge (as Daniel Getahun notes, the entire cast and crew seems to be from Austin) it revealingly credits Linklater under the “Thank You” section of its closing credits, during which a funky rendition of The Scorpions' touching “Wind of Change” plays.

Wilson represents something almost approximating a burnt-out, chronically depressed and distinctively less winsome version of Jesse, Ethan Hawke's Before character. As played by McNairy (who has teamed with Holdridge in all three of the writer-director's low-budget offerings), Wilson is almost at the end of his metaphorical rope, clinging desperately to some semblance of a fantasy revolving around the girlfriend he lost before he moved to Los Angeles, where he believed he could make it, suffering the nightmarish episode of losing most of his belongings after totaling his car on the drive out to the City of Angels. An aspiring screenwriter, Wilson tries to periodically inform his ex-girlfriend of his progress or lack thereof in Los Angeles. In a scene of stinging honesty, he wallops his keyboard with his fingers, writing to her that, in essence, his life is miserable, he misses her and nothing is proceeding as he had envisioned, only to delete the message and completely rewrite the present predicament of his life as an optimistically cheery and apparent prima facie inevitable success. Everyone wants to prove the person who hurt them that they made the mistake; for Wilson, his written fictional account is as boastful as he permits himself to be. In the flesh he is diffident and markedly self-deprecating.

Which, oddly, may just make him all the more desirous to a certain person “out there,” in the future. For Wilson, the future is now. Under duress, he accepts Jacob's plan to have him post the ad on Craigslist. Shortly after receiving a call from his obliviously auspicious mother (Twink Caplan), he receives an incoming response to his ad. The voice of the woman on the line is stern, astringently inquisitive and cutting, and it belongs to Vivian (Sara Simmonds). She agrees to meet Wilson. It turns out that she is callously interviewing one prospective New Year's Eve date after another at an outdoor restaurant table. Ordered to wait his turn, Wilson observes the vehemently voluble young lady emotionally dismantle a particularly feckless suitor. Intent to not play her game, Wilson directly questions her methods, noting the doubtless devastated fellow he is, along with her—through mere process of elimination—leaving behind. Indignantly, Vivian counters that her time is most valuable and cannot be allowed to be wasted. The lymphatic young man and expeditious young woman walk about the city for a while, she holding a seemingly impenetrable shield, he increasingly liberal in his openness as the fears of embarrassment wane. Despite all pretenses to the contrary, the classic demarcations seem ineluctable.

However, Vivian is not just the usual woman, and Wilson is not just the usual man. Or are they? Eccentricities in cinema take with them an inherent larger-than-life aura, no matter how purposefully petite and intimate the film is. A veritable independent, cheaply produced, Midnight Kiss nevertheless allows some of the same questions to bubble up to the surface that many a “mainstream” picture does. How different from the average disaffected twenty-something is Wilson, or Vivian? She in particular seems graphically expressive, but it is obvious from the first moment the camera admits her fully into view, her verbal speech pattern regimented to simultaneously augment and diminish the loquaciousness behind it, that she has her sights set on acting, and in her unconvincingly buried pain, resting uneasily underneath the facade, she desires nothing less than raptus refuge from her burning personal quandaries. Simmonds is called upon to perform most of the film's heavy lifting, registering, almost like a hip indie Barbara Stanwyck, two separate performances and emotional planes at once. It is a testament to Simmonds's success that a film so intentionally limited by its highly simple story finds such buoyancy and peppery spiritedness in the verbal machinations of one hypnotically compelling woman.

Holdridge sustains that harmony for a tantalizingly extended period of time, but gradually the illusion is at least partly broken through momentary lapses in judgment. Jacob's relationship with his girlfriend Min (Kathleen Luong) should serve as a delightful counterpoint to the place Wilson finds himself. However, the focal point is dissatisfying in its fractiousness. A lovely scene set at a beach involving Jacob and Min captures a definitive beauty, a wonderment at the persistence of love itself. Yet Holdridge seems unable to decide whether or not to further incorporate this relationship in his largely intimate two-person talk-fest or if he should pull back and only hint at the (rather obvious) point and correlation. As a result, Jacob and Min, surely interesting characters, feel half-in, half-out, when it would have been to the film's benefit to choose one option or the other. More troubling, a character of violent disposition is introduced, after numerous narrative warnings in the way of phone calls, and when the payoff finally plays out, the individual on the other end of the line proves to be too pathetic to be taken seriously, like a sizable sacrifice to the out-of-place instinctual crutch of stereotyping.

