Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)

Portrait of a bank-robber as a rock star

Love it or hate it, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a sight to see. It has the stateliness of an Andrei Tarkovsky film, the sumptuous slow camera pans and zooms that indicate a leisurely investigation into a profound mystery, but it's in its handling of white that the film really comes into its own. White linens, white-clouded skies, white canvas, white light streaming in through frosted glass--seems to me cinematographer Roger Deakins was asked to bring forth every variant in shade and hue that he can think of, and fashion the film accordingly (even in the night-time sequences, of which there are a few, your eyeballs have been exposed to so much white that you blink at this sudden change, as if at an affront).

And why not? The film is shaped and paced like an elegy, and while white is not usually associated with death or dying (in the more recent West, that is; in China and even medieval Europe, white signifies mourning), the purity of the color (or rather, lack of) is such that it suggests a preoccupation with the next world, not this one.

That is easily the profoundest idea the film has, or is able to visualize; the rest seems more like a sketch of profundity, an attempt to evoke it that misses the real thing. The film focuses on the erstwhile Judas of the story, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), and his unabashed admiration for James (Brad Pitt), who he meets during the latter's last few years of life. Ford worms his way into James' confidence--how, I'm not quite sure; Ford as Affleck plays him gives off such creepy vibes I'd have slapped a restraint order on the man before I would talk to him--accompanies him through what can more or less be considered the bandit's decline, then (I'm not exactly spoiling anything, am I? The climax is telegraphed by the very title) sends a bullet through James' head when his back is turned.

One if the film's biggest problems is the narration: Hugh Ross speaks endlessly throughout the length of the two-hour plus film, explaining to us actions carried out onscreen, telling us exactly how this or that character feels, giving us the impression of momentous events taking place. Writer-director Dominik seems to lack confidence in his writing abilities, or loves the Ron Hansen novel so much he has to quote pages and pages of it (or at least give the impression that he is); he doesn't trust silence itself, the way say Michelangelo Antonioni or Andrei Tarkovsky--or their artistic descendants Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant, Terence Malick, Lav Diaz, to name a few--would trust it, trust the audience to find meaning in it, and in the mysterious images onscreen.

("But what about Robert Bresson?" one might ask. Sure Bresson used voiceover narration extensively, but when you think about the connection between words and images, the relationship is never simplistic. Bresson doesn't just use narration to mickey-mouse the action; the narration (most famously in
Journal d'un cure de campagne (Dairy of a Country Priest, 1961) done by the protagonist himself as if reading from his eponymous dairy) often stands out in ironic counterpoint, or adds something to the image--a hidden inner mood, a stray thought or idea--that we otherwise couldn't be aware of.)

Affleck is the film's focus, but there's no question that Pitt's James is the picture's star, and here I think the filmmakers commit a disastrous mistake--Pitt's a handsome camera subject and a cunning comic actor, but for something this solemn he's simply not the man for the job. You see him set his jaw in a sullen line, his eyes flicking this way and that, and Pitt would probably justify this as his way of suggesting that James is alert to his surroundings but I think it's his way of seeking escape from the straitjacket he's confined in. Pitt's quick reflexes and even quicker wit comes out on occasion, when James is required to demonstrate psychotic behavior in motion, but for the most part the actor seems like a man buried alive, his lithe body contorted in a series of lifeless poses, his best instincts smothered in a ton of art-film pretense.

Casey Affleck's Robert Ford is the film's heart, of course, and for the most part, especially after James' death, he manages to win our sympathies; it's mainly the way his character is conceived and used that's problematic--the aforementioned creepiness, for example, that only the totally oblivious or an idiot would fail to consider. When Pitt as James is eliminated, Affleck's Ford comes to fore, and the film gains some kind of tragic grandeur; without Pitt's lesser-than-life presence, James can finally become the mythic figure Ford constantly struggles against, and ultimately loses to.

It's not as if Dominik is without talent; with Deakins' help he manages to create gorgeous imagery (on occasion he manages to re-create the blurred edges found in pinhole photographs); during the rare gunfight he eschews the fast cutting and mostly dizzying handheld camerawork fashionable of action films nowadays and simply keeps his lens trained on the man with the gun, sustains the moment, allows us to squirm in anticipation of the hunk of steel in the man's hand detonating.

