Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Sleepless Soliloquy

His fists clenched the now recreant blanket, its frigid facade sending merciless tingles of despair and discomfort. Cold, caliginous environ seals him off from the whole world, the voluminous blackness of which could only be surmised from this most desolate posts. As the pitiless night consumes this seemingly forsaken earth, the minutes tick. The incandescent digital lines configurated into numbers tick by, the glowing green splashing against the ponderous gulf of the dark which separates all corners of the clammy, nearly gelid bedroom. Eyes briefly closed, a terrible white flash compels them to reawaken. Troublemakers equipped with flashlights, traveling on the nearby sidewalk, busily exploiting this most dreadful of nights? A most disquieting sensation caresses the forehead; cool air, as though it were breathed from a malevolent, hovering demon, funnels downward. Eyes dart about in directionless frenzy. A finger nervously twitches. The heart begins to race.

Time stands still. Minutes drone on and on, until the barren vastness of this humble room consumes whole hours. Eyes struggle to shut, only to reopen at the slightest peculiar noise. Each aural disquisition of the little, merciless devils who run amok at the unholy witching hour attracts immediate attention. If only the ears could be closed with the effortlessness of the eyes; yet infernal imagery flashes regardless. The unknown of the grimly dismal room is less awful than the sights of the mind. Hands and arms will themselves downward under the covers. The crisp, chilled air resumes its mockery of what should be a plaintively soothing zephyr.

Neck muscles tighten; the skin contracts against the crucial bone structure. Long hair curls back against the tip of the left ear. Or is that what the spirits want him to believe? A crashing boom jars the chronological descent into paralyzing madness. The dryer has bellowed in the middle of an ominous night once more. Gasps provide a pulsating, nerve-wracking agitato to the incongruous proceedings. The window, a sliver of which is visible beyond the frighteningly insouciant white drapes, appears to become opaque, sinister fog and dew smothering it with inexorable, mephitic gleefulness.

Trapped. Retracting and tucking in the legs and feet to rest beneath the covers. The ceiling slowly, ceaselessly, drops downward. Inexhaustibly descending, its gradually increasing proximity to his torso resembling the crushing weight of the specter that taunts and menaces him with utmost jubilance. Eyes rapidly close and reopen. A clanging sound emanates from somewhere in the pivotal hallway that lay beyond the room. Eyes dart in a vain hope of seeing what lurks behind the corner of the door frame.

Resolute rejection of the tormentors and unusually brave determination to close the eyes and disregard the angagic onslaught follow. Prayer remains a most viable option: cast out the malignant sons of Belial. The enveloping spiritual darkness moved about the fallen earth like a forever voracious marauding army. These evil beasts were vulnerable. They had been too clever for their own sake in creating such an outlandish ruckus.

The once-piercing fear dissipated, quickly fading. Eyes open. Close again. Sleep beckons. It must be near.

And, just as security seemed to be at hand, and the battle over, the most horrifying, petrifying visceral, guttural growl. To the right! Just outside the wall adjacent to the bed. The ferocious, monstrous growl lay only a foot or two away from him, just outside his home. The gnawing, rumbling, snarling guttural growl tortuously shifted into the most bloodcurdling, hair-raising, and unnerving howl and roar. He jumped out of his bed and backed away. Backed into the numinous nothingness of the black blanket that was the hallway. Finding himself move about in a parallel course with the beast that lay behind the wall, moving about as it did from one section of the front porch to the next, evidently locked in deadly combat with one of its wretched rivals.

Sleep remains beyond his grasp.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Horse Boy (2009)

(The Horse Boy was one of four films screened on Poterero Avenue on the evenings of September 23rd and 24th. Reviews of the other three films will be published here soon.)

The Horse Boy is a ninety-three minute documentary by Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Michel O. Scott which unfortunately feels much longer. Its story is an intriguing one, ostensibly brimming with love and hope. The Horse Boy is produced and narrated by the film's star, Austin journalist, writer and father, Rupert Isaacson, and the tale is based on his book, “The Horse Boy: A Father's Quest to Heal His Son.” The book and now film chronicle Isaacson's journey to Mongolia with his wife and young autistic son Rowan in the effort to find shamans who, the father hopes, may heal him.

The genesis of the trip was the son's usually dyspeptic demeanor, punctuated by seemingly endless tantrums, one day becoming singularly serene whenever he rode a neighbor's horse named Betsy. Whenever the child rode atop Betsy, he seemed remarkably peaceful. Isaacson considered this and coupled his own experience with the Bushmen of Africa, related in his 2004 book, “The Healing Land: The Bushmen and the Kalahari Desert.” Isaacson's research pointed to the Mongolians as having the longest history of using horses, so he coupled the knowledge he gained from his sojourn to see the Bushmen with the Mongolian shamans who, like the Bushmen, spiritually healed those addled by disease. Isaacson convinced his comparatively skeptical wife to take the journey to Mongolia to see the shamans based on these points. The documentary unfortunately does not address why this seemingly radical alternative to the western medication the Isaacsons use on a daily basis must be taken. The correlation between the African Bushmen and the Mongolian shamans remains tenuous. Could, for instance, the child have been escorted to an American Indian tribal medicine man closer to the Isaacsons' home of Austin? Rowan's reaction to the horse, which spurred Isaacson to take this action, may be explainable as simply a child's innate affection for the animal, and for something new. If Rowan's reaction is indeed quite significant, it would be helpful for the documentary to more greatly illuminate, on autism in general and Rowan's case in particular.

The film makes no clear comparisons between Rowan and other autistic children. Autism itself is very briefly covered, with gradations momentarily discussed, but Rowan's case is never directly scientifically scrutinized in relation to other cases of autism. The Horse Boy uses a multi-person panel of apparent experts in the field of autism including Austin psychotherapist Dale Rudin to expound various thoughts and postulations concerning the disease. The soundbites from the rotating doctors often contradict one another. The specifics of autism as a disease, even in relation to Rowan himself, are left frustratingly muddled. This is not entirely unreasonable unto itself yet the myriad comments are often vague or cliché-ridden. Those with a genuine interest in autism, such as beleaguered parents with autistic children of their own, will probably be rather disappointed by The Horse Boy's regrettably shallow pseudo-intellectualism.

