Sunday, December 2, 2012

Holy terror, holy fool, holy shit! Holy Motors

He rises from bed in the night, steps over a dog, and carefully feels his way along an expanse of wallpaper—like May in her membranous motel room in Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. He’s seeking a portal, perhaps to another dimension, perhaps just to a movie theatre, this man who, we’ll soon realize, can become anyone. (He’s played by who else but the inimitable, intensely physical actor Denis Lavant.) We call this man Monsieur Oscar, and once he finds his way through that papered wall and, it would seem, down some sort of rabbit hole, we then cut to the start of his workday, though surely Oscar’s strange activities, each of them supernatural feats of role-play for clients never identified and for purposes left obscure, should best be considered a vocation, or even a cosmic obligation.

In suit and tie, Oscar leaves his compound, cheerfully waves adieu to the kids, passes by his ample security staff, and enters his stretch limo, which is piloted by Oscar’s Girl Friday, a slim, ivory-haired, ravishingly beautiful septuagenarian (Edith Scob, most famous as the titular non-visage in the horror classic Eyes Without a Face). She alerts him to the day’s itinerary. Oscar prepares for each of his  gigs from his mobile office, which is equipped with a bulb-framed mirror, costumes and make-up. (Only Cosmopolis displays a car with more vital amenities.) First stop: Oscar disguises himself as a hunched-over old lady muttering to herself on a busy bridge. Soon after he’s donning a black full-body jumpsuit adorned with little white balls and entering a Tronosphere, where he meets a similar female creature in similar garb with whom he play-fights and faux-sexes with acrobatic panache. Is this already sounding weird? People, you all don’t know the half of it.

Maybe Monsieur Oscar is simply the world’s hardest working actor. Maybe, like the hapless hero of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, he’s simply trapped in an existence that morphs every time he turns around, and all he can do is adapt. Maybe Leos Carax, the compulsively inventive writer/director of Holy Motors, just wants to send Levant—his ferociously talented muse, Harpo Marx, Jacques Tati, Jackie Chan and Lon Chaney all rolled into one wiry, putty-faced Frenchman—on a paid holiday to an ever-unfurling dreamscape, made of one-part reality, one-part unconscious roaming, one-part cinephilia. There’s no road map for Holy Motors, so best do away with your search for clear answers from the get-go. You’ll have more fun that way.

For those who saw the recent anthology film Tokyo!, you’ll be pleased to discover that Carax has resurrected Levant’s milky-eyed, mayhem-making leprechaun, who this time around surfaces from a Paris sewer, gobbles cemetery flowers, bites the fingers off a fashion photographer’s assistant and abducts a zombified Eva Mendes from a glamour shoot. Later Oscar will enter an abandoned warehouse full of mannequin parts and meet up with Kylie Minogue, a fellow career changeling, or maybe a secret agent, from somewhere in his past, and she’ll sing a sad and powerful song that asks ‘Who Are We?’ The unbearable truth is that the answer just keeps changing, scene by scene, moment by moment, as does this luxuriant, restless, ultra-bizarre and hugely enjoyable film. Identity is fluid: this is a fact that also makes for great fantasy, a fantasies at the heart of movie-love. This movie understands that fantasy like few others do.  

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Off the rails

English director Joe Wright can marshall the teeming forces that constitute the cinematic apparatus on the grandest of scales with a tremendous fluidity. And, boy, nobody knows it better than him. If there was ever any chance of the cameras simply bearing witness to a shift in thought, atmosphere or emotion in his new adaption of Anna Karenina, Wright has done a painstaking job of ensuring that any such event was quashed under a behemoth of elaborate tracking shots, movable décor and razzle dazzle choreography. Not a whole lot of slipping elegantly between the internal musings of various characters here. Doesn’t sound much like Tolstoy does it? I suspect fidelity to the source material was not high on Wright’s priority list.

This Anna has a big design concept at its core, though the execution of this concept is hardly consistent. All the world’s a stage—until it isn’t. The first several scenes of this spin on Tolstoy’s sprawling, multi-character tale of marital infidelities and class angst in 19th century Russia are confined entirely to a baroque theatre, with Anna (Keira Knightley) arriving in Moscow to help rescue her brother’s damaged marriage and soon after becomes inexplicably entranced with the young military officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The way Wright shifts from scene to scene by using toy trains, fake snow and sweeping gestures is undeniably virtuosic and increasingly tedious. If there is any real tension, sexual or otherwise, between Knightley and Taylor-Johnson, it gets lost in all the swirling, swooping and cutting. But, hey, they look great in those costumes, and Taylor-Johnson’s blue eyes really pop when underlined by that blonde moustache.

Some interesting casting: Jude Law plays Anna’s ultra-reserved husband, a government official. I guess someone figured it was Law’s turn to get cuckolded for once, and the actor does some impressive work here, invoking a mixture of repressed pain and rage doing internal battle with a desire to be forgiving and above it all. Elsewhere we find a very interesting, clearly devoted young actor named Domhnall Gleeson playing Tolstoy’s other protagonist Levin, the young man who flees affluence to join the workers in the fields and admire nature in all its ferocity and splendour. Gleeson’s nicely complimented by the Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander, who plays Kitty, the girl of Levin’s dreams who initially turns him away in favour of Vronsky. For some reason these actors have much stronger, subtler scenes than those shared by the stars. Do Wright and playwright Tom Stoppard, the film’s scenarist, simply believe in true love between the young and innocent while disbelieving in the operatic lust and longings indulged in by the slightly older cheaters and manipulators? I suspect that this contrast has more to do with Wright’s knee-jerk response to drama, already more than evident in earlier films like Pride and Prejudice and Atonement: the bigger the stakes, the more you got to dress it up!

