Monday, November 29, 2010

That old-time religion, spectral, beautiful, spooky, everlasting: The Night of the Hunter

On the knuckles of one hand is the word LOVE, on the other, HATE, and let’s just say the former’s there mostly for show. Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a charismatic psychopath, likes to employ these stark tattoos to recount an inane little religious parable about the war between our better and lesser selves, the whole thing wrapping up in a triumphant wrestling hold and a slack facial expression that presumes his listeners rapture. There’s a scene where a boy tells his sister a bedtime story, and another where an old woman narrates the discovery of the baby Moses for a gaggle of children. People sing each other songs and tell each other tales throughout
The Night of the Hunter (1955), which is itself balanced on the frontier of rural noir and horrific fairy tale, though we might well just call it Southern Gothic. The only movie ever directed by the great actor Charles Laughton and one of only two ever written by the great critic James Agee, this resides in its own category, a peculiar, and tremendously beautiful work that has a nagging tendency to stick in the minds of all who see it. It’s available now on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

John (Billy Chaplin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) watch as the cops come for Ben (Peter Graves), their father, soon after sentenced to death for robbery and murder. Ben spends his last days sharing a cell with Harry Powell, and after Ben’s execution Harry’s left haunted by the question as to where Ben hid the stolen cash. Upon release, Harry finds, weds, and ultimately disposes of Ben’s all-too naïve widow Willa, played, with a little too much theatre, by Shelley Winters, in a role that very much anticipates her unlucky widow in
Lolita (62). “My body’s just a-quivering with cleanliness,” she exclaims at one point. She longs for new baptism and in some macabre sense finds it at the bottom of the same river where Ben was said to have installed his treasure. The image of Willa below the water’s surface, seated behind the wheel of a Model T, her hair flowing behind her in chorus with the weeds, a spectral tableau of death photographed by Stanley Cortez.

That image is more haunting for the absence of underscoring, its near-silence finally broken only by Harry singing ‘Leaning on the Everlasting Arms’ unaccompanied, the same song he’ll later sing in a wonderfully unlikely duet with Lillian Gish’s tough, shotgun-wielding foster mother and fierce child protectress while he encircles her house in the dead of night. The resistance to over-cook such moments with obviously portentous music or framing is emblematic of
Night of the Hunter’s exquisite elegance. There’s a scene where Pearl makes paper dolls with some of the secreted bills and a handful of them are blown by a night breeze right past Harry’s feet without his noticing. Laughton knew when he’d cast his spell. You’ll say it’s a shame that Laughton never directed again, yet when someone does it so perfectly once perhaps that’s enough.

Mitchum, usually the essence of cool anyway, likewise never winks at us, largely keeping his focus singular and Satanic, only to suddenly transform into an animalistic fiend, almost cartoon-like, in two key moments. His Harry is a very American sort of false Messiah, a chastising, sexually repressed misogynist convinced he holds private conference with God, with whom he’s worked out his own personal moral order. This arrangement grants him complete license in pursuit of his goal, and so he follows those kids relentlessly as they make their way slowly down-river on a skiff, overlooked by turtle, owl, toad, fox, sheep and rabbits, storybook emissaries. Harry’s in no hurry. I’m not even sure he really wants the money. He’s convinced of his right to some strange and bloody destiny and follows it without pause for remorse, ambling along by horse or by car, taking what he needs, exterminating whatever blocks his path on his way to glory—and right into the highest niches of cinema history.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Mysteries of performance: John Cazale and Thierry Guerra grace a pair of must-see DVDs

He always seemed tormented, but what set his performances apart were his painstaking efforts to
hide that torment. With those alternately dewy and reptilian eyes peering out from below a looming forehead covered by a sheath of skin so thin as to make its contents look unnervingly susceptible to direct sun or strong winds, John Cazale probably wasn’t anybody’s handsome, but given time he surely would have found the leading roles he desrved. Take a look at the younger actors lining up to sing his praises in Richard Shepard’s I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Rockwell, and of course Steve Buscemi, who’s obviously closest to some kind of cinematic heir. You can tell a lot about Cazale by the actors who still revere him more than 30 years after his untimely death at 42. They include not just the talents listed above, but also Meryl Streep, who met him when they did Measure For Measure in the Park, quickly fell in love, and stood by him through his losing fight with cancer, as well as Al Pacino, who looked up to him as a thespian, let him steal a few scenes in their movies together, and who says for Shepard’s camera, “I think I learned more about acting from John than anyone.”

