Wednesday, April 27, 2016

jane got a gun: it ought to have been a woman's movie


(2015. dir: Gavin O'Connor) The question you ask yourself almost constantly during this uninspired oater is in how many crucial ways it might have differed had Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin, Morvern Callar) directed it, as was originally planned. The visuals would have been less traditionally pretty, there might have been longer pauses and silences, and we hopefully would have got inside the head of Jane (Natalie Portman) instead of viewing her story in a general way through the eyes of her men. (Portman's best moment, when she reacts to the news that her daughter has been murdered, is devastatingly good, but we watch it at a double remove: in flashback, and through the eyes of her future husband.) The bad guys might have owned some heft, instead of being villainous cardboard cut-outs painted in broad streaks of jet black-heartedness.

Starting with a lame-assed title, the script feels like a draft-horse compiled piecemeal by committee, sometimes plodding gamely, often barely limping so that you cringe at its agonizing hobbledness, never reaching a full canter. Everything is a revelation to everyone, like in a soap opera. Although her old fiance has lived for at least two years in the same swath of prairie, it is news to her that he tracked her halfway across the country after his release from Andersonville, as if she'd assumed they ended up so close by accident.

Swelly strings poison the score and Jane becomes the usual, ass-kicking bad girl we so often see today, but only when her traditional role is evoked: she fills her bad guy full of lead when he dares to keep her child's whereabouts from her. As in many mediocre Westerns, gunshot injuries taken by good guys tend to heal rapidly and without ill effect (she's gut-shot, a terrible wound to take, but in the next scene there's no sign of repercussion). The small details are wrong (when Joel Edgerton's Dan is shaming her over her lack of prowess firing a pistol, she proves her worth with a hunting rifle by destroying the handle of the firewood-chopping ax. In real life, that ax is worth something, and you don't use it for target practice when you can use a hunk of firewood just as easily). The ending is awful and one assumes Ramsay would have kept no truck with it: Jane and her long-estranged true love, now reconciled, head off into that Manifest Destiny called California with their pair of sweet-faced daughters (one of whom has been raised in a whorehouse but is seemingly still virgin and undamaged), a ready-made nuclear family, rich with bags of gold from bounties on the heads of the cretinous dogs they overcame in their own private war, and now ready to live the American Dream.

I do like that Edgerton is so homely. It's nice that homely men get to play romantic leads. I have a dream that one day homely women will be able to play leads, too, like they do sometimes in English movies. When they need a homely woman in Hollywood, they cast Hilary Swank and stick a pair of spectacles on her perfectly-chiselled face.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

swerve: australian desert noir

(2011. dir: Craig Lahiff) Swerve opens with a static, aerial shot of a three-tined, forked road, announcing its theme: one's Ineluctable Destiny. Why destiny, and not, say, the vagaries of fortune, which a three-tined road might easily connote? Something in the unblinking, unflinching way the camera stays put upon the image, and the unthinking, reckless way the tiny, dark car speeds forward along it, not toward the forks, but to the convergence.

We spend the next several minutes wordlessly with three separate drivers, all mad to reach some unknown destination, all headed straight for one another. Colin (David Lyons) we meet nursing his broken car at the roadside next to a sign gleefully advertising "the Neverest Hotel". The first words we hear are his: "give me a break," he mutters as he futzes with the radio, and that could be written on his tombstone. He's our hapless hero, not passive or weak, but a man absurdly, wonderfully honest in a dark, Faustian world. The second driver is speeding away from a violent drug deal with a suitcase full of colorful Australian money, and the third is Gina (Emma Booth), our femme fatale, going someplace fast, a place which never gets any more specific than "away from here".

One of the best things about this movie is that we never do settle just how fatale our femme is. Certainly she's out for herself, clever to a point of deviousness, used to bartering her sexuality for survival, battered to a point from which she can slip easily into a cold, near-sociopath state when forced into a corner. She's obviously not always telling the truth, but you can see she is when she looks sidelong at one of Colin's accusatory questions and says, "You won't believe me no matter what I say." Maybe this is what defines a femme fatale: a woman who trusts money over love and divorces her heart from her sexuality, using her charms as currency. Ultimately, perhaps, a woman who cannot trust a man, even our hero, whom we, from our privileged catbird seats, know without doubt is worth the extra effort. In the usual, noirish tradition, she's got a problematic husband (Jason Clarke as a corrupt cop and a wife-beater) and, once the instigating car-crash is done, there's that noir-necessary suitcase full of money to be chased and recovered and batted about, followed with shark-like tenacity by a cold-blooded assassin.

