Friday, August 28, 2009

Shaun of the Dead

Inglourious Basterds so renewed my love for Quentin Tarantino that I find myself even going back to directors I can indirectly tie to him. For example, I went back to Breathless -- after all, Tarantino is the dumbed-down American version of the French auteur -- and finally connected with it, insufferable pretension and all. But if Godard inspired Tarantino, so too did Tarantino unleash a wave of imitators looking to score big in the post-Pulp Fiction "indie" scene. And if the transition saw tributes to philosophy and art give way to television and kung-fu movie send-ups, so too did the passing of the torch from the Weinsteins' golden boy to the next group of Sundance hopefuls result in a significant drop-off.

To be honest, the majority of, well I don't want to cheaply dismiss them as "clones" but sometimes that's an apt description, were simply awful. The one that will forever reach through the fog of my mind like the half-remembered nightmare that it is to haunt me in my quiet moments is of course Troy Duffy's nauseating effort The Boondock Saints, which apparently everyone I interact with loves because hell is truly other people. One of the few movies to mine the non-linear narrative and rapid-fire dialogue of Pulp Fiction successfully was Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film so fun Ritchie got away with essentially making the same film twice with Snatch (admittedly, bringing on Brad Pitt as a nonsensical gypsy street fighter didn't hurt). But even Guy Ritchie failed to grasp that what made Pulp Fiction, and the rest of Tarantino's canon, so special was the utter joy that was tangible in every frame. Sure, Tarantino may muddle his morality until it's unclear whether he's reveling in his madness or using it to some method, but no one seemed to even try to figure that out. All the imitators, they just gleaned the surface and left out the glue that bound it together.

The chief exception to this is the team of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. They made names for themselves with the superb Britcom Spaced, which Pegg wrote with Jessica Hynes (née Stevenson) and Wright directed; a glorious mix of film and television quotation (with some big homages to Tarantino, of course), Three's Company and Friends, Spaced is truly unlike any other series I've ever watched, with well-defined characters that never allowed themselves to be swallowed by the referential revelry. And for a series that so deeply mined geeky subjects like comic books and video games, it contained an effortless feminine touch courtesy of Hynes, who crafted her Daisy into someone just as nerdy as the fellas without calling any attention to herself, since *gasp* female nerds do exist.

After Spaced, Hynes went on to other projects, while Pegg and Wright took a bit from one of the episodes, in which Pegg's character has junk food-induced hallucinations of fighting zombies, and expanded it into what now must be acknowledged as a modern comedy classic. Its title suggests that Shaun of the Dead will be little more than a skin-deep parody of horror flicks à la the increasingly awful Scary Movie series, a cheap collection of pop culture references gleaned from whatever's hot in the tabloids or trash TV at the moment.

References certainly abound in the film, from the obvious cues to Romero's Dead series as well as works as diverse as James Cameron flicks, The Deer Hunter and the standard of film nerd quotation, Star Wars. There's at least one shot directly lifted from Halloween. But what Wright and Pegg understand about the zombie film is that zombies only work 1) in large numbers and 2) as satire. Danny Boyle's low-budget 28 Days Later fulfilled the second, but it got around the first by revising zombie rules to allow them to run, thus negating the need for large swarms. Shaun of the Dead also works on a small budget but, purists that they are, they found a way to cast swarms of extras to play the walking dead. Amazingly, despite the way in which every zombie appearance is turned into a gag of some sort, these throngs of zombies to pack some scares in them, because Wright and Pegg treat the subject seriously.

Wright spells out the satire of the film in the superb opening title sequence: in gentle tracking shots, he moves through the streets of London, touching on those who will soon fall to the outbreak, as they shuffle through streets completely indistinguishable from the zombies they're about to become. The titular protagonist, played by Pegg, plays like a projection of his Spaced character Tim, down to his directionless career path and vaguely homoerotic relationship with his best friend (played in both projects by Nick Frost). He's pushing 30 and working a job otherwise filled by teenagers looking for some pocket money on weekends, and he spends every night at a dusty old pub, much to the mounting outrage of his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield).

Pegg's slacker is the ideal protagonist for the film, as he personifies its underlying message. Already disaffected at work and incapable of concentrating on his relationship, Shaun responds to the realization of the outbreak by running back into his flat and turning on the television. When he finally decides on a course of action, he schemes to use the zombie plague to re-ingratiate himself with both his girlfriend and his mother (Penelope Wilton). Shaun slowly morphs into a capable leader over the course of the film, but the real focus is on Shaun's relationships with Ed, Liz and his mother Barbara, which works on both a sentimental and satiric level: it gives the film a more intimate feel even as it emphasizes the self-absorption and obliviousness of the current generation.

Now, listing off all the gags would be boring for both me and you, and I'd save time by just posting the screenplay, because barely any moment passes without something worth a laugh or at least the smirk of recognition that comes with spotting a reference. Even the sentimental moments have an underlying humor that makes the scenes funny without spoiling the severity of the moment. The best bit is, of course, the synchronized beating of a zombie to the tune of Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now," a comic dance routine that has gotten a laugh out of me after a good eight viewings. But I'm also quite partial to an early scene before the outbreak, where Shaun attempts to fill in for his manager -- who ominously called in sick -- and finding himself terrified of his younger co-workers. The idea of intimidating teenagers is a holdover from Spaced, and the idea that, when a grown man is as much of a slacker as a teen, even the younger guys will mock him. I also enjoy Shaun's inability to shoot when he finds a gun late in the film: too many action and horror films give the ordinary man far too much an understanding of weaponry and fighting under stress.

If I have any complaint about Pegg and Wright's films, it's that their post-Spaced work lacks the understated feminism of that series. Granted, both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz deconstruct the heterosexual male relationship and subvert the idea of the unstoppable masculine force, but I miss Hynes' touch. However, I noticed this time around -- my first viewing after watching Spaced -- that the women are the only ones who, for the most part, keep their heads in the situation. When Shaun fends off a zombie who attacks his mother, the women are the only ones who help him fight while the men stand idly by, either absorbed with their cell phones or too craven to act.

Like Tarantino, Wright isn't what you would call "subtle," but his frenetic style and frequent quotation is put to thematic use. His breakneck editing hysterically makes mundane activities such as brushing and cooking a light breakfast as action-packed as a shootout, but he also leaves items in the background that subtly recall other films without making a show of it. The equation of Shaun's uninteresting life with action via editing further emphasizes his banality even in an apocalypse, as well as, perhaps, his inflated opinion of himself; as Shaun must face truly horrible scenarios, Wright switches to filming in longer takes that remove the sheen from the first half and offer moments of reflection and cold reality. The film also excels because of its cast: Pegg and Wright must have won themselves quite a reputation with Spaced, because some big names signed on for the project. Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis of The Office have parts (Freeman appears in a cameo), as do Matt Lucas of Little Britain and Dylan Moran of Black Books. Even Bill Nighy turns up for a significant role as Shaun's stepdad. Every actor is perfect for the part, and the cameos manage to get all that name recognition in without distracting from the movie itself.

Their subsequent Hot Fuzz was more a thorough takedown of a genre, but Pegg and Wright crafted with Shaun of the Dead a movie built upon genre and references that somehow emerges totally original. Its seamless blend of romantic comedy and zombie film -- two genres so rigid in construction they practically come with rule books -- breaks the confines of both and makes a movie that is at once funny, meaningful, sentimental and spooky; it mixes the satire of Romero's Dead films with the over-the-top comedy of Evil Dead II, filtered through the impish charm of Spaced. Despite its grand climax, Shaun ends largely as it began, with the world getting back to normal, and the characters return to their lives of enslavement to television, which is changed insofar that the reality programs now have leftover zombies to fuel their concepts. For Shaun at least, this is a happy ending.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Tony Gilroy is a curious case. We tend to celebrate verbosity in screenplays, from the nonstop wit of Herman J. Mankiewicz to the madcap referencing of Tarantino's characters, but Gilroy goes in the other direction. Writing the lines for the stoic Jason Bourne gave his lines a curt, punchy feel that calls to mind some of the finest plotters of film noir. His taut dialogue keeps plots moving even as he deceptively fleshes out characters and makes them highly interesting. He's perhaps too much in love with puzzles, though; Michael Clayton, good as it was, bogs down in some of its jagged pieces, which came together to make a satisfying whole but don't hold up as well with multiple viewings. Still, I'd wager it was one of the finest American movies of '07, which overflowed with cinematic gifts, thus putting the pressure on for Gilroy's sophomore effort behind the camera, Duplicity.

