Thursday, May 28, 2009

Anatomy of a master: Otto Preminger at the Cinematheque Ontario

Like so many of the émigré directors who thrived in postwar Hollywood, the Austrian-born Otto Preminger (1905-1986) crafted a body of work sufficiently diverse and studio-friendly as to quietly slip through the cracks in auteur theory (and right out of Andrew Sarris’ Pantheon). But a close look at the qualities that align his best films, which are substantial in number, reveals a highly individual filmmaker extraordinarily capable of balancing the dictates of classical storytelling and often immaculate craft with a highly nuanced predilection toward the incessant contradictions of his characters—and, maybe even more so, his actors—an artist drawn to subversion yet never satisfied with mere cynicism, with simply "exposing" perversity or injustice. His immersion in his characters’ dilemmas could be so total that lingering ambiguities about their choices seemed inevitable rather than just the product of a smug sophisticate seeking to arbitrarily elevate populist material. Preminger's best films don't look down on Hollywood conventions; they perfect them. 

The Cinematheque Ontario’s nearly complete retrospective,
Fallen Angels: The Films of Otto Preminger, starts tomorrow, offering audiences an opportunity to survey the span of the director’s oeuvre, as well as a couple of films—Le Corbeau (43), Blow-up (66)—that helped inform it. It starts, appropriately enough, with Laura (44), the film Preminger himself considered his first worthy of note, a brilliant thriller at once so elegant and deeply tawdry it set the high water mark for Fox noir and, along with Preminger’s nearly as good Whirlpool (50), smoked out the fragility, pathos and sexuality buried beneath Gene Tierney’s wholesome beauty—not to mention contributing to the movies’ general mistrust of cultivated, effeminate and unattractive men. And just as Preminger could help render Tierney corrupt, even ordinary, he could make Joan Crawford touching in her resilience and indecision in Daisy Kenyon (47), a very noirish “woman’s picture” that defied the broader tendencies of such melodramas. It’s these 40s noirs that I was already familiar with, so in gearing up for the Cinematheque’s program I caught up with a trio of Preminger’s 50s films that I’d previously managed to neglect.

River of No Return (54) is Preminger’s sole western, a genre he held no special interest in and delved in solely out of contractual obligation. Set and filmed in Banff and Jasper and featuring gorgeous landscapes—courtesy of Joseph LaShelle—it’s somewhat marred by an unavoidable dependence on rear projection during the protagonists’ tumultuous journeys over the titular rushing rapids, as well as woefully generic Indians assigned to the tired role of faceless background menace. Yet overwhelming these less appealing elements are surprisingly resonant stories of yearning, independence and brutal maturation. Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) reunites with the nine-year-old son who never knew him and tries to start a new life as a farmer with a shady past. Kay Weston (Marilyn Monroe) is a showgirl tired of performing for camps of drunks who tries to start a new life with a gambler who’s sure he’s struck gold. How their paths become tangled is at certain points excessively artificial, but how these characters connect—through their sensitivity to the boy, through sheer desperation to survive, through the lovely performances from both leads—feels genuine and multiplies the story’s adventures to include the building of an accidental family.

Mitchum, busted for pot possession during the shoot, initially seems to be at his most mystically unshakable here—even when his house is being burned down he seems nonplussed. But the shifts in his temperament when dealing with his son and grappling with his violent past spurs him into riveting engagement. Monroe, who like many less confident actors suffered under the notoriously merciless and mercurial Preminger, exudes preternatural world-weariness here, a tough but warm woman all-too cognizant of her abundant sex appeal and seeking, if not entirely expecting to actually find, some sort of security. The scene where Mitchum sexually assaults her—only to be assaulted in turn by a mountain lion—speaks volumes about Hollywood’s sense of entitlement with their starlets. But the finale, which neatly closes a circle of retribution, is devastating in its way.

Bonjour Tristesse (58), which brought new texture to its Françoise Sagan source novel, is far more difficult to classify and more rewarding in its murky and audaciously unresolved emotional undercurrents. Any wonder it bombed? Chronicling the failed attempt at marriage by Raymond (David Niven), the aging Don Juan/bon vivant/permissive poppa of young Cécile (Preminger discovery Jean Seberg), the film renders the past “an invisible wall of memories,” something both tainted by tragedy and nostalgically hued—the flashbacks are in colour, the present-tense framing device in black and white. A coming-of-age story about the inability to come-of-age, it paints a portrait of father-daughter love that may or may not read as incestuous but most certainly conveys a morbid codependence that allows the elder participant to remain ostensibly youthful at the expense of the younger one, whose need for her father’s exclusive love is so strong that it sabotages the very change, embodied by love-struck clothing designer Anne (Deborah Kerr), both require to move on with their drifting, responsibility-free lives.

Derided in its time—despite her adorability in her hot water bottle beret—Seberg’s performance has aged amazingly well. Her childlike blankness at certain key points fits perfectly with Cécile’s increasingly internalized despair, weirdly emphasized by the echo of her voice-over, which sounds like it was recorded in somebody's windowless bathroom. Admittedly, there’s something really odd about having a French father and daughter played by a Brit and an American, but what counts, as in River, is how they connect with each other and unconsciously conspire to keep the rest of the world out of their arrangement. Preminger continually nurtures their intimacy through subtly indicative framing, and Raymond and Cécile’s stasis is nicely offset by the relative mobility of Elsa (Mylène Demongeot), Raymond’s bubbly blonde plaything who pours an awful lot of fun into this ultimately depressing tale while, à la Monroe in River, proves that seemingly less substantial characters can be complex and dynamic, too.

