Friday, December 19, 2014

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014), Nazi Agent (Jules Dassin, 1942)

Things that go 'bump!' in the night

Nightcrawler is Dan Gilroy's apparent attempt to 1) do a dark satire on the media's vampiric thirst for lurid videos and 2) do the Nighttown sequence of James Joyce's Ulysses only set in Los Angeles (aside from similar imagery and the idea of a man roving a major city, Jake Gyllenhaal's character is named Louis Bloom). Just for the effort I give the director props; though local TV's propensity for tabloid journalism is hardly news, Gilroy does achieve moments of crawly discomfort that are of value--a reminder of what we're being spoonfed twenty-four hours a day.

That said, one reason not to watch the picture would be the fearless intensity with which Jake Gyllenhaal throws himself into the role. The character as conceived is so extreme and overwrought it loses credibility; I mean--Bloom's whole business depends on him selling his videos. Would you buy from him? If he demanded to sleep with you in exchange, would you agree? Especially when the man radiates 'serial killer' all over? I don't know. 

The question snaps into focus whenever Bill Paxton's Bill Loder steps onscreen--Bill is every bit as driven as Louis, but knows how to sell; he's reasonably able to connect with fellow human beings (his pass at Bloom was I thought skillfully done), and doesn't sound like a bad parody of a motivational book (it's that last bit of verbal mannerism that really threw me off: people who sell so hard rarely do make a sale, especially not with me). Even Leonardo DiCaprio's Jordan Belfort had to incorporate some amount of charm into his pitch. Gyllenhaal's Bloom has none whatsoever--he has anti-charm, if anything. 

The movie has been compared to Taxi Driver and I suppose the comparison can be justified (again the lonely figure--both psychopaths--wandering through a big city), but with this crucial difference: Scorsese's film works, stays more or less within what's psychologically plausible. Travis Bickle walks up to Betsy and yes he's a loner, yes he's a psycho but he's also smart enough to deliver a pitch that touches her disdain for conventional folk, her sense of being special, her essential loneliness. He's not smart enough to maintain the relationship (A porn theater? Really?) but that move costs him, as it should; when Bloom reveals himself to be as sleazy he wins out, and that I found unconvincing--a false achievement meant to move the plot along

Gilroy does a fairly vgood job of directing; almost the entire film takes place at night, and he has talent enough to give that night a sickly blue-green glow. He's not as successful with car chases--suffers from a tendency to shoot too close in, and the editing is an unholy mess--but you do feel a free-floating anxiety whenever Bloom's video camera trespasses into dangerous territory, or Gyllenhaal's  face contorts into a fright mask (which is part of the problem--it remains a mask, never for a moment comes to life as a believable human being). Often effective and sometimes even funny thriller, but best of the year? I don't know...

Faced with a face like that, I'd be slowly backing my way to the nearest exit.

Seeing double

Call Jules Dassin's first directorial feature second-rate Hitchcock, call it a brave if uninspired debut, whatever; I call it a lot of fun. Not only do we get Conrad Veidt, most famous for playing the villain in classics such as Casablanca or Thief of Bagdad, we get two--count em--two Veidts for the price of one! Yes, Veidt plays identical twins (one of which happens to be one of his rare sympathetic performances), and as you might know from my personal life I'm a complete sucker for twins on film

Nazi Agent starts off with what looks like documentary footage of Nazi saboteur activity,  gradually settles down into a drawing-room drama about two brothers who haven't seen each other for years, the one (Baron Hugo Von Detner) determined to force the other (Otto Becker, both played b Veidt) into collaborating with him on his terrorist plans. Then the hook: Becker kills Von Detner while the latter's goons wait downstairs.

Dassin doesn't quite show the mastery in neorealist noir that he so coolly demonstrated in Naked City and Rififi, but he does manage the odd canted angle here and there, does throw the odd menacing shadows on the far wall. Better yet Dassin keeps to Becker's point of view, which is fairly omniscient (he is after all brother to the German Consul / secret head of the Nazi intelligence apparatus in the United States)--he knows most of what's going on (omniscience being one of Hitchcock's most basic techniques for generating suspense), but does he know everything? Does he know enough? 

It's eerie to watch Veidt here. You're used to seeing him sneer with a thick German accent (he does here too, or at least Von Detner does in the film's first half) but as Becker that thick accent comes with a softer more expressive growl, and his eyes have a haunted cast to them--as if he could peer across the ocean and see the atrocities the Nazis are committing in Europe, the atrocities they intend to commit in  years to come.

