Monday, January 26, 2015

Let's take this lyng down

It may be the most horizontal movie I have ever seen. The teeming populace of La Ciénaga (2001), Lucrecia Martel’s beguiling feature debut, spend an inordinate amount of time lying down, usually awake, sometimes several to a bed, sometimes with limbs splayed in various positions. There are amazingly dynamic geometries composed of bodies just trying to get a little rest. The laziness on display in La Ciénaga is charming and funny, and maybe also appalling, emblematic of the liminal space La Ciénaga nimbly inhabits, as though suspended on a high-wire, scathing social commentary on one side, vivid, goofy, impressionistic sounds and images on the other. The film is idiosyncratic, utterly personal, yet riddled with the political, with class critiques suggested only in playful ways. It’s a stunningly confident work. And the great news is that it’s now available from Criterion.

“La Ciénaga.” “The Swamp.” It’s the name Martel gives to the place where she grew up in northwestern Argentina. Part of this film’s allure is also what makes it very difficult to summarize. It is about two families. It is about a summer home, with a pool, and bedrooms, and lots of wine drank with ice, and an adjoining forest where the boys go to play with guns. It is very much about the bourgeoisie, but it’s told from the inside: many of the characters are often drunk (this would make a pretty good double-feature with The Swimmer), and the camerawork is somehow brilliantly choreographed and also stumbling and tipsy too; as rough-and-tumble as the cameras of John Cassavetes, but with a precision Cassavetes’ beloved mania wasn’t designed to take on. The film is autobiographical and the camera is never editorializing. The editing, of course, is another matter. It’s elliptical, teasing. Those boys with the guns: one wants to shoot a dead, muddy cow; another stands in the way; we cut to a shot of the landscape, no figures in sight, and we hear the gunshot, not knowing if someone’s been hit. If Martel made conventional narrative films we’d call her a master manipulator. But there is nothing conventional and little that’s narrative-forward about La Ciénaga.

It begins thusly: following an atonal aria in which a chorus of the world’s noisiest, cheapest-looking lawn chairs are dragged across tile, one of our two matriarchs, totally stinko, collapses, cutting herself badly. Her daughter comes to pull pieces of glass from her chest. A lazy assessment of La Ciénaga might say that nothing happens, but the film’s gambit rests in the opposite camp: everything happens, though it happens in fragments, in shards, with scenes that start halfway-in and end before they’re resolved; with more characters—family, friends and servants, victims of racial slurs—than we can be expected to keep track of. Martel is focused on immersing us in this world and that’s exactly what she’s so devastatingly good at. The film is so funny—the blitzed characters getting so animated about the idea of shipping for school supplies in Bolivia—the dialogue so curious, the images so transfixing, we might forgot that this is also an oblique indictment of a culture of waste and sloth, snobbery and unjust disparity, of tackiness and unchecked Catholic neurosis. All these ingredients will come into play in Martel’s subsequent films, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), each of which feature fewer characters, or at least feature central characters, and something close to what we might call a storyline. Paragons of the New Argentine Cinema, they feel sprung from the same swamp yet each are inventive, provocative variations. Seeing La Ciénaga reminds us of how vast Martel’s powers are—and how long we’ve had to wait for more.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Assets and deficits

Let me just start by telling you what it’s about, because what it’s about is by far the most interesting thing about A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor’s third feature and, following Margin Call, second dissertation on the ethics of capitalism.

It’s 1981. New York’s crawling with crime. Prosperous local oil distributor Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) puts down a massive deposit on a Queens waterfront storage facility, with another $1.5-million to cough up in the next 30 days. The bank’s got Morales’ back, but he’s assailed with obstacles: crusading DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is indicting him on vague corruption charges and, at the same time, fuel bandits are hijacking Morales’ trucks at toll booths and on turnpikes. The teamsters want to arm Morales’ drivers and Anna (Jessica Chastain), Morales’ wife, wants to ask favours from her “Family,” but Morales says no. Actually he says something terribly articulate and verbose that’s more or less a “no.” Morales is not to be corrupted. But Morales is also not to be dissuaded from his dreams of dominating his industry. He’s the embodiment of good capitalism. “I like to own the things I use,” he says. 