Shot in sparkling black-and-white, with resourcefully creditable cinematography by Robert Murphy, the film welcomes Los Angeles as its sprawling and inviting proscenium, in which the two souls at the film's center push, pull, struggle and wrestle with one another in the frequently irritating task of perhaps finally finding one another. The story is sensitive but with generous helpings of grounding vulgarity and grit. For these reasons and possibly others, this picture has become seen by some as an homage to Woody Allen's masterful Manhattan. However, this film is far less accomplished and far less complex, and, maybe consequently, far less rewarding and of relatively little lasting importance despite, or possibly because of the demonstrably evanescent qualities that propel its charm. Whereas Allen's picture never stops lingering—the weightiness of the characters' decisions leave a lasting mark upon the viewer; it may well be the Adagio lamentoso of modern relationship comedy-dramas—In Search of a Midnight Kiss, for all of its attributes, quickly evaporates, brought back skyward where it finally returns to the mind at a later date like rain.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Scott's War

You may have noticed that in the past couple of months I have just about completely ceased with posting news items at Coleman's Corner. Much of that is because I think people who frequent this space can find movie news just about anywhere, and do not need yet another barrage of it here. Nevertheless, sometimes news items can be interesting and provoke discussion, which was the main reason I posted them in the first place. Well, today, a piece of news has hit that some may see as interesting considering my last review. It concerns Ridley Scott's next, newly announced project, and may serve to cast the views expressed in my review of his latest in another light, perhaps arguably corroborative or contradictious, particularly depending on your own opinion. Perhaps the man who wished to be "the John Ford of science-fiction" has returned to his appropriate stomping grounds.

Meanwhile, since this is, hopefully like all Coleman's Corner items, about discussion, what do you think about the lesser focus on news? Like I say, I'm not throwing that element of the blog aside entirely, but unless a piece of news seems interesting to me, and disembogues the belief in my own mind that it sounds sufficiently salty so as to provoke discussion here, I think I would prefer to allow many other fine websites to transmit the latest news.

Body of Lies (2008)

As a rule, movies that are jejunely naïve work better than movies that are sycophantically pandering missives of nonsense. Ridley Scott's horrendous Body of Lies manages to be both at once, a detestable thriller of zero originality, insight, thematic subtext or even consistent quality filmmaking. The acting is rote—the stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, have no chemistry, and even if they did, the self-immolating, stultifying and tone-deaf screenplay by William Monahan, based on David Ignatius's book, would not allow them to display it. Compounding the myriad pre-production problems of a miscast lead actor is a director ready to throw everything he can to the wall in the wake of his visually restrained gangster saga, evidently wishing to show that pesky Paul Greengrass who the real king of fast-cutting, why-use-four-cameras-when-you-can-use-twelve, look-at-what-I-can-do action movie-making is. Scott remains a talented, intermittently stimulating composer of sequences, but since Matchstick Men he has been making scenes, not films, and today little if any of the nascently intriguing, broad and vaguely authorial vision behind The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner persists.

The trailer for Body of Lies seemed to promise nothing but a reworking of brother Tony Scott's Spy Game, with DiCaprio playing Brad Pitt's part while Crowe accepts the drudgery of aging in Robert Redford's spot. In that respect, the trailer was honest. DiCaprio is assigned to the role of Roger Ferris, a superspy who is capable of withstanding inhuman torture while romancing the most gorgeous woman in sight (Golshifteh Farahani), engendering a phony terrorist network, dodging bullets and bombs, while barking back into his cellular phone to his boss that he's sick of the job and Crowe's CIA Middle Eastern Section Chief Ed Hoffman is playing god with real people, including the agent on the ground. Someone needed to assure DiCaprio that he does not need to further advance the testosterone toughness factor yet again, but evidently his aching desire to convince everyone that he too can “play hard” continues to win out, and will be back in the spotlight in Martin Scorsese's next film, Shutter Island. DiCaprio is best when he plays to his strengths, and he has never been more strikingly vigorous and productive in doing so than in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, which, with its acute sensitivity, allowed the actor to play desperation and angst, dualistically conveying the hidden torment of the victimizer with the impetuously manifested grief of the victimized under the honeyed surface of his most prominent gifts, the suave, flashy but naturally empathizing exterior he exudes. Repeatedly playing against his seemingly effortless strengths, DiCaprio has finally run his strategy into the ground, calamitously embarking on a risible journey of almost no greater substance than an adolescent desire to perform against perceived type.

