Friday, July 31, 2009

Tetro (2009)

In 1972, a film about a family swept the world by storm. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Godfather was an epic retelling of King Lear in the wardrobe of the Sicilian Mafia in post-war America. The Godfather was a tale of brothers loving one another but chafing under sibling rivalry, partly born from the influence of a wise father. Coppola allowed the firmament to be the limit to his tale, and the picture was an instant classic which helped to alter the face of American cinema in the 1970s. Coppola's endearing, occasionally maddening fixation on the ties between brothers—brimming with trials and tribulations—continued in earnest with The Godfather: Part II as well as his essaying of adolescent brotherhood in The Outsiders and Rumble Fish. And so now it continues with Coppola's latest, Tetro.

Coppola's Tetro is a film that seeps into and out of the viewer like moisture. Iridescent and pellucid, fragmentary and oblique, all at once, it feels like a living organism that is ferociously but quietly seething, like an animal recently injured. Coppola veils this dyspeptic, tempestuous undercurrent with a luscious layer of visual serenity. It is like squeezing and spreading sweet frosting over a rough, nutty and tart apple coffeecake. Most of the film takes place in the ambiguously defined “present,” shot in an exquisitely sharp 2:35:1 with High Definition digital cameras employed by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. to utter perfection. Few films shot in this format have so abundantly showcased the rationale for adopting the technology as Tetro, which creates nearly glittery palettes of richly-textured and -detailed tranquility. Coppola's Youth Without Youth was ponderous but inviting; cinematographically refined and polished, that picture was unfortunately too prepossessed with itself to completely, haphazardly present itself to the viewer the way two people first meet one another. Tetro is formal but with an unruly, brusque side, befitting its protagonist, the titular Tetro (a brooding, sullenly countenanced and erratically arbitrary yet entirely natural Vincent Gallo in one of the great performances of the decade); Coppola has resumed his dream to create bracing, personal art like a young, impulsive filmmaker with both everything and nothing to prove.

Coppola's Tetro is such an incredibly wounded film it could be just as ponderous and remote as Coppola's last film before it, but the director and screenwriter has allowed himself the room to navigate his personable tale of familial heartache and nearly-ensanguined tragedy. Periodically Coppola will intrude upon his own gloriously realized visage with pounding, startling excursions into the past, captured in comparatively grainy (shot on film), hand-held 1:85:1 color photography, looking like bumptious family video-camera shooting. These bubble up to the once-harmonious surface the way troubling, painful memories always do: the figures viewed as harmful, such as an imperious, egomaniacal and corrupt father figure (Klaus Maria Brandauer) are distorted, their faces always belying their spoken words. Vivid and eerily haunting, these episodic color sequences never disrupt Tetro's heedless momentum, and that has to do with Coppola's steady, almost omnipresent command—his Tetro feels like a film which, from the first frame onwards, is overlooked in its progression by its creator but never thwarted nor tripped up by ruinous excessive dabbling. That these episodes are also highly important in uncovering the shrouded truths of Tetro only increase their durability and import without ever diminishing the linear narrative's potency.

Everything about Tetro feels positively naïve in a most exuberantly beautiful way. Coppola has metamorphosed, it seems, and he follows through with the ostensible promise of his last film, which featured the word “Youth” not once but twice. Coppola's vernal sensibility is dazzlingly, deliciously refreshing. As too many truly young filmmakers exercise their craft under the umbrella of rampant, sometimes trendily poseur cynicism, Coppola at seventy years old is rediscovering youthfulness in its myriad sources of energy and genuineness. Tetro establishes that Coppola is not simply a votary—he has been quite truthful in his interviews: he has effectively gone back in time, and the results are exhilarating. Likewise, Coppola's insistence that he would think of Elia Kazan while shooting Tetro rings true as the film lingers within the mind. The performances seem to fit the black-and-white photography with a preternatural precision. Images of A Streetcar Named Desire, another classically-framed black-and-white drama with a nebulously humid and tropical environment (here Buenos Aires doubling for New Orleans), with characters revealing their true selves to the audience, one another and to themselves, flash as Tetro continues onward. Coppola nurtures these performances the way a gardener chaperons his beloved greenery. Coppola, it may be said, plays the sage father to the young performers, particularly the unknown Alden Ehrenreich as Bennie, whose limited on-screen dynamism may be chalked up to an inexperienced actor, or may be one of Coppola's ways to present the questioning character as a figure of comparative blankness. Since Bennie is the audience's surrogate—knowing as little about the enigmatic Tetro as the viewer—Coppola's drama begins with many a viewer perhaps holding onto Bennie the way a tired swimmer may grab a buoy in the ocean.

