Saturday, August 27, 2011

Submarine & Deep End


What is it with contemporary British directors and supercharged, super-stylized filmmaking? Guy Richie, Tony Scott, Danny Boyle, and Edgar Wright all boldly go further than American filmmakers with faster cuts, flashier camera work, and all kinds of montage tricks, close-ups, and inserts. It's probably just a coincidence, but a funny one nevertheless. Since when did the British make Hollywood look restrained?

 Now we have yet another name to add to that list with Richard Aoyade. Previously known as a TV actor (The Mighty Boosh, The IT Crowd) and director (Community), he has recently made his first venture into the director's chair of a feature film. His Submarine is an excellent first picture, a coming of age comedy and teen romance that's as playful as one of Wright's pop-culture feasts and as sincere as a romantic teen's bad poetry--in a good way.

Aoyade isn't one to hide his influences. His 2008 music video for Vampire Weekend's "Oxford Comma", is a sub-Wes Anderson exercise with little mind of its own; a long tracking shot through a bunch of farm buildings with quirky characters running around and some Anderson intertitles tacked on just in case you didn't get it. He has improved. Submarine owes much to Anderson's Rushmore--the most obvious link being its 15 year old protagonist, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), who's as endearing and peculiar as Rushmore's own 15 year old Max Fischer--but it's a singular work; highly detailed, and with a keen eye for the erratic ups and downs of teenage emotion, as well as the more tedious (but no less treacherous) relationships of the middle-class and middle-aged. Just as our Oliver is attempting to woo his first love, Jordana (Yasmin Paige), he has to stop his parents from breaking up their marriage. He monitors their sex-life by keeping tabs on the position of the dimmer switch in their bedroom.

Submarine is adapted from a book of the same name, but I came out of the film thinking that  it was drawn from the director's own experience. If nothing else, we get in very close to the mind of Oliver, who provides voiceover narration throughout. We follow him in flash back mode as he observes a lecture on marine biology, and we receive his saddened commentary about his dad's habit of drinking lemon tea from an unwashed mug whenever he gets depressed (which is often). Since the film really forms itself around Oliver instead of offering a more objective vantage point, we can't help but get drawn into his idiosyncratic world. Even the elements that are familiar or derivative in the film's structure are in sync with its main character's personality. The Godard/Anderson intertitles are here, but they belong, given that we're entering the mind of a kid who's precocious and charmingly pretentious. He takes his girlfriend to see the Passion of Joan of Arc on one of their early dates and she rushes out in disgust 15 minutes in.

Fortunately, Submarine isn't cute. Oliver can be cruel, as when he gleefully bullies a pupil by pushing her into a pond, and he's slightly deluded; he gets carried away by his fantasies whenever life doesn't give him what he wants . The film, though very funny, doesn't have the breezy good cheer of, say, a John Hughes movie. When Jordana breaks Oliver's "tiny little heart", he's devastated, convinced that the pain and joys he's going through will still matter just as much 30 years down the line. And the movie plays along, showcasing plaintive shots of Oliver looking out across an endless sea. There is some irony involved, but not as much as could be expected. When Oliver's parents get their marriage into serious trouble, their situation is resolved with some comic relief and a helpless shrug. The two aren't happy together, but we get he feeling that their marriage will trudge along as they try to rekindle some sort of fondness for each other. Apparently, the young have much more say over their emotions, more choice over whether or not they can find happiness in their lives. For all of the film's exuberance, Oliver and Jordana's love is played with remarkable delicacy and seriousness.


Deep End (1970)

One of the key references for Submarine is this little known British film from acclaimed Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski. For one, Deep End also stars a 15 year old boy looking for love and dealing with the uncertain territory of sexual impulse. The most overt reference to the film in Submarine is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Oliver jumping, clothed, into the deep end of a pool, just as Deep End's Mike (John Moulder Brown) does at one point. Also, there's a sign behind Oliver that says "Deep End". That this film was long thought lost (due to some sort of rights issue) and is just now getting a re-release in cinemas and on DVD is some fortuitous timing. 

Mike is a different kind of awkward adolescent. Whereas Rushmore, Submarine, and most other teen movies have their main characters functioning at a higher level--either socially or intellectually--Mike is a high school drop-out who responds with child-like enthusiasm to almost everything around him. Whereas Oliver pretends he knows more about the world then he really does, Mike is too un-selfcounscious to realize that he needs to pretend. When his parents visit him while he's working his first job--as an attendant at a local bath house--he's ecstatic; "look everyone, it's me mum and dad." Mike seems to be a pretty solitary fellow, but he can't get enough of his very attractive, and older, co-worker Susan (Jane Asher, girlfriend of Paul McCartney in the mid 60s), who balances teasing him with shows of genuine affection.

Much of the film is occupied by the leisurely paced depiction of Mike and Susan working at their bathhouse. It's a place that seems at once comfortable and seedy. One the one hand there's the warm echo of the pool room where Mike and Susan spend time laughing and horsing around, on the other the ugly sight of the aging attendees who stop by to indulge their fantasies in the private bathrooms. One rather buxom lady grabs a very uncomfortable Mike by his hair and yells "dribble, dribble, shoot, shoot" as she gets herself off. A swim coach spends his time spanking his young pupils, and we later learn that he's having an affair with Susan. Mike's bathhouse allows him to satisfy his growing attraction for Susan, but more often than not, it's a place of sexual humiliation.

Sex eventually becomes something perverse in Deep End. Mike is a romantic, trying to establish a pure form of love between him and the promiscuous Susan, but he keeps following her into porno theaters and night clubs. When trying to duck out of the way of the cops, he finds himself in a brothel. It's with growing horror that we watch his innocent pursuit devolve into an obsession. Some have interpreted the film as an attempt to show the regressive sexual behavior that was an unintended consequence of the sexual revolution. I'm not sure if Skolimowski really thinks his society's values were as misguided as they are here, or if these attitudes are specific to our oddball protagonist. In any case, I prefer to look at the film as a bizarre and deeply involving study of adolescent confusion. It's too abstract to provide any real social commentary. We don't get any of Submarine's voice-over narration, but Deep End is strange enough that it eventually submerges us entirely in the insular world of Mike's fantasies. The last scene is definitely a puzzler, and without giving anything away, I'll just say that whether or not Mike finds the kind of purity he's looking for, the film is so charming and hypnotic that it achieves its own state of sublime innocence.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Trip & I'm Still Here

The Trip

I doubt Steve Coogan will ever break out in Hollywood. The British comedian, long admired for his television creation, the hilariously narcissistic and cringe-inducing radio broadcaster Alan Partridge, has been trying to hit it big on the other side of the Atlantic for a while. I remember reading an optimistic New Yorker profile in 2007 promising success, and a quick search reveals an article from  2004 announcing that Coogan had just done away with his crooked teeth and, with the help of a trainer, developed a something resembling a set of abs in preparation for his arrival on the silver screen. That arrival was the phenomenal flop Around the World in 80 days. Since then his biggest starring role was in the largely ignored Hamlet 2.

Luckily, Coogan has Michael Winterbottom, a director as notable for his wildly eclectic output as for his ridiculous name. This is the third time Coogan has found critical acclaim working with Winterbottom, as well as the second time (after the excellently bizarre Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story) he's played a man named Steve Coogan.