The Horse Boy, as a documentary, sadly lacks much in the way of documentation—aside from the trip the Isaacsons take, it documents little. Evidence, examples, basic factual support are all conspicuously missing. This damages the cinematic missive; while it is obvious Rowan has been diagnosed as autistic, what does this truly entail? The lack of answers leaves The Horse Boy appearing woefully incondite at times. The film, through the patriarchal Isaacson, does relate that Rowan suffers from interminable and inconsolable tantrums, an inability to relate to or play with other children, and severe bowel incontinence. (The documentary pushes the audience's patience and embarrassment with at least one too many sequence detailing the latter symptom.) One overwhelming problem with the film, however, is that Rowan's autism is displayed in disparate contexts. In one scene, Isaacson expresses wonderment and happiness when his son throws a tantrum apparently because he was being separated from the shamans. Isaacson notes that this is a good sign; he believed his son would probably throw a tantrum when he was placed near the shamans. Does this comport with average autistic children? Are their symptoms chiefly brought about by emotional reactions?

This gleeful shedding of concrete, rational science as part of the potential equation extends to the Isaacsons readily accepting the shamans' belief, upon examining the family, that a “dark spirit” entered the womb of Isaacson's wife, Kristin Neff. Neff, with an earned Ph.D. in Human Development from Berkeley, rarely receives the focus of The Horse Boy; the picture either occludes or limits all other voices but Isaacson's own. Neff does briefly relate that her deceased, mentally unstable grandmother, the “dark spirit” of whom the shamans speak, suffered from manic depression and this “spirit”/genetic history has directly led to her son's autism. Rowan's parents subject themselves to ritualistic whippings by the shamans, compelled to not scream lest the ceremony be for naught. While the shamans' rituals are displayed visually for the film, the reasoning behind them are left vague. Likewise, Isaacson endeavors to lunge at various other possibilities of healing, including recuperative springs and visiting the “Reindeer People” of Mongolia. Isaacson's open faith may or may not be laudatory, but these developments in the documentary's narrative make the picture rather arduous with only the vistas of beautiful, wondrously open and commodious Mongolian terrain providing steady relief.

Almost humorously, or simply embarrassingly, Isaacson is depicted as hopelessly naïve in his own inexperienced impression of Mongolia, and especially of the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a desolate, chalky city packed with impoverished slums. After landing in the benighted city, Isaacson confesses that this reality is not what he was remotely expecting in his apparent fantasy of Mongolia. In one of the rare piercing comments made by Neff, she confirms this. The Horse Boy, as composed by filmmaker Scott, seems to relish the thoroughly “open-minded” Isaacson's lack of basic prudence—partly as romanticization, but perhaps more calculatedly as celebrating the prime mover of the “plot”—at the expense of greater insights into the more intriguing subject matter that is largely unexplored. While personalizing the film is necessary when dealing with such inherently intimate subject matter, the film never quite becomes more than validation for Isaacson. Consequently, best intentions notwithstanding, it never presents itself with the compelling, involving urgency that best suits the cinema.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds represents something of a commencement for its maker. Tarantino, now in his mid-forties, has found himself in that nearly mind-boggling predicament every major populist artist endures. Reduced to mere generalities, Tarantino's reign as American film's biggest, brainiest bad boy and correspondent of cinematic delectations has followed a fairly predictable path: amazement and adulation, followed not so slowly by backlash, resentment and cynical incertitude—and, depending on the individuals (each, for argument's sake, belonging to a certain cinematic-consumption stratum: critics, audience members, “cinephiles”), this has been repeated in the past twelve years. For some, Tarantino had definitively lost his way, or was at least adrift—the Kill Bill movies are so obscenely overloaded with richness and deliriousness of the genre-picking sort that they are readily divisive endeavors. Tarantino's partnership with Robert Rodriguez in creating Grindhouse, with Tarantino's Death Proof the picture endlessly argued about, defended and loathed by many who viewed the entire experience, caused a significant portion of film connoisseurs to begin to write him off for good. Here was a man who was, to liberally paraphrase from one noted, dissatisfied film blogger, crawling up his own ass and losing all bearing of reality.

Tarantino, however, knows that reality and film are two radically divergent worlds. Like one of his immediate ancestors, De Palma, he sees cinema as a fundamental lie, but like the noted Hitchcock-devotee, he interprets it as a benign lie, one as necessary as nighttime fairytales. You were either on board with this outlook or not—with Tarantino or not—and this dramatically influenced one's opinion of Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown work. Was he simply playing around or was there more behind the facade? For the critics, however, the mere question necessitated a correction of course; Tarantino, it was said, had to now put or shut up, almost like he was beginning all over again.

Let it be said that with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino puts up. Most immediately resembling his most universally acclaimed film, Pulp Fiction, in its multi-chapter structure with parallel, rotating stories, this cine—superficially World War II men-on-a-mission adventure, naturally it is first and foremost a Tarantino picture and everything that entails—is so headily unaware of its own grandiosity that it manages to be oddly intimate and downright recondite in its shadings of its cornucopia of distinguished gallery of Tarantino characters. That may be viewed as a kind of backhanded compliment, but it is not: Tarantino is so assured and inspired here, whatever quibbles or questions arise are almost instantly discarded. From the first frame to the last, this feels like the film Tarantino wanted to make after Jackie Brown but held off on—and, according to him, it was the screenplay he began working on after Brown, but the work became too massive and sprawling for its own good, and Tarantino redirected his energy behind Kill Bill—an unmistakable new, bold chapter to the Tarantino saga behind Tarantino's filmic journeys.

