29 August 2010

(Belated) At the Cinema: Inception

Inception (Christopher Nolan/2010) USA, UK/148mins *****

I've been slow on this one: unfashionably late to the Inception table. Although perhaps not too tardy: I foresee folk reviewing, re-reviewing and then re-reviewing the re-reviews well into the new year - it's had that kind of effect. One of the reasons I didn't bother to add my tuppence-worth, my drop in the Inception commentary ocean, was because I got rather sick of hearing about it. When you stumble upon a fifth over-excitable interpretation of what the spinning top really represents in the course of a day, I think even director Christopher Nolan himself would want to switch off. But it was to be expected. Nolan's on a golden run - he's a much-fervoured fanboy favourite - and little will slacken the mass excitement of a new film from him. And outside of the more hardcore devotees' obsessive ruminations, I'm genuinely enthused that there have been several films recently (this, Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, etc) that have garnered a great amount of fevered eagerness from both critics and audiences. When you avoid all the hyperbole and resulting backlash (and - groan - backlash to the backlash) and revel in the high anticipation of a new release, it's indicative of the joy and surprise inherent in cinema-going. But in saying all this, Inception didn't bowl me over quite like I thought it might. It was an enjoyable ride, but not perhaps the world beater it's been touted as.

As all and sundry know by now, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an ideas man, literally: Dom Cobb and his dream team (count me as the 1001st person to use that little nugget in a review) are hired by a corporate bigwig (Ken Watanabe) to plant an allusive but persuasive idea into the dreaming mind of his business rival's son (Cillian Murphy) in the hope that it will eventually upend said rival's powerful business hold and send soaring Watanabe's stock. Or something. (The narrative's main thrust gets a little lost amid the layers upon layers of dream-state espionage undertaken by DiCaprio and crew. It gets tricky, but Nolan's editor Lee Smith works overtime, assisting in grasping the plot's particular ins and outs. I didn't drift far off course.) Plus, Cobb has his own dream demons to contend with - in the form of his mysterious wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), who materialises - often in tears, but still looking stunning - due to some possible past bad deed on his part.

Everything about Inception is expertly mapped out and immaculately designed. It looks visually stunning; it's appropriately classy, very 'high end'. Everyone is impossibly good looking; the clothes and hair are expertly slick. It oozes style. But for a story which takes place in a multitude of intricately-constructed environments - crumbling cities, snowy mountain-tops, opulent hotel rooms, rain-drenched streets - the overall visual treatment is, paradoxically, two-dimensional: fashionable, but flat. Whether this is to do with the hazy impenetrability of the imagined dream projections of whichever character's subconscious we're traipsing through, or simply a way for Nolan to express finesse on an enormous budget, it's hard to say. But the world's created are largely uninvolving. The scene where an entire street rises up and folds over itself, spectacular as it looked, suggested a page of a glossy magazine being turned over: set design as expanded sci-fi fashion supplement; dream plains suggested by Philip K. Dick, styling by Gucci.

I wouldn't ordinarily moan about too much style overload in current cinema, especially when there's often not enough in big summer movies - and it didn't occur to me to single out for scrutiny the often ostentatious visuals in films such as I Am Love, Shutter Island or A Single Man for their abundance of arty splendour - but it feels like the streamlined visual slickness, though embedded with plenty of clever ideas, was the utmost thing Nolan brought to the table. He knows how his film should look, and he adds plenty of pertinent details that may very well mean something to someone somewhere (names like Ariadne, Page's character, referencing Greek mythology, 'Mal' being a French negative for bad/evil, etc)). But he mistakes stylistic posing for emotional depth: when the whole film's about entering, then probing, the farthest recesses of people's minds some exploration of profundity is surely required, however lightly integrated it is - DiCaprio and Cottilard's elegant, surface-entry suffering doesn't entirely provide it.

DiCaprio carries the film with less heaviness than he did his similar-ish role in Shutter Island earlier in the year, but he's also duller to watch here, relying on too much furrowed-brow performing for my tastes. His core incepting team - Ellen Page (miscast as a genius dream architect who doesn't get to do much dream architecting, save for folding a mirrored underpass in two), Tom Hardy (funny, and the only actor showing personality, as a face-shifting weapons enthusiast), Joseph Gordon Levitt (who does a lot of lone acting whilst weightless - very good, if humourless, he is too) - all get second dibs on the best scenes; Cotillard occasionally pops up like a Bond Girl-gone-bad to well and truly mess up DiCaprio's sleepytime; but Pete Postlethwaite, Michael Caine, Dileep Rao and Lukas Haas barely get a look in. And however nice it is to see Tom Berenger - an old, largely-forgotten actor not resurrected by Tarantino for once - he wasn't given a great deal to do.

