Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

AI WEIWEI:  NEVER SORRY           B                     
USA  China  (91 mi)  2011  d:  Alison Klayman            Official site

China is the unseen elephant in the world today, a Goliath that is opening many economic doors that were once closed, creating modern economic growth through targeted capitalist ventures while retaining tight clamps on the nation’s citizens through the rigid social conformity of the Communist Party.  While the success of the 2008 Beijing Olympics gave the world a glimpse of China rarely viewed before, it’s a secretive nation mostly closed off to the outside world.  Since the Tiananmen Square political fiasco of 1989, China has arrested and/or suppressed all opposition voices effectively eliminating any public dissent.  Within this framework of censorship, people are expected to live and thrive in the modern world.  Much like the arrested filmmakers of Iran, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mehdi Pourmoussa, artists are censored in China as well, where several are also jailed on political crimes, such as the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng who after being imprisoned for 4 years was released to house arrest and made a daring escape to the United States embassy in April 2012, or the 2010 Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a professor and Chinese literary critic and co-author of Charter 08, a declaration for democratic reform signed by artists and activists, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison December 2009 for inciting subversion of state power, installation artist Wu Yuren was arrested in November 2010 for protesting the demolition of an artist’s neighborhood including the forced displacement of residents, but was eventually released a year and a half later, or Tan Zuoren, an environmentalist and literary editor sentenced to five years in prison for inciting subversion of state power, largely for his writings on Tiananmen Square.  Perhaps the artist best known throughout the world, whose notoriety likely prevented his arrest, is Ai Weiwei, one of the designers and artistic consultants of the Bird’s Nest Stadium (Full resolution) used during the Olympics for the opening and closing ceremonies, and an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, actually disavowing those Olympics due to the forced displacement of so many citizens.  Something of a performance artist, he videos himself dropping and breaking invaluable antique pottery from ancient dynasties that he views as no different than the government smashing and ruining the lives of ordinary citizens through displacement policies.  A big, burly man with a mischievous smile, he’s a conceptual artist active in sculpture, installation, architecture, curating, photography, film, and social, political and cultural criticism, writing two articles daily on a political blog until it was shut down by Chinese authorities in May 2009. 

Director Klayman is a freelance journalist who lived in China from 2006 to 2010 producing radio and television stories for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” turned first-time director, though it’s questionable how much autonomy she exerts, never delving into difficult or uncomfortable questions, giving Ai Weiwei free reign in what amounts to his own personal forum.  Seen setting up various art installations throughout European art museums, these are large scale projects, some that will fill an entire warehouse, always with overt political overtones.  What’s immediately curious to the viewer is why others are imprisoned, yet perhaps the most vociferous government critic anywhere in the world lives in a fortress, by Chinese standards, and remains free to travel abroad.  Ai is seemingly driven by the failures of the past, particularly his father’s generation which succumbed to the repressive regime of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (Mao Zedong).  Ai’s father Ai Qing was educated in Paris, writing books of poetry and several novels, but was arrested several times in China for his leftist activities opposing Chiang Kai-shek, eventually joining the Communist Party in support of the war effort against Japan, becoming a Party literary editor, where the voices of his generation were among the most fiercely outspoken artists and activists in Chinese history, where there was no government muzzle on their highly independent views until his arrest in 1958 during the Anti-Rightist Movement, a prelude to the Cultural Revolution.  Denounced as regressive and not allowed to publish for twenty years, he and his family were forced into re-education camps.  Ai himself was one of the young Chinese elite who spent a dozen years studying in New York City during the 80’s, where he was particularly impressed by the Iran Contra trials on television, where the government’s actions were actually questioned in public hearings before the nation, something unfathomable in China.  While he got his start as an artist in the East Village, his experiences in America (which included a fascination with blackjack tables in Atlantic City) also awoke his activist oriented tendencies, which translated to his overall views on China when he returned in 1993 due to his father’s ailing health.   

Joining various artist collectives, Ai had his hand in various art and architectural projects, becoming fascinated with the power of the individual, how the progressive views of one can stand up against the rigid social injustice and intolerance of the collective, which is reflective in his art as well as his newfound interest in blogs.  Profoundly influenced by the Tiananmen Square massacre, having experienced uncurtailed freedoms in America, Ai became that lone voice against the immovable wall of government, which after it makes decisions is immune to change or reconsideration, even through the legal process, which Ai expertly documents through his own persistence.  When fellow artist Tan Zuoren was on trial, he traveled to the region to testify on his behalf, but instead he was awoken in the middle of the night in his hotel room and beaten up by policemen, some of which is captured on a live cellphone feed, where he was detained and eventually hospitalized, requiring surgery due to an inflammation to his brain from a blow to his head.  Not only was he not allowed to testify, but the police refused to acknowledge what happened.  Perhaps the most moving segment is his response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where nearly 70,000 people died, including many schoolchildren whose school buildings crumbled from poor government construction.  Despite being forbidden by the police, Ai becomes obsessed with learning the name of every child that died, enlisting many volunteers to assist him, where after an exhaustive search over the course of a year he was able to publish over 5000 names on his blog at the one year anniversary, which accounts for why his blog was immediately shut down afterwards, forcing him to join the legions on Twitter.  Ai created a colorful wall of backpacks in a public Munich art display that spells out “She lived happily for seven years in the world,” a quote from one of the mothers whose child died in the earthquake.  Ai has a taunting and provocative nature that almost begs the authorities to arrest him, which they happily do in April 2011, keeping him secretly detained without a word of his whereabouts to his family, where he was subject to incessant interrogations before being released on bail 3 months later.  The film crew was obviously caught off guard by the arrest, having already returned to the States, as the movie ends with his release, unable to reveal any more updates.  While the dynamic force of his personality is admittedly overwhelming and his artworks inspiring, it’s apparent that for all the scrutiny and accountability that he expects from others, his own life is hardly a model of transparency, where there are still many unanswered questions, as he tolerates little intrusion into his own privacy.   

