Thursday, January 31, 2008

I told you I would eat you!

One of the most fruitful collaborations in cinema is surely director Paul Thomas Anderson's five-film relationship with director of photography Robert Elswit. Few contemporary filmmakers are more attuned to - nay, obsessed with - the technical minutia of the medium than Anderson; together, they're responsible for the sinewy tracking shots of Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, the manic-depressive blue-green hues of Magnolia, and the lush, bleeding reds and blues of Punch-Drunk Love. In each case, the images exist as a direct representation of the naked, often volatile emotions on display; in There Will Be Blood, the palette is primarily an inky black, the stark, untouched western landscapes steeped in shadows that threaten to swallow its inhabitants up like the boreholes in which prospectors risk their lives for the distant promise of wealth. We meet one of these, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), in a virtuosic, dialogue-free first reel that introduces us to Plainview as a tense, driven man about to find his destiny as an oilman. From the start, Plainview is inseparable from his surroundings, as if his success is directly tied to the cockroach-like tenacity that ensures his survival against the most hostile of conditions even as it drives him away from others. In the same way, such a fearsome, outsized character (and performance) can truly exist within the frames of a film as audacious and unsparing as There Will Be Blood. Anderson's fifth film sees the director applying his prodigious filmmaking abilities to a more disciplined (not restrained) approach, combinig classical narrative with a bold, near-experimental form. The result not only points towards cinema's future, it also recalls, in its perverse way, the grandiose entertainments cinema used to offer before the pictures got smaller - the spell it casts is less homage than seance.

A riff on Upton Sinclair's Oil! that spans the first three decades of the 20th century, the film cuts from this introduction to Plainview as a successful oilman who, equipped with a silver tongue, persuades townships and private property owners to sell him the drilling rights to their land, always flanked by his stoic son H.W. (Dillon Freasier). A visit from a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) sends Daniel and H.W. to Sunday's family ranch in Little Boston, California, where oil rests on the ground's surface. Complicating matters is Paul's twin brother Eli (also Dano), faith healer and self-proclaimed prophet who agrees to deal with Plainview in exchange for the financing of his church (a early evangelical church that, with its wide-eyed fanatacism, recalls both the holy barbarism Ken Russell's The Devils and the more consumer-friendly but no less volatile churches I attended in my youth). The story gradually boils down to the conflict between the ideologically opposed but equally cynical men, which Anderson and his actors build first in carefully observed, seemingly civil exchanges that barely mask their mutual contempt, then in scenes of masterfully executed confronation that build an almost unbearable tension. While the subtext in an uneasy partnership between commerce and religion is unavoidble, I think I understand what Anderson means when he says the film is not political; think of Plainview and Sunday not as signifiers but as men bound for mutually assured destruction, and the film becomes the story of the 20th century as a genuinely unnerving horrorshow.

The relationship between Plainview and his adopted son (a fact he keeps secret for reasons of his own) is an inversion of Anderson's typically idealized view of constructed families. There is a tenderness between father and son that becomes murky when Plainview's opportunisitic use of H.W. to strengthen his own reputation becomes clear. Plainview's increasing success coincides with his growing disdain for humanity - when he meets an unknown half-brother (Kevin J. O'Connor), he can only confide in the man his hatred for everyone around him and his desire to be alone, concluding that "If it's in me it's in you." Anderson, so preoccupied with unloving fathers, gives the 2oth (and 21st) century a cruel, broken patriarch teetering on the verge of insanity, with Eli as its mother (Dano, vastly underrated here, is wonderfully wormy as Eli). At the same time, Plainview is such the embodiment of self-determination - Day-Lewis's performance a masterpiece of carefully modulated restraint and vitriol - and his ambition so boundles that one cannot help but feel a sort of mad excitement. One senses that Plainview's uncompromising vision becomes Anderson's means of identifying with the character as, more than ones visually suggests Plainview as a director working with a massive canvas. One of many spellbinding sequences is the sudden eruption and destruction of a derrick, the sky blackening as the stunning atonal score by Jonny Greenwood (who, between this and In Rainbows, had a hell of a year) renders the moment Promethean, the chaos of the workers struggling to contain what would never be contained mirrored in our simultaneous exhilaration and dread.

Reviews of There Will Be Blood have compared the film to no less than the works of Huston, Kubrick, Malick, Polanski, Welles, and George Stevens (among many others). This is partly the tendency to understand the film by interpreting it as Tarantinoesque pastiche - a tendency that Anderson, who has always worn his influences on his sleeve, has arguably encouraged. But while There Will Be Blood honors its cinematic predecessors, it shares with those directors a wholly original vision that cannot be categorized. Like many landmark films, what makes it entirely unique is an experiential quality that it is impossible to articulate - I can tell you about the pieces and how they work together, but to really understand, you have to see (and feel) it for yourself. There Will Be Blood has proven to be a divisive film, largely due to its baroque ending (perfect, I say), but whether you love it or hate it, it will get under your skin.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Top 10: 2007

