Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The Year in Review

Last year, I threw some miscellaneous, mostly nonsense "awards" at the end of my Top 15 list, but this year's batch of recognitions is considerably larger, so I decided to give it its own separate post. In an attempt to beat the awards season (and anti-awards season) alternate lists, I'll go ahead and give lists for direction, acting, etc., and then get back to my old style of spotlighting some curious tidbits that caught my eye this year.

I tried to adhere to the usual four nominees and one winner format for the usual awards categories, and I mostly succeeded with some exceptions where I could not help myself. Otherwise, enjoy, and, as ever, feedback is welcome.

The Top 20 Films of 2010

Few, if any, would argue that 2010 offered as many cinematic delights as last year, a particularly damning comparison since most critics railed against 2009’s own slate of films at the time. I happen to think last year served up some keenly underappreciated fare, whether it was Inglourious Basterds, the finest piece of termite art posting as white elephant spectacle since Gangs of New York, or an adroitly observed coming-of-age dramedy boosted by tone-perfect actors and one of the best soundtracks ever (Adventureland). Granted, with the exception of The Hurt Locker, the Oscar-bait fell flat, but 2009 had copious offerings for those who knew where to look.

The same is true for 2010, of course, but there weren’t nearly as many nooks to examine. Monetary concerns limited my access to the theater -- even with Netflix rentals and the occasional screener, I logged fewer than 60 films, a sizable step down from last year’s 80. The lack of spare cash ensured I sought out only the films that interested me, not simply everything I could take in, and even with that in mind I only found about 25-28 films that I fully enjoyed even after I distanced myself from them a bit. However, when it came time to whittle the list down, I remembered why I enjoyed so many of these movies and, as ever, forming a list proved harder than I would have thought. Rather than use all kinds of warped justifications for maintaining a top 10 while including even more movies, I've decided to simply list the 20 best, even though I could still stand to add a few. These were the delights of a disappointing year, a combination of sensual delights and intellectually rigorous features that teased and pleased long after the dust settled from their viewings. Without further ado, let's get down to it. (All entries contain links to their respective reviews.)

The King's Speech

Though it features the sort of rousing, uplifting score one expects for a movie about an underdog overcoming an obstacle, the dominant sonic motif in Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is a light, choked gargle, the sound of the base of the tongue splashing around the back of the throat in tremulous preparation for a performance it would like nothing more than to not give. The tongue in question belongs to Albert Frederick Arthur George, the Duke of York and second in line of succession to the king of England, a man whose stammer might never had been an issue were he blessed with the good fortune to have been born before the popularization of radio.

The film opens in 1925, at the closing of the Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Albert's father, King George V (Michael Gambon), charges him with delivering the closing speech on radio, himself and the primary heir to the throne, Prince Edward, having already made their wireless debuts. As he arrives, his wife and their confidants reassure Albert that he will do wonderfully, but the look of fear in his eyes creates a tense mood before he even says a word. At last, aides send him in front of the microphone at the head of the stands, and all in the audience turn reverently to hear him. The pause is deafening, and when Albert finally speaks, the crackled stutters that escape his lips echo through the sound system, mocking him as the crowd maintains their respectful silence but look around uncomfortably in that way people need to make eye contact to share pain but must also avoid it at all costs to prevent an errant titter.

It's an excruciating moment, and as someone who does not stammer but has often felt the hot sting of apprehension -- no, pure, unrelenting terror -- at the simple notion of public speaking, the seemingly contradictory combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia that creeps into the mise-en-scène rang painfully true. Of course, the damned thing about a stammer or any other display of anxiety is that, once aware that others have picked up on the trait, the sufferer can never right, spiraling further into a pit of self-revulsion and embarrassment that magnifies the first slip into a cascade of tics and halting pronunciation. The first scared pause, the dreaded "ums" and "likes," never come in one aberration. They only ever lead to more mistakes.

Humiliated by the experience, Albert tries a series of speech therapists, all of whom display a knowledge of medicine so arcane one expects them to break out leeches and suggest a blood-letting. As ashamed by the experiences of failing with countless doctors as the public performances themselves, Albert swears off speech therapy and banks on a public life held largely out of view as his father and elder brother can handle the speeches. But the king knows better. He realizes that an occasional appearance in procession with a regal wave will no longer do; with every household turning to radio for news, entertainment, and general social guidance, it is imperative that the royal family take advantage of the airwaves lest they become an inanimate relic alongside the other trinkets in their castles for fat American tourists to come marvel at year after year. "We've been reduced to the most vile and loathsome profession of all: actors," sighs the king with grim irony.

Behind Albert's back, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), finds a middle-class therapist, one Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Whatever danger this movie was in of being a stuffy period drama is obliterated by Rush's entrance, heralded by a toilet flush before that magnificent mass of a head enters the frame and, unaware of who Elizabeth really is, makes plain, frank chat with her. His puckish grin, mischievous bow tie (and since when has a bow tie been mischievous?) and quick wit disarm the somber proceedings instantly, though it's just as amusing to see his boyish looks blanch when his upfront candor is returned in kind and Elizabeth reveals her identity and that of her husband.

The scenes between Lionel and Albert -- or Bertie, as his family (and Lionel, to his extreme annoyance) call him -- play as a tug-of-war between stale, Academy-pleasing montage of uplift and determination and something fresher, more spontaneous. Lionel insists on a first-name basis to make his therapy work, and his direct manner so stuns the royal member used to even his closest advisers speaking to him with reverence and cowed expression that he starts answering back in spite of himself. Rush's humor is infectious; Bertie tells him about the other doctors who prescribed cigarettes to relax the lungs, to which Lionel replies, "They're idiots." "They're all knighted," replies Bertie smugly. "That makes it official, then," says Lionel with a wide grin.

Rush and Firth attain an instant chemistry that shows off each individually but also creates a certain hollowness when they're apart. Rush, with his giant, triangular face, is at once boyish and refined, his elocution and perfect diction clashing with his more laid-back attitude. He plays off Firth, who once again gives a fantastic performance. Like Tilda Swinton, Firth is seemingly incapable of giving anything less than a mesmerizing performance, and he's the sort of person who can oscillate between homely and strikingly beautiful depending on they compose themselves. Firth spends most of the film contorted in mental agony, squashing his throat into a makeshift double chin as if compressing a bellow, hoping to stoke the words out of his lungs. He looks uncomfortable with the very thought of existence, his eyes darting nervously even when secluded from the public eye.

Had Hooper the confidence to stay entirely with their interplay, The King's Speech might have deserved the fevered hype that has greeted its release. But he gets mired in the cliché of the genre. His edits border on the sporadic at times, eliding over the more intimate and affecting moments to get to necessary stopgaps in plot. Bound to tell the historical narrative, Hooper must devote time to Prince Edward, a feckless, irresolute cad governed by his emotions, all of which are petulant and self-centered. Casting Guy Pearce in the role makes all the Australian jokes lobbed at Lionel throughout the film that much more amusing, but not even Pearce can work with the weakling. Nothing exposes the ludicrous nature of the monarchy like Edward's ascension and ultimate abdication of the throne: he falls in love with an American woman working on her second divorce, and his passions lead him to propose marriage. As the head of the Church of England, the king could not marry a divorcée, and what's more, neither the characters nor the people behind the camera suggest his rashness comes from true love. And so, Edward drains the film's middle section, simply occupying time until he can at last drop out and let his younger brother assume the throne.

Furthermore, Hooper and writer David Seidler get stuck with the proposition of successfully building dramatic tension to the titular speech, delivered when Britain declared war on Germany. Though Lionel features prominently and the camera spends some time in his modest domicile, this is a film that essentially roots itself in the hermetically sealed world of the monarchy, a faded, anachronistic relic that effectually ended long before the Russian tsars and German emperors mentioned nervously as Albert and others ponder the fate of the dynasty. But this creates the issues of building social tension through the group of people most oblivious to popular malaise and the nuances of international relations. After all, this monarchy sent its subjects to die en masse in the previous Great War even though they, being of inbred "pure" stock, were related to the German nobility they were meant to be opposing. The film wouldn't work if it suddenly sprang WWII on the audience without tying Albert's story to the mounting international turbulence, but it also seems clumsy for the characters to mention him only in the most terse and suggestive way possible, as they do throughout the 30s before Albert becomes George VI. Only when war is at England's doorsteps do the references to "Herr Hitler" becomes anything less than thudding moments of forced relevance in an otherwise sharp script.

The film has its other flaws. For the note-perfect work from the main cast, some of the supporting parts, though played by heavyweights border on the laughable. Timothy Spall, my dear Timothy, puts in such a bad Churchill impersonation I kept waiting for, Monty Python-style, someone to walk in from behind the camera and say, "No, stop, this has gotten far too silly." Derek Jacobi plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the more morally superior to hold the position, as an unctuous but snippy sycophant, wanting to be villainous without being able to twist the real man that far without snapping him from his base in reality. Long after Hooper's direction settles into its refined grace and settles the aesthetic issues near the start, these two drag down all of their scenes. Taken with some of the more obvious lines, these nagging issues too often distract from the keen, hilarious and moving double act shared by Rush and Firth and expertly moderated by Carter.

