Monday, April 26, 2010

Ride With the Devil: " bad bad luck can be"

Ride With the Devil (1999) was dumped into the marketplace over a decade ago with only the most meager fanfare, a magisterial Civil War epic featuring several young rising stars that was somehow immediately rendered little more than a footnote of strictly cult interest in the careers of director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus. All this despite the fact that this celebrated collaborative team had previously enjoyed enormous acclaim with Sense and Sensibility (95) and The Ice Storm (97), and would soon enjoy massive commercial success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (00). After hearing it praised every couple of years or so by the few people I knew who’d managed to see it, I finally experienced Ride With the Devil for myself last week, thanks to a fine new release from the Criterion Collection. The film’s neglect now seems even more astonishing to me, given that it is surely the equal of Lee and Schamus’ finest work. It is a rare Hollywood film that embraces both a broad canvas and rigorously iconoclastic approach to one of the great troubled subjects of US history. Photographed by Frederick Elmes, it’s beautiful in its bucolic visions yet largely eschews gloss and doesn’t linger unduly on the prettiness of its stars. Based on the novel Woe to Live On, by Daniel Woodrell, it holds moments of tenderness of an endearingly awkward sort, yet most of its key scenes revolve around acts of rampant savagery that recall the most brutal evocations of Cormac McCarthy. It is, of course, a western of sorts.

It begins, shrewdly enough, with a wedding, the calm before the storm. It initially seemed to me burdened with too much overtly ominous and exposition-laden dialogue, but this passage is brief, and after we’re settled in our seats we’re quickly shaken out of them once the central characters’ lives are swept up in their nation’s apocalyptic crisis. We meet two friends, Missouri boys who unthinkingly side with the secessionists, Jake “Dutchy” Roedel (Tobey Maguire), the teenage son of a German immigrant, and Jack Bull Charles (Skeet Ulrich), who’s a little older and at times needs to look after the less experienced Jake. Their friendship is mirrored by that of the aristocratic George Clyde (Simon Baker) and former slave Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), one of many black men who, for all kinds of reasons best not simplified, fought alongside those who were fighting to keep them enslaved. The story unfolds in such a way that it’s not obvious from the start who our real protagonists will be—Wright doesn’t even speak until 45 minutes in—a little narrative slight-of-hand that pays off brilliantly as we see the merciless vagaries of war wreak havoc on conventional heroic trajectories.

Residing far from the war’s hot points, these guys fight not as enlisted men but as guerillas, a point that serves to emphasize the chaos and meaningless violence that filled the margins of the Civil War’s official campaigns. The guerillas keep their hair long and wear broad-brimmed hats, looking like prototypes for Lynard Skynard. They fight only seasonally, hiding out over the winter, like animals, for fear that the tracks of their horses’ hooves will sabotage their strategies. They’re not organized like a regular army but are every bit as capable of atrocity, something made grotesquely clear in the films’ depeiction of the 1863 Lawrence Massacre, in which the guerillas, some of them already drunk, descend on the Kansas town at dawn, unannounced, to slaughter each and every man they find, sometimes while they lay wounded under the weeping figures of their wives. It’s the major turning point in
Ride With the Devil, not in the sense that our central characters become suddenly politically enlightened, but that the infernal inhumanity they bear witness to finally reaches a breaking point. Most of the people being killed, Jake observes, “are just a bunch of ordinary folks finding out just how bad bad luck can be.”

Jake might just be Maguire’s most interesting role, one that invites him to trust in the verity of his inherent, saucer-eyed innocence, rather than trying to comment on the part or ingratiate himself. Though he’s naturally good-humoured, Jake’s learning curve is tremendous and deeply pathetic. It’s a marvelous moment when toward the film’s end he had his haircut and is told by his impromptu barber (Tom Wilkinson) that he looks 21 again. Jake says, “I’m only 19.” His barber tells him, “You’ll never look 19.” There’s an amazing scene soon after that finds the virginal Jake about to make love to a beautiful woman. She repeatedly asks him if he’s ever had sex, but all he can answer, rather defensively, is that he’s killed 15 men. But the most affecting and elegantly wrought piece of acting in
Ride With the Devil is easily that of Wright, who never overplays the colossal irony of his role, but uses a little characteristic sway of the head or suspicious glance here and there to make his presence more than felt. Wright’s Holt is a character of vast complexity that needs to be at least partly left to our imagination, though there is a nicely measured scene that makes the core of his journey explicit, one in which he realizes that the most devastating moment in his adult life is also precisely the moment in which he begins to truly feel like a free man. It’s a quiet scene in a film of grand spectacle, yet it constitutes the film’s unforgettable emotional climax.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Prophet: visions of sheer survival