In some ways, Duplicity plays like a comedic version of Michael Clayton, with its corporate intrigue plot and the twisted mire of its narrative. Where Clayton profiled the crumbling of those who couldn't accept the status quo any longer, though, Duplicity gives us characters who can't stop playing the game at any time. The latest entry in that strange mash-up of romantic comedy and spy thriller, it brings out something we haven't quite seen in Gilroy's on-point, thrilling scripts: humor.

This heretofore unseen lightness in Gilroy's writing gives the turbulent romance between MI6 agent Ray (Clive Owen) and CIA agent Claire (Julia Roberts) the feel of a Thin Man or a Bogey/Bacall picture. They meet at a Fourth of July party, Ray tries to seduce her, seemingly succeeds, then wakes up to find that she stole classified documents from him. This is pretty much the last time in the film that anything ever makes sense, so you might as well buckle up now.

Five years later, Ray's working for a pharmaceutical company, Equikrom, run by Dick Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Garsik is matched in greed only by his chief rival, Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson), CEO of Burkett & Randle. Ray is sent to meet with a contact working for Equikrom as a mole in Tully's corporation. Tully's been working on some new formula that he believes will result in previously unimaginable amounts of profit and Garsik, naturally, would like to prevent that from happening, preferably by stealing the cash cow mystery formula for himself. So, Ray goes to meet this mole, only to discover that the contact is, in fact, Claire. Ray savors the moment as he has finally found the woman who broke his heart. But is this the first time they've crossed paths since their first meeting?

Well, no, and that's the first twist in a film that quickly gets away from the writer. Michael Clayton was a bit too in love with its various turns, but Duplicity leaps overboard: as Ray and Claire fall in love, betray each other, reconnect, rinse and repeat, Gilroy pulls the rug out from under us so many times that eventually you stop standing on the damn rug. Nothing is as it seems, yet he's working in the lighter realms of comedy, so the incessant corkscrewing of the plot does not offer insights, only distractions.

Having said that, the dialogue is so good that I found myself playing along some time after I should have thrown my hands up and just rewatched Michael Clayton. The barbs Ray and Claire throw at each other in between their numerous make-up sessions are so acidic they could burn through steel. Clive Owen has that deadpan that must simply be a genetic trait in Britain, and he delivers every line with a pronounced laconic drawl sped up ever so slightly to keep pace with the speed of Gilroy's dialogue. But it's Julia Roberts who steals the show; since 2000's Erin Brokovich, Roberts has been on fire. She looks better than ever, and that girl-next-door innocence has slowly morphed into a fiery, scathing wit. The only glimmers of that doe-eyed sweetie of the past surface when Claire deliberately plays on that image to con someone.

The interaction between Owen and Roberts helps mask the glaring flaws in Gilroy's script. His story is convoluted yet simplistic, and the real narrative is about 20 minutes shorter than the film, and let's not even go into how tragically the director under-utilizes Giamatti and Wilkinson. If this review seems short, it's because I honestly tuned out of the narrative about halfway through and just stuck with Roberts and Owen, and there's too much juicy dialogue to spoil by writing it out without the benefit of their excellent delivery. Still, Gilroy's direction is much improved over his unsure work on Clayton, and he does a fine job behind the camera. It's nothing special, mind you, and it certainly can't salvage the plotting, but he keeps our attention focused almost exclusively on the strength of his two leads. Which is actually quite keen of him.

In the Loop

Director Armando Iannucci describes In the Loop, a spinoff of his BBC series The Thick of It, as an "anti-West Wing" in that it presents political bustle without the glamor of idealism. I, however, think it shares a closer analogue with another television series, The Office. It's hard not to think of Ricky Gervais' landmark series as hand-held cameras zip through the offices of staffers and less prominent yet still important members of both the British and American governments, and the film's protagonist, Minister of International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), suffers from the same foot-in-mouth disease that perennially hampers David Brent. The thing is, when David Brent fouled up, he didn't aid the start of the Iraq War.

Foster sets off a media storm when he says in an interview that war, specifically the possibility of an upcoming war in Iraq, is "unforeseeable." He immediately reports to Director of Communications Malcolm Turner (Peter Capaldi, one of two characters from the original series to appear), a blisteringly profane Scot who tells Foster he better shape up and "walk the line." So Foster should have said war was foreseeable, then. Well, no, not really. Poor Simon never finds out what he should have said, but Malcolm will make damn sure that Foster says it.

The Prime Minister dispatches Foster to the U.S. to discuss the war with American strategists and to determine what course of action the U.S. will take. When he arrives with his sarcastic but obsequious assistant Toby (Chris Addison, who was actually in The Thick of It but in a different role), Simon finds himself even more out of his depth than usual. Soon, he finds himself stretched and bent to fit the agenda of both Malcolm, who has orders with the PM to work with the State Department, and a group of anti-war officials within the U.S. government, led by Asst. Secretary of State Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy) and Maj. Gen. George Miller (James Gandolfini). One of Clarke's aides, Liza (Anna Chlumsky), wrote a report detailing the minimal, vague pros and the substantial cons of an invasion, but when Clarke actually uses it to prove her point Liza begins to fear for her career.

If Iannucci and his team of writers (ported over from the show) aimed to remove the hope and optimism of The West Wing, they filled the cracks with biting, deeply funny cynicism. When Linton Barwick (David Rasche), another assistant secretary of state, receives the notes from Clarke's meeting with the British, he completely rewrites the notes to omit the opposition voiced against the invasion and comes up with an entirely positive new version, fixating on poor Simon's idiot mumbling about "climbing the mountain of victory" as a catchphrase for the invasion. Compared to the free-floating vulgarity of everyone else, Barwick disdains swearing and makes a point never to curse or even raise his voice. Yet the eagerness with which he pursues an invasion without a second thought to the human cost makes him far, far more offensive than Turner. White House officials are revealed to be fresh out of college; Tucker follows a young man to a meeting until he realizes that the boy is not an assistant but an advisor meant to brief him, at which point he flies into a terrific fit. They pluck these kids from college because they can feed these officials agendas without having to worry about opposition from a "kid."

But what makes In the Loop so great isn't necessarily its satire: it's the dialogue. Lines fly as though someone played a Sorkin show on fast-forward. It's a bellyaching, borderline poetic rush of swearing and vitriol and pettiness, all against the backdrop of what was, or should have been, the biggest political decisions of our generation. I know that BBC shows can get away with a few f-bombs after "watershed" (9 p.m.), but there's just no way that a character like Turner could be used to his fullest on government-sponsored television. His insults are such a lyrical jumble of pop culture references and unspeakable vulgarity delivered through a brogue that is nearly incomprehensible when he's pissed off, which is almost every second he's on-screen, that you almost want to close your eyes and sway to the rhythm of their crass music.

The actors, to their credit, don't miss a beat. Tom Hollander is primarily known in America for his role as Mr. Collins in Joe Wright's Pride & Prejudice as well as his sadistic imperialist Beckett in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but he is so effortlessly funny here. In one scene, he's riding to the next war meeting, now just a perfunctory task in the face of an inevitable invasion, and he ponders resignation. Then he manages to convince himself, with only slight supplication from Toby, that not resigning and "getting on with it" would somehow be braver than resigning for his ideals. The other The Thick of It star to make it in the film is Paul Higgins' Jamie MacDonald, who has a similar yet less important job than Malcolm but makes up for it by being even more aggressive, bordering on psychotic. When Liza's memo leaks to the press, he searches for the leak in his office and destroys a fax machine simply to coax the truth out of a terrified staffer.

Even the supporting characters are great. Simon's other aide, Judy, is played by Gina McKee, who has been working under Tucker since before Foster was elected and will stay there after he leaves. She finds herself always scrambling to clean up Simon's mess while being the only person who can withstand Tucker's withering barbs. Steve Coogan also pops up for a great cameo as an outraged constituent who hounds Foster about a crumbling wall while Simon has much bigger issues to muck up.

