Archive for 2009

Film: Giorgos Lanthimos: Dogtooth (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 29, 2010 by baker

I might be wrong, but with the exception of a brazen handheld shot toward the end, I only recall one camera move in all of Dogtooth – somewhere in the last third, a dolly across the surface of a pool from one character to two others, discussing the various kinds of sharks one could expect to encounter [out in the world].  And it’d be awfully hard, if that were the case, not to reference Tokyo Story, Ozu’s meticulously crafted meditation on the generational rifts between elderly parents and their grown children.  Assuming I’ve made a mistake and there are others, Giorgos Lanthimos still seems to be riffing on a familiar formal style, one in which the camera is not merely a passive observer, but is not even afforded the right to look where it (we) wants.  Lanthimos’ frames are all somehow off, looking beyond or underneath or askew at the action proper.  Eventually even the formal frames feel wrong – as the one in which the two sisters dance like marionettes to their brother’s guitar – because they’re breaking the film’s formal rigor.  Normal shots start to feel very weird and discomforting in this quiet, creepy little film about a profoundly dysfunctional Greek family cocooned since the children were born, presumably, in a gated house that doesn’t seem to have changed since the ’70s.

Lanthimos provides no further background except to imply that the father, who works in a curiously dental-shaped warehouse, makes excuses to his coworkers for his family’s social absence.  There is also an episode late in the film involving Rocky on videotape that hints at a more distinct social criticism, although it seems a facile explanation for just how subtly totalitarian the parents have chosen to raise their three children, now in their teens or twenties.  They know nothing of the world beyond the fence – planes passing overhead are regarded as toys that may fall into the backyard, cats are the most vicious creatures on earth, and a Frank Sinatra record is the voice of their grandfather, singing, as the father translates, a paean to strong family unity (“Fly Me to the Moon”).  There is no connection between sex and violence, although sex, as a family institution, is a privilege of the men, with whichever woman he chooses, and violence – against the flesh, against the mind – is essentially necessary and tolerated.

The only way out of this Orwellian, anti-Ozu, THX-1138 dreamscape of a nightmare is in the teeth: a child can leave the nest when his or her dog’s teeth fall out.  Those canines, the ones that help you rip meat and defend yourself – as soon as you lose them, you can leave the protection of the home.  There might be a deeper complexity lurking in Lanthimos’ film, but primarily he plays it all for comedy: dark, quiet, funky comedy, the kind that crawls up on you while you’re trying to figure out how the film works.  He neither explains anything nor lets the characters – particularly the children – behave like self-conscious individuals, at least not right away.  How they got to be near-adults without rejecting this sort of control by default, as maturing teenagers, is not important.  And to an extent, I applaud that.  Lanthimos posits a situation and runs with it.  But I also think he’s got a frailer touch, at least as a storyteller, than this film deserves; Roy Andersson built You, the Living (2007) of essentially the same self-contained lunacy, but let it focus in purpose as he went along into a beautifully funny discussion of loneliness – the funnier it got, the greater sadness it registered.

Not that predictability is in any particular way a measure of film’s worth, but I had the closing scenes of Dogtooth pretty well presumed after a while, and I’m not sure Lanthimos wanted that, or cared very much.  At a certain point movies like these start running on autopilot as narrative devices, committed to wrapping out a story for us without breaking its own rules.  Give Lanthimos credit for leaving us on a shot that answers nothing but implies several possible outcomes, each of which work for the film – although none lend it greater depth as a focused work of intellect or art.  Actually, the film’s best scene comes a bit earlier, in an exchange between the parents spoken with the children just outside the room, with exaggerated mouthing but without voices, so as not to be heard.  For a moment there is a sense that one of the parents recognizes this hellish environment for what it is, but the other kills any hope for escape with a decision of monstrous dimensions.

The short scene is very dark, and very funny, and lends a comic bent to what comes next, but stuff like this needs either greater consequences or none at all to fully flower, and I think Lanthimos takes the middle road.  Which is sort of where his film has been going all along.  If he’s really riffing off Tokyo Story, he’s kind of done everything right: the formal framing, the vignettish narration, the completely consistent performances, the reversed family dynamics.  Lanthimos, I believe, knows what movie he’s trying to make.  The French have done well to award it at Cannes with the prize for Un certain regard – with what regard, I’m not certain, but un for sure.

Film: Michael Haneke: The White Ribbon (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on July 2, 2010 by baker

In lieu of explicit storytelling, Michael Haneke blows smoke in front of your eyes, and then sculpts the air in such a way as to cut shapes out of the smoke.  His images are not in and of themselves the point.  They carry the ability to wield tremendous visceral weight, but they do it after the fact, in relation to each other, upon reflection.  I don’t know how he does this.  It’s the absolute essence of using the medium, as opposed to fashioning a story with its lumbering, tangible parts, and what you see is only a tiny fraction of what you eventually get.  Very often I feel lost in a Haneke film right up until the end, when the smoke takes shape and his intentions become boldly, shockingly visible.  If there was ever a filmmaker so deserving of a substance-versus-style analysis, it is Haneke – more than David Lynch, more than Wes Anderson, more than Almodóvar; Haneke is on their par as a consummate craftsman, but there is nothing showy about his filmmaking.  His is rigorously, illusorily simple, and requires that you look all the way through it.

It’s a style that will frustrate literal-minded viewers, in particular because it’s so concrete in form, seeming to indicate that he will eventually show you what he’s talking about.  His frames are studies in clean formal precision, his subjects almost always in the center, the camera never allowed a mind of its own.  His shots appear to make so much classical sense that it becomes disconcerting when – as is so frequently the case in The White Ribbon – scenes cut without an obvious conclusion.  In one extended shot, Haneke watches a puritanical pastor’s wife prepare the titular items to tie to their two eldest children’s arms, and then hustle them into the pastor’s study for a cane beating – and then, in the same shot, one of the children leaving the room and entering another to fetch the cane.  Such extended observance implies a bigger conclusion to the sequence, but Haneke cuts out quickly as the beatings begin offscreen.  There is a ritual at work here, both onscreen and through Haneke’s camera: an inevitability of behavior leading to a cold certainty about the outcome.

