For Your Information: Star Ratings Out Of Five (★★★★★) Stars

Thursday, September 5, 2013


I have moved to a new blog.  Please visit my new site, as I will no longer be posting on this one.  Thanks!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


In this true-life biopic, Amanda Seyfried plays the world’s first porn star, Linda Lovelace, who famously appeared in the blockbuster skin flick Deep Throat.  Against audience expectations, Lovelace reveals how Linda was not a salacious diva but a gentle ingénue who was viciously exploited by her scumbag husband-manager (Peter Sarsgaard). 

Shot on grainy stock and meticulously detailed with the fashions and fads of the 1970’s (roller discos, afros, and KC and the Sunshine Band), the film looks like a visual blend of kitsch and snuff film.  It impressively illustrates the heroine’s troubled universe with an inventive period veritè. 

Directed by documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the story charts Linda’s journey from naïve teen to battered bride to celebrity to activist, but their biography is cursory.  The filmmakers neglect to explore how she unwittingly birthed the modern adult-entertainment industry and became the first victim of its dangerous illusion of stardom.       

In many ways Lovelace could be a prequel to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.  With far less depth or insight, it remains a pretty routine melodrama.  Linda escapes her oppressive mother (Sharon Stone) only to endure and overcome years of marital violence.  If it wasn’t rife with sex and nudity, you might see Lovelace on the Lifetime Network.   

On the plus side, Seyfried gives a painfully vulnerable performance.  Her sympathy for her character (whom the movie clearly considers an innocent victim) is so consummate it’s contagious.  If never a great biopic, Lovelace if anything still helps to restore its subject’s reputation, and dispel any skepticism about its star’s acting ability.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Next up in the recent slew of youth pictures is The Way, Way Back — Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s coming-of-age, summer-vacation comedy.  The movie certainly emanates a pleasantly breezy atmosphere, but with satirical firebombs The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers fresh in the memory, it feels as tepid as a community swimming pool.  It’s content to follow John Hughes’ smarmy-melodramatic instruction manual while its genre cousins are giving the term “rebel without a cause” new diabolical definitions.      

Duncan (Liam James) is a geeky and insecure fourteen-year-old, who's forced to spend the summer at a beach house with his mom and her vitriolic boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell).  Duncan already feels like a cipher, and Trent exacerbates his self-doubt with barrages of sardonic mockery.  Carell makes for a predictably delicious scoundrel, but his character is more walking douche-bag than human being.  Toni Collette fares better as Duncan’s conflicted mother who struggles to decide where her loyalties should lie.       

Soon after arriving at the shore, Duncan meets the cutie next door, Suzanna (Anna-Sophia Robb).  Like Duncan, she comes from a broken home and finds in her goofy new neighbor a kindred spirit.  The screenplay eventually works in a contrived romantic element that it neglects to fully explore.  Furthermore, even though Robb makes a fetching coed, I seriously doubt a beautiful upperclassman would be interested in an awkward freshman like Duncan.

Besides, The Way, Way Back is less summer romance than summer bromance.  Duncan stumbles upon a local water park and befriends Owen (Sam Rockwell) — its smooth-talking owner.  A profoundly underrated actor, Rockwell plays Owen as a good-hearted wisecracker, and his relationship with Duncan works beautifully because he is the exact opposite of Trent.  Due to his compassion and immaturity, Owen can be both supportive father figure and mischievous peer.

Ultimately, The Way, Way Back offers few surprises.  As one might expect, Duncan departs in August far more comfortable in his own skin.   Yet with an impressive ensemble — including scene-stealers Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, and Jim Rash — the film makes a resoundingly successful crowd-pleaser.  Even if it’s hardly brainy enough to compare to contemporaneous youth pictures, this charming getaway at least fills its empty head with warm summer air.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Great Gatsby

Assuming you stayed awake in English class, you’re probably familiar with The Great Gatsby — F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age classic about a mysterious millionaire’s tragic quest to mend his broken past.  The book has been a staple on teachers’ lesson plans for generations.  Over the years, there have been several blundering attempts at big-screen adaptations, most notably Robert Redford and Mia Farrow’s dry 70’s variation.  Leave it to director Baz Luhrman — the flamboyant ringmaster behind glittery vaudevilles like Romeo And Juliet and Moulin Rouge — to tackle the most ambitious incarnation yet.  Theoretically, Fitzgerald’s colorful prose is a perfect match for the filmmaker’s floridly grandstand visual style.  The novel transitions effortlessly between exaggeration and finesse.  Nothing if not an exhaustive artist, Lurhman still manages to balance his obsessive bombast with the necessary measure of dramatic intimacy.  The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as beautiful Daisy Buchanon, and Toby Maguire as Gatsby’s neighbor, Nick Carraway.  Dissenters have already assembled, torches and pitchforks in hand, ready to condemn the picture for its garish imagery and superfluous 3-D.  Firstly, complaining that a Baz Lurhman movie is too lavish is like complaining that George A. Romero movies have too many zombies.  Secondly, once it departs from its initially manic rhythm and settles down, this adaptation does indeed capture the heartbreaking melancholy of its source, even if the book’s timeless relevance remains thoroughly out of reach.

