Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I'm way behind #21: American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Who the hell is David O. Russell? I'm confused. Does he have an identity crisis as a director or is it my problem? I can't find much stylistic or thematic connective tissue between his various films, and though I tend to be entertained by his work, I'm skeptical of the praise he gets. He's a fairly good mimic, has a nice touch with actors (when he's not screaming obscenities at them, throwing tantrums, and getting punched by them), and is a natural entertainer, but is there a strong point of view and personality there?
Just look at the body of work. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a dark comedy/drama about a college kid home for the summer who has an incestuous relationship with his mother. If my hazy memory is correct, the movie fits pretty comfortably in the '90s indie youth movie template with its pop culture dialogue, teen angst, and forced transgressive subject matter. He followed it with Flirting with Disaster, a screwball comedy heavily indebted to Woody Allen; Three Kings, an action-adventure/political satire hybrid that was much more visually stylized than his previous work; I Heart Huckabees, a derivatively ambitious but ill-fated attempt to make a Charlie Kaufman movie without Charlie Kaufman; The Fighter, a gritty '70s-style drama/biopic about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his large, screwed-up family; Silver Linings Playbook, an overly sentimental but cute clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet street drama and Frank Capra meets Howard Hawks romantic comedy; and American Hustle, his watered-down, easy on the blood version of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, my question. Who the hell is this guy?
I was entertained by American Hustle without being moved, and it barely lingered in my memory afterward. Before I get into why that might be, I've got a few other bones to pick. The first is not Russell's fault, so maybe I should let it slide, but this is my blog and I feel like complaining about it. Mainstream critical consensus about this film was pretty favorable, with many newspaper and television critics calling it one of the best of the year. I disagree, but they're entitled to their boring, predictable groupthink. (I love everybody.) What stuck in my craw was the way so many critics used this film as a cudgel to beat Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. More than one critic actually wrote that Russell "out-Scorseses Scorsese." I'm speculating, but I think too many newspaper and TV critics are lazy viewers dazzled by wigs and hit songs, and they like films that pretend to grapple with a serious subject while actually offering easily digestible flash and candy. The flash and candy films make you think you've thought about something or had some kind of intimate experience without all that troubling self-examination and conscience rustling.
Let me get down from that soapbox and step on another one. There's a real arrogance to calling a film "American _____," but that hasn't stopped a boatload of middlebrow filmmakers from doing it. Intentionally or not, if you call your movie "American Blank," you're making a claim that your film has captured something vital about a feeling, attitude, behavior, fantasy, dream, etc., of an entire country, when usually, you've just captured something obvious about upper middle class white suburban families or sexy white teens or attractive crime film cliches (American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Gangster). (Notable exception: American Ninja really captures the U.S. ninja experience, in all its multiplicity.) Or maybe you feel you're approaching your film's subject in a particularly American way when you're just offering more Hollywood provincialism. Sometimes, it's warranted (American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's comic of the same name, Chris Smith's double whammy of American Job and American Movie), but most often, it comes across as hubris.
Playing devil's advocate with myself (that sounds dirty), though, I can see American Hustle capturing at least a partial tenor of the times. What with all this Throwback Thursday business and popular music and fashion and advertising constantly repurposing '70s and '80s and '90s culture, the film's overbaked period '70s setting and its exaggerated wigs and clothes and wall-to-wall '70s radio hit jukebox clowncar soundtrack exemplify this country's cultural obsession with nostalgia. And Russell's attempt at a '90s Scorsese/P.T. Anderson gliding-camera, music-packed, stable-of-favored-actors ensemble sprawl is a classic American move, an I-like-that-successful-thing-I-will-make-my-own-cheap-knockoff party.