The most wonderful thing, and it is marvellous, is how Lahiff so often gives us unvoiced images to tell the story: a bathing suit abandoned at the bottom of a pool, a banknote used as a coaster and soaked with beer. It all ends with a return to the Neverest Hotel bar, and the barman telling that old tale about the Ineluctablity of Fate: the one about the guy who meets Death in Baghdad and runs away to Samara to avoid her. (Spoiler: it doesn't work.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

the female gaze: a sofia coppola double feature

the Virgin Suicides: (1999) *SPOILER ALERT* Right out of the gate, Coppola gives us a film so perfect, so gorgeous and hypnotic, so evocative of difficult truths about the darkness of adolescence, that if she were Harper Lee, everyone would say that Truman Capote wrote it. It's like Huston with the Maltese Falcon: the skills and mastery, and, more dumbfoundingly, the self-assurance, are already there on the maiden voyage.

In fact, this may be her best film to date. In subsequent ventures, she keeps hold of the skills, the imaginative and varying use of technique, the great framing, the inspired casting, a flair for period detail, the flawless choice of music, but she loses the strong backbone found in a great story. This is the only one sprung from a strong novel (by Jeffrey Eugenides), and she's translated it brilliantly into her own vernacular. In her following ventures, the stories will be more fluid, drawn from biography (Marie Antoinette) or from current events (the Bling Ring). Even Lost in Translation, so beloved by many, sees any greatness emerge not from strength of story but from the chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, between Johansson and Coppola, and between Coppola and Tokyo.

The Virgin Suicides brings to life a sleepy suburb in a late '70s summer, the lazy, mesmeric soundtrack slapping up against an impending sense of doom symbolized by the sickness of the trees in every yard, and the felling notices posted to them. The mystery at the film's heart, the crippling malaise which pulls the girls to their deaths, is never addressed outright, as the boys who grew up obsessing over it never figured it out themselves. Coppola gives us glimpses enough, though: the oldest sister tossing off a comment about being "raffled off" among the football players as Homecoming dates, the youngest sister counting the number of species declared extinct in the year. After the "stone fox" Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is courted, seduced, and abandoned by the school's heartthrob-stoner Trip (Josh Hartnett), she becomes addicted to rousing male desire. The boys who idolize these girls, including Trip, interviewed as an adult in rehab (Michael Pare), use the memory of them to keep alive a dream of romance, whereas the girls themselves have discovered the rot of impossibility at its core.

Marie Antoinette: (2006) Coppola has a strong vision, along with the confidence and technical prowess to display it rather wonderfully before us. That vision, as communicated here, seems to be about how much fun it is shopping, partying, giggling and gossiping with one's girlfriends, and gleaning affection from ugly little lap-dogs when it can't be found from one's husband or in one's surroundings.

As the movie continues, at its own, assured pace, the question seems to become a phenomenological one: what really is worth one's effort? All the agony Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst again) undergoes to master the absurd niceties of the French court and to bear the requisite children, and yet we are in the privileged position of knowing that all her successes will come to nothing. What, then, is worthwhile? She eventually achieves the affection and sex she wants from her husband, finds sexual passion with a Swedish soldier, and some simple contentment in amateur theatricals and on her own miniature farm. Her passion results in nothing but memory, her girl-friendships come across as ultimately shallow and worth very little, and even her final, noble gestures, like standing by her husband when she might still bolt for safety, or bowing before the slavering mob, they both seem, in the end, without much merit beyond the symbolic.

So Coppola isn't giving us a clear answer, unless it's that the journey is the point, and the destination always death, one way or another. Truth be told, she seems to lavish the most attention on the buying of shoes and wearing of fineries, as if that is where her heart really lies.

