Sunday, November 23, 2008

Let the Right One In (2008)

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a bullied twelve-year-old Swedish boy who lives in a mostly quiet Stockholm suburb. Alienated and disconnected from both his peers and the adults in his life, Oskar is shy, introverted and sensitive. Pensively, however, he pursues an unsettling hobby of cutting out newspaper stories about grisly killings and criminal acts of violence. This pubescent finds himself the routine victim of schoolyard tormentors who see in his emotional delicacy sheer weakness. His countenance as white as a sheet, his long, straight blonde hair and features making him look like an albino Scandinavian child of the snow, he finds himself alone in that bitterly cold snow. He lives a quiet schoolboy life teeming with little indignities and mundane angst-ridden horrors. He amusedly mocks his mother, mouthing his single parent's words one room removed from her. It is that kind of universal act that invites the viewer the blizzard of soothing darkness that is Let the Right One In.

Constructed as a patient, reserved character study before all else, this Swedish picture directed by Tomas Alfredson, adapted from the bestselling novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, is at its best when it commendably balances the subtly (thematically and visually) depressive commonplace milieu so methodically formed and the inevitable sinking sensation brought on by the dread of supernatural horror. A tale nominally about vampirism, the film operates most cohesively as an arresting blend of these supposedly divergent threads: of the everyday, smothering horror Oskar endures and the fantastical splash of morbid but benign (to Oskar) inhuman horror. Let the Right One In is not a horror film per se, though it does carry within its bloodstream the occasional frights, darkly-lit sequences of pulse-pounding terror and memorable special-effects-aiding moments belonging to the macabre.

Though an eerie patina makes the entire film slightly askew with disorientingly long, steady and lyrical camera takes and compositions, that benign-to-Oskar force is treated as a viable love for him in Eli, a similarly pale girl, or a vampire, or something (Lina Leandersson in an uncanny performance) that acts as a kind of almost asomatous surrogate, a cosmically righteous avenger for Oskar. Contrasting with the fare Oskar, Eli's eyes are piercingly dark as though they belonged to a feline and her hair is a silky raven. In many ways, however, Eli is simply the darkest most extension of Oskar's conscious, which is awkwardly finding expression in the make-believe of stabbing a tree with a stick while demanding it “squeal like a pig,” a command Oskar is given by the tireless group of bullies. As he is fascinated by an open-ended serial killer investigation in the area, snipping out news stories about it and other dastardly deeds with a pair of scissors, the violence he suffers serves as an occasionally bloody foray into the purposeless awfulness of oppression and torture. Lashed about the legs and finally face by those who belittle his very existence, he explains away the cut on his cheek to his mother with all of the weariness and embarrassment of an especially meek boy struggling with his own ill-advised pacifism. In the late darkness of the wintry night, however, he pretends that the tree outside the building in which he lives is an evildoer he can vanquish and make submit with squealing. It is important to note that this is when Eli appears, as Oskar has most positively transmitted his own anguish into the possibility of retribution.

After impressing the impressionable Oskar with her aptitude for Rubik's cubes, and by extension wordlessly promising to gift him with a similar kind of order in his life that has been missing, Eli instructs Oskar that he must fight back against those who punish him. Later, Eli, after being fully revealed to be the creature of the night that stalks the sleepy suburb, will note the moment at which time she entered Oskar's world, as he poked the tree with his stick, instructing it to “squeal like a pig.” Eli notes that she kills because she must, in order to survive, whereas Oskar's flirting with the darkness from which she literally and figuratively flies and lunges comes from desire. Friendship as wish-fulfillment is a pervasive theme, especially in stories about children, and Let the Right One In is an altogether interesting twist on this common construction.

With Eli's macabre accents of bloodlust and particularly unnerving superstitiousness, such as having to be “let in” to the homes of others, supplying much of the film's more saucily sweet nutrients against the achingly wan mise-en-scene of Oskar's daily trudging through the bleak landscapes, his feet crunching the icy snow beneath him as he moves, and the factory-like monotony of unease at his school or the detached confines of his place of residence. It is a great credit to Alfredson that some of these scenes do not play as the repetitive rhythmic beats that in strictest narrative form they are, as the child actors are laved with finely gentle attentiveness and keenly inspired direction, refreshing the picture just when it seems to be stalling. Alfredson's approach makes the occurrences just appropriately off-center, centrifugally bringing the picture to its climax.

While the climax itself is not terribly magnetic, suffering from a predictability and conformation to formula as dated as Carrie, it is like the entire film—exquisitely photographed by Hoyte Van Hoytema—visually interesting and the epilogue strikes the precisely correct note. What finally matters is the central relationship of Oskar and Eli, and though the film spends more time than is necessary with the comparatively thinly-drawn adults who happen to share Oskar and Eli's inhabitation, its makers are securely knowing—that the picture's potency is derived from the two children. She serving as the caliginous, murky mirror of his own soul, he evidently providing her with the connection she has been missing for so long (her body may be twelve years old but like Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire that is only her body). Recalling films as disparate as the aforementioned Carrie, Interview with the Vampire and also An American Werewolf in London, Let the Right One In nevertheless signifies its own path. Yes, the familiar correlation between sexuality and vampirism is abundantly exploited, in this instance given a deftly fashioned pubescent context, but Alfredson reaches deeper. His film is about shapes, how they change, and the glee with which filmmakers can manipulate them. The frostily flat surfaces punctuated by creepy, sometimes bluish, sometimes sallow lighting, suggests a film determined to break free of its own foreordained standards, conventions and expectations, and of the lingering discomfort they leave for those still intrigued by this most provocative essaying of the inhumanity of humans and the humanity of the inhuman.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire is nothing less than the most persuasive and potent renunciation of the supposed necessity of “realism” in movies that one could find in theatres today. An overwhelmingly celebrated picture, it is bombastic, visually spectacular and beautifully acted. Yet it is, despite its itinerant peregrination through just some of the worst slums of India, fundamentally a fairytale, an ode to poetry over prose, an ebulliently vibrant underdog (indeed, “Slumdog”) story that is so compulsively engrossing, one wishes a collection of five average movies contained its raw power. When critics decry cinematic manipulation, one wonders just what, exactly, they are complaining about. Cinema is an inherently manipulative art form, a sensorial undertaking above all else, a roundabout submission to the subconscious, which, with its endless torrent of streaming perceptions, is the longest running motion picture of the mind. Art as entertainment, as populist escapism, as simply sustenance, cannot be taken for granted anymore.

With that in mind, one leaves Slumdog Millionaire exhilarated, and unabashedly moved, but also hopeful. Director Danny Boyle has made a film with a narrative device of sublime efficacy, taking what has become the trendy non-linear narrative—today nearing the point of exhaustion from so many ill-advised usages—and revitalizing it. One hopes Boyle is able to leave a mark in other, even greater ways with this film. Realism is dandy and often important but dreams are soulfully comestible, and when given the unmistakable urgency of great filmmaking, singularly rewarding. That criticism of manipulation stems from the proverbial parts showing, an incompetent magician giving away the game of legerdemain so crucial to keep the buoyant illusion afloat. Boyle's command is so surefooted and unremitting, however, that one becomes willingly held hostage to it, relishing every moment of the experience.

Slumdog Millionaire follows the life of a poor Indian youth named Jamal Malik, whose inexplicable ability to answer an impressive string of questions on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (asked by the host, played by a terrifically smug and megalomaniacal Anil Kapoor) supplies the foundation for Boyle's glittery creation. How he knows the respective answers to the questions serves as Boyle's device to illustrate respective times and adventures in Jamal's life, beginning when he was a young child. What quickly becomes apparent is that Jamal has learned things through living, not necessarily learning—but of course living is learning, as the film posits. Dev Patel plays the “older” Jamal, answering the questions on the game show with great, hypnotic charisma. As the film opens, however, Patel's Jamal is being interrogated by a brutal but intelligent police inspector (Irfan Khan, who played a very similar role as a Pakistani Captain in last year's A Mighty Heart, stealing the show in each film, though here just one more great performance in an offering of many). Surely this “slumdog,” as he is disdainfully referred to by the inspector, is cheating.

Boyle makes his film defiantly difficult to categorize, bringing to the fore genres as diverse as mystery, thriller, drama, noir, comedy, romance, even action and finally musical—all under the umbrella of “biopic,” perhaps—with this divine trip into the story of Jamal. Hovering over the sprawl of Jamal's story is the game show, which provides for ample suspense and interest, though Boyle's focal point is correctly on the origins, triumphs and tragedies of Jamal that cumulatively led him to his moment of televized glory. There is a narrative surprise in the final reel as well, when the more linear narrative timeline of Jamal's endurance of awful torture and sleep-depriving interrogation, is given new meaning, and implications. Rarely has the non-linear stylistic been employed with such conviction and reason, and so remarkably well, as it does in this instance, blending thematic concerns with sheer exquisiteness.

Boyle's thematic interests remain, stronger—simultaneously subtler and more assertive. Jamal and his brother, Salim, at one point find themselves conscripted by Fagin-esque criminals who use children to accumulate money. Jamal and Salim's mother is violently taken from them. Jamal and Salim finally find themselves on a train, that refuge so poignantly yearned for in Trainspotting and Millions. Soon thereafter they go about making money by posing as tourist guides for wealthy Western visitors—displaying an entrepreneurial initiative not unlike that of others in Boyle pictures, most recently the two motherless brothers in Millions. And again there is an enormous pile of money to be had, the sum of which is too vast and great for the protagonist to fully comprehend. These flourishing interests are fascinating to behold in the context Boyle has placed them here, deriving as they do fanciful desires and possibilities against the stifling impenetrability of the despairing reality. Here, Jamal and Salim are children of extreme poverty, and for a little while the film, nestling in the balmy jungle, closely resembles some films by Satyajit Ray, perhaps most poetically Pather Panchali and the entire Apu Trilogy, which found the rivalries and spiritual confrontations of siblings to be at the heart of their intimate dramas.

Meanwhile, in one heartbreakingly simple vignette, Jamal allows a little girl, withstanding a ceaseless sheet of rain falling from the sky, to join he and his brother in a securely roofed haven. What the screenplay initiates and the director follows through with is a love story as pure and uncomplicated as some of the more touching of silent cinema. Jamal and this girl, Latika, are simply destined to be with one another, a point Jamal reinforces with the kind of sweet but steadily applied determinism with which the film is so happily blessed. Boyle creates something ineffably wise by adopting such an incomplex and truthful love story. This is the love affair George Lucas should have easily fashioned between Anakin Skywalker and Padme with his Star Wars prequels—yet it was the pedantic Lucas who made his work of complete fantasy stilted and robotic in its didacticism. Boyle gets it right.

