Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is directed by David Fincher. Initially, this seems unlikely. Fincher's artistic appetite has been markedly darker than much of the whimsy that populates Benjamin Button. Loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, Fincher somehow manages to bring almost none of the pitch-black subversiveness to the romantic tale he and Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth relate while simultaneously bedimming the brightest portion of the apologue in one extended mattress-dwelling montage late in the picture accompanied by melancholic voice-over. Admittedly, Fitzgerald's 1922 short story was less direct and unequivocal about its author's equally afflictive and wholly uncomfortable relationship with materialism than his legendary The Great Gatsby or The Diamond as Big as the Ritz—whose titular promise strikes at the heart of the rampant materialistic vein against which Fitzgerald staunchly wrote.

As crafted by Roth and screen story-credited Robin Swicord, the screenplay with which Fincher works seems indebted to some of the more suspect Oscar-winners of the 1990s such as Titanic and the aforementioned Gump, the latter of which may have served to provide the framing device of an old woman near death's doorstep reminiscing on the glorious past of her lover. For greater dramatic effect and symbolism—a staggering washing away of the past—the “contemporary” setting is placed against the background of the oncoming Hurricane Katrina. A bothersome television monitor in the hospital at which this old woman, Daisy, is preparing to perish in the company of her thirty-seven-year old daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond) repeatedly informs the audience of the hurricane's movements. Roth and Fincher do not allow the accessory to distract too much, but it is manipulative and unnecessary nevertheless.

Cate Blanchett plays Daisy (a name that immediately connotes springtime and earthly renewal as well as paying homage to the object of Gatsby's desire in The Great Gatsby), the great love of Benjamin Button's life. As played by Brad Pitt, Benjamin is perpetually informed by the people nearest to his orbit. Born with the decrepitude of an old man, the child Benjamin is taken to a house of “Negroes” by his father in New Orleans only moments after his birth. The allusion to Moses taken in by “the other,” and a little later the Biblical references in a black church (Acts 14:3 emblazoned on a banner in the background, referring to “sings and wonders...” to come through the hands of those who speak boldly upon the Lord) seem to initially cast Fitzgerald's tale in Judeo-Christian tinting. Yet as the film progresses, Fincher takes Benjamin on a more tellurian, and, indeed, physical journey.

It is in that continual emphasis on the physical that Fincher remains. When those who question Fincher's fingerprints on the picture opine their consideration, the answer must come that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button displays—for better and worse—the tonal instincts of its director. Fincher's best films, Se7en and Zodiac—and especially the latter—succeeded so smashingly because they played perfectly into the filmmaker's prismatically sealed obsessiveness. The more Fincher adds to his body of work, the more apparent it becomes that for all of his considerable talent, he has yet to surpass the tonal confinements that practically define the essence of his finest and culminating oeuvre. That helps when Fincher's art is directly irradiated by the subject matter—two entirely different policemen united in their objective in Se7en; a man finding his past brought to the present with devilish relish by an uncontrollable corporate conspiracy (The Game); a curious man driven by puzzles seeking out the identity of a notorious serial killer (Zodiac).

Yet Fincher and his screenwriters have opened up the saga of Benjamin Button to the point where Fincher's best attribute is turned against him. Panic Room was a minor movie in which Fincher tried to summon visual importance out of outre and vainglorious camera movements and CGI configurations. Fincher's blunt visual language likewise was perfect for the uniformly downcast Se7en. Yet spurts of Fincher's conceptual workings portray a filmmaker with a solid grasp of his own strengths made occasionally frustratingly literal or at least undistinguished from earlier films. To convey the passage of time in Zodiac, Fincher allows the screen to become a window through which the viewer watches the CG construction of the Transamerica Pyramid building in San Francisco over the course of a few seconds. This is an interesting bit of cinematic shorthand, and in its own way far more meaningful than the hypocritical and almost paralyzed-by-pretense closing imagery of Fight Club, yet Fincher deploys an assortment of vistas and almost visional panaceas meant to take the viewer's breath away in Benjamin Button that, for all of their grandiosity, tend to veer toward the perfunctory.

With a story that should be sweepingly biographical—considering Roth's massive screenplay and the film's final running time—Fincher's technique tends to make all of the hills and valleys play out as flat. Comparisons to Stanley Kubrick are naturally interesting, yet Kubrick's pictures, concerned as they were with the disintegration of the humanity of human beings, followed the arc with a keen direness that eloquently described the tragedy at his films' foundation. Fincher's films tend to close themselves off, denominating the very sequestered protagonists in the changeless epitome of the pictures' portraitures. Taking Fitzgerald's short story and expanding on it to the point of creating a chimerical biographical account, Fincher is unable to properly convey the most bottomless sorrows and stratospheric highs of his main character. Instead, he and Roth rely on one of the great crunches of cinema history to describe how people—and especially Benjamin—felt about what was happening to them: nearly ceaseless voice-over. Narrated, in a way, by three different people (Benjamin through his diary; Caroline, reading Benjamin’s words to Daisy; the old woman supplying the joining parts occasionally missing from Benjamin’s written history), the film finds itself placed at the mercy of Roth's effectualness as a screenwriter.

Roth's writing is normally well-structured, if nothing else, and Benjamin Button is broken up in three cleanly arranged acts. The first takes up the film's first hour, expiring when Benjamin leaves his old habitat overseen by his adoptive mother, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson, who, in a way, seems to know what kind of film she is in, gesticulating with a theatricality otherwise limited to Blanchett's truly “mesmerizing”—as Benjamin once calls it—dancing as Daisy). The second, middling both in quality and placement, advances Benjamin’s story as a sailor with an avuncular and charismatic Captain Mike, to his brief but memorable affair with an English woman living in a Russian hotel played with palpable acuity and restraint by Tilda Swinton. The third details the meeting of Benjamin and Daisy, colliding in age the way people meant for one another do so, only with attendant complications arising from Benjamin's curious condition.

Roth's leitmotifs are made apparent, repeatedly, almost to exhaustion. The comparisons to his Forrest Gump cannot be dismissed. When Benjamin Button is at its most prosaic, the film seems like Forrest Gump in its best dress. Benjamin is amazed by the appearance of a hummingbird, far out at sea and relates it in a wondered awe that recalls Tom Hanks' simple appreciation of seemingly all things. Roth once again portrays the woman as selfish, wanton and pushy—all the while knowing that the man followed by his screenplay through thick and thin is The One.

Rather than self-destruct through drugs in a long, torturous stint as an agitating counterculture chick, Daisy is a dancer who, Roth seems to insist, has allowed her success to go to her head. At age twenty-three she dismisses Benjamin's efforts to, as he says, “sweep [her] off [her] feet,” enjoying her bubbly, meaningless dalliances while he stoically stews in the shadows. Again moments of syrupy ruminations on death (rather than cultural icons and politicians being “shot” in Gump, characters close to Benjamin die out while he de-ages through the twentieth century) populate the narrative, almost from the beginning, unfortunately missing the key ingredient of Fitzgerald's wit. Fitzgerald's famous statement, “After all, life hasn't much to offer except youth, and I suppose for older people, the love of youth in others,” may in its own dimensional context serve as a springboard for the story, but Roth and Fincher seem at a loss as to what to say about this condition except a long-winded version of, “Too bad it's all this way, but there's nothing you can do about it, so just keep living through it.”

That message grows tiresome. In a way, it's no less patronizing than Forrest Gump's (which, it has often been said, exalted the virtue of being sufficiently stupid to always enjoy life). It cannot be a coincidence that Roth transfers Forrest's condition as a threat against his progeny to Benjamin's worry that his child will be born like he was. It is a legitimate avenue on which to narratively travel and yet both the screenplay and Fincher's direction are unable to engrossingly illustrate the contentment of parenthood Benjamin says he feels. The aforementioned mattress montage, which seems to somehow exemplify the tuned-out happiness of the 1960s, including the Beatles on television, describes the gleeful repletion that the luckiest in the world fleetingly experience. Fincher tries his hand at romance and the audience believes in it because the words Pitt and Blanchett speak are delivered with such earnestness but his pictorial representations of the unrequited and then finally completely reciprocal love between the two never entirely convince.

Fincher's picture does not lack some bright spots. Blanchett gives one of her better performances. She is playing a person, not an avatar or representation as in The Aviator. Fincher is able to balance Daisy's dual role as aesthetically-minded artistic dancer and as something approximating Benjamin's own beckoning green light. Blanchett steals the film, and glows with a warmth that suggests the acclaim that sometimes seems closely related to puffery is not undeserved. Perhaps, however, some of her excelling screen presence is made all the more evident by the corresponding vacuity presented by Pitt. Whether adorned by old-age make-up or driving his motorcycle at his true pretty boy stage, Pitt never registers. There is a difference between underplaying and simply not making anything of an impact to the character. Fincher seems to keep Pitt on a tight leash, and the actor seems perfectly fine trusting in the director's strategy.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not desultory, it simply never surpasses the surface patina polish of Fincher's CG recreations of naval warfare, space shuttles and cityscapes. Nor the admittedly fascinating work done on Pitt himself, who seems to briefly strive to make something of an impression underneath all of the artifice. Ironically it is when he is again completely recognizable that he slips into his lazy on-screen persona, recently left behind when he played Jesse James as a ghostly specter avenging his own sins. That describes much of the film itself. There are fits and starts, sequences that are compelling by themselves. The film never congeals, it never formulates beyond the “and then this happened” linear one-two-three storytelling. Many aspects, including the latter name of Benjamin's and its origins—and the very role of buttons supposedly drawn by the humorously buttoned studio logos—are touched upon with all of the fervor of a weary parent reading a story to their child for the fourth time in a row. Roth and Fincher, and Pitt, are in a profound way hamstrung by the very high-budgeted dazzle that has received so much attention. Lost beneath the surface is Fitzgerald's own Benjamin Button.

Doubt (2008)

John Patrick Shanley's Doubt is downright obstreperous in its clinging to theatrical metaphor and insularity. It is tightly-wound and compactly unfurled, finding a powerful dramatic rhythm for its eventful tale that recalls such theatrical screen transfers as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Long Day's Journey into Night by Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet respectively. The film has the unmistakable integument of a play made cinematic, with autumnal and mutedly chiaroscuro cinematography by Roger Deakins and an insidiously clamant score by Howard Shore. Written for the screen and directed by the play's playwright, John Patrick Shanley, the film is respectably confident. Shanley's acclaimed Broadway play (which won both a Pulitzer and Tony) in this context serves as the womb from which his film emerges. Marinated in minimalism, Doubt is no less accomplished for proudly wearing its restraint. And yet the film is not truly restrained, but rather almost endearingly obstinate in its framework.