Yet if The King's Speech is ultimately unable to transcend the restrictive boundaries of its awards-baiting genre, it overcomes any disappointment by being so full of verve and energy that it at least stretches those confines to the breaking point. This is the kind of film made to show off its actors, but the main players are all so excellent that they would all deserve awards, were they given based on merit instead of marketing ability. Fortunately for the cast and crew, The King's Speech has enjoyed plenty of that as well. I do not think the term "Oscar-bait" necessarily connotes a bad film, but it does speak to the increasingly stale formula guaranteed to please the artistically conservative members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. What typically makes an Oscar-bait film unbearable is when it was clearly made to reap platitudes.

The King's Speech works because it cares for its characters and understands the symbolic but vital importance of George VI. A whole other movie could be made about the courage he and his wife displayed during the war, never leaving London even when a bomb went off at Buckingham Palace. The pauses he put into his speeches as he ensured each word came out clearly gave his voice a solemn gravity, and though his inspiration gets overlooked in favor of Churchill, George too played a key role in the war effort. Rush's Lionel looks compassionately but sternly upon his subject, aware that Albert could be a great man if he could only get over his fears. It is a testament to how well Rush goads Albert and how well Firth responds that, when the speech came at last, though I knew the ending, a tiny knot had formed in my stomach. Whatever else holds back the film, that effect was earned, and this break from the usual, priggish nature of period drama made The King's Speech an unexpected pleasure to watch.

127 Hours

I have previously been open to the occasionally vicious criticism leveled at Danny Boyle. I can sympathize with those who say Sunshine falls apart in the third act though I feel that was the only logical development of the story to that point, or with the Slumdog Millionaire detractors who say it's too glitzy a look at extreme poverty and it appropriates Dickens' optimism and sentimentality without the keen, detailed eye for social commentary that kept his stories serious (though I tend to view those calling Slumdog racist with much more skepticism). At last, I am faced with what must seem de rigeur for the haters: 127 Hours is shameless, garish and so falsely confident that its air of smug self-assurance only makes the experience more intolerable.

The story of Aron Ralston, the man who got trapped while hiking alone and -- SPOILER ALERT! -- ultimately amputated his own crushed arm so he might get to safety, 127 Hours gets off to a particularly offensive and callous start with an inexplicable series of split-screen shots showing people engaged in activity that prominently features hands. Whether it's crowds waving (or doing The Wave) or swimmers cutting through the water with their arms moving in angular precision, these moments seem an odd, cruel jab at Ralston, conveying no sense of foreboding, only a sneering irony. The shots continue as the film's Aron (James Franco) suddenly takes over one of the three strips of film on the screen, rapidly packing a backpack full of snacks and some gear as he prepares to head out to Blue John Canyon in Utah. In the final moment of hyperkinetic foreboding, the camera stays inside a cupboard as Aron's hand blindly fishes around for a Swiss Army knife that stays just out of his reach. Without peering in to have a look, Aron shrugs and moves on, throwing his crap in a beat-down truck and heading out to the wilderness before the sun breaks.

Out at the canyon, Aron tears across the place on a bike for 17 miles before hopping off and going for a run. He meets and entertains two young women (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn) before setting off again on his own. He climbs around a bit and tries to ease his way down a moderately deep crevasse when the rock he puts weight on snaps from its perch and sends him plummeting. The rock comes to a stop when the canyon walls narrow, and it just so happens to stop with Aron's right arm pinned between it and the wall. Ten minutes or so in, and the title card flashes on-screen. Set your

The initial moments of Aron's attempts to free himself may be the only seconds of the film that work, the hand-held camera shuddering with every shove and grunt he makes attempting to pry his hand out from beneath the stone. It captures a feeling of helplessness, claustrophobia and the dread of morbid realization more acutely than anything else in the 85 or so minutes left in the film's running time. Never again does it so viscerally take hold of emotions, nor even does it find the same encroaching feeling of the walls closing in, though one would normally expect such moods to enhance as time wears on.

Even at 97 minutes, 127 Hours is a bit long for a story that can be essentially summarized as, "Man gets trapped, stays there a few days, cuts off arm, Fin." To keep the audience's attention, he throws every trick he's ever learned into the mix. Water deprivation leads to reveries, then outright hallucinations, on Aron's part. Apropos of the aesthetic curbs from music videos and commercials, Aron's fantasies of liquid refreshment contain such product placement that one wonders why any of these companies let their stuff get shown. What odd marketing strategy is Pepsi devising for Mountain Dew now? (The lack of capitalization on Snickers' "Need a Moment?" campaign was a missed opportunity, though.)

These fantasies are themselves dull and distracting, but their worst contribution is the annihilation of the mood Boyle managed to capture in seconds, that desperate isolation and fear. Having gone along willingly, gleefully, with his previous films, I would easily have fit into the film's cramped groove had it bothered to stay with it for even a moment. But hell no; if it's not a fantasy devised as commercial, it's a mad morning talk show playing out entirely in Aron's head. Perhaps there's a commentary in here on the depth to which pop culture has invaded our thought process, to the point that even an unspooling brain can regurgitate nuggets of entertainment-infused semi-coherence, but the truth is likely no more complex than Boyle wanting to dump out the contents of his own mind onto Ralston.

To be sure, Aron is Boyle's ultimate stand-in, a brash, cocksure young man who is so smart he does not always realize how stupid he can be. (Not even Jake Cole, erstwhile committed fan of Mr. Boyle, would go out of his way to defend The Beach.) Aron loves to film himself, unburdening himself of being accountable with another party present but damned sure to bring back something he can use to brag to others with. His loopy, obnoxious playfulness can be charming when kept on a tether, but at his worst he comes off as a simpering child. Even at his best, Boyle has always flirted with this side of his own personality, and the biggest delight of Sunshine and Slumdog Millionaire, in this writer's opinion, is the manner in which he veers ahead of his flaws to maintain the giddier aspect of his boyishness. But this, this is interminable. I felt guilty for looking upon a man forced to drink his own urine and stare at his putrefying arm as a whiny brat, but not even the endlessly charming James Franco could salvage Boyle's self-portrait of the Dorian Gray variety.

Careening from arduous pacing to attention-deficit, bordering on epileptic frenzy with all the flow of a sputtering faucet, 127 Hours employs so many tricks that it never places faith in its own material, much less the audience to invest emotionally in Aron's plight. Ralston routinely checks his watch as he tracks how long he's been in the crevasse. Sometimes, hours pass in the blink of an eye; in other moments, Aron comes out of his torpor, only to find that mere seconds have elapsed. One sympathizes. By a certain point, I found myself thinking, "Oh, just cut you arm off already. How much more must I suffer?"

Boyle makes the film a grueling ordeal, but never in the manner it should be. The material does not lend itself to cinema, but Boyle trusts Ralston's story less than it deserves. He frames the actual narrative as one of pure inspiration, not a hard-won determination that arises from Ralston's actual story but a lump of incoherent flashbacks and visions that suddenly dump into one of the sleaziest, exploitative "uplifting" endings I've ever seen. A.R. Rahman's score is bombastic, intrusive and nearly as clumsy as Boyle's direction, which is almost an accomplishment. Whenever Franco, the lone bright spot in the film, if an overhyped one, starts to convey a genuine panic and a creeping sense of resignation, Rahman's score forces the point, destroying any subtlety, any humanity, that might have taken root.

At least Boyle captures some aspects of the story that stuck out when I first heard it on a news documentary some years back. The real Ralston discussed the ordeal and mentioned the first time he plunged his dull knife into his crushed hand and heard a terrible hiss of escaping gas. Boyle preserves that, though that horrible sound is frustratingly buried in numerous other sounds. Also, Ralston's mention of cutting through the nerve cluster, frustratingly the one part of his arm that still worked, sent shivers down my spine when he related it. Boyle both honors and bungles that moment as well, using an electronic, crackling feedback to suggest pain where he never did before. But there are simply no stakes in the entire amputation, no build-up to the moment where a man decides to maim himself to live. Boyle's Aron simply wallows around in a hallucinatory stupor, and then he suddenly gets to work hacking off that arm, as if to say, "Oh to hell with it, there's a new CSI on tonight."

