Tuesday, July 31, 2012
The American Friend, German director Wim Wenders’ 1977 adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel Ripley’s Game, almost always take place at either dusk or dawn. It’s a fine visual analogue for the predicaments of the protagonist (Bruno Ganz), a hapless German family man whom gangsters recruit as an assassin. Wracked by conscience no matter what he does, he’s caught in the tension between the light of good and darkness of evil. Wenders, working with the outstanding cinematographer Robby Müller, is ingenious when it comes to these poetic visual glosses on the story. He and Müller also make terrific use of the film’s locations—including Hamburg, Paris, and Manhattan—which are strikingly atmospheric without ever seeming glamorous. What Wenders doesn’t have is a feel for the melodramatic suspense necessary for good pulp storytelling. The film is absorbing, and the strong performance by Ganz catches one up in his character, but it’s ultimately a thriller without thrills. If one is looking for an exciting narrative, one is far better served by Highsmith’s novel. Dennis Hopper co-stars as Ripley, the shady American art dealer who manipulates the Ganz character into murder. One has mixed feelings about his portrayal. Highsmith’s character is a clean-cut, charming sociopath with a taste for the good life. The film’s Ripley is a creepy, uncouth looney-tune. The characterization isn’t at odds with Wenders’ conception of the story, and one is grateful that Hopper shows some restraint--the performance is a good deal removed from the psycho schtick he devolved into later in his career. But the amoral enjoyment to be had from Highsmith’s character isn’t to be found. Lisa Kreuzer plays the Ganz character’s fretful wife. Several directors appear in supporting roles, including Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, and Gérard Blain.
Thursday, July 26, 2012
X-Men: First Class, the fifth entry in the venerable superhero-movie franchise (and the second effort at a prequel) is a definite step up from the last two offerings, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It isn’t aggressively stupid, and the pacing won’t give one a headache. Most of the film is set in 1962, and the viewer is introduced to the leaders of the rival superhuman factions (played in the earlier installments by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) when they were young men. James McAvoy plays the Stewart character; Michael Fassbender takes over from McKellen. The film charts the development of their friendship, their short-lived alliance, and the conflicts that drove them apart. They also get to train a new group of young superheroes. It’s all in preparation for a showdown with a super-powered ex-Nazi (Kevin Bacon) who manipulates the Cuban Missile Crisis in a plot to take over the world. Director Matthew Vaughn and the gaggle of screenwriters have made a moderately entertaining adventure movie, but the film is a far cry from the first two pictures, both helmed by Bryan Singer. It lacks the poetic storytelling and well-developed character ensemble that gave the Singer-directed installments their distinction. Most of the supporting characters are ciphers—they’re a collection of powers, not personalities—and Vaughn’s half-hearted efforts at using metonymy and other tropes to advance the narrative are clumsy. His judgment in other areas is questionable is well, particularly with the film’s cavalier sexism and the smug, campy performance turned in by Kevin Bacon. But the one thing he gets unquestionably right is the handling of the Michael Fassbender character. Ian McKellen’s droll megalomaniac is reimagined as a Byronic figure, who Fassbender plays with remarkable intensity and charisma. He's the best reason to continue the franchise. The large cast also includes Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, and in a hilarious cameo, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.
