November 30, 2010

No Good Things

by Vadim Rizov

All Good Things

There are four main points of interest in All Good Things. The first is that it's actually being released after years in the Weinsteins' post-Miramax purgatory (director Andrew Jarecki was forced to buy the film back). Secondly, it's Jarecki's follow-up to Capturing the Friedmans, one of the most discussed documentaries of the last decade or so, thereby automatically meriting attention for his first narrative feature. Next on the list is that it's based on the true four-decade saga about one Robert A. Durst. His and everyone else's names have been changed, but the film strives to stick to the historical record, as befits a documentarian; it's been sourced carefully, the factual gaps bridged with conjecture, which is a shrewd idea to effectively present someone as a triple-murderer. In retelling the tale of how Durst (here "David Marks") married, made his first wife mysteriously disappear, and wound up some twenty years later with a dead roommate chopped up and found in Galveston Bay, we have some lurid pulp effectively defanged of all thrills. This is as boring as multiple homicide gets, dramatic material inexplicably presented as listless social drama. Unhappy son, blame dad and brood; familiar terrain.

All Good ThingsThe fourth and biggest attraction, though, is the presumably one-off implosion of Ryan Gosling, one of the most talented—or at least compulsively watchable—actors of his generation. Whole movies with potentially unworkable premises are transformed by his radical energy. In The Believer, Gosling attempted (and succeeded!) in delineating a self-loathing Jewish neo-Nazi. Following that, he made Barbet Schroeder's slickly workmanlike Murder By Numbers more compelling than "Sandra Bullock vs. Leopold and Loeb" had any right to be. He bounced right off Michael Pitt's creepy gaze and passivity; the two actors, one year apart in age, couldn't be more different in their approach. Pitt sits, demanding attention for his stupor while Gosling fidgets, rants and raves. Mediocre TV-movie-of-the-week fare like Fracture is elevated by his energy, and potentially saccharine Sundance movies become acting master classes like Half Nelson. To the public at large, Gosling may never become more famous than his dreamboat role in The Notebook, a problem he has compensated for by forming the band Dead Man's Bones. "I made a couple movies because I had to," Gosling explained, betraying a Brando-esque boredom with a craft that seems to come too easily to him.

Andrew Jarecki That comparison plays because All Good Things is centered around a performance that seems like an impersonation of Brando as a discontented rich kid, or a rich kid channeling the godfather as a stereotypical expression of discontent. It's impossible to tell which, and either way, it's semi-disastrous. Blame Jarecki: it takes a lot to make a movie so dull that Gosling cross-dressing doesn't register at all. It's a case study in making every wrong decision, down to the grandest gesture (characterization-wise) of having his rich-boy millionaire irritably, compulsively hand-roll his cigarettes. "Look," he's saying, "I'm wealthy and can afford imported cancer sticks, but I'm smoking the lowest of the low." Truly, the upper class can be eccentric in their self-imposed impoverishment, a trait strenuously conveyed here at every turn. He glowers and fidgets; if he had a glove to play with, he'd pull it over his hands like it was On The Waterfront all over again.

All Good Things Watching All Good Things might transform you into a Beastie Boy, screaming "WHYYYYYYYY?" at the screen as the "tragedy" unfolds bit by bit. The story, such as it's knowable, is depicted with an eye towards accuracy. It's pretty much what you'd expect from a documentarian turning his hand towards fiction, and Jarecki's utter failure is equally predictable: few doc filmmakers make the leap with any degree of success (Errol Morris comes to mind as one of the more prominent gaffers). Where Capturing the Friedmans undermined a sensational child-molestation story from every angle, producing real-world ongoing repercussions (even now, the affair's being reopened for investigation), All Good Things takes a similarly mysterious tale and proceeds to say, "Yes, everything you thought was true probably is." Rarely has a filmmaker swung from curiosity to smug sureness so drastically between projects.

All Good Things Watching Gosling stammer his way through the performance, you can see all those years of discipline and the rigorous thinking-through of roles falling apart. One of the great thrills in watching him work is the implicit battle of wills between director and star. He seems like a pain to collaborate with, someone who won't make it easyby stubbornly saying what he might or might not do. In Fracture, his scenes are filmed from far back, rarely cutting, giving him space; it's a completely different aesthetic from the rest of the film. In All Good Things, Gosling seems pinned down, both literally (in his courtroom testimony, filmed from a disorienting angle hovering over his head and tilted slightly down, trapping him from above) and figuratively (by how inanimate the film is). The editing is so super-aggressive that Jarecki often cues the next scene's dialogue a good ten seconds ahead of schedule. All that aggression would normally be provided by Gosling; here, Jarecki takes point. The director and actor never appear to be on the same page.

