December 29, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: A Separation

by Vadim Rizov

A Separation

A Separation literally makes the viewer judge its protagonists: in the opening scene, wife Simin (Leila Hatami) pleads for a divorce from husband Nader (Peyman Maadi). The POV is the judge's, who skeptically asks why an Iranian woman would possibly want her daughter to grow up anywhere else. The offscreen interrogator/filmmaker is a familiar figure in Iranian cinema, with Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi often breaking the fourth walls in their films, often directly appearing (and/or heard off-camera) asking their characters questions. Kiarostami's seemingly given up on making films in Iran at all, while Panahi's imprisoned; for many, Iranian cinema's currently more associated right now with its absentees than actual films. But writer-director Asghar Farhadi's now completed five features, carefully disavowing any political intent in interviews. "There's a difference between intentions and message," a typical feint to The New York Times went. “My intention was to create a story and let you interpret what it means.”

A Separation

A Separation's twists and consequences are equally dictated by human frailty and laws that bluntly discriminate against women (a recent Iranian news story reports on a woman sentenced to be stoned to death, whose execution is being postponed while Islamic scholars debate the propriety of downgrading to a mere hanging): the judge’s question is asked from a profoundly unempathetic place, placing the claims of cultural heritage above all else. The full title—Nader and Simin: A Separation—is misdirection, suggesting a couple’s divorce is the center: in truth, Nader and Simin spend far more time apart than confronting each other here. Their split is shoved aside when they’re placed into direct conflict with their would-be employees Razieh (Sareh Bayet) and Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). With Simin gone, Nader’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father needs to be looked after during the day; Razieh takes the job in secret and covers for Simin when he fails to take over as scheduled.

An anonymously penned dissection of the film's political undercurrents is a must-read. The quick bottom line: the separation is not just between man and wife, but between two different couples, one well-educated, relatively prosperous and tilting secular, the other teetering on the financial brink and deeply religious. In both cases, the marriages are troubled but otherwise at-odds husbands-and-wives uniting to form class-defined alliances against the other: the struggle that emerges between the two clans has as much to do with barely repressed animosity for the other's lifestyle as with the actual transgressions (it's best to go in cold). Hodjat bangs doors and hotheadedly gets himself into trouble; "I can't talk like him," he barks frustratedly, pointing at the comparatively urbane Nader. The dilemmas in this film are tinged with seething class hatreds not unique to Iran but endemic to any country with large income gaps and some sense of a class system (i.e., most anywhere).

A Separation

But it's hard to ignore that most of the legal discussions, negotiations and police investigations revolve around women in ways that are alternately patronizing and/or blatantly unfair. Farhadi doesn't have to exaggerate or underline anything to make his case: he simply has to present an accurate representation of the Iranian legal system in routine action. All four adults boast some level of dysfunction, but the legal discussions always focus on women's bodies and actions, with ultimate responsibility/culpability and control for both ceded to men. In part because the film's presentation of middle-class dynamics is recognizable to urban Iranian filmgoers, it's been successful in its (surprisingly sanctioned) release; by September 30, pirated copies had flooded the streets. Farhadi's been circumspect since almost getting banned from filmmaking for comments made in support of Panahi, but it's worth noting that this conspicuously depoliticized film functions fully as a personal drama about evasions of responsibility, which acts as something of a cover for its polemical thrust: decrying the legal fabric of Iranian society.

Every scene has legal time bombs ticking away; only gradually do the potentially life-crippling effects of momentary lapses make themselves aware. It’'s a charged environment (or, as the oddball Iranian newspaper Tehran Times' noted official critics said, "it portrays Iran as a chaotic society of liars"). It's understandable that both Farhadi and U.S. distributor Sony Pictures Classics would want to downplay the politics and emphasize the universal aspects of the story considering that early American audiences have expressed surprise that Iranian society isn't just "deserts and camels." It’s a fearsomely effective film; I kept thinking of The Social Network, with which it shares nothing but the ability to make two hours of muddled conflict among equally off-putting people riveting through sheer propulsive momentum. To be fair, it's also a very credible indictment, a dissenting document operating in synchronized parallel with its surface drama of ethics.

Posted by ahillis at 1:13 PM

December 27, 2011

The Antisocial Network

by Steve Dollar

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

No one has to hold their breath to discover how the Swedish literary phenomenon/cult film trilogy launcher The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has been Fincherized. As Karen O. ululates on the soundtrack, over the tribal throb and industrial crunge of Trent Reznor's reboot of Led Zeppelin's Viking hoedown "Immigrant Song," the title sequence splashes the screen in mysterious black ink. Abstract anatomies and data-delivery devices twist and morph in a hallucinogenic, sensual swirl, suggesting a James Bond opening as imagined by Panos Cosmatos in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

OK, then. Maybe we can hope for David Fincher to one-up J. J. Abrams and snatch up the 007 franchise on the next round? Or, more to the point, perhaps the remakes of the so-called Millennium Trilogy are to become the director's own version-of-a-version: a mass-cult template that can be seamlessly utilized to project the filmmaker's own obsessions and compulsions with technology, subversion, black leather, forensic drudge-work, serial killers, gothic funk, underground conspiracies, bipolar freakiness, pulse-quickening displays of the art of montage and the antisocial network.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

If there is a single human being yet breathing who is not intimately familiar with the workings of late Swedish journalist Stieg Larrson's posthumously published psycho thrillers... that human being would be me. I didn't even see the Swedish movies, which played U.S. theaters in 2010. Aside from some general plot and character details, mostly regarding the celebrated persona of uber/anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander, there wasn't much to sully my expectations. Rather, the story was another jagged-edged fragment in the evolving crime-scene investigation of Fincher's career—a mutant, ice-veined spawn of Zodiac and The Social Network, with a dose of Se7en's creepy Biblical fixation, and, thanks to cast, remote northern locale and twisted family saga, occasional glimmers of Ingmar Bergman.

That slick opening is a bit of a toss-off, really. Much of Dragon Tattoo is origin myth introduction/explication, mapped out in microscopic detail, as if clicking away on a laptop, whooshing a Google Street View icon ever closer to pixelated revelation. Indeed, that's what the novel's twin sleuths—disgraced investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig, Mr. Shaken-Not-Stirred 7.0 himself) and feral, cyber-punk savant Salander (Rooney Mara)—spend much of their time doing themselves. The glue that binds their parallel biographies is a theme of bad reputation and the return of the repressed. When Blomkvist accepts an insane assignment to solve a decades-old murder from an industrialist (Christopher Plummer) with one foot in the grave and a clan full of Nazi kooks, decadent miscreants, gun nuts and that smug sonuvabitch Stellan Skarsgard, he really has few other options. The money's nice, but what he really wants is to even the score with the man who has stripped him of his honor.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Salander, a wild-child ward of the state whose fierce intellect doesn't come close to exceeding her taste for revenge upon the flesh of her abusers, is in it for blood. A motorcycle-racing Valkyrie with a pierced nipple and a hacker's regard for institutional regulation, she's a magnificent invention because she evokes so many associations. In Mara's kohl-eyed, blond-browed incarnation, she's by turns an alt-porn possum blinking into a video surveillance camera and a whippet-framed cousin of Sigourney Weaver's alien-blasting Ripley, all sinew and no fear—until you peel back the tough facade to find the shivering soul underneath. If anyone ever succeeds in turning William Gibson's dystopian classic Neuromancer into a movie, well, here's your Razor Girl. But she also calls to mind Rilke: "Every angel is terrifying." (In what is sure to be the movie's second-most-talked-about scene, Mara/Salander turns the tables on a scumbag guardian in what has to be the most creative use of extremely amateur tattooing skills since Bellflower).

