Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bullet to the Head, Silver Linings Playbook, Secret Sunshine, Journey to Italy

Last Action Hero

Bullet to the Head is easily the best recent American action flick around, and Walter Hill can teach both Tarantino and Nolan a thing or two about action filmmaking.

You heard me. 

"But what about the script, a standard-issue buddy pic filled with standard-issue dialogue? What about Stallone, who hasn't given a good performance in years?" Actually the script is 1) a decent workhorse plot with a handful of fairly clever twists, the dialogue a touch more amusing than it has any right to be ("Bang. Down. Owned." "You had me at 'fuck you!'") because Stallone and co-star Sung Kang have good chemistry; and 2) if you want good dialogue and acting, go watch a stage play; the real reason to watch this is to welcome the return to the big screen of one Walter Hill, filmmaker--last reported retired, apparently not quite.

Hill speaks today's action filmmaking language--handheld footage, ADHD editing--with admirable fluency (he was after all doing hardcore action back when some of these directors were still in grade school). He knows how to shake 'em and cut 'em, only unlike some of the relatively younger turks (I'm looking at you, Nolan) he only flirts with incoherence, mixing up the footage with more stable shots that anchor the action to their confined urban spaces.

And it isn't as if he were repeating himself; the Hill that did The Long Riders or Southern Comfort or The Warriors used slow motion; Bullet does not, and you can almost hear Hill saying "That slow-mo stuff is for kids;  real men do it in real time." There's a showdown involving fireaxes that I thought was within shouting distance of Toshiro Mifune's spear duel in The Hidden Fortress--high praise, I know, but I think the choreography, camerawork and editing deserves it. A New Orleans critic called the confrontation "a choppy series of frustratingly quick cuts that end up turning the whole sequence into a generic blur of clanks and blood spatters." I say the man needs to see more Bob Fosse; Hill has the confidence to zoom in close, shake things up a bit, even accelerate the cutting rate to the point of confusion and at the right moment pull back and allow the whole thing to come together inside your head.

And Hill unlike some filmmakers (I'm looking at you, Tarantino) knows how to evoke setting; knows how to evoke atmosphere;  knows that the throwaway shots that fill the dead space between action setpieces are what help distinguish a coked-up hack from a real filmmaker. New Orleans here may be an urban fantasy every bit as unreal as New York City in The Warriors, but it's a memorably stylized fantasy--Stallone drives past an abandoned factory and it sits in the bright Louisiana sunshine like a disintegrating Czarist palace; old industrial spaces gleam with rust and dripping water, as if dipped in oil; Bobo's shack squats over the gleaming bayou like an oversized poison toad. When a car explodes and flips (we're told that Stallone's character was trained in demolitions, helping explain--barely--all the gratuitous detonations) the flame and smoke rise pyramidlike from one corner of the screen, and your spine can't help but tingle at this bit of gorgeously served mis-en-scene.  

Are the boys back in town? Not really--the film has earned the smallest amount of boxoffice of any in Stallone's career, and barely registered in the local multiplexes before being pulled out, presumably due to poor ticket sales. But from the evidence onscreen Hill is back, and he's back with a vengeance.

Lovers on Lithium

David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook shows how a pair of lovers meet and struggle with each other, the catch being both suffer from a mental condition. It's a romantic comedy, of course.

That takes more and less courage than one might think. No, Russell doesn't depict the extremes of the condition: Bradley Cooper's Pat is bipolar but not cripplingly so, at least while he takes his meds; Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany has something unspecified which probably involves depression (she mentions taking Effexor) and she does just fine, more or less; Pat Sr. has an obsessive-compulsive disorder that he manages to keep undiagnosed, though after five minutes of watching him (the relentless viewing of every Eagles game; the even more relentless observance of football superstitions) anyone would come to the same conclusion. 

They're not that bad off; if they were, this would probably be a different movie, and probably not a comedy. That said, it's amazing the things they do get right--I love the scene where Pat and Tiffany start talking about their meds, throwing names like Seroquel and Klonopin and Trazadone around like so many types of Hershey's Chocolates. It's a funny way to connect that feels perfectly true, with everyone around wondering at the foreign language they're suddenly spouting. I love how Pat seems to focus on a specific topic, then suddenly swerves ninety degrees in a different direction: "I don't have an iPod. I don't have a phone. They don't let me make calls. I'm going to call Nikki." Some of the dialogue sound as if recorded or scribbled down from inmates from real institutions, then handed over for the actors to use.