I applaud chances taken with form and I have nothing against a little flamboyance, but the endless directorial flaunting in Anna just doesn’t connect to the material in any sort of sustainably interesting way. Heartless pizazz doesn’t make for much catharsis, and even the merciless wheels of a train can’t conjure much feeling for the fate of poor Anna K. 

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Killing softly, telling thuddingly, showing inventively

It opens with a series of unnerving stutters, crosscutting between the credits—silent, stark, white on black—and images of greasy hoodlum Frank (Scoot McNairy) exiting a darkened building for the sodden daylight of some profoundly rundown US city while one Senator Obama fills the soundtrack with something about “the American promise of life.” As Killing Them Softly ambles toward its flamboyantly cynical conclusion, the city becomes only more a shambles of windblown refuse and houses collapsing in slow motion, Frank and his colleagues become only more hunched with fear, and the broadcasts of speeches made by Obama and Bush that follow the characters everywhere they go become only more redolent of a distinctly American combination of stoic apologia and unconvincing optimism. The story is set in 2008, only four years ago, though this is very much a period piece, with the financial crisis and swap of presidents functioning as an increasingly overstated counterpoint to the film’s seedy milieu of robbery, gambling, dope and murder. The plot is unremarkably generic, featuring a heist followed by a series of killings. But Killing Them Softly isn’t about its plot.

New Zealand director Andrew Dominik’s previous film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was so tailored for my personal tastes that I resented it. A downbeat western following a fascinatingly strange historical trajectory and high on atmospheres derivative of Terrence Malick, Jesse James struck me as pandering. It kept getting in its own way with precious stylistics. The funny thing about Killing Me Softly is that something like the reverse of Jesse James’ problem has happened. The film’s One Big Idea—“America’s not a country, it's a business,” goes the penultimate line of dialogue—is ultimately far too simplistic to sustain such an incessant refrain as it gets treated to here in scene after scene. Yet Dominik’s determination to impart a directorial signature actually complicates his message in some truly engaging ways. That arresting opening described above is complimented by a bravura, tension-filled sequence in which Frank and an Australian junky, glistening with about six weeks worth of sweat, rob a poker game populated by mafia; by a drug-taking scene built from woozy push-ins and gauzy flickers of amber light; by an assassination scene slowed down to such a glacial frame rate that the victim’s head turns a windshield into a spider web one crack at a time.

And the stylistic gambles aren’t just to do with sound effects and vision. Dominik’s screenplay, an updated adaption of George V. Higgin’s Coogan’s Trade, makes room for an absorbing series of extended monologues—most memorable are those made by James Gandolfini’s aging, groggy, sex-and-booze addicted hitman—riddled with anxiety, rampant misogyny, self-pity and squeamishness. Quentin Tarantino made talky crime films into a subgenre, but Dominik’s is a different variety of verbose thug. All the characters in Killing Me Softly are men, and all are repugnant in the extreme—who cares about these scumbags? But get them talking for a while, and you find that you want to hear more.

So take this as a wary recommendation. Killing Me Softly is at once painfully obvious yet, somehow, captivating. The cast is uniformly marvelous, with a great supporting turn from Richard Jenkins doing mob middle management, and yes, Brad Pitt, a character actor who just happens to be very handsome, as the most sensible assassin of the bunch. He’s something of a softie when it comes to killing, but he understands the bottom line. The film’s final words? “So fucking pay me!”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stories within stories

This is the story of a woman who couldn’t quite cope with the demands of a marriage that never brought her joy so much as stasis, who took a chance on a spell of fulfilled desire in another city, who returned from that city and out from under that spell with irrefutable evidence of her indiscretion, who opted to remain in that not very joyous marriage and to keep that irrefutable evidence and incorporate it into the story of her family. This is the story of a girl who was loved but whose mother died when the girl was far too young, who was told certain things over the years in jest and began to wonder when exactly jest becomes so insistent as to resemble truth. This is the story of a woman who was lovable but hard to love with, who had a loud laugh, who spoke a lot on the phone and worried over things, who really wanted to be an actor but mostly settled for being a casting director, a mother, and a problematic wife, who died far too young and became an enigma for everyone she left behind. This is the story of a young actress and political activist who became an extraordinary film director, who wanted to make a terribly thoughtful essay film about the vagaries of memory and how stories shape identity, who thought she could regard her subject from layers of distance and abstraction but slowly came to realize that her essay was a kind of memoir, that the thesis was blushingly personal, that however broadly she populated these Stories she was telling with colorful characters from her family and beyond, the film was always bound to become about her. Stories We Tell is many stories, but like any story it’s also about the storyteller. It cannot be otherwise.

Sarah Polley’s third feature as director, which has been called a documentary for lack of a better term, feels like the culmination of her preceding films, Away From Her and Take This Waltz, in that those films used fiction as a way of thinking about domesticity, intimacy and betrayal between fascinating women and loyal, sturdy men. It was sparked by Polley’s longtime suspicion that her father was not really her father, that is, her biological father, that her mother, who died 20 years ago, conceived Polley with some other man while working on a play in Montréal (the family lived in Toronto). Stories We Tell combines interviews with family and friends of the family—all of them providing different, conflicting speculations or supposed certainties about who was Father X—with sometimes startling home movie footage, an investigation, a formal reading by the father who raised Polley, a great orator with a rigorous emotional poker-face, and other, trickier elements that needn’t be described here. It’s rich, suspenseful, funny, smart, and heartbreaking. It keeps changing its mind about what it is as it goes along, yet it never looses the thread of its search. At one point Polley’s brother quotes Neruda: “Love is so short/Forgetting so long.” That about sums it up. And this film imaginatively sums up something about love and forgetting that Polley’s been getting at for a while. Which makes it that much more thrilling to consider where she goes from here.