Character dynamics and infinitesimal (and seemingly infinite) digging drive Fincher's adaptation, which like all good whodunits is littered—nay, scattered, covered and smothered—with dead-end distractions. You, good reader (and watcher) know all about them in advance, I'd presume, so when Craig hauls out the Old Testament and starts matching up dire verses from Leviticus with graphic photographs of a hooker's slaying, seeking clues to the long-ago vanishing of a (putative) 14-year-old virgin, one's mind begins to race all over the place. (What of this sub-sub-plot turn of Blomkvist's teenage daughter passing through his middle-of-nowhere outpost on her way to Bible School?) Like the Nazi skeletons in the family closet, and darkening intimations of more unspeakable horrors, its substance is mostly so much smoke—not that there isn't a surplus of that already. Between the two of them, Salander and the backsliding nicotine addict Blomkvist annihilate enough butts to keep a Bowery mission full of panhandlers fully stocked and wheezing 'til next Christmas.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The sexual connection between Mara and Craig's characters, which strangely does mimic the usual course of affairs in one of the latter actor's secret agent scenarios, feels at once inevitable and kind of a sell out. The bonking isn't exotic; it's purely functional, although perhaps designed to show off Mara's American Apparel model's bod and somehow lend more conventional, hetero-normative appeal to Salander's androgynous Psycho Spice persona and approach/avoidance aura. But it also establishes a deeper urgency for when the shit hits the fan. In the film's most thrilling montage, both she and Craig's out-of-his-depth, anything-but-Bondian Blomkvist discover who the villain is at more or less the same moment, a sequence that faintly emulates the finale of The Silence of the Lambs. Plus knockout gas. Plus Enya!

Long before the new age marvel's "Orinoco Flow" lights up the screen with its American Psycho moment, an instance of perverse levity after two hours of soundtrack composers Reznor and Atticus Finch's persistent, percussive disorientation, I'd been thinking that Dragon Tattoo was a tad cheesy in stretches, especially for Fincher. And here, at its cheesiest, it was most brilliant. If he opts to shoot the next two Hollywood remakes in the series, Fincher could be the rare adaptive franchiser to make his source as compelling as his own vision without chipping away at an otherwise impeccable auteur rep. In fact, the more the material skews Fincherwise the better. Not to speak ill of the dead, but the film's weaknesses (the essentially stupid plodding premise for the mystery that never adds up to anything) are Larsson's and its triumphs both a matter of directorial style and of Mara's raw-boned performance, at once as ravished and laser-like in focus, certainly, as anything in mainstream American cinema this year—if we can call a film "mainstream" in which not one but two acts of violent non-consensual sodomy are prominently featured. The hammer of the gods? Um, thanks, I'll try the decaf.

Posted by ahillis at 1:09 PM

December 23, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: A Boy and His Dog (1975)

by Nick Schager

A Boy and His Dog What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Steven Spielberg's kid detective-and-dog sidekick saga The Adventures of Tintin, this week it's L.Q. Jones' 1975 sci-fi cult classic A Boy and His Dog.

The world has gone to hell and man and beast are now equals in A Boy and His Dog, L. Q. Jones' uniquely bizarre adaptation of Harlan Ellison's novella of the same name. A five-day World War IV has transformed 2024 America into a desert wasteland full of roaming bands of armed marauders dressed in tattered outfits that are part Road Warrior-chic, part Civil War-era antiquated. Traversing this desolate landscape is dimwitted 18-year-old Vic (Don Johnson) and his dog Blood (voiced by Tim McIntire), who can telepathically speak with Vic as well as use a special sonar-like ability to locate nearby enemies and, more importantly, women. Blood cares primarily about safety and food (both of which are scarce), while Vic cares only about finding ladies to screw, a task in which Blood begrudgingly assists with a sarcastic aggravation almost as intense as Vic's horniness. Despite talk of finding a fanciful "over the hill" paradise, it's the hunger for food and sex that truly propel the duo, base motivations that immediately establish the material's caustically cynical view of man as a creature that—if denied education, proper parental upbringing, and basic social conditioning—is at best the equal of a pooch, if not (given Vic's inferior intellect and amorality) beneath one.

A Boy and His Dog

A Boy and His Dog's unfavorable view of humanity isn't hard to discern, but that's not the same as saying it's mundane, as Vic and Blood's rapport is surreal in its simultaneous affection and hostility. Theirs is a love-hate bond forged by necessity but, also, of genuine compassion for each other, all while their bickering exposes an almost brotherly relationship marked by petty insults ("Poodle!" "Jackass!") as well as more serious condemnations ("You're not a nice person Albert," Blood tells Vic, using his favored nickname for his master). Driven by survival and pleasure instincts alone, they're a rather unlikable pair made even more repellant by the fact that one of their two primary goals is the procurement of women for Vic to rape—a scenario that finally materializes when Blood helps Vic discover one at a movie theater playing scratchy pornos. The target in question, Quilla June (Susanne Benton), is first spied by Vic in the nude, behind cobwebs, as she dresses, her leisurely demeanor amidst this female-hunting post-apocalyptic civilization as ridiculous as her distinctly ‘70s hairstyle. After a pitch-black shootout with faceless predators in an abandoned hospital that's most notable for its lack of spatial coherence or continuity, Vic, Blood and Quilla June shack up for a time so that Vic can get his rocks off with his surprisingly willing prisoner, all as Blood hilariously bounces up and down on the trio's sole, nasty mattress.

A Boy and His Dog

A favored character actor of Sam Peckinpah (having appeared in five of the Wild Bunch auteur's works), director Jones shows little visual flair but a sharp, biting, Peckinpah-ish eye for critiquing masculinity, which is here defined by unsavory selfishness. If its scenes don't always flow together, A Boy and His Dog nonetheless boasts an endearingly scraggly aesthetic that conveys a potent impression of a planet gone to physical and moral seed. That notion is only further confirmed once Quilla June convinces Vic to join her in "Topeka," an underground society—located via a metal-bunker doorway in the middle of the vast desert—that's ruled by a committee of three led by debonair Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) and populated by people in pancake make-up and red circles on their cheeks. They're a grotesquely clownish vision of southern society, one where everyone gathers on green pastures under dark skies for social picnics enlivened by marching band music, and where death sentences for disobedient citizenry are delivered by the committee in church-set meetings marked by an offhand, cavalier indifference to ideas of fairness and cruelty.

A Boy and His Dog

A Boy and His Dog's third-act revelation is that Vic has been lured to this nightmare "down under" to be a one-man sperm bank for the populace's women (the men have all gone impotent due to lack of sunlight), leading to a phenomenally striking sequence in which veiled brides are "married" to Vic as he's tied to a surgical table having his semen extracted by a tube. Throughout, and notwithstanding Topeka's bourgeois pretenses, societal breakdown engenders only ruthless carnivorous and carnal desires. Whether Jones and Ellison mean for their work to denounce the inherent misogyny of men when stripped of social concepts of decorum, decency and equality, or whether they're in fact promoting such a viewpoint (a reading bolstered by the relative fondness shown to Vic and Blood), the film is nonetheless infused with a disgust for women that's nigh impossible to shake or shrug off, despite Johnson's surprisingly effective portrait of Vic as an empty-headed embodiment of frightening macho appetites, and McIntire's sneering, sympathetic vocal turn as his canine sidekick. The result is a movie that, for all its wacko charm, is apt to leave a sour taste in one's mouth, especially given the way in which its notorious last scene—altered from the novel, and which apparently repulsed even Ellison himself—treads an uncomfortable line between satire and outright, gleeful sexism.