She has such magnificent abilities, in other words, and apparently no story worth telling.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

safe haven: they got the ghost thing wrong


(2013. dir: Lasse Hallstrom) Welcome to Nicholas Sparks' world, where destiny guides wounded soul-mates across untold miles to find guaranteed and unadulterated bliss gazing into one another's eyes. Where dead folks walk around in corporeal bodies to act as guardian angels, bringing the recalcitrant (because I've been so hurt before!) lovers together.

(OK, answer me this: if you found out that your good friend and confidante was actually your new lover's dead wife... first of all, did it seem strange to you that nobody else ever saw her but you? How is it you never actually mentioned your new best friend to your lover or anyone else in the tiny, tiny fishing village in which you now live where everyone knows everyone? But, OK, let's say you didn't, and now you get to the point where the truth is revealed: your best friend is, indeed, the beloved, dead wife of your new love. Do you, as they do in Nicholas Sparks world, say, "Ah, the universe is working in total harmony to guide me into new love and happiness! Sunshine and roses all around." Or is it more likely you'd be like, "Holy FUCK! DEAD people are WALKING AROUND. I could have reached out and touched her. She sat in my freaking KITCHEN, man. I'm going to scrub everything with antiseptic. Maybe I should hang rosaries? Does that only help if you're Catholic?" Seriously, if you had verbal and continuing intercourse with a dead person, it would change everything about the way you lived. It would pull the rug out from beneath so many certainties that we hold to be self-evident that you would no longer be able to live in the world in the same glib, unthinking way we take for granted. Plus, everyone would decide you're crazy, because that's just easier than having to rethink one's entire paradigm. So no sunshine and roses for you, Petunia.

Along those lines, look at this: you've finally escaped your abusive husband, a man so fixated on tracking you down and reclaiming you that he destroyed his life to do it. You escaped him by turning his own gun against him and watching him bleed out on the dock in front of your new boyfriend's waterfront home. Once the universe has provided incontrovertible proof that the human personality survives death, proof in the form of an ex-wife so driven by love for her family that she could not let go the mortal coil until she saw them safely fitted with an appropriate help-meet, how are you ever going to sleep again, waiting for that ex-husband to come back? If love drives a ghost to solid actions on the physical plane, what will grasping, compulsive hatred do? How are you ever going to look in a mirror again without dreading to see his veangeful grin over your shoulder? I believe I can say with some certainty that your nights of peaceful sleeping are over.)

The ghost business (which obviously Sparks didn't think through properly) aside, the big shock here is that this romantic claptrap is actually pretty good, if you can withstand the hogwasheries that crush the truth from almost any Hollywood romance. Hallstrom has a handle on it, using music and editing to particular advantage. The leads are good enough company (I'm always surprised that Josh Duhamel is as good as he is, I guess because he always makes movies I could care less about), and there's a tense subplot that keeps the thing moving. In fact, the two best things about it are the way Hallstrom tricks us, in a good way, into thinking the she-hero's back-story is different than it actually is, and the reveal is ultimately very satisfying. The other thing is David Lyons' outstanding performance as an obsessed cop. This guy generally does network television, so we hardly ever get to see him at his best, but he really shows his colors here, and he's fantastic. My favorite is the moment when he says, "I found you." It's, all at once, heart-breaking and bone-chilling.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

a flawed triple feature: big driver, the goonies, the spanish prisoner

Big Driver: (2014. dir: Mikael Salomon) Stephen King doesn't seem to like humans, and that may be partly why his short stories generally make suck-ass movies. He uses the page as a place to take revenge on the humans he so dislikes. This protagonist (Maria Bello) is a successful writer of mysteries, allowing King to vent some spleen on faux-fans who disrespect his writing and the annoyingly cheery organizers of book-signings, and, like most Stephen King ventures, this one is peopled by characters who are both unrealistic and unlikable. It most resembles the execrable Johnny Depp vehicle Secret Window in that the bulk of it finds its hero conversing with not very interesting voices inside her head. There's awful, relentless violence (a rape and murder attempt) then a lot of cartoonish revenge-violence which finds itself turning on some pretty big coincidences (thank God the guy she murdered who she thought was innocent turned out to be, in fact, guilty as hell! Dodged a karmic bullet there). Maria Bello, being a Sexy Woman of a Certain Age, obviously has limited choice of roles now, and I can see why she chose it. In spite of her good work, it still mostly sucks.