He also says, “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster.” A man presiding over a risky business, trying to avoid getting dragged into a criminal swamp: Morales is clearly modelled after Michael Corleone, and Isaac, a good actor, is, in his understated way, doing Pacino. Oddball, methody details included—he chews gum while going for a run! Isaac’s breakout performance was as the titular folksinger in Inside Llewyn Davis, and there’s a goofy little call-back to Llewyn in A Most Violent Year: on a dark road Isaac hits, not a cat this time, but a deer. Instead of stalking away into the surrounding brush, the deer is disposed of by Chastain in a laughably portentous Lady Macbeth moment. I wasn’t especially hung up on her very inconsistent Brooklyn accent, but Chastain’s talents are not well served by this overwrought yet underwritten role.

Much as I liked All is Lost, it is easy to overstate Chandor’s chops. The film’s tone benefits from an interesting if over-used Alex Ebert score, which at times echoes the early bits of ‘Shine On, You Crazy Diamond’ with hints of Ravel thrown in. But A Most Violent Year is mostly very baggy, with many needless cutaways to reaction shots that I suspect will, once you start noticing them, prompt eye-rolling reactions from you. The bagginess extends to the blunt, overemphatic dialogue—“It’s a gun. It’s a FUCKING gun” or “I don’t know. I don’t FUCKING know”—which can also be comically, redundantly on-the-nose: “You seem to be under a lot of pressure from all sides,” a highly perceptive union boss says to Morales. Of course, nothing in the writing of A Most Violent Year feels quite as ham-fisted as the naming of Abel Morales, who is both able and a man of morals. “I have always taken the path that is most right, and that is what this is.”

In broad brushstrokes, the story is a compelling reflection on a certain time and place, a certain tendency in certain industries, but scene by scene A Most Dangerous Year is poorly executed. Of course, it’s a story of poor executions—are we really supposed to believe that not one, but two hired thugs in this movie can’t hold onto their gun? And is it not a serious weakness in the writing that the drama turns on one of its characters—a driver who gets repeatedly ambushed—simply being unbelievably stupid?


Friday, January 23, 2015

Hard to get down

Cake is one of these films you might feel sort of bullied into liking, or at least respecting, because it deals with heavy themes of grief and living with chronic pain and drug addiction among the white and affluent, because it features an ostensibly unlikable heroine whom we’re meant to come to love because we witness some arduous process of redemption, because it stars an actor who became famous years ago when she was young and bubbly and had influential hair, and here she is with greasy hair, facial scars, dumpy clothes and a shit attitude. But that bullying you feel is integral to Cake’s cookie-cutter schematics. Cake chokes on its own dramaturgy, its only icing here being that, yes, Jennifer Aniston, also conspicuously on board as executive producer, is pretty good as the blunt, un-ingratiating heroine whose body was mangled in some terrible accident and whose heart became paralyzed after the devastating loss of a loved one in that same accident. Without Aniston, or someone like her, Cake would not have been made, and without Aniston you would certainly have considerably less reason to watch it.

The set-up has plenty of intrigue: Claire (Aniston) seems to be stalking Nina (Anna Kendrick), a dead woman, who was in Claire’s cartoonish chronic pain support group, perhaps because Nina suicided and Claire envies her gumption. Claire blackmails her support group leader into disclosing Nina’s address so that Claire can go snoop around Nina’s home, which is still inhabited by Nina’s little boy and—look out!—her hunky husband (Sam Worthington). Also intriguing: Claire’s only other occupation is to feed her need for Percs and Oxys, which, in one of Cake’s better sequences, she enlists her devoted Chicana housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) to drive her down to Tijuana to procure. But the intrigue quickly dissipates once we get stuck watching the lamely written sequences in which Nina appears to Claire as some sort of bitchy ghost, or bitchy hallucination brought on by addiction and self-loathing. There’s also the issue of Claire really never seeming that unlikable a person—just one of many ways in which Cake goes soft. No doubt some will applaud Barraza, who got an Oscar nod for Babel, but those applauding surely don’t speak Spanish, because when Barraza goes to town, airing her grievances toward her employer en español, it is a flatly inflected tirade worthy of a telenovela hitting end-of-the-week exhaustion. Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous character of a would-be starlet and thief from Boise who gets conveniently and awkwardly squashed into Cake’s final act. To be sure, there are far worse movies than Cake, but the ways in which Cake is bad are really annoying.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Bad shot