Wednesday, July 25, 2012
The Help, Kathryn Stockett’s phenomenally successful 2009 début novel, is compelling regardless of one's reservations. The book is set in and around Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 and 1963, and Stockett constructs the story around three protagonists: Skeeter, an upper-class young woman who aspires to become a writer; Aibileen, a gracious, thoughtful African-American maid; and Aibileen’s brash best friend Minnie, who also works as a maid and a cook. The tensions created by the burgeoning civil rights movement fill the air, and these three women are brought together by a clandestinely written book project about the experiences of African-American domestics in the 1960s South. Stockett has many hallmarks of a good storyteller. She has a sharp eye for incident and conflict, a knack for humor, and a strong feel for the narrative voices of her protagonists. She also does well by her supporting characters. The most memorable is the town queen bee, who’s a fine comic villain. She’s both effective as a threat and as the butt of the book’s humor. One relishes every moment of her getting her just des(s)erts--including a grandly scatological comeuppance--and one can’t help but dread the consequences, too. While the book is ultimately just glib historical fiction, it occasionally flirts with profundity, particularly when it highlights how the various social hegemonies quietly reinforce themselves across all lines of race, class, and gender. The book's virtues are more than enough to forgive its numerous shortcomings. The most conspicuous of the latter is probably the conception of the Skeeter character, who is clearly the author’s self-congratulatory fantasy of herself in the story's setting. The novel also never quite transcends the stock-character quality of both Aibileen and Minnie. (Just think of the Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington characters in the film Glory.) But for all the book’s failings, Stockett keeps one turning the pages. That's the first--and hardest--demand for any novelist.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Mildred Pierce, director Todd Haynes gives the five-hour mini-series treatment to James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. It follows a self-made businesswoman in the Great Depression and her tempestuous relationships with her two husbands and eldest daughter. Haynes doesn’t tell the story so much as live it; the series is lavishly detailed and languorously paced--Haynes' immersion in the material feels like obsession. In lesser hands, this might seem oppressive, but one never feels Haynes can’t see the forest for the trees. He may take his sweet time presenting the story, but every scene is effectively shaped, and they add up to an outstanding whole. The deliberate tempo also dries out the soapiness that a brisker pace might have stumbled on. The cast is superb. As the title character, Kate Winslet is remarkably fluid and expressive—she seems to be living the role even more than Haynes is living the story. Evan Rachel Wood plays the vicious, narcissistic daughter in adulthood, and she may even be more impressive. She gives the character a bored, haughty glamour, but she also takes the viewer past this diamond-hard surface and into the daughter’s anger and drive. The character is in many ways the femme fatale of the piece, and one has never seen a femme fatale given this kind of depth; the mini-series’ portrayal of the daughter may even surpass the book’s. Brian F. O’Byrne and Guy Pearce hold their own as Mildred’s husbands, as does Melissa Leo as her best friend. Applause is also deserved for the contributions of cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designers Mark Friedberg, Peter Rogness, and Mark Pollard; they give the miniseries a look that elegantly evokes the period setting and lends it a lived-in feel. The teleplay is credited to Haynes and Jon Raymond. Note to viewers: the mini-series includes several sexually explicit scenes--enough to earn a theatrical feature a NC-17 rating. (Click here for my review of the James M. Cain novel, and here for my take on the 1945 film adaptation with Joan Crawford.)
Monday, July 23, 2012
First Name: Carmen, director Jean-Luc Godard provides impulsive young protagonists, cinematic in-jokes, and a crime story he can’t quite commit to. In short, he seems to be revisiting the hallmarks of his great nouvelle vague films of the 1960s. However, Godard’s interests obviously lay elsewhere, and he clearly resented covering this territory again. The film often seems out to spite viewers who were expecting the spirit of his older work. The protagonist (Jacques Bonnaffé) is a security guard who gets mixed up in a bank robbery and other efforts by a gang to finance a documentary. Like many nouvelle vague heroes, he is frustrated by his unrequited passion for the heroine (Maruschka Detmers), but the way this film presents it, it’s not charming--it’s pathetic, creepy, and ultimately horrifying. And the heroine is a far cry from her ‘60s antecedents as well. The girls Anna Karina and others played were happy-go-lucky charmers. The Detmers character is a blandly vicious temptress whose goal is to “show the world what a woman can do to a man.” (She regularly taunts the hero with her nude body, and with little kisses and caresses, but she tells him, “If I love you, that’s the end of you.”) The older films had a winsomely sexy manner; this picture rubs the viewer’s nose in an ugly-minded, quasi-pornographic smuttiness. Godard’s one-time delight in his heroines has curdled into misogyny. He also appears as the heroine’s loopy uncle, and his attitude is clear from the lines he gives himself: “Kids today are scum,” and so on. The film frequently cuts to shots of the seashore and a string quartet performing Beethoven; one gets the distinct feeling Godard would rather pay attention to these than the main story. Most viewers will likely prefer the surf and music, too. Among the film’s few admirable features is Raoul Coutard’s stunningly beautiful cinematography. Anne-Marie Miéville is credited with the script, a (very loose) modern adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s 1845 novella Carmen. (Georges Bizet used it for the libretto of his 1875 opera.)
Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:
Sunday, July 22, 2012
Things Just Get Away from You, Walt Holcombe combines a penchant for whimsical, low-key adventure fantasy with an elegant and lively cartooning style. He has many hallmarks of a good children’s-comics creator. What he doesn’t have is much self-awareness or a sense of propriety. The opening story, “The King of Persia,” is typical. It starts as a light, antic tale about an ancient king (with a talking camel for a sidekick) who enlists a genie’s help to win the woman of his dreams. Holcombe even sets up a moral about always treating others’ hospitality with respect. What one doesn’t anticipate is for the story to be peppered with, among other things, suicide, gratuitous violence, and casual sex. These elements are all arbitrary, offhand, and fleeting. Holcombe doesn’t utilize them for overt shock value or any kind of ironic effect; they don't connect to anything deeper. It also doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that these things are discordant with his material and visual style. He’s just blithely sticking inappropriate bits into stories that otherwise seem geared for children. After putting the book down, one is left with the impression that Holcombe needs some perspective on what he's doing. It’s not that he should put aside this material and art style for those of more gravitas; it’s that he needs to recognize the readership for which these are most appropriate. There’s pride to be had in producing good material for children. The appeal of Things Just Get Away from You would seem restricted to adults who have failed to grow up.
Saturday, July 21, 2012
Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel The Woman in the Dunes has been compared to the work of Kafka, Camus, and Beckett. One can understand the analogies, but the book is essentially commuter fiction that's putting on airs. Kobo Abe uses the philosophical aspects of the earlier writers’ work to give existentialist spice to a prison-escape adventure. The protagonist is a vacationing Japanese schoolteacher who is taken captive by a poor seaside community. They confine him to a quarry where he is required to dig and gather sand for sale. His only companion is a young widow who lives in a small house in the quarry, and who also does the work he has been given. The book builds up a fair amount of drama about this educated bourgeois being brought down to the emptiness of an arduous, routinized existence--all that matters are the most basic demands of survival and instinct. However, the heart of the story is still the suspense narrative built around the his efforts to escape. His inevitable sexual relationship with the woman offers grist for the intellectual mill--man’s primal nature asserts itself regardless of circumstances and whatnot--but the main purpose is to give an extra sensationalist kick to the material. Something has to keep the reader turning the pages in between the escape attempts. Middlebrows may read the book and pat themselves on the back for their sophistication, but it’s nothing more than pseudo-intellectual pulp. The English-language edition was translated by E. Dale Saunders. My review of the more impressive film version is here.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Midnight in Paris, writer-director Woody Allen’s 41st feature, is one of his most charming. It’s also his strongest effort since the 1980s. Owen Wilson plays the film’s protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter who’s becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his life. He wants to leave movies to become a novelist, and while working on his first book, he travels to Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams). The city takes over his imagination; all he can think of are the artists and writers who have called it home across the decades. One night, while out for a stroll, he finds himself in the Jazz Age Paris he’s dreamed about. He spends the next several evenings hobnobbing with the likes of Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll), Salvador Dalí (Adrien Brody), and Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates). Stein even reads and offers input on his novel. However, the biggest impression is made by a flapper (Marion Cotillard) who idealizes the Belle Époque even more than he does the 1920s. Allen delightfully sets the stage for a parable about nostalgia, and he follows through beautifully. The climactic epiphany about living in the present walks hand-in-hand with the joys of one’s romantic dreams. The performers are a delight as well. Owen Wilson’s ingratiating wistfulness has never been more appealing, and Marion Cotillard is so sweetly sexy that the sight of her is pure reverie. The various 1920s figures are lovingly (and hilariously) portrayed. The most enjoyable is Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway; Allen provides a happy caricature of the writer’s tough-guy pretense, and Stoll puts it over with aplomb. There are also a number of terrific throwaway jokes--the best involves a contemporary fellow who finds himself in the time of the Ancien Régime. The art direction of Anne Seibel and Hélène Debreuil beautifully evokes the Paris of today, the 1920s, and the Belle Époque.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