The script (by Luhrman and Craig Pearce) is rather faithfully transposed, apart from one curious alteration: a framing device that finds narrator Nick Carraway (Maguire) retrospectively receiving therapy in a sanitarium and novelizing the events.  While I was initially agitated by the filmmakers’ sacrilege — the book never claims Nick would be committed! — I appreciate it as Luhrman’s effort to reconcile his outlandish vision with the book’s revered text.  Now that he’s been cast as a disillusioned novelist, Maguire’s Nick provides a direct stand-in for Fitzgerald and the character can elucidate actions on screen with the author’s own celebrated passages.  Moreover, the flashback conceit permits Lurhman to present the narrative as less an accurate history than a dream or a canted memory of shimmering 1920’s idealism seen through hindsight’s romanticized lens.  Nick arrives in New York City in the summer of 1922 — a time of tremendous moral and social change, when Jazz anthems beckoned revelers into a debauched bohemian paradise and Prohibition simply made booze trendier than before.  The story in earnest commences with a frenetically paced montage that surpasses even the opening of Romeo And Juliet in feverish overexcitement.  In addition, Luhrman and cinematographer Simon Duggan choose a visual palette that’s so rich and creamy it’s like swimming in wedding cake.  The soundtrack — produced by Jay-Z himself — bumps with anachronistic hip-hop that’s vague in both purpose and function.  Any attempt by the director to create a meaningful cultural link between then and now, specifically through music, starves for thematic clarity. 

The movie’s broad mannerisms continue with Nick’s visit to Tom, his college chum, and Daisy, his cousin.  Residents of the prestigious seaside community East Egg — where supercilious aristocrats gather like ducks to the pond — the Buchanons are precisely the sort of pompous socialites people refer to when joking about jetting off to the Hamptons for the weekend.  A racist brute with a hussy on the side (Isla Fischer), Tom cockily revels in the satisfaction of his own supreme pedigree.  As played by hunky Aussie Joel Edgerton, the character emanates a musky magnetism that the book’s Ivy League stuffed shirt never could.  Daisy, his charming wife, is the story’s flowery femme fatale, a white-satin princess who believes that women should be nothing more than “beautiful fools”.  We meet her in an ethereal foyer of windblown silk curtains.  If Mulligan is not exactly the striking beauty that many adoring readers imagined, she still has that irresistibly feathery air that makes Daisy literature’s most teasing angel of seduction.  Meanwhile, Nick lives in West Egg — accommodations for New York’s nouveau riche, where Gatsby’s extravagant palace sits just across the harbor from Tom and Daisy, so close he can see their green doc-light beaming eerily over the water.  As Fitzgerald’s most potent symbol of unattainable desire, Luhrman revisits the image constantly, using the ghostly vista of luminous emerald fog as a haunting visual motif. 

Who is Gatsby, though?  Where did he come from?  How did he make his money?  Why does he stand at the edge of his dock and reach out longingly toward that distant beacon?  Nobody knows exactly — not the tailor who fits his countless designer suits and not the mechanic who customized his supercharged yellow roadster.  The hundreds of partygoers who frequent his weekly bacchanals have theories.  Could he be German royalty, or maybe a bootlegger?  The film’s dramatic pivot comes when Gatsby (DiCaprio) recruits Nick to help retrieve something from his past.  The movie improves considerably once the actors are allowed to, you know, act.  There’s a scene in Romeo And Juliet when the amped up, rock-and-roll enthusiasm subsides briefly for the titular lovers to flirt through a restroom fish tank.  Similarly, when Gatsby finally confronts his desired, Luhrman pumps the breaks, and DiCaprio, an enchanting performer, expresses a perfectly heartwarming look of elated disbelief.  The director and star forage deeper than any previous adaptation into the enigmatic character’s buried passions.  Of course, the movie achieves nothing close to the novel’s cultural and ideological profundity.  It was essentially about the toxic materialism and empty promises of the American Dream.  Luhrman, an Australian, has nothing to say on the subject and definitely indulges his inner party-planner during the famous soirees.  He stages them like New Year’s Eve bashes on crystal meth.  Still, if you can overlook The Great Gatsby’s confetti showers and champagne fountains, you’ll witness instances of extraordinary grace and beauty.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Art House Pitstop: Upstream Color, To the Wonder, and The Place Beyond The Pines

If Upstream Color were the future of independent cinema, as some have suggested, then the American art house would be doomed indeed.  For starters, the movie is both too ambitious and incoherent.  An interpretive sci-fi romance about a young woman (Amy Seimetz) who gets preyed upon by a botanist-conman-hypnotist (Thiago Martins) and then falls in love with a lonely divorcee (played by director Shane Carruth), the film’s two storylines never exactly sync-up—at least not satisfactorily.  There’s also an evil pig farmer lurking about controlling everybody, in case you were wondering.  I ascertained that much from a single viewing.  A second might uncover more, though that would mean sitting through Upstream Color again!  No thank you.  I’ll admit, however, that the first thirty minutes are nearly good enough to justify it.  Straightaway, the aforementioned huckster breeds mind control larva, then kidnaps the heroine, temporarily lobotomizes her, and orders she sign over her life savings.  The director dispels traditional dialogue or exposition and instead allows the crime’s peculiar details to tell the story.  The thief convinces his victim that she must earn sips of water (“The greatest thing you’ve ever tasted”).  The parasites grow and slither beneath her flesh.  Both disturbing and creative, the setup is fascinating and the promise of coming explanations keeps you in suspense.  Don’t hold your breath.