You might not recognize the name, but if you don’t know that face you either weren’t watching movies in the 1970s or haven’t yet caught up with that magnificent decade and its “New” Hollywood. The oft-cited factoid about Cazale is that he was only in five movies, but every one of them was nominated for Best Picture. Now, maybe that means something and maybe it doesn’t, but whether adding texture to the already claustrophobic world closing in on Gene Hackman in The Conversation (1974), or having the world close in on him via a fraternal stranglehold in Godfather II (74), Cazale left unforgettable traces of pathos, desperation and endearingly awkward acts of ingratiation in his wake—qualities not so different from some of those we attribute to Warren Oates, another great, though very different sort of character actor who had a much longer run than Cazale, but who I bring up because he also had a mid-length documentary made about him called Warren Oates: Across the Border (93) that, like I Knew It Was You, is a pretty standard sort of made-for-TV profile yet is elevated by its inspired choice of subject and the genuine affection bestowed upon him. I Knew It Was You, now available on DVD from Oscilloscope, is worth seeking out as an introduction to Cazale or a friendly reminder of what he achieved in such a short period. Among its supplements is an extended interview with Pacino that’s both enlightening and very touching.

Another documentary profile (maybe) of an artist (maybe) on the margins of the mainstream,
Exit Through the Gift Shop is also out on DVD from Mongrel, and if you didn’t catch it during its theatrical run last spring, do yourself a favour. Attributed to Banksy, the mysterious English street artist who rose from standard tags to audacious pranks of wry social commentary to six-figure sales at Sotheby’s, the film’s about a guy named Thierry Guetta who ostensibly wanted to make a film about Banksy, but through a combination of incompetence and colossal enthusiasm became instead the subject of Banksy’s crazy, clever, and very, very funny work.

Thierry is a 21st century variation on the obsessive-compulsive image archivist we find in the stories of Italo Calvino and Javier Marías, or in
Camera Buff (79), the brilliant early feature from Krzysztof Kieslowski. Once Thierry gets hold of a video camera he can’t stop shooting for fear he might miss something—a foolproof way of missing out on an entire life. After Thierry logs countless hours of street art in action, and gains the trust of the ruthlessly camera-shy Banksy, he finally churns out a virtually unwatchable documentary about the whole movement that seems to take its designs from Lou Reed’s legendary noise manifesto Metal Machine Music (75), though without the sense of purpose. (Truth is, I kind of like Metal Machine Music.) Banksy, basically as a way to get of him and re-work the footage on his own, talks Thierry into trying his hand at street art instead, and while Thierry seems hardly better with this new medium, his concept-free, wildly appropriative pop art becomes a smash. It’s been pointed out that Thierry’s entire story might be complete bullshit. All I know is, whatever the facts are, the absurdly inarticulate but relentlessly game Thierry gives what’s easily among the funniest performances of the year.

Exit Through the Gift Shop’s coolest extra is probably the postcards and stickers in its sleeve, but there’s also a pretty good short about Banksy that more straightforwardly describes his progress as an artist. It features glowing appraisals from not only the late actor and collector Dennis Hopper, but also art world superstar Damien Hirst. But, just so you don’t get your hopes up, you still don’t get to see Banksy’s face.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tamara Drewe: Vaguely feminist farmland farce hardly Hardy but not half-bad either

Based on Posey Simmonds’ graphic novel, itself a clever, loose adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s
Far From the Maddening Crowd, Tamara Drewe is set largely in and around a rural Dorset writer’s colony, where a celebrated mystery novelist’s under-loved helpmeet (Tamsin Grieg) serves nummy snacks in dowdy turtlenecks, functions as an unacknowledged editor of sorts to her numerous and apparently mostly talentless residents, attempts to tolerate her husband’s philandering, and gradually kens on to the fact that the shlubby American Hardy scholar (Bill Camp) who keeps coming back to massage his writer’s block is probably falling hopelessly in love with her.

This is a rather sprawling ensemble comedy, so that’s not even the half of what’s going on in Moira Buffini’s adaptation—I haven’t yet introduced the titular character, who isn’t exactly the heroine of the piece but, most pleasingly embodied by Gemma Arterton, is quite obviously its star, a successful young journalist returning to her country home after years away with a new nose and a body to keep the cocks crowing night and day, making her grand appearance in ass-exposing cut-offs and a five-alarm red tank-top. Before we’re through she’ll have wittingly or unwittingly seduced a pretentious London rocker (Dominic Cooper), an even more pretentious middle-aged scribe (Roger Allam), and the local ex-con farm hunk (Luke Evans, sort of a less crazed-looking Michael Shannon) who opens the film shirtless and sweating against the setting sun in a tableau that could grace the cover of any six-dozen Harlequin Romances.

