Monday, July 7, 2014

Adult swims

Our hero is, at first, conspicuously unseen. Is he a ghost? Foliage rustles and sundry wildlife go on the alert in his presence. When we finally catch sight of Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster), from above, perhaps from a tree, it’s as though the camera captured his movement covertly after holding prolonged vigil, like the director was tracking Bigfoot, not a legendary film star traversing the woods in nothing but swimming trunks. But soon enough Ned strolls into the back garden of some old friends and takes a dip in their pool. After a highly peculiar opening sequence, everything assumes the semblance of normality. But it’s only semblance. The Swimmer (1968), released by Grindhouse on DVD and BD last April, is a strange, eerie movie, and it’s to the movie’s credit that the eeriest moments are those that seem most normal.

John Cheever

‘The Swimmer’ remains John Cheever’s most famous and oft-anthologized story. It was originally intended to be a novel, but was whittled down until its singular conceit was drained of all obvious symbolism and its air of desperation suffused every paragraph. Seemingly on a whim, “Neddy” decides that he’s going to swim all the way to his home by moving from one back garden pool to another—he sees the series of pools as forming a river, one he names after his beloved wife Lucinda. Chronicling Neddy’s journey, his encounters with friends, lovers and neighbours, and the many drinks he imbibes en route, the story’s balance of bizarre and banal takes on surrealist hues. Over the course of a single afternoon, the season seems to change, and Neddy’s sozzled haute bourgeois social life changes too. Cheever was a prodigious drinker, and this story’s power comes in part from the way it apprehends the confusion and memory loss that accompanies advanced alcoholism. As Olivia Laing writes in her excellent The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, published earlier this year, ‘The Swimmer’ “catches in its strange compressions the full arc of an alcoholic’s life."

Thankfully, the film of The Swimmer, directed by Frank Perry from an adaptation by his spouse and collaborator Eleanor Perry, pushes that reading no more than the story does—though the booze certainly flows. The first line of Cheever’s story: “It was one of those mid-summer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” That exact line is uttered by two different characters within the film’s first few minutes, not ominously but, rather, jocularly, while more drinks are being served. Ned’s portage through the suburban wilderness takes him through few properties where drinks aren’t being served. Many characters remark on Ned’s terrific physique—Lancaster was in his mid-50s and in great shape—and some express their attraction to him, but others are unmistakably hostile, and perhaps afraid, and demand that he leave their property for reasons Ned can’t quite understand. Or remember. “Aren’t you a little confused this afternoon?” someone asks. Lancaster is perfectly cast as this chipper, charismatic socialite. There is a colossal block behind his eyes. His smile feels as developed and maintained and for-show as his biceps. His confidence feels calculated so as to carefully disguise an inner panic. What happened the last time he met these people? What did he do? What did he miss? And where are some of his old pals?

Perry died in 1995. His body of work gives little indication of experimentalist ambitions, but The Swimmer, is a cavalcade of oblique—if dated—strategies; of punchy colours; of slow-motion flocking and fence-jumping through blurry forests to overbearing scoring; of truly weird ultra-close-ups, including one of Lancaster’s eyeball, in which he discover a horse that Ned will later race. The film is much funnier than you might expect, yet not at the expense of the story’s integrity. It glides from pool to pool, always brimming with odd surprises, is unnerving in all the right ways, and finally kind of harrowing. It’s more successful than it had any right to be, I fully recommend it, and I tip my hat to Perry for pulling it off. Still, given the particular richness of Cheever’s idea and the milieu in which his tale unfolds, I can’t help but wonder what Luis Buñuel would have done with the material.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

NYPD vs 666

The opening title card reads “Inspired by actual accounts,” which is distinct from “Based on a true story” in that it reads closer to “Somebody of indeterminate credibility claims something like this happened but mostly we made it up.” Which is understandable given that we’re watching a movie where a guy spontaneously bleeds from injuries inflicted by an invisible crown of thorns and features several incidents that could prove libellous for the NYPD. The filmmakers need to cover their collective ass. They also need to imply that what we’re seeing could’ve happened, Satan is real, and when the going gets tough you want to find yourself an hunky ex-junky Latino priest. Those guys are hard-core.  

Deliver Us From Evil takes place in 2013, a year in which New York apparently suffered constant brownouts and torrential downpours. Officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana) gets a hunch one night—his partner calls this Sarchie’s “radar”—and accepts a call to investigate a domestic dispute involving a wife beater who acts like a rabid dog. The radar keeps going off over the ensuing nights and Sarchie winds up fending off large zoo animals, getting bitten by a lady who threw her kid in a ravine, witnessing an exploding corpse and befriending the aforementioned hunky ex-junky (Carlos star Édgar Ramírez), who gradually convinces Sarchie that his radar is really a God-given gift for sniffing evil and that he’ll need to confront his sinful past if he’s ever going to beat the Devil.