the Goonies: (1985. dir: Richard Donner) This is mainly a reboot of the second Indiana Jones movie, the one that had no real plot but played like a roller coaster ride, repackaged as an adventure for little kids. It gave rise to some kids who went on to great things: Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, Martha Plimpton. Apparently it's a hoot if you're eight years old, but, except for a nostalgia trip, I wouldn't recommend wading into its insipid waters if you're a single day older than that.


the Spanish Prisoner: (1997. dir: David Mamet) As a kid, I thought "Mission: Impossible" was a brilliant show. Their capers were airtight, flawless, ingenious. If you watch it as an adult, you see there are mack-truck-sized plot-holes, incredible serendipities, and an absurd reliance on luck to win the day.

That's kind of the Spanish Prisoner's thing: a flawlessly clever web of evil is woven in assured, conspiratorial silence around our hapless hero (Campbell Scott), and he is so passive, so easily led, that he only makes two real choices throughout the entire, twisty course of the story which are not nets carefully laid out for his very predictable step. The trouble with a cliff-edge thriller in which every smallest plot-point turns out to be a crucial cog in a vast machine of maleficience is that even a single coincidence cannot be allowed, even one "fudge" rouses a fury of skepticism. (Like: how did they switch the notebook? We're looking at it the whole time. And why does our hero randomly question the resort about their security footage? When he accidentally runs across the Rich Guy's car, why does he sleuth him out to the hidden car lot, a piece of enterprise entirely out of character for our guy?) In fact, the ongoing passivity of our hero makes him exasperatingly unlikable. We want, by the end, to throw him over for a version who's going to make a choice now and then.

Still, Mamet takes nice care with the details, like an opening shot in an airport warning folks not to carry bags for other people. And you could make a drinking game out of every quirky turn which will later return to haunt our guy: when the Rich Guy jokingly creates a Swiss bank account in his name (because THAT happens every day and never rouses suspicion), or when the Rebecca-of-Sunnybrook-Farm secretary-with-a-crush says, "You can never tell about people. Except me. I'm just what I seem to be." Warning bells clang there. Or, let's face it, when he leaves his bloody fingerprints all over a murder scene. Has this guy never watched television?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

double feature from the forties: the set-up and ladies in retirement

the Set-Up: (1949. dir: Robert Wise) After Body and Soul, this is the best boxing movie ever. Robert Ryan is brilliant, his broken face shining with doomed optimism. It's a black and white world set in the ass-end of the city, the part where Hunsecker and Falco never dare to venture, a city carved out of noir lighting. It pulses with sweat and neon, it beats to the sounds of blowsy music spilling from too-bright doorways, punctuated by bursts of too-loud laughter and the occasional train roaring from an unexpected tunnel. It's the kind of world where a girl making out with her beau on a fire escape cackles when she sees you creeping along the alleyway below, callously oblivious to your crumbling world. The camera moves smoothly, and the story moves smoothly, with the feeling of destiny unspooling like malevolent silk.

And a supper of a hamburger, two cans of vegetable soup and two bottles of beer costs a buck sixteen, tax included, at which Audrey Trotter grumbles, "You oughtta throw in a floor-show for that."

Ladies in Retirement: (1941. dir: Charles Vidor) You forget how really good a screen actress Ida Lupino is. She photographs well, and so trusts the camera to pick up on subtleties. This is a play adapted to screen, which is generally a bore, and doesn't work here any better than usual. Still, Vidor ratchets up the Gothic with moments of near-Expressionist use of chiaroscuro, the grotesquerie of extreme close-up to convey unnatural emotion, and the age-old trick of setting the story in an eternally fog-enshrouded cottage on the moors.

