Friday, September 26, 2014

A Most Wanted Man

Slap a few horns and halos on characters and A Most Wanted Man resembles less a political thriller than a morality play, albeit one with angels and devils arguing the finer nuances of post-9/11 geopolitics while perched upon the shoulders of men. Adapted from the John Le Carre novel by Anton Corbijn, the film populates the purgatorial port city of Hamburg with those wounded by the war on terror: refugees, failed spies, idealists gone to seed. Warring tribes of spooks keep watch over two Muslims who occupy vastly different spheres of the social order. Abdullah is a prominent community leader who preaches tolerance while bankrolling violence; Issa is a Chechen washed ashore after fleeing Russian oppression, and his motives remain inscrutable beneath his shell-shocked demeanor. Anti-terrorism agent Gunter Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) tries to tempt both men towards redemption, while the U.S. attaché prefers the far simpler route of damnation. It seems you can believe in salvation all you want, but there’s no guarantee a higher power will match that faith. God is an American, and the Old Testament is clearly her foreign policy manual of choice.

But while the U.S. agent behaves as expected, Bachmann’s motives remain inscrutable for much of the film, hidden behind his wan smile as he parrots the American line about making the world a safer place. Even if he believes that cliché, his methods clearly have been deemed eccentric and naïve by his peers. Allusions to past mistakes appear again and again—the word “Beirut” is repeated several times like a penitent’s prayer—and suggest Bachmann may be more interested in saving his own soul rather than redeeming his targets. How else to explain his occasionally baffling need to offer these men the choice of amnesty over the threat of deportation? Elaborate state surveillance apparatuses typically do not spring up out of a government’s kindliness. Yet if Abdullah and Issa can be given better lives—or more accurately, coerced into accepting them—then perhaps the entire sick system can be redeemed. All of the deception and damage done in the name of peace and safety can be, if not forgiven, at least excused as ignoble means securing a noble end. If not, then Bachmann must confront the fact that he is but one more tendril of a creeping police state. The crushing final scenes of the film suggest that any such redemption is beyond reach for the man. Prisons, of course, are not built to set men free.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

Too silly to live, yet too ridiculous to die, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Dune survives now as a series of storyboards animated only by his titanic force of will. In the mid-1970s, the director gathered an estimable group of co-conspirators like Moebius and H.R. Giger—“spiritual warriors,” as he likes to call them—in order to design what now seems like the lost bridge between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. But Hollywood was not keen on handing over millions of dollars to a surrealist oddball, which makes it all the more inexplicable that the first adaptation of Frank Herbert’s (overrated, dull) sci-fi epic should be directed by the guy who made Eraserhead. Understandably, Jodorowsky is relieved at this rival version’s cruddiness, and his gleeful schadenfreude is one of the comic charms of Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s loving tribute to the lost film. With a great show of sympathy, Jodorowsky excuses David Lynch and blames the failure of Dune 1.0 on meddling producers, but there is a tinge of pride to this pity: Hollywood may have tamed Lynch, but it could not cage the great Jodo. It should come as no surprise that this man's peculiar metaphysics seemingly include the notion that everyone—but especially him—is god.

