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Paul Thomas Anderson
TOP 20 FILMS
Throne of Blood (1954, Kurosawa)
High and Low (1963, Kurosawa)
The Godfather (1972, Coppola)
Annie Hall (1977, Allen)
Raging Bull (1980, Scorsese)
Do the Right Thing (1989, Lee)
GoodFellas (1990, Scorsese)
Schindler's List (1993, Spielberg)
Deconstructing Harry (1997, Allen)
Boogie Nights (1997, Anderson)
Magnolia (1999, Anderson)
Saving Private Ryan (1998, Spielberg)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Spielberg)
25th Hour (2002, Lee)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004, Gondry)
Children of Men (2005, Cuaron)
The Lives of Others (2006, Von Donnersmarck)
No Country For Old Men (2007, Coens)
Atonement (2007, Wright)
There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson)
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"I guess I love you too."
What makes Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer so harrowing, so numbing, is the absence of any judgment of the characters. The film was shot on 16mm film in one month's time for $110,000 in 1985. It did not premiere until 1990, and became one of a handful of international independent films to instigate the NC-17 rating. It does not contain buckets of blood, nor is it particularly explicit sexually. It is, from any and every angle, an omniscient portrait. Two naked women are shown dead, having already been brutally murdered, one in a field and the other in a bedroom, while a troubled man named Henry drives around Chicago. We hear their screams. All we see are their mangled bodies. That is all we need. And it is stomach-churning.
Itinerant Henry and his prison buddy Otis are cold-blooded and chillingly casual murderers. Played by gravelly character actor Michael Rooker, Henry never appears or behaves like anyone out of the ordinary. We get the sense that he hardly ever thinks about murder, except for when he does it. As for Otis, played by the imposing Tom Towles, think of when you smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, versus one after your morning coffee and one after dinner. Think of the discipline and organization inherent in the latter. That's Otis's problem kind of, only he's not just the one pack a day, he's about five and the tobacco is laced with children's tears. That's why he truly brings out the things about individuals we never see. He does many unforgivably monstrous things here, but he still manages to go about his business without remorse or fear of getting caught, so we presume he's just a good ol' boy with a short fuse. And he is; he just goes a few steps further than most.
Portrait is not about the thin line between good and evil. Portrait sees no line. There are innumerable films about serial killers. It is a permanent fixture in the Middle American zeitgeist. We fear them, so we turn them into our own bloodthirsty entertainment. They have become mythology for us to use in order to take our morbid curiosities and sadistic fantasies out for a safe spin. Even after this definitive film on the subject, it is not often that a movie dares to portray the real ones, unmitigated by thriller tropes.
John McNaughton and his late collaborator Richard Fire do not feel the need to pigeonhole or explain them, not just as movie characters but as people. Without a frame of compromise, McNaughton defies the hankering to pump up the volume, to frame Henry in chiaroscuro or Otis with Dutch angles. When most human beings see the things that Henry and Otis actually go through with---feeling no other rationale, it would seem, than that it's simply something for them to do---our immediate reaction is to ask how someone could do such things, and why. As Nick Nolte says as a homicide detective in Ole Bornedal's 1997 thriller, "Even when we catch the killer, they wanna know the how and why."
That character would agree with McNaughton and Fire that people like Henry and Otis, are well beyond the need to justify what they do. What explanation could there be for slaughtering an entire random family, while recording the whole incident on a camcorder to then watch it later with the blank beer-chugging catatonia of watching an inning of baseball? Horror films, though designed to scare us, are also designed to make us feel safe. The killer was humiliated by his quarries in high school, or has split personality disorder. This film is not a horror film. Explanations are just a fiction to make us feel safe. This film does not have explanations. It has events, key moments in the lives of guys who like to drink beer, smoke weed, hang out with Otis' sister and kill random strangers.
The Harvest (2013)
A Sense of Place, a Return to Form
I am always more compelled when a story unfolds in an implicit fashion, as when John McNaughton's first feature film since 2001, The Harvest, opens on an incident that is not fully elucidated until several subsequent scenes contrast it with their own stakes and dimensions. We are kept in an ongoing state of anticipation by a patiently, implicitly unfolding story. Most movies feel more of a need to hit an overt, straightforward formula of beats, but what seasoned, patient filmmakers like John McNaughton are willing to hold out for is a contained, clear-cut storytelling style that slow-burns through on the way to pure and constant surprises.
Certain aspects of McNaughton's technique deliberately old-fashioned, and however that befits your tastes, it is that unhurried confidence that allows acutely poignant relationships to pop. There is something refreshingly and uncomfortably profound about the way the fearfully unpredictable Samantha Morton, as the mother of wheelchair-bound Andy, undermines his father, played with tangible vulnerability by gifted Steppenwolf alum Michael Shannon, her fears pushing her to antagonize those nearest and dearest, lashing out with keen cruelty to deflect her vulnerability, and tragically poisoning the already precarious atmosphere around her.
The Harvest, it should be made abundantly clear, is an acutely Midwestern film. You can feel it in its sentiment, in its traditional form, and in its piercing portrayal of awkward lulls and that apple pie sense of manners and politeness. Its center aim is on families and upbringing, and more specifically on the crippling feeling of being sheltered and living in a bubble. And as it unfolds into more psychotic territory, the more adult terror of being alone rears its ugly, ruining head.
Every viewer who grew up in Middle America had friends whose parents they despised. And we all remember the seemingly mortal fear of getting in trouble. The discomfort and suffering in this movie are palpable, owing to the powerfully subtle performances, the delicate direction and the knowing script, but also owing to its powerful sense of place. And when things take a harrowing turn, we're so engrossed that the tension never stops. And even at its most "sensational," it always keeps its feet on the ground dramatically.
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
A Deeply Moving Portrait of Mob Mentality
I sat down on a day off to browse the streaming content on Netflix. The Passion of the Christ appeared. I hadn't seen it since 2004, and I was compelled to revisit it by my acknowledgment of the fact that times have changed so much that such an inflammatory movie event is now something you can watch on your laptop while sitting on the toilet. When I first saw it, I was 16, a casual viewer with ADHD and a gore hound. I went to an arts school full of liberal hipsters. My interest was piqued by the notorious level of ultra-violence in the film, and rented it from Blockbuster despite the equally notorious allegations of anti-Semitism attached to the film.
Eleven years later, as a 26-year-old atheist and movie buff with staunch liberal views, I still don't see a referendum on Jews. I still don't see a guilt trip about what Jesus did for me. But I also don't merely see an exploitative gore fest. I see a portrait of mob mentality at its most primal. Neither the Jews nor the Romans are portrayed as monoliths; several centurions are outraged by the unabashed sadism of their colleagues, and while it can be argued that the Jews when portrayed as a group are viciously vindictive, the individual Jewish characters range from prototypical Old Testament zealots to compassionate but helpless characters who suffer along with the eponymous victim.
I am aware that the proof is in the pudding in regards to Mel's view of the Jewish people, not to mention multiple other long-established prejudices of his. Still, I never did, and still do not, see this film as anti-Semitic, but in fact quite the standard depiction of Christ's execution according to the Christian faith. This is the story we were all taught in church, whether you honestly believe he rose from the dead or not. If you are like me, you will see it for the mythology that it is, a legendary fable of a great ancient leader's martyrdom, much like another great cinematic epic by Gibson, Braveheart, which similarly shows a well-intentioned man in one of human history's most brutal eras summoning his people to take on the fascistic compulsions of their cruel overseers, and nobly accepting an awfully unenviable price for it.
I doubt it's the intention of a die-hard Christian like Gibson, or the remotest interpretation of many of the ideological folks for whom the film's release meant so much, to emphasize the universally relevant bandwagon effect of the masses that played a seminal role in the savage butchery of Jesus, but I suspect many atheist and agnostic viewers are moved by that theme. After all, it's the religious intolerance of the Jerusalem establishment that led to the breakthrough discipline of his teachings, and thus his indictment. It was the authoritarian influence of the Roman Empire that enforced that zealotry and allowed such sadism to strengthen the loyalty of brutal henchmen.
There are many people I respect who dislike this movie because they feel that the explicit particulars of Jesus' torture make it too unpleasant to bear and eclipse any message it's attempting to send. I don't understand that viewpoint. The message is the torture. Passion involves hardship and torment. Christian theology, upon which it's no mystery that the movie is based, extended the word to have to do with Christ's love for humanity, which compelled him to agonize and die for humanity. You watch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, guess what you're going to see?