Saturday, September 29, 2012

There Will Be Blood

THERE WILL BE BLOOD         A                
USA   (158 mi)  2007  ‘Scope  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson

A big, sprawling epic movie that works as a treatise on capitalism and ambition, on the compulsive drive to make money, where eventually greed becomes the singular driving force, there’s an emotional disconnection from this film that remains hard to describe, that may be due to a screen full of despicable characters, but there’s a palpable force pushing us away from them throughout this film, perhaps the feeling is one of inherent dislike and distrust.  These are not characters we can easily put our arms around and embrace.  Like John Wayne’s crude frontiersman Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS (1956), this is as raw and ugly a portrait of the personification of evil as American filmgoers have seen for quite some time, an example of one of the seven deadly sins exhibited through rapacious land and money-grabbing.  Similar to Terence Malick changing the overall tone of James Jones’s popular war novel The Thin Red Line, actually rewriting the entire dialogue to become an ensemble piece of interior voices, Anderson remains faithful to the first half of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil, a cautionary capitalist warning about the perils of greed published just before the historic stock market crash, but invents a new second half, avoiding any overt political reference while matching an overwhelmingly political tone from the original book  to reflect the amoralism of the Bush years, the idea of wealth being the power shield behind which unmentionable crimes are committed.  Anderson's film is simply a dramatic recreation of what's already happened before our very eyes on the world stage. 

While the film defies categorization by writing an epic, near 3-hour film without a single likeable character, there are other major artistic contributions, as it’s beautifully shot in ‘Scope by Robert Elswit, capturing the stark emptiness of the endless Texas landscapes near Marfa, the identical location of GIANT (1956), also featuring a dazzlingly inventive soundtrack from Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood, much of which has a pulsating rhythmic drive of unsettled psychological anxiety.  From the outset, Daniel Day Lewis seems to have forged a pact with what lies underground, a Mephistophelian deal with the devil where he will pay any terrible price in order to take freely whatever he wants from beneath the earth.  Like a grizzled prospector from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), the film opens with a man working alone in a darkened mine, chipping away at what he hopes will be silver.  After a dynamite blast reveals his treasure, he slips on a fragile wooden step and falls down into the shaft, breaking his leg.  He’s fortunate to get away so easily, as he crawls into town and stakes his claim.  Barely noticeable, what’s interesting here is that for the first 15 minutes or so, the story has been advanced without a single word being spoken.  Set during a time period of 1898 to 1927, this film is set to coincide with the era of silent films, so the beginning is an interesting homage to the period, while also reflecting a monetary and industrial shift from mining silver to crude oil, which becomes the new gold standard out West.  When Daniel Day Lewis finally opens his mouth and introduces himself, one can’t help but think of Mick Jagger’s words to “Sympathy for the Devil”:

Please allow me to introduce myself, I'm a man of wealth and taste.
I've been around for long, long years I've stolen many a man's soul and faith.
I was around when Jesus Christ had His moments of doubt and pain.
I made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate.
Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, but what's puzzling you,
is the nature of my game.

Lewis may as well be a similar charlatan, ingratiatingly introducing himself as an oil man and a family man, a man that can be trusted, but he’s a snake oil salesman introducing himself as Daniel Plainview, a name that has a multitude of metaphoric ramifications—all of them misleading, but the most interesting is the name of Daniel, taken from the book in the Old Testament which means “Judged by God.”  At his side is a young boy he calls his son, H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) but he’s simply a child who’s father died in a mining accident that Plainview decided to raise as his own—another falsehood.  Yet initially, there’s a good deal of sympathy for this Plainview character, as he’s obviously worked hard and sacrificed in order to put himself in a position where he can stand in front of a community of dirt poor California farmers and ask for the oil rights to their land, expecting to get it, and he does.  He comes off as a sound businessman whose shrewdness is being in the right place at the right time.  Yet he’s still floundering, an oilman who’s used to as many disappointments as successes, who understands perfectly well how a calculated risk can be exploited by others for profit.  Then Paul Dano introduces himself as Paul, the name of one of the Apostles, the only one who never met Jesus, yet he was the one who witnessed the vision of His resurrection, so perhaps wields greater influence in Christian theology.  For a small finder’s fee of $500 dollars, Paul introduces Daniel to the area just outside his father’s barren goat farm where oil is literally spilling out onto the land.  What happens next is history.  Daniel Plainview becomes a very rich man.  By 1910, the state of California produced 70% of the world’s oil.  Times have changed, but California continues to reflect the immense gulf depicted in John Steinbeck novels between the poorest workers who continue to toil for some of the richest business operators in the world. 

Paul Dano has a dual role, as he also plays Eli, a name that means “the highest” in Yiddish, which is a stunning eye-opener, as he is the identical twin brother of Paul, a young man who has the calling, who weasels a deal out of Plainview to build him a church, with the promise of more money to follow.  Eli wishes to bless his oil wells so that neighbors might associate him with the prominent signs of economic revitalization, but is rudely shunned by Plainview, who comes to one of his services which is threadbare country fundamentalism forecasting the doom of Revelations, where he witnesses a religious exorcism, calling it “one hell of a show.”  But unfortunate accidents seem to go hand in hand with success, accidents that Eli preaches are the wrath of God, believing they could have been prevented if more of the workers came to receive his services instead of spending their spare time drinking and carousing.  This clearly gets under Plainview’s craw, as he wants nothing standing in the way of his workers and his business operations.  He bullies and intimidates Eli, whose sin seems to be that he is as conniving and unscrupulous as Plainview himself, a doppelganger, perhaps a mirror image of himself working a different angle.  This film reveals some of the accidents that interrupt the road to progress, each a grotesque horror story in their own right.  One of the most visually explosive scenes in the film, one with Revelations apocalyptic proportions is an uncontrolled oil well that catches on fire, where the initial blast is so violent that H.W. is thrown off his feet and permanently loses his hearing, which is also one of the pivotal scenes in the film, as all Plainview seems to care about is the oil under the ground, chortling in his own joy, completely immune to the consequences of mishaps as he gleefully sends in dynamiters, where only the force of yet another explosion will cap the well.  

