The Third Man

Posted July 26, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, film noir, one of the year's best, retro, tspdt

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The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a na├»ve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.

What We Do in the Shadows

Posted July 19, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, horror, one of the year's best

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The secret of the great mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, which comes to DVD this week, is that it would almost be as funny if it weren’t about vampires. But the vampires here, along with various werewolves, zombies, and the occasional human, are written so sharply and with such pungent idiosyncrasy that the comedy goes far beyond what you’d expect from a supernatural farce at this late date. The movie was written and directed by New Zealand comedians Jemaine Clement (of the musical-comedy duo Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi, who also play two of the vamps, and their approach is generous, even affectionate. Everyone in the movie is allowed to be interesting, to seem as though they have inner lives and experiences outside the film.

Clement’s Vladislav is your typical lordly, disdainful goth vampire, but with odd insecurities and frailties that take him down a peg — since going up against a nemesis he calls The Beast, Vlad has never been the same. Waititi plays what could be considered Vlad’s opposite, Viago, an affable and conciliatory vampire — Michael Palin forty years ago would’ve played Viago to the hilt, and Waititi has some of Palin’s bluff friendliness, which in the context of vampirism is hilarious. Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) is the youngest of these vamps, who all live together in a grungy flat; Deacon used to be “a Nazi vampire” and is now stringing along a human familiar (Jackie Van Beek) who yearns for eternal life. Finally, there’s the hissing, Nosferatu-like Petyr (Ben Fransham), who’s eight thousand years old and exists in the flat’s basement.

The movie’s joke — that these vampires are essentially just idiot flatmates like the blokes on The Young Ones — deepens when regular guy Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) is turned into a vamp by Petyr. Nick can get the other vamps into nightclubs they previously couldn’t get invited into (a great detail), but they prefer the company of Nick’s human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford), who works in IT. For some reason, the entirely boring Stu charms practically every supernatural being he comes across, and one can’t tell when he’s been hypnotized into being oblivious to unearthly events and when he’s just too dull to respond to them. The more often we see him, bland and potato-like, in the background of shots featuring bloodsuckers and zombies, the funnier Stu gets.

Yet this isn’t a hip, cold comedy: Because our vampires care about Stu’s safety, we do too. What We Do in the Shadows pokes gently relentless fun at the mope-rock self-seriousness of vamps, goths, self-styled outsiders, without really attacking what they are. The sensibility is Christopher Guest’s democratic mockumentary vibe by way of the self-parodic pomp of Morrissey. The unsmiling Vladislav actually has reasons to be gloomy, but that doesn’t seriously affect the fun. The budget was obviously low, but the few visual effects always pack a witty punch, particularly when two of the vamps get into a “bat fight.” If you thought it was no longer possible to mine the vampire film for fresh laughs, and even for unexpected pathos, you have a treat in store.

Ex Machina

Posted July 9, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: one of the year's best, science fiction

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It’s never a bad time to ring the old more-human-than-human bell, and the serenely troubling Ex Machina, which hits DVD next week, rings it loud and clear. A search-engine employee, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), wins a trip to the remote Alaska compound of the company’s big boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). This is not a social call: Nathan’s life project, having made billions from his popular search engine, is to create artificial intelligence that passes the famous Turing test. Essentially, a machine must convince a human that it is human, that indeed it does not know it is a machine.

To that end, Nathan has worked his way up to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a sleek, delicate-looking unit who’s half Bride of Frankenstein, half the Invisible Woman model — some of her body and skull are transparent, revealing elegant inner workings. Ava often has slightly delayed responses, accompanied by gentle whirring. Those responses seem almost human, but to what extent is her behavior simply learned, a shrewd way to manipulate her way to freedom? Hell, to what extent is anyone’s? Like any good robot movie, Ex Machina considers the mechanistic human moreso than the personlike machine.

Screenwriter Alex Garland has made a clean, effective directorial debut here, staging a quiet three-character chamber piece. I don’t suppose the movie breaks much new ground, but it’s pleasantly antiseptic and pensive, with a bearish central performance by one of our most magnetic young actors Oscar Isaac. Nathan sports a shaved head and a bushy beard, a plausible look for a genius who doesn’t want to spend time fussing with his hair or shaving his face. The beard, along with the name of his corporation (Bluebook), carries associations with Bluebeard, who like Nathan has certain rooms you may enter, certain rooms you must not.