It's such a thin film compared to the work of Scorsese or Anderson, but it's fun. While those guys use carefully chosen music as point, counterpoint, and commentary about the characters and events in their films, Russell inelegantly throws a nonstop barrage of big hits from the period at the screen as an easy way to churn up emotion, nostalgia, pep, and entertainment. It's fun. The cameo from Robert De Niro is way too on the nose, but it's fun. I'm still not sure what I think of Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, for all the praise she got for this part, is pretty wasted here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Louis C.K. in their roles. This movie, it's fun. That's all it is, though, with plenty of self-importance and peacock-feather pomp sitting on top like donut sprinkles. It's candy pretending to be a meal.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I'm way behind #20: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Ever since I was a small child, I've had a penchant for melancholy. Melancholy is where the compass points when I'm at ease, it's the homeroom of the junior high in my brain, the homepage of my emotional Internet. In addition to my terminal case of melancholia, I'm self-involved, I'm creative but I lack ambition, and I'm generally unsuccessful in most personal and professional endeavors. I eat a lot of shit in this life. Some of it's my own fault, some of it's not. And that's who I am, boiled down to a thin generalized colorless broth. Maybe this explains my strong connection and attraction to the point of view and tone of the most recent Coen Brothers film, and maybe that's why I was so taken aback by friends and acquaintances who called Inside Llewyn Davis depressing and by critics who characterized the title character as an unlikable jerk.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a first-impression culture, and the film is hardly sunshine and lollipops, but I just can't relate to these reactions. Yes, the film is melancholy, with a mournful, autumnal quality to the cinematography, and many of the characters carry sadness, bitterness, and anger with them like a security blanket. And, yes, Llewyn Davis eats a lot of shit, which is sometimes his fault and sometimes not, and he can be selfish, self-absorbed, and cranky, but he's got plenty of good qualities, not least of which is his stoic acceptance of all that shit-eating while he carries on doing what he does. In this determination to continue, Llewyn Davis is an unconventionally optimistic figure, and the Coens are unconventionally optimistic filmmakers. They know the odds are not generally in our favor, they know the world is an uncaring place, they know that bad stuff is going to happen and happen often, and they know that even the best of us are fools, but surrounding that pessimistic landscape is an optimistic frame of great humor, determination, and a what-the-hell-else-are-we-going-to-do acceptance. Their films remind me of my grandfather's dog Jake (he should have acted in one of their movies), a grouchy, ill-tempered, heart-of-gold mutt with an overbite and fur that looked and felt exactly like steel wool. Jake refused to die on multiple occasions out of stubborn determination. Every glance at Jake was accompanied by a complicated swirl of emotions and opinions, a casserole of fear, affection, admiration, trepidation, pity, and humor. He was ridiculous and funny to look at and to think about, but he was often in on the joke. (The films are quite a bit more visually elegant than that dog, but you get the idea.)
The Coens are often accused by detractors of looking down on their characters and whipping up a smug superiority in their audiences by encouraging them to laugh at the buffoons up on the screen. In a few of their weaker films, this is uncomfortably close to being true, but I generally tend to disagree with this criticism. They've populated their films with a complex variety of characters and encouraged a diverse range of responses, reserving their largest stores of warmth and affection for the most buffoonish. When we laugh at a Coen character, we're laughing at parts of ourselves, and though there is a distance between their characters and the audience, it's not a distance that separates them from their humanness. The Coens aren't particularly emotional filmmakers, and there's a control-freak aspect to their formal style (especially in the early films), but they're not cold, either. They clearly love their actors, and there's always an element of real human emotion and experience in every character, even the most exaggerated and cartoonish. (Anton Chigurh is a big exception in No Country for Old Men, though his narrative function is to draw all-too-human reactions from everyone else). Inside Llewyn Davis feels like one of their most human, direct films, without the cartoon exaggerations or genre-exercise layers of protection they often put between themselves and their audience.