2007 was a great year for film, perhaps the finest in my lifetime. To find a year as rich in its cinemtic offerings, one would have to go back to 1980, which saw the release of The Shining, Raging Bull, Bad Timing, Kagemusha, Dressed to Kill, The Empire Strikes Back and Popeye, among many others. It was also the year of Heaven's Gate and the end of that fabled period in American cinema that saw a wealth of classics made with uncompromising personal vision. In a year that saw the studios in a similar state of flux, the artists were again running the show; indeed, my top 10 is loaded with challenging, complex films that, somehow, managed to escape through the system. There was the inevitable junkheap of disposable fodder, but as the year progressed, the movies kept getting better. For a while I feared I'd gone soft like Ebert (but without the understandable excuse of a new lease on life) as I handed out As left and right, but no - the movies were just that good to us this year.

The movies became more challenging, even defiantly so, with abrupt shifts in tone and style and endings that confounded our need for resolution. Even popcorn films worked on levels more complex and intellectually engaging than usual, with children's movies, teen sex comedies and microbudgeted musicals demonstrating an atypical grasp of subtext and character development. The films were once again daring, ambitious and dizzying in scope, with an almost absurd surplus of flawed but visionary works and flat-out masterpieces - any of my top five could be a strong number one in a different year, and while I don't believe in ties, an alternate top 10 made up of films not included would still be a strong representation of the year. Even the okay movies were more okay than usual; as far as male-driven corporate intrigue movies go, Michael Clayton blows anything by John Grisham out of the water, and Juno had more genuine heart than most films in the indie-quirk mold. When they were good they were really good; when they were great, they were unforgettable.

If the best films of 2006 captured that year's sense of resignation, 2007 was infused with - well, optimism isn't the right word, but the hope that comes with seeing things as they are (the resurgence of Westerns partly explained by their matter-of-fact romance). Michael Powell once explained the popularity of The Red Shoes as, after a decade of being told to die for ideology, a call to live and die for art. The films below answer that call, and do so brilliantly.

1. There Will Be Blood To compare Paul Thomas Anderson's strange, sprawling oil epic to its filmic ancestors (I'll see your Kubrick and Malick and raise you a Cimino) overlooks the ways that Anderson transcends imitation to give us a film that is defiantly singular. Anderson gives us a western landscape that takes on the otherness of an alien planet, concentrates the entire violent history of the 20th century in a unbearably tense, decades-long confrontation between an oilman and a faith healer, and has at its center a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis that is (no hyperbole) one for the ages. I'm still struggling to articulate my feelings about There Will Be Blood, particularly its demented final reel, a glimpse into the darkest recesses of human nature that haunts long after the film's end. You have to see this movie.

2. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I can't wait for February 5, when Andrew Dominik's elegaic western hits DVD and begins its inevitable journey towards rediscovery and eventual canonization. At once a sun-dappled tone poem and a hugely entertaining Western, it's a film for both fans and haters of the genre, its stunning images and nobly pathetic central character investing each moment with a stunningly observed melancholy.

3. No Country for Old Men Watching this movie several times at work, it occured to me that, with its understated, handsome style, it could have just as easily been directed by Clint Eastwood at his best as by the Coens. I say this not to echo the common claim that their Cormac McCarthy adaptation announces their newfound maturity - they were always old souls, even when they were goofing off - but to highlight the understatement and economy they bring to every frame of the film. It's an approach that befits their trio of laconic main characters, and grounds the film's apocalyptic vision with a sharp, unsentimental eye.

4. Zodiac As detail-oriented and obsessive as its protagonists, Zodiac is a procedural that revels in the minutia, loose ends and even the tedium of the search for a killer - or, by extension, an answer. Fincher introduces new, existential concerns into his work while grounding the film in a restrained, unobtrusive but totally snazzy visual and narrative strategy. Stay away if you hate ambiguity (as AMPAS apparently does), but for everyone else, Zodiac is a fascinatingly creepy and elusive whodunit.

5. I'm Not There Perhaps the greatest example on this list of pure film, a kaleidoscopic biopic whose impact lies entirely in its mesmerizing images. Other rock movies dutifully catalog the iconic moments of their subject's life and times; I'm Not There blows them to smitheeens and reassembles them into something beautifully elusive.

6. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street A near-perfect translation of Sondheim's masterpiece to the screen, aided immeasurably by performances that find just the right note and a director expanding his Goth fetishes and Hammer love to new, chilling areas. If only Dreamgirls had this much arterial spray.

7 . Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix An unproven director takes over the wizard franchise with the most difficult-to-adapt of the books (until the last one) and gives us only the second Harry Potter film that can stand on its own terms. Filled with moments of visual inspiration and sacrificing none of the book's emotional heft, it's imaginative in a way that too few kids' movies are. Bonus points for Imelda Staunton's deliciously hateful Professor Umbridge.