Here, as Boyle lets his camera fly through the jungle, through the sprawl, through the feces, jungle and sunbaked mud, through towns and across roads, he attains what Alfred Hitchcock described when speaking of his masterpiece Psycho, “the kind of picture where the camera takes over.” The kinetically charged cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is bedazzling, bridging the gulf between viewer and celluloid with an almost hazily hallucinatory hypnotism that is simply refulgent. Mantle's aiding Boyle in adapting Simon Beaufoy's magnificent screenplay is quintessential in forming the aesthetic tapestry of the picture. And it is that cinematographic brilliance that deliriously portrays the environs and localities that give the film such richly distinctive settings, whether they be a game show set, a gangster's palatial abode or the destitute slums teeming with people. In one scintillating sequence, the two very young brothers, Jamal and Salim, run from the authorities of their neighborhood, speedily scampering through the maze-like vicinity. Boyle's camera bounces as it follows, but then resorts to a bird's eye overhead shot. A second and a half later, the shot widens, going further back; and then it retracts again, capturing the entire slum area with profoundly widespread significance. This, Boyle gently but convincingly instructs, is a national tale, one embedded in the very fiber of the nation of India.

That national story is the one that finally animates Slumdog Millionaire, ensuring that the story of the Republic of India is told. The heightened sociocultural role the nation enjoys in the post-Non-Aligned Movement foreign policy it followed during the Cold War is examined with great curiosity and wonderment by Boyle. His joyful interpretation, which nevertheless allows for corruption, repression, endemic economic hopelessness, gangsterism, kidnapping, forced prostitution and a brotherly relationship that occasionally recalls Cain and Abel, recalls nothing less unpretentious than Rocky, with its Philly neighborhood boxer being offered the shot of a lifetime. Indeed, in the climactic sequence, as people all over India watch their television sets, fixated on a moment of awe-inspiring and unifying astonishment, Jamal's great love runs and runs. And like all great genuinely crowd-pleasing pictures, Slumdog Millionaire wins the audience over, lets the enchantment linger and makes the viewer believe in it, despite all reason.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

As Synecdoche, New York unspools, one may be forgiven if the routinely melancholic subject of mortality seems to be treated as a kind of relentlessly rancorous punchline. Charlie Kaufman's directorial maiden voyage is discontented, and just a little angry. Which provides the abutment for Kaufman's grandly affixed creation. Without the frustration that comes from knowledge of the mortality of oneself, such astutely penetrative works as the fifteenth century's Latin texts, Ars moriendi, written with the solemn purpose of endowing the reader with the properly Christian, and artful, way in which to die, would not have had their very first reason to be created. This connubial triumvirate of philosophy, religion and art in the bleary matters of death has haunted man, and continues to do so, in the popular art form of cinema.

In Synecdoche, New York, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, a theatrical director in Schenectady, New York, suffering from a case of hypochondria that makes Woody Allen's Mickey Sachs in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) look positively blasé when regarding his health. Caden's suspicions seem to be proven, with dizzying rapidity, as Kaufman whirls the ailments with which Caden may or may not be afflicted—with the alacritous hurry of children-riding horses on a merry-go-round. His head being slashed while shaving leading him to believe he has brain damage; his urine curdling into a rusty brown; his fecal matter becoming differently colored (foreshadowed by his daughter’s fixation on her greening “poop”), finally graying as surely as his hair does in this twenty-year-long odyssey; the postules that riddle his skin; a gum disease, necessitating surgery; seizures. Kaufman's specific obsession with the waste product of his characters speaks to an anatomical cogitation, and supplies a rationale for critics looking through the lens of literalism to deride the unpleasant imagery and exposition while forming the fairly tired theory that the auteur has his head up his rectum. On one doubtless plane this does partly serve as a creative innuendo. If Caden is Kaufman, as Marcello Mastroianni's Guido Anselmi was Federico Fellini in , thus Caden's fascination with the matter he, his daughter and all people evacuate is a “brutally truthful” (an achingly lofty goal towards which Caden strives to reach in his art) reflection on the writer-director himself, a bit of self-deprecating humor about more than defecating. However, Kaufman's fervent interest in the body in all of its functions serves greater, much more involving interests. This thematic curiosity was previously covered with repetitiousness in his previous screenwriting enterprises most minutely in the context of the ritualistic auto-orgasmic act of masturbation. Here, however, Kaufman strips away his protagonist's desire to self-pleasure; indeed, when confronted with the potentiality of having sex with a woman, Caden begins crying, much to his embarrassment.

If Kaufman's Caden is unwilling to self-pleasure and humorously unexcited about—or perhaps simply incapable of emotionally handling—the prospects of lovemaking, it is with an ironic twist that Kaufman makes his ostensible alter-ego (emphasis on ego) a veritable eye of a tornado comprised primarily of femininity. Like a passive, uncharismatic and oversensitive variation on Mastroianni's Guido, and lacking a whip with which to keep his vying females at bay, Hoffman's Caden mopes and talks. In a kaleidoscopic first act in which time moves at great velocity (newspaper dates change by several months at the rate of a minute)—the fabric of which is never tamed and is astonishingly fluid throughout the film—Caden's relationship with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) completely disintegrates. Caden—whose last name, Cotard, hints at his ailment's identity—suffers one verbal indignity after another from Adele. As he is directing Arthur Miller's “Death of a Salesman,” and has given the modern classic a face-lift by casting younger performers (one of whom is played by Michelle Williams) in all of the roles, informing the actor playing Willy Loman for what feels like must be the hundredth time that the great tragedy of the play will be ballooned by the audience's collective realization that they will end up just as devastated and beaten-down as poor Willy Loman. Again, the film functions as at least doubly attuned, heightening the film audience's awareness that Caden resembles Willy Loman.

After Adele sees the production for herself, she lacerates her husband for wasting his time tinkering with someone else's play. Soon she takes their daughter away to Germany where she becomes quite famous. (A phone call between Keener and Hoffman recalls Capote, in which Keener, vastly more respectful and tender as Nelle Harper Lee, gently basked in her acclaim with To Kill a Mockingbird to a disgusted and psychologically bruised Hoffman-Truman Capote.)

The numerical configuration of 7-45, as in 7:45, is fascinating, for it gives the film a greater oneiric foundation. Awakening at the time his digital clock reads 7:45, Caden's lackadaisical efforts to vacate his bed, listening to the local radio station, whereat a woman speaks of the depressing realization that is the first day of autumn (“The bloom is off the rose,” she says at one point; later, she notes that “everything is dying...”) are a foreshadowing of the film's most fundamental portrait: a man slowly struggling against the oncoming chilliness of mortality. The beautiful number seven, God's chosen number of completion—and in the interests of further thematic uncovering, perhaps denoting the dice-flinging possibility of “sevening out,” which results in the player losing the dice. Four, idiomatically conjuring the imagery of the four extremities, resting on all fours, bodily communicating the extents to which beings can concretely reach. Five, the digital representation of the hand's extremities, theoretically reinforcing the primacy of man's distinguishing feature of the closing of the thumb and index finger—also very probably tied in with the concept of “taking five,” of a respite, in this instance pointing to an earthly rest.

The liveliest character in Caden's orbit is the spirited, lovely redhead Hazel, who works at his theatre's box office, played to infectious dazzle by Samantha Morton. Flirtatiously sweet, if admittedly highly, almost unhealthily determined, she is compulsively drawn to Caden's vulnerability, which most fittingly keeps her at a remote distance. Gradually, however, she wears Caden's veneer of insecurities and anxieties down, pointing to his wife's year-long absence (which he believes has only spanned the time of a week), and takes him to her home, where a perpetual fire consumes portions of the abode. This venue of confused lovemaking, the air overwhelmed by the smoke and flame through which Caden and Hazel eye one another, with her offering a drink.

Kaufman's richly detailed, almost epically vast narrative, marked by a suffusive coating of phantasmagorical surrealism, chronicles not the celebration of death but the reckoning with it. The film does not in actuality represent the petulant wallowing in nihilism that some critics undoubtedly dismiss Synecdoche, New York as but the confrontation with existential worriment. Kaufman's films cannot and should not be called nihilistic: if anything, it is an exemplary branching off from nihilism, and most historically judicious in being such. The film is surrealistic, the philosophical and artistic outgrowth from nihilism in the post-World War I period, and stands in contrast to nihilism as a film made with the entirely reasonable, even morally sound, yearning to confront the greatest vicissitude that lay in the shadow land between life and death. Kaufman's pictures may not meet the definition of “funny” for everyone (Synecdoche, New York is rather hilarious, however, despite the grimness and wistfulness at the picture's troubled but thoroughly humanistic core) but their interests, marinated though they may be in Dostoyevskian, Joycian and Kafkaesque theorem, are not absurdly esoteric or incomprehensible.

Those interests are in actuality not especially eggheaded, but truly bourgeois, at least in their emotional resonance. If anything, with each successive screenplay, Kaufman has become more one with his audience than with his peers. That process seemed to culminate in 2004 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which took as its great, urgent theme the inviolable importance of memories—good, bad, indifferent—as the basis upon which people of all stripes find their own soulful worth. Those memories, in that case distinctly constituting the highs, lows and in-betweens that lovers share, and here, the sprawling ennui, sweeping intimacy of one man's life as artist, husband, father, friend and lover, give people an ideal to which they strive. Kaufman seems to be writing a valentine of sorts, not to anyone in particular, perhaps, but to the very notion of the good life, which is naturally imperfect (and thusly “good”). In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's characters discovered that annoyances, disagreements and disappointments aside, they were ultimately right for one another. Keener's Adele remarks with cutting clarity—and, again, brutal honesty—“Everyone's disappointing, the more you know them,” a biting piece of individualized nihilism, yes, but exposed as fatally trendy and hollow. This is not unlike the family counselor played by Hope Davis, interested only in peddling her uber-trendy self-help books, whose lack of assistance in anything meaningful indicts the labeled highbrow establishment not unlike Woody Allen's thrashing of the intelligentsia.