Sarchie is a real-life retired cop and demonologist. He co-founded the New York chapter of the New England Society of Psychic Research and has worked with the likes of Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were themselves the subject of a horror movie, last year’s The Conjuring. To Bana’s credit, movie-Sarchie’s eventual conversion to belief in demonic possession is barely foreshadowed. The arc of Deliver Us From Evil, its story an amalgamation of events chronicled in Sarchie’s memoir Beware the Night, is given shape by Sarchie’s reluctant acceptance of his calling.

Which brings us to our director and co-scenarist Scott Derrickson, who I confess to finding somewhat fascinating. Following a wildly unnecessary remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and the haunted house movie Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil returns Derrickson, who was raised a Christian fundamentalist, to the thematic terrain of his feature debut The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a thriller-as-thesis statement exploring the mental illness versus demonic possession question and came out on the side of ambiguity and general tolerance of other people’s spiritual beliefs. That film, goofy as it was, works better than Deliver Us From Evil, which nosedives into overstatement and can’t resist a protracted operatic demon-outing climax that strains the “actual accounts” claim well past its breaking point.

Still, I feel friendly toward Evil. Derrickson’s a rare bird, both a true believer and a young director trying to navigate Hollywood—he’s said to be helming a Doctor Strange adaptation next. I think this film could have used more of the believer and less of the showman, but at least it keeps a sense of humour about itself, particularly with regards to its winking references to Poltergeist and Taxi Driver and a fun motif involving The Doors, whose music seems to follow Sarchie around. People are strange, just like the song says, so why can’t we have a morose Iraq vet-turned-house painter and lion whisperer who recites Latin and goes to work in the middle of the night made up like Alice Cooper?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Wayward paths to devotion

JB's a bad blogger! It's true, I have been neglectful of late with the posts. Genuine busyness and occasional cynicism are my only excuses. I will heretofore attempt to make amends, dear readers. (That was plural, which implies my cheerful assumption that you are more than one in number.) Now that we are in the hazy hot days of summer, let us turn our attention to winter... monochromatic winter! And Poland. And nuns...

Ida follows a young orphan raised in a convent who, on the verge of taking her vows, learns that she has an aunt living in a nearby city. The orphan shows no curiosity but her Mother Superior obliges her to visit this aunt before devoting her life to Christ. The orphan’s name is Anna, but upon meeting Aunt Wanda, a former state prosecutor, Anna learns that her real name is Ida, and, what’s more, that she’s Jewish. A revelation under any circumstance—especially if you’re about to become a nun!—but this is Poland, 1962, where being the orphaned daughter of Jews automatically supposes a link one to the single greatest atrocity of the 20th century. Ida’s parents disappeared during the war, and hardboiled Wanda has just enough information and just enough sympathy for her reticent niece to initiate what will become something of a road movie and something of a detective story, a journey to unearth the truth about Ida’s parents.

Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski (Last Resort, My Summer of Love) and written by Pawlikowski and British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Ida, clocking in at a trim yet unhurried 80 minutes, unfolds in the exquisite, captivating manner of a precisely sculpted novella. Every scene is infused with quiet mystery, yet in hindsight every moment is essential. Credit for the mystery and compaction both should be divided between numerous artists, of which I’ll name just a few. Ida is played by Agata Trzebuchowska, Wanda by Agata Kulesza. With her opaque, liquid eyes refusing entry, that chin dimple like the mark of some chosen one, and those wide, childlike planes of her face always catching the ashen winter light, Trzebuchowska is a presence at once luminous and demure. Kulesza conveys a wizened weariness that gradually shifts from sly cynicism toward something more heartbreaking. Ida and “Red Wanda” make a fascinatingly idiosyncratic pair, one a genuine innocent protected from earthly vice by her stoicism and nun’s habit, the other a lonely, cold-eyed if still seductive woman somewhere on the far side of middle-age who smokes too much, drinks too much, and sleeps with men out of habit—a character made by complicated by her past participation in the 1950s show trials that brought opponents of socialism to their knees.

