Sunday, January 31, 2010


Like Steven Spielberg's A.I., Steven Soderbergh's Che is defined by dichotomies. The former split along the lines of the deceptively opposed visions of its two primary auteurs, while Che is openly structured as a dialectic. Split into two parts but originally shown in America only as a whole, Che uses its division more as a marker of contrast, clearly separating the two revolutions in which Ernesto "Che" Guevara participated and the vast difference in their outcomes. Soderbergh shot each part with different actors, in different styles, even in differing aspect ratios, further emphasizing the distinctions between the two.

Of course, few directors' careers are so defined by dialectics as Soderbergh's, who balances mainstream endeavors with experimental features; in 2009 alone, he released a broad comedy about corporate avarice and deception starring an A-list player (The Informant!), and also an avant-garde deadpan satire on the same topic featuring a porn star playing an escort (The Girlfriend Experience). The great Terrence Malick was once assigned to the film before dropping out to make The New World, leaving Benicio del Toro to turn to Soderbergh, who'd originally agreed to helm the project when they collaborated on Traffic, to once more take over the wheel. It was a cunning decision; only Soderbergh could have made a biopic that as blatantly unconcerned with biopic conventions as Malick, though the styles of the two -- poetic elision vs. fussy, detail-oriented deconstruction -- could hardly be more different.

Che's first half, The Argentine, concerns the revolution in Cuba from 1957-58. Soderbergh gives us sparse background for the movement, opening with a verité, grainy 16mm show of a victorious Che conducting an interview in Havana in 1964 and a brief flashback of Guevara meeting Fidel Castro (Demian Bichir) and a handful of other future revolutionaries as they dine in cozy postwar accommodations, wearing button down business shirts that seem so alien compared to the images we have of these figures, ever sporting military uniforms. They speak only fleetingly of their dissatisfaction with Cuba's status as a pawn of American imperialism; this meeting is the final confirmation of plans, not the initial trade of ideas and rhetoric. Soderbergh then cuts to Cuba, studying the manner with which the band of rebels managed to overcome a U.S.-backed dictatorship.

Che with future wife Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Isn't it nice when couples like the same things?

As Amy Taubin astutely notes, Soderbergh films Che always in medium- or long-shot, never in close-up, emphasizing his Marxist commitment to being one of the people, as well as the perception of Che as the great rock star of extremist intellectuals. Furthermore, he hasn't yet proven himself among the Cuban soldiers: they refer to him as "Doc," "the Argentine" or "Che" (Argentinian slang for "boy" or "dude"), truly just one of the fighters and an unproven one at that. His asthma occasionally makes him a liability -- one suspenseful sequence involves Guevara attempting to hide from Batista troops while stifling a coughing fit -- and his services as a doctor initially prove far more valuable than his tactics. Indeed, his medical assistance plays a significant part of winning over Cuban citizens as the 26th of July Movement advances through the forest, and many of the farmers he treats regard him with confusion and awe, simply because they've never seen a doctor before. One child remarks after Che tells her mother to eat more meat "That guy's lying. He tells everyone that," but you can see the malnutrition and neglect among the rural populace, a sharp contrast to the wealth enjoyed by Batista's government and the major cities that bustle with American business (somewhere in Havana, Michael Corleone is disinterestedly eyeing a solid gold telephone given as a gift by a corporation to Batista).

Despite the sweeping grandiosity of the beautiful establishing shots of the Cuban forests and the focus on the battles to take Cuba, Soderbergh crafts The Argentine into a strikingly experimental endeavor: he gives us battle scenes but replaces the audio with Che's musings from his Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War, the memoir that forms the foundation of this film's narrative, as well as out of sequence clips from his trip to New York in 1964 to speak before the U.N. While the cutting between the two settings can be at times questionable, even borderline haphazard, it allows us to see how Che's actions in the field craft his image, to the point that he can arrive in New York as the toast of bourgeois intellectuals, all of whom would likely be wearing those damn T-shirts with his face on them if they existed then. In fact, their vacuous, obliviously ironic worship of the guerrilla, combined with his natural rock star presence and Soderbergh's decision to shoot these scenes in grainy, monochrome 16mm, makes it all but impossible not to see Che as the predecessor of Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back. Che suffers the platitudes of fans who don't understand him and the scorn of conservatives who fear him, and he reacts to his cult of personality with sneering derision. The parties Che attends in New York provide a sharp contrast from the brief, on-point discussion between Che, Fidel and the other founders of the 26th of July Movement at the start of the film: where that meeting showed intellectuals who'd already decided to back up their beliefs with action and merely needed to hear the others voicing support, the well-dressed peons sit around and prattle incessantly, munching too-expensive, too-pretentious finger foods as they attempt to set themselves up as sympathetic to the plight of the poor in Latin America and elsewhere.

Back in Cuba in '58, Che's confidence grows as he rises through the ranks, and he uses his increasing authority to exert rigid conformity to the ideals of the revolution. Slowly, the darker side Soderbergh never reveals of Che (not even in the second part, but more on that later) begins to seep into the periphery: he uses slurs to mock those whose commitment falters when hardships befall the guerrillas and executes a pair of deserters for stealing harvest from local farmers and raping a young woman, all while posing as high-ranking officers in the movement -- Che's tone of voice suggests the latter tidbit enrages him as much as the actual crimes. Yet he also displays the more egalitarian and populist side of his devotion to Marxist ideals: at the end of the film, after Che and Fidel lead the revolution to victory, Guevara spots some revolutionaries driving a stolen car in the convoy and orders them to return it. Even if it belonged to a loyalist soldier, the movement cannot expect to bring about massive change if they do not hold to their ideals; indeed, following the last major engagement, Che tells one impatient soldier, "We've only won the war. The Revolution starts now."

Those ideals are sorely missing, however, when Che heads to Bolivia in 1965. Part Two of Che, Guerrilla, shows the doctor attempting to start another revolution from scratch in the heart of South America, not too far from his homeland of Argentina. If The Argentine profiled a revolt that succeeded, Guerrilla depicts one that fails catastrophically. Also based on one of Che's memoirs, The Bolivian Diaries, Part Two dissects the mounting troubles of Guevara's attempted coup and the effect of inevitable loss on the fighter. Compared to the epic wide-screen panoramas and lush color scheme of The Argentine, Guerrilla shrinks the frame nearly to a square, boxing in the protagonist as his youthful idealism turns to ruthless pragmatism. Soderbergh slightly mutes the colors and brings the soundtrack to the fore, mixing the faint sounds of chirping birds and running water with Alberto Iglesias' haunting minimalistic score -- at once even more wildly inappropriate for a biopic and even more perfectly suited to the material than his different approach to the first film -- to create an aural isolation to match the somber visuals.

Del Toro performs an about-face with the character in Part Two, and Guerrilla can frustrate at times as the dynamic presence of The Argentine gives way to a somber, increasingly withdrawn and paranoid figure, slumped over and covered in a blanket that distorts his shape. The rainforest exacerbates his asthma, and the ragged beard he allows to envelop that iconic face destroys the last remaining indication of the man we just followed to victory.

If one takes both parts in one sitting, Guerrilla might easily strike the viewer as repetitive: Che arrives in Bolivia more or less as he did in Cuba, as a foreigner who has to convince natives that he's one of them. He cannot capitalize on his image at first, as he must disguise himself as a nobody to prevent attracting attention before he can marshal forces. When he does mount a campaign, the U.S. moves to intervene, sending anti-insurgency forces to train the Bolivian army. And so, while each action never turns out as it did in Cuba, the actions are nevertheless similar, occasionally identical, to ones when saw in the last half. Yet this decision reveals a subtle direction by Soderbergh to delve into the legend without directly commenting on him: the Che of Part Two abandons the ideals he embodied in the first part (the director devotes a telling close-up about halfway through of a Rolex watch Che wears), and his willingness -- eagerness, even -- to renounce his position in the Cuban government at the start of the film to go back to a jungle somewhere and train an army reveals that the intellectual can only truly function as a force of destruction; social revolution is just an excuse to shoot people. The first part of Che was called The Argentine, reflecting how Guevara had to become the legend we know today after starting only with his background. Soderbergh dubbed Part Two Guerrilla, an indicator that he'd cemented his reputation by the time he went to Bolivia but also as a clue of his identity: in the first he was defined by his homeland, here as a guerrilla. Not a political leader or an ideologue, but a guerrilla, a fighter. By essentially restarting the narrative of the first half, Soderbergh shows how Che was willing to throw away everything simply for the chance to keep fighting somewhere, without openly commenting upon Che's more twisted actions.