There is a moment early on in Inglourious Basterds that is in its own way a microcosmic description of the film entire: Colonel Hans Landa, with a honeyed, bright demeanor and grin, is coyly interrogating a Frenchman depicted as a virile, physical worker in the first of many comments on national and ethnic stereotypes Basterds makes. (The French dairy farmer with three daughters hiding a family of refugees may come from Tarantino's much-beloved Tonight We Raid Calais, a noted favorite of the director, from 1943 by John Brahm, about a British intelligence officer plotting to destroy a German munitions plant in France, hiding out with a French farmer and his daughters who—not unreasonably—blame the British for the fall of France.) The Frenchman reaches for his corn pipe and begins to smoke, and Landa quickly reaches for a pipe of his own—naturally, this Colonel known in France as the “Jew-Hunter,” a keen detective who is the distilled personification of a man who loves to play cat-and-mouse, has one that recalls Sherlock Holmes. The absurdly oversized pipe will make many a viewer of the film want to chuckle, but the chuckle is fleeting. As with other Tarantino creations, Landa is stunningly three-dimensional; whatever excesses and peculiarities he may possess are sadly all too human and strangely plausible. That pipe is a signpost: Basterds plays with people the way Tarantino films do, but the writer-director never ceases to insist that his characters are people. What follows is most crucial, for it reveals that Landa, an ostensible non-smoker, already knows that the French farmer smokes, and came prepared. Tarantino cuts away from the sight gag of the pipe to Landa's steely eyes, and the laughter dies down. Landa may be funny but he's no joke. No Tarantino character truly is, even the jokers. And like many a Tarantino character, Landa—like Mr. Pink arguing against automatic tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Bill discussing the subtextual meanings of the character of Superman in Kill Bill 2—patiently, coolly relates why he can think like a Jew by discussing the characteristics of a hawk, a rat, and, circuitously, a squirrel, in an early demonstration that the film has a provocative outlook on the issue of hunters attacking prey, most emphatically embodied by Landa himself.

Tarantino's opening is as rapturously mounted as anything in his oeuvre; he shoots the Frenchman working with his three beautiful daughters, and visions of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and myriad spaghetti westerns unfurl within the cinematically-trained mind. Tarantino follows suit with repeated excursions into filmic convention: like his seedy crime yarns that play with gangster movie conventions or Death Proof that seemed to exist as a kind of instrumental covering of many of Tarantino's favorite kinds of movie—cheap, tawdry horror movies, exploitation flicks of all kinds, road trip movies of sundry incarnations—Tarantino's multiple chapters in Basterds take on vibrant cinematic attributes found in spaghetti westerns, countless men-on-a-mission war films, romantic spy melodramas, of which there were plenty in the 1930s and '40s, and even a possible melding of horror-tinged religious cinema (a French heroine becomes Tarantino's approximation of Joan of Arc, devoured by flame before her tormentors) which feel at one with giallo and Catholic filmmakers' representations of their fear and guilt. This may mislead many who partake in Basterds' multitudinous delights of sight and sound—Basterds is admittedly enormously informed by Tarantino's love of cinema, including German expressionism, the brilliance of G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl's work and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, the latter of which may signify Tarantino's acknowledgment of a “bad boy” of another era, in which one was not rewarded for the sharp attitudinal edge of one's film but rather punished for it as Clouzot was for Le Corbeau—but a pastiche it is not. Tarantino has reached a higher plane insofar as his recollections—part personal (the titular Inglourious Basterds stalk their German victims with knives like the psychopaths who terrified a young Tarantino in The Last House on the Left), part historical (Tarantino affords much banter about popular culture, once again, but it is confined strictly to figures of the time period such as Max Linder and the film character King Kong) but these gropings at cinema are heartfelt and genuine, as well as seamlessly stitched into the fabric of Basterds' very filmic identity.

What Inglourious Basterds proves is that Tarantino is still obsessed with human beings rather than a more accessible instigator of movement—his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels. Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying? It surely would have been easier to create a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen and leave it at that, but Tarantino's tapestry demands altogether greater scrutiny. Almost ironically, Tarantino's very artistic behavior—to lovingly dwell on the minutest of details, to bathe in the minds and hearts of the people he, like any significant writer, simply follows—is what has helped to make him so durably popular. If he were to abandon it, he would be sacrificing that which makes him a unique voice.

That voice helps to shape the aforementioned Colonel Hans Landa (a sensational Christoph Waltz), whose thrill of the chase and hunt (predominantly cerebral) is fetishistic and unnerving. He asks for a glass of the farmer's milk from his cows. Like Anton Chigurh's grabbing of a bottle of cold milk in No Country for Old Men, the villain's commandeering of the satisfying cream appears shameless and even saturnalian. Landa is an apt avatar for the Third Reich; his rapacity is on open display as he hurriedly swallows an entire glassful of the milk belonging to the French. Landa is undeniably acute and fully commanding but he lacks the patience to savor that which he ingests. A later scene in which he almost mechanically rips apart a piece of strudel with requested cream, taking turns between munching on a bite and asking a probing question, reinforces this amusingly sad characteristic. Waltz is at one moment quite humorous, and in the next downright chilling. Like Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell in Jackie Brown, Landa is self-protective to a fault, with an air of melancholy. Just before he violently snuffs out a fellow German's life—one of Tarantino's most uncomfortable and ugliest scenes, far more devastating than any scalping or baseball bat-beating by the Basterds—he has a look of sadness that reminds of Ordell's final, quiet warning to Max Cherry, before resuming his role as natural predator. The long, opening act establishes Landa's genius, as well as Tarantino's: a request to swap French for English in conversation between German and Frenchman first appears to be a bow to the commercial, so that Americans need not read anymore subtitles for a while. However, Landa's language-switch has a deep, sinister purpose. Late in the film, Landa kisses a handkerchief with a woman's lipstick and signature, and soon thereafter confronts the woman in a revoltingly warped recalling of Cinderella while indulging in Tarantino's much-discussed foot fetish. Basterds' men are, like other Tarantino guys—Vincent Vega, Max Cherry, even Bill—largely astonished and aroused by women because they recognize that they know so little about them. Such is the case with two Germans, Landa and particularly German war hero Fredrick Zoller.

