Thursday, November 27, 2008

Transporter 3: On the road again, going nowhere

Frank Martin (Jason Statham) is still transporting. I do not mean that in any figurative sense. Of course he’d just as soon be fishing or dozing to big screen golf in his luxury hideaway, but his reputation as a kung fu-fighting super-smuggler is just too great to leave him in peace. Toxic waste-managing scumbags fronted by an American with bad facial hair and fathomless resources (Robert Knepper, suitably sub-James Woodsish) kidnap Frank and force him to transport once again. Frank’s adorned with a big metal bracelet—should he stray more than a short distance away from his car, the bracelet will blow him to bits. His cargo is the freckly sex kitten daughter of the Ukrainian prime minister (Natalya Rudakova). She’s got a bracelet, too, which is to say their accessories match. She digs it when he kicks ass. He likes her knowledge of Euro-cuisine. Three guesses what’ll transpire between our rugged hero and this pouty party girl.

The Transporter movies are scripted by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen. Besson’s the workaholic producer/writer/director with the pom-pom hair, famous for La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element. Kamen wrote The Karate Kid. We can be grateful they inject the franchise with some entertainment value if nothing else. The plot mechanics of Transporter 3 are invariably inane. A car crashes through Frank’s wall; medics arrive, usher the bloodied driver into the ambulance and speed way without ever noticing the passenger spread out in the backseat. Frank escapes a watery grave by inflating some plastic bags with air from the car’s tires; when he and the car safely re-emerge in their makeshift dingy, lo and behold, the tires are full once more and the car ready for action. No one’s fooling anybody here. The dumbness is almost a selling point.

If only the suspiciously monikered Olivier Megaton could direct Transporter 3 with efficiency, or something like competence. He composes the simplest scenes from 25 shots when maybe three would serve. The movie’s a visual mess and, unlikely as it sounds, even confusing. It doesn’t help that Rudakova’s innocent is mostly just annoying. Or that the fight scenes shamelessly recycle ideas from the previous Transporters. But we always have Statham, that great underachiever of contemporary movies. Granted, the guy must incredibly work hard to be able to do all those martial arty sequences, using his jacket, shirt and tie as grappling tools so as to make the fights a sort of slapstick striptease. But has no one taken this perfectly charming, clearly talented, ruggedly handsome and unusual actor and offered to find him a new agent? Has no smart casting director, producer or director caught on the fact that Statham is ripe for something more interesting? Or is Statham just waiting to get through War 4, Transporter 9 or The Albanian Job before he accepts that he could be so much more than the next Dolph Lundgren?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Birth of the Cold

Peering out from below a broad, heavy brow, he has the pale face of a man thoroughly eaten up inside. The London he moves in looks damp, grey and bone-chilling. He wears his trench coat tucked up around him like a blanket, and puts away half a bottle of whiskey a day. He has no friends and speaks as little as he can get away with. He takes a menial clerical job at the library for the Candahar Institute for Psychical Research, where he works alongside a pretty, confident young woman. She explains to him what lycanthropy means in a weirdly sexy way that suggests he might just be some sort of werewolf, and she likes the idea. What matters, perhaps, is that he is so clearly someone other than he claims to be. It may just be the starkest romance in movies, and it really works.

But I’m jumping ahead. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) actually begins with Alec Leamas (Richard Burton) stalking Checkpoint Charlie, waiting for a man to cross over on a bicycle. A tense piano, Satie-esque, plays over the barbed wire, flood lights and brick. Things won’t go well. The photography is black and white, and this Berlin seems to have forgotten about things like trees—this is one Cold War movie that looks irredeemably cold. Leamas will soon be back in London, where he visits Control (Cyril Cusack) and takes a new assignment that will keep him “out in the cold,” pretending to defect in a ploy to turn one German intelligence agent against another. The brief period of work at the library was only meant as a fleeting ruse, but Leamas’ unexpected connection with Nan (Claire Bloom), who, in a tidy bit of dramatic irony, is a card-carrying communist, will complicate that. We know how these things go. It’s a spy movie, and thus perpetually mired in the forbidding causality that comes with the milieu: everything complicates everything. Everyone is a pawn of some sort.

John le Carré’s third novel, released two years previously, was a sensation, de-glamorizing the world of intelligence just as Bond was cashing in at the box office, yet so brimming with intrigue, brutality and human frailty, courting our appetite for dirty little secrets, that no one bothered to notice how wildly bleak it was. At least until they saw Martin Ritt’s movie of it, which failed to startle in the same way, though it earned Oscar nods. But The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is now available in a deluxe two-disc edition from Criterion. I just saw it for the first time, and what can I say? I’m startled. Ritt, who also made Hud (63), Hombre (67) and Norma Rae (79), may not have a reputation as a master stylist, or even a master of anything in particular, but here, in collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris, production designer Tambi Larsen and editor Anthony Harvey in particular, he produced something of marvelous texture and specificity. It’s transfixing.

Burton, whose Leamas now reads as part of the formula that gave birth to Daniel Craig’s Bond, may brood to excess for some—including, reportedly, Ritt—yet the character’s near-suicidal desperation, his immersion in his soul-crushing vocation, lies at the very heart of the story. And morose as Burton is, the overall gloom is greatly tempered by Bloom, so charming and smart, whose every nuance is so exactingly turned. She’s the sole woman in the movie, as well as the sole outsider to Leamas’ world, and she’s nearly its only source of warmth. Yet Oskar Werner, just a few years after Jules and Jim (62), plays Fiedler, a Jew in German intelligence with a massive grudge, and also possesses a certain air of inner life and excitement. And he also connects in his way with Leamas. Cusack, too, is wonderful, vampiric in his stillness, and so very English. So the cast inhabits rather than simply populates this world.

Ritt’s method of taking it all in includes a great deal of god’s eye views to heighten the alienation, balanced by two-shots that constantly emphasize the coded negotiations taking place in smallish rooms. The camera prowls, always. Lamps hang from chains in one location, from thorny antler-like mounts in another, all dangling with portent. There are beautifully timed fades to black, like the one near the start where Leamas sits with un-sipped tea in hand in Control’s office. Near the end there is a superb, ambiguously menacing exchange of gazes between Leamas and the ex-Nazi Mundt, and its after this exchange that we begin to understand how the whole narrative builds to a point of proving Nan’s ideological distinctions meaningless just as it completes Leamas’ moral perdition.