All this business—there’s still the mischievous teenage chorus to work in!—makes for a precarious balancing act. The multiple narratives are well-structured enough to keep us oriented, but from the get-go the overall tone slips into a decidedly broad brand of British comedy, replete with pissing cows and one guy eavesdropping while dropping a log, and Buffini’s dialogue is at times so on the nose—“She doesn’t need a writer; she needs a man!”—it’s nearly comical during those rare scenes that seem designed to be otherwise. The landscapes meanwhile are lovely, the story’s divided into seasons, and the occasional glimpse of London makes the big city seem dreary even for the rich. Director Stephen Frears seems at his best here when nurturing connections between his largely superb cast, as well as when emphasizing the script’s loving homage to bucolic life and sexually empowered women and its barely contained disdain for artsy retreats and emotionally immature men. Having said that, if a couple of the guys were more interesting, it may have elevated the film as a whole.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Next Three Days: Breaking out is hard to do

Following a bafflingly superfluous teaser prelude, the first scene proper features two handsome couples of apparent privilege seated round a table in a nice Pittsburgh restaurant, getting into a heated—which is to say overcooked—debate about gender roles in the workplace. So, ostensibly serious theme now slapped down on the table, we already know we’re in a Paul Haggis movie, even if the theme’s not entirely obvious relevance to our story seems a surprisingly loose opener for the
Crash (2004) writer/director’s typically hyperactive dramaturgy. What this scene tells us is that Lara Brennan’s a woman worth going the limit for, one both smart and amorous—her public cat fight gets her so aroused she leaps upon her husband as soon as they get to their car. Of course, her husband is Russell Crowe.

The following morning Lara finds blood on her coat. Four seconds later cops burst in and arrest her for a murder we just sort of presume she didn’t commit. Before you know it, Lara’s behind bars and all out of appeals, sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of avoiding a very bad dye job. Now desperately spouseless and stuck with a morose six year old to raise alone, John Brennan’s only recourse is bust Lara out. He teaches literature at a community college, so there’s a scene where he lectures on
Don Quixote, in case we didn’t catch on to the fact that he’s about a hatch a plan that’s positively quixotic!

The title of
The Next Three Days reads like a fleet thriller, but it actually needs to cover about three years worth of story before those three days arise. That’s a lot to burn through, and the perhaps inevitable result is that each of its central characters, Lara and the little boy most especially, never emerge as anything more than ciphers, mere props in a complicated plot. This isn’t such a bad thing if the focus were to stay firmly on the action, but Haggis, working from a 2008 French movie called Pour elle, has to have it both ways, so we get scenes like the one where we first see John visit Lara in prison. I’m guessing that Haggis wanted to use the scene to strengthen our sense of the couple’s intimacy and John’s fathomless devotion—there’s not much of a movie here without it—yet their every exchange is almost comical in its slavishness to exposition. What we get is somberness without the satisfaction of emotional depth. What we get is a waste of Brian Dennehy in umpteen scenes where he does nothing but gaze portentously. The other thing we get is a thriller that’s 133 minutes long.

There’s a nice cameo from Liam Neeson and some clever twists. Things are most interesting when John’s forced to descend into Pittsburgh’s underworld to collect the necessary illegal items on his conscientious prison-break check list. He has dangerous run-ins with RZA, a deaf pessimist, and some really nasty dudes in a meth lab whose lives we’re to regard as expendable if their termination should facilitate Lara’s liberation. You sometimes wonder if there couldn’t be something in John’s totally insane adventure that might be fun, but that would be in the Tony Scott version, and we already got a new one from him last weekend.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nice work if you can get it: Modern Times

Charlie Chaplin had brought a burgeoning sensitivity to the myriad social problems proliferating out from the Depression to
Modern Times (1936). Industrial alienation, police brutality, citizens reduced to crime by hunger, hostility toward labour unions and petty micromanagement were all worked deep into the film’s fabric through a chain of brilliant comic sequences that endure all the more for their indifference to ideology. One of the most memorable ones features Chaplin’s Tramp, leading a parade of protesting workers demanding unionization, touting a red flag no less, and doing so completely unknowingly—he was just trying to flag down a truck.