Iannucci manages to splash some cold water on us at the end, not through proselytizing or obviousness but with a cold reminder that this, or something like it, actually happened. He never tells us why Barwick is so gung-ho for the war, but then we never got a good reason in real life, either. At a certain point we're told that the PM has basically thrown Britain's support behind America before a decision's even been made, so these Ministry underlings must follow party lines and essentially take orders from Americans. A few weeks ago I saw The Hurt Locker, the most honest and gripping cinematic depiction of the Iraq War yet seen, and this in many ways is a foil for that film. Where Bigelow's movie is a front-line portrayal of the war, In the Loop captures the petty, lying suits who put those men and women on the front lines in the first place.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Peeping Tom

The first shots of Peeping Tom switch from an extreme close-up of its lead's eye to the viewfinder of his hidden camera. The camera's owner is propositioned, follows the hooker back to her room and murders her. Then we see it all over again, only now the character is watching the film of his exploits. This is a Michael Powell film, right?

Yes, and that's just what people asked when it came out nearly 50 years ago in 1960. After Alfred Hitchcock made his way to Hollywood with 1940's Rebecca, allowing Powell to set himself up as the finest British director working in Britain. Granted, he received much of his critical adulation in retrospect, but he was still a popular enough draw in the UK, starting with his "quota quickies" and carrying through his more major features with Emeric Pressburger. Pressburger didn't write the film; instead, ingenious World War II cryptographer Leo Marks -- he devised simplified coding transmissions that were strong while being convenient enough to transmit for short messages -- wrote the screenplay. Pressburger's absence, though, did not earn Peeping Tom the pure outrage that greeted its premiere.

Admittedly tame by modern standards, Peeping Tom is nevertheless an incredibly dark psychological thriller that must have shocked audiences back in 1960. Its protagonist, Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a jittery, withdrawn young man, murders women and films his crimes to play back at his leisure. He works with a film crew by day and aspires to be a proper filmmaker in his own right. He's like that kid in American Beauty, always filming in the creepiest of manners, though Lewis is less annoying and more psychotic.

He lives in his father's old house and rents out a room, posing as a tenant so he never has to deal with anyone asking for a landlord. He tends to skirt right past the boisterous rented room, but one night Helen (Anna Massey) follows him up to his own room and charms her way inside. She pities the strange man but is also interested in his filmmaking and asks to see one of his tapes. Scrambling for something that doesn't directly implicate him in a murder, Mark breaks out the most sadistic home videos ever created, of his father's psychological experiments on him as a child. The father wanted a document of the nervous system's response to fear, so he wired his house to spy on his son at all times and tormented the poor boy throughout his childhood.

So, the film is a Freudian examination of a son's relationship with his father. His father gave his son no love, only psychological torture, and in turn the psychology community hailed the man's experiments as brilliant. Therefore, not only has the boy been irreparably scarred, his father's example has been hoisted up by intellectuals; his torment gave his father a legacy. So, Mark perpetuates the cycle, torturing women, killing them and filming them, all in the efforts to build a legacy for himself as a director.

But Powell and Marks delve far deeper than an Oedipal surface level. When Lewis kills his victims, he attaches a large mirror to his camera, so his victims can watch themselves die. In this way, Powell gets to the root of the title: this film is about sadistic voyeurism, but it implicates more than just its characters. At his day job, Mark sits and watches a director curse at an actress and give her demanding orders as his camera pushes in to capture false pain. Powell uses this juxtaposition to point out a simple truth: we as the audience routinely line up to see depictions of death, and many cinematic slayings have become comical or thrilling to the audience.

Powell makes plain the truth of cinema, that those who create it are aggressive and demanding at that those who consume it pay money to insert themselves into someone's life, even if that someone is fictional. He also points out the inherent misogyny of cinema: Mark only targets women, and the on-set director screams at a young woman as he shoots her clichéd character. Mark's mother died when he was young, and his father casually filmed the funeral to study the boy. Six weeks later, he re-married, filming her with the same objectivity (in this case literally as an object), a tool to bring out some response in the boy. This theme is only exacerbated when you take the movie and compare it to that other 1960 psychological thriller by that other British director, Hitchcock's Psycho. Mark Lewis certainly compares to Norman Bates -- both skittish, sexually repressed young men driven to murder and insanity through years of child abuse -- but there is one key difference: Norman was raised by his mother, Mark by his dad. Hitchcock of course had numerous hang-ups with women, and much of his cinema was his way of coming to terms with his issues. Psycho, as much as Vertigo, allowed him to get inside his own mind. Powell, on the other hand, featured strong female leads in acclaimed works like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he savages the mindset that marginalized and tortured women for perfectly acceptable entertainment.

That hatred of the cheap cinema around him informs the farcical nature of the film's portrayal of the movie studio. These people are all on their high horse making tacky pictures with no originality or craft, and greats like Powell & Pressburger's Archers were simply lumped into the same group by those who didn't understand their genius. Martin Scorsese later said that this, along with Fellini's 8 1/2, said everything that could be said about directing, that Fellini captured the glamor while this brought out the aggression and sexism. At one point, Mark refuses to film Helen because "everything I film, I lose." At the end of the scene, he looks into the camera eye, an ominous sign. With this film, Powell lost nearly everything; the British reception was so poor, so hysterical -- check out this page which mentions how some reviews were so harsh that the writers didn't even bother with facts before launching tirades -- that Powell never recovered. He made a few other films here and there, including an Australian film that somehow paired him with good old Pressburger in a non-Archers production, but he never enjoyed his prolific rate of creation again.

There's nothing bloody or exploitative about Peeping Tom (it attacks the exploitative nature of other filmmakers), so why the reaction? And despite his glorious use of Technicolor, Powell injected some darker sides into his work: The Red Shoes ends in tragedy, Black Narcissus concerns a group of missionaries who go insane, even A Matter of Life and Death presents "heaven" (or at least a non-hellish afterlife) as dull and bureaucratic compared to the lush beauty of life. Perhaps critics, the people who line up to see movies the most, didn't like what the film had to say about them. Art in The Red Shoes is a means of power, our basic form of humanity; in Peeping Tom, art via filmmaking is the outpouring of humanity's worst attributes.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I have seen Jean-Luc Godard's debut Breathless four times now, each time struggling to reconcile the parts of it I absolutely adore with the parts I simply admire, as well as a few bits I find wearisome and self-absorbed. This likely doesn't bode well for me when I at last move beyond this film into the work of perhaps the most independent and unpredictable major filmmaker of all time, but perhaps sticking with this one until I finally came to some sort of understanding will make the transition into his more difficult works easier. Or, focusing so much on this one might sour me against him when future films don't follow the same tropes I spent so long working through. C'est la vie.

With each viewing I found myself liking it more and more, but even now I'd stop short of calling this a timeless treat as enjoyable now as it was the day of its premiere. What I can say is that, after seeing a number of older films in the interim, I can at last admire its revolutionary technique. As with Citizen Kane and The Birth of a Nation before it, Breathless didn't necessarily introduce all of the various tricks displayed throughout its running time but collected every bold technique out there, added its own innovations, and the result altered film language forever.

Perhaps that's what makes Breathless so difficult to younger viewers like me (though I'm sure many young cinephiles are sharp enough to pick up on it a lot quicker than me): Breathless is one of the touchstones of film history. Everything after it changed, and its influence has been so thorough that even cheap blockbusters rip it off routinely -- just look at the sloppy, frenetic editing of most action films; even if they're poorly done, they owe a debt to this arthouse picture.

That strikes me as appropriate, though. Breathless, along with the rest of the French New Wave, was born out of an appreciation of American B-movies, an appreciation that inspired polemical, often poetic, reviews in Cahiers du Cinéma. Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, they all cut their teeth not with their own films but through complete dissections of the sort of movies that most would shrug off as trashy kitsch. Breathless opens in fact, with a title card dedicating the picture to Monogram Pictures, a prolific maker of gangster movies throughout the '30s and '40s. References to films abound in Breathless, most of which fly straight over my head, but Godard also namechecks artists, literature and philosophy, making the movie a pop culture explosion of hipster chic.

Though it has little story to speak of, Breathless nevertheless sports a brilliant structure. Godard simply gives us our protagonist, Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo), sans introduction or setup. For the first five minutes, the camera darts along Michel's misadventure: he steals a car, speeds along the motorway, is pulled over by a motorcycle cop, whom he kills. This all happens in five minutes; the only way you'd see a murder in earlier cinema was if it opened with a murder and then flashed back to solve the case (i.e. Sunset Boulevard, The Maltese Falcon), and maybe to set up a villain. But this is the guy who drives the story!

Michel flees to Paris to collect money owed to him by partners in past robberies (about as much as we're ever going to learn about the character's past) in order to pay his way to Italy. While in the city, he tries to win back his American girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg), studying in Paris on a visa even though she looks like the most natural fit for Godard's hip presentation. Her striped shirt, short hair and dark glasses are damn near the first image that comes to mind when someone says "Parisian," which makes her American background all the funnier. In their conversations, both reveal themselves to be arrogant, clueless youths, the only difference between them being Patricia's naïvete comes with the innocence that it's supposed to connote.

