Friday, September 30, 2011

The Help

THE HELP                  B-                   
USA  (146 mi)  2011  d:  Tate Taylor

What if you don't like what I got to say 'bout white people?           
— Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis)

At a time when racism is rearing its ugly head with a black President, with all the fringe groups aligning themselves to denounce the man with a feverish tone of racist hostility, this is an era when all too many whites once again believe they are entitled to the best jobs, the best schools, and the best neighborhoods, allowing blacks to fend for themselves in the criminally infested, ghetto jungles of America, which so many in America believe is where they belong, or in prisons, as they’re too afraid to believe in a world of diverse humanity.  The promise of hope for a cultural shift in the 60’s died a quick death with the selfish indulgence of the 70’s when racism was once again quickly swept under the rug, where the perennial problem is out of sight, out of mind, as so many whites continue to live separate and apart from any significant black population.  So long as there remains such a significant cultural divide based on racial segregation and unequal opportunities, the age old disparities between races still exist, where a recent study by the Pew Research Center suggests the median net worth of white Americans ($113, 149) is twenty times more than for black households ($5677), a number that has grown staggeringly worse due to the recession, where blacks have been hit harder than any other group, as they were the poorest and most vulnerable to begin with.  Generation after generation, election after election, this picture of gross inequity has remained unchanged, and if anything, despite many ballyhooed social advances, the economic disparity has only gotten worse.        

A major complaint against Kathryn Stockett's 2009 bestselling novel The Help was that a white woman raised by a black nanny hired by her affluent parents had no business writing a Civil Rights era novel from the perspective of black maids, but then again, no one told Mark Twain or William Faulkner that they couldn’t write stories about “Negroes” in their time.  Quite simply, there’s nothing wrong with white people telling their stories, sharing their views of history, so it’s not really who’s telling the story, but the story itself that matters and what truths are revealed.  Certainly the first obstacle this movie has to overcome is what’s so fascinating about a film depicting black women in the most demeaning and subservient positions?  And the second is overcoming the perception that this is an Oprah endorsed best seller released as a sanitized Disney film.  In the final analysis, the film never overcomes these objections, as the rich white women living in the aristocratic Southern plantations all have black maids, every single one, where most have been handed down in the family since slavery days, where families continued to feel a sense of ownership with their “help” well past the 1950’s.  So in this movie, where the men have scant presence (sorry Brian), the white women “owners” are almost all portrayed as vile and one-dimensional while the black maids reflect the more complex side of humanity.  This stereotypical depiction prevents the movie from ever rising above such a narrow view, as the characters themselves just won’t allow it, remaining pigeonholed by the historic limitations of the script.   

While this is adapted from a literary work with a largely terrific cast, perhaps the best way to approach this film is viewing it as one might a play, complete with a revolving stage and a plethora of characters to discover, where part of the fun is relishing the colorful characters observed in such close range, each seen in light of their own history, awash in the sins of the era.  It seems like the current generation views the 60’s through the prism of the TV show Mad Men, where television replaces the void of their own shallow understanding of history, suggesting a culture of few who read anymore.  In that sense, it’s better to view history through the eyes of someone who was actually there, even if they were not a major player.  While Kathryn Stockett wrote the novel, the director Tate Taylor was one of her best friends growing up, both white, perhaps not the ablest of writers or directors, but they offer a shared understanding, so this plays out with the intimacy of a personal diary, rich in the meticulous detail of the powers of close observation.  Would anyone complain for one second if we were eavesdropping on a conversation between Southern white neighbors Truman Capote and Harper Lee?  Granted, this isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that made no attempt to interject history, but instead thrived on the magnificent details of Southern life.  Here it is the suffocatingly restricted characters of the maids that through the advancements of the Civil Rights movement eventually learn to appreciate some additional elbow room.   

Set in Jackson, Mississippi, in the pre-Civil Rights years of the early 1960s, the mood is soured by hearing the blatantly racist views directed towards their own hired help (while they are standing there!) reflected in the ordinary conversations of women’s social gatherings, led by the politically aspiring Queen Bee influence of Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly Holbrook, a woman of high social standing who prefers to keep blacks in their place, completely separate from whites, except, apparently, to raise their children, as if white hands are too good to be soiled by handling their own children.  What really hurts the expansion of the mood is the either all good or all evil treatment of the characters, where a few slip between the cracks, namely Hilly’s mother, the deliriously crazy Sissy Spacek, and the social outcast Jessica Chastain, apparently risen from trailer trash, who is treated as if she has leprosy, where even the blacks won’t get near her.  These exaggerations allow wonderful comic portrayals, as there’s plenty of humor to be found in this film, as otherwise it would be smothered in the singleminded earnestness of the do-gooder lead character, Emma Stone as Skeeter, a young white woman from a wealthy family who has just returned from college, an aspiring writer who decides to set the tilted world back on its axis by writing the stories of the black women who work as hired help, showing, as she puts it, “the other side.”  Two characters in particular are allowed to shine, Viola Davis as Aibileen, the heart and soul of the film, a devout Christian who believes God offers more than the life she’s been handed, bitter after losing her own grown son in an industrial accident, where economic circumstances ironically forced her to raise rich white children instead of her own.  The other is Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, Aibileen’s best friend, who steals every scene she’s in, a dizzyingly funny comic delight, a woman not afraid to speak her mind, a prized role in any movie.  It’s interesting that Disney would get into the business of promoting a movie with social issues, but their own squeaky clean image restrictions prevent them from taking a more complicated, in-depth, and realistic approach, where the real horrors of growing up in the Jim Crow South are intentionally kept offscreen.    

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Files

USA  (86 mi)  2010  d:  Jon Foy                      Official site

The first thing that comes to mind about the makers of this documentary is that they have all too much time on their hands, as for over ten years they have been fascinated with following the mystery of whoever has been laying street tiles around Philadelphia and other urban centers with cryptic messages, called the Toynbee tiles, as they reference British historian Arnold Toynbee’s idea, a possible interpretation of the ending of Kubrick’s 2001:  A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), suggesting humans are scientifically evolving to the point where they can molecularly recreate themselves after death, creating their own afterlife, replacing the idea of God and heaven, expressed in the Kubrick film during the final segment entitled Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.  The investigation begins in an era when there was no Internet, around 1987, where one was simply confounded by the presence of street tiles showing up all over the city of Philadelphia, wondering where they came from and who was responsible.  Eventually one of the investigators was so excited he skipped school so he could explore the origins of this mystery at the public library on the brand new Internet, but it appears his investigative computer skills were sorely lacking, as the entire concept was still brand new.  There were search engines, but Google hadn’t been invented yet.  This first time director, who scored the music to his own film, discovered a group of three zealous individuals, also from Philadelphia, who seemed to be concerned about nothing else in life except the mystery behind this strange and mysterious occurrence.  Together they started working on the film around 2005 (a year after the public unveiling of Google) and have been following their leads for the better part of half a decade, releasing this film at Sundance in 2011, where Jon Foy won the Best Director Award for a Documentary Film.