Nothing in 127 Hours couldn't be said by a PSA featuring Smokey the Bear or some other equivalent wildlife mascot. "Hey kids, Climby the Mountain Goat says don't go hiking without a buddy and an emergency beacon! Not telling people where you're going is a baaaah-d idea!" It has the temerity to beat up its audience for 90 minutes, then tell them they should feel helpful. A "where are they now?" credit at the end suggested that the recurring vision of a child that appeared before Aron, the vision that motivated him to keep going, came true when he married years later and had a son just this year. I'm sure we're supposed to be touched by this moment, but the clumsiness of saying "Aron's premonition came true" when he eventually had a son (that most likely did not look like the one he envisioned, is indicative of the lazy stabs Boyle makes. If I had a dream about making a sandwich and eventually made one, I wouldn't believe in the power of the subconscious.

For a film receiving so much acclaim, I was surprised, if pleased, to note that the general audience reaction matched my own. As people shuffled out of the theater, they remarked to each other how glad they were it was over. Not that they'd been drained, that they felt Aron Ralston's story. They were just happy to be able to leave. Maybe that is the entire point of 127 Hours, to punish its audience until they want to tear off their own limbs to get away. But the sheer, unrelenting boredom surely could not have been the manner in which he intended to torment us. All his worst ideas, from his scatalogical fetish (a "urine cam" showing stowed waste being sucked down for nourishment is especially heinous) to his ill-advised use of flashbacks, are presented without the goofy, gonzo charm that normally balances them out. I have embraced Boyle's spastic rhythms before, and I imagine I shall again, but 127 Hours is one of the most unpleasant experiences I've had in a long time, not because of its grueling material but because of its abhorrent, exploitative, manipulative and hypocritical nonsense. Perhaps I can take a leaf from Boyle's erratic style and shift suddenly from pleonastic scribbling to more direct terms: Fuck this movie. The end.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I Am Love

I Am Love combines beautiful evocations from various media -- art, design, fashion, opera and especially food -- yet it never offers much lucid inspection of any one of them, and the whole is too messy to gel into a working film. It wants to be operatic, elegiac on the epic scale of Visconti's The Leopard. But that was a film that never let its passion dip below a rolling boil; Luca Guadagnino has made his film in a time wherein "melodrama" has become a four-letter word, so he attempts to cover his bases by trapping the swirling emotions this type of film should contain underneath the glacier of classical European art drama.

The opening shots underline this split, as the camera moves through images of post-industrial factories blanketed in snow with the ornate scrawl of the title card placed over the drab backdrops. These shots are graceful but unimpressive, and the occasional quick cuts that randomly shatter the mood without warning or meaning set a precedent for some sloppy editing here and there. The camera at last settles on a mansion, tracking with geometric precision until it moves inside to document the Recchi family, a group of people as outdated as the palatial home in which they live.

Servants clean dishes alongside Emma (Tilda Swinton), a Russian who married the Italian Tancredi and moved into this lavish villa to spend her days not doing much of anything. She, like her husband and children, always dress impeccably, even when they clearly have nothing planned that day and some only leave the house for minor errands. They could have fallen out of one of Bergman's more stately films, and the alignment of the family on the poster recalls similar blocking in Distant Voices, Still Lives, an attempt to capture the same sense of familial imprisonment.

But I Am Love only fleetingly conveys these feelings. One could attribute the more objective aesthetic to a reflection of Emma's own alienation from her emotions, but she does not appear to be unhappy in any way with her life. At a birthday dinner for the family patriarch, Edoardo, Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), she is as delighted as everyone else when the old man names his son, Tancredi, and grandson, Edoardo, Jr. (Flavio Parenti), as the new owners of the family textile factory. Everyone celebrates though they must have known ownership would pass down the family line, and Emma swells with pride. That textiles are a relic does not matter: this is a family business, and it has already provided enough generational wealth to make inevitably dwindling profits a concern for the middle-class person they no doubt hired to sort out financial affairs.

The only indication of something inside of Emma yearning for change comes when a chef who beat Edoardo, Jr. (also called Edo by most of the family), comes by to offer a cake as a conciliatory measure. Edo is delighted by the man's kindness and insists he come inside, but Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) politely declines, not wishing to intrude on the festivities. A passing Emma gets a look at him, though, and when Antonio quietly slips back out into the snow, a light comes on in an upstairs window, and Emma floats to the portal, peering outside of the curtain as if trapped in a Bröntean prison. Her old life did not constrain her previously, but a mere glance has put something into her mind, a faint pause where one did not previously exist. But is that dissatisfaction with the old way, or a sudden desire to try something fresher, more unknown?

I Am Love modestly scales down The Leopard's mournful commentary on changing times to a simpler look at the intoxicating allure of the new. The family itself has already survived the changing times that would have claimed anyone else: the factory still churns out fabric, still turns some kind of profit and the family enjoys aristocratic opulence. Only a mild comment from the younger son, Giancula, to his older brother about their grandfather exploiting forced Jewish labor during World War II hints at a darker past. By casting Ferzetti, star of Michaelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura, as the patriarch, Guadagnino recasts the modernity of that film as the old hat, the past he and others must now overcome to make their name when Antonioni is still praised even in death as the greatest of modern cinematic poets. It's a deft touch that opens up interpretations of the struggle of the Italian filmmaker to follow in the patriarch's footsteps or try to make a new way, an themes that are sadly unexplored.

For the rest of the movie is about Emma, played brilliantly by Swinton. Most filmmakers use her androgyny, that otherworldly aspect of her unconventional beauty. Because they allow for the more masculine attributes of her angular face, many often give her more traditionally "masculine" parts, and Swinton has shined in recent years with meaty, talky parts in which she controls much of the action. Her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton threatened to overshadow the host of solid performances in the film, her conniving lawyer providing an icy, villainous logic to offset Tom Wilkinson's crumbling sanity and George Clooney's slowly seeping gallantry. I was so torn on Julia I've yet to review it, but her portrayal of the title character's fleeting ability to stay just ahead of her impending self-immolation fluctuated between dramatic intensity and a glorious flourish of overwrought melodrama in a way that made her irresistible even if the movie's mood swings and unnecessary length dragged the proceedings down.

But her role here recalls her extended cameo in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Also a socialite wife in Fincher's fairy tale ode to classic Hollywood. In that film, as this one, her life is comfortable and not particularly repressive, but the entrance of a force she cannot explain, a whisper of new, fresh life in the form of a man she does not particularly know. Emma comes across as an even more frigid and poised version of Elizabeth Abbot, the Russian winters of her youth having imbued her with a frosty countenance even at her most jovial and kind.

If nothing else, Guadagnino does us the service of presenting Swinton in purely feminine terms, never feeling the need to remind the audience that, just because she does not fit the narrowly defined guidelines of Hollywood attractiveness, Swinton must be considered weird (her weirdness is a whole other matter entirely). She looks even paler than usual from pancake makeup, a streak of red lipstick a tantalizing burst of color, as if all the blood in her face drained and pooled in her lips. After playing so many hard-edged characters lately, she displays an intense matronly warmth, treating her daughter's sexual identity with compassion and understanding and supporting her son's advancement within the company. But that look of longing in her eyes is piercing, when Antonio reciprocates she looks as if she might explode with pleasure in his presence.

Sadly, everything else borders on parody. Guadagnino's close-ups on art and food morph from a beautiful evocation to the most pretentious slide show in human history, a constant cutting between immaculately composed but lifeless shots that suck the air Swinton breathes into the film. Her lust is nakedly unlocked by a prawn dish Antonio prepares for her, a scene that unfolds with such unintentional hilarity that I half expected it to end with the punchline cutaway to a woman at another table saying, "I'll have what she's having." The other characters are rigidly divided along "old" and "new" lines, from Elisabetta's lesbianism and her pursuit of the arts representing more modern viewpoints and Edo, his named tied to the grandfather and patriarch, adheres to the more chauvinistic and greedy style of his father. Except when he doesn't. There's no consistency to these caricatures even though they are uniformly two-dimensional.

One cannot deny that Yorick Le Saux's cinematography is crisp and gorgeous, nor that Swinton isn't, as ever, at the top of her game. But it's all for naught. All of the beautiful shots of food and faces and art and nature lose their luster, and they drag on Swinton's lush and exotic performance. It's like seeing a Ferrari with a boat trailer attached to it, and just because the boat in question is a yacht doesn't make the setup any less lugubrious and absurd. The music of the excellent American composer John Adams is used throughout -- contrary to some reports, he composed no new music for the score -- but it does not fit. Guadagnino wants to make this an opera, but his use of Adams' actual operas clashes horrendously with the slowly paced, uneventful narrative.

Laughable juxtapositions abound, from Adams' ill-fitting score to some edits that would have gotten me thrown out of a theater for laughing so hard. When Emma discovers a note written by her daughter admitting to her lesbianism, the director cuts to shots of Milanese cathedrals surrounding Emma, the implications of old-school religious condemnation lazy and inarticulate, the equivalent of a rakishly raised eyebrow and a gentle nudge to the ribs. Having rewatched Black Narcissus the same day, I found Powell's cutaways to flowers, vibrant explosions of the passion that seeped out of every frame of that film, meaningful and evocative in a manner that Guadagnino aims for but does not reach. His close-ups on flowers during his distant and cold shots of sex (which still manage to get in some male gazes for all their stiffness) are desperate grabs for the same emotion, but all they amount to are sub-Georgia O'Keeffe evocations of a vagina.