The year in which Doubt takes place is 1964. It is at the height of the three-year Second Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church, broadly known as Vatican II. The world is at a crossroads, and so too is the Church. At a Catholic parish in the Bronx, three variations of modern Catholicism are examined. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the unremittingly stern disciplinarian Saint Nicholas Catholic school principal whose menacing roving movements throughout the campus instill tremendous fear in students. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the pivotal Father Flynn, a liberal secularist whose modernism immediately worries Sister Aloysius. Amy Adams is Sister James, the nun teacher who every student wishes to have, an extremely kindhearted and naïve woman whose role as Sister Aloysius' subordinate—taken in under Sister Aloysius' nearly maternal wing—clashes with her inclination to believe in the inherent decency of Father Flynn.

As the film commences, the sights and sounds of a bleakly wintry morning, with parishioners entering to hear their priest, leave an indelible impression. A shot in which the church is framed, with a stream of individuals entering the austere House of God, recalls Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light: the depressively bitter weather of God's earth juxtaposed with His sanctuary. (Bergman's Protestant testing of the soul featured another man of God wracked by doubt.) The weather is a key thematic touchstone, with the bizarre windiness noted by several characters, most especially Sister Aloysius, who, at one point, melancholically remarks as though she herself is specifically overwhelmed by it, “The wind has changed!” In the final homily of Father Flynn's—always somewhat strangely referred to as the less singularly Catholic sermon—he remarks that a “wind... guides us...” In another piece of portentousness, a tree branch has fallen from a campus tree due to the stormy weather.

The relationship between the doggedly pursuant principal and progressive priest is symbolized, like nearly all plot mechanics of the picture, quite emphatically. One such sequence plays against the background of a cat quickly catching and disposing of a troublesome rodent while the pendulous Sister James listens to Sister Aloysius's game plan for ridding Saint Nicholas of Father Flynn. A recurrently errant light in Sister Aloysius's office is amusing but unnecessary. These are metaphors that should have been excised in the transition from stage to screen, as they, in their respective forms, require the actors to supply expository dialogue that makes the film all the less realistic. Certain visually linguistic shots ring completely true. When Father Flynn appears to be in trouble with the undeviating Sister Aloysius, Shanley nonchalantly frames the priest in a medium shot with a boy sitting on the bench adjacent to the principal's office. The scene speaks volumes about the dynamics at play.

At first glance, Sister Aloysius is almost humorously dour. She seems to detest anything that gives life any comfort or solace, including sugar cubes, cough drops (which she dismisses as candy), ballpoint pens, pagan heresy in the form of the song “Frosty the Snowman.” Her vehemence threatens to reduce her to villainy. Between Streep's challengingly empathetic interpretation and Shanley's rigorously even-handed treatment, however, Sister Aloysius is actually far from monstrous. She is shown to genuinely care for the children who fear and loathe her, fervently believing that they must be held to as high standards as possible for them to be good Catholics. Truly suspecting Father Flynn of being a pedophile she is repulsed by the possible specter of a man of God using his place in the society and Catholic heirarchy. When Sister James points out that the children all fear the principal, Streep's delivery of the line—“That's how it works”—excellently and succinctly conveys Sister Aloysius's perspective. In the case of a particularly troublemaking youngster, it is learned that Sister Aloysius's suspicions—that he bloodied his own nose so he could leave school early—were correct. Formerly married to a man lost in Italy during World War II, Sister Aloysius may indeed be Shanley's take on the zeal of the convert.

Viola Davis gives an impassioned but meticulously modulated supporting performance as the mother of the only black child at Saint Nicholas, who just so happens to be the boy Sister Aloysius believes has been taken advantage of by Father Flynn. Shanley draws a stimulating portrait of the double-edged sword of race in America. Sister Aloysius is taken aback when she hears the mother's statements, which amount to excusing any such relationship between Father Flynn and the boy so long as the child is allowed to make it to June (in another, subtler emphasis on the seasonal impact of the weather), and graduation. As the mother tells Sister Aloysius, she and the boy's father believe the boy's sexual inclinations veer toward homosexuality. The father's hatred of homosexuality in his son compels him to beat his child. The mother informs Sister Aloysius that if this scandal surfaces the father will kill the boy. Shanley's sweeping inclusion of race in the equation contributes to the setting of the film's time and place (as Father Flynn reminds, it is a year after the Kennedy assassination). It is a superb culling of sociological resources.

There are some abrading missteps. The film takes place in 1964, during Vatican II. And yet Father Flynn's homilies are portrayed as so secular and detached from Scripture that it would be difficult to find such seemingly laical homilies in a Catholic service even today. If the parts of the three homilies depicted are to be viewed as merely parts, not totals, it would have served Shanley well to make this clear. Otherwise, they make Sister Aloysius's complaints ring all the truer, and cast Father Flynn in an unrealistically fanciful light. The Brechtian structure of the play and film's drama makes the homilies all the more obviously directed at the audience (as they evidently were on the stage). This is certainly not an illegitimate approach, though cinematically, without greater context, makes the device far more diaphonously schematic.

Nevertheless, Shanley's fixation on cleanliness, most limpidly brought to the forefront by Father Flynn's lecture to a group of boys about their dirty fingernails, supplies a nuanced shelter under which much of the tale plays out. In a statement apparently aimed at Father Flynn's questioned masculinity, Shanley's camera closes in on the man's unusually long fingernails, which he favors. It is rather intriguing that many of the physical tics and mannerisms employed by Hoffman seem to largely confirm Sister Aloysius's worst suspicions rather than refute them. And yet can these read as simple playwright misdirections? It is left ambiguous, with the viewer left to decide.

Doubt succeeds primarily because of Shanley's conviction. It is this artistic conviction that finds itself projected in a work entitled Doubt that paradoxically comes to the forefront. In Father Flynn's first homily, he asks, “What do you do, when you're not sure?” Shanley is sure of what he is after. And he makes it clear to every viewer, attracting and alienating along the way.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gran Torino (2008)

How does one approach a film whose ambitions so ostensibly outmatch its transparent habitat? Clint Eastwood should be credited for numerous reasons, not the least of which is that he, unlike Paul Haggis and many other overtly earnest filmmakers—some of whom seem hellbent on carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders—employs ample humor to coax and comfort his audience. The first half of Gran Torino recognizes the inherent comicality of the situation—an old Korean War veteran named Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) growls with dissatisfaction as he witnesses his old, depressingly deracinated Detroit neighborhood become transformed by immigration. Eastwood is tackling considerable issues, and his newest picture is his most thematically consistent film since his 1992 western masterpiece, Unforgiven. The trappings of the characters and the story through which they change suggest smallness, and the film is almost tinny in its exterior visualizations—yet seemingly purposefully so. Eastwood has given his viewer a portrait of the forgotten America in 2008, and it is a grimy, gritty and scabrous place. De-industrialization has hammered the mid-west and “rust-belt” to the point of exhaustion. Eastwood's Kowalski worked at a Ford plant for decades; now one of his two man-child sons sells Japanese cars. Kowalski is witnessing the death of his America—and the old ways in which his traditional outlook has been marinated. It is an ugly sight.

Death comes literally as well. Kowalski's life is immediately put through a self-microcosmic prism after his beloved, devoutly Catholic wife perishes. Eastwood's handling of unsympathetic characters—and perhaps particularly family members—in films like Million Dollar Baby and Changeling has been met with great derision by a vocal constituency. Gran Torino does not change the pattern; the family members are all “spoiled,” as Kowalski tells himself once in a mirror—and they are stereotypically so. A teenage granddaughter is especially out of a Disney comedy wherein such a character would usually learn an invaluable lesson. Here, however, she remains spoiled from beginning to end. She covets Kowalski's most prized possession, the very inanimate symbol of past American glory in the realm of manufacturing and creation in general—his 1972 Gran Torino, beautifully preserved by Kowalski in fine mint condition.

Kowalski is nothing less than the latest summation of Eastwood as an artist, both before and behind the camera. A knowledgeable Eastwood fan or merely observer cannot not interpret the character as Dirty Harry, v. 5.0 (or however many variations on the iconic character Eastwood has tackled since leaving the Dirty Harry series behind twenty years ago). Unforgiven was a manifestly revisionist picture, but so too was The Outlaw Josey Wales. Revisionist westerns, or simply more realistic and gray-area-oriented westerns had become the norm, not the exception, in the 1970s—whether they were created by Eastwood or Robert Altman, Arthur Penn or William A. Fraker. They, like Sam Peckinpah (whose films were marked with a specific import on the passing of this era) applauded and denounced the era they were examining—and arguably more importantly the Hollywood films that had visited the time period in the past. Eastwood's Gran Torino, then, works not merely as a western transmuted to the contemporary—but as a contemporary piece of revisionism. Not only that, but Eastwood is fashioning a mournful eulogy for the very machismo for which (in part) he became so globally famous, subtly reveling in it once more while admitting that it is comparatively antediluvian.

There is a pivotal moment in Gran Torino. Kowalski is enjoying himself for the first time in a great while with the Hmong neighbors he initially found exotically alien in their customs and ways. A girl belonging to the Hmong clan tells Kowalski that he is simply so American. When prodded about what that means, however, she simply shrugs. It is in the murkily bleary abstract that Eastwood finds the central base around which to frame the characterization. What is an American? And why is it that in his home country he finds himself, as a white man, as a Polish-American—theoretically genealogically belonging to a bygone wave of immigrants—to see his ranks perceptibly diminish? For Kowalski, it is he who is quickly becoming the minority.

Kowalski, like Eastwood's William Munny in Unforgiven, is haunted by the past—and most crushingly by the violently deadly actions from the Korean War that have left a lastingly concomitant mark on his sad life. His boyishly fledgling priest (Christopher Carley) promised Kowalski's wife that he would hear his confession. Kowalski critiques Father Janovich's trite platitudes (“...death is bittersweet... bitter in its pain... sweet in its salvation...”), telling the twenty-seven-year old that he knows nothing about life and death. As Munny told the Schofield Kid, “It's a hell of a thing, killin' a man.” Eastwood is at his best when he follows the through-line that has most emphatically informed his art. Josey Wales was a man born out of violence, out of war, not entirely unlike Kowalski—and the stains on his soul were crimson. Perhaps Mystic River's most poetically poignant scene is Sean Penn's retired thug vowing to his dead, viciously obliterated daughter that he, not the police, will find her murderer—and kill him. Eastwood is in his element when he surveys the moral compromises that dot the trail to damnation like so many stepping stones. It is why the final shot of Million Dollar Baby feels like the most honest part of that film: Eastwood's character believed he was doomed to hell for his decisive action on behalf of the woman to whom he allowed himself to become close. Gran Torino has a wonderful little scene in which Kowalski simply shakes a Hmong youth's hand in a hardware store, reverberating the quietly beautiful shot of Eastwood and Hilary Swank shaking hands in Million Dollar Baby's scrappy gym. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk tip their hats to Eastwood's past iconic hero with an extended scene in which Kowalski confronts three black hoodlums molesting a female Hmong youth. Pulling out nothing more than his index finger in the shape of a gun barrel, he tells one, “You don't listen good, do you?” as in his confrontation with a couple of white goons in Dirty Harry's San Francisco tunnel. (“You don't listen good, do you, asshole?” he asked, holding his .44 Magnum.)

