Monday, December 31, 2012

Promised Land (2012)


PROMISED LAND                 B-                   
USA (107 mi)  2012  d:  Gus van Sant                          Official site

Gus van Sant helped make Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s careers by directing them in their Academy Award winning first screenplay, GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997), coming to the rescue again at the last moment filling in for what was to be Matt Damon’s initial foray into directing, pulling out with just 5 weeks before shooting began, but van Sant admirably pulls off a respectable small-town picture set in the rural farm country of Western Pennsylvania.  While the film has a conventional structure of big city corporate honchos visiting small time farmers eager to buy up farmland leases in order to drill for natural gas, promising large sums of money, in some cases millions, to farmers whose land may already be leased due to the hard economic times.  Seemingly easy pickings, two corporate sales personnel are sent in from Global Solutions, a rising West coast star Steve Butler (Matt Damon) and his partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand).  Buying flannel shirts and a pick up truck to look the part, they set out to convince the town to accept the company’s offer of money in exchange for drilling rights.  This has all the makings of a David vs. Goliath scenario, especially when an aging town spokesperson, the plain speaking Hal Holbrook as Frank Yates, a local science teacher, suggests this offer could ruin their land and water supplies.  When Butler suggests those are just rumors supplied by their competitors, Yates counters that this is a dangerous and tricky business where accidents or catastrophes have been known to happen.  When he urges the town to put it to a vote, Butler has 3 weeks to convince a majority that hydraulic fracturing technology, which can drill deeper than previously expected, has led to major increases in natural gas reserves and may not only get them rich, but that it’s safe and may be their only option.

The subject is reminiscent of Laura Israel’s recent documentary WINDFALL (2010) about installing giant wind turbines in upstate New York, especially since the chosen area happens to be among New York’s poorest counties and represents financial incentives to the dramatically declining dairy farm business.  What’s curious is the cross-section of people in town, rural folks who all know and trust one another, who have natural suspicions of outsiders, but who like the sincere, folksy, look-them-in-the-eye approach of Butler.  His position is immediately undermined, however, by the arrival of co-writer John Krasinski as Dustin Noble, a hard corps conservationist representative who aims to win over the town, immediately out-applying the folksy charm at local watering holes, singing popular country ballads on open mike night, providing pictures all over town of dead cows in the wake of Global Solutions drilling.  Soon he has the citizens eating out of the palm of his hand, including a bright and attractive local schoolteacher Butler has his eye on, Rosemarie DeWitt as Alice.  What seemed like a simple proposition turns into a personal nightmare, as Noble is brash and intuitive, knowing everything ahead of time about Butler and Global Solutions, where he’s always one step in front of their efforts, leaving this expert corporate team to continually second guess themselves.  His swagger and confidence gone, as much of the town has turned against them, Butler is running out of options.  While he has a majority of the landholders signed under contracts, he doesn’t have a majority of the town’s eligible voters. 

What’s intriguing about the film is the audience tends to side with Matt Damon, even if he’s a corporate shark, because he’s just an Iowa farm boy himself whose town lost everything when the Caterpillar plant went belly up.  In his mind, he’s actually helping these people, offering what they need, but audiences also tend to be suspicious of $9 billion dollar corporations that rarely tell the whole truth.  It’s also easy to side with Noble’s counter arguments, as no one likes to see dead livestock, but his arrogance in continuing to show up the corporate superstar is infuriating.  Despite their high powered reputations, there’s little evidence of it on display, as instead this corporate duo seem like a beaten team, especially when they construct a country fair and carnival, complete with a Ferris wheel, pony rides and pig races, even a tractor pull, all the things local farmers and their families adore, but a downpour of rain puts an end to that dream, leaving them hopelessly outclassed by a smug amateur.  The picture of the rural locale is beautifully captured by Linus Sandgren, while the melancholic score by Danny Elfman is quietly in reserve, leaving a sad tinge to this picture, as there was never much of a fight.  The only face to face discussions take place at that initial town meeting, where the voice of Frank Yates becomes the conscious of the community, as he demonstrates a knowledgeable foresight in not jumping at the money.  But the overall picture is clouded somewhat by a mysterious plot twist that suggests the argument is not fully resolved, that it is still developing, and that each community will have to deal with a similar story.  What’s perhaps most surprising is how close this story resembles the predictable plot to THE MUSIC MAN (1962), where a swindling outsider comes to sell a bill of goods to the unsuspecting people of River City, Iowa, where the town’s goodness and moral righteousness, not to mention the attractiveness of the town librarian (Shirley Jones), makes him see the light, turning a con man into a productive citizen.  A similar state of enlightenment adds a touch of ambiguity to this picture as well, where the moral seems to be “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” 70s Mother Nature *Chiffon* Margarine Commercial - YouTube (31 seconds).

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Not Fade Away

NOT FADE AWAY           B+  
USA  (112 mi)  2012  d:  David Chase             Official site

They say good things come in small packages, and this is the latest from The Sopranos (1999 – 2007) writer/director David Chase, where you’d expect plenty of advance publicity, but this little film flies under the radar.  Set in the early 60’s paralleling a well-known story of when childhood friends Keith Richards and Mick Jagger met at a railway station in 1960, where the Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry records Jagger was carrying caught Richard’s eye, claiming he could already play some of those tunes on the guitar, and thus a band (with the help of fellow artist Brian Jones) named The Rolling Stones was born.  Narrated at both the beginning and end by an unseen young girl (who turns out to be the lead character’s barely seen younger sister, Meg Guzulescu), she suggests this story concerns another band that no one’s ever heard of, similarly formed about the same time.  This eerie voice is reminiscent of the rich, descriptive detail described by a collective Greek chorus narrative in the 1993 novel The Virgin Suicides, which turns out to be neighborhood boys recalling a family of gorgeously attractive young girls across the street during the 1970’s.  Much like the director’s own life, this story concerns a group of young teenage boys from suburban New Jersey in the 1960’s, led by Douglas (John Magaro), the drummer and eventual lead singer of a rock band that he forms with a couple friends, temperamental lead guitarist Eugene (Jack Huston) and childhood best friend Wells (Will Brill), playing covers of bands admired by the Stones, giving this movie a killer soundtrack assembled by E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt.  While all these guys talk about is music and their band, just waiting for the day when they get discovered, building their lives for that inevitability, they also all vie for the attention of a beautiful young girl who takes an interest in their music, Grace (Bella Heathcote), who adds a luminous Marianne Faithfull aura of mystique.  What’s apparent from the outset is this is about more than the music, which is heard continuously throughout the film, becoming a strangely evocative period piece of the early 60’s.