Certainly, Pavich and his faithful crew of talking heads are all too happy to indulge Jodorowsky’s genial megalomania. But a bullshit artist is an artist nonetheless, and the remarkably spry octogenarian has an enthusiasm that is hard to resist. Hearing him breathlessly describe his version of Dune is even sometimes more enjoyable than watching his films. The director, as an interlocutor of his work, possesses virtues often absent from his art: he’s giddy and jocular where films like Fando y Lis and El Topo feel weighted down with po-faced provocations and somber self-importance. Who wouldn’t sign up to a quixotic art-quest under the spell of this chattering whirlwind’s charisma? (Dan O’Bannon signs up for the project after doing drugs and becoming hypnotized by Jodorowsky’s face, apparently.) But while Pavich succumbs to the man’s charms, the audience would be advised to approach some of the stories with more skepticism. Some of the more dubious casting ideas suggest Jodorowsky is pulling our leg, or at the very least engaging in the cinematic equivalent of a fantasy football league (Orson Welles! Mick Jagger! Salvador Dali!). Still, such implausible conceits fit with the aura of impossibility that feeds the film’s enduring legend. Perhaps this is the purest expression of Jodorowsky’s surrealism—a film that exists only in dreams.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The cartoonish fancies of The Grand Budapest Hotel may appear at first like mere child’s play, but is there anyone more serious about play than a child? Wes Anderson’s latest film treats the interwar years as grist for a farcical caper, set in the whimsified European state of Zubrowka, where even the Sig runes of the SS have been transformed into the pink insignia of the no-less-threatening Zig Zag Division. Anderson crafts a world of immaculate balance and clockwork precision, but the violence of the Second World War lurks within this marvelous machinery as well (it’s all fun and games until someone loses a finger—or head). M. Gustave, the hotel’s concierge, displays a fetish for wealthy octogenarian lovers, and there is no better encapsulation of the film’s idiosyncratic combination of decay and decadence. Everyone seems suspended between the twin horrors of the two great wars, and the temptation to look down is surely hard to resist. Perhaps there are still glimmers of civilization amid the barbarity, Gustave says. But, as he also says, fuck it. Sometimes the abyss wins.

This white-capped never-never land is little more than a story of a story of something too fantastic to have even been believable in the first place, but the fantasy still succumbs to the inevitable degradations of time. Gustave’s commitment to the doomed elegance of the Grand Budapest can only mask the cracks in the foundation for so long. This is not only the illusion of grace—as his protégé Zero says—but also the grace of illusion. The film exalts in artifice while acknowledging its limits. Nothing can preserve this place, and the link between old world and new is severed with the simple tearing of a scrap of paper containing a feeble, forgotten promise of hospitality and respect. It’s a fitting symbol for the end of a place that ultimately exists only on the page: the film’s nesting doll structure leaves the vanished hotel immortalized within the pages of a book read by a girl in a cemetery decades later. All that remains of the vibrant Grand Budapest are frail words on a white page in a grey world. In a particularly striking touch, each one of the film’s different eras is filmed with a different aspect ratio, moving from a confining square in the past to a more expansive widescreen view as it nears the present. The world grows wider, yet there seems so much less to see.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Long Gray Line

Made during one of the more fertile periods in John Ford’s career, The Long Gray Line tends to be overshadowed by the surrounding masterpieces (The Searchers, The Sun Shines Bright) and popular successes (Mogambo, The Quiet Man). But dip into this slow-boiling vat of tears and you will find Ford’s nostalgia dissolving into a mess of contradictory emotions, ranging from despair to jubilation and every shade in between. A memory play in the mode of How Green Was My Valley and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the film follows the career of Marty Maher, a West Point lifer looking back at 50 years of dutiful service with a fondness hardly in keeping with the often-painful scenes he recalls. He begins his career as an inept waiter seemingly incapable of carrying a saucer two feet without reducing it to shards, and his whole life resembles one long pratfall. Shuffling from one failure to the next, he becomes a boxing instructor who can’t box and a swimming instructor who can’t swim. The film turns what is supposed to be a triumphant summation of a life well lived into an object lesson in falling upwards. One of the film’s running gags involves Marty foisting scalp cream upon a balding student—a young Dwight D. Eisenhower. Even with one of the teacher’s most famed and successful pupils, a hint of failure lingers.