The Middle East in biblical times was a Jewish community overrun by the Roman Empire, and Jesus' message was equally alarming to both, one because he was a revolutionary, and the other because he preached a new covenant and endangered the status quo. His passion came about because of the same conformity and fear of change from which society has learned nothing, like today's Catholic bishops who are reluctant to denounce abusive priests or acknowledge the trend, evangelicals who muddle religion with politics or Muslim clergy who are silent on terrorism, all of whom have a stake in their status and power. You can see it in police forces who protect officers who shoot unarmed black men, news networks that omit reports that compromise the reputations of their shareholders. The passion of Christ is the passion of every historic reformist who took one for the team.
Starz's Trademark Sex Overload Almost But Does Not Quite Dismantle This Hard-Boiled Powerhouse
Boss starts off with more promise than the similarly themed House of Cards in many respects. First of all, unlike the popular Netflix show, it's not about Democrats, nor is it about how slick and likable these manipulative people are. It's about a city government, to begin with, which is a better microcosm to work from, and it's a Conservative one (they want to privatize and outsource education jobs, we see hopeless shortages in subsidized medicine, etc.), which is much more in tune with the zeitgeist of the country right now. There is no fanfare or bravado to the slickness of Mayor and Mrs. Kane's double-dealing, nor anyone else's. We see clearly what is lost and gained in an uninflected way, while their personal demons subconsciously steer them into further jadedness or desperation, how the vaguest feeling of power or wealth slipping away will light a fire under them to redouble their efforts.
On the other hand, it is a Starz show, which means characters have to all be sleeping with somebody and having marathon sex extensively during episodes. The show admirably shoots for an HBO-grade Wire-esque credibility and realism, but it can also feel like a vexation to watch when extensive sex scenes between the same characters is constant and many other scenes also constantly fall into sexual impulse. This is erotic, yes, but once we've established two characters' desire for one another, let's wait till their relationship changes before showing them in the sack again. Otherwise, it's the exact same sex scene. It doesn't develop the story and it has increasingly less value as exposition.
Grammar is a reliably powerful actor. He plays a character that is readymade to be enthralling. Above all, he is a King Lear, a Charles Foster Kane, a giant force to be reckoned with. But particularly, and vitally, characters who have to live with a deep secret are a cake walk with a bow on it for actors. It's subtext that writes and performs itself. We, and he, learn this dismal, distressing news in the first scene, the first shot, the first long, unbroken, ever-tightening shot on his commanding face, effectively setting the show off with a bang.
Though it was the brainchild of Iranian writer-producer Farhad Safinia, Gus Van Sant's direction sets the tone for the show with his gentle touch, which deftly balances naturalism with the deep subjectivity of extreme slow-motion and macro close-ups, effectively holding the mundane up to a microscope while the hard-boiled chatter of real life marches on. So, even at its worst, Boss beams with brains and nerve, and a cynical comprehension of politics as a mere waiting room for plutocratic privatization by way of disenfrachising the people and using the language of favors to sweet democracy up in a tornado of money.
Man of Steel (2013)
Why So Serious?
Zack Snyder's charmless reboot drudges along without its having an elite cast making a spot of difference. To begin with, as Snyder should've, why does David S. Goyer cloud, convolute and dampen up an origins story that has held up for 75 years, and why would Christopher Nolan be so enamored of doing so that he would spearhead a whole new franchise? Muddled, uncoordinated flashbacks lead a displaced Jor-El to Metropolis in time for General Zod's arrival on earth to destroy it with
secretly hoarded genetic codes? No trademark costume change, no dumbfounding earthlings with his superpowers and no rapport with Jimmy or Lois Lane. Here, the Daily Planet is as gloomy and underwritten as the obits.
The last hour is a thoroughly exhausting, wearyingly preposterous binge of super-colossal devastation that makes you want to escape the movie, for it to just be over so you can leave and go home and watch the original films, a range of equal portions humor, sentimentality and spectacle deftly measured through and contrasted by the grandeur of Krypton and its ultimate destruction, Clark Kent's Spielbergian growing pains and finally his saving of the world from one of its own. Superman is so winning and indelible because despite being invincible, he's trusting, awkward and virginal. And that crucial element makes even those movies' cheesiest moments credible.
Crucial to this re-imagining being the antithesis of those classics is Batman apostle Nolan. Whether he's to blame for the movie's overwhelming vainglory and conceit is hard to know but easy to assume. It's so somber, the humor can only ever be from our ironic detachment. One thing is for sure. It's no fun, whether Superman mopes and ponders or he's constantly finding himself in proximity to an unusual amount of disasters. Not only is it perpetually frowny-faced, it's monotonous, unthinking, smothering and so endlessly brimming with explosions that one can't help but flip the bird at the screen on cue.
As the obvious, laden and trite dialogue suffers under Snyder's pedestrian helming of quieter moments, the director---with the subtlety of a baboon---ignores pace and running time almost as much as he ignores character and audience appeal as the uncontrolled "climax" elongates into oblivion, literally, leaving Metropolis an irreparable pile of debris. It needs to be said that the visual effects are as authentic as anything you'll see at the current multiplex. But under Snyder's watch, it's like being constantly clubbed with a Mona Lisa.
Above all and more than anything, I so badly wish the movie would have suspended the inundating cavalcade and carved out more than a little wit.
House of Cards (2013)
Shakespearian in Its Ambition, Exquisite in Production Value, Naively Reductive in its Depiction of Washington
House of Cards is ultra-modern, visually exquisite, full of subtly effective performances and juicily surprising character arcs. I made it across the season 2 threshold and was rewarded with genuine surprise. I enjoy the Shakespearian ambition, the brilliant simplicity of its smaller, more human scenes and the revelation of new pages in the careers of its players, young and old, particularly under the helming of its brass of A-list directors. But I think I've run my course with it.
If you're going to set your sights on subject matter as obvious as, "Look at how corrupt Washington is," don't pull punches. Even the critical consensus has largely stopped taking the show seriously, even while the show continues taking itself seriously. The partisan divide is simplified to such a noticeably absent extent in order to clear the playground for all the scenery-chewing battles of wit the cast and its writers can stomach, but even if accepted on that safe-zone melodramatic level, only so many scenes of double-crossing, stage-managing and railroading can play out without the tables truly, not bluffingly, being turned.
The state of affairs is nowhere near as functional as it's made to look here. I wish Democrats WERE the sharks they're depicted to be on this show. The real-life Democrats desperately need Frank Underwood on their side, because in real life, it's not the back-stabbing and manipulation that causes Washington to be dysfunctional any more than it ever has. That is an automatic, superficial reduction of the nature of the beast. For anyone with a desire to tell the story of modern political affairs by cutting to the dark core of the situation, what must be depicted i's total, unabashed gridlock by corporate lobby-controlled politicians who continually get elected because of mass-produced shareholder-owned propaganda.
That story is nowhere to be found here. We get cursory subplots and ancillary characters involved in muckraking reportage, lobbying for natural gas, and there is of course the thrilling episode where Frank bobs and weaves past every hurtle to thwart Tea Party obstruction of his long-anticipated education bill. But it's almost as though Demoracts and Republicans rarely have to deal with each other, and that when they do, all Democrats need be is formidably smart in order to make advances. In a situation where the sky is the limit for corporate investment in campaigns and legislations, where ethics-free journalism is the precedent for a media culture in which news is just another part of the free market system, this depiction is woefully naïve and, frankly, wasteful when such stellar talent has the capability to tell that story.
For those of you countering me in your heads with points to the effect that it has to be reductive and idealized in order to tell an accessible and entertaining story, then let me ask how The Wire was able to encapsulate not one but all major aspects of our socioeconomic reality with not only utter precision and brutal pragmatism (things ironically touted so often by the characters on House of Cards), but also be one of the most direly engrossing series of all time? If Baltimore police journalists can do it, then veteran artists of cinema can do it.
Ed Wood (1994)
You Can't Help but Root for the Underdog
When Tim Burton makes a movie about Ed Wood, one assumes it would be some sort of an ostentatious lampoon, as in Mars Attacks for instance. Wrong. Ed Wood is either a stroke of luck for Tim Burton in regards to acquiring great material it's kismet for him to helm, or what I truly suspect, which is that it's a deeply personal and knowing labor of true, joyous passionate love and mature, careful craftsmanship.
Whether or not the movie is totally accurate as a biopic doesn't matter. It's about more than just an account of Ed Wood's life. It's about a passionate young storyteller breaks down doors, bares his soul, deals with merciless criticism, estranges relationships and fights the system only to prove himself an infamous hack and laughing stock. He was eccentric, relentless, even a little delusional maybe, but he could've been anyone.