Zoller's crush on a young French woman who runs her own cinema develops Tarantino's incendiary depiction of cinema itself, as a moral reckoning, distorter and demigod. The French woman is Shosanna Dreyfus, renamed Emanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent)—Shosanna was the last surviving member of the Dreyfus family, sheltered by the French farmer before Landa and his men killed all but one. Tarantino's framing of Shosanna against the silhouetted front door frame of her father's farm, running away into the wilderness from the ruthless Nazis, exhibits a borrowing from John Ford's The Searchers. As the leader of the Basterds, Lieutenant Aldo Raine played by Brad Pitt (an obvious homage to American tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, complete with throat scar substituting for fatal throat cancer) informs his men, he is part “Injun,” and the Basterds will conduct themselves in the fashion of Apache warriors, scalping and mutilating Germans wherever they find them. The American Indian theme blossoms: Tarantino is himself part-“Injun,” drawing comparisons between his and Raine's own ancestry and respective raison d'êtres. Raine tells his men that the Germans will come to know this special secret squad of men and fear them—a kind of yearning for fame, or infamy, based on thuggery and shock, perhaps representing either an auto-critique by Tarantino or augmentation of argument that Tarantino's cinema is only at first glance about such mainly unimportant matters. At the beginning of the final chapter, the vengeful Shosanna applies her makeup as though she is meditatively donning warpaint. Never before has Tarantino's fixation on film been more irrepressible, as Shosanna's scheme to exact revenge on the Nazis responsible for murdering her family involves her sacrificing cinema—her own theatre as well as many reels of nitrate film she has in storage. Shosanna's final act of the film—one of both compassion and distraction—prove Tarantino's point, and establish just how frightening the efficacy of the cinema truly is. As with another woman—Dietrich-like German film star Bridget van Hammersmark (an entirely pleasant and surprisingly strong Diane Kruger)—Tarantino brings about the fates of his feminine forces to an anguished height, finally reaching the crushingly realistic conclusion of his long-fascinating depiction of “girl power” in manifold forms.

Bruhl's Zoller exists at once as Tarantino's twist on the American Audie Murphy story, reversing the mirror shot, so to speak, following other such reversals as the American soldiers being depicted as butchers juxtaposed with a decorated German, Sergeant Werner Rachtman—who honorably, judiciously and with great dignity informs his baseball bat-wielding executioner he earned his medal “for bravery,”—and exploring the inner-workings of the Third Reich's film industry through the perspective of Joseph Goebbels as overarching filmic auteur/movie executive. (Winston Churchill, played by Rod Taylor, asks a British expert on German cinema whether Goebbels considers himself the German Louis B. Mayer.) Zoller, however, is generously expanded upon by Tarantino. As a construct, Zoller could have been just a Tarantino meta-comment—the character says Goebbels wants him to become “the German Van Johnson,” terrifically editorializing on the cinematic image of toughness against that of the tangible world (the strapping, 6'2” Van Johnson versus the 5'5”-½ Audie Murphy). Zoller is a German war hero who, all alone, killed literally hundreds of enemy soldiers in Italy and now his story has been told in a propaganda film starring none other than himself. (Zoller excitedly tells one character that he has been hailed as the German “Sergeant York,” another example of people of one country discovering the story of another nation's hero through cinema.) Zoller is an intriguing character, made all the more abundantly arresting by the picture's remarkable climax. Viewing his own “heroics” on the giant screen, Zoller is in actuality disgusted; he cannot continue to watch, and leaves to “annoy” the owner of the cinema. Zoller represents the mature filmgoer who can at least empathize with if not truly live the violence glorified by Goebbels' picture, merging the previously disparate themes of the violence enacted by the Basterds, often cheered by Tarantino's moviegoer. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, he has seen a terrible, unshakable visage—and it is of himself, in another materialization—and can finally look back on the killing he has committed with a comprehensibly enhanced perspective.

Tarantino indulges himself with British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, last seen starving himself in Hunger), expert in German film, writer of two published books and published film critic. Tarantino's anointing of the cinephile as conduit and guiding force of Tarantino's own, phrenic world is here even more robust than in Death Proof, which saw a group of female film buffs and film crew members fight back against Stuntman Mike. Shosanna, Hicox, Zoller, Goebbels, von Hammersmark, the numerous German enlisted men and officers who are bedazzled by von Hammersmark, Shosanna's black film projectionist and clandestine lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido, an African in a cast heavily populated by Europeans and Americans), and others are all either directly or indirectly endowed with a special, durable connection to and appreciation for the art form of the motion picture. Yet while von Hammersmark's presence connotes the renowned fashion, glamor and elan of movie icons (a stereotype to which Tarantino gives plentiful twists); Zoller is, one could contend, the “exploited” person, the individual whose real-life escapades provide fodder for the insatiable beast; and Shosanna is the practically sanctified Tarantino demigoddess who readily sacrifices cinema for her own personal vengeful victory; it is, with disturbing and cutting clarity Lieutenant Hicox whose knowledge of cinema informs his decisions. Confronted by an overbearing Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom (a superb August Diehl) in a pivotal tavern, Hicox resorts to his encyclopedic knowledge base to throw the inquisitive major off the scent that the undercover Englishman is indeed not a German. Hicox is briefly saved by his fondness for a Leni Riefenstahl film, The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Moments later, however, he gives himself away in a manner that reveals Tarantino finally confronting himself and perhaps his critics who deride him for being so hopelessly stuck in movies. Hicox's fate points to the admission that film, though especially indispensable to a cinephile, ultimately cannot teach one about everything, about every group of people, no matter how well-informed one may be. The brutal irony that Hicox was especially an expert of German cinema makes the point all the sharper and clearer.