A calculated, cerebral directness has always played a heavy role in Haneke’s work – from the Grand Guignol horror shows that are Funny Games (1997, and its pointless, shot-for-shot 2007 remake) and Caché (2005) to the explosive psychological maneuverings of Benny’s Video (1992) and The Piano Teacher (2001) – but he has never carried out the natural logic of his own oblique style to the extent that he does in The White Ribbon.  As always, his storytelling is circuitous almost to a fault: after the opening shot, in which a tripwire sends a galloping horse and its rider crashing to the ground with sickening speed, he engages with an evasive, elliptical structure, lopping off the heads and tails of scenes and circumventing narrative logic with apparent oblivion.  For a while, he seems to be making a bad film, deliberately avoiding the slightest suggestion of the most basic dramatic resolution in order to irritate or inflame.  Worse, the damage begins to mount, in beaten children and death by murder or suicide (it’s never clear which), but it all happens between scenes, to be discovered or discussed later.

I have to admit that, although conscious that I was in the presence of some kind of artwork, I didn’t find my footing in The White Ribbon until I’d seen it three times.  Haneke’s formalism has a way of throwing you off – nobody makes films quite so intellectually stringent, and yet so loaded with mortal tension – but there is always a character-based behavioral logic adhered to with a conviction most filmmakers barely consider valuable; life is too full of whim.  Part of his logic this time around is to include the scenes his colder films have always left out: the warm and comic human moments between innocents, narrative threads that contradict Haneke’s standard-issue trajectory.  I expected there to be a darkness buried within, and there is, but not as a result of these scenes so much as in opposition to them – humanity can still be quite lovely.  Somewhere during my third viewing the whole thing came swooping together for me in a sudden rush of recognition, and I began to love this film all over again, and more deeply.

With unnerving depth and focus, The White Ribbon is about children’s absorption of their parents’ ideals, in one of the worst cases known yet to man.  Narrated by the voice of an elderly man who appears as a 31-year-old schoolteacher in the film’s pre-World War I Northern German village, the story watches the town’s leadership structure – its doctor, its priest, its baron and his steward – lash out in a series of self-succoring punishments in response to a slew of perverse crime.  There are injuries and deaths; the children all seem involved, but they could just be curious observers.  Deep uncertainty settles over the village, but quietly.  One doesn’t disrupt the natural order of this community by pointing out its rampaging disharmony.  One barely acknowledges disharmony at all, not when a vicious slap, a casual beat-down, or a cursory embarrassment will do.  The film comes in waves of social degeneration, to the point where crime and punishment become indistinguishable, the decent locked out of rational discussion with the powerful by self-erected walls of self-protective self-flagellation.

With Cache and this film, Haneke has probably become the world’s greatest horror filmmaker of existential dimensions.  Bad shit happens to complicated people, with no prayer for resolution or catharsis.  David Edelstein complained in New York Magazine that, on that front, Haneke “doesn’t deign to deliver the genre goods”, leaving audiences behind in their expectations and “yet still giv[ing] the bourgeois audience the finger”, which sounds more like the whining of a jilted child than a mature film critic.  Frustratingly, this stingy need of people to cling to generic satisfaction is far more disturbing than anything Michael Haneke put on film, as it speaks of a fierce disjoint in these folks’ minds between film and any unique perspective on life – nothing shown on the screen need reflect the mysteries and vagaries of real experience if it hampers that Aristotelian dramatic arc.  Real horror in film comes in the shock of sudden recognition that the world is not what we make of it, that it contains almost unfathomable darkness, and that the evil festering therein will in all likelihood carry itself through to the very, very end.

We need not see any of this evil – and Haneke shows virtually none – as long as there can be no doubt of any kind that it exists and will self-perpetuate.  A measure of Haneke’s thorough precision, the last shot of The White Ribbon begins with resplendent banality and gradually takes on, in details that upend what we believe is going on, absolutely monstrous implications – not only for the immediate future, but for the next generation.  Haneke has always included at least one moment in his films of pure white shock – a shriek of immutable, head-spinning violence.  He saves that moment in The White Ribbon until after the last shot has faded, ever so slowly, to black.  There is no question where this is going, and it is horrifying.

Film: Jacques Audiard: A Prophet (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on March 28, 2010 by baker

The epic gangster film is by no means a new genre; recent entries like City of God (2002) and Gomorra (2008) infused it with a sort of pop hipness that was never anything less than keeping with the wannabe grandeur of the punk kids stretching their limits. These films flaunt their handheld bravura in a vibrant avalanche of violence and disorder, and probably owe more, stylistically, to a Spike Lee joint, an Amélie (2001), or a La haine (1995) than to the two films Coppola made that defined the modern form. The word that comes to mind is pastiche: an international, multilingual plot confection of rigorously woven story threads, a hip hop soundtrack, and endless references to the likes of Tony Montana. A Prophet falls neatly into the category, and this isn’t exactly a criticism. These are pretty good films, valuing a sort of gangland palace intrigue over complex thematic development, but so what? If Audiard’s film owes a certain stylistic debt to “The Wire” or Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), there are certainly far worse points of departure for a film so determined to push its characters to their respective fates.

The danger in these films is that their overt style might obliterate any depth they may be reaching for; a French film featuring Corsican and Arabic, and the occasional de rigeur American hip hop track, raises hairy red flags of pomp over meaning. And the “We Are the World” overtones of Babel or Slumdog Millionaireladen with blaring ethnic scores, a pop star or two (or one in the apparent making), and a buffed sheen for its own sake – are disingenuous at best, and offensively naive at worst, signifying essentially the same righteous, simplistic perspective that got us into, but frustratingly not out of, Helmand province or Sadr City. But Gomorra, and now A Prophet, show gratifyingly different interests. Audiard may be too in love with the pastiche, but he’s absolutely set on the Wagnerian scope and tenor of his film, and once you’re settled into it, it is mesmerizing.

It took me a while to find my rhythm in the film, and while I dig Audiard’s meticulously circuitous route, I think he shoots himself in the foot a bit by not providing his lead – a young French-Arab thrown in prison for unspecified crimes – with a back story. Normally I think back stories are vastly overrated, but in this case, we’re meant to accept Malik as a kid with no sense of who he is when he arrives, but this feels wrong to me in some abstract way, more a plot device than a character trait (particularly in a film that continues to build, inexorably, on character traits). Malik barely registers onscreen in the opening scenes, showing up beaten and cowed. It’s only when he’s offered hash in exchange for a blowjob in the shower that he shows his first sign of a personality, in a predictable expression of mortified outrage. I don’t argue that a teenager’s imprisonment doesn’t muffle him across the board, at least for a while, but nowhere in the film’s 2 1/2 hours do we get a sense of who Malik was before, or how that shapes who he becomes while inside.