Critics have likened the film to Altman's classic Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) for its wintry disposition, but I think the more instructive comparison is with Philip Kaufman's
The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, (1972) made a year later, which actually involves Jesse James. Where Dominik's film is stately and not a little self-important Kaufman's is lively, inquisitive, seemingly curious about not just its main characters but everyone onscreen (even the crazed homeless man who pops up wandering the streets turns out to have a crucial role in the story). James (played by Robert Duvall) is a sniggering, dull-minded psychopath--a more historically accurate portrait, in my opinion. The real focus of interest and the one whose point of view closely mirrors the film's (you might say the director tells the story through his eyes) is Cole Younger, played by Cliff Robertson as a worn yet somehow wide-eyed amateur philosopher and mechanical enthusiast, eager to explore the world and its many curiosities (as Younger would often put it "ain't that a wonderment?"). Dominik's and Kaufman's films cover different periods of James' life (the end of James' life; the end of the James-Younger gang), emphasize different issues (the passing of a famous man into myth; the ironies and intricacies of the world), and take widely divergent approaches to their subject matter (James seen as a rock star in decline; James as a brute); call it prejudice or bias, but I much prefer Kaufman's film.

(First published in Businessworld, 2/22/08)

Thursday, February 14, 2008

There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Bloody fun
There Will Be Blood (2008), Paul Thomas Anderson's loose--very loose--adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel Oil! is a huge mess, is being (like its heavily award-nominated fellow production, the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men) hugely overrated, but is nevertheless an entertaining romp. I can't deny it has impact, however scattershot, misshapen, or misguided.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Eye (David Moreau and Xavier Palud, 2008)

I see dumb movie

People talk about new laws for Hollywood movies, some way of reforming the American rating system, for example--that rarely coherent, fairly irrational and at times
politically motivated method they have of slapping "PG 13" on some titles, "R" or even "NC 17" on others (they should complain; we've been saddled with the MTRCB (Movie and Television Ratings and Classification Board) for decades). No one talks about actually banning projects outright, though--stupid high-concept comedies; even stupider high-concept romantic comedies; torture porn; sequels and prequels of tiresome franchises; remakes of TV shows, Hollywood classics, international successes--Asian horror in particular. I can think of dozens of other laws that should be passed, even ratified by the United Nations and enforced on a worldwide scale, but these would make a good start.

David Moreau and Xavier Palud's
The Eye (2008) is the latest and easily most eloquent argument for said law. A remake of the Pang Brother's 2002 hit Gin gwai, the picture tells the story of a beautiful blind violinist (Jessica Alba) who receives corneal transplants then starts seeing "dead people," as her skeptical psychologist (Alessandro Nivola) puts it (at least scriptwriter Sebastian Gutierrez had the smarts to turn the picture's obvious debt to M. Night Shaymalan's The Sixth Sense (1999--which in turn stole its gimmick from Herk Harvey's great cult film Carnival of Souls (1962))--into a throwaway gag). We are treated to Alba recoiling from a traffic jam of the spiritually restless, speeding this way or that down half-lit corridors (Why do hospital corridors in horror pictures always have to be half-lit? Why don't directors realize that the surest sign of an unconfident filmmaker is the use of hoary, blatantly unrealistic scare tactics?). Sometimes the dead stand and stare at her, which may be even worse--you're not sure if they want to frighten or sexually harass her, maybe both.

It's not as if the original material was worth reprising anyway. Was not a big fan of the Pang Brothers' movie; thought it tried too hard, that it had the Hong Kong drive to keep its audience riveted without enough Hong Kong style to make it memorable, that it used too much of the music-video filmmaking so beloved by American horror filmmakers. And it isn't as if the Pangs are geniuses at terror--that famous elevator sequence (faithfully reproduced in this remake) seemed more hilarious than horrifying, the floating corpse like a moth-eaten suit on string, wobbling out of the elevator to scare the kiddies (much better is the elevator sequence that climaxes Hideo Nakata's
Honogurai mizu no soko kara (Dark Water, also '02)--at least that was more persuasively staged (no skeletons on string, thank you), made more narrative sense, and packed a dramatic power that went far beyond its ostensibly simple plot twist).

Comparing Nakata to this sorry lot the difference is so dramatic it's not even funny. Nakata knows how to use silence, stillness, long pauses, and subtly but brilliantly angled shots to unsettle and at times terrify his audience. The Pangs--and for that matter Moreau and Palud--need to sit down and study Nakata's work frame-by-frame, maybe stay away from filmmaking till they learn to at least approximate it (Perhaps even give up directing altogether, which would be unlikely but nice). They opt for a hysterical filmmaking style and soundtrack to match, not realizing what Nakata must have realized long ago, that ghosts are far more effective set against a recognizably realistic background (with all the shrieks and hoots and chop-suey editing in this picture, everyone looks half-dead; the more supernatural characters need to overact to get noticed at all). The Pangs, Moreau, and Palud (they sound like a U.S. immigration law firm) seem to subscribe to the philosophy that if they make a loud noise you'll feel fear; if they make a louder noise you'll feel more fear (What I'm really afraid of is going deaf from the busy soundtrack, perhaps feel nauseous from the even busier camerawork).

