Sunday, June 17, 2018

BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE - #928


What to do with a movie like Bowling For Columbine sixteen years after its initial release?

So much has changed, so much more has happened to the United States as a nation, that Michael Moore’s shlubby shtick seems positively quaint. Oh for the days when a jokey documentary about gun culture would seem necessary and important, but not entirely imperative. At the same time, seeing how little has changed, we can’t call Moore’s cinematic efforts too little, too late--more like too little, too early. Hell, we can’t even look at the standard DVD extras on this new Bowling For Columbine release with the same political naïveté. An excerpt from Moore’s 2002 interview with Charlie Rose? Well, I guess this was at least before Harvey Weinstein became Moore’s producer.


Here’s the quick history on Bowling for Columbine. It was put together by Michael Moore following the terrible 1999 school shooting in Colorado that left thirteen people dead. The documentarian decided to look into what makes America a place where, culturally, guns are not just prevalent amongst the citizenry, but are used more frequently for violence than other comparable nations around the world. Topics range from how guns are sold to dissecting arguments looking for a causality between entertainment, poverty, and other common bugaboos and gun-related deaths. Moore employs some of his trademark truth-to-power techniques to challenge KMart on their policy of selling ammunition and tracks down Charlton Heston to ask him about holding an NRA rally in Flint, MI, following the shooting of a six-year-old girl by one of her fellow kindergarteners. Upon release, Bowling for Columbine was critically celebrated, became a commercial hit, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the next Academy Awards.


Much of Bowling for Columbine still works. Moore is a quality storyteller and, at heart, an entertainer, so his anecdotal explorations almost always have something intriguing at their center. His approach is pretty simple: start with levity--the absurdity if getting guns in banks, or ammo in barber shops, for instance--and let it lead the audience to something more serious, like hard stats and cold facts about U.S. military intervention around the world. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. His news anthology structuring, complete with humorous asides, movie clips, and even original animation, has been copied by many documentarians since. Likewise his tendency to put himself front and center, becoming part of the story itself. That said, the most effective choice here is the one that doesn’t involve Moore at all. The sequence where we watch security footage from Columbine while listening to audio from 9-1-1 calls made that morning is chilling. It was a smart move for the filmmaker to step back and stay out of the way.


With this kind of collage approach, it stands to reason that not all routines would hit the mark. The sidebar with South Park co-creator Matt Stone adds little insight to the question of why teenagers are alienated, and the South Park-like animated history lesson follows (but is not by Stone and Trey Parker, as many believe) is annoyingly simplistic. Then again, Moore himself shows very little insight on camera. While the best parts of Bowling for Columbine are how he knocks down straw men with a montage of juxtaposition, when confronted with people he genuinely disagrees with, but whom could provide him with the opposing point of view, he makes scant effort to empathize or understand. Despite painting himself as a folk hero for the common man, he begins most interactions with said common man under the assumption that he’s an idiot. Just look at how stymied he is when the one Littleton resident shows genuine emotion when discussing Columbine. Moore doesn’t know what to do. He was just there to make the guy an object of ridicule for overreacting in his home security measures.


Which actually brings us to the real problem in evaluating Bowling for Columbine in this day and age: how we feel about Michael Moore. While I would say his skills as a filmmaker are unimpeachable, and within the film’s running time, he gives us no reason to doubt his sincerity, his choice to be the main character of all his movies means we can’t really ignore what he does in them or even outside them. In my view, at least, in more recent years, especially with the advent of social media, Moore has become more self-righteous and self-involved, and his most recent movie, Where to Invade Next, lets the jokes run away with the proceedings. The longer he continues to work his “regular Joe” routine, the less convincing it becomes.

While I have enjoyed several Michael Moore movies since Bowling for Columbine (see my enthusiastic review of Sicko, for instance), I’d posit that you can see the turn from lauded crusader to questionable blowhard beginning here, especially as the movie completely falls apart in the final half hour or so. Bowling for Columbine takes a wrong turn when Moore ambushes Dick Clark to try to unnecessarily connect him to the Flint shootings. And when the prank goes wrong, Moore throws a pity tantrum. He’s so out of joint, you’d think Clark’s van ran over his foot.


Not much that follows lands the way Moore intends. Taking two Columbine victims to Kmart headquarters may have gotten results, but as a tactic, it’s callous towards the regular people just trying to do their jobs whose day the camera crew makes harder. Worse, though, is the sit-down with Charlton Heston, where Moore fails to engage the man in an intellectual conversation. His interview appears designed to make the aging actor lose his cool so that Moore can resort to the cheap shot and mawkish sentimentality that ends the movie. I remember finding it oogey back in 2002, and it remains oogey now. If only Harvey Scissorhands had produced this movie and demanded the back portion been lopped off.

Still, even with those complaints, the final point tally is in Bowling for Columbine’s favor. This time capsule of where we were at the turn of the century is still mostly relevant and worthwhile. Considering that, however, our next question is why now?