The Trip is where Coogan's onscreen persona hits closest to home. There's a fine line between representation and reality, and both director and actor set out to make it as blurry as possible. Here, Coogan the character is a narcissistic and slightly ornery actor desperate to set his Hollywood career in motion and struggling to stay with his girlfriend, Mischa (Margo Stilley, who is not, however, Steve Coogan the person's girlfriend). But instead of being with her in New York, he must driving his range rover through the north of England on a gastronomical tour that he's supposed to be covering for the guardian. And since Emma dropped out of what was supposed to be their delicious romantic getaway, he's had to replace her with a new travel companion; his not very close friend, Rob Brydon, conveniently played by comedian Rob Brydon.

And that's pretty much the entire plot of The Trip.  Coogan and Brydon drive through the pastoral countryside, dig into three star tasting menus, take lighthearted and sometimes not so lighthearted digs at each other, and, at what was apparently the director's insistence, continuously impersonate other, more famous people. Everything goes; Michael Caine (great), Al Pacino (terrible), Woody Allen, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins. It didn't make it into the film, but Coogan also does a pretty great Stephen Hawking.

The Trip is a rather low-key and messy affair, neither very cinematic or well-paced, since it's essentially the condensed version of a 6 hour miniseries. But it is hilarious. Brydon is the perfect foil for the arrogant Coogan. He's content with his marriage and his career, and has a knack for annoying others and sometimes embarrassing himself. Brydon is smug, Coogan is cocky and their repartee crackles with dry wit. The humor usually comes from the pair's ability to aggravate each other and from their insistence on competition: Who does the best impressions? Who has the greatest singing range? Who can recite more Wordsworth? Who knows more about local limestone formations? But it also comes from unexpected places; in one of the film's best scenes Coogan tells Brydon how he would eulogize him. There's more than a hint of self-loathing in the way Coogan tears his friend down.

This kind of morbid humor is also indicative of a deeper seriousness that Winterbottom is aiming for. Coogan yearns for fame and validation, but we're continually reminded of how empty his life is. Escapades with various hotel staff recall his actual tabloid exposed sexploits. A scene where he refuses cocaine from one conquest with a melancholy look in his eye recalls his actual drug addled past. The beauty of the country surrounding him is supposed to allow him to connect with something real, and he has the crampons he needs to brave the outdoors, but in the end, the hills do little more than provide cell-phone reception. Even the impressions are a distancing mechanism.

Is The Trip too serious? The plinking piano music layed over key moments says yes. In some ways, all this somber introspection seems like something forced onto the story by the director and not necessarily the natural result of the always amusing and more gently confrontational exchanges between Brydon and Coogan. Does real Steve Coogan really approve of fake/real Steve Coogan being so depressed? Well, as enticing as Hamlet 2 and Hollywood success sounds, maybe gray hills and dreary British weather suit him better.


I'm Still Here

If anything, Coogan's self-deprecation seems only to have helped him. We're glad to cheer on man capable of taking on his flaws and making them funny. As hesitant as I am to defer to the tomatometer, it's important to note that The Trip has garnered nearly universal praise. Not so for, I'm Still Here, a movie in which actor Joaquin Pheonix explores his celebrity persona to much greater effect. There are many similarities between the two movies (the presence of Ben Stiller in key scenes, the same annoyingly dramatic piano music in others) but where Coogan led a mild mannered foray into his unpleasant side, Joaquin went for broke in a full blown reinvention of himself, unleashing his id not just onto the art-house screen, but, with the help of an avaricious media cycle, into public consciousness.

It might have been too much for people to handle. When I'm Still Here was premiered at the Venice Film Festival, the shock of Joaquin Pheonix's much publicized transformation was only just starting to fade from memory. Hindsight might make that amish-y beard, Letterman interview, and attempted rap career seem ridiculous, but many still thought Casey Affleck's supposed documentary on his brother-in-law's downward spiral was real, and what they saw in it was shocking and ugly. Some critics championed the movie (whether or not they believed it), but there were enough 0 star reviews to savage it. 

What's interesting about the disgusted reaction is that even when viewers were leaning towards the idea of a hoax, they were unable to separate Joaquin from his onscreen craziness.   They saw only a stunt that fed off the media's interest, and a man who must have been at least somewhat unhinged to attempt something so detrimental to his career. In that way, I'm Still Here is extraordinarily convincing. It leads you to believe that no product so depraved could have been conceived with anything less than depravity.

Now that time has allowed some distance from the film and the publicity surrounding it, however, now that the debate over whether it was a "hoax" or not has quelled, an entirely different film has emerged. I'm Still Here provides great interest as a social experiment, sure, but it's above all a darkly comedic character driven story, ludicrous fiction seamlessly turned into reality in a way that not even Borat could manage.

Joaquin starts out with a monologue. He paces back and forth overlooking the L.A skyline, panting. He's not sure whether his natural intensity has caused him to burn out, or whether critics had pegged him as intense, forcing him to become even more intense, causing him to burn out. In any case, he can't go on. He has to break free of the path that other people expect of him. At this point, you can already tell that the man is messed up, but he's at his most lucid here; hard to cipher, but not totally lost in the haze of his own mind. And even later, when Joaquin's path reveals itself to be made out of cocaine, hookers, and vomit, and Jackass-style pranks, you can see where all the self-destructiveness comes from; from that misplaced intensity, that drive that no one--especially not Joaquin himself--can seem to understand.

The character that Joaquin creates certainly does his best to become unlikable (he's perhaps a little too dumb for his own good), but even at his worst, I never saw him as unsympathetic. There was always something burning in him even when his initial over-excitement turned to confused loneliness.

The movie's turning point and early climax comes with that infamous Letterman interview. Until then Joaquin has been struggling to start off his rap career--a session where he plays his material for a very uncomfortable P Diddy is priceless--and he desperately needs some sort of acceptance. And then Letterman tears into him. There's still a bit of a shock in seeing it happen, even more so now that the footage has been given some context. We know that Joaquin is in character, but still you can't help but feel that we're sharing a devastating moment with him. The illusion he's been trying to cling on to is being stripped away in front of an audience of millions.

The film wraps up a little too tidily considering the scope of Joaquin's and Affleck's ambitious undertaking. They have a plant in the audience of Joaquin's first major rap concert ready to heckle him, stopping the concert short. It seems a little too easy a way to get out of the madness the two had created for themselves--they didn't exactly follow the performance to its logical (or rather, unpredictable) conclusion. They don't allow the public's response to Joaquin's rap heroics to factor in. And there was actually surprisingly little interaction with real people or the world outside driving the story; asides from that Letterman interview and possibly the P. Diddy sessions, much of the narrative was self-contained. It's Joaquin making snow angels with his crew, driving around D.C upset about not getting invited to any inauguration parties, or filming one of his crew members swinging his dick around (this happens on multiple occasions).

Perhaps that just furthers Casey's point that he wasn't trying to trick people en masse, to rile them up before chiding them for believing it all. He really was telling a story, showing how fame transforms and destroys, how easily celebrities' images are created and manipulated. Unfortunately, it's a story that's become all too familiar in this era; Amy Winehouse's death would be its most recent incarnation. I'm Still Here may not attempt to provide insightful commentary in itself, but it's still a valuable and hilarious look inside the crazy and tragic world of celebrity.

Too bad that some of that fictional tragedy has rubbed off on reality. Joaquin hasn't been fully absolved of his antics, and his look at celebrity foolishness has been deemed itself a foolish vanity project. When he returned to Letterman, clean shaven and eager to talk of his project, Letterman seems merely to want to make Joaquin as embarrassed about it as possible. Some people still can't quite believe that Joaquin cut off that bat-shit insane when the camera stopped rolling. "Was the idea of a hoax itself just a hoax intended to cover his disastrous misstep?" says they. If that isn't the sign of a  great performance I don't know what is.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

140 Character Reviews

 Or something like that. As I start my blog up again, I feel the compulsive need to clear out and comment on some of my back catalog (many more where these come from). Real reviews to follow soon...