Time turns all stories to tragedies, and Marty’s is no exception. The proud tutor of great leaders becomes the bitter factor of cannon fodder. His wife and father die. He argues with a plaque of his dead mentor in the school hallways. At Christmas time, his house teems with students and well-wishers as an old song transports him to years past. Surrounded by this vibrant community, Marty seems utterly alone. Military structures overtake individual lives: the Maher line ends with the death of his infant son, while the lines of gray-suited cadets seemingly stretch into eternity. Celebration and sorrow grow increasingly tangled until we reach the film’s climactic parade, where hundreds of students march in tribute to Marty as the man’s long-departed wife and father proudly look on. The other officers glance sideways at Marty as he reaches out to this vision, and it’s hard to tell if their worried looks signal mere confusion or horror at what appears to be encroaching dementia. But what shame is there living in the past? Each one of us will take up residence there in due time.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Barren Lives

Barren Lives opens on a battered landscape dominated by a single naked tree; by the end of the film the parched earth can’t even support dead grass. Nelson Pereira dos Santos has turned the drought-stricken northeast of Brazil into a dusty purgatory populated by listless cattle herders and hollow-eyed children, corrupt cops that torture you and then ask for directions, starving women ready to eat right out of a dog’s mouth. On the surface, the film evokes neorealism, but this is the husk of reality, hollowed out by the wind and turned brittle by the blasting sun. Santos is less interested in an objective view of poverty than a subjective experience of its indignities, with the deliberately spare sound design and liberal use of point-of-view shots continually undermining the documentary realism of the images. The director even occasionally dives into the perspective of Baleia, the beleaguered yet beloved dog accompanying the rootless Fabiano and his family, which only proves that the barrier between whimsical fable and miserablist drama is more porous than one would think.

“One day, we’ll become real people,” Vitoria, Fabiano’s wife, laments at the end of the film. “We can’t go on living like animals, hiding in the desert, can we?” Indeed, the characters live so far on the margins of society that they can barely walk in shoes, taxation seems like some sort of cosmic joke, and a leather bed is the sum of all wealth. By definition, these people are walking absurdities, outcasts eating their pet parrot in the bush (he didn’t talk anyway, the mother tells the quietly horrified children, in what could be construed as either excuse or threat). Heralded by the squeaking wheels of an old oxcart, Fabiano and family ooze out of the horizon like a vision, and they return to that same heatstroke haze at the end of the film. Supposedly they’re heading to the city to seek a better future, but what job prospects could possibly await an illiterate cattle herder? No, this is poverty as an endless cycle, an oxcart steadily grinding its axle into dust and shards, and turning still.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

In The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese treats the world of high finance in turn as frat house, college bowl halftime show, and lost episode of Jackass. Cocaine has replaced coffee as the upper of choice in the hyper-masculine halls of commerce, and power lunches apparently break into atavistic grunt-songs with such regularity that the other restaurant patrons barely even glance up from their steaks. Drawing upon the life of Jordan Belfort—a fallen financial wunderkind who scammed around $200 million out of investors—Scorsese turns real-world fraud into fodder for darkly comic absurdity. From a Quaalude-addled Belfort straining to crawl into his Lamborghini to a boardroom full of financiers discussing the fine print of their midget rental contract, the film zips from one gonzo setup to another with a lupine speed that belies its three-hour running time. Yet the film returns to the same few notes again and again, with volume the only variety to be found (your options are loud or louder). It seems excess is excessive, and apparently the idea must be embodied if it is to be conveyed. You might as well say a good war film is supposed to shoot the audience in the face.

Viewers may feel similarly blasted by Scorsese and crew once the credits start to roll. The film saves its final rebuke not for the guy convicted of money laundering, but rather the $40K-a-year types greedily dreaming up ways to meet their mortgage payments. Never mind the millionaires—the problem is that the schmucks in the crowd trusted the wrong wealthy elite to run the show. After all, if the system can bestow fame and good fortune upon the likes of Scorcese and Leonardo Dicaprio—estimated net worths of $70 million and $200 million, respectively—then surely it can’t be all that bad, can it? In fact, this apparent assault on corporate avarice and depravity is so devastating that its putative target feels comfortable making a cameo; Dicaprio even returned the favour and filmed a promo for Belfort’s motivational speaking business. But why shouldn’t Belfort happily appear in the film? Movie deals are good cash, and he has bills to pay like anyone else: $100 for groceries here, $90 million in restitution fees there. In the film, a negative article in Forbes only feeds the man’s fame and appeal. One can only imagine the spin-off benefits of being subjected to three-hours of supposedly scathing cinematic mockery.