Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve), Carrie (Kimberly Peirce); Machete Kills (Robert Rodriguez, 2013); Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013); The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom, 1926)

(Needless to say, ALL the films mentioned are discussed in detail, including story, plot twists, and ending)

Pray for the best

Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners is a nice example of the airless, minimalist art thriller, set in the rather limited and overfamiliar genre of the child abduction/serial killer flick.

Mind you, there's plenty to like: the generally excellent cast (Paul Dano as mentally challenged Alex Jones and Melissa Leo as his heroically stoic Aunt Holly stand out; Maria Bello is sadly wasted as a cliche of a distressed housewife, confined to bed in a drugged-out stupor); Roger Deakin's bleak cinematography (with Georgia's constant downpour doubling for the wet autumns and sleety winters of Pennsylvania); Villeneuve's understated way of  generating suspense quietly, with a minimum of fuss. 

I'm less crazy about the script. For all its grimness Prisoners is an ultimately comforting film despite (or perhaps because of) its talk of mazes and mysteries; even someone's statement--that the maze found in a medallion didn't have a solution ("I know, I've tried")--is the kind of declaration of hopelessness you hear just before the dawn. Too many smart guesses solving too many puzzles downgrades one's regard for the film from an eloquent statement on the human condition to an entertainment, nicely made, a couple of steps above NCIS or Law and Order.

Even the moral ambiguity seems neatly parceled out: Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a small business entrepreneur, devout Christian (is he Catholic? It's not made clear), and well-organized survivalist; when his daughter is taken the law requires that he sit still and wait while the police do their job but his can-do, by-the-bootstraps ethos ("Pray for the best, prepare for the worst") demands that he do something--so he does. The resulting scenario is the kind of cobbled-together 'what-if' situation favored by pro-torture advocates (what if your child was in danger?). The next-door neighbors (Terence Howard and Viola Davis as, respectively, Franklin and Nancy Birch) whose child was also abducted come up with a more practical approach: don't get involved, but don't stop Keller--he might actually come up with something (he doesn't get the results he expected, but he does accidentally advance the investigation). By film's end the (more or less) righteous are amply rewarded, the transgressors punished, and even those that have temporarily strayed suffer poetic--and not a little funny--comeuppance.

I don't know. I like how Villeneuve's put together the picture; there are confrontations between Keller and Alex that are ferociously good (though they're careful not to be too explicit), and an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between Keller and investigating officer Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) that's even better. Villenueve even pulls off the kind of trick Hitchcock used to do so well, where the audience knows more than the characters onscreen (you want to yell: "HE'S IN THERE! IN THERE, DAMMIT!").

Compare this to David Fincher's Zodiac, however (unfair, but both deal with serial killers, both feature Gyllenhaal in crucial roles) and it's no contest: Fincher offers a puzzle with no definitive solution, no dramatic bringing to justice, no comfortable resolution to the terrible things that happened.

Compare this too to Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder, where the torture of captives is actually part of the film's point, actually evokes a specific time in South Korea's political history when enhanced interrogation was standard police procedure, and just as fruitful in producing information (in effect: not very). Difference is Bong Joon-ho's film isn't as morally schematic, and the interrogators display an unsettlingly blase sense of humor about the whole thing; difference is neither Zodiac nor Memories offer consoling fictions to ease us in our contemplation of the unknowable. "Some secrets," they seem to say, "you will never uncover"--Prisoners posit a light at the end of a long and very dark tunnel; Fincher and Bong see no light, no guarantee of an end to the tunnel. 

 Where everybody knows your name

Two questions come to mind when hearing of Kimberly Peirce's remake of Carrie: obvious and instantaneous ("why bother?"), less obvious and rather wistful ("maybe she can pull it off..."). Now the movie's out we see that the inevitable's happened: the remake has only a fraction of the original's diabolic energy, of its blood-drenched color scheme. 