The first 25 minutes or so of the film play out in a jump-cutting frenzy. Though Godard later become the enfant terrible of French cinema, his editing techniques arose not from artistic statement but necessity. The original cut of Breathless ran at two hours and was deemed too long to be a commercial hit (because length was really what kept Breathless from being commercially viable) by the financiers. So, Godard simply went to the editing room and cut pauses in between lines and action. A conversation between Patricia and her boss at the Paris bureau of the New York Herald-Tribune is so chopped-up it's a wonder that the images don't end three minutes before the dialogue. The resultant breakneck pace certainly gives the movie a breathlessness. At the 27-minute mark, though, the action shifts from the dizzying jump all over Paris, following both characters separately, to Patricia's cramped hotel room.

Godard spends a good 20 minutes in the room, almost as much time as everything that came before it. He still uses jump cuts -- especially in a hilarious series of ellipses of the two having sex -- but by confining the action to this one tiny spot he conveys the existential worries of the characters, their narrow, close-minded assessment of the world, and the mounting police pressure bearing down on Michel. Had this section alone been the whole film, I'd have probably called it a masterpiece from the start. Spending 20 minutes in such a cramped set, without once conjuring the feel of a theatrical play, is no small feat. The sequence perfectly balances Godard's camera tricks with an interesting look at these characters. When they eventually head out into the streets again, I can't help but see it as a bit of a come-down even though Godard ratchets up the pace even more.

The rest of the film strikes me as breaking the rules just to break them, which is admittedly a negative in retrospect, after the broken rules helped launch a, well, new wave of filmmaking style and film grammar. On his reckless drive through the countryside, Michel speaks directly into the camera, and when he pretends to fire a pistol, it makes a gunshot noise anyway. When the cops come looking for Michel, we see them depart in a car through the reflection in Patricia's glasses. A news scroll on the side of the building near the end reads "Arrest of Michel Poiccard in Paris now imminent" is not an announcement within the diegetic world but to us, to let us know that the inevitable conclusion is coming. The jump cuts are meant to distract, but they can be simply too much at times, violating so much continuity that I momentarily lose my footing, and regain it only for the film to jump to the next point of action.

In these bursts of celluloid, Godard packs in stated and visual nods to that which inspires him. Patricia hangs a cheap copy of a Renoir painting in her room and tries to sell Michel on William Faulkner. Later, they slip into the theater to see Budd Boetticher's Westbound. A reference is made to "Bob Montagne" of the film Bob le Flambeur, only for that film's director, Jean-Pierre Melville to appear as a celebrity novelist. But Godard, to his credit, uses a number of the more obvious references to flesh out his characters. Patricia sits among a throng of interviewers shouting out question's to Melville's novelist, who ignores her inane, vague, hollow questions. When he finally addresses her empty, "What is your greatest ambition in life?" he responds with an equally empty sarcastic response, "To become immortal, and then die."

Michel flat out defines himself by the references. He stands in front of a Humphrey Bogart poster and runs his thumb across his lips just like Bogey. He plunders the retro style of the gangster to craft his identity; a young girl hawking (hilariously) Cahiers du Cinéma asks, "Monsieur, do you support youth?" to which he gruffly replies, "No, I like the old." Michel can flick cigarettes into his mouth, but it's a hollow gesture of cool, just like the character. As much as Godard likes the idea of the American gangster, he recognizes the lie of the persona. Michel must die in the end not because he committed a crime and must be punished for it (as was the practice of the Hays code), but because his lifestyle left no other plausible outcome.

For that reason, Breathless is both a celebration and (to steal from Jonathan Rosenbaum) a criticism of film. He, along with other Cahiers writers, championed the "trashy" side of American cinema because its filmmakers tended to be the true artists, the ones then-perceived as amateurs by the mainstream because they didn't know how to follow the "rules" when really these were auteurs with artistic visions. Breathless commends the contributions of the film noir genre to cinema, but Godard uses documentary-like footage courtesy of cinematographer Raoul Coutard (who had to haul around a heavy 35mm camera for long takes through the Parisian streets) to approach the references from the POV of an outsider looking to examine them. After four viewings I can finally say that I see Breathless as a charming little feature, one with a bold style, not to mention some great black and white cinematographer, especially given the circumstances of the shooting style and film stock used. It's also a fun takedown of its hipster protagonists, even if the movie focuses on its handling of these characters more than the characters themselves at times. But hey, I'm finally willing to shell out money for a copy of my own, even if I'm in no rush after seeing it four times in the last year.

Yi Yi

Edward Yang's three-hour opus Yi Yi opens at a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, it runs the gamut of the big questions of life and art, examining them with an eye for detail and a natural empathy. That's the simplest condensation you could wring from its expansive story, and naturally it leaves out everything that's truly wondrous about the film. Yang handles his themes and his mise-en-scène with equal care, letting one feed the other with shots that overlap contrasting moods and images. To say, "you'll laugh, you'll cry" wouldn't begin to sum up the emotions Yi Yi effortlessly conjures.

Yang splits his attention between three members of the Jian family: the father NJ (Nien-Jen Wu), his teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and young son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). They are attending the wedding of NJ's brother-in-law, A-Di, whose reception is somewhat spoiled by the appearance of an ex-girlfriend who immediately sparks a fight with the new bride.

In these opening moments, Yang establishes many of the film's themes and stylistic approaches: NJ watches the catfight between the wife and the ex- with laconic stoicism, a trait that also defines his 8-year-old son. Yang-Yang poses for one of the wedding photos, and the young girls of the family poke and prod him as he looks around wildly for the perpetrators. At a table, the adults gossip over the wife's pregnancy; "We had bus rides without tickets in our day, too," admonishes one of the more level-headed guests.

The latter situation sets up the film's examination of the conflict between the modern and traditional worlds that can be found in most cultures but particularly applies to Asian cinema as the recent developments of democracy and Communism in various regions of Asia are relatively new in the face of rich histories stretching back thousands of years. This is especially true of Taiwan, which only set itself up as a democracy in the mid-'80s after over 400 years of control by various European and Asian powers (its formal name is still the Republic of China). That's what makes Taiwanese cinema as interesting as Hong Kong cinema: they combine multiple cultures in the search for their own identity. The typical modern clichés -- settings indistinguishable from one another, humanity lost in a technological, emotionless fog -- are present, but Yang gently subverts them by pointing out the freedoms younger generations can experience.

Nowhere is that more evident than in NJ's life. As he leaves the wedding, NJ waits for an elevator, only for the doors to open and reveal Sherry, his old girlfriend. Yang never breaks for a reverse shot of NJ's reaction; instead, he holds his static shot from behind NJ and his son as Sherry greets him warmly. Though we never see his reaction, Wu's imperceptible shift in body language, and the simple mood evoked from the shot convey a flood of emotions that the stoic NJ can barely contain. The return of NJ's feelings for Sherry are compounded by his wife's breakdown after her mother suffers a stroke. Suffering from a midlife crisis, Min-Min believes that her meaningless life is not so removed from the comatose vegetable lying in a bed, so she takes a break from life and goes to a retreat.

The sudden doubt and regret in these characters reflect how these closed-off, insular people have been thrust into a situation that alters their perspectives, that reawakens them to the various ways to process the world around us. Little Yang-Yang, obviously a stand-in for the director even if you leave out the name, looking for his young tormentors in the photo-op comes to embody this theme of our ability to see only one side of an experience. "I can't see what you see, and you can't see what I see," he relates to his father on the way home one evening. "Can we know only one half of the truth?" he presses, "We can only see what's in front, not what's behind." Yang visualizes this concept through his composition: many shots capture the characters behind glass or in the reflections of mirrors. In the glass, the characters are obscured by the reflections of buildings and people around them -- in one of the most beautiful shots of the film, NJ closes the blinds of his bedroom to comfort his sobbing wife, until the interior is blocked by black shades that reflect the city traffic below, in effect confirming Min-Min's sense of meaninglessness in a busy world. In mirrors, we have a literal representation of the idea of only seeing half of what's present, as a mirror cannot reflect what is behind it.

