30th 11 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Warrior (2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Gavin O’Connor

By Roderick Heath

Certain movies seem to ride the currents of the zeitgeist with a blend of fortuitous spiritual accord and opportunistic calculation. Gavin O’Connor, who, after making a mark with Tumbleweeds (1999), has constructed an oeuvre resting solidly on the power of clichéd words—Miracle! Pride! Glory! Warrior!—to communicate their essence instantly to even the most thickly unibrowed of viewers. With Warrior, he channels Great Recession and War on Terror-era angst and the spreading popularity of the haute-macho histrionics of Ultimate Fighting; as such, in 50 years’ time, when cinema and cultural historians want a window into the cultural mood of our time, they may reasonably deduce that the inchoate impulses and desperate straits of the early 2000s led us to beat the living shit out of our brothers rather than figure out who was more worth hitting.

Warrior is the sort of film that leaves me with a nearly physical sense of confusion in trying to reckon with its impact, which is perhaps giving it far more credit than it deserves. Warrior is at once so dizzyingly, gobsmackingly bad that it outrages the critical faculties, and yet it still works on a level of primal melodrama to an extent that it rouses the blood. In fact, I’m not sure if a better, more tasteful movie could summarise the peculiar insanities of our era better. It’s a film that’s not afraid to recycle every fight cliché under the sun or milk every drop of macho gravitas for the sake of trying to keep its presumed audience involved. Warrior could easily have been made in the 1930s and cast, oh, I dunno, James Cagney and Clark Gable as the goofus and gallant pair of tough brothers forced by various crises to battle each other in the ring, minus the bone-cracking detail and pseudo-realistic swathes of angst over histories of familial crack-up, spousal abuse, and posttraumatic stress fall-out.

Instead of Cagney and Gable, we have Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as Tommy and Brendan Conlon, two brothers with an alcoholic, abusive father named Paddy (Nick Nolte) whose lives have taken disparate paths and yet lead back to the same place. Both were trained in the disciplines of wrestling and martial arts, but Tommy eventually fled the house as a teenager with his mother, whilst the older Brendan stayed at home: both now harbour powerful antipathy for their father, who, when the film opens, is newly, if fragilely, on the wagon. Paddy finds Tommy sitting on his doorstop after years away, sipping liquor from a bottle in a brown bag and overflowing with sullen aggression, repeatedly baiting his old man with lines about how he preferred him as a drunk whilst reminding him of the poverty and agony his ex-wife died in. Tommy nonetheless enlists his father to be his trainer: as a teen Tommy had once wanted to best the record of the storied ancient Greek fighter Theogenes.

On a visit to a local gym, Tommy volunteers as a sparring partner for Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes (Erik Apple), a current champ, and promptly beats the hell out of him. This is captured by a bystander on his cell phone, and the footage becomes a You Tube sensation, eventually witnessed by a far-off soldier in Iraq who recognises Tommy as the man who saved his life by pulling him from a shattered tank on the battlefield. At the same time, Brendan, who has retired from the UFC after a near-fatal defeat, has become a high school physics teacher. With a wife, Tess, and children, Brendan has been left heavily in debt in after paying one of his daughters’ medical bills. Threatened with foreclosure, Brendan decides to return to fighting. After winning a bout in the parking lot of a strip joint, Brendan is suspended by his school. Thus he commits to a full return to the sport, talking his old trainer Frank Campana (Frank Grillo) into helping him. The brothers’ fateful paths lead them both to enter Sparta, “the Superbowl of mixed martial arts,” held in Atlantic City.

It feels, as per sporting movie rules, a bit unfair to kick Warrior when it’s down at the box office, but it’s a work that has scored big with those who did see it and many critics, too, and seems destined for a long life on DVD and cable TV like another initially failed and yet seemingly immortal epic of masculine self-pity and triumphalism, The Shawshank Redemption (1994). If Warrior had been made in the ’50s, Marlon Brando would almost certainly have played Tommy, and Hardy, with a hulking physical strength accompanied by a mouth belonging to a Rossetti angel and violently expressive eyes, is definitely a movie star in the mould that produced Brando, Newman, and Dean. Also, if it had been a Brando film made by the cinema artisans of that era, they might have had the good sense to clear the decks of superfluous drama and distraction and work up some depth in portraying Tommy’s conflicted, near-neurotic rage and sadomasochistic impulses. Instead, Warrior tries to sustain two similar, yet distinctive protagonists, which allows the film to stretch out to an ungodly 140 minutes, climax with about a half-dozen fight scenes where two would do, and amass story elements and dramatic tropes as if O’Connor and his fellow screenwriters Anthony Tambakis and Cliff Dorfman bought them up at a fire sale. Unlike David O. Russell’s likeable The Fighter (2009), which retained a seriocomic approach that leavened its well-worn tropes and at least some claim to authenticity, O’Connor’s film is as dourly, joylessly self-serious as any tattooed obsessive UFC heavy, and seems pitched to the types of people who will, when watching it, chime in every five minutes with statements like, “That’s right, yo, ‘cos it’s about respect, you know what I mean, bro?”

In spite of the ancient Greek references and the practically mythical theme of the two brothers doomed to clash in battle, Warrior has no pretensions to Greek tragic style, or, if it does, it hopelessly smothers them. Warrior is rather a Rocky variant where the brothers play Rocky and Apollo, and like those characters, seem to summarise a contemporary schism in the American mindset. The major difficulty O’Connor sets himself is setting up a situation where two characters who might rightfully expect to be the heroes of the piece duke it out. Tommy is a war hero and plans to donate whatever he can win fighting to the widow of his former brother in arms Pilar Fernandez (Vanessa Martinez). Brendan, a beleaguered underdog, is of course fighting to save his middle-class status. Their fighting styles are as polarised as their personalities: Tommy is a lethal pugilist who tries to bash all opponents into the ground immediately, whereas Brendan is a slippery wrestler who absorbs heavy blows before contorting his opponents into agonising knots they can’t escape. A sequel might reasonably see them taking on Godzilla and Mothra.

O’Connor, whose foolish enthusiasm and utter cynicism blend indecipherably, throws in everything but the kitchen sink for the sake of emotionally involving his audience. His dramatic style is much like Tommy’s fighting technique: he hits and keeps on hitting until resistance is shattered. I’d be lying if I said by the end I hadn’t been affected by the film on its most basic level—wanting to see how the film could satisfyingly resolve its thorny moral and emotional quandaries, and see our heroes beat their seemingly indomitable opponents. But afterwards I felt greasy and quite genuinely used: the film pushes buttons, which I’m sure many of us have these days, of latent rage at fiscal institutions and corrupted authority figures, of fears about how to keep roofs over heads in tough times, and anxieties over the psychological and social damage of the wars that have both defined and yet also remained oddly alien from the everyday landscape of our era. And yet Warrior squirms out of making any real investigations into the nature of these crises, because at the same time it attempts to exploit such issues, it also gives a moral and emotional hand job to a presumed audience of conservatives and young men aching for manly validation.

It’s heavily suggested that Paddy’s domestic violence was caused by PTSD after his own military service, and Tommy makes many of the same mistakes, acting with surly, unforgiving aggression towards both father and brother. Yet the film gets off on the sight of soldiers coming to serenade Tommy at his bouts with the Marine hymn. The film outlines the good cause Tommy and Brendan have to be angry with their father, and yet O’Connor spares no effort in wringing our empathy with the pathetic, shambolic old man, as when he’s rebuffed by Brendan outside his house like a poor, panting, lost dog as he tells his kids, who don’t know Paddy at all. Later, the film builds this up to a note that’s both ludicrous and yet kind of affecting when Paddy, exhausted by Tommy’s cruelty, falls off the wagon and screams lines from the talking book version of Moby Dick he’s been toting throughout the film in Tommy’s face, stirring something like filial pity from Tommy at last. O’Connor wants to depict catharsis here, but he fails to gain it precisely because he’s copped out of any actual reckoning with the emotional damage both men have suffered and inflicted. The lack of any essential irony or even genuine consequentiality to this background detail finally hurries up a process I’ve noticed in other recent films, like Jim Sheridan’s dreadful Brothers (2009), of turning the familial and spousal abuse of PTSD-afflicted soldiers into an equivalent of a battle scar—ugly, but part of the job of the good loyal God-fearin’ mom-and-apple-pie-lovin’ soldier.

O’Connor and Co. set up a fascinating set of standards that determine the outcome of the film, leavening Tommy’s lustre of patriotism and military heroism by making him a deserter (that’s bad), but one who deserted because he was angry at the friendly fire incident that killed his buddy (that’s good), who doesn’t care who he hurts on the way to his desired goal (that’s bad), but his desired end is helping out his pal’s cutely ethnic family (that’s good). O’Connor goes for the money every time, whether it’s on a relatively casual level, framing Pilar and her child after a weepy phone conversation with Tommy with a photo of him with her late husband, to the most overt, like the aforementioned singing Marines bit. Truth be told, the main source of tension in the narrative of Warrior comes from waiting to see which cliché and manipulative trope O’Connor will employ next. We’ve got Brendan’s wife—O’Connor makes sure to give us a view of Morrison’s shapely ass during a supposedly serious bathroom confrontation between these two hard-pressed average folks—acting out the compulsory role of whining concernedly about her husband’s health and safety when he wants to get back in the ring but eventually coming around to stand by her man at ringside. We’ve got Brendan’s school principal Zito (Kevin Dunn, of course) chewing him out, suspending him, and fending off the appeals of his students to watch Brendan’s fights, but cheering Brendan when watching him on television, and finally joining the kids to view the climactic bout. O’Connor doesn’t so much deploy information as wallop you over the head with it, resolutely failing the “show, don’t tell” test with a constant stream of backstory-dropping conversations and the incessant yammering of the fight callers Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan, playing themselves, aptly, as the kinds of ESPN-ish commentators you want to strangle with their own entrails after five minutes.

Hollywood formula depends, of course, on the relative memory of an audience, which might remember one or two variations on a theme but often won’t recall the 2,000 or more before that. But Warrior is something new: a film where just about every scene, line, theme, motif, and visual cue seems to have been clipped out of some preexisting source, with a meretricious veneer of grainy steadicam realism and the gratuitous use of the “Ode to Joy” to make the audience feel just so fucking cultured, you know? The film’s attitude to the sport and the people who engage it in is curious: giving our two triumphant white heroes (Irish, of course, ever a safe niche identity) a small army of stock punks and ethnic foes, reminding us that most of those who fight the sport are “animals” amongst whom a teacher with a Beethoven theme tune is an incongruous stand-out, whilst getting off on the steroid-pumped physiques and blood-spattering action with unremitting gall. Warrior builds to apogees of absurd hooray-for-us hype by the time Brendan has to battle the hulking Russian champion Koba (Kurt Angle), who struts onto stage clad, I shit you not, in a jumpsuit emblazoned with hammer and sickle. O’Connor, who with Miracle (2004) revisited an iconic moment of Reaganite resurgence, makes it clear here that he’s trying to tap into a fantasy on the American Right of revisiting the Cold War battles in the fraught hope it will return coherence to its worldview and mettle to its ranks. Sadly, we don’t even get to hear Koba say “I must breaaak yooou.”

