Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The condemned united

The opening newsreel footage tells of an epidemic of prison riots across the U.S., and contains a stern message from Prison Association spokesman Richard A. McGee about the lamentable conditions that will continue to prompt such riots if left unchanged. Opening a film with real-life reportage was not uncommon in crime films of the period, but Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954) was more grounded in reality than most: producer Walter Wanger had recently done time for shooting Jennings Lang, who had been having an affair with Wanger’s wife, the actress Joan Bennett. Wanger received a light sentence, but those four months were more than enough to make him understand that the penal system was in appalling shape. Overcrowding, underfunding and the placement of highly dangerous, mentally ill convicts in with regular offenders were chief among the problems Wanger gained first-hand knowledge of, though it’s the unfair placement of prisoners in solitary confinement, and the inhumane treatment received while there, that prompts the titular riot in this bleak, bracing, sometimes savage politically driven actioner. In the intervening 60 years things have only gotten worse. The same day that Riot comes out on DVD and BD from Criterion, PBS will broadcast a new documentary entitled Solitary Nation, which concerns the deep trauma suffered from long-term placement in solitary, and the consequences for everyone, both inside and out.

Riot was directed by Don Siegel, a specialist in clean, male-centred, brutal thrillers, like The Big Steal (1949), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Lineup (1958) and, most famously, Dirty Harry (1971). It was shot in Folsom Prison, cast with relative unknowns, kept on the cheap, though it doesn’t look it. The scenes of violence are framed and edited in such a way that nothing is lingered over yet everything looks like it really, really hurts. There’s hardly what you could call a hero in the film, but Dunn (Neville Brand), the convict who leads the riot and announces the prisoners demands—which just happen to match those repeatedly filed by the prison’s warden—is an extremely compelling protagonist, not a good guy, but a guy giving a reasonably intelligent voice to a good cause, while the warden (the wonderful character actor Emile Meyer) is a weary, hardboiled yet sympathetic figure caught between a chaotic mutiny led by sociopaths and a greater authority willing to resort to violence, murder and trickery to restore an unsustainable veneer of order.

It all works best when most of the artifice is stripped down to a minimum. Herschel Burke Gilbert’s martial score is exciting, but it also gets in the way of what makes Siegel’s work tick. For all its chaos, Riot in Cell Block 11 is in a sense a procedural, showing us step-by-step how a riot is staged, maintained, and finally undone. It is thus never more riveting when simply showing us action unimpeded by style or flash. The convicts clamouring for better treatment in this film are men with almost nothing left to lose—“We’re rotting to death,” declares Dunn—men whose daily existence has been reduced to numbing austerity. Riot does their story justice when it too feels austere, numb, and scarily go-for-broke.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Stuck in the sleeping car

Let’s say you were busy getting settled in your seat during the opening moments of The Railway Man, in which Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) is lying on the floor, muttering some eerie rhyme to himself. This would mean that, for you, the film would begin, more or less, with Eric meeting Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train. It’s all rather comforting at this point: the Technicolor tones of the cinematography, the two attractive stars sharing a table as the landscape passes between them, swapping travel routes as a way of making love. How old-fashioned! There’s even mention of Brief Encounter. Firth almost looks like Robert Donat in that moustache. Perhaps the rail-riding lovers-in-waiting are playing a variation on North by Northwest. Though the truth is that Eric is far too tormented to be Cary Grant, and Patti, a nurse, will come to more closely resemble Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, the single-minded woman determined to heal her damaged man. But Bergman had a personality and authority. She liked liverwurst. And she was in a movie that, however artificial, even silly, had gravitas. All The Railway Man has is gravity, and that gravity comes entirely from the source material, not from this awkwardly structured, numbingly somber piece of prestige cinema.

My reservations are in no way meant to make light of the suffering of the real Eric Lomax, an engineer who served the British Army in the war, was taken prisoner and tortured, and who never recovered his psychic health until his spouse made his recovery her mission, and until Lomax went back to Southeast Asia to confront his chief tormentor and, amazingly, wound up becoming his tormentor’s friend. That last part, the confrontation that turned into reconciliation that turned into camaraderie, deserves a smart, lucid, searching movie, yet this entire development, the most extraordinary chapter in an extraordinary story, is barely even touched on here. It’s all but reduced to a closing title card.

At first it seems like Patti might be out protagonist. While tight-lipped Eric is going semi-catatonic or lunging at strangers with a box-cutter, Patti is relentlessly questioning Eric’s wartime buddy (Stellan Skarsgård) about what really happened. “Wherever there’s been a war there are nurses like me to put people back together,” she declares. We know Patti’s something of a bossy pants from the very start of their romance—right after their first kiss she’s already giving Eric the moustache ultimatum. But whatever promise Patti had of turning into a real and active character quickly dissolves under the film’s poorly handled flashbacks, which are spread out as evenly and indiscriminately as David Hirschfelder’s overly busy, obtrusive score. Why is Kidman even in this thing? Firth at least gets to flail and be agonized, though the character’s lack of texture and the film’s lack of curiosity does no favours to Firth or anyone else. Lomax died in 2012, but his memoir is still in print. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Head in the cloud

One of the things that irked me about Spike Jonze’s Her was its failure to consider any number of consequences generated by its eerily close-to-reality science fiction premise. By contrast, Transcendence, which shares a key narrative element with Her—its protagonist’s beloved is an omnipresent immaterial being who exists solely via the supernatural realm known as the Internet—bends over backward to consider all sorts of grandiose consequences of living in a world where such love is possible. The problem is that consider is all Transcendence does. The film, written by Jack Paglen, checks off a lot of big ideas that we should probably all be thinking about, but is ultimately just as soft-headed as Her, while bearing little of that film’s distinctions. Her sacrificed coherence in favour of some resonant knowingness about the nature of love and possession. Transcendence sacrifices coherence for the veneer of intellectual and/or spiritual heft—and for a nonsensical third act full of big-ass explosions and sundry special effects.

The portentously named Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Deep), a genius in the realm of artificial intelligence, gets shot by radical anti-AI activists. At first it seems he’s going to be okay, but then a doctor with an astonishingly poor bedside manner informs him that the bullet was laced with isotopes and he’s going to die from radiation poisoning in a matter of weeks. A devastatingly brief window of time, but just enough time for Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will’s partner in love and science, to encode Will’s memories, ideas, emotions—in short, his consciousness—and upload the whole package into PINN, or Physically Independent Neural Network, the Casters’ revolutionary AI program. So Will’s flesh perishes, but his mind, or some facsimile, lives on in the cloud. He’s everywhere, all the time, and, it seems, all-powerful. He makes a bunch of money fast, and sets up Evelyn with an entire desert town, and, apparently, all its inhabitants, to continue their research, which, needless to say, has the capacity to take over the world!

Evelyn is our Dr. Frankenstein, her hubris driven equally by grief and scientific vision, her fundamental innocence underlined by the fact that she wears Keds with every outfit. Will is her disembodied monster, HAL 9000 with a handsome synthetic visage, a novel spin on the abusive, controlling spouse, Big Brother as bad husband. There are other characters to complicate and crowd Transcendence: a soundly sceptical neurobiologist pal (Paul Bettany) who conspicuously wears a cross around his neck, a wise old former colleague (Morgan Freeman), and a fed (Cillian Murphy) who keeps a watchful eye on the Casters’ mad science, which could one day prove useful to the Department of Defence.

The first hour is very intriguing, if poorly paced—so many scenes are a few lines too long, and there’s a great deal of padding—but then the script devolves into ungovernable plottiness. First-time director Wally Pfister, already famous as Christopher Nolan’s regular cinematographer, opts to emphasize spectacle, whether it be clouds of infectious nano-dirt reaching up out of the earth or a diamond-like drop of dew sliding off a sunflower in slow-motion, the former being an empty conceit designed solely to look freaky and thrilling, the latter being an empty stab at profundity.  

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Keeper of the flame

The second scene of Nostalghia (1983), Andrei Tarkovsky’s penultimate film, offers us a broad view of a road weaving through a misty Italian countryside. A car enters the frame, exits the frame, and, some moments later, enters again; a woman and a man exit the car and move into the landscape, those cottony spectres of mist. The scene is conveyed in a single unbroken shot—no other director in history is so closely associated with extended shot duration as Tarkovsky. It is entrancing and beautiful, but also indicative of this film’s general air. Nearly everything that departs returns, while characters move through a fog that increasingly blurs present-tense reality from dreams of things lost.

Kino released Nostalghia on DVD and BD earlier this year, prompting a handful of critical reconsiderations of this, one of two films from the less-admired exile period in the oeuvre of the Russian director, who died in 1986. But anyone who watches any Tarkovsky film more than once knows well the way his films have of shifting with every visit—or even within a single viewing. How many times have I struggled with some aspect of these unusually personal, sensual, meandering, philosophy-smacked, sometimes downright cryptic films, only to reach the end and feel redeemed by their exalted, breath-taking visions and uncanny ability to find poetic closure? Cinema as travel: I’ve yet to encounter a Tarkovsky film that hasn’t left me feeling as though I’ve been transported, been through something.

Tarkovsky had certainly been through something by the time of Nostalghia’s release. He wouldn’t have had an easy time making his films in any country, but his frustrations with the micromanaging Soviet industry were particular and many, to the point where working abroad could mean permanent separation from his family. He’d been thinking of making a film in Italy since the mid-70s, and the project came about in part through his friendship and collaboration with Tonino Guerra, Antonioni’s regular co-scenarist. Yet Nostalghia is anything but a radical departure from the themes or MO of Tarkovsky’s previous films. As the title suggests, it is soaked in longing for the past, as well as apocalyptic sentiments about the present.

The story, such as it is, concerns a homesick Russian writer in Italy to research the life of a Russian composer who once lived there and suicide upon returning home. The writer travels with a young interpreter, a Renaissance beauty whose allure he seems to be working to resist, perhaps because of the wife waiting back home, perhaps because of some general contempt he feels toward a spiritually bankrupt West. Enter Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson, oddly cast but completely captivating), a local lunatic in the soggy Tuscan village where the writer wanders. Domenico claims that if he could just manage to cross St. Catherine’s Pool with a lit candle he could save the world. Nostalghia’s dramatic climax finds Domenico atop a statue in a public square, ranting about the world’s slide into perdition before immolating himself in front of a scattering of impassive onlookers. From fiery spectacle to one tiny precious flame: Tarkovsky cuts from Domenico’s flailing to the writer attempting the ostensible world-saving traversal Domenico hadn’t managed. Then comes the film’s final and most emblematic image: the writer seated before a Russian dacha that, impossibly, is nestled in the ruins of a colossal Italian cathedral—an image explicitly echoes the final image of Solaris (1973). A happy ending? It seems so to me. A reconciliation of past and present, cinema magic as a way of allowing both to exist simultaneously.

There are things that irk me in Nostalghia, like the writer’s condescension and somewhat insufferable gloominess—the guy could almost be an Antonioni protagonist—and Tarkovsky’s tendency to reduce women to symbols. Yet the sense of dream and memory’s hold on our psyche infuses the film with a watery soul-hauntedness that will stay with you forever. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"She might be making mistakes, but she’s alive": Sebastián Lelio on Gloria

The camera spies her from across a large room crowded with tipsy middle-aged minglers. The first thought is that she looks like Tootsie, with outsize owlish glasses emphasizing length of her face. But we quickly come to understand that Gloria (Paulina García) is a sophisticated, daring, sexy, mature woman. She’s 58, has two adult children she adores, an ex-husband she perhaps only tolerates. She sings along to power ballads on the car radio. She does yoga and laugh therapy. She loves to dance. She may be losing her sight, slowly. She meets a dubious ex-naval officer who recently changed his life, leaving his wife, though his daughters never stop calling. He’s struggling to inhabit a role that he can’t commit to, but look at the way he looks at Gloria. Can she really afford to turn him away?

Chilean director Sebastían Lelio’s fourth feature is a character study of uncommon brilliance, and García is captivating every moment she’s on-screen—which, come to think of it, is every moment of this film filled with telling ellipses, free of scoring, bubbling with incident, each one contributing to a deeper understanding of a woman of a certain age who refuses to stop changing, searching, dreaming, even if that means she might wind up alone one painful morning, on a Viña beach, with torn stockings. See this movie. It’s beautiful, smart, moving. Like its heroine, it follows its own path.

I spoke with Lelio earlier this week in Panama. He was there for an award ceremony. I was there for the film festival, where Gloria was screening.

Director Sebastián Lelio

JB: Your scripts don’t have any dialogue, so you depend on your actors to provide the words in every scene. But in this case you’re dealing with Paulina García, who besides being an incredible actress is also a writer. She must have had strong intuition about how to work those scenes. 

Sebastián Lelio: Yes, but that kind of intuition can be a problem just as easily as a solution. Sometimes that intuition makes you want to say something very meaningful, and that can be the enemy of the kind of dialogue I’m looking for, which isn’t meant to be informative or even literate. It’s emotional. It’s not text, but texture. Perhaps 70% of the dialogue in Gloria is irrelevant. They could say one thing or another. Dialogue isn’t the point.

JB: Some of the scenes that stuck with me most are those in which their significance isn’t obvious. I think especially of the scene at the party, with the father and daughter singing Jobim's “Waters of March,” and Gloria just listening with that curious gaze of hers. That’s the entire scene. I can’t say exactly what’s happening there, but it feels important. Some kind of quiet discovery is happening, though I don’t know that Gloria is even aware of it. 

SL: I would say that this scene is the soul of the film. Gloria is, for me, a bossa nova, a form which is sensual, but the lyrics can be very harsh. I wanted the film to be like that. You’re trapped by the storytelling and the character. Hopefully there is a sensuality in the textures and rhythms. Hopefully you’re sort of hypnotized and just really in the film. “The Waters of March” is about everyday things, a chair, a ray of light, a little piece of bread. That’s what the film deals with. It’s all about feelings.

JB: Did working with García help you discover things you didn't know about the character? Were you surprised what happened to Gloria in her hands? 

SL: I try to conceive of scripts as open devices. The problems are not solved in the script. That’s the territory of the shooting. I need to make the real discoveries during the shooting. So yes, Paulina and the whole process were always revealing to me not only the nature of the character but also what the film was really about. When you go to camera, you go half-blind. There is a point where words are useless. Someone has to trust that we’re going to get somewhere with this map we’re sharing. That’s where the mystery of cinema lies. I never understood Gloria. I was fascinated by her. And now I have to deal with this problem that women think I understand them. I don’t! I love them. I don’t understand them.

JB: You're a 40-year-old man, not a 58-year-old woman. But in exploring your desire to tell this story did you wind up seeing some reflection of yourself?

SL: That’s an interesting question. I guess my main connection with the character, or what I admire about her, is that she’s willing to live her life without fear of what price she has to pay for it. She might be making mistakes, but she’s alive. She manages to keep that way of being in the world. I would like to be like that. So I guess it’s like a message that you send to yourself in a very unconscious way. The other important message is, Relax, you will keep having sex for many, many years. [Laughs]