Thursday, July 31, 2008

Someone Stop Him

I really have little to say about this. You may remember this post from May--

Well, all I can say now is, George, from now on, quit whining about not being able to make small films. You can do whatever the hell you want to do. So please quit moaning and groaning about not being able to make small, "personal" flicks, and being "trapped" in the land of blockbuster franchises one month, and then turn around and say, "Y'know, we could make a fifth movie about Indiana Jones."

I've been debating with myself whether or not to post this for several days now, and it's sort of an old story at this point, especially in Internet terms, but I just had to get it off my chest, somehow. I think the somewhat hubristic nature of the quotes attributed to Lucas just couldn't go unremarked upon by yours truly.

It's honestly embarrassing at this point, like an old uncle who wants to tell you the same story over and over. And I never even had an uncle like that. I barely know my uncles. But I get the idea.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Dog Days of Summer Go Black

August is Film Noir Month at Movie Zeal. I will be writing an article about noir as well as three film reviews for Evan Derrick's wonderful website, which is a place you should be checking out on a regular basis just because it's a great blog, and with this marathon of noir it's about to become even better.

I would like to commend Evan for choosing to highlight the dour, sleepy-eyed countenance of Robert Mitchum with the alluring but deadly Jane Greer from my personal favorite noir of all, Jacques Tourneur's magnificent Out of the Past. (Beyond noir, it's one my absolute favorite films.) Evan knows how to make one all the more excited, obviously.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Occasionally, a film seeps like quicksand into your consciousness, resides there for a while, troubles you and never, ever, quite completely becomes absent in the rotating collage of the mind. Images haunt. Certain scenes play out repetitively. Performances deepen. A particular shot lingers. A line of dialogue remains. The film taunts you because it seems to be a biological entity unto itself. Somewhere between the lensing and the film processing, the movie becomes alive. And some movies are merciless.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's miraculous but nearly unbearable film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and Days is a work of nightmarish potency, its narrative playing out like a ravenous beast, so supremely confident, in the best and most nakedly way possible. It just does not relent. Mungiu's film has been said to represent the pinnacle of the "Romanian New Wave," represented by the likes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Way I Spent the End of the World and 12:08 East of Bucharest before it. (These are all amazing films that vary from the raw melancholy of Mr. Lazarescu to the defiantly simple and infectious humor of 12:08.)

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu creates a dire prism that is minimalistic, dismaying and fiercely immediate. Shot in pseudo-documentary fashion, it pulls the viewer in with dynamic alacrity, as we find ourselves in Bucharest in the 1980s. Nicolae Ceausescu rules Romania. In a reaction to his country's declining birthrate, Ceausescu has banned abortion: it is punishable by up to ten years in jail.

Mungiu's film keeps the viewer at a certain emotional distance through a cinema verite stylistic choice. This may be necessary in any event. A sequence late in the film follows this procedure, but because of the heightened drama's climax occurring at this pivotal point (let us just note that a character is carrying something), the impact is similar to that of a terrifically well-executed horror film. Most of the film is concerned with the banality of evil stupidity, however, and so Mungiu's unadorned technique captures that common banality with visual dexterity and cinematic simplicity.

A college student by the name of Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) decides to run the risk since she's carrying her child for the duration the film's title bravely, baldly announces. At first, the film almost feels like it may not be as interesting as it should be, as it briefly seems to encourage us to merely pity Gabita and her plight. However, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days quickly becomes more complex. Gabita is a wonderment. She's something of a master at passive-aggressive manipulation. Behind ostensible doe-eyed, naive innocence, she is in truth a despicable liar whose willingness to put others at risk to save herself casts her in an entirely different light than one may have expected. Gabita has enlisted her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to help her in terminating her pregnancy.

Mungiu's film finds its heart in Otilia, whose efforts to help her roommate it tirelessly follows. It is she who performs practically every incriminating task, including handing over her identity papers to a hotel establishment's desk clerk while being taped by an ominous security camera, as a direct result of Gabita's failure to reserve a hotel room. Step by methodical step, Otilia has irretrievably, completely implicated herself.

The abortionist who shows up is a ruthless scavenger. Upon discovering the truth about Gabita's pregnancy--piercing her flimsy lies about it with great ease--he threatens to simply walk away from the entire situation. Angered by Gabita's dishonesty, and scared by what may happen to him, he furiously barks at the two women, pointing out that terminating a pregnancy beyond five months means he could very well be prosecuted for murder, and he's in the dark with regards to the actual number of months, weeks and days, but it's sufficiently clear that Gabita's low-ball estimates are absurd. When the two women plead with him, he initially remains firm in his self-preservation. Gradually, however, he decides, "Everything has its price." Otilia's honor is that price.

Finally, Otilia hesitantly leaves Gabita in the hotel room, casually waiting for the passing of her baby. Otilia's boyfriend has steadfastly requested she make some sort of appearance at his mother's birthday party. The eventual scene is scathing in its limpidness. Mungiu shoots the event in a stately manner, purposefully forcing Otilia in the middle of a boisterous, crowded frame, her somewhat oblivious boyfriend joining with his family in celebrating the occasion. The film takes place in the stark, bitter cold of winter yet several women begin speaking of the festive time of coloring Easter eggs. The scene is lacerating, with Otilia looking on straight ahead. The entire incongruous meshing of home, religion and fertility has spiritually pulverized her. Moments later, alone with her boyfriend in his room, she verbally offers the truth about what has troubled her. Slowly the conversation becomes about self. Otilia asks him what he would do if she ever became pregnant. Briefly dumbfounded, he vainly attempts to rescue himself. He would take care of her, he unconvincingly mouths. After being pressed by his girlfriend, he relents, saying with total meekness and barely a hint of enthusiasm that he would marry her. Her look is withering. The moment seems to exist in suspended animation. He averts his gaze. She leaves.

Mungiu's blunt, acutely vivid film captures the grimness of communist Romania. It's a tale wrapped up in the blanket of hopelessness, and the quiddity of regret-fueled angst. Psychologically, it is eviscerating. Presented with clinically disinterested tonal ambiance, the film's enveloping despair is singularly communicable. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is probably not a film for the easily upset. There are no plot-driven shortcuts: the film is one terribly menacing straight line. It's visually and atmospherically grounded, almost to the point of being blindingly dour. The ineluctable nature of it all is downright appalling, the injustice of the story possibly maddening. Yet it is never a depressing creation. It is too serenely confident, perhaps even arrogant, to be dismissed as such. It's much like a novel you read that wants to take you to a certain inescapably awful place, in which you encounter awful people, in this case ruled by an awful regime, and whose chiefest purpose is to illuminate the awfulness of misery itself, an abstract notion made concretely real. There is no pleasurable consolation. Only love. Yes: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is finally so courageous it has love for its blighted, anagogically exhausted characters.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tell No One (2008)

In my recent review of Shanghai Express (1932) I complained about the largely stagnant way in which American films are typically divided. For the most part, they fall into two camps. One is the generically insensitive, uninspired junk food, seemingly processed in a factory by a board of people who moonlight as presidential candidate advisers and aides. In other words, they're none too bright, and their opinions are marinated in cynicism and lowest-common-denominator logic. A sizable number of these are harmless enough while others are intolerably dull and insipid. The other is the high-mindedly aspirational, formally artistic films, a decent number of which can be just as successful as they aim to be while many others fall flat, feel fundamentally shallow despite their outwardly trappings and comport themselves in a stuffy, rigidly, stoically dour manner without much in the way of genuine emotional insight or simple but perfectly pleasant entertainment value. Bridging that gap has become the most sensational accomplishment, and films that strive to work on separate planes simultaneously deserve at least some commendatory applause just for being demonstrably ambitious.