I know some have theorized that Criterion and Moore rush released this to capitalize on the February 2018 shooting at the Parkland High School in Florida, but given that the Blu-ray was announced merely a month later, and knowing what it takes to produce a product like this, I find that highly unlikely. But even if that were true, is there a better time to re-engage with the conversation Bowling for Columbine started? If anything, the trouble with this Blu-ray is that they didn’t capitalize on recent tragedies enough. Where are the supplemental features about what has happened since the documentary came out? Most of the extras are from the time of release, including that aforementioned Charlie Rose bit and a truly unwatchable “comedy” segment from Moore’s The Awful Truth television show. The only new supplement, a doc that clocks in at a little over half an hour called “Michael Moore Makes a Movie,” is more of a backslapping exercise celebrating the genius of the production than any kind of treatise on the film’s effectiveness in the real world. I’d rather have seen Bowling for Columbine land as a special edition BD later this year with bonus content that spent some time answering the question of what the movie means now. Is there new insight to be had as to why guns are still so prevalent and why the mass violence increases? What about debunking conspiracy theories regarding crisis actors?

In a weird way, by avoiding any such updating, Bowling for Columbine and its participants come off as yet another irrelevant generation telling us how great it once was with no interest in what’s wrong with today. Which is exactly what the Parkland survivors have been trying to warn us about. Perhaps Moore should have taken the advice Marilyn Manson gives in the documentary: now is the time to stop talking about yourself and start listening again.


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


Sunday, June 3, 2018

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK - #29


The biggest strength Peter Weir’s 1985 adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock has going for it is its air of mystery, and that atmosphere manages to sustain itself due to the succinctness of Cliff Green’s script and a steady restraint at the helm. Picnic at Hanging Rock has a trim 107-minute running time in which a lot happens, little is explained, and yet we get just enough. Capturing a similar dread would likely be the biggest challenge of Amazon’s current long-form remake. Sure, they likely can extract more from Joan Lindsay’s novel, but will it be at the sacrifice of Weir’s persistent ambiguity?


The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock begins on Valentine’s Day 1900 at an Australian boarding school for girls. As a celebration of the holiday, the students head out on an excursion to a mountainous wilderness marked by its volcanic rock formations. Only one girl, the quiet and brooding Sara (Margaret Nelson), is forbidden to go, held back by the sadistic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) and her strange assistant (Kirsty Child). Late in the afternoon, four of the girls, including Sara’s roommate Miranda (Anne Lambert)--whom Sara and seemingly everyone else is obsessed with--go off exploring on their own. Only one returns, and one of the accompanying teachers (Vivean Gray) likewise vanishes when she goes to retrieve the missing pupils. No one saw a thing. The girls were all napping when the this went down, and perhaps in no small coincidence, the explorers also took a nap at the same time, surrounding a flat rock next to several large totemic outcroppings, like effigies abandoned at Stonehenge. Were there mystical shenanigans going on? Surprisingly, no one ever really suggests it, but there is an aura of a haunting hanging all over Weir’s film.



The rest of Picnic at Hanging Rock is concerned with the lingering questions: where did the girls go? How could there be no clues? The young son of a wealthy General becomes obsessed with the case. The boy (Dominic Guard) and the family servant (John Jarrett) were the last to see the girls before they headed into God knows where. Another teacher chaperoning the trip, a French woman (Helen Morse), tries to hold everyone together, but she starts to see the darkness lurking in the corners of the school. It’s not quite Suspiria-levels of intrigue, but there is something untoward happening behind closed doors all the same. Is this event perhaps some kind of karmic retribution? Or did the girls merely escape a troublesome fate for some kind of unknowable liberation?



It’s easy to see the influence Picnic at Hanging Rock had on Sofia Coppola and The Virgin Suicides [review], from the brown and blond color palette to the way we get to peek behind the veneer of the seemingly trouble-free lives of teenage girls. And that both films fade out with their greatest mysteries still unsolved, they similarly suggest we can never uncover the whole truth. (That is, of course, unless we are one of them. I mean, teenage girls know the whole truth, right?)

Weir’s light touch as a director makes for a fully immersive dream state. Visually, he forces very little, and as a storyteller, he is loath to explain. Often he places his camera at a vantage point that keeps us from fully seeing what is going on. As the young ladies climb into the hills, we peer at them through cracks in the rocks, almost as if Weir is implying that there are spooks and specters--or perhaps just the natural creatures of the Australian outback, which do wander across frame from time to time--keeping watch over the doomed children. Yet, even as we return to civilization, and as the failure to solve the central mystery causes other secrets to be revealed, we always remain just a step outside, as if in a drunken haze, or dreaming ourselves, trapped in the witness position, unable to break through the membrane of our subconscious to become an active participant. Subtly, Weir shifts his colors from the virginal white of the school uniforms that fills every frame of the earliest scenes to much darker colors, the headmistress dressed in black, a symbol of mourning, but also an outward projection of her own sins. It’s interesting, because American school stories would be shifting from spring to summer as the school term ends, giving way to the hopeful promise of a brighter tomorrow, but this is Australia, so the school year ends as winter approaches, suggesting only more dark and cold on the other side. (Though, to be fair, the sunny climes of the continent are nowhere near the bleak winters we’d see in England or on the American east coast.)