Caleb is a bit of a cipher, an audience avatar with occasional scientific patter. He’s an obvious opposite number to Nathan, a moralist whose sympathy for the machine may also keep him from becoming a great scientist. The movie unoriginally suggests that genius requires a degree of inhumanity, but Isaac keeps Nathan connected to a childlike need for sensation, input. Nathan drinks, dances, passes out, enjoys intimate relations with his creations. The story begins to seem pared down to its essentials, almost elemental. If it never quite reaches us emotionally, maybe that’s because grabbing us by the guts isn’t the game Garland is playing.

The stark interiors (which become bathed in red light on a regular basis whenever the power is cut) contrast with the chaotic outdoors in a way that tips Garland’s hand a little: Nathan, of course, tries to control his environment and can’t. In the end, Ex Machina shakes out as a high-functioning mood piece, a sharp slice of atmosphere, a riff on familiar themes. In Nathan it gives us hot-blooded mind, and in Ana it offers a body that exists at the pleasure of a man, no matter his high-flown rhetoric. Ana ends up being a feminist heroine, yearning for escape from the man who keeps her. Yet she’s also humanity seeking to slip the bonds forged by the gods. Ex Machina takes its deserved place next to the other children of Fritz Lang and Karel Capek.

Brace

Posted July 5, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, romance, short

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Brace is a pocket-size (24 minutes) romantic anecdote that engages an under-represented group: female-to-male transgender people. Adam (Jake Graf) is searching. Fresh out of a relationship with a woman, he drops into London’s gay nightlife to see if the company of men works any better for him. He meets Rocky (Harry Rundle), a delicate-looking young man so nicknamed because of the fights he’s been in (“I didn’t say I started them”). Both people have a secret — the same secret, as it turns out. Adam and Rocky are both transmen.

Adam is a bit further along, having obviously started on testosterone treatment and gained manly stubble. He looks like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors whose soulfulness plays against their masculinity. Adam seems like your typical brooding gay man. Rocky is smooth-skinned and wide-eyed, an innocent. One can see what Adam sees in Rocky, and vice versa.

Written by Graf, and co-directed by video artist Sophy Holland and actress Alicya Eyo, Brace is a compact story of difficult love that segues organically into a tale of violent intolerance. The gay-bashing scene at about the two-thirds point isn’t there only so that we can feel sad; it moves the plot along as the victim of the beating effectively becomes outed. The directors stage the violence so that we wince, but don’t rub our noses in it. The nightlife scenes, by entertaining contrast, are brief but punchy; unlike similar scenes in feature-length films, they don’t drone on long past the point at which we want to go home.

Adam’s ex Zoe (Georgia Winters) stays friends with him and even accompanies him and his friends to clubs; when the boys plan to go to a men-only joint, Zoe graciously bows out, even though she must be aware of the irony. (Adam is pre-op.) The directors handle Zoe as though they’ve been in her shoes, while Jake Graf has been saying in interviews that Brace has a strong element of autobiography. The story and dialogue feel lived, authentic.

I sometimes say a feature-length movie needed to be shorter, or to stay a short film if it had begun life as one (see Eat with Me). This movie needs and deserves to be fleshed out to regular length. It ends somewhat abruptly, and I wanted to know more — about Adam and Rocky, and whether they overcome their secrets. From Boy Meets Girl to Transparent to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, we’ve seen the male-to-female journey so often lately it’s almost in danger of becoming a trope. Female-to-male is relatively fresh in narrative film, and it brings up a whole other volume of interesting things to say about gender and its performative aspects in culture. I’d welcome a longer Brace, a longer visit with these people.

Brace is viewable now on Vimeo.

Forty Years of Jaws

Posted June 21, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, one of the year's best

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This past weekend, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws turned forty. I used to consider it a horror film; after some thought, I decided it fit better in the action-adventure section; nowadays, though, it almost plays as a comedy-drama. Not that it doesn’t pack scares and thrills, but it has a peculiarly ’70s appetite for small character detail. Jaws isn’t really about a shark, or even really about the hunt for a shark. It’s about a man, Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), looking to make an impact on his new community. Brody has moved himself and his family from New York to Amity (a thinly veiled analog of Martha’s Vineyard), and he expects his new peacekeeping gig to be, well, peaceful.

