Steamboat Round The Bend (1935): Dir. John Ford
John Ford's final collaboration with Will Rogers is
the pair's finest. Both Judge Priest and Doctor Bull lacked a certain dramatic surge that Steamboat Round The Bend offers like an
engine run on moonshine. Rogers
plays Doc John, a huckster peddling snake oil on the Mississippi in the
1890's. He teams with a feisty swamp girl when her husband -- John's nephew Duke -- is put on death row. The climax dovetails nicely with a
steamboat race to Baton Rouge where Duke awaits the gallows. A brisk eighty minutes, Steamboat not only has the narrative
propellant and comedic charms to satisfy viewers; it depicts a Civil War resentful South in the process of reconstruction, floating between modernism and an adherence to old Southern values. We see
medicine shows and false prophets, bands playing Dixie and a traveling wax-museum of historical figures frozen in time (much like the Antebellum South) that end up sacrificial fuel for the steamboat engines. Industry churns forward and leaves the
old ways behind in a puff of smokey exhaust.
That the young lady goes from unholy bayou-brat to proper belle
to first-rate steamboat captain furthers the film's theme of necessary
progressivism. Like all Ford's
work, Steamboat delights as it
recounts yet another small chapter in America's ongoing narrative odyssey.
Monday, December 17, 2012
There’s a scene in the original Red Dawn, after the squad of guerilla teenagers discovers that they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, when they stand him in the snow for execution. The leader, Jed (Patrick Swayze), cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, but then, one of the others, without missing a beat, raises his rifle and blows his friend completely away. John Milius’ 1984 Cold War-paranoia-action-movie Red Dawn, which starred a bunch of Brat Pack mainstays as the Wolverines, a renegade fighting force battling Soviet invaders, was never a great film. In fact, it has become a punch line if hardly the gripping cautionary tale its director surely meant it to be. Much of the derision is targeted at Milius’ war being pretend, hypothetical. (Wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 just a hypothetical future?) To the director, however, the Cold War was very real, and its potential destructive power was nothing to joke about. Wherever you stand, Red Dawn undoubtedly understood the cost of war, that it takes not only our land and our loved ones, but also our humanity, which is perhaps the greatest casualty of all.
For all its failings, 1984’s Red Dawn was at least the work of someone with a vision and a point-of-view. 2012’s Red Dawn is, in contrast, a complete hack-job: The Hunger Games with commies. The new “warriors” look like J. Crew catalogue models holding assault rifles. There’s a thick layer of risible ridiculousness coating every frame of this entire 90-minute piece of soulless claptrap. To update its story for a new generation, the invading army now belongs to the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (don’t let the name fool you). Why the North Koreans? It was supposed to be the Chinese until the studio decided they didn’t want to anger a massive market demographic, so they swapped nations in post by dubbing-over the Chinese with Korean and replacing all the emblems and flags. How the hell could North Korea ever invade Middle America? That’s a better question. I’ll tell you: they’ve developed an electro-magnetic-pulse machine that obliterated the American power grid. It’s the film’s flux capacitor, basically. Other than those changes, the basic premise is the same. Enemy soldiers parachute into small town U.S.A. and turn it into an occupied combat zone. A group of local teenagers escape to the woods where they form a small militia to fight-off their oppressors.
That’s where the similarities end, however. The first Red Dawn was essentially a Western, set along the forests and mountains of the Rockies and their foothills. The heroes rode horses and adapted to changing weather. The terrain allowed them to attack surreptitiously from their own backyards. Red Dawn 2.0 takes place in the upper northwest near Seattle. The kids find solace in the woods, but the film has no consideration for nature’s generous-dangerous navigability. Seattle’s temperate climate explains the seasonal stasis, but not our befuddled sense of time elapse. It looks as if the whole movie was shot in about two months at summer camp. Since most of the fighting takes place in urban areas, this version is supposed to suggest a more modern war. If so, why not set it in New York City or Chicago or Washington D.C.? That would be a complete change-up from the original’s backwoods mountaineering and would also offer an ironic and timely twist on the occupier/insurgent paradigm in Baghdad today. Milius had learned from greats like Leone and Ford to appreciate the power of the wide-shot and the still frame. Director Dan Bradley has gathered from his generation’s “masters”—Tony Scott and Michael Bay—that suffocating compositions, never settling on actor’s faces, and shaking the camera epileptically is the only way to create suspense.