If I didn’t know what to expect from the above films, Anatomy of a Murder (59) was a film where my expectations were simply blown apart. I’d always meant to see it, mainly for Duke Ellington’s score and to catch a young Ben Gazzara in action, but was only mildly interested in what promised to be a solid courtroom drama. But, far more than, say, 12 Angry Men (57), the film probed the peripheries of due process to a place where truth and justice are blurred into an impenetrable haze. Fresh from drowning his familiar persona of decency in an abyss of necrophiliac obsession as Scotty in Vertigo (58), James Stewart plays rural Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler, like Scotty, a reclusive bachelor recently humbled by occupational failure. With his old alcoholic pal (Arthur O’Connell) as his legal assistant, Paul takes a seemingly hopeless case defending a moody-as-all-hell Korean War vet (Gazzara) who murdered a barkeep he says raped his flamboyantly flirtatious wife (Lee Remick).

Nothing in the performances, Wendell Mayes’ script or Preminger’s direction, ever does anything to convince Paul or us of Gazzara’s nobility or his claims of succumbing to “uncontrollable impulse,” but the smaller truths Paul collects along the way to a verdict, along with our collective agreement to talk at leisure about Remick’s soiled panties, bring us closer to feeling like we’re getting somewhere meaningful, even if the ending assures us Paul’s efforts were finally morally meaningless. Preminger is remarkably relaxed in his pacing and camerawork, again focusing on development of place and character, allowing us to sit back with Paul as he plays the piano with Duke (!) or eats hard-boiled eggs. The pay-off is enormous, a completely absorbing entertainment—replete with superb supporting work from George C. Scott and a dog that can operate a flashlight—and a troubling essay on how deceptively shrewd lawyers and great movie stars can pretty much talk us into anything.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Startling intimacies, drifting narratives: Garrel x 2

An actress accosts her filmmaker husband for casting another actress in a role clearly modeled after her. A woman sits perched on a toilet in a pocket washroom while her boyfriend crouches just outside the door, kissing her, which prompts the release of her urine heard tinkling merrily on the porcelain. A couple discuss whether or not one is able to paint the portrait of the other, their very proximity being an obstruction to their ability to truly see one another. A smiling elderly woman explains to a young mother that she’ll always be welcomed here while both clutch a child’s denim jacket, the confused child standing just a few feet away, staring at a man who timidly alludes to his new role as surrogate father. A woman waits on a subway platform while she watches another woman, who we by now see as a sort of double for her, enter a train from the other side and be carried away in the opposite direction from where the woman is heading.

These images, which I’ve plucked more or less randomly from my recent crash course in the cinema of the prolific but under-seen French filmmaker Philippe Garrel, appear onscreen with a minimum of context, if not downright cryptically. Each hovers in its own space, pieces of a mosaic. You get the impression, even after watching only two Garrel movies, that maybe every scene in every Garrel movie hovers in a similar way, the mosaic to which they belong being not any single picture but the whole body of work which, peculiar, at times unabashedly courting pretentiousness, strikes me as genuinely singular.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar (J’entends plus la guitare, 1991) and Emergency Kisses (Les Baisers de secours, 89), the movies collected in Zeitgeist’s new Philippe Garrel X 2 two-disc set, generate an atmosphere I can honestly say I’ve never seen in movies before, or at least not pursued with such rigour and for such sustained durations. Garrel has a way of placing the camera before one or two figures—usually gorgeous, forthright women and unassuming, often far weaker, sometimes homely men—and letting them build a vivid hum of intimacy that defies filmic artifice. There’s something of Ingmar Bergman in this, and Robert Bresson too, but Garrel’s lyrical naturalism has none of the carefully honed dramaturgy or overt urge toward transcendence of either. (Garrel cited Jean-Luc Godard as his cinematic idol way back in the 1960s, but it seems to me the Godard movies which feel closest to Garrel’s are the lesser-known, playfully self-referential ones, like 1980’s Sauve qui peut (la vie), which come long after the canonical 60s works.) Garrel’s stories have no beginning and no end. The relationship between these characters and the people playing or directing them often seems flamboyantly blurred. If they had dramatic arcs these stories would resemble Woody Allen movies or Chekhov plays, all these sophisticated couples negotiating their love affairs and philosophizing about the wayward nature of their lives, frequently stupefied by the presence of their offspring.

I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar begins with two couples on holiday, no longer young—or at least no longer innocent—bohemians who seem set on a course of perpetual ambivalence. The movie is dedicated to Nico, the statuesque German-born model and deep-voiced chanteuse most famous for her collaboration with the Velvet Underground on their eponymous debut. Nico lived with Garrel for several years and appeared in a number of his films. Marianne (Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege) is clearly based on Nico, heroin habit included. Marianne and Gerard (Benoît Régent), Garrel’s stand-in, drift together and apart, at times compelled toward stability, at times finding it unbearable and thwarting it however they can, usually through the accumulation of other lovers, their undulating trajectories moving in time to Faton Cahen’s eloquent score.