This is the film I would argue proved Johnny Depp as an established, certified great actor. He captures all the can-do optimism that kept Ed Wood surviving, owing to a hilarious capacity for seeing the silver lining in the blackest cloud. The script imagines him as a model American dreamer, an idealistic underdog with little to be so hopeful about, since he was also a model American failure.
Something people forget is that Sarah Jessica Parker is a good actress. Something people take for granted, though, after the millennial works of Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Jim Jarmusch, is this early example of colorful departure casting by Bill Murray. But the stand-out is the landslide hallmark of Martin Landau's long career, totally disappearing into a darkly hilarious rendition of Bela Lugosi.
It's not just Landau's amazing performance that makes him stand out though. Really, at the core of the movie is Wood's friendship with Lugosi, who he genuinely loves, and who comes to depend on him. We see Lugosi alone and withdrawn in a tacky little house, settled in the hollow melancholy of his faded glory and addiction. His first scene is an exquisitely crafted gag showing him trying on a coffin for size. And Wood is able to relieve the despair, if just fleetingly, in a last-minute streak of roles which gave him amplified renown, as the star of some of the most legendary and respected horror classics ever made, and then of some of the most infamous and derided.
Makes Tim Burton Look Like Aki Kaurismaki
Francis Ford Coppola's madly elaborate Dracula rendition is set between London at the advent of a modern-ish age and Transylvania according to an explosion at the Batman: The Animated Series factory. We meet a young attorney named Jonathan Harker who is supposed to venture to Dracula's castle to arrange some kind of real estate whatever stuff. The last guy who went there ran into some snags. No big deal, though. He goes, and there begins a series of deafening and flagrant omens, none of which seem to deter or even catch the attention of young Harker en route.
It seems as though every stop is being pulled out on Jonathan Harker's journey to let him know that danger is near. Many find the casting of Keanu Reeves in the role laughably wrong-headed, but if you think about it, he's the only one with a blank and vapid enough stare to be believable as someone who manages to miss the most aggressively blatant signs of suspicion.
Meanwhile, Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Professor Van Helsing as a guy who may not be able to save victims of wolf rape, but sure can explain the hell out of it. Now, there is a lot that transpires between the voyage to Salvador Dali's Looney Tunes night terror and the werewolf violation, but Coppola and his creative team show every brazen sign of being far more interested in parades of extravagance and ceremonious tableau than with narrative power. The movie is extraordinarily theatrical in how it favors intensification over flow.
The lavish use of expressionism reaches to such heights that it ends up eliciting unwanted laughter. Every set, every backdrop, every detail, foreshadowing, subtext, atmospheric flourish and mere shadow on the wall is screamed at us. It makes Tim Burton look like a Scandinavian minimalist. But all the same, it can be fun letting yourself get swept up in the energy and exhilaration of the whole go-for-broke enterprise.
It does, after all, salvage the title character from the creative flatness of most of his other movie interpretations, and then some. I'd argue that Werner Herzog's Nosferatu takes the cake as the more deeply affecting choice, but I mean, it didn't have wolf rape or baby-eating nymphomaniacs or Tom Waits as an insane guy. Or wolf rape. And Gary Oldman is here. And Sir Anthony Hopkins. They've never detracted from the quality of any movies either have been in as far as I can tell. But more to the point, as the movie sees it, there is a reason why the three Oscars it happened to win were for makeup, costume design and sound editing. It was also nominated for one more, and that was art direction. By now, you surely see the common thread: As a sensory experience, it's a gasser.
American Hustle (2013)
Talk About Being Conned, Everybody! Come on!
The opening scene of Irving Rosenfeld, arguably Christian Bale's furthest left-field role so far, refining his comb-over and crowning it with a spray of aerosol heralds the start of something great. Alas, it was all drivel thereafter.
David O. Russell's raid on grifters and graft in the late 1970s is full of smug put-ons. Though he has selected a cast entirely comprised of hype-magnet zeitgeist stars to draw the crowds, it only exacerbates the self-seriousness of the script, which is pandemic with high camp and laughable pageantry. These people talk way too much. About nothing. Just for Russell's pride in his own riffing.
Beginning with the title card, "Some of this actually happened," the film unceasingly reminds us---often through various characters in carelessly derivative voice-over---that life is a con game, and we all lie. We lie to others, we lie to ourselves. And that it's the American way. And American Hustle isn't clever about making this point. It makes it, makes it again, and in case you didn't get it the first few times, a character says it out loud. Then another one does. And before you know it, you find that it's the self-congratulatory Russell and his overrated cast, not to mention the hordes of critics raving about it, that are conning themselves.
Like Russell's other films, there is quite a bit of humor, but in this case, not all of it is intended. One scene has Jennifer Lawrence going on and on about her nail polish over an important dinner with Irving and Jeremy Renner playing an Italian-American mayor. What initially is marginally charming descends rapidly into a maddening sequence, much too long and breathtakingly vain. And symbolic of the movie in its entirety.
The dialogue is so labored, so artificial and pretentious that everyone involved must've felt too highly of themselves to probe as deeply or use thinking as critical as they all have in past work. Certain scenes seem either pedantically constrained, just have no purpose, or both. Take for instance a particularly eyeroll-inducing ladies room showdown between Adams and Lawrence, while numerous lines are groaners. "After Vietnam and Watergate, we're just starting to trust politicians again." Seriously? "I just want to be loved!!!" What is this, Clifford Odets? "My dream was to be anyone but myself." Thanks for telling me, you self-mythologizing drama queen.
Meanwhile, when you didn't think the GoodFellas and Casino procurements were transparent enough, there's De Niro in a fleeting cameo as a vicious mobster which has no more effect than that of a gimmick of a declining legend riffing on his career staple.
Even the essentially perfect casting of comic genius Louis C.K., in just the kind of bit role I could really get used to seeing him play, can't relieve the film of its hollow ego trip. Once you've unraveled the movie's trendy gloss-over, you've got an overblown wannabe of an undertaking, stuffed with nothing more than the bluster of hand-me-down inspiration, gaudy artifice and lugubrious schtick.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Quaalude Overdoses and Midget-Throwing: A Martin Scorsese Picture
Very likely being an avid follower of Martin Scorsese's works and even more likely to be particularly fanatical about his most accessible and recent films, you were right in expecting a total reflection of the GoodFellas/Casino formula and style---machine gun cutting, swooping camera, characters bursting through the fourth wall like wrecking balls, monster production scope and a soundtrack like a jukebox on speed, all to get us high on our complicity in the excessive debauchery of the characters and their fast-paced lifestyle---and it is indeed awesome. But it is also amazingly effective as a slapstick comedy, loaded with outrageous and absurd laugh-out-loud set pieces.
I say amazing because Scorsese has never done scenes like that and DiCaprio has never even done a comedy before. Scorsese has, but the hilarity here is not in the same vein as The King of Comedy. Or After Hours. It's much broader, goofier and unexpected, as demonstrated in several epic comic tours de force throughout. And it's that very sense of absurdity that makes its commentary on American capitalistic gluttony whole. You know exactly what movie you'll be seeing, but you'll be cheating yourself out of one hell of a ride if you don't see it. It clocks in at three hours but you still won't really want it to end. The movie is as outsized, excessive and compulsive as its title character is.
Money here is not just the root of all evil. It's the total disintegration of any and all traces of decency, at the throbbing heart of which is DiCaprio's character, Jordan Belfort, a real-life stock trader so outrageously shameless and blind to his routine corruption that he virtually appears to be sympathetic, even chivalrous. Belfort couldn't care less whether his clients made money, so long as his share was complete. And like the oligarchs running the country now, his forte was defrauding the the struggling working man who he jockeyed into investing in third-rate penny stocks. Even his sweet first wife is feeling enough to wonder why he marks people who can't afford to be conned. Her civility gets in his way and she's promptly usurped by a blonde lingerie model.
Scorsese's always able to take hard-to-like characters and look at them without judgment, then somehow never have a single dull moment no matter how long he has us watch them. In this case, unabashed farce is the key to it working as a commentary on the absurd overload of greed in this country and how disconnected the super-rich are from their actions and how they affect other people. It also has the most enjoyable and random cast I've seen in a long time, and almost certainly Jonah Hill's finest hour (or three).
Sure, Jordan Belfort begins as a mild-mannered kid with a dream, refusing lunchtime martinis and all, but most of us start out with a soul and a sense of self-control, until we reach a level so rarefied and powerful that you never see any consequences or hardships, and you're cushioned and gratified so completely in a world of leisure and lavishness that whether or not you put the country in debt or screw a few working-class people doesn't really feel like it makes much difference.