The principle investigators:  Justin Duerr, initially seen as a possible suspect behind the mystery because his knowledge and fanaticism are so extensive, an art school dropout with a manic obsession about anything relating to this subject:  Colin Smith, who appears to be the lead Internet guy, as he runs the Toynbee Tiles Internet message board known as Resurrect Dead Message Board - Home, and a guy who has sifted through mountains of Internet messages and possible clues:  Steve Weinik, a photographer that documents the tilings, curiously familiar with this issue since grade school.  What immediately strikes one about these guys is that they are good natured souls without any qualifications whatsoever in becoming sleuths, as they are purely amateurs, just ordinary guys who spend a lot of time on the Internet.  This identification with the average viewer is one of the startling aspects of the film, as they represent exactly how people spend their time nowadays, usually parked in front of a computer checking out all sorts of information, becoming amateur sleuths where our collective computer searches have led Google to become one of the most successful businesses in the last decade.  What these guys uncover, and how they uncover it, form the basis for the film, where it’s not all dry facts, but an assemblage of humorous as well as outlandishly impossible leads, all of which eventually aid in narrowing down the possible suspects.  My favorite was a guy named “Railroad Joe” that used to work for the railroad, who spent countless lonely hours passing through nearly all of the affected cities in the dark of night, as his route was like a roadmap to the street tiles.  The pace and sudden interest in the film spikes with the possibility that this is our guy, as everything fits, but boink—the guy’s been dead for years, so unless he came back from the dead to lay a few more titles, this is not our guy.  This incident beautifully exposes the weakness of ordinary guys working without training, following leads and creating suspect profiles, building up all this false hope that suddenly fizzles and evaporates like the air was let out of a balloon.   

This seems to be the kind of film conspiracy theorists would love, as the mastermind behind this operation, who claims to be only one man, leaves a series of clues that speak to his overly paranoid state of mind, where he thinks people are following him and trying to kill him, where in a moment of personal rage he rants “Kill all the journalists.”  Perhaps he was referring to the lawyers in Shakespeare’s nasty little history play Henry VI, which deals with a series of bloody horrors between two rival royal families known as the Wars of the Roses.  But like the Unabomber, the tiler leaves behind one tile that serves as his manifesto, a lengthy diatribe outlining his enemies which he describes as the Cult of the Hellion.  This is all too surreal except that the tone of the film is joyously upbeat and humorous, as these guys find endless fascination in pursuing and unearthing every clue, where much of this resembles the gleeful innocence of Mark Borchardt in Chris Smith’s AMERICAN MOVIE (1999), where people can become obsessed and spend the rest of their lives following their own strange curiosities, which they idealize as dream projects.  It’s amazing what lengths these guys go to in tracking down even the most unlikely possibilities, yet they’re all-in, reconfiguring how this all plays out in their minds, where they’re continually reevaluating the evidence, showing a surprising degree of sensitivity to the possible subjects, as they don’t wish to taint these individuals with the brushstrokes of their own mistakes and misperceptions, so they keep a careful distance, making sure of their facts before they intervene.  But these guys are not 60 Minutes, and while their knowledge is fascinating and peculiarly mystifying, their success rate is abysmal, leaving the viewers wondering about becoming obsessed with personal pursuits and dreams, where after awhile, once you start chasing after the illusory windmills of Don Quixote, it’s impossible to stop.   
Note:  due to the sudden elevated interest in Toynbee tiles from the release of this film, there has been an outbreak in copycat tilers, where the original has now been replaced by a series of cloned tilers that are continuing to carry out the work of the original mastermind, which ironically meets the scientific definition of regeneration, where apparently his work will continue well after he’s dead and gone, not on planet Jupiter however, but right in his own home town.   

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Restless (van Sant)

RESTLESS                  B                     
USA  (95 mi)  2011  d:  Gus van Sant

Not sure why this film has received some of the most blisteringly negative reviews in van Sant’s career, as while it’s not one of his best, it’s easily not one of his worst either.  The film is a love poem on the subject of death, coming after the death of Dennis Hopper, to whom the film is dedicated and the father of Henry Hopper who plays Enoch, the lead teenage character who is filled with his own haunting personal reverberations from the loss of his parents in a tragic car accident, while  is Annabel, a terminally ill cancer patient with only three months to live.  These two meet while attending funerals for complete strangers, where they oddly find they have something in common before they really have a chance to get to know one another.  This downbeat theme of finality underlines the rest of the film, but not in any morose sense, like we see on Hallmark card movies of the week all the time, filled with wretched excess.  Instead it adds a tone of fragility and tenderness, where these two damaged souls have no one else on the planet they can relate to, where they can act like teenagers, get a bit goofy, and they’re not afraid to make fun of themselves, always fully aware of their tragic situation.  While Annabel is facing the inevitability of a rapidly approaching death, Enoch has already survived the experience, where he was in a coma for months after being pronounced dead for a few minutes.  What he recalls is not a desire to move toward the light, but a complete emptiness, where his entire world was reduced to nothing.

Morbidity is not a subject to send people away in droves, as Annabel may be a stand-in for Annabel Lee, the last complete poem of Edgar Allen Poe from 1849 that explores the theme of the death of a beautiful young woman, where the narrator expresses an intense feeling of longing for her even after her death, where they remain forever united in their hearts.  This expresses the tone of the film, as there’s a haunting feeling of everafter, beautifully expressed by a ghost seen only by Enoch after his coma, Hiroshi (Ryo Kase), a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WW II who has befriended him, as he’s someone who can actually feel the depths of Enoch’s loss, having sacrificed his life during the war.  There’s a zany conversation when Annabel actually tries to have a conversation, through Enoch, with his invisible ghost, which gets rather tricky, as Enoch has never had to share or explain his friend to anyone.  Annabel, on the other hand, knows what it’s like to spend time in the cancer wing of the hospital, people given no time to live, where the rest of the world instantly avoids them, as if they’re already invisible.  She’s a brilliant young girl with a thirst and unquenchable spirit for life along with a passion for Darwin and the science of water birds, as they can go places none of the other air and land birds can reach, adding a special dimension to their lives. The two gravitate towards one another instantly, where the dark divide that separates them from the rest of the world is instantly recognizable, as both appear haunted by the specter of death. 

Without ever expressing their pain, they can’t help but enjoy one another’s company, where their offbeat humor and gentle nature is expressed through a kind of fantasia, where her upbeat mood is as close to happy as she’s ever been in her life, which is exactly how one would like to spend their final days.  Many may think this goes over the edge into the surreal, as their perfect world couldn’t possibly be all that perfect.  Perhaps their most special moment together feels highly illusory, like a dream fantasy, yet this expression of rare intimacy is aided by the use of a flashlight, which added to their continually moving faces in close up changes the focus onscreen, where the image literally dissolves and melds into one another, a beautiful expression of their souls becoming one.  Of course, the balloon eventually bursts from an unseen force, as reality keeps pushing itself into their world, breaking down the walls of make believe, until eventually they are flooded by forces beyond their control.  What’s especially effective is that their lives do not become fodder for some melodramatic moment sure to evoke tears, as this character driven film is more sparing than that, where they each have to fight their inner demons, some not so successfully, but the bottom line is that until she dies they still have each other.  This is beautifully expressed, and not with tragic overtones, but with a kind of irreverent spit in the eye of death.  Don’t underestimate the significance of Hiroshi, a guy with powerful instincts and a pervasive spirit of humanity, who acts as a guide through this complicated and interwoven blend of different worlds, like a seeing eye dog for humans too scarred and blind to see.      