Like Dirty Harry, Eastwood's Kowalski makes a show out of being a bigot, referring to nearly every imaginable minority in insensitive, politically incorrect language. The eventual embrace of the unknown in the form of the Hmongs who have moved in next door represents a shedding of a protective shield of sorts. The audience laughs at Kowalski's blustery racism because it is clear from the outset that the man is simply alone and frustrated, not wicked or cruel. Gran Torino's message at the outset of the Obama presidency may not be welcome as completely palatable to all who partake in it, but it does serve to point to the decency of at least some of those who are comforted by their fronts of intolerance. In this way the first half's aforementioned reliance on broad comedy succeeds in disarming the audience, so that the “message” half of the message movie goes down far more smoothly.

The timing of the enterprise is most advantageous for Eastwood and his film. Detroit's “Big Three” are on life support, and fading fast. Policies that have fostered widespread shearing of American jobs have levied a heavy toll on the undergirding of the nation's economy. Five trillion dollars worth in trade deficits since George Bush #41 perfectly illustrate, as barometers, the depth of today's depredation. *And there is the matter of the first black president-to-be having been recently elected.) Not unlike older directors reacting to troubling times, Eastwood has created a defiantly “old man's movie,” like John Ford's Seven Women or Howard Hawks' El Dorado. Eastwood's character's love for his American-made car speaks to a love of the old, particularly when the new, as seen in the ghostlike atmosphere of the Detroit ghetto in which lives, with its urban sprawl and decimated streets, appears to be nothing but deplorable in its blighted hopelessness.

With the patterns created here, Eastwood has manufactured the final distillation of his own trademark character in richly Platonic terms—wringing significant meaning out of one of the great archetypal personalities of not just cinema but American culture. He grabs a potentially hoary cliché and enriches it. Representing the closest thing to John Wayne today, Eastwood does not so much redefine his—and his characters'—place in the newer America, and world, as he does acknowledge it. And he comes to terms with it. And he finally forgives it while putting it out to pasture one last time.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

In what may be his most nakedly personal picture, Steven Spielberg performs an act of cinematic alchemy. Catch Me If You Can should be enjoyed as a blast of retrospective, of Rat Pack cool, of unbridled American nostalgia for a distinct time and place. Considered by many to be the modern master of the chase film, Spielberg creates what is at first glance a weightless chase movie, a careless pastiche. Underneath the coruscating surface of hip patinas, however, exists a picture of marked subversiveness and philosophical toiling—a film that simultaneously extols and critiques the very foundational artistic buttress of its creator. What results from this pièce de résistance is nothing less than a singularly fluent ambuscade, naturally appealing in its demeanor while supplying a multi-layered visual shorthand and ruminative ambivalence that transcends the mostly “true story of a real fake,” as the film's poster's tag-line promises in the first of a plethora of self-conflicted filmic aphorisms.

Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career as teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose gleefully related trouble-making immediately veered toward the supplanting of authority and its figures through fraudulent means (he assumes the position of substitute teacher in a French class and succeeds in carrying it off for days on end). After his parents' marriage disintegrates into the acrimony of divorce, however, Frank, Jr. expands on his con-artistry, reaching a lasting pubescent criminal landmark, literally running away from his situation, switching identities at will and posing as an airline copilot, doctor and lawyer, cashing millions of dollars worth in forged checks before he reached the age of nineteen. Suave and charismatic with a childlike, wide-eyed wonder, DiCaprio imbues Frank, Jr. with the sentiment of the fundamentally good child gone astray. Playing adult, and furthermore doing so in specifically respect-attracting vocations, DiCapro's Frank, Jr. is just a little like the proverbial child in the candy store. It is with a wild, frolicking sense of frenzied pace that Spielberg gives filmic life to Jeff Nathanson's screenplay (based on Frank Abagnale, Jr.'s autobiographical book). Spielberg is enormously aided in this effort by editor Michael Kahn, whose crisp, nearly flawless assuredness helps make a 142-minute picture fly by at a most appropriate celerity, conveying Frank, Jr.'s literal and figurative flying through the American dream.

Echoing Spielberg's own childhood, family life and broken home, the picture likewise demonstrably carries with it the respective escape hatches through which Frank, Jr. and Spielberg rushed as youths. Left to their own recuperative imaginations, Frank, Jr. and Spielberg essentially recreated themselves. In so doing, they found creative glee in the manufacturing of entire scenarios (one, the details of his own identity; the other, the mushrooming meanings of his own nascent artistic sensibilities). Viewing the nuclear family as synonymous with contentment at approximately the same time in real history, Frank, Jr. and Spielberg both attempt to seize every opportunity to resurrect it for themselves, even as they eventually fashion new quasi-familial arrangements as part of their undertaking. Frank, Jr. is the ultimate paradox: a child who never grew up passing as an adult in almost everyone's eyes. His almost pathological need to bring his parents back together, to regenerate the personal conditions considered deceased by those who know better, is equally profound and pitiable. Spielberg's personal memory has perhaps never played such a prominent role in his cinema before or since—in many ways Catch Me If You Can operates as a phony-but-true autobiography.

As Spielberg first essays Frank, Jr.'s home life, it is Christmastime. (As the film progresses, Christmas Eve will be a recurring and important motif symbolizing hearth, home and family—and the absence of same in terse but gently paternal telephone confrontations between Frank, Jr. and chastising replacement father figure and FBI agent seeking the con artist's arrest, Carl Hanratty played by Tom Hanks. The mutual loneliness of the conversations is made visually apparent, including one with Frank, Jr. in a lonely hotel room and the other with him resting in a high-class, empty bar after visiting a disheveled bar at which his father was stewing.) Frank, Sr. (an astonishing Christopher Walken) is dancing in the festively decorated living room with his French war bride, Frank's mother (Nathalie Baye) to the song, “Embraceable You.” Later, when Frank, Jr. is courting a pretty Lutheran nurse Brenda (Amy Adams) in Louisiana, he will spy on her mother and father, tenderly dancing to the same song as they wash ditches in their kitchen. In the film's affectionate introduction to the Abagnale household, however, the dynamic between father and son is wonderfully conveyed as Frank, Jr., having briefly left the room, returns, making eye contact with Frank, Sr. as the husband/father figure displays the consequential placement he enjoys in their household, that which he hopes his son will one day achieve for himself. However, the American dream is dashed away when the IRS targets Frank, Sr. on tax evasion charges. The spacious middle class house the Abagnales called home is vacated, their car sold and soon Frank, Jr.'s mother finds comfort and economic hope in Frank, Sr.'s “very good friend,” Jack Barnes (James Brolin), who had given Frank, Sr. an award at the rotary club in Frank, Sr.'s first scene of the film. Having run away from the entire predicament when forced to choose which parent he wishes to live with, Frank, Jr. is Oedipally motivated beyond all else, and fiercely determined to gladden and avenge his beleaguered father.

The opening credits sequence by graphic arts company Kuntzel and Degas recalls the beautiful animated geometric lines so immortally used for Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. In part, the picture is emulating certain aspects of Hitchcock's self-critiquing playfulness and a bottomlessly deep, nuanced thematic treatment just beneath the film's shiny surface. There is even an open homage to the James Bond film <Goldfinger. In the scene following the Goldfinger homage—complete with Frank wearing the exact same suit Sean Connery wore as James Bond in the film, Frank naming himself after Ian Fleming and acquiring a silver Aston Martin—another, subtler Bond homage commences. Frank meets Cheryl Ann (Jennifer Garner), an escort. Spielberg shoots the scene in low-angle reverence—making the courting begin with the pair's respective pairs of feet immediately meeting cute. Once they make it into a hotel room, “The Look of Love,” the original song from that most fascinating cinematic experiment in 1960s excess and grandeur, Casino Royale, plays during their negotiations.

Meanwhile, Spielberg makes a comment on the glossy Hollywood productions of the era in myriad ways; Janusz Kaminski's bright cinematography reminds of many capers and comedies of the time in which the film is set. Spielberg's emphasis on back-lighting and frequent uses of shafts of “God light” repeatedly cast the young central character and Spielbergian avatar in the blinding light of unreasonable choice. Angered by a man's presence in his home, Frank, Jr. (henceforth simply “Frank”; Frank, Sr. will remain Frank, Sr.) yells at him, all the while reeling backwards into his kitchen. The glowing orange light that engulfs Frank serves as a nimbus in which he is both tested, and, as the film unspools, suspended. It is at this moment that Frank finds his nuclear family shattered. John Williams' jazzy score blithely underscores Frank's deeds. Later, in a hotel lobby, a blinding, multi-pronged waterfall of light will cascade behind Frank as he smoothly makes one man accommodate him.

Spielberg's shooting in low-angle provides not merely a familiar visual commentary on the director's anxiety, ambivalence and abhorrence of institutional structures and central power, but also a heightened note on the anonymity of America itself. The stick figure-like creations in the credits sequence is a revisited visage. Fifteen minutes into the picture, when Frank plays faux chauffeur for his father at a New York City bank, Spielberg shoots the scene from the ground—casting the towering skyscrapers behind the father and son (symbiotic fixtures of the Spielberg lexicon, and finally, two respective individuals outside the corridors of systematic clout) with their anonymous surfaces as contrasts to the entrepreneurial struggles Frank will later endure. And indeed, later as Frank is speaking into a pay-phone, scheming to snag a copilot's uniform from Pan Am, Spielberg commences the scene with an overwhelming shot of the Pan Am Building. The camera quickly reels from the comically absurd imposition—down from all of the windows to the street, and all of the cars, and people, panning leftward until it reaches Frank in the phone booth. A moment later, after having achieved this task, Frank is captured in a bird's eye view. He is walking on a sidewalk, moving through a sea of people. It is because of the copilot uniform, with its hat, that the viewer is able to follow him so easily: he literally looks like a white dot from above.