Maybe that’s Audiard’s point. Malik’s basically a cypher in the first hour, a weakling conscribed to murder for the Corsican inmate mob that runs the show. The victim is the man who offered the hash, a fellow Arab with bleached blond hair who attracts the attention of the gang and its draconian ringleader, César, before he even gets in the gate. His offense, like everyone’s, remains obscured; Audiard isn’t interested in the past – it just got us here, that’s all. César presents his cypher with a blunt and extraordinarily clear offer: kill the Arab, and we won’t kill you. Thus Malik begins to train, hiding a razor in his cheek and miming fellatio on a Corsican stand-in. Malik’s moral objections don’t stand long in his way – although we’re lead to understand he hardly got his six years for murder – and the killing, messy and awkward, is numbingly visceral. It’s clear that to Audiard we are little more, in the end, than heavy sacks of blood and tissue. César seems to agree, and quickly makes Malik his pet Arab errand boy.

What follows is a meticulous delineation of Malik’s time in prison, his influences and his gradual crawl up the Corsican food chain toward César’s throne at the top, in an endless series of stunningly fluid sequences. A Prophet should feel much, much longer than it is; it never takes a moment to circle back on itself, to build on an idea longer than it takes to move on to the next one. Audiard has a jokester’s sense of timing, stacking the deck firmly against his cypher to see how long it takes him to make a man out of himself (in French prison terms, of course), and he punctuates his setpieces – the Arab’s murder, Malik’s day pass trips outside the prison on brutally exposed odd jobs for César, the various power shake-ups within the prison walls – with a hammy bravado. For every haunting shot of Malik’s Arab kill spinning in Sufi ecstasy, his throat slit and bloodless, there’s a throwaway joke between them; Audiard lacks a certain conviction to take his own audacity seriously.

Look, I like A Prophet very much. It’s tight, and achieves what it sets out to do. Audiard’s writing and direction are sort of wonderful, and he’s cast the film with magnificently present actors, men with articulate stares who can turn on a dime into bestial scrappers. If I shuffle at the sentencing, it’s because Gomorra had a self-conscious quality, aware of how big it was going to get and letting a perverse sense of catastrophic dread creep into the works – as do The Godfathers, and Scarface, and Goodfellas. For all his flourishes, nothing about director Matteo Garrone’s camerawork or editing feels superfluous – their swoop and punch lend exactly the right vertiginous shock across the film’s highs and lows. Audiard behaves a little like a kid with a ton of great ideas who can’t wait to drop them all into his first feature (this is his sixth): the perfect track, the fantastically sobering executions, the visual playfulness. He handles them all with deft precision, but for all the pretenses of religious overtones (the title comes up in a scene that feels tacked on, excessive), he doesn’t seem quite aware of the dimensions his gangster saga might have enjoyed if it had looked inward at itself. I don’t know, I suppose it takes a certain unseemly grandiloquence to present a lot of great storytelling without letting the hokey self-awareness take over; it’s a quality that makes Amélie feel both vibrant and strangely unmoored, adrift in its own abandon. These films can be extraordinary fun, but they feel to me like the friend you can’t quite get a handle on: the one who tells great stories, makes you laugh and stare with dropped jaw in equal measure, but never says anything you think about later.

Film: Martin Scorsese: Shutter Island (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on March 15, 2010 by baker

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are a good fit for each other, at this point.  Their best work appears well behind them, and they both now seem stuck in a perpetual state of late-term adolescence.  Scorsese has done his heavy lifting – Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), even Kundun (1997) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999) – and has been slumming comfortably in Hollywood bombast for the last decade.  Even at its most trivial, there’s never a feeling that his cinema craft has gotten beyond him, or that he’s lost his ability to see his way through visual dynamism with the easy hand of a consummate artist.  He hasn’t; his craftsmanship is now slick, effortless.  But that sort of filmmaking isn’t what made his best films work.  He’s always had greater effect when his stories, characters, and craft grappled grittily with tough, bony cuts of beef – he’s been trying pretty hard, but delectable fudge is just not on his menu as a master chef.  DiCaprio vanished into What’s Eating Gilbert Grape to an extent he’s never approximated since, surely as much a result of his limited star status in 1993 as his physical suitability to the teenage role.  He now looks half his age (he’s 35), and the harder he commits himself to a role, the more he comes across as a teenager exaggerating the behavior of a man.  I believe he puts his heart and brain into a film like Blood Diamond (2006), but I simply don’t accept him as a rough-souled Afrikaner diamond runner, or a world-weary suburban husband in Revolutionary Road (2008), or psychotic Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004), or…or…  (But he could nail, at age 28, 16-year-old Frank Abagnale in Catch Me If You Can (2002).)  It’s not exactly his fault.  He’s just physically screwed.

A direct result of Scorsese’s and DiCaprio’s latter-day shortcomings, I think, Shutter Island is just silly.  It’s neither rich enough in texture nor oblique enough in narrative to bring to life its profoundly disturbing psychological core, and Laeta Kalogridis’ script is far too literal to be subconsciously frightening.  Instead, Scorsese has gone full-on camp in his tone, barreling through the opening passages with crippling impatience and a monstrously Hitchcockian score – which might have developed into pleasurably coked-out, high-strung excess if it weren’t for Scorsese’s unfailing inability to keep a certain humanity out of his filmmaking.  You bought Nick Nolte’s paranoia perhaps a little too well to take the insipid clumsiness of Cape Fear (1991), and, likewise, Scorsese’s commitment to trying very, very hard to make DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels a complex person instead of a melodramatic construct tempers the funky dread Shutter Island might have conjured.  Instead it feels blocky and insincere, wanting to be two incongruous films at once.

For all of its inherent vapidity, The Silence of the Lambs (1991) spent its opening sequences crafting a visual aesthetic that Jonathan Demme maintained rigorously throughout, a combination of roving perspective and unflinching stares (his actors often looking directly into the lens) that rooted the film in a constant and unsettling sense of exposure, of vulnerability.  He plays his actors like a piano, Jodie Foster in low key and Anthony Hopkins in high, the contrast between the two complementing the ham out of the core drama and leaving Ted Levine with all the room imaginable to let loose with Buffalo Bill’s near-caricatured psychoses.  The film is mathematical in its restraint; Demme wants nothing more than to creep the everloving shit out of you.  He’s certainly no less of a humanist than Scorsese – Melvin and Howard (1980) is more vibrant than anything Scorsese has ever done, which is not a judgment – but he recognizes that to make a thriller, your essential instincts as a dramatist need elicit nothing at all but effect.