More haunting still is the ending, which on one level is unbelievable--no one can be so selfless!--on another eerily fits into Dassin's gallery of protagonists (Joe Collins; Harry Fabian; Le Stephanois) with an unspoken death wish, or at least some kind of complex fascination with death. It's at this point I'd say Dassin steps away from The Master of Suspense's shadow--Hitchcock had the box office to think of; with Dassin you sensed a darker more distant figure, possibly standing behind the railings of a suspension bridge, possibly looking back at him. And you. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Boyhood (Richard LInklater, 2014)

12 years a film

Boyhood's biggest selling point is the gimmick everyone's been talking about: the way director Richard Linklater filmed for thirty-nine days across a span of twelve years, tracing the life of one Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltraine), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter), his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his biological father Mason Sr. (Linklater alter-ego Ethan Hawke). The production faced a few unusual challenges (Linklater's refusal to have the actors sign a contract, as California labor laws (not sure how or why they would apply to a production shot in Texas, financed by a studio based in New York) specify that actors cannot be tied down for more than seven years; Linklater's insistence that in case of his death Hawke should finish the film) and you have to admire the sheer tenacity and patience of a man who has to shape his script and film across over a decade, to fit the mood and appearance of a cast most of whom are still in the process of growing up.

All that said--it's not as if Linklater invented the wheel. Films have traced the lives of men from childhood to young adulthood (David Copperfield and Great Expectations in their countless iterations, anyone?) Francois Truffaut followed alter-ego Antoine Doinel's development (using actor Jean-Pierre Leaud) from volatile gamin to awkward adolescent to feckless young man. People cite Satiyajit Ray's masterful The Apu Trilogy as perhaps the high water mark of the genre--each project featuring roughly similar scope and subject matter, set in a radically different milieu. 

Linklater's is more ambitious for cramming it all in a single feature (that's an interesting question: did he intend one movie all along, or did he entertain thoughts of divvying this up into two or three parts?). Truffaut never intended to do more than one; neither did Ray, and it shows--their series are lumpier, their visual style less consistent, the films less a structured series than independent features that happen to include a recurring protagonist. Truffaut's after starting with the searing poem on unruly youth that was The 400 Blows ended up coddling his juvenile, granting Doinel a life insulated from further trauma, the ultimate effect strangely sadder for all that; Ray's are some of the finest examples of Asian neorealism, of the languid unpredictable rhythms of life chiming and resonating with the different characters involved, and are arguably three of the greatest most influential films ever made (it helped Ray I suppose that despite the apparent lack there is a subtly delineated structure, based on Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay's Bengali novels).

Linklater's film isn't Apu but still isn't half bad--you do see the actors grow, their bone structures shift without digital enhancement, their mannerisms and speech patterns become  more deliberate over the years. Characters don't drop out then come back performing a different function (I'm thinking of Marie-France Pisier's Colette and her story arc) but basically fade into the background (willfully self-centered Samantha; straitlaced yet empathetic Jim (Brad Hawkins)).

Perhaps the film's most serious misstep is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia's earlier matrimonial mishap. Bill seems like an excellent catch at first, a college professor with an illustrious career; alcohol takes its toll however and he becomes abusive, and so in a way does the film--where Linklater is generous and nuanced with others he's everything but with Bill, who comes off as an unmitigated bastard and control freak. It's an off-putting moment, the way Olivia's life with Bill sticks out like a sore thumb, a brief grab at the kind of melodrama Linklater studiously tries to avoid for the most part

Instructive to compare Bill to Jim--yet another of Olivia's mistakes, but a less unambiguous one. Jim seems genuinely affectionate with wife and kids, and when he flashes a little temper at the way Mason disrespects Olivia you actually see his point. Jim seems to want the right things--filial respect, parental authority--but thanks to his military background doesn't seem to quite know how to go about actually earning it without getting in Mason's face. Like Bill he drops out of Mason's life; unlike Bill you actually want to know more about him, know how his uneasy relationship with Mason ultimately works out.

I like Linklater as a writer far more than as a director; if there was any visual tingle to films like Before Sunrise or Before Sunset, it was largely derived from the beyond-gorgeous settings (Austria, Paris). Linklater with this picture doesn't have anything like the heartbreaking ride in a prison van through the nighttime streets of Paris in The 400 Blows, or the simple beauty of a train driving through fields in Pather Pachali; what it does have is a kind of modest charm, what it does do is deliver a serviceable ode (with a few stumbles along the way) to the melancholy vagaries that make up an American adolescent's life, sprinkled here there with the occasional moment of observational truth (my favorite being Olivia's devastating freakout at Mason's ultimate ingratitude--not a big fan of acting setpieces as a rule; this is one of the few exceptions). Best film of the year? More like best in Linklater's career, and one of the better recent efforts to grace arthouse theater screens. 

