Thursday, December 31, 2009

The 25 Best Films of the '00s

An incredibly reasoned argument floats around every year come Oscar season that awards would have more merit if those in charge of programs such as the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes waited a year or two to honor whatever came out that current year (i.e. give awards for 2004 films in 2006 or 2007). That way, one could ensure that the real cream rose to the top, and if nothing else it might alter that disgusting practice of holding off every moderately interesting film until late November before dumping them only in New York and Los Angeles lest some halfwit in the Southeast -- where everyone is of course stupid and cannot appreciate anything more artistic than a commemorative plate -- ruin that Oscar buzz. This argument, wise though it is, of course misses the point of those award shows, which is to allow Hollywood moguls and egotistical talent to congratulate themselves or, in the case of the Globes, to get said people drunk in order to get juicy gossip. Nevertheless, the logic is sound.

I say all of this because if creating a best of the year list just as the year ends constitutes folly, then making one for the best of a decade is outright madness. It's even more absurd for me to do it as I did not begin to appreciate cinema until the fall of 2007, incidentally the same time that a Writer's Strike ensured a dearth of solid American films over the final two years of the decade (though one could hardly ask for a better year to be awakened to the true joys of the cineplex). Yet this was an interesting decade for film, particularly in America, as one can chart the shifting societal mood from our initial feelings of invulnerability and the belief that the American Empire was absolute (as seen in blockbusters such as Gladiator) to the uncertainty, nominal unification and mounting nationalism of the post-9/11 era (examined seriously with 25th Hour and celebrated for all the wrong reasons in the Spider-Man franchise). As the decade progressed into two major armed conflicts, overtly reactionary policies and increasing financial doubt and, ultimately, ruin, cinema naturally darkened with it. As our situation has yet to sufficiently stabilize to allow us a clear view of just what we've been through, I wouldn't say that a large number, if any at all, of movies approached the level of darkness of the mid-'70s run of fantastically bleak cinema, but the evolution and in some cases stagnation and regression -- Michael Bay doesn't suck simply because of his cheesy lines or his ineptitude with a camera; he sucks because he glamorizes Bush's sense of jingoism and lack of culpability -- of national sentiment has occasionally been revealing and riveting.

So, because I'm nothing if not nerdy and constantly bored (this is a film review blog, for God's sake), why not commemorate a rocky decade by highlighting some of its finest offerings? Note: as this is a list, like any other list not based on box office returns or some other definitive, tangible form of measurement, is subjective and reflects only the films that moved, provoked and/or entertained me the most.


The best case for Michael Mann's visual genius can be made by comparing his depictions of Los Angeles in Heat, his most well-known and best-received film, and Collateral, his first foray into digital video (indeed the first major use of digital high-definition cameras in feature filmmaking). The L.A. of Heat was gigantic and shimmering, large enough to contain the Wagnerian scope of its epic take on the cops-and-robbers genre. Music, too, informs the aesthetic of the Los Angeles of Collateral, but it exchanges the opera of Heat for jazz.

As such, Collateral is intimate, improvisational, its alternately crisp and blurry landscapes reminiscent of the smoky haze of a hip dive. It shifts tempos and keys and dynamics, as terrifying as it is seductive. Vincent (Tom Cruise), a suave hitman, loves jazz, to the point that he takes the time out from his assignments to enjoy a performance in the same club where giants like Chet Baker and Charles Mingus used to play. As a jazzophile, he loves improvisation and expresses a reverence for the unpredictability of life.

These are traits largely absent in Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver who finds himself Vincent's courier and hostage during a five-stop killing spree. Max is the perfect cabbie: he knows all the back routes in the city and is honest enough to take them rather than deliberately seek out traffic. He has big plans for life, and he insists to his other passengers that he's just driving part-time to save up the cash to start a limo company. Vincent, however, learns that Max has been driving for 12 years. Where the hitman appreciates the constancy of variability, Max cannot act unless has accounts for every detail.

Let's be honest: Collateral isn't revolutionary storytelling. It's blunt. It's contrived. But damn it, i works, precisely because the digital cameras add an air of immediacy and breathlessness. Mann does not strive for a feeling of cheap realism, but he does make the audience a part of the action. His ability to convey intricate details through to-the-point dialogue and fast-paced editing takes Stuart Beattle's script and streamlines it. Furthermore, the digital photography, with its low-light capability, introduces a spontaneity to the strict linearity of the narrative: as the cameras can pick up action in dimly lit conditions, Mann could film scenes without worrying about meticulous lighting, allowing for memorable moments such as the shot of a coyote running across the street in front of Max's cab.

The dramatic weight of the story naturally concerns Max's fear and moral crisis in reaction to ferrying around a killer, and the action -- as is befitting a Michael Mann thriller -- is visceral and gripping (why do people even bother putting gunfire in their movies in a year featuring that contains a Michael Mann film?). Mann and editors Jim Miller and Paul Rubell maintain a constant level of tension between its storylines -- Vincent's engagements, Max's attempts to escape, the joint investigation of Vincent's murders by LAPD detectives (led by Mark Ruffalo) and the FBI (headed by Bruce McGill) -- never quite reaching the masterful level Mann and Rubell exhibited with The Insider but never losing any momentum. Mann can even cut to completely ancillary asides without breaking the flow, such as a humorous trip to the hospital to visit Max's mother (the always funny Irma P. Hall) and an unnecessary but gripping scene in which Max must pose as Vincent to obtain replacement dossiers for the ones he destroyed from Vincent's employer (Javier Bardem).

Below the surface, however, is a battle between ideologies. The clashing outlooks of the two main characters fits each character's occupation: Max takes the shortest, best-planned route not simply because he's a nice man but because he can't accept an imperfection, while Vincent accepts the unpredictability of life because he has to know how to adapt to any situation. Beattle envisioned Robert De Niro in Foxx's role, but that smacks too much of an excuse to have De Niro play the role of a taxi driver again. For once, the producers were right to insist on someone young: by casting in Foxx's age range -- then in his late '30s -- Max can believably cling to his dream of owning a limo company. A man his age is nearing the point of no return for his dreams but, unlike someone in De Niro's age group, he can still fulfill them. Thus, Vincent's influence, vile and twisted as it might be, can actually improve his life, and Collateral is as much about Max's maturation as it is the thriller plot.

When he first gets into Max's cab, Vincent comments upon his distaste for Los Angeles, finding its disjointed structure and dense population confusing and impersonal. Collateral's jazzy style and frenetic pacing reflects the disorienting layout of the city, but Mann uses the story to disprove Vincent's assertion of L.A.'s soullessness. It may be a place that crushes dreams and barely registers its dead, but Mann finds some nugget of worth in there, just as Scorsese did with New York (that Taxi Driver connection is more revealing than it lets on). Tom Cruise, the megastar with eternally youthful looks, frosts his hair to age himself and plays the villain, albeit one who imparts wisdom and perspective onto Foxx, then still easing his way into a film career. By the next year, he'd become the first actor to receive two Oscar nominations in the same year, for this and Ray. I would not fully align Collateral with the cinema, not in the way I would Public Enemies, but it's interesting to note Mann's love for Los Angeles -- inexorably tied to Hollywood even if Collateral never comes anywhere near it or the feel it evokes -- buried beneath the thrills.

Two Lovers

Two Lovers, based on a Visconti film in turn based on the Dostoevsky short story "White Nights," might just be the biggest surprise I've had with a new release since, well, since I began to go to the cinema seriously back in 2007. Oh, I've been pleasantly surprised and bitterly disappointed since then, but nothing on the scale of this restrained romance. As I have said before in other reviews, it's always important to avoid buzz and other reviews of films you plan to see and critique; yet, as anyone who's ever plugged their ears to mute sound knows, you can never fully drown out the noise. I kept hearing dull, muted burblings about Two Lovers and its quality, but even then I simply wasn't prepared for what I saw.

On paper, Two Lovers has all the cluttered contrivances of an overripe melodrama: Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) attempts suicide by jumping off a bridge in the first moments, but changes his mind upon hitting the water and calls for help. He returns home, and we sense from his family's reaction that he's tried something like this before. He cleans up in time for dinner to meet Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), daughter of his father's business partner, and both sets of parents are clearly trying to set their kids up with each other. They indeed have a spark, but the next day Leonard meets his neighbor Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), standing in the hallway suffering the abusive screams of her father. Leonard invites her in to his apartment for a respite, and their attraction is immediate. Michelle, though, is dating a married man.

