Sunday, September 25, 2005

the child (dardenne bros., 2005)

"My Best Thinking Got Me Here." -- AA slogan, highlighted in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest

The sub rosa mystery-suspense aspect in the Dardennes' last feature, The Son, seemed to set the stage for the directing duo to foreground thriller elements in their latest, The Child, without compromising their style or shifting their focus away from France and Belgium's most put-upon souls.

The most compelling aspect of the Dardennes' work is what they've inherited from Bresson. It's hard to parse out the differences between Bresson and the Dardennes, because their individual styles are already such that they elude explanation, but it can safely be said that they each place a premium on meticulous soundscapes, they each consider what remains offscreen as carefully as what ends up in the frame, and they have each built a cinema that treats actors as organisms rather than technicians specializing in impersonations. (For the Dardennes, as well as for Bresson, the most amazing thing about their "models" is that they exist.)

Also linking Bresson with the Dardennes is their fascination with "process." For Bresson's protagonists (Michel, Fontaine, Jeanne [hint: look at the title], and the Curé d'Ambricourt), process in their lives may be manifest itself as labor, faith, or some other elaborate task - concepts not totally dissimilar from one another, as they all require precision, diligence, and concentration. Similarly there's Balthazar, whose lot is to exist and to work, under cruelty or kindness. It can be argued (and has been) that these protagonists achieve grace through their works; another way of looking at them is to link them with Manny Farber's "termite" artists, characterized by going "always forward eating [their] own boundaries, and, likely as not, leave... nothing in [their] path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity." These protagonists choose a destination and follow the road, ever watchful of their feet, lest they trip.

Later in his career, Bresson's protagonists seemed to begin to wonder if there were any destinations to begin with, and would devote their daily lives to searching for a road - any road. Significantly, his take on Camelot occurs entirely after Arthur's crew failed to find the grail; somewhere in the cosmos there's another Bresson film that details the exhaustive search for the grail, replete with hardships, and ends when they find it, and that film is dated 1956. The real film takes place when Camelot is on the wane.

For Mouchette, Elle, Charles, and finally, with gusto, Yvon, contemplating various prospective Paths may lead them to become preoccupied with sex, crime, and varying degrees of mischief, among other things that are (especially in Le Diable probablement) picked up, toyed with, and put away - namely science, the media, faith, and the counterculture. Their eyes are not incurious, but when these roads lead nowhere but back into their own gaze, there's a feeling not just of emptiness but of having been disemboweled. For all the talk of the transcendental in relation to Bresson's cinema, if his late films had a subtitle, it might be: How They Fastidiously But Perhaps Unknowingly Avoided or Delayed Redemption.

I suppose one could say, then, that the Dardennes' protagonists don't have their eyes on any particular Man Escaped-like goal, but that they are always keenly aware of where they are and what they are doing, and that they are always taking great care in doing it.

Which, finally, is what links Igor (Jérémie Renier) to previous Dardennes protagonists. Despite the fact that he is a lying, scheming, directionless, overgrown kid, he nevertheless has a Process of his own, and he follows it, thinking only of his most immediate gains. Clearly his "best thinking" is shit - his idea of preparing for his family's future involves selling the baby, and in order to get away from a pair of violent thugs, he goes to prison (yeah, Bruno, they'll probably just forget all about you and the 4.934 EUR) - but in the end, even his unfathomably demented idea of doing the right thing lends him, through sheer determination to stick to the program, a kind of nobility.

The high point of the film in terms of drama and putting a fine point on Bruno's crisis is the masterful sequence in which Bruno and his pubescent purse-snatching accomplice hide in the freezing water in order to escape their pursuers. When Bruno rescues the boy from drowning, risking his own life in the process, it's the same Bruno who put his baby on the black market; he hasn't Changed.