Seconds thereafter, Spielberg meets Frank down on the sidewalk, the youth walking with great purpose. Women gaze at him; a little girl is delighted to meet him. Frank grins. As he continues to walk, now into the direction of the camera, a black man in a suit can be seen walking with him, to his left. In this shot the two are alone, and together, seemingly walking in the opposite direction of everyone else. A racial component presents itself. Catch Me If You Can has been criticized by the unobservant as not featuring blacks, yet it is this very subduedly mounted sociopolitical essaying that speaks to Spielberg's concerns. At around the forty-two minute mark, seven or so minutes after the shot in which Frank and the black man are walking on the sidewalk, both smiling, both evidently carrying with them the hopes so attendant to the cause of realizing the ascendancy inherent in the promise of the American dream, another pairing, this time of a little white boy and little black boy, presents itself. They are in a bank. Both are dressed almost humorously, wearing pants, dress shirts and glasses. Much later when Frank is playing the role of a doctor, he is finally confronted with the inconvenience of a patient—a black boy has broken his leg in a bicycle accident. “Do you concur?” Frank asks his underlings, learning the television phraseology of medicine from episodes of “Dr. Kildare.” Finally, at Frank's wedding to Brenda, a black singer lets out, “I won't stop 'till I reach the top!” The statement can easily be transcribed to Frank's quixotic quest.

In parallel cases of “screwing,” in one scene flowers are being moved about uncomfortably, humorously shaking. It is revealed that Frank is at his typewriter, carrying out one of his many schemes. A little later, a pile of dishes will rattle and shake—to the soundtrack of a stewardess changing her tune in the previous scene of “No... No!” to “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as Frank employs his sparkling confidence in carnal matters. Spielberg's fixation on the joys and pitfalls of sensualist desires are juxtaposed against both Frank's development as boy-man and criminal con-artist mastermind. Deliriously re-staging the old Hollywood staples he finds so amusing, Spielberg has this first sex scene take place against the background of a storm outside; later, when Adams' Brenda smooches Frank, and the two “make out,” a great rainstorm transpires just outside. A sequence in which Frank the conman interviews would-be stewardesses recalls another Spielberg conman's efforts to find an effective typist in Schindler's List. Elsewhere, the boyhood-turned-phallic obsession of airplanes continues, altered from childlike “pretend” of flying in Empire of the Sun to another “pretend.” Subtextually delivering Frank into one telephone conversation after another with his pursuer, Carl Hanratty, on Christmas Eves, Spielberg highlights the communicative alleviation his son-figures need.

Walken's portrayal of Frank, Sr. is heartbreaking in its poetic demeanor. Crushed by the loss of his wife—whose standing as a French woman in World War II brings to question how she viewed him (as savior from the hell she knew?)—and at a loss of words when talking with his son over an expensive dinner, he finds his sentences finished by his son, all the while only barely able to hold back his tears. Finally, as Frank, Sr. finds his life more mercilessly ripped apart by the government for which he served, his social standing dissipates, descending from the comfortable middle class existence he enjoyed to the fluid, subtly despairing Dickensian camera pan of the down and out at a neighborhood bar at another Christmas, illuminating the lowness to which he has been thrown. (Yet another sly but heated questioning of the “American dream,” and the status of the often-labeled “disenfranchised.”) Something of an irresponsible man as father figure—laughing away Frank's supposedly significant misdeeds at school with his son—he cannot comply with his son when Frank asks his father to ask him to stop his criminal behavior, and his running. (This, in part, a continuation of Spielberg characters pursued by central governmental authorities and electing to run from the punishment they themselves know they do not deserve.) Frank, Sr.'s question for Frank is repeated—“Where are you going, Frank? Someplace exotic?” For the father, a veteran of the Second World War (like Spielberg's father, Arnold) all he can now do is live vicariously through his son.

Wreathed in a kind of palpable humanism, Spielberg's film finds its source of tension not in routine archetypal characterizations and paradigms but in the earnest efforts of people to connect, beyond themselves, to others. Hanks' Carl is a stickler, a perfectionist and a G-man—seemingly humorless, and unfriendly with his coworkers, he himself is deeply wounded by the loss of his wife and daughter, wearing his wedding ring out of impotent defiance. As he tells Frank late in the picture, sometimes the only option that remains is to live the lie. Perusing Spielberg's canon, one finds not stale enactments of positivity and negativity but always a battle of ideas, and considerations of people. Catch Me If You Can recalls nothing less than the director's 1974 picture The Sugarland Express, in which the line between the lawful and unlawful only mattered to the characters, whose fates were observed with great empathy. In Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg's melancholic love for the mischievous, like that of Francois Truffaut, with The 400 Blows, causes the antics to ripple more deeply.

Fear is present, however, but it is a leitmotif of confusion and masculine paranoia. Repeatedly, women are framed, looking directly into the camera (Frank's point-of-view), thusly illustrating the male-female dichotomy at play. This also plays into the color schema of the picture, as faces are brightly put under spotlights. And spotlights encroach upon the fearful, as Carl's car's headlights shine like spotlights through Brenda's house during Frank's wedding celebration. Prismatic shots of Carl's face reflected in the glass frame of Frank's bogus doctorate in Atlanta juxtapose against the splashy colors of Frank's existence, as seen in his clothing, customs and environs. The FBI's institutional color palette is drab and grim, with Venetian blinds casting noirish shadows on the thin-tied G-men roaming their gray offices. It is in this prison of sorts that Frank finally finds himself, away from the comic books of Barry Allan as The Flash, away from the Christmas tree around which his mother and father danced, away from the endless search for home. Frank becomes a cog in the machine, a part of the system, an instrument for the government that hounded both he and his father (who, like his son, joined up--as a Post Office employee). As the closing title cards flash against the new father-son dynamic Spielberg has overseen with such modulation and tempered expectations, the acidic truth bitterly seeps into the nervous system of the viewer. The multifarious lamina that coats the picture is sweet. The core of the candy stings.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Nativity (1978)

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be of child with the Holy Spirit.”

—Matthew 2:18

Mary is played by a luminously enchanting Madeleine Stowe at the callow age of twenty. John Shea is Joseph, his dark eyes piercing and serous all at once. As Bernard L. Kowalski's television movie, The Nativity, begins, this pair is a couple of veritable lovebirds. Written by Morton S. Fine and Millard Kaufman, the tale of the first Christmas—most likely taking place in the late summer—is a lucidly elementary tale. It is an engagingly simple, formally conventional filmmaking work, never straining beyond the bare minimalism of the well-steered picture, which balances the superannuated Hebraic approbations of this period in the “Holy Land.”

“And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to the first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for him at the inn.”

—Luke 2:6-7

Not unlike the more comprehensively detailed and immaculately Judaic Book of Matthew, Luke reinforces the celebrated process of the birth of Jesus with the genealogy of Jesus. While Matthew and Luke's genealogies appear to differ, the brilliant record-keeping indicates that the ostensible discrepancies in the twin genealogies of Jesus Christ are not discrepancies at all, but merely disparately traversing bloodlines. Matthew's genealogical study follows from Joseph through David's son Solomon while Luke's chooses Mary (in this context quite wisely, especially as believers do not consider Joseph the “true father” of Jesus in the strict biological sense), following through David's son Nathan.

The Nativity is visually rustic, dustily caked over with a light layer of dirt and grime. Yet later Martin Scorsese's suppositiously scandalous The Last Temptation of Christ—featuring Scorsese's tested Catholicism contesting screenwriter Paul Schrader's strident Calvinism—and Mel Gibson's swelteringly venerational The Passion of the Christ each placed their respective Christ sagas within an increasingly augmented sense of spatial and geographical realism and grittiness. The oppressive heat, preeminent squalor (markedly palpable in the latter film especially, with the coolly foggy and damply drenched Garden of Gethsemane with which the picture opened contrasting against the bitterly chalky environs that populate the majority of the film's running time. The Renaissance's greater artistic extrapolations focusing more squarely on the humanity of the divine in the figure of Christ finds intriguing antithetical prisms in the art of musical celebrations of Christ. Martin Luther's favorite composer, Josquin Desprez, born in Belgium in 1440, created lyrically polyphonous mellifluousness. His Missa de Beata Virgine is enriched by the use of multi-voiced chanting; his Ave based on the Gregorian chant, hauntingly numinous in its dexterous construction. That such evanescent beauty could emanate from such a ontically beleaguered reality and sociopolitically oppressed existence, under the nominal authority and control of the Romans.

It is in the supporting performances where the film becomes most expressively painterly and physiologically phrenic. Paul Stewart plays Zacharias, the dumb-stricken husband, punished by God for his disbelief of his wife's pregnancy. The epiphanous scene in which he is confronted by the truth carried with intrepid confidence by Audrey Totter (intrinsically rugged dame of film noir pictures such as The Set-Up and Tension) as Elizabeth is simply moving. Totter's performance as the sagely tempered and measured Elizabeth enlivens the film. Acting as a vicarious mother figure for the socially bedraggled Mary, Elizabeth's quiescently honeyed voice puts Mary and the viewer completely at ease.

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary the mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”

—Matthew 2:10-11

Three men searching to confirm the Hebrew prophecy that King Herod fears to be true are played with commanding emotional authenticity by John Rhys-Davies (Nestor), Freddie Jones (Diomedes) and William Morgan Sheppard (Flavius). In one terrifically memorable sequence, Rhys-Davies' Nestor becomes unhinged at the imprudence of King Herod (a creepily chilling Leo McKern). It is here where the film truly ignites, boisterously presenting a thick, heavy grayness between the minor works based on this tale that waste away the ample nuances that prevail within the human condition. Nestor confides to his two friends that Herod, a mad, glassy-eyed beast of a man, peering into the hot, abyssal sands of the desert, believes in nothing but power—at least the “backwards” Hebrews so wantonly dismissed by the disbelieving skeptical pagans believe in something. When confronted by such an attack upon the beliefs of some of the prophetically-minded Hebrews, Nestor counters: “At least [they believe] in something! We believe in a madman who stares into the desert!”

What aids the film its the eliding of some of the stuffier formalities often attendant to features that delved into Biblical stories and personages. The great difference between The Nativity—which, unlike the infectious musical cornucopia of Jesus Christ Superstar, antipodally bases itself as an austerely reverential tale of love, faith and family—and the self-important Biblical epics created by Hollywood is the departure from imposing grandeur at the expense of sincere personalization. In The Nativity, made for television, Stowe's Mary and Shea's Joseph are fully rounded human beings whose choices and fates become as intertwined as a “normal” couple, without reducing the coupling to any sort of off-putting mundaneness. It is in this way that The Nativity has its proverbial cake while eating it, too, but it is not unreasonable to dramatically project the images of the parents of Yeshua of Nazareth as divinely inspired human beings.