Quite gradually, however, Coppola and Gallo peel away the outer shell of Tetro, and this complex portrait is presented with an unapologetic, phlegmatic propinquity, displaying a fully formed being as a living, breathing perplexity. As the tale continues, it may be Tetro whose initially bizarre and perhaps outrageous behavior threatens to alienate some viewers, who is the more principled of the two brothers. Bennie's curiosity leads to breaking Tetro's trust—not an uncommon problem between family members, much less one in which the relationships are this strained. Tetro's live-in girlfriend, an angelically beautiful Argentinian named Miranda (a poignant Maribel Verdú), understands the titular figure in a way no other person on the world can. The back-story to their bond is afforded much needed time by Coppola and his legendary editing partner, Walter Murch, and so when that bond is tested by the imposition of Bennie, the breaking of Miranda's remarkable endurance in the face of Tetro's often overwhelming inability to display himself in all honesty to even her, much less to anyone else.

Coppola's indefatigable presence as an authentically Italian-American voice helps to shed light on the meanings of Tetro. Naturally, the picture is not “legitimately” autobiographical, but the truths the tale uncovers are so specific, they must at the very least touch a palpable chord with all who have felt the exhausting, desolating pain of a family compelled to lie to itself, or the ugliness of being hurt by those one loves. Like the adopted Tom Hagen in The Godfather: Part II, Bennie's near-idolization of Tetro only helps to make the bitter, salt-in-the-wounds lashing he receives from him sting all the more. (“Why do you hurt me, Michael?” Tom once asked.) Like a kaleidoscopic trip through Fellini's cinema, Tetro is at once burningly personal to its creator and doubtless deceptive in its myriad details. This mirrors the cryptic, only partially revelatory comments of the man behind the film. “Nothing in it happened, but it's all true,” Coppola has said of his latest opus. As the picture mirrors known aspects of Coppola's life—his father, like Tetro's, was a musical composer, and he has said that he has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with his brother—Tetro is his most nakedly, vulnerably personal film.

It is parlous to delve too deeply into Tetro's filmic treasures. This is finally the consummation of Coppola's marriage between art and commercial demands, but now Coppola's artistically-minded focus—always operatic, here played out like a composition of Bellini or Verdi meshed with vaudevillian three-ring circuses that emit a rambunctious, anything-can-happen vibe and jubilantly hedonistic sexual discoveries (the latter both extending the kinship with Fellini)—is brighter, his instincts more pleasurably unrestrained. Many critics have failed Tetro because they have not caught on to Coppola's piquantly rediscovered virtuosity. The Godfather staged the death of a man's soul against the Catholic backdrop of baptism. In Tetro, the truths of family (“Every Family Has A Secret,” the film's tag-line promises) are so awful they make one recoil, and gaze, like a pitiful deer into ineffably, brilliantly blinding headlights. Yet Coppola does not relinquish his newfound youthful confidence—Tetro finally concludes on a note of resigned reconciliation. Thirty years ago, Coppola released Apocalypse Now, the film conventionally referred to as his final operatic masterpiece. In 2009, he has gifted filmgoers with another composition, and one of the best films of the year.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009)


“...[Kathryn] Bigelow is—most fittingly for a female director rightly celebrated for her breathtaking command of action—an expert fabulist of unlikely male bonding.”

So concluded this writer's review of Point Break. As The Hurt Locker opens with an unnecessary, wrongly mollifying quote by Chris Hedges—whose antiwar speech to a graduating class at a university in Rockford, Illinois was booed and heckled in 2003—which emphasizes that “war is a drug,” it became evident that Kathryn Bigelow was not only endeavoring to explore men growing closer to one another through attachment and proximity, but the peculiar hold adrenaline plays on the male psyche. As in her 1991 action thriller, Bigelow's new film finds itself propelled by a man who perhaps does not himself “get off” on the thrill, excitement and adrenaline rush—Patrick Swayze's Bodhi was closer to this mold, though he continually spouted off philosophical and spiritual rationales as reasons for throwing caution to the wind—but is certainly wholly comfortable with the relentless presence of sure death if he fails in his mission. That man is Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), whose task it is to diffuse seemingly countless Iraqi “IEDs”(Improvised Explosive Device just for clarification). James is assigned to a company of men after its “EOD” (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) master of bomb- and trap-disarming Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed. Soon, two of those men—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and a guilt-ridden Specialist Owen Eldridge played by Brian Geraghty (he believes he should have dropped the insurgent responsible for detonating the device that took out Thompson)—will find themselves wondering whether or not Renner's staff sergeant is uncommonly courageous and unorthodox or simply insane.