Posted by ahillis at 11:14 AM

December 22, 2011

Ice Cream for Crowe

by Vadim Rizov

We Bought a Zoo

Big gestures are common currency in Cameron Crowe country: John Cusack holding a boombox over his head in Say Anything..., Jerry Maguire's much-quoted romantic highlights ("You had me at hello"), an unironically lovestruck-and-desperate run alongside a moving bus in Almost Famous. Crowe openly states his method in We Bought a Zoo: "all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage," dad Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) tells lovestruck son Dylan (Colin Ford). "And I promise you, something great will come of it." This is both a baldly stated stab at future quotability and a declaration of Crowe's full investment: every time his characters do something outsized and cornball, he's the one hoping a great moment rather than a fiasco will emerge from it.

We Bought a Zoo Crowe's been lying low since 2005's Elizabethtown was near-universally mauled (unfairly; haters lumped in the genuinely embarrassing moments with the purposefully hallucinatory, anything-goes immersion into kind-hearted dream logic). We Bought a Zoo is a narrative comeback jab that's been extensively customized while still hewing to an easy one-sentence-synopsis narrative. There are predictably heavy soundtrack doses of Bob Dylan and Neil Young and lots of barely provoked epiphanies: the post-rock swell of Jonsi's score is deployed often to cue yet another magical moment.

We Bought a Zoo is about a bad father who seeks redemption by becoming a showman: Benjamin's wife Katherine (Stephanie Stozsak) died 6 months ago, his journalistic career is going nowhere and Dylan's just gotten expelled. Only sweetly precocious daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) holds it together, in a part that astonishingly doesn't turn sickly cloying. A country house with lots of animals seems like a sufficiently bold fresh start. Ignoring hardboiled accountant brother Duncan's (Thomas Haden Church) advice, Benjamin takes his share of his father's inheritance and sinks it into the ultimate fixer-upper: if he fails, the zoo will be shuttered and its rare animals sold off or worse. Cue triumph over endless obstacles.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO's Matt Damon and director Cameron Crowe

Crowe, a reasonably thorough scholar of classic Hollywood, discussed in 1996 how a few frames of 1942's Woman of the Year shaped his direction of Tom Cruise and Renee Zellweger in Jerry Maguire: "two simple looks between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, sizing each other up, regarding each other... By the last few weeks of filming, the actors would often see me start to open my script book and say: 'Got it! We're gonna regard each other!'" Big moments played out on a character's face are integral to Crowe's work as close-ups of characters externalizing the awe-struck reaction of audiences are to Steven Spielberg's; there's just too many of them here, provoked by almost nothing, a mechanical reflex. Crowe's strengths have the most breathing room in the opening, city-bound passages of barely-parented pre-school morning chaos in a cluttered suburban home. Benjamin and Dylan's uneasy father-son relationship—Benjamin calls Dylan "man" a lot, the kid acts generically petulant and resentful of his carping dad—is erratically rendered: a crucial shouting-leads-to-reconciliation scene avoids tasteless, actorly showboating but still feels rote. Worse yet are Benjamin's many sessions spent staring at iPhoto slideshows of his late wife, unconsciously approaching necrophilia. We Bought a Zoo is explicitly about mourning and the grieving process, Crowe's weightiest subject yet: since he prefers seeing people happy, he's incapable of locking himself into sadness for more than a few second before cuing another post-rock moment of overwhelming.

We Bought a Zoo

Crowe loyalists will want to show up anyway for the treasurable moments. Some are predictable casting triumphs: Thomas Haden Church's skeptical brother predictably gets all the best lines (on Ben's impulse buy: "I get it man, we're all in cages"), while Elle Fanning delivers her second miraculously assured performance of the year after Super 8 as Dylan's rural crush. The inevitable romance between Benjamin and zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is set aside until the last second to no particular affect, but the scene midway where they affably agree not to hit on each other is winningly confused ("What did we just say?" "I don't know!").

Conflict, per usual, is kept at a minimum, and Damon once again plays a game straight man to his predictably offbeat crew, underselling some good punchlines; there's enough surprisingly timed small jokes throughout to keep Zoo from turning into a chore. In the long run, We Bought a Zoo's assets are mostly negative: it's an amiable, mildly refreshing two hours, certainly unimaginably better than it would've been in the hands of someone like Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen) or Steve Carr (Paul Blart: Mall Cop), the kind of directors normally called upon when a family movie largely consists of children and cute animals. It's worth noting that pretty much all Cameron Crowe parents are single parents and flitting presences: John Mahoney's suffocating dad in Say Anything..., Patrick Fugit's patient mom Frances McDormand in Almost Famous, Kurt Russell's surrogate father in Vanilla Sky. Damon's firmly in that line, but the film is more comfortable with him in the role of modest visionary loner than when he's fulfilling his parental duties. Maybe that's what accounts for the film's mild, uncommitted tone: it wouldn't pay to get too hot under the collar and upset the kids.

Posted by ahillis at 9:34 AM

December 19, 2011

BEST OF 2011: Supporting Performances

by Steve Dollar

Pollyana Mcintosh, THE WOMAN

It's that most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas, Saturnalia or Festivus. Rather, 'tis the season for pundits to draw up lists honoring the best movies and performances of the year, give awards and have Twitter-fights about them as everyone anticipates nominations for the 2012 Academy Awards.

While perusing these surveys, it struck us that the past year was a remarkable one for supporting performances. Many already are racking up the trophies. Out of the blue, actresses such as the now-ubiquitous Jessica Chastain (Take Shelter, The Tree of Life, The Debt, The Help, Coriolanus) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants)—a former child performer breaking out at 20—already are winning notice, but there are also such presences as seemingly immortal as Max Von Sydow, whose performance as a mysterious old man in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has even inspired an oracular Tumblr page.

To assist with horse-race handicapping and Twitter fights, I've assembled a shortlist of some of my favorite supporting actors for 2011.

Albert Brooks, DRIVE

Albert Brooks in Drive. One of the first meta-comedians, Brooks spoofed reality-TV before it barely existed in 1979's Real Life, achieving regard as an astute director of social satires and as a handy character actor (playing the conspicuously sweaty schlemiel reporter Aaron Altman in Broadcast News, he scored his first Oscar nomination). As the knife-obsessed villain in Nicolas Winding Refn's psychological thriller, Brooks reveals a new, chilling facet of his talent. "The concept of Albert Brooks was really intriguing," Refn told us a few months back. "A) He'd never killed anybody before, or been a bad guy. B) The notion of what had happened to him in all those years. Bernie Rose, I mean, to be this gangster who became this movie producer who had to go back to being a gangster and he doesn't want to be." A win for Brooks at the Academy's big night would also guarantee a classic acceptance speech. As Brooks tweeted after claiming a pair of early prizes, "Was just told about N.Y.F.C.C. and Spirit Awards! THANK YOU. I feel like Herman Cain at a Dallas Cheerleader convention."

Patton Oswalt, YOUNG ADULT

Patton Oswalt in Young Adult. Charlize Theron's brilliant performance as a cracked swan in this Mean Girl vs. MIddle America dramedy has plenty of pundits talking Oscar. But how cool is it that she's upstaged by Oswalt's ugly duckling? As "the hate crime guy," he's the maimed and crippled reality factor who challenges the delusions of Theron's Mavis Gary while reaffirming her brutal assessment of her Minnesota hometown—usually when both of them are bombed on his homebrewed "Star Wars juice." As one of the Comedians of Comedy, Oswalt's talent was never in doubt. But after a decade of playing second banana to Kevin James on The King of Queens, it's almost startling to see how good he is playing opposite the stunning (and likewise underrated) Theron. And he's never more or less than himself, raw and vulnerable enough to lace the dialogue with barbed wire, even more impressive as the film is a collaboration between those masters of glib, Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody.

