Thursday, August 25, 2011


I think it best that I make it official up front: I am not really a fan of Nicolas Roeg. This has altogether been confirmed upon my second viewing of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which is easily my least favorite of the handful of movies I've seen from the director. I first watched it eight or more years ago when I had the Anchor Bay DVD, and I recall not caring for it much, but I thought enough time had passed to give it another shot. Plus, this time I'd be seeing it in a theater, and being a different time and a different environment, you never know. Maybe I could get into The Man Who Fell to Earth. Changing one's place in the temporal and physical universe is certainly in keeping with the nature of Roeg's work, regardless.

Suffice to say, things did not go as planned. Being trapped in my seat for 139 minutes just made The Man Who Fell to Earth all the more excruciating. The story itself covers 40 or 50 years, which is how long it felt like while I was viewing it. Funny, though, as much as the characters age, the world doesn't change. Is The Man Who Fell to Earth a science fiction movie or a horror flick where the 1970s never end?

The main appeal of The Man Who Fell to Earth for me, then and now, is David Bowie. I am a fan, and this film seemed like the perfect vehicle for the rock legend. In fact, Roeg is banking on and toying with the singer's image in the movie. This story of a displaced genius from outer space--written by Paul Mayersberg from a novel by Walter Tevis--has parallels with Bowie's own rise, the resulting problems, and the eventual experimentation and reinvention. His flaming hair is the same shade of orange he famously wore as Ziggy Stardust, the stage persona he invented in the early 1970s. He is the star brought low--by his fame, his addictions, and a public that both adores and misunderstands what he is offering.

In the movie, Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, a.k.a. Mr. Sussex, an inventor and entrepreneur whose globe-spanning corporation World Enterprises revolutionizes the modern world and how it interacts with technology and art. Or so we can surmise. Roeg is not concerned with such fussy details, the business end of things is more of a devise to establish Newton's primary mission. He is not a British ex-pat as his passport suggests, but an alien from another planet come to Earth in search of water. His homeworld is suffering a terrible drought. Only, now he is stranded, and he is using World Enterprises--abbreviated as WE, because, you know, he is us--as a platform to build a spaceship to get him back to his wife and kids.

Newton amasses his fortune, aided by an opportunistic patent lawyer (Buck Henry in ludicrously thick glasses) and eventually a chemist (Rip Torn) who feels drawn to Newton's work despite of, or perhaps because of, its being cloaked in secrecy. As the years pass, however, Newton gets sucked into life on Earth. He moves to New Mexico and experiences America the Surreal, an antiquated landscape of dilapidated carnivals, rundown motels, and shit-kicking cops. He watches television to soak up knowledge, test drives religion, and eventually tries on domesticity, settling into a long-term relationship with alcoholic hotel maid Mary Lou (Candy Clark). She gets him hooked on gin, and when he drinks, Newton has visions of home and can peer through time to see the original frontiersmen. Who can also see him. So how is that a hallucination exactly?

It may be silly to question the logic of a psychedelic free-for-all such as this, but I'd submit that's exactly the false apology that has allowed The Man Who Fell to Earth to garner its revered reputation. Nicolas Roeg's films suffer from the dual sins of "anything goes" and "good enough." No left turn is too sharp for him to take over the course of a narrative, yet he is also not patient enough to follow these impulses through. Many of the scenes in The Man Who Fell to Earth don't connect well with the scenes that surround them, and the film overall is visually sloppy. Roeg strikes me as a petulant adolescent who refuses to shave, much less comb his hair, because this is the style, man. The Man Who Fell to Earth presents an ugly, slapdash future, one that is as regressive as it is forward thinking. This may be part of the point--how else do you explain Rip Torn going to a record shop and buying vinyl even after David Bowie has introduced sound crystals to the world?--but Roeg never really sews any of it together. The clarity of his montage is regularly interrupted by indulgent auditions for future David Bowie album covers. Well, congratulations, sir, you managed to score two. (Low and Station to Station, for those keeping track.)

Sadly, good performers flounder under Roeg's direction. Buck Henry and Rip Torn are both okay, but they have both also done better. Sometimes a take is so clumsy, one might almost guess it's just the first one where the actors managed to finish without flubbing their lines. Bowie seems lost through most of it, and his clothes from sequence to sequence appear to match whatever phase he was going through at the time. (Mainly, the Thin White Duke alias adopted for Young Americans, which is actually one of the albums on display in that record store scene.) Then again, he might have also just been pouting because his own soundtrack was dismissed in favor of John Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas. I'd be pissed, too, if I were him.