(I confess I was somewhat peeved that Soderbergh never addresses the mass killings Che headed as the leader of military tribunals in the wake of the victory in Cuba, not even in the brief text scroll preceding Guerrilla. Though he never builds Che up as a saint, he gives us only two vague indications of his more criminal side: at the end of The Argentine, he tells a soldier to spare a prisoner and ominously declares, "He will be judged by tribunal." At the end of Guerrilla, Guevara attempts to dismiss Cuban-American CIA agent Félix Rodriguez by saying "I don't talk to traitors," only for the agent to mention, "You executed my uncle." Considering how well the film mines dialectics, it's disappointing that these are the biggest examples given of Che's cruelty, but then I suppose Soderbergh would have had to have portrayed him openly as heroic in places to balance it out.)

Compared to the jumping timeline of its predecessor, Guerrilla progresses in such a linear fashion that it even gives us the day of operations every few scenes to break down the passage of time. Soderbergh also uses more handheld shots instead of the more formal ones in The Argentine, the grittier look better suited to capturing the slow downfall of a myth in what is, basically, a horror film. Following the initial recruitment, Che never seems to attract any more followers, only losing the few he commands to fatigue, capture and death. Yet he still retains that certain charisma even in his frailty and fear: when Bolivian forces capture him, he subtly intimidates and goads the brasher officers and nearly charms one young guard into releasing him. This moment, as well as an ill-advised POV shot of Che's execution that depicts Guevara falling to the ground before the frame fades to white, serves to rebuild Che's image enough to point toward his ensuing martyrdom among the intellectuals and the genuinely oppressed throughout the world. For my money, though, Soderbergh's final shot is a more appropriate ending: he returns to the brief moment at the start of The Argentine, as Che rides a boat to Cuba from Mexico with Fidel and the other revolutionaries. As he gazes over the ocean and his eyes dart nervously to Castro, we can see the doctor wondering just what he'd gotten himself into, and though he never openly communicates such doubt again, we see how his fears were justified; he just felt them for the wrong revolution.

With Che, Soderbergh eschews the great pitfall of the biopic genre -- the tendency to inadvertently shift attention from the subject to the events that happened around him or her -- by simply placing focus on three chief events in Che's life. This decision allows him to spend enough time in Cuba, Bolivia, even New York, to see how the character truly responds, adapts and acts to each situation. The procedural structure of the two films, the intent focus not on speechifying and Big Moments that go out of their way to define themselves as such but the mechanics of the warfare Che helped orchestrate, is highly original but should come as no surprise to Soderbergh fans. His films typically focus on how things work, from the giddily technical breakdown of the heists in the Oceans films (what makes them enjoyable in relation to their occasionally asphyxiating postmodern sense of cool) to the experimental deconstructions of narrative and film with The Limey and Schizopolis. The Eisensteinian montage that precedes the decisive Battle of Santa Clara in Cuba (a comment not only on the propagandic nature of Che's radio address but the townspeople who are at stake in the coming fight), the way that battle is structured to reveal Che's tactical brilliance, the aforementioned shot of the Rolex Che wears in Bolivia, these shots manage to communicate fundamental truths about Che through his actions.

Soderbergh's use of dialectics in the film reflects not only his wont as a restless filmmaker who loves contrast but of the Marxist idea of advancement through dialectics: we see Che the victor and Che the martyr, warm yellows and drab blue-greens, inspiring wide-screen and stifling full-frame. The dialectic between his objective, matter-of-fact visuals and the use of Che's personal diaries as a means of voiceover and of general mood allows for a revealing portrait of the figure outside of the equally hysterical views of him on both sides of the political spectrum. So, yes, while the omission of his role in executions is lamentable, we're allowed a much subtler presentation of Che as someone who just loves a good fight with the structure of Guerrilla.

The director captures all of this with the Red One camera, having received the latest prototypes mere hours before shooting began, and if Red wants to attract business it should host clips of the film and perhaps send out copies of Criterion's Blu-Ray to convince potential buyers. It handles the gorgeous textures of Cuba's countryside and the stark portrayal of Bolivia with equal clarity and beauty, at times nearly impossible to differentiate from ordinary film stock. Its 4K master and fantastic audio track place the film on the fast-track to becoming reference material for home theater systems.

Like so many of Soderbergh's films, Che is ambitious, technically marvelous and often frustrating. Like his subject, Soderbergh is both rebellious and mainstream, somehow able to $60 million for a two-film, foreign language biopic so off the beaten stylistic path that it barely found distribution despite Del Toro's deserved win of the Best Actor award at Cannes. Yet Soderbergh also remains a figure of Hollywood, crafting star vehicles and campaigning against movie piracy. He manages to juggle his entire career, his varying styles and auterial concerns, with Che; its tone is one of curiosity, not hagiography. The director doesn't seek to sanctify or vilify Guevara, instead only to study his process and glean something of the man through it. To bring back the tenuous connection I made to A.I. at the beginning of this review, Che is downright sloppy at times, but it's better for it: the second part opens with photos of miners without any context. Soderbergh wants us to go out and research for ourselves to delve into the story of the Siglo XX miners, and of the other aspects of Che's life and the events he influenced. When Soderbergh made Traffic, he offered no real answers to the drug problem because he felt that Hollywood could not adequately cover enough of the topic to provide a serious and viable solution; here, he does not attempt to offer a definitive conclusion of the man, which will likely remain impossible as opinion is still so sharply divided among conflicting ideologues. That's what irks me about one aspect of Criterion's otherwise spectacular packaging. It comes with a miniature poster of Del Toro adopting the famous pose of Alberto Korda's timeless photograph, and if Che can be said to have any sociopolitical aspirations, it wants only to grab every snot-nosed, lackadaisically rebellious teenager by the ear and shout "Take off that fucking T-shirt."

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sin City

Upon the release of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, Pauline Kael dubbed it "the first American film that is a fascist piece of art." One could certainly argue to what extent Peckinpah celebrates the violence in that film (or any of his others, for that matter), but Kael's supremely backhanded compliment -- her overall review was actually positive -- tumbles around the back of my head whenever I sit down with one of my favorite lazy day movies: Robert Rodriguez's Sin City.

More than Grindhouse, on which Rodriguez of course worked, Sin City embraces and celebrates kitsch, its bawdy, ham-fisted B-noir revival as marvelously warped and questionably moral as it was on the pages of Frank Miller's scattershot miniseries. Collecting the finest of Miller's collection for a series of ghastly vignettes, Sin City plays to the strengths of both its visionaries and emphasizes the ties that bind them: campy ultraviolence, stilted dialogue and DIY technical sizzle.

Indeed, Sin City ranks as one of the more innovative uses of computer animation in film, nearly flawless in its creation of the noir-iest noir world ever made. It's filled with Gothic arches, high ceilings, creepy dives, bright lights, dark shadows and so much more. Its crisp, high-definition back-and-white photography adds to the atmosphere, and the occasional flash of color across the screen -- be it red blood, a Yellow Bastard or the irresistible azure eyes of Alexis Bledel -- only burns the images further into our heads. Rodriguez so respects Miller's work that, apart from giving the author a co-director credit (something, judging from the commentary, he richly deserved), he transplants the look of the comics almost exactly from page to screen. Now, of course, we've all seen Zack Snyder move this aesthetic choice up to and too far beyond its limits, first celebrating some of Miller's basest instincts with 300 then utterly missing the point of Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen. Here, however, the minds of the two creative forces meet in harmony, and luckily the material is thick enough that not much rides on capturing both the aesthetic and the moral.

That's not to say that Sin City lacks for cleverness, even outright satire, however. Quite the opposite: Sin City paints a portrait of a city that makes Gotham look like Boca Raton. It's so governed by corruption, deception and the wild abandon that comes with a short life expectancy that the entire place seeps and oozes, putrid water running down chipped bricks as if the buildings themselves bleed from the violence within and around them. Denizens stand mere feet from deplorable acts of violence and react as if watching a card trick they've already seen.

It's a crazy world, and, naturally, crazy characters inhabit it. John Hartigan (Bruce Willis), the only clean cop on the force, rides near the beginning to top the son of a vile senator from raping and murdering a tween, along the way dispatching his corrupt partner and a pair of comically faux-erudite thugs who pop up occasionally to run through thesauri in a desperate attempt to outpace their stupidity. He finally catches up to "Junior" (Nick Stahl) and takes away his weapons -- "both of them," he says before shooting the rapist in a sensitive area, beginning a recurring motif that speaks either to Miller's deep fear of emasculation or his sly subversion of his own material's machismo (I'm on the fence) -- before that pesky partner returns and lulls Hartigan into a coma with the unstoppable flatness of Michael Madsen's speech.