Comparing Kaufman to Ingmar Bergman may verge on heresy, though some of the concerns are similar. Here Kaufman reminds of Bergman's films about artists, in one form and context or another, such as The Seventh Seal, The Passion of Anna and even Autumn Sonata, motivated as they are by the quandaries with which the famed Swedish master struggled. When Caden finds himself apparently swapping roles with a woman named Ellen Bascomb (Dianne Wiest), the disorienting effect is considerably less subtle than that which constituted the psychological exploration and projection in Persona but not entirely unlike it.

It is noteworthy that cinematographer Frederick Elmes, longtime cinematographer of David Lynch's, lensed this film, lending it an aesthetically adventurous manner. Yet the cinematography, mixing the reality with the fantastical, is most effective because it is almost pensively restrained in its gritty, grounded schema. The original music by Jon Brion brightens some of the film's darkness, aiding Kaufman in making many a ludicrous event downright hysterical. Kaufman's picture succeeds most emphatically because of its singular ability to leave profoundly saddening revelations about humanity dropping into the minds of the viewers while practically giggling, chuckling and chortling through the celluloid itself. Meanwhile, Hoffman and Morton give two of the year's best performances in one of the year's very best films.

What Synecdoche, New York most puissantly reveals is the importance of finding peace within one's very soul, within oneself. Kaufman dials down the artistic expression at its most basic mixture of ingredients. Visually, this is demonstrated through absurd and humorous tiny miniature works of art framed at an art gallery that must be viewed through microscopic goggles. After Caden has assiduously built up the warehouse (it looks like an enormous airplane hanger in “reality,” however ill-defined that may be, however) he eyes a map. The map features the Warehouse, and underneath this symbol a smaller map and warehouse exists, and underneath that, yet another, each one becoming tinier than the one before it. Caden cannot stop thumbing through them for a moment, at the sheer, almost juvenile delight that matryoshka dolls likewise inspire. The entire film's essence is boiled down. It is in this never-ending vortex, this gravitational pull of wonder, that people learn about themselves. Or so Caden desperately hopes.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Road Warrior (1981)

George Miller, in his collaborative screenwriting efforts and virtuoso directorial performance, etched a piece of popular entertainment as combustible and cyclonic in its action as it is resonant and catholic in its moral foundation. The Road Warrior is a sequel to the 1979 Mad Max, about a man charged with serving and protecting innocents, turned vigilante, in post-Apocalyptic Australia, and loses his wife and child to the marauding, road-trekking barbarians who plague whatever is left of civilization. The original film is endearing as a “cult movie,” but its aspirations are limited, restrained by a tiny budget that renders much of it primitive in comparison to the orchestral roar of action of this picture—represented in purely cinematic terms such as movement, image, sound, all invaluably linked to one another through breathtaking choreography and geographical mastery. Miller's mise-en-scene is dazzling in its complexity, but what makes The Road Warrior most successful as a piece of pure cinema is its methodical and meticulous mythologizing of the hero.

The Road Warrior is firstly a tale about myth, like all stories, but most especially ones set in the past or future. Playing out in a barren, dystopic post-nuclear world where people have been reduced to hoarding their gasoline—the lifeblood of the modern, developed world, made literally the life-source of those who survived the abominable extinguishing of the planet in its beautiful form. The myth-making is apparent immediately, as a sage narrator explains the background to the generation he is presumably entrusting to follow him. Like all older, wiser men telling pertinent tales of the foolishness of man, he doubtless hopes that the generation that succeeds him will not repeat the recurring mistakes of man.

“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories. I remember a
time of chaos. Ruined dreams. This wasted land. But most of all, I remember The
Road Warrior. The man we called 'Max.' To understand who he was, you have to go
back to another time. When the world was powered by the black fuel. And the
desert sprouted great cities of pipe and steel. Gone now, swept away. For
reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a
blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel, they were nothing. They built a
house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped. Their leaders
talked and talked and talked. But nothing could stem the avalanche. Their world
crumbled. The cities exploded. A whirlwind of looting, a firestorm of fear. Men
began to feed on men. On the roads it was a white line nightmare. Only those
mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive. The gangs
took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice. And in this
maelstrom of decay, ordinary men were battered and smashed. Men like Max. The
warrior Max. In the roar of an engine, he lost everything. And became a shell of
a man, a burnt out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man
who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place,
that he learned to live again...”

The screenplay, written by Miller, Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, gives the hero-myth that animates so many, from the man wanting to take his mind off his troubles for ninety minutes to the late Joseph Campbell, an appropriately gauzy starting point. Seeing the original 1979 movie is unnecessary firstly because this picture asserts itself with such an involving and propulsive beginning by itself, so as to leave the first chapter in the saga otiose in comparison and secondly because the above narration is visually reinforced by imagery from the first picture, most importantly the slaying of Max's wife and child “...[i]n the roar of an engine...” The film, having solemnly promised to be nothing less than a rollicking artistic avatar for the ancient tradition of proliferating the “Creative Mythology” of a people, to appropriate Campbell, bolsters its myth with the avoirdupois of human nature. Any film so self-possessed in its confidence, pursuing the strategy inherent in its raison d'etre, naturally borders on grandiloquence. Here, the narrator's words are supplied with historical weight. “For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all.” Surely in the late 1970s and early 1980s fears of nuclear annihilation—the most unthinkable possibility, nevertheless repeatedly flirted with throughout the Cold War's duration—were justified. Ironically, those fears' salience, their being so easily reduced to being incorporated in the makings of pop entertainment, whether in the '40s, '50s, '60s or thereafter, compellingly prove the case.

Miller allows the pyrotechnics obligatory in his film's world blanketed by madness to commence the moment the prologue ceases, eschewing any further build-up in favor of christening the audience in the baptismal fire of a gripping chase sequence. Max, played by Mel Gibson (who starred in the 1979 picture and would later reprise the role in the 1985 Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), is pursued by a group of rapacious bandits. Outwitting them, Max ensures that he can survive for another day. And that is what he most definitively cares about. Max has indeed been stripped of his humanity by the inhumanities from which he has suffered so greatly. Like a more cynical and coldblooded Han Solo from Star Wars (1977), Max is unwilling to enlist in causes, no matter how just; his particular steely iciness and emotional self-denial encapsulates the lengths to which he will think of himself in all situations. Or so he has forced himself to believe. In a manner befitting the soul-drained knight of this adventure, Gibson's performance reminds one of other ruffians or stoic doers of justice, convincing themselves that they were instruments of more elemental contrivances. Like John Ford's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) or Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro Kawatabake in Yojimbo (1961), Max here is a largely pensive, bottled-up protagonist. Gibson rightly plays the part with a deadpan asceticism. He is playing a part whose role is determined by the characters who surround him. It is they who make Max a hero, in many ways; it is literally and lyrically foretold. He shall be lionized. What those who encounter him bring with them is what paints the portrait of Max. That portrait's coloring fluctuates between the begrudging respect earned from comic relief sidekick “Gyro Captain” (Bruce Spence), righteous indignation by the leader of the tribe vainly trying to get Max to drive a tanker truck full of the surviving community's gasoline named Pappagello (Mike Preston) and adulation from an eight-year-old who growls, grunts and laughs in a constant state of delirium named Feral Kid (Emil Minty).

That Feral Kid attacks one of the film's more considerable forces of evil, a malevolent marauder named Wez (Vernon Wells), who hops about uncontrollably, his facial warpaint and tomahawk hairdo adducing his unrefined truculence. The Feral Kid flings a lethal metal boomerang in the direction of Wez, but the wicked warrior avoids it, leaving his ostensible male lover doomed to receive the instrument, which lands squarely in his head. The pain Wez feels is palpable. What follows is fascinating. The boomerang flies through the air again, and the event is made into a joke by the evil and destructive Lord Humungus's (Kjell Nilsson) pathetic court jester, who, in his ridiculous effort to catch the metal boomerang, loses several fingers. The roaring laughter throughout the ranks of Lord Humungus's men serves as a prudent drawing of the historic role of the court jester, and how expendable he is in the grand scheme of history.

Viewed through the prism of economics, of the issues of energy and industry, of self-sufficiency and the undeniably important role gasoline plays in the functionality and networking of modern society—afforded paradoxical weight by Max's vehicle being a super-charged car—The Road Warrior is altogether arresting. The Mad Max series, made in a post-'70s energy crisis time period, posits the shattering but familiar future reality of nuclear annihilation, cinematically pervasive from Chris Marker's La Jetee to James Cameron's The Terminator, as a testing-ground for man, his machines and the fuel without which those machines are useless. With the building blocks kicked over by irrationality, man must revert to sheer basics in all existential matters.

Dean Semler (whose latest work can be found in Appaloosa) aids Miller in providing splendid cinematography, aligning Miller's compositional genius with a vibrancy of light that is quintessential in the making of the director's expansive vision. The sun, and the gradations of the light it bestows upon the earth, is made a character itself, hovering above the action. Miller's handling of the action, however, the robust technique of his prodigious filmmaking, is what makes The Road Warrior a uniquely sensational work, its excitedly humming filmic engine capable of taking the viewer to places at almost peerless speeds. It is in the conflict between the perdurable forces of good and evil that this film finds its sparkling soul. Art, no matter how wonderful, cannot stand as the justification for history: from Homer and Euripides through Tolstoy and Hemingway, art could only meagerly attempt to reconcile and record the tragedy, depravity and horror so prevalent at different times. The future, fertile though it may be, can only cohere to such an elucidation, something many Road Warrior knock-offs such as the bloated wet '90s version, Water World, failed to understand. As the rebellious American colonist Patrick Henry noted in his speech to the Virginia convention of 1775, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know no way of judging of the future but by the past.” The picture's title, The Road Warrior, describes the title of this tale's heroic figure, mythically impenetrable and distant. As the heroes celebrated, for instance, in Plutarch's Lives were endowed with awesome monikers, so too have people throughout all of time given their precious heroes momentous titles.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Casino Royale (2006)

James Bond as a movie series has received numerous updates and revisions. Beginning with Goldfinger, the series began to follow a newfound formula, which proved to be winningly popular but left some Bond films particularly more redundant than others. After Sean Connery left the series, George Lazenby was given only one shot as agent 007 in a dramatically different kind of Bond—On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which ironically demanded more from a Bond actor than perhaps any other picture of the series. Once Connery resumed 007 duties with Diamonds are Forever, the films began to take on many of the tropes of 1970s movies, with wacky car chases, greater quantities of humor and a more generally staid personality with the dapper but quite unthreatening Roger Moore taking up the role. (Read Daniel Getahun's piece on one strong Moore entry here.) Once the Moore era finally concluded in the mid-1980s, Timothy Dalton was ultimately consigned movie 007 status, pushing the series, very briefly, in a more a human, disquieted and agitated direction—and most happily, one that Bond novelist Ian Fleming could have more easily recognized as belonging to his literary spirit. (Read Christian Divine's piece on the first Dalton interpretation here.) After Dalton's short-lived run as Bond concluded, the series lay dormant for six long years until GoldenEye proved that Bond could be hip and popular and even relevant in a post-Cold War, 1990s world. Whatever goodwill that 1995 picture captured was quickly dashed, however, when the Brosnan era proved to be defined by a greater reliance on formula than at any time in the series's history. The resultant three completely unmemorable-to-awful Bond entries under Brosnan's watch led to a need to self-cleanse, especially after the 2002 disaster of invisible cars, ice palaces and Halle Berry's “Jinx” in Die Another Day. (The lasting image of that movie will forever remain Brosnan's Bond shot against a CGI backdrop of cascading ice, atop which he wind-surfed.) Four years transpired until Bond, James Bond, was reborn—in a more emphatic way than ever before—with Casino Royale.