8. Grindhouse I thought long and hard about whether to rank Planet Terror and Death Proof together or separately (in which case Tarantino's film would have ranked quite a bit higher). Ultimately, it just feels wrong, as the thrill of Grindhouse, no matter what your preference, is the overall experience (to those catching up on DVD - sorry, you missed it). A feast for cinema lovers - how do you explain to the non-cinephile why a title card can be funny? - its also the purest, most uncomplicated fun I've had in years. Sidenote: Death Proof seems way less popular with men (who largely hate Tarantino's apparently reductive sexual politics) than with women (my friends, my wife, even my mom all cheered on the film's vengeful denouement), but everyone loves Stuntman Mike.

9. The Darjeeling Limited Wes Anderson's India-set travelogue sees his typically meticulous visual style expand to include a lightness of feeling and a subtle social consciousness. Beautifully photographed and featuring Anderson's strongest soundtrack yet, the film also benefits immeasurably from its prologue, the heartbreaking mini-masterpiece Hotel Chevalier.
10. Ratatouille Thank God for Brad Bird. In a time when so much children's entertainment is pandering and even offensive, Bird releases cartoons that honor children's emotions and intelligence. The message of his beautiful Ratatouille is a powerful one not only for children but also their parents, reminding with the lightest thouch how no life is absent of meaning or the potential for beauty. Anyone can cook, indeed - and after a year like this past one, I can't wait to see what's on the menu for 2008.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I kind of like getting blasted out of my skin.

My favorite Bob Dylan album is a toss-up between Blonde on Blonde and Blood on the Tracks; ask me for my favorite on a particularly perverse day, however, and I might say Self Portrait, Dylan's critically reviled 1970 attempt to torpedo his own iconic status. It's virtually unlistenable, perhaps intentionally so, but on a conceptual level it's fascinating, serving as a sort of Rosetta stone for Dylan. At the center of the album (and all of Dylan's music) is the paradox of the artist who will do anything, even self-destruct, to conceal his true self - a self that, no matter how metaphors the artist uses to bury it, remains totally naked and self-evident to anyone listening. This paradox is also at the heart of I'm Not There - that is, if it's even accurate to say that Todd Haynes' radical biopic has any center at all. As shape-shifting and elusive as its subject, Haynes' film (once subtitled Suppositions on a Film Concerning Bob Dylan) doesn't just sidestep the conventions of the subgenre, it completely demolishes them. What emerges is a representational, almost abstract interpretation of Dylan's life and work in which biographical details, lyrics, names and cultural artifacts are woven into a complex tapestry. If this sounds like a dry intellectual exercise, it is; that said, the more times I've seen the film, the more its metatextual structure reveals unexpected pleasures. You don't have to be an expert in Foucault for I'm Not There to rock your socks off.

The marketing for I'm Not There centered around the seeming stunt casting of six actors playing Bob Dylan. But the film itself is deeper than Solondz-esque gimmickry, revolving around not only six different actors but six different characters embodying or suggesting different aspects of Dylan's multifaceted persona. We're first introduced to Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin), a 12-year-old black guitarist who sings songs about unionization in 1959 before being advised to live his own time. This advice leads directly to earnest folk singer Jack Rollins (Christian Bale); who is followed onstage by leather-clad provocateur Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett). There is also Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger), an actor who once played Rollins, and Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Wishaw), who is seen only in an interview (or perhaps a deposition). And then there is Billy the Kid (Richard Gere), who we'll get back to in a minute. Taken on their own, any of these segments would make a fascinating interpretation of Dylan's life in miniature, their respective protagonists brushing up against moments both iconic and rumored. Taken as a whole, Haynes' dense, challenging narrative (co-written by Oren Moverman) portrays Dylan in a manner worthy of the singer's Cubist method - as Dylan himself once explained (and is quoted in the film), "You've got yesterday, today and tomorrow all in the same room, and there's very little you can't imagine not happening."

The of such a fragmentary approach is total, self-indulgent disaster that would make Renaldo and Clara look like Walk the Line. That the film's risks succeed so admirably is largely thanks to the cast, who breathe life into Haynes' signifiers. The best is Cate Blanchett, admittedly given an advantage as she's playing Dylan in his folk-killing, wine-swigging, chain-smoking, condescending asshole phase (possibly the coolest anyone has ever been, ever). But Blanchett's Jude Quinn, like her Katharine Hepburn, is more than an uncanny impersonation, finding previously unexplored shades of vulnerability, even fatalism in Dylan's Don't Look Back-era swagger, and the gender-bending casting is a nod to Dylan's androgynous appeal. Less iconic but also wonderful are Bale as the wide-eyed but increasingly world-weary young folkie, and Ledger, evoking Blood on the Tracks as a performer in existential crisis during the breakup of his marriage to wide-eyed Claire (Charlotte Gainsburg, heartbreaking here playing, as Bale did in Velvet Goldmine, our doorway into the narrative).
The performances are held together by Haynes' bold representational approach, which anyone who has seen Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Far From Heaven or the way underrated Velvet Goldmine will recognize immediately. Here, his semiotic games are looser and more playful than in the past - beyond intellectualizing his subject, Haynes' grasp of synchronicity creates an experience not unlike getting lost in a favorite album. When Haynes opens a certain performance of "Maggie's Farm" with Jude and the band opening fire on the audience, no matter what you think about Dylan going electric (I think Pete Seeger is a tool), you can't help but be delighted at the film's structural and aesthetic abandon. The entire movie is similarly dizzying, with not only cameos for the decade's other iconic figures - I'm partial to David Cross as Allan Ginsburg - but a cascade of images and ideas taken from a host of other cinematic and pop cultural sources (brought to life with astounding verisimilitude by DP Edward Lachman). There's the cinema verite of Don't Look Back and the talking-head approach of No Direction Home, but also loving nods to Fellini, Richard Lester, The Graduate and many more cultural touchstones. This goes deeper than nostalgia, deeper than a cynical greatest-hits collection for baby boomers; the cumulative effect is a singular portrait of the symbiotic relationship between the artist, his work and the zeitgeist into which they are born.

