Friday, November 18, 2011

My Week with Marilyn: Some like it lukewarm

My Week with Marilyn is based on memoirs by filmmaker Colin Clark, reflecting on how in 1956, when Clark was 23, he broke into the British film industry via a combination of family connections, utter inoffensiveness and minimal persistence, and how his maiden voyage as third assistant director brought him into close proximity with not only Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh but also Marilyn Monroe, who took a shine to Clark for a little while and sort of broke his tender heart before moving on to other projects, other hearts, other nervous breakdowns. The film, directed by veteran TV-movie helmer Simon Curtis, is very pretty and tasteful, very nicely recreates period and milieu, and is all but devoid of stakes. When Michelle Williams’ Marilyn turns those soft, lovely, spellbinding, mostly unblinking eyes on Eddie Redmayne’s Colin it’s as though the rest of the world could disintegrate in an agonizing atomic catastrophe and it wouldn’t matter. Actually, nothing much matters here. No hidden depths behind those eyes are plumbed, our hero comes of age while remaining a total cypher, life goes on. But hey, Colin Clark went skinny-dipping with a sex goddess! So high-fives all around, boys.

Best thing about the film: Kenneth Branagh plays Olivier, which is to say that Branagh has been cast in the role he’s been casting himself in since the very beginning of his career. Worst thing about the film: Adrian Hodges’ screenplay gives each of the supporting characters overwritten monologues where they suddenly and implausibly confess their insecurities and speak aloud every drop of subtext. (Perhaps this comes directly from Clark’s memoir; I haven’t read it.) The somewhat interesting result of these best and worst things is that you get a scene where Branagh/Olivier articulates all of Branagh/Olivier’s anxieties about aging and failing to reach all of Branagh/Olivier’s goals, which inevitably prompts one to consider how far apart the careers of Branagh and Oliver finally are. Yet in an odd way, Branagh’s humbling portrayal of Olivier and its weird merging of Branagh and Olivier gives me a new respect for Branagh, who may finally have severed himself from the quixotic ambition to be Olivier, not by directing Thor, but by saying “Fuck it all” and actually, openly embodying his idol in this pretty mediocre movie. Good for him. Makes me genuinely curious what he’ll do next.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Le Havre: waylaid in Normandy

Two shoeshiners, one French (André Wilms), the other a Vietnamese pretending to be Chinese (Quoc Dung Nguyen), stand together, scanning the passage of feet along the station floor, seeking to ply their trade. A man, his mouth like a hatchet wound, his hand cuffed to a suitcase, presents his right loafer for service, but soon he’s spotted by some other, equally suspicious-looking men. He runs, they chase, there’s gunfire. Another one bites the dust. The shoeshiners don’t even sigh. Clearly, it’s a dangerous world, one fraught with real, nasty, morally repugnant crimes... as well as crimes of a far more ambiguous nature.

Marcel Marx, the French shoeshiner, has been around; he once was a bohemian in Paris, or so he says, but now ekes out a humble but contented existence and comes home every night to a devoted wife and a very cute dog. Soon the wife will be hospitalized with cancer and in her place will appear an African boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), whose clandestine journey by shipping container to the UK got interrupted and is now on the run in this forgotten French port city. Marcel can do nothing about his beloved’s illness but at least he can try to help the boy from harm’s way and secure his safe passage to London, where his mom works illegally in a Chinese laundry (but at least she works). Steering clear of the authorities, the enigmatic and ever-present Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) especially, and shelling out for human smuggling costs won’t be easy, but our aging hero is determined and, just as importantly, unafraid to ask for help. “I’m not alone,” says Marcel. “I have friends.”

In his return to France (he made La Vie de Bohème there in 1992), Finnish wrier/director Aki Kaurismäki didn’t come alone either; he brought along Kati Outinen, star of eight previous Kaurismäkis and thus a sort of talisman, to play Marcel’s dear Arletty (named after the star of France’s beloved Les enfants du paradis), and bring a boldness and assurance to the film’s more problematic role. (Arletty’s wifely devotion, her refusal to even admit that she’s dying so that she can keep ironing Marcel’s clothes, cooking Marcel’s meals and managing Marcel’s paltry finances for as long as possible, can be a little hard to take; Le Havre’s Marxist cred is pretty impeccable, its feminist cred not so much.)