This one could also have been called
An Education, and if it were its title would have resonated with somewhat more bracing immediacy than its respectable yet less relevant fellow Oscar contender. A Prophet is a prison movie, and as such is inherently concerned with the acquisition of knowledge, codes, and hierarchies. 19-year-old Malik (Tahar Rahim) gets six years for assaulting an officer. An Arab in France with no family or resources, he begins his sentence with little more than the raggedy clothes on his back, a capacity for brawling, and a lot of fear, anger, and confusion. He fits in neither with the religiously observant Muslims nor the Arab-hating Corsicans, but it's the Corsicans who find use for him. He’ll quickly learn through a series of fumbling trails-by-fire to seduce, murder, take shit from his oppressors, and nurture secret plans for his own advancement. Just as importantly, he also learns to read, encouraged by the first man he kills, a fellow Arab named Rayib, who comes to haunt Malik’s waking dreams.

So part of this ambitious crime drama’s icy thrills come from our privileged ability to watch and listen while Malik is administers tough lessons. We aren’t necessarily encouraged to sympathize with Malik, and we certainly aren’t encouraged to pity him or shrug off his actions. Rahim gives a marvelous performance, a punk kid with a wispy moustache, alternately terrified and cocksure, stupidly reckless and suddenly wised-up, but he’s not what we typically call a magnetic presence, neither ingratiating nor glamorous nor obviously charismatic. What makes Rahim’s Malik so riveting is the honesty of the actor’s work and the complexity of character’s plight, which is thorny enough on a political, racial or religious level, yet finally grips us on a more basic, human one. The movie’s title is in fact the right one, mysterious in the best way, alluding perhaps to some trace of second-sight that might keep Malik alive, as well as to some vague sense that somewhere some unseen hand has already decided our fate for us.

A Prophet was directed by Jacques Audiard, whose previous work includes The Beat My Heart Skipped, an imaginative remake of James Toback’s cult film Fingers, and Read My Lips, a superb neo-Hitchcockian thriller. He wrote the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain, based on an original script by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit, and the result feels busy yet seamless. The movie pounces sometimes like a vicious feline, staying close to its troubled protagonist, at others it comes to a halt to allow us to absorb the gravity of its violence, which is in some strange way a portrait of a new Europe.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"You feed off other peoples emotions and they don't even realize it!": Chloë Moretz on Kick-Ass

When I meet with Chloë Moretz at Maple Pictures’ room in Toronto's Park Hyatt, she immediately jumps on the bed and performs a back-flip. When I start my tape recorder she throws down some human beat-box into the microphone. When I ask her about what sort of training she did to prepare for her role as the murderous, foul-mouthed, 11-year-old costumed vigilante Mindy Macready, alias Hit-Girl, in the movie
Kick-Ass, she launches into a mechanically detailed explanation of the differences between real guns and movie guns—Chloë Moretz knows more about guns than anyone I’ve ever met. She recently turned 13, is a girl of multiple talents and abundant energy, and has already assmebled a resume that includes supporting roles on the shows Desperate Housewives and Dirty Sexy Money, and in movies such as (500) Days of Summer and the remake of The Amityville Horror. She recently wrapped a remake of Let the Right One In, the title compressed for the attention-impaired to Let Me In, in which she plays the androgynous pubescent vampire.

JB: What initially got you excited about

Chloë Moretz: When I first read
Kick-Ass it was, like, I had to be Hit-Girl. It was a role that was challenging, unique and breathtaking.

JB: The role has you doing some pretty horrific things to other people. Did that ever make you uncomfortable?