Worse I suppose is that the noble intention--that we look at Stephen King's debut fairy-tale horror novel through a woman's (as opposed to a misogynist's) gaze--doesn't really pan out; this Carrie borrows too much, from the dreamlike slow-motion shower room sequence (discreetly draped with towels this time) to Mrs. White's spectacularly excruciating end (in the novel her heart was stopped). One might mistake this as the original's anemic runt sister, too timid to strike out on its own.

Possibly Peirce's efforts were doomed from the start: Stephen King's novel--his first and as he is the first to admit, rather "lumpy and burned at the bottom"--isn't promising material for a feminist filmmaker. Look at Jack Torrance in The Shining, Andy McGee in Firestarter, Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, and you can see that King is far more comfortable writing from the male point of view (he had to be prodded to write from Carrie's). Poor Carrie White is abused not just by her classmates, but by her author-creator: the shower scene where the girls toss tampons in the panicked girl's face feels more like a boy's locker room gag than a genuine case of female bullying; the monstrous Mrs. White has the outsized dimensions of a cartoon villain, her Christian denomination left suspiciously vague. De Palma's sensibility--his brand of cruelty--sails in waters and directions not too radically different from King's where Peirce (whose Boys Don't Cry dealt primarily with the confusion found in adolescent women) seems to struggle with a stiff headwind.  

All that said, some of Peirce's voice does come through--in that lulu of an opening scene, for starters, where Mrs. White (Julianne Moore, despite her sketchily delineated character managing to deliver the film's most frighteningly effective performance) screams and rolls on bed then pulls her skirt back to discover a bloody lump of a face between her legs. In Carrie and her mother's more fully fleshed-out relationship--Mrs. White dragging her daughter into a tiny closet is bad enough (though I miss the tiny statue of St. Sebastian with its freakish glow-in-the-dark eyes) but more startling is the later scene of reconciliation between mother and daughter, lending the taint of truth to their relationship (even the most abusive bond has its moments of love and tenderness, which is arguably the cruelest hook of all).

Possibly sacrilegious to say this, but beyond the preparatory images (the lights turning red, Sissy Spacek's otherwordly eyes) I never found De Palma's prom-night massacre sequence effective--the split-screens were especially clunky. Peirce adds one interesting idea: her Carrie gestures and waves, shaping the movement of the telekinetically manipulated objects around her with a conductor's flair--literally a symphony of death and destruction. 

Sad and not a little disappointing that Peirce wasn't able to break completely free--but this Carrie isn't a bad picture, exactly, just a half-formed one. Like Carrie White herself, it struggles under the shadow of its wilder, more malevolent older relation--but it does have its own virtues, and does bare its own set of fangs. 


Loved Machete; thought it one of the best movies that year, an abominably entertaining fusion of Robert Rodriguez's chaotic talents as filmmaker (he can direct an action sequence well but when shaping a feature-length narrative--well, he can direct an action sequence well) to the white-hot anger felt by Latin-Americans towards immigration hardliners.

To say that Machete Kills strays from that basic formula (Machete; immigration; breasts and bullets) is to understate matters--the sequel is Hell's own Christmas Pageant on fast forward, both confusing and exhausting in equal measure: Machete doesn't only fight on behalf of Latin Americans but for America and the World, and by film's end he's ready to bring the battle to outer space. His anger is largely banked, though; instead we have smoldering embers shooting the occasional spark at specific targets--the proposed US-Mexico border wall, realized as a monumental rampart complete with secret access tunnel for enterprising wetbacks; megawealthy entrepreneurs (Mel Gibson, for once likeably psychotic) who see illegals as a source of cheap feudal labor.

There's a cartoonish exaggeration to this movie that defuses much (but not all) of the sexism, the same time it renders much of the political satire toothless. No, the original wasn't a model of plausibility but for once Rodriguez found a cause truly worth fighting for, and his zeal drove the ungainly mess forward, helped sell it as a committed whatever-it-is. In this sequel the only cause that seems to move Rodriguez forward is the desire to top the first movie; the drive peters out about three-fourths of the way through, about the time when Machete punches his way through the border wall--after that he's like Sean Connery's James Bond at his most parodic, going through the motions for the sake of an overinflated paycheck, or (stranger still) the notion of a feature length (it's a brief one hundred seven minutes and feels like a hundred and fifty). The original Machete was a joke turned into a parody trailer turned into a surprisingly nimble film--part of the pleasure of the picture is watching Rodriguez talk out his ass then actually follow through; too bad Rodriguez fails to pull the stunt a second (and, judging from the dismal boxoffice, a third) time.