Rodriguez then cuts to the story of Marv, indisputably the most interesting segment of the film and the true sign of Mickey Rourke's relevancy three years before The Wrestler. As he did with Randy the Ram, Rourke imbues Marv with the broken-down world-weariness he gained through hard living. Sporting thick prosthetic makeup that potentially improves Rourke's battered face, the actor plays a character so ugly he could never even buy a woman, a tank made of muscles and blood who never allowed his rejection to color his attitude toward women; though he speaks in typically sexist '50s gab -- using words like "dame" -- and discusses his unwillingness to harm women in broadly patriarchal tones, he doesn't foist his sexual frustration on those who deny them and reserves his ire for anyone he spots roughing up a lady. He's like an athlete, saving it all for the game, if the game involved ripping people apart with bare hands.

The seediest elements of the city awaken the sleeping giant when they murder the first woman to ever make love to him. "Goldie," Marv grumbles reverentially, her flaxen hair lighting up around her head like the angel Marv believes she is. But the next morning he finds her dead beside him with cops on the way to arrest him for her murder, and if we can infer that Marv was angry before he experienced happiness in his life, we can scarcely fathom just how pissed off he is when some unseen force snatches that away from him. Rourke has never been more vicious on-screen, plowing through thugs on his way to the top and ripping information out of those who might know where to find the next rung, always in manners both comical and terrifying. Only Rourke could pull off the role, molding a killing machine around a core of pathos and sympathy, and even if rooting for him means supporting a fascist juggernaut, I can't help but look into that fearsome mug and hope he "wins."

Near the end of the film, Rodriguez returns to Hartigan's story, the director's nonlinear structure appropriate for Miller's synchronous tales. Senator Roark visits Hartigan in the hospital and plots revenge for ending his son's reproductive capacity, and the entire digital world collapses. The city disappears, replaced by a cramped jail cell set against infinite black, the high contrast of the white bars instantly conveying the complete isolation Hartigan finds himself in for being a true hero in a town that has suffered for so long it no longer recognizes them. Upon his release, he finds the girl he saved, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba), only for Junior to return, now a sickly, fluorescent yellow thanks to experimental procedures meant to regrow his "weapon." While Marv was driven by revenge, Hartigan's motivation is keeping Nancy alive, a motivation that proves no less powerful. Hartigan doesn't connect the way Marv does, the difference between the two characters mirroring the differing emotional resonance of, say, Mickey Rourke and Bruce "Yippie-Ki-Yay" Willis, but I daresay Willis appears to be having a blast as the grizzled veteran cop and that enthusiasm makes him appealing where his performance leaves me cold.

Ladies finally get to join in on the fun, though, with the final major arc, The Big Fat Kill. Centered on a man, Dwight (Clive Owen), the arc is nevertheless propelled by the women: first by Dwight's girlfriend Shellie (Brittany Murphy at her most spit-fiery), then by his ex-, Gail (Rosario Dawson), leader of the city's sector of prostitutes and, eventually, by a traitorous young hooker who makes some incredible poor decisions in a panic (Bledel). A deliciously macabre sense of humor pervades the film, but where the other two chief segments balanced out the camp with serious (but never self-serious) plots, The Big Fat Kill takes the highway to cartooniness and waves middle fingers every time it passes an exit that might lead to some semblance of sanity. The prostitutes all have extensive gun training and a number are skilled martial artists; the dubious fascism receives its clearest representation in the form of throwing stars shaped as swastikas; Irish mercenaries stage an ambush at a tar pit; and a showdown between whores and the mob for the fate of Old Town. It's goddamn chaos, basically.

Its centerpiece, guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino, involves Dwight disposing of the bodies of Jack (Benicio del Toro) -- Shellie's abusive ex- and a dirty cop who brings about his doom when he threatens to kill a hooker in Old Town -- and his cohorts. With Jackie Boy's mutilated corpse in the passenger seat because the trunk couldn't hold any more flesh, Dwight's ride to the tar pits morphs into an extended homage to Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, in which Dwight holds a hallucinatory conversation with Jackie. The use of color in the sequence only adds to the oneiric quality, the gentle wave of headlights and police sirens on flesh washing over the faces of the two characters and clashing beautifully with the monochrome.

Deceptively impressive in the scripting of these loopy characters is the way Miller gently links the stories through the people. Hartigan, like Marv, places the woman in his life on a pedestal, but he succeeded in protecting her where Marv failed to save Goldie (Jaime King); both King and Alba have the most rigid parts in the film, made worse by their inability to bring anything to the role. Yet they work, as they're placed on such high pedestals that you can't get a close enough look to let the flaws distract. The two actresses find counterpoints in the far more dynamic performances of Murphy (whose character works the same bar as Alba's Nancy) and Dawson (also one of the Old Town prostitutes along with Goldie). Dwight's fever dream conversation with Jackie recalls Marv's occasional, somber mentions of the pills he takes and the "distractions" that come when he misses a dose. These threads give dimensionality to a film that adamantly wishes to remain a 2-D comic strip, and they complement the numerous digs at church and state and the way the two still collude and still harshly punish people for rules that simply do not apply to them.

Following the bittersweet ending of Hartigan's story, Sin City closes with a bookend of the brief opening segment involving a hitman known as "The Salesman" (Josh Hartnett). He tracks down a character to deliver a richly deserved comeuppance and, despite the wooden nature of Hartnett in general as well as the kooky nature of the film, delivers perhaps the best summary of the endless allure of this two-hour hyperviolent escapist fantasy. "Turn the right corner in Sin City, and you can find anything," he drawls, "...Anything."

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Greatest Show Ever Made

In the current miasma of television programming, wherein high-quality programs often gasp for fresh air while reality shows and competition hook the nation with the promise of feeding into viewers' sense of superiority, I find myself wandering the bitter cold, desperate for shelter. It's easy to lose yourself in the onslaught of Idols, Hills and Biggest Losers, caves like Arrested Development and The Wire offering only brief respite. One night, as I wondered this tundra, a bright light filled the world and the rumble turned to chanting of a euphoric nature as I have never heard in my life. Shielding my eyes, I managed to look up into this explosion and saw three words forming in flames, three words that burned away the cloying blackness of my world, three words that filled me with their fire, assuring me that I'd never be left in the cold again:

Steven Seagal. Lawman.

For 20 years, as the opening text scroll informs us, Seagal has devoted his free time to serving as a deputy sheriff in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Until now, the text continues, somehow taking on ominous import despite its matter-of-fact, ascetic presentation, he has never brought attention to this...pastime? Second job? I don't want to end up trivializing the police force, but I fear I may be too late from the get-go.

Seagal makes an instant impression, speaking in clipped, affected Cajun notes as he establishes the tone of the series. "My name's Steven Seagal," he drones in his usual monotone, signifying that this is all just an act or that he really does speak like that. "That's right: Steven Seagal." Can you believe it? "How could the also-ran of '80s machismo be a normal Joe keeping the streets safe in post-Katrina Louisiana?" we're meant to ask, assuming anyone can overcome the initial shock of Seagal still being alive long enough to formulate questions.

Yes, he's alive and prowling the streets of Jefferson Parish, humbly doing his part for his hometown as he drags a camera crew in tow. This is not an indictment of his ego, mind you, as without it we might never get a peek into the life of the bravest man who ever lived. Seagal lumbers about the parish, dispensing rough justice in the form of his Aikido martial arts and the occasional flash of steel. He's what Val Kilmer's Batman might be if Kilmer played him now: bloated and filled with putrefying swagger, sporting a gun that's as likely to be filled with some bizarre cocktail of buttermilk and ranch dressing to squirt on his meals as it is bullets.

Despite his dubious status in the realm of celebrity -- "cult" would be too generous a term -- he's nevertheless instantly recognizable to most of us, and indeed a number of suspects and bystanders sport that look of cautious recognition, a look magnified by their unwillingness to trust their eyes at the time of night Seagal works his beat, too tired, drunk or strung-out to place faith in their senses. The fellow officers who work alongside him have elevated the star of Under Siege into a god; "Sometimes I forget Steven's a big movie star," says one idealistic cop, whom you just want to hug sympathetically and let him keep living in his world.

