Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Big Knife

The 1950s produced a rash of sordid Hollywood insider tales—an offshoot of film noir’s knowing cynicism, perhaps. Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife, an adaptation of a Clifford Odets play, sits somewhere on the lower end of this mini-genre. His film lacks the camp grotesqueries that keep Sunset Boulevard compelling despite its sneering broadsides at slow-moving targets, and Aldrich can’t even touch on a more graceful, complex film like The Bad and the Beautiful, which implicates everyone in the whole corrupt system yet still exults in the joys of moviemaking. Instead, Aldrich settles for obvious villains and martyrs in this story of Charlie Castle (Jack Palance), a movie star yearning to escape Hollywood in order to salvage his marriage, but blackmailed into signing a new contract by the implacable studio (Rod Steiger, hamming it up as the studio boss, seems less modeled on Louis B. Mayer than Satan himself, browbeating people into signing away their souls). The Big Knife plods along like a medieval penitent, lashing away at the system that spawned it without understanding that self-abasement contains its own sin—namely, pride. Some aspects of the film’s attack on Hollywood still retain their sting, such as Shelley Winters’ excellent turn as an aspiring starlet kept by the studio as an unofficial call girl, but mostly the film lacks the perspective necessary to recognize the maudlin self-pity it has dressed up as tragedy.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010


When the lights came up on Tetro, a woman sitting behind me declared of director Francis Ford Coppola, “He’s gone senile!” While no one rushed to defend Coppola’s mental faculties, another woman mused of the film, “But I wonder how much of it relates to his family…” The first woman cut her short. “I don’t want to know,” she said.

While I don’t think Coppola is quite ready just yet to be spoon-fed mashed carrots while wearing an adult diaper, I can understand the woman’s frustration at his latest film. The story begins quite modestly but succumbs to an incident-mad frenzy that lets a tight narrative center unravel as things spin out of control. Family history and fiction don’t just merge here—they fuck each other ravenously in the remains of Coppola’s film. It’s, um, messy.

The film begins with the reunion of two brothers, when 17-year-old Benny (Alden Ehrenreich) lands in Argentina fresh off a cruise ship and reconnects with his long-absent elder brother, Tetro (Vincent Gallo, a galumphing terror here). A once-promising author, Tetro tortures himself with his failure, nursing a broken leg while hiding from his family—particularly his father, Carlo (Klaus Maria Brandauer), known as a brilliant musical conductor to the world, but a tyrant to his family.

Tetro’s great unfinished novel is based upon the sordid history of his family, a morass of guilt and anguish that includes the death of his mother in a car accident (he was driving at the time, thus increasing the self-pity quotient by a factor of at least ten), as well as the rivalry between Carlo and his brother Alfie (also a conductor, and also played by Brandauer). But the ending of this story remains unwritten. Tetro, seemingly in love with this lack of resolution, leaves the manuscript tucked away in a suitcase, the text safely coded in a backwards scrawl that can only be read in a mirror (a fitting metaphor for the film’s own messy, inscrutable nature). His immense creative energy becomes lacerating, and Gallo, tearing through this world like a hatchet, compellingly embodies the tragedy and violence of a genius that creates nothing.

The parallels between Coppola’s life and the film are obvious, but pursuing these connections is ultimately unrewarding. Yes, Coppola presides over a brood of artists (his son Roman even served as second-unit director on the film), and his father and uncle were both composers and conductors like Alfie and Carlo. Strangely, however, much of the family drama—the jealous rivalries and guilt and betrayal— is inert and underdeveloped. Coppola takes these elements for granted while engaging in all manner of narrative diversions and unleashing some of the most baroque stylistic flourishes you’ll find this side of an Orson Welles film.

Even in this unruly form, you can see Coppola attempting to fashion something quite rare out of this film: a living opera played out on the world’s stage. The extravagant style and melodramatic plot are meant to combine into something larger than life—a musical expression of primal emotions exploding a repressive family structure. Dashes of Oedipal rage allude to the darker corners of the family unit, and the overheated drama and artful visuals are clearly an attempt at creating a larger canvas for these epic themes. The film builds such an aura of heightened unreality that I was primed for the characters to burst into song and dance, if only to bring this style to the absolute peak of its giddy absurdity. Gallo throws off his crutches and does a few fancy steps at one point, but I would have preferred a full musical number.