If James is like Bodhi or Bill Paxton's Severen from Near Dark or in a frightening way, Tom Sizemore's Max Peltier from Strange Days, then Mackie's Sanborn is the reserved, judicious flip side who, like other Bigelow men of reason, sees the wild man (a CO played by David Morse actually calls James a “wild man” in awesome reverence) as something resembling a monster that has to be put down. In one disconcertingly quiet and unsettling scene, Sanborn talks to Eldridge about killing James. Seeing the wild man as a threat to the unit, Sanborn's initial distaste for James is palpable; as he shaves in the mirror one morning he tells James in no uncertain terms exactly what he thinks of him. In perhaps the film's finest sequence, however, as James attacks a wildly complicated booby-trap set in a car, and Sanborn and Eldridge nervously wait for him to finish, finally almost begging him to give up on the apparatus and vacate the scene—young Iraqi men stand about rooftops looking onward at the Americans and any one of them may be an insurgent—the audience may find itself siding with James, who, like an artisan entirely absorbed in his work, loses track of time, space and location as he assiduously applies himself. James grabs his headset, into which Sanborn has been yelling that there is limited time and they should probably leave, and throws it to the ground the way a writer may finally unplug their telephone after they have received one too many disruptive calls for the fourth consecutive time.

Bigelow's direction and mastery of mise-en-scene has never been fiercer or more appropriately utilized. There is an epical integument to her work; it is difficult to consider any of her pictures remotely “small”—her characters are titans representative of philosophies and dispositions, the confrontations between whom are staged as grand battles of demigods dueling with one another over righteous quarrels. Bigelow's men are wounded—figuratively as well as literally, like Ralph Fiennes' unlikely hero of Strange Days who will not allow himself to recover from a broken love affair. The Hurt Locker's James is a man who has blanketed himself in the adrenaline of “not knowing”: what terrifies the average man exhilarates him because his job is the most immediate and unadulterated metaphor for placing oneself in the tempestuous food blender of fate while defying its whims by being so consummately au courant in all things. At a certain undecipherable point, James' acceptance grows into something more—it is here unfortunate that the opening salvo and, in this context, judgmental, quote appears at all, because The Hurt Locker explains away James' obsessiveness and derring-do as addiction. Whenever the film does take a needed breather from the heart-racing suspense, the screenplay—written by journalist Mark Boal, whose real-life experiences with an EOD squad in Iraq inspired The Hurt Locker—carefully sheds layers of James' distancing, protective tissue (visually represented by his specialized suit that he elects to peel off in the aforementioned rigged-car scene due to wanting to “die comfortable”). It is revealed, not surprisingly, that James' home life is bizarre: he believes he and his wife are divorced but his wife will not leave him. He vocally questions what that means.

Bigelow follows her own instincts in many disparate avenues of the film's mostly unpredictable narrative. The Hurt Locker's tension does not “escalate” in a manner befitting the average “action movie,” but rather it does continuously augment the stakes of the mortal game until, finally, James must choose between literally—and crazily—sacrificing his life for another for whom nothing can be done or preserving himself to continue on. What makes this rewardingly unique is the cinematic convection of import as each scene follows the other. Already similar to Robert Aldrich's Ten Seconds to Hell in its tale of a squad of bomb-disposers, Bigelow's film likewise focuses with greater, intimate and crystalline clarity on the circumference of ethical dilemmas that arise, but does so through the exploration of its own building blocks. The Hurt Locker begins with three men—Thompson, Sanborn and Eldridge—joking around and teasing one another like good chums on guy's night. They might be playing pool or driving to a football game. The casualness underscores the tension and the danger. Bigelow, armed with Boal's screenplay, immediately assaults the testosterone-fueled climate of her war movie, commenting on the masculine domination by overtly addressing the instrument the men are utilizing as a facsimile for their penises. The sudden connection between the men and their phallic symbol voluminously lays a sound foundation for the entire film. This baldly vociferous commentary on the film through characters—and the staging thereof—only continues until The Hurt Locker almost inverts itself wholly as a meta-textual distillation of war film tropes for more seemingly enlightened purposes. By reducing the men as guys playing with their specifically male organs, Bigelow ostentatiously alters the context, and this helps to suggest that if James were not in Iraq defusing and disposing bombs, he would be elsewhere.