And yet--it's still a ballsy move. Trejo is still a chipotle badass. And the movie is still three-fourths a shambolic wonder (can't even say for certain which three, though the intestine-through-the-copter-blades and rust-iron armored car come to mind). Rodriguez is an undisciplined, unpredictable filmmaker, which is his curse and glory. I can't recommend this, but neither can I condemn it; I can only sit there with a goofy guilty grin on my face.

Dead men tell no tales

Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips I like best for its masterstroke casting: to play Somali pirates, the filmmakers have decided to cast, well, Somalis. Brilliant! Better by far than having, say, Gong Li play a Japanese geisha (who can tell from Asian faces?) or Jennifer Connelly play a Latina housewife (why bother with the character's ethnicity?).

As is, Barkhad Abdi as the pirates' ringleader Muse easily walks away with the picture. Looking half-starved and frighteningly alien (at least he must have looked frighteningly alien to most American audiences), Muse reveals himself to be resourceful, courageous, even rather witty, and Abdi despite the presumed lack of experience (it's his first film role) pulls off each revelation of Muse's character with skill and deceptive simplicity. Probably helps that Greengrass allows Abdi to improve on his role (Abdi came up with a memorable line--"I'm captain here"--during one improvisation). 

Hanks--who plays the eponymous captain--faced with such energetically fresh talent had to step up his game; his Captain Phillips is something of a bastard, a hard taskmaster who demands security drills and locked gates at all times; when confronted with pirates, he turns the encounter into a gigantic chess game, always a move ahead of the Somalis, who have to step up their game (the boarding of the ship, done with hooked ladders on rocking skiffs, is a hazardous undertaking comparable to the epic boarding sequence in Richard Lester's classic Juggernaut). I imagine Hanks would make for a wonderful villain, except of course he's the hero here; sadly when he's kidnapped he turns into a rather tiresome hostage victim, throwing hysterical fits in an attempt to maintain the tension (by his third or so fit I wanted to yell at the snipers "shoot him instead!"). 

Greengrass was told before he undertook this project never to do a film involving water and boats; actually I'd go the opposite way, and recommend that he sticks to boats. When allowed to do hand-to-hand combat, or a chase sequence involving cars or feet his signature shaky-cam (put together chop-suey style with ADHD editing) is well nigh incomprehensible; when stranded out in sea, where you can see the enemy miles off and no one looks very fast going thirty or so knots the suspense slows to an unbearable creep (not necessarily a bad thing, mind), and it's thinking about the situation and anticipating what might happen next (Will they board? Will we hide?) that generates most of the suspense. A coherent Greengrass film? Oh joy!

Footnote: had to happen, and it did. The ship's crew have come out with the claim that some of the events in the film are egregious fiction--that Philips instead of being security conscious was actually reckless, and that instead of offering himself as hostage he was simply taken. Greengrass has responded to the accusations, suggesting this is part of a smear campaign staged by some other Oscar contender (Those useless golden doorstops!). Not sure who to believe (to be honest, I'm tending towards the crew members)--stay tuned for further developments on this tempestuous teacup.

A for Adultery

Understand the admiration for Victor Sjostrom's The Wind: it's a harrowing drama that depicts the character's inner thoughts and perceptions in various imaginative ways, from direct sensation (the howl of the unceasing wind) to sneaking suspicion (a man's greedy eyes stare right through his primly pressed hands) to outright fantasy (endless gusts reveal buried corpse), all the while suggesting the unstoppable nature of a woman's sexuality (the wind doesn't just torment Letty (Lillian Gish in the performance of her career), it is Letty--surrender means  giving in to her own sensuality). As an example of the director's art, The Wind is just about unequaled--popularly counted the best of Sjostrom's American films. In comparison Sjostrom's earlier The Scarlet Letter is often considered a lesser work, a tamping down and simplification of Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical classic; yet while The Wind fills me with admiration, The Scarlet Letter hits me where I live. 