Set in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured (and sometimes hindered) Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio, et al., Inside Llewyn Davis takes its overcast autumn cinematography from Dylan's Freewheelin' cover and several of Llewyn's experiences from Van Ronk's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Music is integral to the film, but it's not an inside-baseball, record-collector's movie. I think it's a film about how to manage the day-to-day minutiae of living while dealing with grief and about how much indignity and shit-eating you have to endure if you want to pursue a career in music (or any of the arts) and you're not a huge success. This may sound like a drag to watch, but it isn't. The film is very funny, full of good music, tightly constructed, and sensitively and entertainingly performed.
Oscar Isaac, an actor I'm not very familiar with, is particularly sensitive and entertaining as Llewyn. He's an atypical main character for the Coens upon first impression, lacking the gregariousness, loquaciousness, goofiness, menace, ulterior motives, charismatic likability, and/or delusional charm of most of their leads, but, in subtle ways, he fits comfortably into the brothers' gallery of creations. He shares some of the put-upon stoicism and quiet exasperation of Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, and Jeff Bridges in True Grit. He also shares character traits, circumstances, and challenges with the title characters of the Coens' two other most pronouncedly culturally Jewish films (of which Inside Llewyn Davis is the third), Barton Fink and A Serious Man.
In those films, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik contend with setbacks in their careers, bad luck and misfortune thrown at them by a dark and uncaring world, and struggles and clashes with fellow members of their cultural and Jewish communities. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist trying to succeed creatively who butts heads with the commerce- and entertainment-minded people who run the business side of things, and his prickly disposition makes him few friends. Like Larry, Llewyn is a sharp guy who's in over his head when life pummels him with random acts of misfortune and indignity. There are some sharp differences, though. Barton is a bit of a fraud, a pompous, pretentious pseudo-intellectual who condescends to and barely understands the working classes he considers it his leftist duty to write about while Llewyn is a genuine talent with a deep love of the music he plays. Barton compromises his ethics by writing a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery while Llewyn suffers many indignities by choosing to go his own way. Larry Gopnik, meanwhile, is a far more frenetic and neurotic character than Llewyn, desperately wanting to know why he's being tested while Llewyn sighs, groans, and accepts it.  It's also important to note that Llewyn is a solo artist because his former singing partner has recently committed suicide. Llewyn's grief is never overt, but it informs and haunts the entire film. He's carrying a burden that Barton and Larry don't have yet.
Tonally, as well, Inside Llewyn Davis is a far different film than Barton Fink and A Serious Man. While all three films play as fables, the earlier two are comedies so black they approach horror. They come across as nightmares, and they share a kinship with the early films of Roman Polanski. Inside Llewyn Davis is more naturalistic, more pragmatic, with characters that have stopped asking "why me?" and just continued on, but it's also dreamier, floatier, emotion and atmosphere turned into narrative structure. The film's cyclical narrative can be read as a pessimistic loop Llewyn is forever trapped in, as a flashback explaining what happened in the opening scene, or as a message finally making itself known to Llewyn, a message that could propel him out of the rut he's stuck in, an agent of change masquerading as avenging husband kicking Llewyn's ass for mocking his folk singer wife in a misdirected moment of drunken anger while Bob Dylan takes the stage for his debut. Your own disposition will make that choice for you.