If it seems that I've just waded knee-deep into spoiler territory, know that director James Gray reveals all of this in the first 20 minutes. Gray piles these exaggerations together so quickly and with such a straight face that it never becomes silly, and he uses the other 80 minutes to shape these elements into a searingly realistic depiction of an odd love triangle. As Sandra is the child of close family friends, she knows of some of Leonard's problems and wants to help him. Michelle, addicted to drugs and trapped in warped relationships with the men in her life, is more a reflection of Leonard, just as messed up and self-destructive.

The choice between the genteel, composed superego of Sandra and the unrestrained id of Michelle hardly constitute a revolutionary new structure in a love triangle, but placing a mentally unbalanced protagonist in the middle adds an unsettling layer to the mix: no longer is this setup a means to tempt a man either into bliss or hell but a fully realized drama that offers multiple potential outcomes for either choice. Sandra could nurse Leonard out his depression and instability, but the same is possible for Michelle; Leonard's obvious care for her offers the first fully reciprocated relationship in her life, and perhaps, like an addicts' support group, they can better aid each other through empathetic connections.

The true joy of the film -- if a movie this subdued and quietly devastating can in any way have the signifier "joyous" attached to it -- is its perfect grasp of the harsh reality of love. Love these days hits the screen only in staid, outrageous rom-coms that simplify its concept into nothing more touching than two attractive people gradually coming to overlook their personalities in favor of physical attraction. It is a disgraceful poisoning of what love is and means and if it wasn't for the beautiful and painful love stories of modern Asian cinema I might believe that love had died. Two Lovers recognizes that we all act like fools when we're smitten, but it also understands that nothing on Earth is as deadly serious. We see Leonard's awkwardness when he spots Michelle entering a restaurant and reaches for a menu to look nonchalant, but he does no do so in a pantomime manner. Pronouncements of love are not delivered in grandiose speeches but in cautious, mumbled admissions, the sort of panicked whisper normally used for interrogation room confessions.

While Gray's screenplay and direction sets the film apart from the host of vacuous romantic films dominating the American market, Two Lovers succeeds ultimately, of course, on the strength of its actors. Paltrow, never one of my favorites, is devastating as Michelle, trapped between the horror of her current life and the terrifying risk of starting a new one. Shaw has the least screen time of the protagonists, but she makes every second count, her beautiful smile always flecked with a hint of sadness as she attempts to break through to Leonard. As for Phoenix, well, I never bought his absurd hullabaloo over his "retirement" from acting and always considered it a hoax. Now, I fervently hope that's the case: without ever forcing himself, he perfectly captures the essence of a man suffering from mild mental illness: he mumbles and rushes his words to hurry through conversations before he makes a "mistake," hides from the view of others and is subject to the whims of his mercurial mood shifts. His downbeat mania is nothing short of hypnotic. Also worth mentioning is Isabella Rossellini as Leonard's mother: forces are constantly pushing Sanda and Leonard together for business reasons, but when Ruth tells her son that she just wants him to be happy she's more genuine than 99% of all the other screen mothers who've said the same thing over the years.

I dare not write much more on Two Lovers, as written descriptions do no justice to its emotional impact. I will say, however, that anyone who finds its ending "happy" is a cockeyed optimist. The people who find Two Lovers ultimately happy are the same people who found the ending if A.I. sentimental, and actually they're not that different: in both films, a character's deepest wish comes true, but it's undercut with the horrible dread of its intimated hollowness. The three main characters of Two Lovers are all doomed in their own way, and they reflect better than any romantic film in recent memory the searing pain of a failed relationship.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr. may be the finest example in modern cinema of "making lemonade from lemons." Originally conceived as a television show, Mulholland Dr. might have marked Lynch's triumphant return to TV, after his seminal Twin Peaks died on one of the greatest and most maddening cliffhangers ever devised but not before violently overthrowing staid conventions and proving that the medium could be a format for innovative and daring programming. One must imagine that producers took at least a fleeting look at his CV before commissioning the project, but they gave the money to the director anyway. Naturally, ABC took one look at the completed pilot and threw a fit, refusing to pick it up and make a series of it. Undaunted and unwilling to let all those ideas go to waste, Lynch made a movie.

As it condenses all the various threads and oddities of a planned televisual foray into insanity, Mulholland Dr. bursts at the seams with ideas and threads that go nowhere, unfulfilled dramatic and subtextual arcs that Lynch decided to throw in anyway, because that's what he does. Analyzing these various loose ends does not particularly interest me, as my interpretation of each scene typically shifts with every viewing and often contradicts older readings. Besides, seeking to find the "correct" answers for the intricacies and rabbit holes will only tarnish and dissipate the ephemeral atmosphere of the film, constructed effortlessly through Lynch's expressive color palette and a burbling, ever-creepy score by Angelo Badalamenti.

Boiled down to its essence, Mulholland Dr. is about dreams: it opens with an old Hollywood dance number that reveals its protagonist before we even actually meet her after a few interlocking scenes focusing on other characters. Betty (Naomi Watts), a small-town girl with big-time dreams who comes to Hollywood: her dream of becoming a star is but the first fantasy of many, and it is perhaps itself wrapped in a larger haze. She moves into her aunt Ruth's house, only to find a squatter suffering from amnesia relating to a car accident on...Mulholland Dr. The woman (Laura Elena Harring) assumes the name Rita after spotting a Gilda poster featuring Rita Hayworth, and Betty tenderly cares for her as she recuperates.

Using the opening dance number and the Gilda poster as a starting point, Lynch structures the first two acts of the film as bitter valentine to Hollywood, a celebration of its vibrant golden years and a cynical appraisal of its current situation. Rita, the statuesque brunette and Betty, the blond, ambitious ingénue, come right out of the '50s; when Rita later dyes her hair blond, she echoes her namesake's hair change in The Lady From Shanghai, which didn't make sense either. Lynch shows a surprising amount of cheeriness by allowing Betty to be a fantastic actress, wowing casting agents with a superb audition. Betty even speaks like someone out of a classic film, filled with that punchy giddiness film stars had when the industry was still so fresh that even its greatest performers couldn't hold back their excitement.

Contrasted with her seemingly inevitable rise to the top is the sad tale of director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a hip young up-and-comer clearly evocative of the current Hollywood system. In the middle of his own casting process, he finds his production taken over by mobsters who insist that he cast an actress of their choosing. When he refuses, he loses everything. He discovers his wife in bed with the pool man, who throws him out of his own home; later he's told that his account is maxed and the bank canceled his line of credit. When he returns to work the next day, he auditions numerous talented starlets until the name Camilla Rhodes comes up, and after barely letting her perform he fatalistically acquiesces to his new bosses, confirming the phrase repeated at him ad nauseam the previous day: "This is the girl." One of ABC's contentions with Lynch's pilot of Mulholland Dr. was that Watts and Harring were "too old," and the talent Kesher must sacrifice to appease his vindictive new bosses must surely hit close to home.

Filling the gaps between the two stories are numerous oddities -- a mob boss with a tiny head, a man whose dream of a horrible figure haunting a local diner, a wayward giver of advice known as The Cowboy; there's even a random aside for one of the most hysterically inept hired killers ever put on the screen, in which the killer attempts to place a silenced gun in the hand of the man he just shot to make it look like a suicide, only for it to go off and hit the woman in the next room before spiraling further. Meanwhile, Betty and Rita's attempt to regain Rita's memories. This arc recalls Lynch's forays into the nightmarish miasma under bright, homogeneous, prefab suburbia: Betty and Rita trace their steps to the place of Rita's accident, then to apartments filled with odd and unsettling residents and one hell of a dead end. Over time, they fall in love with each other, and their romance is one of the most touching additions to any of Lynch's film.

**heavy spoilers from this point on**

In the last act, however, Lynch reveals that the preceding material was all a dream, but not in any manner that could be called clichéd: Betty wakes up as Diane, not a stunning talent but a failed actress. Her home is no longer a cozy, beautifully lit place of comfort but a fetid den of squalor, and we can see immediately that Diane hasn't left the place in weeks. Rita becomes Camilla Rhodes, the woman who "won" the movie part in Diane's dream, and we see that, while the two were lovers in real life as well, but they've split acrimoniously.