Entirely ill-defined and almost incomprehensibly shallow Hollywood efforts of erecting some circuitously Judeo-Christian safeguards commonly played the part of creating dissonance out of likely structural harmony in numerous forays into stories from the Bible. (One most bizarrely ahistorical and ironically anti-Biblical reinterpretation of Salome [1953], casting the beautiful schemer and co-conspirator asking for John the Baptist's head played by Rita Hayworth as wholly misunderstood and finally a heroic figure.) What The Nativity presents most in its finely etched fabric is a subtly ethereal empathy, endowing the ensemble of sufficiently distinctive qualities that determinedly exalt the occasionally unspectacular competence of the production as something far weightier than its filmic disposition may initially suggest. Stowe is charged with shouldering the most persistently distilled purity of emotion, coupling youthful naivete and fervent belief, which somehow provides a trundling central fixture to this most profoundly simple substratal of one brave young woman's journey—of body and spirit. The radiantly beaming satisfaction and joy Stowe's Mary visibly feels as she holds her son in the film's closing passage is worthily focused upon by Kowalski, instilling the film with just the necessary helping of wonder at a mother's loving act of creating the life fraught with the accompaniment of joyous sacrifice. Stowe's Madonna possesses a resoluteness that transposes tribal Hebraic gender roles—as the Gospels relate, it is she who literally leads Joseph, doubting as he is until finally finding the truth himself. Since 1950's papal encyclical by Pope Pius XII, Munificentissimus Deus, declaring the corporeal assumption of Mary, the doctrine of Mary as completely human before all else is artistically bolstered by The Nativity's overarching credibility as thoughtful drama.

“But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart.”

—Luke 2:19

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Barbara Stanwyck is not only one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history—with such a copiously impressive body of work, each entry of which is decisively worth pursuing due to her presence—but one of the most versatile as well. Her forays into venomousness and unyielding feminist harshness often immediately surface in reminisces of her career, but her sweet and comedic performances are atypically opulent. The realism with which she performs the roles of hard-working taskmasters and “working women” is initially an unencumbered portrait into sterling truth, yet they are finally an inhabitation resulting in beatification. The voluminous versatility with which Stanwyck was singularly gifted indeed allowed her to give remarkably multi-planed performances, frequently playing characters who were, in essence, performing a part themselves. Meet John Doe and The Lady Eve (both 1941) famously offered such spellbinding excursions into the psychologically penetrative consummation of strong women possessively maintaining their respective shields of artifice. In those pictures Stanwyck urbanely took the demanding role in which she was perfectly cast and stole the spotlight from Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda.

It is fitting that in 1945's Christmas in Connecticut, Stanwyck's effervescently candied quality of affixing the complications of revue are brought to the forefront of the narrative. Stanwyck's serenely confident luminosity ensures that the game is not given away—even in the simplicity of the farcical plot, she playfully posits the appropriate merriment with which she carries the film's myriad central festivities and obligations. Playing an impostor posing as the perfect housewife and chef, her performance partly looks forward to Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray in this time period as well as women who offered delicious recipes for women magazines such as Stanwyck's fraud, Elizabeth Lane. Elizabeth, through her articles for a widely-read magazine, feigns tranquil domestication as a loving housewife with a husband and baby on a staid country farm in Connecticut. In reality, however, she gleans her recipes from a lovingly curmudgeonly restaurateur Hungarian Felix Bassenak (a hilarious S.Z. Sakall, whose line-readings such as the oft-repeated “hunky-dunky” in lieu of the more commonplace “hunky-dory” draws inexplicable chuckling), whose dishes usually feature a preponderance of paprika. (The more one learns of Hungarian dishes, the funnier this characteristic becomes.) She is unmarried and childless. She furiously types (reminiscent of her manipulative reporter in Meet John Doe), tirelessly fabricating pieces of her unreal life.

Peter Godfrey's direction offers a gently heartwarming integument—springing from Aileen Hamilton's story, written for the screen by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini—in which several members of the ensemble cast swimmingly thrive. Stanwyck's magazine publisher boss, Alexander Yardley is played to the hilt by the supply droll Sydney Greenstreet, inverting the caustic bellowing maliciousness and skulduggery of The Maltese Falcon's Kasper Gutman and other villains. Greenstreet imbuing the avuncular part with a contrasting frankness allows for the comic complications that later ensue to leave the prima face badinage a more fundamentally punctuated sense of irony. Dennis Morgan as recuperating World War II hero Jefferson Jones and Reginald Gardiner as John Sloan a friend of Elizabeth's who wants to be more, playing the part of Elizabeth's adoring husband, are both consigned to the ingenuousness of the classic romantic comedy rubric, the former fulfilling the position of Mr. Right and the latter well-cast as Mr. Wrong for dear Elizabeth.

The issue of feminism and its ostensibly assailed and encroached upon standing as starkly unattractive and unpalatable when measured against the humbly rewarding and copacetic everyday pleasantries of domesticity is undeniably at hand in Christmas in Connecticut. While peripherally and superficially favoring the life of home and hearth—with all of its attendant challenges and triumphs—the film is in actuality vastly more satirically aimed at the unrealistic expectations that many men have had of women. Through Jefferson's fixation on the ideal of Elizabeth—voraciously reading her articles and salivating at the delicious creations for which she is falsely credited while he rests, wounded, abed—the film is exposing the impossible standards against which women have been routinely measured. Preponderantly exposing the hysterical front Elizabeth must erect in an effort to sustain the image she has created for herself, the film most effectively raises the slyly subversive question at the farce's center of what length to which such a life, truly lived, is personally salubrious. A scene in which a discomfited Elizabeth passes a baby off as her own benignly satirizes the nearly compulsory contentment that is the demanded hallmark of motherhood. Nevertheless, the scene is not hurtful or hateful, and the film reaches an equally sweet and sanguine destination, casting Elizabeth's uncomfortably cynical use of the baby in the sensible point she is not this child's mother. Leaving aside Kant's a priori rationalism relegating mother-love to a category outside the parameters of morality, the film pervasively considers motherhood a wondrous possibility for women—Elizabeth slowly comes to recognize the inherent “cuteness” of the child while sharing the duties of holding it—while not forcefully advocating it.

Assiduously a comedy first and foremost, the confinement of the Connecticut barn at which the greater bulk of the film takes place manifestly engenders a familial warmth to the proceedings. The unambitious picture rightfully emphasizes the limitations and advantages of the story. Cameraman Carl E. Guthrie provides an apt glow to the black-and-white tableau, marvelously conveying the budding romance of Elizabeth and Jefferson in a literal snow sleigh-ride. Director Godfrey—with whom Stanwyck would re-team on the misunderstood 1947 gothic thriller The Two Mrs. Carrolls with Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith—allows his unadorned mise-en-scene to capture the occasionally pictorially crammed stagy verbal confrontations in statically muted shots that neither contribute nor detract to the film's frivolity.

The clydesdale pulling the wagon of Christmas in Connecticut is Stanwyck, however. Her turn shines brightly, magnifying every quality and diminishing every weakness. With effortlessly precise comic timing, she repeatedly brings forth just the delicately correct amount of knowing coquettish flashiness. Displaying many of her most prominent and overlooked talents alike, she crafts a character of nuance within the framework of a vehicle originally offered to Bette Davis. Coming off of the acidic Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity, here she is excitably responsive and openhearted, while, for a great period of time persistently remaining humorously hardboiled and shelled over. It is a role for which a great actress is needed—to buoy not merely the role but the entire film and its silly story. She makes the most of every particular episode, always charmingly at ease. In a particularly memorable scene, standing before her several guests, Stanwyck's Elizabeth, who is struggling with learning how to actually cook—unable as she is to boil an egg—flips a flapjack with her eyes closed, praying that it lands in a “hunky-dunky” manner. The smile emblazoned on her beguiling face when she succeeds is an exemplary moment, an earnest and candid immersing into the insignificance of small, personal victories, made happily significant.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The War Lover (1962)

The cyclonic roar of the airplane's engines. Rivetingly extended sequences of airborne tension. Terrifying dogfights wreaking mechanical and somatic carnage. Wartime astriction awkwardly finding itself the approbate condition of millions of different men, only a few of whom are followed in The War Lover. Romance and the fantastically interpreted periodical offering of new hopes and dreams that the rough, asperous tillage of life so rarely gifts the unsuspecting. Tightly controlled mise-en-scene, intimately composed and modulated within an expertly utilized 1.85:1 aspect ratio by director Philip Leacock. Light harnessed by cameraman Robert Huke as an invaluable tool with which to communicate the innermost demons of the people on whom the film focuses. A cogently detailed screenplay written by Howard Koch and based on John Hersey's novel, which rewardingly bases the filmic enterprise on the nearly innumerable hotshot pilot films churned out by Hollywood in the decades since William A. Wellman's Wings while dashing away from unspectacular expectations by probing an uncommon depth.

And yet, sometimes a single performance overshadows all other parts of the entire gloriously painted canvas of a film. Steve McQueen in The War Lover is a man suppressing a self-destructive volatility by imprisoning himself in the unreachable bubble of conceit and braggadocio. He is, to fulfill the singularly enhanced cliché in this instance, a ticking time bomb, a man so good at something it is impossible to live with him. Considered to be the best ace bomber pilot a World War II American air base has in England, Captain Buzz Rickson (McQueen) is the go-to man. He is an immediately polarizing figure, standing as he does as a kind of gregarious loner and grim farceur among his peers. Unlike his compatriots, who long for their twentieth and final run over Germany, Buzz hopes the war will never end. If it ends he loses the one thing at which he is magnificent.

The War Lover would be an engaging, well-crafted picture without McQueen at its center. With him, it is greater than simply another war picture: it is one of the films of this time period (along with films as diverse as 1964's The Americanization of Emily and the McQueen-starrer from the same year as The War Lover, Don Siegel's trenchantly bitter war saga Hell is for Heroes) that unabashedly questioned the amorphously gauzy triumphalism and unquestionable righteousness of nearly aspect of the Allied effort of World War II. Through McQueen's Buzz, the film prodigiously assesses the import of personal rectitude and in a manner of speaking openly debates with itself whether or not some of the best soldiers are truly the best men, and vice versa.

These are justifiably uncomfortable questions. The War Lover's aim may be read as limitedly expressive insofar as it merely points to the individual bloodlust and barbarism of one man belonging to the “good guys” of a war against a ghastly, irredeemable regime. However, though the film and novel's action takes place during World War II, it could easily take place during any war, with the moral implications remaining intact as soundly relevant. McQueen's dynamic turn haunts in an especially iconic way here—as it does in Siegel's Hell is for Heroes—partly because of McQueen's own personal history.