The Coens have been on an incredible roll lately, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites of both this phase of their careers and the whole filmography. I talked about Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, but the whole supporting cast delivers here, with special kudos to Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Llewyn's patrons, and the welcome return of John Goodman to a Coen Brothers film, as a sour-tempered heroin-addicted jazz musician who shares a fraught road trip to Chicago with Llewyn. As a cat lover, I also need to mention the enjoyable presence of a very expressive cat (maybe two cats). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures a look, mood, and feel that nails the tricky tone of period accuracy, drama and comedy, pragmatic reality and dreamlike reverie. I love this movie. It's not depressing and Llewyn Davis is not a jerk. Well, not entirely a jerk. He has his moments.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942-2014

There remains a big pile of Hoskins performances I still need to watch (including his work in British television, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, the latter seemingly permanently trapped in distribution limbo in this country), but I can recommend his work in the following movies (he's pretty good in Nixon, too, but I have an intense dislike of Oliver Stone, so I can't recommend it):

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Pink Floyd The Wall (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Brazil (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm way behind #19: Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)

I stopped mentioning my admiration of Abel Ferrara's films in the company of friends and acquaintances years ago. Too often, the simple mention of his name elicited groans, while my favorite Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant, was dismissed with a single phrase ("Ugh! Harvey Keitel's penis!"), and I took it personally. (I always take it personally. My shit list is longer than twelve Bibles.) I can understand some of the resistance. Ferrara is not afraid to be uneven, messy, embarrassing, indulgent, pretentious, filthy, naive, silly, and, on rare occasions, boring. Even my favorite Ferrara films have awkward scenes, cringe-inducing moments. But just as often, Ferrara's films are full of memorable images, wildness, freedom, beauty, committed performance, intensity, transcendent strangeness, faith, humor, energy, thoughtfulness, and a fragile stillness. Ferrara's strengths and weaknesses share internal organs and blood. You can't separate them from each other, and the embarrassment you'll sometimes feel is just the fee required to take the ride. These are honest films, made by a guy who doesn't lie about himself. He may exaggerate, he may digress, he may go down some dead ends sometimes, but he doesn't lie, and he doesn't condescend. He's right there with his characters and locations, not above them, not below them, not laughing at them, not talking down to them, not using them to make arguments about how we should or shouldn't live our lives. He gets his hands dirty.
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
Like another volatile New York cocktail of art and exploitation, Taxi Driver, Ms. 45 is a marriage of sensibilities between four strong personalities: a director, a screenwriter, an actor, and a composer. In Taxi Driver's case, it's Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann (who died the day he finished the score). In Ms. 45, Ferrara's compadres are Nicholas St. John, screenwriter on almost every Ferrara film between the years 1971 and 1996 (the year he left movies behind to purposefully disappear into anonymity -- Internet rumors find him as either a Catholic monk or an eighth grade teacher in the New York City public school system), Zoe Tamerlis/Lund in the leading role (her first), and Joe Delia, supplying the tense, punky, saxophone-heavy score.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
After her attacker flees, Thana slowly regains her composure and walks home. She surprises a thief who has broken into her apartment while she was at work. The thief, unaware of what just happened to her, takes advantage of the situation and attempts to rape Thana. Facing her second sexual assault in a matter of minutes, Thana gains control of the situation, murdering her assailant when he lets his guard down. Thana cuts up her attacker's body in the bathtub, placing the parts in garbage bags she stores in her refrigerator, and keeping his .45. Though suffering from nightmares and hallucinations about her first attacker, Thana takes the gun and hits the streets, murdering lechers, catcallers, sexist creeps, and potential rapists. These scenes have a darkly comic edge, with Ferrara and St. John populating New York with only terrible men, no good ones, and Tamerlis/Lund gender-reversing the Charles Bronson role in meting out justice to as many of them as she can. Tamerlis/Lund's expressive face, gestures, and movements fill the screen, her charismatic, dialogue-free performance creating a fuller, more complex character than most movies where the leads never shut up.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm way behind #18: Bastards (Claire Denis)

While skimming a few recent interviews with Claire Denis on the Internet, I was probably more shocked than I should have been to read that the writer/director was 67 years old. I knew her career trajectory. I knew that Denis didn't direct her first film until she was in her early forties, in the late 1980s, and I knew she'd been an assistant director and occasional casting director for 15 years before making her own films. (She was the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and worked as an assistant director for Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Clive Donner, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, among others.) Her age shouldn't have jumped up and bit me so fiercely, but there are a few reasons why it did. Generally, her films have so much energy, creativity, curiosity, and openness to experience they feel like the work of someone much younger (minus the naivete). More personally and selfishly, her age made me realize there will be a finite number of Claire Denis films, and a finite Claire Denis. She is at or near the top of my list of favorite living filmmakers, and I want her to keep making films forever, or at least as long as I'm still breathing.