Haynes' most audacious move, the one I was sure would be totally ridiculous, is having Richard Gere play an aging Billy the Kid wandering through a beautiful, barren Western landscape existing in a completely different world from the film's. But, more than a loving Peckinpah homage, the Billy the Kid sequences are remarkably moving; returning to them again and again when I think about the film, their seeming inscrutability comes into focus. Gere's Billy is Dylan as pure embodiment of his music - separated from politics, from anything contemporary, his symbols become representative of nothing except the greater chain of human experience, truly existing out of time and, therefore, eternal. An elegy for artists made immortal by the work they leave beind (how sad, how perfect, that the lyrics of its title song could be referring to its costar's untimely passing), I'm Not There is a triumph of art for art's sake and a leading witness in the trial of infinity.

Heath Ledger (1979-2008)

The saddest thing is, he was just starting to reveal what he was capable of. There's Brokeback Mountain, of course, in which his remarkable subtlety carried a devastating emotional impact. Just today I was going to write about Todd Haynes' wonderful I'm Not There, which owes much of its joy to his Dylan on the verge of marital and spiritual collapse. These performances promised so much - now all we have is a few more performances and the constant question of what could have come next.

Now come the People cover stories, the pointless moralizing (don't do drugs, kids), the forced comparisons to James Dean for an actor who deserves to be defined on his own terms, and a daughter who will learn about her dad through the movies he made. Heath Ledger was 28. This is so fucking sad.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Goddamn, dude, you're such an asshole!

Juno starts with an evasive depiction of teen sexuality that flirts with Pretty Baby-esque provocation and ends with a cutesy-poo tableau of arrested development. In the line from point A to point B, one can find everything both insightful and maddening about Diablo Cody's screenwriting debut. The story of a smart-alecky 16-year-old dealing with an unplanned pregnancy is told with a geniunely original voice that too often sacrifices its believable, sympathetic portrait of its characters for easy laughs and creaky, formulaic sitcom cliches. If this sounds like a pan, I must stress that, in some ways, Juno lives up to its hype - it's well-acted, handsomely shot and, in the end, genuinely moving. In other words, its a pretty good character study that could have been a classic were it not in love, more than anything else, with its own pseudo-indie preciousness.

At first, Juno (Ellen Page) reminds of a watered-down Enid Coleslaw, all hipster sarcasm and outsider posturing. What gradually emerges, however, is an identifiable portrait of adolescent uncertainty - when Juno tells her father "I don't know what kind of girl I am," the truth is not in the statement itself but in the self-conscious motivations behind it. Juno is a character who rarely says what's on her mind, her sexual aggression and broader sense of yearning revealing itself through her impeccable taste in raw, primal rock and ultraviolent horror (even if she is foolish enough to declare 2000 Maniacs "better than Suspiria"). She's so believable, in fact, that the moments of unbelievability that might be less glaring in the teen programmer they belong in clash uncomfortably with the very specific world Cody has created. While I can believe that Juno would bypass abortion in favor of surrogate parents Mark and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), I need more than a montage of clicking pens and a Planned Parenthood staffed by dead-eyed hos (though I love Emily Perkins) to convince me of this. Similarly, when Juno makes a pivotal decision in the film's final third, I could not believe it, particularly since everything we've learned about Juno, her family and the surrogates seem to be pointing towards several different, more complicated but richer resolutions. This is symptomatic of the film's overall tendency towards wearing its protagonist's nonconformity like a badge while hedging towards the least provocative or difficult outcome. Nowhere is this more evident than in the much commented-upon disconnect between Juno's professed musical heroes and the film's bloodless, oh-so-hip soundtrack - you won't actually hear any Patti Smith in the film, but if you like Kimya Dawson, you're in luck.