The only aspect where Weir nearly pushes things from the ambiguous to the obvious is the music. The score alternates between Zamfir’s pastoral pan flute and ambient electronic music by Bruce Smeaton, the latter of which particularly vibrates with its own sense of “ooooh, isn’t this weird.” Weir’s employment of these tones are often used to shine a light on particular moments where things are supposed to go wrong, or we are supposed to be unnerved; the cues are mostly unnecessary. 
While the girls’ disappearance in Picnic at Hanging Rock has the direct result of exposing shady goings-on at the boarding school, there is also a more broad exposure of how society tries to stifle young women entering adulthood. Whenever discussing the health of any of these girls, the first concern is whether or not they were sexually assaulted. The doctor describes them as being “intact.” Yet what do the repressive policies, and the fear of these girls’ emerging sexuality, contribute to the overall scenario? There are the two young men who leer at the girls as they enter the untamed wilds, or the details like the missing teacher seen wandering off without her skirt, or the fact that one girl returns without her corset. Or the strange punishments visited on Sara. How much of this is a result of the prim and proper social mores stifling natural impulses? These are layers that only start to reveal themselves the more you watch, when the details of the disappearing act start to matter less and you can start to appreciate everything going on around it.


Judging by the first episode of the Amazon Picnic at Hanging Rock, there will be some of this subtext at play--but it looks likely to be made overt text. The production looks likely to leave no stone unturned, beginning its initial outing with Mrs. Appleyard (hear played by Natalie Dormer as a much sexier widow) buying the estate that will become her school while confessing to her own false face in voiceover. Oh, goody, an origin story! With a shiny modern style, the series amps up the drama and the adolescence CW-style. The pilot is all preamble and portents, including Edith getting her first period (“You can now have a baby!”) and Appleyard underlining how dangerous the Hanging Rock can be. Jury’s still out if this Picnic at Hanging Rock is any good in its own right (and still out on whether or not I’ll even keep watching; I didn’t feel compelled to hit the “next” button), but for those looking for a similar creepy excursion to Peter Weir’s original adaptation, keep looking.


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

MEEK'S CUTOFF - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.


"Not all who wander are lost." -- so goes the bumper sticker that launched a thousand pointless journeys. I would have been absolutely tickled had Kelly Reichardt ended her film Meek's Cutoff with a slow pan over to the back of a covered wagon and revealed that one of the pioneers was sporting this totem. Forget that it would be an anachronism. It still would have been brilliant!

Not that Meek's Cutoff isn't brilliant anyway. It kind of is. It also kind of isn't. Indecision seems to be its major emotion. The film is written by Jonathan Raymond, who worked with Reichardt on her previous directorial efforts, Old Joy and the emotionally rich Wendy and Lucy. Their new film tells the story of a wagon train searching for the Willamette Valley in Oregon in 1845. The title refers to a trail the Meek brothers blazed in an effort to avoid the Blue Mountains, where they believed the Cayuse Indians would attack them. The film focuses on one half of the expedition, of three wagons that split from the main group with Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Among them were the young Gately newlyweds (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan); the widower Tetherow and his new wife Emily (Will Patton and Michelle Williams); and the Whites, consisting of father, son, and pregnant mother (Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, and Shirley Henderson).


Whether or not this group is lost or, as Meek puts it, "finding their way" quickly becomes a bone of contention. Water is running low, and their destination seems to perpetually be just two days away. This question of whether there is anything just over the next ridge sometimes turns existential, and Meek and Emily in particular get into sharp debates about the difference between men and women, trust, and the inevitability of destiny. Most of the time, though, they just wander. There is lots and lots of wandering. Wandering with one squeaky wagon wheel providing a sparse musical score. It's enough to try the travelers' patience, and I am sure the patience of plenty of moviegoers, as well.

It's not that nothing happens, it's that Raymond and Reichardt don't want to romanticize what does, and the movie grows dusty and parched and it stays that way. From a plot standpoint, things heat up a little when the group captures a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who has been following them, and the "savage" is forced to guide them to water. The language barrier means no one knows if he's really saving them or leading them to their doom. More debate between Meek and Emily follows.


Note that I say Meek's Cutoff will try some moviegoers' patience; it didn't necessarily try mine. I emerged from the theatre somewhat dazed and a little thirsty myself. It's an experience, that's to be sure, and one that doesn't at all telegraph where it's taking the viewer. It only occurred to me in the final 20 minutes, when the travelers were manually lowering their wagons down a steep hillside with a rope, that what Reichardt had done was make a Werner Herzog movie set in the American West. Like, say, Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre: The Wrath of God, Meek's Cutoff isn't a movie you enjoy in a conventional sense, but one you endure alongside the hapless souls stuck on their inevitable collision with whatever grim fate awaits them.


Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, who was also a camera operator on Joaquin Phoenix's twisted journey I'm Still Here [review], shot Meek's Cutoff on location in the desolate Oregon wilds, filming their Western on old-fashioned film at an old-fashioned 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This combination makes for a movie that looks like a classic cowboy picture but that feels like a soul-searching American indie. Most of Meek's Cutoff looks to have been captured in natural light, making for sun-bleached vistas and the blackest of black nights, the darkness only pieced by fires and lanterns. Dialogue is sparse, and the actors all work with the growing desperation, delivering performances that slowly implode. Only Greenwood gets much showing off, telling tall tales that do more to diminish his reputation than enhance it.


And, of course, there is Michelle Williams, who delivers one of her least showy performances as Emily. Reichardt uses the actress' comfortable screen presence to make her the emotional center of Meek's Cutoff. Emily is intelligent and gutsy, though reserving her gumption for when it really matters. It's clear early on that if we're following anyone here, if we expect any of these characters to discover the way out, it will be her. Williams is careful in how she inhabits the part, she keeps some of her usual mannerisms dialed back, and she's no less convincing or charismatic for it. I'll admit, I think I could watch Michelle Williams in just about anything. They could cast her in a three-hour film about trying to get a stain out of a carpet, and I think she'd still be interesting to look at.

I may be stretching, but I think it's largely down to Williams that I found Meek's Cutoff to be more human that what is on display in classic Herzog, and why I think Meek's Cutoff is a movie that I will likely see again, and depending on how that viewing goes, maybe many times after that. It's one I expect to grow in my estimation the more I sit with it, that only gets more interesting the better I come to understand it. Or it will dry up and crumble to dust, like so much detritus tossed out of a wagon on a pioneer's journey. Either/or.



WENDY & LUCY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.


Much is made of the proverbial boy-and-his-dog stories, but any guy living in a city who meets his fair share of ladies knows that girl-and-her-dog stories are the next genre just waiting to happen.* If Kelly Reichardt's opening salvo in the form, her 2008 underground hit Wendy and Lucy, is anything to go by, this is going to be a very welcome turn of events. (* That or my personal favorite: weird writer guy and his cat.)

Wendy, played with a brutal frailty by Michelle Williams, is a woman down-on-her-luck, traveling with her dog, Lucy, to Alaska to try to make some money doing hard labor in the canneries. The trip out from Indiana had been going as planned until she hit Oregon. There, her car breaks down, she is arrested for shoplifting, and in the time it takes her to get processed and pay her fine, Lucy has gone missing. The girl who was once mobile suddenly finds herself trapped. Her resources dwindling, all that keeps her going is the occasional kindness of strangers and the hope that Lucy will turn up.


In terms of conventional plot, Wendy and Lucy isn't built on very much, but the narrative that rises out of these humble beginnings is rich and full of humanity. Reichardt has adapted Wendy and Lucy along with author Jon Raymond from one of his own short stories, a pairing that also yielded the 2006 film Old Joy. Spanning only a couple of days, the movie charts the lonely hours that Wendy spends wandering the streets from the pound to the auto garage and back to the kindly security guard (Wally Dalton) who has taken pity on her, providing the girl with information and the occasional use of his phone. The old man is an oasis of compassion in an otherwise indifferent world, helpless as that may make him. There's never any real indication of what he is guarding. Maybe the last storehouse of man's empathy for his fellow man?

I am starting to think that cinema may be the ideal artistic medium for portraying solitude. The image of a single figure on a screen, alone with her thoughts and emotions, is what drives the bulk of Wendy and Lucy. In a book, the author would have to fill the page with descriptions of Wendy's surroundings and her inner turmoil. Such efforts can often get bogged down in the unnecessary, the need to explain overshadowing the subtle pain of isolation. It's not that it can't work, and for all I know, Jon Raymond's short story may have handled this very well, but it's a different kind of immersion. Prose lets you into the subject's head, whereas film invites you to walk in her shoes. Rather than giving Wendy the forum to tell us all about her heartbreak, Reichardt asks us to watch instead, requiring the viewer to fill the silence with what he or she might understand of Wendy's plight.