Alas, I may never get to discover the pleasures of Vincent Gallo’s soft-shoe routine, and the film falls short of its grand ambitions. It remains a style searching vainly for the content that could justify its excesses, finally done in by its own insular nature and that scribbled doodle it calls a plot. The film climaxes with a laughably left-field twist that hardly helps matters by muddying already murky waters. Indeed, the whole last section of the film feels like answers to questions no one had bothered to ask.

I grant that the energy—and sheer cinematic fervour—Coppola brings to Tetro is a rare quality, providing an abundance of style (misplaced at times, but lovely at the same) and ideas (often ridiculous, but still). A film that elevates its subject matter, whatever its other failings, will almost always be a more engaging experience than one that diminishes its content (see A Single Man for a pertinent example of this). But I also can’t deny the irresistible pull of that audience member’s contemptuous declaration, “I don’t want to know.” There are secrets here, she suggests, but why should I give a damn?

I wish I could tell her. Coppola clearly sees an invisible thread running through this increasingly unlikely jumble of ideas and occurrences, but he can’t communicate the source of his passion and belief—all we see is his ecstatic flailing, the gestures of significance. The film finally resembles nothing more than a private joke. The teller laughs, but the audience remains baffled, until all they can do is succumb to that final damning shrug of indifference.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Single Man

Is this a joke? The thought periodically flickered through my mind as I watched A Single Man. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut is an immaculately serious character piece about George Falconer, a gay English professor in the early 1960s mourning the loss of his lover while carefully planning out what appears to be his suicide. And while I tell myself Ford must be taking this seriously, his excessive stylistic flourishes—pushing into realms of grotesque self-parody—give me cause to doubt.

The problem is that the film begs for a lighter touch. Instead, Ford smothers this slender, delicate story beneath a great red velvet curtain of ART, a crushing weight that grinds melancholy down into melodrama. Ford instills every moment with such gravity that absurdity is the inevitable outcome, even if not the original intent.

And perhaps the film could have worked as an over-the-top satire on repression and homophobia in the pre-sexual revolution era, except that the film bounces between poles of somberness and silliness without ever really settling on either. But my gut tells me Ford was going for something personal and heartfelt here, only to be sabotaged by his own childish giddiness at his new-found cinematic toys. For this story to achieve the grace it aspires to would require a subtlety and restraint not found in this world of garish close-ups, shifting colour palate, and slash-happy editing.

In the litany of bad choices made by this film, the burdensome, omnipresent score deserves special mention. Films unable draw out emotion through other means will often overuse music as a crutch for the deficiencies of performance and script, but in A Single Man, the inescapable, overwrought strings are less a crutch than a bat, beating the last bits of sincere emotion out of scenes.

The saving grace of the film is the performances. Despite some crying-in-the-rain excess early on, Colin Firth is actually quite good as George, particularly in the quieter moments, where a thin smile can say so much more than fiddling around with colour stocks. The film is at its best when the actors are allowed to play off each other, whenever Ford steps back from turning every gesture and look into a moment of unbearable sadness and simply lets the performances breathe. The simplest scenes are often the most nuanced and rewarding: George laughing and dancing with his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore, savouring every gin-soaked, bitchy moment with her character), or talking late at night with a young student (Nicholas Hoult), who reaches out to the lonely professor with a desperation that may or may not be sexual.

Such moments point to the modest yet tender and moving film this could have been—a film about the disappointments of life, about the addictiveness of loneliness and self-pity. But in this painfully arty film, style doesn’t extend the emotions buried in the story but instead substitutes for them, and rather pitifully at that. When George says he feels like he’s drowning, we know it because Ford has been smacking the audience in the face for the entire film with images of George adrift underwater. Never mind the risk of condescension inherent in such an obvious device—the sheer literalness of the image turns George’s despair into a quaint novelty. Ford treats the extreme emotions of the story with a mixture of overly pious respect and sarcastic dismissal. He seems not so much interested in exploring the depths of human experience as he is simply bemused that people feel anything at all.

