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. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Let's go crazy

Does love actually make you crazy, or is it really the other way around? Mental illness has been the psychic engine of some more convincing modern romantic comedies—see Punch-Drunk Love (2002)—perhaps because it places an obstacle between lovers and coital consummation where, in a post-sexual revolution universe, there might otherwise not be. That’s certainly the case with the tweaking twosome in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, in which a manic schoolteacher (Bradley Cooper) newly released from a state hospital—where he was placed after nearly beating his wife’s lover to death— meets a young cop’s widow (Jennifer Lawrence) with impulse control issues who’s been flirting with nymphomania. He’s adopted a program of blind optimism and is obsessed with reuniting with his estranged spouse; she’s focusing her ferocious energies on preparing for a dance contest. Given that’s he the subject of a restraining order, he needs a secret marriage-mending go-between; given that the sort of dance she has in mind generally works better with two people, she needs a partner. So they make a deal, go out on Halloween Raisin Bran-and-tea dates, crazy shit happens, more crazy people enter the picture, bumpity-bum-bum, da-ta-da-ta-da. 

But when I say “crazy,” I don’t mean crazy-crazy, like real-life crazy, but rather that special we’re-in-a-crazy-movie kind of crazy that allows for ids to run rabid in the name of controlled comic chaos; not the sort of crazy that leads to tragedy, despair or, in the case of John Cassavetes’ movies, that most fragile, unnerving, eerily exhilarating sort of equilibrium. The characters in Silver Linings Playbook, based on Matthew Quick’s eponymous novel, are only as crazy as they need to be to keep the story’s central conceits afloat for the film’s duration; as we near resolution, the craziness is fully contained. Near the top of the film our protagonist chucks a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls through a window—not out, but through it—from frenzied disgust for its scandalizing, downbeat finale. He demands happy endings from his stories, and we know that come hell or high water—or in this case, flagrant, flailing dance floor amateurism and football triumph—he’s going to get one. So yes, under its batshit guise of high neurosis, this is deceptively close to being a perfectly conventional rom-com. 

And so what? The big picture feels a bit pedestrian, but scene-by-scene Silver Linings Playbook is giddily inspired. Cooper’s nothing if not committed, a little scary, a lot talky, running around his parents neighbourhood with a trash bag over his torso so he can sweat better. Lawrence brings nothing but wild conviction and drive to her secondary role. She’s got feral Medusa stares, is seductive in a way that makes you want to remove sharp objects from the house when she comes over for dinner. And the supporting cast populates Russell’s suburban Philadelphia milieu with memorable, distinctive neuroses of their own, most especially Robert De Niro, terrific as Cooper’s OCD bookie dad, who’s insanely superstitious about sports. Russell’s movies run on anxiety, urgency and carefully tuned babble, and everyone gets some great dialogue. The final scenes kind of blow it, the dance-off most of all, since it keeps cutting away to reaction shots to remind us how we’re supposed to feel. But whatever, if you don’t have a good time with Silver Linings Playbook, you’re nuts. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Taking up arms in the name of sandwich artistry. Oh, and freedom.

The opening faux-documentary news-babble montage of the new Red Dawn fires a flurry of accusations at North Korea, rendering Kim Jong-un as much of a nuke-stackin’ loose cannon as his pa. There goes that market! But seriously, if you’re ever in doubt about how bafflingly pointless studio remakes are conceived, rest assured that it is indeed all about markets. When this post-Cold War Red Dawn was actually shot back in 2009 the bad guys were the Chinese; once some PR whiz pointed out that the Chinese spend a lot of dough on American exports Red Dawn was rejiggered so that the Asian invaders originated from a much smaller communist republic, one where the only way anyone’s likely to see this remake is via samizdat DVDs. No doubt it will be regarded as a comedy.

Which is a generous way of categorizing this slab of hoorah, arriving in theatres just in time to function as a balm for disappointed Republicans. The original Red Dawn (1984), co-written and directed by John Milius, his rep still aglow from Apocalypse Now (1979) and Conan the Barbarian (1979), was not exactly a good movie. Okay, it’s ludicrous. But it retains a certain awesome power as a wet dream for the National Rifle Association and time capsule of Regan-era Hollywood. It also scared the shit out of me as a little kid, those first images of jellyfish-like Russian parachutes descending upon the field outside the windows of a high school, and the teacher getting plugged in the guts. Milius may be a right wing propagandist (or not; I’m not so presumptuous as to understand his politics), but he’s also a real filmmaker. His Red Dawn captured something in the mid-80s air, tapped into genuine fears, and allowed a lot of kids fantasize about ditching school, taking up arms, going camping forever, and popping out of hidden pits to kill commies in the name of freedom. “Wolverines!