First published in Businessworld, 12.14.14


Friday, December 05, 2014

Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014), Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948), I Love Melvin (Don Weis, 1953)

Up up and away

(WARNING: story and plot twists discussed in explicit detail here--in short, watch the film first!)

For  ninety percent of its running time Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman (2014) is great fun, an immersive experience of the craziness that is the Broadway stage production that you appreciate especially if you know something about the theater stage or if you know something about filmmaking, preferably both. 

Much of the picture (written by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., and Armando Bo) dwells on the nitty-gritty of stagebound life as it swarms through the warren of narrow corridors and sudden corners and claustrophobic rooms backstage. Inarritu gets a lot right, from financing (forever wobbly) to accident-prone rehearsals (opening scene features a spotlight dropped on an actor's head) to the revolving-door sex lives of cast and crew to the power struggles between cast and crew--in particular the struggles of actor-producer-director Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton as the former star of three hit Birdman movies) to control his production (a stage adaptation of the Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love") and its one mercurial star, stage actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton at his abrasive best).  

Keaton of course was the star of Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, and this is suppose to add a meta-dimension to his ex-Birdman character (personally I prefer the Burtons, the latter being in my book a great comic-book film). More interesting than the casting (Keaton's always been a nervy, unpredictable performer) is the decision to have the superhero's voice speak to Riggan in his head--a device borrowed I'm guessing from Frank Miller's seminal Batman comic-book mini-series, The Dark Knight Returns, where an aging Bruce Wayne is haunted by his cowled persona (the avenger's voice growls from inside the caverns of his subconscious, goading him into acts of aggression or insanity; Riggan responds or resists according to his mood at the moment, his changing circumstances). 

Inarritu's style helps, the long takes that wend their way up front and back stage, sometimes wandering into the streets outside--way I see it, these shots (known in the Philippine film industry as tuhog (skewered) shots) help the actors' performances breath, allow them the chance to control pacing and influence the mis-en-scene. Inarritu in using these shots evokes the continuity of a stage performance, the theater stage being what it's all about; interestingly it gives the segueways into fantasy a more unnerving feel, suggesting Riggan is having trouble distinguishing from what is real and what is not--it's all the same to him.

The film starts to become problematic about a hundred and ten minutes in: after The New York Times' theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan, in a particularly uncharitable and unjust portrait) informs Riggan she's going to destroy him he goes into a tailspin; reality and fantasy flip positions at an accelerated pace, and suicide is attempted--not just once but three times. I know it's in the cards--portraits of artists in artistic deadlock usually have them seeking the ultimate exit door (see: 8 1/2, All That Jazz) but the repetition here hits a point of diminishing returns; it feels silly, as if Inarritu didn't know how to end his film and was trying on all kinds (symbolic, poetic, transcendent), to see which fits.

Oh, one can complain about half a dozen other things--the digital effects are second-rate, the Birdman costume especially cheesy (at least Keaton in Burton's Batman movies sported a cool black-armor look), the actors aren't really allowed any inward moments (they have to be intensely on all the time, a complaint I can level at the acting in practically all of Inarritu's pictures), the word 'understated' and 'restraint' don't really come to mind--but for once Inarritu's jagged over-the-top intensity has found an appropriate place to roost, or as appropriate as can be imagined. One can see him spreading his wings wide as he can (because the theater stage is meant to accommodate all kinds of outsized egos, because onstage all of us no matter how megalomanic are birds of a feather). One can see him crowing to the heavens, daring the gods to pull him downone (despite the flaws, despite reservations of all kinds) can be forgiven for being impressed  

Suicide is painless

(Again--watch the film first!)
Easy to cite Fort Apache as exhibit #3 in any thorough reply to Quentin Tarantino's head-scratching rant against John Ford,  (#1 and #2 being Sergeant Rutledge and The Searchers respectively) but watching the film again on TCM (which came back to Dish Network just when I was about ready to abandon my barely tolerable cable provider) it occurred to me that I had little idea why I'd cite this as proof of Ford's racism, relative lack of. 