Reichardt and director of photography Sam Levy (with additional cinematography by Greg Schmitt) shot the film in quiet neighborhoods on the outskirts of Portland, but it really could be any sleepy town across the country. Though there appears to be very little by way of altering the scenery, instead shooting the film verite style using natural lighting and the decoration of real life, small details speak to the economic woes that plague our times. Empty storefronts, old cars, the line outside the bottle return--there is never an effort to highlight these to make a point, but the cumulative effect informs the larger work. So, too, do stray, unheralded details--a photograph, a single phone call home, half-heard conversations--hint at a backstory for Wendy, as well as for the people she encounters. The only time Reichardt arguably pushes too hard is when Wendy is nearly attacked in the middle of the night by another homeless wanderer (Larry Fessenden) who has clearly lost the majority of his marbles. His ravings about the way other people treat those on the fringe may be a little too on the nose in terms of the writing, but Reichardt smartly has Fessenden speak quietly rather than raging so that it's passable in terms of performance. The more important factor of that scene is Wendy's fear, anyway, and Michelle Williams handles that perfectly, from the fright in her eyes straight to the breakdown that follows.

Really, Wendy and Lucy would not even be half the film it is without Williams in the lead. Though the indie-minded actress doesn't always make the best choices--for every quality film on her resume, there are usually two unwatchable movies sandwiched in between--she is never the reason for the material not working. Put her in the right project, and there's no stopping her. There isn't a dishonest moment in Wendy and Lucy, not a single frame where Williams doesn't completely inhabit the character. Cast a less thoughtful actress in the role of Wendy, and you'd have a lot of scenes of some girl just standing around. With Michelle Williams in the part, there is never an instance where something isn't happening, even if it's only going on in Wendy's head.

With new technologies and new modes of expression, we're always hearing that this or that art form is going to go by the wayside, that traditional models will die out, that people no longer have the patience for material that requires thought or commitment. I've always thought that was bunk. You might as well give up on the human spirit across the board. Or, you can trust that there will always be people like Kelly Reichardt who have a fundamental need to express themselves and who are crazy enough to stick to the traditional methods to do it. It is of this that a movie like Wendy and Lucy is born, a movie that sticks its finger in the dike and keeps a little of our humanity from spilling out, both in terms of the story of individual tenacity it imparts and the fact that it even exists to tell it.



Monday, May 28, 2018

SELECTED SHORTS III - CRITERION CHANNEL

The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films. From time to time, I will take a look at a selection of what’s on offer. You can read the previous columns here and here.


Neighbours (1952; Canada; 8 minutes): Two men with adjoining homes find their friendship disrupted by a flower growing on their property line. They argue, build fences, and try to take possession of the plant until the whole thing overwhelms them. Told without dialogue, and shot using stop-motion techniques, Neighbours is a whimsical, surreal parable. Director Norman McLaren was a wizard with the camera, and he says more about human greed and the futility of war in this abstract handful of minutes than many say with a full script and an extended running time.


Casus Belli (2010; Greece; 11 minutes): A clever construct. Director Yorgos Zois strings people together queue by queue, showing groups standing in line for groceries, a nightclub, confession, off-track betting, an art museum, and an ATM. We scroll past each gathering, and the first person in the line steps out of it and moves over to the next. Unfortunately, when Zois gets to his point, the turn is rather heavy handed, ending at a bread line and featuring an actor giving a disdainful look to the camera when the charity comes up short. I get the idea is to switch from the frivolous to the serious, but it’s a pretty obvious move and Casus Belli is less effective for it.


Skunk (2014; USA; 17 minutes): Writer and director Annie Silverstein creates an uncomfortable, but strangely comforting short tale of adolescence. When a Texas teen (Jenivieve Nugent) takes her dog down to the river to give him a bath after he ended up on the wrong end of a skunk, she meets an opportunistic boy (Sam Stinson) who toys with her emotions, promising her all kinds of things if she’ll hook up with him and let him use her pooch in a dogfight.

Stories like this come with a built-in tension, as we have seem the likes of this boy before, and we know his brand of interference rarely bodes well. One watches Skunk with a knot of worry. Just how bad will this go for Leila? Silverstein approaches the events with an unwavering honesty, she is not exploitative. While Criterion has smartly paired this with Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank [review], I’m perhaps reminded more of David Gordon Green’s George Washington [review]. What all three directors have in common is an empathy for their characters; their storytelling is observational, they never look down their noses at their protagonists, but rather try to put themselves into the situation to see where they come from.


The Acquaintances of a Lonely John (2008; USA; 12 minutes): A solo outing from Benny Safdie (one half of the team behind Good Time), this short follows one guy on his daily meanderings. Aimless by design, one I suppose should be prepared to forgive a lot, but only a few of the scenarios are charming. Likely Safdie--who also plays the titular John--is making best use of what he had available; the film mostly loses its way when it settles down at a gas station for some Clerks style antics. Ironically, The Acquaintances of a Lonely John is actually best when Safdie is alone and simply amusing himself.