Leave it to the French to still consistently get it right. And most interestingly, Tell No One, a dazzling French import directed by actor-director Guillaume Canet, is based on the work of a New Jersey author. Harlan Coben's mystery novel is adapted here, wholly, into a uniquely French work by Canet. The set-up, like much of the film, is both familiar and distinctive, perhaps because it feels skeletally semblable to so many films you have probably seen in your life when one thinks of other such suspense-mystery films. Yet the pacing is different: methodically exacting, never in an unnecessary hurry, always careful to allow the audience to understand, fully, the importance of the characters--especially when it comes to their importance to one another. Characters who love one another are depicted as having nuanced relationships with one another--and the key relationship, that of a husband and wife, which finds itself enlivened, ever so briefly, in the prologue of the film, is quietly, gently moving because we see beyond the bland archetypes of "husband" and "wife." These two look and sound like they've known each other for a long time (and in this instance they do indeed, as they have been sweethearts since childhood). Their existence exceeds our expectations; their dialogue, taking place while they are nude at a lake after swimming with one another, which includes sweetness and tenderhearted disagreement and understandable, benign argument resulting in a moment of apparent disappointment, meticulously arouses our empathy without the slightest bit of boring manipulation. We're a long way from Firewall.

The pair, Alexandre Arnaud Beck and Margot Beck, are played respectively by Francois Cluzet (this, my first exposure to him) and Marie-Josee Croze (The Barbarian Invasions, Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). First thing's first: yes, Cluzet looks a great deal like a much younger Dustin Hoffman. Unfortunately, Croze's role is not as large as you may have hoped, since her character is presumably murdered a moment after the aforementioned little tiff. Alexandre hears her cries and tries to discover what is happening on the other side of the lack they have visited, but is knocked unconscious for his trouble. A pause. A title card reads "Eight years later." This is usually the place where I groan, "Uh-oh."

Fortunately, despite the fact that so much of the plot feels, on paper, beat for beat like a fairly typical mystery yarn, the narrative framework belies the deeper, more rhapsodically humanistic qualities of the film, which center on Cluzet's performance as Alexandre. A blurb on the poster reads, "Like a cross between Vertigo and The Fugitive!" and there are some similarities to both films, but Tell No One finds its own milieu as a character study first, twisty thriller second. Cluzet's performance as Alexandre is marvelous because he's astonishingly sere, clearly deeply wounded from the loss of his wife, and the answers he seeks are of vital import: as Alexandre commemorates the eight-year anniversary of the loss of his beloved wife, he receives an email that seems to be from her, and so the real mystery presents itself.

The greatest issue that materializes for the filmmakers behind a mystery, no matter how convoluted it is, does not have anything to do with the intricacies of the plot. What matters is what the tale immures in the being of its protagonist. The film's arresting, visually poetic nascence--which features Alexandre's gorgeously evanescent soulmate swimming away from him, her porcelain wet skin glistening in the moonlight, her entrancing pulchritude silently beckoning--establishes precisely the undying love Alexandre has for Margot and Canet (who doubles as a noxious fellow by the name of Philippe Neuville) sincerely investigates the holistic ramifications with abiding grace and wisdom. Croze captures the audience in the early scenes, her performance a glowing beacon that the film must establish with rich conviction. With a little she does a lot, and her presence, albeit brief, serves as an emotional revenant even if her character is not one. When Alexandre is forced to run from the police, he courageously, tenaciously follows the quest of solving the mystery of his wife's case, not merely to clear his name like Dr. Kimble before him, but to find her. This is one aspect of the film's plot that underscores Canet's bold and frequently mesmerizing take on the material as not simple chase thriller but soulfully consequential love story.

Despite the stalwart perseverance of both Cluzet's winning performance and Canet's handling of Alexandre's troubled reservoir of haunted emotional grief, buried under a pained, introverted exterior, the film briefly loses its way in its myriad subplots--all related to Cluzet's search for the truth--and minor characters who remain more plot device than human being. A pair of cops, Alexandre's lawyer (Nathalie Baye), a few underdeveloped baddies--these characters are sacrifices to plot, cogs in the mechanical instrument that guides the narrative to its conclusion, and though the film is in no way egregiously annoying in these departures from the brilliant beating heart of the story, Alexandre, their status as plot points, is unfortunate. For the thriller to remain nimble, minimal time must be utilized in the constructions of these characters, but as a result the film's tautness deprives us of greater resonance when these and other figures meet what should be at least subtly epochal conclusions. As such, the scenes involving these persons often feel slightly labored, and there is a conspicuous period of time in which some viewers will find the film becoming slack, its formerly firm grasp loosening as the plot begins to wind down. It's one of many hurdles to adapting a book and especially one like this.

Mysteries are always puzzles, and this film is finally no different, with a lengthy sequence of exposition revealing the truth. In the end, it's somewhat saddening that Canet had to remain faithful to the novel, offering the questioning members of the audience the answers they must hear, so as to close off the mystery. What exalts this conclusion, however, has little to do with the bare naked truth behind the mystery, and almost everything to do with the intensely recondite compassion. What begins as a sorrowfully crippling determination to hold on to the person you love concludes with a spiritual sublimity that recalls some of the achingly best of Borzage, Carne, Chaplin, Cocteau, Cukor, Malle, Renoir, Truffaut and Wyler, among others. Canet has crafted a brave, elegant and humane film. It is cerebral in its many aromatic machinations and hauntingly potent in its warm loveliness that wisely counts on the resilience of the human heart to be its most gripping plot device.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

There are two ways for me to look at The X-Files: I Want to Believe. The first way is to look at it as what I am, a former completely committed, occasionally obsessed, fan of the series who watched it religiously from the latter part of its second season, caught up with it between its second and third seasons, watching every repeat Fox had, and continuing on from there, finally to become disillusioned, disappointed and disheartened by the deterioration of the entire enterprise at some point around the sixth season, staying with it more out of habit than anything else, and searching, fruitlessly, for a sense of closure. The second way is to just approach it as impartially as possible, if that is possible, and see it as a film apart from its television origins, looking at it through whatever its successes and failures as such are. Rather than write two wholly different reviews, I plan on shapeshifting like that American Indian fellow in a long-ago episode entitled Shapes, looking at the film in one light at one moment and then in the other light at another moment.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe is like a bantam version of something that naturally leans to the most expansive, what with its vast, (sadly convoluted, from about the fifth season onward) labyrinthine mythology revolving around aliens, government conspiracies and the like. But even when compared to many of the better stand-alone episodes, I Want to Believe falls short. The paranormal storyline is weak, thin and despite a mediocre effort on the part of writers Chris Carter (who also directed) and Frank Spotnitz, is only tangentially linked to the equally more grounded and successful relationship drama storyline that is the heart of the film, between the former FBI agents and partners, the crusading, "spooky" Fox Mulder (an initially bearded David Duchovny!) and the radiantly smart, grounded but persistent Dana Scully (the more outwardly emotionally generous of the two).

That paranormal storyline involves a presumably psychic disgraced and defrocked former pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) who, for reasons unexplained (this would never have passed in the early glory days of the show), has some psychic connection to the kidnapping of a female FBI agent. Soon Agent Mosley Drummy--Carter always had a thing for delineatively representative names--played by Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner, looks for Scully, who's now a practicing doctor like she always wanted to be, who, in turn, gets Mulder into the game after being convinced that Mulder could help them find the missing agent. Amanda Peet plays another FBI agent, Dakota Whitney, who seems to have eyes for Mulder.

Mulder and Scully are a real, living-together couple now, and an abruptly introduced scene with the two of them in bed together is a jarring experience. As such, it's probably the most paranormally chimerical scene in the entire film, for good and bad. By focusing more on the domestic relationship between the two--always the heart of the series, and as K. Bowen says at, the on-again, off-again questions about whether they would or would not get together (fans of the show were usually divided along "Shipper" and "No Romo" lines, the former pining for an inevitable union, the latter wishing it would never happen) were largely irrelevant: in their dissimilar methods and beliefs (he, a man feeling burned by God due to the disappearance of his sister, a rebellious atheist, maybe agnostic at best, who nevertheless wants to believe in the paranormal and most especially in the existence of extraterrestrial life, most pointedly symbolized by the poster that used to hang in his basement office with a UFO and the words "I Want to Believe" on it; she, raised Catholic, gradually losing her connection to the Church, skeptical in matters Mulder desperately wanted to believe in, a brilliant medical mind who kept her partner in check), and particularly in their united quest for "the truth," whatever it entailed, even if Scully found herself rationalizing things that otherwise made no scientific reason and sense.