It was while going into production on Emergency Kisses that Garrel learned of Nico’s death and decided to make a film about their relationship. Yet Emergency Kisses is in fact a far more overwhelmingly self-reflexive work, with Garrel himself playing Mathieu, the filmmaker husband of the disgruntled actress Jeanne, played by Brigitte Sy, who was Garrel’s wife at the time. Garrel and Sy’s son, the now well-known actor Louis Garrel, plays Mathieu and Jeanne’s son. Garrel’s father Maurice plays Mathieu’s father. Garrel’s ex-girlfriend Anémone plays Minouchette, the actress Mathieu chooses to play Jeanne… You get the (meta-)picture, which of course reads like a wildly elaborate form of group therapy but does indeed cohere into something that reaches marvelous heights of emotional richness—though there’s something presumably unintentionally comical about Garrel’s onscreen presence, his enormous mushroom-mound of frizzy graying hair and his little voice. Mathieu and Jeanne, like Marianne and Gerard, do their dance of partnership and paternity, of uncertainty, self-interest, self-loathing and love, and love, as is explicitly stated by the characters, is what makes the stories of their lives. And these stories make for surprisingly absorbing and sensitive filmmaking, culminating in a bravura finale that, after so much talk, engulfs the last moments with a poetry that’s wordless, visually inspired, metaphorically pointed and quite moving.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The postman that just keeps ringing: Jeirchow

Thing about a past is the more of one you’ve got the less you need to talk about it. Thus
Jerichow begins with tight-lipped Thomas (Benno Fürmann) leaving a funeral in the company of two men, who take him to an old country house. The deceased, we soon learn, is Thomas’ mother, the house his inheritance. The men, we gather, are old pals who probably won’t be pals much longer. Thomas owes them money and payment’s long overdue. The pals take Thomas’ savings and leave him sapped and abandoned in his own yard. He takes a long nap, woken by nuzzling fawn the next morning. We learn he was a soldier in Afghanistan, now dishonourably discharged. He’s broke, his prospects decidedly narrow. He takes a job harvesting cucumbers.

Until something a little better comes along. By chance, Thomas meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a supplier to a number of snack bars in the region. He seems to have a solid business, impressive capital, a significant drinking problem, and a much younger, pretty blonde wife named Laura (Nina Hoss). Thomas helps Ali out of a jam and is rewarded with a job as Ali’s driver. Despite Thomas’ reticence, the men develop a certain masculine camaraderie. It’s a little one-sided, but Ali needs a friend he can trust because he sure can’t seem to trust his wife. Ali’s consumed by jealousy, yet, strangely, he also seems to almost encourage Thomas’ attraction to Laura, who’s even less voluble than Thomas. The three spend more and more time together. Ali drinks far too much. We wait, wondering how long it will take for lust to sprout fangs.

The only other film I’ve seen from German writer/director Christian Petzold is his 2007 feature Yella, which shares interesting similarities with Jerichow: an uneasy relationship between automobiles and water; an unexpected business opportunity on offer with a minimum of questions asked; a steady narrative progression built upon just the right number of expository clues to keep us intrigued; and Hoss, whose striking beauty is odd enough to encourage our interest and whose mere gaze feels at once vulnerable and guarded. The most distinguishing trait these films share however is extra-filmic. Other than the fact that it’s a personal favourite film of mine, I won’t tell you what the source material is for Yella here, since there’s a great pleasure to be found in recognizing it yourself, and anyway if you really want to know you can find out easily enough elsewhere. But I will tell you that the inspiration behind Jerichow is one of the great hard-boiled crime novels of the 20th century, one that’s been explicitly adapted into two Hollywood movies and surreptitiously drawn upon by many, many more.

Jerichow takes as its blueprint James M. Cain’s enduring and infinitely malleable 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, shaking it to life by focusing on different aspects of it than previous incarnations. The doomed scheme undertaken by the lovers out of desire and a healthy dose of greed occurs far later in the proceedings. There’s less time spent generating the sexual connection between Thomas and Laura—whose name even rhymes with Cain’s Cora—and more spent nurturing the peculiar pathos of Ali, who’s outsider status as a dark-skinned, rather unsavoury immigrant matches that of Cain’s Greek truck stop proprietor. Thus Petzold imbues Jerichow with a subtle commentary on modern German multiculturalism, making Ali seem destined to always be regarded an Other, a lonely man far from his homeland with a wife he essentially purchased—Laura, like Thomas, has a shady past that we’ll learn just enough about to help us understand what she’s willing to do to escape it. In an especially sly nod to Cain’s text, the first explosion of physicality between Thomas and Laura is so intense as to draw blood. Yet in one of numerous twists on Cain’s text, Petzold swaps which gender fissures the flesh of the other.

Petzold has crafted here a satisfying neo-noir, mining a seminal proto-noir narrative for his set-up while rigorously exploring the alternate routes it might take. His cool, unobtrusive style avoids expressionistic flourish and is not invested in any noir or neo-noir traditions. It seems to arise from an individual worldview and an affection for genre only exceeded by an investment in finding variations that speak to a new audience. Where it all ends is clever and unexpected, though it’s so terse it may leave some hungry for a denouement on par with Cain’s gritty end of the line. For others, the final scene might just feel like the perfect cliff to drop off of, a vertiginous plunge into the abyss that may itself inspire yet further ventures into this fecund territory of sordidness and longing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Rough crossing: Sin Nombre

A revved-up hybrid of
City of God and El Norte, nurtured and probably tamed by the Sundance Institute, US writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s debut Sin Nombre, or Nameless, may not be as generic as its title suggests, what with its impressive landscapes, its novel and genuinely chilling brutality, and its surprisingly exquisite score (courtesy of Hollywoodland composer Marcelo Zarvos). But this infernal tour of Mexico’s decidedly unfriendly railway lines and its most grotesque nests of rural gang violence is nevertheless an obedient child of Hollywood convention. Amidst all the fighting, fleeing and filleting onscreen, another battle is being waged between a young filmmaker’s vigorous desire to invoke gritty, incendiary realism and increasingly frequent injections of sentimentalist deus ex machina. As we charge toward the climax there’s not much ambiguity surrounding which of these opposing forces will win out.