The only one who comes through looking her best is Candy Clark. Her motor-mouthed plain jane is right on the money, capturing the sort of shallow American figure that is more than willing to latch on to the empty dreams of others. The Mary Lou character is more complex than that, though, she seems less interested in what Newton can offer her than she is in taking care of him. Theirs is ultimately a co-dependent relationship, neither being good for the other, yet refusing to break it off. Even laboring under bad old-person make-up, Clark is able to inspire pity for Mary Lou. She is a well-meaning girl who is beyond her depth.

To be fair, there is much in The Man Who Fell to Earth's underlying political message that is extremely prescient. Media saturation, corporate dominance, a dangerous mistrust of new ideas--these are all issues that would become increasingly important since the movie's release in 1976. There is even a scene later in the film where a worker in the control room for a space launch ponders the needless expense laid out for space travel. Why spend money on exploring the cosmos, who cares? The only element of The Man Who Fell to Earth that seems politically regressive is Roeg's casting African American-actor Bernie Casey as the big-business government thug who takes Newton down. While putting a black man in a position of power, and making him the husband in a bi-racial marriage, was likely a daring move back then, Roeg's staging of Casey's scenes has caused this aspect of the film to age poorly. Instead of seeming progressive or even just normal, it comes off now as white fear that the black man is coming for his money and his women. Again, not Roeg's intention, but contexts change as decades pass.

I am sure my opinions about The Man Who Fell to Earth are going to be unpopular; my previous disappointment in Nicolas Roeg movies has usually garnered many clucking tongues and even harsher replies, no matter how open I've tried to be to the experience. (The one Roeg film I genuinely like is Performance; you can read my review here.) That's fine enough, I see Roeg as a provocateur who would likely relish such healthy debate. I also get that many delight in the head trip that midnight movies of this kind offer--though, if I want to see the David Bowie story turned into parable and fairy tale, I much prefer Todd Haynes' Velvet Goldmine. It can often be hard to get at why a movie like this works for some people and doesn't work for others, especially since The Man Who Fell to Earth's most pronounced quality is its ineffability. Roeg is intentionally teasing us, placing meaning just beyond the common grasp. Alas, I can only be compelled to reach so far before I withdraw my hand, and The Man Who Fell to Earth is just on the wrong side of that line.

For those who might still be down for such an experience, it's worth noting that both the standard edition and the Criterion Blu-ray of The Man Who Fell to Earth are now out of print. You can still find copies used, sometimes even close to normal price, and you can watch the film on Amazon streaming. For Portland-based moviegoers, The Man Who Fell to Earth is playing at Cinema 21 from August 26 through September 1. Special thanks to the theater for hosting the screening I attended.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

SECRET SUNSHINE (Blu-Ray) - #576

A widow and her young son move from the big city to a smaller town in the provinces. It's the place where the woman's dead husband was born, and her journey to this part of the country symbolically fulfills his wish to return to his roots. There, she will set up a school for teaching children to play the piano and start anew. It's the beginning of a new life.

And it really is just the beginning. From this very simple premise, South Korean director Lee Chang-dong cultivates Secret Sunshine, an unpredictable, rich drama about grief and loss, a narrative that isn't afraid to wander a little on its search for redemption. Jeon Do-yeon, who was honored at Cannes for her performance, plays the piano teacher, Shin-ae. The grieving woman wants to cut ties with her old life back in Seoul and establish a new existence where she and her son Jun (Seon Jung-yeob) can simultaneously come to terms with their lost loved one and honor his memory. Perhaps it's a bad omen, though, that their car breaks down just on the outskirts of their new home, especially since Jun's father died in an auto accident. Then again, maybe it's fortuitous, because this is how Shin-ae meets Jong-chan (popular actor Song Kang-ho from The Good, the Bad and the Weird [review]). Jong-chan immediately takes a liking to Shin-ae and helps her get set up. The new town is called Miryang, which translates as "secret sunshine." In other words, there is happiness here, it just might not be obvious at first.

Initially, things go well for Shin-ae. Her business gets rolling, and Jun is adjusting to his new school. Some days are good (the boy playfully instigates a game of hide-and-seek with his mother), some are not so good (he cries before being sent to class), and only as Secret Sunshine progresses do we realize how portentous these small moments really are. After a night out with the girls, Shin-ae returns to the house to find Jun gone. This time it's no game, a ransom call comes shortly after. The kidnapper believes that Shin-ae is rich since she has been talking about investing in land, and so he demands all her money. She pays up, but it's not enough and her son is not returned to her. Within days, his body is found in a marsh and the killer is arrested. Her family blames Shin-ae, and she begins looking for some semblance of reason in a world that has spun out of control.