John’s Gone (2010; USA; 22 minutes): Josh and Ben Safdie directing together, with Ben starring as John--perhaps the same John from Benny’s earlier effort, hard to say. The tone is similar to The Acquaintances of a Lonely John: a touch of comedy, a loose plot, episodic. Here John is hustling various goods out of his apartment, selling second-hand junk and pulling internet scams. The film itself puts focus on the strange customers, and John’s interactions with other people in his apartment building. He’s a guy who seems to try to have a hand in everything, and sometimes it gets him in trouble. Many narrative opportunities are missed here. The Safdies could go in deep on any number of the relationships, or even hold John’s feet to the fire when a one-night stand he was rude to comes back, but John’s Gone always stays on the superficial. Ultimately, there is no ending here, no conclusion to be drawn, the movie just fades out.



The Black Case (2014; Canada; 13 minutes): A mysterious, surreal drama with elements of horror, The Black Case causes the audience to question the nature of identity, voyeurism, and in a way, one’s own physicality. Set in a strange hospital scenario, we see two children locked away and the doctor and nurse that are meant to care for them. Just about everything isn’t what it seems, and though co-directors Caroline Monnet and Daniel Watchorn eschew all exposition--and hell, dialogue for the most part--they don’t obfuscate for the mere sake of it. Like Eraserhead but with one foot still in reality.


L’opera-mouffe (1958; France; 16 minutes): Also known as Diary of a Pregnant Woman, this black-and-white short from Agnès Varda, who was indeed pregnant at the time of the making and serves as her own model at the start of the picture, is more of a collage of the life cycle of a small French village than it is a look at the cycle of pregnancy. Set to a score by the great Georges Delerue (Jules et Jim), Varda details many aspects of existence, from sex and food to drunkenness and anxiety. The bits that do touch on the birth process tend to be more abstracted, including the surreal growth and eventual hatching of a chicken from a glass bowl. The result is whimsical and strange, but also kind of sobering. Also, a greater collection of real faces you aren’t likely to find in any cinematic era.

(This film is also available on the DVD of Cléo from 5 to 7.)


The Burden (2017; Sweden; 14 minutes): Another surreal musical, this time by director Niki Lindroth von Bahr, whose Tord and Tord I covered back in the first installment of this column.
Created via stop-motion animation, The Burden features fish in a motel, mice working in fast food, telemarketing monkeys, and a lone canine shopping in a mega-mart. In each scenario, the lonely animals are searching for some kind of connection and eventual release in an increasingly convenient world (or should that be “convenient” in quotes?).

Charming, unpredictable, and surprisingly joyous.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

ACROSS THE PACIFIC - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally published in 2006 as part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection.


This 1942 film is notable as a follow-up of sorts to The Maltese Falcon [review]. Directed by John Huston, Across the Pacific reunites Bogart with Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet in an espionage story set just before WWII. Bogart is Rick, a disgraced soldier who falls in with a bad crowd on a Japanese freighter heading down to the Panama Canal. Greenstreet plays Lorenz, a cold businessman who is looking to make a killing in the Philippines and claims he is against a war with Japan because it will hurt his profit line. The closer they get to the Canal, however, the more Lorenz reveals. He's got something else cooking, and he's willing to pay handsomely for Rick's knowledge of the Canal. To complicate matters is the romance between Rick and Alberta (Astor), who claims to be a hayseed from Canada but may have a backstory that goes deeper. Which, really, they all do--Rick is running a game, too, but he's on the side of the good guys.


Across the Pacific is one of Hollywood's most straightforward war efforts, tickling paranoia about spies hiding among us. Its climax is set the day before Pearl Harbor, and in a weird case of clairvoyance, the original screenplay by Richard Macaulay (from a magazine serial by Robert Carson) initially hinged on the Japense attacking that very spot in Hawaii. When the tragedy really did happen, the script was retooled to climax in a Japanese plot against the Panama Canal, which is something that Bogart could actually be shown stopping. Lorenz and his undercover cronies were hoping to catch America with their pants down, but at least in this pocket of the fictional universe, that wasn't going to happen. Bogart and Astor have more fun in their romantic subplot than in The Maltese Falcon, giving their on-ship banter a sillier spin. Rick's jib is cut similar to Sam Spade's in that much of his swagger swings on him fostering an illusion of self-centered ambivalence. When the chips fall, however, Rick is allowed to be more of a hero, busting heads in the jungle and commandeering a machine gun. Some of the action is a little clunky, possibly down to John Huston leaving before shooting finished to join the war effort (Vincent Sherman took over), but the trio of great actors makes Across the Pacific more than worthwhile.



Wednesday, May 23, 2018

THE MALTESE FALCON - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection for DVDTalk.com in 2006, and covers three different adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett novel.


I've seen the '41 version of The Maltese Falcon more times than I can count and read the Dashiell Hammett novel at least twice; however, I had never seen the other two movie versions before. I thought it would be fun to watch them in order and see how the story climbs up the ladder. How many Sam Spades and bands of thieves does it take to catch a priceless bird?

