Wednesday, February 29, 2012

50 Book Pledge #6: Philip Pullman — The Golden Compass

Having seen and quickly forgotten the decent 2007 adaptation of this book, I never got around to its source material, which is a shame because I would have treasured this as a teenager. An accessible fantasy book warning against religion, The Golden Compass could have helped my rough transition into atheism by giving me a storytelling backup, not merely the boring den of facts. And I must say, it's a fantastically swift read, even taking into account I'm an adult and this book can be easily read by children. The narrative momentum never falters in this first installment, and I more or less plunged headlong into the next installment the second I finished.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Brian De Palma: Redacted

The mainstream view of Brian De Palma's 2000s output is anything but flattering, with all four of his films made in the new millennium bowing to intense critical pans and commercial indifference. However, I've found his contemporary work to rank among his best. Mission to Mars captures the boundless enthusiasm (and unabashed cheesiness) of old Disney space adventures, shot to favor near-poetry over scientific accuracy and all the better for it. Femme Fatale threw people with its narrative mulligan, but it made the strongest case to date for the director's actual feelings for women, which are far more complex than the lazy accusations of misogyny that have dogged him for so long. The Black Dahlia is, if anything, the only one of De Palma's films that can even stand with Carlito's Way in terms of sheer aesthetic and Romantic beauty. Its sloppy elements and awkward acting choices only add to its deliberate, yet gentle, attack on Hollywood. It may also be the most neatly contextualized of De Palma's films in his strange canon, fitting neatly with the more formal, big-budget experiments and the uncompromising anti-mainstream tone of his '70s and '80s work.

Then there's Redacted. In 1989, De Palma made Casualties of War, one of his most sincere films and perhaps the only one to lack any postmodern flourishes. Redacted seeks to rectify this: it swaps Vietnam for Iraq and swaps the classical filmmaking of Casualties for a collage of styles and media. De Palma constructs his film as a hodgepodge of footage sources. The intent is clear: by stylistically and narratively repurposing Casulaties' true story of a rape and massacre being arduously brought to light, Redacted uses its own dramatization of real events to demonstrate that, in a war that can now be documented by anyone with a cell phone, truth has never been further from the public's grasp. If Casualties of War found worth, even moral victory in doing the right thing, Redacted nihilistically sees no point in even trying.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Brian De Palma: The Black Dahlia

Building off the moral investigation of film noir that characterized his Femme Fatale, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia is a grim, stylish examination of the whole genre, not merely one of its most vital foundations. An adaptation of a fictionalization of a real murder committed in Hollywood, The Black Dahlia is ripe for De Palma's approach, but his film is less a deconstruction than a demolition, its elegant, formalist structure nonetheless betraying jagged edges that rip apart film noir. At its face value, the film is perhaps the director's most aesthetically pleasing, with its golden hues and plunging shadows casting Hollywood as its own cinematized fantasy and nightmare. More importantly, however, it is easily De Palma's most profoundly disturbing film, as transgressive in its own way as Body Double, only more formal and emotional. Body Double assaults the senses, but The Black Dahlia hits where it hurts.

Narrated in terse, strained voiceover by Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett), The Black Dahlia feels like a noir from the start, even as it introduces its detectives via their alternate gig, boxers for the force. If Femme Fatale delved into the characteristic female type of noir, The Black Dahlia breaks down the male cop archetypes. We meet Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) as Mr. Ice and Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart) as "Mr. Fire," their accomplishments as police officers nothing more than mere fodder for hyping this exhibition match for the precinct. It casts the two as leading men not merely of the film but of its diegetic world, headliners revered for their crowd-pleasing qualities. This presentation fundamentally weakens the two men as serious police officers, but De Palma will spend the rest of the movie undermining them even more, digging into the grim, unheroic truths beneath their aesthetically captivating shells.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Robert K. Massie — Catherine the Great

This could have been a great text. Instead, it feels more like a very good introduction to Catherine II for middle schoolers, maybe high-school freshmen or sophomores. It is a genuinely engaging read, however, wonderfully paced and informative with the exception of one too many esoteric asides. Massie has a clear enthusiasm for the material that generally overpowers the nagging realization that he offers no particularly revealing insights on the subject. Overall I gave it a positive score, though I admit it made me look for superior biographies of one of Russia's most fascinating rulers (and therefore most fascinating rulers of any nation).