I love it that the finale--a dance contest where Pat and Tiffany don't mean to win, just earn enough points for a parleyed bet--doesn't show a pair of lovers giving a great dance number, just two reasonably limber actors pouring their hearts out clumsily and heedlessly on the dance floor, letting their chemistry instead of their meager dance skills speak for them. Russell's signature brand of nervy cutting and over-the-shoulder handheld footage makes for a good fit--the style suggests Pat's precariously high-tension worldview nicely. His camera rushes the lovers like a fan shrieking for an autograph, giving them the unadulterated star treatment (he's more respectful of the veteran dancers, keeping the camera relatively still to better capture their choreography). 

This is easily one of the best romantic comedies I've seen recently--is probably the only romantic comedy I've liked recently, which is a whole miracle right then and there.

Massive trauma

Lee Chang Dong's Secret Sunshine is easily the most harrowing film of recent years; with its deceptively bright and artless cinematography (by Cho Yong-kyou, who also did Timeless, Bottomless Bad Movie and Barking Dogs Never Bite) it conceals the machinations of a vast uncaring world ready to pull the unsuspecting in, chew them up in horrific ways, spit 'em out like gristle

Like Ozu or Naruse it seems Lee is able to sketch with elegant strokes the complicated life of a young woman named Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon in a tremendous performance) who has already suffered a tragedy; with son in tow she wants to replant roots in her dead husband's hometown of Milyang, which in Chinese apparently translates to 'Secret Sunshine.' Lee is a modern master at the art of understatement, unreeling with relentless deliberation a story of suffering, anger and loss--leavened with not a bit of satire and observational, sometimes perverse, humor.

It's perhaps useless to compare Lee to a seasoned sadist like Lars Von Trier; personally I find the contrast instructive. Lee's heroines are generally less passive, more likely to possess a sense of wit or imagination (I just have to think of Emily Watson's Bess or Bjork's Selma to shudder at the sheer sense of victimization involved). Von Trier has often said he suffered from depression; watching his films I often feel he wants to dump his depression on us, bringing along all the advantages of personal involvement (strong motivation, extensive experience) as well as disadvantages (a lack of perspective). Lee from the evidence of his films doesn't seem as emotionally entangled, bringing to the table his advantages: the patience to refrain from pushing till the victim (sorry--viewer) is numbed past the point of belief or suffering (at a certain point you stop weeping and start giggling); the judgment necessary to inflict only as much pain as necessary to prove the film's thesis, not as much pain as will satisfy the filmmaker's bloodlust.

Arguably the single most painful moment in the film (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the picture) is the conclusion: as Shin-ae grasps desperately at one thing or another (church, sex, suicide) to steady herself, she finally and unexpectedly finds peace...and hence the cruelty. Some kind of resolution, even one involving death, even one involving her death, could have provided closure; instead she's granted breathing space, a moment of grace that enables her to move on, accept whatever else life has in store for her. She's ready for more punishment in short, and you feel that Lee has a varied and limitless inventory set aside waiting for her. That's the frame of mind you're in, after watching this film.

Cinema is dead

Simplest description of Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy: two Northern Europeans' odyssey through the mind and sensibility of a Southern European filmmaker. Second simplest description: the fracture and eventual disintegration of a middle-class marriage.

For the rest of the post (it got too big!) please go here.



Sher Shayari said...

The movie was very interesting romantic love story.Pat became mad eventhough and at last Nikki got him back. So i like this picture and i will suggest my friends to see very good lovely story.

Noel Vera said...

If you can, see Journey to Italy for a complex, moving, and very painful love story.

Dennis Yu said...

I'm a bit surprised you like Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Zafra, in her blog, thought the movie was "adorable" and "romanticizes manic-depression". I feared you might think the film is too tactful and done in too much good taste.

Personally, I liked it (Pat intrigued by Tiffany's sex history with women, Tiffany pointing out the link between Excelsior and New York, Pat and Tiffany giving 2-minute synopses of Farewell to Arms and Lord of the Flies, etc) very much :-)

Noel Vera said...

I don't think Zafra has worked with bipolar kids. I have.

There was real interaction here, contained in a romantic plot. Russell knows the difference, and how to balance his film accordingly.

Anonymous said...

thanks for share..

Casey said...

Glad to see someone still cares about Walter Hill. While I didn't think Bullet to the Head showed him in top form, it was a solid piece of craftsmanship, demonstrating his understated mastery of the genre. Sad it didn't do better at the box office. People throw their money away on bloated, big-budget rubbish, and ignore an old pro like Hill.

Noel Vera said...

Oh, it's far from his best--which is miles and away better than Nolan, Snyder, Greengrass, Bay, Scott, what have you...