While we shouldn't be quick to trace down all the loose threads made even looser by this interpretation, the most reasonable deduction one can make is that the first two acts of the film, even some of the darker areas, reflect Diane's life as she wished it had gone: she met Camilla while auditioning for the film and lost to her, and Camilla later dumped her for Kesher. So, she conjured Kesher's harrowing ordeal both to "punish" him for stealing her love but to vent her jealousy of her lover's talent, that she lost the part only because some cosmic mafia prevented her shot at fame. Ergo, Diane/Betty shunts the pain she feels at having both her dreams and her heart broken onto the shoulders of the movie industry, which too easily lets Camilla off the hook; the real Camilla is a jezebel who tortures Diane by keeping her on movie sets not only to remind the untalented gal what she can never have but to tease her with love scenes. Diane's vision of "Betty" nursing an amnesic Rita back to help obviously allows Diane to essentially hit the reset button on their relationship, but it also gives her the opportunity to subconsciously place Camilla in a position of helplessness that Diane feels in their real affair.

Can, then, the intricate freak show that is Mulholland Dr. be ultimately described as nothing more than a depressed woman's pre-suicidal, masturbatory fever dream? Yes, but that belies the complexity of Diane and Camilla's relationship and the effect that L.A. had on them. Note the film's titular proximity to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, also named for a famous street in Los Angeles and also a scathing look at the negative aspects of the film industry. Lynch's fractured dreamscape of L.A. preceded Charlie Kaufman's romp through the tangled emotions of the jilted lover in Eternal Sunshine by three years, and Lynch interestingly intertwines the tortured romance between the protagonists and his commentary on the film industry, reflecting his own love affair with the cinema and the disappointment a filmmaker of his outlook and style must feel about the continuing simplification of Hollywood fare. Above all else, though, Mulholland Dr. strikes me, this time, as a reminder that nothing is ever as it seems, especially in a place founded upon dreams.

Spirited Away

For all the (completely deserved) praise that's been lavished upon our Pixar since the studio's inception, I can't help but prefer the output of Japan's Studio Ghibli, which has produced, for my money, some of the most seminal releases in Japanese cinema outside of the king of Japanese production companies, Toho (which usually distributes Ghibili's films). Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the studio, has been scripting and directing -- and drawing most of the animations of his films himself, even into his sixties -- fantastic and thought-provoking children's entertainment for over 40 years.

Miyazaki's films tend to fall into one of two categories: largely plotless adventures of youths roaming a world that's so magical one doesn't need a destination (My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo) and more action-packed, often politically-charged fare (Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke). Spirited Away, his 2002 opus, seamless fuses the two, and thus it is his finest work to date. Miyazaki does not force his themes with the same transparency as his American counterparts -- look, I love Wall•E as much as the next guy, but it would have been an outright masterpiece had the third act not become such a wretchedly simplistic, even for kids, environmental fable -- but even by his standards, Spirited Away is reserved and intelligent.

Its protagonist, as is often the case in the director's work, is a young girl: Chihiro, a petulant brat who vociferously objects to moving to a new town as her preoccupied parents simply drive on making the clichéd promises of "You'll make new friends" that parents will say to shut their children up to free up time for their own stressing. Her father, being a male, decides that he's a master cartographer, and so the family soon finds themselves lost, just outside a strange and barren locale the father believes to be an abandoned theme park (because when you've dug a hole, just keep digging). Under Chihiro's constant protests, the parents walk around the area, until they come to an unoccupied stall mysteriously containing freshly prepared, succulent food. The hungry adults begin to feast without the supervision or approval of any stall vendor, reassuring their daughter (suddenly the sensible one for refusing to eat without the owner present) that they've got enough credit cards and cash to take care of any tab. Chihiro explores the area, perhaps simply to find new ears on which to cast her endless complaints; she finds only a young boy, Haku, who warns her to leave immediately. She returns to her parents, only to find that they've transformed into pigs.

This is the setup to the film, the dividing line between the normal world and the magical realm that presents itself in this deserted area after dark, but it also brilliantly establishes a key theme without present it on the nose: Chihiro's father wasn't too far off the mark when he called the strange area an amusement park, as that's what it greatly resembles when lanterns flare over every shop like the sort of gaudy lighting displays that line game booths and overpriced food stalls. Whatever this place is, however magical and ancient it may be, it's as governed by avarice and shiny, tacky capitalism as the modern world. The image of the credit card-wielding parents turned to pigs through their gluttony perhaps isn't the most subtle metaphor, but it's not dumbed down for children, either.

To survive in this land, Chihiro must find a job, and she gets work at the local bathhouse, the castle of this greedy world. Its customers and employees -- typically humanoid with amphibian characteristics -- languish in herbal steams, trading gold that never seems to have any real application anywhere in this surreal world other than to cause people to lust for it. The bathhouse's owner, Yubaba, is a formidable witch whose power has quite literally gone to her head, as it dwarfs the rest of her. She loves gold so dearly that she will accept any customer with sufficient funds, even a "stink spirit," a rolling ball of slime and muck later revealed -- in keeping with Miyazaki's environmental concerns -- to be a beautiful river spirit covered in the grime of human pollution.

Above its commentary on greed and gluttony, however, Spirited Away concerns the generation gap, specifically Japan's but with enough general ties to make its message easily discernible to American audiences. Chihiro is the soft and whiny child of vain yuppies, a generational shift forward from the old/young conflicts found in Ozu's work, the Westernized children of traditional Japanese parents now the ones raising broods of disinterested weaklings. Miyazaki underscores the need for these children to have some challenges in their lives with his use of old myths, from a time when children could not only face peril in bedtime stories but death: the parents' transfiguration into pigs recalls Circe's spell from The Odyssey; the apparent thorn in the side of the "stink spirit," a fearsome creature rendered helpless and forced to rely on an insignificant creature for help; and Yubaba's seizure of Chihiro's name plays into the importance of names in old folklore, back when they meant something -- who can forget that exchange between Butch and cab driver Esmeralda in Pulp Fiction highlighting the loss of the majesty of titles: "I'm an American, honey. Our names don't mean shit." Gene Siskel used to complain regularly about films that placed children in peril for cheap audience manipulation but, while I understand what he was saying and agree, a conflated variation of that belief has all but robbed contemporary family fare of any dramatic tension. Miyazaki actually places this child in danger, not for effect but to teach her a lesson; Chihiro is juxtaposed with Yubaba's child, also the spoiled offspring of a money-crazed parent whose panicked maternal care has left the big baby terrified of the world around him. When Chihiro tells him, "Staying in this room will make you sick," the moment does not feel hypocritical because we've seen her slowly mature as a character, caring for Haku and performing her work with admirable dedication.

The two big threads of the film, Chihiro's maturation and the theme of greed, converge in the character of No-Face. A ghostly black wraith with a white mask (clearly derived from the Japanese stage form of Noh, giving the character's name a nice punny tinge), No-Face transforms in appearance and demeanor based on the emotions of those with whom it interacts. He offers bathhouse tokens and gold to Chihiro, who thanks it politely but does not particularly want the gifts, but when the other employees catch wind of a creature that can summon gold from thin air the bathhouse erupts in a frenzy, the unrestrained avarice of the employees bloating No-Face until it consumes everything in sight, including some of the workers. Chihiro returns to find the genteel creature now a gargantuan, four-legged mound of flesh and teeth, and she gives him a medicine ball she received from the river spirit. The act of giving this strange creature the medicine to help it and the strangers being devoured by it instead of using it on her transformed parents in the hopes of curing them and escaping reveals just how much this girl has grown in less than two hours.

Visually, Spirited Away stands as Miyazaki's most breathtaking achievement. Combining the light surreality of his gentler fare with the mythical beauty of Mononoke, Spirited Away is as gorgeous and inventive as it is merrily absurd: a boiler operator who looks oddly like Dr. Robotnik from the Sonic the Hedgehog games but with six arms enchants pieces of soot to carry coal into a furnace. Yubaba keeps a trio of bouncing green heads as pets, and she can turn into a giant bird. I admire Pixar's exploration of the area around the Uncanny Valley, searching for the precise moment where lifelike animation moves from endearing to creepy; yet part of the joy of this year's Up was its moments of pure silliness with human characters, a trait normally visible in films that feature non-human protagonists. Nothing in that film, though, can measure up to the brilliantly impossible animation on display here. Spirited Away boasts perhaps the most vivid color palette in Miyazaki's work, and where his fantasy realms tend to be frightening or inviting based on each film's subject matter, the twisted world of the "abandoned amusement park" is often both.

It may sound cruel to say that Spirited Away is about knocking a kid down a few pegs, as if I -- someone certainly not old enough to start tutting over the "young'uns" -- bought into some of the more disturbing arguments that society somehow lost something when we generally stopped beating children for discipline. Yet entitlement is common among today's generation, precisely because they learned it from their parents: by the film's end, Chihiro has learned to set aside her desires, which as far as we call tell gives her a leg up on her parents. That's what makes Miyazaki a great filmmaker and not some grumpy old man raging against "kids today": by placing young heroes and heroines in danger, he humbles them even as he shapes them into noble beings. As magical as anything Disney ever created and without the seedy corporate backroom dealings to undermine it, Spirited Away is one of the great works of animation, one that understands that we look to cartoons to see the impossible and accept it as plausible.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans

The release of every new Nicolas Cage feature brings with it a question: will we be getting the Nicolas Cage of actorly fearlessness -- the one who will go to any lengths for his character in films like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas and Bringing Out the Dead -- or the Nicolas Cage who looked at the paycheck and not the script, who is just as fearless but in all the wrong ways. You know, the Cage who will thunder such choice lines as "HOW'D IT GET BURRRRRNNNED?!" like William Shatner's mentally deficient, incestuous lovechild.

With Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans, Werner Herzog's kind-of, sort-of, not-even-remotely remake/sequel of Abel Ferrara's 1992 opus, the answer to that question is "yes." Cage's Terrence McDonagh roams the streets of a post-Katrina New Orleans looking for any means to distract him from the back pain he suffered in an uncharacteristic display of heroism, as much a junkie as the suspects he questions in the case of murdered African immigrants. Were this anyone else's movie -- and I promise that it couldn't possibly be -- Terrence might be a symbol of the U.S. government's appalling reaction to the hurricane, his stance as the lawman who ignores the law cruising uncomfortably close to the hysterical reactions to looting and the Bush administration's despicable inaction. And perhaps, in some way, it is; in response to my recent review of Aguirre and my brief discussion of the warped colonial microcosm Herzog created, Ed Howard (author of the estimable blog Only the Cinema) remarked that political readings of Herzog's work are too narrow, that the auteur cares for the endless contradictions and mysteries of humanity itself and not the petty ways in which it is expressed. He's absolutely right, but I don't think we should be so quick to dismiss potential political explorations within his corpus; one should not use them as a bedrock for criticism of the man, but politics are one way that the ideas and dreams of mankind are exhibited.

However, if I were to truly delve into Herzog's mind -- a terrifying prospect, but something a viewer must do with all of his films as they are so inexorably tied to his skewed perspective -- I would indeed expand the scope: Cage, clearly kneeling at the altar of Herzog's insane muse Klaus Kinski, is so unhinged that he becomes a force of nature. When those levees broke, water wasn't the only thing they unleashed upon New Orleans. McDonagh, who sees hallucinations of dancing souls and exerting an inexplicable control over those with whom he crosses paths. Katrina, it seems, set loose the white devil, master and slave to powders that have replaced old voodoo concoctions.

The thought of Werner Herzog directing a police procedural likely doesn't leap out at the average filmgoer as much as Nicolas Cage in a role that promises utmost hyperbole, which is a shame. If more people knew about the director, the prospect of him even nominally approaching such a plot-heavy genre as "crime drama" is funnier than anything Cage has ever done. Indeed, Bad Lieutenant takes so many left turns that the fleeting moments where it actually plays the genre straight are as uproarious as the rest of the film, which departs not only from any identifiable genre trappings but reality itself.

This is a film where a police detective rips out an elderly woman's oxygen hose to get information out of her caregiver. This is a film that cuts from a moment of rivalry between police officers to a shot of an alligator nearby. This is a film where that isn't the only cutaway to a reptile: it opens on a shot of a snake slithering through the fetid waters flowing in the city streets and features an extended sequence between Terrence and a pair of imaginary iguanas (singing iguanas, no less, and not of the computer-animated variety). "Who but Cage could regard an iguana sideways in a look of suspicion and disquiet?" asked Roger Ebert in his review of the film; "You need to keep an eye on an iguana. The bastards are always up to something." With all respect, Roger, I think the iguanas might be the ones casting glances at him.

Herzog has crafted here his finest and most inexplicable comedy since his great Stroszek, though even the broad brushstroke of comedy might still be to restrictive a label for this film. Herzog has directed numerous operas in his career, primarily the works of Richard Wagner (he even directed Lohengrin one year at Bayreuth, king of the opera/classical music festivals), and Bad Lieutenant is certainly outlandish enough for the stage. Unlike the serious-minded opera of Wagner, Bad Lieutenant recalls the comedic German opera of the singspiel, particularly semi-dramatic works like Beethoven's Fidelio (which also features a rescue in a cell and, even more incidentally, was once directed by Herzog).

As is nearly always the case with Herzog's films (at least on the first go), I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, yet I'm in love with its delirium. Herzog packed his cast with performers who are no strangers to going above and beyond the call of duty -- Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer(!) -- yet they seem to recognize that any attempts to approach Cage's mania would simply melt the film stock and give reserved but no less entertaining performances. Cage's, though, is his finest in years, his best since Lord of War if not his otherworldly turn in Adaptation: he is a star going nova, yet he also has his moments of lucidity and deduction, and we can see that he can be a good cop -- in a memorable early scene and the only one to completely work as a straight piece of cop drama, he displays a keen insight into interrogating suspects without forcing guns to their heads. The original Bad Lieutenant was no standard police drama, what with its deliberately suffocating Catholic guilt fogging over the narrative, and Herzog manages to sidestep the genre without using any of Ferrara's themes or techniques; as he did with his other, wonderful recent foray into American cinema, Rescue Dawn, Herzog displays just enough respect (or tolerance) for a rigid genre to dabble in it for a few moments before subverting everything in his path, not out of discontent and irascibility but through the simple nature of his being. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is a portrait of its titular city via its rampaging demon, giving its darkly humorous, endlessly quotable script an undercurrent of sadness: for once, the man who could dominate the world around him is not the hero of Herzog's focus but a tragic victim.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Though Peter Jackson shot the three Lord of the Rings films simultaneously, the technical progress from Fellowship to The Two Towers is immediately evident: the CGI is more detailed even as it expands to absurd dimensions, Jackson's more direct camerawork no longer clashes so garishly with the poetry of the location shooting and set design, which looks even better than it did in the previous film. Indeed, for better or worse, the massive expansion of scope in The Two Towers paved the way for the swords and sandals epic that became a brief fad in the middle of the decade after Gladiator set up the foundation. (The genre eventually fizzled out after most of its entries lost money, with audiences just smart enough to realize they were paying money simply to see LOTR again; still, while we had to suffer mediocrities like Kingdom of Heaven, we also got some fantastic works like... the director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven).

The enlarged scope of the action, however, almost entirely eliminates the personal feel of its predecessor. Bifurcated into separate plots involving Sam and Frodo's suicide mission to Mordor and the remaining Fellowship members' fight against corrupt wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), the story must leap great distances to follow its characters. Indeed, compared to the endless close-ups of Fellowship, Two Towers tends to track movement through extreme long shots in bird's-eye views, dwarfing characters against the beautiful New Zealand, and where I complained last time that Jackson kept cutting to close-ups when I wanted to see more of the world around the characters, these long shots often prevent an emotional connection with the characters. If it seems at this point that I simply cannot be pleased, know that I am wondering that myself.

Yet one must acknowledge that, compared to the first film, Two Towers zips along with vigor: Fellowship spent a notable chunk of time (particularly in the extended cut) simply roaming the idyllic Shire, giving some time to characters who have no impact on the rest of the story. Following an eight-minute montage of Middle-Earth's past and the history of the One Ring, Jackson never cut away from the Shire until the 32-minute mark and only moved away to other locations once or twice for the rest of the first hour. Within the first 32 minutes of The Two Towers: we see a longer version of the fight between Gandalf and the Balrog that continues after he falls; Frodo and Sam making their way to Mordor, meeting, capturing and "taming" Sméagol/Gollum (Andy Serkis); Saruman's Uruk-hai and Orcs march captured Hobbits Pippin (Billy Boyd) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan) until the reach the edges of Fangorn forest and the two factions begin killing each other before Men arrive to slay the stragglers; another contingent of evil creatures terrorizes and burns the homes of the people of Rohan; Saruman converts his home, Isengard, from a lush garden into an industrial nightmare to breed (literally) an army; Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn chase after the Uruk-hai who captured Merry and Pippin; Théoden, King of Rohan, is so poisoned by the spell of Saruman that he banishes his brave and loyal nephew Éomer and does not even acknowledge the death of his own son; then, finally, the three Fellowship members chasing the Uruk-hai stumble upon Éomer and other banished soldiers.

Phew. To Jackson's credit, he never flags when jumping across different perspectives and huge physical distances, but here he's missed the point that he understood with Fellowship: The Lord of the Rings isn't about the plot -- which is ultimately no more complicated than a journey from point A to B -- but the finely detailed minutiae that turned the simple act of a long-as-hell hike into one of the great works of 20th century literature. Jackson barrels ahead in such an action-oriented mindset that character and atmosphere falls to the wayside:Legolas and Gimli become nothing more than comic relief, more so even than Merry and Pippin: Tolkien wrote the characters to comment upon intolerance and xenophobia, but they bond here only through light insults and fascistic displays of murderous violence (this existed in the book, but it was never a true competition between the two). Compare their tedious boasting to the bit in the extended cut of Fellowship in which Gimli is so overwhelmed by Lady Galadriel's beauty that he can ask her for nothing but a single hair from her head, and the deference he feels for Elves afterward. Éowyn (Miranda Otto) and Éomer have nothing to except pine for Aragorn and be surly, respectively.

The most troubling development is the massive rewrite of Faramir's story: in the book, Faramir (David Wenham) and his Gondorian Rangers stumble across Frodo, Sam and Sméagol, he questions Frodo and Sam about the Ring and his slain brother Boromir and then releases them, aware of the danger of the Ring and unwilling to risk its corruption to wield its power. Jackson and co. completely rewrote the character into someone scarcely different from his brother: "Filmamir" manhandles the Hobbits and tacitly condones the beating of Gollum, even choking the creature twice in rapid succession in their last moments together. Faramir does not release the Hobbits at first but drags them to the besieged city of Osgiliath, sure that the Ring will somehow help Gondor's fortunes. By the time he does display the nobility and wisdom that separated him from his brother, it's impossible to distinguish between the two. A flashback (deleted in the theatrical cut but available in the longer edition) helps explain the Faramir's motives for attempting to seize the Ring, but it's simply not enough justification. Jackson added such a massive deviation because he moved the book's climax to the third film (rightly so, to correspond with the actual chronology of events), but he ruins a great character in the process, undercutting Faramir's moral fortitude to stress the necessity of Aragorn's return to the throne. Jackson would have served himself better by simply making the more epic Helm's Deep sequence the full climax and using the time allotted by cutting this stuff out by fleshing out the world to the degree he did in Fellowship.

Of course, when Jackson deigns to let us wander a bit, Two Towers has the same epic poetry that its predecessor contained in greater abundance: Rohan is a nondescript, wide-open plain -- the Kansas of Middle Earth -- but Helm's Deep is a masterpiece of miniature construction. A stone behemoth carved from the mountain it's connected to, Helm's Deep promises a hell of a fight before anything happens; for my money, the battle sequence that takes place here trumps the larger one in Return of the King. It lacks some of the dodgy CGI of the later sequence, and it's epic without brushing up against the border of absurdity (oh, that Oliphaunt riding thing continues to grate, doesn't it?). For that matter, Isengard is also a terrific creation, nicely juxtaposing the furnaces of industrialism with the hellfire of Mordor. The real treat of the film, though, is simply following Sam and Frodo on their quest to Mordor: the Dead Marshes, Emyn Muil, the Black Gate of Mordor. All of them look fantastic and suitably unsettling and unwelcoming, offering the only true ambiance of the film.

And, behold, great character development exists, in the form of a completely animated character. Looking back, if Two Towers' animated battle sequences paved the way for mass epics, then Gollum revealed that heavy animation in live-action films could carry emotional weight. He's a masterpiece, owing both to the incredible work by Weta Digital (only occasionally can you spot moments where the technology used on him has dated) and the exceptional, award-worthy performance by Andy Serkis. He captures the character(s) perfectly, imbuing the split personalities of Sméagol and Gollum with such depth and distinctive originality that one can always tell "who" is speaking at any moment -- to find a similarly bravura performance, one would have to turn to Nicolas Cage's performance as the twin Kaufman brothers in Adaptation. He could have been nothing more than a set piece, a bit of technology to be ogled at but never explored (like, say, the magnificently rendered creatures of Avatar), but Serkis and the writers give him pathos and empathetic qualities. Nothing else in the rest of the trilogy is as brilliant as the shot/reverse shot conversation between Sméagol and himself: initially funny, it morphs into a heartbreaking portrait of a wretched creature tortured by a curse that destroyed far stronger people.

So, for all of The Two Towers' flaws, it's still incredibly entertaining, indeed probably the most viscerally and immediately enjoyable of the three. For that reason, it has its ardent defenders, but I can't help but view it as the odd one out; the pendulum simply swung too far from "overly intimate" to "epic but impersonal." Furthermore, where the additions in the extended cut of Fellowship let us languish a bit more in this beautiful world, the deleted scenes of Two Towers interrupt its narrative momentum, breaking up its breezy pace with moments of limp comic relief -- yes, I suppose that Éowyn's lack of cooking skills reflects upon her predisposition to fighting and not "woman's work," but the way this is used to signify her masculine outlook on life is just sexist. Besides, they don't make a convincing case for her warrior spirit (save for a few tough-talking lines here and there) when she spends nearly all of her screen time staring atAragorn with longing eyes. Yet even if The Two Towers is the only one of the trilogy to be hampered by its additional scenes, it has enough breathtaking action scenes and moments of quieter beauty to make the task of sitting through its hefty length an easy one.

The Godfather

No director epitomized the rewards and the pitfalls of New Hollywood quite like Francis Ford Coppola. All four of the feature films he made in the '70s -- the first two Godfathers, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now -- are masterpieces. Above his contemporaries -- above Spielberg, Cimino, Lucas, even Scorsese -- he used the freedoms afforded by Hollywood's bizarre social experiment of entrusting young, barely proven talent with heaps of cash to greatest effect, but he also became a symbol of New Hollywood's collapse, one of many directors who never punched through its bloated, distended corpse and continued to make meaningful films (I've got my fingers crossed until I see Tetro, though).

Indeed, The Godfather, Coppola's fifth feature length film after his start working for Roger Corman -- did he just discover everyone? -- in '63, was the film that definitively proved that New Hollywood was a lasting phenomenon after its "official" inception with '67's Bonnie and Clyde. Made with a budget of $6.5 million, not inconsiderate but far from the bank-breaking allotments that would arise in the near future, The Godfather started as an adaptation of Mario Puzo's hit novel, meant to be nothing more than your average gangster picture to cash in on a bestseller. However, with the involvement of Puzo himself and an Italian-American director -- über-producer/coke fiend Robert Evans was sly to insist that an Italian-American helm the picture -- The Godfather became a cornerstone of American cinema and a permanent mainstay on lists of the greatest films ever made.

The Godfather
opens with a wedding and closes with a baptism, normally times of celebration (and both tied to religious ceremony), but they are both undercut with currents of extreme violence. As the iconic first notes of Nino Rota's theme rise over a black frame, we hear a man say, "I believe in America." He continues to speak of the promise America offered to him (and apparently fulfilled), before spinning a tale of his beloved daughter, a beautiful and moral girl beaten to a pulp by a group of boys for refusing to have sex with them. His American dream becomes a nightmare, as social institutions -- the police, the courts -- take no action against the men. We then see (the camera has been gently zooming out from the man, Bonasera, for three minutes before revealing another person) that he's appealing to Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando), head of the Corleone crime family, for justice. Vito criticizes the man -- whose harmed daughter is the godchild of the don's wife -- for keeping his distance from the family: "You never invite me over for coffee," says Vito, subtly placing himself into the role of a wounded friend, not the fearsome mafioso that intimidates Bonasera. The man makes amends for his lack of hospitality, and Don Corleone agrees to have the boys themselves mangled.

This almost quaint argument about, agreement on and assignment of brutality clashes with the end of the film, which cross-cuts between a baptism and actual glimpses at violence. The Godfather is, at its core, all about the transition from that dialogue-driven, perversely idyllic opening and its bloody finale, not in the sense of moving a narrative from A to B but in its psychological and sociological evolution: more than any film, The Godfather captures the shift between between rustic, ethical "mom and pop" business and growing economic homogenization. You couldn't make a better film about the transition between economic feudalism and mercantile capitalism if you set in in the Industrial Revolution; that Coppola and Puzo frame a commentary on this change around the modulations of organized crime is one of the film's -- and it's sequels' -- countless ironies.

Compared to Part II, The Godfather works in an intimate setting: nearly all of its scenes are set in New York City, headquarters of the Corleone family. The opening wedding brilliantly establishes the world of the gangster with tons of expository dialogue packed into scenes that do not themselves seem plot-heavy. Coppola gives us a clear understanding of this world through the interactions of all the gathered mafiosos, assuming that how they behave in recreation reveals their true nature: wedding photos prove a hassle because everyone there is trained to trace any bulb flash back to its source and destroy the camera; the men are unapologetic in their sexism and patriarchy; and the reverence in which the Italian-Americans treat their Sicilian heritage takes precedence over all else.

Positioned as a symbol of a dying -- literally and figuratively -- way of life, Vito is wisely kept out of frame for the majority of the film, appearing only sporadically after the 20-minute opening to better allow his legend to grow in the minds of the audience. Everyone, including -- especially -- his enemies, speaks of him with a reverence befitting a king, which is certainly what he is, albeit one with visibly human characteristics: Vito built his empire on a river of blood and sand made of crushed bones (Part II fleshes this out in greater detail), but he also adheres strictly to a set of morals, regardless of how skewed and perverse those morals are. Sollozzo, "The Turk" (Al Lettieri, who was related to actual gangsters and invited Brando over for dinner to let him get a feel for the people informing his character) comes to the city looking to push heroin with the support of the Five Families and use of their police and political protection; he promises massive returns on initial investments, and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), Vito's consigliere (adviser/lawyer), notes that drugs are the financial future of organized crime, away from the relatively lightweight organization of prostitution and gambling. But Vito declines the offer, believing practically that selling drugs would cost him his political allies and morally that it steps over some line even he isn't willing to cross.

I've said in the past that Brando's performance has been somewhat exaggerated, though I did so in my salad days when my idea of good acting owed directly on the amount of time one occupied on-screen (I still think, though, that he should have been nominated for Support Actor, not lead). Now, I can understand the appeal: with limited screen time, he casts a presence that covers the entire film -- a good contemporary corollary can be seen in Heath Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. Some of his choices are exaggerated, such as stuffing cotton balls in his mouth, but he's as naturalistic and identifiable as ever: he genuinely looks annoyed when someone speaks out of turn, and one can feel his love and gratitude when his beloved Michael visits him in the hospital (after Sollozzo extracts vengeance for his refusal to help) and assures him "I'll take care of you now."

Brando's Vito is literally soft-spoken, a shrewd reader of men whose small-scale aspirations reflect more his narrow narcissism than his sense of ethics. After Sollozzo, with the help of the Tattaglia family, orders the hit on Vito, he impresses upon a kidnapped Tom the need to rub Vito out: "Ten years ago, could I have gotten to him?" he asks to prove his point that Vito is slipping, and indeed the don makes some questionable decisions, such as asking Luca Brasi, a thug so dumb he couldn't even make through a preplanned sentence thanking Don Corleone inviting him to Connie's (Talia Shire) wedding ("I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter... 's wedding") to approach the Tattaglias undercover to spy on them. But these are only outgrowths of his trusting and fatherly nature: in his final scene, he even reveals a certain innocence, chasing his grandson merrily through their miniature orange grove with an orange slice in his mouth to make himself into a jolly old monster before suffering a heart attack and dying, amidst all of the violence, in a moment of peace and happiness. His loving interaction with his grandson reveals a humanity that, by all evidence, is completely absent in his favorite son.

We meet Michael Corleone, as with nearly all the characters, at the wedding at the beginning. A war hero who served valiantly in the Marines in WWII, he returns a legitimate figure in a family that cannot distinguish between family and Family life. Compared to the hot-headed, entitled elder child Sonny (James Caan) and the jealous, soft middle child/black sheep Fredo (John Cazale, criminally underrated in his work across the first two parts of the trilogy), Michael is level-headed and views his father's throne with distaste, not lust. He relates horror stories of his father's "business" dealings to his girlfriend, Kay (Diane Keaton), and insists, "That's my family, Kay, not me." Yet we see Michael slowly drawn into the Family, at first reluctantly, then with cold ambition: when he heads to the hospital to protect his father, a crooked cop (Sterling Hayden) attempts to send him home in order to clear a path for rival gangsters to kill Vito and breaks his jaw when Michael calls him on his corruption. The injury puffs out Mikey's cheek and gives him a bit of a lisp, allowing him to physically resemble his father before he begins to truly work in the family business.

He kills the police captain and Sollozzo and hides out in Sicily for the heat to dissipate, and there he meets Appolonia, a vision of classical beauty. The two marry, and Michael appears genuinely happy, until his bodyguard betrays him and unwittingly kills Appolonia with a car bomb. So, Mike returns home again, this time cold and distrustful of everyone except his family. He marries Kay, as she's the only person he knows would not hurt him, and promises to make the Corleone family legitimate within five years. Away from her, however, he proves to be more ambitious, and more ruthless, than his father ever was. He plans to acquire a casino and hotel in Vegas, a starter kit for the expansion of the family's empire, and plots to tie up all the loose ends of those who betrayed the family, right down to Connie's abusive, jealous husband Carlo. That final montage, an ironic juxtaposition between the baptism of Michael's nephew and godchild, in which the priest asks him "Do you renounce Satan?" as his minions execute the heads of all the rival families and the dissidents within his own, shows Michael capable of decisions that his pragmatic, ethical father would never make, a thread Puzo and Coppola would explore fully in the sequel.

If, by current count, I've only devoted 1713 words thus far to what many believe to be the greatest film ever made, it's because it was not my intention to watch this today: I'm still trying to finalize a list of the best films of the decade and to catch up with as many '09 films as possible before I finalize my list of the films of the year sometime in January (as I have to wait longer than the critics to see most of the potential heavy-hitters, there's no point in putting one out before I see and gauge them). But I received the remastered and restored trilogy on Blu-Ray for Christmas, and -- with my Band of Brothers Blu-Ray set missing a disc and my complete series of The Shield scratched all to hell from its terrible packaging, I had little else new to watch; I'm expecting replacements for both -- I decided to pop in the first film to compare its look to my old DVD set. That I emerged bleary-eyed three hours later restraining myself from calling friends and interrupting their shopping sprees or days of rest to badger them about the staggering beauty of its restoration is as ringing an endorsement as I can provide.

The prints of Parts I and II were so damaged with time and poor preservation that Robert A. Harris, head of the restoration project, had to work on them digitally because they could not be read by an analog machine; not helping the matter was cinematographer Gordon Willis' decision to make the prints as tamper-proof as possible. Harris worked with Willis, and the result is perhaps the closest we'll ever come to seeing the film as it was as a pristine 35mm print in '72 (though even the filmmakers admit they no longer remember what it looked like originally and that their color correction may or may not be entirely accurate). Even if it does change the color tinting slightly, the change in picture quality is more plainly seen in its striking clarity: The Godfather trilogy is filmed in amber hues and blacks, but this looks like the film was printed onto actual gold. I would not hesitate to call it one of those films one should buy a Blu-Ray player simply to own, alongside Baraka and perhaps Blade Runner (having seen the latter in all three formats -- DVD, HD-DVD and BD --- I don't think the leap between standard and high definition is as jaw-dropping as the other two, though it's still mesmerizing in and of itself).

But back to the film itself. I've withheld some points of discussion to save for a review of Part II, which will almost certainly be longer because A) I wrote a paper on it (and Chinatown) for a college course and therefore have an existing basis of argument that I can take from the comparative essay and B) it is my preferred installment of the series. Some of the my notes, actually, remark on scenes pointing to the next film, such as Don Tommasino lamenting to Michael (ironically) that kids don't exhibit the respect they used to and that "times are changing for the worse," as well as the scene in which Michael heads to Vegas to check on Fredo's progress with schmoozing the casino owners, only to find that his older but less mature brother has spent his time partying and carousing rather than establishing business ties: Fredo even defends his new "friends" against Michael when the new don speaks of buying out Moe Greene, owner of the hotel and casino Mike desires. This prompts Michael to tell his brother, "Don't ever take sides with anyone against the family again," a grim foreshadowing of the next film but also a reflection of an earlier exchange between Vito and Sonny, wherein Vito chided his son for speaking out of turn; Vito's chastisement was swift and forceful, but softened by the dynamic between father and son, a dynamic that doesn't exist in Michael's murderous utterance to his brother. Already we see his icy inhumanity, before he fully assumes the role of godfather at the end of the film, closing the door on Kay (who realizes that he really did order the death of Connie's husband and that Michael isn't going to pull the Corleones out of crime) and, with her, the last vestiges of whatever made Michael the kind and legal member of the family.

As I am busy with my aforementioned catch-ups, I likely won't return to review the rest of the Godfather series, which first expanded its themes of the coldness of modernization on a national level, then finally an international one, for a while, at least until mid-January. Until then, I urge all those with Blu-Ray players who do not own this set to purchase it, and I thank all of you for reading. And may your first child be a masculine child.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


In some ways, Michael Haneke is the soapboxing, socially conscious heir to Alfred Hitchcock: concerned less with psychosexual hangups than the growing impact of video and the omnipresence of modern communication on our daily lives. "A feature film is 24 lies per second," he once said (a cynical response to Jean-Luc Godard's declaration of the truth of images), and one imagines him saying it while brandishing a cane and telling neighborhood children to stay off his lawn. But there's a certain charm -- for lack of a better word -- in his irascibility, as well as his firm hand on suspense.

Indeed, no other film of the decade so completely captures
Hitch's capacity for filtering pop psychology through the sieve of a thriller than his magnum opus Caché, which took Cannes by storm back in 2005. Where Hitch derived his tension through his masterful direction and pacing -- perceptive audiences will note how bad the effects were in his films, and I say "perceptive" because he was so skilled at grabbing your attention that one must break away from its current to focus on the problem -- Haneke opens Caché with a static long take. In the frame is the exterior of a house in Paris: not a modest flat, nor an opulent house. It plays in silence until two characters in a voiceover begin to speak over it. At last, lines appear in the image, and the action reverses, revealing the image to be a videotape watched by those speaking over it.

The voices belong to Georges Laurent (Daniel
Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), two bourgeois French intellectuals who first regard the tape with curiosity: is it a prank? How did Georges walk in front of the camera and look in its general direction -- as evidenced by the tape -- without seeing it? When more tapes arrive, however, accompanied by crude, childlike drawings of violent acts, their curiosity morphs into fear, which in turn becomes uncontrollable paranoia. In a nod to Hitchcock, Haneke has put his hand in Rear Window and turned it inside out.

That inversion of
Hitch's plot is but a small piece of Haneke's larger stance as the perfect antimatter for the master of suspense and his style: Hitch used threadbare plots and basic acting to force his audience into cheap identification before turning their world upside-down to reduce them to primal states of fear and lust. It's a barbaric method of filmmaking, but it's also often entertaining as hell and I never did leap aboard the haters' wagon. Haneke too can be cruel: his camera -- even when following the characters outside of his subtly terrifying static voyeurism -- is objective and detached, preventing even a tenuous emotional identification between the audience and characters. But that objectivity serves him just as a 3rd person perspective benefits an author, allowing him to gauge his characters and the situations around them.

His emotional distance reveals many social issues evident in the couple's relationship, such as the gender gap. Georges works on a TV show,
bloviating with other critics on the merits of works of art; their program likely strikes even the French as pretentious. Anne is no less intelligent, but Haneke undercuts the idea of equality in the modern, educated couple by making Georges the bread-winner and the final word on every subject. Neither devotes much time to their son Pierrot, as Georges subtly hints that it's "woman's work" and Anne is too busy protesting the inequality in her relationship with her husband to care for the child. When she protests her husband's exclusive attempts to find their tormentor and counters his pleas for her to simply "trust" him with a plea for him to reciprocate on that trust, Georges looks at his wife as if she's gone mad. Haneke is harsh, but sympathetic to her helplessness, viewing her inability to assert herself not as a personal or biological weakness but the result of a social structure that continues to oppress women, different from past times in that it name check equality to look superior. Contrasted with Hitchcock's brand of sexism, Haneke's is an actual commentary on that sexism.

As the unseen voyeur -- it might as well be
Haneke himself -- he slowly guides these decreasingly sane individuals to epiphanies; Caché is less about the hidden camera than what has been hidden in these characters to shape them into the people we see. The Laurents receive footage of areas other than their own house, leading Georges to the apartment of Majid, a man from Georges' past. Majid, an Algerian immigrant who lived with Georges and his parents until Georges told lies to have him ejected, evokes themes of racism and social status -- Majid's son later tells Georges that his father could have gotten an education had he stayed with the Laurents and not been forced into an orphanage, that he too might have enjoyed a comfortable upper-middle class life instead of dwelling in a cramped apartment into late middle age. For a deceptively simple film, Haneke manages to uncover not only the lingering ignorance even among the intellectuals but the echoes of the racist past of the country itself (Majid's story is closely tied to the Algerian War and the Paris massacre of 1961).

Georges and
Majid's confrontation also permits Haneke to study our ability to convince even ourselves of our lives. Georges has put his childhood menace out of mind, but he begins to suffer nightmares of that childhood (the images in his dreams coincide with the drawings accompanying the tapes) that show how, even subconsciously, he believes the story he told his parents to remove Majid from his home. Haneke pokes holes in his own maxim by showing the truth of video, not its capacity for manipulation and deceit. Home video devices store data, or memory, to be played back for buyers -- this is more literally true of digital media like DVDs or Blu-Ray than the analog videocassettes sent to the Laurents -- and Haneke refashions them into devices to store human memory as well; after all, what is a home movie but a memory permanently enshrined in a hard copy?

direction is never showy, but he and his editors, Michael Hudecek and Nadine Muse, have the skill of maintaining the atmosphere of a thriller even as the question of who's recording these tapes and tormenting this family fades into an exploration of those characters. The simple act of transitioning from those drab, immobile shots of building exteriors to tracking and panning shots of the characters is jolting, often leaping from the dully lit static shots to bright and colorful action, such as young Pierrot in swim meets. Some may even get hung up with the lack of action in the film, as it's so concise and well-paced that even those who admire its exploration of themes can't be faulted for constantly expecting more action than Haneke gives us.

Haneke shows only two scenes of violence, one odd and somewhat imagined, the other a stark, horrific moment that's all too real. This last act brings a terrible finality to Majid and Georges' decades-long conflict and a sobering look at how France's post-'68 intellectual socialism still hasn't eradicated the racism and disparity between classes that drive some people to desperation (La Haine was an excellent glimpse into this social problem as well). But, for all Haneke's supposed misanthropy and cynicism -- here is a man so pissed off by the lasting relevance of his 1997 work Funny Games that he remade it shot-for-shot a decade later with English-speaking actors so he could get ignorant Americans to watch it without bitching about suffering the indignity of having to "read" a film -- he has the optimism to insert the film's epilogue, an unheard conversation between the sons of Majid and Georges. Perhaps Haneke does not allow us to hear what they have to say because it is not worth hearing, a rehash of their parents' conflict that starts the cycle anew. But maybe, just maybe, their brief meeting contains the spark of reconciliation, and the hope that, through talking out issues and understanding the problems that plagued past generations, the current youth can one day move beyond a legacy of hate and fear. Didn't know ya had it in you, you cranky Austrian bastard.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Almost Famous

Had anyone else directed Almost Famous, its syrupy sweetness would put its audience in the cinematic equivalent of a diabetic coma. But Cameron Crowe is no ordinary purveyor of the saccharine; his biggest influence may be Billy Wilder, but Crowe's ability to pen stories of endless optimism and idealism without drowning them in sugar edges him closer to Frank Capra than any other major American filmmaker. All of his earlier films contain some nugget of his own life, but Almost Famous is full-on autobiography, with names changed to protect the, well, anyone but innocent.

Crowe's doppelganger is William Miller (Patrick Fugit in his teenage years), whom we meet as a wee lad discussing his love of
To Kill a Mockingbird with his mother Elaine (Frances McDormand), a supportive but firm matriarch who wants her son to be the country's youngest lawyer. Therefore, she skips him several grades but keeps this a secret from the boy, who doesn't realize anything is wrong until all his peers start growing moustaches and, frankly, look like they could babysit him. His sister (Zooey Deschanel) can't stand Elaine's restrictive parenting, so she runs away to become an air hostess; before she leaves, she gives her secret record collection to William, with specific instruction to play The Who's Tommy (the clear inference here being that the boy's about to head on an amazing journey of his own).

At age 15, he's a rock-crazed youth who writes articles for local underground papers, but his popularity has scarcely improved. One day, he has the good fortune to stumble across Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the greatest of rock critics. This moment draws a line in the sand for potential viewers, as it clearly establishes Crowe's sense of nostalgia. Anyone who's read but a single article by Bangs knows that Hoffman's teddy bear portrayal of the addled, tortured writer requires the sort of selective memory that normally comes only from years of hard alcohol abuse. If you can't accept this portrait of Bangs, just pop this out of your DVD player and watch something else, but if you find something charming about Crowe sifting through Bangs' various hangups to find the nice guy beneath, then you'll get along with this movie just fine.