In film school they say: the second act is where your movie goes to die.  And that’s precisely where Upstream Color settles in for its long and laborious death rattle.  While recovering from her amnesic episode, the woman, Kris, is approached by nice-guy Jeff, who rides the same train.  Although it’s difficult to believe this movie actually had a script (I imagine there were actors and a camera crew, but little planning beyond notes on napkins), the director does provide some characterization.  Kris lays her history of mental illness out on the table, literally showcasing her assortment of prescriptions.  Jeff, in reply, talks candidly about his divorce due to substance abuse (somehow his wife didn’t realize she’d married a junkie).  The relationship develops sweetly and listlessly and the movie never seems interested in connecting back to its prologue.  To shroud the narrative weaknesses, there’s plenty of vacuous “style”.  The cinematography is wan and naturalistic with perpetual soft-focus suitable perhaps for Kris’s initial delirium, though hardly for the lovers’ romantic melancholy.  The editing is staccato pseudo-impressionism, like falling dominoes of match cuts, jump cuts, and geographical ellipses.  While I often applaud audio-visual experimentation, and can usually forgive leaps in rhyme or reason, it’s the film’s shallow pretention and self-consciousness that bugged me. 

Then of course, there’s the diabolical pig farmer (Andrew Sensenig).  Nicknamed the Sampler, due to his obsession with Foley recording, the farmer, we suspect, was the puppet master behind Kris’s abduction.  Part abstract entity and part Peeping Tom, the Sampler acts as omnipresent observer, watching human beings like they’re livestock worthy of study and dissection.  Sometimes he’s imperceptible, notably in a tangential subplot where a troubled married couple argues while he snoops from the corner.  The film makes frequent juxtapositions between pigs and people, mostly through associative editing and symbolism.  Are the two rebellious porkers in the pen supposed to be Kris and Jeff?  Who knows?  Who cares?  Carruth clearly has something to say about the nature of man and beast.  I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what that is.  The parallel stories of the Sampler and the lovers eventually intersect.  I won’t explain how or why (even if I could), but I will say that by the time they finally dovetail, the director can’t scramble the shards into anything adequately cohesive or satisfying.  For the record, Upstream Color’s greatest asset, I believe, besides its squandered beginning, is the lead performance.  With a face like young Jennifer Jason Leigh and a delicate voice like Natalie Portman, the auspicious Seimetz could be worth revisiting.  The rest is slop for the hogs.

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Speaking of slop.  Writer/director Terrence Malick indulges his worst appetites in To the Wonder.  Our most patient filmmaker-philosopher-poet, Malick once waited twenty years between projects (1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line).  To the Wonder arrives a comparatively meager two years after his groundbreaking opus, The Tree of Life, and although similar in tone and style, the former feels as premature as the latter felt millennially evolved.  Malick’s drama is about one man’s erratic relationships with two beautiful women.  It shares elements with his previous works—gorgeous cinematography, minimalist story, whispered narration (now in French and Spanish!) and excessive metaphysical pondering—but none of their (ahem) wonder.  His prior pieces each utilized strong dramatic/historical foundations (mass murder, turn-of-the-century labor, war, the discovery of America, and the Big Bang) to anchor all the ontological meditating.   Set in the present and not around a momentous event, To the Wonder has little ballast for its freeform meandering.  The film premiered to cold reception at Cannes last year, and while I echo the disappointment, I can’t call To the Wonder completely dull.  Malick’s loose companion to The Tree of Life may be a chore to watch yet it’s still spottily profound.

In France, love grows between Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist, and Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a lovely Parisian.  The country’s stony architecture and overcast skies offer Malick the slick, monochromatic surfaces that his camera adores.  The transition from Europe’s gothic facades and cobblestones to Oklahoma’s sagebrush plains occurs in a single cut.  Neil brings Marina and her daughter home with him as souvenirs.  “Everything is beautiful here,” muses the child when discovering the cereal aisle at Costco.  The honeymoon optimism fades and from the darkness emerge colder feelings of resentment and misery.  The community priest (Javier Bardem)—a wandering sage who frequents ramshackle neighborhoods—offers his guidance.  Christianity is the connective tissue of Old and New World values.  For reasons I shouldn’t divulge, Neil rekindles an old flame (Rachel McAdams), the down-home country-girl to Marina’s exotic outsider.  Throughout To the Wonder, the filmmaker’s usually transcendent and instinctual lyricism comes deprived of poetic power.  All his tried-and-true strategies—collage editing, observant dolly moves, and enough nature photography to provide a decade’s worth of calendar art—seldom achieve the emotional and spiritual vastness that distinguishes his finest pictures.  To the Wonder often plays like imitative I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Malick!

Still, the director manages to expand on his favorite ideas anyhow (God’s presence/absence, humanity’s place in the natural world, lost innocence, etc.).  On further reflection, I recalled that Kurylenko’s performance evoked a doe, some other graceful creature, or the spiritual sister of both Jessica Chastain’s ethereal mother in The Tree of Life and Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas in The New World.  In addition, casting Hollywood’s flattest leading man and then asking that he play even flatter must be part of Malick’s grand design.  I believe Neil is intentionally stolid and banal.  As portrayed by the tall and handsome but stiff and expressionless Affleck, Neil isn’t a man, but the director’s symbolic Man.  Considering that he’s a construction surveyor who reshapes America’s frontier splendor into highways, stoplights, supermarkets, and drive-thru restaurants, it’s clear the central, vacillating romance is actually meant to express the ongoing incompatibility of God’s gentle grace and humanity’s destructive nature, a continuation of concepts investigated heavily in The Tree of Life.  Were the movie intended as captivating drama, it would certainly fail miserably.  Yet Malick’s failure is still a kind of success, for To the Wonder is really about the folly of Man.