But if we can't have a modest beauty, could we at least have a grand farce? Morbid humour appears in isolated moments like traces of a far livelier film long since smothered beneath lumbering self-importance. When George engages in an extended bit of comic business involving finding a comfortable position in which to blow his brains out—culminating bizarrely with him climbing inside a sleeping bag—the mordant wit jolts you out of the film. Weren’t we supposed to take all of this seriously just five minutes ago?

The film appears to be cutting down its own pretensions in such scenes, which makes it all the more unfortunate moments later when Ford dives back into his washed-out art-hell for another round of stylized moping. Ford should have handed direction of the film over to whatever part of his brain was responsible for such depravity as the fantasy cutaway where George, like a wayward, piddle-happy pup, pisses all over the neighbour’s obnoxious son. Whether or not the result would have been a better film is debatable, but at least it would have possessed some verve, some hint of vitality—instead of this elegant corpse we have in its place.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Thing

Equally hilarious and horrifying, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing is on the surface a basic—but satisfying—siege thriller. The Antarctic setting makes for a nice combination of claustrophobic interiors and dreadful icy vistas—the perfect place for a group of men to be terrorized by an alien shape shifter that sometimes resembles a fleshy flytrap and other times a three-dimensional, fluid-spurting version of Picasso’s Guernica (man and beast yoked in bloody congress).

But for an inveterate ass-kicker like Carpenter—aided here by his bad-ass muse of choice, Kurt Russell—the violence in The Thing is curiously self-defeating, each attack on the creature wrecking another part of their shelter until the men are left choosing between grisly alien death or slow subzero suffering. Thank god Carpenter is such an able director of pulp thrills, because this would be unbearably dark if he wasn’t so good at coming up with amusing ways for people to have their hands severed and heads bitten off.

Sure, since the alien only attacks when you’re alone, it would seem simple to thwart it by just staying in a group, but that’s a dilemma for this anti-social film. You may need others to survive, but you can’t exactly trust them either (especially when one of them might be a face-sucking alien). So what’s a cranky individualist to do? The ending, boldly and humourously downbeat, is an acerbic rendition of this paradox. The good news is that you saved the world. The bad news is that some people survived.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air is the sort of film that diminishes the instant you leave the theatre. It makes no serious missteps, but only because it risks so very little. After it was finished, I felt a little resentful—am I really expected to believe that something so polished and bland is an example of quality filmmaking? I imagine it has already reserved a slot in some future Academy Awards montage, presumably one of those self-celebrations of Hollywood’s endless dedication to making pictures that expose the pressing social concerns of the day, as acted out by millionaires with strong jaw lines and good teeth.

Using timeliness as a dodge, the film evokes economic anxieties while avoiding any real stance or political outlook. Like a fog that descends upon viewers, the notion that this is a comment on the economic downturn obscures the fact that the only pressing social matter actually addressed by the film is whether or not George Clooney will ever settle down and have kids (millions of People and Us Weekly readers want to know).

As Ryan Bingham, a roving executioner brought in by firms too cowardly to lay off their own staff, Clooney is the usual smooth charm and fast talk. There are some laughs to be found in the banter and quips, but director Jason Reitman’s competent and unremarkable style is too glib to handle the more somber aspects of the film’s final third, as Ryan struggles with the emptiness of his lifestyle. The film moves with pep and does a good dance, but when it counts you realize you’ve put your money on a featherweight.

As Ryan tries to deal with his lack of emotional connection to other people, the film becomes a rather dull paean to the importance of family in these hard times. The film makes its point mostly through cheeky reversals, such as having the stridently anti-commitment Ryan coaching his sister’s nervous fiancĂ© on the virtues of marriage. Most depressingly, the film allows Ryan—supposedly alienated and emotionally isolated—to buy back his soul, rather than earn it, through a series of simple good-will gestures that cost him nothing yet leave him redeemed. No longer an angel of death, he now serenely floats above us, a benign, beatific presence or some such Hollywood plop.