This film does seem, with all due respect to my U.S. friends and readers, to capture something almost pathological in aspects of the current American mindset. Warrior finally presents its two brothers locked in mortal combat where one breaks the arm of the other and bashes him into submission for the sake of pure financial desperation, with the side-effect of providing some decidedly nonfruity psychotherapy about turning rage that might be better expended on other targets on each other. Thus, the mistakes of the past cannot teach: they can only be recommitted with ever more hysterical, blunt force until you’re literally on your last legs, broken and bloodied, still commanding the allegiance of the uniformed ranks you nominally betrayed. In short, it’s hard to get away from the feeling that Warrior is pitching to be the Tea Party’s manifesto movie.

That the film holds together at all, and even develops a charge of emotional involvement that isn’t pure flimflam, is because of Hardy and Edgerton, and, to a lesser extent, Nolte. Edgerton, up until recently a fairly bland Aussie pretty boy kicking about in international cinema looking for a place to land, has, in his too-brief contribution to Animal Kingdom (2010) and this film, begun to age interestingly. His believably minimalist playing of Brendan’s mix of assailed intelligence, anxiety, and fighting gumption nicely contrasts Hardy’s glowering mass of oedipal anger. Thanks to them, a confrontation between the brothers on the Atlantic City beachfront delivers the right charge of lingering resentment curdling with grief to produce a hostility that will drive them to nearly tear each other apart in the ring. Nolte’s climactic moment, shouting Melville in Hardy’s face, is the sort of moment that can easily defeat an actor; I’m not sure even Nolte survives it, but he gives it a herculean try. Now bring on Godzilla and Mothra.


28th 11 - 2011 | 16 comments »

Shame (2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Steve McQueen

By Marilyn Ferdinand

British director Steve McQueen seems drawn to examine human beings in extremis. His debut film Hunger (2008) deals with a subject about as out there as they come—the hunger strike unto death of Bobby Sands of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Maze Prison, Belfast. The deep commitment of Sands and his fellow hunger strikers to protest their treatment as criminals instead of as political prisoners and keep alive the question of Irish independence and reclamation of the counties of Northern Ireland into the whole of Ireland offers an extreme reaction to an intolerable situation for them.

With his second feature, Shame, McQueen turns his focus to another Irishman, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, who played Bobby Sands in Hunger), whose extreme reaction to an internal pain the film never reveals is a severe sex addiction. Brandon, who lives in New York City, works for a company, perhaps an ad agency, where high-concept talk, client-landing, and young-turk partying are daily occurrences. However, it appears that he spends a lot of his work day consuming Internet porn and masturbating in a bathroom stall. He continues with same at home and adds visits from prostitutes, barroom pick-ups, and street cruising to the mix. Aside from listening to vinyl records or running, we don’t observe him doing much of anything not related to his obsession.

Two potential problems arise. Brandon’s company has detected Internet porn use at his IP address and confiscates his computer to wipe the filth and investigate how it got there, and Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a needy, suicidal cabaret singer whom Brandon has been avoiding for years, shows up looking for a place to stay. We overhear Sissy pleading with a lover on the phone; she hasn’t divorced emotional from physical intimacy the way Brandon has, and in fact, makes more of it than it is. So, it seems that Sissy’s role is to challenge her brother’s numbness with her neediness. That she’s willing to slit her wrists to get it doesn’t really offer a positive incentive, but nonetheless, Brandon makes a bid to change his ways, tossing out his entire porn collection and even his laptop. Given the enormity of Brandon’s addiction—almost the entire film comprises his sexual activities—it isn’t likely that either bump in the road will set him on a new course, but there is always a chance. He tries and quickly fails to start a relationship with coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the only woman he can’t seem to have sex with, and a second chance at a sexual encounter he ran after near the beginning of the film is the cliffhanger with which McQueen ends his film.

With no real plot and no big reveal about Brandon and Sissy’s past, what Shame offers is a portrait of a sex addict. The very first image of the film is startlingly brilliant—Fassbender lying naked on his back, a blue sheet covering his pelvis, his hand resting low on his stomach as though he either just finished or is getting ready to masturbate. But he lays there in utter stillness, his eyes wide open and blank. I questioned out loud whether he might be dead until a small eye movement broke the spell. The image is as erotic and frightening as anything Caravaggio might have painted, and it perfectly sets the tone for a film in which the “little death” of orgasm seems a longing for true annihilation.

I found the rituals of anonymous sex interesting, though certainly not unique in my film-going experience. A prostitute (MariAnge Ramirez) comes to Brandon’s apartment and counts out the cash he gives her, ending with a satisfied “OK.” When she starts to undress, he tells her to go slow as he watches. We see the same almost expression-free face in this encounter as we do when he is looking at porn on his computer. It’s just something he does, like checking his Facebook page or e-mail. I was also fascinated by Brandon the quiet predator. Early in the film, he locks eyes with a married woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway; she is clearly turned on by his gaze. She flirts wordlessly with him and gets him to pursue her off the train, disappearing before he can clear the crowd to reach her. Sexual longing is in her face, but his remains inscrutable, almost sociopathic and dangerous—a clear sexual turn-on for some women. In another example, Brandon is out with his married-but-flexible boss David (James Badge Dale) at a high-end bar. David tries to pick up a beautiful blonde (Elizabeth Masucci) who is out with two of her girlfriends, but he’s all bluster and blunder. He goes home blind drunk, and Brandon, who has said almost nothing all night, is propositioned by the blonde out on the street and screws her in an alley.

Shame is loaded with nudity and sex of nearly every stripe, but it is joyless sex, anti-erotic, in fact. Fassbender is handsome, inviting, but a complete puzzle. He tries to pick up a woman whose boyfriend is a mean-looking biker; he knows he’s going to get his ass kicked, and it’s pretty clear that’s what he’s looking for. During a threesome, McQueen isolates Brandon’s face when a look of anguish is plastered across it—virtually the only true emotion Fassbender allows to escape. His performance is courageous, committed, and will prove frustrating for viewers who want to know why he is how he is. Of course, if we knew that about sex addicts, then perhaps there would be many fewer of them.

Carey Mulligan’s casting in this film is rather baffling. She plays the kind of mess Jennifer Jason Leigh patented in her career, but the veneer does not sit comfortably on Mulligan’s kewpie-doll face. McQueen had to shoot her in harsh lighting to bring some tired lines to the surface, but in almost an apology for making her look puffy, he offers caressing close-ups of her singing a very slowed-down version of “New York, New York” at a downtown nightclub. This scene is clearly an attempt to make her into some kind of tragic Judy Garlandesque icon rather than reveal character, since that’s the only song she sings in a show Brandon and David make a special trip to see. Basically, I didn’t see any need for the character of Sissy to be in this film other than to provide a bit of plot.

Shame is a terrific-looking film, one I would expect from a talented film school graduate like McQueen. McQueen seems to be a fan of Italian cinema, evoking the documentary style of the Neorealists and the alienation of Antonioni’s oeuvre with his modernist cityscapes and portentously lit night scenes. But he didn’t quite figure out how to make his closely observed film add up. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the reason for Brandon’s addiction unexplained, leaving the title to stand for the emotion of the film, just as Melancholia stood for the atmosphere of depression in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film. Unlike von Trier, McQueen distances us from Brandon’s pain, choosing to show us the symptoms without allowing us to empathize. If it were not for Fassbender’s spellbinding portrayal of this tormented man, there would be nothing to hold onto at all. As much as I admire the craft of this film and acknowledge the talent it took to bring it to life on the screen, I’m not sure I took anything important away from it. And because I think McQueen meant me to, I have to count this as a near miss.

26th 11 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Contagion (2011)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

By Roderick Heath

Time advances, aesthetics shift, technologies update, morals and social maxims evolve, but some things remain constant. Especially movie clichés. The disaster movie, for instance, has hardly changed in form in more than six decades. You take a threat to a slice of, or all of, humanity, and pit against it characters from all walks of life who try to survive and/or nullify the threat. It’s a nifty generic conceit that allows storytellers to work at once on panoramic and microcosmic levels and tap into common anxieties and fantasies about what might happen when things go to hell. One subgenre located at the nexus of the disaster and science fiction movies is bi-fi, where a biological threat is the agent of destruction.

Bi-fi nominally exploits the wonder and terror in quite real and immediate concerns about potential pandemics, perceiving how the porous boundaries in our global village render us ever less insulated against such shocks. But it often tends to exploit other, less specific anxieties as well: that doctors, those virtual new priests of the modern world, might suddenly stop being able to offer us absolution from fear; that governments might gleefully let slip their most authoritarian impulses given half the chance and muster us all into neat rows to die; or that our neighbours, friends and we ourselves might, with the provocations of impending chaos, suddenly turn into marauding looters and killers when society starts crumbling. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, from a script by Scott Z. Burns, is immediately identifiable as belonging to the genre, and yet it possesses a veneer of the dispassionate analytical cinema Soderbergh turned on the likes of Traffic (2001) and Che (2008).

There’s no kind way to say that Contagion is one of the worst major recent films I’ve seen, so…that’ll have to do. The only wonder and terror Contagion generates is at the profligate expenditure of talent and the dizzying shapelessness of the filmmaking that can’t even rise to the level of the cheesiest ’70s all-star disaster flick or the average mid-’90s telemovie. I’ve confessed before my long-running distrust of Soderbergh’s oeuvre, and whereas Che made me consider laying down my arms, Contagion has me all guns blazing again. There’s something threatening about this terminally bland, unfocused, stake-free collage of reputable thespians achieving poses of mild concern in a procession of offices and labs, as if it presages an era in which, freed from the necessity engendered by shooting on real film, Hollywood’s technocrats can just slap together a project over the weekend and pass it off as a movie. Soderbergh directs with a pretence to docudrama spareness, and yet, as ever, I wonder if he’s ever watched a good one, so completely does he forget to include the “drama” half of the equation and so badly does he fumble the “docu” part. In Contagion, near-apocalyptic forces are unleashed, and yet even the few glimpses we get of chaos and dissolution are so neat and tritely staged that I seriously started to wonder if anyone in Hollywood knows what the rest of the world looks like, beyond the confines of select hotels and institutions.

Soderbergh, to his credit, kicks things off with some fast-paced montage work, as he introduces a Patient Zero, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow), from whom a ripple of unintentional calamity spreads outwards. People she met in a Hong Kong casino, including a Ukrainian model (Daria Strokous) and a young local waiter (Chui Tien You), begin folding up and dying all around the world. After a stopover in Chicago for a quickie with a former boyfriend, Beth returns home to Minneapolis to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon), and her kids. She collapses in a fit in the kitchen and is rushed to hospital, where a postmortem reveals signs of a contagion so terrifying the pathologist tells his assistant to “call everyone!” The A-Team of medical science springs into action, as various health organisations rush to identify and find a solution to the disease, which begins to prove untreatable and fatal to a staggering number of the population. Dr. Ellis Cheever (Laurence Fishburne), a bigwig at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, contends first with the problem of arranging a response whilst worrying it might all prove to be another over-hyped menace.