The rest of the film tracks the trajectory of her mourning. It's a twisting road marked with impermanent solutions and further disappointments. Initially, Shin-ae finds relief in Christianity and the community it offers--as someone who grew up in the Pentecostal church, I can tell you that Chang-dong's portrayal of faith and worship is disquieting in its accuracy--but even that proves inadequate after a time. Once the control the religion initially offered is nullified, Shin-ae's behavior grows increasingly erratic. The only constant is Jong-chan, who endures ridicule and heartache to stand by a woman he loves and who will have nothing to do with him romantically. Song Kang-ho is a terrific actor, and his natural demeanor immediately puts the audience on his side. He provides a bit of low-key comic relief in a movie that is otherwise pretty heavy. Jong-chan even pretends to go to church with Shin-ae, hilariously sneaking out back to steal a quick smoke.

Secret Sunshine was adapted by Lee Chang-dong from a novel by Korean author Yi Chong-jun. As he did in his most recent film, Poetry, Chang-dong takes on a complex subject and engages every facet. There are swift storytelling solutions that could turn a film like Secret Sunshine into a slickly clichéd tearjerker and even more obvious ways in which this tragic tale could be turned into a feel-good crowd pleaser. Chang-dong is not concerned with either of these outcomes; rather, he is more fascinated by the spontaneity of real life and the awkward and often counterproductive choices we all make when faced with overwhelming circumstances. He and his cinematographer, Cho Yong-kyu, let Secret Sunshine play out in real locations, using naturalistic light, capturing Shin-ae's unraveling in all of its detail. Secret Sunshine is a film that establishes a semblance of realism, but that also avoids being burdened by it. Being true to life doesn't mean there isn't room for melodrama or style; rather, these things can inform one another. It's a beautiful film to look at--and particularly astonishing on Blu-Ray; the transfer is remarkable--not despite of its lack of adornment, but because Chang-dong and Yang-kyu see the beauty in everything around them. It's a subtle part of the film's message: stop and appreciate the details you might otherwise take for granted, every facet is essential.

Jeon Do-yeon is indispensible in putting this across, particularly as Shin-ae's story builds and we begin to see how even the smallest event reverberates through her life. Shin-ae is a demanding role, requiring grand demonstrations of grief, but also more subtle emotions. The actress is just at home being a doting mother as she is playing the irresponsible drunk; she can play angry, anxious, and totally unhinged with equal conviction. Do-yeon's performance demands empathy from the viewer, even during the times when Shin-ae is being irrational. We can sympathize, sure, but the compulsion to understand, that's what is powerful.

Though Secret Sunshine doesn't compartmentalize its emotions or deliver its concluding peace in a tidy package, the film does reach an uplifting conclusion of sorts. The final scene is a moving one, relying on feeling rather than exposition to communicate. In some cultures, cutting one's hair is an important symbol of mourning and moving on. As a writer, I have personally used it in just about every long-form prose project I have undertaken. What Secret Sunshine demonstrates is that there is no one event or easy proverb that gets a person to a point of acceptance, it's more of a gradual process, an assembling of experiences, the sort of puzzle that doesn't make sense until certain key pieces fall into place. One minute the accumulated events look like nothing at all, the next it all becomes clear. If we haven't quite realized what has happened, the last shot of Chang-dong's movie lingers, giving us time to pause and ponder before the credits roll and we shoot out of our seats. Again, the sunshine is there, you just have to stop for a second, look, and consider its radiance.

Please Note: The images used here are publicity stills, not screencaptures from the Blu-Ray.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

CUL-DE-SAC (Blu-Ray) - #577

Roman Polanski's 1966 film Cul-de-sac is a darkly comic genre send-up, playfully toying with B-movie conventions while subverting them with Polanski's impish humor. It's like a Peckinpah's Straw Dogs [review] crossed with the old Bogart picture The Desperate Hours, but with Polanski's typically perverse take on sexual politics.

The film opens with two gangsters on the lam in Northern England. A botched job has left the British crook Albie (Jack MacGowan) with a shotgun blast to the gut and his brutish American cohort Dickie (Lionel Stander) with a useless arm. When their stolen car dies in the middle of nowhere, Dickie goes searching for help. The only place for miles is an 11th-century mansion on a hill that looks down on the sea. The residents of this out-of-the-way villa are George (Donald Pleasance), an older war vet, and his young French wife, Teresa (Francoise Dorléac). On his way up the hill, Dickie spies Teresa rolling naked in the sand with a neighbor boy, leading him to draw certain conclusions about her, and his first encounter with the relative newlyweds as a couple in the dead of night interrupts their bedroom playtime. They were goofing around, and George is wearing Teresa's nightgown and he let her put make-up on his face. What was a joke becomes a defining factor in the relationship between the fugitive and his hostages. The burly thug is a true man, and George is his bitch.