In interviews with laid-off white-collar workers at the beginning and end of the film, Reitman ostensibly gives a voice to the unemployed, and yet denies them of anything to say beyond banalities. The opening montage is a collection of alternately angry and pitiful outbursts; the concluding is a feel-good homily to how wonderful it is to have a husband or wife to hug you when you’re laid off. Am I the only one disgusted at the thought of turning the unemployed into the chirping chorus of one rich guy’s mid-life crisis?

Cheer up, the film seems to say, unemployment isn’t bad, as long as you’ve got a family to care for you. (If you don’t, then I guess you’re fucked, but that’s not part of the script.) All you need is love, hocus pocus, happy times are here again. Personally, if I’m being asked to swallow this shit sandwich, I’d like a good dose of hot sauce. Can we get a little bit of rage here, please?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Whenever I watch a Terry Gilliam film, I often envision a high diver who empties the pool and then jumps, trusting to a sudden rainstorm to fill it with water before he’s chewing the tile. There’s something fascinating, even admirable, in that reckless spirit, but you also wonder if maybe just this once he should figure out the landing before he leaps. This is particularly true of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which does some lovely somersaults before crashing into a messy heap.

Turning a grandiose duel between good and evil into a gaudy slice of ghetto vaudeville, the film shows Doctor Parnassus bartering favours from the devil and then haplessly trying to win back what he has lost—such as his daughter Valentina. In less subversive hands this premise could be overbearing, but Gilliam downplays the exalted elements (Parnassus is fighting to win souls from the devil) for the debased (Parnassus is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic). All of this salvation and damnation business takes place through a magic mirror that opens into a realm of pure imagination—presumably the titular Imaginarium, although such expository details are considered beneath the film’s attentions.

Of course, this is all a bit of sideshow to the much-ballyhooed use of three actors to fill in for the deceased Heath Ledger. The device is clever and even fairly appropriate: Ledger’s character, Tony, is possessed of shadowy motivations, which remain further obscured behind each new face he takes on every time he enters the magic mirror. Dodging a potentially disastrous blow to the production, Gilliam rises to the challenge of Ledger’s death and creates a solution that fits quite gracefully into the film.

But the substitutions are still a bit too tidy for my liking. Just consider the strange possibilities of the story if Ledger’s understudies were allowed to run amuck outside the Imaginarium. Instead, everything is neatly demarcated even as the film attempts to project an air of charming, antic disorder. Gilliam lurches toward the surreal without ever achieving it, leaving us with the fantastic and irrational awkwardly contained within half-hearted narrative logic, like attempting to draw a little box around infinity.

The other significant downside to the four-for-one device is that it draws so much attention to what is essentially a supporting character, distorting what is already a rather diffuse picture. Gilliam cultivates a lack of narrative focus here, with no character being solid enough to anchor the film. The plot, much like Gilliam’s characteristically cluttered and flat framing, is a jumble of ideas and images that compete for attention without ever really commanding it.

Out of all of this, you might pluck some delightful offhand moments, such as a scene in the Imaginarium featuring a chorus line of burly police officers in heels and skirts dancing in front of a banner declaring, “We [heart] violence” (shades of Monty Python here), but moments are all we have. The wonders of the mirror world prove to be poor compensation for the lack of a cohering narrative. I was more enchanted by a forest of cardboard cutout trees just on the other side of the mirror than by anything in the Imaginarium itself. Once we enter CGI territory, everything becomes flashy and flat, alienating and dull. Just because you can make anything on a high-powered computer doesn’t mean you should, and a bit of handicraft ingenuity will almost always trump graphics.

Still, as long as things are in motion, the film is not without its incidental pleasures, as any messy doodle from a fertile imagination should possess. But once everything fritters to a stop, all of this narrative detritus ceases to hold together and you’re stuck with the awful question of just what to make of it all. People learn nothing and live; people learn nothing and die. At the end, Parnassus gazes at a scene of domestic contentment with sadness and longing. Unfortunately, this film supposedly dedicated to the pleasures and power of the imagination may make you feel a similar yearning for the world of the safe and bland.