Monday, September 26, 2011


MONEYBALL            B                     
USA  (133 mi)  2011  d:  Bennett Miller

The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams, and there are poor teams. Then there’s 50 feet of crap. And then there’s us. It’s an unfair game.         
—Billy Beane (Brad Pitt)

Something of a sleight of hand movie, as it focuses all its attention on Brad Pitt as the star, playing Billy Beane, still the current General Manager of the Oakland Athletics since the late 1990’s, where we see him early in his tenure on the field, in the locker room, the weight room, staff offices, on the phone, alone at home or in his car, as the camera follows him around throughout the entire film, where he’s the more flamboyant character, but he’s not what the movie is about.  Not really.  He’s the star, however, so the movie makes it all about him.  His role, however, is rather insignificant, as history has shown, as he barely makes a dent in baseball history, certainly not as this movie suggests.  Instead the real star is so carefully concealed that his name was changed in the movie, where Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand, who was in real life Paul DePodesta, a shy, nerdy guy who sits in front of computers all day compiling statistics, which doesn’t exactly make for good cinema, but he’s the hero.  In a sport that’s all about speed, physical prowess and brute strength, he’s the odd man out, the guy who doesn’t exactly command respect on the field by people who have been part of the game for decades, so they take swipes at him, ridiculing his influence, decrying his baseball knowledge, as he’s never played the game.  Based on Michael Lewis’s book The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, published in 2003, the verdict is still out on what impact these statisticians have had on the game.  For the record, while not shown in the movie, the A's had a sterling pitching staff in the year shown, 2002, including a Cy Young Award winner in Barry Zito with a 23-5 record and the American League MVP in Miguel Tejada, while DePodesta at the tender age of 31 eventually became the General Manager for the storied Los Angeles Dodgers in 2004, the same seat inhabited by baseball legend Branch Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson, but his less than superlative results, trading some of the most popular players while compiling the worst team results in over a decade, eventually got him fired at the end of the 2005 season.  So much for Field of Dreams.      

Channeling his Robert Redford, Pitt looks every bit the part of a man possessed with winning, a guy who spits tobacco with the coaches and has a head for the game, but realizes he plays for a team in a small market that can’t compete with the giant-sized pocketbooks of the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox, as they can’t afford to pay a decent salary, so any player that’s any good will eventually be lured by the smell of money.  The Athletics ($30 million dollar payroll) were actually being described as a farm team for the Yankees ($140 million dollar payroll), as New York annually lifted their best players by offering lucrative salaries.  This leaves Beane in a dilemma, as this is not a problem that needs to be addressed by rebuilding their team every year with affordable new players, each one hand selected by their team of knowledgeable scouts, but with a different concept about their approach to the game.  Beane was particularly impressed with how the Cleveland GM actually listened to this bespectacled and nerdy looking fat guy in the corner, a guy that would look uncomfortable in any room, who quietly thwarted his attempts when he entered their stadium to make a deal.  So he hired this guy as an Assistant General Manager and put his mathematical theories of statistics to the test, which took a blasting by baseball people completely upset with the idea of a computer doing their jobs.  As baseball is such a traditional sport, where players are always being compared to the legends of old, like Ruth or DiMaggio, Mantle or Mays, where blacks couldn’t play in the majors until the late 40’s, the idea of change does not exactly come easily or naturally.  Instead the baseball traditionalists, including his own manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) greeted DePodesta with a volley or criticism, where he initially felt like a ruse, or a sick, twisted joke being foisted upon the team, undermined by their own General Manager, as they were seen as a team of collectable spare parts. 

Beane is projected as a tragic hero, the little guy whose situation in life is in constant turmoil, made even worse by his own divorce, where he lives in some closeted apartment setting while his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is living in a lavish estate with a spectacular view overlooking the ocean, where they have a young 12-year old daughter in common (Kerris Dorsey) who has obviously been hurt by the separation.  When Dorsey sings this heartfelt autobiographical song (which turns out to be Lenka - The Show (New Version) - YouTube, a 2008 song covered in the movie by Dorsey:  Kerris Dorsey performs "The Show" by Lenka acoustic song from ...) about being torn apart in that whimsical manner of JUNO (2007), it’s easily the best scene in the film and becomes the driving force in Beane’s life, where he is obsessed with overcoming all possible odds to make things work.  This movie has something of a storied past as well, ironically having to overcome a radical overhaul of its own, as initially Steven Soderbergh was scheduled to direct the film, altering the existing screenplay by developing documentary style interviews to advance the story, which led to his ousting in favor of a more conventional style of movie.  Soderbergh has a spotty history and has been hit or miss in the last decade, but his more varied approach to filmmaking lends itself more closely to the DePodesta method, approaching things from a new or unique angle, instead of the more traditional star driven technique used in this film, which of course, doesn’t tell the whole truth, which is a major shortcoming.  The movie version belies the terrific talent on this team, which is actually the best in the past decade, while giving the impression they're instead a bunch of misfits and nobodies.  Many will flock to this film based on Brad Pitt alone, who is one of the executive producers of the film, but this movie just offers a feel good, tunnel vision, behind-the-scenes sports story that makes Hollywood feel good about itself.  There are some moments of candor, scripted by Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillan who worked separately, apparently re-worked dozens of times before the final product, but there is nothing revelatory here.  All sports are more scrutinized by statistics than ever before because of the easy facility of computers, where scoreboards can update batting averages or a pitcher’s E.R.A. as the game progresses and there are hired hands that routinely crunch the numbers.  But sports at all levels are played by athletes who determine their own outcome, where much like the Olympics, there are occasional surprises, but the best players usually win.     

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The River (Renoir)

THE RIVER                             B+
France  India  USA  (99 mi)  1951  d:  Jean Renoir

As literary an adaptation of a movie as you’re ever likely to see, quite unlike anything else, the last of Renoir’s American films and his first in color, an extraordinarily colorful film shot by the director’s nephew Claude on location in India using a documentary style, but also a rather stiff dramatic portrayal of the characters.  Son of the great impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, this is a family that thrives on art and its observant portrait of class in society.  An adaptation of Rumer Godden's adolescent coming-of-age novel of a young 14-year old girl growing up on the banks of the Ganges River in British colonialist India, this entire film plays out like a poetic reverie, a memory play narrated by the author’s thoughts, giving this a feeling of impressionist exploration of the nearby locale.  Harriet (Patricia Walters), is a plain girl who is not particularly attractive, a kind rarely seen in the movies, yet she’s fond of writing in her diary, knowing much of it is actually well written despite her youthful age, describing her interior thoughts along with revelatory descriptions of the river, including the boats, the crowded marketplace, and people washing their clothes, all in harmony with the timeless quality of the river.  This is her secret world, introducing European culture into the more Eastern philosophy of India where Buddha reigns supreme.  Harriet lives with a large family where she is the eldest of 5 children, where her world changes with the arrival next door of a wounded war veteran, Captain John (Thomas E. Breen), who lost a leg in combat.   His presence captivates the interest of not only Harriet, but her slightly older, more spoiled best friend Valerie (Adrienne Corri) and a mixed race daughter about the same age, Melanie (Radha), who has returned home after being educated in the West.    