Willy, a.k.a. Casper (Edgar Flores), at first seems to represent just about the worst thing in his local Southern Chiapas branch of the horrifyingly vicious Mara Salvatrucha, founded decades ago in Los Angeles. He may not have erased his face with tribal tattoos like the gang’s ultra-scary alpha male leader—who provides us with the creepiest image of parenthood since Mike Tyson graced the Father’s Day issue of GQ—but as we meet him he’s ushering in a new member that still looks a couple of years shy of puberty. Sure, Smiley (Kristyan Ferrer) may have ended up in Mara Salvatrucha anyway, but if Willy didn’t recruit him at such a tender age the kid might have at least had a chance. Smiley’s initiated into their fold in the customary style: he’s ordered to kill an unarmed and terrified member of a rival gang held captive for just such a ritual. Smiley’s victim will soon be chopped up into dog food, just more grist for the mill, but the experience seals Smiley’s fate. Willy, whose tattooed tear is Fukunaga’s little giveaway that he’s really not such a bad egg, will steadily move toward redemption. Things for Smiley on the other hand will only get worse.

Despite the high drama surrounding all that unfolds around Willy, Sayra (Paulina Gaitan) will emerge as our real protagonist. Her trajectory will take her from her Honduran village, hopping freight trains northward in the hope of making it all the way to New Jersey, where some family and a presumably better life awaits. Where the movies have more commonly explored the hazards of clawing one’s way onto US soil, the illegal migrants in Sin Nombre are clearly lucky if they even make it that far. Willy and Sayra will cross paths, and once he’s made a violent break with Mara Salvatrucha, Willy will become Sayra’s designated protector, even though she may be in more danger what with Willy’s ex-comrades on his tail. There could even be a love interest here, but you have to give credit to Fukunaga for steering clear of cursory romance in the midst of a story to desperate and blood-soaked to really make room for it. It’s one of the few deviations from cliché Fukunaga manages to hold onto.

With its images of migrants clinging to nocturnal trains like flies on a wounded animal, Sin Nombre leaves a deep impression, a sense of the trail of fear and ambition that branches off into the distance far beyond the relative serenity of the US/Mexico border. Above all, we’re given here a striking portrait of a world still on the move against all odds, of the Americas as a largely lawless wilderness where shelter is either absent or shrouded in bureaucracy and the worst kind of opportunism is able to flourish. In a way it’s almost a better documentary than it is a drama. It makes you wonder how Fukunaga will distinguish himself from here on out. Outsiders have often made great storytellers, but this gringo brought just a little too much luggage with him on his travels south.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Don't look back: Of Time and the City

Writer, director and one-time actor Terrence Davies in only his mid-60s, yet his voice, while sonorous and formidable, coheres disembodied to the flow of images in
Of Time and the City with the withering crust and wearied basement furnace grumble of someone inching up on 100 at least. His is the voice of one whose disenchantment with the world has long turned toxic, who seems to have come to terms the delusional nature of nostalgia sometime shortly following his birth.

Nevertheless, Davies looks long and hard into the past in this, his first documentary and his first film of any sort since his woefully underappreciated Edith Wharton adaptation
The House of Mirth (2000), which gave Gillian Anderson her finest role. The subject of this new film is Liverpool, Davies’ hometown. It was commissioned by the city following its designation as a European Cultural Capital in 1998. If those in charge were actually expecting something warm and inviting they must have been pretty pissed when Davies’ treatment was finally delivered. But then they must not have seen any of his previous films set in Liverpool, such as The Long Day Closes (92), Distant Voices, Still Lives (88) and the trilogy composed of ‘Children’ (76), ‘Madonna and Child’ (80) and ‘Death and Transfiguration’ (83), none of which are likely to win the hearts of the local tourist board. The fondest memories shared here seem most closely linked to going to the movies, Davies’ hearty interest in professional wrestlers—one of the film’s absolute highlights—and going on holidays. Davies’ contempt for the postwar Liverpool of his youth is only matched by his utter dismay at the Liverpool of the present.

There is, to be sure, something quite seductive, at least for a while, in Davies’ carefully rendered recollections, a sense of longing that lingers even when caked in disappointment and conveyed through numerous bitter witticisms, one of which is a clever dis to the Beatles that’s sure to get a crackling response from just about any audience. His departure from the Catholic Church and general shedding of faith, his budding homosexuality and gradual gleaning of its forbidding precariousness, his working-class upbringing and the dire limitations it wrought: as he speaks about these themes there come certain emotionally pointed synchronicities between his words and the imagery, much of it archival footage, some of it quite fascinating. Even here there is ample evidence of Davies' particular gifts. He's among the world's best filmmakers who seem unable to make very many films. But this film’s attitude is essentially static, its approach not all that driven by actual questions or curiosity, and Davies’ voice seems almost designed to lull you to sleep while its message diligently grinds you down.