Posted by ahillis at 11:25 AM

November 28, 2010

Easy Riders, Hold the Raging Bulls

by Steve Dollar

Five Easy Pieces

Not everything we take for granted in a moviegoing life was always a fait accompli. Though it encompasses seven films released between 1968 and 1971, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story may feel like a fin-de-siècle time capsule of the Sixties—now variously fossilized, romanticized and idealized—but it's also a jolt. The shotgun blast that ends Easy Rider, the most mythologized film in the collection, may have symbolically killed off an era and its utopian concepts of freedom, but it also signaled the arrival of a surging wave in American movies. The New Hollywood, if you will, emergent with all its anxieties, ambivalences, confusions and candor ratcheted up to a definitive pitch.

Head The production house as countercultural engine room, BBS took its name from the first initials of its three principals. Writer-director-producer Bob Rafelson and producer Bert Schneider, who had made a bundle hijacking my childhood with The Monkees—a fab faux of madcap moptops with amazing pop smashes penned by Boyce and Hart—and producer Steve Blauner, who joined the team in 1969. The 112-page booklet that accompanies the Criterion box set offers a hit parade of histories and appreciations, tracing the curious pop-cultural arc that connects the impressively subversive Head (the 1968 Monkees feature, cowritten by budding 29-year-old hyphenate Jack Nicholson) to Hearts & Minds, the 1974 antiwar documentary that won the Academy Award, crowning a by-then defunct BBS in posthumous glory.

Easy Rider There's a surplus of heady context here, not least lavished on Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider and Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show. But, for me, the biggest kick is watching Nicholson going full-tilt into the process of becoming the screen persona that, for better and worse, has been his ever since. Five Easy Pieces is a movie that relatively no one has looked at in 30 years, yet can easily riff on, summoning up the classic "I want you to hold it between your knees" punchline from the movie's sarcastic faceoff between Nicholson's itinerant concert-pianist-turned-oil-rigger and a waitress who stubbornly refuses to get him some toast. It's a useful spate of comic relief that indelibly stamps the screen with the actor's bad-boy attitude, but the screenplay by Carole Eastman (credited as Adrien Joyce) is alive with so many more subtle humiliations and heartaches, laid out like landmines across the class divide that Nicholson's Bobby Dupea careens across, that the scene is almost misrepresentative.

The Last Picture ShowThere's a monologue, written for Sally Struthers, who plays a bowling-alley floozy who cavorts with Dupea and his work buddy Elton (Billy "Green" Bush), that lacks the rim-shot crackle but gets at the emotional insecurity that haunts the film—arising primarily out of Dupea's broken relationship with his now-mute father.

When I was four, just four years old, I went to my mother and I said, "What's this hole in my chin?" I saw this dimple in my chin and didn't know what it was. Get what my mother says. She says, "When you're born, you go on an assembly line past God. If He likes you, He says, "You cute little thing" and you get dimples there. If He doesn't like you, He goes, "Go away." So, about six months later, my mother caught me saying my prayers. I was going, "Now I lay me down to sleep." Mother says, "What are you covering up your chin for?" And I said, "Because if I cover up the hole, maybe He'll listen to me."

America Lost and Found: The BBS Story The story harmonizes with Dupea's own angst. Nicholson, playing this wired intellectual slumming as a Joe Sixpack in alienated revolt against his family of wealthy chamber musicians, was incubating the whole antihero vibe that carried him through a decade of complex performances. Part of the film's beauty is that America doesn't yet know who Nicholson is—aside from a few scene-stealing moments as the whiskey-loving lawyer George Hanson in Easy Rider—and Rafelson seemed to be one of the few filmmakers who knew who he could be. The movie marks a perfect moment, stars aligning in zeitgeist-y collusion, as the camera tracks through a polarized American West from the dusty nothingness of Bakersfield to the lush suffocation of Puget Sound, where Dupea returns, only to reaffirm that it's a dead end.

A Safe Place Karen Black, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in the role, meets Nicholson on equal actorly footing, even if her excessively affectionate Rayette Dipesto is compelled to play floormat to Bobby's incessant cruelties. Decades before mumblecore thought it reinvented the bathroom, there's Black sitting on a sink, clipping her toenails and singing along to Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man." An oil-rigger's dream if you ever did see one, but in this case a temporary diversion for a misfit unable to lose himself in working class obscurity. Nicholson's divided self reflected the late-Vietnam exhaustion and divided political affinities of the country in 1971, a time not so different from our own.