McQueen was abandoned by his father (a Navy flyer) when he was still a baby. His stepfather was, according to McQueen, abusive towards both McQueen's mother and McQueen himself as a child. Spending his childhood at a boys' reform school called Boys' Republic in Chino, California, he aimlessly ambling into jobs as a sailor, carnival barker, beachcomber, lumberjack and oil field worker among others. At the age of seventeen he joined the Marines but his strong, ingrained anti-authoritarianism did not mesh well with the Marine Corps. Consequently, he spent forty-one days in the brig on AWOL charges. Nevertheless, McQueen saved the lives of five fellow Marines in an arctic exercise.

Therefore, these intriguing complexities at hand in The War Lover, in The Great Escape (1963), in The Sand Pebbles (1966) and many other McQueen films that grappled with the often unforeseen face of wartime heroism were almost a piece of the star actor himself. Personally rendering performances that touched upon the antagonistic relationship McQueen found himself in when he was a military subordinate, lines like a particular one of Buzz's at his CO leaves a specially burning aftertaste. After disobeying orders to abort a mission in an effort to find a German military target before returning to base, Buzz's CO calls the star bomber to task for risking the lives of his men. “I risk the crew's life every time I take them off the ground, don't I... sir?” Buzz's hostility is summed up in the pregnant pause between his last two words.

One extensive showcase scene for McQueen is a night off, marred by an air raid. Buzz wishes to melt his better self away with alcohol, and in one of the film's cruelest moments, selects a homely, kind English woman as an object he can demean. A ring of Americans encircle the woman who reveals her name is Hazel (Louise Dunn). “You Yanks are all the same,” she says before he can cut her down. Her knowing the particulars of her fate before actually meeting it makes the scene all the more melancholy and nauseating. McQueen's performance never misses a single beat, judiciously spilling over unto itself like molten lead as he dares the oncoming bombs to destroy him, speaking to no lesser authority than God.

Meanwhile, the picture supplies a complete contrast to Buzz in Robert Wagner's Lieutenant Ed Bollard. Shy, sensitive and self-consciously introverted, Ed is possessively drawn to Buzz—because of the profound gulf separating their respective personalities. As Buzz's copilot, he cannot argue with the flying virtuoso's effectiveness, and it is here where the film only enlarges upon its germinating seedling of quiescent candidness. In a relationship that reminds of the following year's between brothers Hud and Lonnie Bannon in Hud: one, a womanizing heel, outwardly sure of himself while resorting to alcohol and self-pity in the withering assault of the collected pangs of conscience that intermittently arise; the other, unsure of himself, and unhealthily obsessed with trying to emulate and follow the big brother.

When Ed meets a lovely, sweet English lady named Daphne Caldwell (Shirley Anne Field), the film fashions an impressive bargello. Ed and Daphne slowly fall in love with one another and the resentment of Ed's supposed friend, Buzz, is immediately perceptible. Earlier, in one memorably sad scene, Buzz, having just talked himself up before Ed, admonishing him for not chasing women as he so winningly does, simply stares at the wall adjacent to his bunk bed. Ed and the other men have all left and Buzz is all by himself. The wall is entirely coated with numerous pictures of the faces of women Buzz regularly sees. Unable to choose which woman he will spend this evening with for any substantive reason he covers his eyes with his hand and with his other spins it about, finally, unemotionally landing on one picture. The scene speaks volumes about what kind of fire is missing in Buzz's life. When Ed sees an effulgent flame in the distance in Daphne, Buzz's jealousy of what she represents is greater than the routine, fatuously narrow romantic love triangle storyline.

The tracking shots Leacock employs on the ground create a dreamy, disorienting incandescence, which, when broadly married to the hectically frantic airborne pyrotechnics (the effects of which are usually less impressive, but largely well-conceived) create a plenary world. On one sidewalk stroll, Buzz randomly walks into a pretty blonde English lady. Normally, Buzz would pursue her—especially as she seems quite friendly—but after having been exposed to the suffocating reality of his situation through his proximity to Ed and Daphne's blossoming happiness, he hands the woman some money and tells her to buy a new dress and call herself Daphne in the mirror. The mise-en-scene is entirely apt, conclusively dramatizing just how lowly Buzz has metaphorically crashed, as the tracking shot surveys him continuing his quixotic walk towards Daphne's home. It is surprising that Leacock would soon find himself a perennial journeyman of television directing considering the tact he employs in sequences such as this.

Fulfilling the considerable obligations of a war film, The War Lover's denouement is nail-bitingly intense with a terrible corollary. The prolonged final skyward conflagration is superbly shot and edited, compelling the viewer to continue watching through the ebb and flow of the set-piece. This keenly realized final passage fiercely portrays the senseless anarchy of battle coupled with the madness of unbridled personal ferocity, so wholly carried by McQueen. And finally the picture almost serenely echoes the Greeks, mournfully pronouncing the immeasurable folly of those twin bedeviling forces of man: narcissism and hubris.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kill Me Again (1989)

Academically, film noir's dark, tangled roots as an art form sprout from the crushing insularly realized despair of the soul. Durable and perhaps everlasting as a kind of thorough examination of the fallen, its psychology expressively at one with the poeticism with which its ambivalently lurid tales of spiritual corruption and moral decay are rendered. It was in no small measure born out of the alienation and paranoia of a time period singed by the indignities of greater urbanism and anonymity—the suppression of the individual in the squalid sea of prodigiously peopled centers of drudgery. And yet the timbre of film noir did not die out; numerous directors have endeavored to take up the mantle of noir, to pay homage to the filmic works of the past while attempting to contribute modifications—often in the name of updating—to the classic template. It is with great hope when allowing “neo-noir” a chance to radiate in its own right that the substantial viscosity of this most trenchantly oneiric cinematic expression is not lost through epochal transfiguration.

Perhaps best distilled, particularly for the purposes of exploring John Dahl's 1989 entry, Kill Me Again, the perfect definition of film noir is that it resonantly reminds of real life: men go after money for women, while women go after men for money. Dahl's picture begins with a voluptuous seductress named Fay Forrester (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer, who was married to costar Val Kilmer at the time) who manipulates one man—a psychotic killer named Vince Miller (Michael Madsen in the kind of brutish and violent role for which he became well-known)—so she can find a new host to parasitically exhaust. What helps to distinguish this rewarming of noir staples is the subtext Dahl and his fellow screenwriter David W. Warfield do not merely whip up empty-vessel figurations in lieu of characters but rather deliver articles of welcome depth. The pacing of these character beat offerings allows the ninety-five minute film to find an intriguingly uncommon rhythm.

As the tale of crime, lust and betrayal commences, Fay and Vince are in Winnemucca, Nevada. They have been eyeing some easy money, and are now ripping off an outlet of the Nevada mob, rubbing out at least one gangster in the process. The amount stolen is nearly nine hundred thousand dollars. Vince realizes that the two should stay away from population centers. After a brief verbal and physical tussle over the woman's desire to go to Las Vegas, Vince finds himself prey to Fay's burning desire to live glamorously. After telling her that they can hide out together in Idaho at a rest stop off the freeway, he suffers a terrible blow to the back of the head. Fay has picked up a rock used as a restroom doorstop as her weapon, and in a bit of Freudian literalism has left her boyfriend holding his sexual organ in his hand as he is disabled by the immoral woman.

Val Kilmer plays Reno private investigator Jack Andrews. His wife having died months before the story begins in a freak car accident for which he blames himself (he swerved off the road when a deer appears on it out of nowhere), Jack is a broken shell of a man. He has recently become the quarry of an organization of loan sharks after having failed to pay them back. In deep for ten thousand dollars, Jack suffers a series of punishments. Two ruffians have pierced the single mirage-like sanctuary of Jack's seedy, darkly lit office. After refusing to feign loyalty, Jack is pressed against his desk and his right pinkie finger is snapped in half by one of the men.

Later, as every viewer has doubtless guessed, Fay and Jack's paths cross. Dahl literally encircles and highlights the unjust randomness associated with the vicissitudes of noir, as Fay picks Jack out of a group of options under the term “Investigator” in the Reno phone book. When she enters his office, he is immediately taken with Fay's almost blindingly radiant beauty. She asks for him to “kill [her],” so that her boyfriend, who she states is “not right in the head,” will not continually search for her. She is willing to pay ten thousand dollars for this operation to be undertaken (making it appear to everyone that she has been killed), half now, half when the job is finished. What makes the propositional scene sizzle, however, is the intensely sympathetic portal through which Dahl frames this would-be damsel in distress. After meeting reluctance with Jack, she tears up. Like the best femme fatales, she exhibits her most vulnerably feminine attributes, and entices the man's sense of chivalrous protectiveness. Thus having wily waxed weakly for his consumption, she is made all the more irresistible. Kilmer underplays the scene rather charmingly. His Jack knows he should not trust her, especially as he vocally notes that carrying five thousand dollars on her person is “a lot...” Nevertheless, he cannot fight off the temptation of saving a woman. Jack almost altogether succumbs to Fay at this exact moment, all the while half-convincing himself that he is accepting the task solely for the money.

In a perpetually gloaming dry Nevada desert as well as the streets of “The World's Biggest Little City,” Reno, all atmospherically shot by Dahl and his cinematographer Jacques Steyn, the plot unfolds with a relaxedly confident integrity in the surfeit of noir touchstones. The score by William Olvis is vaguely reminiscent of suspenseful noirs and detective movies, signposting the winding road of the tale. The scene in which Jack “kills” Fay is one laced with steamy eroticism. The very act of the “murder” is sensually played with as a kind of sexual act. Fay taunts and teases Jack on a motel room bed, a shadow of Venetian blinds slicing through her gorgeous face as she giggly leads the private investigator along.

Connatural to the genre, events do not go entirely according to plan. Before he can piece together just who the betrayer and who is the betrayed, Jack finds himself interrogated by an imposing policeman. Recounting the downward spiral from which Jack is suffering in the wake of his wife's death—several petty crimes and a week-long stint in jail for protecting a client—summarized in a provocatively written monologue. “You used to be a normal, upstanding citizen,” the policeman notes. It is this key description of the incremental transformation—the procession of the “normal, upstanding citizen,” the dupe of the noir, the dupe of life itself, falling into the unforgiving pit of what would in a perfect world truly be considered the abnormal, compelled to cross one line after another. The web of illegality finally proves too strongly weaved for most noir protagonists.