Only at the last moments does the film finally play into the operatic tone it wanted to attain throughout. There are those who would criticize the ending from breaking totally from the tone of the rest of the film, its euphoric leap into boisterous music and epic framing wholly at odds with the progression to that point, even the melodramatic climax. But that is a drawback of film criticism, the need to justify each scene within the narrow context of how it fits everything else in the movie. Never mind that literature has enjoyed such breaks for centuries -- Hamlet featured a freaking play within a play, after all. The best parts of great movies can be total separations from the more objective moods for a flash of intense subjectivity (or the other way around, providing sudden clarity the character does not have). The last three minutes of I Am Love so happen to be the best part of a mediocre movie, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Beloved Month of August

Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August is a Möbius strip of swirling contradictions and questions of reality in the vein of Abbas Kiarostami's work, a mix of documentary and fiction that ultimately renders meaningless questions about what is true and what is not. But where Kiarostami's films generally peel back broader emotional truths by lying, Gomes uses his 147-minute triumph of lemonade-from-lemons to lovingly put to screen a part of the world many neglect, including some of the residents of the places spotlighted.

Gomes originally planned to head out to the small but vibrant resort village Arganil in rural Portugal to film a drama that he'd already scripted. But he ran into issues with producers, and when he arrived in town to shoot, Gomes discovered that he lost what meager funding he thought he'd secured. Reasoning that he was already there and might as well shoot something, Gomes switched gears and decided to focus on the music festivals he originally intended to use as backdrop.

Almost instantly, however, Gomes splits the film's diegetic lines, opening with a documented concert and the soundbites of musicians complaining abut power outages and the folk bands playing their danceable tunes to a shot in a cabin miles away. Inside, Gomes is carefully arranging dominoes for an ornate credits sequence, but a "producer" enters in a huff and knocks over a domino, sending the intricate design sprawling. He demands to know what is delaying shooting, unable to see the irony of himself being the reason for the setbacks, his latest involvement on delaying further by ruining the credits setup. (Hilariously, the film then cuts to an every day title card, thwarting Gomes' "intentions.")

For the first half of the movie, Gomes wanders around Agarnil and some surrounding villages as the locals prepare for then have to deal with the incoming tourists. He captures the bacchanalian tone of the endless celebrations, which oddly always seems to follow right behind a religious procession carrying icons of the Blessed Mother. Musicians must make a season's worth of income during August alone, as every village erects a stage where bands play a mixture of rock, folk and dance music, the constant stream of music only stopping for technical difficulties. "There is no dance music," says one musician speaking off-camera as couples head out in a space by the stage to start grooving. "All music is made for dancing." The Portuguese folk is romantic, lovesick entreaties laden with pastoral imagery that celebrates the rustic setting rather than use the throwback sound to focus on something like the working man -- how out of place would a Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie tune sound here, where even the working class can enjoy a month of light debauchery?

If you're paying attention, you can see Gomes laying the foundation for what's about to come, but his earnestness and love for the community he documents is genuine, preventing those reflexive touches of the occasional returns to Gomes and his "producer" motifs rather than intellectualizing removes. In one of those asides, the director talks of moving beyond the script he can no longer shoot -- the exaggerated mass of paper always sits between them like the 800-lb gorilla in the room -- and moans, "I don't want actors, I want people," the sort of pretentious thing Barton Fink would say. But Gomes clearly goes out and finds those people and lets them ramble nostalgically for the camera, all of them relating tall tales of drunken exploits that might just have happened in such a crazy place. A loving but fiery old couple cannot remember how old they even are but have tons of gossip to impart, while another man recalls pissing off some Moroccan vendors who ran him over. When the man awoke from his coma, he discovered he had a new son. It would work as a killer joke in a Coen brothers film, but Gomes lets the moment happen, a half-farcical, half-touching remembrance from a man who still smiles though his teeth were shattered.

A lightly surreal image develops from the various sights on display, from children running through a mass of suds in the town square to the overlapping of motorcycle horn beeps as mopeds zoom down country roads with the big brass of the philharmonic orchestra that marches in the religious procession. These backwoods areas of Portuguese where Iberian hillbillies live are dusty and drab, but the locals create hidden pageants, adding lush texture to dull locations by dint of their lifestyles.

Yet the director's eye for detail also leads him to delve into some of the mild, almost imperceptible issues that such a lifestyle evokes. A city-dweller from Lisbon discusses the xenophobia rural folk feel for outsiders, though her English husband amusingly disagrees. Still, she has a point: Gomes' camera glides fluidly between villages, revealing the shared customs, modes of entertainment and types of people between them, yet there is an undeniable sense of isolationism among these communities against others of their own stripe. Some complain about money issues, but Gomes gently suggests through his visuals that perhaps financial woes might be a result of the incessant drinking and dancing and a certain lackadaisical attitude toward work ethic. By the same token, he rejoices in this love of entertainment and joie de vivre over mind-numbing commitment to work. Seemingly everyone in these villages owns a guitar, and even regular people may burst into song when the mood strikes.

This caring documentation continues through the end of the first half, at which point the entire film folds in on itself. In some of the asides, the producer laments that Gomes' unwieldy screenplay actually grows as the director starts adding more characters inspired by his work in the villages. At last, he decides to film his script after all, using some of the musicians and other locals he spoke to in the first half. Suddenly, what were supposed to be talking heads of real people morph into auditions for the film proper, and the integration of Gomes' observations on village life infuse the narrative with a verisimilitude he surely could not have captured if he simply arrived in town and started projecting onto the residents.

The use of nonprofessional actors telling their own story is nothing new, but Gomes also shanghais them into performing his story, a lurid melodrama with overtones of incest between a musician father and his daughter/muse, Tania. Their constant proximity sets tongues wagging, just as the residents engaged in whispers and rumor throughout. The music Tania and her father play, romantic as all the other Portuguese folk, does not help perceptions, and music gets used against them when two drunken partygoers engage in a duel of insults through song. One man defends the family and attacks the challenger's own familial shame, but the other lout retorts by asking in verse whether the two are father and daughter or husband and wife. To get away from the shame, Tania turns to Heider, a teen ever-clad in an AC/DC T-shirt and slinging a guitar. But Heider is her cousin, and the love she finds to distract herself from the confusing devotion of her father's potentially worrisome adoration could itself be just as harmful.

A few critics have charged the second half of the film with being meandering and too improvisational, but Gomes has too clear a goal in mind for the Our Beloved Month of August to spin off its axis. Despite having no money and a hastily re-assembled screenplay and cast, he inserts some shots that betray a filmmaker who knew exactly what he wanted from the movie. Heider and Tania walk on a bridge, pause and kiss, and as they do, that damned Mother Mary procession comes walking by. Gomes captures them in extreme long shot, the passing line of priests and penitent speaking to the the dogmatic repression that might have shaped these two. But the shot lingers, and behind the usual procession are two giant puppets being walked in line, as if Carnival floats themselves got up in the morning and atoned during Lent like everyone else. The revelry, too, has had its effect. A forest fire that tears through the surrounding area just as sexual tensions may lack for subtlety, but as a comic explosion of visual innuendo, it was as welcome as the close-up of the lava lamp in Talk to Her. Tinier details, such as a stain on Tani'as clothing after a night with Heider that answers whether her father ever touched her inappropriately or the mural of the solar system where Tania occasionally goes with either her father or Heider (suggesting she might be star-crossed lovers with either one), caulk the cracks. If Gomes truly did have to throw out his first idea, he quickly solidified another one.

Our Beloved Month of August examines a well-known fact, that fiction comes from truth, but it also suggests that the reverse is true. Some of the villagers' stories are clearly exaggerations, fish tales delivered to the camera to impress, and the falsity surrounding the truth gets funneled into the film within the film, complicating the fiction until an insight into rural Portuguese life emerges. I admit I'm growing increasingly tired of self-reflexive cinema, mainly because it's become a cheap tool for bad writers to project an aura of multilayered genius when, in effect, they simply recognize their inability to tell a story and try to beat critics to pointing this out. Yet Gomes' film, like the best of reflexive, questionably diegetic filmmaking, gets at emotional truths through the use of intellectual falsehood.

