Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

August 23, 2015

the-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmithIn the otherwise forgettable 1985 potboiler Badge of the Assassin, there’s an exchange between a black cop and a black revolutionary that I think of often (it was also used as a sample in the incendiary 1992 single “Guerrillas in the Mist,” by Consolidated ft. Paris). The cop tells the revolutionary that what he did “doesn’t make any sense.” The revolutionary shouts, “It do not have to! It only has to get noticed. They have to understand — oppressing people costs!” Well, those last three words could serve as leitmotif for America these last few years, and also for the morally complex 1978 Australian drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. This film, perhaps still the greatest of Aussie cinema, is recommended to anyone who doesn’t understand why Ferguson burned — why it had to.

It’s the turn of the century in Australia, and eager young Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine), goes from one job to the next, being denied full proper wages for the work he does for casually racist white landowners. It gets harder and harder for Jimmie to hold his placatory smile in place, especially when he marries a white woman (Angela Punch) and she gets pregnant. Jimmie can’t support a wife and child on what he makes, and pretty soon some local women conspire to make sure Jimmie no longer even gets groceries in exchange for services rendered. The agenda, it’s clear, is to send Jimmie back to the squalor he’s trying so hard to transcend.

Jimmie has rejected the black world — the Aborigines are required to live in repulsive circumstances — and won’t be accepted into the white world. He’s a true nowhere man, and it drives him insane. He goes to the house of those meddling local women, accompanied by his not-entirely-with-it uncle, and before anyone knows what’s happening Jimmie has killed or maimed several of them with his axe, leaving only a crying infant alive. Thus begins a terrible, personal war on whoever has slighted Jimmie, and along the way he no longer leaves infants alive. He’s too far gone. The movie in no way justifies his rampage, but it has patiently laid the sociological groundwork so that we understand why it happened. Oppressing people costs.

Released in America two years after its Australian premiere, Chant was a calling card for the strong director Fred Schepisi, who soon moved to Hollywood; his best-known mainstream film is probably the superb Steve Martin rom-com Roxanne. Here, Schepisi works in a classical style, no funny business with the camera or with editing, just a clean and horrifying account of a man breaking down in insupportable conditions, his anguish both mocked and heightened by the wide-open spaces preserved in flawless widescreen compositions. The movie is gorgeous pure filmmaking even when we wince at the violence — and we do, because Schepisi doesn’t present it as cathartic or exciting. Especially not cathartic. Jimmie goes over the edge and it does nothing for him other than to get his cheerful half-brother (Freddy Reynolds) killed and to get his own face half shot-off.

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), which in turn was based on a true story, the film might these days, in more sensitive times, be called “problematic”: After all, does not Jimmie fulfill the whites’ jaundiced view of him as a savage? Yes, he does, and that’s the tragedy. Jimmie wanted so badly to be welcomed into white society (he was raised by a white minister and his wife), and when he was systematically rejected, he had no self to fall back on, no identity other than the “other” he was shown that he was. He had no choice but to become the “black bastard” his world insisted upon. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is both a national epic and a national nightmare, and of course the nightmare extends beyond Australia. It may trouble the sleep of anyone who is part of the white-privileged group, who scoffs at “Black Lives Matter,” who has knee-jerk racist panicky reactions to the mere presence of black people because they know deep down that oppressing people costs, and who knows when the bill will come due?

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

August 16, 2015

valerieweekofwonders2Grown-ups want to scare kids away from having sex too soon. Fairy tales are loaded with this agenda, and so are any fable-inflected movies about a young innocent’s fearful introduction to adult sexuality — David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Phillip Ridley’s The Reflecting Skin, Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Marielle Heller’s current Diary of a Teenage Girl. To this list we might add Jaromil Jireš’ Czechoslovakian surrealist gem Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which shares with Stephen King’s Carrie and John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps a certain menstrual dread: when the girl becomes a woman, blood flows, and not just the expected blood.

Valerie, like the actress who played her at the time (Jaroslava Schallerová), is thirteen. She lives with her grandmother (Helena Anýžová) and pursues an odd relationship with a young man (Petr Kopriva) who may or may not be her brother. There is a horrid-looking vampire skulking around called the Polecat, and Grandmother seeks to sacrifice Valerie to him and become a vampire herself so as to gain eternal youth and get back together with her former lover, a repulsive priest who tries to molest Valerie. This bedtime story, with its knife-edged sexuality and nightmare logic, is decidedly not for children, though it uses what we would call adult themes to illustrate what children know instinctively anyway.