Christopher Plummer, BEGINNERS

Christopher Plummer in Beginners. Mike Mills' (Thumbsucker) sophomore feature is a tad problematic—too whimsical by half and overdetermined by the filmmaker's clever designer's aesthetic. But it's also a reminder of how charming movie-movie romances can be, and that it's perfectly fine to give in to the sentimental feelings that they evoke. There are two love affairs here, which mirror each other: Mills surrogate Evan McGregor's on-again, off-again affair with an enigmatic French actress and, in flashback, Plummer's (as his art historian father) with life itself: coming out as a gay man at age 75, taking a younger lover and utterly blowing the mind of his son, flabbergasted that all this is happening even as the old man has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Plummer's performance is, indeed, flamboyant and bubbling, joyful and nutty, and even if you're the kind of person who thinks they're too cool for that, he gets to you anyway.

Ellen Page, SUPER

Ellen Page in Super. As an amped-up comic bookstore clerk with an unhealthy fixation on Rainn Wilson's vigilante superhero The Bolt, Page delivers a crushing deathblow to her smug hipster incarnation as Juno. Her oversexed, potty-mouthed and likely homicidal junior crimebuster—who transforms into Wilson's sidekick, Boltie—is the kind of deranged character movies could use a lot more of, and the sort of performance that wouldn't automatically call to mind Page's particular gifts as an actor. She made us all gushy.

John Hawkes, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. The second Hawkes arrives onscreen, as the leader of a suspiciously creepy agrarian sex cult, your Inner Moviegoer goes "Oh, shit." At once seductive and sinister, the actor's Manson redux comes guised in utopian double-speak and predatory cunning. As with his turn as the intimidating Uncle Teardrop in last year's Appalachian drama Winter Bone, it's the kind of character Hawkes seems born to define, wooing Elizabeth Olsen's fledgling (and soon to be runaway) recruit with rustic, soulful folk ballads, but also drugging and raping her in a ritual initiation that exposes the serpent in the soul of a weedy, would-be redeemer. Bonus points for a small, if pivotal turn in Contagion, which should have yielded some awards-talk for Elliott Gould if he'd gotten more than an outsized cameo as a pathbreaking research scientist.

Pollyana McIntosh, THE WOMAN

Pollyanna McIntosh in The Woman. I could say that the Scottish model gave the best single performance of the year as a cannibal wolf-girl turned suburban root cellar sex slave in Oklahoma indie-horror director Lucky McKee's savage satire, but that would, of course, be disingenuous. What's not is to applaud McIntosh's grace and intellect in portraying a feral captive who embodies a brutal critique of Bush Era Americana and lights a feminist revolution of sorts with her fiery stare. Sure, she's hot—and more vulnerably exposed than a van full of mumblecore actors—but she'll rip your heart out and munch on it like smokehouse brisket. We've yet to see Meryl Streep do that.

Posted by ahillis at 2:15 PM

December 16, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Murder by Decree (1979)

by Nick Schager

Murder by Decree What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, this week it's Bob Clark's 1979 Holmes-vs.-the-Ripper thriller, Murder by Decree.

Navigating the deserted misty streets of 1880s London from the point of view of its notorious villain, Jack the Ripper, Bob Clark's camera delivers an immediate jolt of Black Christmas-style malevolence to Murder by Decree, the director's superlative Sherlock Holmes adventure. Armed with John Hopkins' smart script (based on Elwyn Jones and John Lloyd's book The Ripper File), Clark situates his iconic sleuth in the midst of England's most infamous crime spree, pitting him against the Ripper and, in doing so, a social hierarchy as inflexible as it is entrenched. It's a tale that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never penned himself, and yet Clark's film is faithful to the spirit of the author's works, capturing the detective's imperious intellect and sly sense of humor while also, in a welcome twist, bestowing him with newfound empathy and a related political conscience. Embodied by the magnificent Christopher Plummer with imposing stature, a sly twinkle in his eye, and—unexpectedly—a deeply felt compassion for those upon whom the Ripper preys, this Holmes is at once an heroic presence and one capable of surprise, a fact most powerfully felt during his inquisition of an asylum-imprisoned woman (Geneviève Bujold's Annie), in which the hero's calmly rational façade melts away to reveal profound sorrow in the face of heinous injustice.

Murder by Decree

Clark shrouds his material in fog and darkness that, when coupled with his lush set design (velvet and gas-lamp light abound), gives Murder by Decree a distinct Hammer Horror feel that amplifies the action's menace and mystery. That mood is established from the outset via an introductory credit-sequence pan across the hazy London skyline, and continues even once the film moves inside to the opulent Royal Opera House, where Holmes and Dr. Watson (James Mason) converse about the Duke of Clarence (Robin Marchall), future king of England, whose lack of punctuality holds up the performance's commencement. That Watson stands up for the prince after the upper-deck masses boo his tardiness indicates a conservative respect for tradition and rank on the good doctor's part, but it's a stance that slowly melts away once a group of Whitechapel shop-owners enlist the duo's help in discovering the man killing their district's prostitutes. Intrigued by the spate of slaughters, Holmes and Watson embark on their investigation, which leads them to locales of consistently evocative atmosphere, be it a pier where informants deliver news from concealed rowboats and men lurk in darkened alleyways, or the home of medium Robert Lees (a goofy Donald Sutherland), where the crazy-wide-eyed psychic recounts his visions regarding the Ripper.

Murder by Decree

As they delve deeper into the case, Holmes and Watson discover an expansive plot involving the Freemasons and those in the highest corridors of power, who appear to be involved with the Ripper murders as a means of covering up an incident that has implications for the throne. This conspiracy compels Holmes to seek out a streetwalker named Mary Kelly (Susan Clark) and, shortly thereafter, Annie, whom he finds in a dingy mental-ward basement, her eyes blank and her body rocking back and forth in a traumatized trance. His subsequent conversation with her is Murder by Decree's melodramatic high point, building to a crescendo as the sleuth elicits buried truths from the inmate's disturbed mind, peaking in a teary Holmes close-up that reconfigures his entire motivation. Driven now by personal as much as professional outrage, Holmes' quest becomes one about righting individual and class-warfare wrongs. Yet despite this deft and affecting shift, Clark never loses sight of the sheer horror of his story, which itself reaches an apex during Holmes' race to save Mary from the Ripper, leading to an encounter with the madman that features mutilations spied through filthy windows, hellish flames and embers, and eyes of deep, dark amorality.

Murder by Decree

Clark repeatedly frames his imagery through tree branches, wrought-iron fence bars, and ominous archways to create visual claustrophobia, and his camerawork is finely attuned to his characters' movements—a crane shot that first follows Holmes out of a church, then turns to find the fleeing figure he's pursuing, and then alters its focus yet again to find the Ripper's carriage is one of particularly nimble aesthetic beauty. Such artistry is present throughout Murder by Decree, up to and including its courtroom-style finale, in which Holmes—having already confronted David Hemmings' secretly radical Scotland Yard inspector—damns the powers-that-be (including Sir John Gielgud) for their detestable culpability in the Ripper's killings. Perhaps most skillful of all, however, is Mason's turn as Dr. Watson, whose deference to Holmes' unparalleled deductive reasoning skills is matched by his own significant participation in the case. If not on Holmes' plane, his Watson is nonetheless an invaluable contributor to the ongoing investigation, even as he's cast as something of a closet pervert, first via Holmes' remarks about his fondness for female company, and later in an encounter with a whore that finds the doctor uncomfortably (but not too uncomfortably) having his finger stuck between the woman's teeth, and his inner thigh aggressively, and hilariously, caressed.