Unfortunately, however, Kill Me Again fails on the rather fundamental score of following through with its premise to the conclusion. The denouement is a withered, dissipated puddle of problematically prosaic cinematic choices, and finally something of a betrayal of the film's dark promise. The ending is tepid and limp, and though there are short, closing bursts of poisonous energy, the closing portion of the picture succumbs to tired predictability lacking the inherently tragic reckoning that must be the bitter resolution to such a tale of blisteringly perfidious emotions and motivations. The empirical summation of the film's traditional noir vestiges cannot be discounted, though the destination of Kill Me Again proves less a consummation of the twisted path on which Jack is doomed to travel. Some of Dahl's interests in noir—continued in Red Rock West (1992) and The Last Seduction (1994)—may be dismissed by some as merely superficial, not having resolutely followed the implications of the stories he tells. That criticism notwithstanding, Dahl's Kill Me Again is largely an overlooked gem with roundly probed psychological subtexts. Dahl's late '80s color creation stands as a film molded by a palpable love for the old dark movies, those shot in crisply stark black-and-white, which still relentlessly haunt.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Dr. Jack (1922)

Dr. Jack is a film so ebulliently cheerful, so harmonically satisfying, that to think about it made in the “talkie era” seems so profoundly wrong, so impossibly heretical as even a mere ill-fated flight of fancy. A honeyed confection of sugary pleasantness, the sixty-minute film melts away like a sugar cube, fleetingly fulfilling the recurring instinct to indulge in the saccharine. The delightful simplicity is endearing in a manner that speaks beyond any sort of pandering or dumbing down. The tale centers on a good, friendly and jovial town doctor named Dr. “Jack” Jackson played to golden comic perfection by Harold Lloyd. In more recent years the cinema has been crushed under the weight of suffocating treacle with the concept of doctors utilizing laughter as the primary cure for illness and distress, most embarrassingly in the shameless Robin Williams fiasco Patch Adams. But why bring up such distasteful filth when considering such an appealingly picturesque treat as Dr. Jack?

Lloyd and director Fred C. Newmeyer's collaboration, which would be repeated in the next year's classic Safety Last! Is in this instance entirely tender in its uncoiled completion. Again, not unlike 1925's Newmeyer-Sam Taylor joint directorial endeavor, The Freshman, this less famous but richly clubby (in the best sense of the word, as it almost invites the viewer to attend every last gag and set-piece) film has an all-important love story at its achingly ethically estimable heart. Lloyd's Dr. Jack must confront a crooked but well-regarded German specialist doctor who is milking the family of a young, pretty young lady of the town called the Sick-Little-Well Girl for everything they are worth, having diagnosed her with a bogus disease that keeps her depressingly holed up in her home.

Taylor received no credit for co-directing Dr. Jack but his presence is indelibly felt, especially for those well-acquainted with Taylor's contributions to comic classics crafted by the Lloyd-Newmeyer extremities of the three-legged artistic stool. (Taylor worked with Hal Roach and Jean C. Havis in devising Dr. Jack's story.) While a step down compared to the previous 1922 Lloyd-starrer, Grandma's Boy, Dr. Jack is nevertheless a film uncontaminated by any considerable missteps or ill-fated gags. Newmeyer, Taylor and Lloyd are in total command and it directly from their expert handling of the material that the film so pleasingly blossoms. In the first extended and memorable set-piece, Lloyd's Dr. Jack is driving out to the town in the morning, and naturally the chore of traveling the modest distance proves to play host to an assortment of zany occurrences, as Dr. Jack is thrown from his vehicle and must struggle to finish his journey. It is a bravura sequence, in a way authorizing the entire madcap scenario that smoothly follows with such aplomb.

Teeming with some physically demanding gags, these nevertheless serve as punctuations to the unfurling plot rather than unquestioned highlights that populate The Freshman for one most incontestable example. What is given greater emphasis is the humanism behind Dr. Jack's merciful actions. One such moment—of course rightly played for laughs—deals with the good doctor's assisting a troublesome young boy who is faking his illness. After the boy's mother discovers the fraudulence behind her son's condition, she elects to remedy the situation by employing corporal punishment. Thinking fast on his feet, and recognizing his own role in the child's painful fate, Dr. Jack furtively tries to protect the kid from the pain, using a pillow as a double for the boy's rear. The gag is humorous and deserving of a solid chuckle, but the subtext matters most: Dr. Jack is determined to selflessly help those in need, and feels an unbridled responsibility for the people of his town.

Lloyd's character's naivete radiating from the simplistic acceptance of the obligations of an erstwhile town doctor is the congruent trait that underlines the protagonist's adventures. In one long, comically innovative scene, Dr. Jack spoils an endless poker game for the sake of a woman in need of her wantonly gambling and wasteful father. Often pointed to as the film's highlight, this most jubilantly conjured episode of the film demonstrates the mental jousts that belong in comedy just as surely as rambunctious and eye-popping pratfalls and entertaining exercises of derring-do so prevalent in so many golden silent comedy classics. In one scene after another, Taylor, Newmeyer and Lloyd make the doctor's naivete slyly multifaceted, germinating from a greater self-knowledge not unlike a sufficiently savvy cartoon character. Perhaps Bugs Bunny.

The closing act features Dr. Jack bringing forth nothing less than light into the dark of the Little-Sick-Well Girl's dismal life. Constrained by the haughty, scheming foreign specialist named Dr. Ludwig von Saulsbourg (Eric Mayne), Davis's Little-Sick-Well Girl is the object of Dr. Jack's affections, and the reason he must confront the unscrupulous von Saulsbourg. Admittedly, the adversarial doctor does seem like one among a plethora of anti-Germanic stereotypes and caricatures that bubbled up in American cinema in the years following the Great War. Yet this specter is wisely softened in the sincerely beneficent warmth of this most humanistic sketch of definitive, if easily categorized, people, even he is portrayed not as mustache-twirling villain but an almost pathetically greedy charlatan.

Never trekking into kitsch, the film stably remains felicitous to its own conception. When Dr. Jack dons a black cape and behaves like a demonic vampire in order to elicit a response from the Little-Sick-Well Girl and prove that she does not suffer from an esoteric disease, the film shifts into silent comedy overdrive. Effortlessly amusing, the potential for the elongated closing gag to have a dilatory effect upon the film is vanquished by Lloyd, whose courageous commitment to the concept sequentially keeps the bright light of humor burning. Like the poster promising five reels of laughter displaying an early comedy sketch in Dr. Jack in which the good, screwball doctor searches for the pulse of what turns out to be a child's doll with his stethoscope, Lloyd brings out the life of this innocent bauble of an underrated silent.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Milk (2008)

Gus Van Sant's Milk opens with grainy, black-and-white footage from the 1970s representing what Van Sant emphasizes as oppression and turmoil: raids of bars frequented by homosexuals, thuggish police harassment and brutality of homosexuals, Van Sant and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black opine was a societally deleterious aspect of that time period. Where the film goes awry, however, is startlingly immediately thereafter: where it chooses to begin its character arc of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn). It is the day of his fortieth birthday in 1970. The camera, sedate--but not overtly so, as in Van Sant's oneiric arthouse pictures like Elephant and Paranoid Park--calmly follows Penn's Milk as he walks down the steps in the New York City subway environs. Who is this man? Where does he come from? What drives him? What kind of life has he led? By choosing this moment as the narrative's jumping off point, the film miscalculates. Milk is a businessman, dressing conservatively and is just stepping out of the proverbial closet with regards to his homosexual proclivities. He picks up a younger man named Scott Smith (James Franco) on the steps to the subway. Seconds later, abed eating a birthday cake with one another, Smith tells Milk that the newly-forty-year-old businessman needs a change, a “new scene.” And so they depart for San Francisco, set up a camera shop on Castro Street and briefly live a quiet, uncontroversial life despite their “lifestyle.”

Where the film gradually finds its footing, then, is not in the unadorned interior lives of Milk and Smith, but a little later when the screenplay highlights one political confrontation after another. Yet this admittedly engaging drama whose configuration is derived from one a series of sociopolitical contests, debates and manipulations, cannot grow independently from its roots. Those roots are in no small part faulty—because the film's mistaken point of beginning undermines the stakes about which almost all of the characters ceaselessly speak. Without providing the contextual foundation from which Milk could have become a possibly great and important film. Namely, where did Milk truly come from before finding Smith, and his new life and new cause (he occasionally talks about his—obviously?—heterosexual parents and both the impact and lack thereof they had on his life); how did he live with himself as a closeted gay man? (Smith confronts Milk much later in the film when the San Francisco political avatar devises the game plan of having homosexuals tell everyone they know, and, perhaps most importantly, everyone who knows them, about their sexuality, about the hypocrisy of the formerly closeted Milk almost demanding widespread self-outing of his followers to all, including their family members.) What demons did Milk have to live with, having endured several different past lovers whose experiences with him were marred by suicidal tendencies? (He once vocally blames himself for this, deriding his own past closeted existence and unwillingness to be entirely emotionally available in his relationships.) How did Milk's past truly influence his—in the context of the film's narrative—“present”? (Milk suggests to his San Francisco Supervisor staffers that he detects a fear from fellow San Francisco Supervisor Dan White that indicates he's living a lie as Milk had: “I know what it's like to live that life, that lie. I can see it in Dan's eyes.”)

Honestly, it is only commendable and chiefly a testament to one of Penn's finest performances, marked by almost compulsive magnetism, that the film manages to be as successful as it is in its stirring of interest in the political gamesmanship and electorally internecine wars it depicts from such an unwieldy provenance. It is here where Milk rallies back. At the forty-five minute mark Dan White (Josh Brolin, yet again exceptionally deepening a highly difficult, challenging but meaty role) enters, and in many ways the film becomes a morality play, with the traditionalist White willing to play ball with Milk in exchange for certain beneficial helpings of political back-scratching. Indeed, one attribute the film boasts is the trajectory on which potential back-scratching quickly becomes back-stabbing. Brolin's sensitivity and euphoniously calibrated vocal pattterns stitches together an identifiably human curvature. Brolin's White behaves in a manner that would not be inappropriate for the older, faintly more volatile older brother of Milk, frequently reaching the limits of his patience with the fellow supervisor. A scene set in a Catholic Church, with White's son being christened, allows not merely the integuments of cross-cultural fracases formed not necessarily out of mere, easily-dismissed and overused broad brushes of “ignorance” and “bigotry” but orthodoxy spanning millennia. It is a fairly well-rounded scene, though Van Sant's insistence of making White's wife sound shrewish when she questions the propriety of discussing matters pertinent to the homosexual movement inside the church detracts a little from the crystallizing portraiture of men of different backgrounds and beliefs briefly working together.