Modern Times is not the story of a worker who discovers politics but a worker who discovers that he’s, like so many others, unemployed and hungry. So often he just wants to eat, something anyone can understand without the slightest bit of social context—that’s why this is a terrific film for kids. Of course this particular worker is also afflicted with a condition that compels him to wreak a little havoc everywhere he goes, especially in the places least appropriate, the ones where explosively tempered authority figures loom. This affliction takes its toll on the Tramp. Chaplin had heard about farm boys who’d been sent to work on Ford assembly lines and quickly succumbed to nervous breakdowns. Following the opening sequences that find the Tramp getting literally consumed by a colossal machine and having his body so consumed with repeating the same nut-tightening gesture in rapid succession that he can’t stop running around with his wrench trying to screw everything in sight (insert Chaplin-as-pussy-hound joke here), the Tramp himself collapses into nervous breakdown and is dismissed.

But what I found so arresting in my latest viewing of Modern Times—now available on gorgeously rendered and heavily supplemented DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion—was the entrance of the film’s other central character sometime after the Tramp’s hospitalization. The young woman referred to only as the Gamine is first seen cutting and tossing bananas from a cargo ship to some raggedy children on the docks, doing so with a zest that’s positively deranged, not to mention undeniably sexy (and perhaps looks forward to the work of Christina Ricci). It’s a stunning entrance, and the camera favours her as it does no one else in the film. This Gamine, who seems game for anything, will come to play a dynamic role in the Tramp’s recovery, though their attempts at upward mobility are always endearingly absurd. She’s played by Paulette Goddard, and it comes as no surprise to learn that Chaplin’s discovery of her as a budding actress, a respected collaborator, and a lover, was the other key element in the conception and execution of Modern Times.

Unsurprising too, that Chaplin couldn’t bear to use his original ending in which the Gamine entered a convent, leaving the Tramp to walk that final dusty stretch of road alone. The image of Chaplin walking away, with Goddard at his side, would be the last we’d ever see of the Tramp, closing the last (largely) silent film from this master filmmaker, which, despite the film’s title, was made nearly ten years after the introduction of sound, yet remains as timeless today as anything the movies have offered us.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Original of Laura: pieces of a man

“Only by identifying her with an unwritten, half-written, rewritten difficult book could one hope to render at last what contemporary descriptions of intercourse so seldom convey…”
—from The Original of Laura

Its weight in your hands approximates that of someone’s remains. It contains the unfinished work of a dying man mediating on physical things, so there’s plenty of sex and a sense of proximity to death all the more unnerving for its relentless playfulness. It’s one of these posthumously published puzzles pulled from the fire, but to my nose smells nothing like literary betrayal nor crass cash-in. Take a look at its thick, largely blank pages: no one could mistake this for anything other than what it is: an art object; an homage; a glorious sketch. It leaves us wanting more, as it should. This “novel in fragments” doesn’t even hold all the fragments necessary to make a whole book—not even a third, I’d guess. But what remains of its narrative ambitions is also something about fragments, about the body as Death’s construction site, or rather demolition zone, a place where fragments of a person can be stolen or actually willed away, piece by piece, in this case from the feet up. There’s another title, not on the jacket but inside: Dying is Fun. I’m not sure if I buy this assertion, but if anyone could transform such irony into articulated desire it would’ve been Vladimir Nabokov.

I stalled an awfully long time on reading
The Original of Laura (Knopf, $42), feeling that perhaps I should wait until I’ve read everything else by Nabokov—still working on that one!—uncertain as to how this artifact should be approached. The book came out one year ago and I’m only now finally reporting on it, feeling silly for my trepidation. It’s actually a pretty fun, fascinating read, and the context provided by the packaging and introduction is all the context anyone needs. It can’t be stated too clearly that this represents the roughest of, well, not even something we can call a draft, from an author whose prose is famous for its shining eloquence. But, as with say, the Bootleg Series recordings of Bob Dylan, this roughness, this exposure of process, is partly what’s so interesting to examine.

“Learning to use the vigor of the body for the purpose of its own deletion,” an wealthy, elderly, fat man considers science, writing, and his slow disappearance, as well as his longing for the young woman whose name rhymes with the one in the title. Flora recalls Margot from
Laughter in the Dark and, quite obviously, the eponymous nymph of Lolita—she’s even molested as a child by an older man named Hubert H. Hubert. Her backstory is arguably the book’s most coherent section, and includes a suicide recorded on camera and a fatal stroke occurring in an elevator: “Going up, one would like to surmise.” The Original of Laura was the project undertaken by Nabokov during his final, sickly years in Montreux. It was clearly far from completion when he died in 1977, though his son Dmitri offers what seems to me a perfectly convincing case for its survival and publication in his painstakingly Nabakovian introduction, which possesses the faintest echo of Pale Fire, and in its concern with correcting legacy invokes The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.