As long as the class divides are that wide, that will always be the case. We are constantly baffled by the total lack of conscience in the actions of the 1% and the politicians they puppeteer, but at the same time they honestly must feel that underprivileged people are that way because they choose to be, or simply aren't as smart as them. It's a catch-22 and the only thing we can do, Scorsese says, is laugh at it.
Stand Up Guys (2012)
I've never seen such immortalized actors agree to such an amateur, fetishistic, adolescent piece of nothing in my entire life. Maybe when I was in the 8th grade I saw some less successful actors from Lock, Stock and Snatch, I saw some ham-fisted go-nowhere crime pictures that I enjoyed because I was in the 8th grade. If I were still in the 8th grade, I may enjoy this film and now as a 24-year-old enjoy it for nostalgic vindications. But because it has nothing more to offer than veteran screen legends doing the least common denominator of what teenage boys wish to see them doing, I grow tired of the deficit of self-respect and substance in what they here occupy a 95-minute running time which seems like an endless torture zone of small-time macho triviality phoning in.
Remember Dog Day Afternoon? Remember the Godfather films? Heat was great, too. Is Al Pacino so in love with his fan base that he can't discern the lowest common denominator from the true fulfillment of his talent? Or is he simply looking for the easiest gigs he can find? Between this and 88 Minutes, I'm beginning to lean toward the latter, despite how admiring I am of his contributions to screen acting throughout contemporary American cinema.
Walken, as well, even as an actor who is much more interesting in keeping busy than Pacino, should despite his restlessness decide the difference between jerking off and making love. "We're all outta gum!" Dude. You know you're better than that. And Fisher Stevens knows you're better than that. And that's why should refrain from trusting him.
Alan Arkin is a whole other deal altogether. He does not have to succumb to idolized fantasies of who he is. He's only become such a character since becoming a character actor as an older man. He has always been charming, funny and natural. And yet he is once again as underused as ever. Why is he even here? To add length to a testosterone-driven deficit of ideas? What did he see in this script? A chance to swing a steering wheel to one side and another?
I was going to start this next paragraph by saying that there was a time when testosterone- consumed gangster flicks were full of raw wit and style, but they still are! The thing is, Killing Them Softly didn't have enough spectacle for most people and RockNRolla fell under the radar after Guy Ritchie decided he was going to apply his cup of tea to more spectacle-driven adventures. Fisher Stevens didn't have to go by the Killing Them Softly template or anyone else's in order to make an effective movie. He just needed to give it substance, character, individuality. Stand Up Guys is nothing but the transparent, preoccupied machismo lathered on top of all the good modern crime flicks. And underneath, there's merely a horny young boy with a rough draft of something that may have been something much more interesting had he more patience and maturity to pursue his interests further.
Herz aus Glas (1976)
A Symphony of Dashed Hopes
In the story of the breakdown of a small glassblowing factory in a Bavarian village around 1800, Werner Herzog's Heart of Glass sees the melancholy of communities depending on manufacture, the disconnectedness of people without a feeling of purpose. Dashed hopes and visions of a desolate future come in the guise of the soothsaying of a shepherd, who prophesizes in a hypnotic state. Stay with me here.
This is one of the most legendary of Herzog's films, known as the one where most of the actors were put in trances for most of the scenes. It hasn't been seen much, maybe since it isn't to the predilection of most people. There's no orthodox story, no conclusion, and the final scene is an allegory apparently not related to anything that's gone before. The movie's like a piece of music, where everything is understood in terms of tone and ambiance.
Herzog's panorama has two shots from the tops of peaks, looking down over the earth and the ocean. The rest of the movie is set in a few houses, a beer hall, a glass factory, and in the forest engulfing the village. The people rely on the manufacture of rose- colored glassware. The head glassmaker Muhlbeck has died, taking with him the secret of the glass. Reckless attempts are made to retrieve the formula, but all blunder. A sensible person might say the factory can make other kinds of glass. But there are no sensible people around here.
The dialogue the actors perform under Herzog's hypnosis is delivered with a barren conviction. It lacks energy and identity. What if what we're really hearing are Herzog's own inflections as he hypnotized them and told them what to say? Is he acting through them? These are not really characters, though they have idiosyncrasies. They're people who have had their spirit taken from them by the deterioration of their work. It's a bleak life, but it's a purpose.
The survivor of a drunken free-fall from a hayloft waltzes despairingly with his friend's corpse. People drink and stare. In a particularly memorable scene, one guy breaks a beer stein over another guy's head, who doesn't react. Then, he unhurriedly pours his own beer over the first one's head, again yielding no reaction.
You can feel what Herzog is driving at. In reality, you don't break a mug over someone's head without some apparent rationale, but that's gratuitous for Herzog's intentions. He shows the animal texture of the two men fighting. They need no explanation. They're devoid of motivation, to fight or to live. They've been rendered into shells of despondency and bitterness. Some imagery works fine without literal interpretation. Heart of Glass seems to me to be such a piece of work. We may not quite know what it makes us think, but we know how it makes us feel.
Hypnosis and Power
Werner Herzog's Invincible tells the story of a Polish blacksmith in Nazi Germany who in his provincial integrity thinks he can protect his people after becoming the star at the Palace of the Occult in Berlin, which is overseen by a sinister man who dreams of becoming the Nazis' Minister of the Occult. Much of the movie's uncanny appeal comes from the contrast between the simple-mindedly innocent blacksmith-come-strongman and Tim Roth's wicked Hanussen, who trickles with studied malice. Standing between them is a young woman under Hanussen's mental force, who the strongman loves. The movie is supposedly based on a true story. I can conceive of various ways it could've been told unspectacularly, but Herzog has turned it into a movie in which we mostly have no clue what could possibly happen next.
The movie has the evocativeness of a German silent film, bold in its expressionism and moralistic insistence. Its casting is critical, and intuitively right. Tim Roth is a menacing deceiver, posing as a man with extrasensory abilities, using hocus-pocus and theatrics as he hustles for position within the rising Nazi majority. There's a scene where he hypnotizes the strongman's love interest, and as he stares dauntlessly toward us, I wondered if it was feasible to hypnotize us as well. As for the untrained actor playing the strongman, the camera can look as closely as you like and never see anything insincere.
Herzog always works to push us into the mythic and the mysterious. And here, there are shots of a stark, craggy seashore where the stones are covered with thousands of bright red crabs, all clambering away on their crustaceous errands. As with similar imagery in most of Herzog's other films, there can be no exact interpretation of this. And like most of his other films, Invincible is a unique experience. Herzog has gotten outside the tropes and confines of conventional movie storytelling, and confronts us where our sense of trust and belief keeps its skeletons.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Things More Horrible Than Death
In Herzog's Nosferatu, the color cinematography seeps into your pores just looking at it. It's vivid, oily, both real and illusory. Things look cold and dirty. There isn't a lot of green, and it looks wet. Interiors are filmed in bold reds, browns and whites. It's a film of remarkable visual creepiness.
There's always something intimidating and awe-inspiring in Herzog's portraiture of the world. And here, shadows truly convey fear. The provincial bumpkins that Jonathan Harker meets en route to Dracula's castle are not quaint or idiosyncratic. They recoil from him. Herzog takes his time before first showing Dracula. He sets the stage with words and looks from people who can't believe he's seeking the Count.
Bruno Ganz, some 25 years before playing Hitler, owns the first third of the movie, playing Harker. His pilgrimage takes a lot more time than in the many other movies based on the Dracula legend. Herzog takes his time heightening anticipation before Dracula's entrance.
And once Klaus Kinski's Count does appear, it then takes some time getting over how he appears. He looks more like a bat than a person. His face and bald skull are pure white. His fingernails are spears, his ears are pointed, his eyes are deep-set. In most movies Dracula's fangs are longer versions of the ones we all have. Here, there can be no mistaking them in the center of his mouth.
Herzog is the most original of filmmakers, not much prone to remakes. Why was he beckoned to remake one of the most iconic and legendary silent films? I think it was mainly because he had Klaus Kinski. Opposite him is cast Isabelle Adjani, a French beauty whose angelic looks provide a virginal target for Dracula's fangs.
But their performances aren't so much honed to perfection as they are products of having been born to play these figures in this story. Nosferatu is genuinely creepy largely owing to Herzog's command of the color palate, his offbeat compositions and expressive contrast of light and dark. Nosferatu is a film that does justice to the corporal substance of vampires. If they were for real, this is how they would look.
Into the Abyss (2011)
Life vs. Death
It's easy to view documentaries as less yielding of creative potential or stylistic freedom since principally it's a matter of holding a lens up to a story that's writing itself, casting itself and no sets have to be built. Werner Herzog has never been limited by this concern.