Being the first Iraq war film to not bother to question the wisdom or morality of the war itself, Bigelow's picture asserts an environment in which some young men thrive under the sweltering heat and chaos while others simply endure it. By engendering an unblinking, incendiary milieu—never tarnished by the kind of cinematic prolix many of her contemporaries would thrust against the film, nor the whirling, fast-cutting machinations that tend to decrease genuine suspense in favor of the insipid faux suspense that alienates the viewer—Bigelow and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, frequently utilizing four rolling cameras, leave an indelible impression without resorting to lecturing. Pace Francois Truffaut, who believed war action carnage always glamorized combat, Bigelow's film presents grisly imagery without desensitization. The intensity of vision lent to the defusing of the bombs says all that must be said—in her usually extraordinary cinematic shorthand, Bigelow has stated a great deal about the American invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing responsibility to bring a country back from the brink of immolation without accidentally setting the bomb off. The Hurt Locker's insistence to remain aloofly apolitical takes the Iraq war's existence for granted, leaving the accurate history lessons of the Athenian Empire for Chris Hedges.

Bigelow's mise-en-scene is gut-wrenching; often simply staging action in long, merciless takes, she allows her characters to drift about like balloons caught by gusts of wind. As the three characters unify, dissipate, and unify once more, Bigelow's camera follows them about, nonchalantly noting how they drift apart only to resume as a complete whole. The Jordanian soil serves as a convincing substitute for Iraq. Ackroyd's compositions aid Bigelow in creating conflicting realities: the three men may as well be all alone in the world, and yet their story is in many ways a microcosmic study. Bigelow's suspense-building maneuvers are downright primal. She exploits the harshness of the sound of a knife cutting through a car seat. The distorted eyes of a man looking like wicked pools of hatred caught in a rear-view mirror. The blurry, mirage-like shapes of rifle-wielding insurgents. The terrifyingly endless narrow walkways between buildings at night. Bigelow once again resorts to her famed point-of-view shots, which help to place the viewer in the cuplable, perverse position of finding the adrenaline rush in the action, as with Keanu Reeves in Point Break or the criminals at the beginning of Strange Days. Bigelow does repeatedly succumb to the “shaky cam” approach to action that has dominated action cinema since she largely moved away from the genre. Perhaps emulating YouTube videos from Iraq, this visual tendency does not distract from her work, though it does mark a change in her style.

The Hurt Locker's performances are galvanic, suitable for the titans Bigelow must survey, but never threaten to break the spell of a plausible reality. Renner, Mackie and Geraghty are all as well-honed in their roles as they must be; the former two pitted as strong rivals, the latter playing a character only sure that death resides nearby, and the farther down the road they go, the less possible it is to retreat from sliding over the precipice. Renner's performance suggests Chris Pine's Captain Kirk halfway burnt-out, still a daredevil hotshot, maybe no longer convinced he is immortal, nevertheless only more cocksure and stubborn than he once was. Mackie has a difficult part because he is in essence Renner's straight man—fortunately for him, Bigelow and Boal's screenplay are less inclined to cheer on James' fearlessness and appetite for adrenaline than merely observe, so when he goes face-to-face with Renner, the deck is not stacked against him. Geraghty is fine in his damaged, scared role; his Eldridge oscillates—he is not actively hostile towards James but he is fairly sure that James has placed a fifty-pound weight on the accelerator to the car headed to ruin.

The Hurt Locker is many things; perfect is not one of them. The picture's denouement is troubled—a return to the United States feels more inauthentic in one minute than anything in “Iraq”—and the screenplay mistakenly becomes a mouthpiece for soldiers who have failed to reinstate themselves in America since “coming home.” The dialogue says too much, and in the wrong way, but once Bigelow commits to it, there is at least some poetry behind the performance. Seeing a connection between his child's jack-in-the-box toy and the devices he has miraculously survived in disposing, James notes that he is a different person than he once was—a revelation which threatens to be absurdly, crushingly vapid—and Bigelow almost immediately gears up a new, closing montage that could be the only conclusion for a film about a war still ongoing.