Plainview ruthlessly sends his son away in an angry act of deceit, believing his disability is unacceptable out in the open plains where he refuses to become a laughing stock or allow others to exploit his son’s condition as a sign of weakness.  In time, Plainview builds an empire, but his eccentricities become more apparent, especially in a scene where he stands down a rival’s business proposition with a merciless threat to cut his competitor’s throat, another apt metaphor.  When a man professing to be his long lost brother arrives on the scene, Plainview is obviously distrustful and openly suspicious, but he curiously opens up to this man revealing his most intimate thoughts:  "There are times when I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.  I want no one else to succeed.  I hate most people.”  This moment is beyond strange or socially awkward, the magnitude of this man’s contempt borders on megalomania to the point of sheer lawlessness.  The wealthier he becomes, the more his humanity is sucked right out of him, becoming an alcoholic recluse retreating into the isolation of his wealth, a fortress protecting him from the world outside that matters little to him or not at all, filled with what he repugnantly calls “these people.” 

Anderson titillates the audience throughout with this feeling of enormity, this epic feel that something big is happening, which is intentionally meant to offset the director's intent to focus more and more on the internalized dynamic of the Plainview character, continually making the film smaller and smaller as the character grows more and more despicable.  Daniel Day Lewis saves his best for last, as by the end, he is an abomination, as merciless a creature as ever walked the face of the earth, a hideous mutation of THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940) who thinks money gives him the right to be above the law, that the rest of the world can go to hell, that he can do anything to anyone for any reason that pleases him.  The final scene is very much in the Stanley Kubrick manner, as all bets are off, Day Lewis is finally free of any and all restraint, and he turns into Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING (1980), only much much worse, as he's a rich and powerful man, so he can get away with anything.  With drool literally spilling from his mouth, man regresses to the Stone Age where once he crosses the line of lawlessness and criminality and gets away with it, what's to stop him from developing an unquenchable thirst for blood and power?  The final sequence only punctuates what Plainview got away with earlier.  The game is over.  The deal with the devil is done.  Still chortling, his earthly soul has been completely snatched away from him at last, leaving him a staggering fortune, but also soulless and alone.  Unlike MAGNOLIA (1999), there are no emotionally transcendent revelations where the film simply soars into a previously unexplored stratosphere.  Instead, this is a more traditionally grounded, classically made film featuring a gigantic bravura performance from Daniel Day Lewis, literally one for the ages, as powerful a performance as many of us will likely see in our lifetimes, featuring a horrifying descent into abject amoralism, an uncompromising, startlingly bleak reflection of our times.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master

THE MASTER            C+                   
USA  (137 mi)  2012  d:  Paul Thomas Anderson        Official site

Might be a rock'n' roll adict prancing on the stage
Might have money and drugs at your commands, women in a cage
You may be a business man or some high degree thief
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief.

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

—“Gotta Serve Somebody,” by Bob Dylan, 1979   
Bob Dylan- Gotta serve somebody.wmv YouTube (5:26)

While the production design of this film offers an extreme clarity rarely seen in movies, the first film in 15 years shot on 65 mm for a 70 mm theatrical projection (good luck finding a theater capable of screening it in that format, also shown in XD theaters), giving it a phenomenally bright and gorgeous look onscreen, this doesn’t make up for the emotional disconnect with the film itself, where the mysteriously vague aspects of Anderson’s storyline plunge us over the deep end into unchartered territory, where much of this feels like a long and empty road going nowhere.  Very similar to his recent film There Will Be Blood (2007), both have the feeling of an epic work, yet both defy categorization without a single likeable character in either movie, and in this film nothing of any real significance happens.  Instead it’s a highly atmospheric character examination of Freddie Quell (a more emaciated Joaquin Phoenix), a down-on-his-luck sailor from WW II who bounces around after the war, receiving inadequate and insufficient psychiatric help from the Navy for the post traumatic stress, becoming a drifter, never really fitting in anywhere.  Making matters worse, he has a talent for putting together hazardous chemicals, like paint thinner, Lysol, gasoline, or photo developing fluid while making his own homemade alcohol, becoming instantly hooked, subject to huge mood swings including violent tendencies, stumbling around drunk most of the time.  While the opening sequence on the beach features naked male torsos that might recall BEAU TRAVAIL (1999), with beautifully unsettling, often percussive music from Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, Freddie’s near masturbatory obsession with sex suggests he lives in something of a fantasy world, becoming attached and sexually enthralled with a sand castle carving of a female anatomy. His social dysfunction is reminiscent of Shohei Imamura’s THE PORNOGRAPHERS (1966), where one character, in hedonistic pursuit of a perfect mate, discovers a wood-carved doll of a voluptuous woman.  He becomes so enraptured with her that nothing else matters, becoming more and more detached from his life, lost and alone on a small boat, carving his doll, oblivious and adrift.  This perfectly describes Freddie’s aloof frame of mind, a loner completely cut off from the rest of the world, where booze and sex are the only things that matter. 

While There Will Be Blood captures the stark emptiness of the endless Texas landscapes, this film explores the cavernous depravity of the human soul.  Beautifully set in 1950, this is a period piece with 50’s jukebox songs that features a shift from war-time mentality to the rise of consumerism, where Freddie gets a job working as a photographer doing family portraits in a department store, but his mind turns it into a Felliniesque surreal landscape where in one of the better scenes, he finds sexual solace with Martha the Salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), where it’s hard to tell if this is really happening or if it only exists in his mind—such is his disconnection from reality.  Eventually run out of the store and perhaps out of town, we see him fleeing across an open field after someone falls ill from drinking his homemade brew, wandering the streets endlessly through the night, finally staggering onto a docked ship where music can be heard and a festive party is taking place on deck.  He awakes in the morning as a Chaplinesque stowaway aboard the ship already at sea, immediately interviewed by the captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a somewhat reclusive and philosophically mysterious gentleman who takes to him immediately, seeing something there in his inherent waywardness that perhaps only he could help, taking him under his wing, even allowing him to live with his family.  Told in a stream-of-conscious style, we lose all sense of time, where subsequent events between them are connected as if by memory or recollection, linking together vignettes throughout the film as brief moments in time.  Freddie is drawn into his world during an intensely personal psychoanalytic interview session known as processing, where Dodd discovers many of Freddie’s hidden secrets, the kinds of things he hides from the rest of the world, like the kind of dysfunctional family he came from and who it is he’s really running from, which turns out to be a 16-year old girl named Doris (seen only in flashback), a kind of virginal image of perfection, though he has to be twice her age.  While the audience learns of Freddie’s tortured past, no such background information is ever revealed about Dodd, a charismatic figure considered by his critics as something of a charlatan, but who sees himself as a visionary healer, where patients (hopefully rich ones with generous pocketbooks) continually undergo processing, often with startling results.  