It’s still hard to reconcile Scorsese’s obvious admiration for DiCaprio with his revelatory work with De Niro thirty-five years ago, as the two performers couldn’t be more divergent in their physical and vocal tactics.  But Scorsese keeps pushing DiCaprio through film after film of reasonable ambition, with a certain proclivity toward lead characters of operatic defect, and in his cover-boy prettiness and inability to convey adult emotions with an adult persona, DiCaprio’s youthful earnestness should be right for it.  Complexity doesn’t make opera fly; De Niro in his heyday would have smothered a Gangs of New York under the weight of skilled physical characterization.  Yet Scorsese still wants to speak to us, and however grand he aspires to be, he knows there’s nothing subtly articulate about opera.

Shame.  He leaps into Shutter Island with classical bravado, his swooping camera wide and appreciably glossless, his score (all of it preexisting, none original to the film) pounding inexorably toward…something creepy.  I suspect he knows how hollow the script really is, and is more than happy to get us through the cliched scenes of chatty exposition toward the twist that comes along somehow early, and develops too deeply.  The situation on Shutter Island is maniacally idiotic – I wonder whether Scorsese hoped that by diving into the twist at length he might spare us the arid thriller conceit of unraveling the twist in a sudden flash of revelation, and urge us to consider its psychological underpinnings instead, but the problem with a twist is that it’s designed to undo the world we think we know in the film.  Even Scorsese would need another half a film to give the revelation blistering psychic heat. And I don’t think he’d ever get past the absolutely bizarre behavior his supporting cast has had to perform, to justify it as anything but a storyteller’s glib trickery.

And…yes.  Fine.  I am too hard on Avatar, on Slumdog Millionaire, on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  These movies are not shooting for cosmic insight.  They want only to entertain, to lull you away from yourself for a couple hours with the promise of a good, light buzz.  And I believe that movies need only be taken as seriously as they take themselves.  But three years ago Scorsese got himself an Oscar for directing The Departed, the least lazy of this decade’s half dozen films of his, probably his most profitable, and a remake.  I wonder if he felt the odd pang of disappointment some of us experienced that evening, to see an honest-to-good-christ cinematic visionary placed in the pantheon of American film appreciation for a herky-jerky strip of celluloid pulp.  Not a bad film, not a great one – and that’s what he’s recognized for after all these years.  He used to go for a jog with lumpy but strident films like After Hours (1985) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).  The only thing he’s done in the past ten years that even hints at his prodigious dexterity with the medium is the documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), about a man who, in his youth, made some of the most radically engaging art of his generation, and who settled into retirement age with, most recently, a cover album of Christmas songs.

Footnote: lists remakes of Kurosawa’s High and Low and Michael Haneke’s Caché (starring DiCaprio) under Scorsese’s “In Development” credits.  Nevermind the pointlessness of remaking great films; the tragedy of contemporary Scorsese outhacking Hollywood numbs the brain.

Film: Scott Cooper: Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on January 28, 2010 by baker

Jeff Bridges, the screen presence, has always seemed on the cusp of either busting into a healthy gut laugh or dissolving in a fit of wrenched-soul despair.  The thin line he rides can make him at times immeasurably fun to behold – a poised, vaguely effete shaggy dog of a comedian – or incredibly hard to watch, his frail emotions roiling just behind his tiny eyes.  He’s got his tricks down, as any actor with a 30-year career behind him will, but in the best of roles he manages to troll beyond them for something fresh and clear, something uncannily human beyond the written lines and the essentially silly demands of narrative screen craft.  He’s as helplessly subject as anyone to the quirks of his director and editor, but at a certain level – like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Pacino in his youth – he seems fundamentally unable to lie with his behavior and delivery, even if the material he’s working with doesn’t always offer truth on its own.

He’s one of very few actors – perhaps the only one – for whom I would see a film purely for a performance.  And most of his films are, as films, quite messy.  Peter Weir has his moments in Fearless (1993), particularly with the odd catharsis he delivers with the horrifying plane crash, but Bridges’ liquid presence, mired in willful oblivion and childlike sensual engagement, preserves the core of sublime human frailty that Raphael Iglesias’ script just about overlooks.  Terry Gilliam never quite knows where to put his camera, but Bridges roots his performance in The Fisher King (1991) in something ineffably real (and which, as played opposite Robin Williams, might not even be the right note for the film).  Even Joel and Ethan, floundering for a purpose in The Big Lebowski (1998) (sorry, everybody), can’t make Bridges anything less than utterly, absorbingly pleasurable to watch, a hippie lizard sunning himself in the funky eclipse of the Coens’ whimsy.

It should come as no surprise of any kind that Bridges’ Crazy Heart director, Scott Cooper, is an actor.  He pays an actor’s attention to molding his characters in mood-conscious time and space, and he’s done well to fill his crew with craftsmen weaned on actor-directed films: Billy Bob Thornton’s cinematographer, Barry Markowitz, and casting director Mary Vernieu; Ed Harris’ Appaloosa production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and construction coordinator Ben Zeller.  But Cooper also brings a lovely spatial awareness to Crazy Heart and a soft editing touch that spares his performers from having to carry too much weight for him; he frequently lets his camera drift into his scenes from the periphery, and cuts gently through them without visual impatience.  Bridges is free to play alcoholic, late-career country singer-songwriter Bad Blake as a man rather than as a narrative construct; Cooper does his job as director to build the film out of subtle, uncompromised blocks of articulate behavior.

The result is what Tender Mercies probably tried to be in 1983: a subdued character piece of remarkable progressive dimension, buoyed by a powerhouse of a central performance and superb supporting parts (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell do not disappoint).  But Robert Duvall (who’s executive producer of Crazy Heart, and plays a small part), an actor of great tact under the guidance of a Coppola or a Lumet, does not radiate the same unerring gravitas from one role to the next, and Mercies director Bruce Beresford is not a born filmmaker (nor is Cooper) or a gifted director of actors (Cooper is); there are layers to Duvall’s Mac Sledge that slip away from the film, unrealized, from lack of graceful craftsmanship.  It’s a tall order, to let performances carry a film.  The danger is that it’ll lose a sense of its own trajectory, lost in the muffling nooks and folds of character; a whole film may not emerge.  In the best case scenarios – The Godfathers, Last Tango, There Will Be Blood – enormously confident filmmakers allowed their films the possibility of being upended by overwhelming performances, all the while reigning them in under one cohesive cinematic net.  No scale of performance need ever expand beyond the boundaries of a film; no core performance need ever be scaled down to fit in a film, either.

