Thursday, January 30, 2014

Half-baked, or actually not even

A man doing 18 years for murder escapes during a hospital visit and holes up in the semi-rural home of a paralyzingly depressed divorcée and her sensitive and impressionable pubescent boy. The escapee is tough but tender, a sort of ideal man, really, one whose very position as the subject of a manhunt radiates danger without exuding any real threat. He ties the divorcée up just right; he fixes the furnace and tunes up the station wagon; he cleans the floor, gets rid of the squeak in the screen door hinges, and makes hearty chilli and mouth-watering cobbler. He says he didn’t kill anyone on purpose, and why shouldn’t the divorcée believe him? He’s so nice. And patient. And intuitive. And strong. (He’s Josh Brolin!) And anyway the divorcée needs a man’s love and attention. She’s fragile, wiggy, actually, but super-desirable. (She’s Kate Winslet!) The boy is drawn to the escapee and gets loving baseball tips from him. But he’s also jealous maybe, especially once he kens onto the heat rising between the escapee and his mom—this is, after all, a boy who gives his mother a “Husband-for-a-Day” coupon book for back-rubs and breakfast in bed. A key scene has all six of these characters’ hands plunged in a bowl, fondling ripe, sticky peaches in a kind of familial food-porn orgy. As with so much about this movie, a little light perversion goes a long way.

Labor Day is a brooding coming-of-age story and the fairly chaste tale of a heady long weekend-long romance. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air), it takes itself very, very seriously, though if, for example, you just remove the hushed, portentous scoring from that first scene where Brolin makes his weirdo entrance, bleeding, furtive, politely asking the boy to help him discreetly exit a department store, the whole thing would easily play as comedy. (Cyrus, maybe?) Screwball comedy? (Cary Grant: “I’m sorry, my dear, but I just can’t seem to shake these policemen.”) Or as Harlequin romance (obviously). Or as red-meat noir. Any of these would have made the film’s story, taken from the Joyce Maynard novel, a little easier to swallow. From the very notion of Winslet’s financially strapped shut-in and devoted mother trusting this guy enough to dump everything and leave the country with him and her son, to the escapee’s complete lack of any alarming, even normal-alarming, qualities, to the pretty pastoral flashbacks to young love and heartbreak, to the numerous shamelessly artificial obstacles that accumulate as the movie enters its third act (the nosy cop, the nosy ex, the nosy bank teller, the nosy, intrusive neighbour with the handicapped son who nearly spills the beans), pretty much everything in Labor Day is utterly preposterous. Brolin and Winslet (both of them actors I love), and even Gattlin Griffith, who plays the boy, each go the extra limit to dignify these characters and make them plausible. But that might be the problem (along with the spells of PBS classical guitar that accompanies scenes of secret fleeting carbohydrate-stoned domestic bliss). It’s certainly what makes Labor Day so laughable. It’s just impossible to take this stuff seriously. Though who knows? Maybe you’ll swoon in spite of yourself. Especially if you get hot and bothered over manly men baking. 

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The strangeness at the top of the world

When you ascend past Camp Four you enter something they call the Death Zone. It is not named that for nothing. After 8,000 feet every cell in your body is reeling from oxygen deprivation. Aside from the numerous physical difficulties this brings, this means that logical decisions become increasingly difficult to make. You are in a sense inebriated—you’ve gotten very, very, very high. That high comes with thrills of the sort you may never again come across. As is often the case, the hardest part is coming down.

Director Nick Ryan’s The Summit is a documentary chronicling an attempt made by representatives of various countries in August of 2008 to make it to the top of K2, the world’s second highest peak, but the one more serious climbers concentrate on, rather than Everest, which I guess is too much the terrain of motivational speakers for the sort of hardcore maniacs we find in this film. Am I out of turn calling Ryan’s subjects maniacs? Perhaps, but consider the fact that one in four climbers dies trying to get to the top of K2 and you might start to wonder about their sanity, even before they hit the Death Zone. Those odds actually turned out to be far too optimistic for the crowd of 2008: 18 climbers approached the summit; 11 did not make it back alive.