Oh, there are obvious reasons--it's basically a retelling of the Custer legend, with Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) standing in for the famed general,  locations in Monument Valley for Little Big Horn. It's one of the earliest sympathetic portraits of Native Americans, with Cochise (the magnificently weathered visage of Miguel Inclan) speaking fluent Spanish (as opposed to Hollywood Indian) and outlining grave grievances against the U.S. government, promising defiance not out of sheer malevolence, but as the only sane reaction to continuous and systemic abuse. But if the film features Ford's ever-developing view of other races, it also shows Ford's ever developing view of racists--in particular, Fonda's Col. Thursday.  

Most folks remember Fonda as the soft-spoken idealist in The Grapes of Wrath, or the thoughtful, gangly lawyer in Young Mr. Lincoln. The forbidding, officious Thursday is probably far less well known, the same time it's probably closer to Fonda's true-life persona; here for perhaps the first time Ford gives that persona free rein on the big screen. Thursday is not a pleasant man: he's cold; by-the-book; at best a dictatorial father to his daughter, ironically named Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). Privately he's frustrated with his backwoods appointment and hungers for military glory; even more privately he feels nothing but contempt and mistrust for the Native Americans he has to deal with. 

It's a withering portrait of a racist and if that was all it was--amply aided by Fonda's oddly authentic performance--the film would certainly be memorable, perhaps great. What makes it greater, helps complicate the film's already invovled emotional texture is the way Fonda sneaks under the radar to win our sympathy anyway, despite Thursday's racism. Where another officer frustrated in his dealings with the Native Americans might react in frustration, even fury, Fonda's Thursday reacts with a shellshocked bewilderment; it's as if he realized these were not the natives he was expecting to fight, nor was this the victory he expected to win. 

He grows if anything stiffer, even more officious, as if clinging in desperation to the tatters of his notion of military honor. Not because he's intellectually stupid--he can see what's going on, he knows he's badly beaten--but because he can't think of any other way to accept the inevitable. He backs himself into a version of honor--not the kind he had in mind but more honest, the kind one ends up with when faced with one's end. 

And John Wayne's Captain York can't help but respond: like Thursday York's all about the military; like Thursday York can be arrogant, insistent on his own way. Unlike Thursday York can back up his position with hard experience, at least in the west (you wonder how things might have panned out if it was York who had to fight in the Civil War). Given a choice--expose Thursday for the fool he was or forever keep his peace--York (Wayne, laying rest to the notion that he was at best a limited actor) gives us what may be the bitterest expression in all of cinema. 

Why? Not quite sure--possibly York felt more empathy for Thursday then he expected ("there but for the grace of God--"); possibly York realized that Thursday was pushed as much as chose his ultimate circumstances--that he was as blinkered as anyone facing a new foe in a new land, and--like York--all he had to fall back on when he stumbled was Army protocol. Silly and in the end suicidal...not to mention fully and recognizably human. 

I love Donald

Don Weis' I Love Melvin made a year after Singin in the Rain was obviously an effort to cash in the success of the former but in many ways I prefer this lesser-known nonclassic--for one thing they dumped the blandly good-looking lead star (Gene Kelly, who in this film does honor us with his visage in a cut-out mask) and went with the athletic comic relief (the glorious Donald O'Connor, who delivered the in my book greatest single dance number in Singin'), and while the lead love interest (Debbie Reynolds) remains numbingly pert and cheerful (can you imagine O'Connor having to deal with the inimitable Jean Hagen?), she partly makes up for this by donning a pointy helmet, curling up into a football, and having herself booted high into the air every night (it's a dance number). 

And y'know what? It worked. Can't make the case that Melvin's songs are better than Singin's--they aren't--but I'd put up the former's dance numbers side-by-side against anything in the latter, with perhaps my personal favorite being O'Connor on roller skates in a gazebo (think how difficult it must have been to choreograph and shoot; beats Kelly splashing potholes in his tailor-made set, in my opinion). 

The ending (watch the film!) is gloriously loony, the plot being all about the value of appearances--Frank Schneider (Allyn Joslyn) wants a respectable husband for his daughter Judy (Reynolds); Judy a.k.a. Judy LeRoy (already with the screen name!) wants a Hollywood career; Melvin (O'Conner) wants Judy on the cover of Look Magazine, even if he has to fake the cover. 

Nice little reversal then when Melvin wakes up from a session of self-pity in the middle of Central Park and realizes Judy is on the cover of Look Magazine! Wish fulfillment at its most surreal, not to mention most charming (it's all a ruse in the name of love, and of course it's the girl who delivers). The lovers are reunited in the end, but that's not too big a reveal nor is it the point of the picture--and if I have to explain that, then you're overthinking all this. Which I would imagine is the real point of the picture.  

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