Bridges has been around the block a few times, and I imagine he’s got a fine-tuned sense of his own presence.  His mannerisms sometimes show a bit more than they should in Crazy Heart – he has a way of extracting a cigarette from his mouth that seems plucked from some other, groovier, part – and it’s possible that Cooper wanted a little more Jeff Bridges in Bad Blake than the character necessarily required, but this is the kind of criticism one raises when one (me) doesn’t have anything more to criticize.  The music performances in Crazy Heart are frequent and lengthy, and illustrate the quality of old-time country music that, like classic rock, cracks open the showy foolishness of its modern pop descendants.  The songs Bridges performs – himself, rather well – are straightforward but reserved, sung inwardly with generous warmth that wends its way into the audience as on a light breeze – the audience in the film, and to us as well.  They are wonderfully understated songs, about being a man, about being an aging man; there’s a tricky little scene in which Gyllenhaal chastises Blake not for effortlessly picking out a gorgeous ditty on his guitar, on the fly, but for doing it on her bed, providing her with an association Blake the traveling performer will probably forget.  The song itself isn’t half the point.  Its position in time and place to the player and listener means a lot more, as song and memory leapfrog past each other.

There’s the sudden feeling, watching scenes like this, that Bridges the actor has earned his way to a role like this, with a lifetime of accumulated facets that add up to memories for us.  It isn’t the same as Mickey Rourke playing Randy Robinson in The Wrestler (2008), where Rourke’s own failures seemed as much a part of the performance as his acting.  Bridges was never self-destructive; he’s routinely the best part of his films.  And presumably, Bad Blake was once the best part of his own act: a brilliant songwriter, a magnificent performer, and a mentor to the younger country singer-songwriters who would skyrocket to fame far surpassing his own.  Bridges is not a marquee superstar, but he commands the kind of attention and respect reserved for the quiet lifers: the Tom Waitses, the Paul Schraders, the ones you can be sure have a vast reservoir of experience to draw from, and a lot more to say than they may care to spell out.

The film’s closing scenes remind us just how bound an actor is to forces outside himself.  The film as a dramatic vehicle ends a good twenty minutes before the credits roll, and we’re compelled to watch Blake rehabilitate.  Bridges does all he can with these scenes, and Cooper means them earnestly, and all things considered, Crazy Heart might very well be Bridges’ best film, but there’s a scene in a shopping mall security that takes Blake to the very end of the line.  A cut to a later, intimate concert – Blake calmer, quieter, an even older man – might have bypassed the de facto syrup ladled on instead.  The end isn’t a lie, really, but it’s not fair to provide such rousing redemption for a character so responsible for his own failings, and as conscious of his own need to change.  Bridges is above it.

Film: Werner Herzog: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on November 28, 2009 by baker

As a filmmaker, Herzog often doesn’t appear to give one good goddamn about his stories. He slaps them up on the screen so he can plunder them, of unique performances and unearthly beats, in ways no other filmmaker ever born could dream up (or at least dare to tackle). Fitzcarraldo contains an extended sequence of scurrying masses of indigenous Amazonians hauling an enormous riverboat over the narrow berm of land separating two strands of the same river – and it’s no mystery now, as if the film doesn’t illustrate it clearly enough, that Herzog actually accomplished this. No CGI in 1982 could do what Herzog did with hundreds of extras and a lot of leverage, and this bizarrely awesome chunk of filmmaking stands straight up from the somewhat mediocre drama around it, a colossus of imagination and cinematic integrity. Everything else is an excuse to give us such moments of thundering visceral effect.

No shock, and in typical Herzog style, that Bad Lieutenant contains two scenes of such startling conceptual brilliance that the rest of the film feels sort of shapeless, but in a way that seems to give rise to the best parts. The first involves Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective and a pair of iguanas perched on a desktop, and the tiny handheld camera used to film the sequence. It’s an odd effect for Herzog, absolutely attuned to the psychology of his main character but perversely tiny in scale, and the comic genius of the scene only grows with its ridiculous duration and the flawless timing of performance and editing that concludes it. The second involves thugs, guns, and Nicolas Cage’s drugged detective giving perhaps the best excuse in film history for shooting a dead man again: “because his soul is still dancing”. What follows is a staggering few seconds’ cartoon of psychological malaise so vibrantly timed and rendered that, for the few brief seconds, Bad Lieutenant soars. We’re in another film.

Ultimately Herzog doesn’t quite know how to build to and from these scenes; they just emerge, free-floating, from the film’s ambient fog. Which is pleasurable enough, more Touch of Evil (1958) than Abel Ferrera’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), filled with blasts of colorful light and careening wide-angle photography and Cage’s untethered performance. But all this doesn’t feel intrinsic to anything contained in the film, or inducive of anything beyond. Bad Lieutenant feels like a rough cut of a much better film, its strongest elements in place but the connective tissue half-formed – a little premie, crying with life but unprepared to fend for itself (the ungainly, weirdly pirated title does little to compensate). It’s not a new problem for Herzog. Cobra Verde (1987), Woyzeck (1979), Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) – these are all missing parts, trundling along on vim and enthusiasm instead of cohesive cinematic fluency.

The same could be said of Cage’s performance. Just prior to Bad Lieutenant‘s release in New York, the Times ran an article by Manohla Dargis exploring Cage’s wayward choices as an actor (“Madness or Method? Tough to Tell“). She’s right to emphasize his broader strokes, like Con Air (1997) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), yet she skims over Leaving Las Vegas (1995) without moving on at all to what, to my mind, is Cage’s best work to date: Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Cage can ham it up with bravado in The Rock (1996), but he is also capable of extraordinary pathos under the guidance of an intelligent and discerning director. His Frank Pierce is a moody wisp of a man wallowing in his own guilt and inconsequence – I can’t imagine another actor in the part. Scorsese convulses his way through Bringing Out the Dead to the tempo of Van Morrison’s “TB Sheets”, heaving and lurching through three nights with a paramedic battling the specter of death on a few hours of sleep. The film is a violent plane ride, the kind that has you worried about the airframe, and Cage is the kind of actor who will risk thespian virtuosity for the sake of turbulence. He’s got the face for it, soft but full of shadows, and when he opens his toothy mouth, the whole thing changes shape. Perhaps no one else short of Daniel Day-Lewis could consciously lift his gangling arms above a throng of giggling schoolgirls to avoid tarnishing them with his grimy soul.

Knowing that Cage is capable of so much tact, it’s concerning to see him repeat himself in Bad Lieutenant. The performance is a best-of amalgamation. I don’t deny that Herzog needed Cage’s abandon; Cage is a star, and Klaus Kinski is dead. But I wonder if Cage has played himself out, whether he’s got any new facets to show. The other possibility is that he needs the formal rigor of a Scorsese, rather than the free-form vigor of a Herzog, to find the right balance between honest expression and grandeur. Under Herzog, he leans too far to the latter, for effect instead of connection. Then again, so does Herzog – it’s hardly a surprise to learn that he completed two films in 2009. The other, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, is due for release in December.