As for Jessica Alba--well, she's no Angelica Lee (who made much of the silliness in the original halfway persuasive); she's definitely no Madeline Stowe, who in Michael Apted's 1994 thriller Blink also played a blind woman regaining her sight (as you see, there are few if any truly new ideas in cinema). Lee was an angel of a sufferer, and you felt for her and felt she didn't deserve any part of the ordeal she went through; Stowe played an earthier, sexier woman, and her combination of sensual confidence and vulnerability is refreshing. Alba looks as if she'd just been invited to the junior prom, and never recovered from the initial joy; she's got a cheerfully inane smile stapled across her mug that's impossible to wipe off--her face suggests that smile whether she's paralyzed with fear or crushed by despair (I'm guessing those are the emotions her character is supposed to feel--can't go by her acting alone). She's easily the most inept beautiful actress working in Hollywood at the moment, with one bad performance after another adorning a string of even worse movies; this one is probably the crown jewel of her career--the one that ends it, I mean. Well, one can always hope.

First published in Businessworld (2/8/08)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Is Charles Burnett for real?

I mean is Burnett, as so many critics are saying, the great champion of naturalism a la Renoir (a major influence in his life, as he himself is fond of saying)? Which I agree is true to some extent, but is he really only about that? In To Sleep With Anger (1999) there's the suggestion that Harry (Danny Glover) is actually the devil; by the film's final shot a trumpet note, once shaky and amateurish, miraculously turns smooth and beautiful (Stuart Klawans writes about that exact detail in his contribution to Little Black Book of Movies). In The Annihilation of Fish (1999) James Earl Jones has daily wrestling matches with an invisible demon who he daily succeeds in tossing out the window (he's not as cracked as you might think; a second after his hands fling out empty air, the bushes below shiver from the weight of a dropped body).

But even as early as Killer of Sheep (1977) Burnett's been serving up striking, even witty images in a deliciously deadpan manner. A young girl dons a dog mask (Saint Bernard is my guess) and the camera shoots her head-on as she hangs about the house and back yard, forlorn and faintly comical; the camera looks up and a group of children leap across rooftops, their sudden appearance in the bright Angeleno sky as startling as pork in flight.

It's not all visual jokes, though--at the eponymous man's place of work, sheep are hung upside down by the leg and sway gently to and fro, their cut jugulars spraying wool and a nearby wall with a fine coating of blood. And Burnett's camera lingers noticeably on Stan's (Henry G. Sanders) own, often half-naked body, beautiful and powerfully muscled the same time it's almost entirely without power, barely able to muster the energy to pick up a knife and cut linoleum (in my interview of him Burnett notes how pictures of black men being lynched often showed the size and majesty of the man's body; was this something in his mind when he photographed Sanders?). Stan's lethargy is one of the film's central metaphors--he can't sleep, he can't make love, he can hardly do anything (you feel for his wife, who's practically throwing herself at him) beyond draping his sorry ass at the breakfast table and sipping coffee (at one point when Burnett shoots the table from the side the furniture takes on an unsettling resemblance to a chopping block, the people dining on it sides of beef waiting to be butchered).

Then there's the film's title, which is its other central metaphor, not to mention visual and verbal pun--Burnett shoots the slaughterhouse as if it were something out of Dante, but there's a damned beauty to the images; even here (the thick air, the harsh lighting, the bleating goats (their hiccupping cries a parody of annunciating trumpets), the lazily swinging carcasses) Burnett can't help but transform what he sees: the quotidian becomes particular, the ghastly dreamlike and graceful. The reality isn't erased--we see the blood, we see the filth--but Burnett's camera looks at it from a certain angle, lit a certain way, and it becomes more than just blood and filth.

One counts sheep to go to sleep, of course; watching Stan slaughter and strip these creatures makes one think: he's murdering the very animals that might help him sleep, he's murdering his own sleep--a killer of sleep, in effect. The sheep, upside down, are the biggest joke of all: they're limp and languorous, their muscles totally relaxed; they're enjoying their rest--the eternal kind--to the utmost.