Altered States (1980), celebrated screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky tried his hand at science fiction. The result was one of the most ludicrous movies to come out of Hollywood. William Hurt (in his film début) plays a Harvard psychology professor who becomes obsessed with forms of consciousness beyond the everyday. His experiments on himself begin with the hallucinatory states induced by sensory-deprivation tanks. They proceed into enhancing the deprivation-tank experience with a tribal potion from Mexico. At this point, the story enters mad-scientist monster-movie terrain, with the professor experiencing psychedelic visions, a metamorphosis into a Neanderthal, and an external manifestation of the primordial vortex. The professor's wife (Blair Brown), his best friend (Bob Balaban), and his department chair (Charles Haid) just enable him and fret. There's no sense of wonder accompanying what occurs. Chayefsky's point is that scientists need to end their overreaches into the realm of knowledge; they should accept that love is the only worthwhile thing. (That's right. These scientists witness the most incredible things occurring, and their conclusion is that what the world needs now is love, sweet love.) The director, Ken Russell, is known elsewhere for his extravagant visuals, but his work here in that regard is nothing special. The psychedelic visions, featuring special-effects work by Bran Ferren, are unimaginatively derivative. Russell's most impressive work is in the various ways he gets the actors to blast through Chayefsky's ridiculously over-written dialogue. The actors all sound like they need to switch to decaf, and it actually suits the academic characters they're playing. The screenplay is credited to "Sidney Aaron"--Chayefsky quit the production after Russell replaced Arthur Penn--but a look at Chayefsky's original novel indicates the dialogue was entirely his. The fine musical score is by John Corigliano.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
My essay on Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 film Alphaville is now up at The Hooded Utilitarian. Click here to read.
Reviews of other films by Jean-Luc Godard:
Rob Reiner’s first feature, This Is Spinal Tap (1984), is close to an inspired piece of satire. In the guise of a “rockumentary” about a fictional British heavy-metal band, it pillories the AOR (album-oriented rock) music scene of the early and mid-1980s. Reiner lampoons—and hilariously—almost everything related to his subject: the crassly squandered musical talent; the ridiculous efforts of the aging members to maintain the Dionysian appeal of their younger days; and the absurdly pretentious flash and gimmickry of both their image and stage performances. (The only thing missing is a swipe at music video.) Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer, who play the principal band members (and who co-wrote the film’s script with Reiner) are just about perfect; Spinal Tap is all but indistinguishable from the other dinosaur rock bands of the 1980s. However, as on-the-mark as the film is, it has also become dated. The pop-music milieu of the ‘90s and aughts was quite different from what came before; acts were invariably sidelined before they became embarrassing to people their own age. If the viewer wasn’t there to see the pop-culture environment the film depicts, he or she may find the picture more than a little silly. Or maybe not: the talent-show environment of today makes the one the film depicts seem dignified by comparison. Reiner himself appears as the director of the film within the film.