American Sniper is based on Chris Kyle’s memoir and I’m led to understand that it’s quite a faithful adaptation. But the problems one encounters when turning memoirs into movies are myriad. In this case, they include having a famous actor embody a real person, a military hero with a fascinating and fraught legacy (Kyle accumulated a record 160 confirmed kills during his four tours during the Iraq War), and shifting perspective from the book’s first-person to the movie’s inherent third-person, which inevitably imposes a political reading on personal reportage—and with that political reading comes an enormous moral responsibility. Whatever you might think of director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall’s personal politics, their take on American Sniper renders a thorny chapter in the history of US foreign policy as a somewhat dunderheaded white hat/black hat rah-rah western. 

It doesn't help that some scenes are the sort of thing that should land Hall in the screenwriters’ stockade. Take the early scene in which Kyle (a beefy-burly and uncharacteristically opaque Bradley Cooper) comes home to find his live-in girlfriend with another man. “I do this to get attention. Can’t you see that?!” cries the cheater, who has apparently never heard of subtext. Kyle later meets his real love interest in a bar. She acts all tough but vomits after downing shots, which is another way of saying that, unlike Kyle, she ain’t no Navy SEAL. There’s a later scene in which PTSD is invoked by having Kyle seated before his television, from which we hear, as though through his ears, the sound of a war movie, but when the camera spins around the TV isn’t even on! Much of American Sniper’s dialogue fits into the Lone Survivor model: when soldiers aren’t punctuating every word with “fuck” it’s because they’re saying nothing but “fuck.” Defenders may cry verisimilitude, but that hardly excuses redundant, unimaginative verbiage that might otherwise be used to help tell a story. 

American Sniper is one of Eastwood’s least inspired films as director; visually speaking, its incredibly boring coverage harkens back to TV movies of the ’80s. But the more troubling issues concern point of view, the way we’re invited to watch countless foreigners get shot to hell while Kyle’s tragic death at the hands of a fellow veteran is only alluded to in the film’s flat final moments, or the way Kyle’s nemesis, a dreadlocked sniper rumored to be a Syrian Olympic medalist, is provided with counter-close-ups yet still comes off as mere caricature. Perhaps this material needed Sam Fuller to inject it with manic energy instead of Eastwood’s macho solemnity. Perhaps it simply needed a screenwriter with moral vision, one capable of finding a dramatic way to grapple with the deeper questions about what Kyle’s life, career and untimely death mean to us as we survey the consequences of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s irrevocable response to that day that, one way or another, really did change everything. I think of that speech Kyle’s dad makes about how there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle was one hell of a sheepdog. But let’s talk about who was his master. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Katherine Waterston on Inherent Vice

Katherine Waterston is the daughter of Sam Waterston, who rose to prominence with the New Hollywood before becoming a household name with Law & Order. Pedigree doesn’t seem to have given the younger Waterston any unfair advantages, but over the last eight years or so the Tisch School graduate has built a respected career in theatre—she played Anya in an off-Broadway revival of The Cherry Orchard—and in supporting roles in films like Michael Clayton. Her appearance as the beguiling Shasta in Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice marks a significant breakthrough. We spoke a few weeks ago in a Toronto hotel when Waterston was traveling to promote the film.

JB: I want to begin by talking with you about something that’s kind of hard to talk about, which is tone. Inherent Vice basically begins with your entrance, so you set the tone. But is thinking about tone useful to you as an actor or just a distraction from playing the scene, beat by beat?

Katherine Waterston: When you work on scenes they tend to tell you what they need. When you start speaking the lines you can tell when they don’t feel right. When they do, it’s because you’ve found the tone that best serves the scene. In the way that Paul works, and the way I like to work too, we explore until the correct tone emerges. One of the fun things about working on this project is that it was based on a novel that changes tone almost constantly. It gives us permission to have a really sombre or scary scene with a joke in it. There’s physical comedy followed by very honest, intimate moments.

JB: Watching your performance I thought about Mary Astor in Maltese Falcon, but I also thought about Diane Ladd. Something about the way you direct your gaze while fingering the mouth of that beer can. Did you look to any models while developing Shasta?