Several Friends (1969) was a short done before Killer, and you can see it as some kind of early prototype: the black-and-white photography, the directionless narrative, the similar scene in the car of friends chatting, even the sense one has that the characters, on encountering a problem or issue, prefer to sit around a table and talk it to death. Most striking about the short that I remember was the fight the people sitting in the car were watching, a kind of slow-motioned slapstick routine where neither party seems to get seriously hurt, but neither do they get anywhere, either--violence as aimless, pointless, even surreal play.

The Horse (1973) is a sharp little vignette that features Burnett's use of the long shot, enabling the surrounding farmland to dominate and swallow the characters. It's also, until The Glass Shield (1994) onwards, his most explicit work at that time to deal directly with racism (afterwards, of course, there's Nightjohn (1996), Selma, Lord Selma (1999), and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003). In Burnett's first two features the white man isn't so much dealt with as excluded, an irrelevancy in a rich and teeming non-white world; in The Horse a gang of men gather around the farmhouse to talk about a black farmer and his son as the two deal with the farmer's horse (a knife hanging from a ceiling beam trembles, almost as if in rage at their casual effrontery). Perhaps most interesting is how Burnett treats said animal, like a fellow if mute character with its own closeups and a sudden blackout that leaves its ultimate fate entirely to our imagination.

My Brother's Wedding (1983) is his follow-up feature to Killer, and it tells the story of the prodigal son from the son's point of view. Burnett does a nice little balancing act here--he doesn't excuse Pierce's (Everett Silas) weaknesses, but by telling it this way he allows us to understand the man, even sympathize a little. Yes, Pierce is rude and even cruel to his brother and sister-in-law to be, but Burnett also implies that Pierce's antipathy comes from his belief that his brother has sold out--delivered body and soul to the Devil (or Mammon) to become yet another upper middle-class white-wannabe. Most visually notable is the Laundromat, presented as a portal through which passes all kinds of visitors bearing all kinds of gifts (desire; danger; heedless mischief), and the storage room behind, a forest of plastic-wrapped mystery, befuddlement (the occasional lost item), even erotic abandonment (quick sex on the floor, atop piled-up laundry). Like The Horse, My Brother's Wedding has a longish buildup to an abbreviated end--here, a giant, fateful closeup of the wedding ring that has caused so much trouble.

Killer of Sheep may be one of Burnett's best-known works, but the almost entirely unknown When it Rains (1995) is easily critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorite
. A lovely little parable set in the Watts district and scored to some wondrous jazz, the film chronicles an old man's (Ayuko Babu) attempts to raise money for a mother and her daughter in danger of eviction on New Year's. From the opening image--of a Christmas tree leaping a wall--onwards it's full of fabulous imagery; for its last shot Burnett tracks slowly away from a jazz player blowing on a trumpet with three horns, its music filling the soundtrack. On either side of the player--his feet planted on a street corner, of course--are a pair of latticed windows stretching outward like wings, the whole staged and shot as if the player were on a concert stage receiving the full star treatment.

That final image just about sums up Burnett's magic. He's no mere realist; he's a poet of realism. He employs actual locations and non-actors partly out of necessity (he rarely has the money to do or hire more), partly out of preference (non-actors, he says in a recent NPR interview, have no ego nor agenda). The end result is a firm foundation of realism from which his camera is able to take off on startling flights of fancy. The material Burnett deals with--poor to middle-class African-Americans, from their slavery past to their economically and racially oppressed present--is perhaps too grim for straightforward documentary treatment; or rather, Burnett feels it's not so much intolerable as incomplete. There is beauty out there, even in the poorer sections of Los Angeles, even in the cotton plantations of the South--you just need to look at it from a certain angle, through a certain sensibility. Burnett finds those angles, develops that sensibility, shares them with us on the big screen.

Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)

Monster mash

Cloverfield is fun, perhaps not as fun as the brilliant hype around it would have us believe--no Cthulhu-like creature evoking H.P. Lovecraft's complex mythology, more's the pity--but if disappointed fans can bring themselves to settle down and relax and actually watch the damned thing, they could appreciate it for what it is--a clever little of meditation on the different forms of modern media and communication and how they interact with each other, presented in the form of a monster movie.