I hesitate to place too much blame at Cody's feet - most of these are fairly standard beginner mistakes, and I suspect she's got some great films ahead of her. More suspect is director Jason Reitman, who emphasizes Juno's accessible quirkiness over its sharper edges. Reitman's a gifted visual storyteller, but the unnecessary moment in Thank You For Smoking where we see the guilt on Aaron Eckhart's face and know that, actually, he feels really bad about all this is echoed throughout Juno. Were the characters given more room to breathe, the film might resonate more deeply - instead, Reitman's eagerness to please results in a crowd-pleaser that could have been something deeper and more honest. Still, it's hard to complain too loudly with a cast - particularly Allison Janney as Juno's patient stepmom and Jason Bateman finding insight in a completely unbelievable character - that glosses over most of the rough patches. At the heart of the film are Page, whose work as Juno registers on levels that neither Reitman or Cody seem able to anticipate, and Michael Cera, again demonstrating his mastery of mumbled asides as Juno's tic-tac-scarfing babydaddy. There's a perfect, heartbreaking kind of confusion in their scenes together that the film is unable to support - beneath the quirk is the disturbing suggestion that Juno and Bleeker will grow up to be Mark and Vanessa, but the film itself seems either unaware or uninterested in its underlying melancholy.

A far more successful collaboration between writer/director and star is Margot at the Wedding, a portrait of a woman incapable of not wreaking emotional havoc wherever she goes. As Margot, a woman attending her sister Pauline's (Jennifer Jason Leigh, typically brilliant) wedding to unsuccessful writer Malcolm (Jack Black), Nicole Kidman creates a portrait of an emotional train wreck cursed with a wounding sense of honesty which she attempts to drown with drugs and writerly affectations. Diluted by Kidman's star status is the fact that she's one of the most intelligent, compelling actors working today - her performance is as clear-eyed and unsparing as her similarly underestimated work in films like Eyes Wide Shut and especially Birth. Noah Baumbach's screenplay, coupled with his understated direction (aided hugely by Harris Savides' underlit cinematography, which suggests one endless stoned afternoon) reveals worlds about his characters and their inability to quell their obsessions with their endless intellectualizing. It's not a flattering portrait of the life of the mind, but despite her off-putting qualities and near-abusive treatment of her son (Zane Pais), Margot emerges as sympathetic - when a spurned lover (Ciaran Hinds) confronts Margot about her hypocrisy using her own blunt approach at a public reading, her abrupt deterioration is heartbreaking.

Where Juno practically fetishizes its protagonist's pretensions, Baumbach dissects his characters' intellectual elitism with surgical precision, revealing them as no more than the sum of the fears and urges they struggle to repress (or, at least place in ironic quotation marks, as Margot says of Malcolm's "funny" mustache). It's funny, but not in the bittersweet way The Squid and the Whale was funny - the laughs here are nervous, a way of distancing ourselves from the emotional horrorshow onscreen. It's no surprise, then, that Margot was largely dismissed when it played at the cinema where I work (one theatregoer left a comment in our book saying that "we do not need other people's problems," while another simply said "Margot's Wedding sucks!"), while Juno has been playing to packed audiences every night. It's easy to understand a character who is unusual like we think we are, but harder to enjoy a character whose flaws mirror ones we dare not admit, let alone laugh at in mixed company.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

My Dinner with the Thin White Duke

Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre has tagged me with a meme titled My Dinner With Blank, the rules of which are as follows:

1. Pick a single person past or present who works in the film industry you would like to have dinner with. And tell us why you chose this person.

2. Set the table for your dinner. What would you eat? Would it be in a home or at a restaurant? And what would you wear? Feel free to elaborate on the details.

3. List five thoughtful questions you would ask this person during dinner.

4. When all is said and done, select six bloggers to pass this Meme along to.

5. Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre, so people know the mastermind behind this Meme.

Here goes:

First, let's disqualify dead people, because if I was having dinner with a dead person, famous or not, my enjoyment of the evening would be hampered by the distracting knowledge that my dinner guest is fucking dead. Truth is, any answer to this question is going to be totally arbitrary, as there are a lot of people who I'd be equally happy to be dinner with. Fame isn't the deciding factor - of the famous people I've met, the only ones that have really given me a chill are those whose work I truly respect. With that in mind, I'll invite David Bowie. Does David Bowie count? He's a very good actor, you know. Yes, I believe it would have to be David Bowie.
We'd dine in Berlin, the site of Bowie's most fruitful creative period. I could list an elaborate bratwurst-centric three-course meal here, but you usually order for yourself at a restaurant, don't you? Maybe we wouldn't eat anything; maybe we'd just do a whole lot of cocaine instead (not that I've ever touched the stuff, but when you're dining with Bowie, y'know...).

As for five questions, this is dinner, not an interview. First, if I was coked-up in Berlin with Jareth the Goblin King, I don't know that I'd have anything intelligent to ask. Second, to come prepared with questions would be presumptuous and rude, and would likely ruin the chance of any real insight into Bowie's life or work. As Bowie himself once said, "I don't find it interesting to talk about what I did with my cock in the 1970s." So I would probably just ask him what he did with his cock in the 1970s, and let the conversation progress from there.


Greg at Dreamscape
Allen at Septenary
Milena at Mirrored Lines

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Top 10: 1997

1. Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2. Jackie Brown (Quentin Tarantino)
3. L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
4. Kundun (Martin Scorsese)
5. The Ice Storm (Ang Lee)
6. Crash (David Cronenberg)
7. Waiting for Guffman (Christopher Guest)
8. Lost Highway (David Lynch)
9. Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai)
10. Titanic (James Cameron)

Monday, January 14, 2008


The following is my contribution to this month's Film Club over at Final Girl.