Produced by Seagal himself, Steven Seagal: Lawman feeds into this sense of hero worship: we see Seagal dispensing wisdom to the officers, passing on his martial arts training with the help of ludicrous Zen aphorisms that read like mad lib fortune cookies (I kept waiting for him to use a saying invented by The Office's Michael Scott: "The hand strikes, then gives a flower"). Seagal indeed taught me a few things, chiefly that racial profiling is one of the martial arts: Lawman plasters the reminder that all suspects are innocent until proven guilty all over the place, in the opening text as well as the graphics they set up to tell us what happened to suspects (those who have not yet been sentenced receive the "IUPG" tag), yet Seagal blatantly portrays himself as someone who can sense crime before it happens. To emphasize this, video plays in slow-motion when he hones in on a potential perp -- almost always a young black male -- just before he springs into action and drags his unit with him. Naturally, all of these suspicions are proven correct, and when we are allowed to see a moment that does not progress perfectly, that moment is lessened by Seagal's indifference. He attempts to light a match with a bullet and fails, but gently reminds the doting young officer watching (and us) that he still managed to shoot the head off of it. When his hunches prove wrong, he either reminds the innocent to obey the law anyway or, in a magnanimous display, invites them to waste their day watching him once more prove his awesomeness in training exercises.

Oh, dear reader, it's beautiful, watching Seagal stumble around the place like the thick brother of Nic Cage's Terrence in Bad Lieutenant. His Cajun accent comes and goes as he pleases, always used when speaking to the locals -- as well as condescending to everyone with his insistence on using the term "brother" to instill some truth in these (again, mostly black) suspects. He uses the instances where he is wildly wrong to teach other people a lesson about making assumptions and whatnot. If and when he appears in daylight, he always wears sunglasses. He visits a children's hospital, something he claims he's done for 20 years, yet only with the cameras present does this visit provoke Seagal into using his other moonlighting gig, as a blues guitarist, to stage a benefit concert for the kids.

To say that Lawman needs to be seen rather than discussed strikes even me as a cop-out, but how do you put into words the look on Seagal's face, caught somewhere between Zen calm and constipation? How can I describe the way that his expressionless face manages to become even blanker when he realizes he messed up? I have not seen all of the episodes of the show; like Jersey Shore, I am storing episodes like berries and nuts to keep me going through the no man's land that is the first quarter of an entertainment year. Really, combining the two programs are the only way either show could be any more delightful in madness. How great would our lives be if Seagal deputized the guidos? Hell, they'd be too busy profiling themselves to give a damn about crime. A man can dream...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: Prince of Darkness

As I work through John Carpenter's corpus, I find myself so taken with his sparse yet impeccable style that I tend to gawk over the details. Often, I focus so intently on his visuals that I forget to be scared by his horrors: Halloween is too aesthetically perfect to work as a piece of pure horror (though it does maintain a constant level of unease that works as a fine substitute to shocks), and the effects work on The Thing attracts me, like Dawn of the Dead before it, to marvel at the results over the impact of the gore. Prince of Darkness throws a monkey wrench into the gears: using anamorphic lenses, Carpenter distorts the image slightly. He intends the effect to reflect the nature of the film's supernatural element -- why he started now is anyone's guess, considering the presence of primal forces in all his other films -- but it speaks more to the sloppiness of the feature and its failure to make its ill-defined evil emotionally felt.

After the troubled production and bungled marketing of Big Trouble in Little China disenchanted Carpenter, he returned to independent filmmaking. In an attempt to prove that he could make quality work without the help of Hollywood, he swung for the fences with Prince of Darkness. The story of a group of academics and a holy man locked up in an abandoned church to investigate a cylinder of mysterious liquid that apparently contains the Antichrist, Darkness certainly doesn't pull any punches. And if Carpenter made the film to prove he could make the films he wanted without big (for him, anyway) budgets, he succeeded: while the effects are certainly dated -- more so even than some of the work in his earlier films -- nothing in the film suggests that the director lost his flair with a cut budget. It also proves, however, how a bad script is a bad script, no matter the cost.

There's always been a certain woodenness in Carpenter's films, yes, but he typically balanced out the static performances of his cheap supporting cast with a dynamic lead and/or a reliably loopy second-tier character who usually served as the film's primary source of exposition. Yet no character or actor particularly works in Prince of Darkness: the only emotional brunt of the film rests on a couple that has no implicit chemistry nor even enough explicit scenes of mutual attraction to fuel the emotions at the end. The rest of the characters are nothing more than props for the blocking, moving from scene to scene and delivering lines with such lackadaisical indifference that, in a film with zombies and the possessed, sorting out the normal humans is a chore.

Not even Carpenter's recycled actors -- Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun -- all of whom made such an impression elsewhere, jolt any energy into the cast. Somewhat interestingly, Pleasence and Wong reprise their roles from Halloween (the priest is even named after that film's Dr. Loomis) and Big Trouble in Little China, albeit with the roles reversed: Pleasence plays the spiritual guide, the one who knows something about the supernatural forces at work, while Wong appears as the scientist and analyst driven slightly mad by his brush with something that cannot be explained. Their subtle reprisals of their old parts, even if swapped, reflects the film's larger absorption of Carpenter's previous works: the appearance of a mob of possessed homeless people (led, hysterically, by Alice Cooper) recalls the zombie-like gang of Assault on Precinct 13, the gore obviously brings The Thing to mind, and the general tension -- when any exists -- mines the same territory of omnipresent, implacable terror of Halloween.

Carpenter doesn't simply plunder his own filmography, however: when the mysterious liquid infects unfortunate victims, it finds its way into other hosts via the streaming vomit of the possessed, a clear take on The Exorcist. One female student finds herself the chief host of the Antichrist, and her bloodsoaked body, combined with the telekinetic abilities naturally exhibited in the spawn of the "Anti-God," plays like a straight-faced version of Carrie.

You'd think, given the clear influence of some of the greatest horror films ever made (including a handful of his own films), that Carpenter might have generated more thrills and chills, or at least more unsettling vibes. Sadly, most of Prince of Darkness is so dull it doesn't even work as unintentional comedy; only in the final 15 minutes does it finally tap into some of the macabre magic of Halloween, mixing a reliably atmospheric Carpenter score with impressive low-budget effects and the suitably uneasy feeling of mounting evil. One effect in particular, of a watery space behind a mirror that the Antichrist uses in an attempt to summon its father, is as memorable as anything in The Thing. Yet Carpenter undermines the effect of the climax with a dénouement that makes a stab at conveying a sense of pain and loss before the director clearly realized he hadn't done anything with the characters to make those emotions felt and switches abruptly into one of those wearisome "The End...?" finales that, as far as endings involving the supernatural and mirrors go, couldn't stand in the same room as the later Twin Peaks cliffhanger.

One can fairly easily find the message in one of Carpenter's films, be it broad satire or a more dramatic thrust, but I confess I can't figure out the point of Prince of Darkness. The scientific angle from which Carpenter attacks the idea of the Antichrist is so thinly defined it leaves open the frightening possibility that Carpenter is equating the embodiment of evil with science, something that hardly jells with Carpenter's political and moral positions and smacks more of lazy writing than insidious messaging. I wouldn't call Prince of Darkness a failure -- like Carpenter's previous foray into mediocrity, Christine, it has its moments -- but if Big Trouble in Little China took the wind out of Carpenter's sails, this hinted at the coming downfall

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Second Thoughts: Public Enemies

[Edited: 7/21/2012]

The majority of mainstream critical opinion largely matched my initial reaction to Michael Mann's Public Enemies -- that it was an overlong, undercooked mash-up of the epic detail and design of Heat with the digital realism of Collateral and Miami Vice. Some reviews, however, have already flagged it as a modern masterpiece. Spirited, well-written defenses can be found all over the Web, with some of my particular favorites located at Kevin J. Olson's Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and Doniphon's The Long Voyage Home. They, among others, argue that the disjointed minimalism of Public Enemies works to its benefit, not detriment, that the seemingly underdeveloped characters remain largely two-dimensional in our perception because Mann is using them to undermine the more romantic notions of the gangster genre.

Upon a second viewing, and after revisiting a number of Mann's other films and especially Miami Vice, I can appreciate and, to an extent, accept that argument. Public Enemies strikes me as the gangster equivalent of Jarhead: an attempt to demystify the allure of gangster violence the way Jarhead sought to deny the belief (stated within the film) that all war films inherently celebrate conflict due to their visceral content. It's a bold gambit, and a risky one, as Mendes' film went so far in the other direction that it perversely fulfilled its mission statement by being simply boring, a charge leveled at Mann's latest by its detractors.

Public Enemies opens in true Mann fashion, with only the sparest dialogue over shots of gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) arriving at prison and hastily edited visual cues that reveal how he's already organized his escape with his incarcerated gang. The escape, as it must, goes awry, Dillinger's perfect plan foiled by the predictable influence of unpredictability. One of the gang loses his cool and beats a guard, resulting in the shooting of another guard and the subsequent alerting of the rest of the prison. As the crew makes a break for the getaway car, tower guards shoot and kill Walter, the only gang member Dillinger displayed any personal connection toward during the breakout, and Mann lingers on Dillinger as he watches the life fade from his friend's eyes and, at last, releases the man's hand as the car speeds away.