Cul-de-sac plays out over 24 hours, as Dickie waits for his London bosses to pick him up from the isolated locale. The tide comes in shortly after the car stalls, stranding Albie up to his chest in water, and the only way in and out that night is by boat. George caves to the imprisonment, stoking already existing tensions between him and his wife. Eager for the attention of a real man, and determined to start a fight between her husband and their captor, Teresa spends the night drinking homemade vodka with the bad guy, who is, let's be honest, charismatic and gregarious despite his rather abusive nature and poor career choices. This is likely intentional. Polanski--who co-wrote the script with Gérard Brach--is forcing us to like the person that is supposed to be the least likeable one the trio. Teresa is manipulative and dishonest, and George is spineless and fawning. It's not just that he won't stand up to Dickie--who never even really has to pull his gun--but we know that George also kowtows to his wife. Pleasance plays George as slimy and mercurial, physically shrinking from just about any human action. He would have made an excellent Igor to any number of cinematic Dr. Frankensteins.

Roman Polanski can be a polarizing figure, and Cul-de-sac would do little to discourage any viewer that has previously taken issue with his approach to gender divides. Teresa's desire to be dominated by a "real" man and her sexualized behavior (she flirts with almost every male character in the film, and it's to Francoise Dorléac's supreme credit that she somehow makes this woman appear deeper than the writing), and George's cross-dressing buffoonery are certainly provocative elements of an intentionally provocative film. Throughout Dickie's stay on the island, the social order keeps changing. He goes from being drinking buddies with Teresa to climbing in his cups with George, and come morning, the whole dynamic gets upended when George's relatives pay an unexpected visit. Teresa sees an opportunity to take control, and she basically introduces Dickie as their servant. This injects class concerns into the mix, a poisonous stew stirred up further by how the family treats George. I think this lends credence to the argument that Polanski isn't adopting any particular point of view, nor is there a pronounced macho agenda; rather, he is using a familiar hothouse scenario to apply stress to his characters' lives and watch how they react. Ultimately, the plot of Cul-de-sac is a pressure cooker that scorches them all. Anyone expecting good guys or bad guys or any last-minute rescue or triumph is probably right to expect these things under the rules of ordinary crime movies, but Cul-de-sac is not cut from those trappings.

I would contend that the conflicts portrayed in Polanski movies also extend to his aesthetic approach. His movies are at once meticulous and sloppy, tightly wound but also fraying at the edges. Cul-de-sac is a smartly planned drama, with an elegant plot structure and carefully arranged framing, but there is always a little bit of anarchy, be it a blunt editing choice or slapdash overdubbing or a sudden camera move that throws the visual rhythm into disarray. Breakfast with George's family begins as a well-choreographed tableau of social manners and interpersonal rigidity, but the sudden introduction of a shotgun creates a narrative panic. To capture the spontaneous frenzy, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor zooms in unnaturally close on each actor, distorting their features, and breaking the respectful spatial relationships that Polanski has established. The change-up appears almost haphazard and amateurish, but it perfectly illustrates the hysteria of the sequence. The unpredictable introduction of violence would disrupt our lives off screen, so why shouldn't it do so onscreen, as well?

The film eventually returns to its central three as the second night descends, with a climax that shows how far out of control they have gotten and the effects of further compromises and lines being crossed. It could be said that their true natures emerge, that George is a rat and Teresa is empty and Dickie's bluster can only blow for so long. None gets off lightly, regardless. The clash of ideals and wills and the resulting fallout is as natural and inevitable as the tide, which rolls back in on schedule, isolating those that remain even further. In most movies that deal in archetypes, we look for the one that most closely resembles our own nature; in a movie like Cul-de-sac, we leave hoping that we are none of them, and in the worst case scenario, fearing we just might be.

Criterion's Blu-Ray of Cul-de-sac gives viewers a high-definition 1080p image framed at a wide 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The black-and-white picture is sharply realized, with strong darks, lights, and nuanced shades of gray. Though the print still has some surface markings at times, usually in the form of slight scratches in the upper half of the frame, this is rare, and the overall resolution and clarity of image is fantastic, with a subtle grain that maintains the quality of the original film stock without being overly pronounced on modern television sets.

The soundtrack is mixed in mono, uncompressed. It sounds excellent, with full tones and no distortion. Some of the actors tend to mumble and this can be hard to make out, but the shifting volume levels suggest this is intentional, all part of Polanski's off-balance design. Likewise, the wonky Krysztof T. Komeda music takes an appropriate position in each scene, often ironically underscoring the action with his blending of odd electronic noises with more traditional melodies.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Friday, August 12, 2011

HIGH AND LOW (Blu-Ray) - #24

Akira Kurosawa did a variety of literary adaptations in his career, working with classic material from authors like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Gogol in both historical and modern contexts, shifting their work into Japanese settings. One of his most successful adaptations, however, was from a more conventional, contemporary genre source, translating Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novel King's Ransom into the 1963 class drama High and Low. It's a structurally rigorous film, adopting the serious tone of a police procedural but finding deep wells of humanity along the investigative trail.

