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.


Monday, August 26, 2013

The World's End (Edgar Wright); Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen)

Apocalypse haw

(WARNING: storylines and plot twists of both films and A Streetcar Named Desire discussed in close detail)

After the smoking stinking wreckage that is This is the End, Edgar Wright's The World's End shows us how an apocalyptic comedy is supposed to be done: with economic swiftness (rare), skill (even more rare), cinematic panache (almost totally unheard of). The opening sequence (the narrative gliding from one scene to the next as if the world was a series of tableaus arranged in a row, the camera on an endless pair of rails running parallel), the fights (an unholy cross between the ferocity of movie barroom brawls and the balletic grace of Jackie Chan), the funny-terrifying shots of hapless humans running from hostile townfolk, their eyes and mouths blazing--all this confirms that, of filmmakers working now, Wright is one of a select few who make comedies one can actually look at (beyond him there's Sam Raimi, Tim Burton, Ben Stiller, Stephen Chow...not many more).

Love the group dynamics: the over-the-hill middle-aged men roused into one last epic round of drinks by one of their less successful own, one Gary King (Simon Pegg at his scuzziest best). There's a love interest played by the scrumptious Rosamund Pike, but after a brief bop with 'The King' in a 'disabled only' toilet stall early in the movie she's quickly relegated to supporting status; the picture's real central relationship is between Gary and estranged best friend Andy (played by longtime true-life bromantic partner Nick Frost--here (amusingly enough) the straight-laced conformist). Gary and Andy (not only do their names rhyme somewhat, the first seems to phonetically meld with the next like a brand of designer ice cream) are really trying to find the friendship they lost twenty-five years ago, and not feeling it; as they continue to flee they shed not just physical (a rolling wreck of a car nicknamed 'The Beast') but various emotional and psychological baggage (the anger of a wronged comrade; the fiction of a successful life) to finally confront each other at the eponymous bar metaphorically naked, confessing that for all their hurry they haven't gone anywhere at all with respect to each other, without each other.

The relationship is not as memorably, centrally, complexly depicted as in Wright's Shaun of the Dead (arguably his masterpiece) though it's a far better showcase than the visually flat Paul. Coupled with a breathlessly paced chase (which begins with a leisurely walk that turns into a drunken determined stagger, accelerates into a flat-out sprint), some sharp observations about the modern pub experience (lookalike bartenders; bland beer and decor; even blander semi-sophisticated bistro food) and a comment on the true value of British--and beyond that human--individuality (in effect nothing special; Gary pleads against alien assimilation (the townsfolk's ultimate aim) strictly it seems for the sheer cussed principle of it--is later seen drinking with the very creatures he ran from), this after all is said and done is really superb stuff. Aside from the underrated, underpopular Pacific Rim, the most entertaining movie of the summer.

A streetcar named disconnect

What to make of Woody Allen? Common complaint is that he's out-of-touch--a sensibility straight from the '60s coupled with a visual style frozen in the '70s--while defenders say he's a consistent artist who has managed to wring variations on a strictly defined set of themes and locations and actors (all three changing oh-so-slowly through the decades).

I mean--look at that credit sequence! He's been using that same font and practically the same jazz music since, I don't know, Take the Money and Run, over forty years ago.

So what to make of Blue Jasmine his reworking of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire? Well...

There's only one city in the world for Allen, and that's New York. From the opening montage depicting Manhattan in the film of the same name (accompanied by the strains of Gershwin's magnificent Rhapsody in Blue) to Coney Island's The Cyclone shaking up Allen's childhood breakfast in Annie Hall, the city lives and breathes and sings like a character actor constantly and loyally used (is perhaps the single most consistent actor in his pictures). London in Match Point, Paris in Midnight in Paris, Rome in To Rome with Love seem like outtakes from a Lonely Planet video--pretty, but strictly for tourists. San Francisco in this film seems especially inexpressive: we see a few harbors and maybe one shot of a tilted street, and if anyone in the city is gay they're still keeping it strictly in the closet.