In the ingenious and riotous end credits, Gomes gets into a minor argument with his sound designer for recording "phantom sounds" in the forest fire. Gomes, still clad in that damned, loud red jacket and poor boy hat, allows himself to come off as a petulant auteur, screaming for perfectionism in a movie assembled piecemeal from disparate elements. The crew, who get their credits on-screen next to their actual faces, reassure the boss that no errant sounds are there, but we can hear faint music underneath. The interplay between image and sound that makes Our Beloved Month of August such a delight comes to a head, and the tormenting buzz of barely audible music will drive its mock-severe maker 'round the bend even as it reminds the audience of the music contained seemingly in the hills and trees around these villages. It's both the punchline and the reassurance that this was not all just some joke: the rumble is the soul of the villages Gomes captured, and it will imbue his film whether his pretentious doppelgänger wants it to or not. The perfect bookend to the opening shot of a fox searching for a way into a chicken coop -- the outsider seeking entry for exploitation -- the moment signifies that it is the village that ultimately conquered the outsider, not the other way around.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl

Though Manoel de Oliveira has a canon that stretches some seven decades, I have only now seen one of his films. If Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (the spelling varies in some translations but, as can be seen from the poster opposite, all are incorrect in some way) is any indication, the centenarian filmmaker is still as vibrant a director as someone a fifth of his age, but it also displays the wisdom of a man who has seen the planet change these last 102 years.

Though it is set in modern-day Lisbon, Eccentricities is as anachronistic as a film could be. At a spare 64 minutes, it cannot afford the gentle, unbroken static shot that opens the proceedings. But there it is: a ticket-puncher calmly walking down the aisle poking holes in people's passe, himself out of place in a world with electronic ticketing. After three minutes, he leaves (and the camera stays put to watch the doors of the cabin close behind him as he moves to the next car), and the camera finally cuts to one passenger, a young but haggard man looking as if he's about to explode. As the narration tells us, "What you would not tell your wife, what you would not tell your friend, tell it to a stranger," and the man, Macário (Ricardo Trêpa), turns to unload on the woman sitting next to him.

The woman (Leonor Silveira) exists purely as framing device, not even looking at the man but off past the camera when she urges Macário to tell his story. Oliveira uses this literary conceit to get into the true story, which itself defines itself partially through classical Western art forms. We see Macário, then an accountant at his uncle's fabric store, sitting at his desk when he looks out the window and sees a beautiful blonde across the way, waving an ornate fan. Macário notes the curtains that fell around her body could have come "from the time of Goethe," connecting the romantic moment to art and history in such a way that his romanticism is validated. The ornateness of the fan also plays a role in the seduction, its craftsmanship almost as transfixing to the man as the blond-haired girl.

For all the obsession Macário feels toward Luísa (Catarina Wallenstein), his courtship is oddly sweet. When Luísa and her mother come to the fabric store to purchase cloth, he runs downstairs to get a closer look at her, but his attempt to get closer and introduce himself is thwarted by his uncle, who demands the boy get back to work and keeps Macário at a frustrating
and creepy remove. His spying is limited to stares at her waving that fan, but for all the lack of skin, the voyeurism is erotic and charged, and if that fan recalls the more modest times of classical courtship, it also brings up the hypercharged libidos that were contained in such small gestures.

Oliveira stages the pair's first true meeting in the woman's lavish family villa, a place that doubles as an art museum complete with guide showing off all the odds and ends. The man chuckles to Macário about some upstart who fancied calling himself "Venus' Young Squire" though he lives in the present, but who could blame an artist who hung around this place for living in the past? It is the biggest anachronism in the film, a place where all the classical forms of entertainment meld: there is art, chamber harp for a small, respectful audience and then a poetry reading for good measure. So delightful and old-fashioned is the place that, when Macário approaches Luísa and puts a name to the face that has stared at her so intently across the street, she is charmed by his cheesy, borderline disturbing wooing, and by the end of the poetry recital they are walking around hand in hand.

Oliveira's combination of throwback romance and Western classicism reflects his age, and in a fleet 64 minutes he displays the same knack for blending various artistic media I saw in Jacques Rivette's thrice-longer Céline and Julie Go Boating. His literary preoccupation can seen, or rather heard, in his predilection for telling rather than showing, at least when it comes to the characters' feelings. The look in Trêpa's eyes says all you need to know about his lovesick desire, but otherwise he is stiff, and his performance might look melodramatic and overwritten were it not true that those struggling with unrequited love are always looking for someone, anyone, to talk to in order to expel all the things that cannot be said to the object of desire. Hilariously, most cannot match Mácario's poetic waxing, such as a friend who responds to all of the lovesick accountant's questions about Luísa by essentially repeating back the last few words of Mácario's question. ("She's pretty." *slight nod* "She's pretty." "You know them very well?" "Not very well.") Speech is direct and action even more so: Mácario wins over Luísa and asks his uncle for permission to marry, only to be fired and thrown out. Macário performs odd jobs to continue wooing his love, makes it big, loses again, gets re-accepted by his uncle and all is well. And then it isn't.

The remove adds a veneer of deadpan humor to the swift unfolding of events, but Oliveira has some surprising and not at all lovely statements to make about humanity with his ode to art and classical romance. The social codes that Macário follow may be outdated, but they hold back an even older, enduring primitivism. Were Macário not bound by etiquette, that hungry look in his eyes might have been sated far more brutally than with awkward entreaties. There is also the realization that the man does not particularly know anything about Luísa other than her physical attractiveness. So many find the concept of "love at first sight" to be the height of romance, but all it is to me is the pinnacle of lust and projection. Luísa becomes a blank slate for Macário to paint all of his idealized fantasies onto, and when the audience finally learns about the blond-haired girl's eccentricity -- the revelation of which is built into tiny but noticeable clues along the way -- Macário does not accept her as a flesh-and-blood mortal and reacts with outrage that his image is shattered.

The mixture of unironic melodrama and incisive social/romantic commentary adds degrees of depth and imagination to a story that does not have the time to pursue these tendrils of thought to their fullest capacity. Yet Oliveira's ability to be a relic and a forward-thinking and relevant filmmaker turn what could have been a bit of fluff into a joy. As with the Victorian courtship at the heart of the film, Oliveira's aesthetic is removed but erotic, like static electricity storing up in cold, dry air. His camera is graceful and coy, letting others prattle on and reveal themselves in untoward fashions while it maintains its poise. "Commerce doesn't favor a sentimental accountant," laments Macário, and while Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl will never light up the multiplex, its economic length and perfect pacing mirror Macário's summary of bean-counting that extends beyond his uncle's fabric store. Commerce may compromise some of Oliveira's frustratingly undeveloped ideas, but it's not every day you get treated to top-shelf wares like this.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Kevin Pollak's Chat Show

Kevin Pollak's Chat Show has no right to work, something its self-effacing host would probably admit to even before that other self-deprecating maverick of talk shows, Craig Ferguson. A no-budget Internet program featuring the comedian and character actor slumped over a Macbook surfing for questions to ask his guests in interviews that routinely stretch past the two-and-a-half-hour mark? It sounds like the stuff of legendary tragedy: half-hubris, half-midlife crisis, all some strange attempt to get the shot at hosting the Tonight Show that every comic wanted and now no one shall ever have again.

But as I already said, if there's one thing you can't accuse Kevin Pollak of being full of, it's hubris. The KPCS, like Craig Ferguson's equally, wonderfully scattershot network program, thrives on the understanding that everything could fall apart at any second. Pollak and his crew, among whom are his girlfriend Jaime Fox and, bizarrely, Freaks and Geeks alumnus Samm Levine, have been at this show for more than a year and a half now, yet technical problems continue to abound. Mics are turned up, the Macbook doesn't load quickly enough, the live stream drops out. Through it all, Pollak keeps a smile; hell, that smile gets wider when something goes awry.

Surprisingly, however, Pollak does not spend a great deal of time with anything approaching a stand-up routine. Rather than use his skeletal crew to praise himself, he puts out a genuine chat show, one that works as a duologue between the host and his guests. Thus, Pollak's chief inspiration is less King Johnny than Dick Cavett, that laid-back maestro of interviews. Cavett knew how to prepare sufficiently to avoid embarrassment but leave enough unresearched to give his questions a genuine curiosity. Since he retired, Cavett has left a void in the talk show landscape that has only been filled on television by Charlie Rose, who toils away largely unheeded on public broadcasting.

Yet Pollak uses the freeform structure afforded him by the Internet to explore his guests with the same thorough, pleasant tone as Cavett. Whether interviewing comedians, actors, musicians or simply web innovators, Pollak has the intent look of a man who gets to choose his guests himself and doesn't have to book people plugging bad movies with weak anecdotes. The guests all have something going on they'd like to promote, but they figure out early on that the host cares about them, not their movie or album or stand-up appearance. As they sit in the bare studio, darkened to recall Charlie Rose's minimalist setup, the guests initially look around with a hint of nervousness, waiting to be cut off at the five-minute mark to go to commercial, only to realize that it really is all about them, and not in an empty, showbiz way.