The great horror films of the 1970's share an elemental approach to the genre, the liberation of film content resulting in a horror cinema stripped to its barest archetypal terms. Suspiria, Dario Argento's first foray into pure horror, is at once the most beautiful and merciless work of the decade. A near-perfect fusion of art and splatter, Suspiria creates a nightmarish world held together by its own surreal language of alchemic signifiers, its hallucinatory images and sounds colliding together on a searing red canvas. It's less a triumph of style over substance than one of those rare moments when style is substance. Argento's horrifying images are more than a triumph of gross-out - at his best, it's as if he's projecting his (and our) deepest, most primal fears directly under the screen. In short, Suspiria gets under your skin.

Over darkness and simple white credits, a narrator informs us that "Suzy Banyon decided to perfect her ballet studies in the most famous school of dance in Europe. She chose the celebrated Tanzakademie of Freiburg. One day at 9am, she left Kennedy Airport, New York, and arrived in Germany at 10:40 local time." The matter-of-fact delivery of objective information (times, dates, places) is undercut by the roar of Goblin's unforgettably creepy score; Argento is immediately subverting the veracity of his own narrative, creating a disconnect between what we are hearing and what we are seeing that is unmistakably dreamlike. Enter Suzy (Jessica Harper), a wide-eyed young woman who steps into this alternate reality - one where a sliding door can take on unknown menace, where strange figures appear for a moment in the corner of one's eye - like a fairytale heroine. Harper's beautiful porcelain features are perfect for the character, who floats through the film as though she herself were dreaming. There's fear in her performance, but also a sort of recognition, a dreamlike sense of inevitablity as she gradually deciphers the symbols around her to defeat the dual maternal figures (Alida Valli and Joan Bennet) conspiring to keep her asleep. Argento originally imagined his characters as young teens, and Suspiria can be read as the horror of adolescence, the gradual realization and experience of things whispered-about by adults in control of one's life. Suzy's dream is a journey deeper and deeper into interiors climaxing in the confrontation of the invisible (and therefore universal) matriarch of the coven; couple this with the relative insignificance of men in the film and the contributions of Argento's then-girlfriend Daria Nicolodi, and it's hard not to see Suspiria as Dario Argento getting in touch with his feminine side.

But the thing is - and please don't take this as an excuse - any interpretation of Suspiria will fail to convey its power as a pure immersive sensory experience. Watching the film for the first time, one is overcome by a feeling of vulnerability - the shot of an escaped student (Eva Axen) standing in a window, the room providing the only light in a vast expanse of shadows, violates our illusions of safety in such an unnerving way that the subsequent, rightfully famous murder setpiece ends, our repulsion also carries a sense of relief at having survived the inevitable. The risk of dealing with the inexplicable is that, with one misstep, the whole film becomes self-indulgent and meaningless; what shines through in Suspiria's best moments (my favorite is Suzy's strange encounter with the old woman and child in a hallway) is the sense of a story unfolding according to its own unknown but precise, exacting logic. Much of this can be attributed to the stunning, Disney-on-acid palette Argento and DP Luciano Tovoli employ, creating a garish distortion of reality that, once experienced, shakes one's perception of the relationship between image and meaning in everyday life. While Argento is frequently referred to as a "Master of Horror" or other such gorehound nonsense, he's rarely acknowledged as a master surrealist. A shame, as there are images in Suspiria that, if placed on a museum wall, would rest comfortably next to Magritte.

Perhaps the creepiest aspect of Suspiria is that evil is never personified. We're given glimpses - a pair of eyes, Argento's trademark gloved hands, animals and inarticulate henchmen possessed - but what lingers is the sense of something unseen but always present. A simple scene between Suzy and her friend (Stefania Casini) becomes almost unbearably tense simply by the presence of the camera looming overhead. The camera often takes on the perspective of the villian, but in the absence of a singular villain, whose perspective are we taking here? It's as if the camera itself - and, by extension, Argento - is possessed, driven to show us our fears with merciless precision. The film itself is an act of exorcism for Argento, but though Suzy escapes, there is the ineffable sense of a horror that continues to exist outside of the frame. Of course, Suspiria does have a pair of sisters...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Top 10: 1987

1. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders)
2. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick)
3. Raising Arizona (Joel Coen)
4. Robocop (Paul Verhoeven)
5. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi)
6. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg)
7. The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci)
8. Planes Trains and Automobiles (John Hughes)
9. The Untouchables (Brian De Palma)
10. Opera (Dario Argento)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

You sir, you sir, how about a shave?