Drive, He Said The actor's own 1970 directorial debut, Drive, He Said, feels thoroughly dated by comparison, if less so than Henry Jaglom's own first effort A Safe Place, an improv-a-rama starring Tuesday Weld and Orson Welles as a Central Park magician. Nicholson's period bildungsroman centers on a star basketball player (William Tepper) conflicted over his love of the game, his love of a professor's wife (Black), and his engagement with the social upheaval on campus. Michael Margotta, who plays the jock's campus-radical roommate, derails the movie in splendid fashion as he enacts an extended acid trip, punctuated by an epic freakout speech: "History my balls! My balls are history!" As if to make the case, Nicholson (who works strictly behind the camera) winds up with Margotta full frontal, unleashing cages of snakes in the college biology lab.

The King of Marvin Gardens If it's easy now to take such outrageous instances for granted, it's also a little depressing to wonder if American movies have lost their urgency about social context, even in their most realist-driven, scrubbed-down forms. Can you think of any recent performances by Hollywood—or Off-Hollywood—actors as raw and jabbing and alert to their own neurons as Nicholson in 1971? The BBS Story frames the catalytic instance of lightning striking.

Posted by ahillis at 1:25 PM

November 23, 2010

To Gilliam on His 70th Birthday

by Vadim Rizov

Terry Gilliam and Verne Troyer at Cannes 2009

Terry Gilliam crossed into his septuagenarian years yesterday against the backdrop of the usual questioning whether or not his filmmaking career is eternally doomed. Gilliam has maintained a three-features-a-decade pace since the '80s: not because of Malickian working habits or lack of ambition (he has more failed projects than most) but a combination of financing trouble and/or acts of God. Even a generous philanthropist (or investor looking for tax loopholes) would have trouble ponying up for his projects, which defy conventional synopsis without being cheap, even before inviting disaster.

The Brothers Grimm Though his reputation as a prolific waster of money is overblown—both The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (listen to our podcast with Gilliam) and The Brothers Grimm more than recouped their budgets worldwide despite their disastrous reputations—he's far from a sure thing. Terrible, oft-inexplicable things happen to his productions on a regular basis: aside the disintegration of his Don Quixote film documented in Lost In La Mancha and Heath Ledger's death during Parnassus' production. He may be the only auteur in history to have two separate books devoted solely to different films' disintegrations (The Battle of Brazil and Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga).

Brazil Given all this, it's impossible not to feel on some level that a multi-million-dollar trust fund of sorts should be set up for Gilliam to use at his unsupervised discretion. The man's suffered enough: five years ago, he stood outside The Daily Show trying to get people to see Tideland. Last year, he made a short film for NASCAR. Such activities are no way for a revered director to spend his sixties. Brazil is inarguably one of the most visually influential movies of the last century, giving as much back to production-design language as it stole from Metropolis; the tag "visionary" doesn't seem hyperbolic applied to him.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus Yet there's an argument to be made for a middle way of understanding, somewhere between total struggle and undisciplined freedom. Parnassus, when it finally emerged, was the most unrestrained film Gilliam had managed in two decades: a modest $30 million budget was still more than enough to realize one set piece after another, minus all rational connections. Ditching all the token explanations of how its particular dream-world might work wasn't a bad idea, since those parts of fantasy films are always the worst (unless the movie's Inception, in which case they're the best). But the patented Gilliam curiosities that filled up the screen were witless, clunky and poorly CGI-ed to boot, his most oppressive nonstop spectacle yet. In 20 years, Gilliam's fundamental theme—Dreamer Vs. Oppressive Society, a ready-made allegory for his own production struggles—hasn't changed or deepened at all. Parnassus was entirely consistent with his body of work without adding anything: it just showed what a completely unsupervised Gilliam film would look like. For the critical majority, the answer was pretty much no good at all.

12 Monkeys Gilliam's one of the few filmmakers who benefits from someone breathing down his neck, constraining his ideas. Brazil may be his most influential, far-seeing film, with a dozen or so indelible set-pieces, but it's also a pell-mell mashup with zero tempo, butting-up mundanities, epic dreams and silly jokes with whiplash-inducing randomness. It's the rare film that plays better on DVD than on-screen, where all the noise and relentless energy can become suffocating. Overlooked in all the acclaim for Gilliam as creator of unprecedented visuals (which he certainly is) is his formidable skill as a technician in service of someone else's vision: perhaps 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are thinner works than his '80s trifecta of Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (their ideas aren't his, nor are they surprising), but you'd have to first concede their relative discipline and focus. 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas These aren't negative qualities. Gilliam spent the '90s as a director for hire, working from other people's screenplays: first Richard LaGravanese's sentimental The Fisher King, then the dystopian Monkeys/Fear duo. Perhaps non-coincidentally, both films forced Gilliam to work on a counterintuitive theme: the death of the dreamer. That's what happens in Brazil, but it comes with an attendant martyrization and validation of Jonathan Pryce's hapless hero; the film works as a hymn to dreamy-eyed kids doodling on their notebooks in the middle of geometry classes everywhere. 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas offer up instead two largely unlikeable protagonists who spend most of their movies in a fug—Bruce Willis screaming incoherently while drooling, Johnny Depp's razor-sharp voice-over narration over his seasick lurching—against societies less annoyingly tyrannical than depressingly worn-down. That makes the films less self-righteous, and their narrative tempos a good deal less erratic.