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In contrast, The Place Beyond The Pines succeeds often as entertainment yet rarely as intellectual exercise.  From sophomore director Derek Cianfrance, Beyond The Pines is closely associated in both construction and theme with his inaugural drama, Blue Valentine.  That movie’s bold experiment was to crosscut a couple’s courtship and divorce and exclude the marriage.  While novel, the conceit ultimately left an important element frustratingly nebulous.  Beyond The Pines is segmented also, into three separate but correlated stories about fathers and sons.  As in the earlier work, the movie depicts young families and explores the tragedies that arise from their failure and dysfunction.  Personally, I appreciate Cianfrance’s humanism more than his narrative gimmickry.  After attempting trisections, I wonder if he’ll quadrisect his next picture?  Beyond The Pines sometimes overreaches, falling into Alejandro Gonzalo Inarritu’s (Babel, 21 Grams) phony universe of structural vanity, far-fetched plotting, and easy epiphanies.  The movie is also long and uneven.  The first part starring Ryan Gosling is undoubtedly best.  Even so, I was impressed with Cianfrance’s compassionate direction and his desire to dismantle the masculine armor that commonly alienates fathers from sons. 

Fittingly, the movie opens with a demonstration of foolhardy bravado.  The Globe of Death highlights the traveling carnival where daredevil Luke Glanton (Gosling) plies his trade.  An attraction featuring motorcyclists enclosed in a metal sphere who crisscross at high speed, the stunt is a nail-biting spectacle.  It’s obvious, though, that the hotdog heroics mask the character’s loneliness and despair.  Introduced via extended tracking shot, he’s something of a smalltime celebrity who genially scribbles autographs between cigarette drags.  In Drive, Gosling mostly glowered through Steve McQueen’s toothpick, yet here, dyed platinum blond with tattoos doodled on his arms and face, his performance shows nuance in its mixture of vulnerability and hubris.  After discovering an infant son, Glanton turns motorcycle bandit to support him.  The film understands the morally ambiguous reality that sometimes men do wicked things for honest reasons.  Additionally, Cianfrance makes us painfully aware of the futility, even if Glanton is not.  The child’s mother (Eva Mendes) has long since moved on to another man.  As his world becomes a different sort of spherical deathtrap, it’s devastating knowing that Glanton’s crimes are expressions of love for a child who’s no longer his. 

The story abruptly switches protagonists on two occasions.  After Glanton, we meet the young father Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper).  A patrolman, his recent fieldwork earns him many accolades, but also leaves him haunted by the associated violence.  Once the king of romcom douche-bags, Cooper has proven to be a great dramatic actor as well.  In one scene, Cross reluctantly confronts his PTSD, and Cooper, framed in tight close-up, intimates all the encompassing fear and guilt.  Under the thumb of a Machiavellian patriarch (Harris Yulin), he becomes a political pawn within his department’s shady bureaucracy.  When the movie transitions again to a couple of parentally misguided teenagers (Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen), it becomes clear that, in this case, three narratives are one too many.  If Dehaan effectively recalls the angry adolescent he played in Chronicle, Cohen evokes a refugee from The Jersey Shore.  Alas, the concluding chapter lacks the excitement and complexity of its predecessors.  Definitely over-ambitious, The Place Beyond The Pines is an emotionally charged drama that’s weakened by its wobbly structure.  Still, the picture tenderly observes that decent men often become victims of uncontrollable circumstances.  What’s most moving is how the director never withholds sympathy from his characters, be they fathers or sons. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What's Old Is New: A Classic On The Big Screen

If a filmmaker is truly special, he might make a movie that’s so influential it marks a shift in cinema’s historical trajectory.  Fritz Lang made two.  I was fortunate enough this past weekend to catch one, a theatrical screening of his 30’s masterwork, M.  Complete with retranslated subtitles, restored footage, and narrative restructuring, the new version is supposedly the closest to Lang’s original conception since 1931.  As one of Germany’s great Expressionist pioneers, working amidst the political turmoil of the Weimar Republic, Lang is most remembered for the silent milestone, Metropolis, he envisioned for the storied UFA movie studio.  But M, his first Talkie, and not surprisingly, one of the first great sound pictures, is perhaps more momentous.  If by today’s standards it lacks a consummate sound-scape (at times the audio drops into lulls of absolute silence, much to my snoring neighbor’s soporific delight), it still represents the most innovative application of new film technology and technique this side of Oz’s glorious Technicolor.  The story is about a child murder-spree in Berlin, the resulting public outcry, and the efforts of cops and criminals to bring down the culprit.  Beyond its boundless formal invention (Orson Welles probably watched it a dozen times while developing Citizen Kane), the film is famous for its ambiguous critique of vigilantism and its legendary villain played by Peter Lorre, the bug-eyed character-actor who’d go on to make Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon.  For anyone genuinely interested in film art, M is an absolute essential, and here finally is your chance to see Lorre’s famous peepers on the big-screen, too. 