Loosely inspired by the sham ideology of L. Ron Hubbard’s secret indoctrinating methods of Scientology and John Huston’s war documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946) following traumatized soldiers seeking treatment after the war, the film seems to sink into the dark abyss of Freddie’s doldrums, where despite punishing sessions with Dodd, aka the Master, often demonstrating his unorthodox techniques publicly in front of small groups of curious onlookers, Freddie never seems to make much progress as he appears incapable of self-reflection or total surrender, but nonetheless remains a zealous believer in the cause, often pummeling non-believers into submission for having the audacity to question or doubt.  Much of the film seems to be about manipulation and power, where one reason Dodd may like having Freddie around is he represents weakness, exactly the kind of passivity he’s searching for in his followers.  The group secretly records all their therapy sessions for reasons that are never revealed, but interestingly much of the dominant power behind the scenes comes from Dodd’s wife (Amy Adams), a Lady Macbeth figure who skillfully guides his actions, where he’s the figurehead, the monkey on a leash, a public charmer who rakes in the cash while behind the scenes she exudes ruthless power.  The trick is to goad people in, to make them comfortable with the idea that for centuries people have been lulled asleep and need to be woken up, where Dodd is the trigger and stimulus to a kind of human rebirth, where they must learn to take control over their lives, of course, by abandoning all resistance and sacrificing their own individuality and free will.  There are outlandishly bizarre scenes in this movie, like a fantasy sequence of women stripping completely naked while Dodd sings a bawdy old English ballad, or another when Dodd quietly sings an a cappella rendition of “Slow Boat to China” to a somewhat bewildered Freddie, who never seems to understand his place in the world or this organization.  There’s another amusing dream sequence in an immense movie theater with Freddie as the sole customer lying asleep draped over several chairs as the audience hears the onscreen voice of Casper the Friendly Ghost, also a moment when both are arrested and placed in adjoining cells, where their reactions couldn’t be more opposite, one in a virulent rage while the other impassively remains in a Zen calm.  While the look of the film is dazzling, seen in an XD theater using a superbright projector, the film feels as spectacularly empty as the Death Valley desert sequence, an exercise where Freddie on a motorcycle rushes headlong towards an invisible wall out there in the distant horizon, hoping somehow he can break through at breakneck speed rushing towards a fictitious goal that never exists.  With both leads exuding various forms of ego driven madness throughout, there’s barely a hint of personal identification and scant human drama to hold our interest.  

Thursday, September 27, 2012

End of Watch

END OF WATCH          B-                
USA  (109 mi)  2012  d:  David Ayer  

Television and the movie industry have been at odds ever since the widespread convenience of owning televisions in every American household became a reality in the 1950’s, where for literally decades television has been in a catch up mode following behind the latest technological and artistic advancements which separate the two mediums, but in the last decade, certainly since the advent of cable channels which don’t edit language, violence, or sexual content, television has actually been leading the way when it comes to the popularity of cops shows, consistently utilizing better scripts, actors, and quality of content.  While occasionally films rise to unprecedented heights, such as HEAT (1995), SE7EN (1995), LA CONFIDENTIAL (1997), THE DEPARTED (2006), or ZODIAC (2007), they are countered by The Sopranos (1999 – 2007), The Wire (2002 – 2008), The Shield (2002 – 2008), Dexter (2006 – present), or Southland (2009 – present), all of which in a dozen or so episodes annually play out like an extended mini-series, where the dramatic interest is sustained over a considerable length of time.  Certainly it is the substantial success of these shows that is pushing the development of this adrenaline-laced style of film, from the writer of TRAINING DAY (2001) and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001), resorting to a Starsky and Hutch (1975 – 1979) portrait of likable cop partners, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), sent out in their squad cars on a daily basis to catch the bad guys, all set in the hyper-kinetic and crime-infested world of South Central Los Angeles.  It’s a gritty portrayal of cops on the beat, expressed through constant motion with quick edits, continuously frenetic hand-held camera movement and a machine-gun style of profanity-laced, rapid fire dialogue, often finding humor in the ridiculous predicaments they get themselves into, where they specialize in patrolling the worst ghetto neighborhoods.  If much of this feels contrived, like the lawlessness of the Wild West, it attempts to use the pervasive presence of violence to amp up the tension, creating a poisonous atmosphere of gangbangers, malicious killers on the loose, and even the drug cartels from the Mexican underworld, as unlike the daily grind of real cops where the routine can become suffocating, much of it spent in the mindless task of filling out paperwork, these are cocky gunslingers looking for action, where every hour of every day is spent seeking out new adventures.