Donnie Darko So is Gilliam a formidable technician? Left to his own devices, he's entirely too prone to pulling out fish-eye lenses and leeringly grotesque faces, or terrorizing viewers with maximal bombardment: 12 Monkeys and Fear and Loathing are two of his easiest films to watch, reminding us that the former Monty Python-ite is perfectly capable of helming a knockout while bludgeoning audiences into submission. He's not the only wildly inventive director who could benefit from someone carefully messing with him: the original theatrical version of Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko is a model of mysterious evocation and '80s nostalgia; his director's cut is one of the the most boring sci-fi movies ever made, Kelly apparently having decided his movie needing less mystery and more close-ups of fictional time-travel texts. Some artists need smart compromise forced upon them. Cruel as this may be to suggest, what old man Gilliam could use (besides smooth passage for the rest of his productions) is another creative voice to force him, perpetually, to take it down a notch.

Posted by ahillis at 11:38 AM | Comments (2)

November 19, 2010

Losing Cannon's Loose Canon

By Vadim Rizov

cannonlogo.jpg As time passes, once disreputable or barely considered movies are re-evaluated: film noir has long been made classic fare on par with glossier Hollywood, and '70s horror and exploitation were more recently brought back into the fold. The bulk of the Cannon Films corpus — cheap '80s ass-kickers for undiscriminating multiplex audiences — is unlikely to ever benefit from such crate-digging instincts. In making a case for the oft-reviled producing team of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, Lincoln Center's retrospective focuses on auteur-friendly cinema, the anomalies in the company's slate.

That means splitting the difference between movies that were once standard programmers but have been deemed worthy of re-inspection because of their director — John Frankenheimer's 52 Pick-Up, Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II — and straight-up art fare, with some of Godard and Raoul Ruiz's weirdest movies leading the charge.

Most studios, no matter how pandering and shameless their general output, feel the need to release some token "adult" awards-bait fare. More often than not, that stuff is just as homogenized and studiously non-confrontational as the trashy fare, just in different ways (c.f.. the entire Oscar-oriented work of Ron Howard). In refreshingly eccentric contrast, non-commercial Golan-Globus movies couldn't have made money under any circumstances: getting Godard to "adapt" King Lear is pretty much guaranteeing your role as artistic patron rather than shrewd investor.

dudikoffninja.jpg It's understandable that Lincoln Center wouldn't want to show the movies that actually financed that art cinema; those films are generally terrible. Though the company was disturbingly profitable in the '80s, their movies have largely faded from mass pop cultural memory: few remember that there was once a B-movie star like Michael Dudikoff, or a franchise improbably titled American Ninja. Cannon Films' most enduring, pop-culturally ubiquitous contribution to culture was the Chuck Norris vehicle. "I signed [him] for two pictures a year, seven years' contract," Golan recently boastfully remembered. Norris would stick to killing commies and rewinning the Vietnam War, over and over; concept trumped execution. The first two Missing In Action movies — big returns on small budgets — were filmed one after another; only after production did the brothers realize (or care) that the second film was better, and released it first.

Norris' ultra-violent, ultra-self-righteous approach to ass-kicking was imitated — on even smaller budgets and with far less cultural endurance — by fading star Charles Bronson (brought back for an extra four Death Wish sequels) and Dudkikoff, star of the American Ninja series. The latter's main selling point seemed to be that having a white dude in a ninja mask made it easier to tell the hero and villain apart, even with masks covering their faces: the hero was the one without the sinister minority eyes. Just like Norris' films, the main function was to win the Vietnam War correctly this time. American Ninja, like many cheapies, was set and shot in the Philippines, which kept costs low and allowed for a variety of wormy Asians to be shot up in style. The villain is named Ortega, but his hammy French accent places the movie firmly in Vietnam territory.

Mainstream Cannon releases run on the fuel of hypertrophied, comically overblown patriotism, the kind only a grateful immigrant can summon up. Louis B. Mayer, transformed from Belarussian immigrant Lazar Meir to the highest-paid man in America from 1939-45, gave the country the Andy Hardy series in return, a rigorously sterilized vision of idyllic small-town American life. Similarly, the collected Canon corpus is so overblown in its nationalistic and militaristic fervor it's pretty comical. 1987's Over The Top — the ironically adored Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling opus directed by Golan himself— has Robin Zander's ridiculous "In This Country" as its theme song ("In this country our hearts are open/We are free to fly again").

