Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The maggots, the ice cubes, the unseen hand

A man collects little maggots from a garden and deposits them into capsules. Kids ride bikes and practice some kind of martial art. The light is softly dazzling and the ambient soundtrack quietly rapturous. We are enveloped by the rhythmical array of images and sounds almost devoid of context. Stripped down dialogue conveys the barest minimum of exposition. The patterns beguile. What’s going on? Impossible to tell, at least at this point, but already you’re snared by the current of Upstream Color, the second feature from Shane Carruth, whose equally baffling-fascinating debut, a very talky tale of time travel entitled Primer, made such an impression nine years back.

Baffling, yet not for lack of drama. A woman, Kris (Amy Seimetz), is abducted, drugged so as to render her a puppet, or living zombie. Her abductor tells her that his head is a sun, that the water is holy, that there is a wall protecting her from hunger and fatigue—a diet of ice cubes will do for now. The abductor has Kris copy out parts of Thoreau’s Walden. Could this whole creepy campaign be some elaborate act of civil disobedience? After Thoreau, he has Kris signing cheques. When she snaps out of her abductor’s spell, Kris is alone, traumatized to the point of self-mutilation, with no idea what happened to her.

What clues can we follow? How about those scenes at some camp hospital, an anesthetized pig, speakers playing oceanic whoomphs? The surgeon who also collects nature sounds, a sort of po-faced Judge Reinhold-type who, as Upstream Color flows along, seems to be everywhere, listening, observing, recording, getting close to people without touching. Before the abduction, Kris worked for a post-production house of some sort. Is there some connection between what she did and what the mystery man is gleaning with his recording devices? Beats me. But I can assure you that all of these scenes inhabit the same world, one that seems to validate conspiracy theorists, one conjured with immense craft and cryptic intelligence by Carruth, who not only wrote, directed and produced the film, but also cut it, shot it, composed the music, and acts in the film, as Jeff, another abduction victim who eventually meets Kris, at which point Upstream Color becomes a very peculiar sort of love story about damaged crazy people who have no idea as to why they’re damaged or crazy. Kris and Jeff are even more in the dark that those of watching this film, and both Seimetz and Carruth are very good at embodying this inexplicable panic that requires layers of denial to endure. 

The hand that attempts to control the psyches of the characters in Upstream Color remains essentially mysterious throughout, though we do gradually see and hear enough to get some idea as to the scale of this elusive Caligari-figure’s powers. The film is never less than captivating, at times it’s nerve-wracking. The music and editing schemes feel like the work of a more sinister Terrence Malick, with montage being used to accentuate motion, and place us in the thick of the characters’ plight. We leave the film with an only slightly better idea as to what’s going on than when we entered, but I predict a good number of you will want to come back for a second go-round, just to see if the penny ever drops. Or if the unseen hand is really that of Carruth.  


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Heist gone wrong just gets wronger and wronger

Trance begins with a heist gone wrong. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours) loves to explore different kinds of kicks, and in the slickly photographed opening sequence of Trance he revels in the depiction of what promises to be an inventively planned clean getaway—before throwing in the wrench and supplying a visceral jolt. The goods to be stolen aren’t jewels or currency but rather a great work of art: Goya’s Witches in the Air. Don’t let this give you the impression that Trance will have anything to do with the specifics of the art world, or art theft, or with art in general, or with anything that makes any sense or means anything. Boyle’s latest adrenaline-confection is hokum—extremely complicated hokum. Rarely does a story work this hard to be this dumb.

Franck (Vincent Cassel) leads the crew of crooks. Simon (James McAvoy), a gambling addict whose debts Franck took care of, is the inside man: he works for the auction house overseeing the Goya’s sale. During the heist Simon inexplicably Tasers Franck, Franck beats Simon senseless; somewhere along the way the Goya is lost. No one knows where it wound up, not even Simon, because he wakes up in hospital with amnesia. Franck orders Simon to visit Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a gorgeous hypnotherapist, presuming that she can unlock his busted memory. Elizabeth rapidly kens on to the fact that Simon’s in trouble, but rather than try to get him out of it she deals herself in: she’ll help the gang find the painting if she gets a cut. So everybody’s on the take, but, alas, nothing is as it seems. Yes, Trance is one of those movies where “nothing is as it seems,” which means that the plot is going to bend over backwards and characters are going to be turned inside-out so as to accommodate surprise at all costs.