Maybe bounding from odd peak to obscure hill is Herzog’s unique place, in world cinema, to keep. For all of his complete fiction films – Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu (1979) – and documentaries – The Great Ecstasy of the Sculptor Steiner (1974), Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) – there are his La Soufrieres (1977): dramatic larks of ferocious ambition that somehow fail to come together.  But contained in La Soufriere is a portrait, however formless, of a specific place at a profoundly specific time: an abandoned volcanic island on the frothing brink of eruption. Who else could make that film? Who else would dare, at so likely a cost to perfection? Herzog’s films are experiences, first and last. They are to be seen and heard and felt, above all, from moment to moment, not as a formed whole. And he’s among incredibly few filmmakers – with Cassavetes, maybe, and Altman – who are content to begin a film with the conceit of abandoning control over it, in order to recapture a bolder declaration of vitality on the far side of production.

Film: John Hillcoat: The Road (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on November 27, 2009 by baker

Cormac McCarthy writes as if from a distance, watching his characters with a detached clarity that hides none of their contradictions, or the chilly indifference of the world they inhabit.  Decades ago, in, say, “Blood Meridian” and “Outer Dark”, he spelled these things out in great, coarse detail, but exhibited no more inclination toward pop characterization than in his spare recent works, “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road”.  These read like screenplays, their enormous dramatic weight built accumulatively from the piecemeal narrative fragments that compel the reader to sift further in search of what other writers might give in self-conscious abundance: hooks. The trouble with hooks, or course, is that they don’t exist in life – they’re a distilled and sharpened version of life as we live it.  McCarthy at his shuddering best crafts stories at an oblique angle to drama, leaving the broad strokes to define themselves at length, over duration – the way we might feel them in our own reflective conscience.  What gets our attention is the way he writes: with poetic gravity, sometimes bordering on stolid, that seems to have pared the whole of earthly existence down to the one short string of English words imaginable.  He hooks with the line alone.

The things McCarthy manages to evoke in “The Road” are hard to express.  I felt a complete sense of perspective, unlimited by his characters but never stretching beyond them either, a god looking down at his archetypes, creator and creation both asking the essential questions inspired by their ruined surroundings.  How to move on, and to what?  For all its curt, specific dialogue and the raw fear sketched in the mind of the Man trying to keep his Boy alive, I never imagined faces on these people.  They are Humans wandering on the rim of human experience, their pasts worthless and their futures unfathomably unpredictable.  Skeletal prose has never seemed better suited to its content.

Which makes an adaptation to film virtually impossible.  McCarthy conjures with spare suggestion, not really imagery.  His words matter, not his characters’.  And when I heard that the director of The Proposition (2005) – dark, but not exactly a repository of visual restraint or patient mood-building – was going to tackle The Road as a film, the deep cynic in me grew anxious about another The Sheltering Sky via Bertolucci.  John Hillcoat exhibits a grungy flash in The Proposition that feels appropriate to Nick Cave’s dire, apocalyptic script, but he shows little humane sensitivity, or cinematic fluency in his choppy compositions and editing.  “The Road” is an Angelopoulos film, or a Tarkovsky film, or a Bela Tarr film of Satantango dimensions, rooted in the smell of the earth and the inexorable deliberateness of people discovering cold truths now, and now, and now.  It is no more a vehicle for showy, jolting style than for Triumphs of the Human Spirit.

The good news is that Hillcoat (and his Proposition screenwriter, Joe Penhall) very much wants to be faithful to McCarthy’s tone.  He is respectful of its fits and starts, even mimicking McCarthy’s ellipses with fades to black, and coating the whole film in the right dust and gloom of McCarthy’s burnt-out, falling-tree world.  Javier Aguirresarobe’s superlative photography is the best part of the adaptation, and perhaps the most difficult to render, cued as it is by evocative language alone.  There’s an unhurried pace to the film, and a gradual rise of inevitability that leads to the novel’s conclusion, which Penhall follows, in the Coens’ No Country style, with extraordinary fidelity.  Even the performances hold up – Hillcoat shows a far subtler awareness of verbal delivery than The Proposition suggested, and both Viggo Mortensen and his young costar, Kodi Smit-McPhee, seem to have walked right onto McCarthy’s pages and swallowed the archetypes whole.  These actors don’t quite create characters so much as embody their tone – a substantially harder task, I would argue, than fabricating arcs to “play” characters through, in traditional Hollywood fashion.

What’s missing is a feeling that any of this bears deeper resonance.  Whole sequences, carrying all the right beats and performed with the right degree of subtle directness, pass without current beneath their surface, as though we’re standing over an icy river instead of waist-deep in the cold water below.  I felt scenes simply failing to broaden, as they played out, into anything more than the literal visualization of the action McCarthy spelled out, minus his mighty gravitas.  A great deal of the problem, to my mind, is that so much of the film is told in closeups of the characters.  No doubt a result of the cost of the CGI necessary to create The Road‘s physical desolation, as well as a thoroughly Hollywood perception that the human face carries all requisite emotional context in a film, these closeups begin to reign in the novel’s sepulchral weight.  Putting constant faces to such broad allegorical precision – bear with me on that one – narrows the role of empathy in that context.  A closeup asks us to consider this person here, not an allegory; and since McCarthy has given us such nonspecific entities, such basic, essential sketches of Humans, the drama encoded in the exact faces of Penhall’s characters takes precedence over the leviathan drama McCarthy intimates at length, and around the edges of his scenes.  It takes the sensitivity to see beyond the function of a shot by itself to pull this off.  Hillcoat uses the right visual style, but it doesn’t seem familiar or unique to him.  He’s borrowed it without feeling his way through it.  A lot of his shots, tight and formally nebulous, are just inappropriate.

The natural soundtrack of the film is impressive, laden with the groan of falling trees and the rumbling of earthquakes, but the score, by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, is no help, serving only to coax and sugarcoat.  I’m suspicious of film scoring in general, since too much clear emotion is so easily infused into a film with music; a director needs to fill his scenes with greater, more complex emotion than his music implies.  And the tragedy of the score, really, is that it spells out how Hillcoat wants you to feel about his film – the very last thing McCarthy ever approached in his prose.  You felt how to respond to the writing because it was focused and greedless.  You’re unsure how to feel about The Road because Hillcoat is less of a sculptor of cinema than McCarthy is of language.  Even Tarkovsky was careful to adapt works that worked less on the strength of literature than on their authors’ strengths as storytellers, allowing him to make a better film than the novel it started out as.