As a curious kid, and perhaps especially a boy, I naturally sided with Mulder. That was in large part due to the series siding with Mulder. Invariably there would be inexplicable phenomenon, and Scully's often weak rationales failed to win over people more content to let their eyes tell them what was believable and not. Even when I was ten years old, however, I wanted Scully to be right at least sometimes, and that wish was granted when matters pertaining to Christian "paranormal" activity, such as a boy experiencing stigmata in one memorable third season episode; Mulder's incapability to broaden his borderline credulousness to these kinds of cases cast him in the "duh, you don't get it!" light.

More now than then, however, I understand that whether or not Scully was right or wrong any given week was not the most important issue. Like the best of sci-fi and horror--The X-Files was always somewhere between, with many episodes being scary (Carter said the basis for the show was that there was a lack of any scary shows, and he wanted a series that could "scare the pants off people")--the supernatural element was based in dramatic storytelling. Encountering life more fully when you become a little older, you come to understand rather quickly that skepticism is a perfectly healthy thing in most matters. Understanding where Scully is coming from is, resolutely, more important than thinking something along the lines of, "Your explanation countering the idea that this guy can control lightning just doesn't wash. You're flatly wrong!" (One most commendable aspect of the series was that Carter almost never allowed Mulder to bask in his rightness and Scully's wrongness. There was hardly ever a crude "I told you so," moment.)

That's where I Want to Believe most definitively fails. The paranormal story of the priest able to see some details of the case on which Mulder and Scully work relates to the mindsets of the pair, but in a clunky, distracting way. Compare this to a classic X-Files episode, Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose (which is very briefly referred to in this film) which starred Peter Boyle as a life insurance salesman cursed with seeing the often grisly details of a murderer on the loose in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The best episodes engendered a natural dramatic linkage between the banter and philosophical tug-o'-war between the two and the case they were working on. (The case motivated this, of course, but it was a circular affair: by the end of the episode, the writers made it clear that the story's main consequence had to do with the experience Mulder and Scully endured.) Beyond being a very funny episode at times, it hit the duo hard on an emotional level that organically fit. I Want to Believe, by contrast, feels ungainly, especially since the paranormal story feels like a mini-episode in the middle of the movie, which is honestly much more interested in the fate of a boy Scully wants to see live at her hospital and the relationship between she and Mulder. The more Carter and Spotnitz try to reward their "base" audience with nods and homages to the long-running series, like a third act appearance of a well-known supporting character, dealt both a handful of lines of dialogue and the thankless role of sidekick, the less successful it becomes.

And yet I Want to Believe is not the disaster you probably have been led to believe it is. Certain things work. Anderson and Duchovny (as it ought to be stated--she's the lead here) deliver the goods with their repartee, their emotional honesty and the comforting presence that they combine to create when they're placed together. The moment we old fans see she and he, talking with one another, all objectivity sort of goes out the window. We're just glad to see our two friends back, and we're pleased that, if they had to fall in love in the conventional sense, they did so, as one of them explains, because they fell in love with the other's stubbornness and intellectual prowess. One of the best attributes of the series, even when it was in desultory, depressing descent, was that you ultimately bought the relationship at its core. Yes, the series became, at best, a shell of its former self, and I would lie if I said I didn't feel betrayed by it. But sometimes what matters most, even in the most tumultuous and fatiguing of relationships, experiences and affiliations is last impressions. So long as that brightens our perspective, despite the flaws and missed opportunities, the troubling scenes and production limitations (it's a small, insular film, lacking the sprawl many will be expecting, and after seeing the film one wonders a little why it cost as much as thirty-five million dollars), it goes down as a win. Of course, that last bit is the X-Phile fan-boy geek writing. You're just going to have to accept it. However, even an objective reading of the film with its problems is a solidly favorable one. Don't expect to be wowed by this, because you surely won't be. If you're approaching it as a non-fan, just know you will be watching a character-based drama first and foremost. On that level, the film is different from just about anything out there. You will have to decide whether or not you believe in it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

"At the Movies" Reincarnated

By now you've almost surely read the news about Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz taking over for Ebert and Roeper on "At the Movies."

Why do we go to the movies in the first place? To live in some kind of alternate world. So, let's pretend we lived in alternate world for a moment. Which two critics would you love/like/be interested in seeing take the coveted seats to argue with one another every weekend for half an hour?

I still have awful memories of Jeffrey and Ben Lyons, father and son, giving a stamp of approval to every piece of merde dished out by Hollywood on a short-lived MSNBC Saturday morning movie show in 2005. You have not wallowed in excruciatingly tedious and banal nonsense until you've seen those two talk about the newest releases (they never quite got to the arthouse films). Why did I watch that? I think I could feel braincells wither and die from it.

Mankiewicz is an amusing, light but seemingly intelligent fellow whose main shtick is his solidly irreverent humor. But if you pair him with Lyons, he's the de facto heavyweight--which is not exactly how I would ever have thought of him before this news. Oy.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

In his 2005 origins tale Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan exhaustively examined fear under a cinematic microscope. How it's used, for what means, what brings it about, and what "Jungian archetypes" as the villainous Dr. Jonathan Crane said to Rachel Dawes represent it. In Begins those archetypes took the varied forms of maggots for Rachel, a sinister demon for Crane, a scarecrow for the gangster Carmine Falcone, giving Crane his alias and most iconically bats for Bruce Wayne. Most potently, however, was the fear inspired by the twin visages of a defenseless child being overwhelmed by a swarm of hideous-looking winged creatures, seemingly tormenting him in a cave and of a gun-wielding hood murdering his parents in a dark alley.

In his epic crime drama-cum-comic book superhero vs. supervillain tale, The Dark Knight, Nolan returns to fear. However, in this film, which flies higher, stealthier but simultaneously heavier, Nolan redirects the meme of fear: the essaying of fear in this stuffed, packed, labyrinthine exploration concerns itself with fear of oneself--fear of what we ourselves are capable of (and how we can live with ourselves afterwards), especially when confronted with absolute, senseless, terrifyingly feral chaos. That feral chaos is embodied in the otherworldly, makeup-wearing maniac, the Joker (Heath Ledger in his final completed film role) and he's hellbent on watching the world burn, to quote Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce Wayne's (Christian Bale) butler, closest confidante and prototypical father figure.

In looking at Batman Begins, I analyzed it through my own belief that Nolan's greatest, most everlasting inspiration has been and still is Fritz Lang. Larry Gross at evidently agrees (come on, Larry, I know you just ripped me off) and points to some startling "coincidences" here: Lang's Spies is spotted as an inspiration, particularly for the Joker. A scene in which gangland chieftains unite around a table and find themselves in the company of the "freak" played by Ledger recalls Lang's M, which featured underworld gangsters joining forces to find the threat of Peter Lorre's deviant serial killer.

The Langian dichotomy becomes more pronounced in The Dark Knight and Nolan amps everything up by an apparent tenfold. The Joker is the philosophical polar opposite of everything Batman represents--order, reason, compassion and justice--but by being so he also shares a special place in the caliginous fabric of the Brobdingnagian Gotham City. If Batman nightly seeks to restore a sense of justice to the beleaguered streets of Gotham, the Joker is his equal in seeking out anarchy. Like Zeus battling the Titans, Batman seeks generalized, unspecific revenge on the crime lords of Gotham who have plagued his father's beloved but beaten city. In his raging war on crime, Batman's alliance with Major Crimes Unit leader Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) finds the third piece of a tripartite alliance with newly-elected District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Gordon and Batman have systematically targeted the mob's money-laundering affiliates, crippling them and forcing the gangsters to consolidate their resources and disparate piles of cash, letting Chinese mega-crook Lau keep the dirty money nestled far away from the Gotham Police Department and its jurisdiction in Hong Kong. When Lau is eventually captured in Hong Kong by Batman, and taken back to Gotham, he squeals just as the Joker predicted he would.