The Tree of Life (2011)

Malick's spiritual and philosophical indulgences reach their apogee in this strange metaphysical journey. Often stunning, never transcendent. 7.9

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Allen's European travelogue continues. He's much happier in Paris than he was in London or Barcelona. Lots of charm, but still not as much life as his vintage stuff. 7.6

Essential Killing (2011)

Jerzy Skilomowski has bearded terrorist Vincent Gallo running barefoot through snow and violating a fat lady to drink her breast milk. Ludicrous yet awesome. 8.1

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Brooding Australian crime drama doesn't reinvent the game, but has more then enough in the way of chills and bloodsoaked energy to warrant spending time with these beasts. 8.0

Snabba Cash (2010)

Brooding Swedish crime drama has most of the right parts, but uses them to churn out something that's tedious and unconvincing. 6.7

Le Gamin au Velo (2011)

Dardenne brothers took Cannes by a storm with harmless 400 coups/Bicycle Theives hybrid. Needs more air in its tires. 7.4

La Chinoise (1967)

Godard's most political movie is pretty insufferable. But why is he making fun of the jeunes Marxistes; I thought he was one? 6.9

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Now that I think about it, Antonio's (seemingly) most political movie might have more to it than violent hippie radicals and mass dessert sex. Sublimely ridiculous. 8.0

Une femme mariee (1964)

Likeable Godard. Lots of dulcet bedroom conversations influenced by Hiroshima mon amour. Has cinematic tricks as well as warmth and compassion. 8.0

Bande a part (1964)

Similar in style to Femme mariee, but Godard draws from the crime thriller this time. Better because it's more original and iconic (great dancing scene!) 8.4

Vivre sa vie (1962)

More idosyncratic Godard genre hopping; amour, existentialism, shootings, Sartre, Hegel, dancing, prostitution. Interesting, but somewhat superficial. 7.9

Accattone (1961)

Same theme (prostitution), same time (early sixties). Passonlini's take on pimps and the women who love them is gritty, funny, sad, beautiful; a true masterpiece. 9.2

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)

Matthew McCounoughey plays a sleazy and cunning defense lawyer with a heart of gold in this effective courtroom thriller. 7.5

Rabbit Hole (2010)

Two hours of straight up grief, but James Cameron Mitchell directs with subtlety and grace and Kidman and Eckhart deliver astounding performances. 8.2

Short Cuts (1993)

Hyperlink cinema at it's finest. Altman's three hour L.A opus is a hilarious and dark affair that achieves ramshackle perfection. 9.0

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Why did the atheistic Passolini make tell the story of Christ and dedicate it to the Pope? Whatever the reason, there's something ethereal and timeless here. 8.3

Norwiegian Wood (2010)

Lots of sex, crying and melodrama in this adaptation of the eponymous Japanese literary classic from Vietnamese director Anh Hung Trang. Poetic and moving. 7.9

Thor (2011)

Servicable and forgettable summer fun with the Marvel comic adaptation from Kenneth Branagh.Thor not a very compelling lead. 7.2

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Depp's Jack Sparrow is in fine form. Along with a straightforward story, Penelope Cruz, and some nice supporting characters, he more than keeps the franchise afloat. 7.4

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Matthew Vaughn puts some stylish touches on this summer franchise, but he gives us glossy fakeness more than any real substance. 6.8

Source Code (2011)

Intricate and ambitious in a way that few Hollywood films are. The chronology and twisted plot rattle the mind, but this is one smooth ride. 7.8

Fox and his friends (1975)

The usually insightful Fassbinder tries too hard to prove a point and delivers a good looking but heavy handed morality play. 7.5

Lola (1981)

Fassbinder's familiar themes of decadence, dependence, business, unbalanced relationships, and suffering for love. Has a welcome liveliness to it. 8.2

The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979)

Same. Rises slightly above the more straightforward Lola due to greater narrative complexity, greater focus aftermath of WWII, and an even more intriguing female lead. 8.3

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011)

Legendary martial arts director Tsui Hark dials up the campy kung fu action along with some spectacularly bad digital effects. 6.9

Fast Five (2011)

Adrenaline soaked mechanical ballet. Car crashes, hot babes, and a fight between The Rock and Vin Diesel. What more could you want? 7.3

The Beaver (2011)

How much can you do with the story of a man who talks to a hand puppet? Gibson does a hell of a lot but Foster falls prey to cliche and ham handed attempts at profundity. 5.8

The Servant (1963)

Dynamic, volatile, and visually stunning, it's a pleasure to watch the drama unfold and the balance of power shift in this Losey classic. 9.2

Play Misty for Me (1971)

As an actor, Clint Eastwood's manly grunts are convincing, and he shows a fine touch for atmospheric action in his first movie as a director. 7.7

Buffalo 66 (1998)

Vincent Gallo gets his Godard on in a story that's just sweet and just dirty enough. Since the Americana here is genuine and not just New Wave affect, this is the real deal. 8.1

Empire of the Sun (1987)

Incoherent, rambling, sentimental snoozefest from Spielberg. At least you get to see a young Christian Bale at work. 5.6

The Strange Case of Angelica (2010)

102 year old Manoel Olivieras gives us a very odd and intelligent fable that plays with death and dreams. Might have been even stronger if it were less opaque. 7.6

The Last Detail (1973)

Hal Ashby, in this deceptively simple and unassuming masterpiece, has a way of making us laugh, feel for, and identify with the eccentrics he so lovingly depicts. 8.5

Odd Man Out (1947)

Dutch camera angles have their virtues, but Carol Reed tries too hard in this somber thriller set in dreary looking Belfast, Ireland. 6.9

Man Hunt (1941)

Fritz Lang fares better over in England with this implausible and silly, but charming, man-on-the run story, which is also a piece of good, fun war propaganda. 7.5

The Big Heat (1953)

And when Lang gets dark and violent, it gets really good. What starts out wholesome becomes gloriously unhinged once the blood lust sets in. 8.8

Thursday, April 28, 2011


It's not often that 10 minutes into an animated kid's movie, you catch a quick glimpse Hunter S. Thompson, tripped out on mescaline, driving straight into bat country while his Samoan attorney wallows in the back seat. But that's exactly what we see--if only for a split second--as Rango, the little green pet lizard unleashed into the wild west, gets flattened onto the drugged up journalist's windshield before being sent flying into the middle of the Mojave desert.

Why not? Johnny Depp, who plays Rango, has always been a big fan of Thompson, playing him in Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and narrating his life story in a 2008 documentary.  And few prudes are going to notice or care that someone so un-family friendly made his way into such a brief cameo. Still, the intrusion of Thompson was surprising for a different reason. Never before have I seen such high profile players as Depp and writer-director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Carribean), so consciously throwing practical restraint to the wind for the sake of their own enjoyment (although Depp's irreverent Captain Jack Sparrow was a good start). Rango is what you get when two people with lots of success and nothing to lose decide to have some fun with 135 million dollars.

There's a lot more where that came from. Verbinski and Depp take the opportunity to unleash a dangerous stash of classic film references, well-worn cliches, and general wackiness. The plot, involving stolen water and a town running dry, with Rango trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it, comes straight from Chinatown. Stylistically, the film is pure spaghetti western (well, there's some Ford western, too); more hommage is paid to Leone, Eastwood, and Morricone here than in Tarantino's entire oeuvre. An Apocalypse Now style chase scene set to a hick version of Ride of The Valkyries is just ludicrous enough to be inspired. For added theatrics, Rango continually recites Shakespeare and a quartet of owls provides us with a Mexican-Greek chorus.