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
Which brings me to Bastards. This may be the toughest Denis film to love, because what it shows us is so painful and dark, and because it denies us any light. Denis has called this film a response to the parade of films in which characters commit terrible acts of violence, abuse, and atrocity but find redemption in the end. Denis says redemption is an invention of the movies, and she wanted to make a film that challenged that trope. Oh man, is Bastards that film.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest. 
Lindon plays Marco, a sailor called back to Paris for a family crisis. His younger sister's family is falling apart. His brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenage niece is in the hospital after suffering a sexual assault that saw her drugged and wandering nude in the street. His sister tells him the family business has fallen apart, thanks to unscrupulous behavior by an investor and partner named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman with political connections. Marco has vague plans for revenge and moves into the same apartment complex as Laporte's mistress and illegitimate son. He begins a relationship with the mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and does some digging to find out what happened to his niece, his brother-in-law, and the family business. What he discovers is dark, terrible, and close to home.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.

I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Alain Resnais 1922-2014

Alain Resnais, one of the youngest 91-year-olds ever, is gone, leaving just Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Rivette standing as the last of the French New Wave filmmakers still making vital art (if I'm forgetting anyone, please correct me). Like a lot of my favorite filmmakers, Resnais' work was difficult for me to enter into upon first contact, and I found his two most famous films, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, easier to admire than enjoy. Exposure to more of his films turned that admiration to full-blown love, and once again I have to get used to a world where all my heroes are dying and being replaced by superficial, materialist careerists afraid of imagination, ideas, and emotion. (I've renewed my love affair with pessimism in recent weeks. Talk to me several months from now, and I may retract the previous sentence, or at least qualify it.)

Night and Fog (1955)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Muriel (1963)
Stavisky... (1974)
Providence (1977)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)
Same Old Song (1997)
Wild Grass (2009)

Any omissions above are absent only because I haven't seen them yet.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm way behind #17: Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's best and most satisfying film since 1999's Election, and his most visually expressive. I've enjoyed his other four features (Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), with reservations both minor and major depending on the project, but Nebraska, like Election, strikes me as an almost wholly successful marriage of content and form, character and story, and personal point of view and its visual expression.
While Nebraska sees Payne return to the familiar territory of his home state (and mine), in most other ways the film is a step away from his comfort zone. It's his first film in black and white, his first to be shot digitally, his first film not based on a novel since his debut (Citizen Ruth) in 1996, and, perhaps most importantly, his first film without a credit as one of the screenwriters. (His first four films were written with Jim Taylor, and his last with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) Though it may seem an odd statement coming from a guy who prefers directors who also write their films, I sometimes think filmmakers can benefit from taking a step away from the writing process once in a while as a way to change stale patterns, take on new challenges, and devote more time to the visual, structural, and performance aspects of their work. Payne made huge strides as a visual stylist with The Descendants, but the screenplay was mushy. Here, working from an original screenplay by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne reconnects with the foundational aspects of his body of work and its subjects and obsessions.
A father/son road trip movie that takes its two leads from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska but spends most of its time in the fictional rural town of Hawthorne (several small towns near Lincoln provide locations), Nebraska is either a comedy made from the parts of drama, with the humor coming from nearly every character playing the straight man, or a drama carved out of the inherent comedy of human wants, needs, and behavior. Payne's actors nail the tone, and they actually look and sound like people from the Great Plains chunk of the Midwest (well, some of them really are). Payne was pressured by the studio to put big movie stars in the film and make it in color, which would have turned it into a cartoon. He stuck to his plan, though a color print was also struck to keep the studio off his back. (Payne says he hopes that version never sees the light of day.) Instead of bright, shiny movie stars and their gigantic personality machines, Payne's leads are veteran character actors Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, given deservedly meatier parts than they've had in years, and comedic actors Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in straightforward, serious performances where the laughs mostly come from their practical responses to ridiculous situations. Payne also brings back June Squibb (About Schmidt), a stage actress whose film career primarily consists of bit parts, as Dern's foulmouthed wife. A mix of character actors and nonprofessional locals make up the smaller parts.