It's difficult to take off from a classic piece of theater like Streetcar and avoid comparisons (often unfavorable), not just to the play but Elia Kazan's famed film, and if you're as familiar with the text as I am (taught the play for some years) there's something jarring about Williams' almost perfectly structured plot (eleven scenes of ever-briefer length, accelerating remorselessly to its inevitable climax) being twisted about. When Allen, for example, comes to his equivalent of Scene Three: "The Poker Night," Chili the Stanley figure (Bobby Cannavale) tosses not a radio but a phone not out the window but across the room. Not really that big a problem, I can see how a phone torn from its wall mountings can be seen as shocking--but when he's ordered out by Ginger the Stella figure (Sally Hawkins) you remember with a start that he doesn't even live there. Where Williams confined the action of his film to a period of a few months and a single cramped New Orleans apartment, here the conflict is dissipated over time (the picture flashes backwards and forwards over a period of years) and space (from San Francisco to New York, from Ginger's rather roomy lower-middle-class apartment to Hal the Allan Grey figure (Alec Baldwin) and his expansive Long Island mansion. And ordering Chili/Stanley out--what's that all about? You'll eventually need to bring him back in again, for the climax (which is considerably muted).

More conventional sexuality (Williams had at least one gay character--Allan--and at least suggested nymphomania); markedly less cruelty (plenty of shouting, no real physical or sexual abuse), a more experimental story structure hiding an ultimately more ordinary drama. Allen has grown as a filmmaker--somewhat; it's his good taste and restraint that seems to keep him frozen in time.

That said, Allen does improve on the Kazan film on at least one point--where Kazan lets one sister escape, Allen leaves both physically free yet psychologically trapped, their prisons defined solely by the dimensions of their own craniums.

Maybe there's another more fruitful way of seeing Allen: as a kind of Rip Van Winkle, skimming his way across this new millennium in cryogenic sleep, waking briefly to raise his head and take a quick look around before going back under--those brief moments of exploration and expression, those are his films. Out of touch? Possibly--and still he brings something to the party: the perspective of an older age, a pair of eyes that see this world as the ultimate alien landscape, the ultimate source of pain and drama and comedy. I don't know, I guess I'm still waiting for the film where Allen finally admits to this point of view, uses it fully, freely, artfully--maybe in the next one, which should come out next year.


Monday, August 19, 2013

The Butler (Lee Daniels); Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler); Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

The butler didn't do it

Lee Daniel's The Butler (director's name included reportedly for copyright reasons) really should read: Lee Daniel's Forrest Gump. We get a similarly hapless, helpless hero bouncing his passive way through recent American history, though Daniels does refrain from digitally inserting his protagonist in every famous archival footage in recent memory--at least we're spared that travesty. 

I'm guessing though what Daniel's really striving for with this story of Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker), the White House butler who served seven presidents (based loosely--very loosely--on the story of Eugene Allen), would be popular audience response to Gump's feel-good version of history (we experience in swift succeeding order institutional oppression; physical, mental suffering; decades of bad prosthetic age makeup; and ultimately and eventually vindication, triumph) combined with the kind of respectful accolade granted to filmmaker James Ivory and novelist Kazuo Ishiguro for their film Remains of the Day, about yet another butler (Anthony Hopkins) serving in the cusp of history. Not an easy task, though--Ivory directs with an aesthetic severity that sucks all the pathos out of the material; you actually find yourself gasping for air in the film's hermetically sealed screen space (my favorite of Ivory's works, possibly) while Hopkin's unceasingly smiling butler stand invisible and invincible in one corner. 

Daniels doesn't suffer any severity, except perhaps the ADHD kind: his movie makes Robert Zemeckis' picaresque romp through the decades look positively Japanese with subtlety and restraint. There isn't a dramatic confrontation or emotional breakdown or historic occasion he can't shove in your face and up your nose with his ten-ton touch; this is coercive emotional porn of the worst sort, shameless propaganda shrieked out from the rooftops on the remote chance that perhaps you didn't get the message. I found myself hiding behind the seat before me, trying to avoid the sheer obviousness of it all (case in point: the picture's final death is telegraphed at least minutes before it actually occurs, causing me to exclaim: "Can't believe he's going to do it--oh, he did it!").

A shame, because there are some honestly powerful moments to be found here. Daniels builds some surprisingly potent comic-horrific contrapuntal rhythms from the sequence where Gaines' rebellious son (David Oyelowo) insists on keeping his chair at a whites-only lunch counter while Gaines seats honored guests at the White House dining room; later Daniels intercuts between Gaines listening to Nixon talking about undermining the Black Panthers and Gaines' son listening to the Panthers speak similarly brutal language. In moments like these Daniels makes a cogent point: that estranged father and son aren't so far apart in their struggles and aspirations as they would like to think they are.

Whitaker does plenty with an indrawn breath or a slightly lifted brow--but he isn't working with a screenplay from an Ishiguro novel, nor does he enjoy the deft guidance of a James Ivory (at one point Gaines actually quotes a line, not from the Ivory film but from an interview about the film, where Hopkins summarized his character with the observation that ideally a room should feel emptier when the butler is present; Hopkins actually makes you feel that vacuum while Whitaker with no small help from Daniels fails--possible because the feat requires subtlety). Whitaker's role (heroic restraint in the face of dramatic circumstances) also bears striking resemblance to Cherry Pie Picache's emotionally wounded-up surrogate mother in Brillante Mendoza's Foster Child--only Mendoza doesn't provide dramatic catharsis and spiritual uplift at the end of his film. 

What Daniels has done (or failed to do) can't help but make me better appreciate Eddie Romero's achievement in his Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (The Way We Were Then, The Way We Are Now, 1976)--yet another hapless Gump figure traipsing his way through history, only with tongue pressed firmly in cheek. Comedy solves a lot of problems in historical chronicles--you are forgiven the unlikeliest coincidences, you're excused from maintaining a wearying fidelity to realism, the same time comedy is constantly analytical; it tends to take an issue apart and hold it up for close examination, and properly used it can still develop an emotional wallop. The Butler could have used a bit more analysis, a lot less  catharsis; at the very least Daniels could have used more comedy to cut through all the cheese he poured over his huge steaming pile of nachos. 

Coming home

The impact of Ryan Coogler's intensely felt Fruitvale Station is belied by the relative innocuousness of the title: unless you know about or heard of what happened you'd be thinking the film is some kind of documentary on San Francisco's mass transit system.

It's some kind of document all right: the final twenty-four hours of Oscar Grant III, a young black man arrested and shot to death (accidentally, not-so-accidentally) by transit police on New Years' Day, 2009.

I've no large issues with the film's ending--far as I can see it's a powerful piece of filmmaking, apparently well researched and for the most part accurate. I like it that the more overtly brutish and possibly racist of the transit officers (Kevin Durand) isn't the one who fires the fatal shot; that it isn't quite made clear--or at least Coogler manages to recreate the confusion at the time--whether or not Grant's hands were handcuffed at the time, or if (as the officers claimed) he was really reaching for his waistband in an apparent attempt to draw a gun (he was unarmed). I think Coogler with the less-than-coherent imagery and editing is trying to make a larger, more powerful point: that a black man's existence is in such a state of ferment and turmoil his life can be cut short at any time, just like that.

Coogler makes a similar point earlier, in a subtler manner: Grant and his friends board the fateful train which pulls away; the camera stays put and as the train blurs into motion the passengers inside become shimmery and ghostlike, almost as if they threaten to flicker completely out of existence. Lovely, memorable effect.

More troubling I suppose is his recreation of the earlier part of Grant's day. Coogler doesn't hide the fact that Grant is a repeat criminal offender, that he has used drugs in the past and is still using, and that he's less than faithful to his girlfriend. On the other hand he plants little hints here and there that tend to mitigate these character flaws--to cite three: he loves dogs, he's seriously thinking of quitting drugs, and if he flirts with a pretty girl it's mainly to help her out at work.

The first hint is the most problematic; the entire incident did happen--but to Coogler's brother, not Grant; Coogler admits to trying to establish a metaphor, that Grant is like that pit bull, a basically goodhearted creature with an unhappy reputation. The second (giving up drugs) was apparently discussed by Grant with his mother and girlfriend--though no one actually saw him go so far as to throw away an expensive bag of grass.

Can't help but liking the third little detail--for a while there you're not sure if Grant is being helpful or trying to pick up the girl, and the actor Michael B. Jordan plays up this ambiguity beautifully; also, this is one of the few details that seems to have some basis in fact, as the grandmother did say he called her asking for her fish recipe.

Think Coogler weakens his film when he tries to mitigate his protagonist's many flaws, when he tries to both present the flaws and defend his protagonist however indirectly from the uglier implications of those flaws. Coogler misses the more difficult but possibly more rewarding argument: that no matter what faults Grant may have (and even if every accusation leveled at him were true he'd hardly be the worst person aboard that train) he didn't deserve to be shot in the back, lying on his belly on the floor of that station.

Still it's a harrowing experience, and call Coogler irresponsible for picking the aftermath of the Treyvon Martin case to release his picture, I'm willing to admit the film articulates something, a frustration we feel on the issue of race in America: we may have come a long way, but have an even longer way to go. 
Much to-do

Joss Whedon's adaptation of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing is pretty much what you'd expect--sexy fun--but I didn't expect it to be so much of a piece with the rest of Whedon's work. Smart and attractive people dealing out wit in intricately woven, kilometric lines? That's so--Buffy. Or Firefly.

Not saying Whedon's managed to pull Shakespeare down to the level of television (well-made television); time and time again he's borrowed characters, situations, ideas from The Bard--he's just taken a major source of inspiration and brought it to the big screen. Plus he goes on to demonstrate how unintimidating Shakespearean English can be, if you've got a cast of actors confident enough and deft enough to wrap their lips around all that archaic (yet still playable after all these centuries, still of-the-moment pertinent) dialogue such that the meaning is not only clear, but the actors clearly had fun speaking them.

Helps that much of the film is casually--even carelessly--shot and cut together, giving the very opposite impression of a formal Shakespeare drama; Whedon has things hopping and we're put on alert trying to keep up with his lively sense of pace. 

If Much Ado feels so Whedonesque, the grounds on which the play is performed--Whedon's own house--feel so, well, Italian, or at least Santa Monica California doing its level best to be Italian (the play is officially set in Messina, Sicily). This along with (as Whedon himself notes) the film's extensive use of window panes, glass, reflections, candlelight, sunlight and shadow play on classically Shakespearean themes like deception and truth, of something or someone or someplace pretending to be what she, he or it is not, from that pretense forging a new truth--or at least a more persuasive lie.

There's a bright side (Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice's (Amy Akers) belligerence hiding a budding affection for each other) and dark side (Claudio's (Fran Kranz) festering distrust of Hero (Jillian Morgese, in her debut role), fanned by the machinations of Don John (Sean Maher)). Matters come out right in the end (this is a comedy after all), but Whedon doesn't stint on the more pessimistic implications of the play, as mistrust and misogyny wrap their tentacles around Hero's helpless form to the point that even her own father Leonato (Clark Gregg, in arguably the finest, most understated performance here) accepts the calumny directed against his daughter with heartchilling speed, and the only ally she can reach out to is her friend and confidante (and fellow woman) Beatrice. People in distress act instinctively, and Hero's instincts have her choose along gender lines--that's how it is, the play seems to say, though it also makes you wonder: why should this be so? Why do women more easily trust women, why do men put much more faith in men, and should Hero continue loving a man who has demonstrated so little of both?

Hero and Claudio's relationship produces much of the play's drama; Benedick and Beatrice's churns up much of the comedy--but also much of the warmth, as theirs is the older story with more than a bit of history, and not just in the play. Whedon fans recognize the actors playing Benedick and Beatrice as the famously star-crossed lovers in his series Angel and call it cheap fan service, but watching them consummate that tragically brief romance in this modestly scaled, sloppily shaped Shakespearean comedy is like having a little ribboned gift presented for our delight. Ackers and Denisof aren't just a pair of pretty faces: you can tell they're totally comfortable with each other, and the developing fondness on their faces isn't just skilled emoting, it's genuinely felt. Wonderful fun.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (The Way We Were, The Way We Are, Eddie Romero, 1976)

On the occasion of the film's restoration and brief commercial screening in SM Manila

Ganito reconsidered

When I first saw Eddie Romero's Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (rough translation: The Way We Were, The Way We Are, 1976)--easily his best-known, most beloved film--so many years ago, I didn't like it.