This may sound like a recipe for nothing but self conscious semi-cleverness, but there's much that makes Rango more than the sum of its references. For one, it's actually clever. Rango's search for identity is first presented in a meta monologue that would hold up well under careful analysis. The film is also astoundingly beautiful--this is the first time George Lucas's ILM has worked on an animated film--with precise detail given to everything from the parched desert earth to trippy talking cactuses. The story is engrossing, the odd-looking characters either sympathetic and interesting or genuinely scary, and the message (all kiddy movies have one) welcome. Most animated features will follow the "just be yourself" route, but Rango welcomes invention and fabrication. Rango transforms himself from nameless pet lizard to western hero, and despite his fakery (he's not a real hero--just an actor), his imagination, his willingness to create something from a blank slate, is rewarded.

I must admit that I rarely see an animated film that isn't, in some way, juvenile. Rango embraces the scatological humor and sexual innuendo that Pixar tends to avoid. This stuff can alternate between amusing and grating, and some of it, such as a reference to prostate exams, is so direct as to just seem strange. But who wants Pixar all the time? Rango is touching, funny, and considerably weirder than anything else out there. It takes so much delight in its own oddball ingenuity that you can't help but play along.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women, kvinnor, mujeres

Made in Dagenham

If anything, this gently pleasing and inspirational film about female Ford factory workers in Dagenham, England fighting for equal pay made me appreciate The Kings Speech a little more. Like The King's Speech, Dagenham documents important social change by bringing our attention to a small but significant moment in history. It's uplifting and character driven, and Sally Hawkins, as assembly worker and labor representative Rita O'Grady, is as good as any of the oscar nominated cinematic royalty of Firth, Rush, and Bonham Carter. When she makes her speeches, Rita draws even more from the heart than King George. But if we can all agree that women are just as skilled and valuable as their male counterparts, it's just as clear that not all directors deserve equal renumeration. Here, Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls) pays it a little too safe with direction that's workman-like and uninspired, no offense to workmen (and women). Made in Dagenham is pleasant but forgettable.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This Swedish film, based off Stieg Larson's eponymous best-seller, is also less memorable than its reputation might suggest. At it's best it's a gripping crime thriller with some tasty Scandinavian flavor. At its worst, it's a pedestrian crime drama, made slightly murkier through all its Swedish gloom. The story, I’m told, is kept mostly in tact in the adaptation from page to screen. This creates more than a little awkwardness when two or three semi-disparate plots are stuck into the 2 ½ hour length and only one of them is fleshed out, or even necessary. The movie manages to alternate between a languorous pace and a rushed one. Still, I don’t think that either the book or the movie do a disservice to the other. The main criminal case, involving a missing girl and lots of Blow Up style photo examinations, advances methodically and provides plenty of intrigue. Michael Nyqvist is very good as the sullen Michael Blomkvist, a reporter enlisted to solve the crime, and so is Noomi Rapace as the mysterious, goth, cyber-crime expert Lisbeth Salander who comes out of nowhere to help him out. Her character, and the world of computer coding and rape that she lets us into, offers a respite from the rather traditional goings everywhere else—she may be the one thing in the book and the movie that we haven’t really seen before. And the infamous rape scenes, while not exceptionally shocking, are one part of the film that really sticks. I should also mention the Swedish title for the book translates to "Men who Hate Women"-- so there's the feminist connection.

David Fincher is set to direct the remake, and despite all the cries of blasphemy (Hollywood, yet again, feels the need the americanize a movie that’s not even a year old), it should be clear that it’s because he thinks he can do better and not because this version is any sort of masterpiece. It’s not an unlikely match either (unlike Spielberg and Oldboy, which thankfully is no longer happening). The cyber-crime stuff is a logical follow-up to The Social Network, and the rest is pure Seven/Zodiac. Time will tell if anything incredible can be pulled out of this story, but for now, I have my doubts.


Les femmes du sixieme étage

A minor success in France, this comedy about a middle-aged businessman undergoing a mid-life crisis should offer inoffensive amusement to moviegoer of a certain age. The "femmes" here are the Spanish maids who work for all the snobby bourgeois families (they've become the latest big thing) and who live above them in cramped sixth floor rooms (that being the top floor in the vertically challenged city of Paris). Enraptured by his pretty new maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke), who knows how to cook his eggs just right, Jean Louis-Joubert (Fabrice Luccini) falls in love with all things Spanish and eventually stakes out his own place on the sixth, distancing himself from his frigid wife in the process.

The French don't mind poking fun at themselves if they're allowed to keep a bit of distance. This year's Potiche was a light comedy that took on sexism in the 70s. Les femmes du sixieme étage is also set in the 70s, and it challenges the racism and xenophobia of the upper class. This is not very hard to do when your dealing with pretty young Spanish women or jovial matrons. Actually dealing with the current tensions between the French and the arab world would be a good deal more difficult. And it may be a little too self-congratulatory to have the wealthy businessman save the day by hooking all his newfound amigos up with apartments, amenities, and investment opportunities.

Of course, chiding Les femmes for lack of social relevance might be asking for too much (although the ending, for different reasons, is a little questionable). It's a charming movie, relying just enough on caricature to make its point. The wealthy people are lazy, complaining about the difficulty of shopping and beauty salons while their maids bring them extra pillows. We feel a little implicated in their idleness. The Spanish women are lively and convivial; they also bicker alot and have their fair share of troubles. We end up feeling for both classes. And we also realize that the world doesn't have to be such a bad place if a beautiful woman is there to make us perfectly cooked hard boiled eggs every morning. 


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In a Better World (Haevnen)

There's an important scene in Susan Bier's academy award winning Danish film, Haevnen, where a father, Anton, is trying to teach a valuable lesson to two children--his son, Elias, and his son's friend, Christian--on the nature of vengeance and violence. Anton takes the kids to visit an angry brute of an auto-mechanic who had insulted him on a previous day. Never mind asking why the fight started in the first place; the reason is too stupid for me to bear repeating here. Anton asks the boorish fellow to apologize, and when that doesn't work, turns the other cheek as he gets slapped repeatedly in the face. Anton leaves satisfied (or at the very least, pretending to be)--he stayed cool and calm and showed his kids that violence was the futile recourse of the ignorant. But Elias and Christian aren't so sure; in their opinion, all Anton proved was that he's a pussy.

The kids may not have gotten the message, but the audience sure does. Since the auto-mechanic is a complete caricature of male brutishness and since there was no real reason for any argument to break out between the two men in the first place, we totally get that responding with violence would be useless.  We get the message every step of the way as Bier bludgeons us with her painfully uninteresting statements about revenge (which is what "haevnen" translates to), and this is unfortunate because this movie is nothing but message. My favorite summary of the film is in a blurb from the French magazine Cahiers de Cinema: "Attention! Film dissertation." Haevnen is a movie that's convinced of its own importance but is mainly didactic and dull. We're the children being lectured to.

To make things clear, there are two main stories involving revenge in Haevnen, and four specific instances where characters seek revenge. The central narrative involves the troubled Christian, and Elias, his wimpy protegé. Both of them favor decisive action, first in response to school bullying, and then whilst seeking retribution from the mechanic. Obviously, they get themselves into a peck of trouble. On top of that, Bier manages to fit in a story that takes place somewhere in Africa. Where, exactly, doesn't matter, as long as the setting provides adequate reason for smiling black children to run freely behind a truck of benevolent European saviors. The connection is that Anton works for doctors without borders when he's not dealing with a shaky family situation back home. His own flawless moral integrity gets tested when a local warlord stops by to get treatment for his maggot infested leg.