Both a love letter to French cinema and a letter bomb addressed to France’s xenophobic immigration policy makers, Le Havre, named for the Normandy city in which it’s set (which also happens to be the penultimate stop made by the sailors in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante), brings Kaurismäki’s ongoing exploration of working class solidarity back to foreign shores, resulting in one of his finest, most affectionate, and probably most crowd-pleasing films. To be sure, Le Havre feels like a summation rather than any sort of renovation of Kaurismäki’s 30-year career, examining familiar themes and tropes—yep, there’s a rock and roll show, this one featuring the vocal stylings of Little Bob—and firmly grounding itself in that distinctive deadpan-melodrama, Bresson-does-Buster Keaton approach that filmgoers will recognize as Kaurismäki’s trademark. Yet for all that, the film feels very much alive, engaged and enraged, full of ragged but persistent hope, less resting on laurels than shaking them back to life. And in the truly remarkable scenes that find Kaurismäki's camera calmly fixing itself upon the faces of the (often real-life) undocumented foreigners, imposing nothing, we sense that no matter how persistently mannered this filmmaker's approach may be, he remains alert to the world, and allows his subjects their dignity, their chance to simply be present for his camera and for all of us around the world watching their faces, and hopefully wondering about their fate.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Melancholia: bad vibes all over

Birds tumble softly from the ether; a woman gazes at her hands as they give off sparks; a horse collapses to the ground like an old barn; a woman clutching a child sinks deeper into a darkened golf course; a bride sinks into the surface of a stream or trudges through forest only to be snared by roots. All of this unfolds in extremely slow slow-motion, as though some collective will is urging time to a standstill. And you can see why. The end is nigh. Mind you, it’ll take a while to actually get there.

Had I, for whatever reason, had to exit the theatre after the prologue of Melancholia, an astonishing, kind of devastating sequence heavily indebted to more masters of contemporary photo-based art than you could squueze into a year at ICP, set to the romantic bombast of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, I would surely have thought I’d seen the first ten minutes of some rapturous masterpiece. But I stayed, or rather stuck it out, and remembered I was in Lars Land, a place where flights of genius are undermined by lengthy digressions imbued with didacticism, smugness, cynicism and sadomasochistic projections of the author’s disorders onto the opposite sex.

Lars von Trier: maker of some unforgettable images, brilliant conceptualist, shit storyteller. I think I’ve done the image bit, so let’s get to Lars the conceptualist. Melancholia has two parts, two sisters, two disasters. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) shows up two hours later for her insanely lavish wedding reception at a castle. Once she arrives things just get worse: mom (Charlotte Rampling) delivers the most withering wedding speech in history before locking herself in the bathroom and Justine slips ever deeper into debilitating depression. She can barely make it through the night, though disappearing for long spells, telling off her boss and jumping some nervous stranger’s bones seems to help. By dawn, the damage is unrepairable, the marriage still-born. The groom ultimately leaves without her.

After the wedding Claire (Charlotte Rampling) determines to take care of Justine, who’s now verging on catatonic—there’s a painful scene where Claire simply can’t get Justine to step into a hot bath... and that bath looks pretty nice! Claire becomes increasingly preoccupied with the news that a planet called Melancholia has been hiding behind the sun and now seems to be on a collision course with Earth. As apocalypse looms, Claire, quite understandably, becomes hysterical, while Claire's husband (Kiefer Sutherland) turns out to be of no help and Justine is increasingly becalmed and not nice to her at all.

As I summarize all this I realize how much I admire the raw ideas behind Melancholia, the balance of it, that juxtaposition of the individual crisis with the infinite that makes it the nihilist cousin to The Tree of Life. As I think through my experience of Melancholia I have to admit that it was definitely made by someone who really, really gets depression. The problems all come in the way we meander through the story without pace or punctuation, the way we’re meant to bask in the ostensibly clever portraits of one-dimensional or only semi-coherent characters who are mostly just assholes. Everyone, generally, is cruel, though the men tend to be weaklings while the women at least have a certain integrity—and, as with so much von Trier (see Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, et cetera), that integrity is what ensures their doom. So we watch and we wait for von Trier to do whatever it takes to twist his plots into awkward, sometimes plain stupid knots so as to completely screw over his heroine (though Dogville, it must be said, attempted to reverse this somewhat by allowing its heroine a climatic revenge). We worry, we do indeed feel the burgeoning unease, something von Trier is indeed highly skilled at inducing, and we wait. And the waiting can be tedious.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fight Club: We got the beats