Confined—and liberated too—by the boxy, Academy ratio frame, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s stunning silvery black and white cinematography frequently places the characters at the bottom of the image, leaving space overhead for architecture, freshly dug earth or the heavens to loom like some elusive god, uncertain future or harrowing family legacy. Before it even begins Wanda teasingly warns that their journey might end with Ida discovering that there is no God. And indeed, as this story makes its serpentine way there are moments when faith seems in question and unholy new routes open themselves for Ida. Whatever routes she follows, whatever distance she travels, there is however always a sense that Ida is about wayward paths to devotion. And to self-realization, for this young orphan, and for a country still reeling from one trauma and deep in the grips of another.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Modern love in the shadow of the city

The final film in what would retroactively be considered a sort of loose trilogy—three inimitable modernist films about modern eros, modern cities, modern business, and modern ennui—L’eclisse (1962), for all its wandering ways, does indeed infuse the air with some sense of conclusion. The story of a young translator who slips out of one love story and into another, it was Michelangelo Antonioni’s last film in black and white and it pushed his proposition regarding landscape, architecture and objects as narrative tools on par with actors to dizzying heights: the dominance of a lampshade, a column, an unfinished building or an immense cloud in a given frame needs to be regarded as content, not décor. (Is L’eclisse, so light on plot, boring? Only if you have no interest whatsoever in looking at things.)  L’avventura (1960) famously shaped itself around a mystery never resolved, but L’eclisse, in its exquisite final sequence, in which Antonioni leads us on a tour of places already visited the story’s lovers—places now punctured with their absence—actually leaps ahead of the action to imply an inevitable ending. The lovers are last seen together swearing to see each other again later that night, the next day, the day after, and so on, but Antonioni’s ingenious closing montage uses landscape, architecture, objects and our memory of them to acknowledge that this love story will soon draw to a close that need not be dramatized here.

We meet Vittoria (Monica Vitta, one of Antonioni’s chief collaborators during this time) on the morning that she breaks it off with her fiancé (Francisco Rabal). Whatever tempests accompanied their negotiations dwindled into weary resignation by the time we catch up with them. That exhausted morning gives way to a frenetic afternoon in which Vittoria visits the Roman stock exchange to find her mother and meet the handsome, energetic young stockbroker (Alain Delon) her mother employs—a future lover to eclipse the past one. Romances perish, fortunes are lost and a stolen car becomes a watery death trap over the course of L’eclisse, but where such drama would normally occupy the foreground of a conventional drama, Antonioni places no special emphasis on them. Instead he’s interested in studying Vittoria as she drifts through the world, and in her largely happenstance way studies that world. No one explores and marvels over urban topography like Antonioni, and Vitti was his most captivating surrogate. In a film fraught with unease, Vittoria can frequently be found discovering peculiar sources of wonder: the staggered percussive musique concrete of flagpoles swaying in a wee-hour breeze or a day’s journey by small plane to Verona (the setting of the most famous story of star-crossed love in history). Vitti is angular and fascinatingly gorgeous, but more importantly she conveys a stubborn, almost naïve wakefulness in these films that are always in danger of feeling merely defeated. Her gaze is ever-curious, her slender hands always curling around things, if never quite grasping them firmly. Is Antonioni directing her or she him? The Antonioni-Vitti collaboration is among the most important in cinema history.

Criterion’s new DVD/BD release of L’eclisse comes out this week. The transfer looks immaculate and the best supplements include an audio commentary from film scholar Richard Peña, a video essay and interview with Italian film critic Adriano Aprà and Antonioni’s friend Carlo di Carlo, and a written essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Keeping his inner dog on a leash

Based on the 1991 Larry Brown novel, Joe, written by Gary Hawkins and directed by David Gordon Green, unfolds in some ramshackle hamelt tucked in Texas backwoods, a place of trucks, dogs and guns, where most adults seem if not drunk then en route. The story drawn from this place is familiar but infused with immediacy, bracingly bleak, very much alive, a study in violence passed through genes and ordinary terrorized homes, a violence most prevalent in men and beasts men keep as companions. If I told you there’s also milky glimmers of human beauty in this place would you believe me?

You might if you know Green’s work. Last year’s lovely comic two-hander Prince Avalanche aside, Green spent the last decade straying ever-far from his distinctive, quirky and wonderstruck “regional” early features, his 2000 debut, George Washington, chief among them. The first moments of Joe already contain elements that instantly Green’s pre-Pineapple salad days: a kid, an adult, train tracks, rural penumbra—we’re back in the saddle! But we’re also dealing with a more mature Green. Joe features characteristic digressions and eccentricities: some dude lifting weights in a brothel, another skinning a deer while smoking a cigarette, a frail old hillbilly, played by a homeless man Green met at a bus stop, who gets evil-drunk and can barely get up, but can breakdance, at least with his upper body. None of these kooky interjections get in the way of telling Brown’s grim tale. Joe is most similar to Green’s Undertow—Green calls the film a contemporary western. Unlike George Washington’s overgrown North Carolina idyll, race matters here. There is a scene white man beats black man to death for pocket change and a bottle of rosé. Or maybe just to prove that he can.