As a creature feature it's not all that much--the brute doesn't change the way the creature in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) does, and it doesn't have that creature's faintly erotic biomechanical look (thanks to H.R. Giger) or fairly fascinating reproductive system (lifted from the 1939 story "Discord in Scarlet" written by A.E. Van Vogt--who in turn had borrowed the idea from digger wasps). It doesn't unbend from beneath a bridge with all the grace of an uncoiling acrobat (a la Bong Joon-ho's
Gwoemul (The Host, 2006)), or lope gracefully on the ground like a herd of antelopes (or rather, a herd of antelopes monstrously fused into a single agile mass). Actually, it's not much of monster, period-- it's got a massive hunched back, a complex-looking series of inset mouths (a la Giger), and rather malevolent life-forms dripping from its shoulders (Are they tadpoles? Parasites, maybe? If the monster had been some kind of biological fractal, constantly generating smaller and smaller exact reproductions of itself, we might have had something). Easily the most compelling aspect about the big mother is that we don't see it--or that we only glimpse parts of it, in between collapsing buildings, along Manhattan's shadowed streets, swinging a tentacle up out of the East River to swat at the Brooklyn Bridge. When the whole thing finally lurches into view, you can't help but feel let down---it would have been better off skulking around in the dark, pretending to be more than what it was.

Actually, the entire movie was better when it pretended to be more than what it is, by turns a cunningly marketed, internet-driven teaser campaign (complete with puzzles and dark hints) worthy of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's 1999 horror mockumentary
The Blair Witch Project (from which this movie borrowed much of its camerawork); the latest production by TV wunderkind J.J. Abrams (Lost); a possible tie-in to Lovecraft--but that's part of the fascination of this sort of project, the way buildup can be achieved early on, and the eventual, almost inevitable, disillusionment (in a movie all about metatexts, couldn't the whole thing--from provocative previews to fairly successful commercial run to ultimate critical backlash--be seen as the film's ultimate metatext?). The final product is unsatisfyingly short of context, explanation, exposition, not because we need the picture to make narrative sense, but because we'd like a potent metaphor--unexplained monster trashing New York City--to at least try carry more than its weight in poetic and philosophical baggage. Even Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) paused briefly to allow its characters to thresh out the significance of what's been happening (even if all explanation is cut short--dismissed in effect by Hitchcock and his characters as being for all intents and purposes useless--by yet another attack). Cloverfield tries to get away with even less than Hitchcock did, but it doesn't quite fly; you can only get so much from a bunch of people running about and screaming in the dark. Director Matt Reeves and writer Drew Goddard should at least have made their characters a few I.Q. points smarter, so that they could speculate intelligently while on the run--it's not impossible; the good Doctor (David Tennant in his latest TV incarnation) does this all the time.

I haven't forgotten saying that I did like the picture, even if I've spent most of this article poking holes in it and pointing out where it (and even its sources) lifted its (their) best ideas; I do like it. I don't think it's superior--that it beats the haunting, otherworldly beauty of Alien, or the poignant melodrama (and offhandedly fluid bestial loveliness) of Gwoemul, or that it presents the kind of precision-tooled escalation from unaccountable event to apocalyptic terror that The Birds did, but it's a welcome addition, a sort of shakier, grimier, newly-born cousin to its superior predecessors.

And it does have a fascination uniquely its own. If, nowadays, a monster is not content to stick to its own initial form (Alien); if a monster movie is not content to stick to its own genre (Gwoemul, with its combination of creature feature, family tearjerker, and slapstick comedy), Cloverfield does do its own serious morphing--not so much in genre, as in the terms in which it tells its story. The picture starts out as found footage--titles declare to us that this tape was found in the sector "formerly known as Central Park," which implies a number of things, not many of them good. It turns into a POV documentary, initially of a pair of lovers going on a subway trip to Coney Island, then of a cocktail party full of beautiful young things--I'd call them "yuppies," only that term is so '80s--ostensibly a farewell shindig for one of them, who's about to leave for Japan. When the creature attacks, the documentary turns into a reality show, with its own set of basic challenges (Run Brooklyn Bridge without falling into the East River! Walk a subway tunnel while being hunted by spider creatures! Evade U.S. military with orders to detain and deport you! Climb a building leaning at a 45-degree angle!). The movie finally devolves into a video testimonial, with the heroes identifying themselves for future generations that might find the footage (which, as the opening titles suggest, is what happens--yet another idea lifted from Blair Witch).

Cloverfield is not entirely without sting--perhaps the most interesting shot in the whole picture is of the cameraman gaping at a news broadcast of the monster, realizing where it's happening, and stepping outside to witness the real thing (talk about a shift from representation to reality, and the paradoxical loss of realism (he had a better view from the news broadcast)); perhaps the most poignant are the insert shots of the lovers on their summertime idyll, idiotically innocent and unaware of the heartbreak and horror to come. It would help if we actually get a better sense of the lovers and their friends as people--as is, Cloverfield is eighty minutes of watching a group of youthful supermodels getting mussed and muddied--but even the sight of plastic mannequins being slaughtered is not entirely unmoving. I approve.

(First published in
Businessworld, 2/1/08)