Point Break, it was written, was about unlikely male bonding. Bigelow has taken another major step in analyzing this phenomenon. With The Hurt Locker, she once again scrutinizes and essays male bonding, but it no longer seems unlikely. Under these conditions, Bigelow seems to ask with each hair-raising scene following the last: How could they not grow closer, how could they not bond?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

The 2009 reinvention of Star Trek found both its perfect and most obvious filmmaking “captain,” J.J. Abrams, of Felicity, Fringe, Alias and Lost fame, who seems like the natural ambassador for the world—and exponent of the merits—of television in the world of cinema. Abrams' work has that glossy, slick patina of high-budgeted television; he certainly has a mind in which screenwriting class lessons have long marinated, and his grasp of basic storytelling probably means he can maximize his keen talents in television in a way that film cannot afford. Television is a visual experience—compared to the radio—but its primary function has consisted in telling the viewer stories, week and after week, and in the last decade, the serialized drama has dominated. The public has voted: Law and Order and CSI in their sundry manifestations are pleasing in their refusal to hold an audience hostage for over an hour—the story is self-isolated and wholly accessible like an old Perry Mason yarn—but sprawling, expansive “arcs” and multitudinous forms of cliffhangers leading into the next telecast make for the spiciest, most riveting recipe. With that kind of repetitious application of his talent for ornamented-with-sexy-stars-and-puzzling-plot-points storytelling, it is little wonder television is Abrams' natural habitat.

Now that he has broken through to the other side, and worked his streamlining magic in cinema, Abrams allows his undying embrace of his first love to be seen by all. His first directorial work was a sequel to a Tom Cruise franchise of movies based on a 1960s television show. His second, a “relaunching” of a dormant movie franchise inspired by a 1960s television show. Abrams' terminological mastery of televisized potboiler storytelling—every episodes' Act I leads into Act II, at the end of which Act III is afforded greater importance until each hour-long piece leads into the next hour-long piece—both serves him well and arguably diminishes his filmic screenwriting. Mission: Impossible 3 featured a fierce Cruise performance, and it was entertaining in the moment, but the picture was too burdened by its enslavement to formula and genre to stand out, something the film itself seemed to know in its concluding moments, openly making fun of its own plot “set-up” which was naturally the “Macguffin.” Abrams' work behind the camera was never less than acceptable, though some of his choices—a shaky camera to convey chaos being one of the more bluntly perspicuous—were often mundane and appeared outdated.

Visually, Abrams has progressed. His Star Trek may not be a riveting optical specimen, but it is not a slouch in its consistency of leitmotifs, providing an agreeable ocular descant of sorts for much of the action one would expect from such a film. Tony Scott and others love angularly pushing and pulling their camera about in order to stimulate tension; Abrams, however, aided by cinematographer Daniel Mindel and composer Michael Giacchino, appears to have watched several submarine thrillers such as Scott's own Crimson Tide and possibly Das Boot among others. Abrams realizes he is crafting a naval war picture, and the film's visual schema aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise confirms it. Before there was dazzle for dazzle sake; in Star Trek, iterations of submarine tropes are plentiful in their abundance (from a mutinous sequence to naturally the suffocating sensation of feeling as though one is being hunted) and Abrams' handling of such are noteworthy for their effectiveness. As the camera slices downward against James Tiberius Kirk's countenance, the imagery buttresses Abrams' origins tale with resonant credibility as a film which seems to actually be informed by cinema.

Star Trek, 2009 is populated by a cast of young, “hip” actors. The actor who stands out is Chris Pine. As a brash, rebellious Kirk, he is more Harrison Ford's Han Solo than the comparatively timid William Shatner. There is an energy to Pine's performance that simply burns—because it seems like a star is born, which fits Abrams' story like a glove, so the turn has an interesting dual existence all by itself, displaying that a hungry, confident actor is usually best-suited to play a hungry, confident character. Pine's eyes radiate cocksure conceit and insolence. Finally a Star Trek film treats its audience to the young, ill-tempered Kirk who one could certainly picture outmaneuvering the much-vaunted Kobayashi Maru test by “thinking outside the box.”