That should give you an idea of the film’s milieu and tone and what it means in the story of its director, but I still need to tell you about what’s most remarkable in Joe. It is indeed a sort of western, with a plot involving an adolescent boy (Mud’s Tye Sheridan) trapped in a perilous home situation and bad men coming out of the past, but true to its title, Joe is also a character study, and its titular character is played by Nicholas Cage, doing some of the finest, most unaffected work of his career. In his Pantera tee, tattoos and big beard, Cage’s fearsomely intense Joe is an embodiment of damage done and held barley in check. He knows it’s restraint that keeps him alive, the capacity to channel rage, or at least nullify it with drugs and alcohol, maybe sex. He has a dog that needs to be kept on a leash, until it isn’t. He runs a small crew that kills trees for a living, poisoning entire forests for lumber companies looking to clear land and plant more profitable pines. (Joe is also, like Prince Avalanche, a film sensitive to working life.) Joe seems like a good boss and tries to do right by Sheridan’s troubled teen. At one point we see Joe nurse his own gunshot wound with duct tape. He’s a genuinely complex character, not just a wild clash of conceits concocted by Cage, who has himself described much of his more recent performances as “western Kabuki.” Joe’s the sort that you will surely feel some empathy for but may not ever want to actually know. In any case he’s the centre of this excellent film, one of the fiercest and most well-crafted American independents of 2014.  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lovers rock

The movie opens turning, the night’s stars unstuck and blurring, the 45 of Wanda Jackson’s ‘Funnel of Love’ loping on the turntable, the twin images of our far-apart lovers reclining in their respective nests. For some minutes, everything moves clockwise. (If only the screen were a circle!) It’s an ingenious way of getting us thinking about time in broader terms. It also gets us literally into the groove of Jim Jarmusch’s latest seriocomic cosmic concoction, a blend of genre mischief, thing/place/notion fetish, corny comedic routines, ruminations on time, science, civilization and technology, and the sort of normally neglected incidentals that Jarmusch has always aspired to construct movies from—few filmmakers so clearly enjoy just watching people do stuff: roll a cigarette, dance, play dominoes, select books to travel with. Only Lovers Left Alive is itself a trip, an appropriation of vampire lore as a way to address the nature of long-term love. It’s been done before but, in my experience, never so resonantly and, despite a heavy-handed moment or two—the historical references get a little old—so lightly.

There comes a point in relationships where living apart emerges as a viable option. In the case of Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) it may have taken a century or two. Only Lovers begins with Eve in Tangier and Adam in Detroit—an undead city if ever there was—where he holes up in a dilapidated house making smoldering anonymous records he may or may not want people to hear. She embraces life and modernity, he’s a recluse despairing at the world’s entropic idiocy, obsessively accumulating objects from the past—though it’s notable that only Eve can carbon-date these objects with a mere touch. Adam’s gloom burgeons to the degree where suicide becomes a consideration. Eve, sensing this—there is some discussion of spooky action at a distance—takes a chain of redeyes to come meet him. But Eve’s arrival is followed by an unexpected visit from her little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), also a vampire. For a time the film becomes, of all things, a comedy about annoying in-laws who invade your place, touch your stuff, put the moves on your buddies, and drink all your blood.  

From Down By Law (1986) to Dead Man (1995), Jarmusch’s films have always transmitted ambivalence toward narrative, something he seems to regard largely as scaffolding through which he can weave digressions. Only Lovers has just about the friendliest balance of story and incident in any of his later, woozier, formally looser works. Ava’s tempestuous entrance and an eventual crisis involving dwindling blood supplies give the film enough midpoint momentum to support its loveliest, less urgent passages, the White Hills concert, or a wee-hour tour of the Motor City, complete with a visit to Jack White’s house and the Michigan Theatre, a movie palace-turned parking lot, on the site where Henry Ford built the first car. (The building recently featured in Peter Mettler’s The End of Time.)

What else? The revenant fashions are to die for, the angular drones of Jozef Van Wissem score drape scenery in aural smoke, and the typically eclectic cast, which also includes Anton Yelchin, Jeffrey Wright and John Hurt, accentuate the film’s supple tonal shifts. Eve is the anchor in the central relationship, but Hiddleston is the anchor in the cast, embodying both the gravity and mirth generated by this film made by a mature artist who, I’d guess, is reflecting on his own experiences negotiating love over the long term. Only Lovers is, in a sense, about the special pleasures of revisiting what’s known: books, records, friends, lovers. Or the work of beloved irreverent filmmakers who endeavour over time to keep finding new routes to explore, while adhering to certain old ideas about what their art should be, regardless of changing fashions.