There’s always something to be said for taking a film like The Road entirely on its own terms, independent of the source text.  Its own merits, taken as a sequence of scenes from credits to credits, aren’t wholly dismissible.  It evokes its mood with effortless consistency, and it’s attentive to the silence of a newly uninhabited world.  Had I not read the novel two years ago, though, I suspect I’d still find the film oddly unmoving.  For all its work to create the personal experiences of the Man and Boy, as a film The Road is conflicted about how to look at itself, never entirely certain how to place these experiences in a broader context.  There are flashbacks to the Wife and Mother (Charlize Theron) that strive to emphasize the loss of Life, but these scenes do nothing to articulate just how lonely, fragmented, and uncertain things are in the new world – the deeper, fuller theme McCarthy built, a piece at a time, over the course of his novel.  Having read “The Road”, it’s hard to see how the film that wants to illustrate it works on its own terms – maybe a Sisyphean task, at the end of the day.  Film is specific in ways literature is free not to be.  Literature doesn’t have to give us faces.

Film: Lars von Trier: Antichrist (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on October 27, 2009 by baker

I hope Lars von Trier’s dedication of his Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky fits neatly, in von Trier’s head, into his wildly deadpan sarcastic streak; it’s hard to see the dedication as anything but a formal joke, a near parody of the things Tarkovsky was able to accomplish with his fiercely controlled, dreamscapish style. People become forms in abstract motion, in Tarkovsky’s slow-motion soliloquies, shot in stark black and white that always seems to lend a certain purist degree of vitality to these sequences. If you can accept the lifelessness that threatens to creep into it, and take it as abstraction, Tarkovsky’s best work rises far above narration, above the telling of stories, and glorifies human experience with the ecstatic formality of a Mozart concerto. Von Trier borrows the form and castrates it with glib, infantile snobbery.

It’s the most boring kind of cinematic snobbery, the kind that mars films like Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Borman’s Deliverance (1972), and, say, Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998) and Mendes’ American Beauty (1999), where a certain formality of style stands in for any true expressiveness. Lord, I hate these movies. Their directors have noticed formality work before, in Coppola’s work, in Bergman’s, in Tarkovsky’s, in some of their own films (early Bertolucci, up to 1900 (1977), held firm sway over contemporary cinematic form, masterful in its control and vertiginous in effect), but they’ve mistaken rigorous craftsmanship as bearing intrinsic truth. Films have to work harder than that. No form carries any meaning; like architecture, it must be put carefully in context by sensitive and insightful craftsmen to hold its intended weight.

Von Trier has built a persona out of meticulously chaotic formality, from his handheld, mic-in-shot messiness of The Idiots (1998) to a deconstruction of the musical in Dancer in the Dark (2000) and the stageplay in Dogville (2003). Those are magnificent films – to my mind, the more so in chronological order – disturbing and fascinating in their authenticity of performance in tandem with von Trier’s intellectual precision. But I think von Trier is also a bit of a self-hating ham; his disdain for filmmaking that inspires upbeat admiration has got to stem from his own feelings about his own work, and I think it makes him something of a clown, compensating – when he’s not berating you with craft for watching his films at all – with a kitschy sort of obviousness. The wonderful closing shot of Dancer in the Dark, with the camera suddenly rising on a crane through the floor and above the action, is both terribly moving in the context of a handheld digital film (with Bjork’s central ballast) and amusingly coy in its generic silliness – the shot belongs in another movie. Dogville goes much further, obliterating any sense of hope for human decency in a 3-hour film set on a soundstage, chalk marks delineating space, that ends with total annihilation; but that von Trier goes all the way along his self-prescribed trajectory, and utterly destroys, can’t be shaken off. It does work – but at what cost?

At the cost of Antichrist. The various possible readings of the film – a misogynist diatribe, a self-reflexive critique of male domination, blah blah blah – are really very, very much beside the point, and that’s von Trier’s fault, not his achievement. He’s too smart a filmmaker to build one out of crumbly clay of little color and consistency, with a story predicated on the screamingly weighted Death of the Child. Later on he suggests that Charlotte Gainsbourg’s She had seen her infant son climb up on the tabletop, while Willem Dafoe’s He made love to her in the shower, on the counter, in the bed – and she perhaps let him fall, or was too filled with carnal ecstasy to stop it, or something. The sequence is done in precious slow motion, to a Handel aria, and not badly either – it just doesn’t in any way give rise to the film that follows, or the bodily tortures that ensue.

Von Trier has something in mind about slowing action to a hair faster than still, showing us each drop of water from the shower in the slightest of falling motion over Her face, and the boy’s plummet from the open window is at the very least impressive (as is much of the film) as action captured on film. Perhaps it’s all meant to be seen as nature, as elements and gravity. There’s a vague conceptual level on which Antichrist might be consistent, but it’s not coherent, and it feels trivial. With his Three Beggars – the deer, the fox, the crow – arriving at the cabin in the woods so that “someone has to die”, von Trier suggests that Nature is synonymous with Evil, that Woman in tune with Nature – destroying the human – is Evil, but it’s all predicated on the assessment that the natural world passes judgment and tries to hurt us as much as it can. Is he reaching for a state of pure nonhumanism, then, when he has Her smash His balls and castrate herself? And does he turn these gratuitous sequences of bodily destruction into frenetic action setpieces because he’s a sly prankster upending our sense of his own world – or because he’s faintly tone-deaf, and has always shot everything handheld?

A word on said sequences. They are excessive beyond reason, and include hardcore penetration and physical destruction in extreme closeup. But to argue with them on principle is immature. Film can grapple with any sort of human experience, all the more because it’s so tangibly image-based. Puritanism in filmmaking or film critique amounts to censorship, denying expression on moral grounds alone. Some will be rocked to their core by these images, and others will find them unacceptably gruesome, but I have to say I think they fall right in the middle – right where their graphic precision and their spectacular arbitrariness cancel each other out.

Maybe that’s what von Trier has in mind, and maybe that’s the source of his audacious sarcasm: to propel us to accept or reject his work by shoving it through our own morality. If we find ourselves loving his work, perhaps our moral standards are broad and loose; if we hate it, perhaps we subscribe to a more structured moral universe (he ends Antichrist on a beautifully evocative shot that clearly spells out his agenda, whatever you want to make of it). But I don’t consider film a fair way to wring people like that, and I think filmmakers who are more interested in manipulating an audience than in speaking to them…well, probably wouldn’t understand the distinction I just tried to make. And they certainly have no business invoking Andrei Tarkovsky in any way, except as a rebuke to what he achieved with the cinematic form.