Kurosawa-mainstay Toshiro Mifune heads the cast of High and Low as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy shoe executive with a particularly ruthless way of getting things done. Though seemingly a man of privilege, Gondo comes from humble beginnings, and he actually cares about the quality of the product he makes. Shoes provide a foundation for everyday life; they carry our weight.

Gondo is in the midst of making a power play that will get him control of the company when an unexpected curveball gets lobbed through his front window. A phone call informs him that his son, Jun (Toshio Egi), has been kidnapped, and the kidnapper wants 30 million yen ransom. This is more than half of what Gondo needs to buy controlling shares in the shoe company, and he has mortgaged everything he owns to get it. While he wouldn't think twice about paying that and bankrupting himself for Jun, he hesitates when it's discovered that the kidnapper abducted the wrong boy. Jun swapped his sheriff outfit with his friend Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), the chauffeur's son, and so the crook got mixed up. It's a clever visual: a game of cops and robbers and switched identities, a rich boy and a poor boy, high and low.

The police are called in, and they come to the Gondo residence undercover. Led by the cool-headed Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the small squad is intent on getting the child back alive, but they stay out of the internal drama that is boiling in the Gondo household. Gondo was banking on the kidnapper giving up after the mix-up was discovered, but the bad guy is intent on destroying the big man. From his phone calls, the police deduce that the kidnapper has some unhealthy obsession with the shoemaker. Gondo's house is on a big hill looking down on a less fortunate neighborhood, and the crook is somewhere below, watching the family through a telescope, aware of their every move.

This geographical conceit not only creates an appropriate metaphor for the difference between the classes, but also between the law and lawless. Two more of the many highs and lows in the movie. Gondo's state of being will go from one to the other, though as the man makes the right choices, he actually elevates himself rather than being brought down by tragedy. Naturally, he pays to ransom his servant's child. It comes at a great personal cost to himself, but such a sacrifice only backfires on his persecutor when the common populace venerate Gondo as a hero.

Kurosawa splits his film between the two locations, as well. The first half is "High," focusing on the negotiations in Gondo's house; the second is "Low," searching in the city streets, hunting the kidnapper. These halves are connected by the payoff and rescue. It's a pretty amazing gear shift. Gondo almost completely steps out of the picture once the police take over, and High and Low follows Tokura and his crew on every step of their investigation. The detecting is detailed, working piece after piece, until the puzzle begins to take shape. Kurosawa, who collaborated on the script with three other writers, also begins to give us peeks into the life of the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki), though withholding most of the details about his life until the investigators uncover his identity. These glimpses are there to show us the frustration he suffers at Gondo's lionization, and how some of Tokura's sneaky tactics are working.

While High and Low isn't exactly a nailbiter, Kurosawa does create a steady boil, leading the audience into a final sting that takes us into the darkest backstreets of Japan's underworld. "Dope Alley," where the junkies go to score and shoot, is like a more frightening and surreal version of the poverty and isolation the director portrayed in his Gogol adaptation, The Lower Depths. The kidnapper's true evil emerges as we witness his cold calculation and his disregard for human life. He is a coiled spring, thin and reptilian in appearance, his cold-blooded nature being a direct contrast to Gondo and, more to the point, Toshiro Mifune. The legendary Japanese actor has an unparalleled screen presence. Even in this less showy role, he commands every scene he is in, his bottled fury seeming more dangerous than any ticking time bomb could ever be.

And yet, Kurosawa carefully draws these two together, melding the high and low, revealing them as mirror images of one another--though the distorted reflections from a funhouse mirror. The pair only meet in two scenes. One is silent, and Gondo doesn't realize that the man in sunglasses asking him for a light is the one who tried to ruin his life. In some ways, the kidnapper has succeeded at this point, as they meet on his turf, down in the streets. Gondo is staring longingly at women's shoes in a shop window, his life's work separated from his reach by glass. When they meet again, however, the separation is now physically between them, and Kurosawa frames each side of their conversation so that we see the other's face superimposed on his doppelganger. Each is the ghost of his nemesis, never to quite come together, but yet somehow one and the same. Is it just the choices that each man has made that dictates what side of this divide they will be on? Throughout the film, expectations of class distinctions are flipped and subverted, so it's no longer as simple as financial indicators might otherwise suggest. Both have achieved infamy, and even criss-crossed in terms of who had money and who didn't, and yet they are never really in the same place at once.