One can see why each guest caught Pollak's eye. Impression-heavy comics like Dana Carvey or the legendary voice actors Billy West and John DiMaggio appeal to Pollak's own gift for voices -- he is best known, after all, as the King of Shatner Impersonators -- while character actors such as David Koechner allow him to speak to other comedic supporting players. There is an almost childlike glee in some of these guests, some of them unaccustomed to even getting the five-minute soundbite on Leno or Dave and all bewildered that they can get anywhere from 90 to 150 minutes to speak.

Then there's Pollak, looking every bit as giddy. He has a way of avoiding asking hard questions of private matters while leaving open the tacitly broached subject for the guest to discuss at his or her comfort. Billy West has said a great deal about his abuse as a child, and Pollak never brings it up, but he ingeniously lets West fill in the gaps by asking, "When did you first realize you had a gift?" That pleasant, open-ended question allows West to gently suggest that humor got him through his rough childhood, and that it might have spared him even more nightmares.

Because he does not put anyone on the spot, because he does not bring them there to address a controversy or pander to an audience that can not applaud back, Pollak elicits something rare from his showbiz guests: honesty. Just as Cavett could hold a conversation with those who appeared on his program, Pollak rolls with each answer, actually paying attention and not leaping to the next question on the card. The guests loosen up and trust him for this, and by the end of each segment, if the interview subject wasn't already Pollak's fan, he or she is now.

So comfortable does everyone become than many lightly spar with him. Neil Patrick Harris can jovially trip him up for his syntax, while Kevin Smith says what was on a lot of people's minds when he, with mock interventionist concern, leaned in and begged the constantly be-fedora'd Pollak, "Stop with the fucking hats." It's a banter not even Craig Ferguson achieves, and when Ferguson came on the show, there was a mutual recognition of respect between them. Each sees potential in the other that just does not exist in other talk shows. Even Conan gets by on his writing charm, not his rapport with the vast majority of his guests.

The KPCS should also be required viewing -- as if anyone needed to be forced to watch it -- for those interested in the effect of the Internet on artistic entrepreneurship. Its conception came when Pollak met Jason Calacanis, who reported on the dot-com boom during its height and later became a Web entrepreneur in his own right. After Calacanis told him about the potential of Twitter and video-streaming sites like Ustream, Pollak devised the idea for his own chat show, which Calacanis agreed to produce. Many of the invited guests are pioneers in Web marketing, such as Felicia Day, who inked a landmark deal with Microsoft for her webcom The Guild that proved an important step in monetizing micro-budget Web content (she also, of course, starred in Joss Whedon's online mega-hit Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Chris Hardwick, host of the "Nerdist" podcast, also comes on to geek out for 140 minutes. Even the people who just know their way around a Twitter account have something to say about promotion in the age of the Internet.

The power of the artist to serve as his own marketer is, of course, one of the main reasons Kevin Pollak's Chat Show managed to swell from an underwhelming number of viewers for the pilot to a profile on the front page of the Los Angeles Times a mere three months later. Pollak loves to joke about his character actor credentials -- he can connect himself to anyone else in Hollywood in half the steps one needs for Kevin Bacon -- but where one might originally have chalked up his ability to land some impressive guests from him collecting all the favors he amassed as a guy who'd show up for a few lines here and there, I wonder if guests come on now because they've heard about the show and are chomping at the bit to participate. Maybe they just want to take part in the glorious absurdity that is the Larry King Game, in which players put on a terrible King voice (the badness is a requirement) and toss out revealing "insights" into King's life before throwing to some vulgar town name. Who the hell wouldn't want to play that game?

I have not managed to watch every episode of Kevin Pollak's Chat Show -- I've yet to even see Andy Richter's appearance, despite my abiding love for all things Conan -- but I've never once caught the host bored. Even when he sets up his interview with Leonard Maltin with a minutes-long screed against film criticism as the guest can only sit by and laugh helplessly, Pollak then turns and treats Maltin with respect and admiration for the next two hours, and if he still dismisses criticism at large, he's clearly won over by Maltin's honesty and enthusiasm for the art. It's one of the many pleasures of the show, a chance to see Pollak both curmudgeonly and welcoming, and if Pollak gets across some not-undeserved slams at critics for being dismissive and haughty, Maltin can provide a counterpoint of a young boy who fell in love with the cinema and devoted his life to spreading that love. At last, we hear both views at once, not the rantings of the wounded artist or the even worse whines of the self-justifying critic; instead, there is the simplest yet most revealing of things: a chat.

I don't know how long Pollak intends on following this bit of whimsy, but I hope he never tires of it. Freed of commercial obligation and note-making executives, Kevin Pollak's Chat Show is one of the most refreshing and revealing celebrity talk shows I've ever heard. As with Conan, Pollak has the reverence for the old school and the desire to the push the boundaries. But where Conan devoted everything to get the Tonight Show, Pollak made his own path, and as dynamic and satisfying as his show is in its own right, what it says about the potential of moving everything about the entertainment industry -- even that which some dismiss as pablum -- online. Pollak was amazed that he landed the L.A. Times when he held up a copy a year and a half ago, but why wouldn't a major Los Angeles paper write about him? In his own way, Larry King Game, hats and all, Pollak could help change Hollywood's landscape. When you look at it like that, the fact that it's entertaining as hell almost seems a sidenote.

The West Wing — Season 7

After losing track of what made the characters of The West Wing so memorable, John Wells found a way to fix the show: just make as many new characters as possible, and focus on them instead. It was a bold gambit, but one that paid off handsomely, turning a horribly staid program into something that actually approached the old energy that used to roll off it effortlessly. One could see the transition in the quality dips the sixth season took when it returned to the White House after breaking from the campaign trail.

Happily, the writers understood what worked best about the sixth season, and the vast majority of the show's final season excels, ironically, by all but entirely abandoning its previous episodes. The White House where the show made its home for six years suddenly becomes the abstract that we typically view the president's home as: for all the sunny idealism, the other seasons de-romanticized and made concrete 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Now, it exists as the goal for Sen. Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda) and Rep. Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits), the prize for besting the other in the presidential race.

In Vinick and Santos, we have evenly matched -- intellectually and morally -- nominees, an ideal situation for an audience who has only ever known one clear frontrunner (even if that person lost) and a joke of a human being. The West Wing itself already played into this idea by projecting frustrations with George Bush by setting up a caricature of him to go against Bartlet's reelection bid. It was a farcical bit of plotting -- not least because the least offensive aspect of Bush was his intelligence, which took a distant back seat to his corporate cronyism and penchant for declaring war crimes legal -- but it was oddly familiar. Vinick and Santos offer the possibility for a different kind of campaign one that works on rhetoric but actually addresses the issues in a substantive way.

For the first part of the season, Vinick and Santos solidify their positions. With the Vinick the clear frontrunner for having no serious competition for his nomination, he gets the majority of press coverage, but that also brings more scrutiny. His socially liberal views -- pro-choice, hands-off the issue of gay marriage -- win him independents but sorely cost him among the Religious Right that has taken over the Republican Party. Still, with the Democrats disorganized from the tight primary race and Bartlet having proved how successfully a president could cross the aisle without watering down his achievements, Vinick could steal away liberal voters.

With Santos trailing, Josh scrambles to find ways to boost his candidate's profile. Vinick changes the election strategy: his home state is California, making Democrats fight for a major state they typically assume will go to them, and his socially liberal policies allow voters who might have been alienated by religious pandering to consider a conservative. Santos brings in a media consultant, Louise Thorton (Janeane Garofolo), and for all their head-butting, Josh and Lou line up on most issues except the policy of negative ads. The public loves them, but they also hypocritically look down on the first nominee to slam the other. Lou knows that a slash-and-burn policy will give them such gains that the fickle tut-tutting of the electorate will fade quickly, but Josh sticks to conventional wisdom.

But then, nothing about Santos lines up with conventional wisdom. He may have the onus of proving himself, but he actually has it easy compared to Vinick, who makes gains in states that would almost never consider a Republican but also begins slipping in the strong block of Southern voters. Santos, then, has the luxury of making his own image without pressure from a major section of party supporters.

As with Obama, Santos sidesteps the negativity (and the negativity leveled at him) and targets the vein of betrayed optimism the voters always feel. Constantly vexing Josh and Lou by managing to say the least politically nonthreatening thing, Santos then sends their jaws to the floor again when he works his way out of the pit, delivering a speech that clarifies his stance until those most opposed are cowed and those on the fence are turned into wild believers. The biggest issue facing him is a racial one; just as Obama must tiptoe around any racial component to come across his desk, so too must Santos delicately handle the subject of a black teen shot by a Latino cop. But he finds a way to avoid defining himself as just "the Latino nominee" with a speech at the boy's funeral that avoids finger-pointing and finds a way to push for greater understanding without turning a young man's death into an excuse for a "Kumbaya."