I'll never forget the feeling of seeing Edward Scissorhands at the age of six on a huge screen at Showcase Cinemas in Lawrence, MA. While my fellow first graders couldn't stop quoting Home Alone, Tim Burton's holiday Goth fantasia opened my mind to concepts I didn't yet have the words for - expressionism, surrealism, representation - and, through my identification with Burton's misfit protagonist (played to heartbreaking perfection by Johnny Depp), made such a strong emotional impact on my developing understanding of cinema that movies with talking dogs and profane, crotch-punching kids no longer did the trick. It's one of the defining films of my cinematic experience, which makes the presence of one glaring, ugly misstep - Edward's vicious murder of the jock antagonist and Burton's soft-pedaling of the scene - all the more painful. The older I get, the harder it is to look past the fairytale Columbine, introduced but never properly explored, that festers in an otherwise beautiful film like roaches in Jeffrey Beaumont's lawn.

Burton's best work has honestly addressed this underlying sense of misanthrophy - think of the sympathetic monsters in the underestimated Batman Returns, the lovingly constructed family of social deviants in Ed Wood, the entirety of Mars Attacks. But in recent years, Burton's maddeningly uneven outpout has undergone a gradual but unmistakable mainstreaming, perhaps spurred on by the commodification of his once-distinct cinematic voice (thanks to Hot Topic, anyone can be misunderstood for $16.99). This softening of Burton's rough edges culminated in the awkward father-son reuinion at the end of the disappointing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that reduced the entire psychological landscape of Burton's movies to lame, Dr. Phil-esque "daddy issues" that also felt like a cynical jab at the far richer father-son relationship of his previous film, Big Fish. So it was with great trepidation that I approached Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a seemingly perfect match of director to material (Stephen Sondheim's grand guignol masterpiece), for fear that the result would be well-crafted, obvious and predictable (particulary since star Johnny Depp, perhaps the most talented actor of his generation, has been bordering on self-parody lately). I must report with great pleasure that Sweeney Todd far surpassed my expectations - it's almost exactly the film that I'd always hoped it would be, a marvellously dark and vicious adaptation that retains the musical's narrative and thematic complexity while also benefiting not only from Burton's style (in full Bava-worship mode here) but also his obvious affinity for his murderous protagonist. It's ruthless, unsparing and a bold return to form.

From the controversial omission of the musical's opener "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," Burton strips away the theatrical conventions of the show - for a Broadway adaptation the film is remarkably intimate, located entirely in the vengeful barber's shop, the festering pie shop of his devoted accomplice Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) and the funereal streets of 19th-century London. This choice is jarring at first for fans of the musical (I'd always imagined the ballad performed by a chorus of dead-eyed ghouls in a series of sharp, Fosse-esque cuts), but it ultimately highlights how Sweeney's greatness has little to do with elaborate staging or classically trained baritones. As the wronged barber plots his revenge against the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), the film becomes a particularly bloody penny dreadful that never condescends the story's pulpier aspects, honoring its underlying weight. The musical (much like David Lynch's The Elephant Man, released the following year) comments on the industrial revolution's dehumanizing impact on western society through the microcosm of one character's personal transformation, Sweeney's contempt for humanity growing in proportion to the profitability of his crimes (shades of Hot Topic?). With this in mind, the monochromatic visual design and the muted, vampiric performances make perfect sense - these characters belong to a world that might collapse before they can destroy each other. By the time Sweeney declares all of humanity deserving of death in "Epiphany" (the musical's high point), I wasn't thinking about the lyrics snipped or the plot points condensed - I was completely absorbed.

A funny thing about Johnny Depp's performance: sampling the soundtrack on iTunes before seeing the film, I worried about Depp's apparently flat singing, and I still have little desire to own the soundtrack. But married to the performance, Depp's, low-key approach (reminiscent of early Bowie) works wonderfully. My fear that Depp would turn Benjamin Barker into a caricature is unfounded; Depp internalizes the character's torment in a surpisisingly understated performance, communicating volumes with a glance and reminding us of his extraordinary ability to create characters that have a larger-than-life quality while never sacrificing their humanity. But my favorite performance was Carter's - her Mrs. Lovett isn't the crowd-pleasing, demented old ham made indelible by Angela Lansbury (again, what works on stage and on film are two different things). The delusional optimism of Mrs. Lovett's dreams of wealth and prosperity are betrayed by the muted defeat in her voice; for all the film's bloodletting, its creepiest (and funniest) moment is a montage of happy seaside tableaux, Mrs. Lovett's banal dreams punctured by Sweeney's constant gloom. They're aided by Alan Rickman as the ghoulish, self-loathing Judge (Rickman's fantastic, even if he's the worst singer in the movie), Sacha Baron Cohen as the street mountebank Pirelli, and Jayne Wiesener and Jamie Campbell Bower as the sweet young lovers whose seemingly negligible role in the plot is, I think, frequently misunderstood. And Ed Sanders as young Toby is a real standout; the role is traditionally played by adults out of neccessity, and having a real child in the role adds a new, disturbing layer to the experience.