These two stories are supposed to compliment each by complicating our notions of right and wrong. How can it be that violence is justified in one situation and not in another? Very easily, actually. Instead of working together to prove a coherent point, the two bits stand in stark contrast with each other and say next to nothing. Bier might have thought she had injected some much needed ambiguity into her feeble posturing, but all she does is give us examples of cases where revenge is good and cases where revenge is bad. For one, you won't find many audience members who are sympathetic to the cause of a hulking, milky-eyed African clown named Big Man who enjoys necrophilia and cutting the unborn babies out of pregnant woman's stomachs. So revenge is mostly bad, except when you're sitting in front of a guy who makes Mao look like Mother Theresa.

Also complicating things but adding little to the overall theme is a closer study of two families--Elias's and Christian's. Elias's parents have been splitting up, which might be part of the reason why he's having a tough time at school. Christian hates his father , Claus, ever since his mom died of cancer. He's convinced that Claus wanted her dead, and this resentment is what makes him gravitate towards violence. None of this really gives nuance to all the message-y parts of the movie, but at least these detours do more good than they do harm. They allow the film to concentrate on the individuals instead of on the broader implications of their moral decisions.

Haevnen is convincing enough to have won such accolades as Best Foreign Film at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards. It's possible that the unmerited attention it's received has made me resent it a little. Still, I don't think there's anything particularly gratifying, any way you look at it, in watching this story play out; as a whole it's a rather tedious slog, and intermittent sappiness doesn't do anything to help. Nevertheless, I've already given the movie the beating it deserves. In the interest of all that is redemptive and human and good, here is a list of the movie's strong points:

1. Cinematography--it's a handsome looking film. 2. Great performances all around, even from the child actors. Mikael Persbrandt as Anton and Willian Nielsen as Christian stand out. 3. Still less forced than it would have been if made, with the same intentions, over on the other side of the Atlantic. 4. A scene where Christian beats up Scofus, the school bully, is brutal yet satisfying, and actually poses some troublesome questions about violence. A rare instance where the line between good and bad actually gets a little fuzzy.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Boxing Gym

Since Boxing Gym is a movie about boxing, and since I saw it right after I saw The Fighter, the logical thing to do would be to try to work out a comparison between the two. Alas, the biggest link I can find between them is how aptly named they both are. Where The Fighter is a movie about a man who has to fight with his family and his opponents, Boxing Gym is a movie about nothing less and possibly nothing more than a boxing gym.

For three months, veteran director Frederick Wiseman filmed the everyday goings on in small uncommercial Austin, Texas boxing gym, and this is what he found. It's a movie that's more unusual for what it doesn't have than what it does; no voiceover, no interviews, no story, no conventional structure, no characters, no buildup to some grand event, no fancy editing, no imposed or easily discernible message. There is precious little actual boxing in the film-- we are only shown a few short sparring session between gym members. Instead, the movie is filled with scenes of people training; they jog, stretch, do pushups and various other body strengthening exercises, hit tires with hammers, throw heavy balls around, jump rope, play leapfrog, practice their jabs, uppercuts, and hooks, punch speed bags, punch heavy bags, punch double end bags, shadow box, and punch the gloved mitts of various trainers.

All of these exercises are repeated, and shots of one person exhausting himself while hitting various things can last over a minute. What Wiseman ends up with is a film that comes from reality--nothing artificial is forced into the self-contained world of the gym--and is very real. But not entirely. Whether or not it's Wiseman's intention, his reality is transformed ever so slightly by his cinema; the various workouts are distilled into their sweaty leathery essence. The training eventually becomes mesmerizing, the sound of things being hit becomes rhythmic and musical, and the boxers' routine starts to look like a ritual. Above all we notice their discipline, their intense concentration, and their almost religious devotion. And the fact that the last film Weisman did was La Danse, a study of the Paris Opera Ballet, reinforces what's already obvious; boxing is dance. Just take a look at that one patiently sustained shot where only the players feet are framed as they bounce around, Muhammad Ali style, in their own loosely choreographed ballet.

It would, however, be a waste not to show the human side of this spectacle, and Wiseman obliges us by including some excellent scenes where he captures, with astounding naturalness, the interactions of various locals. I wish we had a few more of these encounters. As it is, we can't really follow any particular particular member, as the only person who makes multiple appearances is the gym's owner, Richard Lord--a grizzled fellow who may not be very sharp, but is kindly, helpful, and knows his stuff. Nevertheless, what we do get is pretty great. One man says he plays marimba in a band, and joyously demonstrates the dance that goes along with the songs he plays. Two boys make small talk, and one says how much he loves the buzz of getting hit in the jaw. Two young men talk about their military training, and one mentions that he hopes to get deployed eventually. Two older men talk about the currently unfolding Virginia tech massacre; one of them has a relative who was caught up in it.

If any of these last three conversations makes it seem like Boxing Gym is a study of the violence that's soaked into American society, that could not be further from the truth. The movie is actually surprisingly bloodless. If anything, the gym is a refuge from the violence outside; violence that can be found in the schools, on the streets, abroad, or (to a lesser extent) in the stadiums where actual matches take place. When one kid comes in with a bruised eye to learn how to fight, he's quickly told that boxing is not for revenge but for defense. (Paraphrasing) "Everyone here stays away from fights because they want to save their fists for the ring. Some people come in here looking for trouble, but they realize pretty soon that this place isn't for them." Another kid is also warned against fighting street-style. Mothers leave their babies next to the equipment to sleep happily while they train. That's another thing; there's complete gender and racial equality in here. We're told that one 68 year old woman can hit the speed bag better than anyone else.

Too bloodless, then? No matter how supporting the community in this gym is, you can't just gloss over the fact that boxing is a violent sport. It's possible that Boxing Gym is just a little too appealing for the middle-aged art house crowd. The one punch to the face that there is in this move--not exactly delivered with Tyson-level force--managed to elicit a couple gasps from audience members. But I think that Wiseman avoids all violence here not because he wants to distance us from boxing's aggressiveness, but because that's for a different movie entirely. It's not like Wiseman hasn't done brutal and painful before. His first and most famous film, Titicut Follies (1967), showed the terrible conditions of a Massachusetts mental hospital, which were apparently so nasty that the film was banned, and institutions like the one it depicted closed down. His 1971 movie Basic Training was the inspiration for the extended basic training section of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, right down to the attempted suicide by one of the soldiers (Kubrick requested the 35 mm film strip from Wiseman and didn't give it back until months later). But when it comes to boxing, we have all the brutality we need. We can get instant gratification from all those fast flying punches on TV or in award winning movies. For anyone who wants to get their gratification by looking more closely than they ever thought possible at the preparation, patience, and joy that go into the sport, this movie is essential.


P. S. Wiseman, who's now 81 years old, may only have one truly well-known movie with Titicut Follies, but he's one of America's most respected directors. Taken from a Village Voice article on Boxing Gym: "I was recently sitting with a group of French directors, and at a certain point the conversation turned to Fred Wiseman," critic Kent Jones wrote eight years ago in Film Comment. "Without hesitation, everyone agreed that he was probably America's greatest living filmmaker..."--not to mention the world-champion practitioner of the form the French call cinema verité. Most of his 39 films have fewer than 100 votes on imdb, but they all look absolutely fascinating. Institutions that have gotten the Wiseman treatment include a slaughterhouse (Meat) a welfare office (Welfare) a Niemen Marcus store in Texas (The Store) and a high school (High School I and High School II).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Fighter

Ahhh the boxing movie; dependable stalwart of the American sports cinema. It has more critical cachet than the football movie, and is much more common than the Jamaican bobsled movie. The closest comparison, I suppose, would be to horse racing movie, horse racing being another sport that was more popular in a bygone era and is now more widely recognized in its cinematic form. But boxing is way more interesting than horse racing, mainly because it involves people and not horses. What could be more noble than the spectacle of two men using only their fists and their wits to  demonstrate their courage, resilience, and value as human beings. We like boxing because it has all the brutality we need from any modern American classic and because violence and aggression are legitimized, made useful, when put inside the ring.