I guess I was expecting something a bit more explorative from a film which feels evidently set up as the very touchstone of integral complex exploration. There has to be the discovery of something more substantial than the repetition of further unanswered questions come the end, right? I wasn't expecting to be hit over the head with obvious conclusions and the simplistic tying up of plot knots (I require far from straightforward explication from a summer film that rests its case on being intelligently different), but as intermittently exciting as it often was, the "ooh and ahh" final build and resulting denouement of Nolan's ambiguous style puzzle barely justifies its means. And whatever it means becomes more and more lost, wrapped up in the enigmatic folds of Nolan's lithe yet characterless vision itself.

Inception prides itself on displaying its grey brain cells but it's rarely witty or sustainably engrossing over many of its long stretches. I perhaps wouldn't have been as unimpressed had I not seen many other - more concise, less self-important - films (directly about dreams or no: alternate worlds, game worlds, future and past worlds, movie-movie worlds) that have essentially aroused the same ideas, in some cases with a bit more fun, grit and exertion. There's more than a sniff of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ (yes games, but still), and a whiff of 1984's sci-fi adventure Dreamscape. Kathryn Bigelow skirted with dream-dealers in her 1995 film Strange Days (which had better "sleeper" agents in its crew, too, with a frazzled Ralph Fiennes and a kick-ass Angela Bassett in the mix); and of course staunch Matrix fans will see Inception as follow-on fuel. In some ways it's even oddly similar to the daft J-Lo movie The Cell, which at least prided itself on being all style and nothing else. But I guess we'll sit happy knowing that it's Nolan's latest all-encompassing opus, and his film will surpass all those on sheer evocation of high-end imagery and stored credit alone. Still, that gravity-defying hotel sequence was awe-inspiring - Nolan certainly knows how to draw us in with the odd extraordinary and perplexing image now and again.

25 August 2010

At the Cinema: The A-Team & The Expendables

The A-Team (Joe Carnahan/2010) USA/117 mins. ***** 
The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone/2010) USA/103 mins. *****

Take two collections of 1980s mercenary rogues, dust them off, tell them 2010 wants them, and plonk them in front of the cameras once again. In the case of one group (Saturday night telly staples) re-cast the wily old rapscallions with brand new actors to make The A-Team version 2.0; with the other collection (near-retirement-age action stars), observe the same battle-scarred hard bodies, but see how the faces have changed: The Expendables are ready for their close-ups, Mr Stallone. Their many close-ups. Their many, many close-ups.

Director Sly lovingly allows his grim-faced, yet still-rock-hard, action mates so many extreme facial shots that The Expendables at times looks like Abstract Expressionist portraiture; all nine resurrected action-cinema behemoths - many of whom have apparently surgically, or through years of battery (or both), re-arranged their visages once, twice, or thrice times since their heyday - are given ample opportunities to gurn up the limelight whilst they burn up the scenery. (I think Jason Statham was the only expendable still operating with his original face.) Top (old) action dogs Arnie and Bruce Willis drop by for a spell, but the're both clearly too wussy to commit to proper roles.

The faces are fresh in The A-Team but the wise-cracks are still older than the hills. There's plenty of back-slapping camaraderie though. Too much, you might say; smug in-jokes and meaningless banter mostly replace any decent one-liners or things like, oh, excitement. The only half-decent one-liner in The A-Team ("You know she's D.O.D.?" - "I don't care if she's G.O.D.!") is only actually funny for about three seconds after it's uttered. But as long as a few risible laughs get wedged as often as possible into the whole shebang these soldiers of (mis)fortune are quite content. At least some dialogue hits the mark - Sly proves that he really shouldn't write one-liners if no one is on hand to properly deliver them (Randy Couture and Jason Statham, I'm looking at both of you).

There should have been a bit of creative role swap across the the two films: Statham should have defected over to The A-Team and played Hannibal, for all the good Liam Neeson was - allowing Bradley Cooper, who would've fared better being expendable (in more ways then one), to hop sides and get pummelled by Dolph Lundgren. Although actually Sly could've done a bit of downsizing himself, for all the heart-pounding action some of his gang neglect to provide - particularly Jet Li and Randy Couture, who do plenty of... sitting around; they should have split off to create The Dispensables.

The A-Team quartet essentially ape their predecessors' tics and mannerisms, adding neither fresh charm nor cheer in the process. But then, that's by-and-large all they needed to do - nostalgic fanship is bargained on to do the rest of the work for them. But the surgically-realigned Expendables, despite, or because of, appearances, are perhaps a shade too much on the equable side (Terry Crews aside, who - it's crystal clear from his maniacal one-man-one-gun assault late in the film - certainly doesn't mess around when it comes to besting the opposition).