Designed by Chip Kidd, the cover emphasizes themes of disintegration and absence, with words fading to black before their termination. Nabokov’s text itself appears as facsimiles of the index cars upon which the author composed his works, the edges of which perforated, encouraging consumers to punch them out and perhaps rearrange them in some new order, though, jarring as many of the transitions may be, it’s hard to imagine an arrangement more satisfying than the one presented here.
The Original of Laura is fractured and elliptical, a mere hint at something that might have been, peppered with sparks of the old brilliance in search of their final form, mischievously sculpted to make it almost seem intentional, and in precisely this way it’s kind of perfect.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Inside Job: Wall Street Blues

Perhaps it takes one to know one when we’re talking about buckets of money. Charles Ferguson made a bundle selling Vermeer Technologies to Microsoft in the mid-90s, and thereafter opted for research, writing, entrepreneurship, and finally filmmaking, over expanding his yacht collection or trying his hand at arms manufacturing. He last gave us the highly valuable
No End in Sight: The American Occupation of Iraq, but I think Inside Job might be the movie he was destined to make, a wide-ranging analysis of the 2008 economic collapse that opens with a title card that declares: “This is how it happened.” I’m in no position to verify Ferguson’s ballsy assertion, but it would be my pleasure to direct you to the theatre where he’s laying it all out for your scrutiny.

If you’re as essentially ignorant about the finer points of financial swindling as I am, rest assured that
Inside Job functions as a solid crash course in how markets crash, while those responsible walk away from the disaster in only cozier positions of power and influence. Ferguson’s investigation into the roots of deregulation under Reagan and how it was merrily maintained by every presidency from then on is sufficiently thorough as to reawaken one’s indignation over just how low Wall Street accountability has fallen over the last 30 years. Darting between a few dozen talking heads representing just about every point on the political spectrum—including disgraced former New York attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer, the altogether enlightening subject of another new documentary called Client 9, which we’ll hopefully see turning up soon—Ferguson conjures an insane parade of predatory loans, $1,000 an hour prostitutes, multi-million dollar bonuses, lobbyists making colossal campaign contributions, Alan Greenspan getting paid $40,000 for a letter of support for Charles Keating’s dodging of the Federal Home Loan Bank’s ten percent rule—that being just one of countless examples of such advocacy—and, as we steer toward the aftermath, President Obama’s failure to do anything about any of it.

For all those who opted to appear in
Inside Job there are numerous conspicuous absentees, such as AIG’s Joseph Cassano, Lehman Brothers’ Richard Fuld, former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, and, obviously, Greenspan. The refusal of so many lowdown higher-ups to be interviewed could have discouraged a different sort of filmmaker, but Ferguson turns it into a running joke. Not a cheap joke, mind you. Ferguson strives to engage and entertain by infuriation, but he isn’t interested in Michael Moore’s shenanigans or sweeping ideological condemnations, which means that Inside Job is a vastly more lucid indictment of American greed than Capitalism: A Love Story.

Ferguson’s cinematic style is slick, sometimes excessively so. Architecture emerges as his favoured storytelling device, the fortress-like skyscrapers that symbolize inaccessibility and decadence, the helicopter overhead shots of cities that incite vertigo. It’s a workable and kinetic if not especially original convention. It shows his visual imagination to be stronger than that brought to the movie’s soundscape. Matt Damon supplies a pleasingly sober narration, but Alex Heffes’ score alternately invokes boilerplate corporate thrillers and gladiator movies and in any case occasionally spills over the top. This weightiness is somewhat balanced by familiar frat rock classics like ‘Big Time,’ ‘New York Groove,’ and the almost obligatory ‘Takin’ Care of Business.’

director Charles Ferguson

At times you wonder if a 90-miute movie is really the best way to present this material, yet the format can arguably reach audiences who are by now glazing over news and magazine pieces on the recession. Ferguson, to his credit, takes care not to snow layman viewers. He surely had to fight the temptation to pile on more data since he’s so obviously better versed in the nitty-grit than most of us. Bottom line:
Inside Job gets your attention, and ultimately rewards it. The question is: what happens next?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Faces and names: Johnny Handsome on DVD

Dark Passage

There’s this point in the wonderfully dream-like, and, to my mind, widely underrated
Dark Passage (1947) when the movie casts off the single point-of-view through which the entire first third is rendered, and the protagonist, Vincent Parry, finally appears before the camera. We knew all along it was Humphrey Bogart, but it’s only from this point on that Parry looks like Bogart. After escaping from prison, Parry has surgery that transforms him from some beefy guy with a moustache into Bogart, and I’ve always been fascinated by this process through which the protagonist suddenly becomes the movie star, by the implication that the face we all know was only hiding, that it had to be arrived at, to be earned, in order to be introduced into this bizarre crime story.