The conflict between tradition and modern culture also, to an extent, informs NJ's professional life. Working for a software company on the edge of bankruptcy, NJ must secure a deal with a genius Japanese game developer named Ota. Ota and NJ form a bond almost immediately, and Ota's artistic prowess -- be it at design or music -- reminds him of his own lack of talent. It is NJ's job to slap a dollar sign on this man's genius and to convince Ota to let his failing company leech off of him. NJ feels guilty even bringing the subject of money up with someone who can actually create, though Ota never feels offended and even assures his new friend that he is a good man.

Yang manages the turbulence in his characters' lives with a poetic sense of overlapping dialogue and visuals. A botany teacher chastises Ting-Ting for putting so much care into her assigned plant that it actually won't grow, and her explanations for the proper way to raise a plant melt into shots of an ultrasound of A-Di and his wife's new baby. Yang-Yang catches a glimpse up a young girl's skirt when she enters an auditorium, and as she walks in front of the A/V screen to take her place, the presentation discusses the attraction of charges to make lightning. The finest juxtaposition contrasts Ting-Ting's first date with NJ's painful reconnection with Sherry in Tokyo; in this shot, the age lines between tradition and the modern era vanish, as Ting-Ting's humility and caution reflect an older mindset, while her father attempts to come to terms with his emotions rather than bury them behind his stone face. Yang also places his camera in static long shots evocative of Ozu's pillow shots, albeit with people in them. His characters often appear in door frames, situated between traditional values and the more modern idea of following one's heart, and they're unsure of whether to move forward.

There's an inherent beauty in Asian cinema, thanks to the vibrancy of its architecture -- even the standard-issue concrete blocks of modern Communist China have a certain urban charm to them, albeit a dark one. Yang, as the product of a Taiwanese upbringing, combines elements of various sources: the emotional distance of people trying to come to terms with those feelings reflects a great deal of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, while his ability to capture the vibrancy of Taiwan's classic Chinese, Japanese and modern Communist structure with a quiet reflection openly calls to mind the great Japanese master Ozu. But there is also a Western influence to the film, though one that is inseparable from its Eastern sentiment: the quest for people to find meaning in their lives knows no cultural boundaries, though we explore paths to meaning through our separate cultures. When NJ broke up with Sherry decades ago, she fled to the United States in grief, so unable to cope with the confines of her culture that she sought to find meaning in another one. Her desire to rekindle their relationship is identical to NJ's, showing that Western influence has crept into Taiwan in her absence.

Red dominates the color palette in Chinese architecture, and it's present in a great many scenes of Yi Yi as well. Of course, red also defines many of Bergman's color films (and even, in a way, a monochrome one, Persona) because of its multiple interpretations: it's the color of anger, sacrifice, blood and martyrdom. But it is also the color of passion and love. Yi Yi contains a suicide attempt, a murder, break-ups and a natural death, but it also gives us a wedding, first love and birth. Near the end of the film, Yang-Yang, who has turned a camera into his first passion, gives his uncle a photo of the back of his head. "You can't see it yourself, so I'm helping you," he chirps. In Chinese, "yi" means one, thus the title can be interpreted as "one one" or "two." That, almost as much as any shot or any of its carefully chosen, beautiful dialogue, defines the film: we view everything literally at first, walled off by our own perspectives. With the help of others, however, we can see the whole picture, what's behind us as well as in front.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Permanent Vacation

Having previously only seen three films by Jim Jarmusch, one of the filmmakers who, along with Gus Van Sant, Richard Linklater and the Coen brothers, set the stage for the American independent explosion of the '90s, I resolved to delve deeper into the filmography of one of the more notable American talents of the last 20 years. His Ghost Dog and Down By Law are interesting, witty, highly literate looks at America through the eyes of those who don't understand it; you'd be forgiven for thinking him a European filmmaker.

That tendency to look at American life through the perspective of a foreign or a loner is evident in the first shots of his first feature, Permanent Vacation: as images of pedestrians moving through New York play in slow motion, the soundtrack of bustling footsteps plays at normal speed. Even here, we, through Jarmusch's camera, cannot process what we're seeing as we see it. Jarmusch casts this New York as the victim of some sort of quasi-apocalypse, the result of a war with the Chinese. Funnily enough, the decay of the sets looks less like the aftermath of a war and more the mass neglect of the city's landlords.

Through the rubble and squalor wanders Aloysius Parker (Chris Parker), who signs his name "Allie" when he sprays graffiti on the walls. Allie tells us that he wants a son so he can name the boy Charlie, after jazz legend Charlie Parker. In his apartment, this young beanpole dances along to Parker's records with a combination of stiff white boy jerks and rhythmic soft shoe. Allie's so lanky and hip that you can't help but be amused by him, but he espouses a decidedly glum worldview.

Allie hasn't slept in days, and when his girlfriend asks him about it, he shrugs her off by saying, "I have my dreams while I'm awake." Searching for some level of meaning in this bombed out, decrepit world, Allie wanders the streets of New York without purpose, stumbling across a bevy of idiosyncratic characters all as removed by madness as Allie is from disillusionment. He speaks with a shellshocked veteran, his institutionalized mother, a hysterical Spanish woman trapped in her own tortured monologue. At last he steals a car, and sells it to buy passage to Paris. As he boards the ship to leave, he remarks to us that he feels like a tourist on "permanent vacation

What's most readily apparent about the film is its commitment to French New Wave styling. Permanent Vacation lacks any identifiable narrative structure, and when a moment of plot presents itself -- the theft of the car -- Jarmusch skips along the story with the same speed as Godard's introduction of Michel and his crime in Breathless. At one point, Allie pops into a theater to see Nicholas Ray's The Savage Innocents (Jarmusch befriended the director when Ray took up teaching at NYU and even served as his assistant), a literal quotation of film amidst textual and subtextual use. Allie himself plays like a Blank Generation update of Truffaut's Antoine Doinel, with his hyper-literacy and his feelings of alienation.

Permanent Vacation was made for $12,000, but it looks and feels like a debut regardless of the budget and film stock. By 1980, New Hollywood was about to implode, collapsing in on the weight of its excess. Jaws and Star Wars shifted focus from more personal filmmaking to merchandised saturation booking, where an auteur could get any amount of money requested for the most indulgent projects under the sun simply on the notion that it would somehow turn a profit. That's not to say that films like Apocalypse Now or Spielberg and Lucas' epics don't have their merits beyond simple ambition and scale, but compare Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to New York, New York, or Michael Cimino's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot to Heaven's Gate.

Jarmusch perhaps seeks to return modern American auteur cinema to the more intimate realms of post-New Wave filmmaking. Unfortunately, its self-absorption is evident from the start, and where a film like Down By Law or even a strung-together anthology like Coffee and Cigarettes contain a hipness in every frame through its intelligence, Permanent Vacation feels the need to call attention to itself at all times. This also is of course indebted to much of French New Wave, which was not only self-reflexive but somehow self-referential about its self-reflexivity (I still haven't made up my mind about Breathless because of its incessant need to point out how daring it is), but it's still distracting at times. But you can't deny Jarmusch's spark, even this early; an artistic and political commentary on an America adrift at the start of the '80s, it steals from Godard, Ozu (Jarmusch conveys one scene through a series of silent, beautiful establishing shots), and Ray among others. As much, if not more, is said through pauses than dialogue, a minimalist approach clearly on display in the stoic hit-man of Ghost Dog. Permanent Vacation is no masterpiece, nor is it even excellent, but it's a promising, intriguing start to an interesting career.

1989 Rewind: Drugstore Cowboy

Gus Van Sant's sophomore effort is a reference-worthy entry into two separate, though occasionally linked, genres: the outlaw road movie and the drug film. Its title works on both levels. The term "drugstore cowboy" is an idiom for those who get high on prescription medication, and the film's protagonist, for a time anyway, has the swagger and rugged quality of a cowboy. What outlaw and addict movies often share are characters who generally don't see themselves as bad people, who certainly don't strive to be bad people, yet they just can't help but make a bad situation worse.

In Drugstore Cowboy, Van Sant follows a ragtag group of users who get their kicks (and their next hit) from knocking off pharmacies. At the head of the group is Bob (Matt Dillon), a reckless yet cautiously superstitious thief who organizes his raids around perceived changes in luck. When he's "hot," he will rob any place, anywhere, any time of day, no matter the chances; when he's cold, he can barely leave his house from worry. He's married to his high-school sweetheart, Dianne (Kelly Lynch), though what romance might have existed between them faded long ago.