Our unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) holds a position that could only have emerged in the late 20th century: he’s something called a recall coordinator, which basically means he negotiates the degree to which products have to annoy, maim or kill buyers before the manufacturer actually has to do something about it. It’s a brilliant occupation for the protagonist of a film that’s aged so well that its time is still coming into being. The first rule of Fight Club (1999) is, however macho/obnoxious/show-offy it may seem, don’t underestimate Fight Club.

Off the top, our young Narrator’s already reached an advanced state of yuppie zombification; his insomnia renders everything “a copy of a copy of a copy,” debilitating sleeplessness being an apt response to a world conspiring to keep one simultaneously lulled from disruptive critical thinking and excited by the possibility of perpetual shopping. Then Narrator meets Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a salesman of soap—"the yardstick of civilization"—and projectionist of family films into which he slips big dicks. He has silly spiky hair, dresses like a trailer park pimp, and waxes anti-establishment philosophy; he’s also handsome and sculpted and wants to get physical with Narrator, prompting what we might deem an ultra-masculine friendship, gay romance, or a solipsism so overpowering as to induce prolonged hallucinations. These guys start their titular club in basements and backstreets and it grows or catches until all over America men are denouncing their identities, pounding the shit out of each other, and waiting for cues to launch spectacular acts of terrorism.

So Fight Club’s trajectory is itself novel: boy meets girl; boy meets boy; boys fight (for fun/self-betterment); second boy steals girl; first boy finds himself; everything goes bananas. The film didn’t initially “perform,” but it established director David Fincher as a masterful, if over-eager, manipulator of industrial light and magic: the walk-in IKEA catalogue, the camera’s vertiginous swoops, the fantasy air collision all feel a little overbearing and Roger Rabbity. But who else could have told this unruly, audacious story with such vigour? In its perverse depiction of mental illness, leading up to its big twist, this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s eponymous novel is actually an outstanding adaptation of Philip K. Dick, the oft-adapted, rarely apprehended author whose schizophrenia imbued so much of his science fiction. Fight Club suggests that schizophrenia might be the natural result of prolonged exposure to late capitalism. And I almost believe it.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Senna: Life in overdrive

Though it rather daringly confines its visual trajectory to nothing but archival footage—most of which feature its hero, Brazilian racing superstar Ayrton Senna, traversing tracks the world round at dizzying speeds—it could hardly be said that Senna simply goes around in circles. Its narrative, which skims the surface of Senna’s personal life in favour of his professional one, is burnished down to its mythical contours, rendering Senna’s meteoric rise to World Champion and tragic death at 34 in a mid-race crack-up as an Icarus tale, not one of hubris exactly—Senna spoke with great humility about his gift and his sense of debt to the god who endowed him with it—but of a deep faith in speed and glory that transcends reason. One memorable interview clip finds Senna describing a major turning point in his career arriving when he found himself behind the wheel and feeling as though he was no longer conscious. But this yearning for ecstasy was balanced by a fierce intellect, one trained to make split-second risk assessments. Senna was a champion because he was ruthless on the track, and his record for accidents was nearly as exceptional as his winning streak. Some thought him reckless, but the thrill of his greatest feats are undeniable: he won the Brazil Grand Prix with his car stuck in sixth gear for multiple laps; his fingers had to be pried from the wheel afterward.