Adapted from a fairly awful Peter Benchley novel, Jaws clears away the book’s bestseller-chasing junk and flab — infidelity, the Mafia — and whittles the story down to three men against nature. In that respect, the movie actually feels more literary than the novel does, with its echoes of Melville, Hemingway, even Ibsen in its controversy over whether to close the beach. The men — ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) along with Brody — represent various male responses to societal threats. You can know everything about it, you can be a hard-ass, you can have the authority of a badge — you’re still not guaranteed to beat it (“it” being death itself).

The young Spielberg, aided immeasurably by a cadre of top-flight artists — composer John Williams, editor Verna Fields, cinematographer Bill Butler — turned in a visually restless yet smoothly, supremely confident piece of work that suggested this was his twenty-second feature as director rather than only his second (if we don’t count such TV films as Duel, which I suppose we should). Aside from the much-cited suspense that came about from not being able to shoot the problematic mechanical shark, Spielberg gets the fierce adrenaline and joy of the seafaring hunt for the monster, who at this point in the movie could be a submerged leviathan or the Kraken or a dragon as easily as a shark. Past a certain point it hardly matters.

The concept goes back to Grimm: the villagers are imperiled by a beast, and brave men must face it. It did not, of course, occur to Benchley or his adapters that brave women could also face it, but then this isn’t a movie that especially values machismo, either. If anything, a woman — the grief-stricken Mrs. Kintner — is the one who finally gets the ball rolling, shames the mayor into authorizing the hunt. The first attacks, as in a horror film, happen under cover of darkness; when the emboldened monster feasts in daylight — and on a child, no less — the conflict shifts, and most of the second half at sea unfolds in the sun. The major exception is the rightly celebrated Indianapolis monologue, which takes the form of a historical campfire tale.

In the intervening decades, during which movies have often been said to have degenerated from the glory days of the ’70s, we have been asked to imagine a contemporary blockbuster that would take so much time out for the story of the Indianapolis. It’s assumed that today’s audiences wouldn’t sit still for it, but I think they would, if the scene were as tightly edited, sharply written, and beautifully acted as it is in Jaws. The movie has been blamed for creating, or at least cementing, the box-office worship of the blockbuster era; the movie also happens to be brilliantly crafted, and I’d like to think that, more than anything, is what changed the face of the blockbuster (which for several years had been the province of generally klutzily-directed disaster movies like Airport). In Spielberg’s hands Jaws becomes a gleeful, sometimes sadistic celebration of pure cinema, man against beast, all the chthonic symbolic stuff that makes the story work even on people who’ve never been near the ocean. Forty years on, let’s raise a glass to that.

Honeyglue

Posted June 14, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, romance

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Passion counts for something — passion and respect for idiosyncratic detail. In Honeyglue, the parents of a dying twentysomething stand in their living room and try to talk their way through their agony. They want their daughter dead and out of her pain — no, they want to die instead of her — no, they want to do something, but nothing can be done. The exchange, with all its awkward pauses and its rise and fall of emotion, takes up perhaps two minutes but feels much longer. The language is strange, stilted, grasping. It doesn’t sound like the way normal people talk, but these aren’t normal people; they are unwilling tenants of a land called Our Daughter Has Terminal Cancer, a place full of derangement and grief.

This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are straight-up terrible. But those are the parts that grew on me, because they attempt something, and the movie fearlessly works its time-honored trope — dying young woman falls in love — in order to illuminate and to explore weirder corners. The woman, Morgan (Adriana Mather), meets Jordan (Zach Villa) in a nightclub. She has gone there alone on her birthday, telling her parents she was at a movie. Jordan, a sardonic crossdresser, steals her wallet, then thinks better of it after a bee stings him. Jordan is putting together a kids’ book about a bee who falls in love with a dragonfly, and he’s the bee, and Morgan is his dragonfly.

I believed in the affection that developed between them, because the actors have a tender, unstable, witty rapport. Morgan’s dad, a former detective, distrusts Jordan on sight and is implausibly rude to him; I agreed to accept that as the father’s way of trying to protect his daughter from whatever hurt he can spare her. But Jordan is for real; he turns out to be Morgan’s perfect gentle knight, albeit one in a skirt and Louise Brooks wig. Jordan lives in a tent on an apartment building roof; his presence there is tolerated by a junkie acquaintance (Fernanda Romero) who is pointlessly vicious to him, and who is connected to ethnic baddies to whom he owes money (which he borrowed for art school). This thread of the movie is ludicrous and needed to go.