Bob and Dianne form an immediate dialectic that changes over the course of the film but still defines the contrasting moods of Van Sant's script. Bob lives for the thrill of the chase; whenever Dianne broaches the subject of sex, Bob changes the subject to the next heist. (In fairness, I'd imagine that drugged-up sex doesn't stimulate nearly as much as a hit). Dianne, on the other hand, just wants the end result. The effort of planning and carrying out a raid is the price she has to pay for her happiness.

In lieu of children, Bob and Dianne "raise" two younger junkies, Rick (James Le Gros) and Nadine (Heather Graham in an early role). They look after each other because they need each other to pull off the robberies, and the group becomes a makeshift, thoroughly dysfunctional family. That dynamic gives Drugstore Cowboy an edge that most other outlaw/drug movies didn't have at the time, a dynamic that was promptly diluted to an oversimplified essence and injected into most subsequent stories of addicts.

But that's not nearly the only aspect that films like Spun or Requiem For a Dream plunder from this incredible work. Van Sant doesn't use dizzying editing sprees to put us in the mind of the addict, but his close-ups and sound distortion bear an open influence on future drug movies. We see an extreme close-up of a needle pumping an Rx cocktail into an arm as the soundtrack warps and bends through the liquid drugs.

The special care taken with these shots, compared to the ennui of the scenes in between hits, prominently displays the priorities and desires of these characters. Dillon subverts the teen idol into which he'd been made throughout the '80s with Bob, making him into a charismatic rebel who is slowly revealed to be a hollow wretch.

The worm turns when Bob visits his mother. Where we've seen him up until this point as a cocky thief who proves a strange sort of leader, suddenly Bob stands withering as his mother, without ever raising her voice, refuses to let her son in the house. She clearly loves him, but she knows that Bob will steal anything that isn't nailed down the second he gets inside, and Bob just stands there and takes it, because he knows it's true. At that moment, the film morphs from a distanced, almost fun look at the world of prescription addiction into a tragedy.

The tragedy multiplies when Nadine overdoses, leaving the other three with a corpse to rid themselves of just as the motel they're staying at is swarmed by police attending a sheriff convention. That sounds like the makings of macabre comedy, but Van Sant brings out the despair and the urgency of the situation, not the cheap setup; the only irony to be found here is of the bitter variety. Tellingly, the survivors are just as concerned with how this affects their hits as they are with the body.

Nadine's death gives Bob a moment of clarity, though, and he pledges to go to rehab and clean himself up. Neither Dianne nor the cops who constantly trail Bob believe him, and Dianne lashes out at the very idea of sobriety. So enveloped in her world, in which the only comfort comes from drugs, she simply doesn't understand the desire to cut out that one node of happiness. She even visits Bob in rehab with a large sack filled with goodies like a perverse Halloween haul, hoping to lure him back to the darkness.

Simultaneously countering and supporting Dianne's argument is the appearance of a defrocked priest from Bob's past who shows up at the same facility. In his prime he would share his heroin with all the youth of the neighborhood who needed a fix, and now he's a bent frame, bones visible from behind skin. In the sort of hotel that only addicts and prostitutes frequent, he lectures Bob on the coming crackdown on drugs led by the "right-wingers," yet his haunting presence does nothing but confirm the mindset of those who wish to take the substances that enslave him away. The priest is played by beat author William S. Burroughs, reflecting his own past as an addict and, with every cough and drawn out, ragged word, conveys a man stuck in purgatory, forever chained to his addiction as penance.

Van Sant's film, like the best of outlaw and druggie movies, presents its characters with neither glorification nor condemnation. But neither does he pull back until he observes his characters through a removed filter of artistic curiosity. He places the camera directly inside this hellacious world of crushing ennui, where the drugs do not, as in Requiem For a Dream, offer momentary escape but simply deaden these blank fools further to blind them to reality. In Bob and his quest for sobriety we see the hope of the addict; in Dianne the crushing illogic that binds them to their world forever. Van Sant's ability to capture the two sides with equal empathy is what makes Drugstore Cowboy such a beautiful film, one whose somewhat uplifting ending feels more organic than the bleaker depths of many of its imitators.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

It occurred to me right before I walked into the theater to see Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds that perhaps the reason for his bizarrely misspelled title was to ensure that newspapers could print it without fear of censorship. I don't know if that's true, but the film certainly deserves as much press as it can get. Described by its director as "a spaghetti western but with World War II iconography," it combines the maturity of his Jackie Brown with the cartoonish joy of Kill Bill and the audacity of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. If it is not his greatest film, it is certainly his most daring.

The title describes a small unit of Jewish-American soldiers led by Tennessean Lt. Aldo Raine, sent behind enemy lines before the D-day invasion to wreak havoc in Nazi-occupied France. As is Tarantino’s M.O., the actions of these eight are largely alluded to, shown only in the briefest of snippets that make the campy nature of what is -- on a deceptively simple surface layer -- a Jewish revenge fantasy even funnier. That's impressive when you consider that the action scenes in the film are taut, short and thoroughly brutal, a frank depiction of the horror of war. So frank, perhaps, that we have to laugh.

The timeline jumps immediately after the character introductions to a rather camp Hitler panicking over the Basterds’ successes, as the insurgents -- Tarantino casually drops sly equations of the soldiers to terrorists a few times -- have picked up nicknames that only enhance their mystery and intimidation: the scalp-loving Raine becomes “Aldo the Apache,” the bat-wielding Donny (Eli Roth) “the Bear Jew.”

But this, to the undoubted dismay of some, is not simply an exercise in video game Nazi killing. Those disappointed likely wish it contained more of the violence for which Tarantino found fame. But I fear some people have their own fabricated image of what typically constitutes Taratino's violence, as his films largely suggest violence through the dialogue or by placing the result of violence just off-screen. Only Kill Bill Vol. 1 contains any persistent blood and gore, and that movie is so marvelously cartoony that you don't take it seriously. That the Basterds would take a back seat in their own movie actually makes sense in the director's world.

Far more integral to the story is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew in hiding from the Nazis who runs a cinema in Paris. When a young war hero (Daniel Brühl) falls for her, he arranges for the premiere of Goebbels’ new propaganda film, of which he is the subject, to be held at her theater, thus allowing her chance for revenge on the entire Nazi high command. Where Raine's tear across France plays like a visceral black comedy revenge story, Shosanna's tale has a personal edge that gives the movie a severity we haven't seen in Tarantino's work in a long time.

The two stories never fully converge, at least not beyond a final setting, but they each promote a similar, thoroughly Tarantinoesque look at history: the story of Raine’s men presents us with a revisionist war movie, one that piles on the director’s seemingly limitless depths of film knowledge into a referential melting point that doesn’t become the sum of its quotations like some of his past efforts. Shosanna’s, on the other hand, looks at history through film itself. When that hero, Zöller introduces himself, he notes that her marquee displays the names of filmmakers who wouldn't normally get top billing, as she simply admires them. When a British soldier is sent to join the Basterds and help them formulate their own plan to burn the cinema, the general in charge of "Operation Kino" (played up by Mike Myers, who comes the closest to overplaying his part but only has one scene) chooses the operative based on his encylopedic knowledge of film history and a deep understanding of German filmmaking both before and during the Third Reich.

Shosanna's plan to use film literally as a weapon reflects the spirit of the nouvelle vague and contrasts brilliantly with the propaganda film to be shown in her cinema; what is propaganda if not psychological warfare? Godard used film as a weapon too: first against itself, to free cinema from the oppressive rules and structure forced upon it, then in his workings with the Dziga Vertov group and beyond blending that radical approach to filmmaking with radical politics to match. Tarantino's approach is as much of a wry nod to that director as the name of his production company, Band Apart.

While I love Death Proof in connection to Grindhouse as a whole, I admit that the writing left a bit to be desired (or a great deal, if you see the extended cut). Inglourious Basterds, however, contains some of Tarantino's finest moments. In the opening scene, Shosanna hides with her family under the floorboards of a dairy farmer's home. The SS Colonel Hans Landa comes to search the place, and in the course of his conversation with the farmer reveals his entire character in frightening progression. As he switches effortlessly between languages and engages in polite discussion with his suspect, we eventually realize that he isn't probing the farmer about the possibility of hidden Jews, he knew where they were before he stepped foot in the house. This one scene not only defines the tension present in much of the film's dialogue but in the film's ability to lead you in one direction only to completely throw you at every turn. Basterds is brilliantly self-referential able to draw incredible suspense from the repeated mention of a glass or milk, or a perversion of the Cinderella tale of the missing shoe. There's also an interesting analysis of the equation by Nazi propaganda of Jews to rats, with Landa bringing up the comparison that people tend to hate rats without any solid reason for doing so; they just hate rats.