Posted by ahillis at 2:48 PM

December 14, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Deep End (1970)

by Vadim Rizov

Deep End

"How does a foreigner know, for instance, what a particular character does when he is alone?" novelist, screenwriter and film critic Penelope Gilliatt asked in 1971 about Jerzy Skolimowski's English-language debut Deep End (screening Dec. 16 - 22 at BAMcinématek). "It seem stirring that Skolimowski should have managed it at all, and that his London should seem so nearly like London when a lot of the film was actually made in Munich, with German-speaking actors in the small parts. The slightly off-note ear, the gaps in knowledge don't so much muddy the film as give it a peculiar asymmetry and lack of repose." Despite Gilliatt's mildly offensive tone of reductive national diagnosis ("Poles often serve an ethic of not seeming to try," she also notes), her question makes for a useful analogy. In the film, Mike (John Moulder-Brown) is a 15-year-old foreigner to the land of adult sexuality, for whom lust is a stand-alone factor: he's too young to see how it might get tangled up with class shame/aspirations or economic exploitation. Deep End's his bumpy immersion into How Things Work.

Deep End

Mike's as oblivious as to why grotesque bathhouse biddies want to feel him up when he brings them towels as he is about why 25-year-old co-worker Susan (Jane Asher) might be treating him as a cute young boy to harmlessly tease; he takes her every rote flirtation to heart. He's also baffled as to why she might be engaged to a relatively wealthy, boorish dullard (Christopher Sandford) instead of falling seriously for his impoverished, fresh-faced charm (which is mostly ill-concealed if endearing awkward pubescent antsiness). Mike is not completely innocent of class distinctions or embryonic snobbishness: he's clearly embarrassed when his parents show up, babbling with gauche praise disproportionate to his status as an entry-level employee in a field that's not bursting with opportunities for advancement. With seemingly no friends and already in the process of renouncing his family, he tries to construct a personality out of a relationship that doesn't exist.

There's something about this queasy naive-initiation-into-adult-sexuality narrative that still compels unimaginative screenwriters to present it without irony or skepticism: Deep End's sophisticated woman vs. immature boy dynamic is remarkably similar to the dismal recent My Week With Marilyn, where an infatuated young man of no particular note really can't imagine why Marilyn Monroe just won't up and leave Hollywood for him, a situation presented with zero irony. More appropriate homages from other skeptical filmmakers: Deep End is directly quoted is echoed in the recent Submarine, but Wes Anderson also probably saw it before he made Rushmore: the Mike-Susan dynamic is close to Max Fischer's well-meaning but destructive obsession with Miss Cross, and both films feature destructive auto damage. Max cuts his (30-plus-years-older millionaire) "rival" Max Blume's brakes, a more destructive variant on Mike puncturing all four of the tires on Susan's fiance's car by placing jagged milk bottle halves under them.

Deep End

The drab public baths are the sole arena of the increasingly claustrophobic first act; the interludes in a porn theater and strip club mark a rare instance where those oft-depressing locales brighten the tone. The Munich exteriors are a suitably depressed substitute for decidedly non-swinging London at its most depressingly gray: nothing but red-light shows and hot dog stands as far as the eye can see. (Mike keeps gobbling frankfurters while waiting for Susan to exit the strip club, eventually getting one free from the grateful vendor.) Skolimowski's not on entirely foreign turf: bad architecture and decaying urban landscapes look the same the world over.

Creepily, hands-over-eyes funny, Deep End locates comedy both in the pervasive awfulness of every single location and in Mike's total cluelessness. The notorious ending finds a good use for all those buckets of red paint being used to implausibly repaint the bath walls throughout the film's running time; the climax is an expressionist freakout in a film that's restricted itself to dispassionate black humor up to that point, the better to shock audiences at the end. Unlike Deep End's successors, there's no moment where a light switch flips and Mike gets it. The hysteria builds up to a level impossible to hold back.

Posted by ahillis at 11:40 AM

December 13, 2011

Physical Graffiti

by Steve Dollar

Girl Walk // All Day

Anne Marsen claims she's an introvert. She's petite, and although she makes her living as a dancer, there's nothing of that fragile, aesthetically tortured, swan-like artiste about her. You might not pick her out in a crowd. Which makes her performance in Girl Walk // All Day even more of a marvel. Over the course of 72 minutes she rockets across the five boroughs, from the docks of Red Hook to the bleachers of Yankee Stadium, a Terpsichore in sneakers compulsively leaping in the faces of hundreds of New Yorkers going about their business. That they are largely impervious to this pint-sized maniac, an abstract canvas of humanity nonplussed or, at best, bemused, by Marsen's adrenalized, freestyle bugging-out-athon, is part of the joke. People are always going crazy in the city. But that doesn't mean something amazing isn't happening right in front of your eyes. If she had the chance, she'd teach the world to dance, and she won't stop until she does.

The exhilarating video, which premiered last week at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple and will be screening here, there and everywhere in the coming months, is genius in another way: the whole schmear is cued to Girl Talk's All Day. Released in 2010, the album from master mixologist Greg Gillis is a subversive, giddy mash-up of some 373 separate bits of music: samples of seemingly contradictory tracks spliced together like some absurd, surrealist collage that reveals uncanny congruences. From the opening salvo that grafts Ludacris's "Move Bitch" onto Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," it never looks back, lifting the aggressive declamations of (mostly crunky) hip-hop vocals to the rhythms of, well, everything else, leaving listeners breathless with the shock of recognition. Who knew that Missy Elliot and the Ramones went together like chocolate and peanut butter?

Girl Walk // All Day

Director Jacob Krupnick, a photographer and filmmaker, had been looking for a longform dance production after meeting Marsen and another dancer, John Doyle, on a 2009 commerical project. The idea was to exploit their seamless command of various street dance styles—influenced by hip-hop and Bollywood—and more classic, formal tropes against the urban landscape that’s provided a stage for everything from West Side Story to NY Export: Opus Jazz. When he heard All Day, everything clicked.

"The energy of Girl Talk's music is so extremely high, one of the challenges is to figure out how to find lulls and variations amid this album that's so maximalist for 72 minutes," he said. The concept seemed simple enough: a ballet dancer flips out during a rehearsal under the stern gaze of a prim instructor, then begins a day-long journey on the Staten Island Ferry, working her way from Wall Street to Union Square to Central Park and beyond, with transformations and encounters occurring across 20 separate locations. "She's impertinent and a little bratty but also really curious and good natured and she's constantly trying to encourage people around her to dance."

Girl Walk // All Day

It usually doesn't work, if hilariously so. At once point, Marsen marks up a sandwich-board style sign that begs "DANCE WITH ME" and hangs it around her neck. She approaches a stranger in the middle of Grand Central Station, wildly gesticulating. He never glances up from the cell phone he's busily typing into. There are preordained moments, such as a choreographic face-off on the Williamsburg Bridge with the Beat Club Crew, a team of young street dancers. But also occasions where people actually do jump in front of the camera and learn a routine, as three Egyptian tourists gamely do, following Marsen's lead as their anchor a line of women dancing to Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" right in the middle of the Financial District.