Kirk's machismo has always played well in Star Trek and the occasional intellectual paralysis of Spock has aided in underscoring the need for a man of action. Yet Spock's mind was extremely sharp and focused on the matters at hand. If President Obama is Spock in the White House, at least with Spock cable news television did not broadcast hour-long, mind-numbing press conferences from the Enterprise. Here Spock is played by Zachary Quinto. Quinto tries his best to emulate Leonard Nimoy, and it is a valiant effort, but Quinto's performance is at times a little forced in its subservience to the past. Quinto, bless him, was simply not gifted with the kind of mellifluous voice of Nimoy's, the kind of voice one would not mind hearing read from a phone book or teleprompter. At least Obama has that. Quinto, however, does rally in several tender scenes, particularly when teamed with Zoe Saldana's Uhura.

Nimoy is given a supporting part in the film, but he is reduced to a loudspeaker for the screenplay's most cumbersome, illogical and far-fetched exposition. This sabotages what could have been the film's dramatic peak. There is a great deal of banter about “red matter” and time travel, and as with other incarnations of Star Trek, the screenplay (by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman) seems determined to look as though it is only over-thinking its sci-fi-inspired conundrums, but it is a taxing experience. Some of this must be laid at the doorstep of Abrams, whose plot-driven focus has a way of smothering the very characters being followed throughout the course of said plot. When the focus finally shifts back to the picture's villain, intriguingly named Nero (a one-dimensional Eric Bana), Orci and Kurtzman supply their rapacious Romulan with the motivations of past mass-murdering, butchering lunatics, a feature stemming from Gene Roddenberry's series which began before man truly landed on the moon through the films. The first half of the twentieth century was playtime for the nascent bullies whose existence was born out of legitimate grudges, and Bana's Nero is an extension of that theme. His people were casualties to the failings of the Federation, and most directly Spock himself, and so now he will destroy whole planets to blow off some steam.

Abrams' Star Trek is not what would be classified as “great cinema.” Many “Trekkies” despise it; others adore it. This writer's lack of connection to the charged, aforementioned group neither detracts nor adds to the picture's charms and flaws for him. Abrams has made some fairly impressive strides as a director with only his second picture—his economical manner of unfurling engaging, one-two-three linear tales is sure to make him a permanent feature of television and popular film for as long as he wishes to remain in the fields. Star Trek as a film is appealing because it fits comfortably. Unlike the preposterously bloated Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, Star Trek is just long enough to feel “epic” but not grueling; unlike superhero movies of various merits such as Superman Returns and The Dark Knight, it only takes itself seriously enough to matter to its audience; unlike Iron Man, the film is actually dabbling in some important themes without shirking away, and unlike that and so many other summer extravaganzas, one can remember the film in its entire form over two and a half months after seeing it. It has its problems, and certainly is less for its limitations. Star Trek is like one large slice of chocolate cake; it is sweet, velvety and leaves one feeling strangely empty from lack of nutrition and protein. But it tastes good.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Eternal Sunshine For the Soul

I'll be back at Film For the Soul, whose sage and magnanimous proprietor, Ric Burke, has invited me to share my piece on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for the year 2004.

Originally written as the culmination of a brief series of romantic films for St. Valentine's Day, my review will be posted at Mr. Burke's wonderful website on July 27.

Stay tuned to Film For the Soul as the cinematic years of the "2000s" are examined through one piece after another about films from each year. And I promise to write some new work for Mr. Burke for 2005 and beyond.

Meanwhile, beginning Monday I'll have significantly more time with which to write here for a while , so expect much more activity in the coming days.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