Many documentaries made nowadays are a series of talking heads and graphics montages. Maybe a filmmaker with a sense of humor will throw some ironically relevant music under the info-dumps. And documentary has also become virtually synonymous with issue and message films. Very few seem to find the same spiritual center as a fiction piece. Herzog does.
Into the Abyss is about a horrific, random and senseless crime spree that culminates in one of the myriad executions carried out by the state of Texas every year. But it's not a commentary on capital punishment or the society that produced such brainless, directionless criminals. It does something much more brave and original.
The movie goes on, the story is told, Herzog interviews his subjects, crime scene videotape details the nightmarish aftermath of atrocity having invaded the most peaceful and complacent of homes, we drive down depressing roads in the modern cultural wasteland of the place where the tragic saga has played out. And yet throughout, there is a tone and inflection imbued with grace, understatement and objectivity. We will experience all too real human pain, sometimes without warning, but we almost don't know what hit us until we've traversed well into the given moment.
There is something so simple, so docile, in the face of whatever brutality or doom or emotional quakes, making Herzog's film transcend the identity of a social issue piece or a sensationalistic expose to become an elliptical, humane contemplation of violence, life and loss. Considering Herzog's uncannily unique subjects and treatment in fiction and in documentary for decades---past films have involved entire casts being under hypnosis during shooting or being entirely comprised of dwarfs, or stories about men held captive in dungeons for lifetimes until adulthood---Into the Abyss may seem small potatoes by comparison.
But Herzog has often said he doesn't choose projects, that they instead choose him. If that's the case, then his approach as a documentary filmmaker, with works such as this or Grizzly Man or The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, is frankly uncanny, to stand still when he realizes the profundity of a story and simply allow it to wash over him and consume him. How many filmmakers have the wisdom and confidence to master such a process?
The Master (2012)
This is extremely difficult for me. Let me just start.
Yes, herein contains some of the most ravishing filmmaking of the new millennium. The period details are abstract yet precise. The score has a stark, primordial allure. It's post-WWII America: Psychologically scarred veterans attempt to cramp themselves back into society. One is loner Freddie Quell, adrift in emotional confusion. He's secured a gig as a portrait photographer at a lavish department store imagined like a temple of indulgent commercialism. But Freddie doesn't last long there. In the darkroom, he screws models and chugs rotgut he makes with photo chemicals. Ultimately, he loses it on a customer, not just hitting him but harassing and lambasting him, working out some indecipherable, irrepressible rage.
Phoenix's performance as Freddie reduces all he's done before to a preparation exercise. He longs for something, but even he can't tell you what, and that sorrow has clotted into self- destructive ritual. We see his snarly face from angles we haven't seen before. We're not sure if his leery eyes are hateful or if he's dead inside. He's a captivating animal.
Then he meets stout, articulate Lancaster Dodd, always circled by people who treat him like a prodigy, hanging on his every word, laughing at all his mugging. Lancaster fancies himself a renaissance man. He's married to Peggy, who's much more vigilant than we first think. His son trails the proceedings with a dormant pose of derision. His daughter marries a man who, like everyone else in their clique, views him as a wizard.
The film belongs to Phoenix, but Hoffman more than does his thing, his affectations ringing with conceit and fraudulence. Freddie---father dead, mother institutionalized---is naturally drawn to Dodd, who promises answers, mental freedom, happiness, even claims to cure leukemia. He's written a book his bootlickers treat as a sort of bible. He loves to charm and perform.
It's well-known that Lancaster's cult is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology. It's not direct, but the manner in which Lancaster draws Freddie into the fold, among other things, is unmistakably influenced by the contentious institution and Hubbard's life. Paul Thomas Anderson doesn't bind to that inspiration for his movie...but he doesn't bind to anything, really. You walk out muddled, wearied, wondering where to start in connecting the dots in this elegant, arresting movie. The story is as confounding as its technique is magnificent.
Anderson, the true wunderkind of the Tarantino generation, sets everything up so beautifully, you wait for the turning point to prevail so the intrigue can come to boil. Instead, nothing progresses. The dramatic developments seem to dwindle and become less consistent as the movie drifts along, and Anderson throws in pauses, like a lingering desert scene or an outstretched montage in which Freddie is made to pace in a room, that slow the movie to a drudge. Freddie's sex preoccupation, which was stressed in the film's early stretch, grows dissonant. It's less about narrative arc and more the emotional condition of two men, a twist of trust and mistrust, id and superego. PTA's vision is grand in scope, but his result is not so much ambiguous as opaque and detached.
For the first time in his immaculate career, the greatest filmmaker of his generation seems to languish. His newfound frigidness makes the film easy to admire but difficult to love. Anderson is so stunningly impressive, in fact, that it's taken me two viewings of The Master to admit all this to myself. Understandably, some critics have patronized it as deliberately evasive and occult, but isn't that just double-talk? A glorification of an artist's failure to proportionately bear his ideas? Something particularly intriguing is how the movie poses questions not so much about the importance of faith, but how far the human limit for change can extend and to confront emotional devastation so heavy it can never recover. But the film is too ambivalent or cautious to probe them in depth. By the end, it's become an opaque challenge between two phenomenal actors whose commitment to their roles is awe-inspiring, but it's manacled to a work so in awe of itself, the audience gets blockaded.
Hell Is for Heroes (1962)
"I was kind of surprised to see you in our outfit."
Whereas producer-director sounds like a far-off call from lab and second unit labor at Warner Bros., Siegel internalized that hard-line technical work's effective discipline by the time more modern audiences began seeking more realism and grittier attitudes in movies. His shrewd and thrifty technique at the helm squeezed full advantage of his creative power. And this brutal, and yet so unassuming, 1962 war picture can be seen to illustrate the traditionally altering function of the director in American movies. As Siegel's repertoire developed as a workmanlike director of drum-tight action films, industrially skillful but divulging little of himself, he began to embrace a more open style in which he made the best of his actors' capabilities with presence and behavior. Point to Harry Callahan and Charley Varrick for characters who have whip up some argument simultaneously while delivering the full-tilt gratifications required of testosterone-driven action thrillers, but point to Hell is for Heroes for an early example of Siegel's ability to juggle various wholly sympathetic and entertaining characterizations in what feels like a leisurely way throughout the backdrop of a taut, spare combat picture.
Bobby Darin is one of those who you can constantly forget he's a particularly good actor, and not just a serviceable one. It's not that musicians can't be good actors. It's that Darin was so dedicated to his music. Darin wasn't just at crooner. He did pop, rock, jazz, folk and country. His health was treacherously weak and this induced him to thrive within the incomplete life span he was terrified he would, and finally did, have. Roughly around the same time as he brought a lifelike suggestion to his character in John Cassavetes' forgotten Too Late Blues from his immersion in the day's music scene, he fit so comfortably into the skin of a con man, peddler and thief. He stays strongly consistent as an operator who can't sit still, always determined to peddle his countless devices. This includes peddling literally at the start, but he's a street kid with ears forever to the ground and his fingers on the pulse of what's going on, and Darin credibly use this nature in whichever manner he must in situations ranging in such close succession as dodging mortar in the trench and teaching Bob Newhart's army company clerk who suddenly and mistakenly arrives at the squad post.
Newhart is a surprise treat because his supporting role is all farce, surrounded by hard-boiled brutality and yet bringing an early Woody Allen or Albert Brooks type to life. Siegel often seemed to sprinkle a broad comic relief stereotype into a vicious action mix, usually to the chagrin of the macho men at the center of it all, as is the case here as well. Newhart is a surprise treat and he's effective, but think of how his sort of light-hearted formula concession would've fatally diffused the ultimate tensile strength of The Hill, another less well-remembered 1960s war film in uncompromising black-and-white. As the ragtag male team does here, the characters in The Hill are entrapped in the punishing confines of a survival-of-the-fittest war situation. In that case, it was a British army prison in sweltering North Africa. The closest it came to caricature was the self-conscious aping in the brilliant nervous breakdown of a young Ossie Davis' with the added trouble of being black.
That said, regardless, I still think Hell is for Heroes is worthy of significant mention on the subject of early Hollywood realism, and at the same time, I understand how oppressive it would've been if everyone in Hell is for Heroes were like Steve McQueen's difficult outsider Reese or James Coburn's mechanically gifted corporal. Variety is important and Siegel always provides it with rich characters even in his lesser films. Hell is for Heroes may not be tense or throttling in a way comparable to other realist '60s war films, but its characters are particularly memorable. Always a charismatic but hard-shelled actor, McQueen gives a compelling early portrayal of what might be an early example in modern history of the "war addict" personality studied in most state-of-the-art war films like The Hurt Locker. Reese manages to push away practically everyone in the squad right from the start. The company commander is troubled because Reese becomes when there is no fighting, but he's a good soldier in combat He lives and breathes confrontation with potentially fatal threats the way a drug addict is never satisfied with more than enough of their substance. And he's like that in the field as well.