Gyllenhaal and Peña work extremely well together, where you get a good sense of increasingly developing interior character, as both can be goofballs often playing pranks on their fellow cops, where their swaggering attitude differentiates them from other teams of partners, often singled out for their efforts in the field by their more hardened commanding officer Frank Grillo, bringing a military SWAT team style to their everyday practice of policework.  This two man tandem have a reckless feel about them, where they’re still young and just starting out, where their confrontational practice of rubbing elbows and getting in-your-face with notorious outlaws and gangsters seems too edgy, likely not the practice of officers with longevity on the force who exercise more restraint.  These guys come off as Reality TV cops, each with cameras pinned to their vests watching every move they make, where Gyllenhaal in particular is always talking to his camera in man-on-the-street interviews or pointing it in someone’s face, where what’s on the screen often parallels this raw police footage, often feeling unedited and rough-edged, a cop cam providing a stream-of-conscious viewpoint.  In typical Hollywood vernacular, the bad guys are given picturesque names that describe their personalities like Big Evil (Maurice Compte), Wicked (Diamonique), or Tre (Cle Shaheed Sloan), the latter a hot-headed, two-time felon who prefers taking the risk of standing up to cops rather than backing down, actually going toe-to-toe with the shorter, but more bulldog-like Mike (without badge and weapons), which actually earns his respect, where fighting cops barehanded, win or lose, is “gangsta.”  And therein lies the problem here, as the film is more interested in establishing visceral, in-your-face action sequences than delving into the mysteries or social dynamic of this deeply entrenched, poverty stricken world around them, though Tre does express his concern that black neighborhood gangs are being pushed out by Hispanic gangs.  This movie elevates cops to the status of sheriffs in the Wild West, always seen as noble heroes, where the moral line is never crossed or in question, as people are instead good guys or bad guys.  Unlike BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), for example, the audience learns absolutely nothing about growing up in the South Central neighborhood where every day is a moral dilemma. 

The film has a token use of women, where the one-dimensional Anna Kendrick is Brian’s girl, whose best scene is a PULP FICTION (1994) dance tribute, while Natalie Martinez as Mike’s wife has a fiercer attitude, where they are written into the script as a softer counterbalance to the feverish intensity of the streets where these guys are close to action figures.  Overly reverential towards the police, giving them a stature in the community they don’t deserve, as LA cops are notoriously abusive and corrupt, this film never questions their moral actions or duties, giving instead a fairly adolescent and somewhat fantasy view of what it is to be a cop.  So it’s the script, written by the director who spent his teenage years in South Central, that ultimately falls short, failing to connect gangsters and drug lords to the world from which they came, instead exploiting their nastiness as hideously murderous and grotesque, often making them larger than life foul caricatures, even as several of the gangsters onscreen are played by actual LA gangbangers.  The near screwball comic timing of these two knuckleheads in the patrol car can be outrageously funny, accentuating their close rapport throughout, often making fun of each other’s distinctively different white and Mexican cultures, as it’s their personalities that really carry the picture, along with a few of the gangsters, especially Tre and Big Evil. The director maintains a fluid and kinetic flow throughout, turning much of this into an exhilarating thrill ride, but that’s hardly the life of a real cop, as these two prima donnas flaunt their cowboy personas in the face of their fellow cops, not exactly endearing camaraderie or admiration.  The director also uses horror elements to accentuate fear, like walking into dark and empty corridors just waiting for something to jump out at them, where despite their arrogance, he uses these two officers as innocents walking into the lair of the beast, continually discovering something they haven’t anticipated.  While the film’s aesthetic is gripping and tense, where danger lurks around every corner, this is also a trigger happy exposé on how cops disregard humanity and destroy community relations while ironically spending a lot of talk about loyalty and heroism.  These guys are military style killing machines that routinely trample on the rights of others, busting in with guns flailing, continually pointing their guns in people’s faces, making threats, attempting to match the hostility of their adversaries, all of which represents a very short-sighted view of policework, much of which depends upon the cooperation of local residents, never once considering the long term harm of their actions, as inhabitants of any neighborhood, rich or poor, would soon loathe their disrespecting commando recklessness.             

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beloved (Les Bien-Aimés)

BELOVED (Les Bien-Aimés)           B+                      
France  Great Britain  Czech Republic  (135 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d: Christophe Honoré

Christophe Honoré, a regular early contributor to Cahiers du Cinéma and an established novelist before he became a filmmaker, has developed into a remarkable cinematic storyteller, as his films are layered with meticulous novelesque detail.  A film dedicated to Marie-France Pisner, who died April 24, 2011, one of the screenwriters and actresses in Jacques Rivette’s landmark film Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont ... (1974), and an actress in Honoré’s own DANS PARIS (2006), which remains arguably his best film, and the first of his films where out of the blue one of his characters will break into song, much like the surprising use in MAGNOLIA (1999), which he uses to tender effect in a telephone conversation between lovers, a moment that rises to magical heights.  By now, he’s written several musicals, exploring the dynamics of a three-way relationship in LOVE SONGS (2007) and the pent-up passion in a Sirkian youth melodrama in LA BELLE PERSONNE (2008).  Honoré’s films tend to leave audiences sharply divided, and his use of songs as an extension of the narrative is no exception, as he doesn’t accompany songs with traditional dance numbers, or a lively choreographed sequence, but instead delves into the downbeat psychological mindset of the character, often submerged in anguish, lost love or grief, where musical numbers are used in the exact opposite manner of one’s usual association, which is happy and upbeat, such as Demy’s THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964).  There’s even an umbrella sequence in this film which takes place in the howling wind and rain where the umbrellas are about to be blown away, and instead of the vivid kaleidescope colors, the frame is dark and dreary.  Honoré has been consistent in his career in exploring matters of the heart through non-conventional means, where MA MÈRE (2004) remains as unconventional a film as you’ll ever see, but also a film that makes terrific use of a recurring musical motif, the song “Happy Together” by The Turtles.  Music has always been one of the best attributes of an Honoré film, from the bone-jarring rock music used to disorienting effect in 17 TIMES CÉCILE CASSARD (2002) to the punk music that sets the stage for a moody and introspective assault to the senses in DANS PARIS.  In nearly every film, grief is a major element for the prominent characters, where his films show unusual levels of depth and complexity by intensely exploring how love is like memory, never disappearing, forever etched into the fabric of our lives.