The visuals are positively swollen with metaphorical import, starting with the early image of a daisy dappled with blood. At one point, Valerie comes right out and says she’s asleep and dreaming, but that just seems like a reassurance to the more insecure viewers in the audience. Why do we demand that everything in a movie, especially one as elliptical as Valerie, make literal sense? Sometimes a movie is a story; sometimes it’s a song or a poem or a sketch. The story at the heart of Valerie is somewhat emotionally convoluted, premised as it is on yearning and dread. We may fear for Valerie, but she seldom fears for herself; she tells herself she’s dreaming, and therefore none of this is “really happening” to her, but she also could be aware that she’s in a fairy tale.

One thing Valerie knows, that all children know and grown-ups wish they didn’t, is that adults can’t be trusted. This is why Grandmother is all too willing to sell her granddaughter’s soul, and why the priest wants Valerie’s body. The movie isn’t saying anything as boring as “all grandmothers and priests are bad”; it’s more that grown-ups have their own angels and demons, incomprehensible to children on their side of the sexual equator. (In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, adult male sexuality is likened to the chittering of chthonic insects.) To understand grown-up madness is to cross over into it forever and to lose the magic of childhood, symbolized perhaps by Valerie’s enchanted earrings, which she’s always in danger of losing or having stolen from her.

There’s an awful lot to unpack here, and it’s full of nightmarish supernatural creatures and bizarre human behavior. Sexuality here grins and feeds and infects. It drives adults crazy, makes way for the sleep of reason that literally produces monsters. Valerie is a horror film, sort of, in that it touches on carnal terrors, but for Valerie herself it’s all a strange but wonderful journey — hence Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, not Her Week of Trauma. The world surrounding Valerie is populated by corrupt men and weak women, who drain each other’s lifeblood figuratively. Valerie hasn’t quite entered that world yet; she sees it through a scrim created by being half in childhood and half in womanhood, so therefore she sees it as we see it through the film — jumbled and chaotic yet serenely menacing and darkly erotic. We see it all through Valerie’s unfrightened gaze. Like the best fairy tales, Valerie is voluptuously suggestive, a bit dangerous, and perfectly legible on its own subterranean terms.

A Face in the Crowd

August 2, 2015

a-face-in-the-crowd-1On a recent episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg prescribed a viewing of 1957’s A Face in the Crowd as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s unaccountable popularity among a small segment of the populace. The movie explains more than that, actually. A primer on the ease and dangers of American demagoguery, A Face in the Crowd sets its sights on a drunk drifter and takes him all the way up to the position of political kingmaker. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) goes a long way on cornpone aw-shucks charm, most of which he consciously ladles on. Rhodes has a sharp, shrewd mind, and people underestimate him at their peril; he has an instinctive comprehension of the relatively new medium of television, and he uses it to sell products — energy pills, candidates. Same thing.

Rhodes is discovered in an Arkansas jail by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and soon enough she regrets her role in “making” him (she even dubs him Lonesome). Rhodes segues from radio to a local TV station to a major New York network. He can’t seem to step wrong. His listeners/viewers love his honesty, and when he ridicules his first sponsor, a mattress company, sales of their mattresses rise 55%. Marcia and one of Rhodes’ writers, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), look on in dismay. They know Rhodes is starting to rot behind the mask. There he is on his top-rated show, enabling a senator’s explanation of why Social Security is un-American. Daniel Boone, after all, wouldn’t have needed it.

Griffith’s hungry, lunging performance (it was his film debut) is a shock and a revelation to anyone who knows him primarily from The Andy Griffith Show or, God knows, Matlock. Rhodes wasn’t the last villain Griffith played, but it was most likely his most vulnerable and recognizable. Rhodes’ impish, vulpine grin and ferocious cackle — Whitman’s barbaric yawp in full frightening effect — complete the mask, the face that the crowd wants to see. In one respect, it’s the audience’s fault for buying into Rhodes’ patter, because they need someone to believe in, someone to give that power to. If it isn’t him, it’ll be someone else. The audience is gullible but also fickle, and is always looking for a reason to discontinue its belief.

Budd Schulberg’s script verges on didactic at times but never quite tumbles over. As sociopolitical satire, the movie was decades ahead of its time, even scooping 1976’s Network. The acting, especially by Griffith and Neal, is witty but primal at times, almost Kabuki-like (also note Neal’s silent-horror-film method of indicating distress by clutching her face). There were moments when I was afraid on behalf of various characters in a room with the raging Rhodes, even though, aside from a bar fight he gets into (but doesn’t start), he’s never particularly violent. He’s never too far away from hysteria, though. One of the film’s virtues is showing us the burden of Rhodes’ cult of personality. He got where he is by artificial honesty, and now he can’t ever say what he truly feels or it’s all over. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says to us about Mr. Trump, but it bears remembering no matter who steps up to a podium to sell us a pill, a candidate, or a war.

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

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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 naïve 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

July 19, 2015

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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

July 9, 2015

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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.

Forty Years of Jaws

June 21, 2015

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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.


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