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

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.