CM: I wouldn’t be doing the movie if it made uncomfortable. I wouldn’t even participate in it.

JB: There was never a moment when you suddenly thought, “Whoa, I’m playing a sadistic psychopath”?

CM: I definitely wouldn’t call her a psychopath. She’s an innocent girl that got brainwashed. It’s something she can’t really control. She thinks she’s in a John Woo movie.

JB: Speaking of John Woo, how cool was it to have Nicolas Cage be your dad?

CM: Working with an amazing, excellent, very trained professional ups your game. It makes you a better actor to be able to feed off someone else’s emotions. It’s much like interviews, where if I have a very hyper person who’s happy I’ll be more energetic, where I have someone more laid-back who just wants the facts, I’ll still be energetic but not over-the-top.

JB: You minimize the back-flips.

CM: Exactly. You feed off other people’s emotions and people don’t even realize it!

JB: Could you describe your first meeting with Cage?

CM: It was in some country villa outside London. Matthew, the director, was looking at a bunch of different guns and knives and stuff to figure out what Hit-Girl should use. Then Matthew asked, “Chloë, what do you want?” I picked one I thought was dainty, but not heavy metal. It was this Glock, a Special Ops gun. It helped me figure out that my character’s the kind of girl that knows what she wants, and gets what she wants. Then I met Nicolas Cage and talked about the role.

JB: Did Cage suggest anything that might have changed your approach?

CM: I told him who I wanted Hit-Girl to be and he thought it was very interesting. We talked about his character and he told me he was going to do an Adam West-type thing. He already knew all the lines in his head, and I knew all my lines, so we started to do a scene. He did it in his Big Daddy voice, and from then on I knew it was going to be a fantastic movie.

JB: For an 11-year-old, Mindy comes with a lot of heavy emotional baggage. Her dad’s an ex-con. Her mother died giving birth to her. Did you feel like you had to imbue your character with all this?

CM: In the end scene, when I have my guns up beside my face, if you look in my eyes you can see that I’m terrified and guilty. I’m like, “I’ve got to do this, because I’m finishing what my dad started.” I’m praying that Kick-Ass will come for me, because if Kick-Ass isn’t there, I don’t know what to do. But he saves me in the end and it all works out. So I tried to embrace the whole dad aspect and the mom dying.

JB: I understand you did a lot of training. Is it true you can assemble a rifle?

CM: I can take apart a gun and put it back together—but don’t test me on that.

JB: I actually don’t have any firearms on me.

CM: I had to be able to do it with my eyes closed. That’s how they train marines!

JB: Wow! Had you ever used or even seen guns before?

CM: I shot at the range with my dad when I was younger. He wanted me to know how it feels to shoot a gun, to not be afraid of it, but to know it’s a lethal weapon. To know that if anyone comes to the house and no one’s there, I need to know how to protect myself.

JB: That’s really interesting, because in a sense you’d already experienced with your real father some version of the father-daughter relationship Mindy has in

CM: Exactly.

JB: You’ve been acting for a long time. Is it fun? Does it feel like work?

CM: The minute it becomes work is the minute I’m quitting. When I’m on set and I’m acting, it brings me joy.

JB: Do you imagine ever pursuing other interests?

CM: I still do ballet and gymnastics, and hang out with my friends all the time. If my acting career doesn’t work out I want to be a pilot. Even if my acting career
does work out I still want to be a pilot, so I can fly airplanes and act at the same time. Maybe act while flying airplanes.

Super-fluous: Kick-Ass

Teenager Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) tires of bribing bullies, lusting after babes who ignore him, and jerking off over
National Geographic, so he buys a diving suit online and becomes a superhero. He gets his ass kicked, which only makes him tougher, but he still lacks the skills to take on serious scumbags, so Dave, alias Kick-Ass, joins forces with Damon Macready, alias Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), an ex-cop and ex-con hell-bent on exacting revenge on a local crime lord for ruining his life, and Mindy Macready, alias Hit-Girl (Chloë Moretz), Damon’s adorable 11-year-old daughter. We first meet this curious pair when Big Daddy is firing a round into his darling child's chest (she's wearing a vest) in some abandoned lot. Both are highly trained, armed to the teeth, and eager to slaughter.