Cheever sets Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) on the task of tracking the disease’s landfall in America and then arranging treatment and containment strategies. WHO official Dr. Leila Orontes (Marion Cotillard) tries to zero in on the source of infection, contending with obstructive Chinese officials, before finally being kidnapped by her liaison, Sun Feng (Chin Han), who feels obliged to try to use her as barter for a supposed secret cure the American and French governments are sitting on to save the remnants of his village. As the crisis worsens, Mitch, who’s immune, tries to weather the storms in the Minnesota suburbs as mass hysteria and mortality set in: after his stepson dies from the disease, he tries to keep his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) safe, fending off visits from her boyfriend Andrew (Brian J. O’Donnell). Meanwhile some plucky researchers, including CDC research wizards Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and David Eisenberg (Demetri Martin), and Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould), a grizzled outsider who plays by his own rules, become the first to grow the microbes successfully and lay the groundwork for finding a vaccine.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a less convincing and compelling portrait of an international crisis than in this movie. Whilst Soderbergh is obviously trying to avoid the trashy hype of the likes of Outbreak (1995), he doesn’t succeed in filling his work with anything else that’s persuasive. The pretensions to realism are constantly undercut by the proliferation of famous movie actors playing characters with romance novel names, glimpsed in stodgy vignettes (some, like Martin and Gould, wasted to an astonishing degree). Any intended commitment to procedural integrity and continuity is quickly jettisoned as major plot elements, like Sussman’s and Hextall’s labours, are reduced to glib throwaways, in contrast with a ’30s biopic like The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) that was able to develop not only a sense of process but also of drama in the process of trying to combat a microbe, not to mention a real classic of bi-fi like The Andromeda Strain (1970). There’s a far too cute piece of insta-exposition when the researchers manage to obtain security recordings that show Beth meeting several of the other infected people in pristine clarity and perfect situated detail.

In failing to deal interestingly with the disease itself, therefore, one might expect the real weight of Contagion’s interests to fall on another area, but instead it spreads itself so thinly that it communicates absolutely nothing with depth. There’s no continuity of mood or even detail from scene to scene: whilst there are occasional cutaways to shots of soldiers amassing to impose and maintain blockades, the film fails utterly to evolve a proper visual and thematic pattern of deepening crisis and desperate straits, as it doesn’t even seem able to decide on what level we should take the impact of the disease. Even in the brief vignettes of lawlessness and chaos glimpsed through Mitch’s eyes, there’s something stilted and antiseptic about the whole affair, with barely any sense of contiguity between the various story and character strands. Soderbergh’s idea of upsetting audience expectations is to give a shot of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head being peeled open in an autopsy. Any five minutes of George Romero’s The Crazies (1972) have more existential angst, ruthlessness, and bitter irony than the entirety of this addled slop.

Soderbergh can’t even decide how serious the problem he’s depicting is. While in one frame we’re seeing desperation and danger in the suburbs, as things around Mitch start to resemble The Omega Man (1972) or something, and rows of corpses are buried in mass graves a la The Devils (1971), in another we have our doctor heroes in their still perfectly functional labs looking like they just stepped out of the pages of a Vogue Oscar preview spread. Characters come and go with rapidity and jarring disconnection that borders on contempt for storytelling, for example, when Hextall’s doctor father (Dan Flannery), who falls sick after weeks of labouring with disease victims, is trucked in three-quarters of the way through the film in a rather limp stab at stirring emotional involvement for Hextall, who has taken an experimental vaccine to test its effectiveness. Even Irwin Allen’s terrible The Swarm (1978) manages to extract more drama out of such an act than this film does, failing as it does to shake Ehle’s Mona Lisa smile a fraction of a millimetre. For a film that seems to propose itself as being about detail and studying chains of cause and effect, Contagion looks and feels so segmented and disconnected that it ends up operating a bit like a terrorist organisation full of cells who have no idea what each other are up to. Soderbergh has long had pretences to being a politically conscious filmmaker, and yet his politics and methods of relaying them are hackneyed, and here they are so sketchy and silly as to beggar belief. In the cheesiest attempt to raise a sort of everything-is-connected consciousness I can possibly imagine, the very last scene is the worst in this regard, as Soderbergh returns to the actual process of the first contamination of a pig Beth eats as having resulted from the bulldozing of forest by the corporation for which Beth was an executive.

Along the way, there are portraits of the untrustworthiness of Asians on both the official and personal level, with the latter supposedly leavened by Leila’s eventual empathy and collusion with her kidnappers, as she is seen tutoring kids in Sun Feng’s village—maybe more third world villages should shanghai brilliant white women—and rushing back to them when she learns they’ve been given a placebo in exchange for her. Like many other things in the movie, but perhaps most representative, this subplot is so weakly developed and offhandedly treated that it results in head-scratching bewilderment as to what Soderbergh and Burns thought they were accomplishing. Jude Law contributes the film’s most hilariously awful element, playing blogger and freelance Aussie journalist Adam Krumwiedler, the first of what will undoubtedly be many gross caricatures of Julian Assange in movies, who spreads whipped-up stories about corruption, secret cures, and malfeasance via the internet—because the internet and especially bloggers are evil, don’t you know—and turns out to be trying to make money by flogging a product called Forsythia that falsely claims to be a cure for the disease. Soderbergh gives us repeated scenes of Krumwiedler, complete with crooked front teeth, meeting with a hedge fund rep, billed in the credits as “Hedge Fund Man in Park” (Randy Lowell) to give you an idea of the precision screenwriting that went into this aspect, selling him on helping him flog Forsythia to a populace whom Krumwielder manipulates with rumours and conspiracy theories. It’s the partnership of the hypocritical scare-mongering left and the greedy, feckless right we’ve all not been waiting to see in a movie. Speaking of scene progressions that fail to make sense: in one scene Krumwiedler’s wearing a full-body suit to avoid being infected, and yet soon after he’s back chatting to the Hedge Fund guy in a public place without any protection at all, making it utterly apparent Soderbergh shot these scenes contiguously without pausing to think about the psychological or practical considerations of these characters in the flow of such a situation.

Krumwiedler’s wickedness continues when he attempts to disgrace Cheever by uncovering how Cheever tried to get his wife (Sanaa Lathan) to leave Chicago, and, of course she, like all foolish wives, lets it slip to friends, and so on and so forth—not that this plot element has actual consequences apart from causing Fishburne’s affect of stony decency to become slightly stiffer during press conferences. That Cheever’s actually a decent bloke is illustrated through his conversations with cleaning man Roger (John Hawkes, who might have reasonably expected his Winter’s Bone work might elevate out of parts like this), to whose son he gives his own dose of the vaccine once it arrives, because, well, he’s just good that way. Krumwiedler and taciturn Asians are not the limits of the film’s shallow villains, for Mears also has to deal with a ludicrously nasty Minnesota Department of Health official (Tara Mallen) on the way. One of the film’s few moments of any incipient menace and tragedy comes when Mears awakens in a hotel room to find herself infected, and hurries to track down the hotel employees she may have passed it on to. She is later glimpsed lying with other victims in the disease centre she helped set up, but Soderbergh can’t wring any irony out of that, chiefly because he segues into another cheap piece of pseudo-irony, as Cheever learns he can’t extract her to bring her to the CDC’s better facilities because the plane used for this has commandeered for a sick congressman.

Damon’s part as the lone assailed Everyman in this scenario has rightly been regarded as the best element of the film: certainly Damon plays Mitch, who staves off grief and anger at the sudden loss of wife and stepson and discovery of her infidelity to get down to the hard necessities of survival, with his usual cagey skill. He’s particularly good in the moment when he’s told his wife has died, the reporting medicos stating it in such a dispassionate fashion he doesn’t register the fact and goes on to ask to see her. But even in his subplot, the only real street-level vignette of the movie, Contagion displays a woeful lack of challenging darkness or skill in staging. Mitch glimpses riots in supermarkets—one infected woman comes up to him and gives a stage cough that sets him shepherding Jory away again—and signs of murder and pillage in neighbouring houses. But the biggest problem he has to deal with is keeping Andrew away from his daughter, who pouts and pounds out her frustrations on her iPhone, thus reminding us that, as bloggers are evil, so, too, all modern teens are self-involved and tech-addled to the point where even a major modern disaster all around them won’t inspire them to get their heads out of their asses. The profundity just keeps on a-comin’, folks. Even some of the smaller bits of business are clichéd, like an early moment where an infected man wanders dazedly in front of a truck, this being the second recent movie in a row I saw with this scene in it.

Not very long into Contagion I began to think about Fernando Mireilles’s popularly dismissed Blindness (2008), which, whilst overlong and excessively self-conscious, nonetheless employed and explored much of the same imagery and situational dynamics as Soderbergh’s film, whilst actually managing to invest them with personal and philosophical weight, as well as a grinding corporeal effect. Contagion, whilst a nominally more “believable” and parable-free approach to such a calamitous story, actually startled me with the lack of substance, the lack of immediacy, the lack of any genuine thought-provocation, invested in it. One aspect that particularly struck me was the fashion in which Contagion recycles a motif from one of the earliest bi-fi movies, Val Guest’s 80,000 Suspects (1963), in which Yolande Donlan’s unfaithful wife is a Typhoid Mary spreading disease throughout London. The fascinating repetition of the association of adultery and female sexual transgression reveals that, under all the new-age hype and facile realism, very little has changed in the (probably unconscious) minds of many mainstream filmmakers. Contagion finally limps through to a final narrative phase where the threat dissipates and yet the movie steadfastly refuses to end until we get some unearned emotional milking (Mitch weeping for Beth at last, and Jory getting to dance with Andrew in a makeshift living room Prom Night). All that said, there are one or two scenes, as when Mears chases down one of Beth’s infected coworkers on a bus and particularly that in which Mears reports her own illness to Cheever, in which the strength of this high-caliber cast wasn’t wasted entirely—but not for want of trying. Soderbergh has reportedly been kicking about the idea of retiring. He should have done it sooner, because if this is what the end of the world looks like, we’ll go out with not a bang, but with a whimper of boredom.


23rd 11 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Albert Nobbs (2011)

Director: Rodrigo García

By Marilyn Ferdinand

“It’s lumpy.”

Those are the words hotel waiter Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) uses to lie to his employer, Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), about the condition of his mattress so he won’t have to share it with a temporary worker and risk revealing his secret—that Nobbs is actually a woman. Those are also the words that I would use to describe Albert Nobbs: there are a lot of great things about this film, but viewers can expect to roll over a few lumps while watching it.

Albert Nobbs, a passion project for Glenn Close, who did a stage version of the story in 1982 and not only stars in the film but also coproduced and cowrote it, is based on a short story by the great Irish writer George Moore. These days, Moore is not as famous a member of the Irish Literary Revival movement of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries as Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, but he was a highly influential and controversial one. He brought English literature into the modern age by offering realism and sex, including homosexuality, in place of romanticism. “The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs,” published in 1927, displays all of these elements in spades, offering an exploration of gender and social class roles and the more Irish-centered concerns of delayed adulthood and idealized motherhood.

Albert is a very buttoned-up, 40ish person, careful and economical in both word and deed. He remembers little touches, like putting roses on the dinner table of a particular hotel guest, and these actions garner him the steady tips he records carefully in a ledger and squirrels under a floorboard in his room. His hope is to leave the employ of others and open his own shop. He has even located the property he wants to buy in a rundown part of Dublin.

Albert’s modest plan gets a major kickstart when he discovers the temporary worker he failed to avoid sleeping with shares Albert’s secret: Hubert Page (Janet McTeer) is also a woman. The pair exchanges stories. Page left an abusive husband who gave her a broken nose as a permanent scar, donned his clothes, and made a good living as a house painter, work that would not have been available to a woman. Page moved in with Kathleen (Bronagh Gallagher), a milliner, to share living expenses, and when the neighbors started to talk, they got married. Albert believes he is the unacknowledged bastard of a gentleman and well-born mother who died when Albert was an infant. She was cared for by a Mrs. Nobbs, who gave her her treasured picture of her mother, but nothing more in the way of information. Mrs. Nobbs died when Albert was 14, and she was gang-raped by some young men. Determined to get out of the miserable conditions in which she lived, she bought a second-hand suit and was hired on as a waiter at a short-staffed restaurant. And that was it—Albert’s life as a man and a waiter began.