Though I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid, the thing I always remembered about
Johnny Handsome (89) was that it operated on this same principle. Mickey Rourke was a big star at the time, a different sort of actor than Bogart, yet one who’d inherited something of Bogart’s persona. Johnny Handsome doesn’t hide Rourke from view for its first third, but it does obscure Rourke’s visage behind prosthetic bone distortions and tumours. Johnny’s a career criminal who gets nabbed when his cohorts in a New Orleans coin shop heist betray he and his best friend, the only person who ever loved him. Once incarcerated, an attempt is made on Johnny’s life. While in hospital, Johnny meets Forest Whitaker’s benevolent Dr. Fisher, who has a theory that “surgical rehabilitation can be a deterrent to criminal recidivism.” He’s trying to tell Johnny that giving him a normal face might change him into an upstanding citizen.

So the moment finally arrives when the cruelly dubbed Johnny Handsome becomes the genuinely handsome Rourke. Of course, it’s less shocking than it’s perhaps meant to be—the brilliance of the collaboration between Rourke and the movie’s talented make-up artists winds up making Johnny nearly as charismatic and expressive when deformed and ugly as when he looks like Mickey Rourke. No matter, Johnny Handsome is an efficient and gripping neo-noir, one of the best such works from Walter Hill’s most active decade as director. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Maple.

The characters in Hill’s earlier
The Driver (78) are only ever identified by their vocations, ie: “the Detective,” as though actual names would be too sissy. This conceit served to emphasize archetype over personality, and, accordingly, the characters’ actions adhered strictly within the dictates of their roles. Johnny Handsome is only slightly looser in this regard. The cast is amazing, but their characters are essentially resigned to the very determinism that Dr. Fisher is crusading against. Thus an extra-mean Lance Henriksen and a colossally haired Ellen Barkin are really bad bad guys and stay really bad until the end. Johnny was always a man of honour drawn to crime and stays a man of honour drawn to crime. Morgan Freeman has the only role that’s trickier to discern, playing a laid-back, rather Satanic cop who wants to nail all the crooks, Johnny included, and wants let the crooks themselves do all the heavy lifting. He basically just hangs around, massaging the wheels of fate until he gets precisely what he wants—and man, does he look good in a hat.

The pleasures of
Johnny Handsome are in watching fatalism run its course in the most dynamic way possible. There’s style without any fancy stuff, brute violence without gratuitous gore, sex without skin. Like the surgeons who carve the unwanted flesh and sinew from Johnny’s face, Hill sculpts the movie down to pure muscle, until it’s the leanest Don Siegel movie Don Siegel never made. Who knows? Maybe if you shaved off Hill’s beard, did a little nip ‘n’ tuck, and sent him to the gym for six weeks, he’d turn out to actually be Don Siegel.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Monsters: Aliens versus editors: if only the latter party could have won the battle

The story goes that Gareth Edwards pitched the idea for his monster movie set in a world where the aliens have been quarantined, got green-lit without a script, went into production with a skeleton crew, shot guerilla style, worked his largely impromptu cast into a frenzy of adlibbing, went home to cobble from a hundred hours of material and insert copious CGI, and delivered the final product for under $500,000. Good, even great movies have been born of such reckless confidence, but one shouldn’t assume Edwards’ bravado was matched by any blessed combination of talent, intelligence, or luck. Though it already has its champions, not to mention six BAFTA nominations,
Monsters offers a solid case study in what happens when you don’t plan much: with way more coverage than actual inspiration or purpose, your story winds up sliding into cliché at nearly every turn. There's some fun to be had here, but it's mostly drowned out by hokeyness.

A cynical US photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) is ordered to escort his wealthy publisher’s idealistic daughter (Whitney Able) out of Mexico, an enormous chunk of which is “infected” with giant prawns from outer space—presumably the same galaxy as the quarantined aliens in
District 9. So Monsters might be a border-crossing parable if it had any real ideas to it, or any real surprises. Yes, the couple meet-cute, the photographer resents his mission, but the girl speaks better Spanish, which comes in handy when they encounter all that Mexican monster bait. Getting back to America proves tricky, and they come to depend on each other, maybe even fall in love, blah, blah, blah. The plot twists itself into pretzels to keep them together, even going so far as to contrive a prostitute who steals a passport from the photographer’s hotel bedroom yet somehow doesn’t think to steal his $3,000 camera, which, by the way, you’d have to be an idiot to keep dangling around your neck all the time while traversing rural Mexico anyway.