One of the real treats of this film is seeing Catherine Deneuve work with her daughter, Chiara Mastroianni (who’s been in every Honoré film since LOVE SONGS), where one cannot help recalling Jacques Demy’s bliss-drenched THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), where the main attraction is the adorable sisters, blond Catherine Deneuve and her older sister, brunette Françoise Dorléac, at ages 24 and 25, both stars from their teens, as this is the only time they ever worked together onscreen.  Deneuve has worked with her daughter before in André Téchiné’s charming MY FAVORITE SEASON (1993), also more recently in Arnaud Desplechin’s dysfunctional family portrait, A CHRISTMAS TALE (2008), but this is the first time they’ve worked together in a musical, and their scenes together are simply stunning.  Mastroianni, especially, as Véra, the daughter of Deneuve’s character Madeleine, is at the heart of the film, as her emotional turmoil reflects the anxiety of the era in which she grew up, the late 80’s and 90’s when the world was coming to terms with AIDS, where the terrifying idea of love is as under attack as the human body.  Ludivine Sagnier plays Madeleine as a young girl in the years before she had a child, where this film spans four decades from 1964 to 2008.  In the fashionable 60’s, Madeleine is strikingly attractive, catching the eye of an equally handsome and ambitious young Czech doctor, Jaromil (Radivoje Bukvic), very much in the mode of the Daniel Day-Lewis character from Philip Kaufman’s historical romance THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (1968).  Completely offscreen, in a blip of the eye, they fall in love, get married, move to Prague, have a child, and get divorced, before she’s seen later in Paris.  But Jaromil returns to Paris years later, maintaining an on-again and off-again relationship throughout her life, even after she’s married to François (Michel Delpech), supposedly a stabilizing influence in her life.  Véra, meanwhile, develops an infatuation with two different men, one with fellow Parisian Clément (Louis Garrel, who’s been in every Honoré film since MA MÈRE) that’s already over by the time it hits the screen, and another with an American exile in London, a drummer named Henderson, played by Paul Schneider, from David Gordon Green’s ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) and Jane Campion’s more recent BRIGHT STAR (2009), where the tempestuous confusion in their relationship is fraught with difficulty. 

As Madeleine transforms into Deneuve, Jaromil is amusingly played by Czech director Milos Forman, adding plenty of warmth and humor into his character, as he’s simply delighted to be around his ex-wife and daughter whenever he can, often making trips to Paris to revitalize his relationships.  Part of the appeal of this film is the use of actual locations in Paris, Reims, Prague, London, and Montreal, where Honoré uses his traditional cinematographer Rémy Chevrin and original music from Alex Beaupain, both of whom have worked with him on and off since his first film.  Chevrin’s hand-held camera work is simply superb, both in capturing the bustling energy from the world outdoors and in some of the most extreme close ups ever captured.  Beaupain’s songs are not to be compared with the legendary Michel Legrand, as none are particularly memorable, but they do feature the delightfully charming Ludivine Sagnier singing “Je peux vivre sans toi” Je peux vivre sans toi - Les Bien-Aimés (Extrait) - YouTube (3:03), or Clara Couste as a young Véra singing "TOUT EST SI CALME"- Les Bien Aimés Fi (2:39), an ensemble piece which interestingly features older characters of both Véra and Madeleine interacting in the same shot with younger versions of themselves.  In perhaps the scene of the film, Véra has the bar band experience of her life as she meets Henderson for the first time, the drummer in the British band that’s singing the 1956 Bo Diddley classic “Who Do You Love?” Thousand - Who Do You Love - Chiara Mas (2:58) in English, later heard again in a French refrain that is decidedly more downbeat Les Bien-Aimés - Qui aimes-tu? (2:44).  Perhaps more than any other director working today, Honoré continues to work on riffs off the French New Wave, often expressing the ebullient energy of youth in vibrantly colorful street sequences, but also the downside of this blissful and breezy existence, exploring the personal introspection and brooding nature of lost and adrift people who feel disconnected from the world around them, becoming painfully heavy at times, where the psychological torment can literally suffocate these characters, some of whom never recover.    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Premium Rush

PREMIUM RUSH                   C+                  
USA  (91 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  David Koepp             Official site

This whole city hates you.       —Detective Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon)

Shot on the busy streets of the Big Apple, this is a pure exhilaration movie in the realm of THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001), where they are currently filming the 6th sequel to that one, though this features the hyperkinetic rides of notorious New York bike messengers, showing not only their frentic weaves and quick turns on a dime, often shooting through red lights and wrong way traffic, but in an inventive stroke, also expressing the adrenaline raced thoughts that cross the cyclist’s mind as they approach a particularly dangerous oncoming impact, where the rider often has to choose between the lesser of 3 or 4 evils, usually each one resulting in a horrible accident.  Occasionally the rider will get lucky and sail through, such is the life, continuously living on the edge, taking chances mere mortals would never dare try.  While there are 1500 bike messengers in downtown Manhattan, no self-respecting messenger could really star in a film unless they ride a fixed gear (one gear) bike with no brakes, claiming “breaks are death,” a mantra repeated throughout the movie, which means he never coasts but is constantly seen churning his legs in a mad love affair with cycling.  Of course, a common theme expressed throughout is that all the citizens of New York collectively hate these riders with an all-consuming passion, as they recklessly and irresponsibly dart away from the scene of the crime while cars collide, people are knocked off curbs, or packages and groceries end up strewn all over the street, all due to their manic maneuvers darting through some of the most congested roads anywhere in the world.  The film’s saving grace is it’s friendly, good-natured attitude about the whole thing, where much of it plays out like a cartoon, where it’s supposedly all in good fun.  Nonetheless, the mayhem they cause is never addressed, other than to get laughs, where even the injuries suffered onscreen never appear real, as they’re up and riding within minutes afterwards, taking even more reckless chances than before. 