Meeting Hubert sets the repressed Albert’s imagination on fire. When he learns Hubert has a wife, he is desperate to find out how Hubert did it—did he tell Kathleen before or after they were married, innocent of the notion that such a thing as a lesbian could exist. He tracks them down, and they invite him in for tea and conversation. He decides he wants to sell tobacco when they question what his intentions for his shop will be, but Albert has never even rolled a cigarette, much less smoked one. Albert wonders if a woman could sell tobacco; Hubert says yes and suggests that Helen (Mia Wasikowska), a pretty, young maid in the hotel, would be great for the job.

That idea planted like a weed in manure, Albert decides that he will court and marry Helen; he imagines the façade of the shop, “A. Nobbs, Tobacconist” hovering over the entryway, and a door leading to a sitting room where Helen sits knitting before a hearth fire. However, Helen is carrying on a sexual affair with Joe (Aaron Johnson), another employee whose only wish is to go to America and leave behind his troubled past. It’s hard to know how a middle-aged, chaste, peculiar cross-dresser will win Helen, but therein lies some of the intrigue of Albert Nobbs.

Glenn Close inhabits Albert like the closely tailored suit and bowler he wears. Subtle make-up provides her with a dessicated look appropriate to someone whose emotional life has all but dried up. When Albert’s carefully circumscribed life starts to unravel, Close offers jewels of uncontrollable emotional release that are quite touching. For example, in one scene, Albert and Hubert each don dresses Kathleen made and take a walk. The initial comedy of seeing two women acting believably like awkward men in drag gives way to a burst of feeling as Close opens her arms and runs as the wind skims under her skirt and blows her shawl loosely around her, the tight corset concealing Albert’s breasts and close-fitting suit and tie abandoned for a time. In another scene, Dr. Holloran (Brendan Gleeson), the sympathetic house doctor, ruminates with Albert at a fancy dress ball for which only the hotel guests are costumed, “We are disguised as ourselves.” But who really is Albert? He barely makes a start at finding out and growing up before fate intervenes.

Still, Albert Nobbs has some problems. First, and less critically, the pacing is uneven. Director Rodrigo García’s background includes both episodic television and episodic films, and Albert Nobbs feels episodic as well. A typhoid epidemic that hits in the middle of the film puts in place one important plot point. One of the hotel’s maids and Albert become infected, and Mrs. Baker’s self-pity at being abandoned by her patrons and closed down is a good capsule of her character. But the incident is so rushed through that the scope of the devastation barely registers. Helen and Joe’s affair has some lyrical moments, such as when Helen goes into a yard hung with drying sheets looking for Joe, but the relationship is a bit clichéd and rather uninteresting. Johnson doesn’t make Joe a very compelling character; though we feel drawn to take his side when he is dismissed from a previous job for daring to knock snow on the feet of some rich guests, he never puts the mix of vulnerable and callous together into a combustible brew.

Wasikowska is better as a young woman who is doomed to scrape after a living in the same way that forced Hubert and Albert into disguise, and she shows a conscience about using Albert, a strange but likable colleague at the hotel. Her confusion about leaving with the sexually entrancing Joe or opting for the security of Albert is real, and her attempt to make Albert into a more palatable mate by trying to teach him to kiss passionately is more sad than humorous.

The failure to find enough humor in Albert Nobbs is the film’s greatest weakness. If any ethnic group exemplifies the twin masks of comedy and tragedy, it is the Irish. I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Colombian director really understood the comedy underlying this superficially tragic story. His social critique of male/female and upper/lower class relations is almost nonexistent, relying on exposition (e.g., Hubert and Albert telling their stories) rather than any blackly comic exchanges to make the point. Albert’s sexual naivete could have had more humorous consequences than Close flailing on a park bench when Wasikowska kisses her. Could there not have been some curiosity or naïve questioning of Hubert and Kathleen? After all, Albert is emotionally and experientially stuck in prepubescence, and such questioning would be funny, poignant, and appropriate.

The very end of the film, when Hubert sees a photo in Albert’s room and turns it over to find the word “Mother” written on the back, was very funny for me, but I honestly don’t think that was the intention. The film seemed determined to make Albert a tragic and pitiable figure who was robbed of an authentic life, and possibly wished to make points as a gay-friendly film as well. The truth is that Albert is a bit dim and fell into a masquerade that pokes great fun at the marriage-shy, mommy-fixated Irish lad of yesteryear. While I recommend this film unreservedly for its fine performances and period detail, it falls just a bit short of what it could have been.

21st 11 - 2011 | 7 comments »

Trollhunter (Trolljegeren, 2010)

Director/Coscreenwriter: André Øvredal

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Like many other “pennyheads” from “The Land of Lincoln,” when I want to get away from the urban bustle of Chicago, I look to the north. Wisconsin holds many delights for urbanites looking for an uncluttered landscape that still offers high-quality creature comforts—the North Woods for outdoor activities like fishing, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling; artisan cheeses and beers, including one beer so desirable that a New York City bar owner lost his license and was fined $250,000 for selling it; and charming towns that cater to the tourist trade by peddling their heritage for fun and profit.

One such hamlet is Mount Horeb, home to about 7,000 people of mostly German and Norwegian ancestry. Until it moved to the Madison suburb of Middleton in 2009, the Mount Horeb Mustard Museum—in reality a shop where I used to stop to buy some of the hundreds of unusual mustards they stock—was the town’s big claim to fame. However, even before it lost the museum, in fear that the US 18/151 bypass would kill the downtown retail district, the town decided to market itself in a new way. Playing up the Norwegian part of its ancestry, Mount Horeb became the self-professed Troll Capital of the World. A number of businesses have put “troll” in their names, and Schubert’s Diner and Bakery, the most popular breakfast place in town and a must for visitors, is liberally decorated with trolls of every size and type.

The trolls are amusing and a bit nostalgic for anyone who received, as I did, a troll doll to play with when they were young. But following a viewing of Trollhunter, some might think twice about visiting Mount Horeb. Despite the mordant, self-deprecating humor on display, director André Øvredal manages to find a Cloverfield kind of horror movie inside this Norwegian mockumentary that offers audiences some real moments of dread.

Farmers near the Norwegian town of Volda have been plagued with livestock killings, and Finn Haugen (Hans Morten Hansen) from the Nature Management ministry has been sent to investigate. Amateur documentarians from the local university in Volda, Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), are on the case, too. After pursuing Haugen, the trio notices a craggy man who seems to be everywhere Haugen is. After the discovery of the corpse of a bear blamed for the attacks—not killed on the spot, as Haugen tells the media, but obviously dumped there—the filmmakers smell a rat and begin following the man as he drives his beat-up Range Rover hauling an even more beat-up trailer to his encampment.

Despite his repeated brush-offs, they follow him into a wooded area, see some bright flashes of light among the trees, and then find themselves running for their lives after Hans screams “TROLL!!!” Their quarry, Hans (Otto Jespersen), finally decides to open up about his activities by introducing them to his quarry—trolls. Warning them that following him is dangerous, he agrees to talk about his work in order to expose the scorched-earth policy the Norwegian government, and specifically the TSS (Troll Security Service), has towards trolls. The rest of the film follows Hans and the film crew as they scour the countryside in search of trolls that have broken out of their territories and pose a threat to human populations.

Trollhunter is a dead-on mockumentary that creates its own relatively believable universe within the confines of troll and hero mythology. The film crew is initially skeptical about the existence of trolls, even after Thomas is bitten by one, and, incidentally, patched up with the universally useful duct tape. They greet the sight of a huge three-headed troll that is felling trees with a mere push of its hand with jubilant amazement, while Hans tells them that two of the heads are actually growths the troll uses to attract females and scare other trolls fighting for territory; the trolls, the film tells us, are animals, not oddly shaped people, and that they have territories just like wolves or bears. They can be killed by exposure to sunlight, which turns the older ones to stone and causes younger trolls to explode. Amusingly, a forensic scientist (Urmila Berg-Domaas) explains this reaction by asserting how intolerance to Vitamin D causes the two different molecular reactions in the troll’s body. Unlike the often-preposterous science in many horror/scifi films, this explanation sounds plausible, which shows the care with which Øvredal constructed his universe, and forms one of the links in a carefully forged chain that sucks us into believing the story.

Another part of troll mythology that gets a humorous workout is their supposed connection with dark paganism. Hans asks the students if they are Christian or believe in God—if so, the trolls will be able to smell them, even if they are cloaked in the putrid “troll scent” Hans gives them to rub all over themselves. When we see one of the crew members rubbing himself furiously with scent while hiding in a cave from some mountain trolls, his terrible secret (“I’m Christian!”) is revealed. He doesn’t fare well among the mountain trolls; his replacement is a Muslim, about which the mythology makes no mention. Hans says cavalierly, “I don’t know. Let’s give it a try!” It’s a funny send-up of belief systems, but also makes us nervous about what will happen to the replacement, thus ratcheting up the suspense.

The film also makes clever use of the physical landscape to advance its story. For example, the filmmakers make note of the power grid, which Hans explains is electrified fencing for the trolls—a hilarious assertion that could feed the mind of a conspiracy theorist for weeks. Trees that have been blown down by storms become convenient props to show that a troll was in the area. After Hans turns a troll to stone with one last blast of light from his “light saber,” he blasts it to bits with some land mines; thereafter, scattered rocks take on the aura of being troll remains.

Jespersen is excellent as Norway’s only trollhunter, a solitary ex-serviceman with no real life outside of his work (perhaps because he and his trailer stink of troll from the skins he has hung inside for camouflage?). In one scene in which he tries to extract blood from a rabid troll, he wears a jerry-rigged suit of armor, looking like low-rent version of a medieval knight of myth and legend. He goes after errant trolls in workmanlike fashion, deploring one government-ordered massacre within troll territory like a worn-out, disillusioned Indian fighter in an American Western. In a brief glimpse, the crew members see Hans without his shirt, his back cross-hatched with scar tissue. Again, the story is ridiculous, but Øvredal knows how to build suspense for the horror half of his film that keeps us with him all the way.

The film crew members seem like believable college kids, excited by their adventure at the same time as they are taking their role as reporters oh so seriously. Thomas doggedly pursues Hans after he has told them to get lost, and Kalle says from behind the camera that maybe they should give up. Thomas retorts, “Would Michael Moore give up if he didn’t get the story on the first try?” Almost simultaneously, the hubby and I had the same thought: No, he’d just make up something and call it a movie. It was a funny joke for us, but I’m not sure Øvredal was going for that punchline.

The camerawork of Hallvard Bræin is absolutely brilliant. Norway’s breathtaking scenery, cascading waterfalls, atmospheric snow fields are pure eye candy in front of his steady, albeit handheld, lens. He switches to the green haze of a night-vision camera for many of the great troll effects. Every scene that contains a troll is exciting, a little funny, and seemingly real. I genuinely bought into the reality of these creatures and the danger they represented to our stalwart crew.