For a little while it seems that Boyle, working from Joe Aheame and John Hodge’s script, is going for a blippy, pulsating new spin on Hitchcock’s Spellbound, but gradually things careen into a territory that owes more to the untrustworthy narrators of Jim Thompson novels. Which brings us to the film’s key deficiency, one even more problematic than the script itself. Dawson does her best with a ridiculous role and Cassel is actually quite fun as the ruthless villain who turns out to be the most sympathetic character of the lot—the film actually ends in such a way that he sort of becomes the protagonist. But McAvoy is way in over his injured head. The limp line-readings he gives to the more ploddingly cryptic bits in the opening voice-over (“…the event of a situation…”), the over-rehearsed cracks in his voice that say, “I’m nervous!”: he’s either without any colour or trying way too hard, and in the end, when the character’s full backstory is revealed, nothing in McAvoy’s boyish performance adds up to anything but a confusing mess. I feel somewhat bad about dumping all over McAvoy—he’s done well in certain naïve parts—but he’s badly miscast here, and makes one pine for the days when Boyle’s steady leading man was Ewan McGregor, an actor who can convey a much higher degree of genuine mischief. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Nine years from now we will meet again

Their story already goes back some 18 years, to that night in Vienna, when Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a Frenchwoman, were just two wandering kids in their early 20s, soaking up the world, meeting perchance on a train, taking a dare to honour the connection both felt so acutely, to not let it simply slip away and wind up always wondering what might have become of the one that got away. 

That night was captured in Before Sunrise (1995), a perfectly lovely little film, but one that came to mean much, much more to me once I saw Before Sunset (2004), in which Jesse and Celine reunite in Paris on the occasion of Jesse’s book tour: his first novel was a fictionalized version of that night they met, maybe fell in love, and parted for nine years without any way of contacting each other. Now in their 30s, they wander the city of light, tell each other of what their lives have become; she’s single, and a somewhat domesticated activist, while he married, had a child, and became a writer, though the married part isn’t going so well. As with its predecessor, this most meaningful of sequels ends in a moment of heady suspension, in Celine’s apartment, with Celine dancing seductively to Nina Simone, and Jesse very much in danger of missing his flight home. (Does it make me a cynic or a romantic that when I last re-watched Before Sunrise, in preparation for seeing Before Midnight, I was suddenly struck by the feeling that the film may just depict the ideal relationship, one composed almost entirely of longing and projection?) If you’ve seen these films and were drawn deep into them as I was, you hardly need me to tell you about Before Midnight to convince you to see it. Read ahead if you wish, though you may want to let the film do the work of bringing you up to speed and come back to this review later.

Before Midnight begins with a farewell, not between our eternally returning lovers, but between Jesse and Hank, his now 13-year-old son, who is returning to Chicago and his mother, now divorced from Jesse, who did not catch that plane. In fact, he stayed, married Celine, and the couple, now in their 40s, have children of their own: angelic bilingual flaxen-haired twins. The family is vacationing in Greece, and while driving from the airport to the idyllic seaside house where they’re staying Jesse raises the possibility of their trying out the States for a while, just to be closer to Hank. Celine immediately pegs this suggestion as symptomatic of a bigger scheme of Jesse’s to avoid responsibilities to his current family, not to mention ignore the fact that she’s been offered an important government job that would keep her in Paris. Jesse’s seemingly innocent idea lays the seed of discontent that will grow into a potentially cataclysmic battle between a passive-aggressive husband and a more brazenly resentful wife. Some friends arrange to mind the kids so Jesse and Celine can run off to enjoy an interruption-free night of love in a nice hotel, but the chances of erotic fulfillment slowly erode as the couple make their way into town, exchanging some of the most unnervingly resonant dialogue between long-term lovers I’ve ever heard in in any film.

The script is a collaboration between Hawke, Delpy and director Richard Linklater, and this trilogy of films—along with a wonderful little Jesse and Celine cameo in Waking Life (2001)—will likely stand as the most enduring work in all of these artists’ respective legacies. There’s nothing in cinema history quite like it, though Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) and its follow-up Saraband (2005) come close, while as a stand-alone film Before Midnight perhaps most closely resembles Certified Copy (2010). The trilogy allows the actors to age and the story and characters to age with them, to ripen to the point where, wordy as these films are, so much is left unsaid. Before Midnight feels to me like the best of the three, but is it simply that I too have aged with Jesse and Celine, who are only a little older than me? That I see things gained and lost in my own life as I watch theirs unfold in nine-year wallop-increments?

Linklater elegantly lets Before Midnight’s five sections play out in long takes, adding to the sense of the real, to the earned intimacy and organic burgeoning of tension. As the film reaches its end, there are cups of tea left un-sipped, glasses of wine left un-drank, bodies left unloved, questions left unanswered. Again, that heady suspension, though now altered by so many unalterable life choices riddled with consequence. Will there be a fourth film? The door has been left open. But for now we get to live for a while with this one. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Killing time on the way to the top

A tale of giddy optimism; a workplace comedy for the ages; a showcase for audacious, masterfully executed, hilarious stunts; a frantic mediation on time, ambition, and money. Above all: a ridiculously entertaining movie. Safety Last! (1923) is silent comedy genius Harold Lloyd’s tour de force. It's now available in a generously supplemented DVD and Blu-ray package from Criterion.