Of interest, this film tells the story with jagged edges, as it never advances in a straight line, providing novelesque detail to what amounts to a short story, always adding more than the viewer needs, giving the film a poetic lyricism, becoming less about their individual lives and more about the time they’re living in.  If viewers get hung up on the narrative of what’s happening, which includes plenty of plot meanderings, they may miss much of the period embellishment that is an essential ingredient to the film, actually becoming the central focus of the film, beautifully capturing the era’s conflicting attitudes.  The band continuously gets bogged down in minor disputes and disagreements, eventually having to deal with the melodramatic, self-destructive outbursts of Eugene, where they are continuously in a state of flux, always becoming something they have yet to achieve.  Meanwhile, life goes on, where Douglas’s Dad, none other than James Gandolfini (priceless, as always), gives him plenty of generation gap grief, “my son dresses like a queer,” where Dad’s upset by his Dylanesque hair and artsy fartsy plans, none of which pay the bills, waiting for him to get real and develop a legitimate career instead of throwing his life away on a stupid dream that will never amount to anything.  But Douglas is a product of the times, keying into the bohemian subculture where art and music have a mystical ability to transcend ordinary, everyday routines.  In this way, the film is a kissing cousin to Olivier Assayas’s similarly autobiographical account of his own turbulent life in the 60’s, Something in the Air (Après mai) (2012), though a few years before the Parisian student demonstrations in May ’68.  One of the more amusing scenes is witnessing Douglas and Grace in a movie theater watching Antonioni’s BLOW-UP (1966), where Douglas is struck by lengthy scenes of silence in a public park where “nothing is happening” and there are no musical cues to evoke mood.  Grace, however, has the good sense to recognize that “the trees are the music.”    

Early in the film, the band, produced and assisted by Van Zandt (who interestingly also plays Silvio Dante, the behind-the-scenes consigliere to the Soprano family), spends plenty of time playing covers of familiar radio music, always searching for that ever elusive music contract, where by the time they finally discover an agent, Brad Garrett, he lays it out straight, giving them the facts of life, suggesting the music business is “10% inspiration and 90% perspiration,” instructing them to pay their dues and develop a loyal fanbase in local bar scenes, much like the Beatles did in Hamburg, Germany or the Ramones in New York’s CBGB.  But in the changing times, Douglas wants to get away from Jersey with Grace and head to Los Angeles, parting company with the band.  Once that part of the story ends, the final sequences are among the more poetically ambiguous of any film seen this year, as their coming-of age lives simply evolve.  The transition from East coast to West coast is mesmerizing, especially the sadness etched on his Dad’s face watching his own dreams drive away in the form of his son, where in LA he may as well be a stranger in a strange land, as the West coast has a rapidly developing counterculture movement while he’s still dressing with the straight crowd wearing sport jackets.  Having always defined himself as an artist fronting a band, he suddenly finds himself without a purpose or meaning in life, stripped naked, just a solitary soul, where there may be hundreds of thousands or more just like him, discovering he’s not so unique.  This revelation is chilling, but one that personifies the 60’s, where the Baby Boomer’s sober up and come of age only to discover they’re just like everybody else, defined by their own mediocrity and routine.  There’s a beautifully written scene where Douglas is aimlessly hitchhiking into the unknown, with no particular destination, a Jack Nicholson moment right out of FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), and someone dressed like one of the mimes in Antonioni’s BLOW-UP stops to pick him up, but he’s not yet ready to go there, into the empty spaces between what’s real and what’s only imagined, into the quiet rustle of Antonioni’s trees.  It’s an open question whether cinema can replace music as the new obsession in Douglas’s life, or drugs, or the protest movement, becoming something of an unanswered reverie expressed only through a curious final abstraction. 

‘Not Fade Away’ Soundtrack Track Listing

‘There Was a Time’ – James Brown
‘Tell Me’ – the Rolling Stones
‘Ride On Baby’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘Bo Diddley’ – Bo Diddley
‘Bo Diddley’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘Parachute Woman’ – the Rolling Stones
‘Go Now’ – the Moody Blues
‘Time Is on My Side’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘Dust My Broom’ – Elmore James
‘I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart’ – the Rascals
‘Good Morning Blues’ – Leadbelly
‘Train Kept A Rollin’’ – Johnny Burnette & the Rock N’ Roll Trio
‘Train Kept A Rollin’’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘Pretty Ballerina’ – the Left Banke
‘Down So Low’ – Mother Earth
‘Itchycoo Park’ – the Small Faces
‘Me and the Devil Blues’ – Robert Johnson
‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘T.B. Sheets’ – Van Morrison
‘Some Velvet Morning’ – Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazelwood
‘Bali Ha’i’ (From South Pacific) – Original Motion Picture Cast
‘Road Runner’ – the Sex Pistols
‘Pipeline’ – the Twylight Zones*
‘She Belongs To Me’ – Bob Dylan
Digital Bonus Track: ‘Surgical Supply Jingle’

*Includes seven songs by the fictional band the Twylight Zones, with stars John Magaro and Jack Huston contributing their own vocals to the tracks, which were produced by Steven Van Zandt. The music was performed by Van Zandt and fellow E Street Band members Max Weinberg and Garry Tallent, with their old friend Bobby Bandiera of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED        D                    
USA  (165 mi)  2012  ‘Scope  d:  Quentin Tarantino                 Official site

Slavery as entertainment?It is in Quentin Tarantino’s world, where next to nothing about slavery is learned by watching this film.    