Projected large, the first shot, of cavorting youngsters merrily chanting about “the man in black”, a neighborhood bogeyman, is a powerful sight.  A forebear of Nightmare On Elm Street’s hypnotic lullaby (“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”), Lang frames this portentous chorus from a curiously high angle: the overhead perspective of judicious parents.  To the carefree kids, it’s a game, but to their moms and dads, the “man in black” is very real.  He’s killed eight children already, and that afternoon, while her mother prepares dinner, little Elsie Beckman is doomed to be number nine.  On her walk home from school, she’s lured away by a mysterious stranger offering candy and balloons.  Then, she vanishes without a trace.  Lang ends the sequence with her mother’s cries as they echo over a series of vacant and immobile wide-shots (streets, corridors, fields, and playgrounds) that visualize her disappearance and set up an aesthetic motif that will conclude several later chapters.  If you’ve seen 1979’s Halloween, you’ll recall John Carpenter borrowing the technique for its climax to imply the incorporeal abstractness of his menace, Michael Meyers.  Appropriately, M’s prelude, a self-contained set piece with propulsive dramatic functionality, launches the narrative similarly to traditional horror movies.  Moreover, the rhythmic succession of still shots is not the only repetitive action Lang brings into relief.  He also conjures one of cinema’s most recognizable leitmotifs: the whistling of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” foreshadows the monster’s arrival, and long before Jaws’ or Darth Vader’s signature themes so ominously presaged their entrances.

Beginning with the presence of children and ending with their absence, the prologue sets the playfully sinister tone for the entire picture.  Plot wise, it provides the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.  Elsie’s death sends Berlin’s denizens into an uproar.  Lang chooses to relay this pandemonium with a sophisticated montage, using voiceover to marry reporters’ dialogue to the actions they’re recounting: a man is accosted in the street for chatting innocently to a little girl; an arrested thief admonishes the police for wasting their efforts on him; entire homeless shelters are hauled down to the station.  On display is the kind of ugly moral panic that infects societies like a plague.  We’ve seen similar tornadoes of paranoia sweep across America in recent years, after Columbine, 9/11, and Sandy Hook.  The joyless Inspector Lohman (Otto Wernicke) is put on the case, and Lang incorporates the era’s cutting-edge investigative practices—fingerprint and handwriting analyses, the questioning of dubious witnesses—but efforts prove futile.  Meanwhile, the slippery maniac scribbles letters to the press and the police promising more mayhem.  When they’re published on front pages, or posted on bulletins and storefronts all over town, the murderer’s ghoulish mystique is hyper-inflated.  A truly modern madman, he lusts for infamy possibly even more than blood.  Due to Lang’s leisured pacing, the montage lacks the elliptical zip that the contemporaneous Russian directors perfected.  As the story bounces about Berlin, however, the foundation for thriller conventions, on which Hitchcock would later build, is laid, and Lang, through this technique, clarifies that the film’s protagonist is neither the cop nor the killer but the city itself.

And what’s a city without its underbelly?  Leads dwindling, the detectives target the brothels and speak easies of Berlin’s sordid underground.  The miscreants being harassed and debased may be drunkards, pimps, whores, and gangsters, but they’re certainly not child murderers.  The crooks now cry for the killer’s head, if only to restore business as usual.  Thus initiates another of the film’s more excellent sequences.  To create a profound comparison, Lang surreptitiously crosscuts between two council meetings.  In one, police officials assemble (at a long table, in a statehouse) to strategize, haplessly at first, until one, speaking from off-screen, suggests interrogating recently released mental patients.  Across town, the city’s organization of hoods (at a round table, in a squalid tenement), led by the assertive Safecracker (Gustaf Grundgens), contrive a surveillance system of vagrants to watch every school, swing set, and street corner for the prowling pedophile.  In one way, Lang sets up for a dramatic finish.  Who will catch the killer first?  In another, more meaningful way, he delineates the dichotomy between the two sub-cultures, as they work separately and competitively toward the same goal.  A snaky long-take (a model for Jean Renoir) through glass windows and around crowded tables at a tavern, where the vagabonds are given their assigned positions in exchange for sausages and beer, demonstrates cooperation within the city’s demimonde, which is especially revealing considering the lack of it given authorities throughout the film.

The police eventually end up on the right track as well, when asylum records lead investigators to the door of Mr. Beckert (Peter Lorre), a creepy loner.  His face doughy and cherubic, his demeanor variably alert and listless, his bush-baby eyes wide and shifty, Lorre, in the role that catapulted his career, makes his nefarious phantom more or less a terrified man-boy, a schizophrenic child hounded by psychotic compulsion.  (Besides his telltale whistling, the only tune carried in the film is the children’s).  With his head vise-gripped between his hands, he bellows, “I’m constantly being followed.  By myself!”  And damn if you don’t care about the pathetic loon.  Lang’s greatest gambit is turning the predator into prey, the killer to victim.  He even evokes scripture: “Judge not…” especially when said judges, jury, and executioners are criminals themselves.  While hardly letting Beckert off the hook, the director calls for civility in the face of near anarchy.  The film concludes with bereaved mothers, a previously overlooked party.  Adorned in mourner’s gowns, they plead between sobs for children’s safety, bringing full circle the idea presented in the very first shot.  M is more than an incipient noir, serial killer movie, or psychological thriller; it’s more than a terrific entertainment, replete with suspense, and speckled with unexpected yet welcome humor (keep an eye out for the world’s fastest shot-reverse-shot when two witnesses argue heatedly about the color of Elsie Beckman’s hat); Lang’s masterpiece is a comprehensive manual on modern filmmaking craft.  And experienced in a theater, it’s a lesson you’ll never forget.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Side Effects