The story is moth-eaten: a woman caring for her two nutso but harmless sisters kills the selfish ex-whore who refuses to open her house to the annoying and demanding women, taking over both her house and income. Complication ensues with the entrance of the family's caddish nephew, who susses out the situation and tries to wrest control to his own advantage. Edith Barrett and even the redoubtable Elsa Lanchester are annoying and cliched as the two mad sisters, but Louis Hayward is rather good as the faux-cockney nephew. He's like Dan Duryea, only less so; Duryea would have been slightly more clownish, and therefore also more terrifying in moments of truth.

It's good for visuals; it's good in moments. The old-fashioned story, though, with its outdated morals, barely translates across 75 years' worth of paradigm shift. Is this retired prostitute really obligated to take on unpaying boarders just because she earned her money through looseness of character rather than more socially acceptable channels, like inheriting from a dead husband? Is she really, as the Lupino character posits, responsible for those less fortunate than herself, even when they don't respect civilized boundaries? In other words, does she really deserve to die because she's not Dorothy Day?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

misogynist double feature: one deadly summer and cold in july

One Deadly Summer: *SPOILER ALERT* (1983. dir: Jean Becker) The French (in decades past, anyway. I'm not sure they persist, as I've given them, for the most part, up) have loved to give us films about a gorgeous woman who is so crazy, so entirely ratfucked by neurosis, that she is sexually available (although never emotionally so) to even the homeliest man who exhibits a little persistence. The trade-off is that by the end of the film his life will be ruined, but what sex he will have until then! What wonderful obsession! "She was too wild," this particular fellow admits, resigned, in the end, "too animal." Ah, yes. We are to be feared and tamed, we women. We must learn this lesson from the French, over and over, it seems.

No one is better than Adjani at playing crazy, even different kinds of crazy. I'm trying unsuccessfully to think of a film in which she plays a normal person. It's just not her place in the French zeitgeist. And this kind of crazy, this kaleidoscope-shifting from spoiled brat to careless seductress to terrified innocent to stalking predator, she's a master. When she makes the shift into genuine little girl, you'd swear she really was ten years old. When she squints, you'd swear she really was badly near-sighted. The brilliance of Adjani, though, doesn't excuse this movie. Rape is a plot-point in many French films from that time, and Becker does not shy from showing it to us. Indeed, there is a certain Gaspar Noe-ish voyeurism about the whole venture.

The movie begins inside the head of the smitten fellow (ridden by lust, not by love), and I nearly turned it off, mad at having been suckered into thinking I'd be watching a movie about a woman, instead finding just another movie about a man's image of a woman and how he manipulates her into his bed. About a half hour in, though, the narrative voice jumps, without warning, from his head into hers, and then into her mother's, then his aunt's, etc. It's a bold device, albeit lazy, since a better director might be showing us these things instead of spelling them out diegetically. This little girl's craziness has its roots in the tragedy which her mother survived, a rape which fathered her, but the issue is not really between mother and daughter (although the 20-year-old still finds solace at her mother's breast. Yes, we get to watch it. The French will do anything to titillate you, if you're a heterosexual man) but between her and the father who adores her and yet will not give her his name since she is not of his loins. This seemingly minor reluctance on the part of an otherwise loving father creates in the little girl an unbridgable abyss, resulting in a psychotic episode on her part which changes all their lives forever.

And so we have that enigmatic, French thing: a film about a woman who is unbearably strong, in that she single-handedly ruins the lives of everyone around her, and unutterably weak, her desperation for father-love finally driving her into the patriarchal hands of the insane asylum, where she can, finally, relax.

Cold In July: (2014. dir: Jim Mickle) This is a good movie. It's an interesting story well-told. Sam Shepard gives his wonderful, dry, interesting line readings, and shares a good buddy-chemistry with Don Johnson. Michael C. Hall is convincing as our everyman, and I love all things Nick D'Amici.

I tell you what I'm done with, though: movies that use the bodies of nubile young girls, non-characters, not allowed to speak, not allowed to wear more clothes than a Victoria's Secret model, they use these girls in scenes meant simultaneously to rouse up dicks and rationalize the self-righteous blood-bath which will follow, laying waste to the bad guys. They say it's in the name of justice for these ravaged girls, but really it's about movies wanting to titillate men with rape scenes then titillate them some more with bloody, righteous massacres. And I'm getting to the point at which I'm done with that, no matter how well done it is.