This moment references the protracted deaths in Miami Vice, which all seemed to drag out because of the digital video and the way it captured movement (bodies fell more slowly, it appeared), yet Mann ends with moment with curt finality, the body suddenly halting after being dragged along by the car. Dillinger pulls a gun as he closes the door and presses it to the throat of the man who botched the escape, before throwing him from the car and leaving his limp body on the side of the road as suddenly as he'd just seen his friend die. This immediate perversion of the romanticism of the previous death, combined with the look on Depp's face -- his eyes are as lifeless as the ones he stared into -- shows the real Dillinger under all the Robin Hood myths. Here is a man who compartmentalized emotion and dissipated it instantaneously, a man who would kill without a moment's hesitation.

This abrupt, immediate dissection of a mythos is then applied to FBI agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), whom we meet chasing Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) through a field before dispatching him with a well-aimed rifle shot. Purvis has the same brooding look on his face as he watches Floyd bleed out, and he too steels himself from it, dumping whatever he felt just as quickly as it entered into his mind. I found the film soulless when I saw it in the theater, and I still think that's true; what I missed, perhaps in the thrill of finally seeing a Mann film on the big screen, is that it's because its lead characters have no souls.

The casting of the two leads reflects upon Mann's cheek. Depp, one of the most vivid, complexly cartoonish actors in the biz, plays his role entirely straight; his eyes have conveyed rakishness and danger before -- the Pirates of the Caribbean films come to mind -- but never with such cold intensity, not even when he played the tortured barber out for revenge in Sweeney Todd. He looks like a caged animal in Public Enemies, always looking for a way out even when things aren't so bad. Dillinger enjoyed a massive cult of personality during his robbery spree, sparked by his Robin Hood-esque refusal to take the money of customers, only the bank's. Mann, however, sees him as nothing more than a pathological criminal, driven to rob as if a biological need and willing to kill anyone who might threaten his safety.

Bale, coming off a string of blockbusters that were turning him into the growling, tough-guy hero of the new generation, plays a character every bit as blindly committed to simple-minded, borderline fascistic notions of justice and the law. Purvis stands up for J. Edgar Hoover (a deliciously campy Billy Crudup, who appears to be channeling all of Hoover's fetishes and kinks through his clipped, high-pitched whine) and meticulously follows the book on catching felons even though it's still being written. He believes in a code of ethics in his work, yet he displays a remarkable ability to dash that code in a moment's notice to catch a suspect. Dillinger naturally attracts our attention, with both the benefit of owning more screen time and of the seductive nature of crime in general, but Purvis is the true Mann protagonist: a man who violates his strict moral code despite placing utmost importance upon it. Bale here is Batman and John Connor used to ironic purpose to highlight the dubious ethics of lawmen given liberties to pursue criminals without oversight, an implicit political statement that Mann never forces onto the narrative.

The closest we get to character exposition from either comes from a romantically terse exchange between Dillinger and Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a coat-check girl who catches the robber's eye. When he punches out a customer and invites her to come with him, the two engage in that pat nonsense of "I don't even know you!" that comes with such whisk-you-off-your-feet moments, but Dillinger manages to sum up his life in a burst of dialogue that might be the first truly romantic thing he's ever said in his life: "I was raised on a farm in Moooresville, Indiana. My mama ran out on us when I was three, my daddy beat the hell out of me cause he didn't know no better way to raise me. I like baseball, movies, good clothes, fast cars, whiskey and you... what else you need to know?"

It's an attitude that pervades the picture as a whole: Mann is less concerned with what motivates these characters than how their actions define them, and that brief speech manages to be oddly charming while working as a sly dig at all the movies who take two hours to explain a criminal's behavior as the product of a bad childhood and greed. We're never given a reason for Dillinger robbing banks, nor even moments that show him taking pleasure in a large haul; yet the clinical way he runs his robberies, the way he lets the customers keep the money they have on them to build his mythos and to win over the hearts of ordinary citizens who might protect him simply in numbers, and his curt behavior in everyday situations reveal a calculating psychopath who knows how to manipulate things to his advantage. Likewise, Purvis, also clinical, betrays his code of conduct because he wants to succeed at his job, and if Dillinger will kill anyone to save his own skin, Purvis will cut any ethical corner to track down a criminal.

Yet each man has his limits. Dillinger, icy and murderous as he may be, clearly cares for Billie, and obviously not for any boost in social status either. He loves her so dearly that he even listens to her life story, and Mann places the sound of Billie recounting her childhood over shots of the two making love, signifying that allowing someone to delve into their past -- something Dillinger doesn't believe in -- is an act of spiritual unification and adoration every bit as physically romantic as sex. Purvis also displays his humanity with Billie; when the feds capture her and one agent beats her for information, until Purvis can no longer sit by and acquiesce to the loss of his morality and stops the torture.

Mann's films typically feature a confrontation of sorts between the "hero" and "villain" (that line is usually blurred) -- Miami Vice sitting at one extreme, where the entire film is about interactions between cops and criminals before the final battle, and at the other is The Insider, which derives much of its tension by assailing Jeffrey Wigand with unseen forces -- and Dillinger and Purvis do have a conversation about 50 minutes into the film, as Dillinger sits in a cell awaiting transfer after the cops catch a lucky break. The two establish an instant kinship with each other: neither derives much pleasure from his line of work -- only the more psychotic members of each side, such as Baby Face Nelson (Stephen Graham), express any delight -- and they share an unspoken bond when Dillinger brings up death and the way you can see life drift from the eyes. The diner scene in Heat revealed basic truths of Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna and how they related to each other, and this scene works in the same fashion: Dillinger cuts to the heart of their differences by noting that Purvis likes to take criminals down from a distance, picking them off with a rifle shot after a plan comes together and the bad guys are outnumbered, while John is in the middle of a fracas, planning as he goes. They're both empty-hearted killers, but Purvis attempts to distance himself from this self-understanding.

The proximity of this confrontation to the similar pre-showdown battle of wits in Heat reflects the manner in which Public Enemies serves as a stylistic and thematic mélange of the director's filmography. It contains the same highly detailed crime procedural found in Heat, the minimalism of Thief, the grainy romanticism of digital forays Collateral and Miami Vice, the faithful period recreation of The Last of the Mohicans and the unorthodox biopic structuring of Ali. It builds to an overload of Mann's various styles, and, frankly, it doesn't always work. Surprisingly, the picture looks sharper on Blu-Ray, the shifting digital and film shots not clashing so violently as they did in the theater; however, I still find myself wanting to take in this world and being constantly denied.

But if Public Enemies serves as a grab-bag of Mann's corpus, it also is perhaps the one film in his catalog that most concerns the cinema or, more accurately, the effect of the cinema. The people who endured the Great Depression, as many do now in our current financial predicament, escaped to the theater for respite. Furthermore, this was the age before television, when people received news either on the radio or as newsreels that preceded features at the movies (when Dillinger is transferred by plane, Mann shows reporters waiting at the end of the runway and even provides a POV shot of one of their cameras filming the landing). Ergo, criminals like Dillinger could easily appear larger than life, as normal citizens only ever saw them on screens bigger than themselves. Many supporters -- myself included -- of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers cite the film as "ahead of its time," yet we see here that the public's love affair with violent criminals stretches back decades, perhaps further -- when cops drive Dillinger to jail, citizens line the streets to wave ecstatically at him. One of the key scenes of the movie, in which Dillinger heads to the local theater, which displays his mugshot on the screen before the movie and asks the audience to look around for the criminals "among you." It's obviously a typical PSA, written out by the Feds and delivered to theaters to announce to their patrons, and the scene works less as a moment of suspense and more as a perverse sort of wish fulfillment for Dillinger, who gets to see himself on the big screen before the movie comes on; in a way, he got top billing. Of course, Dillinger dies just outside the Biograph Theater, after seeing Manhattan Melodrama, during which he clearly envisions himself as Clark Gable (whose character was, ironically, modeled after the gangster).

That brief romanticizing of Dillinger through cinema, while ultimately revealed to be hollow, informs some other scenes, most specifically the one where he strolls into an FBI office and walks around in the room dedicate to his case without being caught. The sheer effrontery of his actions betray a man who, for all his cold danger, is starting to buy into his own myth. There are even a few shots that utilize the same golden hue as the Godfather films, and for the same purpose: such shots establish the legend of the character even as Mann gently subverts it with the terrible truth of that character. Mann fills the screen with death, but he never exploits it, instead using it as a drawn-out yet blunt method of breaking down the allure of the criminal life. Those shots of Purvis and Dillinger watching men die at the start telegraph this, as does the end of the astonishing Little Bohemia shootout -- how great is it to actually see the smoke from gunfire fill a room in a realistic fashion? -- a sudden caesura that replaces the bursts of Thompson and BAR fire with a shot of a gangster's final, ragged breath, visible in the cold, floating in the air like a soul leaving the body.