Side Effects is reputedly director Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film.  While hardly the first time rumors of his departure have circulated the film community, it appears this time the gossip has validity.  The man has often threatened retirement and now openly declares his desire to quit directing motion pictures permanently, effective after the release of this—his latest picture.  Side Effects, a coldly efficient psychological thriller about a mysterious depressive and her well meaning if hapless shrink, is to be Soderbergh's swansong, then.  In comparison to his best movies, however, it’s never as boldly original as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his breakout; as deliciously enigmatic as The Limey, his little-seen gem; or as morally convoluted as Traffic, his Oscar-winning docudrama.  Nonetheless, Side Effects makes a befitting coda for the veteran filmmaker, even if he is deserting viewers during this rather depressing dearth of skilled American directors.  The film is intriguing and calculating, a twisted corporate mystery with one hand in real-world issues and headlines (the dangers and consequences of pharmaceutical malpractice, that is) and one in the steamy, Raymond Chandler realm of potboiler tradition.   

In truth, Soderbergh has spent the better part of his career making these exact kinds of slippery political thrillers.  Despite a few aberrant forays into mischievous capers (Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Trilogy), the director has specialized in slick, well-crafted adult dramas with intricate plots and culturally critical overtones.  Often doubling as cinematographer—and one does notice the photographic technique at work in a Soderbergh production (the shallow focus, the colored filters, and the crisp images)—he’s neither self-conscious nor pretentious; he’s a genre filmmaker with a defiantly clinical approach to form and content.  Because he regularly gifts a certain aesthetic polish to otherwise non-extravagant subject matter, he’s often criticized for underachieving.  Is it possible, however, that Soderbergh never garners much “Modern Master” praise because he never seems to be striving for it?  Once upon a time, Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, two under-appreciated greats, brought virtuoso mastery to “generic” weepies and war movies.  If Side Effects is truly his farewell picture, it’s proper that Soderbergh end his career the way he charted it: with an intelligent and unassuming drama. 

Therefore, Side Effects is a pretty standard Soderbergh-ian entanglement of corruption and deceit.  Dragon Tattoo actress Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a glum young bride with a crooked husband played by Channing Tatum.  He’s paroled after a four-year prison sentence when the movie begins.  The stress of his long absence and sudden return exacerbates Emily’s already fickle mental health.  While driving though an underground parking garage, she has a breakdown and accelerates her car into a concrete wall.  If not a blatant suicide attempt, the accident is certainly a cry for help, or at least a moment of anxiety-induced bewilderment.  As she recovers from a concussion in the ER, the hospital’s on-staff quack, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a partner in a lucrative psychiatric practice, pays a visit and agrees to release her, but only if she schedules a follow-up appointment.  For the film’s first half, we watch Emily deteriorate gradually, like a vivisection of the psyche.  She describes her depression to Banks as a “poisonous fog”, and in one scene, stands on the very edge of a subway platform as an express train screams by.  Perhaps she’s waiting for a stiff breeze to push her onto the tracks and into Valhalla.  Mara’s woman-on-the-verge is a haunting illustration of the emotional agony, the physical lethargy, and the mental frustration that comprise cases of acute depression.

After several of the name-brand serotonin inhibitors are either ineffective or disagreeable, Banks consults Emily’s former therapist, a frosty Connecticut doctor named Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests a recently released medication called Ablixa.  As one can discern from the film’s title, Ablixa has some unexpected ramifications that are not included amongst the encyclopedia of possible side effects.  The film’s second half shifts the focus to Banks, once his troubled patient forces him into a legal and professional corner.  The script by Scott Z. Burns educes controversial questions of culpability: Is Emily responsible for her behavior when under the influence of a psychoactive narcotic?  Is the company that produced the drug at fault?  Or how about the doctor who prescribed it?  Someone’s to blame when medications meant to alleviate pain instead magnify it.  To a large degree, the film considers the questionable integrity of physicians who pass out pills to dependents like they’re Skittles at Toys R Us.  Pretty much everybody in Emily’s life is hooked on one med or another and is more than willing to offer experiential recommendations.  “Try Paxil,” says a co-worker.  “Zoloft really helped me after my divorce,” claims another.