And that is one of the scarier aspects of The Dark Knight. Again and again, it's the Joker, not Batman, whose predictions come true. When he threatens to murder people every day Batman refuses to unmask himself, the public outcry for the caped crusader to reveal his identity becomes vociferous. And when the Joker targets the Rudy Giuliani of the story, the utilitarian and edgy DA, Dent, in order to make a mad murderer out of him, his success is just about total. Anyone as publicly ambitious as Dent probably possesses an on-the-edge, eerily scary authoritarian streak, as is shown in a crucial scene in which Dent speaks highly of the Roman practice of electing a single man to protect the Roman Republic, not as "an honor," but as "a duty." When Wayne listens to Dent's remarks, he comes to believe that he has found the ideal replacement for Batman but The Dark Knight is all about the complete annihilation of Wayne's naivete, hopefulness, optimism and at least partially his ideals. What he fails to consider both logically and symbolically is that Gotham still needs him to save it from the fiends who prey on it. Shortly after bringing Lau back by breaking and entering, kidnapping and rendition, Wayne posits to the woman for whom he pines, girlfriend-to-her-boss (Dent), Rachel (a subtly effective Maggie Gyllenhaal), that it was Dent, not he, who brought down "half of the city's criminals" through the Lau connection and he did it "without wearing a mask." Wayne deludes himself into believing a Panglossian fantasy--that the bureaucrat turned public savior with the bright sunny good looks and cleft chin can complete what he started. The day Batman is no longer needed is coming, he believes, or at least he says he does.

What The Dark Knight continues is the Nolanesque assault on what we perceive to be the characteristics of "the hero." In Memento, Guy Pearce's character literally could not remember what he had just done and consequently found himself repeatedly going beyond his own ethical limits in a singular quest for revenge against the man who raped and murdered his wife. In Insomnia, Al Pacino's weary cop begins to lose all perspective and inner security after a tragic incident places him on a moral high-wire in the face of his own better nature. The Prestige also attacked audience conformity. Nolan's magician rivalry drama played itself against the somewhat lazy expectations of the viewer by deliriously shifting perspectives and burrowing itself inside horrible, vengeful madness and obsession. Batman Begins hints at this Descartean, Sartrean existential duality and The Dark Knight recklessly, heedlessly plunges into the concept, wrapping its considerable arms around the theme and finally, belatedly, choosing to not so much grapple it to the ground and defeat it but in an act of heroic self-sacrifice on the part of Batman, simply recognize it in its myriad manifestations in the final movement of the film's brazenly morally-driven character study, making sense of it in all of its complexities. Bale's Wayne sits, forlorn after a crushing personal defeat, and as Alfred attempts to console him, he calls into question his very alter-ego's entire raison d'etre. Ostensibly, in the bleaker moments of Wayne's personal despair, all Batman has accomplished is making things worse and causing more people--including a small, feckless army of Batman impersonators--to die at the merciless hands of the Joker and other villains of Gotham.

The Joker's sick sense of humor is more than just villainous tomfoolery. His entire ethos is one that recognizes no rules and sees a future of humanity descending into animalistic barbarism. Whereas Batman's outwardly wicked apparel strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies, the Joker's mysteriously scarred, repugnantly obtrusive makeup, forming a cracked funhouse mirror version of a child's picture of a nightmarish clown whose multiple stories behind those scars' existence inspire deadly, pulse-quickening horror in the imminent victims he encounters in a complete symbolic inversion of good and evil. Note the fire truck set ablaze (so as to force a police caravan to take a confined, dangerous route). Not a cheap gag but a fundamental statement. Society's tools will be turned upside-down and mocked because as the Joker tells Batman in a scene that rightly recalls one of Nolan's inspirations, Michael Mann's Heat--a scene of dialogue between the two ying-and-yang forces, mirrored image protagonists that illuminates the weaknesses of Batman, "With all of your strength, there is nothing you can do!" It is one of many moments that finds failure in Batman as well as being a piercing echo of gangster Sal Maroni's earlier exclamation, "You have rules! The Joker doesn't have rules!" (thus, the city's protector finds his very ideals used against him by his nefarious foes) while giving the hero more of the same (Batman: "I have one rule..." Joker: "Tonight you're going to have to break your one rule!" Batman: "I'm considering it..."), further eroding Batman's moral foundation.

The scene between the Joker and Batman plays to the epically Greecian tragedy aspect of the film's plotline. Batman meets his match in a nemesis that provokes the opposite in humanity as the Joker's id is wholly unbound and it jovially asks Batman to follow it outside of his own boundaries. (In a moment that recalls DeNiro telling Pacino, "You do what you do, I do what I do," thus equating the two antagonists, the Joker declares, "To them, you're just a freak. Like me." They may be on opposing teams, but they are linked by their mutual outcast existence.) While Batman's greatest attribute is his fierce self-discipline, the Joker is unconstrained and taunts the moral rationale behind Batman's very existence, taking remarkable delight in playing a deadly game with Gotham's nocturnal vigilante.

The screenplay by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan ably maneuvers itself around the pulpy source material while offering many intelligent nods to future events through deceptively casual dialogue. Wayne, speaking of Dent at a fundraiser: "This is the face of Gotham's hero, the face Gotham believes in...."; when Alfred warns, "Know your limits, Master Wayne," he is only barely speaking of Bruce's several bruises; Dent asks Gordon, "What was the name you guys called me at MCU when I was at Internal Affairs?" and Gordon's answer belies his own knowledge by unconvincingly protesting, "I wouldn't know about that," only revealing the name when confronted by a righteously furious Dent much later in the film. Furthermore, the screenplay indulges itself with a plethora of themes that resonate deeply, palpably. The relationships in the film are all realistically realized. The love triangle between Wayne, Dent and Dawes is told with sensitivity and smarts. It's a nuanced, balanced take and honestly ranks with the more intelligent cinematic love triangles this side of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The actions of Batman--shielding Gotham's more quotidian heroes like Dent and Gordon, placing his Tumbler in the way of a bazooka from the Joker just in time to save an armored truck carrying Dent and sacrificing his Lamborghini as Bruce Wayne--are actions that speak more about the absorption of pain for the sake of others in spite of the hammering Wayne's credulousness and self-awareness that The Dark Knight unfurls.

The acting makes a great deal of it all work, seamlessly so. Bale is quickly becoming the unsung hero of his own franchise, playing a faintly deranged, highly aloof and socially troubled billionaire who switches gears between clueless, haughty playboy and the mainly shy, unassuming and sensitive fellow who cherishes Alfred's wise advice. Caine, too, holds his own at all times, and his interaction with Gyllenhaal's Rachel is rewarding and rich despite its brevity. Caine's Alfred is not quite the moral center of this film that he was in Begins but it's interesting to see Nolan place him in a different light, as we are encouraged to think of him searching for a crazed bandit in Burma in his more formidable years. Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox is given significantly more to do as the CEO of Wayne Enterprises in The Dark Knight and is confronted with a moral dilemma that rings true while also stirring the topical issue of surveillance. Eckhart carries a great deal of the film, and he is the real spinal cord of the picture. His Dent is wired, electric, but also charming, with a masking serenity that hides the darker impulses he truly has, as a tense scene in which he threatens one of the Joker's goons shows.