In matters of racial understanding, historical or otherwise, it’s a curious thing about fantasy, as it doesn’t really fit anywhere, but exists in a netherworld all its own.  Some may take delight in the imaginings of male revenge fantasies where women are mere afterthoughts, while others will wonder what’s the point of bringing a comic book, super hero sensibility to matters of actual American history?  Do we really need, as an example, a heroic Abraham Lincoln riding a thunderous horse through the rebel lines killing Confederates at Gettysburg bringing victory to the Union, or a Southern version where the Confederacy is victorious?  As these events never actually happened, one might question the purpose of anyone presenting movies in such a manner.  And so it is with slave fantasies that exist outside historical reality, where one wonders who gains from this perspective, or simply what’s the point?   The idea of a white savior director retelling a revisionist, wish fulfillment black slave fantasy makes about as much sense as a movie with Jesus rising up and murdering Pontius Pilate right there on the spot.  Is the world a better place for having experienced such a rendering?  In typical Tarantino fashion, this is another B-movie blaxploitation saga set a few years before the Civil War about an escaped slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) that wreaks havoc and a trail of dead bodies along the way as he seeks to find his missing wife on their road to freedom.  As this director has done since his earliest films, he continues to immerse his films with the use of the word “nigger,” using the historical pretext to literally bombard the viewer with its over-use by both black and white characters, as if intending to either find humor or neutralize the meaning of the word.  Of course, just the opposite happens, as the repugnant peculiarity of hearing the word “nigger” repeated so often is like hearing a bell ring repeatedly with each use, calling attention to itself again and again, where it doesn’t shock or provoke, but regrettably plummets into a sinkhole of adolescent tastelessness, as it has throughout Tarantino’s entire career.  

While the film plays out like an irreverent spaghetti western, using stereotype and exaggeration, what’s missing is the everpresent tone of danger and suspense in Sergio Leone movies, where the bad guys (Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach) are often as cunning and conniving as the hero, where extreme character ingenuity places the outcome in doubt.  In this film, like blaxploitation movies, the outcome is never in doubt, as the world is broken down into good and evil, and evil gets a taste of its own medicine.  The problem here is not the revenge fantasy itself, such as the bumbling Klu Klux Klan raid that amusingly gets hung up on the pettiness of seemingly insignificant details, but the loathsome degree of wretched sadism that goes along with it, which brings a repellant nature to the film.  Outside of two central characters, Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, a highly successful bounty hunter, and Foxx as Django, a young apprentice in the trade, who operate as a professionally trained team throughout, and an always convincing appearance from Samuel L. Jackson as an ever faithful yet uppity house “nigger,” there is no character development whatsoever.  If this were a rollicking screwball comedy where people were continually being made fun of, perhaps exaggeration and excess would be relevant to the style of humor, but much of this is no laughing matter, and is instead simply endless talking waiting around for something vile to happen, where the foul and tasteless use of the n-word passes for the otherwise missing drama, where the South is continually reduced to typical ROOTS (1977) style set pieces and sadistic white stereotypes, people with a salacious appetite for the most gruesome aspects of slavery.  For a near 3-hour film, this can only be described as excessive, especially when it’s being passed off as Hollywood entertainment.  Waltz is easily the most entertaining character, while as a German European he’s also the least racially offensive, relishing his role as a skilled marksman, who has a way of concealing that fact through his endless verbiage which acts as a smokescreen or camouflage for his real intentions, murder for hire.     

Foxx is a bit preposterous in the role, as he quickly shifts from a nearly inaudible chained slave huddled together with other similarly shackled men to a highly skilled black cowboy with excellent horsemanship and near perfect shooting skills, where the audacity of what comes out of his mouth would no doubt have gotten him shot in real life, but in this version people somehow avoid the temptation, perhaps enthralled by the prospective financial incentives offered by Dr. King, a method used to lure out his targets.  Waltz’s introductory gift for gab is charming, where his flowery elucidation of the English language in the remote, uneducated frontier of the American West has an element of the patently absurd about it, where most of the humor is in the earlier stages of their friendship.  By the time they get to a slave plantation in Mississippi, where the continuously smug Leonardo DiCaprio continually overacts as the smarmy plantation owner who happens to be in possession of Django’s wife, a slave supposedly given the mythical name of Brünnhilde (Kerry Washington) by her white German mistress, the bounty hunters are knee deep in Southern Gothic plantation lore, expressed through a series of ever increasing levels of sadistic horror viewed with varying degrees of pleasure, such as witnessing a slave get eaten alive by a pack of wild dogs, or casually watching, over cocktails, Mandingo fighters battle to the death.  Why this needs to be exhibited as entertainment fodder in the film is an open question, as in SHOAH (1985), Claude Lanzmann makes a 9 and ½ hour Holocaust documentary without ever showing the death camps, and Rolf de Heer’s THE TRACKER (2002) reveals the wisdom and cultural insight of a chained black Aboriginal in the Australian outback, continually differentiating between the brutal racism of his white captors and the sly intelligence of his own character.  Rather than escalate these cultural differences in a journey of mounting psychological dread, Tarantino simply leads us where he predictably always leads his audience, into a nihilistic, apocalyptic hellfire of explosions and gunfire, where bodies are strewn across the screen in a landscape of the collected dead, where it may as well be zombies getting blown away.  This is a sorry excuse for a movie turning the wretchedness of slavery into sports bar entertainment. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rust and Bone (De rouille et d'os)