Casino Royale, not to be confused with the bloated but mutedly endearing 1967 psychedelic spoof on all things Bond (read Christian's thoughts on which here), marked the greatest departure from the same old, same old in the entire history of the franchise. Not content to simply make Bond darker and grittier, the producers opted to take him back to his roots, effectively relaunching the franchise not unlike the strategy employed by Warner Brothers to make all things old new again after the years of dormant inaction following the self-parody and self-destruction of Batman and Robin in Batman Begins, followed by the second major chapter of their saga, The Dark Knight. At the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond is just securing his double-0 status with two kills. He's constantly bordering impetuousness, in a distinctly “blunt” manner (being referred to as a “blunt instrument” by M). Played by Bond newcomer Daniel Craig as the bluntest of all Bonds, more callous than his predecessors with a greater physicality, this Bond is something of a recreation of the most famous man “on her majesty's secret service,” while, through the narrative, possessing some of the original novel's emotional highs and lows.

Incongruously written by the same screenwriting team that would later be partly responsible for the unfortunate Quantum of Solace—Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade—the film takes several cues from the the first Bond novel of them all, Casino Royale, published in 1953. Martin Campbell, who brought Bond back once with Brosnan's virginal outing, GoldenEye, was charged with making Bond relevant to the '00s after having done so for the '90s. With a bulking physique than even dwarfs Sean Connery, and with more indomitable deadliness to his actions, and blonde hair (Bond of the novel was blue-eyed, though grayly tinted), Craig most unquestionably represented a massive departure from the sleepier movies of Brosnan's. (It has been long speculated and reported that Brosnan was continually wishing the producers allowed him to take the character in a much darker area, but such dreams were not to be the case.)

Unlike the spatially incoherent mess of action in Quantum of Solace, Campbell covers his action scenes with daring aplomb and gracefulness. An early sequence with Bond chasing a hired bomb-maker in Madagascar represents some of the best action-shooting of the Bond movies, with Campbell making every jump employed by the two adversaries entirely visible and, consequently, impactful and occasionally quite thrilling. Campbell's direction is largely tight, and though the film does wander some with a 144-minute running time, most of the meandering is in a good cause, providing a depth to the British agent usually not committed to his psyche and true being.

The film's villain, “bent” banker La Chiffre, is played to complicated and rather realistic fruition by Mads Mikkelsen. A mathematical savant genius, he likes showing off his mental attributes by playing poker, knowing to the precise decimal point the odds. Bond eventually must play against him in a game of poker—a blatant and admittedly off-putting divergence from the novel's more exotic baccarat. (Naturally, with the current poker craze, this only helped to guarantee the film's popularity.) Judi Dench is solid as M, whose interactions with Bond here are of a greater vitality than in many years. Jeffrey Wright as Felix Leiter gives his deux ex machina role something of a heartbeat, promising a deepening of the relationship between he and Bond in the following film that, like almost all other promises, was broken with Quantum of Solace. Playing Vesper Lynd, drawn with empathy and love from the novel, is Eva Green, who surpasses the moniker of “Bond girl” with a mixture of subtlety and acuteness that makes her characterization just about entirely believable. It is certainly the second most important performance of the film: Vesper and James Bond being slowly overtaken by mutual love and affection demands a greater impression than just another conquest in the tradition of Bond movies.

The film basks in a fairly diamantine symbolism used as connective tissue. In the film's black-and-white teaser, Bond wrestles with his “first kill” in a men's restroom, struggling to drown the man in a sink full of water. The soundtrack, bustling with the tumultuously scary score, is briefly overwhelmed by the sound of a heartbeat. This kill is personal. One man's life is ending so another man can become what he is destined to be; later, that heartbeat sound will thunder and pulsate through the soundtrack as Bond staggers out to his Aston Martin, his life quickly draining from him after consuming poison. Bond finally dies, for all of half a dozen seconds or so, as Vesper restarts the agent's heart—and of course does so on two different planes of meaning. In its own way, this strangely melodic but ominous device helps to underscore the creation of a distinct personage, and a continuation of the Bond legacy's beating heart.

Campbell's movie is, whatever one thinks of its content or even the romantic and fated vibe with which it is permeated, a complete work. A departure and a return, a reinvention and a nostalgic reach for at least some of Fleming's intention. Bond is too cold and hard, though, lacking in the self-knowledge attained firstly by being human. Fleming's Bond hated the dirtiness of his vocation, forced to snuff out lives for the betterment of England and her interests. Casino Royale is a flawed picture, as well, with an overlong opening act and overlong final act, with too great an emphasis on action—often against people who resemble cardboard cutouts—but the problems actually become faded by time and revisiting the movie, as this blogger did the day before Quantum of Solace was released, helps to make the troubling or superfluous segments evaporate from memory. It is telling that one of the more unpleasant and grisly passages from the novel, that of a fiendish torture session, is left to remain in the movie in more graphic-than-usual for this series detail. Craig's Bond here is supposed to be on his maiden voyage of intrigue and derring-do, and behaves in a manner less preordained by the chords of cinematic tradition than any other. When asked whether he wants his Vodka martini shaken or stirred, a perturbed Bond impatiently asks, “Do I look like I give a damn?” Bond is unrefined, in a way not even Bond, until the final scene in which he introduces himself in a moment of cathartic delight. “The name is Bond, James Bond,” he informs a wounded foe. Another promise: Craig's reinvention has become, to one degree or another, the agent Fleming created, the man followed in books and films. It is unfortunate that Casino Royale's follow-up seems intent on shifting Bond entirely into a different person, and one far less interesting.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Quantum of Solace (2008)

(WARNING: A few plot points are discussed in the review below.)
It is with a heavy, disheartened 007-loving sense of propriety concerning the cinema's most resilient series to report that the latest entry squanders the goodwill of its immediate predecessor. It sheds its responsibilities as a Bond entry in its nettlesome disregard for the more important pieces in shining a light on its protagonist—something Casino Royale seemed to invite henceforth, but such is clearly not the case. Daniel Craig proved with the 2006 “re-boot” that he had a glowingly glowering ferocity and darkness that made all of his Bond's actions altogether more resonant than the more tenderly unflappable Pierce Brosnan. Here, however, he is given little to do but punish his body and frown. It is lucky for director Marc Forster that his lead actor's piercing blue eyes convey a considerable repressed despair, melancholy and hatred, because the screenplay provides but one scene during which Craig is allowed to display much of any humanity.

That one scene is, however, so horribly written and clichéd that it makes one wonder if the screenwriters (Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade) believed they were transported to 1930s Hollywood and charged with writing a rote scene for a below-average melodrama. Quantum of Solace is such an aggravating missed opportunity on the larger matters at hand that the small nitpick-worthy items only stick out more, perhaps left to distract the viewer from greater concerns. An innocent Bolivian servant is nearly raped by an evil man in the film's closing stretch, and after the scene disintegrates into sheer mayhem, the character is lost, presumably left for dead. There is a mean-spiritedness and wastefulness to the proceedings that never quite gets out of the film's way. It would be one thing for the writers and producers to commit to their “fresh” take on Bond and succeed, as Casino Royale conclusively triumphed in its forming of a bitingly brutal new Bond. Quantum of Solace's Bond succumbs to the Bourne-ification of 007, as he becomes an aggressive automaton with practically no personality.

And that describes the film itself. Despite the many beautiful locations, there is little if any personality to be found here. The movie carelessly careens from one action sequence to another, all choppily shot and edited so as to confuse the viewer and further alienate the audience from the narrative's incredulous proceedings. Craig's presence in the film—it cannot be called a performance so much as being positioned before the cameras as he's disallowed from portraying the heartache and repressed vengefulness other characters tell the audience he must be experiencing, none more repetitiously than Judi Dench's M. Indeed, M may have as much dialogue as Bond himself, so perpetually attendant she is to almost all of Bond's actions, with the help of that most convenient of screenwriting tools of today, the cellular phone, and so limited in expression Craig's Bond is in this picture. The frustratingly hyper-edited action scenes more reminiscent of Michael Bay than the more classically, stately and sweeping compositions Casino Royale helmer Martin Campbell offered the viewer's appreciative retinas are ugly microcosms unto themselves of the unsuccessful blending of various components to the film as a whole. Forster's handling of the violence is an incoherent, jumbled mess of nanosecond-long shots, rarely ever describing the logical geography of Bond, his adversaries or anyone else. This most certainly is the Bourne-identification of James Bond.
Mathieu Amalric plays the film's villain, a physically meek but financially powerful man, an ostensible philanthropist named Dominic Greene, reuniting the French actor with Craig from Munich. Amalric is a wonderful actor but unlike Mads Mikkelsen as La Chiffre, for instance, he is handicapped by an underdeveloped character birthed by an underwritten screenplay. Amalric does what he can, relishing his own viciousness and remorselessness but he is never given the opportunity to truly impress. The actor's contrasting smallness makes a climactic struggle with Bond—who earlier incapacitated three elite MI6 agents in an elevator in no more than 0.8 seconds—seem more laughable than thrilling. This is especially true as it serves as the forefront for the jarring return of formula in the way of an exploding Villainous Hideout in the final reel, a most unwelcome formulaic staple of the series to which this confused, muddled film bizarrely retreats.