To nitpick Ryan’s approach to The Summit: the portent is laid on a little thick at times, there are a few too many title cards providing information someone could have just told or showed us, and the recreations seem a little superfluous and confusing when there’s so much excellent real footage to work with. But all that aside, The Summit is pretty riveting. The testimonies are engaging and ultimately very moving; the images of the Himalayas are consistently astonishing, a glorious landscape out of science fiction, Norse mythology, or illustrated religious pamphlets; the narrative is mostly very well organized, with the emphasis wisely not on psychology but on story, most of all on the strangeness of this story, on how everything is stranger when you’re up above the entire world, apart from it, immersed in airless beauty and imminent doom. So much of what transpired during the 2008 expedition is, in the end, a mystery. Even to those who survived. Why did some of the climbers do what they did when what they did would so surely lead to their demise? As one of Ryan’s subjects puts it, “Only the mountain knows.” 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Rhapsodie bohémien

Aki Kaurismäki wanted to adapt Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème since first reading it in the ’70s, but it would be another 15 years before the Finnish filmmaker could realize his dream in the only city that could possibly host Murger’s iconic narrative. Except that it couldn’t. Paris was no longer the Paris of 1851, or even 1951. Café culture was a memory. So Kaurismäki moved his crew to the southern suburb of Malakoff, which held traces of his dimmer, more decrepit vision of the city of light. He shot in sterling black and white, which leaves more room to dream, and has a way of blurring our sense of time. La vie de bohème (1992) is one of Kaurismäki’s most transporting and wondrous works, characteristically economical and deadpan, yet brimming with emotion and drama, with fatalism, snap decisions, love at first sight, and hastily forged alliances. It’s funny, inventive, occasionally absurd, peppered with deus ex machina yet tragic, devoted to an idea of life, art and romance that leaves no room for failure, even when failure is inevitable. It’s now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.

The cast is a dream. Matti Pellonpää plays Rodolfo, an Albanian painter, and Kari Väänänen is Schaunard, an Irish composer of vaudevillian musique concrete. (These Fins knew not a lick of the French and thus learned their lines phonetically.) André Wilms is the logorrhetic writer Marcel Marx, a character Wilms would revisit in Kaurismäki’s Le Havre (2011). Evelyne Didi plays Mimi, who loves Rodolfo but finds it hard to bear his endemic poverty. (And it should be said that, in just a few scenes, Kaurismäki and his collaborators do more to dignify and deepen the women in this chronicle of male-centric bohemian life than every Beat Generation movie combined.) Jean-Pierre Léaud, beloved star of so much early Truffaut and Godard, plays Rodolfo’s affluent patron, an impulsive art collector who materializes like a gruff angel at just the right moments. There are cameos from directors Sam Fuller, whose Pick-up on South Street (1953) is alluded to during a pickpocketing scene, and Louis Malle, playing a diner who takes pity on Rodolfo after said pocket has been picked. The film also features Laika, a dog, in the role of Baudelaire, also a dog. Which is to say that a dog plays a dog, one named after a poet and contemporary of Murger’s. He does a marvellous job.

La vie de bohème seems timeless, yet part of its charm derives from its precise sense of place, one where shadows are many and long, where the wallpaper’s peeling in every garret and berets are worn without irony, where a two-headed trout smiles upon the foundation of a friendship, where the wipers of a three-wheeled car wipe in time to Little Willie John when lovers reunite. Magic and squalor are close neighbours in this world, as they were in the production: when Kaurismäki couldn’t afford to shoot a farewell scene in the Gare d'Austerlitz, he found an aluminium garage door and projected light on it through a stencil cut to resemble the windows of a moving train. And real-life concerns creep into the fantasy. Typically for Kaurismäki, immigrant communities, outsiders and the poor stick together without making a big deal of it. Solidarity is as much a matter of survival as sentiment. But it can’t save these bohemians from their destinies. Nor has it saved Kaurismäki from the brutalities of film financing. In the first ten years of his career he made 12 features. In the last ten, he’s made two. C’est la vie? Here’s hoping that the prospects for this one-of-a-kind filmmaker aren’t as dismal as they were for Rodolfo, Schaunard, Mimi or Marcel. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ryan getting married on the run from Ruskies

Tom Clancy’s beloved Jack Ryan provided an unambiguously heroic face for the CIA—just keep in mind that “intelligence” is a malleable term. Especially if you watch the movies made from Clancy’s Ryan novels, Patriot Games et al. Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck have already embodied Ryan. Now Chris Pine, apparently the go-to guy for junior versions of serialized characters already played by established elder actors (see the last two Star Treks), is taking on the role in the first movie “inspired by” Clancy’s most famous creation, rather than an actual adaptation of one of the Ryan novels. Written by Adam Cozad and David Koepp and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which is as much about the foundations of a marriage as it is about saving America and/or the world from annihilation, feels in some respects a little more knowingly lightweight than its predecessors, though its suspicion that Russia is still working to destroy the world seems very much in keeping with Clancy’s tenacious vision. In the shadowy world of late U.S. author, glasnost was always a bluff and the Cold War didn’t end so much as go undercover.