But how do The A-Team and The E-Team compare in the blowin'-shit-up stakes? Because - if truth be told - that's all anyone who goes to see either film is interested in. (The plots of both could easily be boiled down to: rough good guys get revenge on sneaky bad guys). Joe Carnahan has tongue firmly wedged in cheek on the former: he aims for the sublime and hits the ridiculous - a parachuting tank stunt is so Over the Top that Stallone could've arm wrestled it to the ground, and a game of 'which cup is the ball under', only played with shipping containers and humans, was a silly highlight. Sly tries to add a bit of gritty by attempting to place his near-pornographically-pitched explosion showcase within the perimeter of the enclosure within the bounds of the general area of believability by having his team fight political meglomaniacs of one kind or another. But indeed the all-out action scenes are the better moments in both films; Hannibal and crew's are high in green screen plasticity, Sly's less so - it's surely gotta be the real deal wherever possible with Stallone and co., after all.

Sly was surely betting on the easy appeal in re-grouping his stalwarts of kick-ass, but maybe he could have gone one better and cast a few stunt men and women in lead roles - thereby making a choicely cheeky allusion to his title and celebrating the true underdogs of action at the same time. If Tarantino managed it - with Zoe Bell in Death Proof - then surely Sly could've rustled up a few stunt friends. Many folk wondered where Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme were in Sly's line-up of usual suspects, but where, too, were the likes of Keith David, Cynthia Rothrock, Rowdy Piper, and even Grace Jones? An '80s foursome who, for my money, would have made The Expendables truly dependable.

22 August 2010

At the Cinema: The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom/2009) USA/109 mins *****

The hubbub surrounding The Killer Inside Me was to be expected - and to be duly taken with a hefty dose of deliberation. Although, in effect, the uproar over the film is part and parcel of its interest. A film like this shouldn't slip by unnoticed - and in today's net-savvy world a film like this never could. Films that portray brutal violence on screen should sear a visible mark on our screens and leave a socially-dubious skid mark on our brains.

Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of one of Jim Thompson’s darker, clammier novels follows small-town sheriff Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) as he weasels around 1950s dead-end Texas. He divides time between uber-violently mishandling both his girlfriend Amy Stanton (Kate Hudson) and hooker-mistress Joyce Lakeland (Jessica Alba), and mismanaging various shady comings-and-goings with other local authority figures; all the time becoming more and more haunted - via some handy flashbacks - by a traumatic event from his boyhood.

Thoughtful attention from various external sources (audience and festival reactions, press coverage, film-industry responses etc) assists in bringing a film to our attention and help to find it a bigger audience. But it's dividing the intelligent or worthwhile responses (looking at a film with good measure, placing it in a wider cinematic or social context) from the alarmist or knee-jerk responses (Oh-my-god-this-film-is-sick! - I therefore shall never see it!) that’s the tricky part of the equation.

The more level-thinking, reasonable adults who see this latest succès de scandale, the better. The debate around cinematic violence can then widen to take in fresh voices - some of them will undoubtedly be crucial, constructive and, hopefully, progressive. (Though of course some will certainly be Daily Mail ‘up-in-arms’ reactions over it all). The Killer Inside Me's frequent violent scenes are questionable, troubling and horrible; it’s compulsive, often difficult viewing. It is, to be blunt, just as it should be.

The extended scenes of brutality - most often aimed at the two women in the protagonist's life - don't leave much space for drawing clear breath over their arduous durations; they're queasily prolonged, upsetting and the kind of scene no-one really likes to have to think about, let alone watch, over many agonising minutes of screen time. (Several minutes last much longer than we often assume in the cinema).

Much of the film’s tone is ungraspable and strives to be putrid. One reading of the film could suggest that it all occurs within Lou Ford’s warped psyche; all - or at least most - crucial events could be filtered through his unreliable perspective, skewed as such by his psychotic fallibility. Another reading could infer that it's simply the way Winterbottom lays it out, that he’s simply umpiring a clever game of Shock the Audience. Either idea points to why the film is both intriguing and infuriating in (roughly) equal measure.

That tone wavers plenty, but there's perhaps no distinct purpose to much of the film. But then violence itself never really has a distinct purpose - it just happens. Those that inflict it may have their own reasons, however misguided or ill judged, but those who feel it see no justifiable reason. But by the end I was left only with a hazy impression of a sickened mind, nothing concretely compelling or solidly conveyed.

On more than one occasion I pondered the notion that it was notorious genre-hopper Winterbottom’s “go” at Film Noir: guns and girls go with the territory, and Thompson’s the go-to guy for questionable violence; mix the two together and - voilà! - an instant polemic for our consideration. (Thinking back to how rounded other less flashy, more naturalistic explorations of murderous men like, say, Vengeance Is Mine or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer were, The Killer Inside Me feels like too much stylistic posing, without interest in truly mining the ickiest recesses of a blackened mind.)

