Saturday, September 28, 2013

Drug War

Facing a death sentence, a criminal leader bargains for his life by helping the police infiltrate the underworld. Will he betray them? Do you even have to ask? Drug War’s premise may sound as generic as its title, but Johnnie To’s film is stranger than any of the familiar genre tropes it draws upon. Like a coke-addled tribute to M, the film lays bare the intertwining structures of the police and criminal worlds, and then shoots everyone in the head for good measure. What began as a terse procedural ends with such grisly violence that any distinction between cop and crook has been blasted apart in the crossfire. Fortunately, To has more on his mind than doodling in the blood spatter, although his intentions only begin to become clear late in the film with a surprise reference to Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, of all things (it turns out chaining your main character to a corpse is a metaphor made for any occasion). By the time we reach the climactic schoolyard shootout, the clinical detachment of the early scenes has long since melted into festering disgust, leading into a conclusion that is as inevitable as it brutal. Drug lord and prison guard both peddle their wares, and the war begins and ends with a needle: the junkie’s syringe or the state’s lethal injection. Pick your poison.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Eight years of faithful service to Hollywood apparently drove Alfred Hitchcock to the experimentation of Rope, his first self-produced feature. Drawn from the Leopold and Loeb case, the film’s plot is very much Hitchcock in black comic mode: two bright young men murder a college chum, stash the corpse in a trunk and then invite the dead man’s friends and family over for fine dining and innuendo (every second line of dialogue is laden with morbid double entendres). But the stylistic conceit—the entire film consists of 10 shots stitched together to look like one long take—marks it as a key inflection point in the director’s career. Rope would serve as a corrective to the disappointing commercial and critical failure of The Paradine Case, much like how the low-budget experimentation of Psycho years later was partly spurred by the unfortunate reception of Vertigo. Even if it doesn’t qualify as major Hitchcock, the film remains a tribute to his willful perversity and restless creativity.

John Dall and Farley Granger work reasonably well as the ambiguously gay duo—the ultra-smarmy Dall is particularly fine in his role as an arrogant young killer—but Jimmy Stewart would do better work for Hitchcock than his performance here as Rupert, a rather unlikely fount of Nietzschean wisdom. When Stewart speaks of offing people to get better tickets for the theatre, his winking manner turns the entire speech into a tongue-in-cheek provocation from someone’s eccentric uncle. Confronted by the persuasive power of this philosophy, he renounces his ideas with almost inexplicable vehemence. Who knew he actually believed this stuff all along? I assumed he was just making conversation. The bemused tone Stewart brings to the film is at odds with the darker undercurrents of the story, where murder becomes a sublimated sexual act for the repressed killers. After strangling their victim, the pair slump into a post-coital haze, with Dall smoking languidly as Granger whimpers, “Can we just stay like this for a while?” I guess he wants to cuddle?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Blue Jasmine

More character assassination than character study, Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s mordant takedown of the widowed wife of a disgraced real-estate profiteer and her feeble attempts at rehabilitating her ruined life. As the broke (and broken) Jasmine, Cate Blanchett serves well as an imperious one-time millionaire reduced to popping meds and boarding with her grocery-bagging adopted sister. Dubious scenario aside—and this one is a bit of a tough sell even with the adoption copout—this is some of Allen’s most focused and effective filmmaking in ages, revealing a lighter touch that helps mute many of the director’s familiar shortcomings. Some secondary characters may still seem cobbled together from a few Borscht Belt jokes—Michael Stuhlbarg’s horn-dog dentist, for instance—but others have been elevated by imaginative casting, such as Louis C.K.’s genial turn as one of the biggest assholes in a film littered with them. Indeed, the worst of all may be Jasmine herself, who takes the fall for a self-destructing moneyed elite that has reduced the working class to collateral damage in its own petty games. For once, Allen’s scorn towards his characters feel earned, and he leaves this woman to the mercy of her own memories. She is reduced to a muttering mess of grief and guilt, while everyone around her repeats the useless refrain, “The past is past.” Anyone who has ever held a debt knows better.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Computer Chess

A primitivist techno-fable set at an early 1980s computer chess tournament, Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess is a devious study of loneliness in the cybernetic era. Strand a man on an island and he’ll find a soulmate in his volleyball; lock a programmer in a room with a computer and he’ll see a sentient machine with malice flickering behind its green CRT eyes. Given enough time and isolation, a person could anthropomorphize the air itself. All of which lends an unsettling aura of doubt to the revelation that Caltech programmer Peter may have stumbled upon genuine artificial intelligence in a computer that kind of sucks at chess. With his hunched shoulders and startled eyes, the young man seems to cringe his way through the world. When a pair of middle-aged swingers staying at the same hotel as the tournament try to seduce him into a threeway, the terrified youth flees the room before he can be afflicted by anything resembling human contact. Later, talking a female colleague—whom he clearly has a helpless, chaste crush on—Peter’s references to chess take on a repressed erotic tinge. “Did two bodies collide and one disappear?” he asks. Clearly, this is a man who would write love poetry in Boolean logic.

But Bujalski is interested in more than mere sniggering at the sex lives of computer nerds, however much fun that may be (and it kind of is, sad to say). Using a degraded video aesthetic, the director has created a film that seems to dissolve alongside the sanity of its own characters. One tournament contestant, the prickly Papageorge, ends the film trapped in a loop like a faulty piece of programming. Another imagines the competitors moving around the room like chess pieces on a grid. The madness culminates in one final deranged vision: a prostitute peeling away a chunk of her skull to reveal the blinking circuitry beneath. Compare this to Richard Brautigan—another Caltech poet, like Peter—who once wrote of a faux-paradise where technology and nature mingled in cybernetic forests and meadows (home on the range, where the deer and the androids play). For Brautigan, the rise of the computer world would push humanity back towards its stinking, root animality, reducing men and women to little more than pets beneath the benevolent watch of these “machines of loving grace.” Rather than the poet’s mock-innocent techno-utopia, Bujalski offers a more profane union, with man acting like machine and machine acting like man. Damaged loners living life through a screen, these programmers steadily lose their sense of where humanity ends and technology begins. Watch the world through a camera long enough and you might begin to think it was part of your eye too.