Any enduring legacy the popular Cannon Films might have lies not in their overwhelming shoddiness — few profitable films have been so poorly crafted — but in their unrepentant endorsement of lone-wolf vigilante justice, administered in situations entirely devoid of moral ambiguity.

rambo.jpg

That spirit was, for some years, missing from blockbusters, which have become much more careful (and less fun) at trying to be morally responsible. If there's such a thing as neo-exploitation, the Cannon ethos has been recently reborn in movies like Taken, Sylvester Stallone's successful rebooting of all things '80s (with the new Rambo and supergroup tribute The Expendables both performing well) and the forthcoming Dwayne Johnson vehicle Faster. The poster's tagline — "slow justice is no justice at all" — leaves zero doubt that when Johnson promises, in the trailer, "I'm going to kill them all," you'll be right alongside cheering.

After many years of retirement, the righteous vigilante has returned. Less absurdly histrionic in their patriotism but just as secure in the fundamental right of all Americans to fire their guns as needed (but now with glossier production values), such films don't have token bad guys who threaten the world as their villains: the stakes are personal, and moral questions ducked. Not for them are Jason Bourne's memory gaps and desire to flee.

Just as the '80s Cannon films took American supremacy and the righteousness of firepower as a given, these new films harness an implicit conservatism: no questions, just action taken instantly and correctly.

Posted by cphillips at 12:26 PM | Comments (1)

November 16, 2010

Unstable Politics and Unstoppable Flair

by Vadim Rizov

UNSTOPPABLE's Tony Scott and Denzel Washington

In 1986, Tony Scott directed Top Gun, whose immaculate fetishization of military hardware was in part necessitated by the Pentagon's involvement, and whose objective success in delivering a coherent, uncomplicated message was validated by the Navy setting up recruitment booths in theaters. In 2006, Scott made Deja Vu, in which a Jesus freak blows up a ferry. The two films couldn't be further apart politically, suggesting Tony Scott simply just doesn't care what his material is; he wants to make a film whenever he can. That doesn't make him an auteur prone to, say, rewriting Vertigo, as a remarkably overreaching essay by Mark Peranson and Christoph Huber claimed 5 years ago, comparing him not just to Hitchcock but Numero Deux-era Godard to boot. It means his visual interests aren't yoked in any particular way to what he's working on.

Unstoppable It's necessary to dismiss any and all of Scott's directorial statements: he may claim "all my pieces are character-driven," but most artists need to delude themselves and/or talk massive amounts of shit to keep working. (See also West, Kanye.) Scott may not be an artiste, but he's certainly a conscientious technician: all his movies are visually massaged to death, to alternately enthralling and smothering effect. The clunkier parts of Unstoppable are like an uncredited mashup of Apollo 13 and Armageddon: Rosario Dawson yelling like Billy Bob Thornton about a train "the size of the Chrysler Building," then a finale that cuts prematurely to crowds cheering on the heroic rescue, well aware they're in a movie where nothing could go seriously wrong. The best parts are, alternately, about things getting destroyed and the underpaid people controlling them.

Though Michael Bay is hated by critics as an ADD-addled freak, he couldn't have done it without Scott's pioneering work into overcutting. In the '00s, Scott easily outpaced (or lapped) his successors when pushing the speed of cuts and the extreme color-correction of images. People may not like Transformers 2, but Domino was just as hated while making far less money. Since then, Scott and Bay have been evaluated on almost the same terms, twenty-year age gap be damned. The difference is that Scott's movies tend to be less exhausting, easier to take all at once and less focused on pushing the finer, macho things in life. Scott doesn't need cleavage, explosions or overplayed comedy to get going stylistically; he just pushes existing material to slightly more hyperbolic heights.

Unstoppable Unstoppable is a totally decent action movie in which blue-collar grunts do the right thing, even against the threat of firing: it's a movie for workers in an ugly mood. It's worth noting that the first 20 action-less minutes groove on impenetrable trainyard jargon that's unexplained and a nice sense of a day slowly beginning. Once the film has a clearly defined purpose (Denzel Must Stop That Train), it drops all that and becomes an action film. There are some shots no smart director would despise—a train taking off in the morning, kicking up dust and the rising sun shines through, plus the hectic finale's pristine digital snowstorm of white steam flying around Pine's head like so much digital snow—and a firm sense of regional Pennsylvania atmosphere. Scott isn't all that savvy with people: Chris Pine's backstory of marital troubles is pretty stupid, and Denzel is firmly in easy charisma mode, putting a funny topspin on unremarkable lines, but that's about it.

