Monday, August 26, 2013

I'm way behind #3: At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)

At Any Price is a disappointing stumble for New York-based, North Carolina-raised filmmaker Ramin Bahrani, especially after the leap forward that was his last film, 2008's Goodbye Solo. I hope it's a temporary aberration and not the first act of a sad decline. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
Bahrani, the first-generation American son of Iranian immigrants, made three features of increasing excellence and the endearingly oddball comedic short Plastic Bag (with Werner Herzog as the voice of a plastic bag and music by a member of Sigur Ros) before the conventional, overheated At Any Price got the better of him, and it's been a pleasure to follow his career over the last eight years. His promising first two films, Man Push Cart, about a former Pakistani pop star struggling to make ends meet in Manhattan with his coffee and bagel cart, and the Italian neo-realist-inspired Chop Shop, about a couple of teenage orphans living above and working in the auto repair shops and scrapyards of the Willets Point area of Queens, made me take notice. They were good films with minor flaws, and they gave me the sense that Bahrani would have some great films ahead of him once he acquired a little age and experience.
The first (hopefully not the last) great Bahrani film appeared in 2008. The filmmaker returned to his home state of North Carolina for Goodbye Solo, a sad, funny, and visually beautiful story about a complex friendship between a Senegalese immigrant cab driver named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) and one of his fares in Winston-Salem, William (Red West, an actor, songwriter, and stuntman most famous for being an integral part of Elvis Presley's Memphis Mafia as a driver, bodyguard, songwriter, and close friend).
While that film ended with a hypnotic but emotionally intense, nearly dialogue-free, formally gorgeous long scene in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains that relied on the composition of images, the landscape, the characters' faces, and meditative silence to tell the end of the story, At Any Price is full of long speeches, melodramatic outbursts, soapbox preaching, and a plot full of soap operatic twists and turns. The story of an Iowa farm family, the Whipples, and their ambitious patriarch Henry (Dennis Quaid), who has turned a small but successful family farm into a large agribusiness machine, the film is a confused mix of puffed-up melodrama and rural slice-of-life. Quaid's ready for his grown sons to enter the family business, but the unseen prodigal son is inexplicably climbing mountains in Argentina (his letters home, read in voice-over, provide some of the film's most ridiculous low points) and the younger son, Dean (Zac Efron) is more interested in breaking into NASCAR, getting into trouble with his redneck friends, taking his smart but younger girlfriend Cadence (the excellent Maika Monroe) for granted, and brooding and sulking in attempts to cultivate his sensitive bad-boy image. Meanwhile, Heather Graham has a thankless, one-note role as a former teen beauty stuck in her Iowa hometown who now sleeps with everyone, including Henry and Dean. Kim Dickens is the suffering, noble wife and mother. Clancy Brown is Henry's agribusiness competition, and Red West (thank god for Red West) is Henry's hard-assed, distant dad. We start at this fever-pitch of melodrama, and rev it up from there.
What happened? Look at how evocative the titles of Bahrani's previous films are. Then look at the flat, generic title of this one. Look at how Bahrani wrote his previous films either alone or with a friend and how he wrote this one with a professional writer. Look at how he swapped his casts of nonprofessionals and offbeat character actors for this cast of Hollywood pros. Look at how his previous films' visual palette gives way to the flat, anonymous look of this movie.
I will give Bahrani some credit. This is a disappointingly conventional film, but the conventions Bahrani follows here are currently unfashionable and unusual. The template for At Any Price is a combination of '50s melodrama and the late '70s/early '80s message movies about factories and farms like Norma Rae, The River, and Silkwood. At Any Price plays like a Joshua Logan period piece like Picnic or Bus Stop without the Technicolor, fun, and charisma or like a message movie with too much message. Still, it's an interesting choice of model in today's world of CGI action and rise-and-fall biopics in Hollywood and the inarticulate, distanced young urban bohemia in indie land. Bahrani gets the rural Midwestern landscape, speech patterns, and social life just right, and Clancy Brown, Red West, and Maika Monroe give better performances than the material deserves. The normally excellent Dennis Quaid (my wife is absolutely right when she says that every Kevin Costner movie would be substantially improved with Quaid in the Costner role) gives an oddly mannered performance, and Zac Efron can't do much with his silly character. I could get into the disastrous home movie montage that opens the film, but I don't have the heart. I'm guardedly optimistic for his next film, but any more like this one, and I may have to bow out. 

Monday, August 05, 2013

I'm way behind #2: A Woman Under the Influence & Husbands (John Cassavetes)