It would be easy for the creators to attack immoral pharmaceutical conglomerates—Soderbergh did just that in Erin Brockovich by chastising polluting industrialists—but the director’s decision to limit his story’s scope proves wise.  We’re allowed to experience events through two protagonists’ dissimilar points-of-view.  Emily’s world is torpid, fuzzy, weighted down by bemused melancholy.  Banks’ is urgent and inquisitive.  As the narrative surreptitiously morphs from a psychological meditation into a detective story, with Law’s Banks cast as the impromptu P.I., the director navigates the transition with aplomb, ditching Emily’s diseased subjectivity for a thriller’s pacing and directness.  In an effort to clear his name, Banks, his marriage falling apart, grows obsessively determined to uncover the truth.  The screenplay has a few tricks up its sleeve.  Some, including an arbitrary and far-fetched secret love affair, don’t quite hold up.  Nevertheless, the film exemplifies Soderbergh’s sophistication as a filmmaker, and with Mara’s convincing fragility and Law’s desperate stamina, the movie overcomes the chilly inhumanity that plagued 2011’s Contagion.  With sinister doctor-patient role reversals at play (you know something’s wrong when the line blurs between those handing out pills and those swallowing them), Side Effects is a taut and immersive puzzle that bespeaks its resigning creator’s singular sensibilities.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Classic Review

The Whole Town's Talking (1935): Dir. John Ford 

For anyone unfamiliar with screen legend Edward G. Robinson, John Ford’s 1935 comedy The Whole Town’s Talking is a good place to start getting familiar.  While hardly a definitive Ford picture—it actually more closely resembles the work of Hawks or Lubitsch—this gangland comedy-of-errors highlights its star’s unparalleled talent.  Robinson plays Arthur Ferguson Jones, a humble, soft-spoken office clerk (with an exemplary attendance record) who unfortunately provides a doppelganger for public enemy Killer Mannion.   In both roles, Robinson shines, playing the former as a hapless gentleman and the latter as a clone of Little Caesar, complete with grimace and “Listen here, see” cadence.  When the cops arrest the wrong man, Jones must first prove his innocence, and then later, wiggle out from under the gun-smoked thumb of the actual hood, who begins using their interchangeable mugs to commit undetected nocturnal transgressions.  A Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identity, mixed with the didacticism of social problem pictures, and tossed in a batter of Hawksian sexual politics (the whip-smart Jean Arthur plays Jones’ motor-mouthed girl-Friday), The Whole Town’s Talking features Hollywood’s sharpest genre artisans at their most witty and intricate.  But more than anything, it’s a pedestal for Robinson to showcase his range as a performer.  Other than perhaps his contemporary James Cagney, no actor living or dead could recreate the fine-tooth duality of Robinson’s performance.  He’s playing two characters, sure, but he’s also playing two sides of the human psyche—Jekyll and Hyde reinvented for the age of bookkeepers and bootleggers.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Classic Review

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939): Dir. John Ford

Young Mr. Lincoln stars young Mr. Fonda and was directed by young Mr. Ford.  The three form a formidable triad of actor, director, and subject.  Their 1939 biopic at once exalts Lincoln’s mythology and emphasizes his basic human decency and morality.  Although such traits hardly spell greatness, the film’s release on the eve of WWII proves their scarcity.  Fonda plays honest Abe as a self-taught Illinois lawyer in 1837.  For the requisite dramatic center, he helps acquit some country bumpkins of murder charges after a scuffle turns deadly.  If Abe’s revealing final statement is a contrived Scooby Doo fix-all, that retains traces of screenwriter’s ink, it suggests at least that the director’s fascination rests less with the plot than the character.  Abe’s playful humor, romanticism, athletic prowess, secret insecurity, cunning, and innate goodness are what really shine.  Several sequences are worthy of cinematic annals: Lincoln uses his smarm and intelligence to calm a rampaging lynch mob, triumphs at an Olympiad of small town competitions (rail splitting, tug of war, etc), and in the film’s breathtaking final minute, walks off alone into a raging thunderstorm as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” whistles solemnly on the soundtrack.  Ford’s poetry is so pure and simple it’s easy to miss how his hero boldly confronts his destiny—a tumultuous future we know will destroy the man, even as it defines the legend.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty


Director Kathryn Bigelow has proven that she’s the only person capable of making a good fiction film about America’s most recent armed conflicts.  Many fools have attempted the tricky feat of chronicling the so-called War on Terror (I’m looking at you, Robert Redford), but Bigelow is the only craftsman yet to do so with any degree of actual artistic success.  Her last feature, the award-winning Indie drama The Hurt Locker, was the first film about the Iraq War that managed to capture its uniqueness and universality.  Zero Dark Thirty is Bigelow’s higher-profile follow-up to that distinguished sleeper, and besides its bigger budget, Zero Dark Thirty is also less of a white-knuckler and more of an expertly researched and assembled procedural.  In dramatizing the decade-long manhunt for terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden, Bigelow engrosses us in facts and particulars, detailing the mission with the exactitude of field reporting.  In addition, Zero Dark Thirty uncovers something tragic: the empty thrill of revenge.  Bigelow understands that Bid Laden’s assassination was at once victorious and distressingly insufficient, a fruitless attempt to recover our stolen security and innocence. 

The story begins in the obvious place, with the attacks on September 11th, 2001.  Bigelow wisely avoids flooding the viewer with iconic and disturbing imagery—burning towers, crashing planes, falling bodies—and instead keeps the screen completely black, an artistic choice that cannily dodges jejune exploitation.  The horror is amplified, not by sights, but by sounds.  Bigelow overwhelms us with a chaotic miscellany of panicked voices—air traffic controllers, news correspondents, emergency personnel, witnesses and victims—as they take us through that unforgettable day in a few haunting minutes.  Since all the recordings are real, one in particular—of a woman pleading for help from feckless 911 operators as the Twin Towers incinerate around her—is especially heartbreaking.  The terror and desperation are palpable; they just about suck the air from the theater, reminding viewers of how that day felt deep down in their guts.  The aural montage is only the first in a two-and-a-half hour succession of magnificently constructed movements that emphasize realism and austerity over contrivance and easy sentiment.  In fact, nothing about Zero Dark Thirty comes easily, not the characters’ formidable undertaking and not the audience’s acceptance of the unpleasant methods and consequences.  The greatness of Bigelow’s film is that it tackles a difficult subject with the maturity and complexity it requires. 