The Ides of March (2011)
And This is American Politics on a Good Day!
When a candidate outlasts more than a year of primaries and the general election, it's a phenomenon that he's still strong enough to govern at all. The Ides of March poses the predicament of whether it's feasible for any candidate to win and still keep integrity to his initial ideals. We follow Stephen Meyers, press secretary for Gov. Mike Morris, an idealistic liberal with that rare iron backbone that makes him a hopeful fantasy of modern democracy. Philip Seymour Hoffman is Paul, his experienced campaign manager. Challenging Morris is Michael Mantell's Sen. Pullman, managed by Paul Giamatti's Duffy. All of these men, excluding young Stephen, are cynical and occasionally mean, but all on the grounds of something they have faith in. Most of Meyers' faith is in himself.
The big picture is highlighted in diminutive vignettes: campaign stops, glad-handing, speech writing, sleep loss and acute fatigue that compels the characters virtually to the verge of collapse. Irresponsible sex under these conditions is surely frequent, and Stephen makes romantic gestures toward Evan Rachel Wood's dubiously young intern Molly. Her naivete may be useful to him. He also has an evasive rapport with ruthless correspondent Marisa Tomei, as they labor one another for information. Clooney as director eschews action for stratagem. Here he holds certain of Stephen's cards very wisely close to the vest, as the lad uncovers a ruthlessness that startles even the case-hardened experts above him. The movie's ending close-up is protracted to unnerving effect.
The screenplay is resourceful in how it interlocks personal and political determination, particularly when Duffy puts out to goad Stephen into defecting. His intentions are fishy, and surely Stephen is eager beaver for prospects to his gain. The movie doesn't take direct aim or even much involve Republicans. It transpires wholly within a Democratic primary campaign, and while sympathies evolve and alliances shift, they're all Democrats. There isn't the sense in The Ides of March, as there was with Primary Colors or Nixon, that we're gleaning the inside scoop on real-life politicians. It's more about the ironic catch-22 of prevailing media politics.
The movie's prize asset is the class and skill of the acting, with Gosling yet again playing a character with an adamant charisma done with a less-is-more approach. He has a concentration that sticks to others and gets to the bottom of every moment's intention. That deep sincerity succeeds on many levels. Since the script is rooted in a play, it features some floodlight monologues that Hoffman and Giamatti make not only credible but stunning under the closer real-world study of the camera. Hoffman has some powerful scenes with Gosling, in which he learns the real definition of his scenario. Jeffrey Wright has a little but central role as Sen. Thompson, whose powerful endorsement can't be bought but might be open for lease.
Clooney as director, "Part Frank Capra, part Michael Mann" as admirably well-described by Salon.com, is a discreet craftsman with mature cinematic instincts and New Hollywood prudence of allowing his actors to move the narrative. The Ides of March has been received reverentially, but not with as much enthusiasm as it deserves, which may suggest the muted disposition of its storytelling. Again, Clooney casts himself as a supporting character, that unruffled and enigmatic Democratic presidential contender who exhibits himself as a progressive champion and still preserves a concise, pointed detachment from even his closest consultants. Jennifer Ehle, best known as Elizabeth Bennett, has a tidy role as his wife. Morris is our pipe-dream hopeful, a governor who has squared the budget and promotes an impressive program of national reform, equalized with universal healthcare and free of lobbying interests. He's also an agnostic who declines to confer any religious beliefs, likely the character's least realistic ingredient.
Most realistic is that Morris might not quite be all he seems. What candidate ever is? Ultimately, he's simply the handbag for Meyers and his ethical predicament. Indeed, the film is a casual wedding of actor and director, with Clooney freeing the crux of the movie to give Gosling's effortless solemnity and vigilance the hub. Even as he and Molly are in the seeming fits of affection, Stephen can't keep his attention off the breaking newscasts.
In this world of lingo-loaded, confrontational dialogue and the overcast, springtime Cincinnati streets I've grown up loving, Morris is braced in a level match with Pullman, about whom we never gather anything except that the GOP thinks he's more vulnerable than Morris. The Ides of March may not be quite as idiosyncratic as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Good Night and Good Luck, but it's idiosyncratic in its quality in today's machine, and welcome installment in the exciting mid-career reinvention of Hollywood's arguably shrewdest star. Releasing nationwide right when the GOP is at the heart of its primary stink bomb, he comes to my town, a home of his as well, and fashions an understated portrayal of a more everyday sort of political takeover, but is plainly intended to illustrate a society descending on the same trajectory.
Traffic 2.0, Only This Time, Drugs Are Good
A black screen. We hear a severe cough. We're already vigilant when, shortly after, a bartender takes a customer's coin and then dials into a cash register. Germs, we're pondering. During an autopsy, we see a dead woman's face, and hear the buzzing of a surgical saw. Her blood-spattered scalp collapses onto her face. Two doctors inspect the brain and stem. We do see nothing, but they're troubled by what they see. A piece of photographic ingenuity and intricate, quietly deliberate editing ahead of the overwhelming majority of wide-release American movies, Contagion is a docudrama about a fictitious but staggeringly real worldwide epidemic. It's a startling supposition of how a new airborne disease could penetrate humans and increase uncompromisingly in startlingly little time.
This notion is already proverbial to us through the seemingly yearly rashes of influenza or swine flu. The journalistic sequence never varies: panicky plans, large-scale roundups, the fight to create a vaccine at the Center for Disease Control, the making and supply of this year's "flu shot." The disease in Contagion is an inexplicable one, flouting seclusion, rebuffing medicine. Soderbergh, as he's demonstrated before, is dexterous at chronicling the multi-narrative via the lives of numerous crucial characters and the chance communications of various others, and this way it illuminates how we don't give each other a virus, but that it's an organism advanced to pursue new hosts. Its bearers die, and like any life form, it must constantly keep ahead of death. Also, his inclusion of the population on the introductory captions for each city in the story is a global education in itself.
The cough we hear before anything else is from Gwyneth Paltrow, a Minneapolis woman returning from Hong Kong. Her husband Matt Damon, evidently immune, is disbelieving that death could so abruptly ravage his life. An analysis exposes a secret appointment of Paltrow's during a layover in Chicago. And yet, she didn't catch the germ through sexual contact. While the director of sex, lies and videotape., Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven is surely in love with dialogue, Soderbergh's amalgamation of score and montage never take less than top spot in the primacy in his uncompromisingly procedural storytelling. We've seen even minor Soderbergh outings where imagery and score are the overriding narrative machinery, and that occurs here too, and though the ultra-naturalistic jargon and interplay between the international web of characters is essential, Contagion is thickly tiered in pivotal sequences totally without dialogue. Cliff Martinez creates the atmospheric and aural terrain into which Soderbergh interleaves his many fast-sketch characters.
At the tail end of the movie, Soderbergh adjoins a succinct montage unraveling where the virus may have originated, how a handful of degrees of separation there were connecting its source and a woman from Minneapolis on a trip to Hong Kong. It takes no more than a day for the bug to reach a new continent. The film tracks the procedures of techno-thrillers and hyperlink cinema, with subtitles keeping count: Day 1, Day 3, Minneapolis, Geneva, ad infinitum. It tethers to and fro between such linchpins as Laurence Fishburne in the CDC in Atlanta; Kate Winslet in the Epidemic Intelligence Service, who attempts to chase the contamination with ad hoc stopovers; Marion Cotillard, an investigator from the World Health Organization in Geneva. They have teamed up before, are accomplished and function immediately. And in a lab, there is Jennifer Ehle, struggling to hone a vaccine and in the face of the time being lost before she can try it on humans.
Contagion is an uncommonly immersive portrait of existential threat and crowd psychology, about everyday people doing their jobs under horrendous conditions. It's ultimately a race against time between 2 toxic spreads, one of a deadly virus, one of rampant misinformation in the digital age, an eerie highlighting of how the things that make the modern world smaller make it that much more exposed. It's also one of the most tremendously well-shot films of recent release. Soderbergh continually lingers and focuses on the objects touched by the infected that link the global cast of characters and reinforce the multi-narrative style in which he has proved his proficiency before.
Again, Science and Law Vs. Misinformation and Materialism
This enlightening, competently investigated and imperative documentary with a fantastic opening titles sequence seizes the various health and environmental concerns associated with the privatization of water. Bottled water corporations make masses of proceeds every year, but are they entitled to exhaust a small town's water supply without previous permission and without restoring it? Fryebyrg, Maine, endured a water famine while, in tandem, Coca-Cola continued to pump their already deficient supply. It's revealed that the bottled water industry is unregulated and causes health hazards. Tap water, however, is thoroughly regulated. Municipalities test water for toxins nonstop every day.