But then Edwards’ Mexico isn’t the same one familiar to most Earthlings. Apparently the northern deserts have been replaced by jungle, and somebody moved Tepoztlán up toward the US border when nobody was looking. There are numerous such cultural and geographical oddities in
Monsters, all of which could be forgiven if the movie had more energy or ingenuity, instead of dopey scenes of dumb white kids looking out on (displaced) Mayan ruins, abandoned suburbs, or alien convoys and uttering what amounts to a unanimous “Wow.” Maybe it’s true what they say about Americans not traveling enough.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Impossible constructions: murderous marital exit strategies manifest in Mr. Peanut

Escher's Relativity, 1953

“When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn’t kill her himself. He dreamed convenient acts of God.” The first sentence is already Hitchcokian, drawing us very calmly toward this floating idea, giving words to deep, dark, utterly common fantasies. The first chapter describes David and Alice Pepin’s marriage, 13 years old, childless, and affluent, thanks to David’s successful as a designer of video games, some of which share this novel’s debt to M.C. Escher, the Dutch artist who “invited and then thwarted you efforts to grasp the whole, at the same time making you feel trapped.” Marriage, its potential for ecstasy, but more pointedly its looping traps, is the theme of
Mr. Peanut (HarperCollins, $32.99), US author Adam Ross’ debut. Ross’ grasp of the pitfalls of marriage, of habit and blame, anxiety and miscommunication, is extraordinary and offers little comfort. The vow states till death do us part. Perhaps, sometimes, it’s only natural for one to want death to hurry up already. The walls are closing in.

Adam Ross

There are three marriages—actually four, once we count the stories within stories in Ross’ Escher-esque design. There’s David and Alice, but David’s secretly writing a book, imagining his life as a crime novel, so there’s also “David and Alice,” and this second Alice may or may not have been murdered by David. She’s found on the kitchen floor, having died from anaphylactic shock after eating—or perhaps being force-fed—peanuts. Investigating Detective Hastroll is convinced Pepin’s guilty, perhaps because he understands the matricidal impulse. Hastroll’s wife is, not unlike Alice, nightmarishly passive-aggressive. She hasn’t gotten out of bed for months and won’t tell him why. “Men dream of starting over,” Ross writes. “They dream of a clean slate, of disappearing, of walking off a plane on a layover and making a new life for themselves in a strange city… Sitting in the living room, in his favorite chair, with his wife sobbing in her bed for hours on end, Hastroll understood this dream. Sit alone in the dark long enough, he thought, and it seems worth killing for.”

Hastroll’s partner is Detective Sam Sheppard, as in Dr. Sam Sheppard, who in 1954 may or may not have murdered Marilyn Sheppard, whose case may or may not have inspired the television show
The Fugitive and its subsequent film version. Sheppard was convicted, imprisoned, and then later had his conviction overturned and was released. He died in 1970. In Mr. Peanut, he’s alive and well and on the NYPD payroll, yet still shares his real-life counterpart’s tragic past. In Ross’ most evocative narrative strand, the events leading up to Marilyn Sheppard’s death are described in great detail, especially Sheppard’s philandering, which Sheppard at one point considers part of some horrific karmic equation: “…at times he saw her death as being inextricably intertwined with their love, the terrible and logical conclusion of their togetherness, the culmination of a pattern of behaviour on his part that he’d been conscious of but waited too long to put to a stop.”

There are also characters like Nathan Harold, the sensitive, wise, possibly telepathic “disaster liaison” for United Airlines. Like Mobius, the dwarfish wifekiller-for-hire who prompts Sheppard to tell his story from his holding cell, Harold resembles a character out of Haruki Murakami at his most fantastic, not quite of this world yet vivid, and serving a clear narrative purpose. Both are surprisingly compelling, and their perspectives feel integral to the novel.