Sjostrom has scriptwriter Francis Marion focus on the love story. Nearly half the film is devoted to Hester Prynne and Reverend Dimmesdale's (Lillian Gish and Swedish actor Lars Hanson) surreptitious foreplay, including a scene where Dimmesdale allows Prynne to drink from a ladle while she's publicly shackled (Bondage and water sports?), another where her underwear hangs out to dry on a shrub for all to see (when Dimmesdale arrives she hides the intimate piece of clothing; when he demands to see what she's hiding she--with the exquisite simplicity of the most artful coquette--surrenders to him the offending apparel). Along with the romance Sjostrom paints an unsparing portrait of the town--the paranoia and hypocrisy, the unsettling fanaticism skewered in a few vignettes (including one where the village gossip is given a taste of her own medicine and mercilessly dunked). Comedy, light and romantic, in a Hawthorne adaptation? But Sjostrom possibly establishes the lighthearted tone to better contrast with the film's darker latter half; the flirtations also play to Gish's strengths as the Eternal Girl-Child, pure of heart yet possessed of a willful, even mischievous, spirit.

This Dimmesdale is a dimmer version of Hawthorne's--gone are the theological and philosophical debates, the psychological nuance of his silent suffering. On paper the man was an introverted intellectual; onscreen Sjostrom has cast a solid Swedish hunk, tall and fair, to match Gish's equally blonde tresses. When he suffers he suffers nobly, giving as good as Gish ever did (and under both Sjostrom and Griffith she gave plenty), helped by Hawthorne's elegantly structured irony: that every word of praise and elevation of status he enjoys is in fact a torment, knowing his true love and her child live in relative squalor. 

Gish's Prynne suffers too, though not as subtly. According to Hawthorne's scheme she must be a public martyr enduring not just humiliation and verbal abuse but mud clods hurled at her innocent child (Hawthorne allows her to earn her fellow pilgrims' grudging respect; Sjostrom doesn't--his pilgrims are too dense to recognize heroism when they see it).

Sjostrom backpedals the symbolism, goes heavy on the melodrama: Hawthorne has Prynne simply walk up to public view with her letter ('A'--in bright scarlet--for 'adulterer') already exposed; Sjostrom has Gish unveil her letter in a masochistic strip tease. Later Prynne goes further, unleashing her long blond hair then tearing off the letter and hurling it to the ground; in a perversely reactionary response her daughter insists on pinning it back on her breast.

The whole thing pays off with the film's climax: Dimmesdale walks up to the public scaffold and expires; Prynne cradles him in a Madonna pose. Sjostrom has loaded his picture with only as much weight and symbolism as the medium of silent film can bear (which while intellectually light can be dramatically significant), has arrived at a reduced but still recognizable--still compelling--version of Hawthorne's ending. 

And then Sjostrom delivers his stinger. The dim pilgrims, object of Sjostrom's (and Prynne's) scorn, source of Dimmesdale's unthinking fear and guilt, collectively and wordlessly bow their heads. With a gesture they reveal the hypocrisy of their overscrupulous faith; with a gesture they reveal the love and respect they have for the man, a man who in many ways represent them, from his tireless piety and love down to the dirty little secret he kept on his breast (a scarlet "A," which Hawthorne suggests is a kind of stigmata, which Sjostrom turns into an act of self-mutilation). These dense dunderheads unworthy of Prynne and Dimmsedale turn out to be smarter after all (smarter than the reverend, at least): when the best among them is revealed to be yet another adulterating sinner, what else can they do but forgive and accept?

There's that, and then there's the suggestion--again thanks to the pilgrims' gesture--that if Dimmesdale had come clean earlier he might have been able to live a decent, even comfortable, life; that all the torments of hell--all the fire and brimstone and pitchforked demons dancing about you--are nothing, nothing compared to the self-inflicted torments of a guilty heart. 


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