Looking very much like a Powell/Pressburger film, using plenty of close up shots, where all the principals but Melanie have blazingly red hair, this is largely an idealized portrait of a family, where the idea of happiness in a colonialist country must undergo some alterations due to the complexity of the experience, as British freedom is not Indian freedom.  Without ever addressing the political divisions, Renoir instead simply shows a chilly relationship between the two cultures, where they don’t exactly mix despite living side by side with one another.  Indians are the British servants, while others are neighbors, but none are featured players.  Instead this plays out like a Vicente Minnelli production, where the highly colorful compositions are first and foremost, accented by Indian music constantly playing in the background, with a continuous stream of everpresent shots of boats and people on the river.  Harriet’s coming of age is paralleled with India’s push for freedom as well, though never overtly, as Harriet’s father (Esmond Knight) is a local industrialist, obtaining his wealth and position by exploiting colonialist labor.  But Harriet knows nothing about that, and instead has fallen head over heels in love with the Captain, as has Valerie and Melanie, though each perceives their future with him quite differently.  Harriet is the most obvious, as she reads long expository passages from her diary which unravel in dreamlike sequences, much like a play within a play, where her vision of first love has a spiritual transcendence about it.     

Using Satyajit Ray as an assistant director, the film is slow with long descriptive passages read aloud by the narrator as an adult looking back, which takes some getting used to, as the overall style of this film is otherworldly, where it all plays out like a dream.  There are few films that present positive images from colonialist settings, but this is such an idealized family setting that it could just as easily be Judy Garland’s family in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944).  This personal intimacy adds to the overall appeal of the film, as it allows the poetry of the narrative to register with the audience, along with the supremely lovely shots of the river and of life in India, reflected as a time capsule in dance, ritual, song, and the colorful costumes, adding an exotic element to their ordinary lives. Harriet’s mother (Nora Swinburne) couldn’t be more supportive and loving towards her children, where her nurturing role appears very much like the way mothers were portrayed on American TV in the 1950’s, safe, comfortable, wise, and all-knowing, but certainly playing the supportive role to the husband.  Melanie’s confusion with her identity of being a dark-skinned Indian but educated in the West is never fully explored, as despite her noticeable intelligence, she obviously remains troubled.  Valerie is the most impulsive, while Harriet wins our hearts largely due to her age, as nothing is as it seems at 14, where she’s temperamental, subject to turbulent mood swings, crestfallen at the least little disappointment, where her entire world feels like it’s crumbling apart.  Little does she know that in a short period of time, her mind will be elsewhere, beautifully describing the poetry of the world around her, where as her mother points out, life goes on.  This is a love letter to India where her romanticized visions will once again explode with the personal detail of the seething humanity surrounding her.    

Friday, September 23, 2011


DAYLIGHT                             C-                   
USA  (73 mi)  2009  d:  David Barker              Official site

This film had been sitting on the shelf for about a year before finally pulled out of the cobwebs by a New York production company known as Cinema Purgatorio run by Ray Privett, former Distribution Coordinator at Facets Video in Chicago before forming his own production company.  This company is also responsible for the previously released film Zenith, which is easily one of the worst films seen this year.  DAYLIGHT may be a little better, but not much, as this is an overly dreary and disturbing affair that feels hastily put together, filled with unlikable characters that hold little interest to the viewer.  When the best thing in the movie is a 2009 Maserati Quattroporte, a premium luxury vehicle that sells for a cool $125,000, the film’s got problems.  Perhaps the car is what got this couple into trouble in the first place, but no, even in the opening scenes, they are having problems communicating, where despite a baby due within weeks, they seem to have little chemistry together.  Set in the tiny roads of upstate New York, a European couple living in New York City, Danny (Aidan Redmond) and Irene (Alexandra Meierhans) embark on a ride into the countryside for a friend’s wedding, but get lost, seeking directions from a hitchhiker, eventually inviting him into their car where he quickly wields a knife and overpowers them, joining two other accomplices in a kidnapping plot that takes them to a remote country home.  Throughout this film, the threat of violence is more pronounced than the kidnapper’s actual behavior, which strangely fluctuates from merciless, out of control psychopaths to an eerie politeness that may have your skin crawl.

Rather than focus on the kidnapping itself, which is like Little Red Riding Hood getting lost in the woods, this director’s interest lies in a minimalist exposé of the individuals involved, where the kidnappers are a mysterious bunch that don’t seem to generate much trust among themselves as well, while both the husband and wife endure an utterly horrific ordeal in the hands of sadistic killers.  Changing the game plan in midstream, however, Danny is led out of the picture, supposedly raising huge sums of cash, while the pregnant wife is left alone in the house with two maniacs, Renny (Miachel Godere), a knife wielding, cold blooded murderer and Leo (Ivan Martin), whose initial impatience is continually put to the test waiting for the others to return.  Punctuated by shots of moving clouds, time slows down to a crawl as they at first receive regular calls from their partner, but the calls stop overnight and time eats away at these two who question their safety just sitting there doing nothing, allowing paranoia to creep in, creating a tense situation for Irene who is toyed with by the killers, each apparently jealous of the time the other spends with her.  Veering back and forth from heartless to heartfelt, these killers seem baffled by the pregnancy angle, as they also seem to have their own intimacy issues with one another.  But Irene adopts a survival strategy, where she openly expresses her fears, worrying about what’s going to happen to her husband and her baby, but also seems to touch them both with a genuine maternal kindness that takes them both by surprise. 

While this could be an in depth character study, it isn’t.  While this might resemble the psychological twist in Polanski’s DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (1994), an intense stage drama between two longtime adversaries who share a dark history, it doesn’t.  It never really builds upon this theme of something real and provocative developing between characters, instead it veers off the map into a dreamlike fairy tale, which might have worked temporarily, but certainly not given this amount of final impact.  What’s the point of creating an unflinchingly realistic kidnapping drama if you’re going to then cop out with a complete change of tone for the final epilogue, as if truth never mattered in the first place?  It’s as if the filmmaker lost faith in his own characters, intervening, toning them down, radically reinventing them with a condensed “R” rated version for the inexplicable finale that is just a tacked on ending.  It is this blatant dishonesty that derails the rest of the picture, as it’s no longer a punishing psychological thriller, just another instantly forgettable story.  The three actors in question, Renny and Leo and Irene, actually develop something strange and mysterious onscreen, wildly uneven, perhaps even original, if not horribly distasteful, but it all evaporates when the director undermines their work, apparently unable to appreciate that a trite, formulaic ending doesn’t fit with the tenuously fragile and explosive connection they’ve actually established, where the problem is not with what happens, but with what happens afterwards.  What’s easily the best part of the picture is wiped out in a few short minutes, which is probably why this film was sitting on the shelf for so long. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sleep, My Love

SLEEP, MY LOVE             B-                       
USA  (97 mi)  1948  d:  Douglas Sirk

An early and extremely convoluted Douglas Sirk film, where the director seems more driven to implement a stylistic flourish than to create a satisfactory drama onscreen.  Poor Claudette Colbert really suffers here, as her performance is rather amateurish, revealing the traits of a pampered and overindulged society woman who can’t hold her liquor, who’s more interested in being the life of the party than having a serious thought in her head.  That said, her oily sneak of a husband (Don Ameche) is attempting to plan her demise through nefarious means while stealing away with another woman, Hazel Brooks, who hasn’t a brain in her head, whose sole purpose onscreen is to be sultry and provocative, a vampish siren who would make you want to leave your wife, except that despite her scantily clad wardrobe, this woman is a dullard who couldn’t hold anyone’s interest.  She’s like a bad character in the wrong film.  The story itself is much more complicated than it needs to be, attempting to become a mysterious web of deceit, but despite this labyrinth of wrong turns and missed opportunities, there isn’t an ounce of tension or building suspense.  None of the characters are involving, so there’s little interest in whatever the outcome may be, nothing satisfactory, so it’s largely just going through the motions, adding as many signature trademarks in the composition as he can. 

