Thursday, October 23, 2014

No wife, no puppy, no car, the mysterious Jack Wick ain't got no-thing left to lose

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) resides in a vast modernist manor in the Jersey woods, its décor, like Wick’s wardrobe, so uniformly titanium and ash-coloured that for long stretches we could be watching a black and white film. Wick’s home resembles a luxury tomb, which seems apt: his beloved wife has died, though she had the foresight to arrange to have an adorable puppy delivered the day of her funeral to console Wick in his grief. But, in a perverse twist of fate, that goes to hell too: the spoiled idiot son (Alfie Allen) of some Russian Mafiosi (Michael Nyqvist) eyeballs Wick’s slick ’69 Mustang at a service station and decides to break into Wick’s house, beat him up, steal his ride and kill his puppy. At this point in John Wick we still don’t know much about who Wick is, but the fact that he doesn’t call the cops after the spoiled idiot son and his cronies depart should tell us something.

Turns out Wick’s a highly regarded contract killer who managed to go straight—and a former associate of the spoiled idiot son’s mighty powerful pa. Now that Wick’s lost his wife, car and pooch he’s pretty much got nothing left to do but kill the spoiled idiot son and whoever else gets in the way. That whoever else turns into, oh, maybe a hundred hired douchebags in tailored suits who get shot, kicked, punched, stabbed, head-butted, blown up and run over in dizzyingly quick succession. John Wick is a revenge movie. It was written by Derek Kolstad and is the directorial debut of stunt coordinator Chad Stahelski (though as of time-of-writing IMDb also says it's the directorial debut of actor/stuntman David Leitch). Its violence alternates between clean-cool and messy-ugly, it contains a pleasingly minimal amount of bullshit that doesn’t need to be there, it’s neither very distinctive nor completely generic and it uses Keanu’s natural placidity fairly well. 

Keanu does Lee!

But what I like best about John Wick is the colourful way it populates its comic book crime milieu. There’s a crack team of dead guy disposal experts who show up with Windex and body bags at the drop of a corpse; there’s a posh hotel that prides itself on being a non-partisan, killing-free zone for thugs of all stripes, a sort of Mafia Switzerland in the middle of Manhattan; there’s a crowded nightclub strewn with monochromatic psychedelia that allows Stahelski to stage a small homage to Point Blank, with Reeves casually assuming the Lee Marvin poses; there are sundry bad-asses (one of whom is played by Willem Dafoe) who might save Wick’s life or snuff it out depending on the number of zeroes in the commission. The film’s conceits are all wildly over-the-top but they’re mostly played out with minimal fuss, almost no scenery chewing, some gallows humour, and a nice little cameo from Ian McShane.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tanks for nothing

Repeat after me: “War is hell.” Now keep repeating that for over two hours and by the time you’re finished you might have some idea as to the cumulative insights gathered in David Ayer’s turgid World War II tank drama. It opens with U.S. tank commander Sergeant Collier (Brad Pitt) stabbing a man in the eyeball, which, I suppose, is some kind of clever performance of the title of Ayer’s preceding directorial effort, End of Watch. But I had to review Fury, so I kept on watching, as bodies were crushed to pulp under tank tread, as men on fire blew their brains out, as prisoners of war were repeatedly executed, as women are humiliated and surrender their bodies to invading soldiers because they know they have no choice. (I’ll let you decide how that differs from sexual assault.) Mayhem without energy, these dour scenes don’t even have the crassness to be perverse. What it has instead and in droves is this appalling, pretentious mixture of misanthropy and sentimentality, with endless peanut-brained justifications for superfluous raping and killing. There’s a scene in which a newbie (Logan Lerman), already traumatized by having to clean to clean up the bloody interior of the tank and discovering a sizable chunk of someone’s face, is escorted by Collier into a room littered with Nazis who suicided in anticipation of the Allies’ arrival. As though speaking on our behalf, the newbie asks, “Why are you showing me this?” And Collier, as though speaking on Ayers’ behalf, answers, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” This is the zenith of what passes for wisdom in Fury.

If Ayer’s aim is to remind us of the infernal horrors of what many consider a just war (something that, for the record, countless, infinitely superior films have accomplished before this), I suppose he’s succeeded, but he deflates whatever value such a statement may possess by simultaneously constructing scenarios in which his characters are made to seem heroic, striking heroic poses, saying heroic things to the strains of heroic music. Which is to say, Fury is a dunderheaded apologia for war crimes, a morally inept work of grotesque nonsense exploiting historical suffering for the sake of pulpy so-called entertainment.