The film is, naturally, a visual marvel. Burton and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski find a number of inventive ways to distort and refract Depp's face as Sweeney's descent into madness progresses. The production design by Dante Ferretti is typically sumptuous even as it creates a feeling of isolation and despair reminiscent of Burton's Gotham City. Of course, Burton is always a master of creating these baroque cinematic worlds - the wonderful surprise of Sweeney Todd is that what could have been an emotionally inert triumph of design feels insistently, angrily alive. Burton's fetishes, from the Argento-red blood to the overripe bosoms bound in Victorian/S&M garb, are on display here, with an unapologetic glee unseen in years. Burton's films are frequently described as "dark," a misleading qualifier as most of his films are only superficially dark, his outsider posturing masking a puppylike need to please. Sweeney Todd is deeply, unapologetically dark, and the result is revelatory; it's a movie that makes you feel so bad you can't help but sing.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Title Card #41

(Title edited to accomodate the occasional Friday when real life intercedes.)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Top 10: 1977

1. Eraserhead (David Lynch)
2. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg)
3. The American Friend (Wim Wenders)
4. Stroszek (Werner Herzog)
5. 3 Women (Robert Altman)
6. Suspiria (Dario Argento)
7. Annie Hall (Woody Allen)
8. Star Wars (George Lucas)
9. Martin (George A. Romero)
10. The Kentucky Fried Movie (John Landis)

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Where are the savory snacks?

I really, really love Hotel Chevalier. The 15-minute companion piece to The Darjeeling Limited is a breathtaking change of pace for Wes Anderson, his miniaturist vision stripped of his usual sprawling narratives and confined to one fleeting encounter between ex-lovers in a suite in the titular hotel. Each line of dialogue is razor-sharp, each shot perfectly selected, and though we're given little exposition about Jack (Jason Schwartzman), his ex (Natalie Portman) and their relationship, we understand everything by the film's end - her restless, chaotic nature (I'm officially a Natalie Portman fan), his contrived persona an attempt to avoid real feeling, and their inability to be less than completely emotionally naked around each other. It's a miniature masterpiece, sexy, sad and perfect, and it signals a new level of maturity from Anderson (not that his previous work is immature - this is a common misconception). This same energy can be found in The Darjeeling Limited, a meandering (by design), occasionally frustrating but ultimately joyous film.

The bitter, defensive tone that marred the otherwise wonderful The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is replaced here with a wiser, more clear-eyed perspective of its characters. Sad-eyed writer Jack, who is never without his iPod's worth of earnest background music, is like Anderson's own admission of his need to meticulously control every detail in every frame. What separates Anderson from too-precious imitators is his honesty; when Jack's suggestion of an ironic punctuation to an emotional moment is met with annoyance by his brothers Francis (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Adrien Brody), it's hard not to see the moment as Anderson's tongue-in-cheek apology for his own insular creative tendencies. India, then, has much the same meaning for Anderson as it does for the Whitman brothers, who take a cross-country trip abord the titular train a year after their father's death - Francis having carefully planned the trip to gurantee spiritual and emotional catharsis, Anderson seemingly imposing his auteurist tendencies on the culture. However, the film soon reveals itself to be a knowing take on this distinctly American form of patronization, the very idea that the country's exotic otherness exists for affluent westerners to take a vacation and have an epiphany. If Anderson's films are calculated, they never contain a moment of forced emotion - when the drugged-up, navel-gazing brothers finally have a real experience, it's a sudden, violent expression of the pain and vitality they've fought so carefully to keep at bay.

It's true that, when that moment itself arrives, it's in the form of a very literal metaphor; one of the common complaints with The Darjeeling Limited is its frequent literalism. It's a valid criticism, but it fails to take two things into account. The first is that the Whitmans are constantly stoned, and drug use consists primarily of being trapped in a series of vague metaphors while being completely oblivious to obvious ones - the fate of their father's baggage is almost laughably on-the-nose, but that's sort of the point. Also, more than any of his films thus far, the visual statements Anderson discovers here are quite beautiful. The shot of a businessman (Bill Murray) chasing after the departing train, the tracking shot, set to the Rolling Stones' "Play With Fire," of a universal tableaux, the stunning pair of match cuts bookending a flashback (the film's most devastating scene) - these moments are purple in the best way. Anderson is also aided by his claustrophobic, constantly shifting location, which forces him to be freer in his approach, more open to the unanticipated moments. This has the same effect on the actors - Schwartzman shows growth as an actor, Brody is surprisingly funny as a terrified dad-to-be, and Wilson is moving as the saddest of the brothers, a bruised, bandaged shell of a man who simply must have a spiritual experience before he implodes (wouldn't it be perverse not to mention the too-obvious parallels to - well, yeah).

There's a moment when the brothers are confronting their long-absent mother (Anjelica Huston), and she tells them they're talking to a person that doesn't exist. Anderson's films are filled with such ghosts - parents that loom larger than life in our memories, mundane childhood experiences that take on epic importance with the passing of time, all the remembered hurt and injustice of the past. The Darjeeling Limited, like all of Anderson's films, is about the exhumation and reenactment of these moments, though for the first time it feels like a sort of exorcism. It's way too early to dismiss Anderson, one of our few true auteurs, as a one-trick pony - the train's, like, just departing, man.