Olga Kurylenko is quite fetching but entirely unmemorable as the film's leading lady. The screenplay's tepid efforts to draw a note of comparison between her Camille and Bond—both are out for revenge against someone who took a loved one away—cannot dissuade the achingly disposable reality of the character. Jeffrey Wright is given nothing to do but literally glower and make faces as Bond's cagey CIA contact and friend, Felix Leiter. Dench is the only performer given an emotional arc with which she can work, making M more comprehensible and well-rounded than any other character, including Bond himself. Some of her scenes with Craig sizzle, but at a certain juncture they become tired and repetitive. Nevertheless, she remains one engaging constant and grounding force against the ridiculously pell-mell, under-baked storyline, giving Bond a vicarious mother figure of sorts that reveals more about Bond than anything with which Craig's character is endowed by this skeletal screenplay.

Lacking in depth, most conspicuously in the wake of the more nuanced and meticulously mounted Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace is nothing less than a cinematic surrender, a waving of the white flag rather than the Union Jack, as in the last shot of the pre-credits sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me. Consuming the trendiest conventions usually means the trendiest conventions have consumed the film at hand. Quantum of Solace takes its cue from the latter two Jason Bourne movies. It's infuriating, but primarily saddening. It is telling that the most harmoniously composed and intelligently handled scene is that of a blatant homage to Goldfinger, this time back in black. The Bond series, commencing in 1962, has already undergone so many revisions and recreations that for many, the Bond legacy had already been diluted to an extent. However, that Bond legacy always burned, more brightly and subduedly depending on the film and time period in question, yes, but Bond as a franchise was always fairly recognizable. With this, the newest and most outrageously self-sequestered and arrogantly recreant feature, Jason Bond seems to have been... Bourne.

Stitched out of endless, occasionally seizure-inducing action setpieces (one with a plane is particularly disorienting, ironically fitting for this most disjointed and discombobulated franchise entry) with almost nothing in the way of heart or wit, the film is plagued by uninteresting and almost immediately stale paradigms. Even Bond's quest for vengeance, at first promising in its singular savagery, if nothing else, finds a flummoxing destination. The film ends and beyond one final scene that feels almost obscenely tacked on to make something resembling a definitive statement about the character who has been followed for over twenty movies in the timespan of forty-six years, nothing seems especially accomplished. The entire picture plays like an intermittently stimulating second act of an unwieldy action movie that cares little for its characters. This is not the fault of Craig, but of the people behind the camera who have sabotaged their own enterprise and somehow fumbled what should have been a sure thing after their last film. The movie is as inconsequential as its immediate predecessor was vital to the “re-booting” of 007. For a film so apparently desperate to bathe in its supposed aqueous humorless inhumanity, the lasting sensory response of the viewer is astonishment at the frivolity of this most dissatisfying and halfhearted exertion. And, finally, it is that most scandalously awful kind of movie, that which seems, perhaps consciously, to mock appraisal, to dismiss its own oncoming critique with its bland shallowness. Quantum of Solace is finally a taunting motion picture, seemingly sneering through the celluloid towards anyone naïve enough to actually take it seriously.

Goldfinger (1964)

When film historians think of certain enormously important film years, a handful of years come to mind. 1962 is one of them. Not only did the year see an almost freakish wealth of English-language cinema but the French New Wave was reaching its zenith. A diverse panoply of international films were celebrated. And the longest-running film series of all time was born with the James Bond character catapulted into his first film adventure, Dr. No. It was with the third film in the series, however, Goldfinger, that Bond would reach immortal pop culture pervasiveness and resonance. Goldfinger marks the first Bond film directed by Guy Hamilton, who cut his teeth being an assistant director for Carol Reed on films such as The Fallen Idol (1948) and most auspiciously The Third Man (1949). Hamilton brought with him a sharp eye for compositions, and a workmanlike ability to reach the core of material with ease. Offering just enough flamboyance without it ever becoming distracting from the Bond series' greater “penumbra”—an integument that he, as the director of Goldfinger would become instrumental in helping to shape—which in itself was the production “formula” for Bond success.

Goldfinger contains what is probably the greatest of all pre-credits sequences in the Bond lineage. What may strike the more unacquainted Bond film viewer is the beautiful, nearly poetic simplicity of the sequence. The classic instrumental commences, the gun-barrel configuration swallows the screen but for the white dot in which the protagonist, Bond, James Bond, walks and discharges his weapon. A sheet of tinted crimson cascades downward against the figure of Sean Connery's 007, and the film properly begins. In one gorgeously lit nighttime shot, the camera is craned downward, giving the audience a view of enormous vats belonging to an oil refinery, while also introducing Bond, who surfaces out of the adjacent body of water in a black wet-suit. A moment later, Bond has scaled the wall protecting the refinery with a grappling gun, violently incapacitated a hapless guard with only two blows, slunk into a secret laboratory teeming with heroin and planted plastic explosives. Bond coolly sheds the wet-suit, revealing an immaculate white tuxedo, red flower lapel and all. He enters a nightclub and, just as he most urbanely lights his cigarette, the explosion nearby sends the entire bustling crowd bursting through the front door to see the sight. (Note, too, how the film never shows the explosion because it need not; the roaring boom and reactive commotion of the people surrounding Bond are entirely persuasive in convincing the viewer that Bond's mission is a success.) An unnamed contact sitting at the bar congratulates Bond: “Congratulations.” “Thank you,” Bond boastfully replies. The contact has advice for 007: “Don't go back to your hotel, signor, they'll be watching you. There's a plane headed for Miami in an hour.” “I'll be on it,” Bond assures, “but,” he says, eyeing the flamenco dancer of the club busily marching back to her quarters, “there's some business I have to attend to.” Hamilton, screenwriters Richard Maibaum and Paul Dehn and editor Peter Hunt take the viewer directly to Bond's interest, sitting in her bathtub. Bond walks towards her, she vacates the tub, liberally uncovered by a towel and Bond approaches her. She protests the presence of his sidearm, which she indicates startles and discomforts her. “Why do you always wear that thing?” Bond, tellingly, chalks it up to a “slight inferiority complex,” in one of the series' most intelligent and slightly self-conscious quips. He hangs it up next to the tub. Peering into her luminous brown eyes, he spots the reflection of an assailant stalking him from behind, preparing to level him. In a split-second decision, Bond pulls the woman into the attacker's way and it is she, not he, who is hit. Bond and his foe fight for only twenty-five seconds before Bond whips the man into the tub from across the room. Desperately reaching for Bond's gun, the man is electrocuted when Bond tosses an electric heater in with him. 007 rearms himself and reaches for his tux jacket. Surveying the destruction, including the woman groaning, holding her head, Bond coldly offers this obiter dictum: “Shocking. Positively shocking.” Connery's Bond walks out, closing the door to the room behind him with authority. Instantly, the film's legendary black-and-gold credits begin, given interlineate emphasis by Shirley Bassey's iconic “Goldfinger.”

When looked at through the viewfinder of Ian Fleming Bond purists, Connery as Bond is one of the great paradoxes of cinema. Considered to be a natural fit for the agent, Connery's Bond was simultaneously (and perhaps incongruously so) both more debonair and callous than author Ian Fleming's more wounded and empathetic invention. In the first Fleming Bond novel, Casino Royale, Bond's borderline self-loathing will almost surely take anyone immersed in cine-Bond, unfamiliar with litera-Bond, by surprise. Describing the hollowness at the center of his profession of killing, Bond is highly self-critical, telling another character how inhuman and unheroic it truly is. Finding nothing worth noting as engendering pride, Bond recalls the pathetic atmosphere in which he snuffed out the life of a Japanese man whose wrongdoing and wickedness were not detectable to the fledgling double-O. Fleming's Bond was less coarse and abrasive than Connery's, and the producers' interpretation, less astonishingly charismatic but more personable, as chilling and brutal in his own ways, perhaps, but fundamentally more vulnerable, more incarnate.

Connery's more vehement interpretation does not lack for interest. It makes his Bond, when placed within the prism of reality, nearly reprehensible. There's an important impulsiveness with which Connery plays Bond, and it's most crucial in Goldfinger. Bond gleefully watches from high above in another iconic scene, chatting up his newfound enemy's girlfriend, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), while sabotaging that enemy's efforts to cheat at cards. That enemy is Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), who, claiming he suffers from agoraphobia, has himself seated so to have the man who plays cards with him sit so that Jill can spot his cards from afar on the hotel room balcony with binoculars. Bond decides to “have some fun” with Goldfinger, causing him to lose. Goldfinger, reacting poorly to Bond's machinations, snaps a pencil—and as Bond sees it he illogically hears it from what seems like at least a football field away in one of the film's more slyly amusing moments. Bond unthinkingly opts to become intimate with Goldfinger's girlfriend, which leads to him being knocked out unconscious and Jill being smothered in gold paint, resulting in her death.

The film revels in Bond's antipathy for Goldfinger. A seven-minute sequence detailing how Bond cheats the cheater that is Goldfinger at golf is the kind of leisurely, '60s Bond scene charged with heightening character development that would most likely have to be cosmetically enhanced to become more appealing. (Perhaps at a time of the producers' choosing, Bond would become poisoned and have to stumble to the parked automobile in the club's parking lot to find the gadget with which he could save himself.) Displeased and disgusted with Bond's shenanigans, Goldfinger allows his henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), to allow Bond to witness what happens to people who do not cohere to the super villain's plans. Oddjob flings his metal-rimmed hat, which slices off the head of a marble statue. Bond's partly nonplussed, partly caustically comic reaction (reducing the display into a point about the club not reacting well to the statue's defacement) is met with stone-hearted but level-headed superiority by Goldfinger (he owns the club, he informs Bond) and smoldering rage by Oddjob (who crushes a golf ball in his hand almost like an egg).

Later, after being captured by Goldfinger's army of Asian henchmen, Bond is interrogated in another classic scene. Reportedly the first laser beam in a film by questionable Internet sources such as IMDB is used to drive the film's sexual-power issues home. Bond, that unconquerable conqueror of the feminine, perhaps especially those “belonging” to his enemies, finds himself squarely at the other end of a slowly oncoming laser beam, which, if allowed to continue, will render him useless to women. (Interestingly, Fleming's own dabbling in sexual-power motifs and sado-masochism strongly influenced the testicle-bashing torture scene of the 2006 Bond re-boot Casino Royale.) “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks, his voice finally cracking with an understandable desperation. “No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die!” Goldfinger deliriously retorts.