There are so many great things about High and Low, it's impossible to touch on them all. For instance, the rescue of the kidnapped boy is a deftly paced caper set on a train, and surely has been studied by all filmmakers who have followed. (I kept thinking of Duncan Jones' Source Code [review].) There are neat little tidbits throughout the police investigation, including a surprising use of color to illuminate one of their successful devices. There are also all kinds of fascinating relationships--Gondo and his wife, Gondo and his chauffeur, the police and reporters, etc.--that shift throughout the story, adding more to the themes of social separation and how different factions can either work together or fall into chaos. How Kurosawa orchestrates all of these bodies is a tremendous thing to watch. Some of the interior scenes in Gondo's home, with action occurring on multiple levels, foreground and background, reminded me of how live television from the 1950s was put together, when directors like Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer had to work with a lot of actors in a limited stage space. Every actor has a purpose, and not a hair is out of place.

Kurosawa directing on the set of High & Low

Bottom line, High and Low is a rich narrative that is executed with extreme skill and endlessly rewarding, no matter how many times you view and re-view it. The Blu-Ray is technically Criterion's third release of the film, and as much as the 2008 edition that this version mirrors improved on the 1998 original, so too does the BD take it a step further. The high-definition restoration is astounding, with a wide image frame and beautiful rendering of the black-and-white photography. All previous extras are transferred over here, including the essential segment of the Japanese TV series It is Wonderful to Create, which regular Criterion consumers will recognize from previous entries in the Kurosawa oeuvre.

High and Low is among the best of the best, and its move to this new format only confirms its lasting power.

The original DVD cover

Please Note: The images used here are publicity stills, not screencaptures from the Blu-Ray.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


"People can't help if they're monsters."

This one line could sum up the entirety of Todd Solondz's oeuvre--or at the very least, what I have seen. It is both his justification and his pitiable condemnation. In his most recent film, last year's Life During Wartime, this is the defense that Bill, played with a stoic empathy by the fantastic Ciaran Hinds, gives of his own poor choices. Bill is a child molester recently released from prison who has gone to Florida from New Jersey in search of his sons. He utters this particular philosophy in a bar where he is being cruised by a bitter older woman (Charlotte Rampling) who arguably could stand in for Solondz himself. She is angry and vicious and ultimately, self-loathing. The implication is that we are all capable of monstrous behavior, but we all also need love.

Or not love exactly. As explicitly stated in Life During Wartime, the greatest human virtue is forgiveness. In lieu of that, or possibly even preferred to it, there is also forgetfulness. That's the debate Solondz's characters have as they trudge through their weary existences: if we're incapable of doing both, is it better to forgive or forget? Forgiveness gives absolution to the offenders, but we still carry the pain they caused, and presumably, they still carry the shame of having caused it. And so, was it better for Bill's wife, Trish (a typically excellent Allison Janney), to tell their youngest children that he died rather than explain he was incarcerated for diddling little boys? Presumably not, judging by the anguish it causes little Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) when the truth comes out. Now he has something he can never forget. The past is always with us, regardless of the different people we may try, and even succeed, to become.

Life During Wartime is ostensibly a sequel to Solondz's breakout hit, 1998's creepoid indie darling Happiness. I am not a fan of the original, and I haven't seen it in over a decade, so many of the connectors here are lost on me. I only remember the larger brushstrokes of plot and the always obvious and large expressions of misanthropy and adolescent glee that defines Solondz. Much has been made of the director's decision to hire an entirely different cast to play the same characters, including replacing the triple-named Philip Seymour Hoffman with the equally named, but entirely different, Michael Kenneth Williams (best known as "Omar" from The Wire). Paul Reubens has replaced Jon Lovitz, Ally Sheedy has stepped in for Lara Flynn Boyle, Hinds has replaced character actor Dylan Baker, and so on--I'll leave you to piece it all together, as it's not the "who" that's really important. The greater meaning is one of sameness: we may change outwardly, but we are the same inside. No one person is any better or worse than another in the Solondz universe, even as we become different people in our own bodies. This change-up was either loved or loathed in Solondz's previous film Palindromes, and he gives a nod to the use of a similar device by Todd Haynes via an I'm Not There poster on one of the character's walls [review].

The new film picks up some time after 9/11, presumably during the Bush administration, though no specifics are given, only references to conflict and terrorism. Solondz's script bluntly satirizes American fearmongering and hysteria as he rejoins the story of the three sisters from Happiness. The poet Helen (Sheedy) has moved into more lucrative entertainment and moved to Los Angeles, and she is apparently dating Keanu Reeves. Trish is raising her kids on her own and is entering a new relationship with an older man (Michael Lerner), whom she finds exhilarating despite his being physically repulsive. And Joy (Shirley Henderson) has still been trying to make things work with Allen (Williams), though his bad habits have finally gotten the best of her. She has gone to Florida seeking the solace of family, though all she finds there are memories and literal ghosts (Reubens).

