Archive for the ‘mystery’ category

π

June 24, 2018

pi-2Darren Aronofsky’s feature debut π, which observes its 20th anniversary on July 10, follows in the tradition of other artsy first films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, and E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten. It’s short — mercifully short, we might say, while acknowledging its ornery brilliance — visually harsh, shot in grainy, high-contrast black and white that eventually rubs sandpaper-like against the eye. And it is entirely devoted to its own vision, its own interiorized world. It’s probably not coincidental that anguish and mutilation are on the menu in all four of these movies; you have to be a certain kind of viewer to want to watch them very frequently. Of the four, though, π seems the most interested in the world outside itself, even if only fleetingly and fearfully.

An exacting artist, Aronofsky has made only six films since this one — Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Noah (2014), and mother! (2017). Many have been polarizing, and I was probably in the minority when I declared the frantic fable mother! the great American film of its year. Aronofsky’s art does not always work for me — I found Requiem and Black Swan pompous and conceived in bad faith — but he consistently takes such chances, swings so hard for the fence, that I can absorb and even respect the two out of seven films that didn’t land for me. π is a workout, no question, and not for everyone, but it has intellectual and spiritual fervor, and even when it stops dead for some mystical exposition, at least it assumes our intelligence (though also our patience).

The movie follows Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who thinks numbers are everything — are in everything, explain everything. He lives in a crappy, ant-infested apartment with a rickety computer he calls Euclid, which he uses to try to game the stock market. Instead, it spits out a 216-digit number, which Max disregards; then various folks ranging from Hasidic Jews to Wall Street agents descend on him. They all want what he knows; he doesn’t even know what he knows. This aspect of π is sort of a wry indie rewrite of the standard detective story, where the scruffy gumshoe is menaced by people wanting the MacGuffin or the dingus or whatever. Max is a gumshoe of number theory, and the MacGuffin is in his head. Then again, so are paranoia and migraines and, in the notorious but abbreviated climax, a drill bit.

The soul of π, though, isn’t in its thriller tropes (there’s a hectically-staged chase scene that’s as boring as any other chase scene) but in the scenes with Max and his old friend Sol (Mark Margolis), a math warhorse who got a little too close to the flame of numerical truth and had a debilitating stroke. Margolis is 78 now and has always looked 78, even 20 years ago in this film, and we believe him as an exhausted old man who has forsaken math obsession; we also appreciate seeing him as something other than a cold-blooded mobster. The two men sit and talk quietly in Sol’s equally rumpled apartment while they play Go or Sol feeds his fish. It’s top-drawer stuff, and proved that Aronofsky wasn’t just some hip hotshot but an artist engaged with his characters’ emotional readings. (Margolis has gone on to appear in almost every Aronofsky film since, like a lucky charm, except for mother!)

Max is surrounded by people, benevolent or very much otherwise, who want something from him; aside from Sol, the only person he has time for is a little Chinese girl who loves to throw calculations at him. She reminds him, I guess, of a time when his particular strange acumen might have been fun. Enjoyment, relaxation, a rare computer chip — people keep offering Max things to pull him away from his own obsessions, his own head. But he can’t, and won’t, be distracted. He is the damaged loner as outlaw artist, a theme Aronofsky has returned to again and again, or has at any rate lived in his own life. Coming back to π after his subsequent pieces puts them all into perspective — even the hornéd beast mother!, which I would gladly recommend on a double bill with π if it wouldn’t make you come after me with a drill.

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The Maltese Falcon

September 26, 2016

the-maltese-falconHumphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is a likable bastard, someone you might come to with your troubles but not with your power of attorney. Sam is a private detective in San Francisco on the cusp of wartime (the movie was released about two months before Pearl Harbor), dealing with shady characters of vague and various nationalities. The Maltese Falcon is less about Dashiell Hammett’s plot than about the interplay of cynical villains and anti-heroes, and first-time director John Huston (who also wrote the script) was savvy enough to know that. The Maltese Falcon itself is, as Sam might say, hooey; it’s what Hitchcock liked to call the MacGuffin, the thing nobody has that everyone wants.

This is a great and unmistakably American entertainment, and might lay claim to being the best directorial debut of 1941 if not for a modest little film called Citizen Kane. As it is, The Maltese Falcon more or less inaugurated film noir as it came to be known in Hollywood, even though Huston doesn’t do all that much show-offy with the lighting or compositions — his effects are subtle, a sturdy cage enclosing a menagerie of creatures. Aside from a couple of scenes dealing with the murder of Sam’s partner Archer, the movie stays confined to offices and hotel rooms — it’s claustrophobic, with the boxy Academy format hemming everyone in further. At times we seem to be viewing the world through a keyhole — the movie turns us into detectives.

A woman calling herself Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) drifts into Sam’s office, speaking of a dangerous man threatening her sister; there is no sister, and no Ruth Wonderly either — her real name, or at least the one she settles on, is Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Sam pegs Brigid as trouble from the start, yet still develops feelings for her, and is self-aware enough to be bitterly amused by them. There’s a reason Sam didn’t quite turn into a running character for Hammett (he appeared in three other short stories) — he’s less a serial hero than a flawed portrait of wised-up urban manhood, complete with the prejudices of the day. He enjoys slapping around Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in his iconic American role), whose homosexuality was more explicit in the 1930 book, and he enjoys needling the touchy thug Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.) by referring to him as a “gunsel,” which pointedly did not mean what the squares of 1930 or 1941 (or 2016, possibly) thought it meant.

Cairo and Wilmer work for “fat man” Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who yearns to possess the titular bird statue, or “the dingus” as Sam dismissively calls it. By this point in the narrative it hardly matters what the Falcon is or what it’s worth. All these vipers want it, and Sam says he can get it, but he’s just weaving his own web of deceit. The Maltese Falcon is a comedy-tragedy about liars (the only straight shooter in the movie is Sam’s secretary Effie, played as a wry sunbeam of morality by Lee Patrick); the comedy derives from the sharp back-and-forth in the dialogue, as the liars assess each other and figure out who knows what and what can be gained, and the tragedy is bundled in at the end, when, as Danny Peary pointed out in the first book of his Cult Movies trilogy, one character goes quickly to Hell, while Sam proceeds more slowly but will get there sooner or later.

Seventy-five years old on October 3 (when it comes to the Brattle in Cambridge for a four-day 35mm screening), The Maltese Falcon feels evergreen, not so much in style or attitude but in mood. It was the first of five films Huston made with Bogart, though I’m not prepared to say it’s the best — The African Queen and especially Treasure of the Sierra Madre pose hefty competition. It is, though, the movie from which a lot of blessings flow; its influence may feel fainter in this era of romcoms and caped crusaders, but look for it and it’s there. Its calloused urbanity comes from Hammett, its cheerful cynicism from Huston, its peculiar human gravity from Bogart, that odd, tooth-baring presence who excelled at men with dark corners, who was seldom less than compelling. Huston sets about surrounding this man of gravitas with a circle of moral gremlins, all of whom try their best to steal the picture (Lorre comes closest) while Bogart heavily stands his ground and fends them off not with a gat but with a gibe and a sneer.

Li’l Quinquin

January 3, 2015

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“Open that cow’s ass,” commands a detective, “and show me what’s inside.” Before long, the growl of a chainsaw disrupts the lapping quietude of the oceanside crime scene. Welcome to the phlegmatic but askew reality of Li’l Quinquin, a four-part saga written and directed by Bruno Dumont for French TV and just now opening in America in limited release. Lengthy but never boring, the story comes divvied up into fifty-minute segments; the three hours and seventeen minutes march by like a Netflix binge-watch of your choice of quirky TV mysteries. Li’l Quinquin has drawn comparisons to Twin Peaks and True Detective, but it also shares DNA with such creepy-cool freak-of-the-week programs as The X-Files and Fringe, what with all these cow carcasses turning up with human body parts inside them.

Genetic experiments? Alien shenanigans? If you seek resolution, you’re barking up the wrong mystery. Dumont, best known for a variety of bleak, severe dramas, would rather establish the community affected by, and possibly giving rise to, these weird events. Two cops — Captain Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and his right-hand man Carpentier (Philippe Jore) — move from suspect to suspect, confronting their own irrelevance when each suspect ends up in a cow. (Sample absurdist dialogue, in case my lede didn’t sell you: “I was sorry to hear about his body in a cow on the beach.”) Followers of Dumont’s earlier work have expressed surprise at the tone of Li’l Quinquin, which hews closer to the tongue-in-cheek, or at least to cosmic bemusement.

The eponymous character (Alane Delhaye) is a complex and prickly pear, a ten-year-old boy who likes to toss firecrackers into his own house. Quinquin is civilized enough to have a tender relationship with a local girl, but is nonetheless well on his way to a life of racist violence. We aren’t told how to feel about Quinquin or about anyone else; nobody in the narrative seems quite whole. The only person around who looks remotely Hollywood is a teenage girl who wants to sing on TV; her rather tone-deaf rendition of a song called “Cause I Knew” goes on interminably at least twice, once at the funeral of the first victim, where a gigglingly inept pastor almost derails the service and the organist plays bombastically and self-indulgently. Nobody seems to care about the dead woman except her widower, and he becomes cow stuffing before long. There’s even what might be a backhanded salute to superheroes when a kid dressed as “Speedy-Man” enters the picture, climbs a wall, and exits, leaving behind a chill of incongruous weirdness that outdoes the whole of Birdman (to say nothing of Guardians of the Galaxy).