Bangs sends William to cover a Black Sabbath show, where he meets some groupies, no,
band-aids, who follow groups around for spiritual support, not sexual (though the two overlap frequently, it seems). He also makes the acquaintance of Stillwater, a fictional band that serves as a loose amalgam of early '70s guitar rock bands -- primarily the Allman Brothers Band -- who take a shine to the kid and invite him to follow them as they tour the country. As they never seem to answer his questions, he continues to tag along, hoping that they'll divulge information by the time they get to the next show and never quite able to outpace the long-reaching arm of his mother.

Crowe frames
Almost Famous as a coming-of-age tale, of a young, virginal geek suddenly thrust into a traveling circus of hedonism. William cons Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres (Terry Chen) into believing he's an adult and paying him to get a story out of Stillwater, but Billy spends most of his time too bewildered by the world he's just discovered to jot down anything longer than a brief quote or random note. He's drawn to legendary band-aid Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), a presence every bit as inspiring -- more so -- than the not-quite-stars Stillwater. She and guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) exchange sideways glances, obvious even to the naïve, lovestruck William, and he can only watch helplessly as the rock star lands the girl he can never have.

Mercifully, Crowe does not play William's virginity for laughs -- perhaps because William reflects the director's own life -- and when some of the other band-aids finally lay the kid down and make a confused man out of him, it's an anti-climax, merely another stepping stone in his maturation. Furthermore, William isn't the only subject of this coming-of-age story: lead singer Jeff (Jason Lee, who steals all of his scenes) and Russell are vainglorious, preening wannabes. Both possess the talent to survive and even thrive in the music climate, but they're too busy fighting amongst each other and blinding themselves in the vices of the road. The memorable scene in which Russell follows some teenage fans to their house for a part and drags poor William along for the ride. William can only stand by and watch Russell load up on acid and proclaim himself a "golden god" before leaping off a roof into a swimming pool, and for all the humor of the scene it clearly reveals Russell's self-destruction.

Perhaps the character most in need of maturation is Penny. Kate Hudson has spent her entire career fiercely chipping away at the clout this performance bought her, but it's a testament to the overwhelming strength of her work here that she still ultimately hasn't put a dent in it. She captures Penny's magnetic allure perfectly: there's a subtle debate among the band members who view her with alternate reverence and weariness if she's the Madonna or the whore, failing to realize that she's tapped into the unexplored balance between the two. But she's also just a girl whose vague pop-philosophical musings mask a deep insecurity and a lingering culture shock that never faded no matter how many miles she put between her and the normal life she left behind. Russell wants her around because he's confused convenient sex with love, which in turn convinced her that their relationship is meaningful, yet Russell quickly shuffles her out of the entourage when his wife joins him on tour. William overhears Stillwater literally trading Penny to another band as stakes in a poker game, he confronts her with the truth. "They sold you for a case of beer!" he thunders at her happy-go-lucky attitude toward Russell, and we see in her eyes the wheels at last turning, shaking off rust and grinding until the full impact of the lie upon which she's built her current existence hits her. But all Hudson does outwardly is shed a single tear and muster the courage to ask, "What kind of beer?" Later, she attempts suicide by overdose.

Wait, wasn't this supposed to be a cheery bit of nostalgia? Yes, but it works precisely because Crowe injects drama into the proceedings.
Almost Famous is a snapshot of a watershed moment in rock history, when young fans like William/Crowe came of age and could fully appreciate the music just as the people who'd been since it exploded in the mid-'60s -- Bangs, Penny -- are victims of the post-Altamont comedown (well, Bangs probably didn't give a damn about Altamont, but he viewed the rise of art rock as an international tragedy). When William meets Stillwater outside the stadium and tells them he's with Creem magazine, Jeff calls him "the enemy," but they warm to him when he proves that he actually knows their names and songs. Crowe gently fashions the band into a symbol of rock 'n' roll on the brink: these guys clearly care deeply for their music, but they argue when a batch of T-shirts arrives with a photo of the band entirely blurred save an in-focus Russel. Their manager (Noah Taylor) is a close friend but a bit clueless in the actual performance of his duties, and the band faces the option of selling him down the river when an officious super-manager (Jimmy Fallon) arrives and promises heaps of money under his guidance. These guys adamantly told William that they "make music for the fans, not the critics," but they all change their tune when William mentions they might make the cover of Rolling Stone.

The way Crowe captures these moments of the uncertainty of rock's future provides the sweetness I promised all those paragraphs ago. The actors who comprise Stillwater are absolutely the most convincing fictional rock stars ever placed on the screen: Lee and Crudup channel the love/hate relationship that was all over the place between the two founding members of Anvil in this year's
Anvil! The Story of Anvil, always at each other's throats but closer than blood relatives. (In some amusing additions found in the director's cut of the film, William interviews the bassist and drummer, both of whom are about as bright as shattered light bulbs and an inevitable but fun gag on the much-maligned rhythm section.

In my extended review of
Adventureland I mentioned this film in relation to Mottola's use of songs to evoke a time period, and the simple purity of Crow's music selection fuels the nostalgia. I've gone off classic rock recently, shifting the age limit forward to around the late '70s and listening to post-punks like The Fall, Joy Division and Nick Cave, but Almost Famous never fails to make me break out Zeppelin, Sabbath and The Who (note: it's always a good time for some Who). The joy of Crowe's use of music is best evidenced in what might so easily have been an utter disaster of a scene, when the passengers on Stillwater's tour bus break into a spontaneous singalong of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer." For Crowe to insert such a moment -- using a song I don't even like -- and make it one of the purest examples of movie magic in contemporary American cinema is an incredible feat.

Of course, Crowe's autobiographical, humanistic style of writing requires actors who can bring something to the table, and I can't find a bum note here. Hudson gives one of the best performances by an actress of the decade, an almost supernatural charmer who fools everyone, including herself and (I would wager) much of the audience with her hollow confidence and know-how. McDormand manages to portray the harping mother without ever making her a cliché, and she's actually one of the most likeable characters in the movie -- try not to laugh and root for her when she tells off Russell over the phone for keeping her son out on the road, reducing the smiling, cocky rock star to a timid mouse. Hell, you can hate Jimmy Fallon all you want, but anyone who cannot see how wonderful he is as the professional manager is simply blinded by irrational hatred. Perhaps the weakest note is Fugit in the lead, but his flat awkwardness strikes me as more human than the Hugh Grant stammering or Michael Cera ironic panic that seem to constitute the only actorly depictions of nervousness; plus, he's clearly a cipher for Crowe and the audience, channeling our own emotional connection to the story so well that even viewers like myself, born long after this film's '73 setting, can tap into its nostalgic effect.

Deciding whether
Almost Famous best Crowe's other masterpiece, Say Anything..., is no easy feat -- my own preference depends entirely on which one I've seen more recently -- but if Almost Famous lacks the taut emotional impact of his directorial debut, it compensates in its variation: it's a coming-of-age tale, a road movie, and a nostalgic autobiography. It's also, despite the borderline saccharine feel of Crowe's reminiscence, somewhat of a eulogy: near the end, after Penny has left in disillusionment and the band turned on William for writing the truth of the band's vain infighting and thinly masked greed and killed his story, band-aid Sapphire (Fairuza Balk) talks to Russell about the new batch of girls who now follow the band. Even among the quasi-feminist band-aids, these new additions are nothing more but groupies; "They don't even know what it is to be a fan, y'know?" Sapphire rants wearily, "To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts." Perhaps rock never was the same after this period in time. Indeed, Stillwater appears to be well on the way to commercialization. Yet they also have an epiphany and a self-reevaluation, and Crowe ends the film with the bright suggestion that some groups can retain integrity and love of the craft and play the big venues.

P.S. This review concerns the vastly superior director's cut, which is sadly out-of-print in the U.S. but can be acquired easily enough on DVD through used online vendors (I got mine through Amazon Marketplace) or in a region-free Blu -Ray UK import. The director's cut adds a whopping 40 minutes, but it scarcely feels longer. Some scenes are unnecessary but fun -- the bassist/drummer interviews, Kyle G as a stoned, narcoleptic late-night DJ conducting an interview with Stillwater -- while others are absolutely vital, such as a brief moment where Russell explains to William that the most memorable parts of music are the mistakes or the little asides, or the scene at the end where Jeff and Russell have a heart-to-heart about their crumbling relationship (why this was cut from the theatrical version is beyond me; in that cut, their dynamic is never resolved). The theatrical version is still a great movie, but the Untitled cut makes it look like a hatchet job.