Bill's release from prison is poor timing for Trish. Though he only has contact with his eldest boy (Chris Marquette), the knowledge that he is still alive confuses Timmy right at the time when the younger child is supposed to become a man. We meet the kid as he is writing his Bar Mitzvah speech, and Life During Wartime climaxes with the celebration. In between, Solondz pokes lots of old wounds to create excuses to discuss his greater meaning--which to my eye is not so very great. I find his from-the-mouths-of-babes shock tactics to be utterly predictable and banal, and his filmmaking technique cheesy. He lights his interiors like sitcom sets, and his use of music sounds like an ironic appropriation of cues from Lifetime movies and Afternoon Specials. It's as if he wishes to mock these other things and suggest that his work is a knowing upgrade from the pabulum most of America swallows on a regular basis. The smugness is off-putting.

Others will disagree. (My good friend Christopher McQuain, for one.) I may not be the best person to weigh in on this film. I haven't liked any of Solondz's previous films, and in fact, I gave up on him completely after 2001's laughably shallow Storytelling. I never bothered with Palindromes, but I honestly tried to clear the way to have an open mind when Criterion announced they were releasing Life During Wartime. I will admit, some of the early scenes drew chuckles out of me, and the opening scene in particular--where a tender dinner date between Joy and Allen turns sad and then uncomfortably dark--made me think that maybe there was something to Solondz's regular gimmicks after all.

The film lost me as it wore on, however. Scenes exhibiting what seems to be genuine heart sometimes started to woo me back, but Solondz presents them with such a snide levity, he undercuts his own emotion. It's hard to tell if these are flashes of insight that the director can't sustain, or if he simply knows how to toy with his audience in such a way that he draws us in only to punish us for trusting such open displays of cliché. Though the artist would likely claim he speaks for the miscreants because he is one, I can't shake a lingering suspicion that he has contempt for both his audience and his characters, and for me, he's got to love at least one of those groups if he can't love both (forgive or forget, sir!). Effective portrayals of misanthropy require some kind of affection for the misanthrope, but it's difficult when the misanthrope is the artist himself. His films come off like the petty revenge of a kid who felt no one stuck up for him, and though Life During Wartime strikes me as being less venomous than prior efforts, it only makes me think there is worse to come, that by retreating to relive earlier successes, he is wooing back his previous admirers just to strike harder next time.

That said, if Solondz's films have been up your alley in the past, while Wartime may pale in comparison to its predecessor in terms of newness or originality, you will probably still enjoy it. Even for someone who didn't care for it like myself, Solondz has stacked the deck with a uniformly excellent cast, and they all perform to the best of their skills. Sheedy in particular takes charge of the film for her one full scene, reminding us what a loss it was for filmgoers when her career went stale.

Likewise, the presentation of Life During Wartime on Blu-Ray displays the usual technical excellence we have come to expect from Criterion. The widescreen image is immaculate, with gorgeous colors and the sharpest resolution. The 5.1 audio mix also makes great use of the full surround possibilities. Supplements on the disc includes a lengthy Q&A with Solondz and making-of documentary featuring the principle cast that should appeal to fans. The Q&A in particular is put together with questions submitted through Criterion's website, and the director is very open to engaging in the discussion. While his films may often come as one-way didacticism, the supplements are anything but.

Please Note: The images used here are publicity stills, not screencaptures from the Blu-Ray.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, August 5, 2011

LEON MORIN, PRIEST (Blu-Ray) - #572

When I was growing up, my sister, who is five years older, was obsessed with The Thorn Birds, a book and later a television miniseries about a priest who gives in to his carnal desires to have sex with a hot Australian woman. It was sort of like the Twilight of its day, with a frock and collar taking the place of sunshine twinkles and sparkles.

I can only guess what my sis might have made of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1961 movie Léon Morin, Priest, a wartime drama about a devout priest resisting the women on his flock. Melville adapted the film from a novel by Béatrix Beck, and his creation is a respectful study of the seriousness of faith and the meaning of temptation. It deals with religious conviction honestly, while exploring the philosophy of belief and its meaning in our everyday struggle.

Emmanuelle Riva stars in Léon Morin, Priest as Barny, an office worker making her way in a rural village in occupied France in World War II. Barny is a communist who had a child with a Jewish man, and she is part of a group of women with similar circumstances who work together to hide their dangerous connections and protect their offspring. This includes having their children baptized in the Catholic church to get them legal certification. On a whim, Barny decides to taunt one of the priests by going into the confessional and challenging him with her atheism. She is no match for Father Morin, however, a stalwart man of the cloth who doesn't let much rattle him. He is played by Breathless [review] star Jean-Paul Belmondo in a role that is as far from the would-be hood that made him famous as he could likely get. Those more used to the visceral, devil-may-care Belmondo might be surprised to see him all buttoned-up; the only recognizable element of the matinee idol's performance is his physicality. Father Morin is comfortable in his body, regularly making physical contact with his parishioners, be it a light touch or a forceful shove.