Milius went to great efforts to make his movie feel important, despite its borderline absurd conceit. The violence was bloody. There was subversion in images of American civilians in concentrations camps and in front of firing squads—or American guerillas fighting off foreigners in a tribute to the natives who once so bravely battled pioneers and explorers for that very same land. The squad of youths had a Lord of the Flies dynamic: Patrick Swayze was the morally conflicted leader, Jennifer Grey was the stealthy bait, and C. Thomas Howell was the vengeful monster. Even the enemies were complex, with the Cuban commander sweating his newfound role as an occupying tyrant. I can’t tell you squat about any of the characters in the new Red Dawn, besides that Chris Hemsworth plays an on-leave Marine who leads the group and argues with his quarterback little bro (Josh Pence) about some perfunctory betrayal. The characters in this remake needn’t worry about losing their humanity. They never had it to begin with.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Who knew the fate of the free world might one day depend on a hotdog? I’m not talking about President Franklin D. Roosevelt (though he was a bit of a hotdog); I’m referring to the meal served King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their famous visit to America in July of 1939, when the nations solidified an alliance on the eve of WWII. Hyde Park on Hudson, which stars funnyman Bill Murray as the bespectacled commander-and-chief, is a starchy if mercifully brief comedy-of-manners, depicting that momentous event with the dramatic flimsiness of the aforementioned frank (again, not FDR).
Set entirely at the Roosevelt family estate in the pastoral New York countryside, the movie presents our 32nd president as a remorseless flatterer, a smarmy maestro with political disingenuousness coursing through his blue-blooded veins. If he’s tolerable at all, it’s because of Murray, who echoes Roosevelt’s iconic eccentricities—the ear-to-ear grin, the chewed-on cigarette holder, and the transatlantic accent—without ever resorting to caricature. In the best scene, Franklin consoles England’s stuttering monarch over cognac. “The people see us for who they want us to be”, he says while dragging his lifeless legs arduously across the room. The public never knew of his polio-induced paralysis, and Murray understands Roosevelt’s role as a symbolic giant, a man who couldn’t stand but stood-up for a nation.
Conversely, director Roger Mitchell and his team expend most of their efforts fussing with focal depths and artsy landscapes, while their movie, for all its aesthetic polish, stays quietly seated. The mansion is actually owned by Mrs. Sara Roosevelt (Elizabeth Colman), Franklin’s widowed mother and one of several women vying for his affection. The first lady, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), is domineering and jealous of her husband’s personal secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), who schedules his life like a series of play-dates. FDR’s distant cousin and mistress, Daisy Suckley, is constantly hanging around with sinus-headache medication. “He gets them this time of year,” she blithely observes. Laura Linney (who narrates) plays Margaret as repressed and spacey, a naïf alternating between floozy and nursemaid. The house comes off as an unconsciously misogynistic compound of Oedipal polygamy.
The plot’s centerpiece sequence is the King and Queen’s visit, which transpires like Gosford Park minus the trenchant classism and the absorbing mystery. (Is it wrong that I wished for a murder, so FDR could pull out a pipe and magnified glass and look for clues?) The real story here is the parallel between Frank and King Bertie (Samuel West). Both came from politically aristocratic families, had debilitating ailments, and were forced to negotiate major national crises. However, Margaret’s tale of girlish swooning is the filmmakers’ priority, and the two stories never work in tandem, especially since Murray’s Roosevelt can’t provide the necessary sinew. On the periphery, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is whining about the lack of fine dining options to our constant annoyance.