So any social discontent Unstoppable picks up on is pretty much the product of those first 20 minutes, which have something like atmospheric verisimilitude. Conservatives would point to the film's inherent suspicion of unions, whose workers are replacing all the old railway veterans. Financially, that doesn't even make sense unless you're extremely paranoid about unions destroying the good, solid working man. Action movies tend to be reactionary; you can't destroy things and shoot people if you're going to get all uptight about it. But this movie's on the side of the ticked-off working man. The villains are the briefly seen but infinitely cartoonish CEO (callously golfing rather than sweating it out with everyone else) and middle-management cost-cutters who refuse to do the right thing for bottom-line reasons.

UnstoppableIt's fascinating that Scott allows the movie space to pick up on a down-and-out, working-class vibe no matter how hectic the scenario. Even if he isn't politically invested, there's still something of the British fetishist of America in all its modes. Deja Vu luxuriated, oddly, in post-Katrina New Orleans, Domino made getting to Las Vegas a sacred rite, True Romance paid tribute to Los Angeles mores, and Unstoppable makes the heartland another American portrait as seen by a Brit super-excited to get away from his country. In the midst of all their hyperbole and stylistic breathlessness, they all nail their milieus in surprising ways. Early on, Washington confesses his daughters are paying their way through college as Hooters' waitresses. "You're trying not to laugh," he taunts Pine, who gives in. It's a simple statement: I've worked here for nearly 30 years, and still my daughters have to work a degrading job to get ahead. That's just how it is. The real surprise is that Scott is sensitive enough not to oversell the moment, or to allow it at all, a grace note Michael Bay would never even attempt.

Posted by ahillis at 1:44 PM | Comments (3)

November 11, 2010

Oh, Mickey One, You're So Fine

by Steve Dollar

Mickey One

Time has not worn dull the oddball charms, nor solved the existential riddles of Mickey One. Arthur Penn's much-neglected 1965 film is long overdue for wide reappreciation, which will be a lot easier now that it's out on DVD, presented in a digitized version of a fabulous restored print, one that lends seductive depth and richness to its black-and-white palette. The visual scheme is slyly well-suited to the surreal tilts and spontaneous freak-outs that punctuate the story, paced by saxophonist Stan Getz's improvisations on an imaginative jazz score.

Mickey One The film remains as curious as ever. Its opening scene establishes a phantasmagorical tone that it rarely departs for long, as a nightclub comic (played by budding heartthrob Warren Beatty, fresh from Lilith and acting his 28-year-old ass off) lights up a cigar in a sauna, sitting fully clothed in foppish finery as a laughing chorus of fat, old guys cackles at him. Must be the 1960s.

Mickey One Penn, who died in September at the age of 88, was flexing his creative muscles after an Oscar nomination for The Miracle Worker helped to win him a hands-off, two-picture deal with Columbia. "I didn't want to hear a bunch of suits talk to me about script changes," the director told me in 2008, when he presented the film at the Museum of Modern Art. "The idea was for it to be an unexpected movie." Penn was so successful at that goal, expanding writer Alan Surgal's stage piece into a kind of Kafka-meets-the-New-Wave fever dream, that Mickey One actually forecast the '60s. The movie's prevailing air of paranoia—as Beatty's title character goes on the lam to escape an unspecified mob menace and invents a new identity—and blurry regard to consensus reality succinctly captures the bizarro zeitgeist of the times.

Mickey One Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet, who would collaborate with Robert Bresson on several classics, contributed greatly to the film's fugue-like atmospherics, with its pulp-fiction mugs of bartenders and bums leering as if through the bottom of a shot glass.

"I wanted black-and-white because I thought, there's nothing about this film that's colorful,” Penn asserted. "Conversely, when we were going to make Bonnie and Clyde, they said, 'Do you want to shoot this in color?' And we had to. If it was black-and-white, it would be a documentary."

Mickey One But most of all, it's the score, by big-band arranger Eddie Sauter with solos by Getz, that defines the spirit of Mickey One. The music matches, or anticipates, Beatty's fallen playboy every step of the way, as his character improvises a new identity and tumbles through the back alleys and burlesque dives of Chicago. The music alters its shape as vertiginously as Mickey perceives the city's underbelly, cutting between Dixieland bustle and passages of breezy bossa nova, Bartok-inspired abstraction, and fiery bop, constantly lit up by Getz's improvisations.

The latter was a happy accident.

"There we were, getting the score down and I didn’t anticipate that Stan Getz was a great pal of [Sauter's]," Penn said. "Stan kept dropping by the scoring sessions, and picked up his horn and went to work."

Mickey One The film was very much a reaction to its times. "I was pissed off at the movie business," Penn said. "I had started to work on a film with Burt Lancaster, but it turned out he had made a secret deal with John Frankenheimer to take it over. Burt arrived and had me fired."

Eager to create something he could shove in Hollywood's face, Penn also was responding to the previous decade in American life. "The paranoia? Oh yeah. The heritage of the McCarthy era. He scared a whole generation."