There's not much middle ground. What there is of it is narratively shaky, unstable; away from the shock scenes or moments of limpid exposition, very little happens that nudges things forward. Winterbottom’s attention to detail, and how he propels the plot along in the scenes not impregnated by the imminent possibility of eroticised menace, isn’t perhaps as assured as it is within the ones that are. But he is savvy enough to position his beacon scenes of high violence few and far between, therefore maximising their potential shock impact on the audience; we get due time to stew in our afterthoughts.

There’s scant interest in the character’s lives. How they practically and emotionally exist outside of Winterbottom’s need to see them either inflict pain, or react to it being inflicted, is largely absent. Merely positing that the violence is justified because it’s aroused via the sickest perspective in the room (as he has suggested in interviews), and therefore unable to be disentangled from his main character's particular viewpoint, sounds as if he’s setting a blaze and then leaping for the fire escape.

The reasoning (and explanation?) for all the murky visualisations of violence may reside somewhere between Ford’s and Winterbottom's gazes; character or interpreter, there’s a curious chasm for eisegesis between the two. I wasn't entirely sure whether the narrative's elusive tone was a clever device to nudge for critical responses or simply a whole lot of smoke to cover the fact that no one here may have had a concrete perspective.

Either way, it's the most intriguing stab at opening up the onscreen debate on film violence for at least a few years - and it’s one hornet’s nest that the media and the cinema-going public alike should have hit on a bit harder. (I seem to remember a bigger kerfuffle on the 2000 re-release of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; I was hoping for multiferous levels of Crash-like controversy.) For a polemic to really dig its nails into society, you want it front and centre, on everyone’s lips. The splash Killer has so far made hasn’t been as sizeable as it should have been. Whether it’s due to Winterbottom’s indetermination or a lack of interest in the problem it poses, it’s a film that at least invites us to ask hard questions.

On the acting side of things, Affleck was good - all lazy-eyed ugliness and contemptuous line delivery, as if he viewed everyone he met as scarcely worth wasting more than the bare essential of words on - but it’s very much an extension of his Robert Ford character from The Assassination of Jesse James... (In the world of fictive movie connectivity they might even be distantly related.) Alba and Hudson’s previously untapped willingness to branch out (both are more widely known for lighter rom-com fluff) means we get commendably intense work from them; both give generous performances for little in return. Although only Hudson is the right fit for ‘50s small-town noir.

The muggy atmosphere and lushly-detailed period trappings are a visual treat nonetheless. (DoP Marcel Zyskind lights the dank interiors and the wide-open landscapes with the same sweaty zeal; the grab bag of songs are cues of the creepiest kind.) But for my money The Grifters is still the best Jim Thompson adaptation, with a nod toward Maggie Greenwald's underrated The Kill-Off and Thompson's own dialogue work on The Killing.

20 August 2010

At the Cinema: Salt

Salt (Phillip Noyce/2010) USA/100 mins. *****

Angelina Jolie performs wonders with a very liberal sprinkling of kick-ass in Salt. In scene after scene it's all she does. Not that I'm complaining - the very idea of Jolie plowing through a city armed only with a How to Kick Ass & Do It Right manual and a gnarly pout was what lured me in. For well over a decade she's been trooping through a glut of action roles - two Lara Crofts, Gone in 60 Seconds, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Wanted - making short work of dispatching anyone who got in her way. Here, as CIA agent Evelyn Salt, she ramps up the damage up a notch or ten. If I were a henchman given orders to halt Salt, I'd sooner ask for my P45 than attempt to bring her down. So, you wanna blast your way through this office to freedom huh, Ange? Don't let me stop you - there's the door, kick it down and be on your merry way.

After a prologue and some very brief opening titles (who needs either to be long?) she's about to clock off for the day when a Russian defector wanders into her workplace with Soviet secrets to spill. Together with boss Liev Schreiber and counter-ntelligence head Chiwetel Ejiofor, she interrogates him only to find out that he's named her as a Russian sleeper agent set to - good gosh - destroy America by killing its top brass, including the president himself. Alarmed, and like a one-woman A-Team, she makes inventive use of all available wares - a table leg and fire extinguisher suffice nicely - to explode her way free. Then off she trots, with everyone in obligatory hot pursuit. Is she a secret spy? Is she innocent? Does it matter as long as she lays waste to anything and everything in the quest to prove or disprove either fact? Kevin Costner could find No Way Out back in '87 - he should have just stayed put and waited for Jolie to find it for him.

Furniture's not for sitting on, it's for constructing makeshift weaponry, says Salt

It's all very preposterous and incredibly daft. Is this a problem? Is it heck! There are implausibilities and plot holes bigger than her infamous lips, but if you're wasting time trying to spot them you're not watching what really matters: how many times, and how inventively, Jolie issues her smackdowns. She leaps from a trio of trucks during a high-speed chase, slides down a lift shaft (Jolie hasn't got time to press buttons!), and smashes her way out of no less than three buildings; she doesn't bring the roof down - that's been done before - she brings a floor down: that's how hard she is. I suspect she only runs up walls to gain a better vantage point to kick people in the face. The only time she walks anywhere is when director Phillip Noyce chooses to film in slow motion: gliding through the lower deck of a ship Jolie tosses out hand grenades as if she's casually spreading lawn seed - and to a thudding score last heard accompanying liquid Robert Patrick in Terminator 2.