Technically, this film heralds much more interest and has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives, where most of the film takes place in a single location, an outrageously upscale New York City apartment with a winding staircase up multiple floors and a magnificent terrace view of the Brooklyn Bridge.  While the marriage is held together by artificial manners and social grace (separate bedrooms, of course), all a smokescreen to cover up his lustful desires, the film instead follows the nearly always embarrassing behavior of Colbert who finds herself mysteriously on a train without remembering how she got on, causing a great deal of panic, as if she’d been kidnapped by an international espionage ring.  But no, it’s not that kind of movie, it’s just a simple mistake, quite common the film would have us believe, as she has a tendency to sleepwalk, often awaking in awkward situations.  Her husband calms her down with a sedative, finds her a psychiatrist, and has her believing she suffers from nightmares and hallucinations, seeing things that aren’t there, where she’s literally losing her mind.  Colbert’s glamorous outfits, by the way, are off the charts and ultra chic in black and white, and also she has her own indoor greenhouse where she hides herself, which she calls her jungle. But it’s her drunken enthusiasm and slurring speech that keeps her from being taken seriously, as she always appears tilted off center, incapable of rescuing herself, making this another damsel in distress movie.     

Enter TV’s Love That Bob (1955 – 59), Robert Cummings, another smooth talking, out of town friend who has desires of sweeping her off her feet until he discovers she’s already married, but makes sure she returns safely home before realizing afterwards that the husband’s explanation was suspect.  Everything becomes a puzzle that involves an entrenched police detective (Raymond Burr), a murderous husband (Ameche), an unsuspecting wife (Colbert), a femme fatale (Brooks), a blackmailing photographer who disguises himself as a psychiatrist (George Coulouris), the overly inquisitive friend (Cummings), and a couple of unsuspecting household servants who add luster to the lifestyle of a playboy millionaire who’s living off his wife’s fortune.  There’s a ridiculous side show of a Chinese marriage, where Keye Luke, later Master Po from the Kung Fu TV series (1972 – 75), and his newlywed bride break off from their honeymoon and take a sudden interest in detective work by enthusiastically helping Cummings solve the crime.  Joseph Valentine adds some murky, highly expressionist cinematography, blending together doorways, mirrors, windows, and a dizzying staircase, featuring a fabulous set design by Howard Bristol, while Sirk attempts to create a psychologically shifting motif of wanton desire and nightmarish panic, where the ever so smooth Ameche continues to push the buttons that will drive her feverishly over the edge, a variation on a similar theme in GASLIGHT (1944), but the characters here are out of their league when it comes to masterminding a world of deception.  In someone else’s hands this is ordinary stuff, but under the direction of Sirk it’s a fascinating early work, almost cultish, where the images are a lurid style of eye candy that literally pop off the screen.       


Sayles on the set with Chris Cooper

AMIGO                       C+      
USA  (128 mi)  2010  d:  John Sayles

Sayles takes a stab at revisionist history in the American occupation of the Philippines from 1900 to 1902, but unlike his much superior MEN WITH GUNS (1997), a Sayles film that poetically examines the history of South America, this film is so uneven that it loses what it's so passionate about.  Shot in the Philippines, using a largely non-professional local cast speaking Tagalog, Sayles plunges ahead with a muddled effort that spends too much time attempting to bridge the gap between languages, where often both are being spoken at the same time, which along with subtitles is very confusing to the viewer, made worse by a Catholic missionary priest who translates everything through the views of the church. Instead of simplifying it all for the intended audience, Sayles only makes it more complicated, where the point about American soldiers insisting to speak English to people who have little capacity to understand is repeatedly drummed into the story.  What this film resembles is Kevin Costner’s DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), which over sympathizes with the Indians, envisioning how a trained military captain could embrace the Indian culture as part of his mission instead of savagely attacking them into submission, which became the prevailing military order of the post Civil War era.  Similarly, this film goes to great lengths to humanize the Philippine community, despite the expressed vulgar viewpoints of the individual soldiers who continue to dismiss them as dark skinned and racially inferior.  Fresh off the Indian wars, many American soldiers were sent to the Philippines in an attempt to occupy the nation, an obvious parallel to Iraq and Afghanistan, where after Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States, the government belief under President Teddy Roosevelt was that it was an American duty and priority to bring democracy and a civilized government to inferior nations, where annexation was key, protecting the military and economic interests which would likely fall under the control of Japan or Germany if the U.S. didn’t intervene.  Rather than provide an objective view, however, Sayle’s dogmatic script is too preachy, where his aims undermine any sense of developing drama.

The film has its moments, however, where the relative calm in the remote village of San Isidro is broken by the arrival of American soldiers.  What they inherit is mostly a town of women and children along with a handful of male elders, as all the rest of the able bodied men escape into the heavily forested mountains where they lead occasional guerilla raids.  Like the American Civil War, this act pits brother against brother, where Rafael (Joel Torre) is the town leader who advocates peace and attempts to befriend the Americans while his brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the leader of the insurrectionists, which includes Rafael’s teenage son.  Led by American Lieutenant Compton (Garrett Dillahunt), a former architect, a small group of soldiers is left behind to establish a garrison in a rural outpost, where Sayles establishes a daily rhythm of life where each side cautiously but suspiciously attempts to live alongside one other, bridged by the biased, morally judgmental interpretation service of the Spanish Catholic priest (Yul Vazquez), who only exacerbates the pervasive mood of mistrust.  Only the women and children show an undivided, ritualistic need for the church, as this is all they’ve known, where the church’s teachings have provided the only semblance of education in the region due to the absence of schools, where all the adults are illiterate.  The loving marital relationship of Rafael and his church adhering wife Corazon (Rio Locsin) establishes an existing presence of harmony in Philippine relations, a harmony all but shattered by the American presence that blames Rafael for anything that goes wrong, punishing him with slave labor, where he is repeatedly jailed and continually turned into an example by the military superiors.   