Crowe, meanwhile, attempts to salvage some semblance of meaning out of the movie by simply playing his godlike demon of sociopathic enjoining and ordering with as much bluster and conviction as the flaccid screenplay will allow. No such luck: juxtaposed against DiCaprio's puling and over-emoting, Crowe's hotshot merely looks like an extension of same, only with authority. The result is pouring marinara sauce on crushed tomatoes. Crowe is an eminently puissant actor, but he is at his best when he underplays the psychological unrest and narcissism behind his more unsavory avatars, such as last year's 3:10 to Yuma. Here, just eating his breakfast he looks like he wants to run into the movie theater and throw soccer balls at the heads of random people merely to pass the time.

Scott's limp attempts to push the antagonism, and to simultaneously further some decisively uninvolving plot twists at the expense of the thinly-sketched caricatures at the minuscule-sized heart of his movie are quite appalling, especially when the twists are—to be charitable—quite unbelievable and absurd. Monahan's screenplay for The Departed played fast and loose, but, with tentative care, at least seemed to make the chess pieces into three-dimensional beings of some emotionally invested worthiness and spiritual parallelism (considering this, however, it is not unreasonable to estimate that Scorsese contributed these touches and many others that enriched Monahan's work). On another plane of humbly perspicacious observation, Body of Lies' overbearing political message is remarkably redundant, resembling the intellectual equivalent of a half-full bowl of cold gruel.

That, however, may all be expected, given that, unlike a Scorsese or a Spielberg, or even a Stiller or a Shyamalan, it is highly difficult to tell just where Scott is coming from, what he is attempting to get at and why. Once aspiring to be “the John Ford of science-fiction,” Scott's early genre work stands apart from his latter endeavors, deceptively signposting a markedly less impressive career of one ostensible stab in the dark after another. When questioned about the meaning of his art, most of Scott's fans seem to either scoff or ignore the pointed issue. Whatever unmined vein would have been probed had Scott's Legend not so resoundingly failed, one cannot know. As it stands, Scott's films are more easily self-critiqued and either enjoyed or dismissed as stand-alone enterprises. He is a much more arresting artist than Ron Howard, but the recurrence of genre (sci-fi, epic, war movie, occasional offbeat drama) seems to only follow from one almost whimsical try after another (“How about a gangster film?” “A spy vs. terrorist movie?” “An historical epic?”), typically with the emphasis on a cyclorama of blurry imagery and unquestioned scope (of production if truly nothing else).

Body of Lies, however, if to be judged all the more churlishly through the restrictedly narrow prism of a director making just another movie, is nothing less than a complete waste. The romance is nothing but a laughable confluence of the kind of fancifully archaic wartime melodrama belonging to a bygone era, fascinatingly last seen in cinemas in another overwrought director's DiCaprio-starring opus of misdirected anger and geopolitical absentmindedness, Blood Diamond. Its action beats are tired, as though Scott himself only halfheartedly played his part of ringmaster and construction project manager, and the geopolitical “vision” driving the insipid posturing of the filmmakers into the assaulted minds constituting the audience manages to be opaquely, confusingly muddled, rendered in ceaselessly unengaging “twists” as unforeseeable as the slight turn in the road half a mile from one's home and childishly perfervid in its faux cynicism and gloom all at once. It is grand folly, waltzing with histrionic spy-game perfidy and pungency with woeful ungainliness and inability. Eagle Eye wore its preposterousness as a badge of honor, playing around in the sandbox with some of the same toys as Body of Lies, but knowing, at least, that it was in the sandbox.

