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

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.

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

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.


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