The quiet, wordless scenes are the best, an elderly man playing classical guitar, languorous sequences of idleness from the neverending rain, planting rice in the muddy fields, a fiesta, a funeral ceremony, the community coming together to build a house, much like the Amish barn building sequence in WITNESS (1985), which along with some excellent choices of music offer inspirational moments.  The jovial interrelations between the old time village friends are deftly handled, as their playful spirit is a marked contrast against the vile behavior of the American troops, with the exception of one young trooper who develops a crush on one of the attractive young girls.  Chris Cooper enters the picture as an American Colonel who refuses to accept anything less than results, implementing the military view of imposed atrocities in order to send a vicious message to the villagers.  As far as history, the film doesn’t go far enough, as the Americans enacted the same scorched earth policy that it had shown to American Indians, using military superiority to annihilate indigenous Philippine populations, forcing them into crowded concentration camps where the stench and spread of contagious disease wiped out large numbers of civilians, while also inflicting brutal questioning, torture, and on the spot executions.  Though he only concentrates on one rural village, Sayles barely touches on these issues and instead suggests there are differences in military perceptions between those living with the natives and those prepared for an all out invasion.  In the eyes of the invaders, the life of a Philippino is demonized and has no value whatsoever, which only proves they have no business inflicting such horrors into the lives of cultures so radically different than their own which they really have little interest in understanding anyway.  History is filled with ventures just such as this, but Sayles fails to add anything new to this argument except to express his longstanding humanistic views that all men are brothers.      

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


DRIVE             B+      
USA  (100 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Nicolas Winding Refn

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, winner of Best Director for this film at Cannes, takes a break from his more violently exotic PUSHER Trilogy (1996 – 2005) and takes a stab at an American mixture of commercial and art motif with this homage to the existential car films of the 1970’s like VANISHING POINT and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (both 1971), or Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER (1978), where what each have in common with this film are the extraordinary specialized skills of the mechanic and guy behind the wheel, where the open road seen ahead is the only freedom he’ll ever know.  It’s also impossible not to think of Steve McQueen in BULLIT (1968), the personification of cool behind the wheel, transplanted to Ryan Gosling here (originally slated for Hugh Jackman), known only as the Driver, a wordless guy with steely nerves, a Zen calmness, but also a capability for savage violence.  The love affair with the automobile is established right away as the Driver gets a couple of crooks out of a tough jam, evading the police with an eerie kind of expertise, a brilliant sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie, opening a window into his world, luring the audience into a fascination with his profession.   The real film this resembles, however, is To Live and Die in LA (1985), as both show a seethingly corrupt film noir underworld in the city of Angels, both expertly establish a high throttle tension throughout, both straddle the line between law abiding and law breaking, and both have inspired musical soundtracks, where Cliff Martinez creates a Tangerine Dream-style synth score, featuring a wall to wall, techno-pop, sound effect of angelic romantic choruses that couldn’t be more hypnotically appealing.  The artistic design of the film has a sleek, classical elegance, where the constantly moving digital cameras from cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel offer the viewer a roller coaster ride, where the pauses allow you a chance to look around for a moment before they start rolling again. The mounting tension is unsurpassed in any other recent film, creating a palm sweating, edge-of-your-seat visceral experience that is nothing less than superb.  That said, the storyline by Hossein Amini adapting the James Sallis novella here, who also wrote the superb Thomas Hardy gut-wrenching movie adaptation of Michael Winterbottom’s JUDE (1996), feels very sleight in comparison.       

Gosling’s Driver establishes the interior tone behind the wheel, a MAD MAX (1979) style lone wolf on the prowl in the wasteland of an urban jungle, a guy that doesn’t set his heights too high, but his expertise as a professional stunt driver for the movies is so noteworthy that it’s impossible for others not to notice.  He moonlights as a driver for hire, an escape artist, no questions asked, no talking to the cops, just a guy who excels behind the wheel.  "I drive.  That's all I do."  The titillated novelty here is the barebones thread of a budding romance with one of his neighbors, Carey Mulligan as Irene, a single mom raising her young son alone while his dad is in prison.  Their first date is a return road trip to the cement canal dry riverbed waterways of a chase sequence in To Live and Die in LA, this time seen through a much softer, romantic prism, a gentle and poetic moment that feels like an oasis in the desert, as much of the rest of the film is filled with bloodlust and revenge.  Despite the hyper violent edge, the actual moments of screen time violence are far less than most all Hollywood thrillers, amounting to just a few minutes of the entire film, but the extreme stylization is so enigmatic that the effect is more memorable and long-lasting.  This is an inevitable heist gone wrong film, where the Driver just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the people he’s mixed up with don’t realize they’re stealing the mob’s money, which means there’s hell to pay.  The vicious turn of events are brilliantly executed, where Gosling is mesmerizing with his cool demeanor, rising above his double-crossing cohorts with minimal sweat, or so it seems, able to stare death in the face even as he’s being targeted.  The quick decisive action of the mob is alarming, showing extreme brutality, but Gosling keeps his wits about him, where one wonders just what kind of trouble he may have faced before, questions that remain unanswered.                  

When did Albert Brooks, creator of his own strange and quirky comedies of the 80’s and 90’s and the voice of Nemo’s neurotic Dad in Disney’s FINDING NEMO (2003), become a gangland boss?  Did we miss something?  Here’s a guy that cast Debbie Reynolds as his own mom in MOTHER (1996), for Christ’s sake, so when did this transition occur?  Was it the slimy character he played in Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (1998), the guy that risked his girl friend’s life rather than give up the hidden diamonds?  Was it his role as a Dick Cheney-style government bureaucrat gone mad in THE SIMPSON’S MOVIE (2007)?  Whatever happened from his days at Saturday Night Live, the guy now plays a terrific heavy, as he’s the face of the mob boss here, given some highly colorful, profanity laden dialogue that seems to resurrect his memory as a once proficient hit man rising up the ranks, where the guy loves to be warm and fuzzy, but can’t afford mistakes or any loose ends in his line of business, which makes his end of it very personal.  The film is very much style over substance, despite the terrific performances all around, as there’s little to no social commentary and an ambiguous moral dilemma that has little to do with anyone's life.  It’s the love element that tips the audience in favor of the Driver, as he’s cool and collected but falls for the girl, even as her life gets exasperatingly complicated when her husband is released from prison.  Still, the inevitable showdown is between two guys outside the reach of the law, both brutally efficient, where no one can really call either one a winner, as there’s too much psychological baggage to carry.  Refn uses a very compact, highly constricted style that energizes his work, creating an extremely taut and gripping drama, something one movie executive character ironically describes in the Sallis book as:  “Think Virginia Woolf with dead bodies and car chases.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

To Live and Die in LA

TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA           B+               
USA  (116 mi)  1985  d:  William Friedkin

Guess what, Uncle Sam don’t give a shit about your expenses. You want bread, fuck a baker.       —Richard Chance (William Peterson)

If you didn’t know any better, you’d think this was a Michael Mann film, a gritty portrait of Los Angeles filled with a stylistic flourish from the exquisite cinematography of Robby Müller with gorgeous shots of the city at sunrise and dusk illuminated by a sheen of smog and a 1980’s Wang Chung soundtrack that gives the film a pulsating edge.  Very much driven by a synthesized techno beat so prominently featured in FLASHDANCE (1983) and the Miami Vice TV series (1984 – 90), this is a hard hitting, adrenaline-laced cop drama where the cops straddle the same ethical line as the criminals, in fact they are mirror images of one another, oftentimes getting more caught up in the business than they’d prefer, usually driven by a manic personality that settles for nothing less than a full-out assault.  Using a cast of relative unknowns, featuring two prominent Chicago actors who got their start in local community theater, this was William Peterson’s first starring movie role while John Pankow, whose older brother plays in the rock band Chicago, had worked earlier in Miami Vice.  Both play FBI agents in the counterfeit division, Chance and Vukovich, where their boss is murdered when he gets too close to one operation, giving this a tone of revenge, where getting this guy becomes personal, using any means necessary to bring him down.  Willem Dafoe is excellent as the cold-blooded killer and counterfeiter Rick Masters, a complete professional who carries out his business with icy control, whose creepiness becomes more accentuated through his eerie calm.  He also has his hand in kinky sex and modern art, often blending the two, almost always with a gorgeous girl, Debra Feuer, who follows his every lead.   