Tarantino's World War II epic is conspicuously skewed, both surprisingly and not surprisingly, in almost being a weird, “proto-black man's view” of the war. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to two brief narrations. As though this were not enough, the one character who is viewed with wholly uncomplicated sympathy is Shosanna's lover, Marcel, who is obedient to his woman, kind, tender and evidently fearless. This is not alarming coming from Tarantino, whose occasionally ostentatious affinity for and relationship with black-oriented features has flowed into these filmmaking decisions. Most penetrative, however, are a pair of speeches delivered by Nazis—first by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and later by Hellstrom—respectively commenting on the unique place blacks have had in America, as athletic competitors and previously as slaves. This threading connects World War II to the black experience in America, and suggests Tarantino's contention that “America,” as an abstraction, or reduced to specific characters (“Basterds”), was not the uncomplicated hero of the war. This is never distracting; only a source of moral bemusement.

Tarantino's essaying of the Basterds themselves will doubtless bring about divergent reactions. One may interpret the American “Basterds” as ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters—although Tarantino does not afford most of them much time or weight, beyond Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz and Til Schweiger's Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz—so the cartoon quality of the characters is perhaps actually softened. Pitt is fine in his role and repeatedly quite funny. Pitt's presence lends balance to the film's air of the star-studded international cast, even if he is less obvious for Raine than former Tarantino hombres like Bruce Willis or Michael Madsen. Roth is solid as the “Bear Jew.” The Basterds are in truth defined by their comparative absence from the world of cinema in relation to the film's other characters. As Raine tells a doomed German, watching Donny Donowitz split open German heads with his baseball bat “ is the closest we get to goin' to the movies.” Tarantino's sly comment about the possible, cathartic need for filmic violence as a substitute to real-world bloodletting cannot go unnoticed. Beyond this, in a typically Tarantino-esque, twisted manner, the Basterds may represent some form of pitiless conscience, and more than simply existing as a group of Jewish soldiers slaughtering Nazis about France, the point made by Raine on two highly memorable occasions is worth pondering, particularly for Jews victimized by the Nazi terror. Will these Nazis abandon their uniforms once the war concludes and go about their lives without consequence? Though the Basterds are sadistic and fiendishly violent, the question resonates in the final chapter as Landa himself, who, in the prologue, relished the title given to him—“The Jew Hunter” (early in the film, Landa says he believes Heydrich in Prague should be proud of his nickname, “The Hangman,” perhaps a reference by Tarantino to one of Lang's wartime propaganda pictures, Hangmen Also Die about Heydrich)—feigns recoiled horror at the label when he is negotiating a cunning deal. The Basterds, then, could be sincerely deciphered as unforgiving avenging angels before the fact. This does not, however, remotely excuse the barbaric bloodthirst of the Basterds, nor the hideous oversimplification of viewing every Germanic soldier as a demonic Nazi. This is a thorny extension of Tarantino's obsession with revenge, which has seemingly become more explicit with each release. As with the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof, when the revenge is finally meted out, Tarantino does not glorify or romanticize the violence—this is in fact only truer with Inglourious Basterds, which features violence as a swift reckoning—all too fast, ghastly and terrible, the outbursts explode at the end of long set-pieces of dialogue.

What perhaps makes Inglourious Basterds so intoxicating and enthralling is the opaquely ambagious, unpredictable route it so gleefully travails. Tarantino, for all of his homages and love letters to cinema, has never shied away from happily departing from the trusted formula. Inglourious Basterds actually delivers the usual Tarantino multilayered, two-for-one special: on one basic narrative level, his pictures conclude precisely where they must (Mr. White discovering Mr. Orange's secret in Reservoir Dogs or The Bride confronting Bill in the Kill Bill movies being especially straightforward destinations) and so does Inglourious Basterds (which two male characters do you believe will finally meet before the picture concludes?) but the circumstances, emotions and emphases are always stunningly different in their laminations and most importantly their meanings from what most audience members are anticipating.

Tarantino's characters, it must be said here, are always meeting ends unforeseen by all including themselves (even an important character who has elected a kind of grandiose, operatic martyrdom does not meet the exact fate they had envisioned). Basterds displays once more the circuitous manner in which Tarantino characters finally get what is coming to them. Characters receive tragic ends that have little or nothing directly to do with their past sins. Basterds augments this entrenched trait by playing things firmly “down the middle,” so to speak, like an umpire, Tarantino dispassionately surveys all of the characters, with an impartiality and probity that takes the lackadaisical, conventional triteness that even suffocates supposed “satire” (Starship Troopers and the recent District 9 both suffer inordinately from this laziness) out of the way, throwing the audience's wanton desire for mayhem and death back into their collective lap. Whereas Tarantino's first batch of films were based to one degree or another in a criminal underworld, which usually feature more ambiguously-defined roles of “hero” and “villain,” Inglourious Basterds takes on the static mythology of World War II, with its elephantine and nearly preconceived “heroes and villains.” This is chiefly played with by Tarantino with regards to Zoller, who even explicitly tells the French beauty to whom he is attracted that he is more than a uniform, coupled with a humanizing comment that all German soldiers are “somebody's son.”