In Death Proof, Tarantino fully switched from punchy, idiosyncratic dialogue to full-on verbosity, and in a way he cleverly parodies himself with the dialogue in this film. Conversations are drawn-out until the characters themselves are sick of them: the longer these undercover soldiers or Jewish refugees find themselves trapped in chats with Nazis, the greater the chance they'll be find out. The characters are trying to pull away from the dialogue their writer keeps feeding them, which only furthers the tension. It climaxes with a bloodbath in the theater, and, for all the talk of this being nothing of a revenge fantasy, Tarantino brilliantly contrasts the German audiences who moments before were enjoying watching a film of a soldier mowing down Americans with the audience of Inglourious Basterds watching an inversion of the same. For all its comedy and fun, Basterds offers a sobering look at the cost, both physical and psychological, of vengeance, and the way he forces us to confront, even if many might not notice it, our own sense of bloodlust when it comes to Nazis recalls Michael Powell's brilliant exposé of cinematic voyeurism, Peeping Tom.

Though a few characters aren’t tied up very well (or at all), I can’t find much to fault with Inglourious Basterds. Its perfect cast knows exactly what Tarantino is shooting for here, and they play up the dark humor brilliantly. Brad Pitt, always at his most interesting in comedic roles, commits so thoroughly to Raine’s slack-lipped hick that you can’t help but laugh whenever he’s on-screen; the scene where he tries to speak "Eye-talien" to fool his way past some Nazis is one of the highlights of Pitt's career. But veteran Austrian television actor Christoph Waltz steals the show as the amoral, terrifying Landa, “the Jew Hunter.” Waltz captures Landa’s polite charm and vicious madness in equal measure. Landa is the sort of person who will compliment your impeccable fashion as he stabs through your shirt, always calculating and never caught unaware. He alone is worth the price of admission, and a second viewing.

While Raine’s final line might not reflect the film itself, Inglourious Basterds is an audacious movie you can’t afford to miss. After spending the better part of a decade using his skill for film quotation to create madcap worlds of B-movie revelry, Tarantino has finally returned to his New Wave roots and use them to propel an intelligent story. It lacks the “anything goes” quality of Pulp Fiction, but here at last is a film worthy of the potential he displayed in that film. It also reinforces that nobody -- though many have tried -- can truly nail down what makes Tarantino such a bold and irresistible director. Who else would think to name one of the German-born Basterds Hugo Stiglitz, after a prominent mexploitation actor, and then shatter the film's flow just to give him a stylized backstory complete with narration (from Samuel L. Jackson, no less)? Funny but sincere, beautiful in its grotesqueness, Basterds is one of the finest films of recent years, and proof that Tarantino is at his best when he pays tribute not to genres, but cinema as a whole.

[Ed. Note: Additional, in-depth thoughts can be found in a follow-up post here.]

Carpenter's Tools: Someone's Watching Me!

In between 1978's Halloween and 19890's The Fog, John Carpenter directed two made-for-TV films, Someone's Watching Me! and an Elvis biopic. Despite Carpenter's enduring cult legacy, both of these films remained hard-to-find on home video for decades. (Elvis still hasn't made its way to DVD, all the more surprising considering it sparked the Carpenter-Russell collaboration). Someone's Watching Me! isn't quite as noteworthy or interesting as the first Carpenter film featuring Russell, but after watching Christine, I found this to be far more theatrical and fitting with Carpenter's style than that project.

As with Halloween, Someone's Watching Me! concerns a serial killer whose actions are never explained outside of a basic set-up for his methods. In this film, a mysterious man terrorizes the female inhabitants of apartments across the city. He watches them, calls them and ultimately drives them to suicide. No evidence exists to make these cases look like crimes, so the police force doesn't even realize they have a killer on their hands.

The voyeur's latest target is Leigh Michaels (Lauren Hutton), who moves into a luxurious high rise. She already has issues with men after a turbulent experience in the past, and she's not even ready to date yet. She spends most of her time hanging out with her co-worker Sophie (Adrienne Barbeau) and fending off flirtatious men. Sophie is a terrific touch, as she is clearly a lesbian though Carpenter never makes it "obvious"; Leigh herself seemingly hasn't a clue.

Soon, Leigh starts receiving calls at all hours from an unknown man. We see a bug left under her table and a figure dart behind her when she returns to find her apartment door open. Strange presents are delivered to Leigh, all of which come with their own threatening phone message. The constant calls drive Leigh mad, and she flinches whenever she runs into a man in her complex.

Plot-wise, this film is about as bare as they come. Halloween choreographed its attacks for maximum construction, but they were still frightening despite the convenient nature of the set-ups. Christine was far more forced, and this sits somewhere in the middle. It doesn't contain murder so much as a never-ending series of arbitrary plot devices that prevent anyone from doing anything about the situation. Though the constant calling clearly qualifies as harassment, the police "can't arrest a man for dialing the wrong number." When a suspect is arrested, the cops close the case even when Leigh receives more calls and spots an attack across the block through her telescope. Not to mention, if the pressure was that severe, why not move out of the high rise? Why didn't the other people, who ultimately committed suicide, do the same? Little to no interest comes from the dialogue or the plot, and these contrivances only further bog down the story.

Where it excels, though, is in its direction. Drawing from the POV giallo of Dario Argento and the atmospheric terror of Alfred Hitchcock, Carpenter crafts a hell of a gripping thriller with Someone's Watching Me! I can scarcely remember the characters' names, but I certainly recall how I jumped every time the phone rang (which is about once a minute on average), or the brilliant play on Rear Window in which the person being spied upon buys her own telescope and searches the apartments for her voyeur. The scene plays out like a battle between snipers, frantically scouring the windows of the opposite tower seeking an enemy.

Carpenter's ability to take his "all tension, all the time" approach of Halloween and apply it to this Hitchcock tribute gives Someone's Watching Me! an entertainment factor that its flat script wouldn't hint at. It's also nice to go back and watch this film after Kurt Russell introduced a more masculine feel to Carpenter's work; Leigh, though tormented and fearful, ultimately takes matters into her own hands, and the mere presence of Sophie's perfectly average, non-camp homosexual is a great delight in a late-'70s film. It's not top-tier Carpenter by any stretch, but this would make a fun double feature with one of Hitchcock's second rank thrillers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Carpenter's Tools: Starman

What fresh Carpenter is this? After establishing himself as one of the best niche directors, well, ever, he stumbled slightly with the Stephen King adaptation Christine, a noticeably commercial attempt to make up for the tepid receipts from The Thing. Carpenter believed that The Thing fared poorly because it came out the same year as Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. How perfectly fitting, then, that he should direct perhaps the finest of the "E.T. clones" made throughout the mid-'80s to capitalize on the massive success of the benevolent alien story.

Working with a script by Bruce A. Evans (who would later find great success with his screenplay for Stand By Me, funnily enough another King adaptation), Carpenter placed himself far outside of his comfort zone. It probably irked the Hawks disciple to be placed into a niche in the first place, but he certainly made the most of his shifted career path. With this film, however, the director proved that he could hop genres with style, even if he rarely ventured outside horror-action again.

But stepping outside of the pigeonhole means little to the film in question. No, what makes Starman so wonderful, so light and so affecting are the superb performances Carpenter draws from his actors. After the embarrassing casting of Christine, Carpenter is back to drawing the finest from those in front of his lens, and he actually manages to get good performances from much of his secondary cast (remember how bad everyone who wasn't Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence and Nick Castle were in Halloween?). He also handles Evans' light, feel-good script with both the sweetness of that aspect as well as the tension of those who seek to hurt our benign visitor.

The Starman comes to Earth after intercepting the Voyager II probe, which contains selections of music as well as a recorded greeting from the head of the U.N. He crashes in Madison, Wisconsin, and assumes human form when he scans a lock of hair in a photo album and clones the DNA. Then a woman (Karen Allen) wakes up to find her dead husband in her living room. Understandably, this shakes poor Lisa up, and it likely doesn't help that this alien, who looks like her husband, bids her to take him to Arizona.