It was Penn who apparently instilled fear in his studio. Columbia opted out of the second picture in their deal. The director re-teamed with Beatty to shoot David Newman and Robert Benton's New Wave-inspired screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde, and nothing was ever the same again. Mickey One, meanwhile, has lingered in the shadows, like one of Getz's plaintive tenor solos.

"They didn't get it," Penn sighs. "They really didn't. But left by itself, it continued to have a life. It's incredible that as time goes by, there's a higher estimation of it."

[Mickey One is available for rental from GreenCine, but not Netflix. The film will also be screened next month as part of "Night Moves: Claude Chabrol & Arthur Penn," a retrospective tribute to the two recently departed directors, running Dec. 3-9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:34 AM

November 9, 2010

Antichrist: Lars and the Real Issue

by Vadim Rizov

Antichrist
Most Lars von Trier films are about the arrogance of males who think they know everything, yet are supremely fatuous in their advice. In other words, most of Lars von Trier's movies are about himself. Epidemic and The Five Obstructions both foreground one "Lars von Trier" (playing himself) as an arrogant, know-it-all blowhard who, come final scene, gets his comeuppance. Similar roles are occupied in The Kingdom (by Dr. Stig, who almost certainly would've gotten smacked down in part 3 had actor Ernst-Hugo Järegård lived long enough to complete the projected trilogy), David Morse in Dancer in the Dark (who pedantically advises Björk all the way up to her execution) and Tom Edison Jr. (Paul Bettany) in Dogville. Not least in this tradition is Antichrist's He (Willem Dafoe), who is all of those characters recapped: a man offering advice way beyond his pay grade, only to find himself shot down with extreme physical vengeance.

AntichristThat physical pain was Antichrist's main selling point in theatrical release; in the UK, distributor Artificial Eye upped the ante by marketing it as straight horror fare, a financial calculation that paid off. Antichrist isn't a horror movie, though it has both squeamish torture-porn moments and supernatural grotesquerie to spare. Listening to what von Trier says during press conferences is always a tricky proposition, so ignore his (incredibly entertaining) proclamation that "I am the best film director in the world" and focus in on the real disclosure: the film emerged from two years of depression and was made as therapy. Antichrist has a manic-depressive structure, its operatic, lush black-and-white opening followed by about one hour of boredom leavened with occasional weirdness, brutally broken with by 25 minutes of straight-up torture, and capped off by an equally lush closer. The gear-switching has the feel of internal stock-taking and clearing.

AntichristTo my mind, Antichrist isn't a terribly good movie (it could be von Trier's worst), but for fans it's a recapitulation and amping up of the traditional agenda. In the mostly unremarkable short documentary profile Lars From 1-10, he's asked if he'd liked to be punished. "Oh yes," he giggles, "and spanked as well." He's not kidding: all the tortures visited on He are von Trier begging for someone, anyone to take him in hand. He is a lecturing scold, explaining to She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) why her every visceral urge and intellectual justification is just wrong, and for this he's punished. The on-screen von Trier is a heavy pedant too, and he gets similarly rebuked. In 1988's Epidemic (still one of his best and most unfairly overlooked films), he and screenwriter Niels Vorsel set about writing a horror movie that they can use just to laboriously do all the heavy subtext lifting horror films are supposed to do. "Here we can poke fun at religion," von Trier announces.

AntichristThe actual horror movie turns out to be about a doctor trying to stop an epidemic from spreading only to find out he's been the one spreading it all along; von Trier himself is hilariously punished by film's end. So too—to lesser extent—is the von Trier of The Five Obstructions, who spends the whole movie tormenting Jørgen Leth with filmmaking challenges. The final challenge, though, is to simply read out von Trier's voiceover, which turns out to be a confession of arrogance. This is possibly von Trier's most sincere statement ever; that he gets someone else to read it is typical.

AntichristThough von Trier is often accused of misogyny for the incredible amount of suffering his women go through (to be a female in a von Trier film is pretty much begging for martyrization), that recrimination misses the point. Sure, von Trier clearly wears his issues nakedly (though that seems irrelevant to the quality of his work), but more often than not his subject is the arrogance of someone with all the solutions getting smacked down. Sometimes that person is a woman—most notably Nicole Kidman in Dogville—but gender seems largely irrelevant to the larger agenda. von Trier makes didactic cinema about didactic people: it's the same impulse that led him to declare Dogme 95's necessity, only to pretty much instantly abandon it. Antichrist isn't landmark cinema, but it's as pure a cathartic attempted exorcism of those urges as could be imagined.