RUST AND BONE (De rouille et d'os)            B                     
France  Belgium  (123 mi)  2011 ‘Scope  d:  Jacques Audiard    

Another savagely brutal film, where it seems directors have to ply ever deeper into extraordinary realms of violence to find new avenues of exploration for a public that apparently never grows saturated.  Part of the problem with elevating levels of violence is alienating an audience from the characters, who are often overly alienated themselves, creating a moral abyss or a human void, where characters onscreen are often numb to the world around them.  While Audiard has previously created vividly interesting characters, a gangster who plays classical piano in The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeu... (2005), or a prison inmate lured into a larger criminal underworld as an act of self preservation in 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet ... (2009), here his script lets him down with two lead characters so disconnected from the world and so completely repressed emotionally that it’s difficult to care about people who care so little for themselves.  Without offering any background information, Marion Cotillard plays Stéphanie, a trainer of Orca whales at the local French Marineland, while Matthias Schoenaerts, so unbelievably compelling in Bullhead (Rundskop) (2011), returns as Ali, a physically imposing, bulked up martial arts kickboxer who appears to be slumming it as a nightclub bouncer.  When Stéphanie gets her nose bloodied at a nightclub brawl, Ali politely drives her home where both get a good look at one another, but nothing comes of it.  Ali apparently left Belgium and is living with his always harried sister Anna (Corrine Masiero), who works as a check out clerk at a grocery store, and also, it seems, is the designated parent of Ali’s 5-year old son Sam (Arman Verdure), with no mother in the picture and a derelict father who takes momentary interest but then mostly ignores his responsibilities.   

Ali drifts to another job, installing black market security devices intended to spy on company staff instead of the public, as due to union protections this is often the only way to fire incompetent staff, becoming very popular with employers.   While we get a glimpse of both of them at their jobs, just brief sketches are provided, as neither employer is explored with any detail, where instead Audiard creates a sense of personal detachment simply by not taking more of an interest himself.  After what amounts to an audience feel-good music video by Kate Perry Katy Perry - Firework - YouTube (3:54) of synchronized Orca whales jumping in formation out of the water, all mysteriously goes haywire in a disaster that is never really shown, only suggested in a Jane Campion-style abstract underwater rendering that instead follows the devastating aftermath where Stéphanie wakes up in a hospital missing both legs below the knees.  While she’s psychologically traumatized, alone and alienated in a stunning reversal of fortune, Audiard also intercuts scenes of Ali watching YouTube video tapes of memorable martial arts fighters, where he’s offered extra money if he’ll participate in a few street brawls, which are little different than dog or cockfighting, as they’re brutally repellent illegal enterprises that make gads of quick money on high stakes betting.  With no one else to turn to, Stéphanie turns to Ali, calling him out of the blue, where he actually rises to the occasion, refusing to show pity, offering her instead some well-deserved consideration.  It should be noted that in the process, he continually ignores his own kid and often abuses him as well, so Ali is hardly a sympathetic character, turning this into a variation on the Beauty and the Beast story, where interestingly, Stéphanie might appear to be the beauty, but internally she feels as grotesque and disfigured as the beast, and similarly Ali might seem to be the beast, but in her eyes, with his physical prowess intact, she gazes longingly at the beauty in his physique and body movement, even if much of it is displayed in brute fashion.    

Much of the problem in this film is the way Audiard just skims over the surface, treating his leads like isolated planets revolving around themselves, never connecting to a universe around them, fast forwarding Stéphanie’s recovery without ever showing how difficult it is to recover from such an impactful injury.  In this film, she’s able to leglessly (and gracefully, in perhaps the most gorgeous scene in the film) swim in the sea or miraculously walk without wobbling just days after receiving two prosthetic legs, hardly realistic, as normally the recovery time is in months and years Stryker soldier learning to walk on two prosthetic legs | FOB Tacoma .  5-year old Sam doesn’t age a bit, and of course takes to Stéphanie right away, so you’d think there’s a chance Ali might change his ways, but he stubbornly remains just as troubling with him as always, showing little patience for the difficulties children exhibit learning new things.  Cotillard and especially Schoenaerts are both superb and work well together, but the predictable material lets them down, so instead this is a performance generated movie, where the complexity of their damaged souls is actually a mirror image of one another, where they can seek solace in what each must overcome.  Perhaps the problem is attempting to combine into one narrative a series of collected short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, so rather than a series of vignettes, Audiard attempts to link them all together, which might explain the disjointed and contrived narrative elements.  In this film, their developing love (without actually loving) just happens out of the blue, much like Stéphanie’s recovery, without showing the difficulty of the enormous personal investment needed.  Somewhat reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 GRAMS, where a freak accident causes a chain reaction, this is a painful film about loss and disappointment, leading to a kind of unadmitted, internalized desperation that plays out like open sores.  The finale, though beautifully expressed in the winter snow, feels horribly contrived, as Ali suddenly takes an interest in his son, something he hasn’t done throughout the entire movie, kind of wrapping the whole picture up in a bow.  Despite using a completely unsentimentalized approach, a story of love without romance, fueled by two immensely damaged and heavily guarded characters, the performances alone are not enough to suggest that shared personal misfortune can somehow overcome human inadequacy, as the redemptive breakthrough at the end hardly feels naturalistic or well earned.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon coeur s'est arête)

(De battre mon coeur s'est arête)         B+                  
France  (108 mi)  2005  d:  Jacques Audiard