“Success is dangerous. One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”
—Pablo Picasso
Michael Mann's Public Enemies dramatizes the criminal escapades of an individualistic, veteran and expert criminal. This man is a devout loner who lives by his own ethical code, which is heavily informed by the associations and few friendships he has forged throughout his life. Most especially, the man's mindset has been significantly molded by a sage older criminal whose borderline philosophical musings and extrapolations of particular quandaries have left an indelible imprint on the entire being of Mann's protagonist. This protagonist gradually loses his insularly-ensured bearings when he finally falls for a lovely, irresistibly alluring woman. The woman's new presence in the criminal's life threatens to compromise his previously secured moorings. Meanwhile, a dogged man of the law relentlessly tracks the criminal down, either wittingly or inadvertently using the woman as the bait the criminal cannot resist pursuing. Extravagant firefights punctuate the action, with one particularly momentous exchange representing the picture's climax from which everything else hurtles throughout the film's remaining running time.
Unfortunately, Mann has told this same basic story before, and he has done so with a more confident bravado. If the above outline serves as the substratum in which Mann may judiciously service his own thematic obsessions, it is regrettable that Public Enemies comes across as something approximating an artist's “leftovers.” There is a nearly humorous irony to this predicament, as well: in finally creating a sprawling crime drama based on historical figures, and most infamously John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), Mann is repeating himself with an historical drama after plying his trade to sheer fiction. (Mann has essayed historical narratives before—with The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider and Ali—but those films did not follow the trademark Mann crime template of such films as Thief, Heat and to far lesser extents Collateral and Miami Vice.) In essence, Mann has already told the story of Dillinger—and in Heat he definitively channeled the 1930s bank-robber's tenacity and wiliness when creating Robert De Niro's adroit criminal. So now, when Public Enemies unspools, moments associated with Heat or even Mann's other cops-and-robbers tales, repeat themselves: Depp's Dillinger coolly but almost lethally assaults a foolish criminal whose actions led to completely unnecessary tragedy in a scene which cannot not recall De Niro's punishment for a roguish thug his crew ill-advisedly picked up; Dillinger is thwarted by the self-serving mob which had provided safe harbor for his gang; Dillinger must choose whether or not to simply walk away from the love of his life, Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard); a climactic denouement is afforded the weightiness of Greek tragedy and is apparently even given the same musical theme from Mann's 1995 opus (always stay until the lights come up and watch the credits carefully).
So much of Public Enemies is finely tuned and tautly-mounted. Repeatedly, Mann stages elaborate set-pieces of suspense, movement and action—and then repeats the repetition. For the filmmaker behind the bank-robbery apogee of Heat or the LA Koreatown nightclub sequence in Collateral, several of these scenes must resemble an accomplished bodybuilder exercising with light free weights as warm-ups. When Mann finally closes the picture's Act II with a sprawling, protracted nighttime gun battle—easily the film's most rivetingly commoving stretch—it appears the veteran has begun the more challenging portion of his routine. Finally, Mann's choices such as shooting in digital with a grittier, hand-held camera perspective, seem to pay off. Earlier, these decisions seemed to conjure a dusty, seemingly incongruous 1930s home movie. Camera bumps and shakes contrast sharply with the more traditional crystallized, tinctorial palette Mann had previously employed. Public Enemies strives to be the scabrous Saving Private Ryan alternative to the picturesque gracefulness of its 1930s crime saga antecedents of the modern era such as Bonnie and Clyde, Miller's Crossing and Road to Perdition. By opting for an admittedly more potently sui generis texture in which to tell their story, Mann and his cinematographer Dante Spinotti craft an immediately controversial film. Whether or not the decisions aid Mann and Spinotti in forging a piece both rooted in past excursions into the 1930s crime-laden tales of Americana such as the aforementioned pictures or other efforts to tell the Dillinger story in the 1940s Dillinger or the John Milius action picture of the same title and simultaneously reaching for a kind of abstractly-defined orphism of being remains questionable.
In other areas, Mann's trademark excesses, weaknesses and undeniable dexterity all mix with one another to create a film of frustrating but engaging dynamism. Mann, who collaborated on the screenplay with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman—based on Bryan Burrough's recent book, “Public Enemies”—is occasionally guilty of mistaking mood for meaning, and shortchanges the characters for whom he perspicuously cares in favor of following the exhilarating swings in momentum between cops and robbers in one gun battle after another. Depp's Dillinger is the picture's most thoroughly detailed and excavated character, yet even he remains mysteriously divorced from much of the film's subtextual focuses. He tells one man to keep his money—like Clyde in the 1967 Arthur Penn picture, Dillinger and his crew are only after the bank's money—but when he tells another criminal that the public matters, it remains unresolved whether Dillinger thinks so because it is simply advantageous or because he has some burning vestiges of principles. At a time in which banks are found liable and in some instances once again blamed for a financial crisis, Mann's film delivers the typical staging of the big banks against the little people with Dillinger and his cohorts representing an approximation of a necessary evil. Dillinger's cohorts, however, almost all remain astoundingly remote—the one exception being Jason Clarke's beautifully rendered John 'Red' Hamilton. On the legal side of things, Christian Bale's Melvin Purvis and Billy Crudup's J. Edgar Hoover are afforded just enough screentime to be presented as full, flesh-and-blood characters, but Bale in particular is—yet again—hamstrung by an underwritten role with which he must work.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is Cotillard who stands out. Her dialogue is uneven at times, but she and Depp create some dazzling chemistry with one another. Mann recycles pieces of previous romances in his films, fitting Dillinger-Frechette into his paradigm. This does not inflict any damage to the couple's verisimilitude; since Mann has fundamentally told Dillinger's story before in Thief and Heat, to obviously varying degrees, this similar rendering of love fits, and would appear to be largely historically correct. It may indeed be an instance in which Mann—as with the rest of the film—has simply found the real-life, historical story that aligns with his passionate interests and obsessions.