Undoubtedly the centerpiece of the campaign storyline is "The Debate," which NBC aired live on the east and west coasts. Half-ingenious, half-unbearably awkward, "The Debate" strives for the feel of a real debate but breaks from the format instantly to let the nominees speak directly to each other and have an actual discussion rather than a regurgitation of talking points. When Alda and Smits get into, they are brilliantly, but everything surrounding them is just a haphazard ratings stunt, and the flimsy construction threatens to undo the episode before the two actors rescue it once more. Besides, the episode does succeed in painting a clear portrait of where the two split on their positions and how they approach each issue.

If Vinick and Santos look like equally valid choices to the show's audience, they also look like that way to the voters in The West Wing's diegesis, and the election comes down to a hair. Vinick manages to talk his way out of a near-meltdown of a nuclear plant he firmly supported by somehow promoting the virtues of nuclear energy when people are in a panic, salvaging an event that should have delivered the presidency to Santos in a hand basket. Santos, on the other hand, continues to prove himself, and he even gets the Republican on national security as he's still a reserve pilot in the Marines.

The rise of Santos makes up for the slow spiral of the Bartlet administration, which features majorly in episodes that suck the life out of the main storyline. Bartlet's middle daughter gets married, leading to a farcical in-White House wedding that fails as levity against the severity of the campaign and only exacerbates the lazy rewriting of most of the original cast into parodies of their former selves. Furthermore, the writers attempt to capitalize on the Valerie Plame scandal by introducing a White House leak of their own. But because this is Bartlet and not that pampered puppet who ceded control of the presidency to Dick Cheney, the leak goes from a petulant burning of a CIA operative as revenge against her anti-Iraq husband to a much more understandable release of information. With a group of astronauts stranded in space with dwindling oxygen, someone in the West Wing leaks knowledge of a secret military space plane that frees it up to be used in a rescue by removing the secret. There are military considerations, sure, but none on the level of blacklisting an intelligence agent and putting her sources in jeopardy. Many would sympathize with the decision, cutting out a great deal of dramatic weight when the person responsible -- or at least the person who confesses -- should be seen as a hero.

When election day nears, The West Wing hits a frenzied note that rivals the chaos of the most bewildering and tense moments of the show's early days. The strain of too many firm handshakes gives Vinick a hairline fracture, while sleep deprivation has Santos so on-edge he nearly snaps at his family with a sea of cameras nearby. The real life death of John Spencer forces the writers to deal with Leo McGarry, and an already tight election night compounds when Annabeth discovers his body in a hotel room before the polls close in Western states. The tension is unbearable, and when the final state pushes one nominee over the top, the results are not so much triumphant but relieving. At last, we can get some sleep, even if the characters can't.

That's the fatalistic humor of the last third of the show's season: after fighting so hard to get the presidency, the Santos crew now has to immediately start planning his first term. This should not come as a surprise, given that we spent years watching people like Josh frantically pace around the White House working for a sitting president, but the election proved so dramatically satisfying after the bloat of the rest of the Wells years (and even the end-run of Sorkin's time on the show) that it's shocking to remember that now the real work begins.

And so, the last days of The West Wing run out in quiet yet tireless terms, with the characters preparing for the next major shift and emotional closure amazingly coming from people who seemingly ran out of dramatic meaning long ago. The writers bring back long-lost characters like Sam Seaborn to show just how far the series has progressed, and without wishing to keep beating this horse, I wondered if the sudden welling of emotion I felt in the last few episodes was what I was supposed to feel with Lost's final hours. Though John Wells and some of his new writers seemingly did everything in their power to ruin the cast we came to know and love, they manage to achieve an elegiac view of the show as a whole. I may not have felt as deeply about Charlie, C.J. or Toby personally as I might had the series ended with its fourths season, but I felt an overall sense of loss leaving the Bartlet White House, and the tinge of desire I had to stick with Santos came with the understanding that it was better to let go. The West Wing allowed us all to imagine a world free of Bush during its run, but by the end, the allegory disappears and I was left mourning the show's loss and its loss alone.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Captain Beefheart — Lick My Decals Off, Baby

When he died Dec. 17 at the age of 69, Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, had not produced any music since 1982's Ice Cream for Crow. Nevertheless, his passing summoned an unlikely yet not unexpected outpouring from those who ignored him in life but found reader mileage in giving him tribute in death. Thankfully, he was not absorbed into the mainstream he shunned in the same way that his old buddy Frank Zappa was when he got induction into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame months after his own passing, but once January rolls around, I bet the odd name that most had never heard before will disappear from people's lips as quickly as it appeared.

Rather than eulogize the man, which would require a knowledge of the other forms of art he produced after retiring from music that I do not possess -- though that certainly has not stopped some -- I would like to honor one of the most advanced and original artists I have ever heard with a review of my favorite album of his, one fans embrace but the critical press often relegates to the heap in favor of the legendary Trout Mask Replica. Beefheart always was the kind of guy who would never be allowed more than a single shot at recognition anyway.

Yet Trout Mask Replica's follow-up, 1970's Lick My Decals Off, Baby, takes the fractals of avant-garde brilliance from Trout and hones them. It is still, first and foremost, a work that defies easy classification, but the sound is clearer now, the compositions more coherent. The opening title track bursts out of the gate with precise guitar lines and carefully controlled percussion, a shocking harmony that Beefheart shatters with his trademark yelps and growls when he jumps in with the lines, "I wanna lick you where it's pink/In everywhere you think," and the sheer force of his weirdness instantly breaks the band, who splinter into the carefully controlled chaos that is Beefheart's specialty.

Decals brings back the bluesier influence of Safe as Milk and mixes it with the off-the-wall genre blend of Trout Mask Replica, delighting in the unleashed id but retaining a soulfulness in its fitfully recalled Chicago blues that Beefheart could always command. By vocalizing not only Howlin' Wolf's pained growls but the hideous-beautiful squawks of Ornette Coleman's saxophone, Van Vliet unites the avant-garde with the traditional and direct, and his free-associative poetry likewise blends the abstract with the articulately real.

Where some artists might couch their libidos in double entendre and innuendo that usually isn't half as clever as people think, Beefheart lays it all out there, so blunt that his explicit and graphic descriptions of lewd acts and almost medical close-ups of genitalia loop around into interpretive metaphor. On the hilariously titled "I Wanna Find Me A Woman That'll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have To Go" -- the title is so long Van Vliet barely has time to speak the words and a few other lines before the song reaches its conclusion -- Beefheart never goes beyond the stated body part but fills the mind with obscene imagery simply through the suggestive properties of his sex-mad yelps.

Yet, by and large, Lick My Decals Off, Baby does not place primary focus on sex as Trout Mask Replica did. Instead, vaguely political, highly apocalyptic imagery abounds. The "parapliers" (sic) tugging on the sky in "Bellerin' Plain" send the heavens crashing down around a locomotive engineer who pumps coke into the furnace in a futile attempt to outpace the end of days -- besides, where could he go, trapped on those rails? "Petrified Forest" hones Beefheart's lyrics for a devastating attack on the world's polluters choking the planet and its inhabitants. And nothing sums up the rapidly mounting social terrors afflicting the United States and the world at the onset of the '70s like the terrifying lines of "The Buggy Boogie Woogie": "One day I was sweepin' down by the wall/I bumped a mama spider 'n the babies begin' to fall/Off o' my broom/Now I gotta keep on sweepin' 'n sweepin'/'fore they fill the room." With all this pressure weighing down on matters, it's no wonder the good captain so often retreats into the only safe haven available to him: the birth canal of the nearest willing woman.

Van Vliet composed much of the album on the piano, which poses something of a problem as he did not know how to play the instrument. But part of the charm and purity of Beefheart's recordings was his penchant for having his band play anything and assembling something from the cacophonous results. Apocryphal stories abound regarding Van Vliet's authoritarian touch with his bandmates, the most infamous of which concern his supposedly cult-like breaking of will during the months-long rehearsal for Trout Mask Replica. Whether Van Vliet psychologically tortured his crew depends mostly on whose memoir you read, but what is unquestionable is that he took his players' musical training and unmade it, showing them how to break every rule before refashioning the shattered pieces into something that makes music.

Where the brief snippets of Trout Mask Replica represented the sound of the breaking apart, Lick My Decals Off, Baby shows off the reconstruction. Bill Harkleroad a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo took the tapes of Van Vliet's haphazard piano sketches and helped assemble the "I Love You, Big Dummy" loses the melody before it even begins, but it still works as a rollicking blues number that hides a danceable beat somewhere in its collapsing squeal. The instrumentals -- the best of them being "Peon" -- could be mistaken for warm-ups if the tones of the clanking, atonal instruments did not carry a passion one doesn't put into scales.