[Antichrist is on DVD and Blu-ray today, from the Criterion Collection.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:10 PM

November 2, 2010

Disney's Defectors and the Pixar-phonic Sound System

by Vadim Rizov

Toy Story 3

Let's start with silence. 2009's Up, like most Pixar movies, takes place in a landscape that's recognizably part of the real world (a South American plateau), yet not really (a carefully unnamed plateau, one "Paradise Falls" of the imagination). The air is silent and dry, charged with the menace of potential swooping predators. Cranky old Carl Frederickson (voiced by Ed Asner) is here, having attempted to follow all his life in the footsteps of explorer Charles F. Muntz (Christopher Plummer), whose exploits have inspired him his whole life to follow in the prematurely disappeared, presumed dead pioneer's path.

UpIt turns out Muntz is something of a false prophet, hiding out in the landscape trying to capture one last giant rare bird. Carl and his young helpmate Russell eventually defeat Muntz, whose reactionary views are ruining the landscape, which is—basically— an allegory for every Pixar movie thus far (except for Finding Nemo, which is a rare and total exception and will be accordingly ignored). In each, undervalued outsiders (often those left for dead—rusting cars, a decrepit DOS-powered robot) defeat a myopic viewpoint, vindicating their urgent vision for progress. In other words, the heroes are Pixar animators saving us from Disney-fied retreads. Every last Pixar movie has been directed by a Disney refugee (Pixar founder John Lasseter, Toy Story primary conspirator Ash Brannon, Joe Ranft), original Pixar employees (Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich, Bob Peterson) or, oddly enough, "Simpsons" veterans (Brad Bird, David Silverman). The dynamics are always the same: animators who grew up with the original Disney studios as their beacon and inspiration either did uneasy time at the declining factory or avoided it entirely.

To be reasonable, let's stipulate that Pixar is universally recognized as a hallmark of impersonal quality—at least by critics—and trying to tie each movie's interests to its specific director(s) is pointless. Nonetheless, pretty much all their work focuses on the same themes, the common link a remarkably defensive starting point: toys who must repeatedly prove their worth, a rat and/or incredible family outside society is hostile to (Bird's Incredibles/Ratatouille duo), people who insist there must be a different path (Monsters, Inc.'s Sully, who's correct that laughs are better than screams for energy purposes, an allegory which grows more pointed by the year), or experts who try to amend unsustainable habits but are ignored until it's almost too late (that adorable PC robot, Paul Newman the car). This is the vantage point of animators who now rule the world, yet find themselves battling predictions of box-office failure every summer, who avoided the Mouse House for years because they didn't have it right.

A Bug's LifeSo why are these films so loud? Critics who gleefully rip into Michael Bay for excess are perfectly happy to let loud and frantic Pixar films run by. The overwhelming endless roar of the final night in A Bug's Life, the frantic chase sequences of The Incredibles and Ratatouille and even the bombast of WALL*E (which has almost no dialogue!) are all pretty pummeling. Part of what makes Up so hypnotic is the believable sound of its fictional wilderness, the careful demarcation between suburban sonic spaces and whistling ridge crucial to its effect. Similar attention is paid in Monsters, Inc. to setting up a realistically dry factory sound that can then be punctured by all the cartoon chases. Those two films are arguably the most successful in the catalogue in creating naturalistic soundscapes for fictional environments, and they do it by the simple expedient of just staying quiet for a while. But most Pixar movies storm around like radio singles mastered as loud as possible for fear of losing the multiplex's attention. The sound itself is a defensive bluff, often overwhelming the rightly-acclaimed visuals with generic roars. It's as if screaming loudly can ward off obsolescence.

Most of Toy Story 3 (just released today on DVD and Blu-ray) is gracefully plotted and funny, delivering nostalgia for anyone who was around 15 years ago and Saturday-morning thrills for the kids. What gave a lot of children trouble was the finale, where wind-up cowboy Woody and the gang almost get broiled to death in a garbage furnace. Rarely do animated films threaten to kill all their leads for so suspensefully long, to the point where it no longer feels like a set-up for their ultimate vindication, thus scaring the crap out of the youngest. And again, it's loud, a total assault to rank with Pixar's most roaring excesses (the finale of A Bug's Life, perhaps, or Remy's run through the kitchen in Ratatouille), which makes it even rougher to sit through. All the Toy Story movies have their amped-up moments, and they're generally tied to the final chase; that rule holds true here, but it's more overwhelming than ever.

Toy Story 3's Peas in a PodIt's hard not to see this temptation to smother every scene in noise and music as destructive of what Pixar does best. Think of the ominous clack of those freaky-looking toys approaching in the darkness of Sid's bedroom, the sound of factory workers running through door portals into kids, the sound of a wasted Earth suddenly punctuated by a rocket ship falling, or the awesomely empty Paradise Falls: at their best non-chase moments, Pixar animators give us a world as complete aurally as it is visually. In Toy Story 3, per usual, they split the difference.

Posted by ahillis at 9:26 AM