There’s a monkey on my back

A French update on James Toback’s 1978 debut film FINGERS, a film considered by Jonathan Rosenbaum as little more than “macho braggadocio,” however, the hyper-kinetic style alone in this updated version rocks, mixing the in-your-face, cinéma vérité, hand-held camera work of Stéphane Fontaine with the immediacy of French New Wave quick cut editing, where the attention span is a mere few seconds, creating a nervous tension in the way the film is presented that matches the mood of the lead character, Romain Duris, who could be the poster child for the word angst, a sensitive thug who plays techno-rock on his headset, thumping away with his fingers to the beat, including the wrenching sounds of The Kills “Monkey 23” The Kills - Monkey 23 - YouTube (3:02).  He’s the son of a deceased classical pianist and an overweight, over-indulgent slumlord father, Niels Arestup, who could be a stand-in for Toback, whose mannerisms resemble late Brando.  He takes care of the dirty family business for Dad, retrieving, by any means necessary, the hard to collect overdue rent, usually through an improvisational violent assault that includes a near death experience. He collaborates with a couple other dirtbags-in-suits who specialize in get rich quick real estate schemes, also including a mix of Mafioso-style legalese and plenty of muscle, stopping to have an affair with the alluring wife (Aure Atika) of one of his best friends, who he usually sees when he brings his friend home drunk, making sure the Toback influenced sex and violence explode off the screen. 

Duris, however, has another interest on the side—his continued interest in being a classical pianist, which leads him to an audition later in the month, which requires intensive training.  He hires a recent émigré from China (Linh Dan Pham) who speaks Chinese, Vietnamese, and a little English, but no French.  Perfect.  Their scenes together are among the best in the entire film, as he has an explosive temper that he has to keep under wraps, and achieving an emotionally controlled pianistic perfection is no easy feat.  Their communication together, each speaking their own language or watching their body language or hearing their quiet silences, is a revelation in this film that features the recurring universe and behavior of thugs.  The contradiction here is too apparent, as he uses his hands to bash people’s skulls in, yet they’re also required to obtain a musical state of grace.  It was impossible not to think of what happened to Fast Eddie Felson in THE HUSTLER (1961).  Duris, however, pulls this off, seemingly a bit of a psychotic, nearly always with a slight grin on his face, who shows us on more than one occasion how quickly he can think on his feet, so the internal wheels are always churning, but he also quietly and respectfully has a cup of tea with his piano teacher, revealing a calmness after the storm.  The story is always a bit implausible, but the realization of a man torn between two distinctly polar opposite worlds is both internally and externally raw, edgy and well-conceived.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?             A                    
USA  Great Britain  France  (107 mi)  2000  ‘Scope  d:  Joel and Ethan Coen

O Muse,
Sing in me, and through me tell the story
Of that man skilled in all the ways of contending
A wanderer, harried for years on end…

Writing, directing, producing, and editing their own films, this series of FARGO (1996), THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), and O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? may be the peak of the Coen Brother invention and creativity.  Originating in the mind of Preston Sturges from the great American classic Sullivan's Travels (1941), this Coen Brothers manic romp through the American South plays like a double bill, stealing the title from the film Sullivan originally wanted to make about the Great Depression, returning to the era of the 1930’s.  While the film is a wildly exaggerated comical farce throughout, creating a mythical landscape filled with colorful characters that all resemble Southern stereotypes, similarly evolving through a series of surrealist, Odysseus-like misadventures, turning into a meandering heroic journey of self-discovery, overcoming plenty of “ob-stack-les” along the way.  While this doesn’t have the heft of the original, where madcap comedy is mixed with rare dramatic realism, creating an underlying core of poverty-laden bleakness, the Coens are instead content to maintain a subversive tone of screwball comedy throughout, where much like Sullivan’s conversion at the end of his travails, he just wanted to make a tribute to comedy.  Who better than the Coens to make a mockery of some rather grand Southern traditions, yet in doing so, they retain something essentially American in the process, where free speech is one of our founding principles.  Opening with a prison break, 3 escapees from the Mississippi Parchman Farm chain gang become our anointed heroes on the journey, the slick-haired, sharp-tongued George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, the ringleader of the pack, with John Turturro as Pete, the eternally pessimistic and constantly complaining sidekick, and the ever loveable Tim Blake Nelson as the sweetly generous and overly optimistic but “dumb as rocks” Delmar.  Chained together in prison garb, they create quite a sight, but the clue to their success is their constant, congenial banter, where Ulysses is always philosophizing about some nonsense, with Pete his constant foil and nemesis, with Delmar always dreaming about something else entirely.  Adding to the film’s massive appeal is the eclectic country music soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, including spirituals, gospel, delta blues, country, a capella, folk music, and swing, becoming a major component of the film, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001 GRAMMY® Album of the Year for 2001, O Brother, Where Art Thou ..., where the movie is single-handedly responsible for a bluegrass revival in America.  

Adding a digitally enhanced sepia tone, the cinematography by Roger Deakins captures that dusty look of endless dirt roads and golden hue’d crops, where the prison breakout music used is “Big Rock Candy Mountain” BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAINS - Harry Mac McClintock ... - YouTube (2:29), adding an element of fantasy and colorful hobo storytelling, where the period-specific music continues to be part of the story.  With the bloodhounds after them, almost immediately we’re immersed in the mythical aspect of the tale, where a blind black man drives a railway handcar that they hoist themselves onto for a getaway, where he mystifyingly foretells their future in exact detail, a reference to Homer, the ancient blind Greek author of The Odyssey.   After a brief incident with the law, where Ulysses can continually be heard muttering “Damn! We're in a tight spot!” a little kid gets them out of a jam with his reckless driving, exactly as in the Sturges film, where we discover Ulysses has a thing for Dapper Dan hair gel, leaving a trail of empty tin cans behind.  Despite their continuing series of misadventures, discovering sexually promiscuous sirens at a riverbank The Sirens - O Brother, Where Art Thou? (5/10) Movie ... - YouTube (3:30), picking up Tommy, a young black guitarist (Chris Thomas King) at a crossroads who sold his soul to the Devil, a reference to Delta blues great Robert Johnson who wrote the song “Cross Road Blues” Robert Johnson CrossRoads - Cross Road Blues ... YouTube (2:29), making a brief appearance at a rural radio station where as the Soggy Bottom Boys they cut a record that becomes an instant hit across the South (even to Mobile, Alabama!), O Brother Where Art Though - The Soggy Bottom Boys - I ... - YouTube (3:29), a bullet-filled run-in with Pretty Boy Floyd on a bank robbery spree, where they never appear far from the chain gang, who continually reappear throughout the film.  Again mirroring a scene from the original, but with a slightly demented twist, Ulysses is in a movie theater with Delmar discussing the unavoidable untrustworthiness of women in general when sheriffs appear with rifles at both exits and the movie stops.  Thinking they are in another tight spot about to be apprehended, the sheriffs usher the chain gang into the theater, as they are granted permission to watch the movies.   