Nevertheless, you have to wonder each time a new boxing movie comes out if we haven't seen it all already. We know the scenes and images by heart: poetic shots of gloves slamming into cheekbones sending blood and saliva flying, rousing training montages, battered fighters getting patched up and having orders barked at them in between rounds, underdogs receiving punch after punch after punch before coming back for victory. Sure, the struggle in the ring can be complimented and mirrored by others outside of it, but there as well, almost every thing's been done. Cinderella Man had poverty, Million Dollar Baby had poverty and heavy moral issues, Rocky had some poverty, The Hurricane had racism. Raging Bull emphasized Jake La Motta's internal conflict and self-destructive tendencies and Rocky had Rocky starting out as a lazy slob. Rocky also had romance and and Rocky IV even dipped its feet in Cold War politics.

So what, I asked myself, could The Fighter, even if well-made, possibly add to such a familiar genre? Quite a lot, actually. It doesn't re-write the rule book, but like all the great boxing movies that have come before it, The Fighter has its one thing that it does differently. As far as I know, it's the only one where the main threat comes from the characters outside of the ring. "Really, no one's done that before?", you might ask. Well, possibly in some lesser boxing movie, but I doubt that it's ever been taken as far as it has here. That seemingly insignificant tweak in the boxing formula is what sets the movie up on its path to greatness.

The Fighter, which sticks closely to the real story of welterweight champion Mickey Ward, focuses mainly on the shaky and often unhealthy relationship he had with his family. Micky, played by Walbherg, is the sensitive strongman; he's soft spoken and--when he's not trying to cut up his oponents--gentle. His mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), and 7 sisters are not gentle and definitely not soft spoken. They never exactly manipulate Micky, but they do get him to do what they think is best for him, and what they think is best usually ends up holding him back. Dicky is an unreliable heroin junkie, but Mickey depends on him to train. Alice refuses to acknowledge Dicky's exacerbating condition and keeps booking Mickey in the wrong fights. And Micky has been told what to do for so long that he's unable to tell them what he needs.

It's not hard, however, to see why Micky is so powerless. Melissa Leo and Christian Bale are fearsome enough to take the resolve out of anyone, and they leave the audience in a state of rapt obedience as well. Both of them are now famous for being expletive throwing loudmouths off the screen, but these performances (both of which garnered them Oscars) are something else. Bale, cocky arrogant bastard that he is, has transformed himself into an even more wiry and explosive cocky arrogant bastard, while still managing to be funny and sympathetic. He's also a good deal thinner than should be healthy, having lost 40 pounds, although this isn't an unusual step for an actor who seems to derive great satisfaction from emaciating himself (see The Machinist and Rescue Dawn). Watching Leo's Alice clash with Micky's similarly opinionated and hard-headed "MTV-girl" girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams) is as entertaining as any boxing match.

Let's not forget Mark Walbergh. His role, despite being the lead, doesn't give him the same opportunities to show off as Bale's or Leo's do, but he grabs our attention using more discreet methods. When boxing, Micky knows when to be passive, taking a seemingly endless series of punches before finally unleashing his own force, and Walbergh has the same kind of patience; his character is submissive for much of the movie, which makes it even sweeter when he finally takes matters into his own hands. And as entertaining as Bale and Leo are to watch, the movie would have been too tiring without Walbergh keeping things steady at its center.

The Fighter is Mark's movie in more ways than one. He's the avid boxing fan who grew up 30 minutes away from Lowell, Massachusetts, followed Mickey's story, and eventually befriended Micky and Dicky while getting their support for the film. He hired David O. Russel to direct his project, which was a wise choice. David seems to have helped the film mainly by doing everything right, striking a perfect balance  between Hollywood sheen and hard-to-watch realism. The movie is dirty and gritty but not somber. It's light on its feet and always entertaining while staying rooted in a very authentic--and authentically depressing--urban landscape. The Fighter has a much stronger connection with Lowell than Ben Affleck's The Town had with Charlestown earlier this year. This is the one that really makes me wish I didn't know how to pronounce my r's. And because of Walbergh and Russel's passion for the sport of boxing and its players, it's one of those rare movies that makes me really understand what it means to give or receive a punch in the face.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

Orson Welles

Whenever people talk about Orson Welles the discussion invariably turns to what might have been. Hearst's relentless campaign to suppress Citizen Kane drummed up publicity, but the movie was held back for so long that all the controversy never translated into box-office receipts. When audiences didn't respond to his next film, The Magnificent Ambersons, and his expensive Brazilian jungle documentary (for which he was unfairly villainized) was shelved by the studios, Welle's rapid ascent to the top was over. The 25 year old wunderkind (he had already established himself as a successful stage actor/director and radio star) who had been given total artistic control for Kane never regained favor with the studios. When Welles wasn't self-financing his passion projects with money from his acting jobs, his films were seized by the studios and hacked up in the editing room. He seems a comical, almost grotesque figure in a description in Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; living in a spare room in the much younger Peter Bogdonavich's house, he surrounds himself with stacks of dirty dishes. Instead of the old man who has everything crying out "Rosebud" on his deathbed, it's easy to imagine Welles, longing for his younger glory days, letting out a harrowing "Kane."

But as any Welles fan knows, his career trajectory can't be reduced to the convenient myth of the genius falling from great heights. Welles himself said, "I started at the top and worked my way down," but that self-deprecating comment is facetious enough to let us know that it isn't quite true. And in my opinion, it's beside the point to decry the mistreatment and neglect Welles faced in the hands of Hollywood, to keep asking why he could never maintain control over his own movies. Was he too stubborn and reckless or was he just too lazy to fight for final cut, too willing to give in? Who cares. There are some real tragedies in American film history--for example, the brutal treatment of von Stroheim's Greed which resulted in the permanent loss of a masterpiece--but Orson Welles' career is not one of them (well...the fact that his last role was as Unicron in the animated Transformers withstanding). Of the five films I've seen by him, four of them are masterpieces and, if I'm not mistaken, there are many more where those came from. Welles' personal favorite was The Trial (1962), and a number of other films from later in his career, including Chimes at Midnight (1966) and F is for Fake (1973), are ranked among his best. For all we know, Welles might still have a great film left in him 26 years after his death; in 2004 Peter Bogdonavach started working on piecing together the "96 percent complete" footage of The Other Side of the Wind, about a film director struggling to scrape together funds for his last movie.

Bogdonavich, who wrote the definitive book This is Orson Welles, and who was the awestruck pupil before he was Welles' friend, sums up the man's genius quite nicely; "Among the most complicated aspects of Welles' work is the tension between the essential pessimism of his outlook and the exhilarating optimism inspired by the brilliance of his style." True that. In all of the works I've seen, Welles is consistent in his distaste for abuse of power and empty wealth. He fights relentlessly against moral corruption and capitalist excess. And the people in his movies often fall prey to their own carelessness; they lose their money, or any valuable reason for living, or their lives. But the way he films this sorry lot--with great relish, that is--betrays an affinity with all the excess and an identification with his power hungry characters. His movies are technically impeccable and often showy, with deep focus, crazy angles, mirror shots, sumptuous decors, complicated camera movements, and tour de force acting from Welles himself. He created a cinematic world where he could the master of everything. Aside from the editing, only the sound seemed to pose a problem; throughout his career Welles tried and mostly failed to devise a system where all the dialogue was pre-recorded and the actors merely had to mouth their words during the filming process.