Still, the real villain of the piece is (of course) Finn Haugen. The more the students wonder why the public is being kept in the dark about the TSS, the more threatening he becomes. Clownishly trying to explain why a Russian bear, its tongue sticking out like a cartoon creature, was found in Norway (a hilarious bit with a Polish delivery crew that supplied the bear “under the table” has to be seen to be appreciated), he turns into a bigger danger for the camera crew than the 200-foot-tall troll they just saw Hans dispatch. The obligatory title cards at the beginning and end of the film about the circumstances under which the footage that makes up Trollhunter was found, and pleas to help authorities locate the students shown in the film, give this horror film the mock/ironic edge that makes it so biting and fun.

Nonetheless, on the off chance that trolls do roam the earth, I’m going to write to the Norwegian authorities and suggest they search in Mount Horeb.

14th 11 - 2011 | 9 comments »

Melancholia (2011)

Director/Screenwriter: Lars von Trier

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Melancholia, the film that garnered for its star, Kirsten Dunst, the award for best leading actress at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, has been finding both appreciative praise for its beauty and depth and indifferent and openly hostile reactions from audiences and critics alike for being slow, impenetrable, and just another uninspired investigation into Lars von Trier’s depression. While Melancholia is a quieter and more ordinary film in many respects than much of von Trier’s output, it shows a certain maturity in the way the director treats his twin obsessions of depression and the sorry lot of women in this world. He seems finally to have been able to put his bag of cherry bombs away and find a narrative that deals with these problems realistically.

Realistically? The film invents a planet called Melancholia that moves cometlike through our solar system and threatens to collide with Earth; it and its “dance of death” are “authenticated” by coming up in a Google search. However, if you accept von Trier’s statement that this is not really a scifi film about the end of the world, but rather a film about a state of mind, it’s easier to see this as a sensitive gestalt exercise by the director to locate the sources of his problems and attempt to exorcise them.

For von Trier, the bond between mother and child is the most beautiful and sacred, and disruptions to that bond have catastrophic consequences, often as the result of that love. We all know what happened to the children of Medea (1988) as a result of the ruthlessness of her husband Jason. In The Kingdom (1994/1997), Judith’s love for her bizarre baby, the product of impregnation by the devil, displaces any fear she might have of her baby’s physical repulsiveness and supernatural growth. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), a mother sacrifices her life for her son, perhaps without needing to.

And now we have Melancholia, which shows us both the positive and negative aspects of motherhood, and tellingly, of fatherhood as well, and how painful they each can be for children. In Part 1: Justine, the stunningly beautiful Justine (Dunst) has just gotten married. She is late getting to her wedding reception at her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and brother-in-law John’s (Kiefer Sutherland) massive estate because the stretch limo that carries her and her new husband Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) is having trouble navigating the snaking approach road. With this symbol of a difficult birth at the outset, we are then confronted at the reception by Justine’s feckless father Dexter (John Hurt) and her mother Gaby (Charlotte Rampling), a version of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked witch who basically lays a curse on the marriage in her crazed hatred of her ex-husband and the institution of marriage. Justine starts to unravel, her father takes a powder, and by the end of the evening, her union with Michael is over.

Part 2: Claire focuses on the approach of Melancholia in its “fly-by” of Earth. John, an amateur astronomer, is thrilled by this celestial phenomenon and shares his excitement with his young son Leo (Cameron Spurr). Claire is frightened that the planet will strike the Earth, a notion John dismisses with the full weight of scientific calculations behind him. Into this tenuous situation comes Justine, dull-eyed, mousey, and so depressed she can barely walk. She hopes that Melancholia destroys the “evil” Earth, thus wiping out all life in the universe—Justine claims she “knows” things and that Earth alone is inhabited. Claire, trembling with fright, buys pills she can use to overdose the entire family, while at the same time wondering where Leo will grow up if their planet is pulverized. When it does indeed appear that Melancholia is not “friendly,” which Claire first thought of the planet when the crisis appeared to be over, she discovers that John has taken all the pills, leaving nothing for her and Leo. She frightens Leo by saying there is no escape, but Justine gives him back a ray of hope by building with him a magic cave of tree branches under which she, Leo, and Claire sit holding hands, waiting for their heavenly kiss.

What, then, is Melancholia? Von Trier offers a hallucinatory synopsis of the film to come with an ultra-slo-mo preamble of Claire holding Leo and sinking into the golf course their home overlooks, of Justine tangled in heavy yarn and skimming the surface of water in her wedding gown, of birds falling from the sky, of worlds crashing. It is as though the director were offering up a dream he had at the very beginning of the film, and then presenting us with his corporealization of his unconscious material—the gestalt of his anxieties and preoccupations. As such, both halves of his film constellate his concerns about families, showing the damage inadequate parents do to their children, and both the terrorizing and seductive aspects of depression itself.

For example, when Michael leaves the estate, Justine sends him off coldly with, “What did you expect?” Indeed, what did he expect from someone whose parents never gave her a positive image of marriage and who actively worked to destroy her happiness on this day? Her fragile ego was absolutely no match for them, and Michael wisely packed it in before he got caught in the maelstrom of their messed-up lives. Justine identifies with Leo, an only child in a house so large and isolated that he could be lost in it for days; there don’t seem to be more than a couple of servants to tend to the vast estate or the lives inside it. In dream psychology, the house is the symbol for the self, and this self is beautiful, but largely empty of life.

Claire is a loving mother, but she, too, came from the same damaged family as Justine. It is entirely possible that the approach of Melancholia is, in fact, her plunge into a soul-crushing depression. Notice that as she walks across one of the greens of the golf course, the pin flag reads “19,” a telling detail that picks up John’s repeated questioning of Justine about how many holes are on his golf course—18. Thus, we can’t take the events of Part 2 at face value even if we were to see this film as science fiction. And so, the Justine who tells Claire that her plan to go out nicely with a glass of wine on the terrace is shit could very well be a projection, and the horses who were nervously bucking in the stable suddenly going quiet as Melancholia looms at its largest in the sky could be Claire deciding to let go and fall down the rabbit hole. In a previous scene, she saw a naked Justine laying in a beautiful, forested area, looking at Melancholia in erotic bliss; could depression really be this beautiful and fulfilling? Most reviewers of this film have commented on the use of the prelude to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde throughout the film. The music is mournful, in keeping with the tragic love of the title characters, and Wagner preferred to refer to the prelude as the “liebestod,” or love-death. It’s certain that love and death are intimately connected in this film, whether of the body or the spirit, and Claire is flirting dangerously with it.

Von Trier isn’t the subtlest of filmmakers, but some people’s dreams are fairly straightforward (mine, for example). To prevent his vision from seeming trite, he surrounds himself with the best actors and knows how to get them to inhabit their roles with preternatural ferocity. I honestly don’t know what or how Kirsten Dunst made Justine breathe with the kind of magnetism mentally ill people generate, but she is astonishing and mesmerizing, by turns hateful, pitiable, sweet, and morose. It was interesting to see the father-son team of Stellan and Alexander Skarsgård fight for Justine’s attention, the former as her overbearing boss, the latter as her hunky, simple husband, but it did add a dimension of familial dysfunction to the proceedings. Gainsbourg did a nice job of falling to pieces, her more controlled facade to Justine’s angry intemperance an easily breachable wall, her anger limited to a simple “sometimes I really hate you, Justine.”

Melancholia is a long day’s journey into night that merges the beauty and horror of depression through its committed point of view, full-bodied performances, and precise visual sensibility. In backing away from his usual histrionics, Lars von Trier shows his serious and sincere desire to engage thoughtfully with his subject. My hat’s off to him.

11th 11 - 2011 | 10 comments »

Here Comes the Navy (1934)

Director: Lloyd Bacon

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Well, I’m back in the saddle here at Ferdy on Films after a vacation to Paris, which included a visit to that temple of cinema, the Cinémathèque Française; I got a load of their fascinating Metropolis exhibit and viewed Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921), with its German intertitles and French subtitles (!). Rod did an admirable job of paying homage to Halloween with his extraordinary run of horror film essays while I was away; I’m sure you’ll agree that no one writes about horror like Rod!

My return here today coincides with Veterans Day, a name change from Armistice Day that reflects the fact that World War I did not turn out to be the war to end war. It seems sadly naïve that the British believed they had reached such a pinnacle of civilization that they could fight one last war, triumph, and see the world attain the utopian harmony they believed the British Empire to be. In the spirit of both that naïveté and an event that would shatter it definitively, I have chosen to commemorate this holiday with a peacetime military film, Here Comes the Navy, the first of the nine pairings of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and one set on the ill-fated USS Arizona. The last time I saw the Arizona, it was under the memorial in Pearl Harbor, still spewing oil 50 years after being sunk. Seeing its impressive profile on the water, its decks alive with swabbies and officers, hit me the same way viewing the Twin Towers in older films does—with a deep pain at the purposes and costs of war.

The need for discipline and unity is one thing that Biff Martin (O’Brien), an officer on the Arizona, tries to get through to Chesty O’Connor (Cagney), a seaman second class who only joined the Navy so he could square a beef with Martin that developed on shore. Chesty is sore that Martin cut in on his dance with his girl Gladys (Dorothy Tree) at a San Pedro nightclub and punched his lights out when Chesty was distracted by Gladys yelling from a window. Gladys takes up with Biff, whom she visits on the Arizona after Chesty loses the fight, sending Chesty to the nearest recruiting station. Rather than be sent directly to the Arizona, he’s surprised to learn he must go through 90 days of basic training, where he meets his comic sidekick Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh). Both eventually are posted to the Arizona and the ongoing battle between Chesty and Biff moves into high gear as Chesty offers turnabout by “stealing” the girl Biff brings on board, actually Biff’s sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart).

It is interesting to see the development of the personae Cagney and O’Brien will slip into in picture after picture. Unlike a film like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the men aren’t boyhood friends who tragically took opposite paths in life—Cagney plays an unforgiving, unrepentant sharp who hates not only Biff, but also naval discipline and the sheeplike obedience of his shipmates. Cagney assumes the hard, sarcastic look and attitude of Tom Powers, his ice-cold character in The Public Enemy (1931), mitigating it only when interacting with the buffoonish Droopy and the classy Dorothy. Still, he gets a chance to offer some comic lines from this film’s fine screwball script, and his flirtation with Dorothy as he walks her home is classic cocksure Cagney dripping with innuendo (slapped down rather seriously when Dorothy resists his seduction after he has misunderstood the intent of her invitation to dinner at her home). His vulnerability comes out ever so slightly when his shipmates shun him for mocking the Navy, and he even gets a chance to show off his eccentric dance technique in the opening nightclub scene.

O’Brien’s halo hadn’t been gilded yet, and he plays a naval officer who brawls when off-duty and ungentlemanly steals someone else’s girl and clocks an opponent when his back is turned. His insane attempt to hold down a dirigible by hanging onto one of its guide ropes sets up a thrilling finale for the film, as Chesty slides down the rope and parachutes the two of them to a hard landing. When Chesty is given rank above O’Brien for the rescue, it doesn’t come as a big surprise; O’Brien really comes off as inept and hard to respect, signaling perhaps the differences in the real O’Brien, the party animal, and Cagney, the withdrawn, teetotaling homebody.

For me, the fascinating aspects of life on board the Arizona trumped the predictable, if nicely executed story. I enjoyed seeing the men stringing up and sleeping in hammocks, and the naval costumes had a certain retro dapperness to them. During practice maneuvers, Chesty and other seamen practice loading the big guns that move in unison to fire on enemy ships and planes. We see real explosions and learn that Chesty and his shipmates are loading burlap bags of gunpowder into the cannons, setting up a fire scene in which Chesty is injured putting the fire out. If this practice actually was standard in the Navy, it certainly was mind-bogglingly reckless!