The thing about
Kick-Ass, adapted from Mark Millar’s comic, is that it presents itself as irreverent, quirky, and iconoclastic, the story of an ordinary goofy youth who hurls himself absurdly and recklessly into harm’s way. But the promise of not-another-superhero movie is thwarted by an over-stuffed plot that’s finally exactly like every other superhero movie, complete with extra-gory spectacle, fantastic technology, multiple deus ex machinas, and that final bit where the surviving villain vows to return, offering abundant franchise investments. Kick-Ass is supremely conservative in both senses, falling in line with genre clichés and oozing ultra-right wing vigilante revenge fantasy.

Kick-Ass were more adolescent comedy and less bloated actioner it might have distinguished itself. Dave’s relationship with a girl who only becomes his friend because she thinks he’s gay could have been developed into something fun and insightful. The movie succeeds more with the smaller items than the grandiose ones, with imaginative little details like the duct-taped busted window at the school entrance, the dorky dinosaur stickers on Dave’s full-length mirror, or the poster announcing a band called Frantic Yogurt. However, the use of Toronto as a stand-in for New York reaches unintentionally hilarious heights of implausibility, with glimpses of Tim Horton’s and Country Style and umpteen car shots where our hero simply drives up and down Yonge Street past Dundas Square and the big HMV over and over. I’m surprised they managed to keep the CN Tower out of the establishing shots.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Buxom, blonde, and dangerous to know: Cleo Moore and Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2 on DVD

Cleo Moore was born on Halloween, 1928 in Baton Rouge. At 15 she was briefly married to Huey Long’s youngest son, and had very likely already assumed the sort of undulating corporeal proportions that can make a guy break down and weep. She would eventually set records for the longest filmed kiss on live television, run for governor of Louisiana, and enter the world of real estate before dying of a heart attack at the age of 44. But in the 1950s she was a star of sorts, the muse of eccentric Czech-born auteur Hugo Haas, slated at one point to star in a bio-pic of Jean Harlow, though I knew her only for her memorable cameo in Nicholas Ray’s
On Dangerous Ground (1952). If we shave off just one of its four titles, the recently released Bad Girls of Film Noir, Vol. 2 could just as easily be titled The Cleo Moore Signature Collection. The two-disc set serves as an introduction to a minor but nonetheless interesting career, one that speaks volumes about the role of women in postwar America.

The girls in these titles tend to not be all that bad, and the films certainly not all that noir. Too transparent for manipulation, Moore didn’t play the femme fatale. At the start of Haas’
One Girl’s Confession (53), Moore’s waitress steals $25,000 from her scumbag employer, hides it, and thereafter turns herself in. She becomes a model prisoner, and upon early release goes back to where she came from and, too deeply paranoid about people spying on her to recover her stash, takes another gig slinging drinks for a swarthy, lecherous gambler, played with terrific zest by Haas himself, who becomes chastely enamored with Moore, even after she nearly kills him. This strange tale of feminine self-reliance and the perils of coveting dirty money is highlighted by pleasingly bizarre plot twists and Haas’ distinctive use of close-ups. It’s a bit disappointing when Moore winds up content to be romanced by a horny fisherman, but in her private thoughts, conveyed through dreamy voice-over, she confesses that she’s genuinely drawn to him. He has clean fingernails, she thinks. “From all that salt water, I guess.”

“Caged men are separated only by a thick wall—from caged
women. The system is wrong…” So goes the over-heated opening narration of Women’s Prison (55), directed by Lewis Seiler from a script by Jack DeWitt and Crane Wilbur, and the mother of all babes-behind-bars movies. It’s an ensemble piece, and Moore has a smaller role here, co-starring with none other than Ida Lupino, who plays the stylish and sadistic supervisor of the female half of the penitentiary where all the action takes place, as well as Jan Sterling, who starred with Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole (51), and Audrey Totter, veteran of several key noirs, such as Lady in the Lake (47), The Set-Up (49) and Tension (49). Despite Lupino’s prestige, Women’s Prison is about as trashy as you’d expect, given the period and the studio gloss, with hysterical inmates, saucy wisecracks, and a tawdry secret rendezvous, though there's little to suggest the subgenre’s token lesbianism. It’s perhaps a little fantastic that virtually all the women seem to do their time together in perfect harmony, exuding solidarity, but the pay-off comes when they organize to take over the joint with only a couple of knives and some ingenuity, and can only be suppressed by rifles, gas and the promise of revenge on Lupino.