Shot all on location in some of the seedier sections of town, Friedkin offers a cynically realistic approach to the film noir crime thriller, using a near documentary style, but the characters are all outcasts, outlaws beyond the reach of the law and cops who think they are above the law, both living on the margins, creating a feeling of detachment and alienation.  One of the most extraordinary scenes is watching Masters diligently working at his craft, printing counterfeit bills, step by step using his artistic skills with the meticulous precision of a Bach cantata, where his detailed professionalism is nothing less than impressive, offering a window to the audience into this highly skilled criminal enterprise.  It’s interesting that Friedkin reveals so clearly what Chance is up against, as this is Peterson’s film, where he dominates the action sequences and all the build up to them, as he’s a man on a mission, an adrenaline junkie who’s not afraid to bungee jump off a bridge with a rope tethered to his foot, swinging just above the water’s edge, creating a rush of energy that he needs to make him feel alive.  He also has a girl, Ruth (Darlanne Fluegel), an inmate out on parole working at a strip club where she hears things, where Chance uses her for sex and information, threatening to cut off her parole if she stops feeding him tips.  His moral character is questionable, as he’s like a cowboy with an itchy trigger finger, obsessed with tracking down his man, where he doesn’t care what methods are used to pull it off.  His partner Vukovich is more nervous about his full throttle, free-wheeling style, thinking it’s reckless and outside the bounds of department regulations, but it’s his partner, a guy you just don’t cross in police business, so he goes along with it, creating, in effect, a counterfeit persona.

The measure of an action thriller, of course, is the action, and this one features a doozy of a car chase, one precipitated by Chance’s dubious choice to carry out a robbery to raise the needed cash in an undercover sting operation that his own bureau won’t cover.  What seemed like a sure bet turns into a sprawling mess, where they literally kidnap a guy for the contents of his briefcase.  In perhaps the turning point in the film, they bring the guy to a freeway underpass to open the contents, but he hasn’t got the key, so in a fit of rage Chance repeatedly smashes the briefcase against the cement pylons only to discover they are taking rifle fire from the road above.  This event seems to activate his hair trigger, clicking the on switch, as the ensuing car chase ends up as a hair-raising ride through a crowded warehouse district before ending up on the freeway going the wrong way, creating a tremendous logjam, not to mention a stockpile of cars smashing into one another.  This is thrillingly photographed, slowly developing where initially you're not even aware it is a car chase before it kicks into high gear, where the action seems to symbolize Chance’s spiraling moral void, as the look into his eyes as he’s driving suggest the actions of a madman.  Just as they think they might have gotten away, Frieidkin yet again defies all expectations by continuing the heist gone wrong theme, where the ramifications are endless, all spinning out of control, where the audience is treated to a visceral experience that again opens a window into this kind of dangerous world, where Vukovich especially continually sees his career and his life passing before his eyes during the final third of the film.  This is a rare style of film in that it provides incidents of graphic nudity mixed with blunt trauma in such an entertaining style, which was highly unusual in its day.  The counterfeit theme is intriguing as well, blurring the lines of moral corruption between the police and the criminals, where the Los Angeles police are notorious for their rampant abuse and misconduct, where it’s impossible to tell with the human eye just which cops and what pedestrians walking down the street are free of criminal interests and associations.              

Sunday, September 18, 2011


ELECTION                             B+                  
USA  (103 mi)  1999  ‘Scope  d:  Alexander Payne

I really must insist you help me win the election tomorrow because I deserve it.     
—Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in a plea to God for help

An early dose of Alexander Payne’s medicine, still, in my view, his best film, which features a mix of biting, sarcastic humor that comes close to caricature right alongside humans sliding into the abyss of their moral fallibility, literally paying a price for their horrible mistakes in life.  It’s a difficult line to straddle, as the tone is light and breezy, a reflection of Middle America, where people work hard to earn a living and establish good social standing, yet somehow remain vulnerable to life’s temptations.  This film shows how easy it is for anyone to cave in to sleazy, unethical behavior when it presents itself and then live the rest of their lives in denial about it.  Matthew Broderick plays Mr. McAllister, a high school history teacher who enjoys his work, as it gives him a sense of importance and responsibility, but living in Omaha, Nebraska, nothing controversial or earth shattering ever happens, so he’s developed a tired sense of routine, sensing nothing exciting will ever come his way, weighed down by his loveless and childless marriage.  Reese Witherspoon is pitch perfect as Tracy Flick, an iconic Type A over-achiever in sweater vests, so believable that she steals the picture and makes this one of her most memorable roles, the blond, ruthlessly competitive, over eager high school student running for student council president, the creepy kind of girl that always raises her hand in class and has that plastic, phony smile stamped on her face, who never says no to an opportunity so long as she can be in charge, heading more than half a dozen activities after school.  This is a girl with a cheerful and ready answer for just about anything, but who quite calculatingly would also step over anyone to get her way and certainly wasn’t going to let a cute, popular athlete jeopardize her chance of winning something that rightfully belongs to her, a position she’s spent her LIFE preparing for, as she’s prim, proper, poised, polite, well—perfect with her Pick Flick buttons and cupcakes.  Because of her manic and irritating way of literally taking control, most people simply leave her alone and don’t stand in her way, allowing her to think she’s accomplishing something when the truth is closer to nothing ever changes, at least not in Omaha.   

Mr. McAllister has a chip on his shoulder and already holds a grudge against Tracy, as he’s seen what she can do when his supposedly happily married best friend, a fellow teacher at his school, was fired after it was discovered he was concealing a sexual relationship with Tracy, claiming they were “in love.”  Tracy never claimed she was coerced, admitted it was consensual, but she’s underage so clearly she’s the victim, yet Mr. McAllister continues to harbor misogynist feelings as he laments the loss of his friend, somehow blaming Tracy who’s now running unopposed for class president, a position that works closely with Mr. McAllister in the upcoming year, a thought he dreads with a passion.  With that in mind, he encourages another student to run against her, Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a dim but likeable jock who suffered a season ending injury while skiing in the off season, feeling a void in his life without athletics.  This only fires up Tracy, who vows to work even harder, driven by the corporate example of how Coca Cola remains number one, as they outspend their competition.  An interesting device used by the director is his multiple use of interior narration, where the inner thoughts of several characters are exposed revealing their true motives and intentions, also a freeze frame technique where time is literally stopped while a character explains themselves in greater detail.  What we discover is a layer of hidden ulterior motives, largely fed by self centered impulses, tucked underneath the artificial exterior that we use to show the world who we are.  In this film, it’s hard to tell which is the real person, the one they want to be, or the one they really are, as both seem to be vying for control.  This duality of good and evil suggests our own moral choices are quite tenuous, as rather than hard and firm beliefs, our guard could be let down at any moment allowing the greedy, selfish impulses to take over.        