Finally, Bond is given the arduous task of converting a lesbian associate of Goldfinger's into yet another ally and for Bond the greatest key to luring representatives of the opposite sex resides in a particular anatomical place, just as bluntly laid out by Goldfinger's laser beam. That associate is the hilariously named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a pilot potentially instrumental in aiding her boss's efforts in rendering the gold supply of Fort Knox unusable with radiation. Bond's awakening—rude in all senses—aboard a plane after being shot with a tranquilizer gun demonstrably portrays the ludic relationship between Bond and Pussy Galore, as she menacingly aims a gun in his direction. Later, Bond and Galore will trade off wrestling moves, arm-dragging and hip-tossing each other into a mound of hay (one cannot help but figure that in a later Bond film a quip about “a roll in the hay” would be present, when it is entirely unnecessary).

Frobe is gigantic, in frame, in dimension and in personality as one of Bond's most colorful (indeed, golden) adversaries. Only recently did this blogger learn that he was dubbed—and this blogger has viewed Goldfinger many a time, and had never noticed any inconsistency or misalignment in Frobe's dialogue matching his lip movements. Frobe's Goldfinger is almost chortling in his egomania. Informing assorted mob bosses about his plans, for no reason especially, since he is preparing to exterminate them, he makes Goldfinger's actions semi-realistic, in the context of the Bond adventure, a testament to the actor's convincing embodiment of such a faintly eldritch figure. In this way, Frobe created what many may consider the first cinematic Bond super villain (Dr. No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld would probably have something to say about that), forever etching the formulaic framework for future villainous incarnations but maintaining a palpable grip on the diabolical milieu future Bond villains, too anemically rendered, would lack.
And that is not an especially problematic way to look at Goldfinger in many ways. The film has a number of flaws that make it less lively and breezy than its golden reputation (last golden pun there) would suggest. After Bond's capture by Goldfinger, and a few of the subsequent classic scenes, the film loses a good deal of its sense of pacing, crawling to the finish line. And unlike Dr. No and the best Bond film of them all, From Russia With Love, the film undeniably establishes the major tenets of the Bond formula. Beginning with Thunderball, the next Bond feature, those formulaic touchstones would only be enlarged, rarely ever adjusted or modified. Those who bemoan “the Bond formula” for its lack of ingenuity but cherish Goldfinger face a particularly troubling realization, that being the film's decisive and remarkably influential role in spawning the conventionality that would continually weigh the series down. That conventionality and recurring staleness would lead to several reinventions and re-boots, most recently culminating in the 2006 Casino Royale. But that is for another review. Looking at Goldfinger, the villainy of the titular character is especially entertaining today, in a way, as the fiend's agenda to poison America's largest supply of gold would today probably be thought up by some federally-funded academic to ward of hyper-inflation of the dollar from wanton money spending and printing. And how prescient to make Casino Royale's villain a crooked banker, forced to play high-stakes poker against James Bond; today, if he could claim American interests, could simply plead for a federal bailout. The Cold War may be over, but Bond may truly be just as needed today as he was forty-four years ago.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Carosello napoletano (1954)

Italian cinema is such a treasure trove of disparate rubrics. Neo-realism has become such an enshrined film movement that much of the more commercial and non-neo-realistic films that came out of Italy have become overlooked. This picture is practically the absolute polar opposite of anything resembling neo-realism. Much of it, almost all of it, actually, plays like a glossy, hyper-surreal Rodgers and Hammerstein production. Some of the plot is, seemingly intentionally, fairly confusing in its concrete construction, with parallel storylines and a deliriously blurred sense of reality and fantasy. In this way, the film takes one aback, reminding the viewer a little of Federico Fellini and his mesmerizing playing with surreality juxtaposed against reality. In this way, Carosello napoletano is a richer film than one may initially think. It inspires an inchoate, surprised but satisfied reaction, perhaps primarily because it so robustly believes in itself, and commits itself to the almost kaleidoscopic hopping between the already glistening “reality” with which it commences and the staged, simulacrum fantasy created to depict varying times of Naples' deeply fascinating history.

That “reality” is of a large family in 1950s Naples. Wayfaring their way through the beautiful city, the patriarch, Antonio 'Pulcinella' Petito (Leonide Massina), speaks of the grand history of Naples, and the singularly Italian ability to convey the entire heightened panoply of emotions so characteristic of Italian people in song. One of Antonio's children loses a piece of paper in the canal that evidently has at least several of these famed Italian songs inscribed on it. Magically the paper sinks downward, its inscriptions glowing goldenly. From there, the film speedily takes the viewer on a wildly uninhibited trip of phantasmagoria, rendered in sensational colors and merry song.

Counting the songs down or simply noting the series in which they occur does not do the film proper justice. Much of the amusement seeps through the small subtle strokes that fall between some of the more sweeping highs obligatory in a splashy musical such as this. The characterizations are sweetly endearing, gifted by a contentedness of spirit by the filmmakers that aids the film in its admittedly well-traversed and -travailed conceptual hallmarks. Written by a three-person team of Remigio Del Grosso, Giuseppe Marotta and director Ettore Giannini, the film jubilantly reveals the innermost desires of a diverse array of characters. Separated by episodic vignettes of musical rapture, figures of immediately recognized psychological constitution emerge.

In one remarkably choreographed segment, a pretty laundress named Donna Brigida (Maria Fiore) hires a shadowy, furtive but disarmingly amiable and beaming creator of mysterious potions, to make a charming and handsome seller of French pins fall in love with her. Ultimately the situation descends into a full-scale street fight between two bustling groups of women. The scene is a highlight, so buoyantly hilarious and delightfully climactic, it endearingly concludes with an ode to the magnificent Italian history of the opera. A man in the rain, resting on a building landing, belts out an operatic tune, shattering hotel windows much to the annoyance of a Swedish man trying to get some sleep. Singing a love song, the man singing attracts the attention of a lady standing behind him, closed off inside.

Sophia Loren is radiant and vulnerable as Sisina, the daughter of a famed stage actress, singer and dancer (Dolores Palumbo), who follows her mother into that life, of an entertainer. Loren's breathtaking pulchritude, here cinematically recorded at the age of nineteen, is, while overpowering, never counters the narrative objective of drawing palpable sentiment and finally heartache. Sisina loses her great love to World War I, and the sequence of her saying farewell to him at the immortalized place of disuniting, a train. When Sisina learns of her lover's fate, the moment is powerful, but given the added poignancy of her having to go back out on-stage only a minute later for an encore performance. As the other ladies, unaware of Sisina's tragedy, smile brightly for the adoring audience, Sisina finally slinks before them, fruitlessly attempting to appear happy. The moment concludes, and the camera pulls back to reveal the women standing in a medium-sized room with a camera recording.

Thus the picture purposefully befogs the line between reality and fantasy. In Carosello napoletano, the reality is of a movie being made about the history of Naples—or is it? The film's beginning, with a Moorish invasion of the chaste, unguarded city hundreds of years in the past, establishes the telling of history as a recollection of tragedies. The finale is of a single woman in Naples being terrified by the oncoming Moorish soldiers, dressed incongruously in more native African dress, so as to accentuate the cultural and ethnic affray. As Antonio tells it to a group of bystanders on a street, after the film dissolves back from this spectacle (conveyed with the Moorish warriors dancing and singing as they heedlessly overtake the city and split a particular love in Naples the film had nascently followed apart), life can be one perplexing and bewildering arc of disenchantments, and, with this specific point highlighted, the film posits the same is true of history, whether it be of a country, province or city.

Like Rob Marshall's Chicago, the film's swapping of reality and fantasy, with the fantastical sequences played out in ebullient musical numbers. Unlike that 2002 musical, however, this film does not posit its fantasy episodes in psychological terms, emanating from the protagonist. This is a film working as a legerdemain, providing its own rationale distinctly apart from any of the characters but perhaps Antonio and his large brood. It is a fascinating manner in which to create a musical, especially one so effervescent as this, if admittedly simple as well.

Carosello napoletano is occasionally too self-satisfied, with at least a few sequences that unfortunately move with a glacial pacing. The denouement is overlong and perhaps intentionally borderline obscene in its limitless grandiosity and operatic chaos. However, this, evidently considered the first modern Italian musical—a moniker this reviewer can neither confirm nor dispute—is winningly produced and colorfully vivacious. Produced by Carlo Ponti, with spectacular production design by Mario Chiari, costume design by Maria De Matteis and complementary cinematography by Piero Portalupi, this film revels in being fun, with all of the sugary weightlessness and bauble-like occupation as a finely tuned, in more than one way, diversion. Representing the hopes, dreams, loves, disappointments and simply the ups and downs of the dynamic city of Neapolis (established as such sometime in the fifth century B.C., meaning “New City” in Greek), the film makes anyone want to believe in both the reality and the fantasy, not just of this city, but of all places where people move, mingle and moil.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Morricone

I have already highlighted one fantastic musical moment of Ennio Morricone's.

Now, however, I must revisit him. Today is his eightieth birthday. Happy Birthday, Ennio Morricone!

Christian Divine gives us all another wonderful "cinematic moment" of Mr. Morricone's.

Morricone's music is unquestionably some of the greatest in film history. He is a giant. I intend to "[c]elebrate with pasta, wine and an iconic stance," as Christian most appropriately suggests we all do.

That Pesky Alphabet Meme

Okay, has everyone on the Internet done this now? The only alphabetical list of films I have seen is Daniel Getahun's. I'm not going to go through the rules--you can find them by clicking the link I just left, mkay?

I decided sometime early on Sunday morning that there were two ways of going about this. The first way would be to endlessly agonize over it, consider an encyclopedic self-survey until I found myself perfectly happy with the results on my part. The second way seemed more appealing and, frankly, much easier: completely wing it and simply type out the first film for each letter I felt strongly about at that crucial moment, going on mere impulse. This entire meme's objective, it seems to me, is not about whether you consider Annie Hall a more flawlessly enjoyable slice of cinematic life than the profound despair of The Ascent or if Zero for Conduct is in actuality a greater film than Zodiac. Like the immortal question itself, "What's your favorite film?" it's actually about stirring discussion. How does one answer? How does one judge?

It is the quandaries associated with such exercises that continually trouble me on a more regular basis. It is why I do not give films star ratings, 1-10 marks or letter grades. For those who do, I give you credit for being so rigorous in your examinations of all things cinematic, as always.

So, I will just give the answer to each letter that I'm feeling right now. That means if I were to fulfill the obligations of this meme an hour later, it would almost surely look quite different. Some films would doubtless not change at all--a few of them are ones some of my more steadfast readers would most likely be able to guess. And perhaps some will surprise.