Brunettes have more fun: which side is Jolie gunning for as Salt?

Noyce and cinematographer Robert Elswitt work well together to spotlight Jolie's striking visage. They know what their big draw is - their camera clearly loves her face. (She's given numerous close-ups when she needs to emote purposefully.) Indeed, she's very good at conveying the many moments of internal conflict required. Her character needs to keep us guessing as to who she really is, and Jolie duly retains a poker face throughout; it counteracts the occasional narrative or directorial slip up that - possibly unintentionally - reveals more than it at times needs to. There's also a dafter-than-daft scene where Jolie has to dress as a man (she's infiltrating!), which makes her look like a slightly-melted Tom Cruise waxwork - possibly a sly nod to him turning the role down when he was Edwin rather than Evelyn. Thank gladness he did - we don't need to see him running from Government Types and/or anyone and everyone so soon after last week's Knight & Day. And anyway, this feels entirely right as Ange's adventure.

I'm glad that Jolie's intermittent striking out as an action heroine still yields enjoyable results (Wanted aside). It's often far more refreshing to see a woman cut a dash on the action. I'm sure they'll be further Salty outings. Jason Bourne got sequels. Bond's mastered plenty of missions, and has been recently re-booted. The A-Team were dug up and dusted off a few weeks ago. Let's hope Jolie, Noyce and co. pass us the Salt a few more times. It's immense fun whilst it lasts.

19 August 2010

Can you articulate what you always search for in movies?

A question asked by Nathaniel R at The Film Experience.

It's a tricky question to properly and definitively grasp, let alone properly and definitively answer. But, without sounding like I'm sheepishly dodging the question (which, really, I guess I am), or attempting to be precious about it (which, really, I'm not), it's simply movies themselves. Everything they offer - everything they do and mean, all at the same time. Whatever that is. And of course it's personal: we're all searching for something that connects us to the pictures we see on screen.

It's unmissable movies. It's great movies. Good and merely OK movies. On occasion even terrible movies can have one or two moments of sheer brilliance in them. But it's just moving pictures themselves, projected in an evocative order - not necessarily A-Z - and played out for me in whatever sublime or messy form they choose to take (any genre, long, short, glorious colour, black & white, and so on - any and every which way they come). It's everything contained in the ongoing pleasure that each one might allow. Ongoing pleasure: key words, both.

But, in all honesty, it's something I don't really want to answer. If I knew what it was that I search for in movies, and how to articulate it fully, I may not watch any more. I'd have found the reason for doing something I cherish and have no need to continue to find out. And as far as I know, that ain't gonna happen any time soon. Gladly, the search will just have to continue.

So, see, I can't possibly come up with a good enough proper answer. And I'm thankful not to really be able to. The above cop-out points to this rather wholeheartedly. But, to try and be a good sport, and because such a question is worth a stab for any committed movie lover, here are the first five things that came to mind when I stopped trying to think of an answer (which, for now, will do me fine):

1. Mood mood mood
2. The thrill of images
3. A team of talented, exploratory folk who know their way around a camera
4. The given film's ability to grab the heart first, then the brain.
5. Zombies. Lots of them. (Grabbing at my heart and my brain!)

And, yes yes, of course all those wonderfully worthy, always-sought-after and meaningful things like art, truth, creative endeavour, memorable characters and the like. Throw those things in there, too.

But mainly it's the thrilling images and the zombies.

14 August 2010

Review: Permanent Vacation (Jim Jarmusch/1980)

Jim Jarmusch's debut feature Permanent Vacation, filmed in 16mm directly after he dropped out of film school, opens in eerie, memorable fashion: empty New York side streets, strewn with various oddments - wind-blown detritus, waving tramps, discarded products of life - are intercut with slow motion pedestrians (with normal-speed sound) walking busier mainstream streets. An ominous hum plays over these images - backed with discordant chimes and floating saxophone - offering the feel of a lost city, a nowhere zone, as if we're perhaps seeing The Big Apple's mouldy core just after some non-specific apocalyptic disaster. It's a transfixing start to Jarmusch's movie world. Then we settle into (what was to be) familiar Jarmusch territory. His first drifting, anti-leading man, Aloysius "Allie" Parker (Chris Parker), wanders the city fruitlessly, graffitiing slogans on walls, meeting various strangers - most of them savage innocents who are seemingly madder than a bag of cats (Richard Boes as a paranoid war vet, Frankie Faison laughing alone in a cinema lobby, John Lurie as the sax player, María Duval as a wailing Latin waif) - and pondering both the meaning and the meaninglessness of life: the two can often be read as the same with thing Jarmusch.