I have to admire the way Davies arranges his selection of images from the past, which thread along with a lyricism perhaps informed by English poetry, something Davies clearly adores unreservedly. Yet the dominant utility of all the new footage he’s cultivated seems to be one of fodder for comments of sarcasm and condescension toward Liverpool’s architecture, civic pride, culture and appallingly dressed people. The pomposity, bile and curmudgeonly defiance do not in themselves spoil the value of the film; the problem rather has to do with the limits of what this inclination can possibly yield after 72 minutes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On the losing end: Denis Johnson's Nobody Move

Nowhere in
Nobody Move (Harper Collins, $24.99) are we ever told how Jimmy Luntz ended up singing in a barbershop choir. It’s mise en scène as mystery, the way Denis Johnson uses a seemingly natural penchant for crafting narratives riddled with ellipses to keep his characters from behaving the way people in books are supposed to, from sitting still long enough for us to crack them fully open and facilitate this thing we call identification. But even if the singing thing is left dangling, we do know that Luntz’s dominant vocation is actually gambling, even if he displays only slightly more skill in this arena than in warming the cockles of pensioners with his harmonizing skills. We’re even given a little story that helps to illuminate the formative roots of Luntz’s gambling habit, told by Luntz himself at the precise moment when it seems he’s about to have his testicles downsized and eaten by his captors. As a kid Luntz was once offered an impressive sum of money to clean a man’s trailer, which he went about with great diligence over a four-day period. When the job was finished he was told he could either take the promised payment or accept a single lottery ticket. He takes the ticket. Do I need to tell you the result?

I know of no losers in fiction quite like Denis Johnson’s losers, a fascinatingly pathetic species as elegantly exemplified by Jimmy Luntz as by Bill Houston, who features prominently both in Johnson’s Angels (83) and Tree of Smoke (07), or the young man identified only as Fuckhead in Johnson’s story collection Jesus’ Son (92). Early on in Nobody Move Luntz neglects his chance to kill someone who will surely kill him. Now in a position in which he’d be wise to appear as inconspicuous as possible, he then checks in to an all-log motel, soaking wet, with no car, no socks and paying in cash. Besides the gambling and singing, we’re also informed that Luntz was once a boxer for a couple of years. “Clumsy in the ring, he distinguished himself the wrong way—the only boy to get knocked out twice. He’d spent two years at it. His secret was that he’d never, before or after, felt so comfortable or so at home as when lying on his back and listening to the far-off music of the referee’s ten-count.” That music is of course as much Johnson’s as anything heard in real life that could have possibly served as a muse. An author of poetry as well as fiction, he’s our preeminent clown-lyricist of the also-rans—who also stumble, break a limb and ruin someone’s year before realizing they actually have no idea where the finish line is.

Tree of Smoke was the book everyone was waiting for Johnson to write—his admirers and detractors alike. A sprawling, unruly, multi-character novel than span the arc of America’s misadventures in Vietnam, it couldn’t help but announce itself as a flawed masterpiece designed to dazzle readers of a certain sensibility and set rolling the eyes of others. It scooped the National Book Award. Anyway, I loved it. Nobody Move is a peculiar successor, the book probably no one was waiting for Johnson to write, a mercilessly taut little comic thriller originally written as a serial for Playboy and as seemingly slight as Tree of Smoke was inherently profound. And it is a hoot, at once managing to deliver the genre goods and defining even more clearly the author’s signature style, themes and characters. If you’ve never read Denis Johnson, and you’ve got a soft spot for crime fiction, it makes a very fun introduction.

So Luntz is picked up by Gambol, who’s collecting for Juarez, from whom Luntz borrowed money, which was quickly lost while gambling. In a scene that’s never even described, Luntz shoots Gambol in the leg and steals his Cadillac, which will change hands many times over the course of the story. Luntz will then meet Anita, a delicious soon-to-be divorcee who also happens to be accused of embezzling a couple of million dollars. She makes her very memorable entrance into Nobody Move by getting plastered at a matinee of a boxing flick—perhaps the product of a childhood fascination with John Dillinger, Johnson seems to really like having criminals enter movie theatres to do things other than watch movies—then signing her divorce papers, then going to some quiet spot by the river to practice shooting her gun at jars full of metal. Later on she pees on her mobile phone. I was in love with her before she even met Luntz. And then he falls in love with her. Or anyway he’s at the very least blissfully astonished that a woman so good-looking is willing to accompany him back to his log motel. She makes love, Luntz observes, “like a drunken nun.” I have no idea how Luntz would formulate such a conclusion but it does indeed sound exciting.

Though Johnson continually inserts little curve balls of expository enigma—I especially liked it when he made note of a dream Gambol has where he’s skiing naked—the action and escalation of tension never let up. Which is to say nobody stops moving in Nobody Move, trapped as the entire cast of characters is in a closed circuit of comeuppance that can only be broken by accident, submission or, much more likely, agonizing death. Johnson’s humanism typically reveals itself through the discovery of some fragile sort of grace arising within the nadir of personal disaster. This sort of redemption is less present here, but there is in all this a kind of meditation on the nature of luck, though what it finally seems to point to is a strong suspicion that every time anybody gets lucky it can be traced back to some design, however fumbling that design may have been conceived. And this tension between the random and the predetermined is reflected in the architecture of the novel itself, which seems always ready to fall apart yet never does. It’s a trick that Johnson’s become a truly deft hand at. I can’t wait to see how he pulls it off next time around.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Adoration: Atom Egoyan's patchy puzzle of truths, lies, theatre and technology

Stories fold in upon stories in
Adoration. How their contradictions speak to one another forms the backbone of the film. High schooler Simon (Devon Bostick) tells one to his class about how his father nearly succeeded in blowing up an aircraft with his pregnant mother onboard. We see the story play out in flashback, but is the fact that the Israeli airport’s lit like a moody upscale nightclub a splinter in the scene’s verity or merely an expression of some production designer’s caprices rubbing elbows with budget constraints? A woman shrouded in a beaded Islamic veil lurks in a wintry Toronto suburb, complimenting Simon’s bigoted tow-truck driving uncle Tom (Scott Speedman) on his nativity scene while inserting a baldly provocative statement about Jews into the already uncomfortable conversation. Is anything about her visit genuine? Is it some sort of theatre designed to elicit a violent response from Tom? Is she a particularly insistent tommyknocker clinging to Speedman after The Strangers?