Beyond Zoller's plea that he is more than a uniform—a direct thematic rebuttal to the Basterds' campaign—Tarantino's film is bustling with not only textual and subtextual reversals (and even textual reversals during which the subtext remains the same, including a late-inning gambit by one particularly unscrupulous but brilliant figure), but also simple reversals of identity. As with other “men-on-a-mission” pictures, some of the Basterds along with the aforementioned Lieutenant Hicox must pose as Germans. Throughout the long, intentionally languorous visitation of the tavern, the parlor game played serves as a shockingly direct substitution for the very serious game being played; that Tarantino's device runs exactly parallel to his suspense-driven plot situation and very few find it excessive proves he has become only more successful at partially veiling his intentions with a layer of apparent frivolity that is in actuality part and parcel of the critical narrative conditions. The scene itself plays like a combination of Tarantino sequences in which people look like they are letting their proverbial hair down while only masquerading or belatedly revealing their true selves. The tavern exists with a thoroughly detailed environment and, like other Tarantino set-pieces, feels like that from a novel or play with its purposeful limitations (one reason Tarantino is never called “stagy” is because people tend to enjoy the long, winding monologues and repartees he produces)—the intersecting of characters feels as though it belongs to the spirit of such locales as Reservoir Dogs' hood hideout, Pulp Fiction's diner, Jackie Brown's dark bars and Ordell's chief homestead, Kill Bill's several sequences of predator finding prey and the Tarantino character's bar in Death Proof. The playing with identities in Basterds is not unheard of for Tarantino; his first film, borrowing liberally from the original The Taking of Pelham 123, followed criminals with unknown identities with one another beyond their color names, and indeed his subsequent films all tend to fall in that line, to be partly about characters discovering others' true, or truer, identities. Tarantino's playfulness has been known to extend to the brutal, and Basterds is no exception: the last German man standing, weeping and frantically distressed, the most ostensibly “cowardly” of his squadron, is rewarded first by the Basterds for giving information Sergeant Rachtman refused to bequeath and then by Adolf Hitler himself, who makes the (physically and spiritually disgraced) German soldier the veritable hero of the cover story that has now become “official” reality. In one of the film's most piquant visual mirrored reversals, one character strangles another; the character being murdered helplessly grabs a hold of anything, such as the carpeting of the floor, and later the strangler is himself mounted, and, like the character he terminated, can only grip and pull at grass in unspeakable pain.

Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino's much-denied moralistic streak is akin to De Palma's; their inversions of normalcy are startling but very much related to one another. Basterds concludes on a note of female anguish and annihilation—a redux of Carrie and possibly The Fury (with Bruhl's Zoller approximating John Cassavetes in his final, distasteful speech)—that feels completely earned and directly corresponding with Tarantino's long-documented half-guileless, half-goofy relating of “girl power,” which he himself utilizes as fragmentary stand-in for his piqued curiosity of the fairer sex (like most Tarantino male avatars). Tarantino has proven he is no cinematic or cultural revolutionary—he is nearly the anti-Godard in the sense that Godard posited his homages as necessary conditional trappings to create something of a new cinema, while Tarantino's love of anterior cinema overwhelms most other impulses. Countering this, however, is that Tarantino's love of cinema almost circularly takes him into a realm not dissimilar from Godard at all—especially as the young Godard sought a degree in Ethnology at the Sorbonne, Tarantino's undying infatuation with cinema has given him a dramatically different but equivalent studying of disparate cultures and their origins. Comparisons to Hitchcock become perilous, but Basterds is teeming with references to the man who jubilantly placed the moral responsibility of his World War II spy films' carnage on the audience, as in a pivotal movie theatre scene in Saboteur, wherein violence takes place against the backdrop of the silver screen's applauded and cheered violence. Tarantino's sense of morality is persuasive insofar as the filmmaker refuses to confess that it exists; by simply “following” his invented tale, he can live by the conceit that he is not judging the proceedings, gavel in hand, as he crafts his screenplays and films. Pungently, Tarantino openly assaults history, and therefore saves millions of lives in his alternate world by concluding World War II much earlier than it did in fact end (possibly averting the Russian overtaking of Central Europe as well). The film asks a pointed question: if the war's final year could have been averted, would the story's destructive massacring, and furious, merciless climactic conflagration, been seen as justified?

Another inspiration of Tarantino's—Leone—is easily discovered in the relation between a known war and a complete, beautifully unfurled fictive fantasia, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The sequence in the tavern likewise recalls spaghetti westerns in its careful attenuation of competing characters. There is even a new father, a German soldier, whose appearance along with several of his compatriots is a classic, painful example of the wrong people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both like, and more quotidian than, the iconic Confederate soldier being given a “smoke,” Tarantino's Germans are fully flesh-and-blood—something one may not expect in a film so divergent from standard historical fidelity—as well as being endowed with sheer, cunning smarts. Landa, Hellstrom and others are all viewed as intelligent, almost insidiously astute adversaries. (Humorously, Landa is offended late in the picture when a noted enemy does not appear to afford him the kind of respect he believes he demands.) Like other Tarantino film scores, the music recalls Ennio Morricone's larger-than-life melodies in its euphonious depiction of various individuals as archetypes.

Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Inglourious Basterds is a paean to propaganda. For the first time, Tarantino has scaled the mountain of the propaganda film. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he reads the propaganda films of the United States, Great Britain and Germany with great, unbridled engrossment. Expectedly, Tarantino pays tribute to the very national stereotypes bolstered by the respective countries' own propaganda—the heedless voracity, brashly indomitable spirit and brutish instincts of the Americans, the stiff upper lip propriety, earnest self-challenging derring-do and remote chilliness of the English, and the shrewd, wily and skillfully manipulative Germans, all double-edged swords—while discussing the correlation between German film exec Goebbels with the American film execs who immediately pushed for propaganda pictures after Pearl Harbor and the morale-boosting English pictures of the same time. Riefenstahl may have a most dubious position in history, but her films shed voluminous light on the character of the people she tirelessly observed through her film work. Tarantino certainly admires the role of the propaganda film—it is, perhaps, the ultimate (and government-sanctioned) exploitation picture, after all—and his treatment of the much-hyped Nazi propaganda film at the heart of Basterds is curiously unaffected, with a definite ambivalence that over the course of his picture covers highly contrasting emotions stemming from pride, affection, passion, mockery, ridicule and disgust.