Early in the film, Bruno tells the boy - they're negotiating payment for their petty scams and thefts - "I've never screwed you over." And he proves that he never will by taking the ultimate responsibility for the purse-snatching, for which the kid might've otherwise taken the fall, solo. Or it might not be that he always did right by the kid, but that, at that point in his downward spiral, he's looking for something to do that's indisputably Good, for some road that leads out of the fix he's put himself in. Any road. In the process Bruno may have learned nothing, or he may have learned that having good intentions doesn't amount to anything if you do something like sell your baby; that his opinion of himself as a "good person" amounts to shit if he has nothing to show for it.

"Faith without works is dead." -- another AA slogan

Saturday, September 24, 2005

regular lovers (garrel, 2005)

Don't have much to say about this film, other than the fact that I began to enter Panic when it began to exceed its listed running time by whole minutes, prompting speculation that "175 mins." was a typographical error and that Garrel's Warholian/Desistfilm-ian portrait of post-'68 malaise was, in fact, 715 mins. Then it ended, and with it, my very real fear.

Points of comparison might include Gus Van Sant's Last Days (junkies hang out and do sex and listen to Velvet Underground, Nico, their own boring opinions, etc.), Béla Tarr (oblique and dreamlike b&w depiction of the May '68 riots), and Peter Watkins (the you-are-there feeling in same depiction; also François's dream about participating in the French Revolution).

Click here for the review you want to read. (Scroll down to 9/14, it's the 2nd film of the day.)

capote (miller, 2005)

A real honest-to-God "tradition of quality" movie, of no stylistic interest whatsoever, but handsomely shot. Its widescreen ratio and casual realism begs comparison to In Cold Blood, that is, the 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote's docu-novel, although the only connection - a tenuous one at that - has to do with subject matter. Richard Brooks' award-winner's reputation as docu-realist landmark is not merely betrayed but mocked outright by the director's tendency towards that patented brand of grand, clumsy gestures that can only mean one thing: a 1960s/'70s A-list director's bloated half-notion of what '40s B-noirs were like. Whereas those poverty-row wonders bear continued review and remark, the Brooks film is the kind of Classic that nobody can bring themselves to see again. It has more in common with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner than one might think.

On the other hand, Capote affects a nonchalant, un-hurried "this is how it was" tone. This is an unpretentious Oscar-monger: it goes down easy, doesn't look like it'll date badly, and there's nothing in it to obstruct Philip Seymour Hoffman's inevitable Oscar nomination. Not even a hint of ambition.

An interesting aspect of the film is its emphasis on Capote's opportunism, and the fact that his compassion towards Perry Smith was ultimately little more than a shrewd performance, not at all dissimilar to Hoffman's. Due to Hollywood storytelling conventions, however, the film is obliged to make the most of Capote's last-minute remorse. This is the scene where Hoffman does his forehead-vein-popping, to indicate heart-rending/-rended empathy.

Aside from the investors and the Oscar candidates, who is interested in this kind of mimic-job, and why? Upon our pop culture, films like Capote bestow pitch-perfect imitations - stand-up performers doing Brando or Walken, but in a completely different context, characterized by a meticulous, unobtrusive, poker-faced non-style.

good night, and good luck. (clooney, 2005)

Departing from the scab-picking fascination of Clooney's debut film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind*, the new film unfolds with the sobriety of Michael Mann's The Insider, or of the best parts of TV's The West Wing, neither gazing down on its characters as if they were new insects, nor staring up at them in awe.

As an argument, Clooney and his producer/cowriter Grant Heslov seek to buck up the enervated '05 left by integrating into a period context a lot of ideas that occurred to a few of us then, and should occur to more of us now; should be said aloud more often; should in fact not have to be said at all, but there you have it, that's the world we live in. The main idea being that the news media shouldn't exist solely to report what the politicians have handed them, and, in doing so, call it objectivity.

There's no question whose side you should be on when you see the film, but, blessedly, Clooney's formal and pedagogical restraint go a long way in keeping Good Night, and Good Luck. from becoming just another H'wood audiencejob, wherein the viewer is given 90 or so minutes of what I like to call "moral pleasure," and leaves the theater thinking, "What a great person I am."