Ledger as the Joker is as captivating as you have heard. His Joker offers a series of existential dilemmas to practically everyone he meets, and particularly for Gotham City at large. The iniquitous Joker is made into a whole character by Ledger, who, like Brando, seems to begin his acting work from the inside and then get to the outside behavioral ticks and mannerisms late. It's a tour de force performance. The Joker as played by Ledger is a fearlessly, inimitably brilliant criminal whose motives have little if anything to do with money and power and everything to do with sadism (his explanation for favoring knives over guns will make your blood turn into ice water in your veins) and upsetting the establishment, which includes the mob. When he confronts a wretchedly disfigured Dent in a hospital room, he tells him that Dent's life as a schemer with plans, like the police, Gordon and other criminals, has led to nothing but misery for him. The Joker's description of things going "according to plan," like a gangbanger being shot and a truck's worth of soldiers being blown up, strikes the heart of the banality of evil, which this film approaches with clear-headed Hobbesianism. But when you do something like say a mayor is going to be killed, everyone becomes upset, the Joker wails. Ledger's dynamic, tumid work leaves startling room for greater insight: he's the most clearly consistent character in the film, something of an unstoppable constant, even when he's off-screen, but the performance is laced with wit and catholic existence. His performance is simultaneously simple and complicated, and its intensity is nothing short of volcanic.

Like No Country for Old Men, Nolan's The Dark Knight seems to tackle the nihilistic belief that, as one character says late in the film, morality is chance. It says something about our time, and our place, that this seems to be a recurring multi-faceted intellectual quandary. That isn't to say The Dark Knight embraces this bleak hopelessness but like No Country the film confronts this with a deliberate coolness and weighty but agile symmetry. In the end, a man who falls from grace lets his coin make the decisions for him, driven mad from great pain, physical, mental and spiritual. Like the Coens' Oscar-winner, The Dark Knight questions whether we are able to confront such randomness, and if we are, do we become definitively different people as a result?

The Dark Knight concludes with a sense of funereal melancholy. One overarching and quintessential theme of the film is the worthiness of truth. The film's concluding passage recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. At a crucial moment, Batman and his friend Gordon choose to "print the legend." As Batman decides to protect Gotham from a devastatingly ugly truth, Alfred makes the decision to burn a letter from Rachel whose message was precisely not what Bruce believed to be her personal belief between he and Dent at the time of her death. Bruce even decides then and there after Rachel's death, saying, "She was going to wait for me, Alfred. Dent can never know..." Alfred craftily takes away the letter from Rachel indicating otherwise. Alfred decides just as Batman decides Batman can be whatever Gotham needs him to be, Rachel and her memory can be whatever Bruce needs her to be, allowing him to remain deluded. More sin-cleansing than ever before, taking up the sins of Gotham itself and of one man in particular, Batman becomes a more darkly messianic figure that, coupled with his self-discipline, place him under the broadest possible umbrella of the "superhero" genre. At the end, The Dark Knight not only recalls The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also Shane, with Gordon taking the place of Van Heflin's virtuous farmer and Batman in the role of Alan Ladd's shadowy, socially outcast gunfighter, with Gordon's son calling out, "Batman! Batman!" as the Dark Knight, wounded, disappears into the night.

The Dark Knight deserves at least two viewings. The film is overwhelming the first time, but flows much better the second go around. The twisting plot and narrative gravitational pull (great storytelling works like the Joker's explanation of madness--all it takes is a good push, and The Dark Knight is a stellar example) of the film is intense, powerful and, as you doubtless have guessed by now, dark.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The ABC's of The Dark Knight

You know The Dark Knight is going to be huge when...

(a) You go to the local grocery store yesterday at around 1:00 PM and see a young gentleman wearing a suit and tie holding up a sign that reads, "I Believe in Harvey Dent," and who proclaims that we should all cast our votes for Harvey Dent to every passerby.

(b) You read that 89% of all Fandango ticket sales have been for The Dark Knight in the past couple of weeks.

(c) You call up the Metreon Theatre in San Francisco today and when you ask what time you should show up to get in before the crowd for the 1:30 showing, they tell you that a large line of people were literally encircling the building before the theatre complex opened this morning to see some kind of special sneak peak--which will show at 7:00 tonight, and that for the IMAX opening day showing, the man on the other end of the line tells you that you should arrive at least one hour before the showtime as the line will become quite long to get in. Guess I better take the 10:10 ferry rather than the 11:10. And bring a book. And pack sandwiches. (I later called and asked if one could just sit down and eat food on the floor in line, to which the man said in a weary voice, "Yes, you can--we don't encourage you doing that... But we won't tackle you down to the ground if you do." Ah, such a welcoming invitation!)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Batman Begins (2005)

"You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent," Liam Neeson's Ducard tells a young, restless Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) near the beginning of Wayne's training. In Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the themes and obsessions that have animated Nolan's worlds, from Following to Memento and Insomnia to The Prestige are actually crystallized, enlarged upon and finally made whole.

If there is a single young auteur out there who can claim to be the artistic heir of Fritz Lang--in terms of themes and obsessions--it's indeed Nolan. Like the great German titan, Nolan's films are fixated on the vexatious dilemmas, secrets and moral perplexities of the search for justice in what is a frequently unjust world, the makings and deconstructions of identity, what that identity means and what it doesn't mean and the savage vengefulness that resides in the heart of fallen man.

It's weighty, dark and sober stuff. Nolan's films are indeed deterministic, perhaps even to a fault. Little surprise then that Batman Begins treats the origins tale of Batman, truly embodied by Bruce Wayne, as something akin to the probing of Immanuel Kant's compromise between rationalists and empiricists, taken on a deeply personal level: what is indeed is, yet the saga of Nolan's The Batman begins as it must, this resembling its Book of Genesis--which eventually plays out like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, whipped in a large bowl by an eggbeater with an uncommonly sensitive "character arc" (Bale's performance throughout is quite good; his character's incarnation as rich, now rootless and wholly lost young man is heartbreakingly sublime) and the vague trappings of a more thematically coherent "blockbuster" than most audiences are used to digesting.

Another theme of Nolan's is fear, but before Batman Begins it was something of an artist's lurker, hiding in the shadows of the plot machinations, always clever, sometimes perilously "cold." (Nolan's films are all noirs as well, including the comic book-inspired tales of the caped crusader and his magician vs. magician battle of wits set in the late nineteenth century.) Begins has moments that are legitimately thrilling, but it's more of an intellectual's delight than much else. Many today assail the film's final "third act," largely because in terms of one-two-three storytelling, it admittedly feels as though it belongs to another film. On the surface, the excogitatively reasoned, deliberately paced character drama becomes an action movie. The Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) plans to disseminate his fear toxin throughout Gotham by utilizing a secret weapon crafted by Wayne Enterprises and only Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and Wayne know about it. Wayne morphs back into Batman, his demonic, mind-, body- and soul-cleansing alter-ego and fights his own creator of sorts, Ra's al Ghul (Neeson's Ducard was actually Ra's al Ghul all along, you see) in a confrontation that at least somewhat resembles the battle between Frankenstein and his monster. While the third act has its problems, the concept of fear in Begins is a very significant one, and the battle to save Gotham from the Scarecrow's terrible toxin merits consideration as an essaying endeavor on the part of Nolan and his co-screenwriter David S. Goyer.

When I first saw on the Internet that Michael Caine had been cast as Alfred, my immediate reaction was, What a waste. Little did I know that Nolan would give the Alfred character such a towering position in his Batman's universe, and particularly in the heart of Wayne himself. Alfred, taking Wayne into his own care after the murder of the boy's parents, is doubtless the closest thing Wayne has in the way of a father figure, and Alfred often dispels important, earnest advice when he senses that Wayne is in need of it. More so than perhaps any actor I can think of off the top of my head, Caine makes every line of dialogue approximately twice as good as it would be otherwise. His performance in Batman Begins is a crucial one, involved in many of the scenes and encapsulating much of the emotions that make Wayne--and thus, Batman--a wholly human figure.