Directed by stunt coordinator Dan Bradley and written by Jeremy Passmore and Carl Ellsworth—a go-to guy for remakes, Ellsworth’s already got Disturbia (2007) and The Last House on the Left (2009) under his belt—it’s rather difficult to see how this new Red Dawn speaks either to our times or to our subconscious desire to go guerilla. The performances are more sober than those of Swayze, Sheen, et al, but they’re also way less fun and lack silly hats. The new characters have certain advantages over the originals, such as actual military training, but they seem less emblematic of Milius’ irony-free vision of grass roots survivalist gender-equalizing machismo—these new brothers don’t actually drink the blood of the animals they kill.

“We inherited out freedom,” says one of these new, wearisome Wolverines. “Now it’s up to us to fight for it!” A recruiting slogan if ever there was one, but what flags of freedom are flying in Red Dawn? Look no farther than the best scene in the movie: a pair of hungry Wolverines hide out in an occupied Subway; “Sandwich artist, fill this bag with subs!” one of them demands (an excellent line); they take the bag of fixins back to their fellow vigilantes, who feed on the footlongs in querterbackian ecstasy. This is what American freedom tastes like: Wonderbuns, under-ripe tomatoes and lunchmeat. And you, foolish foreign intruder, will pry them from our cold, dying hands. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making amendments

It’s tilted Lincoln, which makes it sound like a bio-pic, but this newest Steven Spielberg film, written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner and based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 bestseller Team of Rivals, does something far more interesting and timely than condense a great life into cinematic bullet points. Lincoln dramatizes the build-up in Washington to the end of the Civil War and the House of Representatives’ vote over the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery. So it’s perhaps best to describe this as a political procedural, a portrait of the democratic process during a pivotal moment in American history.

Of course it’s also a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in his final months, played here by Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irishman who’s made something of a career of embodying larger than life emblems of American masculinity (see The Last of the Mohicans, Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood). A refreshing shift away from the terror and bombast of Bill the Butcher of Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is more Peter Fonda than John Huston, gentle in gesture and reedy in voice, prone to unhurried anecdotes, mischievous uncle jokes and deceptively sly parables, the Colombo of presidents, content to play things relaxed and unthreatening, until the moment comes to show a firm hand and a clear, determined vision. Day-Lewis is well complimented by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who swings from near-hysteria to charisma and control, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, a man charged with realizing and finessing some of Lincoln’s thornier ambitions, and Tommy Lee Jones as Republican congressional leader and outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, ornery but articulate, formidable in congress, an author of inspired public insults with two old fried eggs for eyes.

Kushner’s taken a wildly complex, multi-character political narrative and given it a shrewd structure, though he could have lost some peripheral threads, such as one involving Lincoln’s eldest son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the superfluous denouement. Kushner’s given his characters some wonderfully eloquent jabs and big, obvious speeches that aren’t inordinately showy. He’s also written some absolutely deadly expository dialogue, yet thankfully John Williams, that most ham-fisted of composers, largely refrains from underscoring all of this dialogue with the sort of soaring schmaltz one might be bracing for. Maybe he was following his old pal Spielberg’s lead, since Lincoln generally finds the director working in a pleasingly reserved mode.  He seems to understand that what’s gripping and fascinating about this story requires and rewards our careful attention; to beat us over the head with the gravity of every scene would only distract from the delight of the details.

For all its flaws, Lincoln feels like the important historical epic it strives to be. And while it’s fundamentally an ensemble picture, I can’t really bear any grudges against the film for orbiting around Lincoln, who’s certainly the closest thing here to a genuine hero. But please don’t bear any grudges against me if I confess that I’d love to see the same story told from the perspective of the three stooges—played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and a zesty, porky, moustachioed James Spader— Seward hires to persuade fence-sitting voters by any means (more or less) legally necessary. Such hedonistic hucksters can also hold history’s dice. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun to explore a few months in 1865 America with.