Which brings us to the hotdog that changed the world. Historians often trace the Anglo-American coalition—which until the twentieth century was tenuous to say the least—back to that weekend, where an outdoor picnic and ballpark sausage with mustard stood for an unspoken diplomatic agreement. (No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil before.) Hyde Park on Hudson, with its narrative incongruities and stuffy ensemble, is never the cinematic banquet it was meant to be. This period piece serves a measly dog.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Even for a gangster movie Killing Them Softly is grisly. It’s surprising how elaborately it also functions as an allegory for the Stock Market collapse of 2008, a far less physical but considerably more detrimental series of crimes. The film was written and directed by Andrew Dominick, the Australian best known for his lyrical, revisionist Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That film was a masterpiece, a poetic historical tragedy that introduced Brad Pitt as a born-again great actor. Only Dominick’s third feature, this is his second already tackling the ruthless landscape of American outlaws. With Brad Pitt back as the central anti-hero, Dominick’s latest is cynical and violent—maybe too much so for some—but its formal audacity, thematic wit, and chilling lead performance make it a visceral and intellectual piece of high-brow pulp art.
Brad Pitt plays mob enforcer Jackie Cogan who’s assigned to punish the hoods (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) who unwisely knocked-over a mob-financed poker game. Analogous to Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the crisis it fomented, the heist unbalances the criminal underworld; big-spending players will no longer risk their cash, which causes problems for the whole black market economy. Jackie is summoned to set a precedent (don’t mess with the Mafia!) and to restore order and faith in the system. He uses every trick in the hit man handbook—beatings, shootings, intimidation, and deception—to that end. If the stick-up men are crooked investors, taking advantage of a sensitive fiscal ecosystem, then Jackie is a government bailout with all the associated unscrupulousness.
Pitt’s performance—yet another in a recent streak of tour-de-forces—is terrifyingly calm. Jackie’s a tranquil surface atop fearsome depths, like a beckoning hot tub filled with hydrochloric acid. He’s a sociopath, no doubt, but he’s no sadist; he’s pragmatic, a business-like problem-solver that trades uppercuts instead of bonds and carries hollow-points instead of fountain pens. In furtive rendezvous with a shark-suited mob rep (Richard Jenkins), Jackie expresses his distaste for face-to-face slayings: “There’s too many feelings,” he says. He’s a terminator who prefers to dish out homicides like they’re pink slips. Through his gutsy conceit, Dominick blurs any moral distinction between corporatized thugs and thuggish corporations. Although his allegory is slightly belabored with overused campaign-speech sound bites, the director’s ideas are still caustic and urgent.
In Jesse James, Dominick displayed his gift for elegant imagery and his eagerness for aesthetic and stylistic experimentation. In Killing Them Softly, he stages the instigating robbery with a conscious banality, stretching it out like taffy to the point of tedious intensity. It’s no Michael Mann set piece pulled off by swift, efficient professionals; it’s an exercise in ineptitude featuring two amateurish bums in dishwashing gloves and panty-hose shrouds. Later, an assassination unfolds in operatic slow motion amidst a gale of falling rain and shattering glass. A conversation between conspirators intermittently fades in and out as if from consciousness, ebbing and flowing like a conversation attempted from a heroin coma. Scored to dreamy golden oldies (“It’s Only A Paper Moon”, for instance), the violence is nauseating and the victims are as pitiable as bunny rabbits. The carnage has a merciless horror that’s hard to forgive or forget.
The world of Killing Them Softly is an asphalt jungle indeed: predators and prey on the prowl in the most Darwinian sense. American individualism is the target of Dominick’s cinematic scrutiny, and Jackie Cogan embodies its dog-eat-dog competitiveness—that strangle-your-neighbor-with-your-bootstraps kind of corrupted capitalist dream. Admittedly, the movie has an avante garde narrative shapelessness (especially during James Gandolfini’s distended romantic monologues) that can be trying, and Jesse James was definitely a subtler film. Still, with its overcast monochromatic look and its sequences of hideous human cruelty, the film is gorgeous in its very ugliness, hypnotically hooking you before pulling the trigger. Killing Them Softly is a gentle whisper followed by a brass-knuckle sandwich. It leaves a bruise.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Hitchcock would scoff at Hitchcock.