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Undefeated (Daniel Lindsay & T.J. Martin, 2012)

Undefeated doesn't reinvent the sports documentary, but it does add depth to the genre with an unyielding focus on the people over the game. I've never seen a sports doc care so little about the actual sport. Like Hoop Dreams (a film it uses as a clear template), Undefeated makes its subjects so dramatic that even this hater of all things sports wants so desperately to see them succeed. It's not a great movie, but Undefeated is nevertheless a fine documentary about the struggle to find some new hope in the wake of the death of the American Dream.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Steven Spielberg: Catch Me if You Can

The brilliant opening credits of Catch Me if You Can encapsulate the spirit and tenor of the film to follow with magnificent conciseness. Animated with the use of rubber stamps (an ingenious technique that only further ties the credits to the content of the actual movie), Olivier Kuntzel's and Florence Deygas' title design renders Spielberg's most delicate film into a brief summary of plot and direction. The credits have a tremendous flow and momentum to them, the words forming in elegant typography, lines always continuing until they form the next credit. The animation has the same unceasing inertia, with the frame shifting horizontally and vertically as the stamped silhouette of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) evades FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Buoyed by John Williams' own '60s throwback, a light but still dramatic score, these first minutes are so memorable that I recalled them instantly after not seeing the film in years, while so much of the actual story had faded.

Watching Catch Me if You Can again, however, made me wonder how I'd let it sink in my estimation. It's an undeniably light work, perhaps Spielberg's lightest since The Sugarland Express, his first theatrical film. But it's also the first of his movies since then to truly work as a comedy, to still operate on the formal, large scale of his typical work but also generate character-driven, intimate humor woefully absent in, say, 1941. So delicate is Spielberg's craft here, so unlike his typical populist stylist of overwhelming spectacle, that it can be easy to miss that the film, like The Sugarland Express, is actually a drama. In fact, it may be the most elegant summary of some of Spielberg's pet themes of childhood innocence and distanced parenthood. That it is so funny only reveals frustratingly unexplored depths to Spielberg's storytelling capacity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Michael (Markus Schleinzer, 2012)

The latest filmmaker to springboard off of working for Michael Haneke into a solo career, Markus Schleinzer tries to copy his boss' skill and fails miserably. An arch, removed take on the horror of a child molester, Michael attempts to be shocking by removing the shock and ends up failing to make any impact at all. It's times like this I'd rather be offended. At least if I'm offended, I'm engaged on some level, and maybe even being implicated in social horrors. Instead, I had to watch Schleinzer try to construct a routine around evil to make it banal. Well, he succeeded, I guess.

Check out my full review now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Steven Spielberg: Minority Report

Filmed from March to July 2001, Minority Report was not influenced by the September 11 attacks later that year, yet retrospectively it seems the first of Steven Spielberg's attempts to grapple with the aftermath of the tragedy. A neo-noir in which crime is committed and prosecuted in the mind, Minority Report proves disturbingly prescient in its vision of a world in which murder is punished preemptively. Though based on an even older Philip K. Dick story, the film feels like the meeting point of the Patriot Act and the impetus for the Iraq invasion, albeit the focus lies not on wars and national defense but mere law enforcement. As the PSAs encouraging support for a national PreCrime system argue to the people, "That which keeps us safe also keeps us free."

Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) believes that motto with all his heart. Having lost his son years ago to an unknown kidnapper/murderer, John looks at PreCrime as a way to prevent such pain from afflicting anyone else. Using a trio of genetically engineered psychics to predict when murders will occur and who the perpetrators and victims will be, Anderton and the rest of Washington D.C.'s unit have reduced the murder rate in one of America's most violent cities to zero. The resultant utopia resembles that of Demolition Man: exceedingly bright and almost eerily calm. Only where Demolition Man presented its peace as the product of nanny-state liberalism, Minority Report shows how instant detention has cleared the streets.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, 2012)

Haywire displays nearly all the traits of a modern Steven Soderbergh movie. It sports an A-list cast seemingly game for anything. It jet sets all over the world even though it hardly needs to, suggesting that the director A) insists on verisimilitude, B) loves studio-paid vacations, or C) both. Its shallow-focus digital cinematography creates paranoid, claustrophobic frames of doubt and suspicion; Haywire even opens with such abstracted, zoomed-in pixellation that the text telling the audience they're watching upstate New York simply must be a gag. And as with the cast of Bubble and Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire features a non-professional actor anchoring the action, in this case retired MMA fighter Gina Carano.