KW: It can sometimes be too much pressure, to be hyperaware of what’s come before. But I did think about women of that period, particular from Southern California. I’m glad that you mentioned the gaze, because a big part of it is they way that they set their gaze. Cowboys have a similar thing, people who set their gaze on some distant landscape, or people who live by the sea. If you spend evenings watching the sun set on the ocean that does something to you. I notice it when I’ve been east for a long time and I come back to California, especially to seaside communities. I watched a lot of The Mod Squad before shooting. I thought that Peggy Lipton had something of a Shasta quality. Perhaps I took some comfort in knowing that [the actress playing] this quintessential California girl was actually an East-Coaster, like me. There was something remote about her. You think about all this before you get to work. Once you’re on set you try to forget it all.

JB: Did you feel like you always understood what Shasta wanted? Her duplicity seems to dictate certain turns in the story. I’ve seen Inherent Vice twice and I’m still not sure if I know what she’s after from beginning to end. Do you need to know?

KW: That makes me so happy that I don’t want to say a damned word. It’s been tough navigating these interviews, talking about making this movie, which is fun to talk about, while not spoiling the experience for the viewer. It’s a fine line that I had to walk, knowing what to express. When you read the novel you become closest to Doc’s experience. Reality becomes as suspicious to the reader as it is to him. I didn’t want to take away from that by being too direct.

JB: Between Shasta, Bigfoot and Doc, you’ve got three characters that in very different ways encapsulate this moment of transition in the culture. Shasta is a product of second wave feminism while also using her sexuality as capital. She seems both progressive and regressive in some way.

KW: To the degree that this is a standard detective story, she’s the femme fatale. But what surprised and challenged me was that she also had to be human, to have a warmth. There has to be more between her and Doc than this sexual hold that she has on him.

JB: Do you relate to Shasta?

KW: She’s very different from me, yet I felt I understood her before I even understood what was going on. It’s exciting to come across a female character that’s complicated and inconsistent and dynamic. So often there’s the good lady or the bad lady, the maternal force or the sex goddess. Shasta’s scared but trying to keep her chin up. She loves Doc but isn’t necessarily going to show it. There was so much in the novel and it was fun to try and cram as much in as possible.

JB: Were you told why you were cast?

KW: No. And I sure as hell didn’t ask because I didn’t want anyone to start thinking it was a bad idea.

JB: What do you think? What do you bring to Shasta that someone else might not have?

KW: It’s sort of impossible to know. Or maybe just too embarrassing to think about.

JB: Why embarrassing?

KW: It’s difficult to measure what things about you make you right for a part. When I was up for the part, I saw so clearly why it had to be me.

JB: I was going to say that when you don’t get a part, that’s when you always know what you could have brought to it.

KW: Right. When it’s about to be taken away you can see so clearly why everything in your life, every idea you’ve ever had, every book you’ve read, every personal thing that’s happened to you has all been leading up to this moment where you get to process this role and put it out in the world in a way that no one else could. Then they tell you that you’ve got the job and it’s like amnesia. All that stuff that was so clear to you becomes foggy and confusing.

JB: This seems like an interesting moment for you. In the last year you’ve had two films come out [Inherent Vice and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves], each directed by one of the most exciting directors in the US. But I never really know if these films that mean so much to us as viewers mean the same to you the actor, if they have an effect on your growth commeasurable with our esteem for the work on screen.

KW: As an actor, being chosen by people you admire is incredibly encouraging. Because we’re just kind of these leaves blowing in the wind. You don’t know how it’s all going to shake down at any given moment. Even with people who are much more successful than me, you never really know. I was at a place in my career where I was pretty beaten down and struggling to get my hands on interesting material. So these encouraging events came when I really needed them. But what’s to be learned from getting to watch great directors at work or being around inspiring actors I feel like I probably won’t be cognizant of for a couple more years.

JB: When you see the finished product and see how your performance works as such a lynchpin in this story, do you learn anything from that?