Sam Spade circa 1931

Sometimes known as Dangerous Female, Roy Del Ruth's 1931 adaptation isn't a bad film, but it does have the clunkiness of early Hollywood. The story is essentially the same as its more famous descendent--private dick Sam Spade is hired by a dazzling dame to chase after a pack of lies, leading him into a nest of crooks all searching for a fabled jewel-encrusted statue of a bird--but without any of the hardbitten dialogue. What really sets the two apart, however, are the actors. Ricardo Cortez, who would also later play Perry Mason in The Case of the Black Cat, doesn't really pull off Sam Spade. He's a little too flip, trading on his sarcastic Cheshire cat grin rather than commanding the room. If he were under the gun with John Huston's villainous 1941 cast, he'd never get out alive.  Thankfully for Cortez, the band of thieves he must contend with aren't nearly as sinister. The only actor who comes close to achieving the same level of menace is Dudley Digges. As Gutman, he manages the arch façade of the criminal mastermind. The homosexual undertones between himself and Wilmer (Dwight Frye, who was Renfield in Dracula) is also easier to read than you'd expect for the time period, as is most of the story's sexuality. The problem is that the film just isn't tough enough, something that is all too evident in the climactic confrontation between Spade and Ruth (Bebe Daniels, 42nd Street). Sam's womanizing is so exaggerated in the early scenes, and his interaction with his partner Archer (Walter Long) so cold, it's hard to believe he would be all that concerned with the man's death, an essential part of the story.

One thing Del Ruth does have that is not in the 1941 film is a coda where Spade visits Ruth one last time. It's actually the one scene where Cortez's take on Sam really works, as he begins the scene with humility and sadness and ends by covering up those emotions with the same rakish smile. It's what he'd been shooting for all along, but unfortunately for him, he only managed to snag it in the last two minutes.

Sam Spade circa 1936

1936's Satan Met A Lady, directed by William Dieterle, shares only a superficial resemblance (and one screenwriter, Brown Holmes) with the previous film. Sam Spade becomes Ted Shayne (Warren Williams, from the 1934 Imitation of Life), a gadabout private detective whose only sleuthing skills are finding gullible marks among rich widows. Run out of the town he had been hanging his shingle in, he returns home to annoy his old partner Ames (Porter Hall) and make woo with the man's wife (Wini Shaw). It's an easy gig until big money comes his way, a wad of cash by the name of Valerie Purvis (Bette Davis). Purvis' trumped-up case gets Ames shot, and when she comes clean, she asks Shayne to find a jewel-filled horn once owned by the legendary French soldier Roland. Competing for this trumpet is a tall Englishman Travers (Arthur Treacher as the stand-in for Cairo) and Madame Barabbas (Alison Skipworth as a female Gutman). The tone here is more comedic, and Hall plays Shayne with a droll wink. It's amusing as it goes, and it features many of the same double-crosses as the more famous adaptations of Hammett's novel, but it's only a slight diversion. Davis comes and goes in the movie, only occasionally showing hints of the talent that earned her reputation. A fun inbetweener, nothing more.

Sam Spade circa 1941

The true classic comes with John Huston's faithful 1941 retelling. Sticking as close as possible to the Hammett text while still translating it to film language, Huston's Maltese Falcon proved to be the breakout role for Humphrey Bogart and one of my favorite all-time films. Much has been said over the years about The Maltese Falcon, and there isn't really more to add. Just know that this movie needs to be in your collection. Its stylish angles, snappy pace, and crisp dialogue brings the story to life in a way few other hardboiled adaptations can match. Only 100 minutes long, you'd swear far more happens than the space can contain, but the editing and the camera keeps the story moving. Bogart does everything with Spade that Ricardo Cortez could not ten years before. He wears his cynicism as casually as his finely tailored suit. He is at once manipulative, humorous, and seductive, and yet beneath it all, he is honorable. Bogart makes Spade the ultimate example of an existential hero in the first half of the 20th century.

Yet, Bogart couldn't do it alone. Huston has cast the picture to give him a supporting cast that is just as interesting as the lead. If we weigh the scales on darkness and eccentricity, then we might even call them more interesting. Peter Lorre is the dandified, oily Cairo, while Sydney Greenstreet makes a formidable film debut at the age of 61 as the malevolent benefactor, Gutman. Mary Astor is both frail and dangerous as the femme fatale, while Elisha Cook Jr. is blood curdling as the quietly explosive Wilmer and Lee Patrick provides a real world counter balance as Spade's longsuffering secretary. Even the most minor of roles is given the utmost attention, ensuring that Huston and Hammett's meticulously constructed underworld is as full and rich as it deserves to be.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

BEYOND THE HILLS - #923


Last night driving home I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air review of Paul Schrader’s First Reformer, in which Justin Chang tries to align Schrader’s deep knowledge of Christianity with the director’s philosophical and political interests, noting how the two collide for a compelling narrative that turns theological ideas into a psychological thriller. Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days) walks a similar tightrope in his 2012 drama Beyond the Hills, though from the look of it, keeps any personal doubts about religion much closer to his vest. In Beyond the Hills, we can interpret that certain characters have a less than favorable opinion of the church, but for the most part, Mungiu’s script is populated with believers. It’s maybe just a question of how much they believe.