Wally Pfister's cinematography is sterling, undeniably attempting to capture much of the harsh urbanism, damp, dank and dark, that Nolan was reportedly so taken with from Blade Runner. Oscar-nominated, the cinematography feeds off the emotions of the film's story. The film has a gritty atmosphere. CGI, which creates a pivotal railway, is otherwise limited in its usage. Nolan tries to ground Batman in a certain reality. The score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard is moving but tinted with a strong, tenebrous current befitting the film's protagonist.

Nolan's comprehension of action leaves something to be desired in Begins, but the conceptual madness at least has a point early on, when Batman confronts a gang of thugs at the docks working for crime boss Carmine Falcone (an intelligently hammy and brutish Tom Wilkinson), which resembles a horror film in execution, pacing and mood. Like a merciless black specter of boiling rage, Batman systematically goes through Falcone's goons, and the scene culminates beautifully as Batman seizes Falcone himself, finally and formally pronounces his own name finally to his peccant adversary and prey, leaving Falcone tied to a spotlight that created the fuzzy, unfocused non-eidetic skyward hieroglyphic of a bat. The entire sequence richly details Batman's first "victory" in his borderline psychotic war on crime in Gotham and a cop by the name of Gordon (Gary Oldman) can only admire the vigilante's handiwork. The unfortunate part of it all is that Nolan's handling of action later on when there is no need to make such a bewildering spectacle of Batman's antics are over-edited and the film's sense of geography suffers.

Another problem with the film that is usually beaten to death is Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, love interest to Wayne and fighter for justice in the District Attorney's office. She was my most significant complaint upon seeing the film theatrically. Revisiting Begins recently, however, I was surprised to see that she wasn't as awful as I had thought she was. For one thing, she's given almost all of the worst, most expository dialogue the screenplay has to offer. Considering that as well as the fact that some of her whiny, girlish behavior is rooted in the airiness of the character--a legitimate point, as it was to a lesser degree with regards to Hayden Christiansen's always-petulant take on Anakin Skywalker--she's not that bad after all. Yes, she still comes across like an intern in a high-powered position, but it will be truly interesting to see how Nolan improves upon the Dawes character, now taken on by the feisty, more interesting Maggie Gyllenhaal. It figures that Dawes would mature and grow more resiliently unflinching and perhaps a tad cynical so this casting change seems like a positive one.

Batman Begins manages to easily endure its flaws because unlike so many "blockbusters" that seem to be melded from the box office demands of the writers at Variety or marketing experts on Madison Avenue, it's a rigorously thought-provoking enterprise above all else, including crowd-pleaser. Intellectually rewarding, Nolan's Langian take on the Batman character resonates as a pervasive cinematic statement that affirmatively tackles some of the more prickly quandaries of Natural Law, the advantages and shortcomings of the aretaic turn--like any savior figure, how great a load of the sins of Gotham's citizenry can Batman withstand before withering?--and nature of identity; how, as the treacherous figure portrayed by a stone-faced, methodically tutoring Neeson states, one can become "a legend," Nolan's film is brimming with worthwhile ideas. Batman Begins is also aware of the Hobbesian understanding of the iniquity that characterizes the underworld of criminals ("Criminals thrive on the indulgences of society's understanding") while being adamantly tortured in its open-ended appraisal of vigilantism, the limits of it and the responses to it (a bittersweet pill that is partly swallowed in the film's final scene between Gordon and Batman, in which Gordon points out the threats of "escalation," something The Dark Knight appears to play heavily to). It's all there, and while Nolan does not completely forget this is a film aimed at mass appeal with an extended car chase and a climactic fight sequence, like the thematically rich and inventive directors who brought out the sagacity of cinematic populism, Nolan strives for more than what we've sadly become conditioned to consume. And who knows? Perhaps one day when Nolan's hair is gray and he's further battled the murky ideas he finds so much interest in, we just might refer to his series of Batman films in a way not altogether dissimilar from how people speak of Lang's Mabuse series. When there is this much ambition on display, it's comfortably easy to be optimistic, at least for a little while.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Edge of Heaven (2008)

In Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven, a mixture of traditional three-act structure storytelling and the fluid, non-linear narrative style that has become increasingly popular in the past fifteen years or so yields intriguing and largely sound results. This was my first exposure to Akin, who has apparently been making interesting and socially relevant films about German-Turkish tensions stemming from the large population of Turkish immigrants in Germany, of which he is one himself. The Edge of Heaven is the kind of film that doubtless motivates a dutiful film enthusiast to seek out the filmmaker's previous films, hoping to catch up on the filmography in order to shed some light on what may be quizzical issues pertaining to the director's latest work.

The Edge of Heaven was Germany's official submission in the Best Foreign Language Oscar category. It is beautifully, sometimes wrenchingly acted, and features a kind of international humanism that recalls Truffaut's melancholic affection for people of all cultures and races. There are some excellent compositions by Akin. For good and ill, or better and worse, consciously designed so or not, this film pulsates like a hybrid, a rigorously "smart" film that is gracious in allowing for bursts of raw human emotion to radiate outwards.

The film's first major storyline commences in Bremen, Germany. An elderly Turkish immigrant named Ali Aksu (Tuncel Kurtiz) taking a stroll throughout an area that appears to host many a woman of "easy virtue" (as one prostitute describes herself). Soon he finds a prostitute named Yeter (played to weary, seen-it-all-but-can-still-be-wounded-by-life perfection by Nursel Kose), also a Turkish immigrant, who has lost track of her twenty-seven year old daughter in Istanbul. Yeter tells Ali that she sells herself off to her daughter in letters as a worker making shoes, occasionally sending her child a pair of shoes in order to bolster her lie with "evidence." Ali becomes infatuated with Yeter, and after what is ostensibly a fairly brief period of time in which he has repeatedly visited her, offers her the opportunity to "work" solely for him, living with him and "screwing only me" in exchange for approximately the same amount of money she would be making plying her old trade. (That she is harassed by Turkish Muslim immigrants aboard a bus, and wishes to get out of this existence, further motivates her to make the move.)

It becomes difficult to explain what occurs next without giving away crucial information, and yet, for some reason, Akin has chosen to include foreknowledge of these occurrences in the titles of his first two acts. To make a rough analogy, imagine if Ingmar Bergman had given the name of the second "act" of The Seventh Seal, "The Witch's Death." Akin has intentionally destroyed a great deal of the narrative's forward momentum, deflating the audience's sensitization to shock, with inchoate reasoning I myself cannot completely understand. Does he wish to make the film a Brechtian meditation? If so, it seems to go against the more manipulative technical aspects with which he lays out the heavy-duty drama of his film.

No matter. Let us just say the film travels a different direction for its second act, which is where all of the main protagonists are actually revealed but Ali's son, Nejat Aksu (a sensitively warm Baki Davrak), a well-educated professor in Hamburg, whom we met in the first act, and where the bulk of the actual action of the film takes place. It turns out that Yeter's daughter, Ayten Ozturk, is a militant with the zeal of the convert to intense ideals and abstractions. Embodied with equal parts pulchritude, fervor and angst-shrouded sweetness by a dangerously enchanting Nurgul Yesilcay, she's something of a ticking time bomb that needs to be defused before she harms anyone, including herself. Embittered by the vacuity of her personal life, lacking the presence of a guiding parental hand in all matters but financial from her mother, she finds fighting for the cause of social reform on the boisterously hectic streets of Istanbul temporarily salves her own quandaries. Nejat, meanwhile, is on his own quest in Istanbul to find Yeter's daughter, Ayten, but after an unfruitful period of time he buys a German bookstore from a German homesick of his country. The idea of finding one's place in the world is most touchingly rendered in a completely unblemished scene between Nejat, the Turkish professor in Germany, now in Istanbul, finds ineffable solace in the buying of a German bookstore in Istanbul from a German desiring nothing so much but to return to the societal reality of Germany rather than merely reading about it hundreds of miles away.