Given Welles' undeniable genius and obsession with depicting the lives of the powerful, it's almost a surprise that he didn't become the very thing he was fighting against. I wonder if he didn't have it in his mind to become Kane, if that movie wasn't just an indictment of Hearst, or a cautionary tale warning against his own ambition, but a film intended to be prophetic. All right, maybe that's a little far-fetched. Still, in the end, it's strangely fitting that a man who consecrated his entire oeuvre to criticising people who have too much, never got much at all except for praise. But now, lest we start to think that he didn't give us enough either, here's a random sampling from Welles career that I saw in theaters recently; three films (lesser known than the great Touch of Evil and Citizen Kane) that should convert any naysayer.

The Lady From Shanghai (1948)

The first thing one notices about The Lady From Shanghai is the incredibly thick Irish brogue that Welles, playing the part of a handsome weathered seaman, puts on. I'm not one to judge, and Welles did start his career as a 16 year old in Dublin's Gate Theater, but the accent does inspire a chuckle or two. Funny story about that Irish debut by the way: Welles, roaming around Europe with a modest sum provided by an inheritance from his father, walked into the theater claiming he was a Broadway star. No one believed him, but he was so forceful and sure of himself, that they gave him a lead role, which he used to launch his precocious fame.

Anyways, Welles' accent--delivered with pristine diction--may be a little silly, but his performance is definitely not. Charles Foster Kane was undoubtably his greatest role, but Kane was by nature remote and impenetrable; he wasn't one man at all but an amalgam of great American heroes as seen by people who knew almost nothing about him. Michael "Black Irish" O'Hara here might be my favorite role of his. His classic noir repartee doesn't have the salty crudeness you'd expect from a sailor; it's quick, cynical, cutting, and very smart. In his narration, O'Hara keeps mentioning how dumb he was to get himself into such a mess, but he's one of the more intelligent screen characters I've seen.

All of O'Hara's troubles begin when he comes across the beautiful, mysterious, and married Elsa as she's riding a carriage in Central Park. As he says, "from that moment on I did not use my head except to think about her." Who can blame him; Elsa is played by the seductive Rita Hayworth, who as it turns out, was ending a five year marriage with Welles at the time. The man she's married to in the movie, however, is Arthur Bannister, a wealthy defense attorney made famous for helping high profile crooks get away scott-free. Somehow, Bannister, under Elsa's suggestion, ropes O'Hara into joining them on their yacht on a trip through the Panama Canal. Things start off strange enough, as the old and crippled Bannister seems to encourage contact between the young Elsa and O'Hara while simultaneously paying spies to keep a watch on them. After that, the plot gets so complicated with murder, intrigue, and hidden motives, that Columbia president Harry Cohn offered $1,000 to anyone who could explain it. The prize went unclaimed.

Some may call Lady from Shanghai a mess, but its craziness is part of its brilliance. This movie has everything; film noir mystery and suspense gives way to wacky courtroom drama which turns into a chase sequence before emerging as kabuki theater. In early scenes on Bannister's yacht or during the extravagant jungle picnic he sets up to please Elsa, decadence and beauty are even more sinister than they were in Kane. And the finale, which takes place in a hall of mirrors, is expressionistic and exhilarating. No coincidence that the circus, the theater, and the courtroom all show up here. Every location in the movie, especially Bannister's boat, is an artificial setting, a stage where each actor is concealing something and playing his or her part. The movie itself is no different; it's all an act--one big clever and disturbing joke--which is why it doesn't matter if the plot doesn't hold up under scrutiny. Normally, if you've seen one film noir story, you've seen 'em all. Lady from Shanghai, on the other hand, is so visually exiting (magnificent cinematography), bold, and deranged that it stands on its own.


The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons is the Orson Welles film that benefits most from comparisons with Citizen Kane. It was made directly afterwards, and it's a similar examination of the American success story, albeit from a different angle. Welles actually claimed that in its original form, before the studios got their hands on it, it was a much better film than Kane, although it's possible that his hurt feelings might have made him a little sentimental. And since the original cut was destroyed, it's not like there are many people around to challenge him. Even so, there are critics who argue that, even in its truncated version, it's the better film. I disagree, and don't think that seeing Welles' lost cut would change my mind (more on that later), but it's certainly not an unreasonable statement. The Magnificent Ambersons doesn't quite match the scope of Citizen Kane, but it engages with its characters on a more personal level, and it's one of a very few movies that can make the same kind of claim to technical perfection.

When I say that The Magnificent Ambersons is a success story from another angle, I should mention that that angle is a 180 degrees spin in the opposite direction. The Ambersons, three generations of them, start the film sitting high up in their mansion overlooking a much smaller than it is today Philadelphia, but their brand of old money-idleness is falling out of fashion. The lead role in this ensemble piece is that of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt) who's been spoilt since he was a child and is so arrogant and unpleasant that he has everyone in the town crying for the Ambersons' comeuppance. That's played against an actual story of American entrepreneurial triumph; Eugene Morgan, of the automobile fame, has just come back to his hometown to advance projects for his horseless carriage. He soon rekindles the love he had in his youth for George's mother, Isabel. In the meantime, George falls for Morgan's daughter, Lucy. But the best story of all here is that of George's aunt Fanny (Agnes Morehead) and her own love for Eugene Morgan, which goes unnoticed by everyone.

There are certain scenes here--fights between the headstrong George and the distraught Fanny, a carriage ride in the snow with the Ambersons and Morgans, a dynamic party sequence filmed with virtuosic tracking shots--that are extraordinary. Cinematographer Gregg Toland gets a lot of praise for his work in Citizen Kane but, though he was much slower than Toland, Stanley Cortez's work here is just as good--there's an incredible amount of detail in every frame. The Ambersons may not be magnificent but they're very interesting characters. George is far from being a likable protagonist, but he's so oblivious and naive that his cruelty towards others is more part of his nature than a sign of deliberate aggression. Isabel and Fanny are more sympathetic, but they're so helpless that the only path they can carve out for themselves is one of unrequited longing and physical deterioration. Even Lucy is much more than a pretty face; in one scene she tries to be flippant and indifferent when George tells her he's leaving only to break down in tears as soon as he turns his back.

Given how great Ambersons is, it's unfortunate that we'll never be able to see it as Welles intended. After the picture tested poorly when shown to a ruthless teenage audience (playing after a musical on a double bill no less) RKO slashed 50 minutes from the film. Welles was in Brazil at the time and was helpless to prevent this. I'm a little split in deciding how grievous the crime of editing down the movie really was. One Vanity Fair article, "Magnificent Obsession", claims that The Magnificent Ambersons is a "lost film" and that the 88 minute version that exists to day is little more than an "impressive curio." What a ridiculous notion that is. The movie should be judged on its own terms, and not against a destroyed artifact that no one will ever see. In fact, I quite like the brisk pace of this movie and of Lady From Shanghai (which also had an hour cut from it); it's funny that I've now come to unintentionally associate the breakneck speed with which these movies propel themselves forwards with Welles. And that "happy ending" that everyone complains about--while it doesn't quite mesh with the rest of the picture (I could definitely tell that it was the studio's)--is only happy if you lack half a brain. I'm convinced that the footage we have is good enough to let Welles vision get through.