Director Stephanie Soechtig jabs acutely at the predicament of water with specific and vital insights, eschewing disproportionate use of talking heads. For instance, I feel like I should've already known that the Pacific has a portion overflowing with plastic. Numerous corporations employ the chemical BPA to make their bottles, a neurotoxin that potentially causes various neurological disorders. There's no denying that any and every form of growth are all endangered when science and law mingle with misinformation and materialism. At least documentaries like Tapped appear every so often to nurture awareness, to notify the people and clear the daze of party lines. Whether or not Tapped will help to heal the public's indifference toward progress and environmental causes is a different affair.
Tapped does to bottled water manufacturing what Food, Inc. and Super Size Me did to food monopolies. It's an exposé of champion reporting. Some will likely put the propaganda label on Tapped however, and one could split those hairs, insomuch as it's predisposed to a certain alliance. But the information is indisputable, unlike the propaganda of today that functions to make us believe what its makers don't believe themselves. Tapped joins the crusade to battle corporate Goliaths who have milked local water supplies to sell it in toxic bottles, sometimes during droughts that constrain towns to rigorously limit their own water use.
We're first brought to Fryeburg, where one day, their standard of living is as it's been for generations, and the next day enormous trucks roll in. Without any prior communication, Nestle just silently procured land to tap for water, and since then they've been rolling those trucks in and out, extracting from the local spring but paying no taxes to recover the community. And unlike other trades, they're not even required to purchase resources to make their product, save for those plastic bottles, made by petroleum factories with cancer-causing constituents.
All effective modern documentaries seem to need statistical facts presented in graphic design effects to give their allegations a source. And in an age of instant gratification, they must. Conservative Libertarians want to know what's wrong with someone making a buck? Well, just 1% of the water that envelops 75% of the planet is drinkable. A year before this documentary was finished, there was a drought in 35 of 50 States. No water, no life. The first words said in Tapped are, "By 2030, two-thirds of the world will not have access to clean drinking water."
During a Raleigh drought, Pepsi kept hauling over 400,000 gallons a day. How are such reckless actions possible in a democracy? Well, the FDA, we gather from intense footage of Senate hearings, relies on tests run by the companies themselves! Meanwhile, one FDA pen-pusher is accountable for supervision of the entire industry. Put in close-up and faced with facts, we ultimately even hear the FDA publicist telling Soechtig that if he'd known this was the course the interview was to take, he wouldn't have agreed to grant the interview. Why does the FDA even need a publicist?
A visit to Corpus Christi familiarizes us with residents who live within miles of the factory producing the plastic bottles used by the big three water manufacturers. All have health troubles. The more you watch, the more scared and livid you become. American industry has been reduced to a criminal kingdom over the last thirty years, but the bottled water industry has clearly avoided greater scrutiny. Hopefully, that's changing. It all boils down to water as a rudimentary birthright, a raw material owned by us all. If you begin commodifying bare essentials of life in such a way as to make it harder for people to get to them, you have the footing for grave political volatility.
The Miracle Worker (1962)
The Feral Child In Us All
Any movie that's fresh, advanced, forward-looking, in impression or technique, usually pushes further than almost all other mainstream movies sharing the same era or genre, which is to say: too far for some tastes. The innocuousness of most of our movies is received with such stock expectations that when an American movie goes outside that box to pull a real reaction out of us, it tends to pull that same reaction out of the trends in mainstream movies as well. So, as Arthur Penn's work would build open famously shortly hereafter, The Miracle Worker is a film that rages where most biopics tread softly. The showpiece is a one-room, nine-minute battle of wear and tear, as the teacher forces table manners on her untamed ward. It's a shatter-and-batter melee bursting at the seams, played out with thoroughgoing diligence.
Likewise remarkable is Penn's sense of familial histrionics on a postwar Southern estate. Despite its complicated genesis through a range of mediums including real life, the story of Helen Keller in film form, an understandably intimidating notion, nevertheless outclasses many true stories and stage adaptations in the domain of visual technique. Penn creates clever, lasting flourishes of cinematic storytelling and atmosphere-sculpting. The calculated, leisurely dissolves, focal changes, filtering and use of light augment the well-known story in depth.
There are occasions when two actresses are so in step with each other, they seem like they're but one character and one performance. Such is the situation with The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan a weak-sighted teacher struggling to reach blind and deaf Helen Keller played by the gifted young Patty Duke. They collaborate like few performers can, drawing us into their challenged rapport and keeping us stuck to their triumphs and catastrophes. While Duke's hardly been a solid presence in film or TV over the past thirty years, there was little misgiving of her flair and skill. Bancroft, though, sustained an outstanding career for several decades, and her performance in The Miracle Worker is astonishing for its precise vividness and emotional reverberation. Neither role lacked hefty challenges and both actresses surrendered exceptional career-making and ultimately Oscar-winning performances.
Penn was a sharp leader of actors, but his work was always powerfully dynamic and state-of-the-art because of his exemplary equilibrium of attention to visual motifs and filling the atmosphere of a movie with an emotional grab of the our collars. The Miracle Worker was made in 1962, and maybe it's not the byzantine audiovisual takeover of The Manchurian Candidate, but Penn does nevertheless employ some camera, cutting and focal techniques, resulting in the story being told through the truly agitated emotional situation of Annie Sullivan. Her coarse, translucent flashbacks bring us first-hand into Sullivan's visually-impaired world. And I'll never forget those various cross-dissolves panning around and around on a loop. Or how characters will sit in silhouette in their respective moments of doubt and vulnerability.
Born to Kill (1947)
If He Wasn't Born to Do It, Why Else Would He?
If you enjoy the camera-as-paintbrush quality of a film noir from 1947, then Born to Kill is a distinctive, effective and stylish film. If you require a more strict standard for wit, plausibility and consistency in what had better be an interesting plot, Born to Kill is unconvincing and forgettable. The former is written on my DNA, not to mention a constant source of fascination and thrill for me. Even so, it's difficult to get past the stressful, awkward experience of watching a categorically difficult Tierney, constantly hoping to glean what beautiful, wealthy women like Claire Trevor and Audrey Long find so irresistible about him.
Tierney plays an incomprehensible character named Sam Wild, a psychopathic slum kid, a former boxer and rancher, with a no-good personality and a scalding temper, who somehow manages to marry a rich and classy newspaper heiress, in the plush blonde form of Long. Her adopted sister, in the form of the darkly alluring Trevor, begins to stir up troubles of infidelity and even murder, of course, with this treacherous character for what we can only suppose is the excitement of it. Otherwise, there is nothing to go on. There's zero charisma emanating from anywhere near Tierney at any time, much less an amount that would read on the privileged radar of such a high-born young woman. That leads me to not only how little they know each other by the time we're supposed to believe that sparks are flying, but also how little connection they have socially, economically or geographically. In the opening minutes, he kills a friend out of possessiveness for the girl between them and hops a train from Reno to San Francisco. On this train is where he meets Trevor, who just got a divorce and is returning home. Already, they're both changing their plans in their heads.
For what earthly reason would that happen? And yet, one wonders this question at the same time the refreshing surprise of Tierney's opening murder is only beginning to wear off. The handling of the scene by the adept, multi-talented director Robert Wise is surprisingly modern, scoring the brawl in a middle-class kitchen to big-band tunes incidentally blaring from the radio in the other room and employing a level of contrast between light and shadow that's high even for most B noir of the time. However ill-prepared the plotting and characterization seems to be---and I know that's the stuff that really matters---the movie's got style. But sometimes, style can be your downfall.
The most charming moments essentially arise from old-hand character actor Walter Slezak, whose performance as a private investigator deserves more screen time. Elisha Cook, Jr. comes in on his doorstep with his performance as the devoted lackey who for some totally unfathomable reason would even kill for friendship. And a thankless job that turns out to be, but why should we care when the guy had no reason to do the things he did except that it befits what we except of Elisha Cook, Jr.? Also by behaving so clownishly, Esther Howard makes another identifying mark of the material drawing no psychological links whatsoever between its characters and the events of the plot. Though it's a worthy enough surprise when she shows some nerve by spitting on Trevor.
So, one does not come away with much when all is said and done. But in the moment, Wise's direction is that of both an expert, ahead-of-the-vanguard artisan of an expressionistic canvas and an outsider, working in a milieu he understands intellectually, but just not emotionally. Needless to say, he would soon begin to make films that used his talent not as a study of insects but as a study of emotional, adventurous humanistic characters.