Jeff Bridges' performance as the Starman is nothing short of fantastic: he gleaned his only knowledge of Earth's languages and syntax from the recorded greetings and songs, so Bridges delivers his dialogue in halting, emphasized staccatos. Bridges is one of the best actors in the business because the very last thing he appears concerned with on-screen is his appearance. Not many actors could contort their faces as wildly as Bridges does when the Starman minces through a sentence, and fewer still could pull it off without desperately mugging for laughs. These moments are funny, yes, but only because Bridges sells them with sincerity and Allen plays the straight woman well.

This light tone defines even the film's serious moments, such as the Starman using his powers to bring a shot deer back to life or Lisa's struggle to separate the sight of her husband from this advanced life form. The military gets wind of the alien's presence, and of course it's run by a cold-hearted intelligence chief who wants to kill the Starman and then ask it questions. One of the scientists in his think-tank, though, voices dissent. "We invited him here!" Mark Shermin yells, referring to the Voyager II probe found in the Starman's ship.

These characters are all so much fun -- Carpenter's inherent flair for camp creeps through, certainly with Bridges but even the NSA chief Fox -- and the dialogue is charming and funny enough, that you can almost forget the compulsory nature of the script. Why does the Starman need to go to Arizona? Because that's where his brethren will meet him, and if he's not there in three days, he'll be abandoned to die on the planet. Why can't the all-powerful race, who have nothing to fear from humans and their silly missiles, wait a day or two? And I nearly winced when the Starman gives an uplifting mini-speech near the end to Shermin that not only casually drops the fact that these aliens visited Earth before and have been monitoring it for some time but lays on the saccharine goo with its exultation of mankind. "You are at your very best when things are at their worst," says the dying Starman. Dying must have clouded his memory somewhat because, apart from Lisa and Shermin, everyone he comes across on his journey tries to capture him, beat him or kill him.

Nevertheless, it earns its bittersweet ending, and Carpenter, the man who made a name for himself as a master of suspense, proves able to coax sweeter emotion from this film with only the slightest prodding. Jack Nitzsche's score sound reminiscent of Carpenter's usual style at first, but it morphs into a gentler soundtrack, in some ways an aural cue of Carpenter's transition in the film. As much as I wish that the plot didn't drive a story in which a woman has a chance to reconnect with a visage of her dead husband, even if that visage isn't him and never will be, is food enough for one film. Actually, Solaris already proved that. But with Bridges, Allen and Carpenter steering things, Starman achieves an honest sentimentality it doesn't quite deserve. Because let's face it: it takes a supreme coordination of talent on-set to make a line like, "I gave you a baby tonight" not doom a picture straight to the MST3K files.

The Class

François Bégaudeau is immediately believable as a teacher struggling to impart knowledge on inner city youth. That should be obvious as, among making a living as a novelist and a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma and the French version of Playboy, Bégaudeau once worked as a high school teacher in Paris, the experience of which informed his third novel, which he then adapted into this film, directed with docudrama honesty by Laurent Cantet.

The Class might draw a line in the sand for American viewers. Well, beyond the one every foreign film draws to separate those who are willing to, God forbid, read subtitles and those who can't be bothered. I admit, when I heard a description of the film -- an erudite white teacher connecting with lower-class minorities -- I nearly tuned out. As much as I criticized the overuse of the Yo Teach! segments in Funny People, the equation of rapping to Shakespeare is and will likely remain the single finest moment of genre satire this year, and at some point this weekend I plan on seeing the new Tarantino film, which I believe is ostensibly a revenge fantasy against the Nazis.

But Bégaudeau's experiences give him that authenticity that the American films in this cringe-worthy subgenre almost uniformly lack. Its closest analogue would be the stirring, masterful fourth season of The Wire, not Freedom Writers. Though he placed his experiences into a fictional novel and screenplay, Bégaudeau gives us real students, real teachers and enough problems that mirror America's own failing system that The Class stands as one of the most accessible foreign films around.

Bégaudeau plays a version of himself, Monsieur Marin, teaching literature to a group of uninterested middle schoolers who know that the system will send them through to the next level provided they don't get expelled or fail so horribly that the faculty can't ignore the problem. When the teachers rally against a student, though, the kid's doomed. Late in the film, the principal raises the matter of a disciplinary hearing for one of the school's most difficult kids, and Marin, on the disciplinary board, quietly notes that, of the 12 hearings held in the past year, all 12 resulted in expulsion.

In class, Marin plods through poetry structure and The Diary of Anne Frank. But because all of the classes are so far behind due to class disruption and a general lack of any effort, Marin must coordinate his literature teachings with other courses. A history teacher asks him on their break what era he should teach to allow Marin to choose literature from that time. "The Enlightenment will be tough for them," Marin says with the faintest irony. When he tries to lead his class through the imperfect subjunctive, the students mock him and ask why the school bothers to teach these strict language rules when no one follows them anyway.*

In theory, this inter-class coordination is inventive, allowing each teacher to add something to an underlying theme. But Marin and the other teachers face ennui and outright hostility from the students. In a staff meeting, one of the teachers comes undone. "I'm sick of these clowns," he says on the verge of tears, "They're nothing. They know nothing. They look right through you when you teach them. They're so basic, so insincere...always looking for trouble."

But Bégaudeau lets these kids slowly define themselves -- he worked through the script with them in rehearsals and let them come up with some lines, which explains why their dialogue sounds as though 13-year-olds wrote their dialogue instead of adults -- as more than just the parts of a sexually driven mob hell-bent on destroying their own futures. Wei, a Chinese immigrant and the star pupil of the school, at one point voices his frustration with his classmates for so completely derailing the school year. Esmeralda doesn't pay attention and helps spark a sort of rebellion late in the film, but every now and then she betrays a great potential. The standout performance is not Bégaudeau's at all but Rachel Regulier's: Khoumba, like her pal Esmeralda, has a flash of intelligence beneath her uncaring veneer, but she's convinced that Marin "has it in for [her]" for calling on her in class so often.

However, the problem with these emerging characters is that many of the supporting kids in the class never get to contribute anything. Marin spends a great deal of time trying to figure out what changed with Khoumba over the summer to turn her from a decent, cooperative student into this rebel, and the focus shifts too much in her direction. It doesn't even pay off, either; near the end, she becomes essentially one of the secondary kids without us ever finding out what motivated her to rebel. I'm not saying I wanted there to be some facile explanation behind her actions, but why divert all that attention for no reason.

There's also a massive, almost embarrassing stumble in the last half hour or so that gives the film a plot where it didn't have (nor need) one before; in a particularly brutal staff meeting, wherein teachers discuss students' grades and their opinions of these kids in ruthless honesty, the camera cuts to two girls giggling and chatting. Eventually, we learn that they are class reps, assigned to sit on meetings to ensure their peers get a voice. Now, student government is one thing, and this middle school equivalent is fine. But under no circumstances would these teachers speak so openly about their students with...two students sitting in the room in plain view.

It's set up simply to bring out a moment of shocking harshness from Marin, heretofore an approachable mentor. He doesn't entertain delusions of reaching these kids and inspiring them to learn, but he's willing to meet them halfway. He just wants a certain amount of respect and calm to get through his lectures. For him to say something that frankly would at least get him an official warning if not a notice that his services won't be required next term just smacks of pure plot. I will concede that it serves two noble purposes, though: to ensure that we do not see Marin as the stereotypical inspirational teacher, and that the students are somewhat justified in seeing themselves shuffled through the system by teachers who don't give a damn about them because they're not smart enough to move up to the "better" schools -- the French system involves different schools for different academic performance, not by district like America.

Bégaudeau gets things back on track at the end, with a moment of crushing reflection between him and a previously invisible student who voices her fear that she'll fall even further down the academic ladder. It's a quietly devastating exchange that reveals the impotence of the teachers and the students once you venture lower than the more prestigious schools. The French title of the book and film is Entre les Murs, or "Between the Walls": the teachers and students are equally trapped in this prison, one incapable of teaching the other and the other, like prisoners, already written off by society. While the structure of our educational systems are different, The Class speaks to the cynicism many in America feel toward No Child Left Behind and dilapidated, underfunded buildings. It does not present us with an answer to this crisis because it's head isn't in the clouds: even with the fictionalizations (most of which distract), this is a front-line look into the system. You're not thinking about changing it; you're thinking about surviving it.

*Having taken four years of French in high school, I remember all to well the utter hell that was the subjunctif. It is one of the most ridiculous grammar rules I have ever come across, and everyone in the class treated it with disdain. I know that the film was making a point about the unwillingness of children to learn in today's technologically enslaved society, but to see actual French students railing against the subjunctive pleased me to no end.