Morgan and Jordan soon get married, after he shaves his head out of solidarity with her, and their honeymoon is extended and sometimes feels padded. There’s a truly terrible sub-subplot in which Jordan seems to have kidnapped a doctor — though we don’t see it happen and don’t know how it was accomplished — so that the doctor can be on call in case of emergency, I guess. It’s an idiotic thing for Jordan and the movie to do, and it has no consequences. This detour more or less kills the film.

But before it dies, it has a bizarre life. I respected the difficulty of many scenes. When the couple go to visit Jordan’s mom (a fine turn by Amanda Plummer), it feels almost as if the writer-director, James Bird, gave Plummer a basic outline and invited her to run with the scenario — you haven’t seen your son in a decade, you thought sure he was gay, and here he is married to a dying girl. Like Jordan, Bird has Native American ancestry, and he has a simple, unstressed and unfaked sympathy for the outsider that a more polished tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t quite reach. (If anyone is still going to adapt Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Bird has the chops and the heart for it.) Honeyglue — the title refers to a plot point in Jordan’s book — has its bad and pompous moments, but it also feels lived-in and genuine. I could see why these two cared for each other, and I cared for them. That is far from anything to sneeze at these days.

L.A. Slasher

Posted June 7, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, one of the year's worst, satire

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The horror/satire L.A. Slasher is the kind of film that has no character names, just generic labels: The Actress, The Reality Star, etc. They don’t matter as people, just as abstract concepts symbolizing how TV is ruining culture and society. Well, not if you don’t watch it, but never mind. The eponymous villain dresses all in white and an emotionless, androgynous mask, and he goes after people famous for being famous. There’s The Heiress (Elizabeth Morris), who hangs out with The Socialite (Korrina Rico). Both are abducted to add to the L.A. Slasher’s collection, along with The Teen Mom (Tori Black) and The Reality Star (Brooke Hogan). There’s The Actress (Mischa Barton), whose best friend is The Stripper (Marisa Lauren).

The filmmaking, by debut feature writer-director Martin Owen, is woozy and candy-colored — aggressively trippy overall, with many Dutch angles, swimmy camerawork, and general indifference to coherent action. When a character is run over by a truck, I couldn’t tell whether the murder’s awful staging is due to low budget or to directorial ineptitude. Another character seems to be drowned, but later shows up alive, just in time to be axed to death. The movie doesn’t like any of the victims, so we don’t either; in fact, the movie seems to agree with the L.A. Slasher that they deserve to die. As I’ve said of similar films in the past, it redefines “black comedy” as a movie in which people die and we don’t have to care.

The closest thing to a hero is The Actress, by virtue of not being openly obnoxious. Like a lot of performers here, Mischa Barton is asked to draw from some degree of personal experience in playing The Actress, who has a history of drug problems. Doofus pop star Drake Bell, most noted lately for an unkind tweet about Caitlyn Jenner, plays The Pop Star, a doofus. Eric Roberts is around for a few minutes as The Mayor, who drinks and whores around, in case you started to think the movie’s contempt was strictly female-focused. Even so — and throwing in The Producer (Tim Burke), a scuzzy casting-couch type — the film does relish the torture and bloodletting visited upon the women far more than that upon the men. I point this out merely to discredit the film’s stance that everyone in it gets what’s coming to them — they do, but some get it in a much more sadistic manner that belies satire and sidles up to misogynistic wish fulfillment.

L.A. Slasher is fairly awful and useless, with a fixation on the ’80s (including a soundtrack full of real or fake ’80s music) that doesn’t do it many favors. Slasher movies, after all, were less pretentious and more fun in that decade; they didn’t pretend to make heavy statements about the media and its various parasites. Worse, the killer talks, going on and on about L.A. and its menagerie of freaks and poseurs, and the voice belongs to none other than Andy Dick. At least we don’t have to look at him, but we still hear his tinny mocking honk as the Slasher, and it severely challenged any attempt on my part to sympathize with the devil. I may agree with some of the Slasher’s jaundiced commentary, but that doesn’t mean I want to see the Kardashians or Snooki tortured, and the experience becomes rancid and mean. Even Danny Trejo and Dave Bautista as two drug dealers (credited as, yes, Drug Dealer #1 and #2) can’t redeem it.


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