A Portrait of Insecurity
This tidy little character study of a lonesome guy and a lonesome gal who discover one another in the marauding rabble of a Bronx ballroom and hook up notwithstanding their families and friends makes a warmhearted and charming story, alive with the kind of frank observation of ordinary, monotonous folks that even now rarely makes the screen. Save quite an abrupt conclusion, it's a spruce and gratifying movie. Basically, this hour-and-a-half vignette is simply a pleasant, melancholy castigation of some of the socially self-conscious mores of the inner-city working class. The hero, a gruff, thickset butcher, is 34, single, taking no risks and adrift in tedium and seclusion. He lives with his old-fashioned Italian ma and squanders dreary hours with his likewise feeble pals whose paradigm of femininity is shared only by Mickey Spillane.
Into the life of this chum comes a dull, desperate schoolteacher who's as hopelessly jaded and alone as he. She, also, has accepted the humiliation and sorrow of being rejected. She, as well, has nearly tired any expectation of finding someone. And albeit our hero nobly assures her, she needs much more than assurance. Borgnine, who "would've done it for free," and Betsy Blair are such an endearing pair of underdogs. Dogs, indeed, according to the values of the Bronx backdrop. And that's what makes them lovable.
Blair's first moments are so crushingly tender. We see how naïve she is on account of her desperation to lighten the weight of desperation and inferiority. She'll take whatever she can get. It makes this early Chayefsky nugget that much more life-affirming that it pulls no punches in life's cruelty to her, because when Marty comes along, we feel that relief, that warmth that she does. It's because of Borgnine's unassuming earnestness that we immediately see that Marty is not just the one of any shoulders Blair needs to lean on, and hang on to for dear life in her quiet, beaten-down way, because his performance is not in the least self-involved. He treats his co-star with the attentive care and respect that's needed for them to ignite the screen as small-fry lovers in the quicksand of their insular neighborhood, which is its own rich character.
As Marty's anxious mother, Esther Minciotti is excellent, and Augusta Ciolli is brilliant as a dourly needy aunt. Jerry Paris is gripping in his few scenes as the aunt's conscience-suffering son, and Joe Mantell is amusing and penetrating as Marty's chum. Chayefsky's script is rich with truthful and vibrant dialogue, so brusque and tactless at times that it breaks your heart while smacking of humor with its frankness and liveliness. And Mann's superb dramatization has got the texture and savor of the Bronx.
There is this down-to-earth state of affairs. That's it. Yet inside the histrionic interlude of not much more than a day or so, our hero infiltrates the reserves of his apprehensive and self-doubting mindset. He movingly acknowledges someone equally as forlorn as he. And he humorously and daringly grasps for her despite the pathetic sneering of everyone else.
Broken Lance (1954)
They Were Stealing His Cattle
A Western at the same time it's a universal story, Edward Dmytryk's sorrowful CinemaScope film concludes an individual validation for dropping dimes before the HUAC. He views himself maintained by a society preoccupied with traditions drained of their importance, and everything he cares for deceived by his strong-willed loyalty to an older set of principles. While Philip Yordan and Richard Murphy's script is akin to King Lear, it's more precise to christen it an end-of-the-line outing that would emerge much more in the Western genus throughout the '60s. Yet the movie is the bell toll for one man's rosy picture, and what's absorbing is the degree to which the demise of this guy's faith touches in virtually the same tone as the dispersal of the Old West as a genre. The legend of machismo as it's fixed in the Western illuminates itself precisely with this one instance.
The baby of Matt Devereaux's four sons, Joe is swarthy and modest, the pacifist and a natural to inherit Matt's demanding cattle territory. Regrettably, he's obstructed by the bitterness of his oldest half-brother, Ben, and the reality that his mother is Senora, an Indian whom Matt's partners equivocate as Mexican but whose lineage marks Joe an outcast, a half-breed. When Joe becomes smitten with the governor's gutsy daughter Barbara, the governor himself, E.G. Marshall, in one of the film's paramount episodes, communicates to Matt his remorse that he can't excuse Joe's birth legacy. As the movie begins, Joe is sprung from prison and accompanied to the governor's office, where his brothers propose a kickback to tempt him to trade his share of the family farm, which has laid barren by his idling half-brothers since his imprisonment.
The presence of familial distortion looms over Broken Lance, unavoidable and hopeless to camouflage. Joe's charm, his basic indomitable integrity, is his advantage in a pitiless life. When Matt brandishes a bullwhip against the copper mill owner polluting his herd's spring, or when Joe asserts that he has no recourse but to bite the bullet for his father's temper, there's a sense of dignity in its brute reasoning: the old man fighting his own relinquishment in the only way he knows, and the progeny maturing, forgoing his innocence to relieve the failings of the forebearers. A poignant film from the first astounding CinemaScope panorama to the last, this character-driven cowboy drama, in its analysis of the faction of masculinity, searches the ideal uncertainties of an ideal Western at the same time it moves forward in its understanding and sympathy for the little guys and the racial unrest of the era. And it situates as one of the earliest dirges to the fading of the West.
All the opulent colors are positioned in visual leadership of a verdant production. The use of sound and music is remarkable, indicative of wise division of the film medium's powers and, particularly in Joe's homecoming to the family stomping grounds, a startling amount of directional atmospherics for its time. And what I suspected least, riveting, crackling dialogue. And effective in its economy, too, like when Joe tells Barbara he's a half-breed. "Anyone still call you that?" she asks. "Not since my first day in school." The ultimate howl of a symbolically significant coyote resounds one of the most powerful punctuations of any Western I've seen.
Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
Can't Say It's Been a Pleasure to Meet You
From the very start, we follow this story of civilization's collision of traditions from the point of view of a visiting English widow. From the very first scene, she is significantly stunned and incensed at the feudal mores of Siam when she disembarks there in 1862 to educate the king's clan of children, and mulishly declines to grovel before him and proceeds to spend several years in hot-cold teetering with him. This is actually a moving and ultimately very poignant story not because of its interest in the discord between the Imperialist Victorian ideology with the autocratic regime of Siam's King, though it does produce a handful of interesting, even funny scenes. It's because of the interpersonal attachments, deteriorations and healing of wounds by the extraordinarily moving triage of performances by Irene Dunne, Rex Harrison and Lee J. Cobb.
Something we face when watching old movies is the reflection of ideas and attitudes of a time in our history not very far back at all. And some of these reflections are more socially or institutionally offensive than others, some not at all, some charming. Anna and the King of Siam is a matter of judging datedness against dramatic effectiveness, cultural attitudes against a screenplay based on personal accounts, mainly, beautiful performances against crude, exclusionary portrayals of Asians by actors in yellowface.
Rex Harrison and Lee J. Cobb are given artificially slanted features and deep synthetic tans with make-up as the king of Siam and his deeply loyal and deferential Prime Minister. To modern eyes, this is immediately a difficult thing to accept. But the effectiveness of their characterizations I attribute as a testament to the performances of those two actors, in the face of how difficult it is to accept the mob-connected union boss on the Waterfront in a turban and no pants. And yet by the end, they have made us forget about them as white movie stars and genuinely begin to sympathize with them acutely as two men of cast-iron codes of values that nevertheless their humanity will always challenge.
It's difficult to judge the movie's cultural attitudes against the true elements of the story without reaching outside of the movie itself, what's on the screen. In terms of the four sides of the screen while Anna and the King of Siam plays on it, I see a much more immediate issue with judging the movie's theatrical datedness against its dramatic effectiveness. And either way, it is indeed dramatically effective. This sort of subjective experience is what makes old movies important to preserve: They're going to keep on meaning different things to different people till the end of time.
Now if I'll get to the point, the reason for this film's surprisingly intense poignancy is, as I say, moving characterizations by three great performers. One of them is in every single scene, and that's Irene Dunne, playing Anna the governess from England, who brings her son with her. One of the most palpable, touching things of all I've ever seen this amazing actress do is, after building a character whose cast-iron code of morality and decorum matches both said Siamese white men combined, revealing not merely a maternal instinct, but a maternal need. There comes a point in the story where her need for a son must be supplanted. She and the young boy in the scene are so tender together, only a lack of a pulse could prevent tears.
Dunne, as sublimely classy as she ever was, holds her bonneted head high, displays sharpness with attractive reserve and ultimately releases sore, poignant tears. Her lady is on a plain with some that Greer Garson has played. The dignified and glorious woman, an ever-admired character in cinema and invariably a specific preference for admirers of Irene Dunne, is paid tribute in the customary luxurious way, but not without a raw bone of excruciating humanity and an enormously dramatic transformative arc.