Melodramatic and thin, this biographical movie-within-a-movie—chronicling Psycho’s arduous production in 1959—is all bomb and no build-up. Directed with TV-movie-blandness by Sacha Gorvasi and written with the cursory touchstone haste of a Wikipedia article by John J. McLaughlin (based on a book by Stephen Rebello), Hitchcock erroneously mistakes on-the-nose bluntness for sly suggestion. For example: To intimate Hitchcock’s much-surmised obsession with his leading ladies there’s a scene of him drooling over their headshots like one of Pavlov’s dogs; to insinuate that his voyeurism wasn’t restrained to cinematography we watch him spy Vera Miles in her skivvies through a dressing room peephole.
Hitchcock not only takes liberties with rumors that have never actually been substantiated; it fails to recognize that the filmmaker’s allure has always been his ambiguity. Even Hitchcock himself loved to perpetuate his own sleazy mythology, through interviews and iconic signifiers (like his chubby, profiled silhouette). From his old suspense adage (“There’s no excitement in the explosion, only in its anticipation”), clearly Hitchcock understood the thrill of Mystery, especially when his reputation and oeuvre only deepened the enigma. The common hypothesis espoused by critics is that Hitchcock lived through his viewfinder; when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, you’re seeing the world through his idiosyncratic gaze. No matter how well made, a Hitchcock biopic can never capture the quagmires and contradictions of the real guy as effectively as the films themselves.
Hitchcock opens curiously, not with the eponymous Brit, but with backwoods serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) whacking his brother in the head with a shovel. Then follow the felicitous notes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ opening theme, and the requisite “Good eeevening…” announces the arrival of Anthony Hopkins buried in prosthetics. The lead performance, while admirable, is not a transformative embodiment; it’s a spot-on impersonation. Fatally hindered by paltry screenwriting and direction, Hopkins has little space for emotional discovery. Admittedly, he does channel Hitchcock’s more superficial quirks with aplomb—the plummy accent and the elongated syllabic diction. As for the gallows humor, Hopkins spits morbid witticisms with a touch of playful venom.
The success of North By Northwest in 1959 prompts Paramount to demand a facsimile. Hitchcock’s even offered Ian Fleming’s spy novel Casino Royale. But the director isn’t interested; he’s looking for something dark, devious, and more challenging. He chooses an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s macabre bestseller, Psycho: And why not? It’s got blood and gore. It’s got nudity. It kills off its lead halfway through. The censors and studio heads are dreading Alfred Hitchcock’s (wet) dream project like a stabbing in the shower. God forbid Paramount suffer another Vertigo, a masterpiece dismissed in its time! Hitch is unassailable and finances the film by mortgaging his own Beverly Hills mansion. He hires novice screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) on the cheap; he casts A-list actress Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson) as the doomed heroine and boy-next-door Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as the owner and operator of the Bates Motel.
Johansson as Janet Leigh is the film’s amiable peach, its most fetching, come-hither asset. Then there’s Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), one of several notable actresses who swear to this day that Hitchcock sought to ruin their careers. Miles is written as the intoned voice of the postmodern critical community, sharing now platitudinous insights: “You know Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo?” she tells Leigh, “That’s really Hitchcock, only younger, slimmer, and better looking.” Thanks, Vera. Did you get that from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius? In a preparatory meeting, D’Arcy portrays Perkins like he’s Norman Bates, all fidgety boyishness. The unconscious implication is that Perkins was merely playing himself, which shortchanges one of the greatest performances in history.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Adapting Life of Pi seems like a fool’s errand. Written by philosopher-novelist Yan Martel, the 2001 bestseller follows a shipwrecked Indian boy as he drifts across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a fully-grown Bengal tiger for company. That minimalist plot alone is an obstacle that only the boldest or most masochistic of directors would undertake. Secondly, the novel is less a story-driven narrative than a philosophical treatise, a meditative exploration of faith and survival (akin to Noah, Jonah, or Job) with the sweep and moral overtones of a biblical parable. But under the gentle guidance of Taiwanese director Ang Lee, Life of Pie comes to the screen as a thoughtful, magical-realist vision quest; its symbolism and significance are preserved and rendered lyrical, cinematic.