A: Aguirre, the Wrath of God

B: Broken Blossoms

C: Citizen Kane

D: Double Indemnity

E: Empire of the Sun

F: Freaks

G: Grand Illusion, La

H: His Girl Friday

I: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

J: Jules et Jim

K: Kind Hearts and Coronets

L: The Lady from Shanghai

M: M

N: The Night of the Hunter

O: Out of the Past

P: Psycho

Q: Queen Christina

R: The Road Warrior

S: Sunrise

T: The Third Man

U: Ugetsu Monogatari

V: The Virgin Spring

W: Wild Strawberries

X: Xala

Y: Yojimbo

Z: Z

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Little Odessa (1994)

Opening with a meditatively somber, entirely black screen, debut writer-director James Gray's Little Odessa makes a heady first impression. A wordless aural chorus commences, and, along with the intermittently black screen, lingers just long enough to make the viewer estimate when the narrative will proceed. Surprisingly, 2001: A Space Odyssey is recalled. Like Kubrick, Gray is striving to lay the foundation for the events to follow with something of a formal introduction. Slowly a picture finally emerges as the blackness gives way to the imagery captured by the camera. That opening image is a pair of eyes, almost soul-dead, their glassy stoicism and passionless appearance immediately arresting. Gray allows this shot to ferment, a visual strategy that cumulatively creates many visual pieces of information that linger in the mind's eye. The average shot length of Little Odessa is an engrossingly long twelve seconds, proving that Gray's first feature is a film of outstanding meditativeness.

Those eyes belong to Joshua Shapira, a stone-hearted Russian Jewish American hit man who moves back into the titular Little Odessa as the film begins. In his first scene he coldly walks up to a man peaceably sitting on a sidewalk bench and shoots him dead. By stripping away any suspense about what kind of man Joshua is, or even the lengths to which he will go in his vocational pursuits, Gray courageously charts a vastly superior course than many a crime thriller-based character study. Rather than allowing for these kinds of questions so routinely attendant to a picture following the daily life of a modern outlaw, Gray inverts one's expectations to a paradoxically conspicuously slight degree. Operating in a vein not entirely dissimilar from Scorsese with the memorable opening of the car trunk, so instrumental in figuratively opening his film, Goodfellas, turns such questions around and asks what these rebarbative actions tell about the people the film follows—and what they do not tell.

If Scorsese's gangster pictures are rock 'n' roll concerts with endless series of prestidigitations, Gray's Little Odessa is chamber music, echoing in its small room with a kind of insularity that is increasingly endearing. Joshua is played with off-putting ambivalence and dizzying virtuosity by Tim Roth, whose pensively plaintive mien most finely represents a melange of anger spurred by buried regret. All of those emotional layerings, though certainly important, are nearly killed by Joshua's apparent need to abnegate without hesitation or even thought. Joshua despises his magazine-selling father, Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell) whose drunkenness, unthinking belt-lashings of Joshua's younger brother, Reuben (Edward Furlong) and adulterous actions—which may or may not have begun with the discovery that the wife and mother, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave) was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor—merit significant scorn.

Gray creates a small-scale Godfather, spun uber-dysfunctional. Much of the film is about the relationship between Joshua and Reuben, and it is in this context that Joshua demonstrates an amicability frequently missing as part of his personality. The concept of two brothers growing up in a rough area, like this film's Little Odessa, with one already a crook and the other admiring the brother without comprehending just how awful he truly is, dates to Hollywood films like the 1939 Lloyd Bacon concoction Invisible Stripes with William Holden, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart, and so many others. Gray pays at least considerable homage in his own way to these traditions, but mostly his film is too irregular, breaking free from tedious formula, to not be welcomed as fresh.

As a first-time helmer, Gray's instincts may have been to be conservative in his mise-en-scene, which immeasurably enabled him to eschew needless clutter while resting his camera contemplatively on the subjects at hand. Noirishly framed, lit and photographed, by a consistently efficacious cinematographer Tom Richmond, several especially elegantly realized shots reside in the mind of the viewer. Two scenes at nighttime, the first interior and the second exterior, are particularly unshakable. A small group of thugs, the ringleader of whom is telling the others how to depose of a body: in one uninterrupted shot of significant duration, heavenward streams of cigarette smoke piercing the chiaroscuro golden-black back-lighting. Later, when the actual murder is being committed, a man threateningly holding a gun stands over another, the cowed victim praying in Russian, as several other silhouettes in the deep background stand like tittles.

The supporting cast encompassing Roth is all solid from top to bottom. Furlong, though not terribly expressive, conveys just the correct kind of pathos when both relating and listening to his older brother. Schell gives the film's most emotional performance by a wide margin, sustaining a pained loathing of his own eldest progeny for his almost publicly wicked and corrupt ways coupled with an old father's panoply of reflective pangs. Schell's Arkady is a man made of hardshell, disturbed by his own fall into adultery. Emitting an onerously commanding presence, Arkady knows how much of a relic he must seem to be. In one of the film's more rawly touching but dispiriting monologues, Arkady relates, “You know there is a saying. When a child is six years old, he says, 'the father can do everything.' When he is twelve years old he says, 'The father can almost do everything.' When he's sixteen the child says, 'The father is an idiot.' When he's twenty-four he says, 'Maybe the father wasn't such an idiot.' And then, when he's forty, he says, 'If only I could ask my father.' But I'm afraid my sons will never ask themselves that.”

The greatest, most damaging flaw of the picture is, not surprisingly, in the development of the female characters. There are three women who should each be major in the leisurely unfolding narrative but the roles are under-written. Gangster films of all kinds are notoriously male-dominated, with the fairer sex typically held at bay in the shadows. Little Odessa does not differ in this regard. While many could feasibly defend the misaligned focus as being a comment about oblique male egoism—befitting this picture's portrait of a community of generationally-defined male descendants of immigrants from the “old country”—the imbalance cannot be disputed. Moira Kelly plays Alla Shustervich, who is sweet on Joshua. Gray's depiction of love, or lust, or whatever it is these two share, is cliched and woefully under-developed. Redgrave's mother character is inhibited by her tumor, wailing in bed not unlike Harriet Andersson in Bergman's Cries and Whispers. Natalya Andrejchenko as Natasha, the woman Arkady illicitly loves, is a cipher.

Unsentimental but richly woven with achingly deep, pouring humanism for its male personages, Gray's Little Odessa is finally haunting in its denouement. Tragic and unerringly cheerless, the film is stacked with a terrifying centrifugal power. The wintry chill blowing with gusty, untamed ferocity at the dark heart of this picture literally and figuratively wears down the drama's players. What most acridly arises in the last, desperate, lonely moments of this picture is the single, impelling image, dovetailed to that very first shot. Have those eyes changed? Is this in reality the same shot? Are there subtle gradations proving that this is a different time, setting and circumstance or is the viewer projecting them? And if this character, for all of his bluster and intemperateness, has yet to change, will he, can he, ever?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Across 110th Street (1972)

Across 110th Street is partly a blaxploitation flick, partly a cop drama and partly a sociopolitical study. Today it largely still holds up in all three ways, never succumbing to the disparate temptations of merely becoming one part or another. Rather, this is a different animal, a gritty, hyper-violent testosterone-fueled battle to the bitterest—and strangely most poetic—of ends. Directed by Barry Shear with an eclectic dynamism that allows for the outer peels of the more mundane and obligatory genre ingredients to glide before the viewer with almost effortless harmony. The over-the-top outpouring of unmitigated machismo and manly palaver supply the picture with a sheen of kineticism that occasionally overcompensates for the undeniable thinness of the actual plot. Shear's noirish camera angles, often taking on a perspective that categorically underlines the turmoil at the multiple hearts of the film's three-pronged narratives' protagonists. The successfulness of couching these individuals in the depressing milieu of early 1970s New York City is quite incisively doubtless, lending a credibility to the rambunctious crime thriller proceedings.

Those protagonists belong to three separate sets of story. Firstly, two policeman, one Captain Mattelli, played with almost smoldering intensity by Anthony Quinn, a vicious cop long on the take, and an ambitious but forthrightly scrupulous, Lieutenant Pope, embodied by a frequently quietly stirring Yaphet Kotto. Mattelli, as played by Quinn, is a brutish racist, who enjoys an intrinsically baffling, yet subtly understandable, relationship with many a street-trekking thug, recalling the previous year's The French Connection. Kotto's Pope is restrained—at least when compared to Mattelli—yet he palpably carries with him the nuanced, reflexively burning objective of ensuring his place as a black cop in New York City is understood by both those behind the shield of law enforcement and behind the clout heedlessly enjoyed by the elite criminal elements of the city. Some of those elite criminal elements have thrived by keeping compromised policemen like Mattelli on the take, providing their illicit business under an expansive and powerful aegis.

Secondly, three black hoods, named Jim Harris (Paul Benjamin), Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) and J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas), disguising themselves as uniformed policemen, fearlessly enrage the Mafia by shooting up two of its soldiers, two black gangsters, steal three hundred thousand dollars in cash and finally kill two policemen trying to prevent the desperately brazen thieves from escaping the scene. Harris, armed with a machine gun, efficaciously mows down adversaries. At first the actions of these reckless gunmen evoke uncomplicated antipathy. However, as the film progresses its thematic horizons, an excitingly constructed framing of empathy emerges, particularly imbuing Benjamin's Harris with a sensibility that retroactively informs his present predicament. Confronted by the woman he loves about the loot he has stolen—and by the realization given voice by her that he will not live to see the end of the week—he indignantly vociferates a monologue of sensational potency. (He would be well served to receive the words another woman warning another criminally self-involved and self-destructive man in Jules Dassin's Rififi: “There are kids... millions of kids who grew up poor. Like you. How did it happen... What was the difference between you and them that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think... they're the tough guys, not you.”)

Thirdly, the rapacious Mafia. Anthony Franciosa is frightening as Nick D'Salvio, a mentally unbalanced enforcer who is capable of exploding with feral malevolence at almost any moment. D'Salvio is given the directive by a much older crime boss of the family early in the picture to send the individuals responsible for the heist an unmistakable message. And so he and his lieutenants weave throughout the city, usually ruffling more feathers than necessary to unearth the whereabouts of the three men. In this way, the picture operates like Fritz Lang's classic masterpiece M, as the police and mob both tirelessly seek the individual(s) whose misdeed has brought about the respective furies of each side of the law.