Dr. Sam Sheppard

Here’s what doesn’t feel integral: a number of overwritten passages, such as the one describing David and Alice's fateful hike in Hawaii, and the two university professors who turn up at the end to hold forth at considerable length on Hitchcock, marriage, and feminism, needlessly announcing themes Ross repeatedly implies elsewhere. Mr. Peanut is comprised of a rich and eerily resonant pair murder mysteries in service of an even better meditation in marriage. It threads its multiple narratives in a manner that’s intricate and fascinating, though its references to Hitchcock are excessive and simplistic, and it seems to want to be a closed circuit and offer a conclusion simultaneously. I’m willing to forgive everything because Ross’ prose is so precise, his observations so insightful, and his ambition is as laudable as it is overextended. The author is, for the record, happily married with children, and living in Nashville, Tennessee.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Beware of cat power: Criterion unleashes Obayashi's Hausu on DVD and Blu-ray

When Japanese movie studio Toho asked Obayashi Nobuhiko to give them something like
Jaws (1975), Obayashi asked his 10-year-old daughter Chigumi for advice. She thought all Japanese movies were boring, so her dad urged her to offer a remedy. The ball got rolling with Chigumi’s assertion that it would be pretty freaky if her reflection in the mirror attacked her. “I always discuss important matters with the children,” Obayashi claims, and Hausu (77), the product of this collaboration, indeed represents an exceedingly rare marriage of cross-generational sensibilities. It’s a fantasy film as seen from the perspective of a child, yet it’s imbued with the larger mythological-psychotronic-experimentalist scope of an adult with a background in advertising. It’s aggressively playful, enamored with optical tricks and with soundscapes and repeated musical themes that seem culled from Godard and blaxploitation. It’s oblivious to generic orientation—okay, it’s oblivious to many forms of orientation, yet it also has a perfectly coherent narrative through-line with roots in the Western Gothic tradition, Japanese ghost stories, and Hansel and Gretel. You could call it a cautionary tale, but then you’d just have to look out for everything. Especially cats. And watermelons.

Hausu is the Japanese appropriation of the English word House. The former sounds vaguely more menacing to me, maybe because of that extra syllable, maybe because of the pleasing weirdness of hearing a familiar word mispronounced, but Criterion has emblazoned their terrific new DVD and Blu-ray packages with the latter term, perhaps in the hope that potential viewers will intuit that, as David Lynch once said, there’s just something inherently scary about a house. Whatever you want to call it, Obayashi’s fevered debut feature follows seven teenage girls with seven smurfy names as they travel to the countryside for their summer vacation and wind up at the house of a wheelchair-bound spinster. Before they arrive, the sky is always glowing warm and soft like some hazy dream you can’t pull away from, perhaps built on crude memories of Technicolor musicals. Once they’re installed in the titular dwelling, the world turns crepuscular and shadowy, and malice becomes boundless. Futons and pianos eat people. Cats’ eyes shimmer as though sending cryptic signals from the abyss. Heads emerge from wells and bite asses. Everything is deadly, yet these girls just wanna have fun. Dismemberment is scary, but who said death can’t be like ice cream? The realm of Hausu is one of relentless colour and geometrical flourish, the screen always being divided by walls, doors, corners, irises, and literal fissures in the filmic image that remind you of how very dry and adult Peter Greenaway’s formal noodling can be. It’s a realm of trapdoors and illusion, of cornball effects executed with verve, of preposterous panty-clad derring-do, of music and morbid delight, a realm where every childish suspicion about adults is wholly confirmed and then some. Western audiences may struggle to interpret this perverse, seemingly contradictory mash-up of fear and frolicking as something terribly exotic and coded in the Japanese culture, but you could also just think of it as a far more imaginative version of this thing we call Halloween.

Generously included in Criterion’s package and equally worth checking out is
Emotion (66) Obayashi’s 40-minute piece about a girl from the seaside who travels far from home, makes a friend, and enters a secret world of sadomasochistic romance. A love triangle emerges, and parents are again not to be trusted. There’s no synch-sound, so the great American-born Japanese film scholar Donald Richie provides the English narration, which often seems slightly different in meaning from the Japanese narration, for which we’re given subtitles. Never one to use a stylistic trope once if he can use it 50 times, Obayashi is crazy for flash-cuts here, and is surely even more deeply under the spell of Godard in this use of on-screen text and his determination to push continuity to its outer limits while maintaining the minimum requirements for a forward-moving story. And there’s dancing! The images are often beautiful, and yes, fraught with dizzy emotion. At one point a title card appears that reads: NOW THE STORY DESCENDS INTO A RUINOUS ABYSS WITH VIOLENT MUSIC, which doesn’t exactly signal a radical shift in tone. There’s also a dream sequence that’s only marginally more bizarre than the rest of the movie. Like Hausu, it’s all kind of exhausting, but this sort of blind and wild adventure is bound to wear anyone out, so think of it as a work-out, and watch it before bed. Your brain will rest better afterwards.