"I tried to add some deeper elements to the story instead of dancing like a maniac the whole time. I tried to find some purpose for this girl to be going bonkers all over the place," said Marsen, who found herself playing a version of the character—the "weirdo dancing-tutor"—on the CBS drama The Good Wife. [Clips here, here (two minutes in), and here.] Indeed, there is the obvious theme concerning the virtues of good, old-fashioned American individualism pushing against the surging gray tide of conformity and commodification. At one point, Marsen's character "sells out" and goes on a shopping binge in Midtown, pausing in the middle of an empty side street to bump and grind like a booty girl in rap video while the skeezy power chords of "Twentieth Century Boy" glam up the soundtrack. But after an exhibit of grossly conspicuous consumption before the agog placard-holders of Occupy Wall Street she comes across a little girl who blinks her back to "normal"—thrift-shop garb ringed by a tutu the shade of melted orange sherbet. Meanwhile, her indefatigable, skeleton-suited suitor The Creep (Doyle) dukes it out with a third dancer, The Gentleman (Daisuke Omiya), and gradually learns how to be a nice guy.

Girl Walk // All Day

The formal rhymes between Gillis' sonic cut-ups and the dancers' genre-smashed physical graffiti are self-evident, but the project also emulated the source music in another way. Krupnick never got any permits, staging five months of shoots in pure guerrilla style. As you'll see in the finished version of Girl Walk, this works pretty well until Marsen lays siege to Yankee Stadium during a baseball game. As she rallies the crowd, stadium security rushes to give her the heave-ho, escorting Marsen to the street, orange sherbet tutu and all.

"I guess," she said, "you're not allowed to dance on the railings between the field and the seats."

Who knew?

Posted by ahillis at 9:49 AM

December 10, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: The Quiller Memorandum (1966)

by Nick Schager

The Quiller Memorandum

What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Tomas Alfredson's John le Carré adaptation Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this week it’s Michael Anderson's secret-agent thriller The Quiller Memorandum.

The Quiller Memorandum has many things going for it, but a compelling lead performance is, alas, not one of them. Headlining this 1966 tale of Cold War espionage in austere Berlin (adapted from Trevor Dudley Smith's novel by famed playwright Harold Pinter) is George Segal as Quiller, an American spy called into service by the British after his predecessor is gunned down in the dead of night by a mysterious sniper. Quiller’s mission is to uncover a secret cabal of neo-Nazis who—in a plot that's practically defined by its sketchiness—are seeking to re-establish political dominance by secretly infiltrating government corridors of power. How these National Socialists plan to actually execute this nefarious scheme is never explicated, but that unanswered narrative question at the center of Pinter's script is still secondary to the unctuousness of Segal, who embodies his secret agent with a smarminess matched only by his air of lackadaisical invincibility. Accepting and carrying out his undertaking with a smug smirk tattooed on his face, he's a pseudo-Bond defined by imperviousness to fear and danger, nonchalant cool in the face of peril, and a magical way with women—all qualities that Segal, unlike Sean Connery, fails to sell as charming, thereby turning his Quiller into a phony caricature of a dashing intel superhero.

The Quiller Memorandum

Segal's counterfeit suave routine is a nagging problem throughout director Michael Anderson's film, albeit not a wholly fatal one, as the star's arrogance does gradually retreat into the background once Quiller begins taking lumps from adversaries and, as a result, is forced to take matters semi-seriously. Moreover, Segal's unconvincing turn is offset by the atmosphere of futility and desolation that builds courtesy of Pinter's generally sturdy screenplay, which offers up a rather straightforward plot notable for its deliberate lack of urgency. That laid-back attitude is embodied not just by Segal's Quiller but also, more evocatively, by his boss Pol (Alec Guinness), who delivers orders and comments on Quiller's progress with a tranquility that suggests he views this Nazi-hunting assignment as merely work, and part of a much larger bureaucratic structure that will continue on after this particular task is resolved. Whether he’s using muffins to visually explain Quiller’s caught-between-two-sides position (which receives a justified "are you kidding me?" stare from Quiller himself), or closing the case while in his bathrobe and on his way to breakfast, Guinness' Pol exhibits a reserved outlook on espionage as routine business, thereby bringing a subtle undercurrent of hopeless resignation to The Quiller Memorandum's cloak-and-dagger shenanigans.

The Quiller Memorandum

If Guinness is the preternatural calm of this clandestine-action storm, then Max von Sydow is its epicenter of over-the-top menace as Oktober, the head of the neo-Nazi ring that Quiller aims to infiltrate. After a villain delivers a dose of knockout drugs by bumping into him with a suitcase, Quiller awakens in a room that Anderson—in the sole moment not directed with perfunctory blandness—introduces through a prolonged pan that reveals initially bewildering, and then increasingly ominous, sights: a glittering chandelier, a painting of a nude woman, guards stationed at doors, and a surgical tray of syringes and straps located next to Quiller's head. Oktober’s subsequent interrogation of his captive is a thing of fitful stops and starts, and one energized by von Sydow's malevolent sophistication. Decked out in a dark suit, his blonde locks slicked back, the towering von Sydow commences with a politeness laced with viciousness, his smiles seeping poison and his pretend-kind eyes masking a hardness that, eventually, comes to the fore as the smartass Quiller refuses to cooperate. A figure of relaxed evil, von Sydow's baddie briefly elevates The Quiller Memorandum to a superior plane of espionage suspense, though as befitting a film that seems unsure of itself at regular intervals, he only appears in one more scene, and—most stunning of all—doesn't even make an appearance during a finale that directly involves him.

The Quiller Memorandum

That the story's conclusion occurs off-screen, only to be described afterwards by others, is part and parcel of a film marked by anti-dramatic inclinations—far more tense are the many moments filled with anticipatory dread than the dutiful car chases, fisticuffs and romantic intrigue generated by Quiller's romance with schoolteacher Inge (Senta Berger), who has information regarding the Nazis' whereabouts. Enveloped by ultra-soft lighting in her numerous close-ups, Berger is a blank whose suspiciousness is immediately apparent, and her amorous encounters with Segal fall somewhere between stilted and downright silly. Again, however, the absence of pulse-pounding excitement seems at least partially intentional, with director Anderson muting his material in a manner in harmony with his tale's depiction of truth as both slippery and, once exposed, apt to affect little change. It’s a decidedly pessimistic worldview, and one most compellingly suggested by a few brief scenes between two unnamed upper-echelon British government officials who discuss Quiller's escapades with the same ho-hum casualness that characterizes their talk about daily lunch delicacies—conversations that, with pitch-perfect drollness, encapsulate the film's overriding assessment of spy games as just another humdrum aspect of the government apparatus.

Posted by ahillis at 9:22 AM

December 7, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Wages of Fear (1953)

by Vadim Rizov

The Wages of Fear

The well known numbers fueling Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear, which soon screens in a new 35mm print at NYC's Film Forum: 148 minutes, two trucks, three hundred miles, four men, lots of nitroglycerin. An oil fire's raging at a far-away outpost, and the Southern Oil Company (which, as Roger Ebert noted, non-coincidentally has the same initials as Standard Oil) needs explosives to put it out; with roads in this unnamed South American oil republic so unstable the slightest jostle will blow up the truck, it'll take some truly desperate losers to undertake the trip—men like Mario (Yves Montand) and Luigi (Folco Lulli). (It's unknown if Nintendo named their video-game duo in deliberate homage.) The former best friends have their relationship torn apart at the film's start by the arrival in town of barrel-chested Jo (Charles Vanel), who wears his gut as an emblem of old-school masculinity; that and a shared longing for their homeland is enough to draw Mario to his side. The Frenchmen pair up in one truck; blithe Italian Luigi and Bimba (Peter van Eyck), a former forced-labor Nazi conscript, take the other vehicle, a minor reunion of Axis nationalities.