Atom Egoyan’s latest finds the writer/director still immersed in the search for where the truth lies, still viewing families with a dissecting eye, still questioning our largely passive acceptance of ever-more invasive technologies, and, rather wearingly, still feeling obligated to plot his stories with a leaden dramaturgical hand. (In a sense Egoyan’s concerns mirror those of Michael Haneke, with the precarious advent of a certain sentimentality that urges resolutions Haneke wouldn’t even sniff at.) A crisp sense of artifice allowed Egoyan’s insistence on coincidence and the unlikely interconnectivity of characters and events to function relatively fluidly in his earliest features. But recent attempts at ostensibly more accessible stories with newly broader, more “globalized” casts of disparate characters—I’d vote for Ararat (2002) as the nadir, though Where the Truth Lies (05) makes a strong contestant—have mangled otherwise potentially interesting movies into overwrought tapestries, contributions to that self-important trend exemplified by Crash (04), Babel (06) and Crossing Over (09).

The good news is that Adoration is a major improvement on its immediate predecessors. Its metaphors are intelligent, labyrinthine and generative. And its creakier conceits are made somewhat more palatable through the sheer conviction of its better actors, namely Arsinée Khanjian, charged with embodying the movie’s most absurd protagonist, a loopy Lebanese-Canadian drama teacher who seems implausibly oblivious to how her audacious actions affect the rest of the world. Khanjian, eerily beautiful and a fixture in Egoyan’s films since Next of Kin (84), remains a beguiling, mysterious presence. She’s the best thing in Adoration, which provides her biggest role in an Egoyan film so far this millennium. If Speedman and Bostick fare less well it may simply be that you need to have married Egoyan to really grasp the vibe. The former seems deeply committed if confused about how to balance Tom’s burbling, inarticulate rage with his ability to adopt new perspectives. The latter may simply lack the preternatural understanding and emotional range required to pull off a truly difficult role—if it can be pulled off at all. And it’s not his fault that he looks like a catalogue model. He’s got a huge weight to carry here, and it’s a relief to see him do something neutral once in a while, like eat cereal.

Simon’s story sparks a highly emotional debate between students and faculty alike, putting his teacher and co-conspirator Sabine (Khanjian) in hot water and allowing Egoyan to explore the film’s thematic threads of the radical religious devotion and the limits of multiculturalism through a multiplicity of images. Egoyan refrains from excessive explicit editorializing with regards to Simon’s dependence on devices to contextualize his experiences, probably because the images say more than enough on their own. Simon interviews his dying grandfather with a video camera between them. He debates with others about his father’s supposed attempts at terrorism through the filter of videoconferencing, every speaker contained in their own little box glowing on the computer screen. Technology, especially screens within screens, grants Adoration the very sense of interconnectivity that some of the characters’ face-to-face encounters strain to convey. When Sabine’s car gets towed by Tom—she knows who he is; he has no idea who she is—we can hear the rusty wheels of dramatic irony churning away, though the payoff is that it does lead to one of the oddest impromptu diner lunch dates in recent memory, affectionately set in the now-closed and much-missed Canary Restaurant.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Animals, criminals, labyrinths of desire: three by Shohei Imamura

Sometimes it seems it’s the sheer unruliness that makes it so enduring, this still-underappreciated oeuvre with its gleefully grubby chaos and quasi-anthropological fixation on a postwar Japan inundated with foreigners and overrun by undesirable elements, a mélange that so audaciously breaks away from the officially sanctioned decorum and exquisite classicism exemplified by the films of the revered Yasujiro Ozu. But Shohei Imamura (1926-2006) apprenticed under Ozu, working up through the system as was demanded back then. So while his cinema reads as fiercely antithetical to the Ozu model, it’s equally informed by its discipline and moral query. Imamura was indeed a rebel in the Japanese cinema, an iconoclast and genuine mischief-maker, a middle-class kid obsessed with perversion, “the lower depths,” and basic instincts. But his rebellion had a cause and one hell of a technique. We can see it ripen in the breakthrough films collected in Criterion’s new
Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes: 3 Films by Shohei Imamura.

Set in the port town of Yokosuka, the wildly entertaining Pigs and Battleships (61) is crowded with US troops looking for diversion and locals doling it out, their unease with American vulgarity offset by envy. The title aligns Americans with brute machinery, the Japanese with swine, but comparing people to animals in Imamura should never be reduced to derision. In this cruel world where puppies are drowned, where heads get smashed through windows and dunked in gasoline, where sharing of a can of pineapple rings is the best a girl can expect from her boyfriend in the immediate aftermath of her abortion, regarding human behaviour as animalistic feels somehow affectionate.

Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura) works in a bar. Her goofball boyfriend Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) joins an extortion gang starting a pig farm. Much of what drives Pigs and Battleships is Haruko’s gradual acceptance of the lack of prospects in her current situation. It’s her escape that lends the story its battered optimism. Yet Kinta also has his journey of self-discovery. “Advised” to take a rap on behalf of a superior, he instead takes a stand in a magnificent climax where men are swallowed up in a sea of swine and a hail of bullets. In collaboration with cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda, Imamura captures the mounting absurdity in captivating camerawork that echoes the jazzy dynamicism of Sam Fuller, trailing hungrily after the action as it careens away.