As Nejat's search for Ayten gradually loses nearly all hope, Ayten goes to Germany in order to find her mother. There she meets a German girlfriend, Charlotte 'Lotte' Staub (capably played by Patrycia Ziolkowska), who tries to assist Ayten in the search for her mother while letting her stay with Lotte and Lotte's mother, Susanne Staub, who is impeccably given life by Hanna Schygulla, who is given a kind of "clean-up hitter" (to borrow David Mamet's phrase) show-stopping role and makes the best of it with serene confidence. Her performance is singularly imbued with palpable strength, dignity and wisdom.

As stellar as The Edge of Heaven often is, it also stumbles, and not just because of Akin's almost excessive determinism or the suspense-murdering introductory title cards for his three acts. To reiterate, if the idea is to eliminate suspense, he would have been better suited to not be so manipulative--especially in one sequence that suffers from the bending of the rules of coincidences to nearly the breaking point (wouldn't you know a band of marauding, thieving children would show up at precisely the worst possible time). The subtlety of the universe Akin has created is often lacking, as momentous, ponderous shots that feel like "gotcha" capsules begin to pile up. A few of these would have been genuinely appreciated, but go too far as Akin finally does and the whole house of cards is threatened from a mere gentle blow. It almost causes the entire enterprise to blanch under the weight of Akin's wholly legitimate and exciting omnibus concept.

Akin is getting at important issues, and his handling of such is more nuanced and measured than one is normally used to receiving at the cinema where controversially explosive matters are often reduced to thunderously inane gibberish and nonsensical pandering. If Akin's earlier work is much like this then there is a great deal to look forward to watching on my part. The Edge of Heaven seems to struggle with itself at times, almost unsure of what exactly it wants to say beyond the innocent fact that these people are living their lives, and those lives sometimes shockingly lead to tragedy for those belonging to their immediate orbit and finally to themselves. That may be a blessing. That it seems to have some trouble finding the way in which to say what it conclusively says at all is perhaps more technically worrisome. A handful of scenes play a little too didactically, but upon reflection that was very possibly their point. To illustrate the full panoply of feelings and thoughts, sometimes generic colors must be utilized. Finally I would like to think The Edge of Heaven is merely stating that amidst the chaos of our times, of the individuals embroiled in the intrigues of the European Union; of Muslim immigrant populations within that union; of oppressive regimes and the dirtiness of revolutionary violence in any corner of the world, no matter how justified it may be, people found their place, and in doing so, found peace.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Shanghai Express (1932)

Why don't they make them like they used to? It's that essentially nostalgic, look-back-at-the-good-ol'-days question, but it's not one that should be readily scoffed at or dismissed. Even the most peripatetic movie obsessive who attempts to see every film that is even the least bit well-regarded by professional critics--and at least some that aren't--will have to concede the point between trips of assiduous cinema-frequenting, perhaps only in a state of meditative clarity. Or, more likely, he or she will be confronted with the question when they view a film as splendidly enchanting as the Shanghai Express.

Why are there so few films as effortlessly mounted, while being so deliriously magnetic these days? Is it because of the bedeviling nature of today's increasingly compartmentalized cinema, in which films are deigned the title of "little" ("______ is a good little movie," a statement I fully know I am guilty of utilizing probably far too often) while others are "prestige pictures," carefully calibrated months before release in many cases? The entire cinematic gallery in America is seasonal, and the weighty autumnal releases are sometimes so painstakingly polished that they are lacking a certain vitality (a certain percentage every year are so determined to be taken completely seriously as Art with a capital "A" that they forget to breathe) while many an instantly forgettable summertime tentpole blockbuster have what used to be grade-B concepts with grade-A+ budgets (Peter Bogdanovich made this excellent point in an interview about fourteen months ago conducted by Matt Zoller Seitz--check out the second to last question and answer, as it has continually haunted me: One of the rarest beasts roaming the American big screen frontier these days is a motion picture that can work as both pleasingly entertaining and enormously artistic, and the gap--today largely facilitated by the studios themselves, which make the prestige "Oscar-bait" films through their "indie studio" arms, while they focus more and more on franchises and "high concepts."

If Ed Tom Bell in No Country for Old Men found his mind wandering as an old man, I fear for my own as a young one. Shanghai Express is a masterpiece, and of the seven films von Sternberg made with the sensational and luminous Marlene Dietrich, it is by a fairly wide margin the most accessible, a rollicking good time--a love story, adventure, social message movie, ensemble drama, part-prototypical noir and a piece of brilliant German expressionist filmmaking given sanction by Paramount Pictures in the early 1930s. Fittingly, it is the "middle" film of the seven-part batch between von Sternberg and Dietrich, the fourth, and though all of the films are either quite good or terrific, Shanghai Express is probably the one that will win you over. For one thing, the sumptuous chiaroscuro black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes and James Wong Howe strikingly enshrouds the apically beautiful Dietrich (whose features seemed to refuse to age) in scene after scene, as well as the lovely Chinese star Anna May Wong. Wong, whose character's name is Hui Fei, is flatly terrific with a limited, laconic part. Both women are prostitutes. Dietrich's is famous--or infamous--as Shanghai Lilly, the "notorious White Flower of China." She's also known by her ex-lover, who meets her on the titular Shanghai Express train, Captain Donald 'Doc' Harvey (a lifeless and boring Clive Brook who today is fortunate to have shared the screen with the engulfing presence of Dietrich... perhaps he was absurdly wise in not trying), as simply Magdelen (Marlene Dietrich's middle name). Walter Oland, who would not too much later go on to become "Asian" again in The General Died at Dawn and also repeatedly play the clever Chinese detective Charlie Chan in many films of that cycle (these are all rather fun, diverting pictures as well, and though Oland is a case of a white actor playing Asian in both Shanghai Express and many Chan films, he does so with respectful dignity, albeit in a fairly comedic way in the latter--the taped eyes and parody-like voice are admittedly unfortunate and distracting). Oland's performance as the snake-like Henry Chang, a devious Eurasian whose real identity is that of a ruthless warlord, is a particular treasure that should be unearthed by each new viewer of the film on their own.

In precode film after precode film, the specter of the loose woman presents itself. Joan Crawford in Lewis Milestone's theoretical drama about rigid religious fanaticism (personified by a fiery, mad-eyed Walter Huston), Rain (also 1932) for instance, is both cursed and given the possible opportunity for rebirth. Many precode films were insistent in "curing" the morally shady, loose woman. Rain took a different approach. Countless pictures of the period focused on troubled marriages that were either shattered by infidelity or found themselves boldly attempting to reach a post-monogamous existence. Archie Mayo's tantalizingly-entitled Illicit, starring none other than Barbara Stanwyck, is one of the more interesting, nuanced and realistic takes on such morally murky material. Shanghai Express takes both a radical and traditional viewpoint, simultaneously recognizing the sadness of Dietrich's lost life and lost opportunities (a brutally frank scene between Magdelen and Harvey aboard the train boils down to the fact that in the five years since they separated from one another, she's been with many a fellow while he has pitifully stewed in remorse and self-hatred) and poking at other characters' self-righteousness aboard the train.

In von Sternberg's films, beauty is danger--but it's not that the women in his pictures are truly wicked, despite the protestations of the men (who are in actuality, more accurately realized in his canon as the routinely menacing, intermittently dull foils: which is partly why Dietrich's characters in von Sternberg's films may roughly resemble femme fatale forerunners but are actually better understood as savagely disregarded victims; The Blue Angel subtly demonstrates the tumultuous compact men and women create with one another that harms both sides, while in his 1931 cinematic adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, remade twenty years later by George Stevens, the plight of the working girl, along with what von Sternberg posits to be exploited garment and hotel workers, receives his sympathy, letting the rich girl be cast in the more unfavorable light, something Stevens reversed with his casting of Shelley Winters and Elizabeth Taylor in their respective roles).