Even the philistines who would dismiss Beefheart as yet another charlatan hiding behind random noise as art could not deny that the world lost an original satirist Dec. 17. With scant lines and even less coherence, Captain Beefheart could skewer anything, from the aforementioned polluters to the re-homogenization of the post-Love Generation nuclear family ("Space-Age Couple," all condescending jabs toward those who incorporated the progressive into the reactionary). But I feel we lost so much more with this artist, whose five-octave range never sounded so expressive as it does here. Lick My Decals Off, Baby represents the apotheosis of Van Vliet's output, aligning the music to the same dynamic range as the captain's hoots, hollers, shrieks, growls, purrs and whoops while offering the best of his sexual imagery and his sociopolitical observations. Following this album, Captain Beefheart would move his Magic Band into increasingly mainstream waters until he shoved too hard and trapped them in the No Man's Land between commerce and the avant-garde where no fan treads. Van Vliet would later pull them back from the brink with his last three albums, all of them magnificent, but they all lacked the spark contained in these early albums. With Lick My Decals Off, Baby, Captain Beefheart said all he could say, and that just so happened to be more than anyone else to come along in the intervening four decades.

True Grit (2010)

Mine eyes have seen the glory. The Coen brothers, smartass, shaggy-dog moralists, have stripped away even the bluff of their cynicism for their most straightforward, un-ironic film. Somehow, they ended up making one of their most meditative. Their update of True Grit continues their heightened commitment to moral reckoning of late, but the evocative (and deeply misunderstood) rumination of No Country for Old Men has given way to a message that is destined to be even more overlooked, precisely because it is hidden in plain sight, uncovered by the removal of irony.

Just as the filmmaking duo put Cormac McCarthy's anti-thriller on the screen with remarkable fealty, they adapt Charles Portis' novel faithfully, more faithfully than the 1969 film starring John Wayne. Portis' book is a light read, enjoyable but sprinkled with contradictions it never addresses. In sticking to the letter of the novel, the Coens transpose those issues and undermine them without turning the material against itself.

A revenge story, True Grit opens with an aural framing device as a middle-aged Mattie Ross remembers her father's death, the image filtering into clarity from a haze like an old but vivid memory being tapped. As the image sharpens, we see a man, Mattie's father, lying in a heap at the foot of his home as his murderer, a hired hand named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), rides away. The young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) heads to town to retrieve her father's body and setlle his affairs, and from the onset she comes across as shrewd beyond her 14 years. A trader uses her dad's demise as an excuse to make a quick buck, but she manages to sell back the final items her father bought from the man as well as some extra material of dubious ownership in a way that weakens the man as much as his malaria.

But her hardness carries a darker edge. Tracking the sheriff to inquire about Chaney's location, she witnesses a hanging and is unmoved by the sight of three men dropping until their necks snap. When the sheriff tells her that Chaney is out of his jurisdiction and that the U.S. Marshals will have to deal with him now, Mattie asks which Marshal she could hire. Of the ones mentioned, she settles on Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), whom the sheriff pointedly does not describe as the best man for the job but the meanest. Her drive impresses the washed-up drunk, as well as a Texas Ranger, LaBoeuf a.k.a. "La Beef" (Matt Damon), who pursues Chaney for the murder of a state senator back in his home state. Mattie insists that Chaney be hanged for killing her father and not some mere senator, a sly political statement but also one that reveals the myopic fury of her thirst for revenge.

Jeff Bridges, who received his "sorry we didn't get this to you sooner" Oscar earlier in the year for his performance in Crazy Heart, is still so alive and visceral that the joy of seeing him at last rewarded -- even with something as meaningless as an Academy Award -- is tempered by the fact that it symbolizes an atonement rather than a recognition that he still does magnificent work. I joked with friends that, as much as I've come to admire John Wayne, Bridges represented a significant upgrade. Yet it is in his desire to move away from Wayne's performance that Bridges does one of his few "acting" jobs, where you can actually catch him at the tricks he normally pulls off without ever trying. Bridges' take on Cogburn is nearly unintelligible, not only from his intoxicated mumble but in the not-all-there look in his one good eye. Wayne may not have been half the actor Bridges is, but he oozed charisma, and Bridges tries his damnedest to make the audience root for him while still undermining his own charm at every turn. It's a taxing job, but one he pulls off, as ever, brilliantly.

As much as Bridges' Cogburn is a murderous scoundrel, Mattie's support for him mirror's the audience's own, and she becomes the voice of the revenge-movie crowd. Cogburn instantly proves himself a lout, his slurred growl generating a host of laughs in the courtroom but also revealing a man who can casually kill a man under protection of the law. Mattie delights in his sadism, looking impressed when, stalking some bandits who might lead them to Chaney, Cogburn plans to plug one in the back with a rifle slug as a grim warning shot to the other gang members. Rooster is Western lawlessness, charismatic enough that he wins over the crowd, and Mattie, but so disgusting that whatever romanticism might have resided in the old, fat man's belly got vomited up during one of his many drinking spells. And still Mattie adores him, her loyalty only faltering when his alcoholism interferes with his violence. She literally cheers the spectacle of LaBoeuf and Cogburn killing others but, as with all action audiences inured to atrocity against humans, at last manages to spare emotion for the brief abuse of an animal.

The Coens never force this point, never turn True Grit into the explicit anti-Western styling of Dead Man. Playing it straight, they allow us to identify with Mattie -- a simple matter given the magnetic pull Steinfeld exerts on the audience -- and never pull the rug out from under us. Like an old Roadrunner cartoon, they simply wait for us to look down and realize we've run with Mattie right off a cliff, and that by looking down we suddenly let gravity kick back in. That they filter the voice of a primarily male audience through a young girl is but another facet of the subtlety with which they give the viewers enough rope to hang themselves.

That commitment to straight Western storytelling peppered with implication extends to the film's racial commentary: at the hanging Mattie attends at the start of the film, three man stand on the gallows. The middle sobs and begs for forgiveness for minutes, another does not repent but gets his say, but the Native American sentenced to die has a bag thrown over his head immediately, silencing him before he can orate. Cogburn never uses any slurs, but when he viciously kicks two Choctaw children off a trading post porch, Bridges puts the racism of John Wayne's West on display as clearly as it can be seen back in town where every black character is a servant to whom even Mattie lightly condescends. (I found it incredibly interesting that the audience burst into its loudest laughter at this child abuse.)

Roger Deakins' cinematography stresses earthen tones, highlighting the sickly yellow of fire and the brown of wooden structures. Deakins' immaculate deep focus certainly does not recall Robert Altman's hazy McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the color palette sure does. The Coens tell a more straightforward Western than Altman did, but both movies undercut the sense of individuality of the West and the moral code of law by starkly showing the true results of revenge and duels, where people end up dead and not a whole lot else can be said on the matter. Furthermore, both do not actually occur in the classic West -- McCabe is up in the Pacific Northwest, True Grit back in the novel's setting of Arkansas -- allowing for chilling snow flurries that only emphasize the cold remove of all the surrounding space.

I've learned not to underestimate the Coen brothers, who have made their fourth film in a row that breaks ranks from the previous entries even as they all share a loose thematic core. The comedy in the screenplay leans more toward the outright aburdist farce of Burn After Reading than the glacial chuckles of spiritual and existential doubt in A Serious Man. They hinder Damon with a lisp after an accident leaves La Boeuf's tongue half-severed, sabotaging every dramatic moment the actor gets with the mild comedy of his thick pronunciation. The usual odd touches litter the cast, from a kindly but screwy dentist-cum-mountain man Cogburn and Mattie encounter to a gibbering loon who rides with Tom's posse. But even these broad types play into the directors' statements on the aborrent bloodlust of the Old West: that gentle and amicable dentist casually mentions how much he'd like it if Cogburn could kill a man for him. This is a society that would rather see any innocent man hanged than a guilty one go free, if not to ensure that all culpable shall face punishment then to simply ensure some entertainment to break up the monotony. I laughed as much during True Grit as I have the Coens' finest comedies, but as with A Serious Man, those chuckles occasionally caught in the throat.

With respect to spoilers, all I will say about the ending of True Grit is that it elevates the Coens' penchant for anticlimactic endings into a direct commentary on the subject matter at hand. While the endings to other films may be frustratingly oblique and the Coens' joke on us, their carefully structuring here only reinforces the notion that revenge does not bring true satisfaction. The Mattie Ross who speaks to the audience in the framing device is a spinster, and the Coens use her aged voice to communicate from that start that, however this story plays out, it will not bring true closure; if it did, she would not feel the need to keep sharing it at age 40. The novel (and especially the 1969 film) support the quest for vengeance, but the Coens deconstruct that bloodlust by giving it to the audience, just as Quentin Tarantino savaged lingering fantasies of Jewish revenge by reveling in it for Inglourious Basterds. True Grit may be the most instantly enjoyable film the Coen brothers have made since, well, the last movie they made with Jeff Bridges, but hidden in that digestible entertainment is a devastating critique of most of the people lining up to see it.