Audiences have become much more skeptical of the oil industry since 1953: Wages' critique of American economic imperialism (which earned it Time magazine's contempt in 1955 as "surely one of the most evil [films] ever made") premiered the same year as Anthony Mann's Thunder Bay, which took as its straightforward starting point an unironic celebration of innovations in offshore oil drilling. Films now routinely assume corporations act in bad faith, never more so than when in unregulated foreign parts, making it easier to get less hung-up on the movie's anti-American tendencies (a red herring about how to approach a film that's, as noted by director Karel Reisz in 1991, "unselectively and impartially anti-everything").

The Wages of Fear

It's evident from the fatalistic title and first shot—a small boy tormenting insects—that everyone on-screen will have to pay for their sins. It's equally obvious that a film running two and a half hours isn't going to be killing its four protagonists off sooner than need be: the film isn't so much suspenseful as it is gleefully sadistic in toying with a cast of characters who deserve death. Even in Clouzot's cynical oeuvre, The Wages of Fear stands out for its relentless nature: it's not just the terrible, pitiless place they’re trapped in punishing the characters, but the godlike director who treats his characters like insects. He gives them tools to fight back against road blocks and oil slicks: the journey to transport the nitro requires lots of ingenuity, with the trucks' many features alternately turning into unexpected death traps and broken down into Transfomers-components.

Yet cleverness isn't the same as the capacity for empathy, which is what's being punished. Mario comes off the worst of the lot. "You can't imagine the pain," says one character to him while writhing in agony late in the game. "I don’t have the time," he responds contemptuously. No one onscreen does; Clouzot's scorn for everyone includes cynical American manager Billl O'Brien (the aptly named William Tubbs) and Hernandez, the greasy manager of the only cafe in town (Dario Moreno) in addition to the four men. Only the generic natives escape contempt; they have no agency in their exploitation. Everyone else has no business being in town, but their unearned sense of superiority by birthright dooms them. Rarely has angry anti-neocolonialist sentiment and full-bore nihilism played so entertainingly.

Posted by ahillis at 6:00 AM

December 4, 2011

INTERVIEW: David Gordon Green

by Steve Dollar

David Gordon Green

Like Woody Allen in reverse, director David Gordon Green graduated to making big, funny movies after crafting a series of acclaimed, intimate dramas. The Dallas native, whose latest escapade The Sitter opens Dec. 9, brings an encyclopedic sensibility even to stoner riffs and boob jokes, as fans of Pineapple Express and Your Highness have discovered. "My appetite for different kinds of movies is just so bipolar, it really makes no sense where my taste is," he said recently. "I literally like a ton of movies. I'm probably too generous."

Green comes to Brooklyn's BAMcinematek this week to give audiences a taste of some formative multiplex pleasures. His series "Adventures in the 80s" looks at five different movies from the era that shaped the new Jonah Hill vehicle. "You can feel the neon and the big hair," he said, chatting by phone from his home in Austin, Texas, reflecting on a compulsively movie-going childhood, back in the dark and wild era before the Internet, VOD and Rotten Tomatoes. "There's true enthusiasm. Those were my summers and my weekends and some of my school nights. You go to movies to enjoy them, not roll your eyes at them."

So we quizzed Green about some of those movies, including the obvious (Adventures in Babysitting) and the less-so (After Hours) that he celebrates.

Uncle Buck

So how did you pick these movies?

There's an evolution in the program. With The Sitter, I wanted it to sit somewhere in the comedy genre somewhere between Adventures in Babysitting and After Hours. Uncle Buck, Risky Business and Something Wild fill in the gap in between. Ultimately, The Sitter is a family comedy, but one where you should leave the kids at home. It has that pleasantly despicable leading character like Uncle Buck, which was a family film. It was a transition in John Hughes' career when he made Curly Sue and produced Home Alone. I'm not sure if it was the commercial appeal or some kind of personal evolution, but Uncle Buck stood out to me as my favorite one. John Candy's character really reflected what we wanted to go for with Jonah's character. There's sympathy for the unlikable. He's an unemployed, gambling, smoking jerk, but the audience sees him get himself together over the course of the film with the kids and they influence each others' lives.

What ties all of these together?

To me, they represent poor decision-making skills. I find great comedic opportunity in people that have problems with poor decision-making skills. Sometimes In a movie like Adventures in Babysitting, you're going to help a friend who has run away and you have very generous motives but your decision to take the kids and your decision when to call the police or not call the police becomes very unethical and thereby entertaining and comedic. In Risky Business, a young character proving to himself there's more to life than the suburban textbook, but that's because he starts calling prostitutes he maybe shouldn't call, and ends up with people at his house that probably shouldn't be there and drug dealers that get a little bananas. In After Hours and Something Wild, guys are ultimately chasing beautiful women that are bad for them. The inciting incident in our story is Jonah with the promise of getting laid by a girl our audience doesn't particularly care for. She promises to have sex with him if he'll pick up some coke and bring it to a party. There's nothing worse than the decision he would make to follow this dangling carrot and take the kids along with him on that unethical journey, but that's where we get our comedy from. All these movies are about a guy who gets caught up in his decisions. He thinks he's going to get out. We think he's going to get out. Maybe he gets home, maybe he doesn't. This movie falls into the nick-of-time genre.

After Hours

Martin Scorsese's After Hours is probably the ultimate example of that. But I'm guessing you didn't scope that at the mall.

After Hours was introduced to me the first time by Joe Minion the screenwriter, who was a professor of mine at film school. He really challenged the boundaries of what you're allowed to laugh at and what you're able to get away with in a movie. After Hours breaks a lot of rules, which I love, of comedy and of drama and adventure. It's about an everyday working stiff who finds himself caught in the grip of a crazy New York City night. We all have those nights when we can't believe what happened.

Especially in New York!

Exactly. It almost feels like a dream. Griffin Dunne, who I worked with on Snow Angels, I'm sure he was exhausted because I was always asking him about the making of that movie. There are things I laugh at that I can't imagine anybody laughs at—that scene walking into Club Berlin, just looking at Will Patton and some of the other characters who plague the movie. We wanted to have that same eccentric world where you'll meet somebody that's a bit left-of-center, and then you'll meet other people who are basically from outer space, but all trying to ground the movie in the heart of a believable character. What keeps After Hours from going into outer space is Griffin's performance, just the look in his eye. He doesn't even have to talk half the time. You really sympathize with him. I wanted The Sitter to be that dark and twisted, but somehow invite you comfortably to take the ride.

You've got to have an actor who can pull it off.

Casting is everything in a movie like this, from John Candy in Uncle Buck to Jeff Daniels in Something Wild. It has to be identifiable to you, or it becomes a satire. I guess some people could look at Something Wild as a satire, but I don't.

It's a documentary.

Exactly.

I've watched that movie a lot. It's easy to forget how key it is to have someone like Jeff Daniels in that role. He's the center of gravity.

All these movies are star vehicles in a way. We're following one person on a journey with eclectic characters and eccentric situations.

Risky Business

Which one of these did you see first?

I probably saw Risky Business first, just because I wasn't supposed to and it was on cable.

How old were you?

I was in fourth or fifth grade. It was probably a sneaky endeavor because my parents were really strict. Actually, I remember watching it literally camping out in my buddy's backyard with an extension cord, taking the TV to the backyard. It was probably on network, edited for television. I was really taken with the Tangerine Dream music, which you'll find a lot of influence in our soundtrack to that.