Film: Quentin Tarantino: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on September 16, 2009 by baker

At its inconsistent best, Inglourious Basterds illustrates just how District 9 fails.  Quentin Tarantino has a way of folding all things into his own unique world, regardless of real live culture, geography, or, in this case, history.  If he chooses to be crude – and that is often – he does so without requiring us to realign our moral assessment of the universe he’s constructed, because it has nothing to do with the world as anyone else knows it.  This is his greatest strength as a filmmaker, and the source, I think, of his spectacular, monumental irrelevance.  Like Coppola reworking the jungles of Cambodia for Apocalypse Now (1979), or Dreyer fabricating the cramped, angly world of Vampyr (1932), Tarantino is a remarkable sculptor of his own cinematic reality.  It’s spatially unpredictable, garnished in precise color and texture, and photographed with a surgeon’s attention to its inevitable susceptibility to violence.  What’s missing is not a voice so much as an intellect to feed it whole sentences.

It’s certainly not a shortage of words or inattention to their flow that gets in Tarantino’s way, nor a sense of how to fashion structure out of (frequently little more than) characters speaking.  The problem is that behind his flourishes, there’s a vast emptiness to a Tarantino film.  The man simply has nothing to say about being a human being, and few apparent interests or compulsions beyond the need to make and watch films.  We’re left, then, with a choice to make: whether startlingly pleasurable filmmaking of utterly no consequence is sufficient over the potentially less carbonated films of better thinkers.

Or it could be that there’s no choice to make, that Tarantino makes the films he wants to make, and that among his saving graces – behind a strangely flawless casting sensibility in particular – is his refusal to even attempt to make a deeper film than he’s capable of.  He did try that once – Jackie Brown (1997) is sort of a puzzling wreck, desperate to be both involving and emotionally coherent but unable to get past the screwball kinkiness that makes Bridget Fonda’s character so goddamned fascinating at the expense of the conventional rest (he’s also proven that to be Tarantinoesque is not enough; his own relative failures (Brown, the Kill Bills (2003, 2004), Death Proof (2007)) reek of the pitfalls inherent in such vapid, mealymouthed dialogue).  With the exception of three or four beats in Basterds in which his characters are allowed to actually react to things, he’s content to be lowbrow, referencing obscure spaghetti westerns and samurai films with the impotent relish of a fantasy league baseball fan.

If that’s the worst one can say about him, though – and I think it is – then critical analysis of his work serves little purpose.  He’s neither saying anything nor causing actual offense by action or by omission.  Tarantino’s films are self-contained galaxies of quirk and bodily damage, consciously disregarding any insight into the human condition in favor of allusions to the ways other films have fetishized the act of both making and watching films.  So then…so what?  He makes visual candy bars, and to lend greater credence to a Tarantino film is to indulge in fetishism over substantive content.  Things like taste and tact don’t even get off the bench.  And that’s where I get hung up, a little.  How much appreciation does a film deserve if it only operates on a fraction of my faculties and sensibilities, content to wallow instead in thick, bubble gummy inanity?

I only ask because a film like Inglourious Basterds – beginning with its scrumptious potroast of a title – offers up great bellowing slabs of visceral zest.  Heads are scalped, slowly, peeled away from the bloody skull with slick Apache expertise; strudels with cream are consumed with ravenous aplomb, between honeyed words from a wolfish mouth.  That’s very much the way Tarantino works: serving up beautifully baked strudels of dialogue, and topping it off with a dollop of violence – the whole thing tastes pretty good.  Like Kill Bill, Basterds swims in tangible lush color, reveling in the red/white/black chiaroscuro of Nazi pageantry, deep European forests, and the soft luminescence of a movie theater marquee (a pacifying effect on Tarantino, no doubt).  And he’s found yet another actor, in Christophe Waltz, who brings the right degree of theatrical showmanship that Tarantino relies on, and that occasionally – not often, but now and then – suggests the kind of films Tarantino might make if he felt films were a place to explore the complicated process of living.  For now he’s happy to sidestep the question.

Film: Neill Blomkamp: District 9 (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on August 28, 2009 by baker

On one hand, we could use the first half of District 9.  It’s got ferocious energy and a campy treatment of aliens living more or less peacefully among us, and – to a point – is told with the schlocky enthusiasm of reality TV that somehow feels more legitimate with its racial overtones.  Partly this has to do with its look: director Neill Blomkamp and his cinematographer, Trent Opaloch, have enormous fun with the throwaway suggestiveness of a well-placed documentary camera, tagging along as a team of government bureaucrats attempts to evict over a million aliens from their South African internment camp.  And partly it’s their unyielding commitment to present the situation with a straight face; Blomkamp deserves some kind of credit for trusting that we don’t need to see him tipping his hand.  If they’d stuck to this concept religiously, they might have had a wonderfully pleasurable little parable along the lines of Starship Troopers (1997), and retained the self-contained mystery of why the alien ship has stalled above Johannesburg to begin with, leaving its amusingly docile crew subject to the tactless anxiety of the human race.

On the other hand, it gives me no pleasure to agree with the contradictory likes of Armond White, but in the case of District 9 I think he’s deeply right.  Furthermore, whatever your personal feelings about a director’s implied intentions, Blomkamp hasn’t done himself any favors with interviews in which he discusses his disappointing failure to pull off Halo with producer Peter Jackson.  I doubt Blomkamp has much interest in the social metaphor lurking within District 9 outside of the extent to which it’s yet another familiar trope to add to this ratatouille – which includes the Hollywood war-realism of Black Hawk Down (2001) mixed with the disturbingly chaotic violence and social/racial undertones of Children of Men (2006), and a weird dash of Aliens (1986) – and this is okay, except that he’s consciously alluding to real, complex issues with the casual flippancy of a college sophomore with scant perspective (it’s no excuse that he’s from South Africa; he’s still making a movie).  I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of such a slapdash stew.  But Blomkamp’s silly descent into ultraviolent mayhem in the movie’s final third seems to tell me everything he makes of it.  I found his infantile insincerity making me angry.

What kind of reaction is that?  I guess I’ve just had enough of joyless destruction in movies.  If it’s supposed to be fun, make it fun; let the fascist army of Starship Troopers lose their heads – and arms, and legs – in a broadly allegorical campfest, but don’t leave enough room for us to invest a fuller-dimensional social context for the scenario in District 9, and then start annihilating the human quotient in wet splatters of blood and tissue for our amusement.