Milk was known as a singularly happy man, always beaming, his smile an open invitation to join in the apparent fun. Judging by multiple real-life sources and witnesses, this exterior matched the reality, as Milk was primarily a content and quite well-adjusted individual (upending the ironic stereotype of the “angry gay activist”). Van Sant's picture delivers with anomalous intensity a political statement, as elemental as the fierce subliminal connection between the titular MILK and its undeniable cryptographic summoning of the similar MLK. Milk is presented as political activist and leader to the extent to which it becomes confinement for the man as film character. However, having opted for this trenchant but not truly didactically reductive course of storytelling, Van Sant makes the political as personal as he probably believes he can get away in a film whose framework is not unfamiliar.

The wonted structure of the “bio-pic,” as such, then, must finally be viewed through the prism of the picture's success quotient. Harry Savides, whose cinematography for last year's Zodiac ably captured an era in San Francisco returns to the city, this time working with greater attention to detail derived from Van Sant's recurring use of stock footage from the time period. Franco is able to transcend his role as Milk's lover, supporter and emotionally taxed anchor. Think of any film with the devoted wife driven away from her crusading husband and the dichotomy becomes instantly comprehended. Diego Luna, who plays Milk's rebound partner after Smith finally leaves him, is not given the opportunity to afford his part much in the way of depth. Brolin's turn is also limited but quite impressively enlivened by an actor visibly hungry for his next dauntingly stimulating role. Emile Hersch is wonderfully unrecognizable as Cleve Jones, a homosexual youth who finds newfound inspiration in Milk. And Penn is dominant without being preeminent; his frequent laughs, grins and eye-twinkling compliments to friends and foes alike make his characterization entirely winning. It is unmistakably the performance that rightly vehiculates the film's very heart, carrying a kind of torch the viewer periodically must struggle to follow amidst the multitudinous strands of political intrigue and electoral battle.

One intriguing avenue on which to experience Milk is the connective tissue that may or may not exist between the narrative's depiction of heated political trickery and manipulation and the filmic layers of trickery and manipulation artists such as Van Sant are inclined to employ. On one night of great importance, Milk devises a plan to have Jones instigate something nearing a riot in the Castro District of San Francisco, only to intervene and stop the “show-riot” from genuinely occurring. Likewise, Van Sant's manipulative gestures are finally made overwrought in the final stretch of the movie, most especially in the assassination of Milk. Having enjoyed Tosca and hearing the fat lady sing, so too does the openly gay city supervisor kneel, his face reflected in the window through which he can see the San Francisco Opera House, which is indeed across the long street of Van Ness from City Hall. What should be mercilessly fast is made angelically slow. Nevertheless, Penn's final piece of facial movement is a sight to behold, just as is his entire leading turn. Whether or not Van Sant—steeped as he is in the vagaries of independent, artsy cinema—is making a direct comment about such mainstream inclinations or submitting to them, one cannot be definitely certain.

Milk deserves credit for other, more utilitarian benefits. In an era imbued with fixation upon the national and global, this film reels the audience's potentially jumbled conception of political advocacy and activism too often overlooks the basic, often unsexy but typically more valuable playing field of locality and almost parochial grassroots concern. Milk values such strides, and keenly draws the attention of those determined to change things to look back on their own turf, so to speak—their own haunts, their own backyard. Whether it be a boycott of Coors or initiatives that spring from the polis, what Milk demonstrably showcases is the vitality of local governance. That does not mean that even at such territorial settings politics is a clean business. Powerful machines, such as one which Milk targets, aim to remain politically unassailable. Machiavellian strategies and rigorously taut compromises are normally a necessity. And alliances are fragile. One such case: Penn, star of this film, attacked by the homosexual The Advocate for his support of Venezuelan leftist Hugo Chavez, whose rule in Caracas has been partly characterized by repression of homosexuals. Milk is buoyed by its several key performances, but its realism in the realm of the political deserves special kudos.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Suspiria (1977)

In Dario Argento's greatest motion picture, Suspiria, every blade of variegated light reaches out and stabs the viewer with a brilliantly calculated precision that is, all by itself, exceptionally haunting. In Argento's relentless scare-fest, every note of the alternative-progressive Italian rock group Goblin's alarmingly terrifying score serves both literally and figuratively as notes on a musical staff, the greater and most ambitious of which is the film's entire multi-pronged construction. Argento's intensely driven desires result in a picture not just of stunning frights springing from the depths of personal, physical and palpable despair but an impeccably-formed picture. Whether interpreted as single-minded obsessiveness as an artist or the ascendancy of that artist's talents, Suspiria nevertheless represents the height of its maker's powers, the apex of his artistic worth.

The son of the highly influential Italian film producer Salvatore Argento, Dario Argento cut his teeth with great commitment as a filmmaker representing the genre of giallo (veritably, “yellow” in Italian, finding its cinematic meaning from the luridly sallow dust jacket covers of Italian pulp detective fiction), beginning with his first picture, 1970's The Bird With the Crystal Plumage. Giallo's focuses on sensationalistic crimes and occurrences would be an ideal breeding ground for Argento's twisted odysseys. His first movie introduced audiences to what would become thematic touchstones for Argento, which helped to give him the moniker of the "Italian Hitchcock": usually men playing the role of amateur detective, witnessing the violent demise of or attack upon a woman, and frequently finding themselves under suspicion for the ghastly crime(s) by the police.

What Suspiria partly marks is Argento's progression as a filmmaker, and the continuous drifting from pulpy detective archetypes, such as in his second picture, The Cat O' Nine Tails (1971), and bringing forth a purified distillation of the horror/supernatural facet of Deep Red (1975). Deep Red foreshadows Argento's plunge into sheer horror, whereas earlier pictures The Cat O' Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1972) display manipulations of the medium of cinema that push the boundaries of the constructions and formulations of cinematic time, plot, space and format that would serve as practical tools with which Argento could create a dreamlike (or rather nightmarish) picture. That film would be endowed with unbridled frankness, lacking in the restrictions that can and often do undermine such efforts.

After setting the time and place with a superfluous but unmistakably arresting formal declaration of the time—in a manner not dissimilar from Hitchcock's introductory notes in Notorious and Psycho—Suspiria opens with a gloriously grisly and histrionic murder. A young, beautiful woman is terrified by the recent happenings of her spiraling life with which she has become all too familiar. Finally she looks through a window, her eyes' moistly swimming and brimming with unadulterated terror. Suddenly an arm bursts through the glass and pulls her. Just as certainly, the viewer is pulled into the tale. The circumstances of the woman's shocking death are incredible, leaving a witness standing in the place of the audience dumbfounded and ushering in the doubtlessness of the supernatural as a decisive force within the framework of the narrative. It is with an overpowering sense of directorial manipulation and control that Argento spreads the lingering importance and relevance of such spellbinding set-pieces, atmospherically pushing the limits of spine-tingling spectacle. This most crucial characteristic of the film is thus immediately established.

Suspiria may be superficially about witches and witchery—derived in no small measure from Argento's fascination with Disney's Snow White and the allegorical trappings of the film's fair princess protagonist Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) being victimized by her metaphorical sisters (other young women) as well as more macabre forces—but its thematic undercurrents are largely about sisterhood, and spiritual awakenings. These are matters innately pertinent to tales of ghosts, ghouls and witches, however, emanating from the haunted environs like fearsome, unresting spirits. In Suspiria, the place of anagogic tumult—creating the conditions for the destruction of the ontic and tangible—is a famous German dance school, but the cadaverous and diabolically elaborate structure, from within and without, is as grandly flagitious and malevolent as the most imposing haunted house. And it is the linkage with that sub-genre where Suspiria finds much of its mood, characterized by long, sustained sequences of wordless terror and fiendish revelation. Shrouded whispers juxtaposed with pulse-pounding horror are richly unsettling at all times and Argento refuses to merely allow his vehicle to coast, driving the film's mounting dread with an awesome alacrity. Yet the commonplace, everyday fears of individuals are the hatchery from which Argento finds the more acutely realized visages of fear, transfixing the wholly captivated attention of the viewer against the diamantine backdrop of garish reds and translucently beryl blues.

That outlandish color scheme by Argento and his cinematographer Luciano Tovoli was considered to mimic the storybook unreality of the splashy coloring of the aforementioned “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Argento described the origins of the color scheme with this very important parallel parable: “We were trying to reproduce the color of Walt Disney's Snow White; it has been said from the beginning Technicolor lacked subdued shades, was without nuances—like cut-out cartoons.” The cumulative potency of the color scheme is magnificent, puissantly aiding Argento in chronicling the gripping tale of demonic evil. In one breathtaking shot after another, Argento allows the asperous obstructions to create a retina-taxing light show—the obstructions enabling him to create those blades of light against dark, shadowy penumbras. In a dynamic manner, Argento inverts many an expectation by making the camerawork only more furtive as the film proceeds, until finally certain bloody occurrences appear before the viewer. Buffeting the spectator with credulous performances, devilish whispers accompanied by eerie musical chords by Goblin and the efficacious usages of lashings of rain, cacophonous thunder, Argento's picture is an exquisitely composed assault on the senses.

The camera work is regularly scintillating in its parallax ramifications. Yet it is also quite frequently disorienting, causing greater discomfort and uneasiness. In one consummately fluid camera movement, Poseidon's Trident is directly, straightforwardly made the focal point of the camera. This pointed configuration, painted in crimson, fantastically portrays the inner truth of the picture, the central point of which is that souls are at stake. Appearing to be the Devil's property, this trident pitchfork is finally cast against the serene coolness of a pool below it, in which the protagonist princess swims with her only good friend at the dancing school, the porcelain-skinned redhead beauty named Sara (Stefania Casini), drawing the frightening implication that they are being brought baptismally into a most sinister nest of satanic iniquity. The unnerving hysteria produced by the elemental components of the picture here unabashedly curdle into the headlong climactic struggle between good and evil.

Argento's iconic cult film statement about inspiring sheer fear from his audience is understandable for those who have braved Suspiria's torrential downpour of aesthetically sumptuous and adventurous horror. Argento is routinely quoted as saying that he wanted to exceed the 375 centigrade degree experience of fear for the audience, reaching a 400 centigrade. With Suspiria, Argento grabbed a hold of a wide canvas and utilized every last nook and cranny. His utensils are varied and precisely applied, as diverse as Goblin's nerve-shattering score to an army of descending maggots symbolizing the rot of humanity to the aplomb of Alida Valli to noir dame goddess Joan Bennett in her last film role, and he makes opulent use of everything in his arsenal. The film he created from these disparate pieces is astonishing in its texture, terrifically resonant in its afterglow. This is cinema of the visceral, of the vibrantly chimeric, of the connaturally aware. Built on the very foundational quiddity of penetrative fear, Suspiria is a cinematic maelstrom, seemingly originating from the very innermost abysm belonging not merely to Argento but to all who bravely dare to peer through subfuscous trappings of the soul.