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the winner of the Palme d’or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, is probably the most notable film from Thailand yet released in the West. It provides an intriguing mix of the everyday and the magical. The title character (Thanapat Saisaymar) is a beekeeper and orchard grower in his sixties who knows he will soon die from kidney failure. His sister-in-law (Jenjira Pongpas) and his nephew (Sakda Kaewbuadee) travel to his farm to be with him in his last days, and the three are soon joined by the ghost of his late wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwong). They also encounter Boonmee’s long-missing son (Geerasak Kulhong), who was transformed years earlier into a glowing-eyed monkey spirit. Weerasethakul treats Boonmee’s impending death as a time of reunion with the mystical aspects of nature. The setting for Boonmee's epiphanies is the nearby forest at night, and his visions take him from memories of his spirit’s prior incarnations to the wondrous cave where his soul was born. The film is at its best in these parts, which are compellingly eerie and fantastic. (Boonmee’s memory of himself as a princess seduced by a water god is as outlandish a scene as one will encounter in movies.) Unfortunately, the sections depicting Boonmee in his daily life are uneventful and inexplicably drawn out; they don’t provide an adequate counterpoint to the mystical passages. And the film’s epilogue, in which the nephew becomes a monk and finds his body and spirit out of sync with each other, is a real head-scratcher. But as unsatisfactory as some of the film is, one may find one can’t get it out of one’s head. The cinematography—elegantly dark and painterly in the forest scenes—is by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. The film is based on the novel A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, by Phra Sripariwattiyetti.
Monday, July 16, 2012
Paul Scofield is a charming, urbane presence as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, director Fred Zinnemann’s film version of the Robert Bolt play. (Bolt is credited with the script.) Scofield is the only good reason to see the picture, which deals with the stand-off between More and England’s King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) over Henry’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Bolt’s treatment over-simplifies the conflict; it doesn’t begin to do justice to the Church (and More)’s view of the threat posed by Henry’s actions and the concurrent rise of Protestantism. Additionally, the portrayal of More is far too idealized to be satisfactory. His animus for the Reformation went far beyond the disdain and occasional harsh words the film shows; half a dozen Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy during his short tenure as Lord Chancellor. It’s also difficult to reconcile his stubborn, often priggish behavior with the depiction of him as a paragon of temperament. The picture is ultimately just a banal story of a principled man who gets railroaded for being uncooperative. As director, Fred Zinnemann certainly didn’t appear to be inspired. The film is well paced, but the staging and camerawork rarely rise above the perfunctory. And apart from Scofield, Zinnemann wasn’t able to get much out of what would seem a dream cast. Leo McKern, Wendy Hiller, John Hurt, Susannah York, and Orson Welles barely make an impression. Robert Shaw is characteristically imposing as Henry VIII, but he’s unable to find a rhythm in his scenes. The performance can't reconcile the king’s bravado and volatility. Mostly, one watches him in dread that he’s going to start yelling again. The picture’s not the worst example of historical-drama award bait, but overall that’s probably the most that can be said for it. The cinematography is by Ted Moore; the music by Georges Delerue. Vanessa Redgrave has a wordless cameo as Anne Boleyn.
Sunday, July 15, 2012
Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) is a great, visionary film. The story is about an off-shoot expedition from Gonzalo Pizarro’s 16th-century quest for the mythical El Dorado. Herzog and cinematographer Thomas Mauch’s depiction of the Andes and the Amazon River is spellbinding and, at times, hallucinatory; the imagery beautifully dramatizes how insignificant and puny these would-be conquerors are in the face of nature’s grandeur. Their hubris in trying to navigate this supremely dangerous environment is a horrifyingly absurd spectacle. Aguirre (Klaus Kinski), the expedition’s leader, is the most horrifyingly absurd of all; he’s possessed of the insane delusion that the conquest of El Dorado will confirm his greatness, and it is but the first step through which he will fulfill his destiny of becoming ruler of the New World. Kinski’s performance is a tremendous portrait of megalomania; his intense eyes, sculptural features, and overall volatility make him seem demonic. But in this jungle, he and his crew turn out to be less than the monkeys in the trees. The film’s depiction of obsession and futility in the striving against nature is awe-inspiring--perhaps the closest movies have come to the achievement of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. The haunting electronic score is by the German band Popol Vuh.