I confess this is my first exposure to Bruno Dumont (but not my last). I make this confession to assure you that, though a background in Dumont’s prior work might help Li’l Quinquin work on a deeper level, it’s not mandatory. Feel free to jump right into this epic; it’s immersive, like a good thick novel, and the widescreen compositions, by cinematographer Guillaume Deffontaines, showcase the enticing French countryside. It’s overall a soothing experience. The narrative isn’t heightened, and until the last half hour or so there isn’t even any non-diegetic music (why the movie finally allows some classical needle-drop is a question for more hard-nosed interpreters than I). The story stretches but is expertly paced — pacing is why a two-hour film can seem as though it’s crawling while a three-hour-plus work like this breezes by, and it’s a mystery of editing and the intuition of great moviemaking. Dumont uses the extra sprawl of his canvas and the luridness of his premise to indulge himself in the best, most playful sense. We don’t feel left out of the fun; we feel drawn in by the elliptical character-building and by the society on view, which we might say was splintered by the murders if we didn’t suspect it was pretty thoroughly splintered before.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.

The Girl Who Played with Fire

June 26, 2010

In their first cinematic go-round, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, intrepid journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and goth computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) didn’t actually meet until about halfway through the film. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, they don’t come face-to-face until the movie’s almost over. They “see” each other twice before then: Lisbeth watches Mikael enter her home via remote camera, and Mikael watches an incriminating disc of Lisbeth being raped by her “guardian” in the previous film. Both show Lisbeth being violated — her privacy, her body.

Grim as a funeral on a rainy Monday, The Girl Who Played with Fire finds Lisbeth wanted for three murders she didn’t commit. Mikael believes she’s innocent, and spends the movie tracking down suspects. The system, of course, is ready to throw away the key on Lisbeth — she has a checkered psychiatric history, and her bed partners include women as well as men. The late Stieg Larsson, who wrote the bestsellers these movies are drawn from, wanted to indict Swedish society’s misogyny and homophobia. In Lisbeth he found the perfect afflicted heroine, too fierce to be a mere victim but too damaged to stay out of trouble.

Lisbeth passes much of the movie in hiding, staying at an unregistered apartment and tapping away on her laptop. Mikael makes a lot of phone calls. Despite that — and its stately pace — the movie is not boring. There’s a nicely erotic encounter between Lisbeth and an old flame (Yasmine Garbi), and a crisply staged fight between a boxer and a big white-haired bruiser that packs more excitement and tension than most of the summer blockbusters have to offer. At their heart, though — and this feels more pronounced here than in Dragon Tattoo — these movies are high-flown pulp; this one comes complete with revelations about Lisbeth’s family that feel imported from soap opera, where everyone seems connected not entirely plausibly. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but shouldn’t being shocked with a Taser disable someone even if they can’t feel pain?

Ah, well. Dragon Tattoo was so good (and the next one, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is said to return to those heights) that disappointment in its sequel is probably inevitable. Partly, as noted above, it’s because the movie is missing the first film’s chief source of charm — the uneasy rapport between the decent Mikael and the spiky Lisbeth. Both actors keep their halves of the film afloat — Noomi Rapace scores again with her tough-vulnerable portrait of Lisbeth — but the movie works less as a cracking mystery than as a screed against scummy men, and an excuse to rub Lisbeth’s face in more dirt. If you share my fondness for the characters, that affection may pull you through this glumly compelling but unpleasant film. You may wish for more scenes like the tender meeting between Lisbeth and her ailing old former legal protector; the snarly young woman gently feeds the old man and even smiles at him. You may want a movie that gives this heroine — and this actress — more reasons to smile and fewer reasons not to.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

March 22, 2010

Lisbeth Salander, the 24-year-old heroine of Stieg Larsson’s bestseller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and now the film version, is a great, prickly creation. On paper she may seem a collection of quirks: a goth, bisexual, chain-smoking, brilliant computer hacker with a history of violent behavior. But Noomi Rapace, the actress who breathes life into Lizbeth, gives a full-scale star-making performance with reserves of complexity and pain. Rapace carries this two-and-a-half-hour murder-mystery solidly, and seemingly effortlessly, on her slim sharp shoulders. Whoever takes the role in the upcoming American remake has gigantic shoes to fill.

Lisbeth isn’t the only lead, though. The other is Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist facing three months in prison after his exposé of a corrupt industrialist got him tagged for libel. Mikael is hired by another industrialist, this one retired and far more benevolent, to help solve a 40-year-old mystery. The businessman’s niece went missing in the ‘60s, and he believes she was murdered. He also has little trust or love for his family, some of whom were or still are Nazi sympathizers. It’s a large family with many red herrings. Mikael takes the job — he has nothing better to do, and the case revs up his muckraker’s blood.