KW: I’m so proud of this work. I feel lucky to be part of it. But I don’t think I can separate myself from the whole enough to take anything away from it. It’s a miracle that I can even watch it without running out of the room. It’s Joaquin that keeps me watching, because I know that if I look away I’ll miss him.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Best of 2014: Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is narcotic noir set in 1970 Los Angeles, which, by coincidence (?), are the year and place of Anderson’s birth. The film distils its source material—Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name—down to its cinematic essences while retaining much of its manic detouring and labyrinthine plot, which gets sufficiently knotty so as to render our comprehension to roughly the same level as that of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the film’s sandal-clad, frizzy-haired, perma-stoned shamus, a gumshoe with a compulsion for following a cryptic lead and a weakness for high-grade weed. Inherent Vice isn’t impossible to follow, it’s just gloriously over-complicated, laden with conspiracy (Pynchon’s favoured narrative device), and gushing ephemera. The times are a-changed, a-changing, a-curdling. Inherent Vice is a mystery, a comedy, a sprawling cultural study, and, in the best sense, a very American film, shaggy and baroque, beautiful and off-balance, spastic, slapstick and mottled with melancholy.

It starts with Doc receiving a furnace blast from his past in the shape of Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s been carrying on with a married real estate developer (Eric Roberts) who’s gone missing. She wants Doc’s help, but by the time she drives away from his seaside bungalow there’s already the sense that Doc’s job detail in this is going to be more than that of a skip tracer. He’s about to be plunged into a web of cunnilingual massage parlours, seafaring gangsters, errant musicians, Republican activists, dentists on the verge of a nervous breakdown, black panthers and white supremacists. He has allies, such as his nautical lawyer (Benicio Del Toro) and Deputy DA lover (Reese Witherspoon), and a charming, perhaps chimerical figure (singer-harpist Joanna Newsom) with whom he can theorize and who narrates Inherent Vice with protracted quotes straight out of Pynchon’s lyrically addled text. Doc also has an oddly antagonistic camaraderie with Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped conservative and so-called “renaissance cop” who likes to kick the shit out of Doc when not fellating chocolate-covered bananas with cryptic fauxmoerotic menace.

The obvious cinematic precedents for Inherent Vice are Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998). In the former Elliot Gould is a product of the ’50s plunked down into the radically shifting ’70s; in the latter Jeff Bridges is a pot-blitzed product of the ’70s playing the bowling detective in Bush’s ’90s. What Inherent Vice shares with these films is a playful engagement with crime fiction tropes; the incorporation of drugs, coke and weed especially, into the paranoid fabric of its narrative strategies; and a deep interest in the physical and psychic topographies of Los Angeles. There is however an enormous distinction: unlike Marlowe or the Dude, Doc is very much a man of his milieu, “out of time” only in the sense that days are numbered for this idealistic New Age he emblematizes, with flower powered dreams going up in smoke as the Manson Family go on trial, Cambodia gets pummelled, hippies take up arms, and the city of angels is getting lorded over by land grabbers. Dutifully following Pynchon’s lead, Anderson mines So-Cal ’70 culture clashes for comic gold, but he’s also tracking the shift from Endless Summer to endless bummer with reverence, a recognition of something flawed but precious dissolving into a fog of increasingly dangerous drugs, reactionary authorities, corporate resilience and, perhaps, some weirder, older evil that gave birth to Hollywood and its Babylonian double.

The film’s incorporation of music speaks to Anderson’s respect for hippie dreams, alternating between the excellently uneasy Johnny Greenwood score and inspired choices of more or less contemporaneous records: the brilliant deployment of Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ to set the suspicious tone when our femme fatale first pulls away from the curb; the by-then ancient-sounding strains of Sam Cooke on a car radio; or the creaky odes of Neil Young (‘Harvest,’ ‘Journey Through the Past’) to buoy Doc’s nostalgic recollections of idyllic times with Shasta—a meta-theme subtly emphasized by Doc’s very Neil Youngish sense of personal style, the mutton chops and army surplus jacket. The cast uniformly succeeds at the daunting task of ushering Pynchon’s character-constructs into people with pasts: Brolin is a cartoon monster with a tender heart, while Phoenix is prowling the peripheries of lucidity, registering unease and disbelief with every exaggerated blink, as captivating here as he was in The Master, though Doc isn’t nearly as lost as Freddie Quell. The final moments of Inherent Vice could almost appear to restore order, except by now that we know better than to trust appearances and we regard order as some pacifying patina projected by the Man. Best to just keep driving into the sun. And to see Inherent Vice again as soon as possible—you might have missed a whole rabbit hole somewhere in the engrossing blur.