The Austin Film Society hosted a mini-retrospective of my favorite filmmaker, John Cassavetes, a few months ago, giving me a chance to see two of my favorite movies on the big screen for the first time. (I skipped the third film in the series, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, only because I caught that one on the big screen last year.) I almost talked myself out of going because of my temporarily shitty work schedule and because I've seen both films at least a dozen times, but Cassavetes' work has this insane hold on me that manages to blast through my strongest stores of inertia. If my arm was ripped off in a horrific industrial accident right before a Cassavetes screening, I would just slap a bunch of Band-Aids on it and head into the theater. I guess I'm saying I like these movies.
As much as I admire Cassavetes, I have a hard time understanding or agreeing with the ways his films, directorial style, screenplays, and methods have been described, praised, slammed, or represented by the media, fellow admirers, and irritated detractors alike. There are a lot of oft-repeated misconceptions about his work that have hardened into conventional wisdom. He has a reputation for being a sloppy technician and a maker of improvised, neo-realist films that are primarily actor-driven (acting exercises masquerading as narrative films to his non-fans). Many mediocre filmmakers claim they're making Cassavetes-inspired cinema when they throw some inexperienced actors into dialogue-driven, improvisation-heavy scenarios with manufactured revelations, framed in sloppy, stagy awkwardness. These films have about as much to do with Cassavetes as Cassavetes' films have to do with Star Wars.
Cassavetes' first two purely independent productions, Shadows and Faces (with two unhappy dalliances in Hollywood in between), do have some occasionally sloppy technical moments, due to the fact he and his collaborators were learning as they went with a nonprofessional crew, but Cassavetes became a graceful, accomplished visual stylist with an innate yet unconventional sense of composition and camera movement. He's partially responsible for the misunderstanding about his screenplays being mostly improvised on the set. Shadows ends with a title card reading, "The film you have just seen is an improvisation." That film was created from improvisations in an acting workshop Cassavetes ran with Burt Lane (Diane's dad) in the late 1950s, but the story and most of the dialogue was set in stone by the time the cameras rolled. Cassavetes' dialogue, with the exception of a handful of improvised lines, was scripted for the remainder of his career, and he instructed the actors not to deviate from the words on the page. What is improvised in Cassavetes' films is what makes them so peculiar and so emotionally affecting. The actors could move where they wanted and say the words in whatever cadence, volume, pace, and tone they wanted. Cassavetes avoided storyboards and marks. He lit and miked the entirety of the locations and sets so the actors were free to move around without worrying about having to stand in a particular spot or hit their marks. This freed them up to concentrate on the characters they were playing in more intuitive, experiential ways than the mainstream or independent filmmaking norm and to honestly and intuitively react to their fellow actors, but they still had to stick to the structure and words of the script. This was no sloppy acting exercise as movie. This was a carefully devised method, a serious approach to film form from a genuinely visually oriented filmmaker. He created a formal structure based on the movements and performances of his actors as well as the wonderful strangeness of his scripts, and he managed to do this without turning his movies into filmed plays. This was cinema, not theater. (To be clear, I'm not knocking theater here. I am knocking the unfair, inaccurate putdown of Cassavetes' work as uncinematic, theatrical exercises.)
I also take issue with the widespread characterization of Cassavetes' films as slices of life or documentary-like cinema verite. His films are far stranger than that. Though the emotions his films stir up in the empathetic viewer are visceral, real, and raw and some of his characters are everyday working people, his dialogue is a mixture of hysterical outbursts, tangents both mundane and bizarre, non sequiturs and jokes, singing, laughter, hairpin-turn shifts in tone, repetition, verbal tics, and naked emotion. He has a particular and stylized way of making his characters talk that is every bit as strange as any other unique writer of film dialogue. Beginning with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes' films become dreamier, more melancholy, even stranger. The Crazy Horse strip club and cabaret in that film is Fellini by way of Ed Wood by way of an idealized burlesque house from remembered history. Opening Night contains several scenes of Gena Rowlands' actress character talking to the ghost of a teenaged fan killed in an accident. Gloria is Hollywood fantasy and escapism colliding with the Cassavetes method. Love Streams features multiple hallucinatory fantasy sequences and a musical number. The man doesn't get enough credit for being a visual stylist and formal innovator.
I can blather on about Cassavetes, can't I? Time to move my blather to the particular films at hand.
A Woman Under the Influence is probably Cassavetes' best-known film, with Gena Rowlands' deservedly famous, very intense embodiment of Mabel Longhetti, a housewife whose eccentricities push at the constrictions placed on her by herself, her family, and 1974 American society until they burst. Peter Falk is just as good as her equally eccentric (though his eccentricities are more socially acceptable) city construction worker husband. These are inadequate descriptions, as almost every description is when attempting to write about a Cassavetes film. These films follow their own beats, their own rhythms. They don't work like other movies. They're all Mabels.
I was surprised at how much I'd absorbed A Woman Under the Influence while watching it for the first time on the big screen. I had it down. I had it memorized. I knew every beat, every line of dialogue, what was coming next, how many scenes were left. I'd seen it so many times before, on video or DVD. But it was still a new experience. I don't know how he did it. Each viewing is like a first viewing. I feel differently about the characters every time I watch. This time, I was more disturbed by and less sympathetic to Peter Falk, but I still felt so much love for his character, and for all the characters. I love the way they move through the house, up and down the stairs, into the kitchen, into the living room. That house is a character, too. The day trip to the beach after Mabel is committed. The young kids drinking beer with their dad in the back of the pickup. This is a film that exhausts you, but it recharges you, too. The construction crew scenes have a greater impact on a big screen. They don't have the same intensity on the television. I don't know why. There are so many mysteries here, so much worth going back to again and again, but most people would rather watch Transformers 4. I don't know what else to say. This movie is worth your fucking time.
Husbands was different. I didn't have it memorized. I mean, I did. But I didn't. It played so differently on a big screen. I don't know why. I'd always loved it from the first time I saw it, but I didn't think it was one of his masterpieces. It was almost there, but it fell a little short. I have to revise that now. I've bumped it up to masterpiece status. The humor played well with a Friday night crowd. So did the tough stuff, the ugly stuff. It had an electrical charge to it, seeing it with an audience. That extra juice, that jump from being with a crowd who's also affected by it. After seeing it, I felt lonely but also a part of something. Those guys in Husbands. So likable. So unlikable. Such a rhythm to that movie. You go with them until it's time to stop, and then it just stops, right where it's supposed to stop. The greatest bender in movie history. These movies resist analysis, summing up, description. Look at all the words I've just wasted trying to tell you about something that can only be seen. Stop reading this shit and go see them.

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