A Divine Evening

Saturday evening on Valencia Street in San Francisco I attended Christian Divine's wondrously informative, educational and just fun presentation and lecture on the Hollywood films of 1970 representing "Protest-ploitation." Whether Christian was discussing the "critical focus" of Richard Rush's shooting technique or the gloriously bizarre and, um, f****ed up ending to Getting Straight, or the incongruity of Antonioni coming to America to make a $7 million dollar MGM picture that would be Zabriskie Point, and becoming disillusioned in the aftermath of that movie's reception, or the continentally-differing takes on The Strawberry Statement, which impressed many a European critic at Cannes only to be smacked down by American critics, or commending the drab and harsh verite realism of The Revolutionary or giving Stanley Kramer a most eloquent and persuasive defense in his lead-up to discussing R.P.M.: Revolutions Per Minute, it was a tremendous experience to listen, absorb and watch (he brought many excellent clips)--and to meet him. It was a grand evening, out on the town.

And of course, no trip into San Francisco would be complete without the past-midnight occurrence of a black transvestite prostitute tapping on your window as you're stopped at a red light. After rolling down the window, the individual asked, "Looking for a date?" To which I replied, "I use the monkey to test them for me." In a moment of awkward delirium, the person laughed, understanding my statement, at which time the light turned green, I rolled my window up and gently pressed down on the accelerator.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Appaloosa (2008)

Ed Harris' Appaloosa is a sturdy, solid, unassumingly median picture. If it isn't perfectly at ease with itself, it is unusually satisfied. At a time when so many movies pretentiously take on more than their makers can chew, Harris' little Western seems preternaturally born to be precisely what it is. Appaloosa has a charming sense of amour-propre that eludes too many Hollywood features. Which is not to say that it wholly succeeds, or that it has the unmistakable polish of great, immediate cinema. Harris' film is what it is, and it is perfectly content to be that. And yet in its deceptive simplicity, it possesses some largely unobserved layers that merit consideration.

“The more laws, the less justice,” advises Marcus Tullius Cicero. Appaloosa essays the notional consequences and personal hazards of such a philosophical reality, with more scrutiny and rigorous determinism than several more superficially revisionist or dark oaters, including last year's 3:10 to Yuma (admittedly, Yuma dealt with other concerns—The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, meanwhile, was about the nature of celebrity, a rich and majestically imposing Grecian tragedy). The ironic matter is that by going back to the more traditional concerns of many a classic Western—films as texturally diverse but entwined in mutually overlapping thematic import as My Darling Clementine (1946), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), Rio Bravo (1959) and Unforgiven (1992), the former four pictures earnestly commenting on the vexations of Hollywood's various interpretations of the law (most famously delineated in dramatically different takes on the lawman and his methodologies in Carl Foreman's socially-tinged screenplay adaptation of John W. Cunningham's magazine story “The Tin Star” and Howard Hawks' asseverating lightning bolt of his repeatedly touched-upon communal individualism: out of many, or at least a few, one), the latter portraying the personage of “the law” as corrupt and sadistic.

Appaloosa treats its characters as rounded individuals, though the impact these gray-tinted archetypes, shifting and mutating as they are, like naturalistic beings to a certain extent, is perhaps only fugacious. Working from a novel written by Robert B. Parker, Harris' adaptation with Robert Knott lays the groundwork with enticing facileness. Jeremy Irons plays a Procrustean rancher cutely named Randall Bragg. When a sheriff and his two deputies confront Bragg and his men one dusty afternoon about a few cowboys in Bragg's employ who murdered a man and raped and murdered his wife, Bragg nonchalantly executes them with his trusty Winchester. Later, a young man will say that Bragg shot them “...Like they were rattlesnakes...” Irons' performance is finely tuned and subdued, displaying a kind of ascetically mature understanding of his character that is most welcome. His chiseled face a little less chiseled these days, and in this picture buried under woolly facial hair, with emotionless, beady eyes, Irons resembles an intelligent, laniferous animal.

Harris plays Virgil Cole, a famed lawman whose oviform head and bracing, bright blue eyes assist him in embodying a man of bludgeoning personality, his straightforward code of ethics as protective to him as his overcoat and hat from the weather. That code of ethics is what drives the picture's surprisingly percipient connective tissue. Cole rides into a small town in the New Mexico Territory of 1882 called Appaloosa with his longtime sole friend, deputy and gunslinging wingman, Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen). Mortensen's Hitch is quiet, sensitive and almost unfailingly scrupulous. Mortensen's appearance seems to be straight out of a history book; Hitch's tamed virility at its most penetrative degree marks the perpetual contest between disorder and order, lawlessness and civilization, at the hypaethral heart of the Western genre.