Saturday, July 14, 2012
The setting of writer-director Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) is 14th-century Sweden. A knight (Max von Sydow) has returned after a decade of fighting in the Crusades. But before he arrives home, Death (Bengt Ekerot) comes to claim him. He is granted a stay after challenging Death to a chess game. The knight is wrestling with his faith in God’s justice, and he is hoping for answers before he dies. As he continues the game and makes his way across the plague-ravaged countryside, he comes to terms with his spiritual crisis. This existential morality play is a potent mix of allegory and realism, and it includes some of the most unforgettable imagery in all of film. (The moment of Death’s arrival and the chess game that follows have become iconic.) The allegorical elements are incomprehensibly obscure at times, and the story’s moral—keep faith in God, and enjoy life while you can—is much too pat, but Bergman’s vision has such power that the flaws seem beside the point. It’s a great film, and well deserving of its stature. The fine ensemble also includes Gunnar Björnstrand as the knight’s nihilistic (though just-minded) squire, Maud Hanson as an insane teenage witch, and Nils Poppe and Bibi Andersson as the lovely married couple who are Bergman’s personifications of hope. Gunnar Fischer provided the stunningly atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. In Swedish.
Friday, July 13, 2012
Samuel Beckett was the obvious model for Stranger Than Paradise, writer-director Jim Jarmusch’s début feature. Several hallmarks of Beckett’s style are present: the anomic, buffoonish characters; the deadpan comic tone; the nothing-happens atmosphere. The three protagonists are two Hungarian immigrant cousins (John Lurie and Eszter Balint) and the male cousin’s American-born best friend (Richard Edson). The film’s settings are a rathole studio apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a rundown section of Cleveland during the thick of winter, and a cheap seaside motel in the middle of nowhere in Florida. Jarmusch follows the characters as they listlessly idle their way through each locale. What holds the film together is Jarmusch’s style, which is a cinematic equivalent of Beckett’s elegantly minimalist formalism. The material is presented in a series of single-take scenes—shot in black-and-white—that end in blackout, and this gives the picture a pleasant, laconic rhythm. The film is impressive in many respects, but one may find it offensively smug and pejorative. Nearly every scene is about mocking the lower-class protagonists for their lack of social intelligence and their overall dimwittedness. With the inexplicable emphasis on the cousins’ ethnic background, Jarmusch is flirting with outright bigotry. Beckett had the good judgment to strip his characters and settings of any social or cultural context. He turned them into abstractions, which led to his material functioning in strictly allegorical terms. Jarmusch puts that contextualization back in, and it’s a terrible mistake. John Lurie provided the film's score. The cinematography is by Tom DiCillo.
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
The Adjustment Bureau, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have an extraordinary romantic chemistry onscreen. They and writer-director George Nolfi immediately establish the rapport between the couple in their scenes together, and as the characters play off each other, the humor, warmth, and happiness between them builds and blossoms. In these moments, the film is giddy love-story bliss. One can’t help but wish Nolfi would just focus on the pair and jettison the gimmicky sf-fantasy story framework. The script is based on concepts in the 1954 Philip K. Dick story “Adjustment Team,” and it posits a world secretly guided at times by supernatural beings who call themselves The Bureau (played by John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, and Terence Stamp, among others). These trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad guardian angels have determined that the Damon and Blunt characters need to be kept apart in order for both to achieve their full potential (he as a politician, she as a dancer). Most of the picture is given over to the efforts of the Damon character to thwart their plans, and it climaxes in a stupid chase that has the cast teleporting through doorways all across Manhattan. (However grudgingly, credit must be given where it’s due: Nolfi’s use of the New York locations in this sequence and others is superb.) There’s a terrific romantic movie struggling to break free from the pretentious pulpiness, but it never sees its way clear. The outstanding cinematography is by John Toll.