The draw to this movie is Joseph Gordon-Leavitt as Wilee (aka: Coyote, though he actually plays the Roadrunner role), whose wry smile and everpresent snarky attitude is perfect for this movie, though to be honest, it’s the trick shots, a neverending stream of incredible stunts, and visual effects that carry this movie, where nobody is really paying attention to the acting, or even the story, for that matter.  The director films this movie much like a Kung Fu television episode (1972 – 75), where the unsuspecting protagonist is subject to an avalanche of disgruntled evil intent, where a thoroughly corrupt cop, Detective Monday (Michael Shannon) who’s in over his neck in accumulating gambling debt to the Chinese mob, apparently addicted to a mahjong style poker game called Pai Gow, is his constant nemesis and relentless pursuer, a sadistic man with a demonic passion to get what he wants, which in this case is a lottery ticket believed to be worth $50,000, but of course, is thwarted at every turn (like the coyote), which only makes him more deliriously frustrated and angry, spending the entire movie in a diabolical rage.  Add to this some street cop on a bike (Christopher Place), another mope who tries to get in on the action but is continually outclassed by Wylee, who not to be undone, is also wired and in constant contact with his girlfriend Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), another messenger who’s getting kicked out of her apartment under mysterious circumstances while yet another fellow messenger, Wolé Parks as Manny, is trashtalking Wilee about who’s the fastest messenger while secretly trying to steal his girl.  While all this road rage is dominating the nonstop action, there’s a story within the story about Nima (Jamie Chung), an attractive Asian girl who turns out to be Vanessa’s roommate, seen converting $50,000 in cash to a Chinese Hawala lottery ticket, apparently run by Chinese gangs, as the intended recipient refuses to accept cash. Her story is heartbreaking, adding a tone of melodrama to the frantic pace. 

From the outset, the crazed detective takes on various disguises in an attempt to intercept and steal the lottery ticket, using his actual police identity to manipulate the system and curry favors throughout the entire ordeal, where he’s constantly attempting to run Wilee over in his Lexus car, where the frenzied chase scene parallel to the elevated subway tracks is reminiscent of THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971).  The director keeps changing the time sequences, usually moving backwards, altering the chronology of the film, often repeating the same time sequence but from a different character’s perspective, keeping the audience off balance while also using GPS navigational devices blown up on an animated map of New York City, where the route changes are constantly updated and outlined like a MapQuest entry.  To those with no geographical knowledge of the city, this is simply distracting, but it’s all done in fast action, keeping the pace of the film on constant acceleration.  Some of the obstacles the cyclists must outmaneuver are beyond description, but calling them daredevils is too benign a phrase, perhaps having a death wish might be closer.  Some may be particularly drawn to this video game style of filmmaking, as everything is broken down into an adrenal rush of excitement, as from the director’s viewpoint, little else matters, which makes this something of a fun but forgettable film.  A more amped up soundtrack might have helped, as it starts out appropriately enough with The Who’s "Baba O'Riley," heard in the studio The Who - Baba O'riley (5:07), or live in concert The Who- Baba O'Riley1971 Official Video Video [HQ] (5:19), a perfect choice for the film, but there’s nothing afterwards that offers the same euphoric giddiness.  For unadulterated exhilaration as a replacement for your morning coffee, why not try two much better choices of pure cinematic bliss, both masterfully edited with astonishing musical choices, a bike video featuring one of the stuntmen seen in the movie, Danny MacAskill's ride from Edinburgh to Dunvegan, Scotland " Way Back Home" (7:43), and the other is Guy Maddin’s deliriously inventive The Heart Of The World - Guy Maddin  (6:08), an expressionist, avant garde, machine-gun montage of 800 edits.  Both are supreme examples of sheer joy and elation.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Night on Earth

NIGHT ON EARTH                   B                  
USA  France  Germany  Japan  Great Britain  (129 mi)  1991  d:  Jim Jarmusch

I’m sorry I sound calm. I assure you I’m hysterical.
—Victoria Snelling (Gena Rowlands)

Jarmusch captures a rhythm of the night in five different international cities over the course of a wintry evening and night, following the exploits through the experiences of various cab drivers, where what begins in a whimsical manner in Los Angeles eventually turns colder and gloomier in points further East.  Jarmusch expresses plenty of painterly detail with his urban landscape shots, finding lines of palm trees, lone street lamps and solitary business establishments like hamburger stands or used car lots, featuring signs that appear to be art deco eyesores, with plenty of empty spaces and neon-lit streets, creating a sense of isolation and loneliness, using marginal characters whose stories are unfamiliar to moviegoers, continuing themes of displacement and alienation.  It’s a collection of five vignettes, where each segment is about 25 minutes long, all taking place on the same evening in different cities around the world, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Rome, and Helsinki.  Jarmusch wrote the screenplay in about 8 days and the decision to film in certain cities was largely based on the actors he wanted to work with.

Using Tom Waits songs as bookends, sounding very much like a 1930’s Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil cabaret song, “Good Old World” opens the film with the music before we see anything, Night On Earth (Jim Jarmusch, 1991) - Part 1 YouTube (15:00).  The enclosed space of a taxicab allows various speech patterns to develop, each significantly different as the evening wears on, followed by slowly emerging personalities.  This is a minimalist theater of non-action, as there are no thrills and spills, little suspense, yet plenty of well-written, personally insightful dialogue that explores the four corners of the earth.  For the most part it’s well acted, though on occasion certain roles appear strained.  Shot by Frederick Elmes, who worked the camera for three mid-70’s Cassavetes films, also two decades with David Lynch (1970’s to 1990), the opening sequence accentuates the quirky individualism of LA, seen as an artificial wasteland of fast food joints and eccentric personalities, where gum-chewing tomboy Winona Ryder (never comfortable in the role) is an unconventional cab driver continually lost in her own funk, a women who sets her sights so low she may as well not have any ambition at all.  When Hollywood casting agent Gena Rowlands (who spends much of the time on a cell phone) gets into her cab, she’s a bit taken aback by her overly aggressive nature, thinking she might be perfect for a difficult role she’s thinking of, exerting youthful angst in nearly every sentence she utters, but Ryder prefers to keep her life uncomplicated, where easy street (in LA) is a life without aggravations or stress.