Many of the era's warts are deliberately included - the subjugation of women in the workplace (highlighted in the moment when Patricial Clarkson's Shirley is asked, "Honey, go and get the morning papers," and she does, and that's that), the almost total absence of non-whites (exceptions include a voluptuous chanteuse who occupies the space, if not the role, of the film's Greek Chorus, and a cloakroom girl, viewed on an old Kinescope), and the idea that nobody was gay, not even Liberace. How far we have come, just to start fucking it all up again.


* Which, just so it's clear, I liked.

paradise now (abu-assad, 2005)

At first glance a film slickly designed to gather up ecumenical-jury prizes at film festivals, and maybe that's exactly what it is, but it's commendable for the lengths it goes to read the political through the personal, i.e. it tells the story of These Two Guys, it's a buddy movie primarily concerned with separation and its attendant anxieties, and a road movie in which the trip suffers innumerable delays, complications, and setbacks. The movie is hardly understated but it's also far from blustery, and its 'Scope images are supple and composed.

In the end the movie hedges its bets, morally, campaigning for (or presumes) audience sympathy for both killers, and then allows one to change his mind while the other stays on course. What's interesting is that each of the two men adopts the attitude originally held by the other. Said is the doubtful one at first, but he undergoes a moral transformation that calls to mind Sergeant York in the 1941 Howard Hawks film. His friend Khaled is zealous and immature whose doubts eventually get the better of him - why that happens is unclear, maybe it's because there are no long, slow scenes of him Thinking Things Over.

Monday, September 19, 2005

bubble (soderbergh, 2005)

Steven Soderbergh has been experimenting with digital video since shooting portions of Full Frontal, and two TV programs for HBO, Unscripted and K Street, on the DV format. His new theatrical feature, Bubble joins the ranks of Full Frontal and sex lies and videotape in the filmmaker's quest to scrape off as much budget as possible, while keeping his name in the entertainment news headlines. The budget-scraping method seems almost antithetical to the normal "way things are done" in the world of independent filmmaking, where even the least ambitious NYU student would like to have just a little more money; would surely, if given the choice, take the $4 million pile of cash instead of the $100,000 pile.

Soderbergh composes his widescreen images with an emphasis on gently rising diagonal lines and a shallow depth of field. The locations are an even mixture of expansive, outdoor spaces and tight, stifling interiors, although everything is attractive and clean, even the home of Rose's scruffy, temperamental ex-boyfriend, which is covered with graffiti. There also seems to be a reluctance on Soderbergh's part to shoot two actors in the same frame, frequently cutting to (or with) close-ups of his actors.

I came away from the film feeling that the two components of the film, (a) the cinéma vérité depiction of Americana '05, and (b) the whodunit-psychodrama that forms the otherwise for the most part formless (a), would each've been insufficient, taken on their own. Many viewers will think they're insufficient taken together. But the film is not without visual interest, nor value as a peek into the state of the high-school-dropout class, aged 18-49.

Previously Soderbergh would cast stars and ask them to take pay cuts - now he's filled the cast with non-professional actors and directed each of them with aplomb. The non-actress Debbie Doebereiner (Martha) is getting all the good notices. As a longtime general manager of the Parkersburg, WV, KFC, her relatively high degree of technical profiency is astonishing. Camera-wise, the only primary non-professional actor who has a "face" is Decker Moody, the detective in the film, a real-life detective and 24-year veteran of the Williamstown, WV, PD.