Lawrence Grant leaves an indelibly strong impression as Reverend Carmichael, who initially believes the notorious Shanghai Lilly to be a toxic presence aboard the train, only to finally see the error of his ways. Unlike many precode films, such as the aforementioned Rain, which almost viciously excoriated a certain brand of Christianity (typically of the fire-breathing, proselytizing and Dispensationalist Protestant variety) for being cruel, unforgiving and hypocritical, Shanghai Express takes a more nuanced approach, allowing for Reverend Carmichael to assume the worst about Dietrich's "shady lady" but to be endowed with sufficient reason to think more openly. What makes the character shift at least plausible is that Reverend Carmichael roots his newly-enhanced take on Magdelen in "faith," as he tells the glacially-slow 'Doc' in one equally amusing and important scene.

And that is one of the miracles of Shanghai Express: scenes are allowed to be both amusing and important, charming and consequential. Characters are richly subtle creations made into animated, piercingly moving beings. Nothing is more depressing than hearing from proudly lackadaisical people, often in my age bracket, who strongly dislike the mere idea of seeking out "old movies" frequently because of an almost atavistic lack of curiosity all the while bemoaning what they wrongly assume to be primitive deficiencies therein. One cannot desiderate what one is wholly ignorant of. Some elements can be called quaint and in movies like these at this time unrequited love almost always finds requited harmony, but it's the journey, not the destination. Like many of the greatest artists, von Sternberg's journeys were littered with personal defiance and trenchant focus. Yet the surreptitious meanings of those journeys, still ripe for "decoding," if art of this magnitude is to receive the prosaically studious, timeless practice of one person after another digging into its nooks and crannies, were given the sweet, intoxicating operculum of inimitably swanky, fantastically zestful buoyancy and ecstatic pleasure.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Contempt (1963)

It begins with a shot of a tracking shot. Reminding us that this is a film instantly, Jean-Luc Godard allows the credits, which are not only shown on the screen but spoken, to attract the viewer's attention along with the oncoming camera, which is tracking its subjects, traveling closer to the camera capturing it. In Godard's most commercial film, he simultaneously breaks down and celebrates the art of narrative filmmaking as a double-layered level of storytelling ensues in this, his sublimely colorful, achingly composed Contempt.

Starring Brigitte Bardot as Camille, the ex-typist wife of a hired gun/script doctor screenwriter, Paul (Michel Piccoli) for a piranha of an American producer named Jeremy Prokosch (a beautifully arrogant and swaggeringly hypnotic Jack Palance) trying to extract a marketable film from Fritz Lang (played by Lang himself). Bardot is the centerpiece of Godard's mural. Godard's most emotionally naked film pivots whenever Bardot even merely alters her emotional being, runs her fingers through her hair or asks a sweetly-sounding but actually deeply scathing question or shows off her ostentatious physical features.

The score by Georges Delerue is achingly melancholic; the cinematography by Raoul Coutard is breathtaking. Godard's direction is assured, stately, cinematic: less vibrantly playful than Band of Outsiders, his most purely exhilarating film, more justifiably satisfied with itself than most Godard outings. The film feels both wholly comfortable in the Godard canon, and definitively different at the same time. Godard's films are less stealthy today than they doubtless were considered at the time of their respective releases--today, particularly with his earlier work, the viewer well-acquainted with him knows at least what to partly expect. As with Breathless and Le Petit Soldat and just about every film of his throughout this period, his main focus is on a male-female relationship, what troubles it, what guides it, what soothes it, and what frequently irreparably breaks it. Contempt, in this sense, begins at the ending, and for Godard this must have been something like a quantum leap, and it's also why I have always considered Masculin Feminin--a sublimely structured (despite being separated into fifteen threateningly daunting chapters over the course of 105 minutes, which isn't nearly the chore it may sound like because of Godard's rightfully celebrated playfulness and quite underappreciated romanticism) and yet suitably aimless film about aimless people--almost something of a step backwards, if not artistically then at least in chronological auteur study, since it yet again treads similar ground as Godard's earliest films in the sense of depicting variations of "young love," such as it is, while Contempt examines the breaking point of just a tad "older love," between man and wife. It feels like a film that belongs at the tail end of Godard's more love-obsessed period, as the young insurrectionist filmmaker becomes older, embittered and, as in Godard's case, more insular and insurrectionist.

Bardot's Camille is markedly dissatisfied with her husband, who alternates between jealousy and indifference, passion and disinterest. Paul lives inside his head like all artists, and knowingly or not, he kills his wife's love for him through a delicately mixed but devastatingly palpable mixture of selfishness, weakness and sheer neglect. After she demonstrates just how much contempt she has for him after his own exhibitions of meekness (coupled in Godard's panoply of thematic netting and entwining with the act of selling out to the American producer--a double act of betrayal, both based in relationships of the artist between his own art and his own love), his self-negating presence increases her distaste. Piccoli's performance is a wonderful one, as he wears his hat and smokes his cigar to look like Dean Martin in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running. His whiny outbursts--"Why don't you love me anymore?"--are so pitiful but true that they emit a kind of parenthetical glow to his every action.

Contempt is probably the kind of film Godard should have continued to make, between Masculin Feminin and La Chinoise and Week End. Like practically all artists, Godard was emphatically more interesting and, perhaps more importantly, much more persuasive when he was still keeping some semblance of impartial order, or just political subtlety intact. Contempt can be read by Godard critics as the ultimate kind of self-centered, bratty and obnoxious finger poked right in the eye of anyone who even remotely finds some common cause with the powers-that-be (in this case, Hollywood producers, who lest we forget, sometimes do allow for great films to be made despite all of the hacks Godard evidently loathes such as Palance's carnivore). It's an interesting point, and it benefits from hindsight: Godard's golden age was a supernova, burning out in approximately nine years, after which he both brazenly and lazily--as only a man of his talents could do at once--became more doctrinaire, didactic and routinely dull. Yet it won't entirely work, as Contempt's primary laser beam is directed squarely at the artist in question, Paul. Like Othello, Palance's Iago is only the mere instigator of the protagonist's evil, in Godard's little play--the crucial decisions are up to our hero. Like Othello, though, Paul is three steps behind and unlike Desdemona, Camille is in a bad mood.

One of the most amusing aspects of Contempt is Lang's performance as the director of the producer's version of "The Odyssey." Lang is not called upon to do much beyond playing himself, but it illustrates just how sensitive to human nature even the most direly fate-obsessed directors are. His analysis of the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope--that of the wandering, vaguely narcissistic he-man warrior enjoying a semblance of the good life, at least in base, hedonistic matters while Penelope stays faithful to her man--echoes the four-cornered dynamic between Camille, Paul, art and selling out. For Camille, Paul's selling out and arguable pimping her out to Prokosch, leaving her with him for a long period of time, are one and the same and his refusal to do anything but suggest she go along with Prokosch aboard his boat later in the film carries with it all of the weight of an infidelity, partly due to the striking, piercing score by Delerue. More openly playing with the audience's heartstrings to his own end, and yet also, just a little uncharacteristically, for the sake of the story itself, Godard's lingering shot of Bardot's Camille looking on with an equally wounded and hateful glare is almost too intense for its own good in its intentionally brackish implications.

Contempt, Godard said, "is a simple film, without any mysteries, done away with appearances... [It] proves in 149 frames that in cinema as much as life, nothing is secret, there is nothing to elucidate, only a need to live and to film." Never trust the artist, though, and sometimes you shouldn't even trust the art. Contempt works multifacetedly as a parallel narrative--and is interestingly the cleanest narrative Godard ever worked with, not surprising considering its more commercially blessed birth. In this regard, to compare him to one of his heroes when he was a young critic, Ingmar Bergman, Contempt is as close an approximation to his Scenes from a Marriage as one will find, which, to go back to the earlier point of chronological auteur study, makes absolutely perfect sense in its position in the Bergman filmography. But who's to say, exactly, ultimately, what fits perfectly where and why? Contempt is more probing, more closed-off, less inclusive than anything Godard made before or after it for a very long time and those are not necessarily negative points. While he may not consider it personally emblematic of his own fixations, we are perfectly free to disagree. In so many ways, it's all there in the opening shot--of a shot.