Which makes Branagh’s choice to cast himself as Viktor Cherevin, the big, bad Russian heavy masterminding a second Great Depression and catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil kind of endearing. It’s also flamboyantly arrogant, a showy performance depending on the English actor nailing just the right mealy-mouthed accent and lipless Slavic grimace. But, while his directorial efforts have taken a curious swing from Shakespeare and Mary Shelley to Marvel Comics and Clancy, Branagh the actor has always modelled his career after Laurence Olivier, and this is just the sort of stunt acting that Olivier, for better or worse, savoured. Anyway, he’s very entertaining. Branagh knows he’s got the plum role—Pine’s Ryan, who over the course of the movie goes from math student to marine to secret analyst to superspy, is mostly required to run around a lot and stay cool under pressure. He’s pretty variable. A scene in which Pine’s Ryan has to pretend to be drunk during a fancy dinner is preposterous. And so is most the movie, especially the super-sweaty last act. You’ll never guess how the hero saves New York from exploding! (Psst… Pay attention to the painting.)

But here’s something kind of interesting: there’s a second, unexpected recruit in Shadow Recruit. We know from the outset that Ryan is supposed to keep his employer a secret from everybody, even his girlfriend, who only gets to hear shoptalk if she agrees to become Mrs. Ryan. But the plot twists itself enough so that Cathy (Keira Knightley) pays a surprise visit to Ryan in Moscow and finds out everything. Rather than call the whole thing off, Ryan’s supervisor (a nice, low-key Kevin Costner) opts to work Cathy into the big scheme to divert Cherevin while Ryan steals his data. I actually found Knightley’s performance as a sort of Mata Hari in the aforementioned dinner scene more convincing and nuanced than that of Pine. Will Jack and Cathy be a terror-fighting duo from here on? Will future Jack Ryan flicks offer us a 21st century geopolitical blockbuster variation on The Thin Man? Scoff if you will. Worse things could happen. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Bad language, bad glory, bad memory, bad movie

Based on Marcus Luttrell’s eponymous memoir, this recreation of 2005’s failed Operation Red Wings, in which Navy SEALs got stuck on an Afghan mountain while attempting to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, is itself a failed attempt to honour those men who died or nearly died on said mountain. The closing montage displaying photos of Red Wings’ (exclusively American) casualties is immensely moving. The problem is the preceding two hours, which begin like a recruitment video, build up to the war movie equivalent of torture porn, and end with an oversimplified resolution that’s willfully oblivious to any larger context.

During the opening teaser, Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) explains in voice-over that “there is a storm inside” SEALs, “a burning, a river, a drive, an unrelenting desire,” and a lot of other stuff. Once the shit hits the fan, most of what’s spoken in Lone Survivor varies between “Goddamn motherfuckers,” “Fuck you,” “Ow, fuck,” “Fuckin’ fuck,” “Fucker,” “Fuck,” and “Fuuuuuck!” Carnage, chaos and imminent death will stifle the poet in any of us, but such expletive-laden dialogue seems designed foremost as a way of bluntly heightening the rat-a-tat and crunch of bones, which seem to be the key point of interest for director Peter Berg and his collaborators, who strain verisimilitude not only by reportedly grossly exaggerating the number of Taliban involved in the film’s central firefight, but also by hurling our already shot-up heroes down the mountain at high speed, smashing their torsos and skulls into pointy rocks, and having them continue to walk, talk and fight afterward.

Reverence for the dead shouldn’t make this film bulletproof—it should make us that much more concerned with truth and consequence. This is a serious movie, ostensibly dealing with serious questions about war, strategy, policy, and ethics. When discussing whether to eliminate or set free a trio of civilians who accidentally blow their cover, among the four SEALs (Wahlberg, Emile Hirsch, Taylor Kitsch and Ben Foster) only Lutrell speaks passionately about the imperative to be humane. Which leaves us with an uneasy feeling since—hardly a spoiler—he’s the only one who lives to tell the tale. And in the moral causality of Lone Survivor he’s rewarded for his humanity, by having his life fearlessly defended by an entire Afghan village—though in the closing voice-over he thanks only his brothers. The issue isn’t about what Lutrell feels or says in moments of trauma or mourning; it’s what’s said by this movie, which has the advantage of time and distance, and the burden of memory.