Over-Exposed (56) begins when Moore’s snared in a police raid of a bar frequented by prostitutes and is ordered to leave town. She doesn’t, and instead is taken under the wing of a kindly old tippling photographer with a cat who runs in slow-motion. She learns the trade and adopts a new identity, trading in Lily Krenshka for Lila Crane—a name which would assume very different connotations only a few years later when given to Janet Leigh’s sister in Psycho (60). She moves to New York, rises in the ranks of society and becomes a famous portraitist, at one point a guest on this bizarre television program where the host phones her celebrity guests at their homes instead of bringing them on the show. Her ambition is soured by greed and a growing distrust of everyone around her. The mafia connections responsible for her social position prove to be her undoing, but as hubristic as Moore’s heroine may be its immensely frustrating when the movie ends with her succumbing to the drab, condescending, paternal affections of journalist/conscience Richard Crenna, who would one day become Rambo’s father figure, and the film’s latent feminism nose-dives with the realization that no woman in her right mind would choose a career over becoming an obedient spouse. Over-Exposed would be Moore’s second-last credit, and even if she never quite embodied the truly independent bombshell in the movies, she seems to have made considerable strides over the remainder of her too-short life.

The sole non-Moore title in
Bad Girls, Vol. 2, which also lacks a female protagonist, is Night Editor (46), part of an unrealized franchise of wee-hour tales told by a big city newsman. A married cop witnesses a banker beat a woman’s brains in with a stick while trysting in some tall grass with the glamorous, wealthy, and equally married Janis Carter, excellent as the poisonous other woman. Some great location work and weird details, such as the old ethnic cop who habitually downs four glasses of buttermilk in a row, bring some flavour to an otherwise moralistic but entertaining thriller.

Friday, April 9, 2010

When You're Strange: Waiting for the substance

Death was both the best and worst thing that Jim Morrison ever did to the Doors. His demise at 27 in a Parisian bathtub felt like some morbidly natural conclusion to a wildly dynamic narrative sparked on Venice beach only six years earlier, when Morrison first met and wooed keyboardist Ray Manzarek with the words to ‘Moonlight Drive.’ It also confined this band’s singular blend of baroque psychodrama and bluesy swagger to a time capsule and completed the total eclipse of the singer’s enigma over the richer, more intricate designs of the music to which he made such a vital, yet nonetheless only partial, contribution.

To ensure history that the Doors were so much more than just another ’60s psychedelic freak show, as well as more than just Jim Morrison, forms the ostensible raison d’être of Tom DiCillo’s
When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors. Yet this deeply orthodox rock-doc nearly sabotages itself with narration—voiced by Johnny Depp—riddled with token generalizations about youth culture ideology, and numerous montages that seemingly go out of their way to forever link the Doors’ music exclusively with the greatest hits of the period’s headlines, however incongruous, such the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Setting ‘Riders on the Storm’ to a series of clips of atrocities in Vietnam at once domesticates images that should never be treated lightly and severely limits the more mysterious and evocative qualities of that spectral late career hit.

I said the film
nearly sabotages itself. What helps to rescue it from merely trading in tired clichés are the often mesmerizing performance clips, both on stage and in studio, that finds a quartet of musicians highly sensitizes to each other’s nuances, and, perhaps ironically, the leather-panted Lizard King himself. Archival footage, some never before seen, of Morrison as a teenager or some of the more off-the-cuff, backstage bits help to penetrate the Morrison mystique, which always threatened to drape the band in pretentiousness. Some of the more extensive clips allow us to glimpse a young, confused, awkwardly shy, gorgeous alcoholic, one given to faux inarticulateness and affected rowdiness, one always negotiating the conflicting impulses that prevented him from fully giving himself either to forging a larger, more demanding musical project or retreating into poetry and quietude. The Morrison we see, especially when still relatively untainted by celebrity, is at times genuinely spontaneous, deliciously mischievous, a man-child with an infectious grin and undiagnosed behavioral issues that when harnessed could yield some truly inspired performances, lyrics, and, yes, stunts.