Haruko became a prototype for Imamura’s heroines, tough, take-no-shit women who typically outfox and outlive the insecure men who attempt to govern them. Tomé (Sachiko Hidari), heroine of
The Insect Woman (63), is remarkable not only for her endurance but her adaptability. Raised in a nest of incest and squalor, she survives alternately as a factory worker, labour organizer and prostitute, and the massive economic and ideological shifts undergone by Japan over the course of Tomé’s life are subtly reflected in the lessons she learns through experience.

The film’s original title translates as Japanese Entomology, and this may bring us closer to the heart of Imamura’s perspective. As embodied by Tomé, a people known for their traditionalism are shown as perfectly changeable when faced with issues of survival. Like the insect struggling to traverse a hillside in the film’s opening moments, the final image of Tomé trudging up a muddy country road is a portrait of dogged vitality. Imamura’s camerawork further emphasizes this sense of portraiture through the unpredictable use of freeze-frames, halting scenes not for aesthetic so much as studious pleasure. He lingers on fragments of action, intrudes on the continuity of spectacle. Perhaps it’s also a way of relieving pressure. Just as her father relieves the ache in the nursing Tomé’s under-milked breasts through his infantile suckling, so Imamura eases back and break the image apart when the narrative becomes too weighty.

Intentions of Murder (64), arguably the masterpiece in this superlative trio, appropriates several of its predecessor’s themes and hones them into something less carnally comical but more focused. Sadako (Masumi Harakawa, stunning) is a plump, uncultivated maid who becomes a common-law housewife after her employer impregnates her. Imamura puts Sadako through some harrowing but transformative experiences, arriving at a very strange yet satisfying form of catharsis. She’s assaulted in her home by a bumbling thief. She fends him off impressively, and the fight in her seems to arouse the thief. Rather than commit a straightforward rape however, the thief loosens Sadako’s bonds and attempts to generate something like consent. Their coupling is fraught with ambiguity to say the least. No one films a sex scene quite like Imamura. His bodies seem always to be feverishly clenched by repression and urge.

In keeping with cultural codes, sex with the thief leaves Sadako initially planning suicide before desperately craving food. Hunger trumps tradition. Eventually, despite being stalked by the now romantically obsessed thief—actually a middling nightclub drummer with a fatal heart condition—despite the abuse of her asshole husband—an asthmatic librarian—Sadako will develop a new inner fortitude. And the final section of the film especially, perhaps prompted by a haunting, vertiginous dream sequence, finds Imamura exploring newly expressionistic terrain, a cinematic poetry built upon snow, trains, distance and dread. It’ll leave you wondering where he’ll go next. The answer can be found in The Pornographers (66), also available from Criterion, which rewards expectations generously.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Border incident: Lemon Tree

The new luxury home of Israel Navon (Doron Tavory) overlooks the border that divides Israel from the West Bank. Just over that border is a well-kept lemon grove tended by Salma (Hiam Abbass), a widow in her late 40s whose children have all grown and moved away. Her trees are so close and so fecund that if he wanted Israel could twist an arm through the wire fence and pluck fruit right from the branches. But according to Israel’s crack team of security advisors this very fecundity “poses an imminent threat to Israeli security,” it’s shady patches a veritable breeding ground for a deadly terrorist ambush. They advise Israel to have the entire grove leveled. Israel is the Israeli Minister of Defense, and he does what he’s told.

So we’ve got a character who seems to represent, to a conspicuous degree, the state of Israel. His name, lest we fail to draw the parallel, is Israel. He’s well spoken, and possesses the confidence of a man accustomed to power, privilege and a sense of entitlement. We’ve got a patch of land that seems to represent, to a conspicuous degree, the people of Palestine. It’s modest but lovely, vulnerable yet resilient, and carries with it a deep personal history. Salma and her elderly assistant are hard-working paragons of proletariat integrity. Salma refuses to allow her trees to be destroyed, even when assured of compensation for her loss. She hires a lawyer named Ziad (Ali Suliman) whose practice barely survives off of whatever divorce suits he can scrounge up. Salma’s case seems hopeless, but her plight earns Ziad’s loyalty. It also appeals to the international media hungry for some fresh human interest to attach to the ongoing story of this fraught region. She takes it to the Supreme Court.

If all this seems rather too forceful an allegory, it’s also, happily, a somewhat misleading set-up. If you’ll pardon the pun, Eran Riklis’ Lemon Tree (Etz Limon) grows on you. While Riklis seems to be cultivating a simplistic spin on David and Goliath, this film’s real roots lie elsewhere. In fact, it’s far less pointedly about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than it is about the politics of gender and familial roles. Across that fence from Salma, residing in that shaded fortress is Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), Israel’s lovely wife. Though Mira sympathizes with Salma she never quite manages to do very much about the situation and the two women never quite manage to meet, yet, in some very basic ways that betray their obvious imbalance of power, they share more than either realizes.

Of course the story, written by Riklis and Suha Arraf, who collaborated previously on Riklis’ The Syrian Bride, is fundamentally about Salma, who finds no unconditional support from anyone save Ziad. Her few friends toss around a lot of blanket condemnations of the Israeli government, yet they neither condone her acceptance of compensation nor her fight to keep her land. When, following a scene of truly elegant and understated eroticism, we begin to sense a romance developing between Salma and her significantly younger lawyer, these same friends start coming round to warn her that her supposedly undignified behaviour won’t be tolerated.

Abbass, so moving in The Visitor, embodies Salma with such graceful transitions that her face, so beautiful and imperious, can seem to shift from hard and stoic to smooth and amorous while barely moving a muscle. Every time she applies or removes her headscarf, she conveys her decision with some intricate variation. Salma’s instincts and abilities register as maternal. As we watch her go about her routines, she seems built to tend soil, to prepare food and scrub floors, to graciously fulfill all the expectations of the narrow-minded patriarchy. Yet when the first signs of longing colour her cheeks it’s as though some dormant blood rushes through her. The effect is quietly exhilarating. Lemon Tree is thoughtful and engaging enough, but Abbass’ performance is uncommonly rich in specificity and feeling, and elevates the film to a whole other level.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

No signs of life: Angels & Demons

Symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is the Indiana Jones for lapsed Catholics and New Agers who buy their books at the airport, the redeemer for every suburban conspiracy theorist certain that the truth is out there if you just follow the signs sprinkled across the globe by the Elders. Langdon should probably be president, or at least running the space program, but he contents himself with his humble post at Harvard, patiently waiting for his petitions to inspect the Vatican archives to get approved.

Angels & Demons opens with a dead pope, some stolen secret antimatter on the verge of blowing up a substantial chunk of Rome, and the return of the Illuminati, still pissed off after succumbing to Vatican atrocities back in the 17th century and promising to murder the four favourites to assume the Papal throne in a matter sufficiently baroque to get Thomas Harris salivating. This is a job for Langdon, who finally gets his coveted tour of the Catholic classifieds and leads the mission to smoke out the bad guys with the help of a sexy Italian scientist (Ayelet Zurer). 

But who will help writers Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp adapt Dan Brown’s mega-selling sequel to his mega-selling The Da Vinci Code? Whether taken from the source material or their own doubtlessly numbed imaginations, the pair has spawned the most audaciously awkward—and seemingly endless—expository dialogue this side of Underworld: Evolutions, while fashioning Langdon into a formidable fountain of redundancies. And who will help Ron Howard, a director capable of rendering even giant explosions fantastically boring, who himself possesses an unholy knack for redundancy?

Brown’s tale is a genuine feat, a mind-bogglingly elaborate hybrid of fanciful imagination and inconsistent baloney, replete with a climactic reversal hoisted up via hysterically implausible detective work, such as Langdon and the Italian’s stumbling upon a surveillance video recording of the heavies helpfully explaining the nefarious plan, all of it ostensibly elevated into the realm of social commentary by constant discussions about the tensions between science and religion, including boilerplate arguments between extras about stem cell research. Howard and company lack any critical distance from Brown’s hokum, squeezing out this wearyingly overlong thriller, sleeping soundly with the knowledge that the books’ legion of fans will come regardless. “Faith is a gift I have yet to receive,” Langdon says in one of his more lucid moments. But who needs faith when you’ve got box office gold?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Space issues: Star Trek

“Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence,” so states a flustered Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) en route to the heavens in Star Trek. Yet while Bones’ assessment sounds right, those vacuous descriptives don’t really jive with the colossal spectacle of director J.J. Abrams’ film, a fully loaded throwback/re-conception of the beloved 1960s television series with the bountiful offspring. For two solid hours, darkness and silence are held at bay by explosions that dazzle and bellow in the galactic depths and heated debates between crewmembers that echo unnervingly throughout the starship Enterprise.

It starts with plenty of death and one conspicuous birth. I guess it can’t be helped when a lady goes into labour at the precise moment that her husband chooses to sacrifice himself for the survival of millions while under attack, but it sure leaves her son, one James T. Kirk, with a serious case of survivor’s guilt, which will manifest as arrogance self-destructive behaviour when he grows into a young man (Chris Pine). Meanwhile, another troublesome legacy brews when Vulcan dad meets human mom (Winona Ryder!), generating a half-breed burdened with finding the balance between paternal logic and maternal emotion. Baby Spock will grow into a seductively smart and ambitious young fellow (Zachary Quinto) who’ll serve as the perfect foil for the wild, undisciplined Kirk. These guys barely make it into space before unfathomable terror causes their antagonistic tendencies to flare up and only gradually settle into the collaboration necessary to save the universe from some ireful Romulans in possession of some red matter that makes black holes and kills off entire planets in the blink of an eye.

As I watched Star Trek with a capacity audience, I actually heard some people behind me hyperventilate, usually upon the first appearance of some familiar character with a new face. Full disclosure: I am not one of these people, but, breathing disruptions aside, I know there are millions of you out there and, presumably, unless you had to be hospitalized during the first ten minutes, you’ve all seen the movie by now. I can’t speak for Trekkies, but it seems to me that Abrams’ film, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, whom Abrams worked with on Alias, walks a pretty fine line between homage and camp. Pine and Quinto give engaging, original and fairly nuanced performances, even if Pine succumbs to his own version of Shatneresque excess on occasion. But a number of others work so arduously to invoke the mannerisms of the original cast that it feels like parody, an effect that’s heightened still further by some pretty one-dimensional villains.

This tension between reverence for the old Star Trek and the thirst for innovation is mirrored in an uncertain overall tone. With a plot that hinges on wildly implausible/poetic coincidences (just wait until you see how they manage to wrangle Leonard Nimoy into this thing), this Star Trek feels at times cut from the blunt stencils of ancient myth, yet at others it’s imbued with the clarity and psychology of a very modern, textured drama. I guess there was no way of avoiding any kind of Star Trek that wouldn't get tangled up in trying to be many things to many people. But whatever it is, this Star Trek is relentlessly entertaining, has sequences of striking beauty and otherworldly strangeness, and speaks to the sort of old-fashioned heroism rarely invoked with any conviction anymore.