Much like his follow-up film, 1984's Stranger Than Paradise, and many more since this debut - particularly Night on Earth, Broken Flowers and his latest film, The Limits of Control - Jarmusch's primary interest is in the not-doing of things, the little nothing moments in life, and the characters - all stranger-than-strange like-minded souls - that pop up at intermittent junctures to spout often nondescript observations on life and/or culture. For me, it worked best in Down by Law, Dead Man and Mystery Train. Here, though, little of interest is said (Parker's opening and closing monologues are strained with vacant, though apt, pretension). But of course the journey to nowhere - any journey, anywhere vague - is what interests Jarmusch most. The film's title could just as well have been Permanent Stasis, so committed as he is (and was from the start) in repeating ideas and unvarying his chief thematic concerns.

Would his hardcore fans want it any other way? That's what he does, it's who he is: has there ever been a director so inextricable from his film work? The opening five-or-so minutes here are some of the most resonant and disquieting images he's put on screen - and I could see some of that strangeness infiltrate, still, the Spanish street imagery in Control. But after Vacation's 75-minute running time (though it feels longer) of aimless soul-searching, Parker seems none-the-wiser as to what he was after. But then, life-challenging realisations aren't what this drifting hipster is seeking. So to bemoan the film for its inaction may be to miss its point. Although, without much of interest doled out during its middle section I found it hard to care either way. But then the closing images, like the film's unworldly beginning, are another highlight: this time a long take of Manhattan Island, again accompanied by the weirdly beautiful sax-and-chimes score, seen from a departing ferry. We vacate from New York but Jarmusch's film remains motionlessness.

6 August 2010

Review: Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz/2009)

With Life During Wartime I've realised that Todd Solondz has become tiresomely near-irrelevant as a filmmaker. It's a joyless, visually ugly and entirely wearing film. It's full of arch dialogue, with no discernible point, that says little about the characters (the same bunch of socially-ill-adjusted blanks that he gave us in his 1998 film Happiness; to which Wartime is a kind of sequel) and more about how resolutely mischievous Solondz still desperately wants his audience to see him. (Read the plot outlines of both films here and here - it's convoluted task and would needlessly pad out the word count here.) The film goes nowhere interesting. It's largely made up of too many forcibly ironic conversations - all too often filmed in dry, uninspired two-shots - that go only part way in illustrating Solondz's not actually all that interesting overriding theme of the forgetting of past deeds and the idea of forgiveness attached to them.

Joyless: Ally Sheedy and Shirley Henderson respond in kind to a 
ghostly intervention from Pee Wee Herman in Life During Wartime

All but, I think, two characters in the film cry in various states of self-dissatisfaction, often with no overtly explicable reason to do so. (And they cry unconvincingly at that: whether the characters' crocodile tears were intentionally faux affectations, or whether the actors involved couldn't quite muster up the requisite sadness is a mystery.) Sure, their lives are pained, but, without someone having seen Happiness beforehand (and Solondz has to suppose that some audiences haven't), or due of the self-consciousness of the stilted, pretentious dialogue, it could be read as just a load of miserable fucks spouting ponderous nothings, all after an effect; and through this the thematic thread about forgiving and forgetting is all but lost.  

They launch into these teary hissy fits because Solondz prescribes that his characters must appear ironically traumatised at all times, and having them constantly wallow in their self-made woe is his desired way to emphasise this. He doesn't give them anything else to do. They're merely mouthpieces for his half-baked agenda. I didn't see any reason to actually care about them - nor why he felt compelled to bring them back from Happiness. But in taking further the tricksy casting in Palindromes, he reassigns new actors to play the same characters from the earlier film, perhaps because it was a way to inject some freshness to the retread. Or was it because the original actors too saw no reason to further the story? Whatever it was, everything points south to the redundancy of the concept.

Lifeless During Teatime: Allison Janney and Michael Lerner 
wonder quite who they're supposed to be playing

Charlotte Rampling's (as a barroom floozy) and Ally Sheedy's (as Helen, Lara Flynn Boyle in Happiness, now a flaky Hollywood screenwriter) scenes are entirely superfluous; nothing happens that's either funny, interesting or narratively relevant when they're on screen. Rampling, thanks to the awful photography, just looks like a melted Grim Reaper with terrible hair extensions; and Sheedy is given somnambulant dialogue, full of dated references, to drawl, but is disallowed any facial movement, or so it seemed. (She mentions her lover "Keanu" - Keanu? Topical digs at the much-maligned actor feel very early '90s to me.) The rest of the cast - save for Michael Lerner and Allison Janney as a lovestruck, but appropriately troubled, couple - are largely forgettable. Oh, but Solondz has Pee Wee Herman himself (Paul Reubens) pop up as a ghost: once in a restaurant, seemingly just to say the word 'cunt', as if him saying it is the holy grail of shock; and again... in a room full of Emmys - because, you know, it's like a critique of awarding bodies. Or Something. Solondz's satire has never felt so weak.