What's next?

Adventures in Babysitting was 1987. That was one of the biggest summers of my life. I remember being obsessed with so many movies that summer: The Untouchables, Roxanne. My friends loved movies I got really upset about, like Revenge of the Nerds II or The Lost Boys, but there were a bunch of really amazing movies. Full Metal Jacket, Predator, RoboCop, Ernest Goes to Camp. I don't know where I told my parents I was going half that summer but I definitely saw a lot of R-rated movies.

Adventures in Babysitting

At the mall?

Yeah, of course. I could duck out of the arcade and sneak in a double-feature. I was also a pro at sneaking into movies, which is probably not something to advertise. I was really good. Ultimately, I got a job at movie theaters and worked there for 10 years, so I guess I paid my dues. In college, it really played as a chick flick. Girls would love Labyrinth, Grease and Adventures in Babysitting. Those were the movies that stuck with my college-age girlfriends, so I've seen it a number of times just to talk my way into a situation or two, but at the time it was frowned upon. Everybody like The Lost Boys except me. I was like, I'm going to see La Bamba.

Elizabeth Shue was America's Sweetheart.

Oh, she was my true love. Even later when she got a little grittier in Leaving Las Vegas. I met her recently, and I rarely get star struck, but actually I had a fun night and went to a concert with her a couple of years ago. She looks the same! She looks good! You still want to see her in those little Karate Kid shorts, those little cotton gym shorts she was running around in. Exactly as charming and beautiful as 1987.

I saw her in that Steve Coogan movie... that musical about Jesus.

Hamlet 2. She was great in that movie. I went to the set of that movie, but I missed her. I was pissed. I'll stalk her. I tried to get her in the movie. I was a little reluctant, because I'm not a guy who likes cameos in movie, but I wanted her seal of approval. I thought it would be a fun thing for her to pop up as the mother of the family, but it didn't work out with her schedule. I would love to work with her. I think she's an amazing actress.

It's probably great timing for a comeback, because there's now a generation of directors who probably fantasized about her growing up.

Her and Lea Thompson. I would have given it all up for those two women. It's fun meeting your childhood idols, when they're great. Lea Thompson and Elisabeth Shue definitiely live up to every expectation and enthusiasm an 11-year-old would have.

Hey, it's finally time to revive Howard the Duck!

Absolutely. She was amazing in that. With that hairstyle, it was incredible. I was thinking about that movie the other day. I have nightmares about that movie for some reason. There's something really creepy about it.

I saw it, but I don't remember much.

Other than Lea Thompson, there's nothing really.

Posted by ahillis at 7:00 AM

December 2, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: The Yakuza (1975)

by Nick Schager

The Yakuza What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Takeshi Kitano's latest mob actioner Outrage, this week it's Sydney Pollack's genre hybrid The Yakuza.

An idiosyncratic and beguiling fusion of neo-noir and Japanese underworld drama, The Yakuza boasts a foundation of unparalleled '70s credentials: directed by Sydney Pollack, written by up-and-comer Paul Schrader with his brother Leonard (and revised by Robert Towne), and headlined by Robert Mitchum. That's more in-their-prime talent than most films could stand, and to some extent, it's more than this one can as well, though the dissonance created by its makers' various signatures ultimately proves the very quality that makes this strange crime saga thrum with uneasy energy. At times too convoluted for its own good, and often paced lethargically, Pollack's film nonetheless finds a way to raise its thematic concerns in a way that prevents neat-and-tidy solutions, its preoccupations—about U.S.-Japan relations, the sanctity and burden of ritual and responsibility, and the difficulty of affecting personal change even amidst a constantly evolving world—jumbled together with engaging messiness. That disorder is likely responsible for its middling theatrical reception. Yet in hindsight, it's what enlivens its culture-clash action, which is grounded by the reliably magnetic Mitchum, who here assumes the role of Harry Kilmer, a private detective compelled by his old army buddy-turned-businessman Tanner (Brian Keith) to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the yakuza, thus initiating a return to Japan where Kilmer was stationed post-WWII.

The Yakuza

That journey into the past is fraught with emotional distress for Kilmer, who during his Japan tour saved the life of, and fell in love with, Eiko (Keiko Kishi), only to be separated from her once her brother Tanaka Ken (Ken Takakura) returned from combat and demanded that their romance end, even as he pledged a giri—a lifelong debt of gratitude, because of Kilmer saving Eiko—to the American. Because Ken subsequently became yakuza (i.e. Japanese mafia) before rejecting that life, Kilmer seeks his assistance with his mission. As everyone makes clear, however, the last two decades haven't altered their fundamental characters or interpersonal dynamics. "You haven't changed a bit," Kilmer tells Eiko, while her daughter tells Kilmer "You look just like I remember you"—a stasis that extends to Ken as well, who despite having spurned his yakuza career (symbolized by a shot of him sheathing his blade), is forced to once again take up his sword to fulfill his obligation to Kilmer. Ken's inner conflict between anger at and indebtedness to Kilmer is mirrored by Kilmer and Eiko's own knotty feelings about their amorous predicament, all of which is also complicated by both Ken and Kilmer's staunch devotion to Eastern codes of conduct and notions of honor and responsibility.

The Yakuza

A romanticized mood of regret and inevitability hangs over The Yakuza, with Pollack frequently falling back on sequences of Mitchum traversing streets set to bluesy saxophone, or zooms into close-up during conversations that carry an air of impending doom. The director often strikes upon a sharp image—such as Mitchum sequestered on one side of the frame, visually balanced by a wall covered in foreshadowing swords and firearms—and his action sequences have a laconic shagginess that's in tune with his story's chaotic passions. Still, a more stylistically distinctive filmmaker might have imbued this material with even greater oomph, even if the combination of Mitchum's lone-wolf protagonist (which seems a Schrader contribution) and the doom-laden noir-ish plot (which has more than a touch of Towne's Chinatown intricacy) gives the proceedings a cool, velvety dreaminess. Subsequent revelations about Tanner's traitorous duplicity and, screwier still, about the true nature of Ken and Eiko's relationship send the film into something of a storytelling mess. But these developments add to the overarching atmosphere of clashing desires and duty, with Ken and Kilmer's paradoxical bitterness and respect for each other suggesting an obvious, if unstated, undercurrent about their nations' own post-war attempts to find a means of moving forward together.

The Yakuza

As when a nightclub singer croons a Japanese song about a man being defined by his debts, and then follows it up with a cheery rendition of "My Darling Clementine," The Yakuza's cross-cultural elements don't always meld smoothly. Still, a bit of bewildering jaggedness goes a surprisingly long way, and the film's recurring motif of yakuza severing their pinky fingers in an act of apology and repentance dovetails nicely with the story's portrait of Ken and Kilmer as kindred archaic souls trapped in a modern world of disreputable Tanners and yakuza kingpins who bestow no value on integrity and obligation. Never outmoded is Mitchum, and even more than Schrader and Towne's ambitious script, it's his performance—despite the charismatically stoic Takakura sharing center stage throughout—that lingers long after the dust of prolonged shootouts and sword clashes have ceased. Whether foiling an underwater attempt on his life in a bathhouse where the ultra-'70s red-slanted-walls décor is as magnificent as Mitchum's physicality, or silently acknowledging with a look of weary resignation the impossibility of achieving harmonious resolution to his, Ken and Eiko's circumstances, Mitchum is his usual iconic self: a paragon of simultaneously severe and soulful masculinity.

Posted by ahillis at 8:15 AM