A highlight among Criterion’s supplements is a new interview with le Carré. He speaks very engagingly and has an endearingly refined way with gossip, stories about screenwriter Paul Dehn, who, matching le Carré’s own background as a British agent, was once a professional assassin; about various affairs between the collaborators and Liz Taylor's lurking in the background; about Ritt’s difficulties with Burton and how their antagonism might have been unconsciously nurtured by both of them so as to turn up the tension in the film. Le Carré also critiques the film quite soberly, and interestingly, believes that if anything it was too faithful to the source material. For myself, I couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like had the film started with Leamas taking his job at the library so that we initially knew nothing more about him than Nan does, and made our discoveries roughly in step with hers.

Monday, November 24, 2008

"It is not possible to talk about history without real human beings": A conversation with Jiri Menzel

Hunger for monetary gain is a mainstay in movies, yet there are scenarios in which mere greed falls short of supplying the motive. Jan Díte, a diminutive, good-natured Czech of plebian background, decides he’d like to be a millionaire. He regards it as a vocation, something to work toward, like learning how to build a log cabin or becoming a better tennis player. He studies the science of it. Jan also wants to make love to beautiful women, and this too he pursues with a sort of honest diligence. He goes into the hotel business. He bears witness to tremendous spectacles of decadence while quietly showering ladies with gentlemanly adoration, seducing them with modesty and sincerity and paying homage to their beauty by decorating their naked bodies with fruit. His actions read as essentially harmless, if indifferent to the world around him. That is, they would read as harmless, were Jan’s career not contemporaneous with the rise of the Third Reich.

Based on the novel by Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England is a very dark comedy rendered with a very light touch. Tracing Jan’s unintentional development as a Nazi collaborator—he falls in love with a German who can only screw with a picture of Hitler beaconing down at her—the film warns against the perils of political apathy, yet Jan remains essentially serene in his attitude, even oblivious. Rather than feel the burden of having been a collaborator, as he looks back on his life, he seems largely burdened by nostalgia. Told mostly in flashbacks rife with wordless comic sequences that are equal parts Buster Keaton and Busby Berkeley, Jan is played as a young man by the nimble Ivan Barnev, while the older, penniless Jan is played by Oldrich Kaiser. The actors do not look especially alike, but the dual casting is inspired. The balance of similarities and differences provide the film with a rich sense of time and fate’s weathering of the body and spirit.

Jiri Menzel is probably best known for Closely Watched Trains, which won the 1968 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It was Menzel’s debut, and the first of several adaptations of Hrabal. He was only 28. I Served the King echoes Closely Watched Trains not only in theme and tone—the conflict between one’s seeking of love and sexual fulfillment and one’s duty to one’s job or one’s country—but also in poetic gesture. Re-watching Closely Watched Trains, I had to smile as the young hero foolishly ran after a departing train he has no chance of catching up to—something we see happen twice in I Served the King, the second instance being especially grave in its implications. Hrabal and Menzel worked closely on all of Menzel’s adaptations until Hrabal’s death in 1997, the younger filmmaker always regarding the elder author and his ideas with reverence. Menzel, now 70, is in fact an exceedingly humble guy, looking back on his extraordinary, prolific career as a director, writer and actor as one long stroke of good luck. Yet, despite his rusty English, he speaks eloquently about what defines his approach. “It is not possible to talk about history without real human beings,” he explains. We spoke over the phone, he in Prague, me in Toronto. His bone-dry humour cracked me up repeatedly. We had a good time. I’ve tried to tidy up his responses enough to read fluidly while still giving a sense of his particular cadence.

JB: What drew you to this material? Why now?

Jiri Menzel: I have been very interested in Czech history, in the nature of the Czech character. And I found that we Czechs we are very flexible. We adapted to the Austrian Empire, to the German occupation, to the Russians. We seem able to collaborate with anyone. It’s a bad thing. We need to reflect on our history, on who we are. Mr. Hrabal’s work is an education in this. For many centuries now, we Czechs are heretics. We believe in nothing. We are skeptics. Our goal is only to survive. This is not good.

JB: There is here, as elsewhere in your body of work, a striking juxtaposition between the sweeping events of history and those of an ordinary individual’s daily life.

JM: If I could understand everything you say, I would agree.

Both laugh.

JB: Okay, let's try this one. Would you describe yourself as politically active?

JM: No, I’m not political at all. To be that way you need to be very concentrated, very strong. I’m not so strong. No.

JB: But your films have prompted strong responses from those who hold political power—and from those seeking political commentary.

JM: Yes, but I would like the viewers of my films to leave the cinema without feeling that their minds have had political statements imposed on them. Probably later, the viewer can locate some political connections in his mind, but I don’t like to approach these things directly. I just want to wake up the questions, of morality, of relationships with others, of responsibility. I want only to wake up the questions, not give lessons.

Menzel and Hrabal

JB: This is your sixth adaptation of a literary work by Bohumil Hrabal. Is there something special you can trace in these books that speaks to your sensibility as a filmmaker?

JM: I like his work, as you know, but this film happened simply because the studio owned the rights and offered me the job. I was happy to have the chance, but it was not my initiative. Hrabal for me is very close because of his humour, and he is for me one writer who can describe man with all his weakness and better qualities and can do so without anger. Even the worst qualities in man he can describe with such elegance. Hrabal is not angry like much modern literature, which tends to be very pessimistic. Mr. Hrabal is full of humour and love.

JB: There is in your films an emphasis on work and, in several cases, how to avoid it—did you ever have ambitions to do something other than work in film and theatre?

JM: You are suggesting I have to look for another appointment?

JB: [
Laughing] No. Honest. No, I was just wondering if you ever had other ambitions for your career than those you pursued. If you ever wanted a different job.

JM: I wanted to be a journalist because my father was a journalist. But when I was 15 I started to read the newspaper regularly and found the job was not for me because the newspaper was full of lies. This was the communist paper. So I escaped this fate and flew off to the theatre. From 15 to 20, I wanted to work in theatre as a director but I wasn’t accepted in theatre school for a lack of talent. I tried to work in television, which I thought might need new workers that didn’t have so much talent. I applied to the school for film and television and was given a chance there.

JB: Are there particular films that made an impression on you when you were young?

JM: In my high school, I had a chance to regularly attend screenings of many classic movies. In one week I could see all of Chaplin’s movies, in another, all of Renoir’s. I was able to see many great movies made during the silent era, movies from France, Germany and the United States, and they became part of my aesthetic. I was lucky to have that time because in film school I was not able to see many movies from the West.

JB: Have you felt like you’ve been able to make the sorts of films you wanted to make?

JM: I took it as my profession. I have never had the feeling to be an artist. I have respect for the man who takes his work as his profession. I don’t like art. Many artists are very far from ordinary people. My duty from the start, my decision, was to do everything for my neighbours. My father, you see, was a very educated man. An intellectual, very wise. My mother was a tailor. She was an ordinary woman. So I decided to do films for people like my mother, but at the same time, they needed to be films that I would not be ashamed to show my father. It’s not so easy.  

JB: Have you found filmmaking to be a radically different experience during the communist and post-communist periods?

JM: For me, nothing’s changed with regards to what I choose to do. I don’t see a big difference between the films I made in my youth and those I make now. Politics have had no influence on the content. The only difference now is that financially it’s not as easy as before. Now there is no ideological censorship, but it’s harder.

JB: I guess now you have economic censorship.

JM: Exactly.

JB: The performance style of
I Served the King seems indebted to silent comedy and physical theatre. I think Barnev gives a truly amazing performance, but is it difficult to find film actors who can embody this style?

JM: No. I probably have a good feeling about personalities. I prefer that films convey information without words. It may be because in my youth I saw many foreign movies without subtitles. I tried to understand just from the eyes and movements of the actors as a way of reading what’s inside. To this day, I don’t like too much talking in film.

I Served the King is often characterized as bittersweet. I read a quote from you somewhere recently I really liked: “It is bitter because it is Czech.” I wonder if you could elaborate on that.

JM: [
Laughs] Well, thanks to this film, I know our character better. It is not very sweet. I mean, I am happy to be Czech. I have to be proud to have this nationality. But I think any man has to look at himself with different eyes. And it’s the same for our country. It’s good to read books about what the Germans think of Czechoslovakia, or the French or the English. It’s important to not be blind to our history, and I tried to get a little bit of it in this film.

JB: Of all the great Czech novelists of the last 50 years or so, Milan Kundera, whose novels are nothing if not at once bitter and comic, seems to be the most enduring as an international figure. Have you ever considered adapting his work?

JM: [
Laughs] I asked him many years ago. One of my colleagues wished to make a film from one of his books, and, because Kundera was my teacher, I was in contact with him. But after The Unbearable Lightness of Being he decided that no more films would be made form his work. I asked him nice, but he was very determined. “Even you cannot do anything from my work,” he said. So I said to him, “I will wait for the moment when you need money.” He said, “So long as I’m alive, I won’t need that much money.” He is funny, but I like him. He’s a very nice man. He taught us comparative literature. He was very clever. He taught us what is the difference between Czech literature and that of other countries.

JB: You never considered being a novelist?

JM: Nah. I’m lazy for it.

JB: [
Laughs] But making a movie is really hard work, no?

JM: Well, yes, but you are surrounded by people who work with you, who help you. Like a team. You just tell them what to do and they do it. You know, it’s kind of nice, actually.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Los Angeles plays itself, as do Sean Penn and Bruce Willis, in What Just Happened

Ben’s typical day involves a great deal of driving and talking on the phone—he’s an Angelino, don’t you know. He visits ex-wives and drops kids at school. He visits therapists. He speaks with agents, actors, directors, editors and studio higher-ups and exudes a reasonableness with each of them that stands out favorably in a milieu riddled with tantrums, neuroses and stumbling twelve-steppers. He does lunch. He placates, boosts, councils and consoles and when his back’s against the wall, which is often, he negotiates. He also dyes his chest hair, but that hint of desperate inner quirk he does in private. He’s presumably in his 60s, but looks pretty good. He works in the movies, and for all his outer calm, he’s barely hanging on.

Based on a fairly balls-out memoir of long-term mastication within the capricious dental work of Hollywood,
What Just Happened finds prolific producer Art Linson, a.k.a. Ben, embodied by prolific actor Robert De Niro, who, as it happens, has starred in numerous Linson-produced projects, including The Untouchables, Heat and Great Expectations. The film also features an “as himself” cameo from Sean Penn, who also starred in several Linson projects, such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Casualties of War and We’re No Angels, which co-starred De Niro. Penn’s spouse, Robin Wright Penn, plays De Niro’s ex-spouse and the person he’s still closest to. Catherine Keener, who recently starred in Linson’s Into the Wild, which was directed by Sean Penn, plays De Niro’s boss, a woman of such chilling authority she need never raise her voice. Does it go without saying that Linson produced the film, as well as adapted his own book?

There’s a long, thick history of self-castigating Hollywood comedies featuring actual Hollywood people playing themselves and intermingling with Hollywood actors playing semi-fictionalized Hollywood people. This strategy supplies Sunset Boulevard, to name a particularly sublime example, with some of its richest, most delicious intertextualities. That term sounds highfalutin, but it serves to remind us just how populist postmodernism can be when dealing with household name cultural icons. It also speaks to a cultural segment still sufficiently movie-obsessed to happily pass hours playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. But is this segment obsessed enough, and large enough, to constitute a substantial audience for What Just Happened?

As directed by Barry Levinson—who gave us a far more outrageous self-castigating Hollywood comedy with Wag the Dog—the film probably isn’t castigating enough, or funny enough, or scandalous enough, to reel in the masses. And it’s kind of a shame, because while What Just Happened fizzles in its final act, while many of its satirical targets, no doubt based in actual events, finally feel like clichés, it has many nuanced observations, some terribly, amusingly sad scenes of personal meltdown, and a very well gauged performance from De Niro, who has a knack for playing containment that doesn’t just read as mere resignation. His Ben is a welcome twist on the notion of the all-powerful producer. He is man required to juggle many balls at once, and who might just care about art, too. (Just scan Linson's filmography and you'll see a commitment to less-than crowd-pleasing projects.)

He has a director, played by Toronto-bred Michael Wincott as a manic, strung-out Keith Richards wannabe, who won’t remove a scene of a dog getting shot in the head from his final cut, despite scathing audience previews. “My wife is still crying, asshole!” reads one of the cards. Another simply reads “FUCK YOU!” He has a rabid actor, Bruce Willis, playing himself, who refuses to shave off a burly beard despite threats by the studio to pull the plug on a picture days away from production. The beard thing—will Willis shave? will he at least go down to a goatee? a moustache?—is the film’s main source of suspense. I guess that might not have you gripping your armrests, yet, you know, there’s something sobering, something perversely fascinating, about just how pivotal the presence of the absence of a beard is on the outcome of a multi-million dollar business venture and numerous careers.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sanguine properties: The Last Mistress

It says a lot about the almost singular subversion of
The Last Mistress, not to mention the progress of Catherine Breillat as a filmmaker honing very particular themes, that for no less than half of the movie’s duration, we have the young, delicately handsome Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) divulging the breadth of his impressive sexual biography to the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), an elderly woman and protective grandmother of Hermangarde (Roxanne Mesquida), the virginal and rather unhappy looking young beauty who’s to be Ryno’s bride. Alternating between Ryno’s measured recount and flashbacks to his tempestuous ten-year affair with La Vellini (Asia Argento), a sort of verbal seduction unfolds in precisely the context that would seem to forbid it most. But the Marquise assures us that she is still a woman of the 18th century, which is to say, a woman of the Age of Reason, now biding the end of her life in the Age of Romance. She’s worldly, and she’s game. She listens exquisitely. The year is 1835, the city Paris.

This also says something about how much the movies can still learn from the novel. Based on Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly’s 1851 novel Une vieille maîtresse, or The Old Mistress—the English-language title being a dopey compromise that deletes the dreaded term “old” from the promotional materials—Breillat’s eleventh and by far most expensive and glamorous feature possesses an unusual, bisecting structural elegance that compliments the intricacy of its narrative, one rife with erotic struggle, surrender and self-realization. It begins with Ryno entering Vellini’s boudoir for one last premarital fuck, which of course will not be the last by far. As we’re ushered back into the development of their affair, we see how deeply it’s rooted in the ecstasy of antagonism, with Ryno only winning the venomous Vellini’s affections after he’s been shot by her elderly husband in a duel. Once the bullet is extracted from his chest, Vellini rushes to his weakened figure to suckle the fresh blood. She feeds upon Ryno, as he, in his way, will upon her in turn. Her erupted lust is, you know, kinda repulsive. And totally hot.

The illegitimate daughter of a Spanish matador and an Italian princess, la Vellini is a social outlaw, undeterred by the local consensus that a 36-year-old, ostensibly homely woman leading a life of sexual abandon is deeply unseemly. As mapped out by Breillat and Argento, arguably the two most notorious bad girls of contemporary European cinema, Vellini’s trajectory is marked by aggression and orgasms—and, let me tell you, Argento makes the movie orgasm into some sort of new art form here. Vellini, with her defiant, devastatingly hard stares—the way she licks an ice cream cone makes the promise of fellatio at once enticing and scary—is the devouring one and thus, in a sense, the masculine half of the pairing, while Ryno, with his full lips and pale features, pursues more gently, playing the feminine. The overturning of traditional gender roles is itself a part of what makes their collision dynamic, and, as the Romantics would have it, destined for misadventure and courting peril.

Breillat’s shrewdest tactic comes in her balancing of formalities with recklessness, containment with the carnal. The production design is immaculate and softly hued, the costumes artful but largely understated, with the few flourishes counting for a lot in terms of character, and the camerawork, courtesy of Giorgios Arvanitis, who also photographed Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell and her masterful Fat Girl, is painterly—the painter, mind you, would have to be Goya—and presentational, with speakers frequently gazing squarely toward us as though posing for a portrait—which, of course, they are. The brazen qualities, the rawness of the movie, is kept largely within the confines of the narrative itself, while the directorial style is largely clean and only coolly confrontational. It’s a marriage made in the heaven preserved for shameless provocateurs, some sublimely seedy place where Breillat and Argento can recline with their feet on the table, while the rest of us watch, in shock, here and there, but in this case, more often in awe. The Last Mistress is pretty delicious.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The world upside-down: Zizek's Violence

Through countless cinematic detours in his enormous body of critical theory he has become one of the sharpest, most engaged writers on movies we have, so maybe it’s no accident that the theoretical tool he employs with relentless perfectionism is the very same tool most often used by the crack screenwriter: the good old-fashioned reversal. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek writes both dynamically and profusely, and he’s never met an assumption he didn’t feel the urge to overturn, a paradox he didn’t desire to give a thorough workout. He isn’t a shrewd contrarian so much as an intellectual showman—and I say this with the deepest admiration. The “Elvis of critical theory” tag he’s been given is not unearned.

Far too playful with Marx to convincingly be labeled a staunch Marxist, Zizek’s philosophy remains grounded in Lacanian psychoanalysis—and this should itself impart upon his audience an emphasis on process rather than tidy results. With Zizek we are always on the couch, always left dazzled and maybe perplexed when our session has expired. To turn to his work for hard conclusions will inevitably frustrate, but more importantly will blind you to what he really places on the table, which is a feast of thoughtful, sometimes audacious stimulation, blending flavours well known, even vulgar in their appeal, with others that are exotic and in other settings would be intimidating. At the end, knowing hunger will return, you find yourself at the very least fortified, pleasured, and well fed.

That’s certainly the case with
Violence (Picador, $15.50). In his contribution to the ‘Big Ideas/Small Books’ series, Zizek breaks his subject into three categories: subjective violence, such as crime and terror, the most visible form and one whose fascination we’re urged to resist; objective violence, which is symbolic and based in language; and systemic violence, the form addressed most enthusiastically, which lies in social structures and is the least visible and most dangerous. Zizek’s dissection of systemic violence starts coolly, drawing attention to such familiar phenomena as pleas for charitable donations that thrive on “fake urgency,” before building up to the hypocrisies of billionaires who claim to “give back,” in effect contributing funds to agencies attempting to alleviate a humanitarian crisis that in part was exacerbated by these same billionaires. Not to mention the hypocrisies of we who are outraged by the torture of individuals while virtually ignoring the overwhelming humanitarian crises of entire nations, ie: the Congo.

But things get more interesting once the groundwork’s disposed of—or, in some cases, trampled over in the heat of Zizek's spastic mental prowess. In examining terror, Zizek usefully distinguishes between “authentic fundamentalists,” like the Amish or Tibetan Buddhists, who convey “an absence of resentment and envy” and a “deep indifference toward the non-believers’ way of life,” with “so-called Christian and Muslim fundamentalists” who “in fighting the sinful Other” are merely fighting their own temptation. He later makes an intriguing parallel distinction between ideological governments who ostensibly offer sweeping freedoms while tacitly condemning the use of these freedoms and oppressive governments who tacitly encourage the bending of rules, leading to one of the most memorably succinct twists of common assumption in Violence: “totalitarian regimes are by definition regimes of mercy: they tolerate violations of the law, since, in the way they frame social life, violating the law, bribing, and cheating are conditions of survival.”

Among the most substantial stances taken in Violence concerns Israel and Palestine, two nations who, Zizek argues, should recognize how a diasporic existence is essential to their identity rather than fruitlessly claim rights to a holy land. Intriguingly, he calls for the renunciation of political control of Jerusalem, making it a neutral zone, an “extra-state place of religious worship” that would ultimately have a liberating effect for both parties. And I mean it as no slight to the gravity of this proposal when I compliment Zizek on his ability to move fluidly in just a page or two from this to a parallel proposal that US Congress officially change the name of French fries to Muhammad fries.

It is among Zizek’s strengths that irreverence and the utmost seriousness are never rendered mutually exclusive, just as culture high and low are employed with equal relish. There are citations from Walter Benjamin, George Orwell and Elton John. There are analogies that unexpectedly unite the themes of M. Night Shyamalan's widely panned The Village with Alfonso Caurón's Children of Men. And let me stress this: the guy gets mileage from movies like no social commentator I’ve ever heard of. He discusses the unspoken sub-cultural order explored in A Few Good Men as a pretty brilliant lead-in to his insights into hazing rituals, the homophobic dualities of military life, and the abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib: “in being submitted to humiliating tortures, Iraqi prisoners were effectively initiated into American culture.” And he offers a striking reading of Taxi Driver that illuminates the essentially inwardly directed violence of Travis Bickle.

Alas, after a couple of hundred pages of stimulating riffing, Violence does finally have to draw to an end. Of sorts. Things get muddy. Zizek has us reject “false anti-violence” and endorses “emancipatory violence.” He writes how “to chastise violence outright… is a mystification which collaborates in rendering invisible the fundamental forms of social violence.” Okay. But equally mystifying is his appropriation of the central conceit of José Saramago’s visionary novel Seeing, in which a government in thrown into panic over an epidemic of blank votes submitted in a federal election. Zizek clearly sees Saramago as a Marx brother, and his admiring assessment of Seeing leads to Violence’s final, enigmatic statement: “Sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” I’m mystified because casting a blank ballot is actually far from “doing nothing.” I’m mystified by Zizek’s peculiar and rather hazy conditional sanctioning of violence—we really need to get clearer on this “emancipatory violence” thing, no? But I’m also mystified by how such a bracingly curt, even puzzling finale can still leave me kinda satisfied, re-engaged in certain political arguments, and mentally invigorated in general. Perhaps it’s better for us to look at any single book by Zizek as just another edition in an ongoing grappling with irreducible ideas, and enjoy the ride.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Easy riders and raging farm boys: Robinson and Davis glow as adult lovers in Kid Galahad, Bogart broods beautifully in Invisible Stripes, now on DVD

Nicky Donati (Edward G. Robinson) handles fighters, a vocation that allows him to pull the puppet’s strings with one hand while collecting the take with the other. They pass through cities, living out of hotels, shrugging off the coming and going of small fortunes, Nicky and his partner Fluff (Bette Davis), while Nicky’s beloved mother (Soledad Jiménez) and sister Marie (Jane Bryan) are cloistered in the countryside and the convent respectively, away from the mugs, bon vivants and hangers-on. From Fluff, too. So at the heart of
Kid Galahad (1937) is a man with a double life, a more forgiving existence if you need to seriously bend your ethics and still be able to look ma in the eye.

“Did you ever see a bellhop that didn’t want to become a fighter?” Nicky asks, but it’s a rhetorical question. He discovers Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris, remarkable in a tricky role) when the kid is sent up by the hotel management to fix drinks for a party that genuinely looks like a gas, with Fluff working the room in a very sexy low-cut dress and Nicky actually getting a haircut from a proper barber in a proper barber’s chair while still holding court, surrounded by mostly plastered guests. Ward is a good-natured hulk from the sticks with an involuntary smile that has the ladies fawning. He just wants to save up to buy a farm, he sheepishly confesses. Nicky sees a perfect mark. Fluff sees an innocent in need of an education, and maybe a little protection from his new mentor. Thereafter dubbed Kid Galahad, Ward will, against Nicky’s plans, become the biggest thing that ever happened to Nicky, punching his way to the championship. He’s also the catalyst that will usher Nicky’s well-ordered life into chaos.

Now on DVD from Warner, Kid Galahad is a truly wonderful picture, directed by Michael Curtiz in elegant traveling shots and a selective use of close-ups in only the most emotionally pointed scenes. The script is credited to Seton I. Miller, and offsets the fairly familiar plot with an intriguing milieu thick with exploitation—the press, the management—and with immensely textured, very adult characters experiencing different kinds of love. A budding romance between Ward and Marie drives the action, but what makes the film so rich are the increasingly desperate Nicky, whom Robinson makes a feast of—and there’s a terrific scene with ma, rolling along in babbling, un-subtitled Italian—and, most especially, Fluff. Davis’ inhabiting of this sort of kept woman, with her sad, helplessly easygoing smiles, is so tender and touching, so knowing. The scene where she tells Nicky it’s time for them to part is underplayed and quietly heart-wrenching. These unmarried, not young lovers have had a good ride, a long history of hustling, bustling and merriment that has finally reached its terminus.

I haven’t mentioned Humphrey Bogart, who plays Turkey, Robinson’s rival, and another in a long line of heavies. Better to emphasize his terrific supporting role in Invisible Stripes (39), also newly on disc from Warner and, while not nearly as good a film, features plenty of interesting elements. We first meet Cliff (George Raft) and Chuck (Bogart) while they share their final shower in Sing Sing. After walking through the prison gates—guarded by a saintly old guy named Peter—they board a train and exchange their plans for their newly emancipated lives. Chuck fantasizes about a gorgeous blonde and the high life, while Cliff says he’s going home to his family and the straight and narrow. Chuck just laughs at this, telling Cliff he’ll never get anywhere because of general prejudice against ex-cons, because he’ll always be wearing those invisible stripes. Cliff’s the hero of the movie, full of good intentions; Chuck’s a gentleman in his way but a cynic—yet, as we’ll eventually see, it’s his worldview the movie agrees with completely.

Through the characters of Cliff’s little brother Tim (William Holden, so young here I didn’t even recognize him, which is to say so young he isn't yet 'William Holden') and his girl Peggy (Bryan), the film emphasizes the self-loathing of the working class and the impossibility to rise above one’s station without the aid of dirty money. Raft was not a good actor, but you could rarely accuse him of overdoing it, and his overriding serenity can just as easily be read as mounting resignation here. With no breaks coming his way and the cops breathing down his neck, Cliff eventually falls back into crime with Chuck and his cohorts—among them a pleasingly sneering Marc Lawrence—telling his folks that he’s selling tractors instead of robbing banks. The movie’s best line comes when Tim meets Chuck, well-heeled and driving a fine car, and asks him if he sells tractors, too. The way Bogart just says “Yeah” in response is a thing of bone-dry comic beauty.

Invisible Stripes seems like its building to a conventional, tidy moral statement, yet, perhaps unintentionally, it finally emerges as an exercise in brute determinism. Indeed, the noblest and wisest character turns out to be Chuck, who may be crooked but at least knows the score, and who’ll finally risk everything to protect his one true friend, right up to the final shootout. And Bogart’s so confident and subtle, measured and cool, playing a character so carefully shaded he’s almost out of place. Surely someone with smarts saw this and realized which one of these tough guys was the real star. It would be only two more years before High Sierra (41) and The Maltese Falcon (41).

Friday, November 14, 2008

Soul Men: Reunited, and it feels, well, okay. Sorta.

In the 30 years following the break-up of Memphis-bred soul trio the Real Deal, singers Louis Hinds (Samuel L. Jackson) and Floyd Henderson (Bernie Mac) watched their former front man Marcus Hooks (John Legend) go successfully solo while their own thornier paths strayed out of music altogether and into jail time and the car wash business respectively. It’s only with the news of Hooks’ untimely demise that Louis and Floyd, both of them now residing on the West Coast, are given an opportunity to reunite for a posthumous tribute at the Apollo—should they be able to squeeze into the old satin outfits, patch up old grudges, keep Floyd’s green El Dorado running, get in a little on-stage rehearsal on the motel circuit, get busy with a few hungry women, and still make the gig on time.

Scripted by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, Soul Men is a comic road movie that brakes for all the usual clichés. As helmed by Malcolm D. Lee (Undercover Brother), it is from start to finish a little too comfortable, too willing to settle for mechanical gags and wrote mediocrity, and it isn’t hard to imagine a more imaginative, rigorous director taking the same material, however meager, and injecting a little more urgency and emotional truth into its realization. Fortunately, what heart and soul there is to be found in Soul Men is frequently left to its stars to conjure, and there are some enjoyable, genuinely sweet scenes that feature Jackson and Mac chewing each other out, beating each other up, and even lighting some little spark of the old magic. This is finally a movie of largely verbal pleasures, whether arising from Mac’s whispery rants, blubbery coos or surprisingly fine falsetto or from Jackson’s imposing boasts, his casual citations of Lao Tzu, or that soul rap he does in the final big number. The music they make isn't much to get excited about, but the enthusiasm goes some distance. 

Admittedly, it’s not without some sentimental bias that I managed to find a few high points in Soul Men, as in recent months we lost not only Mac, only 50, and undoubtedly with better movies ahead, but also the one and only Isaac Hayes, who has a small but stately cameo here. There is a definite lack of death’s shadow in this story of aging showmen trying to taste some fleeting hint of past glories, and that lack is one of the things that make the jokes and contrived reversals less involving. But, watching it so soon after Mac and Ike’s deaths, some flickering melancholy strikes certain moments from beyond the movie’s immediate frame, allowing us to savour another glimpse of these talented artists as they give a little extra class to these shopworn goods.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Quantum of Solace: 007 breaks still further from the past, bonds with a new audience

Careening from car chase to interrogation-gone-horribly-awry, from a foot chase across the crumbling rooftops of Siena, while a horse race collapses into bloody chaos in the streets, to a perilous rope-dangling punch-up amidst scaffolding and broken glass,
Quantum of Solace, picking up where Casino Royale left off, making it the first James Bond movie to benefit from continuum, hits the ground running, leaving you as breathless as this sentence. It has a vague, dumb-sounding name—taken, ornery Bondaholics note, directly from Ian Fleming—but is the antithesis of the flabby action spectacle that plagues so many multi-million dollar event movies. The second outing for this renovated, revitalized Bond, beautifully embodied in the battered physique and wounded near-menace of Daniel Craig, is the shortest, sharpest, and most devastating entry in the long-running franchise. The tale, courtesy of Paul Haggis and Bond veterans Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, that turns on cold-blooded comeuppance and the looming threat of impenetrable powers working to horde the world’s dwindling resources, is indeed very bleak Bond—but who ever told you bleak can’t be thrilling?

Casino Royale sought a Bond with psychological nuance, or rather, one with any recognizable psychology whatsoever, and Quantum of Solace follows up on the promise. Which doesn’t mean that the film is ponderousness or explanatory, on the contrary, Craig’s Bond is cagey as befits a killer superspy, his internal turmoil not entirely obscure to the camera—there’s a scene where a friend dies in his arms—but hardly an open book either. That he’s consumed by wrathful grief over the death of his lover Vesper Lynd is all you really need to know about the previous film and it’s in any case made abundantly clear in the telegraphic dialogue sequences. The revenge theme is actually doubled with the introduction of Camille (Olga Kurylenko), easily among the most developed Bond girls, whose determination to kill a Bolivian general planning a coup d’etat supported by the CIA and an international organization disguising itself as an environmentalist group nicely dovetails into Bond’s agenda. That this agenda is as driven by personal motives as professional duty is essential to the drama, and the balance between the two is as ambiguous to us as it is to Bond’s superior, M, played with minimalist flair and spooky containment by Judy Dench. She’ll have to cut him lose once things get too unruly for MI6 to sanction, but you sense that she’s always rooting for him with the same troubling faith in vigilante justice that Commissioner Gordon holds with regards to the Dark Knight.

Quantum of Solace was directed by Marc Forster, whose filmography includes Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction and The Kite Runner, none of which allude to an artist with a hidden urges to blow shit up. Yet I’d venture to say that this is the best thing Forster’s done, a project that utilizes his sensitivity to theme and tension and annexes his tendency toward bathos and emotional kitsch. It is a common complaint of critics, myself included, that most modern filmmakers can’t piece together a comprehensible action sequence, but the frenzy of close-ups, wide shots and collisions that cascade throughout Quantum of Solace remind us of the oppositional argument, that such action in real life is hardly tidy and easy to follow, that instincts overrule thought, that movies don’t always have to give us privileged points of view, that we too can get excited and unnerved by the wild blur of action escalating to a climax. There’s a kind of adrenalized poetry in this, and few can do it with the zest shown here by Forster, cutters Matt Chesse and Richard Pearson, and Dan Bradley, whose fights were incorporated into the similarly dizzying braid of imagery in the Bourne films.

Looking over the reviews thus far, I see a lot of gripes about straying from tradition: What about the gadgets and car fetish? What about the bon vivant Bond who never sweats? What about the silly villains and their pets? What about the zany candy coloured sets? What about the casual misogyny? Well, sorry, those days are gone. And there is no Santa. You’d think with the Bond closing in on nearly two-dozen films we’d welcome an overhaul. Admittedly, I’m no Bondophile, but perhaps the cult can content themselves with the massive back catalogue while the rest of us are entertained, provoked and shaken awake by this bold new direction.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Missing: Costa-Gavras' investigation into American casualties resulting from that other fateful September 11th, now on DVD

Santiago, 1973. The murderous coup d’etat that felled Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government spills its terror into the streets. Masses begin to disappear. Bodies accumulate everywhere like neglected trash. After getting trapped out after curfew and spending a night scurrying from one hiding place to another, Beth Horman (Sissy Spacek) returns to find her home ransacked and her husband Charlie (John Shea), a young writer who may have heard a few things about the possible involvement of the CIA or the US State Department while visiting Viña del Mar, is nowhere to be found.

Charlie’s father Ed (Jack Lemmon) comes down from New York. He’s demure, a republican, a patriot, wears the silent majority’s suit, tie and hat, marking himself a yes man with every stammered “sir”—yet he gets no more genuine assistance from the US embassy or government officials than the suspiciously hippified Beth did on her own. An uneasy alliance and utter embodiment of the generation gap, Beth and Ed thus are united in their helplessness and persistence. They can’t pass ten minutes without the sound of gunfire breaking the silence, can’t walk down an avenue without pools of blood appearing beneath their feet, and soon get to feeling increasingly sure that Charlie’s dead, that everyone knows it, but no one wants to confirm it.

It was heavily researched and verified by Thomas Hauser for his book The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice (1978), this story that is, of course, about an American, one of just a handful of foreign victims, something you can’t help but weigh against the thousands of Chilean nationals, so many still among the disappeared. But somehow this is what makes Missing (82), the American debut of writer/director Costa-Gavras, made for Universal, showered with Oscar nods, work in its very particular way. This is an especially scrupulous true story movie—I think it may have been the one that initiated the “docu-drama” designation—with not a single event depicted that did not have eyewitnesses. The near singularity of Horman’s case, its attack on the sense of entitlement and security that comes with certain passports, is one of the key subjects here, something emphasized above all in scenes of tourists trying to keep chipper as the tanks roll by and citizens are hauled away just beyond the hotel or restaurant windows. There’s the creeping sense of bloodshed and humiliation on display just being part of the travel package. If this was fiction it might have come from J.G. Ballard.

There is also, at the heart of this, a personal, more emotionally accessible story of a father only coming to know his son through tragedy. Presumably, this is how such a movie could be made in the Hollywood of the early ’80s, and it is in essence very moving. But the unacknowledged parallels between Ed and Charlie, conveyed here as virtually estranged, so deep are their conflicting ideals, are sometimes bluntly and unimaginatively conveyed, with Ed saying or doing some little thing and Beth simply pointing out that Charlie used to say or do just the same. There are moments of ostensible connection between Ed and Beth, and Charlie in absentia, that like the 100% synth score from Vangelis, a credit sandwiched between his equally godawful scores for Chariots of Fire (81) and Blade Runner (82), feel tokenistic, or rather academic in their emotionalism.

But the script, credited to Costa-Gavras and Donald Stewart, does feature at least one crucial, very elegant method of linking father and son that necessarily requires the entire movie to bring itself to fruition and beautifully marries the theme of familial reconciliation with that of American vulnerability. The last thing Charlie half-jokingly says before he vanishes is: “They can’t hurt us—we’re Americans!” The last thing Ed says to the US officials before he flies back to America with Beth is: “I just thank God that we live in a country where we can still put people like you in jail!” They were wrong, needless to say, on both counts. Charlie was killed, and his fellow Americans that tacitly allowed if not actually aided in his execution were never brought to justice, thanks largely to classified documents. And Missing bristles with indignation.