I've read various folk both online and in print (and spotted various poster quotes) mention the "dark, but hilarious comedy" of the film. But that's only true if comedy were a needle and the characters' neuroticism were the haystack. It's not worth poking around for laughs, dark or otherwise - there aren't any. Solondz only really has one story in him, and he's told it two or three times already. With Wartime he's proved that he has nothing much, or nothing new at least, left to say.

4 August 2010

Three Takes Only (Pt 2)

At times the post updates on here can be few and far between, but in the interim I'm often busying myself with my Take Three series over at The Film Experience. Here are more handy links, direct to the series posts, for instant perusal.

1 - 4 of the Take Three columns (Veronica Cartwright, Ben Foster, Thelma Ritter and Don Cheadle) are linked to in a post here. And the name links below take you to the other seven (with the three films I discuss) so far :

5. Miranda Richardson
Damage / The Crying Game / Spider

6. Jennifer Coolidge
Legally Blonde / The Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans / Best in Show

7. Radha Mitchell
Rogue / The Crazies / Finding Neverland

8. Peter Lorre
Stranger on the Third Floor / Casablanca / M

9. Kerry Washington
Our Song / The Dead Girl / Lakeview Terrace

10. Alan Arkin
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing / Little Miss Sunshine / various films (Arkin remix)

11. Anjelica Huston
Choke / Manhattan Murder Mystery / The Grifters

This Sunday it's Rosamund Pike. And quite likely to get the Take Three treatment soon are:

Grace Jones, Amanda Plummer, Christopher Lloyd, Alfre Woodard, Emily Mortimer, Margaret Dumont, Isaach De Bankolé, Michael Lerner, Jeff Goldblum, Anna Faris, Laurence Fishburne, Ruth Gordon, Dianne Wiest, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Kara Unger, Julie Walters, Anthony Mackie and Sterling Hayden. Plus many more lined up for the future.

3 August 2010

Tuesday Title: Lost Highway

Each Tuesday I post a still from the opening titles of a film - as a celebration of great title sequences, cinematic use of typography and the feeling of anticipation in waiting for a film to start...

Today: Lost Highway (David Lynch/1997)

Fade in on a fast POV view of a road at night. Car headlights illuminate the centre lines dividing the two sides of the road - a sly indication, perhaps, of the two distinct (but ultimately intertwined) narrative segments of Lost Highway, and the doubling theme employed - as ever -by David Lynch for his "21st Century horror noir".

The opening titles zoom at the screen in block yellow stencil type. David Bowie's 'I'm Deranged' cuts in: he sings, "Funny how secrets travel." We know Lynch loves his secrets. And of course he loves the open road - as long as it leads us somewhere dark and dreamy, and never, ever comes to an end.  

Lost Highway constantly splits off down warped avenues, to only then converge back to the staring point - though seen from different perspectives a second, third or fourth time. And then seemingly plays again and again - down the same road, but with infinite possibilities for careering off in further new directions.

We see just how secrets have traveled come the end of the film. Time has looped around, veered left and right (but never straight down the middle), and then doubled back on itself several times over. The opening titles become the closing credits: a visual repeat, but with significant and baffling alterations. Lynch's spectacular mindfuck brings back Bowie's song (more ethereal this time) to usher the film into desperate head-morphing oblivion. Lost Highway will always fascinate me - and its titles will always give me a thrilling jolt each time I watch them.

But maybe one of Lynch's naughtiest secrets is the fact that Lost Highway's opening titles are, in fact, very similar to Jack Cardiff's for his 1968 film Girl on a Motorcycle. (You can see the opening titles sequence for Girl on a Motorcycle at the excellent The Art of the Title website - scroll down to the second post, then scroll down slightly further to compare and contrast with Lost Highway's opening titles.) Lynch, you sly ol' dog.

This is the last Tuesday Title for a while. But it is...

1 August 2010

Anjelica Addendum: a few extra notes on Huston and The Grifters

My latest Take Three column over at The Film Experience (where each Sunday I write about three films/performances from a character or supporting actor or actress' career) is the wonderful and always watchable Anjelica Huston. As an addendum, a supplementary addition to the column, I wanted to post up a few tidbits and pictures that I didn't include there; a few things I liked and wanted to make mention of, but that would've made the piece longer than it already is. In my research I came across many fantastic images of Huston that I hadn't seen before and, through looking further into The Grifters (1991) in particular, there were some further thoughts I wanted to share. 