Fury is a fairly appropriate title (American Tank might have served just as well), but Ayer’s definition of fury has much overlap with stupidity or blunt nihilism. Collier proudly declares that he once promised to keep his crew alive, yet the film ends with an act of utterly gratuitous violence, a quasi-Wild Bunch climax that’s sure to get everyone butchered for absolutely no good reason. It’s April 1945, the war is nearly over, a mechanical failure stalls Collier’s tank at a country crossroads somewhere in Germany, hundreds of Nazis are spotted coming their way. Outnumbered and outgunned by a colossal margin, Collier’s crew of five could easily hide out in the woods, but instead choose to hold their ground for no apparent reason other than to keep killing and keep getting killed, to get that body-count as high as possible even when the war’s outcome is all but secured. 

That Ayer has managed to make a film even stupider than End of Watch is some kind of achievement. That he manages to exacerbate that stupidity with snatches of scoring from The Omen is almost, but not quite, impressive. Misguided in the extreme and weirdly boring, there is no genuine audacity here, and certainly no nobility. Of interest to tank enthusiasts and Shia LaBeouf completists only.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A tender distance

She’s a stout 60-year-old widow and cleaning lady of Polish origin. He’s a tall thirtysomething Gastarbeiter, or guest worker, from Morocco. We’re in Munich in the mid-70s. They meet one evening when she steps into the mostly empty bar she’s passed so many times, drawn in by the sensuous, foreign-sounding music. He’s at the bar, dressed in brown suit and brown shirt, hanging with his Moroccan buddies, turning down the sexual favours of a fellow barfly. “Cock broken,” he explains in broken German. The older woman orders cola and sits at a table. The younger man, egged on by his buddies, approaches her. They slow-dance and converse, and the conversation goes on and on, into the night, out of the bar, into the older woman’s foyer, where they take shelter from the rain, and, eventually, into her apartment. Despite its seeming unlikeliness, despite the overwhelming obstacles of rampant, ubiquitous racism, ageism and xenophobia, Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) become lovers, and the story of their love, as told in New German Cinema wunderkind-enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), is that rarest of things: a truly believable movie romance. It’s also a masterpiece. Criterion’s just released it on a beautiful Blu-ray, with a menu featuring a beautiful montage of Emmi and Ali slow-dancing.

Fassbinder wasn’t even 30 when he made this, his 18th film, which was inspired by two other films: The American Soldier (1970), Fassbinder’s early feature in which a character relays the story of a cleaning lady in love with an immigrant worker, and All That Heaven Allows (1955), Douglas Sirk’s melodrama in which Jane Wyman’s bourgeois widow falls in love with Rock Hudson’s young gardener. (In turn, Todd Haynes would draw inspiration from All That Heaven Allows and from Fear Eats the Soul to produce his 2002 film Far From Heaven.) Though Emmi and Ali’s love is threatened at every turn by the stupidity and cruelty of friends, neighbours, strangers, family and co-workers, Feat Eats the Soul, echoing Sirk, ends on a sombre but more optimistic note than the American Solider anecdote. But I would argue that more than anything that happens in its story, what makes Fear Eats the Soul so moving, fascinating and generous of heart is Fassbinder’s singular directorial approach—the same high style that you’d think would make the film alienating.

Few filmmakers have utilized aspects of theatre in any meaningful way. One of those few is Fassbinder, whose theatre practice was as prolific as his cinema practice. Right from the start, with those deep reds and yellows, there’s a sumptuous unity of production and costume design, lighting and photography, that both bears the influence of All That Heaven Allows’ Technicolor palate and at an expressionistic theatrical style—which creates a captivating contrast with the clean, muted acting of the cast, most especially Mira, a veteran thespian, and Salem, who appeared in several Fassbinder films and was for a time Fassbinder’s boyfriend. Above all, what distinguishes Fear Eats the Soul is Fassbinder’s loving, counterintuitive mise en scène. In scene after scene Fassbinder’s characters share the most intimate exchanges while his camera watches from a considerable distance, often with telling objects or framing devices in the foreground. There’s such tenderness is this distance, as though Fassbinder is holding his actors, cradling them, in the centre of the screen. He would continue to use framing (most memorably in a romantic scene that becomes a murder scene in Berlin Alexanderplatz), but I don’t know that any subsequent Fassbinder ever achieved quite the same feeling of belief in love as is found here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A marriage procedural

A pretty blonde head is stroked by a masculine hand that looks equally capable of tenderness or terror. The owner of the hand wonders what’s inside that head. “What are you thinking? What have we done to each other?” The story of a wife who goes missing and the abyss of suspicion her husband’s plunged into in the wake of her disappearance, Gone Girl undergoes several sea change-shifts, offering multiple perspectives then promptly prompting us to question the validity of those perspectives. Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel and directed with characteristically cool precision by David Fincher, the film is murder mystery, domestic horror, the blackest of comedies, social satire—perhaps the only way of containing all these is to call it noir. Above all, it’s a forensic analysis of love turned venomous in decay. In keeping with many Fincher films, it reaches heights of intrigue and resonance by focusing on detail and causality: it’s a marriage procedural.

Nick and Amy Dunne (a brilliantly cast Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) moved from New York to Nick’s hometown of Carthage, Missouri after both lost their jobs and Nick’s mother fell ill. Was financial strain the source of their marital mire? Was it the confines of Carthage? Was it some inherent flaw in love’s DNA, something that went undetected during those early days in which each longs to fulfil the other’s bliss-blinded vision of their beloved? We know from Nick’s private conversations with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) that things likely went south long before they moved to the Midwest, but after Amy disappears Nick is compelled to behave as though their marriage was idyllic. Once signs of struggle are found in his house the investigating detectives (the superb Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) clearly view Nick with suspicion. Once Amy’s disappearance makes the news it becomes fodder for a media machine eager to package tragedy into sensational narrative—and Nick’s initial resistance to ostentatious displays of grief immediately render him the potential bad guy.

But Gone Girl is most closely aligned with Nick’s point of view. We’re inclined to believe him, even when we know he’s no angel, even when Affleck is pleasingly low on affect. Yet Amy’s version of their marriage intercepts the Nick narrative: we’re offered passages from her diary that detail an protracted honeymoon period tainted only by references to a devious chin (a nice bit of business that playfully pokes fun at Affleck’s physiognomy). As the dueling plots thicken we wonder when Amy’s tale of marital bliss will overlap with Nick’s history of misery and suffocation. Gone Girl proliferates in subplots and slippery twists, accumulating crimes and misdemeanors, building toward a satisfying thriller climaxes and a denouement distinguished by its poisonousness as a date night movie, an even more unnerving mirror held up to married life than Before Midnight.

I mentioned noir. While Fincher’s supple classicism and delight in making the darkest mainstream movies imaginable recalls Hitchcock, throughout Gone Girl I kept thinking how much this material would have appealed to Billy Wilder, who was never better than when he met a script that could vindicate his cynicism with earned wit and a sense of lived experience. Flynn’s script depends on certain flights of artifice (which I will refrain from spoiling) yet resonates in countless ways. The concern with optics informing the story will no doubt come into play in the film’s reception: a woman can be accused of misogyny just as easily as a man, but the fact that Gone Girl’s primary authorship is divided between a man and a woman probably helps to navigate a minefield of gender representation—we’ll be discussing how that plays out for some time. For now we can simply surrender to this film’s seductive sway, its cool surfaces and wicked humour, its myriad traps and wrong turns which, like the Dunnes’ cat, we can only sit and silently witness. But wait, whose side does that sphinx-like tabby take in the end?

Friday, September 26, 2014

Disciplinarian vigilante gets baggy injustice

The first fifth or so of The Equalizer is an exhaustive introduction to a mysterious protagonist. Bob (Denzel Washington) is a middle-aged widower who works at a Boston big box building supply store. Though he volunteers to coach a co-worker through a weight-loss regimen, Bob has no close friends. No one knows much about him or his past, though Bob claims to have once been one of Gladys Knight’s Pips. Bob seems like a square, lives like a monk, and, while his public persona seems laid back, he takes an almost autistic approach to discipline, timing everything he does with a stopwatch, scrubbing his sneakers daily, and carefully wrapping his own teabag in a pristine napkin before going to the local diner where he spends his sleepless nights reading Hemingway, Cervantes and Ellison or exchanging friendly banter with a young sex worker (Chloë Grace Moretz) who, one quickly surmises, is in a lot of trouble. It’s trouble that animates the hidden Bob, the Bob we came to see, the Bob who takes out a quintet of very scary Russian heavies in half a minute with a corkscrew and a paperweight and whatever else is at hand.

Written by Richard Wenk (The Mechanic, The Expendables 2), The Equalizer, inspired by the eponymous 1980s television series about a former CIA operative, reunites Washington with his Training Day director Antoine Fuqua. Fuqua knows we came to see Bob kick ass but wants us to wait for it, approaching The Equalizer as equal parts character study and exploitive vigilante actioner. My problem with this approach is that there’s only so much character to study and the action sequences are even more belaboured than the quiet ones. Fuqua chooses, for example, to gives us an awkward prelude to Bob’s first act of violence that’s a bit like Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Googlemap street scan in Premium Rush, shooting the camera into Washington’s eyeball before showing his analysis of his adversaries, the room and its contents. Fuqua shoots actions from four angles when one would suffice. He lingers over things when swiftness seems called for.

It needn’t be thus. One elegantly edited sequence elides an act of violence altogether, moving from a scene in which Bob witnesses a robbery and memorizes the perpetrator’s licence plate, to a scene in which he calmly borrows a sledgehammer from the store’s supply, to one in which a cashier discovers that one of the stolen items has inexplicably reappeared to one in which Bob calmly cleans and replaces the sledgehammer to its original place. This sequence is a fine example of narrative economy very much in keeping with the central character’s sensibility. It also drew great laughs from the audience with whom I watched the film. We understood exactly what transpired and took perverse satisfaction in the compact way it was implied. This sequence is, unfortunately, an exception in The Equalizer, a 132-minute film that ends four times but could have been a sleek, say, 93 minutes and ended at its peak of inevitable vengeance.

What irony. Washington is well cast as Bob, and Bob, though his murderous, pre-emptive ethics are exceedingly dubious, appeals to us because he’s obsessed with making everything clean, mean, efficient, no bullshit. I would much rather have seen his cut of the movie.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Some cinema cannot be erased from your head

This is the story of Henry Spenser (Jack Nance), a factory printer, so wary of yet helplessly drawn to women. His orb-like eyes seem fixed on some unseen abyss, their shape echoed by that of the lumpy unnamed planet inside of which a scaly man (legendary production designer Jack Fisk) pulls levers and apparently sends some spermatozoon-like worm-thing down to earth. The worm-thing reappears in the guise of Henry’s unexpected progeny; the excitable mother of his very nervous girlfriend Mary (Little House’s Charlotte Stewart) informs Henry of his paternity during a family dinner of man-made chickens. Henry assumes his responsibilities and has Mary and the baby move into his tiny apartment where a framed photograph of an atomic explosion serves as the sole decoration. But baby gets sick, Mary disappears, and Henry seems prone to fantasy. He dreams of a lady in his radiator, who has facial abscesses, sings Fats Waller and does a dance that seems to give Henry permission to kill the ailing creature said to be his child.

Inspired by Kafka and the Surrealists, David Lynch’s feature debut is a masterpiece of painstaking craft and unfettered imagination. Ordinary anxieties manifest as hallucinatory strangeness throughout Eraserhead (1977): fear of commitment and family, fear of death and decay, fear of sex and women—Henry is seduced by the beguiling older woman who lives across the hall, a character who will return in the form of Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet (1986). They make love in a steaming vat.

With its sound design industrial drones and distant roller rink music, its gorgeous black and white photography by Herbert Caldwell and Frederick Elmes—who would later shoot Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart (1990)—and its desolate landscapes of dirt mounds, monolithic buildings and dank puddles, the film offers an unusually immersive experience. Lynch initially studied visual art, and Eraserhead is as much sculptural object as it is movie. 

I first saw Eraserhead when I was 17. I took someone—a beguiling older woman, in fact—to a midnight screening. When the lights came up she asked me if I actually liked her. She was offended that I took her to this thing, which admittedly may not be an ideal date movie. I stuttered some apology—while secretly revelling in what I’d just beheld—but she was inconsolable. I don’t know what happened to her—I hope she recovered—but Eraserhead has remained imprinted upon my murkiest grey matter ever since. And I can now render its damage even more permanently!: Criterion has just released a gorgeous, generously supplemented DVD and BD Eraserhead package. 

Lynch: the multiple tie years

On one of those generous Criterion supplements, David Lynch tells a story about how one day, as a young art student in Philadelphia, he was working on this painting. Green plants were slowly emerging from a blackened canvas. Then he heard wind and, somehow, he saw the canvas move. He realized that this was just what he wanted, to make a painting that has a sound and that moves. It’s as eloquent a description as I’ve heard of how an artist transitions from one medium to another, how discoveries made in one medium feed the other. The amazing collection of short films included in Criterion’s package, illustrate, along with Eraserhead Lynch’s transition from canvas to celluloid, tearing the lid off one of the most fecund imaginations in modern cinema.

Nowhere is the nature of this transition more apparent than in Lynch’s first 4-minute animated film, ‘Six Men Getting Sick’ (1967), a fusion of Francis Bacon and Jean-Luc Godard. The title is a synopsis: there are indeed six sick men. Soil keeps rising up to their necks, internal organs keep haemorrhaging, a siren keeps surging and fading, mouths keep spilling blood. Life is reduced to an emergency loop. The grotesque is rendered as beautiful trauma. Stunning.

Based on a dream had by his wife’s niece, ‘The Alphabet’ (1968) features a girl in a bed with problems. Red lips are licked in an iris. Letters give off ectoplasm. There’s a profound unease with language at the base of this, or it not language per se then with signifiers or meaning, which makes sense: Lynch would have to give himself permission to elide overt meanings in order to make narrative films.

At 33 minutes, ‘The Grandmother’ (1970) is Lynch’s first sustained exercise in merging the aesthetics of painting and sculpture with those of live-action cinema—not to mention theatre, as there are potent references to kabuki and the absurd in this tale of an abused boy who grows a grandmother for consolation by literally soiling his sheets and wetting his bed. Patricidal fantasies are acted out on a proscenium stage, birthing imagery is accompanied by the sound of protracted diarrhoea. Dark wonder and secret liberation underline ‘The Grandmother,’ which is largely silent and seems most indebted to the two Jeans: Vigo and Cocteau.

A nurse, played by Lynch himself, gives a sort of pedicure to a woman’s leaky stump as she writes a letter in ‘The Amputee’ (1974), a film that came about mainly because Frederick Elmes, who would shoot most of Eraserhead, was asked to test a pair of black and white video stocks. By Lynch standards it is a work of very limited visual allure, but it is characteristically strange and intriguing. 

The final short included in Criterion’s set was produced decades after Eraserhead yet feels of a piece with the other works here on account of its inky-fuzzy chiaroscuro painterliness and extreme compaction. Commissioned as part of the Lumière and Company project, which supplied 41 filmmakers with the Lumière brothers’ very first wood, metal and glass camera and acetate film stock, ‘Premonitions Following an Evil Deed’ (1995) features police, a scary room, and flames: an excellent set of basic ingredients for a Lynch film, something that bubbles up from the unconscious to beguile, trouble, arouse and amuse. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Recovery and detection in twelve uneasy steps

When we first meet Scudder (Liam Neeson) it’s 1991. Back then he was NYPD, with dyed moustache and goatee. He drinks a breakfast of coffee and two shots of whiskey in a bar that gets robbed. The robbers ice the barkeep. Scudder chases them down and disposes of them one at a time with a remarkably steady hand. There’s more to this part of the story but we don’t learn about it until later, when it’s 1999, Scudder’s handed in his badge, started up as an un-licenced private detective, given up booze and shaved off the ’stache and goatee, that combo having migrated to the faces of several heavies, among them millionaire criminal Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and sadistic sociopathic serial killer Albert (Adam David Thompson). The 90s were difficult years for facial hair legitimacy. 

Yet, if A Walk Among the Tombstones is anything to go by, they were good years for literacy rates. This film, based on a 1992 novel by Lawrence Block, features a drug lord who chills on the sofa with some Nabokov, a homeless boy who hangs out in libraries and is well versed in his Dashiell Hammett, a cemetery groundskeeper toiling away at a novel, and another drug lord who names his dog Watson, no doubt in honour of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved narrator. I’m poking fun, but the truth is that it’s a perfectly pleasant conceit in a perfectly watchable, if gruesome, detective yarn, whose narrative style, for the record, is modelled most closely after Raymond Chandler: like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Scudder is usually one step ahead of us and rarely stops to explain what he’s doing. Like Marlowe, Scudder is also something of a romantic. Though evidence of the internet’s usefulness in detection is made obvious to him, Scudder, perhaps buying into the Y2K hype creeping into every third scene, is a devout technophobe, preferring old school methods. Besides, early on in Tombstones Scudder befriends and quasi-deputizes TJ (Astro), the aforementioned homeless child bookworm who knows his way around a search engine and helps save the day, not to mention his own skin, by dint of his early adoption of the mobile phone. 

The plot is about as complicated as gruesome detective yarn plots tend to be, but, in short, it involves a series of kidnappings of the loved ones of affluent criminal kingpins who, for the usual reasons, don’t want to go to the cops—so they go to Scudder, who doggedly tracks down the culprits between AA meetings, which come to assume a curiously ominous tone during the film’s protracted climax, which employs a liturgical reading of the 12 steps as a sort of underscoring for much bloodletting and comeuppance. This is veteran screenwriter Scott Frank’s second feature as director and he plays it fairly straight, though you get the impression he wishes the setting was 1979 instead of 1999, or that he was actually making the film in 1974 instead of 2014. Shades of William Friedkin loom. There are worse shadows you could huddle under for two hours.