SPOILER: Martha is the name of Shirley Stoler's character in The Honeymoon Killers. If you've seen this 1970 low-budget classic, Bubble's resolution will come as no big whoop. /SPOILER

the death of mr. lazarescu (puiu, 2005)

Had every reason (onscreen puking, shitty handheld, wince-inducing curmudgeon humor) to bolt from the joint in the first 15-25 mins. until I realized two things: (a) said minutes were actually going by at a fairly rapid clip and (b) the power of the movie was accumulating in ways that were simultaneously subsurface and took a good amount of pleasurable work to draw a bead on. Puiu's direction resembles the Dardennes'; although big Caveat, he doesn't have twins' balls-to-the-wall formal rigor. What he loses in discipline Puiu gains in giving a dozen or so actors the space and latitude to be amazing in multiple ways: presence, technical proficiency, interaction with other actors, and so on. And once the number of onscreen actors began to multiply, I began to dig Puiu's ER-on-Valium choreography in a big way.

Here is a list of the film's less-than-subtle aspects that were almost fully atoned-for, in my view, in case any of them raise red flags in your movie-preview calculus, dear reader: upbeat music in the opening and closing title-crawl, but no music in the movie, period, unless you count as music the bleak symphony of Mr. Lazarescu's fateful night journey and the friction between ER-sneakers and Bucharest linoleum; the un-un-un-subtle use of biblical/0ther-baggage-burdened names for characters (like Lazarus, Dante, Virgil, "Angel"); the use of the running (albeit coal-black) gag of Lazarescu's drinking, upon which everybody remarks caustically, from frame 1 to frame 220,000.

Still, this is not a film I am just letting go with a warning, it is a major work by a director I hope to have the opportunity to see in the future. Think Bresson's Balthazar except instead of a donkey it's a argumentative old sod who drinks to much and (unlike B), ultimately, reaps what he's sewn.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

the long good friday (mackenzie, 1980)

Most remarkable is that one comes away with a memory of a picture filled with relentless, unsparing violence, but Mackenzie's direction emphasizes little, overplays nothing. This is not a film of excess; in fact, it's terrified of bloodshed, repulsed by the very thought of overreaction, using a shotgun to kill a mosquito. Such is the nature of its protagonist, the bullish Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), a man who has spent his life transforming himself from street thug to mob kingpin with global ambitions. As a result he courts high-class company, maintains a yacht and a trophy wife (Helen Mirren), while at the same time wears his thug background on his sleeve with a kind of pride, like a rapper who's always reminding you he's From The Streets. Some of this is probably accidental, i.e. his grotesque suits, his inability to lie about the bombs and murders going off and on (respectively) around him, and some failures of instinct in dealing with emergencies, suspicions, panic, and all that jazz.

I for one was not aware that Eddie Constantine was ever trim and athletic-looking, ever, in his 75 yrs. on this planet.

the hidden blade (yamada, 2004)

With this film and his much-heralded last film, The Twilight Samurai, the 74-year-old writer-director Yôji Yamada seems to be campaigning for the role of Japan's primary, contemporary chronicler of the waning years of its Edo period, as seen from the point of view of the samurai class - not without a little compassion towards the laboring and farming classes.

The protagonist in The Hidden Blade is a shaggy samurai of modest ambitions but an unshakable devotion to the warrior's code. Like Seibei Iguchi in Twilight, Munezo in Blade is gravely disappointed to see the code betrayed - in this film, by those in upper-middle management, class-wise. And finally, like the earlier film, the protagonist is ordered to kill someone he doesn't wish to kill - this time, a friend who has taken hostages.

Munezo is an absolute, unwavering Boy Scout when it comes to the code, a trait the film reinforces in scene after scene, without complication. The code is shown to be an unquestionable yardstick of Right - so, then, is the hero. Everyone else in the picture is either on the side of Wrong, a victim of wrongdoers, or assigned supporting roles. The one exception is, expectedly, the one interesting character in the picture, Yaichiro Hazama - who by choice or chance has come loose from the gears of Japanese civilization. After escaping incarceration - the result of a failed attempt to overthrow the clan leadership - Hazama is driven by forces we recognize neither in the good nor the bad characters in The Hidden Blade. He refuses the honorable solution (suicide) but he is not corrupt; his other-directed rage and self-destructive passion resembles devotion to the bushido, in spirit if not letter.