What also intrigues are preparations for the annual Navy Day show that caps the film, a type of event that still takes place in many places as air and water shows. The film shows biplanes taking off and a dirigible being moved out of its hangar and flying to the site of the event, a reminder that military air power in 1934 was hardly well developed. I was confused by the presence of African-American sailors on the Arizona, knowing that the period between the world wars marked one of the lowest for African-American participation in the armed forces. These characters were needed to forward a plan Chesty has to get off the ship to see Dorothy by buying a liberty pass from Cookie (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), an offensively stereotypical character, prompting the only occasion I can think of in which Cagney appeared in blackface. (UPDATE: Cagney also appeared in blackface in a Four Cohans act in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) It seems unlikely that the presence of black sailors reflected reality aboard the Arizona, but something about this fantasy integration pleased me quite a bit.

Gloria Stuart, known these days only for her appearance as an ancient survivor of the Titanic in Titanic (1997), was a first-rate love interest for Cagney, holding her own with his banter and bravado and generating some interesting chemistry. I particularly liked a scene where the pair argues about Biff reporting Chesty for going AWOL. Chesty resumes his tough-as-nails veneer as he breaks it off with Dorothy, but she stands firmly, if regretfully, by her belief in doing one’s duty.

Unlike a lot of films, I thought Here Comes the Navy wrapped up its story beautifully. A running gag about Droopy needing to buy his mother some false teeth so that she can keep her job in the church choir resolves as Mother Mullins (Maude Eburne) sings “Oh Promise Me” at Chesty and Dorothy’s wedding. Mother’s offkey sincerity provides the perfect counterpoint to the scrappy partnership that was first forged between James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in this muscular comedy.

5th 11 - 2011 | 20 comments »

The French Connection (1971)/French Connection II (1975)

Directors: William Friedkin/John Frankenheimer

By Roderick Heath

It’s 40 years now since The French Connection was released, soon to capture the Best Picture Oscar, set up William Friedkin as a directorial talent with the world before him, and make Gene Hackman a top film star, pushing age 40. From such a distance, during which time the film’s status as a classic has wavered and Friedkin’s career has never quite lived up to its great early promise, now the cultural bullseye The French Connection scored seems ever more peculiar. Not simply in that it’s a crime flick, not a prestigious genre, lacking the epic pretensions of The Godfather which would win similar garlands the following year, but also in the rich yet radical, machine-like beauty of its filmmaking, the eerie disquiet of its ending, the oft-ugly ferocity of its pig-faced bog Irish cop hero, and tangible atmosphere of then-decaying New York. The two French Connection movies are coarse, bloody, rapidly paced, unswerving and experiential rather than analytical. The first entry is a police procedural that seeks for the most part to clearly, intricately, and excitingly describe a fictionialised version of one of the biggest drug busts in history, with as much nuts and bolt detail about both smuggling and policing as any film ever made. Lacking big stars, romance, moralising, and even much action except in the central, ever-impressive chase sequence, The French Connection brutally contrasts much of what passes as popular filmmaking today, and Friedkin’s film and its sequel by John Frankenheimer constitute summits of mainstream American movie-making.

Friedkin’s film, moreover, always strikes me as a different movie each time I watch it. Initial viewings are almost a sensory overload: there’s little that is overtly tricky about Friedkin’s filmmaking, but the depth of his reliance on visual storytelling, the alertness to environment, to detail, to nuance of behaviour essayed at such rapidity, infuse the screen with a lustre that only seems to increase as time passes. With repeated viewings the potency of Friedkin’s conception of Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle’s cat-and-mouse game with drug kingpins as a form of class warfare jumps out at me. Anti-drug messages were big at the time of the film’s production, in the waning phase of the counterculture and the onset of the Nixon-era mood of social depletion, and that possibly gave The French Connection the right gilt of nobility to swing its Oscar victory, whilst it was in line with the short-lived affection for gritty fare inaugurated by Midnight Cowboy (1969). Nonetheless, it’s fascinating how little The French Connection is actually about the white powder over which lives and punishing effort are expended. The only user seen in the film is the slick-mouthed long-haired chemist (Pat McDermott) who tests the purity of the imported heroin for a small amount of it. Yet the junk seems indivisible from the snatches of blasted and sorry suburbs of the city, filled with urban decay, cheerless wintry wastelands, and infested with small-time dealers, which Friedkin describes with chilling efficiency throughout. In this vision of a contemporary American metropolis, white cops beat hell out of black dealers in scenes of predatory flushing and catching of the prey, yet there’s a pall of certainty around both sides that they’re both stuck inhabiting the same wilderness, fighting on the level of primitives for the scraps society is casting down their way.

Popeye and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) have the best arrest record in their department, but they’re all too acutely aware, as their superior Simonson (Eddie Egan) reminds them, that in essence their labours are petty and ineffectual. But then, after a bust that sees Russo get a slice on the arm and the perp (Alan Weeks) angrily knocked about and bullied, the two retire to an up-market tavern for some R’n’R, only for Popeye’s raptor-like eye for criminality to zero in on a gathering of underworld figures out wining and dining their women, including Sal Boca (Tony LoBianco), tossing around money. Popeye talks Russo into following them about, and eventually they’re stunned to find that Sal returns early in the morning to his teenaged wife and a tiny diner business. Popeye is immediately convinced that Sal is connected in some serious fashion, and he’s dead right. Sal is arranging the Stateside end of a massive heroin deal, of junk being supplied from Marseilles by Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), which will be brought into the country inside a Lincoln Continental by French TV star Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Popeye’s convictions are patronised by his senior and by FBI agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman) attached to the case. The past, which involved the accidental shooting of a fellow cop, dogs Popeye as wickedly as the hangovers he nurses each morning after drinking himself stupid. But the team’s work begins to pay off when Charnier and his pet thug Nicoli (Marcel Buzzoffi) arrive in town to make the deal, and they link Sal to Weinstock (Harold Gray), a financier for traffickers, whom Sal is trying to get to invest in the deal.

Although it’s most certainly not a documentary, The French Connection gains a lot of its pep from practically neo-realist elements. Those include the casting of non-professionals like the real-life analogues of Doyle and Russo, Egan and Sonny Grosso, and Irving Abrahams, who plays himself in the car-stripping scene. The immersive vision of a gritty metropolis offers glimpses of men lying sprawled on the pavement, filth-crusted subway tunnels, and camerawork in the street where it’s clear the crowd, constantly glancing at the camera, aren’t extras. The film probably gave Scorsese some permission to explore his city in similar fashion with Mean Streets (1973) and Taxi Driver (1976). The method Friedkin adopted, with his toey but unaffected handheld camerawork in many scenes, lends physical energy to the essentially observational sequences, whether they’re about Doyle and Russo trying to eat whilst freezing their asses off on a surveillance job, or, most memorably, the sequence in which they strip down the Lincoln in which they think the shipment has been hidden, bringing to the fore the amazing amount of empty space in such a seemingly solid car, and the increasing frustration of the cops as they fail to find anything before Russo’s observations about the car’s weight lead to a sudden, successful realisation. A peculiar quality of The French Connection, one that its sequel shares, is that it’s a beautiful-looking film, with Owen Roizman’s photography absorbing colour in variegated patches that come to resemble a Rauschenberg artwork. An arsenal of New Wave tricks, from zoom shots to disjunctive sound and vision, sees the film accumulate in layers, offering an aspect of raggedness that conceals the great filmic talent at work behind it. That talent is clearly at work in the dance of actors and imagery in Popeye and Charnier’s amusing hide and seek in the subway, in the cold-blooded assassination Nicoli commits after the deceptively ambling opening shots (complete with tearing off a hunk of his victim’s bread loaf), and of course at a much higher volume in the chase scene and the violent finale.

The French Connection’s monomaniacal bent in sticking almost purely on the matter at hand is often why it’s been discounted as a simple cop flick by many over the years, and yet I feel it’s precisely there where its greatness lies, in refusing to linger on extraneous detail or pompous presumptions of socio-political and aesthetic import, whilst still concisely evoking them. Early in the film, when Popeye and Russo visit the tavern in which they first make Sal, The Three Degrees, a black girl group, croon lyrics that point neatly to the irony that this generation, sending rockets to the moon, is also the one living in decaying tenements, beating hell out of one-another, and stuffing drugs into its veins. Otherwise the context is simply there to be read, in the lives its heroes lead and those of the villains. Popeye inhabits a boxy little apartment in a grim tower block, and the only pleasures he gets are liquor and sex, at which he’s fortunately adept at getting, as when he picks up a bicycling girl, cueing the film’s lone islet of bawd as Russo, coming to Popeye’s place to talk over a new development in the case, finds him handcuffed to his bed and the girl still darting naked about the flat. But life is otherwise not much fun for these guys, and Friedkin makes a marvellous, almost Chaplin-esque visual suite out of the scenes in which Doyle and Russo try to cram their faces with pizza and terrible coffee whilst Charnier and Nicoli dine in a ritzy restaurant. Whilst Popeye’s behaviour demands tempering empathy for him with wariness of his fiery brutality and racism, here the pendulum shifts his way: you can practically feel Doyle’s white-hot antipathy in Hackman’s grimace as he watches the pair, not only a personal resentment owing to his own working-stiff righteousness, but in the already clearly conceived detestation of people who are getting seriously rich by eating out what’s left the fabric of his city and world.

Daryl F. Zanuck warned Friedkin that if the film wasn’t done right, he’d end up with a glorified The Naked City episode, and Friedkin’s answer to that was to invest Popeye with his voluble ambiguity; by turns, Popeye, with his signature pork pie hat and trenchcoat, is a swashbuckling hero and a scary prick. His maniacal dedication to the case at hand is both his great virtue and great weakness, blind to other matters, whether it be mangled car wreck victims in a scene where he comes to blows with Simonson and Mulderig, and finally accidentally gunning down Mulderig in the finale when he’s chasing Charnier, barely blinking when he and Russo discover the mistake and keeping after the villain. That closing moment is one that Friedkin shoots in the environs of the ruined warehouse where the drug deal was going down, and through which Popeye dashes off, as if he’s disappearing into an existential void in keeping after Charnier, emblem of a world beyond his grasp and comprehension. I suppose it could be said that the great chase sequence that is the film’s centrepiece betrays the texture of the film’s realism, but of course it’s also the bit you look forward to, as the eruptive elegance of Jerry Greenberg’s editing and the brilliant shooting of Friedkin and Roizman converge here for a masterpiece of its kind. The chase starts when Nicoli makes an ill-fated attempt to rub out Doyle, recognising that it’s his drive that is sustaining the threat to the deal. Nicoli instead finishes up plugging a carriage-pushing mother and a railway guard, driving a train driver to have a heart attack, and causing a train wreck, as Doyle all the while chases at high-speed through busy streets in a commandeered car. The hood-mounted camera shots of speeding motion through the streets giving the sequence its sense of hurtling doom, and the sequence resolves with brute frankness as Doyle plugs Nicoli in the back when he tries to run. Other cops objected to this touch, but Egan gave Friedkin the nod to include it: even in adding some pizzazz to the film, the integrity of its unromantic take is retained. Scheider, who was cemented in the cinemagoers’ mind in ’71 with this film and Klute, is terrific even in playing a relative second fiddle. His peerlessly pronounced retort to Mulderig’s comments about his partner, “Shove it up your ass,” is one of the summits of on-screen profanity.