Once the screen awakens from that nightmare, we’re dropped at a CIA black-site in Pakistan two years on.  An interrogator named Dan (Jason Clarke) is probing information from a captured Al Qaeda operative.  When the prisoner doesn’t cooperate with questioning, he’s strung up by his hands and feet, beaten, water-boarded, stuffed in a box, and dragged across the ground by a leash and choke-collar.  The scene is terribly disconcerting, and when considering the emotionally devastating one that preceded it, it’s clear Bigelow is encouraging us to weigh the two acts of malice and ponder the latter’s supposed justification.  We’re forced to witness the underground byproducts of 9/11, fuelled by the enraged national vendetta that may have smoked out potential threats, but did so in a way that left a barbaric legacy.  Jason Clarke stands out in these early minutes as a proxy avenger, a messenger of pain who does what suits in Washington won’t, but clearly condone.  Stretching out longer than normal for a Hollywood action-movie, the sequence feels like a (torture) chamber drama.  Dan and his masked comrades work on one detainee for so long that the film begins to fetishize the very practice of interrogation, acknowledging not only its cruelty, but its tedium as well.  With the repeated phrase, “When you lie, I hurt you”, Dan attempts to rationalize torture and displace guilt.

In these covert dungeons of persuasion, we first meet Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA wunderkind plucked from her high school to track down wanted adversaries.  Given the monumental task of hunting the bearded mastermind, Maya relishes the opportunity and dives in headfirst.  As the years tick by, however, and the chase stalls, her assignment morphs into an unhealthy obsession, blowing any speck of normalcy away like sand in the wind.  The outstanding screenplay (written by ace reporter Mark Boal, who also penned The Hurt Locker) is structured like crime journalism.  With elliptical temporal and geographical leaps, sub-headed segments, and taut storytelling, the film suggests expository writing made cinematic; it traces the key events of the actual mission with scrupulous attention—from the agents’ blind-alley pursuit to the inevitable assault by now-legendary Seal Team 6.  While The Hurt Locker was a pure combat film, the spiritual kin of Full Metal Jacket or Platoon, Zero Dark Thirty fashions the search for Bin Laden into an investigative thriller, something like Zodiac or All The President’s Men.  If the movie is long and episodic, it’s due to its dedication to patient processes, whittling out an uncompromising and sophisticated work of political non-fiction. 

The trail of breadcrumbs leads Maya around the Middle East and beyond.  She questions prisoners and pursues leads; collaborates with cohorts (Jennifer Ehle); battles superiors (Kyle Chandler and Mark Strong); and links up with the rough-and-tumble Navy Seals (led by Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton).  Eventually, though, Maya emerges as something of a tragic creature.  Since her job isolates her from the real world, we can see how she loses any sense of moral balance or normality.  Her co-worker asks her, “Do you have a boyfriend?  Do you have any friends?”, and the answer is clear from her expression alone.  As a character, Maya functions symbolically as well as narratively.  Her single-minded fixation mirrors our own post-9/11 pursuit of closure and catharsis.  The American people’s need to locate Bin Laden was less driven by vengeance than by an El Dorado-like quest for recuperated peace-of-mind.  Chastain gives the performance of her young career as the green savant.  Maya remains consistently saturnine, but Chastain communicates her character’s intricate thought patterns.  Always working, connecting dots, and sorting puzzle pieces, her brain maneuvers like Mark Zuckerberg’s in The Social Network, nearly computerized in rapidity.  The modern mind is constantly processing and problem solving.  If Maya sounds like a robot, she’s really a possessed introvert with concentrated tunnel vision that indicates to us that as the search narrows, so does the world around her. 

By the time the agent and her team find the fugitive hiding in plain sight—at a high-walled safe-house in Pakistan—we ponder what an offensive might actually accomplish.  Even if Bin Laden were still somehow running Al Qaeda from buried inside his redoubt, another act of violence couldn’t possibly heal the trauma of the preceding ten years.  Bigelow (whose resume includes the bank-robbery yarn Point Break) uses the climactic set piece—a stealthy midnight raid of the compound by U.S. forces—to showcase her gift for staging gripping action sequences.  The attack comes to life with hairpin intensity.  The result of the operation is not an enigma (I won’t spoil anything here, just in case some of you have been living under rocks for the past three years), but mystery is not Bigelow’s ultimate objective; she seeks to explore the effect on the people involved, and by way of them, the masses that initially cried for blood.  As she did with The Hurt Locker, the director uses her story’s coda to marinate revealingly in her protagonist's complicated psychology.  Like how Jeremy Renner’s reckless Sgt. James couldn’t bear the prospect of living an everyday life, Chastain’s Maya finds her own existence sadly without purpose.  What’s left for her besides a lonely flight home, once the boiling rage is supplanted by melancholic numbness?  As the credits rolled, I thought back to that petrified woman clinging to life as the World Trade Center collapsed from beneath her feet.  Kathryn Bigelow’s remarkable Zero Dark Thirty confronts us with such a smoldering wreck, from which we have yet to fully emerge.