Yet Mann clearly has the same dalliance with the romanticism of crime that Dillinger has, and he devotes a brief but telling couple of scenes to the changing face of crime in America. The betting pool controlled by the Mafia, who eliminate competition and establish a single betting operation for the entire country, represents the death of individual crime, even among organizations like the mob. Dillinger is a dying breed, his charisma derived in part because he was so unapologetically a criminal where later gangsters always tried to pass themselves off as "legitimate." He doesn't have a waste management front or a friend in Congress; he's just got a Tommy gun and a collection of contacts he met in prison.

The name of the film is Public Enemies, yet the ad campaign only featured Depp and Bale: in the film, the FBI receives more scrutiny and scorn than Dillinger. Purvis is just as dangerous as Public Enemy Number One, just as loose with his morals and just as willing to take extreme measures to get what he wants. This is not Mann's indictment of police so much as a snapshot of a time when criminals and cops were identifiable, when cops didn't need to go undercover and criminals didn't need to hide behind loopholes: Purvis hints that the line between the two is about to blur, his showy, fashionable dress and distanced behavior edging near our perception of a mob boss. Hoover, whom Mann reminds us never served in any field capacity in apprehending criminals, introduces draconian tactics to fighting crime that greatly infringed upon rights and liberties, calling into question the worth of a police force that also strong-armed the innocent. Perhaps, then, Mann suggests that the de-mystification of crime also affected those on the side of the law.

As it happened with Miami Vice, I find my opinion significantly altered, but I am not prepared to call Public Enemies the rousing success the way I would Mann's previous feature. As his other digital/film combos, he wants to place us into the action without gimmickry and to let us experience emotions as they come. But Public Enemies is about two characters who don't know how to process emotions normally, Dillinger because he spent his formative years in prison for a grocery shoplifting that didn't warrant the punishment, Purvis because he's so thirsty for glory he's set aside his humanity. This creates a dissonance between Mann's intentions and the nature of the characters that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, leading to occasional lulls. Nevertheless, I understand now what Mann was trying to do, and, like Miami Vice, I can confidently say that I'll be revisiting it for years.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Carpenter's Tools: Big Trouble in Little China

By the time John Carpenter made Big Trouble in Little China, the most successful independent filmmaker of all time had since acclimated into the studio system, and he never inflated his budgets to anything more significant than a fraction of what his fellow New Hollywood practitioners poured into their films, much less the filmmakers who'd since adopted the blockbuster spectacles reflective of '80s mainstream filmmaking. Yet his returns began to diminish as his budgets crawled upward, with the considerable success of Escape from New York giving way to The Thing and Starman, two of Carpenter's best-received films that nevertheless barely earned back their budgets. Big Trouble finally tipped the scales: working with his biggest budget to date (only about a million more than Starman), it earned approximately half its $25 million price tag in the States and Carpenter, soured by the studio's mismanagement and mis-marketing of the film, spent the next few years returning to more independent filmmaking.

As badly as 20th Century Fox might have bungled the marketing, Big Trouble lives on in cult superstardom, along with the rest of Carpenter's canon. It marked the final collaboration between Carpenter and Kurt Russell of the '80s, and indeed the film serves as a rough bricolage of their previous efforts: it contains the satirical broad strokes of Escape from New York, the innovative (and remarkably cheap) special effects work of The Thing, even the casting of Russell as an American icon in Elvis. For, while he plays fictional character Jack Burton, big rig driver extraordinaire, Russell is unabashedly, shamelessly portraying John Wayne.

As such, he adds a cheeky layer to what some dismissed as a simplistic homage to kung-fu B-pictures: Jack Burton is the ludicrous embodiment of that vaguely defined demographic collectively titled "Middle America" -- a working class master of his own morality who peddles the sort of shitkicker's wisdom that has been established as some sort of foil for "East Coast elitism" -- and his actions against the hordes of Asian characters who challenge him reflect our own disturbing predilection for tearing through swaths of non-white populations. He gets into scrapes without thinking it through -- or about it at all -- and maintains his arrogance no matter how many times he is shown to be a complete moron.

As Carpenter and Russell note in their uproarious commentary track -- one of the funniest you'll ever hear -- Jack is the hero, yet he only performs one identifiably heroic action in the entire film. He cares almost exclusively for his truck, stolen by the gang of the mysterious Lo Pan (James Wong), a staple of Chinese folklore, who also snatches the fiancée of Jack's affable, quick-witted Sino-American chum Wang (Dennis Dun). But it's all about the truck. He eventually warms to Gracie (Kim Cattrall), every bit as arbitrary to the film's narrative as the protagonist.

The actors all understand that Carpenter isn't treating any of this with any severity, and if Big Trouble in Little China treads in stereotypes, at least the people who play them embrace them fully. Cattrall plays the literally breathless ingénue, delivering every line as if she'd just sprinted three miles, while Dun provides a capable foil for the thickheaded Jack. In fact, the Asian actors appear to be having as much fun as Carpenter and Russell: they clearly grew up with the same kung-fu movies, and they take to their parts with aplomb. Russell, of course, is brilliant as the hapless goof Jack, so cocksure and so very wrong at every step. One of my all-time favorite line deliveries of any film involves him preparing to lead his motley crew to an escape, opening a door to reveal an army of Lo Pan's followers, slamming it and deadpanning, "We may be trapped."

The real draw here are the effects and the cheesy-yet-impressive use of wire works and martial arts, a sort of camp ancestor to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Fighters leap about the screen, while good guys (chiefly Victor Wong) and baddies lob magic bombs and lightning and each other. Compared to the drab nightmares of his previous horror/action/fantasy pictures, Big Trouble is bright and shiny, filled with golden statues, rich costumes, neon lights and green flame. Starman showed Carpenter finally getting to branch out after Halloween altered his plans to follow in Hawks' journeyman footsteps, but, where Big Trouble takes him back to familiar ground, it features some of his most exciting direction. The camera still doesn't move a great deal, but it cuts with precision, quick without losing spatial relationships and peppered with instant pans to follow the coiled spring movements of the characters.

For many, Big Trouble in Little China stands as Carpenter's last outright classic, though They Live receives much love as well. For all of Carpenter's economical shots, you, as Russell rightly notes in the commentary, can always spot one of his films with only a few scenes. Big Trouble is chock full of action and effects, and it barely scratches the surface of any character, yet it always maintains a sense of place and time; never mind that each set is loopier than the last. Yet his graceful movements are somehow more viscerally enjoyable than most of the glorified music videos that pass for action movies these days: we may not care about these characters, but the simple act of being able to track them for more than 1.4 seconds at a time gives us more of a connection than all the phony empathy blasted at us in flashes. It may not be great, nor even brush against greatness, but you'll have to search long and far to find a better film to pass a lazy Sunday or entertain a group of buds than this oddball trip to Chinatown.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Sopranos — Season 3

When last I left New Jersey and the DiMeo crime family, Tony Soprano had once again ordered a significant whacking to save his skin and consolidate his authority. Unlike the killings of the first season finale, however, the murder in "Funhouse" carried significant psychological weight for the most tortured man in the Mafia: Big Pussy's death threatened to cast a specter over the next season, the crux of Tony's development for at least a portion of the following 13 episodes.

That the lingering effects of his dear friend's betrayal and death only factor in Tony's life occasionally reflects the larger failure of The Sopranos' third season to consistently tap into the emotions of well-defined characters. Indeed, while The Sopranos always worked on some level as a black comedy -- the Freudian nightmare of Tony's relationship with his mother, the puffed-chest posturing of its murderous, stunted, manchild gangsters -- this collection of episodes completely skews the balance into the realm of zaniness, to the point that its moments of dramatic thrust struggle to connect amidst the grand joke of it all.

Much, too much, is exaggeration: Meadow moves into Columbia University, only to find herself saddled with a homesick depressive of a roommate whose initial flightiness gives way to paranoia and neediness of the Single White Female variety. Chrisopher becomes a made man, only for Paulie to develop odd quirks and borderline fetishes that involve humiliating the poor kid. Before Livia suffers a fatal stroke in the second episode (a way for the writers to work through Nancy Marchand's death in 2000), Tony places her under the care of his former mistress' one-legged sister, who must contend with the bottomless well of bratty entitlement that is Janice Soprano when Livia leaves her nurse a few valuable items.