At a recent Marin Shakespeare Company presentation of “Julius Caesar” in San Rafael, California, this writer overheard one patron discussing Inglourious Basterds with his family and friends. “It's a World War II Pulp Fiction,” he roared. At a presentation of a play written by the Bard a millennium and a half after the events took place, in which a kind of historical, Roman propaganda takes shape on each side of the play's expansive argument—Cassius cajoling and soothing Brutus that his name shares the weight of Caesar, followed by the emotional, powerful demagoguery of Mark Antony—this was a most intriguing venue to consider Inglourious Basterds. The dualistic nature of Basterds suggests Tarantino's meta-contextualizing of the propaganda film, matching his previous forays in digesting all of the properties of his variegated subjects. To compare Tarantino with the Bard in any fashion may be correctly considered disturbing—yet their respective analyses of historical propaganda reveals a commonly sober, balanced reading. That level of maturity is not easily quantified, nor is it usually appropriately appreciated. Perhaps Tarantino, speaking through Pitt's Aldo Raine in the picture's final pre-end credits moment, is indeed correct—Inglourious Basterds “just might be [his] masterpiece.”

Friday, July 31, 2009

Tetro (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Hurt Locker (2009)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2009

Shemariah (May 1990--March 2, 2009)

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Up (2009)

Pixar singlehandedly embodies the very paradoxes of the flowering of imaginations, a notion which is commonly linked to the steady maturation of children. Simultaneously challenging itself with the stimulating, increasingly hungry idiosyncrasy tied to the best qualities of a budding abecedarian and indulging in the whimsical fantasy-land, storybook logic, and linear narratives, bustling and humming with the fervent determination of a child unwilling to retire for the evening when he or she could continue playing, Pixar is an intriguing macrocosmic extrapolation of children. Since children are the predominant target group for Pixar animation, perpetually yanking on the apparel of mothers and fathers to see the latest animated treat of the cinema, Pixar would be unwise to limit its appeal by pursuing a strictly unconventional course. Yet because Pixar promises parents an enjoyably engaging, often meaningful excursion into the luminous dreamworld of its filmmakers, those mothers and fathers are more inclined to relinquish a little of their money to attend the film than they likely are for other studios' animated fare.

Up is the latest Pixar picture, co-directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, and written by Peterson based on a short story by Peterson and Tom McCarthy, and it too holds its contradictions steadfastly. Firstly, the film is based on a short story, and at ninety-six minutes long, probably wrings and rinses as much material from that yarn as possible. Which, incidentally, helps to expose the film's most obvious flaw. Secondly, the picture is imbalanced in its morphology. The first fifteen minutes or so are sublime and practically flawless. It may almost be rightly desired that a short animated film had been made from this stitched embroidery. The opening passage of Up recalls the recent Academy Award-winning animated short film La Maison des Petits Cubes, a quietly, evocatively stirring account of a man's life, and his innate, palpable connection to his home. Up's montage of image and sound here is breathtaking; Michael Giacchino's melodious score conveys the joyfulness, sweetness and heartache which roam and rotate around one another like cars through the boulevards of life.

This haunting poignancy stalks the remainder of the picture, lurking deceptively about through the more plainly robust, temerarious convolutions of most of the film's plot. Carl Fredericksen (voiced with gusto and curmudgeonly geniality by Ed Asner) is a weary, widowed, seventy-eight year old man by the time the film's proper narrative proceeds. His dignity is stripped away from him by a callous cabal of developers—the kind of largely faceless, unstoppable force of a Madusa-headed hydra villain that usually stands in as Pixar's butter to its bread. As he watches his mailbox—with which he associates memories of his dearly departed wife—be violently pried from the ground and run over by the developers' machinery, Carl loses his composure and strikes out, resulting in his banishment to an “old folks' home,” called “Shady Oaks,” where it is unlikely that the oaks are the only things which are shady. Consequently, Carl finds himself placed in an unenviable predicament, and rather than meekly surrender to the authorities, he launches his home by allowing thousands of balloons tied to his home to take him Up.

Up eases itself into a vastly more comfortable routine at approximately this juncture, however. Tediousness creeps into the film; bland, uninteresting and poorly-motivated characters intrude upon Carl's journey to South America to fulfill a lifelong promise to his wife. Droplets of jejune frivolity would have been not only tolerable but encouraged—Pixar's filmmakers may receive almost unanimous encomiums from professional film critics, but they are probably not to be burdened with delving into Bergmanesque awakenings and reawakenings of the soul, consciousness and yearnings of the metaphysical. Up in the hands of artistic puritans would probably be a failed, 3D re-imagining of Wild Strawberries. Yet Up nearly represents base cynicism in its most forgettable moments, like the staging of an armada of carnivorous, talking dogs approximating the reward for sitting through the comparatively emotionally dire realities of life's shockingly mundane fragility.

Nevertheless, Up succeeds when it is fluently communicating through the crisp, irrefutable language of cinema, placing the viewer amidst its abundant riches with a warmth and wit of uncommon depth. Worth noting: the banal, “adult” perspective of monogamous, wedded bliss would be to linger on the Fredericksens' bed. Up establishes marriage through childlike glee and innocence, connecting the armchairs of the respective seats in which Carl and his wife so interminably sat, speaking to one another, or not speaking at all because it was unnecessary, to the resilience of lasting human relationships. The wife's childhood scrapbook. A picture of the wife. The aforementioned mailbox. An almost worthless soda bottle cap inspires selfless fealty from one spouse to another in an immeasurably beautiful, unspoken form of curiology. It is in the rapid, dazzling concatenation of images that Up periodically rebounds, finally fully lifting again as the consequences and points to the excessively busy plot finally play out.