Senna the film, now available on DVD, directed by Asif Kapadia, edited by Chris King and Gregers Sall, and written by Manish Pandey, understands very well that adrenaline is key to its appeal, whether the audience is full of racing enthusiasts, those who crave a solid sports documentary, or those who are simply drawn to high-stakes stories of ambition. Things move fast, excitement accumulates, and we’re often treated to views of the action from Senna’s on-board camera. But it should be said that this need for speed ultimately obscures everything else, and the absence of talking heads makes it tough to distinguish between the various commentators we hear speaking almost constantly on the soundtrack. So by the time Senna is over, you might feel as though you missed a great deal in the blur.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Immortals: It's all Greek to Tarsem

Set in 1228 BC, Immortals tells the story of how a fierce peasant with an unlimited gym pass rose up against and ultimately defeated a sadistic warmonger with a lot of help from body-buttered Aryan deities. Apparently it’s all based on Greek myths, though departures from the source material are conspicuous and most often really dumb. One could argue that director Tarsem Dhandwar Singh (the artist formerly known as Tarsem Singh, or plain old Tarsem—his name just keeps getting longer) is very much in his element; he clearly prefers the god’s eye view whenever possible and finds countless opportunities here to have his actors strike poses modeled after the cover paintings of fantasy novels.

Theseus is bulgingly embodied by future Superman Henry Cavill, while his antagonist, King Hyperion, is played by Mickey Rourke, who seems to be channeling Brando in Apocalypse Now, what with his croaky voice muttering out from the gloom, his munching of chestnuts, the crumbs stuck in his scraggily beard, and his looming over a basin of water as he interviews an unfortunate minion. The two first meet when Hyperion, just like Thulsa Doom in Conan, slaughters mom before Theseus’ eyes. “Witness hell,” says Hyperion, whose route to mega-evil was earlier explained as the result of his despair over the death of his entire family during a plague. The gods did nothing to save them, he complains, so why bother with faith?

Turns out Hyperion’s got a point, because the gods can actually intervene when the mood strikes them, and in fact do so several times throughout Immortals, whose multiple dues ex machinas add up to an apologia for fundamentalists and constitute a defense for all those who choose to interpret religious texts literally. An odd sort of suspense, or perhaps anti-suspense, is at work here: no matter how heroic or resourceful Theseus and his friends are made out to be none of it really matters because every time they’re in big trouble the gods just swoop down and take care of business, climaxing in a cage match with some butt-ugly titans that involves a lot of exploding heads and makes no sense whatsoever. So the protracted third act is especially dull, and it doesn’t help that Steven Dorff’s horny thief—the closest thing to an actual character in the movie—gets swallowed up at the top of it in a horde of baddies.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn: Revisiting Rodriguez's revenants 15 years on

The mayhem actually starts before we catch up with the Gecko brothers. That Richie (Quentin Tarantino) busted Seth (George Clooney) out of jail, that the pair robbed a bank, took a hostage and left a sizable body count in their wake is, rather remarkably, all back story, preceding the opening scenes depicting the infiltration of a roadside liquor retailer that results in more pointless carnage, including the roasting alive of the proprietor (very nicely played by a young John Hawkes). Richie is shot through the hand during the firefight; the bullet leaves a hole the size of a carrot stick—some sort of perverse stigmata for this sadist, serial rapist and compulsive murderer—which he bandages with duct tape. To think, all Richie wanted was a road map.

Richie and Seth eventually manage to get south of the border by smuggling themselves in an RV driven by a pastor and widower (Harvey Keitel) weathering a crisis of faith by taking a road trip with his kids (one of whom is Juliette Lewis, who’s casting in this sort of thing was pretty much de rigueur back in 1996). The whole gang winds up in a biker bar called the Titty Twister (though I prefer the name given in the DVD’s Spanish subtitles: “Fiesta de tetas”) where Selma Hayek performs a dance in a bikini with a big snake that’s almost stupefying in its hotness and everyone turns out to be Aztec vampires, a breed of revenant that’s unusually easy to dismember and impale. It takes an hour to get to the vampire stuff, but from then on, rest assured, it’s a solid 40 minutes of bang-bang, crunch, tear, stab, shred, splatter.

The movie was directed with much enthusiasm and little flair by Robert Rodriguez, but its script came courtesy of the young Tarantino, who seems to have been galvanized by the genre fusion and the opportunity to toss elements of everything from Peckinpah to Graham Greene into the blender. There’s not a lot of the sort of verbal fireworks we find in top-grade Tarantino, the ostensible portrait of Mexico could just as easily be one of West Texas, and some of the special effects are kind of lame and superfluous, but the superb cast and relentless cartoony action sequences ensure that the movie’s entertainment value remains reasonably high.