In his trademark boater, dark suit and glasses, Lloyd plays “The Boy” (he was almost 30), who leaves his little town of Great Bend for the big city. The stakes are established in seconds: his beloved Mildred (Mildred Davis) is going to come to the city and marry him—but only after he’s become a success, whatever that means. We start at the train station and off he goes, nearly taking a stranger’s baby with him. The views of urban Los Angeles in the 20s are gorgeous, possessing tremendous documentary value. The idea of the city is conveyed most obviously by tall buildings, so maybe it’s inevitable that Lloyd’s Boy will wind up climbing up the face of one of them. The Boy gets the idea from his pal and roomie, Limpy Bill (Bill Strother), whose limp was all too real—he broke his leg just before shooting. Strother was a labourer and a genuine human fly who could scale buildings like nobody’s business. Then Lloyd worked it into his business, crafting one of cinema’s most iconic images, a predecessor to Man on Wire (2008), the film’s gangly hero climbing his way to the top, often nearly falling along the way, at one point clutching hands of a clock, destroying its face, literally killing time so as to save his life.

It’s often noted that Lloyd remains underappreciated in comparison with Chaplin and Keaton, and it’s true. Yet his presence looms over so much comedy to this day. Think of that incredible, rather beautiful opening image of Lloyd in close-up, worried, containing his panic, anxiously clutching an iron gate. Woody Allen is waiting somewhere in that image. Maybe Don McKellar too. So many of the film’s best moments are made of hi-jinx: hiding from the landlady by curling up under a coat hanging on the wall; pretending to be an accident victim so as to hitch a ride to work in an ambulance. But that face of Lloyd’s is as subtle as the physical comedy is broad. Underappreciated, yes, but it will remain with us for another 90 years, at least. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Days when every shrub poses a threat

A man alone in a room, waiting in the gloom, unnervingly still, watching the clock on the wall. On the wall behind the man, the man’s shadow hovers close, doubling him, looming, succubus-like, ready to follow the man when, once the clock strikes six, he rises from that chair and leaves Lembridge Asylum.

What story shall we tell? One of the truly delicious things about the opening moments of Ministry of Fear (1944) is that it’s so saturated with forbidding mood and transfixing ambiguity that it seems it could go anywhere, could become any number of stories. The story that it does become, one of geopolitical intrigue, deadly pursuit, paranoia, betrayal, mystery pastry, and guilt, is dizzyingly dense with plot—and with plots—and, to my eyes and ears, a deeply satisfying, dream-like suspense film. Certain elements are very much of the time, with Nazis aplenty, yet the film feels out of time, of any time—its eeriness is timeless. Oddly enough, you get the impression that this timelessness, this careful drawing upon anxiogenic symbols from the collective unconscious, is precisely what Graham Greene, whose novel provided the film with its source material, didn’t like. And he claimed that Fritz Lang, the film’s director, didn’t like it either. Perhaps because, at that time, it seemed so important to make Ministry of Fear, like Lang’s Man Hunt (1941) and Hangmen Also Die (1943), an explicitly anti-Nazi picture—Lang was a self-exiled German—and the film’s Nazis simply weren’t Nazi enough: no secret chambers adorned with swastika flags or giant portraits of the Führer, no maniacal speeches about world domination. Fair enough, I suppose. But what we have in the place of a rallying cry for the Allies is a wildly evocative, exquisitely designed, utterly entertaining nightmare. The film is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

That man in the room is Stephen Neale. One of the first people he encounters is a fortune-teller, who seems to be waiting for him. She wants to talk about the women in his past, something that makes him very uncomfortable—Neale did time in Lembridge after being found guilty of “mercy killing” his ailing wife. Neale’s played by Ray Milland, one of those rare stars who could easily be the hero or the heavy, whose every gesture is perfectly gauged so as to draw us in and alternately earn our sympathies and prompt us to question his reliability. Against the advice of his doctor, Neale opts to head straight to London upon release. A bustling city, and a place upon which bombs could fall at any moment—talk about ominous. Everything in Ministry of Fear is ominous, from the weird din of boisterous laughter that Neale finds in certain crowds to the séance in which the medium speaks directly to him, from the perpetual fog to the sculpted shrubbery to the ladies large-brimmed translucent hats. Lang, as responsible for ushering German expressionism into Hollywood cinema as anyone, accents the unease by keeping the characters most often in the middle distance (that trademark dearth of point-of-view), and by not relying on the musical score in key moments of tension. So many of the film’s scenes are so compellingly strange: a blind man cane-tapping his way through a curtain of steam; two grown men eating cake without plates or cutlery on a train; a carpet of Englishmen sleeping on the floor of a tube station bomb shelter; a tailor (Dan Duryea) dialing a telephone with a giant pair of scissors. Every moment promises something new, some development that might change the course of everything. It’s almost surreal. But haven’t you had days like this?