French Connection II seems at superficial attention to announce some unfortunate aspects of Hollywood’s nascent sequel culture: it was the first major Hollywood sequel to have a simple numeric attached to the title, a touch that was in keeping with the film’s veneer of terseness and yet soon to become a signature of corporate Hollywood laziness. It also moves away from the reportage of the original for a fictional continuation, more dialogue-heavy and melodramatic in form. Yet such descriptions are deceptive, as French Connection II is as good as, perhaps better than, the first film. Friedkin, who had moved on to his other best-known movie, The Exorcist (1973), didn’t return for it; instead John Frankenheimer, the solidly established and lauded hand from the precursor generation of new-style American directors, took over. He retained key aspects of the first film’s style, whilst also refining it and making some innovations of his own. It stands as possibly also Frankenheimer’s last truly great film, for a similarity of both his and Friedkin’s careers was their early brilliance and their shaky later oeuvres. A key linking element of the two films, other than Hackman and Rey, is Don Ellis’ nervy, vibrant scoring, accented with elements of jazz, funk, spurts of musique concrete, and even modernist atonal passages that infuse the cityscapes with alien vibes. The sequel picks up spiritually where the original left off, with Doyle still chasing Charnier, having been sent to Marseilles as the only man who can certifiably recognise him, to liaise with the local detective chief Henri Barthélémy (Bernard Fresson), who treats him with dismissive contempt and relegates him to a desk next to the men’s room door. Popeye doesn’t realise that he’s actually been sent to lure Charnier out, and, worse, he’s really being set up by other cops back in New York whom Charnier bought off, hoping he’ll get killed.

Inevitably, Popeye is a fish out of water in this world, and scenes in Frankenheimer’s film carefully mirror some in Friedkin’s. This contrasts his earlier behaviour and former competence, as when Popeye chases down a suspect running from the scene of a sabotaged narcotics lab, only for Barthélémy and his men to drag him off, because the guy’s actually an informant, underlining the irrelevance of Popeye’s racial assumptions and his inability to recognise the lay of the land he’s so sensitive to back home. Popeye’s head-on policing style in such a circumstance seems doomed to cause havoc, his signature bullying tactics and verbal tirades are reduced to a comedy routine before a laughing, uncomprehending prisoner, and his declarations of determination to nail Charnier seem like so much empty rhetoric. Alienated by Barthélémy, he instead starts pounding the streets in trying to catch a glimpse of his quarry. One night, after chatting up a beach volleyball player (Reine Prat) and being spied doing so by Charnier, he’s kidnapped by Charnier’s thugs, and one of the tailing policemen Barthélémy has on Popeye is run over and killed. Charnier has Popeye kept prisoner in a seamy hotel filled with drug addicts and prostitutes, and pumped full of regular doses of heroin for three weeks, partly to extract what he knows about Charnier’s new operation, which is nothing, and also in a precisely sadistic vengeance on the most implacable of anti-drug enforcers, reducing him to a robotic dependent. Finally Popeye is given a hot dose and dumped outside the police station, and Barthélémy and doctors fight to save his life.

Frankenheimer, who had worked on French location several times before, uses a mostly French crew, including DOP Claude Renoir. The filmmaking team’s eye for picturesque decay invests Marseille with the same mix of lively affection and squalid authenticity as New York received in the first film, with labyrinthine, rubbish-strewn poor quarters lurking behind the ritzy harbour surrounds. If Friedkin’s film has its roots in the docudrama of ‘50s crime flicks, Frankenheimer’s is closer to genuine film noir, and, in a way, can be seen as a stealing back of that tradition from the New Wavers. Such a perspective is implicit in the way the film offers a deglamourized and peerlessly tangible sense of the locale that anticipates, and possibly laid seeds for, modern French crime films like Un Prophet (2009) much more than it resembles the icy but aestheticised, denaturalised works, from the likes of Godard, Melville, and Chabrol, of the time. There’s as much procedural detail in this sequel as in the original, as Charnier’s innovative new smuggling methods, including in tomato cans and on ship hulls, are carefully depicted, but whereas the first film is to a large extent “about” that detail, here it’s more functional within a cohesive, driving plot. French Connection II is more concerned with exploring Popeye’s gruelling journey and penitential suffering, in being almost destroyed by Charnier and his own arrogance, before resurging with (literally) fiery wrath.

Popeye seems initially like the quintessential ugly American in his insensibility to warnings and blithe indifference to local niceties, as Barthélémy needles him into getting on the street. Popeye begins to adapt, slowly: in a terrific early scene, Popeye strikes out with a couple of local ladies but finds a sort of a pal in a bartender (André Penvern) with whom he gets tanked and reels about the streets with, and his capture by Charnier comes after he’s managed to score with said volleyball player, proving he’s still got his mojo working. Meanwhile Charnier has returned to his piss-elegant lifestyle: dialogue scattered in both films suggests that his actual background, in spite of his mansion and purebred young wife, is in the working class and the docklands. He is arranging a new big shipment now with multinational collusion and finance, with the aid of an American General, Brian (Ed Lauter). With its suggestions of wider conspiracies and higher levels of malfeasance, French Connection II subverts some of the presumptions of the original, becoming in effect a Watergate movie in which Popeye finally finds a better working partnership with the Frogs than he did with his own feds.

Hackman had won the Best Actor Oscar for the first film, a deserving win in a strong year for contenders. But he’s even better – perhaps the best in his career – in the sequel, particularly in the lengthy, grinding scenes in which Barthélémy helps him through going cold turkey, a regimen Barthélémy insists on because it would be the end of Popeye’s career if his state becomes a matter of record. We find out things about Popeye here that explain a lot about him, like the reason for his surprising athleticism – he was once a baseball player who instantly joined the cops when he caught a glimpse of a young Mickey Mantle – as well as his fixated intensity, and the despair within him that addiction reveals rather than causes, previously anaesthetised with booze and work, but given free reign by a junkie’s pathos. Hackman’s opinion of his character was low – “Doyle is a fascist,” he said unequivocally, whilst reporting that cops generally loved the honesty of the portrayal – but his reserve against the character’s stridency and cruelty falls away in the sequel. The central, achingly sustained scene of the film comes when Popeye rambles on to an attentive but largely bewildered Barthélémy, who’s guilty at Popeye’s fate and his own not being able to rescue him. Popeye tries to demonstrate baseball moves with chicken drumstick and orange, in between contortions of withdrawal and desperation, struck through with the impossible need for friends and familiar things in going through hell, in a city that just doesn’t offer them, from hamburgers to people who know who the hell Mickey Mantle is. His stay in the hotel, where he’s visited by an aged English addict (Catherine Nesbitt) who soothingly rambles to him about her own past whilst stealing his watch, has a bleak cul-de-sac of the soul atmosphere to it reminiscent of the boarding house in The Seventh Victim (1943), the perfect place for Popeye to be lost in a haze of his failings as well as heroin.

To a certain extent, this whole narrative movement serves a not dissimilar purpose for Popeye as Indiana Jones’ encounter with the black sleep of the Kalimar in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): the protagonist, partly defined hitherto by antiheroic traits, goes through an ordeal that makes him look into his dark side, and emerges newly fired up for total war. There’s an implicit approval of Popeye’s reckless style, and yet another message is quite clear, that if he and Barthélémy had worked together properly from the start, his ordeal could have been avoided, and the last act sees the policemen working together in a purposeful unit. The other actor the two films share is of course Rey, who was reportedly accidentally cast in the original when Friedkin requested “that guy from the Bunuel films”, meaning Belle de Jour’s Francisco Rabal, and the casting agent signed up Rey so quickly there was no time to renegotiate. It was a happy accident, if true, because Rey’s excellence is in how utterly un-villainous his Charnier seems, a dapper and affable man about town whose ruthlessness and cleverness are only hinted at in his insolent little wave to Doyle in the first film, and then revealed in the most specific circumstances. His best moment in the sequel comes when Charnier first spots Doyle in Marseilles, acute anxiety charging his features before resuming normal operations, and adopting a cobra-like chilliness when he later interrogates his cop prisoner. Once he recovers, Popeye embarks on a campaign of purification, fending off Barthélémy long enough so that he can track down the hotel himself. Pouring petrol about the place, he sets it ablaze to drive out the denizens like rats, flushes out Charnier’s goons, and releases his now deeply personal sense of grievance and frustration on the only scale that can satisfy it. It’s a typically outsized reaction from Popeye, but it does work: he gets a lead on Charnier’s new deal. He and Barthélémy almost manage to capture a new shipment where it’s being extracted from the hull of a Dutch freighter in a dry dock. But they barely survive an encounter there with Charnier’s new number one henchman, Jacques (Philippe Leotard), who wields a German army machine gun with brutal aplomb and kills Barthélémy’s subordinate Miletto (Charles Millot), before letting the sea into the dry dock.

Popeye saves Barthélémy’s life when he’s knocked out by a falling spar, and the French cop repays the favour by helping Doyle stay, when his superiors want him kicked out of the country, and acting on Doyle’s hunch, watching the Dutch ship’s captain (Raoul Delfosse), who leads them to Jacques. The cops track him back to the warehouse where they’re able to bust the whole of Charnier’s operation. Barthélémy gains some vengeance when he dispatches Jacques, who, trying to escape with some of the drug shipment in a truck, instead crashes into the warehouse doors Barthélémy sets closing: Jacques is hurled out through the windscreen. Meanwhile, Popeye chases Charnier on foot through the city. Amongst the many felicities of his filmmaking, Frankenheimer engenders the visuals with a sense of physical connection to Popeye, painstakingly portraying the delirium and liquid sense of time and care when he’s under the influence, his attempts to get back in shape after he’s recovered. This pays off in the finale’s lengthy foot chase, the modulated soundtrack and the lunging POV shots conveying Popeye’s exhaustion, so that the audience practically share his burning lungs and aching feet. Inevitably, this sequel risks being more prosaic as it finally gives Popeye the closure he sought, and yet there’s still an existentially gruelling aspect to his chase, running without gaining. It finally resolves in one of the sharpest and nastiest comeuppances in movie history, as Charnier, right on the threshold of again cheating Popeye of his prize, hears his cry from the quayside seconds before bullets smack into his body, and Frankenheimer cuts directly to black. The final effect is both satisfying and chilling, and one of the most perfect endings anywhere.

2nd 11 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Passion Play (2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Mitch Glazer

By Roderick Heath

Good and bad movies are supposed to be easy things to tell apart, but I’ll never pretend to know why some movies are taken seriously in the critical and popular zeitgeist, and why some others are cast into oblivion. Passion Play, a labour of love for Mitch Glazer and sporting an interesting array of technical and acting talent, is a variation on a distinctive American strand of magic-realism: it seems a little like a Bob Dylan or Tom Waits song translated into images, which are in themselves reminiscent of movies over the years by the likes of David Lynch, Francis Coppola, Wim Wenders, and Alan Rudolph, but without feeling excessively imitative. This film was brutally dismissed earlier this year, whilst stuff like, oh, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Black Swan, two other recent films in a similar mould, get a pass mark for of technical swagger and You Tube-ready pandering. The problem with a lot of such films is that their weight tends to dispel the delicate frosting of strangeness and pathos which makes such tall tales work at their best, and so they tend to blunder through realms that require a sense of personal sentiment, and a deeper sense of the canonical traditions they draw their cultural pastiche from. The pleasures of Passion Play are, especially in comparison with such heavy-footed fare, a little like its angelic yet fragile heroine: you’re constantly afraid they’ll flit away in the breeze or be brutalised beyond repair. And yet Glazer, whilst clearly a beginner filmmaker, reveals a substantial knack for creating and sustaining an atmosphere of dusky regret and threadbare emotional fibre, as Passion Play captures an elegiac, somnolently humane atmosphere that retains a happy patina long after the film is finished. He also successfully steers three of Hollywood’s most infamously big-mouthed actors, Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray, and gives them some of their best roles.