In preamble, we’re introduced to the titular castaway, Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a denizen of Pondicherry, the French-colonial quarter of India. Quizzical and clever, he develops his mathematical moniker to avoid schoolyard embarrassment (Piscine sounds too much like pissing to his callous classmates). Traipsing about the family zoo, Pi is fascinated by the various animals, specifically the aforementioned feline, Richard Parker. Though born and raised Hindu, Pi adopts the tenets and rituals of Christianity and Islam, too, naïve or indifferent to the inherent paradoxes. His father myopically bemoans what he considers blind worship. Shot with a 64-color crayon-box visual palette, the initial prologue is a charming vignette, where Pi’s resourcefulness, piety, and fortitude are setup to be tested.
When he’s sixteen, the family hops a freighter to Canada (their animals in tow). Mid-route, a massive squall capsizes the ship, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with the carnivorous Richard Parker. Like Cast Away or 127 Hours, the film is a personal saga of survival. Pi’s livelihood depends entirely on his ability to catch fish and rainwater, avoid exposure, and maintain sanity. Through Lee’s painterly images, we’re enveloped by the ocean’s impressive vastness; we experience its difficult navigability, and we empathize with Pi’s insignificance opposite its scope and grandeur. The presence of Richard Parker is a risible disadvantage, but Pi finds that his fear of and responsibility to the hungry beast have unexpected benefits. It’s riveting to watch how his unyielding positivity allows him to negotiate a seemingly impossible situation.
Pi feels an ineffable connection to Richard Parker. His father warns that peering into a tiger’s eyes is actually a self-reflection, a telescope to view one’s own essence. Richard Parker is, metaphorically, an extension of Pi, symbolic of the intrinsic brutality that, on the raft, Pi struggles to isolate as an external manifestation. Illustrated by Lee’s majestic cinematography and visual effects, the ocean connotes a kind of reflecting pool; its glassy surface is an enormous mirror off which the sky’s crimson emissions can bounce to and fro. In a surrealist sequence, Pi, starving and delirious, stares into the moonlit water. In his point-of-view, we swim in a hallucinatory trance only to reemerge from behind his eyes. The sea’s physical depth provides a metaphysical glance into the protagonist’s own spiritual makeup.
The journey is framed by a conversation between Pi (Irfan Khan), now an older man, and an author (Rafe Spall) looking to novelize his experience. The flashbacks that form the central storyline cannot to be taken as the exact series of events. Not only is Pi narrating through the haze of memory and time; he can only comprehend his adventure subjectively, by the ways it shaped and defined him. Pi then tells a completely different version of the ordeal, a far more plausible and far less enchanting one. Since neither narrative can be proven or disproven, the viewer is encouraged to decide for themselves which they believe to be true. Through this device, Life of Pi impresses the importance of storytelling in our lives. As in Tim O’Brien’s seminal Vietnam chronicle, The Things They Carried, Lee’s film asserts that sometimes logic must be forfeited for the sake of higher understanding. In his philosophical allegory, Martel proved that storytelling, like faith, can be a valuable tool to providing an enlightened perspective on the world and our place in it.
Lee is a skillful storyteller himself: He directs non-actor Suraj Sharma to an ingenuous performance, notably in a climactic teary-eyed monologue. The use of CGI and 3-D accentuate the film’s aesthetic splendor (like National Geographic videos doodled-on by Salvador Dali), spinning the environment—the sea and the stars—into one sensuously bewitching tableaux of universal inter-connectedness. Similar to this year’s The Sessions or 2008’s Hunger, the movie considers both spiritual strength and corporeal fragility. It uniquely suggests, though, in a touch of the Rastafarian, that Pi’s physical resilience and spiritual transcendence have a symbiotic relationship, that one helps invigorate the other. As trite as it may sound, Life of Pi is truly a testament to the endurance of the body and soul.