The transition to the streets of New York City is something of a shock, as the blustery winter cold is a reality check, where Giancarlo Esposito, from Spike Lee’s SCHOOL DAZE (1988) and DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), is a revelation in what is easily the most enjoyable segment, where the guy is a laugh riot throughout, where the sheer force of his continually likable personality dominates the segment.  Unable to hail a cab, literally exposing cash dollars to prove he has money for the fare, yet cabs pass by in droves leaving him stranded on the street mumbling to himself.  Finally when a clunker arrives in a permanent start and stop mode, we realize this is the taxicab from Hell.  Inside is Armin Mueller-Stahl, a driver who can barely speak English, who acts like this is his first day in the United States, looking around the city wide-eyed as if he’s never seen it before.  But the guy is such a horrible driver, out of sheer desperation Esposito is forced to take over the wheel.  However, on route he sees his sister-in-law, Rosie Perez, otherwise known as the mouth.  If Esposito was funny, Perez is hysterical, a non-stop battering ram of verbal insults using the F-word with utter relish, throwing it back in everybody’s face, where this may be the performance of the film, as her energy level is simply off the charts.  After awhile, once they’ve settled down, they actually start enjoying one another, where the “real” cab driver may as well be an alien from another planet, as he is so starkly strange and different from them, as are they to him.  A running gag on differing perspectives, this segment is a joyous romp, like a wild trip through the wilderness.       

Once in Paris, the highly indignant cab driver Isaach de Bankolé (with a band-aid over his eyebrow, something never explained), an émigré from the Ivory Coast, takes offense at the drunk yet blatant stereotypical caricature coming from two black guys in the back seat, supposedly in the employ of highly placed diplomats from Africa, yet their broad-based racial profiling of black Africans borders on repulsive, yet they think it’s hilarious, enjoying every snide remark that continuously belittles others.  Isaach contemptuously throws them out of the cab, leaving them on a deserted corner in the middle of the night, refusing to accept any more abuse, eventually picking up Béatrice Dalle, a blind passenger who defiantly wants no sympathy for her condition.  When Isaach starts questioning her obvious limitations, suggesting blindness must make her life difficult, she counters with insults about his obvious mental limitations which must deprive him of a fuller life.  While their back and forth conversation is testy, it’s always surprising, where both actors find fully realized characters in a brief amount of time, where Dalle especially couldn’t be more delightfully feisty.  The two segments of passengers are an interesting contrast, as Isaach grew thin-skinned at the crudely insensitive suggestions of the former, where it turns out he was the instigator of callous remarks with the latter, yet rather than growing furiously temperamental, like Isaach, at what were obviously superficially silly remarks, Dalle deftly handles herself with utter nonchalance, growing annoyed, as if she’s heard it all before, but making fun of his obvious limitations.  It’s an interesting play on race and preconceived notions, made all the more appealing by the passing Parisian landscape where the lights over the river look particularly impressive at night. 

The sequence in Rome is an endlessly rambling monologue from Roberto Benigni as the cab driver, where easily the funniest part is right at the beginning when in a thick Italian accent he ridiculously attempts to sing the Marty Robbins cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” Marty Robbins - The Streets Of Laredo - YouTube (2:49).  This gives you some idea of what kind of loony character he is, where once he picks up a priest, Paolo Bonacelli from Francesco Rosi’s CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI (1979) and Antonioni’s THE MYSTERY OF OBERWALD (1981), he starts right in and can’t stop himself from unleashing an excruciatingly detailed, sexually tinged confession of his earliest childhood sins in graphic detail, revealing every thought, every scent, every gesture, and every glance, a motor-mouthed display of delusional, self-serving confession, making a reality TV show out of it, where it has nothing whatsoever to do with seeking religious penitence, but becomes an exhilarating ride of an endless stream of near masturbatory verbiage.  While the priest attempts to dissuade his efforts, suggesting a taxicab is an inappropriate substitute for the church, but Benigni only gets more impressed with the idea of having such supreme luck to pick up an actual priest in his cab, ignoring the obvious medical affliction of his passenger.  This is another example of the two being on separate wavelengths, where an actual church official instills no sense of respect, honor, or interior contemplation, but is treated no differently than the whores he chases down on the street, where the driver always remains affable and friendly to everyone, but is too caught up in his own world to ever actually listen or hear what anyone else has to offer, where he will forever remain beholden to himself only, stuck inside a self-deluded prison of his own making, literally a stranger to the world around him.      
The sadly poetic final sequence is a brilliant tribute to the Kaurismäki Brothers, set in the frigid snow of Helsinki, where the depressive looking driver is appropriately enough named Mika (Aki’s brother), played by Matti Pellonpää, who appeared in 18 Aki Kaurismäki films and 7 of Mika’s.  This final episode carries with it the weight of finality, as it’s literally replete with the miserablism and doom that pervade all their films, turning Helsinki into the literal shithole of the world.  A night wouldn’t be compete without listening to a trio of drunken revelers boast about their world of woe, misfits one and all, each one more wretched than the next, where a well-lived life seems to be a collection of heartbreaking experiences, which gives one’s miserablist existence some weight.  This miniature perfection of storytelling, which completely captures the darkly comic Finnish state of mind, is told in two segments, where the drunken guys moan and wail about the pitiful life of their third partner (Aki) who is passed out in the back seat, a man much deserving of his semi-conscious state, who is the most drunk after suffering “the worst day of his life,” which they feel is like a badge of honor Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 1 YouTube (7:32).  After hearing their tale of woe, there’s a brief pause, then Mika suggests with complete sincerity, “Things could have been worse.”  When the burden of proof is suddenly on his shoulders, he has them crying like babies within minutes, where they’re soon calling Aki’s life “so full of shit…some people have real troubles.” Night on Earth, Helsinki - Part 2 (13:18).  With the mood turning on a dime, Jarmusch has captured the essence of the fickle nature of humans, loyal to the very end, until they find someone new.  Showing the world with a comic-tinged winter glow, there’s a melancholic sadness about the bleak nature of existence, where misery really does love company, as a new day begins again with Tom Waits bringing home the finale with “Back in the Good Old World” Tom Waits - Good Old World YouTube (9:42).