The 3D is a pleasurable ornamentation, and works fairly well with the brilliantly colorful palette with which the Pixar filmmakers work. Giacchino's score is a standout invention, spinning untold layers of pathos to Carl's fundamentally heartwarming world. And those first fifteen minutes are worth the price of admission, beckoning beyond the final credits as an indelible cinematic montage worthy of a silent era genius. The cuts triggering humor such as child Carl having a broken arm after a dangerous fall, or despondency such as a panning shot from a hospital hallway, or simply the passage of time through a dizzying compilation of ties for adult Carl, are nothing short of exemplary. It may be a reasonable theory that even the most troubled, unattractive films have within them mini-films—moments of genuine greatness, tucked away underneath a comparative blizzard of misshapenness. There need be no exhaustive search for Up's ineffably piercing stretch of filmic harmony. However it is viewed—as a perfect short film which precedes an acceptably diverting family movie or the ideal prologue—Up's great claim to fame is its gorgeous crown jewel and mellifluously beating heart.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Moon (2009)

The conceptual richness of the lone figure stranded by himself has caught the imaginations of innumerable individuals. This is a particularly post-Enlightenment differentia of the west's general complexion—from Byron's Manfred to Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, to the cinematic self-ostracized and stranded creations such as Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Tom Hanks' Chuck Noland in Cast Away—marking a noteworthy separation from antiquity. Greek and Roman societies predominantly viewed the threat of exile as a suitable alternative to capital punishment: the possibility of complete divorcement from civilization and community was an incomprehensibly awful fate. Asian readers of Byron's poetry and Defoe's novel would evidently recoil at the subject matter. The Aristotelian aphorism from his Politics, Book One, “Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature and that man is by his nature a social animal,” is tested by these aforementioned works in the most literal manner.

Duncan Jones, son of rock star David Bowie, has set out to mount an eerily similar tale. Like previous science-fiction space opuses like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky's Solaris, the physically infinitesimal human being, or human beings, set against the boundlessly illimitable backdrop of space, is at the forefront of Jones's essaying of the solitary man. How much of an impact Jones' father had on the idea behind his feature debut—Bowie's sci-fi-tinged music and his starring part in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth seem to preternaturally prophesize Moon. Fittingly for this moment, Jones swaps the components of the narrative insofar as he posits not the importance of the earth's properties—Roeg's film sprung from the realization that the earth was singular in its harboring of water—but in its possible deficiencies. Jones, who wrote and directed, begins his picture informing the viewer of a future in which earthlings are searching for sources of energy beyond their planet's atmosphere. Ergo, one man is sent to the moon on a mission whose time is determined by his signing a three-year contract with the energy/space travel company. (Almost humorously, NASA is conspicuous by its absence; apparently, in the future the United States federal government's multiple ongoing wars, and purchasing of car companies, banks and previously-governmentally-chartered mortgage behemoths has made the overseeing of a space program too exorbitant in cost to continue.) Astronaut Sam Bell is tasked with excavating the moon for Helium 3, the light isotope first hypothesized by Australian nuclear physicist Mark Oliphant in 1934. In Jones' lightly sketched future, solar-soaked Helium 3 will become a panacea for mankind, solving the quandaries of finite energy supplies on earth.

Sam Rockwell plays Bell, and contributes to Jones' vision a performance of nearly startling emotional complexity and breadth. The words “nearly startling” should not take away from Rockwell's turn; it is only nearly startling because for those who have experienced Rockwell's performances, his starring tour de force performance in Moon will not be seen as altogether surprising. There is already a doomed existentialism to Rockwell, which at its fiercest is unshakable. Especially desperate moments in films such as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Snow Angels are punctuated by Rockwell's fidgety earnestness and convincing verisimilitude. Here is an actor who always possesses an air of doom and attrition. Rockwell's isolated self is an amazing performance, worth seeking out.

The film brushes up against and in actuality embraces many cliches of science-fiction. A resourceful robot named “Gerty” (voiced quite well by Kevin Spacey) aids astronaut Bell. “Gerty” is an intriguing creation. Much of the creepiness of 2001's HAL remains, but “Gerty” is not the boringly hackneyed malicious computer that HAL enormously helped to usher into the genre or from other recent computer-dominated pictures like Eagle Eye. “Gerty” is doctor, chef, friend and almost paternal figure, a multitasking entity which may both beautifully and frighteningly describe the end of the rainbow for human beings increasingly relying on technology for convenience. The blending of sci-fi and religious allegory is posited through the names Bell assigns his robots, rovers and antennas. One is named Luke, and another is Judas. Bell seems to mark time by drawing a simple face on the metallic wall. The faces appear to represent his daily moods—sadness, happiness, ambivalence, imperfectly represented through Bell's little black-marker avatars. The happy-face image is flashed back from machine to man as well, with “Gerty” smiling and frowning depending on the emotional situation for Sam Bell.

Moon's production design is quite dazzling in its chromatic, partially sterilized environment. (Though plant life is lovingly depicted as surviving on Bell's otherwise inorganic base of operations.) The use of models is the film's most lasting and memorable effect, creating a visage of recurring potency. The mobile rover of Bell's moving about the surface of the moon, mining and harvesting the Helium 3 for the “Lunar” company, is a repeated, visual soughing, the philter between man, device and the action of movement. Jones' reliance on the models pays off in a meta-commentary on filmmaking without it being too ostentatious: Bell nervously works on a sprawling model of “Fairfield,” (Fairfield, California?) Bell's hometown at a workstation table.

Unfortunately, Moon, ironically, seems to run out of energy in its sagging denouement. Once Bell has discovered some painful, shattering truths about his own existence, the film seems to lack a cogent philosophical destination—or even a basic narrative one. Rockwell is given less and less to do at this point, but he remains strong. It is the screenplay which slackens. Moon partly tells the tale of Plato's shadows on the cave wall, though through the anomalistic mirroring between self and id. Here, Moon brings about questions of alter-egos and projections of such. Having done this, however—from an eye-catching “flash-forward” of a female specter aboard the base to Sam recognizing himself in one being only to consider the attitudinal and psychological gulf between the two—Moon is almost too reticent for its own good. Raising many questions and points about these matters, Moon finally disintegrates, its conclusion dissatisfying in its uncharacteristic conventionality. A last-second voice-over, doubtless intended to be piquant and acidic in its black humor, seems to help the film merely wrap things up too neatly, avoiding a large number of the issues it had earlier broached. Nevertheless, Moon is too engrossing for much of its existentialist odyssey to dismiss or ignore.