A hard-working filmmaker who, having shot Jim Jarmusch’s early features, emerged from the 1980s independent scene to make cult films like Johnny Suede and Living in Oblivion, it’s not obvious what led to DiCillo’s helming of When You’re Strange, or to his pedestrian approach. The absence of talking head interviews with the surviving Doors or any other form of fresh commentary might seem like a virtue or some sort of rigour, an attempt to immerse us in the era. But I couldn’t help but gradually start to miss something else to balance this approach, something, again, to make the Doors about more than the 1960s, to offer something fresh about this band that for all its excesses deserves some serious reconsideration. Thankfully, the best documents of what the Doors were all about are still readily available—they’re called records.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Infernal affairs: L'Enfer d'Henri-Georges Clouzot

Henri-Georges Clouzot with Romy Schneider on the set of L'Enfer

Henri-Georges Clouzot had endured dismissal from the German film industry for his Jewish associations, dismissal from the French film industry for his Nazi associations, and a bout of tuberculosis between. Upon resuming filmmaking in 1947 he directed some of the greatest French films of the postwar era, such as
The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. The latter was adapted from Boileau-Narcejac’s novel, a property hotly desired by Alfred Hitchcock, who would come to greatly admire Clouzot’s realization.

The Clouzot-Hitchcock connection is curious. Both specialized in nerve-rattling thrillers permeated with nastiness and mental instability. Both were exacting in their craft, famed for their meticulous storyboards, which were followed with such precision that Hitchcock had suggested only half-jokingly that he needn’t show up on set. But the influential critics who would soon become France’s leading filmmakers ostracized Clouzot as resolutely as they revered Hitchcock, and by the end of the ’50s Clouzot might have felt his own relevance slipping away under the force of the New Wave. He sought to refurbish his art, was immensely taken with the formal and erotic innovations in Fellini’s
8 1/2, and set out to create a film that would plumb his own anxieties. L’Enfer would demolish Clouzot’s reputation as an antique. It would be a story of sexual obsession, a radically subjective descent into the debilitating jealousy felt by a less-than-attractive older provincial hotel manager (Serge Reggiani) toward his luscious younger wife (Romy Schneider). But it fell into the familiar trap: too much money, too much ego, and a virtual absence of anyone who might challenge the director’s authority. L’Enfer was never completed, though a tremendous amount of material was shot, not enough for a reconstruction, but more than enough to create a documentary about the project’s development and catastrophic collapse.

Directed by Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea,
L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot uses interviews with Clouzot’s associates and collaborators and workshop performances of scenes never filmed to provide context and flesh out Clouzot’s narrative respectively. Yet nothing in this making-of-a-movie-never-made is half as compelling as watching Clouzot’s archival footage set against Gilbert Amy’s alternately brooding and abstract acoustic-electro score. Clouzot dug out everything save the kitchen sink to assemble a stockade of poppy, kaleidoscopic images, grotesque distortions, colour manipulations, and cock-teasing shots of Schneider, scantily clad or even naked, water skiing or suggestively smoking cigarettes. One image shows her tied to train tracks, breasts heaving in fear, as a charging locomotive approaches. Whether this material could have amounted to more than an assembly of fascinating, arousing and well made, if dated, imagery is difficult to determine, but as the promise of something lost it’s utterly seductive.

L’Enfer d’Henri-Georges Clouzot is otherwise sturdy but pedestrian, something we can be grateful for having even if it isn’t exactly great in itself. Even on the level of providing pertinent historical facts it’s a little light, with an abrupt ending that gives little sense of the production’s aftermath, and no mention whatsoever of the 1994 Claude Chabrol film made from Clouzot’s script. There certainly isn’t any insight into what might have saved L’Enfer, even of the most fanciful sort. My dream version of the film? A complete re-shoot in which Reggiani is replaced by Clouzot himself, puffing away on his pipe, trapped in the sun-soaked erotic nightmare he himself created.