The mystery isn’t the best reason to see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; for one thing, it leads to the sort of revelatory moment we’ve all seen a million times, in which the killer explains himself and seems to lack only a pointer and chalkboard. (The recent Shutter Island included that, with some parodic wit, I think.) No, the reason to watch is the relationship between the fortyish journalist and the severe young hacker, who eventually helps him with the case. The original Swedish title of the book and movie is Men Who Hate Women, and Lisbeth has met more than her share of such men. But Mikael is different; he doesn’t seem to have a corrupt or even sexual bone in his body — he cares only about compiling evidence. His monomania appeals to Lisbeth, who has her own one-track mind.

The movie really is their story, though it’s over an hour into the film before they even meet. Before that, we watch them separately, each having a difficult time of it. Lisbeth is assaulted twice by a sleazeball who’s been appointed her new “guardian,” but she avenges herself so swiftly and decisively that we spend the rest of the film not worrying about her. She can take care of herself. It’s Mikael, surrounded by a clan of suspects monitoring how close he’s getting to the truth, that we worry about. Director Niels Arden Oplev spreads gravely ominous music over the proceedings, pointing up how isolated Mikael is in his shack on the family’s compound. The suspense, I think, would be easier to sustain if we didn’t know there are two other books — and movies, though they have yet to open here — in this series.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo compels us in the good old ways — the piling up of clues, the decoding of hints, the use of old photos to recreate a micro-movie of a subtle but key event. What sets it apart thematically is the late Stieg Larsson’s preoccupations with racism, misogyny, and financial scandal as corrosive elements in the Swedish character. What sets it apart emotionally is the moving and sometimes funny rapport between the rumpled reporter (Michael Nykvist’s warm, steady performance will probably be overlooked but shouldn’t be) and the pierced angel/demon who can do anything with a MacBook. I’ll happily sit for two more movies featuring this pair; I only wish there could be more.

Spider

December 13, 2002

David Cronenberg’s Spider is some sort of master class in rigorous filmmaking; this director cuts to the bone now, with absolutely no flab and no ingratiation to the mainstream. Cronenberg tells bizarre and psychologically gnarled stories, but he tells them with a calm and measured sense of purpose, as if he had all the time in the world, and he assumes a high level of patience on our parts. Spider is slow but deadly, fixating on minute details as if weaving a world around us, and the world becomes a web smothering reason.

Working from Patrick McGrath’s screenplay (based on his novel), Cronenberg gives us an unreliable narrator — Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralph Fiennes), a schizophrenic who takes up residence in a dingy halfway house. Spider is haunted by his past, which we see in fragments, with Spider standing off to the side and observing. We see Spider’s working-class parents, a plumber (Gabriel Byrne) and his wife (Miranda Richardson), who seem to be more or less existing together. The joy seems to have gone out of the marriage; the father frequents a local pub, where he begins an affair with a local “tart” (also played by Richardson). One night, the mother catches the father in flagrante delicto with the tart; what follows convinces the young Spider that a murder has been committed.

We’re not convinced, though. For one thing, the movie often shows us events at which Spider was not present. Spider pursues the mystery anyway, though, a rumpled gumshoe unsure of his own perceptions. Playing this cracked inquisitor, Fiennes builds tension and heartbreak out of indecipherable mumbling and ritualistic, twitchy gestures. Cronenberg’s precise direction keeps us breathing the same stale air as Spider, and the lying, manipulative essence of cinema itself forces us to share Spider’s viewpoint even as we’re questioning it. Miranda Richardson also has a tough role — a triple role, actually, since she also takes on the part of the nurse running the halfway house (played at the beginning by Lynn Redgrave). Richardson is encouraged to play the mother sensibly, the tart and the nurse as threatening caricatures, which of course is how Spider would experience those two women. Gabriel Byrne, too, manages a difficult balancing act as the father, playing against decades of abusive, drunken working-class dads in movies. He drinks, and he fixes toilets, and he seems to be having sex with a local whore. But is he a murderer? And is she a whore?

Spider is bound to be misunderstood by literalists and Freudians, and those who persist in seeing misogyny in Cronenberg’s work. He presents, without comment, a programmatic view of women as either saints, whores or bullies that’s rooted in psychosis; all women become perversions of Spider’s beloved mum. Spider sifts with trembling fingers through the shards of his life, picking out pieces that may not reflect the truth. Cronenberg fixates on the possibly irrelevant and makes it relevant to the complete picture. Martin Scorsese used to be capable of films like this — small gems that root around in a damaged brain, persuading you that no subject could be larger or more important. Cronenberg, who came from visceral drive-in movies, is in his way as obsessive and as purely cinematic as Scorsese. His worlds are hermetically sealed; no outside perspectives are allowed to intrude, no glimmers of pop culture. Spider is Cronenberg’s most delicately poetic work yet, a shattered mirror whose reflection is false but finds its own truth.