The obligatory scene of Cole and Hitch agreeing to instill some semblance of law enforcement in Appaloosa, meeting with the comically loquacious elders of the town, plays out. Moments later, the corollary becomes apparent, as Cole's punitive handling of a group of toughs concludes in bloody fashion. The film's thematic treatment of the noblesse oblige of the law, inverted for the sake of the “enforcement” side of things, recalls pictures as disparate as the aforementioned cowboy yarns, Dirty Harry (with the imagery of the man standing up to the villainous and the vile for the sake of the increasingly loosely-defined and -parameterized society flinging his star into the abyss deeply reminiscent of High Noon) and The Dark Knight. Appaloosa's treatment of the alignment between violence and authority, one arguably perforce the extension of the other, finds a contextual synchronization in the bitter tiffs between Cole and Bragg. Most aptly, Ralph Waldo Emerson is singled out, as the Concord Sage's specific placement as intellectual American formulator and seeker of national justice (neatly given sweeping macrocosmic dimension by his abolitionism), an abstraction serving as an appurtenance to the organic development of a country. Interestingly, Bragg makes note of Emerson, as Cole reads Emerson's work. “Not the most graceful writer,” Bragg comments, “but he gets his point across.” Later, on a pivotal train ride, Bragg teases the lawman about the writer's “obfuscatory language.” An intriguing point is made with utmost frankness, openly questioning the tendency of many great thinkers to prevaricate. In this instance, the man endowed with an ungoverned conscience seizes the disputatiously fallacious foundations upon which men like Cole work pleno jure.

Where the film almost crumples up unto itself like a box being hastily opened is with the introduction of Renee Zellweger's Allison French, who gradually reveals herself to be a woman of dubious morality and sincerity. Cole becomes hopelessly attracted to her, nearly immediately, and for a while the narrative seems to be headed off into a painfully predictable direction, with “Ally,” as Cole calls her, representing the personified civilizing force that Annette Bening miraculously made into something of a real, live character in Open Range (2003). However, the screenplay somewhat gratifyingly pulls the rug out from under those expectations, portraying Ally as unsavory as well, her apparent domesticity (“She can cook... she's clean... she takes a bath before going to bed every night...” Cole tells his friend Hitch at one point) a facade that veils her more lascivious leanings. Zellweger's turn is imbalanced and annoyingly pouty, and though some of that was inevitably part of Ally's constitution, a more formidable actress could have made that into something tant mieux for the sake of the film.

Lance Henriksen makes a truly most welcome contribution as one half of a two-brothered hired gun team, the Sheltons. Featuring an authentically weathered face, Henriksen's part is unfortunately limited in scope, but his presence nevertheless helps significantly to increase the film's climactic tension. An untiring denizen of sci-fi, horror and Western movies, Henriksen seamlessly fits into Appaloosa's story.

Harris makes beautiful use of the 2:35 aspect ratio. In a bird's eye shot, his camera looks down on the aftermath of a fast shootout. (“That was fast,” notes one gunfighter. “Everybody could shoot,” another chokes out.) The diagonal positioning captures an arresting compositional arrangement that communicates the “fast” undoing of men in an impressively expressive and comprehensive way. The bodies strewn on the brightly sunbaked dirt leaves an impression, distinctively communicating the mercilessness with which the vicissitudes of fate leave desolate. At the film's conclusion, a lone figure rides out of town and Harris commendably shoots the scene with wordless, Fordian poignancy, placing the actors in the scene watching, their backs to the camera, looking in the direction of the sunset into which the gunslinger rides, their peripheral positions creating an aesthetically pleasing ambit. It is a sequence of poetry, and the blatant homage to Ford is grin-inducing.

As a filmmaker, Harris appears to be interested in the turmoils of a particular kind of man's mind. In Pollock (2000), Harris directed himself as the volatile artist, portraying a man completely dissatisfied with himself, his life and his world. He became embittered, his proverbial walls tightened in around him, his reasons for living became in his own mind fewer in number. Cole has that side to him. When he springs up and viciously attacks a man in a bar for being too loud and much too vulgar in the presence of a lady, it resonates. Less garrulous, more internalized than even Pollock was in many ways, but more obviously a man of violence, a man at war with himself, a man unable to fully control himself, a man crippled by arrogance and a man doubtless special, blessed by a gift that just may allow him to be redeemable.