It’s not easy to examine the hypocrisy of human behavior, and to do so in a comedy, but this film does a pretty good job, especially with the introduction of Paul’s younger sister Tammy (Jessica Campbell), who is just discovering her lesbian impulses, though not yet acknowledging that she’s gay.  But when she is rejected, and her former girl friend (Frankie Ingrassia) ever so casually becomes her brother Paul’s girl friend instead (proving she’s not gay), actually taking over the running of his campaign for president, this catapults Tammy into her own candidacy for president.  Unlike the promised sincerity of the other two, however, pledging ways to improve their school, Tammy opens her speech with the remark, “Who cares about this stupid election?”  Tammy offers the refreshing thoughts that reflect how most kids feel, that the only person it really matters to is the winner, as nobody else even cares.  Inexplicably, Tammy is the huge audience favorite at the assembly, where students stand up and cheer, sending the administration into emergency damage control, as her views do not reflect the school’s intended message of civic pride and responsibility.  Tammy is the unsung hero of this film, as she’s the only character in a movie filled with despicable people who actually says what she means.  It’s a joy to watch her spend time in her favorite spot where she goes to be alone, a giant grassy field overlooking a massive power station.  But the movie has more devious intentions, as it’s really about dishonesty, exposing the seamy underside of student council elections, where the election is a stand-in for any human endeavor where we face a choice, a moral dilemma.  The question becomes, just how far would we go, what steps would we take to prevent what we perceive as a horrible outcome?  Would we cross the line of ethical behavior to prevent it from happening?  And simultaneously, how far would we go to get what we want?  Don’t we all have the same conniving Tracy Flick attributes coded into our genetic DNA?  But don’t we just suppress it, as it makes us too uncomfortable to think we’re that deceitful?  In the end, of course, humans are that deceitful all the time, never bothering to think about the casualties of people hurt along the way.    

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Innocents

THE INNOCENTS                 A                    
Great Britain  USA  (100 mi)  1961  ‘Scope  d:  Jack Clayton

What shall I sing to my lord from my window?
What shall I sing for my lord will not stay?
What shall I sing for my lord will not listen?
Where shall I go when my lord is away?
Whom shall I love when the moon is arisen?
Gone is my lord and the grave is his prison.
What shall I say when my lord comes a calling?
What shall I say when he knocks on my door?
What shall I say when his feet enter softly?
Leaving the marks of his grave on my floor.
Enter my lord. Come from your prison.
Come from your grave, for the moon is a risen.
Welcome, my lord.

—Miles (Martin Stephens)

seen here on YouTube:  The_Innocents_1961_Miles_Poem.MP4 - YouTube  

They are both playing, or being made to play, some monstrous game. I can’t pretend to understand what its purpose it, I only know that it is happening—something secretive, and whispery, and indecent. 

We must try to learn what it is these horrors want.  Think, Mrs. Grose, the answer must lie in the past.

Unless he’s deceiving us, unless they’re both deceiving us—the innocents.

They can only reach each other by reaching into the souls of the children and possessing them. The children are possessed.  They live, and know, and share this hell.

—Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr)

One of the true classics of Gothic horror, an extraordinary adaptation of Henry James ghost story The Turn of the Screw, a novella written about 1898 and initially published in serial installments.  “It is a curious story," begins James, “a most poisonous tale,” says Oscar Wilde, while according to Virginia Woolf, “Henry James's ghosts have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of the dark lanes and windy commons.  They have their origins with us...We are afraid of something unnamed, of something, perhaps in ourselves.”  Without an ounce of blood or gore, and no trace of physical violence, this remains one of the most menacing films ever made, where the film version loses nothing in the translation to another medium, as all the ghastly wickedness is retained.  Set during the Victorian era, the story concerns the care of two children living on the immense grounds of a beautifully landscaped English country manor in Essex known as Bly, cared for by the housekeeper and servants, as due to the death of their parents, the uncle in charge of their affairs, Michael Redgrave, travels the world and has no time to take care of them, so straightaway he hires a new governess, Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr), a prim and proper pastor’s daughter, where the question that concerns him is whether she has an imagination, putting her in charge with strict instructions not to have any communications with him.  This opens the door to an entirely new world, as transported from reality as a visit to Transylvania, but Miss Giddens relies on sound reasoning and her good judgment.  

Her sunny outlook, however, is met with clues that something is amiss, as immediately the young boy is expelled from school for unspecified charges, where it was alleged he had a contaminating influence on the others.  Happy to return back to the grounds of Bly, he has a very adult air about him, carrying himself with extraordinary confidence, where the two children remain always together, secretly laughing and whispering between themselves.  Miss Giddens inexplicably views two apparitions in broad daylight, which leads her to believe that the children are under the evil power of ghosts, where she feels bound and determined to save them.  Miles, the young boy about 13, is haunted by Peter Quint, the former servant to the uncle, currently deceased, while Flora, age 10, is haunted by Miss Jessel, the former governess, also deceased.  Quint openly flaunted his abusive sexual control over Jessel, now his sexually obedient accomplice, never hiding his crudeness in front of the children, scaring the longtime housekeeper Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), who never uttered a word.  It is never known if these spirits are inventions of the sexually repressed imagination of the inexperienced governess, who may secretly be trying to please the guardian uncle, to whom she may hold some sexual thoughts, or if they really do exist.  By observing the children’s behavior, however, which grows suddenly mysterious in their presence, she is convinced the children can see them and that the apparitions hold a strange power over them.      

Everything is seen through the eyes of the governess, which reaches a peak of hysteria when the children play dress up and Miles recites a haunting poem about the powerful presence of death hovering over him.  Both Giddens and Mrs. Grose greet the children with huge smiles on their faces, indulging them in their playful fun, but Giddens’ face turns to utter horror at what she hears, fearful for the lives of the children.  James described Peter Quint and Miss Jessel as “my hovering blighted presences, my pair of abnormal agents,” a “haunting pair” driven by a “villainy of motive,” a motive which, in neither the book nor the film, is ever explained.  Kerr gives perhaps her best performance, especially as she presents herself as such a grounded character, but her agility and range of expression throughout is unparalleled in her career.  Since this comes from such a popular literary work, the screen adaptation is equally impressive, actually based on the 1950 stage adaptation by William Archibald, but especially the contribution of Truman Capote, who seems to thrive in the voices of the children, emboldened by the solitary worlds of their own invention on the spectacular grounds of the decaying estate, offering them a wisdom beyond their years.  The production design is chillingly appropriate, with candle lit reflections in the tall mirrors, winding staircases, columns, statues, paintings, and a constantly burning fireplace.  The ‘Scope cinematography by Freddie Francis is claustrophobic and charged with atmosphere, the work he personally considers his best effort, filled with slow fades and a blurring of the boundaries between life and death, the real and the imagined, all of which contribute to Miss Giddens’ growing awareness of something sinister in the air that she knows for certain is “something secretive, and whispery, and indecent.”  Described by Pauline Kael as “The best ghost story I’ve ever seen,” this production leaves intact the power of the original work that makes sure the experience rests in the dusty cobwebs of our own imaginations.