Sunday, November 27, 2011

Shorts (Hugo; Immortals; J. Edgar; The Killers, three versions)


An intricate clockwork of a movie that spins and shudders, chimes and chatters, striking a brassy bell for the cult of cinephilia. Forget the ostensible story--something about some silly orphan hiding in a railway station (Why doesn't he seek a shelter? Or better yet, why doesn't the film show us why he refuses to seek a shelter?), at the same time seeking the parts to repair a broken-down automaton--and enjoy the film's true subject matter: the love of film, and of filmmakers. Martin Scorsese directs in two modes: with exuberance, and with a crystalline sense of still-eyed wonder, the kind Spielberg used to specialize in until all the honesty in the emotion was strip-mined away. Here it is again, fresh and new-minted, it seems--produced out of the tip of one's ear (after being given up for lost) as if by a prestidigitator's hand.

Yes there is slapstick--a sop for those with attention deficit disorder--but more to the point there is magic, mainly from Scorsese's camera, and mainly from the warmth radiated by Scorsese's irrepressible love for films. Wonderful picture and, thanks to the camerawork (by Robert Richardson) and production design (by Dante Ferretti), wonderful visual texture--one of the best to date to use 3D, easily.


Now this is a surprise--from what all the critics are saying, I walked in expecting a secondhand, second-rate Clash of the Titans remake; what I found instead is a stylishly violent retelling of the Theseus myth. Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) arguably uses a similar style to Zack Snyder (300)--all slow-motion bombast, to follow an intricately dancelike fight choreography (I'm guessing they all get their inspiration from John Woo). Only Singh has been at it at least four years longer than Snyder, and Singh to my mind at least is the superior action filmmaker (his fight sequences are more graceful, more varied, less wearying on the eye). Plus he insists on papering his film with striking imagery--from Jan Svankmajer for early parts of The Cell, from Caravaggio for Immortals (Snyder's main source of inspiration for 300 is Frank Miller; for Watchmen Dave Gibbons). Considering it's mostly a straightforward superhero movie with a subpar script and little to zero characterization (you recognize the people mostly from their costumes, and basic physiognomy) it's not bad; not bad at all.

J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's Hoover biography is actually pretty good. A little po-mo time-sequence shuffling, a nice little twist at the end reminding us what J. Edgar's been doing all along (controlling the narrative to tell his story his way), a tender little love story, all in that retro-seeming straight-shooting visual package that is Eastwood's trademark storytelling style. Maybe the film's biggest problem is fitting this appropriately to one of the most ambivalently repulsive figures in modern American history--yes, he contributed to law enforcement, the same time placing himself pretty much above said law; yes he possibly loved Tolson, possibly platonically, but denied the same opportunity to many other Americans--I think we need to see this more. Fascinatingly flawed, both film and figure.

The Killers (1946)

Siodmark's German Expressionist style rules this version of Hemingway's short story, which pretty much runs out some fifteen minutes in. The rest of the film tries to answer the question left hanging in the air: just what did he do that made him decide to stop running from death? It's an intricate answer, one that involves a double cross on top of a double cross (on top of as it turns out a third double cross), and a femme fatale as beautiful as Ava Gardner (who comes across as arguably the single most desirable creature onscreen, if not in all of Hollywood). Burt Lancaster as Ole Swede ain't chopped liver either--when he swings into action taking down a gunman, or runs across the screen to shoot his pursuers' tires he's raging-bull huge yet agile; all the more haunting, then, is the image of him lying down (as Hemingway chillingly puts it) “too long for his bed,” passively waiting for his approaching fate. Siodmak shoots Lancaster so that only his middle torso is visible, his head and legs sliced off by the surrounding dark as if by a guillotine; he already looks like a collection of body parts. When warned about the oncoming killers, his disembodied voice full of resignation and despair gives thanks for the warning but declares with finality: “I'm through with all that running around.” Absolute acceptance of an unavoidable fate: that's what great film noir's all about.

The Killers (1964)

Don Siegel's remake (it was an attempt to make the first ever TV feature, or so I'm told) suffers from budgetary woes: the soundtrack is partly borrowed from Welles' Touch of Evil, the racing sequences are all rear projection--poorly done rear projection, at that--and the producers couldn't even convince John Cassavetes to get behind a real set of go-cart wheels (Angie Dickinson, to her credit, is game). Still, the nastiness has if anything been intensified: Lee Marvin strides into a school for the blind and menaces the helpless receptionist; later he gives Ms. Dickinson similar treatment, only rougher. And it's not true that these killers aren't as playful as in Hemingway's story or Siodmak's version--in one scene, while Norman Fell is being sweated by Marvin, Clu Galager pulls off his shades, looks them over, wipes them clean on Fell's damp hair.

Siegel directs with economy and straightforward brutality. The harsh TV lighting and flimsy sets reveal this to be an appropriate version of The Killers for its age: crass and overbright, a nightmare dressed in cheap plastic and garish synthetic fibers, filled with sudden explosions (inserted footage that seems unreal and disconnected from the rear projection footage) and equally sudden impulses--like the one that has Cassavetes taking a swing at and knocking down Ronald Reagan, future President of the United States.

The Killers  (1956)

Andrei Tarkovsky's directorial debut, an adaptation of Hemingway's classic story. Easily the most faithful with regards to dialogue and text, the film is also the most wayward with regards to visual and emotional tone--the bartender looks like a tubercular Soviet student aesthete, the pair of assassins look as if they would rather order an expresso, and one of the customers seems to have wandered in from out of a Soviet dockyard workers' strike, possibly taking a break, another sports a beret (later Tarkovsky himself walks in, whistling a lively rendition of Lullaby of Birdland). Still, there is style here, a brooding use of camera movement and shadows harkening back to the German Expressionists (and, ironically, Siodmak) that is satisfying to see. Unfortunately, the scene involving Ole Swede's bedroom (directed by Alexandr Gordon) fails to show us the feet sticking out over the edge of the bed--a key detail.



Portugal said...

HUGO the movie, is a good adaptation of the novel. Scorcese had a flair for details and with excellent production design,it makes the movie cinematically magical. The Paris metro train station is full of life with people and stores.

Noel Vera said...

Agreed. Plus he manages to communicate his enthusiasm...with a minimum of sentimentality.