Finally, the pure-hearted Munezo solves all his problems for good and all, but feels empty - he says as much, out loud. The solution: marry the girl he's been denying himself for the past 130-odd minutes.

This is one for the Armond White defense team. It's so correct and wholesome and disciplined that the hipsters won't understand it, won't get it, will stupidly refuse it. This hipster was bored mostly by the compositional work, which has a blockbuster precision (and artlessness: a tinge of elegance to disguise haphazard framing and dull cutting) that I found gruesome. A few exceptional moments are nearly worthy of Imamura, including the large-gun demonstration for the Emperor Meiji, a wide shot that turns the men onscreen into scurrying, panicked insects. I'm also grateful for the use of relatively long takes during the fight scenes, which emphasize grace and physicality; the smoky, glum color palette downplays whatever glamour they might have had in another film.

Friday, September 09, 2005

broken flowers (jarmusch, 2005)

One might wonder why Jim Jarmusch is interested in an aging lothario of any kind, but after Ghost Dog (in which his focus is on mafia and samurai culture), Dead Man (the Old West), and Mystery Train (Elvis Presley and Memphis TN's place in rock & roll history), it's clear that the unique and less-than-prolific writer-director is keenly interested in dead things, or things of the past. In this regard, with Broken Flowers he manages something like one of those checkers moves in which you or your opponent capture several pieces in one turn of play. Bill Murray's unfortunately-named Don Johnston (yes, he's constantly forced to point out that he is not the "Heartbeat" vocalist and sometimes-actor) is not only post-love-life but post-everything, professionally and personally. The industry that made him rich no longer interests him and the mysteries of his life, real or imagined, manage to slip through his fingers as he approaches them.

How the checker metaphor applies: realizing that he's reached some sort of terminus, after yet another girlfriend walks out the door, and at the same time, a potential mystery has been dropped in his lap, Johnston embarks on a journey to figure something out about his life - a something that may be a nothing, but who knows. (Spoiler: he never figures it out, and neither do we.) Johnston's pursuit of his big personal history-mystery leads him through a maze of past women, all of whom have conquered their past, or at least think they have. Either way, they signal to Johnston, in bold-faced type, that he might consider leaving well enough alone.

Each of the women wears her own all-American freak-show style on her sleeve - a conceit so calculated that the movie occasionally comes off as a very, very truncated tour of American life, seen through the eyes of a very amused and caustic foreigner. Sharon Stone and her big-titted progeny aren't so much Kubrick's Lolita, times two, as an 'oughties update of Lolita, if she'd turned 45 and had a barely legal of her own to look after. Frances Conroy is the 87th frigid perfectionist housewife in as many years of cinema and literature. Jessica Lange gave up a law practice in order to pursue a (thriving!) pseudo-medical/-mystical profession, wherein she talks to people's pets. Tilda Swinton is unwashed trash from the dark heart of the Appalachian foothills, one of those yards with auto parts everywhere.

The raison for this gallery tour remains elusive, since there's zero evidence that Johnston puts it all together the way Jarmusch has (and the way we're meant to). In fact, he had to be pushed and goaded into searching for his son-who-may-not-exist,-anyway in the first place by his mystery-loving/amateur-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright). In fact there isn't much evidence that Johnston sees much form in anything, but picks up on occasional threads that go nowhere.

Which ultimately seems to be the point. A red herring is useful not simply for misdirection attention but redirection, and as soon as we realize the search-for-the-son is just that, a redirect, Johnston becomes interested in the search and the viewer focuses on Jarmusch's multivalent vision of American Woman, Middle-Aged (i.e. the caustic freak-show), a vision that neither attracts nor repulses Johnston, if it occurs to him at all. The only thing holding it all together is a gaze of cool detachment, as Johnston has towards everything he sees (with variations in eyebrow-ascension), as Jarmusch has towards everything Johnston sees, and then some, and as we are encouraged to have, watching the moving, having first a chuckle, then a contemplative silence.