None of these is any bigger a comic diversion than the rest of the subplots that made The Sopranos such a dense, often hilarious, work, but they dominate the narrative arcs of the season while the typical scheming and whacking fall to the wayside. That's a fine way to change up the pace for an episode or two (who can forget the classic Buffy episode "The Zeppo," which placed Xander's private self-doubts in the foreground and hilariously relegated an end-of-the-world monster mash to the periphery?), but structuring an entire season that way demonstrates a rapidly thinning set of strong ideas for the show's direction.

For clearest evidence of this creative dry spell, consider the influx of new and retooled characters to replace the dearly departed, then how all of them essentially do nothing more than inhabit the traits of the characters they replace, albeit with greater exaggeration. Janice takes over the role of the vindictive, egomaniacal female Soprano for Livia; Ralph Cifaretto (Joe Pantoliano) for the sadistic, insolent capo Richie; the clingy, violently neurotic Gloria for Tony's old comaré Inira. Each of these characters magnifies their predecessors' traits without bringing much to the table of their own (save Janice, whose various ploys of making herself the center of the universe recall the titular petulant tyrant of Jane Campion's Sweetie), while Meadow, gently evolving until this point, backslides into hormonal angst better served for a character several years younger. She falls for two boys in the season: a half-black, half-Jewish elitist named Noah, who sleeps with her before casting her aside as vengeance against her racist father, and Jackie Aprile, Jr., whom Tony attempts to keep out of the Family business as a promise he made to his late friend on his deathbed. Meadow falls prey to her emotions, and the intelligent, maturing young woman o the first two seasons, the one who began to distance herself from her family as her awareness of their true nature grew, instead uses her father as a punching bag for her own troubles, engaging in bitch sessions at every turn.

Where the first two seasons offered bountiful topics for discussion, The Sopranos suddenly wades into the shallow end, preventing meaningful dissection. Only "Employee of the Month" works as full-blown drama: in it, Dr. Melfi -- the closest the show has to an objective viewer -- is raped, and she grapples for the rest of the episode with the prospect of telling Tony and watching her tormentor disappear. Lorraine Bracco gives a wrenching, flawless performance as someone coming to terms with such a horrific crime, the way that it becomes such a mental overload that the entire body becomes a live wire that recoils to the touch, and when she responds to Tony's question whether something is troubling her at the end of the episode with a deafeningly quiet, "No," she denies the first violence on the program that we actually might want to see. Yet the thoughtful plotting and conclusion of the extreme violence and its effect by "University," in which the horrific murder of one of the Bada Bing strippers is juxtaposed with the regressive dramedy of Meadow's pity parade, undercutting the severity of the violence even as the Meadow subplot is revealed as even more an asinine waste of time.

Occasionally, though, the use of high comedy works, as it does in the season's finest offering, "Pine Barrens." Like last season's "D-Girl," it is a very un-Sopranos-like episode, even as it reveals a blunt truth about the business. Last season, we saw how show biz and Family biz weren't so different, and "Pine Barrens" uses the absurdity of an extortion attempt gone awry to show how far loyalty goes in the mob. Paulie and Chris provoke a situation with the Russian from whom they are collecting, leading them to bury the man out in the snowy woods outside Atlantic City, only for the man to possess a Rasputin-like inability to die and spark a manhunt that strands the two gangsters out in the cold. Their hunger and cold leads to hilarious desperation, but they also bring out the bottom line of mob life: survival beats out loyalty.

The Sopranos' third season never truly dips to the point that any episodes fail, and the Gloria Trillo arc introduced at the end is a fun distraction that builds to a great punchline, but overall so little of it sticks with you. I remember only vague actions -- Meadow goes to college and has boy trouble, Janice finds religion -- but never any specifics: apart from Melfi's final line in "Employee of the Month," there are no moments like Pussy telling AJ what a great man Tony is while wearing a wire to bring him down, no Junior hitting someone in the face with a pie and making it tragic, not funny. What you're left with by the end is junk food, filling but empty compared to the feasts of what came before. I've heard that the show never matched its first season, but I hope it fixes some of the problems here before they drag the show down further.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Godfather Part II

If The Godfather served as a haunting eulogy for the American nuclear family, its sequel charted the death of the American Dream, ironically through those who unquestionably achieved it. Irony and cynicism pervades its narrative and its aesthetic, the golden hues of its tinting a comment not only on our sepia-toned nostalgia but America and its amber waves of grain. The Godfather Part II is a portrait of a tragic hero who is neither tragic (in that he is not deserving of a sliver of pity) nor heroic; though the film bifurcates and splits focus with another character from another time period, it is ultimately about the fall of Michael Corleone.

Its predecessor closed with a baptism juxtaposed with a killing spree, and The Godfather Part II opens with violence set to a communion, showing a young Vito barely surviving the murder of his family by the don of Corleone, Sicily and escaping to America, before Coppola cuts to Vito's grandson, about the same age as the Vito we just saw, coming into symbolic manhood just as Vito did with the dissolution of his family. Illustrating the progress of Vito's family is the sharp contrast between the two: Vito must become a man because he's lost everything. He watched his family murdered one by one and narrowly escaped to America with literally the clothes on his back, and he commemorates this radical shift by sitting in quarantine for tuberculosis, making the first noise he's made thus far by singing quietly to himself. Young Anthony, compared to the bloodbath his grandfather endured, accepts symbolic blood and flesh (the Eucharist) to confirm his adulthood, and where Vito sang quietly to himself, the boy is sung to. His father, Michael, orchestrates a celebration that seems more a coronation than communion, a boys choir praising the young lord among them while powerful men -- politicians, even -- come to pay their respects to King Michael and to thank him for his patronage.

The continuing juxtaposition between Vito's rise to power in America from 1901 through the mid-'20s and his son's ultimate consolidation of that power in 1957-58 illustrates how these initially vast differences belie a terrible unification, and, for all its leaps back and forth, The Godfather Part II presents a story with a completely logical progression. Sepia colors the story of Vito Corleone, who lost his identity upon arrival at Ellis Island when the immigration agent mistakenly identifies his city as origin as his surname, a clerical error that ironically ties him closer to his heritage; as such, Coppola and Puzo establish the character as the ultimate immigrant, literally named for his homeland, allowing the director to completely subvert the American Dream by charting Vito finding prosperity through nightmarish actions.

The first few times I watched this, I saw the difference between Vito and Michael was Vito's ethical code, his attempts to preserve his heritage and his method of creating a Family that worked doubly as the family that Vito lost. Now, the only particularly noticeable discrepancy between the two is that Michael, a vision of pure evil, merely lacks his father hypocrisy. Vito Corleone, like his youngest and favorite son, is soft-spoken and contemplative; he speaks so rarely that his voice rarely rises above in a whisper in either of first two films. Yet his actions are no less brutal than Michael's; they simply lack the scale. He kills Don Fanucci not for intimidating and extorting the Sicilian community in New York but the personal annoyance of being directly affected by the mobster's hold over the community. His first friendships -- with Clemenza and Tessio -- are forged with exchanges of favors, placing a physical value on their bonds instead of emotional connections or solidarity. Only after years of looking out for each other does some level of trust and appreciation emerge. Perhaps the greatest clue to the truth of Vito lies in the casting: he was played by Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, two of the most dynamic and intense actors to grace the screen. These are not the people to play a gentle man who brings ethics to organized crime: these are men fit for tyrants and warlords, and any genteel feeling we glean from them is nothing more than shrewdness.

The ironic sepia of Vito's bloody rise is counterpointed by the overpowering gold of Michael's story: his father slowly gained control of New York, but Michael is poised to conquer America. He's bought a senator (G.D. Spradlin) to help clear him of a Senate committee investigation, exonerating him publicly to fulfill -- in his own mind -- his promise to Kay in the last film, that he would make the Corleone family a legitimate business. Michael has wormed his way into the upper rung of American's power ladder -- that of the wealthy, not of the politicians -- and he realizes that the only difference between a legit business and a criminal organization is public perception -- when Senator Geary tells Michael how deeply he despises the Corleones and their attempts at decency, Michael responds, "We're both part of the same hypocrisy, senator, but never think it applies to my family," a statement that shows how Michael cannot fathom just how deeply he's dragged his family down with him and the sick optimism of his attempts to clear their name. The golden color tinting in Michael's scenes reflects how he's become richer than God; the frame brightens so much at times I recalled Danny Boyle's Sunshine, a film about astronauts headed to the sun. Michael meets with other high-ranking businessmen in Cuba just before its fall to the revolutionaries, and we see that the representatives of corporations came closer to conquering Cuba than the United States government ever did.