Still, I might have to recant on some earlier statements made in my introduction and admit that the trimming of Ambersons is indeed a cinematic tragedy. Extra length usually makes a movie seem more important and 50 more minutes might have added some momentousness to the proceedings. If Welles says that his depressing ending (less faithful to the Pulitzer winning book by Booth Tarkington than the studio add on) was the best scene in the film, who am I to argue. Here's his description of it: "All these awful old people roosting in this sort of half old folks' home, half boarding house," eavesdropping and getting in the way of Eugene and Fanny, two holdovers from a more dignified era (Vanity Fair)."There's just nothing left between them at all. Everything is over--her feelings and her world and his world; everything is buried under the parking lots and the cars. That's what it was all about--the deterioration of personality, the way people diminish with age, and particularly impecunious old age. The end of communication between people, as we as the end of an era." I think I see why Welles might have felt closer to Ambersons than to Kane. After the studios "destroyed" his opus (he says it destroyed him as well in the process), he had plenty of time to grow old and and grieve a glorious--and lost--past.


Mr. Arkadin (1955)

Mr. Arkadin never quite reaches the peaks achieved by these previous two movies, and is usually considered to be even more of a flawed mess and less of a masterpiece than The Lady from Shanghai. There are two main reasons for why it doesn't work in quite the same way.

The first boils down to familiarity. Mr. Arkadin (a bearded and very imposing Welles) is an extremely wealthy man, yet he yearns to hold on to some sort of innocence in his life. The only way he can do this is by keeping his daughter (Paulo Mori, Welles' 3rd wife) from finding out about his violent past, and he ropes the hapless Guy van Stratten (Robert Arden), a petty criminal, into helping him erase it. Van Stratten, however, thinks that Arkadin has amnesia and has hired him to uncover his past, so he trots around the globe, dealing with all sorts shady characters to find out how Mr. Arkadin became Mr. Arkadin. The story, though convoluted, has plenty of interesting twists and turns. It can actually be worked out logically, and it's good enough to be worth following carefully. Thematically, however, Mr. Arkadin doesn't offer much of a departure for Welles. Rich old men with mysterious backstories, youngsters who get in way over their heads, wealth as a corrupting force...we've seen it all before. Welles relies too much on his usual bag of tricks here, throwing in plenty of dutch camera angles whenever he wants to get fancy.

The second problem is less forgivable. Robert Arden is a terrible and entirely unconvincing actor who succeeds at once in being hammy and as lifeless as a plank. There's a league of difference between his character and O'Hara in The Lady from Shanghai. Admittedly, Van Stratten is supposed to be a little dumb while O'Hara is the sailor who "talks fancy", but they're essentially the same role. Where Welles' charisma brought depth to Shanghai, Arden just succeeds in dragging everything down a little with him. I don't know why Welles cast the guy, if not to make his own performance as Mr. Arkadin stand out even more in comparison.

It's a testament to Welles talent as a director (and not a casting director) that Mr. Arkadin is still a great movie. When it's not lazy--falling back on tried and true stylistic and plot devices, or failing to line up the dubbing with the characters' mouths--it's characteristically ambitious. The images here may lack the polish of his greatest work, but the movie is still packed with inventive shots, and it has the same kind of wild energy as Lady from Shanghai. The best scenes are so nonsensical that they would have been discarded by another filmmaker; one involves Van Stratten, his life in serious danger, running in and out of restaurants in Berlin, hunting down a goose liver to deliver to a dying man named Zouk. In another Van Stratten tries to get information from an elusive and wily flee circus master. While they talk, the master picks up his microscope and gets his fleas to shoot little tiny balls into little tiny baskets. When he's done, the flea master picks up the fleas, sets them on his arm, and announces "feeding time." 

At one point in the movie, Orson Welles' Arkadin tells the popular fable of the scorpion and the frog to a group of guests surrounding him: A scorpion wanted to cross a river so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog refused because the scorpion would sting him. "That would not be logical", explained the scorpion, "because if I stung you we would both drown". So the frog agreed to carry the scorpion. Half way across, the frog felt a terrible pain--the scorpion had stung him. There is no logic in this, exclaimed the frog. I know, replied the scorpion, but I cannot help it--it is my character. "Let's drink to character," Arkadin bellows. Here, here. Mr. Arkadin is one movie that does a hell of a lot more with self-destructive sting and character than it does with logic. In fact, I don't think there's any escaping Orson Welles' character in any of his movies. When finances and studios failed to come through, his larger than life personality, unbridled passion, and, yes, his genius, never did.


To finish this off, here are two videos that show where Welles ended up after the studio heads put a stop to his productivity. The first one is quite funny, even if it's a little sad, and shows the washed up, slightly megalomaniac Welles arguing semantics over a frozen peas commercial.

But this next one gives a much truer picture of a great man looking back over an extraordinary body of work and an extraordinary life. Orson Welles died a mere two hours after the interview was filmed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

For people in the know, Chilean born director Raul Ruiz is something of an important figure. He's been churning out quite a few "visionary" and "experimental" flicks since his start in the the late 60s--112 of them to be exact. A recent Sight and Sound article ranks him with the likes of Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Luis Bunuel, Tod Browning and Federico Fellini as one of "The Wild Bunch"-- 50 directors who are consistently willing to push boundaries. How many people actually know this though, I have no idea. Probably not many. I certainly didn't, but that didn't help me from getting hit by a giant dose of Ruiz in the form of his latest movie--the 4 1/2 hour long Mysteries of Lisbon.

It's a bit of a shame that what I remember most about Mysteries of Lisbon (I saw it about a month ago) is its length. It's quite an impressive movie; an expansive costume drama that's as elaborate as anything by Ophüls or Visconti. Mysteries, which is based on a sprawling 19th century novel of the same name by Camilo Castelo Branco, owes a lot to Ophüls especially. It has the same fluid camerawork and emphasis on desire and fate. Also, given that Ruiz recently undertook the demanding task of adapting Proust's Time Regained, the formidable scale of this project as well as its exploration of memory are familiar territory for him.

The movie starts with Pedro de Silva, the film's narrator, as a 14 year old boy in a catholic boarding school. There he gets bullied by his peers for having no name or family (that he knows of). But when he falls sick, his mother, Angela, makes an appearance at his bed side. It turns out that she's been imprisoned in her own house by a jealous husband who doesn't want her to have anything to do with this child from her previous lover.

Much of the first half of the movie is spent on two stories. One, which is quite interesting, involves Angela, her son, and her terrible current husband. The other, which is less so, is the tale of forbidden love between Angela and Pedro's father. I must admit--no disrespect the the vast majority of classic literature--that stories of forbidden love are inherently boring. They tend to presume that were the virginal maiden to escape her father's grasp, she would find lasting bliss with her lover. I haven't seen Blue Valentine yet, but I believe the common knowledge today is that two people who love each other will inevitably spend the rest of their lives torturing each other. In any case, when two hours had gone by and we were given a chance to stretch our legs during intermission, I was worried that Mysteries of Lisbon didn't have enough intriguing mysteries to show for itself, that it was merely a well-presented collection of fairly standard tropes from 19th century literature. 

Not to worry. Things pick up in the second half as stories open up like russian dolls to reveal more stories within stories. The narrative isn't too complicated--no one's entering the seventh dream layer--but there's much to keep track of; narrators change, identities are altered and concealed, various coincidences and chance meetings arise, grudges are formed, secrets are kept. Death, birth, and happiness are turned into distant memories by the inexorable passage of time. Pedro, as can be seen by the way he manipulates little paper cutouts on his miniature theater stage, tries to maintain control, but he never seems to have much success. Better to just sit back, let someone else expertly move the pieces of paper around, and enjoy.