Beyond the Hills is set in a remote Orthodox monastery in the mountains of Romania. Though a bit of a drive from the nearest township, the church still serves the community, both through the worship services they hold and the charity work they do. The monastery itself is run by a priest that the nuns call Papa, or more formally Father (played by Valeriu Andriutä), a man of unwavering conviction. Running the place with him is the Mother Superior, or Mama (Dana Tapalagä), a middle-aged woman. The rest of the nuns are younger, of varying ages and background. One, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), joined the faith after she outgrew the orphanage where she spent most of her young life.


At the orphanage, Voichita befriended Alina (Cristina Flutur), and the two looked out for one another. At the start of Beyond the Hills, Alina is returning home from Germany with the intent of taking Voichita from the monastery and going back to Germany, where they will take a job as waitresses on a cruise ship. When Voichita waivers in her resolve, Alina becomes adamant. As resistance builds, the young woman has a mental break, threatening self-harm and violence against everyone else, before succumbing to a seizure. Unsure what to do, the nuns take Alina to the hospital; the doctors prescribe rest and medication. Now Alina insists on staying at the monastery and near Voichita, but as her behavior becomes more erratic, Papa and Mother Superior begin to question whether she is mentally ill or possessed by an evil spirit.


It’s a question that is not really put to the test, even as the priest tries to perform an exorcism on Alina. He and his charges believe the devil is working through the girl; those who will later find out what happened think another way. Mungiu offers no evidence to support either claim. We aren’t even privy to what Voichita believes in the end, even though the traumatic ordeal is transformative for her. In some ways, who we side with as the viewer is up to our own beliefs. The only real takeaway is that, at some point, no matter how strong the faith, all humans come crashing down to earth, and our actions here have true consequences.


To go too much deeper into the film’s final turns would be to give too much away. Beyond the Hills is unpredictable in its naturalism and honesty. Best to go in as an  open and willing co-conspirator and let the events unfold. Mungiu leaves a lot of holes for us to fill in. For instance, is there more to Alina and Voichita’s relationship than they are willing to share with Voichita’s peers? There’s much to suggest that they could have perhaps been lovers. But then, maybe not. Their bond could be just as deep without that being a factor. Because there is also something childish about how they interact, as if they have not yet fully grown up.


It’s not that Mungiu is wishy-washy. On the contrary, his absolute control over his own tale suggests he’s got answers for every ambiguity. Just because a storyteller doesn’t tell you what’s up doesn’t mean they don’t know; in fact, they should and usually do. As a director,  Mungiu places his own faith in his audience, trusting us to take Beyond the Hills where it needs to go. More importantly, he trusts the experiential nature of story, which is its own form of spirituality: the best work allows the consumer to ingest the material and digest it according to his or her own point of view. (In other words, when it comes to art, there is no right answer. Except mine.)



The key to all this, though, is the utter realism Mungiu imbues into the product. The natural settings and costuming, lit to look as they would in real life, reflect a world that is separate to that around it. For a good portion of the picture, until we see the first cell phone, the timeframe is not really identifiable. The sparse life at the monastery is purposely without convenience, and so it feels antiquated. Oleg Mutu’s on-the-ground photography places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the action, moving with the drama in the immediate, sometimes even feeling a step behind what’s happening and trying to catch up. Effectively, this makes each viewer as much of a participant as an observer. It feels that close.




Likewise, the performances of Beyond the Hills’ ensemble feel spontaneous and of the moment. Many of the cast members are first-timers, but their acting is pitch perfect and completely devoid of mannerism. Much more is often said through how they observe one another than via dialogue (acting is listening!). From the first scenes, we feel we know these people--Voichita’s nervous longing, Alina’s insistent need, Papa’s hubristic privilege. We fear for them and root against him. Then again, that could just be my own prejudice regarding religious authority.




For me, the lynchpin is Alina. Even if we don’t logically understand her reactions, our empathy for her plight means we grasp them emotionally. Here Mungiu uses our position as intimate outsiders wisely. We can only see so much. The chaos of her attacks and the retaliation against her--where Alina tends to get buried under the nuns in their black robes piling on--means we never get a clear view of the violence, yet we somehow feel wronged, we feel suffocated. Our interpretative gauge has the reactionary clergy on one side, and Voichita’s deep concern on the other, and we can’t quite get the balance required. It’s like Voichita is the heroine of a horror movie, and we need her fright in order to calibrate our own.



Thus, the sudden shift to reality that comes in the final portion of the movie, the arrival of the narrative wake-up call, is both disarming and cathartic. We must be pulled out of this confusion before we succumb to it ourselves. Beyond the Hills is a deeply satisfying drama, right down to the perfect last shot--our own fall to earth, or more accurately the earth rising up to meet us, with only a screen to deflect the dirt.


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