There is a limitation to that, and naturally history is massaged by Hollywood once more to bend to Mann's vision. Purvis is presented as a consummate professional so as to stand as a palatable Mann “cop protagonist” to pursue the criminal mastermind. Babyface Nelson is gunned down before history informs he was. Yet Hollywood deserves immense credit in certain venues of personal cognizance, something Mann outright acknowledges in the film's denouement. Depp and Mann finally seem to reach the height to which they were so long before striving earlier in the film. As Dillinger sits in a hot theatre watching W.S. Van Dyke's Manhattan Melodrama (George Cukor worked on the film in an uncredited capacity as well), Depp's slight facial expressions tell the tale. It is a beautiful, superbly realized cinematic moment: cinema commenting on itself, and its virtues and powers. Depp—who here delivers the best part of his performance, and probably the single best stretch of acting in years—quietly, amusedly, watches the picture, and Mann's timing with cutting to Manhattan Melodrama's figures is expert. Dillinger sees himself in Clark Gable's strangely heroic gangster and naturally he, like so many male lovers of film, sees in Myrna Loy's lovely countenance, enshrouded by her gleaming hair, the woman he loves. He also peers into his future and it is a coup de grace of visual storytelling. Public Enemies may not go anywhere Mann has not gone to before, but for that moment, it certainly caught its reflection and tipped its hat to the audience in a manner which speaks volumes about the place of cinema in every moviegoer's life.

Take Woodstock... Please

I promise that some more substantial output is on its way to Coleman's Corner in Cinema, but for this particular moment, I was just wondering if anyone else grows remarkably tired of seeing the same trailer for the same film over and over, ad infinitum, whenever one travels to the cinema.

I personally feel as though I have sustained a merciless barrage for Ang Lee's upcoming picture, Taking Woodstock. The same trailer... Over and over, and over and over. It is an annoying, cloying, faux-hip piece of work which apparently displays almost every major beat of the film (finally including imagery that would logically come near the film's conclusion). Not to mention, it features Liev Schreiber in drag yet again. Does anyone yell, "ARNOLD! ARNOLD!" at him as in the 1994 Christmas comedy Mixed Nuts? (Perhaps they squeal, "CLINT! CLINT!" to be more apropos to the time setting.)

I happen to not be an Ang Lee fan, and I was not looking forward to this film beforehand, but at this juncture I feel as though I have seen the film.

Natch, this is untrue, and one day I am sure I will sit down and view the film. However, I simply had to vent for a moment. And I am wondering if anyone else has felt this way about a particular trailer or, more likely, have encountered this troublesome scenario on more than one occasion.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Shemariah (May 1990--March 2, 2009)

The allure of your marbled fur, the way you leaped and stirred
Your demurs were playful but firm, always ill-timed and assured
Contours of your agile frame routinely stroked as you purred
Eyes clear then blurred, but fierce, messages conveyed without words

Through long, empty still nights, you would scamper and saunter
Every path and hall held delights, you were friend, and haunter
Transfixed on your diamantine eyes, they sparkled with eerie iridescence
Two baby blue gems, made glowing lights, a pair of fiery crescents

About the patio, love requited, your contentment was marvelously warm
Predictably with you fresh steak excited, you remained carnivorously in form
We wrestled and amused ourselves, you always emerged victoriously transformed
Himalayan coat shed on the carpet and shelves, a veritable, deliriously unkempt storm

I look past the time of woe, in the bay it will stew for now the revelry is left
That will last long after the pains of sorrow, the way in which you drew every breath
Your feline grace would befit Desdemona at her sweetest, your cunning, Lady Macbeth
Before the tree-line, most dangerous at your discreetest, you fought against the long night of death