Cultural references abound in this film, where in several instances the screen visualization is a reference to Eudora Welty WPA photographs, where a remote broken down shack matches the boyhood home of Ulysses, MWP Welty Gallery: Home with Bottle-trees (photograph), while earlier we saw two young kids carrying large blocks of ice down a country road, Carrying the Ice Home for Sunday Dinner « AZ SOAP.  A corrupt governor’s race becomes part of the background, with all the hick populist mannerisms and good ‘ol boy jokes, where the song “You Are My Sunshine” was the theme song of Louisiana’s two-term “Singing Governor” Jimmie Davis Jimmie Davis You Are My Sunshine - YouTube (2:54), and where Ulysses’ long unseen wife Penelope (Holly Hunter) is being courted by the campaign manager of the reform candidate, promising more of a stable future than Ulysses can offer, leaving him moping about his rotten luck.  In what is easily the most controversial sequence, in a film that features remarkable set pieces, our heroes have an accidental run-in with a Klu Klux Klan rally, which is choreographed like a Busby Berkeley musical, yet resembles the menace of the flying monkeys marching in formation in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939).  Our heroes are honor bound to crash the lynching party to rescue Tommy, where the Grand Wizard is, of course, one of the gubernatorial candidates who is seen later getting run out of town on a rail.  Escaping under cover of Marx Brothers style mayhem and pandemonium, this is all part of the Coen Brothers whimsical comic madness, where the entire film is a series of setbacks, disasters, escapes and near misses, where death is always close at hand.  Yet through it all, these lead characters maintain their essential goodness through their flair for comic goofiness and unending naiveté.  George Clooney apparently rehearsed for weeks to sing the signature song “A Man of Constant Sorrow,” ultimately sung by Dan Tyminski, a member of the band Alison Krauss and Union Station, but he does get credit for his own on-stage moves, a kind of Appalachian chicken dance that the choreographers hated but always made the Coens laugh, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU - Constant ... YouTube (7:05).  A film literally steeped in popular culture, it shows America at its best, warts and all, where folksy, down to earth humor literally rules the day.  It was Sullivan who had a change of heart and decided even the most wretched and troublesome souls facing a lifetime in prison could be moved by the joy of laughter, where humanity universally has a soft spot for comedy.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sullivan's Travels

SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS       A                    
USA  (90 mi)  1941  d:  Preston Sturges

To the memory of those who made us laugh: to the motley mountebacks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.  

Preston Sturges began his career as a playwright, earning more than a quarter of a million dollars by his second Broadway play, Strictly Dishonorable, a staggering figure at the outset of the Depression in the late 1920’s, eventually becoming a movie screenwriter in the 1930’s, becoming disenchanted with the way Hollywood directors were handling his dialogue, so he traded in his salary rights for the screenplay of THE GREAT MCGINTY (1940) for the chance to direct the film, something that set a precedent for later writer/directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston, not only to direct their own material, but to assemble their own unofficial stock company.  With Paramount promoting the film, it was a modest financial success, with Sturges winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, his first of three nominations in the category, also including two films from 1944, HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK.  Though he had a thirty-year career in Hollywood, Sturges’ most prolific output came between 1940 to 1944, writing 7 comedies, four of which were chosen by the American Film Institute (AFI) among their 100 funniest American films, after which his career (still in his mid-40’s) over the next 15 years sputtered, eventually dying bankrupt and forgotten while writing his memoirs in New York’s Algonquin Hotel, a haven for literary figures, very similar, oddly enough, to the fizzled career of actress Veronica Lake in the 50’s, who was arrested later in life for public drunkenness, drifting from various cheap hotels until she eventually died of alcoholism. 

Released just a few weeks after the invasion of Pearl Harbor, the timing of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS feels unfortunate, as a comic film satirizing the tastelessness and pretentious nature of the movie industry feels secondary to a nation at war, as it questions the reality as presented by Hollywood films at a time when the nation itself was immersed in a devastatingly ugly reality of its own, the American entrance into World War II.  Making matters worse, the film was advertised as a Veronica Lake movie following her rapid rise to fame from I WANTED WINGS (1941), the first film to showcase the actress as a platinum blond, yet she is more of a sidekick in a film that was written for lead actor Joel McCrea as a kind of everyman.  The result is a film that was unsuccessful at the box office, one of the bleakest and most disturbing comedies to ever come out of Hollywood, but whose reputation has only grown over time.  The film is surprisingly complex with two distinctly different halves, with inexplicably surreal moments, evolving through a series of Odysseus-like misadventures, turning into a meandering heroic journey of self-discovery, overcoming plenty of obstacles along the way.  A parody of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but instead of moving from a cheery optimist to a human misanthrope, this film instead doubts its own relevancy at the outset and slowly discovers its reason for being along the way.  Opening with a film within a film, McCrea as Sullivan is a Hollywood director who’s had a string of lightweight, comedic hits, but now wants to direct something more serious, choosing to explore the destitute world of tramps during the Depression living on the road, hopping boxcars, and living in hobo camps from the novel O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a title later claimed by the Coen Brothers in their tribute to this film in 2000).  While the studio heads hate the idea, claiming it’s too depressing, Sullivan insists upon going on the road and discovering firsthand what it’s like to be poor. 