Attendant theatricality may sometimes make the film inconsistent in its full-rounded characterizations and storyline architecture. A barroom sequence of breathtaking brutality wallows in the vileness of the action; for a while, Shear's goals have apparently betrayed him. Yet it is merely apparent—and thankfully misleading. The forlorn ambulance ride later on, almost enmeshed in the briefly humorous, mostly repulsive, convincingly realistic incongruity of such a bizarrely uncontrollable situation, is made of something heartbreaking in its palpable incompatibility with the ideals of a better world.

Correspondingly bubbling and simmering, the film, animated as it is with its latently engrossing performances, shines with an almost timeless energy defying all manner of datedness. The harrowing pit at the center of the film is not the end all, be all of its circumferential, multi-plotted coagulation. The titular song written and performed by Bobby Womack, with its earnest empathetic rendition of plighted existence, is richly endowed with the reasonable desire to hang on longer to break free of the proverbial shackles that bind. Lurking below the hardboiled action is the mounting of crushing tragedy. Just as the film seems to finally descend into nihilistic barbarity in its closing sequence, the picture does a surprising and beautiful thing, lyrically closing itself off with a poetic final image that is equally shocking, condign and poignant.

Shot in a grainy, monochromatic and begrimed stylistic, Shear's crime picture initially wallops the spectator, but its probity is of a sterner condition than its cathartic and gleefully bloody sequences of violence. Behind the superficialities of those obligatory ingredients rests a film of almost penetrative malaise and despair. That unsightliness slowly gives the film a contrasting diamantine interior of gaunt desires and dreams, marinated in the gauzy blush of hope. As such, Across 110th Street is tirelessly poised to display an unlikely warmth beneath the gangland horrors and precinct politics, postulating nothing less than the beckoning discourse people throughout time immemorial have sought, in these lives and the marginally more quotidian among them, that asks, why are things this way?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Changeling (2008)

Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, with its impeccable, Oscar-worthy period detail, art direction, costuming and production design, seems to largely exist as an homage to the films of the time in which it is approximately set. Its narrative commencing in 1928, the film concluding in 1935, it is as though Eastwood and screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski painstakingly developed a film that, in its almost quaint recreation of the tropes, dynamics and almost elementary superficial ingredients, seeks to soak in the touchstones upon which many a picture at that time period were based. Those pictures, both celebrated and derided as “women's pictures,” and, until the mid-1930s, they were astonishingly free of regulation, like all Hollywood films. No film at the time of its release could have been called “pre-code,” because firstly the films that were released before 1930 arrived at a time before the Hays Production Code was instituted; “pre-code,” post-1930, is ironically a false label, as the Hays Production Code was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association on March 31, 1930. However, the code would not be enforced until 1934, bringing an end to the liberalness that characterized the content of an entire host of films that delved into the licentious and lewd. Changeling, however, has more changeless qualities, in a single sense, that being its focus is more on the melodramatic telling of a woman's story, making this emphatically a “women's picture” melodrama that at various dates in Hollywood's treatments of same could have starred Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, even Marlene Dietrich (lastingly and iconically in the “pre-code” era for these aforementioned ladies, but later for all as well), Susan Hayward, Faye Dunaway and Meryl Streep.

Changeling delivers all of the paraphernalia necessary to evoke images of Crawford or Stanwyck being persecuted, punished, scorned, threatened, bullied and held back. Dealing with a system of men unwilling to remotely accommodate their innermost desires, rooted in palpably drawn conceptual scenarios, these heroines were routinely relegated to draconian reformatories (here the psychopathic ward of Los Angeles) after tangling, unsuccessfully, with the all-powerful authorities. The “pre-code” emphasis, however, is lessened by Angelina Jolie's Christine Collins being painted as a saintly figure by Eastwood. Unlike the psychologically rich, verbally confrontational and societally marginal protagonists like Stanwyck's Kitty Lane in Shopworn, however, Collins is actually bordering on being introverted, her fate as a single parent after the abandonment of her son's father resignedly accepted, if not ever forgiven, her dapperly presentable countenance, highlighted only by mascara and optically gleaming, contrastingly colorful scarlet lipstick—almost bedecking against the grimly dismal chiaroscuro and noirish palette Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern untiringly engender—makes her both more vehemently moralistic and consequently less interesting than the “pre-code” ladies, and, defined as she is by the circumstances of the narrative, more reactively etched than comprehensively forged. This, a Ron Howard-touched (he is a producer), somewhat blandly unfolded tale, is more Stella Dallas meets Silkwood and Erin Brokovich, a film about a beleaguered muted force of femininity that is designed to inspire the audience. Unlike other films about a missing loved one today, Changeling does not opt to be a thriller, but a “based on true events” saga, painted with no distractions, so much as an almost ambling cinematic documentation.

The appeal of the content to the director is apparent. With a score by Eastwood himself, of repetitious but mellifluous quality, he repeats the melancholic and nostalgic melody so haunting and memorable in Unforgiven. Like A Perfect World and Mystic River, Eastwood's latest attempts to reconnoiter the horrors of child abduction (echoing both pictures with the emphasis of a boy entering an automobile with strangers), and, connecting this film to the 2003 Boston-set crime drama, wrestling with the yearning for rectitude in the face of such pulverizing despair and violation. (In one interview at the time of the Sean Penn-starrer's release, Eastwood opined that of all crimes, the abduction, molestation and perhaps murder of a child is most deserving of the penalty of death.) In this doubtless worthy objective, however, Changeling manages to veer off course, leaving Collins alone for intermittent stretches of the film's runtime, and, in some ways becoming a different movie from the one early scenes of relative domestic tranquility, intruded upon by the demands of Collins' vocation, as a forthright police officer (Michael Kelly, so riveting as a serial killer in TV's The Shield, responsible for murdering over twenty people in that series and burying many of them, here a stand-out among the cast members as the cop who discovers a shallow grave of a similar number of murdered children) investigates a serial killer's many killings, all poured into one piece of land.

The patina of the film is informed to a great degree by the drawing of the characters. Eastwood allows Collins' enemies to play absolute, unremitting foils, with the heinously corrupt police captain J.J. Jones (Jeffrey Donovan) almost moustache-twirling in his badness, followed by the sinister doctor at the psychopathic award, as frequently redoubtable light-and-shadow patterns noirishly cascading against his smarmy, pensively flagitious face. After Collins is given a changeling by the Los Angeles Police Department, she is made to look like a fool or an insane woman. At the psychopathic ward she is victimized by the head doctor and remorselessly cruel nurses. Set at a time of supposed “Progressive enlightenment,” an era in which a Supreme Court case in the spring of 1927 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declaring in his decision in favor of state-ordered operations of salpingectomy in Buck v. Bell, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” Nascent in the time of the Enlightenment, perversely culminating in the twentieth century, reliance on and fervent belief in the cold hand of the experts, and social engineers among the elites, aided and allowed horrors as depicted in Changeling.

John Malkovich gives his Reverend Gustav Briegleb a sotto voce, sensitive demeanor, soft-spoken and tender in his firm and unbending criticisms of the corrupt and incompetent Los Angeles Police Department. It is not a showy performance, but it is especially welcome, as it stands as a bulwark of moderation and force of understated intensity against the almost ceaselessly upset Jolie. She is a gifted actress, and is beautiful, but pondering the picture, it is difficult to remember a scene in which Jolie's Collins does not cry. In the early, prologue scenes leading to the disappearance of her son, which seem rather superfluous in their length (with some necessary ones, such as one in which the mother measures her son's height, which will become a major plot point, and Collins remarking to her son that the stated policy of the Collins household is to never start fights, simply to finish them—which has resonance throughout the film, though is sadly vocalized again at a time most unnecessary) as they do little to construct the person whom the audience is instructed to follow, Collins, besides making the simple point that mothers love their children.

Numerous visual cues are almost inelegant in their obviousness and manipulation against the mainly classy proprioceptors of the film's formal makeup, methodical pacing and straightforward framing on Eastwood's part, such as a moment meant to convey suspense, as Collins, like a whore with a heart of gold (Amy Ryan), beaten by a cop client wanting to hush her up, who plays the part perhaps Stanwyck could fill in another film about another woman, the wisecracking, truth-telling brazen hussy, is nearly given shock-treatment, with only a second to spare, before Reverend Briegleb arrives to her rescue, a moment that leaves the olfactory sensation of a cheap parlor trick. A long shard of cigarette ash falling to the ground as a pivotal revelation is bestowed to the audience; flashes of random corrupt and vicious ruffian “Gunman Squad” policemen conducting illicit business as Malkovich's Reverend Briegleb pulls the curtain in order to let Collins see the truth of the police department sworn to protect and serve, making the scene play, again, like a television movie, or in any event a movie significantly different in tone from the one commenced.

Eastwood, however, is to be given credit for knowing what kind of film he is, in his own way, honoring, as he lets his picture begin with the old, classic black and white Universal logo, finally concluding the picture as same. And that is most fitting, decorously and thematically. The film may become lost, it may, almost incongruously, both overreach and dither, often simultaneously, but its beginning and ending recall some of the zestfulness lurking beneath the celluloid of classic potboiler melodrama. This most certainly is a melodrama, and like countless melodramas of the 1930s, it finds itself in a courtroom—indeed, two courtrooms—before definitively closing its story. And at that courtroom the villainous police captain, Jones, as played by Donovan and directed by Eastwood, behaves like a vastly different captain in a vastly different setting, Lieutenant Commander Queeg, dementedly ranting, his bellicosity billowing and bubbling as he furiously defends his actions after the fact. All he needs are steel balls to spin in his palms as he confronts the lawyer pitted against him, S.S. Hahn (a scene-stealing, gravitas-conveying Geoff Pierson). And while Changeling has many an error in judgment to criticize, there is one moment of sheer poetry for which one should thank Eastwood. And it is made all the more delightfully rich due to its apparent quaintness. Collins, upon leaving the psychotic ward, marches down the street, the air wafting through her newly free nose and mouth, she likewise inhales a piece of horrifying news from a newspaper boy, an occurrence of limitless recurrence in the films of this time period. A beat. She is in disbelief. She faints, and, her frame consuming the entirety of the frame, begins to fall, almost surely doomed to land on the hard unforgiving street. And, as the viewer is completely certain of what will next transpire, out of nowhere, from outside camera range, behind the lady, a figure, blocked from the audience's view, catches her. It is a vivid, exceedingly fecund moment of simple, startling beauty, wordlessly communicating the altruistic strain of life, and the singularly comforting portrait of the compassionate, charitable individual standing alongside the sufferer of dire straits and ostensibly insurmountable odds.