Which brings us to the supplements on Criterion’s new two-disc set—they’re worth the effort even if you already know the movie itself. There’s a very good half-hour of interview with Costa-Gavras, who carefully lays out his intentions with the film—he always wanted Lemmon, then not known for drama—and an interview of equal length and substance with Joyce Horman, the real-life Beth Horman. There are also featurettes on the film’s Cannes reception—it shared the Palme d’Or with
Yol (82)—and, most intriguing of all, on the ongoing lobbying of the US government to declassify documents that would confirm the exact involvement of Americans in the coup that ushered Augusto Pinochet into power. The title of Missing alludes to much more than the status of Charles Horman for some weeks in 1973—it directs us to the gaps in the official history that obscure the full measure of the grave darkness that has so long corroded US foreign policy.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

These movies stink: Rocknrolla, Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Rocka Rolla is the name of Judas Priest’s first album, released back in ’74, produced by the same guy who did the first three Sabbaths and the debut for Budgie. The driving title track—a romance narrative, featuring the encouraging refrain of “You can take her if you want her/If you think you can!”—has solid crank, a pleasingly inane octave switch in the guitar solo, and wilted harmonica accents that accentuate the overall sense of ambitious young lads still testing out various aural accoutrements to see whether they fortify the metal hammer. I mention Rocka Rolla here only because, while a modest work to be sure, it is so much better than Rocknrolla, the new Guy Ritchie movie with the strikingly similar yet, however implausibly, even stupider title.

Ritchie’s been working out his sub-Tarantino kooky crime shtick for a while now—it’s been a full decade since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels—but age, practice and marriage to Madonna hasn’t made his movies any better. This time around, Ritchie’s motley crew is comprised of a couple of lower echelon crooks (Gerard Butler and Idris Elba); an overconfident mob boss (Tom Wilkinson) and his smarter, classier right-hand (Mark Strong, who also narrates for some reason); a foxy super accountant (Thandie Newton, not acting so much as modeling a collection of tear-away power suits as prelude to an astoundingly lifeless and pointless booty call); a junky rock star with father issues (Toby Kebbell, impressively emaciated, seemingly on the verge of death); and a Russian billionaire with a soft spot for high class prostitutes (Karel Roden).

Some are the slimy scumbags that try to screw everybody; others are just the regular scumbags that we’re supposed to like. Any sense of relationship between the characters is nonexistent. Come to think of it, any sense of character is nonexistent. The actors are asked only to prop up a tired old hag of a plot involving the usual web of cons, the pathetic pretexts for violence, the slow-mo and fast-mo, and the fussy montage sequences that resemble corporate training videos with huge budgets. There are attempts at conveying a gentler, more sensitive side, but the hero’s embracing of homosexuality only serves to exacerbate the boy’s club atmosphere, while the attention given to junky wisdom makes for a regrettable detour, with Kebbell delivering a monologue about the life lessons to be learned from a pack of smokes that’s a lot less profound than Forrest Gump and his metaphorical box of chocolates. In short, Ritchie seems to be on autopilot more than ever with Rocka Rolla—and he didn’t even have the decency to use Priest on the soundtrack!

“There ain’t no such thing as free titties.” The line, one of many throwaway faux-truisms on offer here, is spoken by Delaney (Craig Robinson), the first-time producer employed by the titular independent filmmakers of
Zack and Miri Make a Porno, a man who offers to bankroll his destitute friends’ radical get-the-lights-back-on scheme primarily out of a burning desire to see breasts that aren’t dangling off his emasculating wife. He says the line during a crisis point in the movie, when the team’s dream of penetrating the porn market seems to be shattered following the unexpected—for them at least; for the audience it’ll seem right on cue—demolition of the old garage they’ve been using as a makeshift film studio.

Funny thing is, Delaney’s declaration seems pretty much on the nose. For all the potty-mouthed dialogue, gross-out gags, general licentiousness and rampant supporting role nudity gleefully strewn throughout Zack and Miri Make a Porno, this finally feels like a blithely puritanical tale, limpid, shackled to tired convention and extolling an emotionally juvenile foundation for love—no free titties, indeed. Whether or not Zack and Miri’s porn will ever pay off or even give some lonesome surfer a chub seems dubious and is of little concern in any event; what matters most here, what is crucial in Smith's moral universe, is that Miri doesn’t have sex with someone other than Zack because, implausible as it seems, this is actually the story of two lifelong friends and roomies who supposedly were always destined to become lovers, and—here comes the irony—just as they’re on the brink of being porn stars, ingrained, panic-driven monogamy rises up like an iceberg in their lives’ heretofore libertine sexual trajectory.

Maybe I should get to the point and let you know how obscenely lazy this movie is, yet another testament to the jack ass attitude-trumps-all approach of writer/director Kevin Smith, whose prolific oeuvre includes such overrated titles as Clerks, Mallrats, Dogma and Jersey Girl. Smith’s desire to shock, cajole or titillate seems far greater than his ability to develop character, tell a story with even a hint of originality, or genuinely articulate the unspoken, hopefully comical rage of the American suburban working class he’s appointed himself some sort of spokesman for. Of course, here I am talking about craft, imagination and style when we’re not supposed to give a shit, right? At least so long as we’re entertained, which, thanks only to Robinson and most especially the smart pairing of Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks, the actors playing Zack and Miri, we occasionally are. I guess Smith is in the business of making critic proof movies, which, if this latest effort is any indication, is another way of saying he doesn’t want to try very hard.

There’s doubtlessly a fun movie to be made from just spinning out all the inevitably humorous and even unconsciously insightful steps involved in turning a couple of everyday folks into pornographers, a sort of let’s-put-on-a-sex-show story. It’s all the more disappointing then that Smith, whose sense of humour is nothing if not frank, manages to get in so little of that bawdy comedy of recognition, though he does offer a few of the better porn movie titles I’ve heard in while, ie: A Cock and Lips Now. Everything is sidetracked by the half-assed When Hairy Met Dangly palsy romance that, for all the fun Rogen and Banks have here, is so lacking in chemistry as to be a joke in itself. Smith’s dogged adherence to the dopey, overworked rules of the romantic comedy is perplexing given that he could have had done so much more with a far simpler narrative than he has, while little spectacles like his truly sad “funny dancing” montage or his staging of the big token moments, such as Zack and Miri’s scene where they finally do it for the camcorder on a sack of coffee beans, is so incompetent as to prove the guy can’t even sell us a cheap cliché. At least porn queen Traci Lords shows up in a few scenes. There’s a certain pleasure to be had to seeing someone who actually knows how to do their job.