The absurdity of seeing a Hollywood movie mogul, a college graduate educated in prep schools dressing as a penniless hobo and hitting the road, is patently ridiculous, especially with a motor home of his handlers following close behind.  Thus the journey begins with the most exaggerated, broadly based and stereotypical characterizations, which includes the frenetic pace of screwball comedy and a chase scene right out of the Keystone Cops, where some may take offense by the derogatory racial caricature of a black chef, credited as the “colored cook,” but all the characters revert to the outlandish mannerisms of Silent era films, where Sullivan himself is a throwback to Chaplin’s Little Tramp and his association with poverty, especially when he enters the domain of the downtrodden.  Soon enough, after some unpleasantries performing community service in the home of a sex-starved widow, Sullivan finds himself right back in Hollywood, now a hobo entering a cheap diner for a cup of coffee, where an attractive young actress wannabe known only as the Girl (Veronica Lake) buys him a meal.  Their dialogue together is reminiscent of Lake as a femme fatale in film noir, as she’s got a tough edge to her delivery, but their chemistry together is instantly appealing, especially the way she always seems to smile at his awkwardness and utter male futility, feeling somewhat betrayed when he turns out to be one of those same successful Hollywood directors that have been turning her down for months.  One of the priceless scenes is seeing Sullivan dressed as a tramp walking around his million dollar Beverly Hills mansion showing off his tennis courts and his pool.  Insistent upon carrying out his harebrained scheme, she insists upon going along with him, both dressed as tramps, where she’s dressed as a young boy, where they hop traincars and interestingly sleep together in boxcars and hobo camps.        

In what is easily the scene of the film, precisely the film Sullivan wanted to make, Sturges films their entry into the actual world of tramps as a wordless montage, a seven-minute sequence panning through all the various down-and-out characters of a shantytown, where by now they’re literally no different, wearing sandwich board signs for cash or passing out leaflets, forced to endure the endless church sermons for a free meal and having to sleep cramped on the floor in hobo shelters, where his shoes are stolen while he slept.  In a romantically tender scene that defies belief, the two are alone strolling along a moonlit lake, seemingly in perfect harmony with nature and each other, yet they walk right past a man literally hanging from a tree, where his feet can be seen dangling from the branches, but neither one looks or comments upon it, and there is no reference to it whatsoever in the film.  The reference to evil is like something out of The Night of the Hunter (1955), only seen from an adult’s perspective.  It’s here that a darker realism clearly replaces the lightweight, artificial tone expressed earlier in the film.  In fact, Sullivan accidentally ends up in his own nightmare, like one of his concocted movie adventures, only this time it’s real and there is no escape.  After being hit on the head and left for dead, he ends up charged with a crime he can’t remember (from temporary amnesia) and sentenced to a chain gang, entering a hallucinatory world where he’s quickly woken up by his grotesque mistreatment, denied all privileges like writing or making a phone call, literally becoming a caged animal, caught in a bleaker existence than Hitchcock’s equally downbeat The Wrong Man (1956). 

This prolonged sequence of brutality prevented the film from being exported overseas during wartime, so the enemy could not use it for propaganda purposes.  But this evolves into an utterly enthralling sequence in a black Pentecostal church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks) vociferously asks his congregation “by word or deed” not to make the all-white chain gang prisoners feel unwelcome, singing “Let My People Go” Go Down Moses - Sullivan's Travels (1941) - YouTube (3:31) as they are led into the front rows to watch a movie together with the parishioners.  The race reversal and depth of sorrow of chants from typical black chain gangs does not go unnoticed in this weird twist of fate, where unlike the exaggerated caricature of the black chef early in the film, here blacks are portrayed with utmost dignity and sincerity, becoming the most humane people in the film.  It was Sturges intention to play a Chaplin film, but rights were denied, playing a Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon featuring Playful Pluto (1934), where Pluto’s paws continually get caught on fly paper, where the animated pranks and pratfalls leave the congregation in stitches, a welcome relief from the otherwise harsh human conditions.  Overall this is a clever and extremely witty film, becoming a populist treatise on humor, where the concise film construction itself is continually unpredictable, becoming a film for the ages.  While the film is on a short list of one of the funniest films ever, particularly at the time of its release, it’s perhaps best remembered today for its serious elements, where what’s ostensibly a comedic film brilliantly accentuates the plight of the poor while at the same time highlighting the clueless nature of an affluent class that remains indifferent to their lives, pointing out in an autobiographical context the hypocrisy of a multi-million dollar industry making films about subjects it clearly fails to understand.  The film is stunning in its refreshingly honest insight. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jellyfish (Meduzot)

JELLYFISH (Meduzot)                        A                    

Israel  France  (78 mi)  2007  d:  Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret              

A ship inside a bottle cannot sink,
or collect dust.
It's nice to look at
and floats on glass.
No one is small enough to board it.
It doesn't know where it's heading.
The wind outside won't blow its sails.
It has no sails,
only a slip, a dress.
And beneath them, jellyfish.

Her mouth is dry, though she's surrounded by water.
She drinks it through the openings in her eyes
which never close.
When she dies, it won't be noticeable.
She won't crash on rocks.
She will remain tall and proud

Acclaimed husband and wife team of Israeli author Etgar Keret, who has also written plays, short stories, and children’s books, and poet and playwright Shira Geffen who wrote this script, collaborate in this well-constructed, interwoven trio of tales about lonely and disconnected souls in Tel Aviv.  An outstanding feature, an exquisite caricature of modern misunderstanding that is alarmingly precise in its miniaturization, beautifully written, well acted and edited, genuinely poignant and funny, this is a strikingly original take on the human condition.  Humor in this film feels grounded in frustration, the kind Buster Keaton might fancy, not poking fun at anyone in particular, but using pointedly sharp satire that is still tender and warm-heartedly hilarious.   The lead characters are memorable, closely observed and real, verging on the edge of sanity at times but nonetheless people we can identify with.  The premise of the film is people in turmoil, all set to a rousing version of Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose in Hebrew. 