This kind of connection eventually affects Barny, whose weekly talks with the priest lead her to question her lack of faith and to come to terms with some of her decisions and impulses--including a crush on a woman in her office (Nicole Mirel). Father Morin explains the appeal of this lady as that of authority; the men Barny's age are off fighting the war, so any figure of power will seem attractive. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy as Morin comes to have more influence in the woman's life. Eventually, Barny comes to accept Catholicism, and though there is no reason to doubt her sincerity, there is cause to wonder if she isn't experiencing some displacement. Could her newfound love of God really be a manifestation of her love for Léon Morin?

Melville's movie follows a fairly straightforward plotline. It covers a lot of temporal ground: by movie's end, the Germans will be driven out by the allies and life will return to a semblance of normalcy. This would not be the only time Melville would work with a narrative set in Vichy France. One of his best movies, Army of Shadows [review], is a powerful tribute to the resistance forces that operated in the French underground; in Léon Morin, Priest, some of these elements are just background, but Morin's strident political beliefs do cast him in a heroic light, especially in relation to one of Barny's co-workers, a woman (Irène Tunc) who has chosen to collaborate with the Germans rather than stick her neck out for the Jews.

Despite the straight narrative line in the script, Melville structures his movie as a series of vignettes, building the full story out of individual scenes and absent of the usual connectors. The director and his editing team regularly fade to black between these segments, indicating passing time but also punctuating the moment. Barny narrates much of her own story, and the impression this technique creates is that we are witnessing snippets of her memory. This is how her wartime experience comes back to her: brief snatches forming a mosaic of history. Emmanuelle Riva is very good in the lead, balancing a girlish precociousness with the heavier responsibilities and lessons of adulthood. Her coming to God is a bit of a coming-of-age tale. She must reject the foolishness of youth in order to raise her daughter and cope with post-War life.

And, of course, her final youthful folly is her crush on Father Morin. It would have been so easy for Melville to take the predictable path. Even sixteen years prior to The Thorn Birds, audiences were likely expecting Léon Morin to renounce his priestly oath and take Barny as his lover. (And given how sexy Belmondo was, they also probably wanted him to, perhaps even more than they expected him to.) To his credit, Melville doesn't even take the easy path when going with the alternative. Morin doesn't react with perfect grace, nor does he chastise Barny with patronizing platitudes. His actions are tougher than that, leading to a powerful ending that will take you by surprise. Like a sucker punch, though with so much more reach than the cheap shot such a phrase implies.

Criterion's 1080p widescreen (1.66:1) transfer takes great care to preserve Henri Decaë's beautiful black-and-white photography. The high definition image on the Léon Morin, Priest Blu-Ray is absolutely pristine, with strong black levels and a nice balance between dark and light. Each frame is detailed and deep, with absolute clarity given to all different aspects, foreground and background. There are some remarkable shots in the film, including a great use of realistic sets. Morin's rundown lodgings in particular have a lot of textured surfaces, and Melville and Decaë's careful use of light and shade is amazing to observe and admire. Take special care to notice, for instance, the scene on the stairway with Barny at the bottom and Léon at the top. His shadow on the wall falls at a spot where paint damage adds a mask-like element to his projected face, giving physical manifestation to Barny's perception of him as something other than what he appears.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk.

Monday, August 1, 2011


Comic Con really kicked my butt, but expect three new reviews in pretty rapid succession later this week. In the meantime, here's what else I did in the month of July...


* Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows; Part II, in which the midgets throw the ring into the fire. That's this franchise, right? (Seriously, this movie ruled.)

* Horrible Bosses delivers lots of laughs thanks to its great cast.

* Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, a riveting documentary about the legendary hiphop innovators.

* A Little Help, an indie also-ran starring Jenna Fischer that only just begins to touch on its deeper topics.

* Winnie the Pooh, the new animated sequel harshes my Hundred-Acre Wood.


* Blind Alley, a mild 1939 crime drama from Charles Vidor. The psychology has aged poorly, but Chester Morris' performance as a troubled killer still smolders.

* Miral, Julian Schnabel's intriguing yet imperfect Palestinian drama.

* Phaedra, Jules Dassin takes on Euripides, bringing Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins along for the tragedy.

* Rango, the animated chameleon with the voice of Johnny Depp in a movie by Gore Verbinski. Neither as bad as it could be or good as it needs to be, but entertaining.

* The Reluctant Saint, Maximilian Schell as the Flying Friar in Edward Dmytryk's religious drama.