The film also works as the latest in Soderbergh's never-ending line of genre deconstructions. Despite its lean running time of 93 minutes, Haywire leaves gulfs of space around its revenge plot, Lem Dobbs' script asymptotically approaching exposition, only to flatline in vagueness before reaching it. Dobbs, of course, wrote the screenplays for Soderbergh's Kafka and, somewhat infamously, The Limey. Given the amount of dialogue, it stands to reason more of Dobbs' words remain here than in Soderbergh's masterfully elliptical anti-thriller, but Haywire nevertheless shares many qualities with the director's best film. Both are action thrillers that dismantle the conventions of their niches within the genre, finding beauty and agony in the all-too-single-minded attitudes of so many of these films.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

50 Book Pledge #5: Albert Camus — The Stranger

A short novel, but the way Camus writes, it'd breeze by at six times the length. His spare style nevertheless burrows deep into his cryptic protagonist, to the point that it contains ideas well beyond existentialism. A clear absurdist streak marks the meaningless progression of events that occur to Monsieur Meursault, who nihilistically recognizes their meaninglessness despite the occasional, wistful desire to connect with something. Matthew Ward's translation is, I believe, now the standard (for such a relatively recent translation, it is ubiquitous as the default English version), but it's easy to see why. He Americanizes much of the text while still leaving a few crucial words untranslated, especially "Maman," which he rightly ascribes a significance that "Mother" would not convey the same way. I had no excuse for not reading this, and it delighted me through the depression it gave me. In that sense, it's not unlike Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, a (dis)similarly bleak novella that manages to capture a multifaceted worldview and nuanced emotional palette with scarcely more than a hundred pages.

50 Book Pledge #4: Robert K. Massie — Catherine the Great

I can't really talk about this at present, as I'm meant to review this intriguing but occasionally narrow-minded biography for Spectrum Culture. Suffice to say, Massie's enthusiasm for Russian history is clear even without prior knowledge of his other books on various Russian leaders, and I am always both amused and deeply troubled to see just how eerily history constantly repeats itself in this vast, tortured country. Massie routinely compares Catherine's rule to the other "great" tsar, Peter, but he could just as easily have linked elements of her reign and some reactions to it to the Bolshevik revolution, even Stalinism. I'll have more to say about the book later, but for now I'll just leave you with a timid endorsement. I'll make my reservations (and compliments) plain near the end of the month.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Brian De Palma: Femme Fatale

After the reception of Mission to Mars took some of the wind out of De Palma's sails, Femme Fatale represented a more modestly scaled return to the director's well of head-trip thrillers. But fresh off the (perceived) defeat of his least ironic bid for a winsomely broad-audience movie, De Palma came up with what may be his densest, most complex work. Taking a page from the Body Double-esque travesty he trotted out every few years since that 1984 masterpiece to remind everyone who's boss, Femme Fatale is defiantly nonsensical and deliberately self-annihilating. Like all the rest of the pure style exercises the director's made since Body Double, Femme Fatale doesn't reach the same heights of anarchic frenzy, but De Palma makes a key choice to move away from mere stylistic flourishes to try to make his flashy neo-noir say something.

Femme Fatale follows Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn), who embodies the titular concept to such a pure degree that the first we see of her is a reflection of her face in a television as she watches one of the quintessential femme fatale movies, Double Indemnity. By the end of the extended and wild opening, she's already seduced a woman and double-crossed her gang of dangerous criminals, and she'll only prove more manipulative from there. But even as De Palma brings out the distilled essence of that character type's destructive properties, he also contextualizes it with equally outsized depictions of the misogyny that surrounds such a character. The head of the criminals she works with at the start (Eriq Ebouaney) slaps her before their mission even begins, and I don't think he ever once so much as refers to Laure throughout the film without using the term "bitch." De Palma, who fielded accusations of misogyny throughout the '80s, makes Black Tie's vulgar harassments so unpleasant that he makes clear his disdain for the masculine brutality that drives so many of his characters. De Palma the offense-baiting provocateur this is not.

Albert Nobbs (Rodrigo Garcia, 2011)

Well, Albert Nobbs could have been worse, I guess. It could have been offensively opinionated about gender identity and made a play for a typical Hollywood lesson about understanding founded upon deep ignorance. Instead, it's just tedious and dramatically inert, with no suspense of Albert being found out and no passion behind his life goals. I can't imagine why Glenn Close should have been so enamored with this story as to have fought for three decades to bring it to the screen, nor how that length of time could have birthed so simplistic and half-formed a screenplay. I've already forgotten practically everything but Janet McTeer, who makes the film almost watchable every second she's on-screen.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.