Shot in a seaside location in Tel Aviv, beautifully shot by cinematographer Antoine Héberlé, a guy leaves a girl in the opening scene, Sarah Adler as Batia, from Godard’s NOTRE MUSIQUE (2004), which all happens a bit too quickly for her to comprehend the situation, as by the time the words finally form in her mouth, he disappears from her life.  Another couple gets married in a big wedding scene, Michael and Keren (Gera Sandler and Noa Knoller), but the bride gets stuck in the bathroom stall, breaking her leg attempting to escape, all but ruining their Caribbean honeymoon plans as instead they’re stuck inside a seaside hotel with no view of the sea, while a third sequence introduces a Philippino care giver (Ma-nenita De Latorre), a woman named Joy whose job is caring for miserable people—irony in the best sense of the word.  These characters remain aloof from each other and the world around them, but might feel right at home in the slow, hypnotic pace of a Tsai Ming-liang movie where everyone is similarly lost or out of place. 

Batia appears to be the worst waitress on the planet, whose home is infested with a ceiling leak that is over-running the bucket capturing the drops, who receives daily messages left on her answering machine from her celebrity mom, whose visage is seen on giant billboards all over town and on television programs, but otherwise completely ignores her daughter, as does her father who has found himself yet another young bulimic girlfriend about his daughter’s age who consumes every minute of his time.  In due time, Batia is fired from her job along with a pitiful wedding photographer Tamar (Tsipor Aizen) who shoots everything except the bride and groom, both of whom work for an overbearing employer who turns out to be the film director.  (Note – the ice cream man is the director’s father, and the beach location is where they grew up.)  Batia and Tamar become fast friends, though for no apparent reason, yet Batia becomes enamored with Tamir’s childhood home movies, claiming she loves the fact there is no story development. 

Meanwhile the love birds in the hotel are having anything but marital bliss, as in a game of musical chairs they keep moving to a different hotel room, as the bride continues to find fault with the one they’re in.  As the elevator doesn’t work, he finds himself lugging her up the stairs on a continual basis.  In perhaps the most hilarious sequence in the film, the husband reminds her of their first date when they went to see a movie, but were continually beset by obstacles that prevented them from seeing or enjoying the movie, but they discovered, instead, each other.  Their time together is interrupted by long walks the husband takes to get away or have a smoke on the stairwell, occasionally meeting a mysterious woman in the building (Bruria Albeck) who introduces herself with the come-on line:  “How do you spell ‘eternally in disgrace,’ one ‘l’ or two?” before she disappears into the elevator. 

Joy, on the other hand, is visibly distressed by not having her young son back home with her, where phone calls leave her feeling so helpless, as he doesn’t understand why she’s so far away.  Ironic again that she cares for elderly or infirmed patients whose families are too busy to take care of them, yet she as well needs someone to care for her own son.  After one disastrous job assignment, Joy meets Galia (Ilanet Ben-Yaakov) in a bustling coffee shop, a woman who’s too worried about the upcoming production of Hamlet where she plays Ophelia to care for her elderly mother, who she describes:  “My mother. She’s a tough person, she can be rude.”  Malka (Zaharira Harifai) is like a grown up version of Keren, an embittered, somewhat racist old woman who has spent her lifetime handing out insults and complaints.  When neither speaks the other’s language they get along splendidly. 

Thrown into this mix is Nikol Leidman, a young 6-year old girl that doesn’t speak, but whose hair remains wet throughout the rest of the picture, who appears out of the sea wearing only panties and an inner tube around her waist and finds Batia alone in a gloomy seaside mood.  She follows Batia around, like a lost dog, having no other apparent reason to exist.  Batia brings her to a police station, but there are no resources for missing persons where neither parent is making a complaint.  Seeming to understand one another intrinsically, they leave together, live together, and seemingly belong together before the girl mysteriously disappears as strangely as she appeared.  Here a theme is linked that appears hatched from Antonioni’s dream sequence in the middle of RED DESERT (1964).  Joy keeps seeing a toy ship in a shop window, thinking this would make her son happy, while Keren discovers a hauntingly beautiful poem about a ship inside a bottle that is floating on the sea, drifting, suggesting this idea that we appear and disappear so randomly in each other’s lives, seemingly adrift ourselves, yet we each have a strange and lasting impact in ways we never intended or could have ever comprehended. 

This strange choreography of missed intentions is the rhythm of the film, perhaps best represented by Joy’s missing boat sequence that moves from agonizing tears to ecstatic joy simply by changing the entire subtext of the moment, or that absurdly bizarre stage presentation of Hamlet, perhaps the most hilarious Hamlet on record, where words are not spoken but shouted endlessly in repeated chants by Hamlet in a space suit with Ophelia lying dead on the floor throughout half the play, making eye contact with her joyous mother in the audience who is so proud of her despite hating the ridiculous avant garde antics expressed onstage.  By the next day, when her mother’s faint praises are discounted altogether as not enough interest, Galia refuses to ever see her mother again.  In a clever movie like this understanding can feel overwhelmingly lost in the ambiguity of real life, where people’s lives are continually absorbed with having to deal with obstacles or unexpected circumstances that continually appear and then disappear from their lives, much like the jellyfish motif, swept by forces beyond one’s control.   For a mere 78 minutes, there’s a lifetime packed into this film, which won best screenplay and the Camera d'Or at Cannes 2007 for best first feature.