The fictional town of Hawthorne, in size, demographics, and conversational preoccupation, is very much like the rural Nebraska town where I spent the first 18 years of my life and very much like the nearby town where my father currently lives. So much of what I see, and never see in movies, when I go back home is depicted accurately in this film. A scarcity of young people, a handful of businesses, distrust of foreign cars, conversations about how long it takes to drive to different places and quibbles over mundane details about fellow townspeople past and present in front of television sets, newspapers run by elderly couples, bars full of people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, the simple pleasure of sitting in the front yard watching cars go by, the inflated value placed on exaggerated hypermasculinity by the young men who stay in the town, restaurants with no decor, the cordially friendly distrust and mutual suspicion between Catholics and Protestants, the ghosts of prosperity and the small-farm era, the uneasy balance between gossip-fueled judgment and kindhearted neighborly community, the unadorned beauty of the country.
I've read critics from large cities and both coasts who think Payne is laughing at the expense of his characters, and I can understand that misconception. As someone intimately familiar with what Payne (from Omaha, but interested in the entire state) and screenwriter Nelson (from South Dakota, but raised in rural Nebraska) are showing in this film, I don't see that condescension or elitism. There is a sadness, an unintentional humor, a dignity, a pettiness, and a ridiculousness all sharing space in the lives of any human being, but small, rural towns have their own highly specific version of this combination. Payne nails it visually, and Nelson writes it as only a native could. It's almost never captured on screen, and the fact that it has been captured here is valuable to me, and I hope to others who share my background. Small towns in films are usually depicted as havens of cornball virtue, backwoods horror shows full of inbred cretins, or conventionally strange suburban-sanitary fantasylands populated by harmlessly "quirky," nonthreatening eccentrics. This one rings true.
If the film were just an accurate portrayal of a segment of small-town life, I wouldn't be praising it quite so highly, but it's equally impressive in its visuals and narrative structure. Payne here has captured some of the feel of a black and white John Ford film in a modern context, as well as Peter Bogdanovich's Ford-influenced black and white 1970s films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (Before any cinephiles jump all over me, I'm not suggesting an equivalency. John Ford is a master and Payne is simply a really good director, but if the reputation of William Shakespeare can survive all the comparisons to Oliver Stone (gag, vomit) when Nixon was released, the reputation of Ford can handle a comparison to Payne's film.) Ford's films often portrayed uncertain journeys undertaken by stoic men of few words, with deceptively simple shots and camera movements that contained great thematic weight and visual expressiveness. In Payne's 2013 update, the journey is uncertain, the men only say what they have to say, and the camera is deceptively simple yet expressive and tied to the narrative, but Ford's wagon trains, army camps, shanty towns, Monument Valley rock formations, teepees, rivers, and Western towns have been replaced by cheap apartments, small Midwestern houses, a speaker store in a strip mall, bars, pickup trucks, and nondescript restaurants and karaoke bars, and his outdoor vistas and horizons have been replaced by the faces of Dern, Forte, and Keach. And in using Dern and Keach and echoing Bogdanovich's echo of Ford, Payne also reminds us of how influential the key American films of the 1970s have been on his own work, and how that influence haunts the current cinema's CGI/teenage boy fixation like this film's setting and characters are haunted by their pasts. Dern and Keach never went away, and always do great work when they get the chance, but they got their best opportunities in the last decade when mainstream American films took chances and went after adult audiences: the '70s. (Since The Sopranos, television has since picked up the slack.) That history is all over their faces, and it adds a layer of authenticity, lived experience, thematic weight, and authority to what was already a very fine film.

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