Rourke plays Nate Poole, a frazzled dinosaur of a jazz trumpeter with real glory days long behind him. In the dreamy prologue, he’s glimpsed playing on stage as accompanist of a strip act, never a good sign. He’s soon taken prisoner by lurking thugs, and driven by out into the desert, where it’s immediately plain he’s going to be shot and left to feed the buzzards. Just as Nate’s about to be plugged in the back of the head, though, his assassin is himself gunned down by a band of white-clad Native American warriors, who dash off as soon as they’ve done Nate this service. Nate stumbles through the desert until he comes across a seamy circus run by emperor of sleaze Sam Adamo (Rhys Ifans). It’s a place where little wonders must be found to justify their existence, and Nate catches a glimpse of one when he goes into a peepshow booth: a young woman, Lily Luster (Fox), who displays bird’s wings on her back for the paying clientele. Sam claims to have found her in a garbage pail when she was a baby and has brought her up. Nate, fascinated, tentatively introduces himself to Lily in her trailer after the circus shuts down, and she says her wings are just a prop she can’t be bothered taking off, in a role that was all she could do: “I’m not an angel, I’m a bird woman…I couldn’t get fat enough, I can’t grow a beard, and I hate snakes.” She also claims not to know who Nate is, yet once he leaves she unfurls her very real appendages and finds a copy of one of his records in her collection of old LPs. Sam, worried for the secrecy and security of his most peculiar possession, has his carny goons catch Nate and makes to kill with a rattlesnake’s bite, but Lily, having commandeered a pick-up truck, drives it into Sam’s tent and rescues Nate, fleeing back to the city.

On the way, when they pause at a gas station, Nate sees Lily, who claims to be unable to fly, managing to glide a little on a gusting breeze. Completely entranced, Nate nonetheless sees a chance to extricate himself from the lethal situation he’s in: his near-murder was because he slept with the wife of a powerful gangster, Happy Shannon (Murray, tweaking his trademark deadpan into something bleakly foreboding and pathetically nasty). Nate formulates a plan whereby he can cut Happy a percentage for showing off Lily to the world, whilst contriving to keep her out of the gangster’s hands. The glaze of hazy daylight and midnight somnolence, leavened by the evanescence of Lily’s aura of goodness, permeates Glazer’s film with surprising grace, and grace, after a fashion, is the subject. Passion Play plays, interestingly, as a mirror to Jesus Franco’s Venus in Furs (1969) with its similar tropes – otherworldly femme, rich possessive creeps, trumpet-playing anti-hero, and circular finale. Except that Lily is not an object of vengeance but aspiration, which the glumly vicious Happy recognises with more immediacy than Nate. Nate, a former drug addict, is branded as a perpetual loser not only because he makes mistakes but because he keeps making the same mistakes, and his plan to make peace with Happy and exploit Lily at the same time without exposing her to danger is sublime self-delusion. In a languorous yet quietly entrancing section of the film, Passion Play is essentially a two-person show portraying Lily and Nate’s growing bond. Lily tries to overcome her feeling of being a gruesome misfit who needs to be corrected: when she sneaks off to visit a plastic surgeon to get her wings cut off, Nate tracks her down and retrieves her, his defence of her right to be a beautiful freak sullied ever so subtly by an undertone of proprietary worry.

Lily and Nate fall into a nervous pas-de-deux as he, to please her, takes her to an empty theatre where a painted stage background suffices as her first glimpse of the sea, and after a little coaxing plays a tune on his trumpet, in a scene lightly gilded with a sense of drowsy romanticism and effervescent celebration of the way artists remake the world around them in tolerable terms. Rourke and Fox could well be the oddest romantic coupling of the year, and in some ways they’re by far the most soulful, each a garish oddity who nonetheless weaves beauties around them. Rourke, with his face these days looking like a pummelled side of corned beef, nonetheless still radiates the low-burning charisma he possessed in the ‘80s, and Fox, who’s only played arch bitch-queens and teenage lust-objects before this, is remarkably tantalising in playing the soft-spoken Lily, who has internalised years of being gawked at as a freak in an inability to look anyone in the eye, and who shrinks before the world’s gaze as if it’s an iron maiden bristling with spikes. Rourke proves that for all the predations of time he’s still one of the most innately charismatic actors in Hollywood, and Passion Play makes a fine bookend for The Wrestler as a portrait of a man heavy loaded with regret over what he’s done to others and to himself; indeed it wouldn’t work one-tenth as well if a less burdened and time-trammelled actor was in the role. Yet he’s still got his awesome physique from the Aronofsky film, which makes him cut it sufficiently in spite of his head as guy who can bed Megan Fox. When Happy finally catches up with Nate, he’s not to be easily fobbed off: Nate arranges a fashion of letting Happy see her with wings unfurled through binoculars. Happy instantly recognises Lily as a miracle, and being the man he is, he wants it for himself. He catches Nate and Lily in bed, and, planning to kill Nate, is dissuaded when Lily promises to go with him if he lets Nate live.

Happy instead has his goons beat the hell out of him and has him blackballed by all the nightspots in town, and after an attempt to extract Lily from Happy’s mansion ends up with her telling him to stop trying, Nate spirals deep into despair, hocking his saxophone and contemplating returning to his drug habit. He gets a break, however, when a fellow musician takes him on for a gig playing at local museum – at a charity soiree being bankrolled by Happy on a theme of angels, and Happy shows up with Lily on his arm: Nate stalks her through the museum, but she retreats from him in hopelessness. Nate’s limbo spirals into the genuinely stygian when he picks up a serpentine tattooed punk chick, who shoots him full of junk, except that she proves to be an agent of Sam, lurking and looking for a chance to avenge himself on Nate and take Lily back, and the woman has pumped with a hot dose. Nate is only saved when his friend Harriet (Kelly Lynch) finds him and revives him. When Sam tries to extract Lily from Happy’s house, the gangster shoots him and, suddenly fed up with all of the men vying for his beautiful captive, loses interest in her and turns her again into an exhibit for leering at, albeit this time an up-market crowd.

Passion Play‘s title is a bit of a double-entendre, as the film is both about multiple forms of passion, but there is finally a peculiar kind of fable being offered here, where Nate does battle with devils and serpents, and tries to rescue his angel and his own wayward soul with her. Glazer manages to offer his wilfully fantastical figurations less as overtly religious overtones than as permeating mythopoeic imagery, a jazz-like solo riff on a Jungian fever dream where private desperation and yearning are externalised through visions of cherubs and demons. Glazer also has to avoid tipping off the viewer too clearly about the nature of the story, taking place as it is in a zone between life and death. Promises of infernal fire and redemption swirl implicitly in the textures of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography, in the uterine warmth of velvety, theatrical reds and speckles of gilt infusing the otherwise bleary blues and noir-y shadows in the denuded city- and desert-scapes of New Mexico. Passion Play is reminiscent, in its melding of fantasy with noir, of Ben Hecht’s oddball classic Angels Over Broadway (1940), whilst a fragment of Brute Force (1947) is glimpsed on a movie screen – Happy screens old movies for Lily to please her, as she grew up watching such films on television – with its similar figuration of a disgraced and scruffy Burt Lancaster with the crippled, beatific Ann Blyth to offset the defeated Nate before Happy and Lily. Indeed, Passion Play was the second of two films I watched in quick succession – the other was Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, a film with a not dissimilar mood and references, if also with much deeper layers of narrative complexity – where the tropes of classic noir are seized upon and inverted, rendered instead of punchy and hardboiled, as dreamy, melancholy, and with their sense of reality indefinably porous. Passion Play also has qualities in common with two more films maudit, Larry Charles’ under-rated, if lumpy, attempt to film Dylan with Masked and Anonymous (2003) and Johnny Depp’s nigh-unseen, yet weirdly, naggingly memorable The Brave (1997), in trying to articulate that American branch of fantasy where civilisation peters out at the fringes of the desertscape, and the islets of humanity glimpsed there are stricken through with cruelty, wonder, and alien beauty, as if the cultural centrifuges toss out all the colourful and perverse refuse there, amidst heavily metaphoric contemplations of the state of the personal and national psyche.

Sam’s remote, lively yet subtly strange circus is then reminiscent of something out of Ray Bradbury or Jack Finney, cross-bred with the word-pictures of the aforementioned songwriters, whilst the moment of Nate’s first glimpse of Lily calls to mind the finale of Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984) where a similarly ruined remnant of a man confronted his great love in a peepshow booth, whilst both films share an atmosphere of crushed romanticism. When Nate peeks in on Lily in her trailer and sees her with unfolded wings, the film takes on the quality of folk-myth, as he sees something extraordinary in the remote female figure in violating the taboo of her sanctuary, but here with a grim masochistic overtone, as he watches Lily ripping out her feathers in anguish, giving substance to the sense that permeates the film of the worthy beautiful strange things ripping themselves to pieces or subjecting themselves to degradations for the sake of small redeeming beauties. Yet Glazer, who wrote Murray’s ill-famed Scrooged (1988) as well as the interesting if finally problematic Three of Hearts (1993) and Great Expectations (1997), seems to be reflecting as much on the nature of his own trade as any metaphysical concerns here: it’s impossible to ignore how Passion Play is really about show business, and the motifs of the film, constantly circling back to performing stages and acts, and life-art rhymes, emphasises this.

The artist protagonist has wasted his potential in drugs and betraying his talent, a crime he repeats in selling out Lily, and pissing off the wrong people through licentious missteps. Happy and Sam, satanic forces of temptation, are also readily identifiable as exclusive and exploitative exhibitors, with a capacity to turn any rare and rich talent and trait into another commodity. For Fox, famously booted off her signature franchise for telling the truth about the director who served her up with toxic contempt in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), Passion Play’s dismissive reception would hardly seem like vindication, but her role might have still felt like that, in it seems to conflate much truth about the way Hollywood treats its beauties. Lily wants to tear and distort her flesh to render it more perfect; Nate wants to show it off; Happy when he realises that he’ll never entirely possess her instead settles for sticking her in a glass booth virtually naked so that people can pay for an eyeful. This curious yet lucid fable’s finale sees Nate crashing one of Happy’s private peep shows for his rich friends to come and gawk at Lily in a glass box, resembling a fantasia out of a renaissance painting and weeping like a martyr. Here Glazer brings the motif of the power to look as a form of dominance to a head as well as achieving a real emotional kick in evoking the way the world’s beauties are so often corralled and controlled by men like Happy. Maybe in the very climax Glazer pushes finally too far towards the obvious, but his work still retains a charge as Nate rescues Lily and spurs her to finally spread her wings as a last act of faith. Such an act proves crucial for Nate as he makes a discovery that puts everything he’s been doing into perspective: saving his soul.

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