Michael's arc reveals the pitfall of the American Dream: if we're meant to work hard and make better lives for ourselves than our parents, where does that leave the children of those who reach the top? Vito came to America with nothing and built an organization which Michael has turned into an empire, and references to Rome and its rise and fall are scattered throughout the picture (the Catholic imagery, Tom subtly guiding caporegime Frank Pentangeli to commit suicide in the old Roman fashion, and of course Part III would directly involve the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church). Michael's life follows the borderline Randian subtext of the capitalist dream: born into riches, he sacrifices what ties Vito did have with family -- his touching affection for his wife and children, best evidenced when he picks up his infant son and says, "Your daddy loves you, Michael -- for the sake of pure material gain.

If The Godfather dealt a crippling blow to the concept of family, Part II delivers the coup de grâce: Michael and Tom's plan of securing Geary's loyalty involves drugging him and killing his prostitute, thus leading him to believe that he killed the girl. Tom arrives -- thank God Mike's brother Fredo (John Cazale, who very nearly walks away with the film) owned the hotel -- and assures Geary that the Corleones will make it all better. "She's got no friends, no family," he soothes the senator, "It'll be like she never existed." At the start of the film, we get to meet Vito as a boy without friends nor family; at the end, Michael loses everyone he holds dear. He ahas Fredo whacked for accidentally selling out Michael to his conniving business partner Hyman Roth, and he throws out Kay when she tells him that she aborted their son because she so hated the monster Michael had become and refused to continue the cycle. In the penultimate scene, Coppola flashes back to Michael's decision to join the military, an action that both underpins the tragedy of his downfall from a man who wanted to lead a good life to the most terrible criminal in America as well as showing how far back his attempts to rid himself of family go. When Vito gets his start, he barely exists to a country that doesn't particularly want him, in a community that barely registers him, and at the end Michael sits alone in contemplation, king of everything and nothing.

As long as time remains, a debate will rage over which is better: Part I or Part II. When Kang and Kodos conquer this world, they will force their slaves to debate the collective merits of each and decide who lives and who dies based on their answers (of course, one will love the first and the other the second, so everyone shall lose). And while it is a pointless argument, I must confess that I will cast my lot with this every time. Never have I seen a performance as compelling as Pacino's; his eyes in the scene where Kay reveals her abortion can tell prospective actors more about the craft than a lifetime of classes at Julliard. His is but the tip of the iceberg, however, as Part II gets better performances from all of the actors carried over from the first while extracting equally superb ones from newcomers like De Niro. Aesthetically, Coppola, cinematographer Gordon Willis and editors Barry Malkin, Peter Zinner and Richard Marks craft an epic eulogy for America, a deconstruction of our social and political infrastructures through juxtaposition and irony without losing feel for its doomed, twisted characters.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Outlaw Josey Wales

[This post submitted for the Large Association of Movie Blogs' Clint Eastwood Blog-a-thon. More info can be found here]

The Outlaw Josey Wales may be the litmus test for Eastwood fans: hidden in plain sight, it is often overlooked by casual appraisers of the director's corpus who tend to leap from Eastwood's stint as an actor in Leone's Dollars trilogy more or less to Unforgiven. But The Outlaw Josey Wales concerns the same Western theme as Eastwood's later Oscar favorite -- of the necessity of violence and personal honor in a corrupt society -- albeit with more subtle and multilayered nuance than the more cut and dry (but still entertaining and rich, certainly) Unforgiven. Too, it serves as perhaps the greatest grab-bag of aesthetic and thematic styles from the great Western directors -- Peckinpah's violence, Hawks' group dynamic, Ford's broad character typing, Leone's rejection of modern corruption through the filthy "purity" of the Old West -- all filtered through Eastwood's gift for minimalistic formalism, evident even in this early directorial effort.

See how he uses the film to flesh out the Man with No Name into the titular protagonist. Josey is an expectorating man of peace driven to kill by the brutal murder of his wife and children by pro-Union Redlegs tearing through Missouri near the end of the Civil War. Face slashed, home burned and family freshly buried, Wales leaves his homestead to discover a group of Confederate guerrillas and joins their cause. In a montage over the opening credits, Josey and the bushwhackers tear through the state, Wales honing his killin' skills while hoping that each group of blues they happen upon will be the group that killed his family and never getting his wish.

As the war draws to a close, the rebels must accept their loss and capitulate to the Union soldiers they so relentlessly hunted. Wales, however, refuses to surrender, still consumed by hatred and perhaps hoping that his insolence might cost him a life that has lost all meaning. Instead, he witnesses the band of guerrillas brutally cut down by Gatling fire, only deepening his hatred and inspiring him to continue fighting. Naturally, Redleg leader Capt. Terrill (Bill McKinney) and guerrilla turncoat Fletcher (John Vernon) cannot abide Wales terrorizing the countryside, so they set out to capture him and collect a bounty set up by their Union superiors.

Eastwood, working with Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus' script, crafts The Outlaw Josey Wales into a series of dichotomies, almost all of which reverse on each other: Wales chases the Redlegs through Missouri and Kansas in that opening montage, who turn the tables by comprising the search party that hunts Wales after the massacre of the guerrillas. The director underscores the split between North and South with a scene that reveals a ferryman and traveling salesman before Josey happens upon them: the ferryman discusses how he's carried over men from both sides on his raft and confides in the salesman, "You know in my line of work, you gotta be able either to sing 'The Battle Hymn Of The Republic' or 'Dixie' with equal enthusiasm... dependin' upon present company." We meet Wales as a man of peace, yet Eastwood quickly crafts him into as brutal and efficient a killer as the anti-hero of Leone's films; indeed the film's most notable weakness is the occasional contrast between its message of Josey's reluctance to fight and the proto-Rambo thrill of watching him dispatch groups of men at a time.

The chief dichotomy, however, shows Eastwood casting Josey Wales as both kinds of traditional Westerns: a story of an individual establishing himself as judge, jury, executioner, god and whatever else of the territory he claims, and of the ability of outcasts and freaks to find community, even family, in an uncharted land that offers possibilities for fortunes that run deeper than a gold mine. Josey remarks more than once that he wishes to ride alone, yet a merry band of weirdos slowly draws to him like iron to a magnet. First it's a young soldier, the only other survivor of Terrill's slaughter, who succumbs to his wounds. Then, a disgraced old Cherokee (Chief Dan George), then a young Navajo girl, then a grandmother and her beautiful, timid granddaughter (Sondra Locke). After a time, Josey gives in to the rising numbers and even says about a hound who takes a shine to the master who spits upon him, "He might as well ride along with us. Hell, everyone else is." Compared to Bill Munny, who left his surviving family behind to return to a dark past, Josey attempts to cling to the pain of his loss but finds himself unable to growl and spit away the present, warming to these loners in spite of himself and even finding love again with the young woman.

Eastwood further mingles the two forms of Western construction by presenting Wales' companions as failed individualists. Lone Watie and the Navajo girl have been broken and cast out by the United States government and the tribe, respectively; the girl became a pariah for being raped by a member of another tribe and not "resisting enough" in the eyes of her own clan, while Lone Watie, as a Cherokee, finds himself without a country, his people having attempted unsuccessfully to ingratiate themselves with the U.S. and subsequently faced with scorn from racist whites and outraged natives. Grandma Sarah and Laura Lee stayed behind on their homestead with Sarah's husband while her son (and Laura's father) struck out on his own to provide for his parents and daughter, but when the group arrives in the town where he went to make his fortune they find it deserted, having dried up with the silver vein. Any one of them could be a hero in his or her own Western, but presented en masse we see their emptiness and regret, and how they find comfort in each other that they'd not felt in years.

These touches help give definition to what might otherwise have been nothing more substantial than a revenge fantasy, which it very much is in its action moments: most of Eastwood's films suffer to an extent in the sometimes harsh contrast between what he places in the film to entertain the masses and what he's trying to tell them, and he occasionally fails here to flesh out an action scene or two into anything more than hoo-rah shoot-em-ups. Nevertheless, The Outlaw Josey Wales is certainly one of Eastwood's finer pictures, though I don't know that I can agree with the man himself that it's his best. He handles the action scenes with a firm hand that would do his old boss Sergio proud and uses his mostly flat supporting characters to tell a deeper story than is immediately apparent. With juicy exchanges such as "Man's gotta make a living these days." "Dying ain't much of a living, boy" and that inexplicable pleasure of watching Eastwood's badass image melt for a smile or two, Josey Wales truly is one of those films with something for everyone.