This enticing image below - a publicity shot for The Grifters - captures the right mood and feeling of Huston's character, Lilly Dillon. It perfectly echoes the film's screenwriter Donald E. Westlake's description of Lilly in his second draft (March, 1989) of the film's script: '39 but looking younger, beautiful but cold and watchful'.

The two actions that Lilly is most often seen doing in the film are smoking and making phone calls; she's constantly angling for quick deals - weighing up the odds for a fix - whilst furiously dragging on a cigarette on the go. She's jittery and apprehensive for much of the film; but at other times she switches gear into hard-case-Lilly mode, to aggressively scold someone or exchange 'don't-fuck-with-me' glares with various periphery characters. Lilly's a vulnerable woman, fighting her corner each step of the way. She nervously veers from one encounter to the next in an attempt to get herself out of an assortment of tricky situations. She exhibits a stallion-like composure; underneath it all she could bolt at any minute.

The Grifters' director Stephen Frears often shoots Lilly almost pushed to the edge of the film frame. It's a directorial decision that visually emphasises how she tries to secret herself from the dangerously chaotic world around her. It enhances how she attempts to evade detection and insists on minding her own business - that's when she's not minding the business of others. She's shot like a displaced Edward Hopper subject as seen through cinematographer Oliver Stapleton's inky, noirish camerawork. (Stapleton also brought a similar noir tint to Altman's 1996 film Kansas City.)

I think Frears and Stapleton's perceptive, implied nod toward Hopper's more famous, and much cinematically referenced, paintings is far subtler, intrinsic and deftly utilised than many of the directors who have taken influence from him, especially in the case of, say, Wim Wenders' self-conscious mimic of Hopper's 1942 painting 'Nighthawks' in his film The End of Violence (1997), below. Wenders is commenting on the Hopper painting (note the camera present, the film-within-a-film angle), but his blatant evocation of it loses something in the process; by directly referencing Hopper's work the nod is then just a straight-up acknowledgement of influence. He's merely idly creating parody, instead of tantalisingly arousing the feel of the painting, or what it might mean, into the film's world - which is what Frears and Stapleton achieve in The Grifters.

They understand that a retro- or neo-noir film has to set up and inhabit its own world fully, and that an homage only adds to, and doesn't define, the overall effectiveness of a given shot in their film. In the scene in The Grifters above (when Lilly, drinking coffee and taking time out from the grift, is rudely interrupted by, and has an altercation with, a pushy tramp) Hopper's sensibility is present and is as discernible as it is easily recallable. But his influence doesn't overcome either the visual composition or the ideas and feelings that Frears wants to impart or arouse in the audience.

The image above, of Lilly sitting on a hotel bed putting on make-up as she casually glances at a TV screen, readying herself for a particularly crucial encounter, again refers to both Hopper (albeit less so than in the diner scene) and elements of classic Film Noir. But isn't necessarily defined by, or in too much awe of, either reference. And in one brief shot a lot about who Lilly is is revealed.The loneliness, personal private sloppiness and almost regal posture speak volumes about her inner life.

Another way Lilly is shot throughout the film - again it's a particular but often overused directorial attribute in framing shots, though, in my view, not by Frears in The Grifters - is through visual barriers: whether it's with the horizontal lines of venetian blinds (when Lilly visits her son Roy in hospital, below top) or the concertina grid of an elevator shutter (in the film's penultimate shot, below bottom). Such visual divisions, positioned between the character and the viewer, often tend to depict a character as held within their own personal prisons, or perhaps trapped in situations somewhat of their own making.

This idea is somewhat applicable to Lilly, but, more than overstating the commonplace use of these barriers, Frears and Stapleton - and, of course, Huston - show how Lilly is actually forever an outsider looking in (as much as she's an insider on the look out), a woman kept distant from those around her. She's less in a trap than sealed off behind visual obstructions, especially in relation to her son, Roy. Lilly is of the harsh and bruised world of Jim Thompson's The Grifters, but she is also a secluded mother and always at a remove from what she ultimately wants. The allusion to Lilly's interior self is expressed beautifully by Huston in the eternally capricious way she looks at others on screen.

But one of Frears' best allusions/shot references (in regard to that penultimate image of Huston in the elevator, above) is to an image of Mary Astor as femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941). (Note: also in the piece at The Film Experience I make mention of how Frear's depiction of Lilly reaches back through nearly 40 years of noir filmmaking to somewhat chime with Gloria Grahame's character Debby Marsh in Fritz Lang's 1953 noir, The Big Heat.) Of course John Huston was Anjelica's father, and this choice and pertinent noir reference is perhaps the best in The Grifters. There's a plethora of rich and varied pulp-noir lineage nicely contained in Frear's film. One reason of many why it endures as a splendid example of '90s retro-Noir.

Now just for the hell of it, and because the images are some of the best I've seen of Huston, here are some amazing photographs from early on in her career, when she was a model: