Monday, December 17, 2018

PANIQUE - #955


A small Parisian neighborhood. A carnival. A dead body. A local outcast. A young hustler. A conflicted femme fatale. Nosy neighbors.

These are the essential ingredients of Julien Duvivier’s 1946 French noir Panique. Season with romantic intentions, double-crosses, and even a little mystical mumbo jumbo, and you have the sort of emotional potboiler Fritz Lang liked to make with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. Here instead we have the great Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review], The Two of Us [review]) and Viviane Romance (Any Number Can Win) as, respectively, the older man who lives a life of intellectual isolation and the woman too loyal to her criminal boyfriend (Paul Bernard, Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne) for her own good. It’s a great set up, taken from a novel by Georges Simenon, and one Duvivier plans to milk for all the drama and intrigue he can.


Simon leads the picture as Monsieur Hire, a strange character, dismissive of his neighbors, but nice to children and awkward in courtship. His early contact with Alice (Romance) is borderline stalkerish. Hire is a man of many lives: he works under a different name, peddling astrology as if it were a science, and he has a past he abandoned when his wife ditched him for his best friend. Yet, the more we learn, the less shady he becomes, our suspicions replaced by sadness and even sympathy.

Alice is similarly charmed by Hire--though, initially, she only indulges him because he claims to have evidence implicating Alfred (Bernard) in the killing. Alice just spent three years in jail taking the rap for a robbery Alfred committed, and she’s not prepared to lose her lover just yet. Caught between these two unsavories, the unspoken question becomes: whose affection is more genuine? What does each man stand to gain from maintaining her love?


That nothing comes totally clear, that Duvivier allows for such gray motivations, is what keeps Panique so intriguing from start to finish. Viviane Romance plays Alice as sincerely conflicted all the way to the end, despite Alfred showing himself as having no nuance whatsoever. And how are we not to be drawn in by Michel Simon’s natural charisma, even as he does his best to tamp it down? There is no distinct moment in Panique when M. Hire is shown as being entirely good or sympathetic. When he confesses his greatest pain, he follows it by showing his guiltiest pleasure, the photos he takes of the downtrodden and indigent, a spectator in other people’s misery. In classic Beauty and the Beast fashion, he only presents his nobler intentions after making the basest of threats. Simon’s performance is like one long dare being leveled at the audience. Will you have the guts to side with a man who we know can be a real creep?


Panique is like a melding of American suspense pictures and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s morality plays, particularly the small-town poison-pen drama Le Corbeau. At times, you might also think of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Hire taking Alice to his old house) or The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Panique’s desperate climax). Duvivier’s only true genre is melodrama, even if he sharpens it on crime-fiction tropes or winks at gothic traditions. His construction is artful, relying on shadowy actions and voyeuristic impulses--both ours and that of the extended cast--to keep the plot energized. There are even some visceral action scenes. You’ve never seen as savage a bumper car ride as you’ll see in Panique. And it’s no throwaway scene, either; the memory of these dangerous amusements will come flooding back in the final act when the mob leaps from the carnival rides and takes to the streets.


So Panique has a little bit of everything while always feeling like just one thing. There are no unnecessary digressions, no excess fat. Rather, the film is fine-tuned for maximum effect, ceaselessly entertaining and always surprising. That it comes immediately after the end of World War II, and was the first film that Duvivier made upon returning from Hollywood, it must have also had many personal overtones for the director, a parable of groupthink, collaboration, and individuality vs. the mob. In that, it is also like Le Corbeau in how it despises petty small-town gossip, but even more challenging for pushing us to root for a man who, under many other circumstances, might not deserve it. As with any good story, it’s as relevant as ever, though now the controversy and drama would never spill into the public square, it would just remain online--which, even after seeing how wrong things go in Panique, seems all the more barbaric.


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


Sunday, December 16, 2018

TRUE STORIES - #951


Somewhere on the road between the early ’80s debut of MTV and the post sex, lies, and videotape Sundance revolution of early ’90s cinema, there is a pit stop: David Byrne’s  True Stories. More than just a vehicle for the Talking Heads’ next album--though there are some clips that were repurposed into genuine music videos--but not as fully realized a narrative as other artists’ self-mythologizing star turns (Prince’s Purple Rain or A Hard Day’s Night [review] and Spice World), True Stories is a genuine oddity. All these years later, revived by the Criterion Collection, released to a new audience, it comes off as a curio from another time, strangely innocent and yet indicative of the decade’s sometimes arch and ironic approach to commercial art.


The story goes that David Byrne was inspired by tabloid headlines, and he wanted to both explore the Americana that often fueled these bizarre tales but also celebrate the Americans that devoured them. True Stories is set in the fictional hamlet of Virgil, deep in the heart of Texas, and with Byrne serving as an observant on-camera narrator, the movie tracks the town’s populace over several days leading up to a celebratory parade and talent show. “Altman-esque” could easily be applied to True Stories; with its large criss-crossing cast and focus on at least one character’s attempt to write a song, it could be viewed as a kind of mini Nashville. I’d wager Byrne took more from his buddies Jonathan Demme and Jim Jarmusch, however; True Stories has the same quirkiness the latter would apply to his movies Mystery Train [review] and Coffee & Cigarettes.


Sadly, I fear I am spending more time talking about what the movie is like because that is really more interesting than what it is. There isn’t a lot to hang your hat on here, even with all the intersecting stories and the collection of wonderful character actors. Spalding Gray shows up as a tech baron who is disconnected from his family and neighbors; Swoosie Kurtz is a rich woman who never leaves her bed; and Jo Harvey Allen (The Homesman) regularly gets some chuckles as the living embodiment of a tabloid, a compulsive liar who connects herself to Elvis Presley, JFK, and just about anything else she can think of. (One of Byrne’s co-writers, Stephen Toblowsky, is also a well-known character actor, having appeared in Spaceballs, Groundhog Day, and countless others.) True Stories checks in on factory workers, bar patrons, and even the children of Virgil, and while one might be worried that an arty New Yorker like Byrne would not be able to resist making fun of Middle America, nothing could be further from the truth. His vision of Texas can certainly be unique to him--the music, the fashion, etc.--but he appears to have genuine affection for the small-town values that keep this community a community. He even dresses in western wear to (awkwardly) fit in.


That said, it’s clear that Byrne wants to make fun of something, but the satire is so scattered, it’s hard to tell what that is. Targets include advertising, religion, dating, popular music--all things that didn’t require the Texas setting to get skewered. Or is it that the individual dreams of the Virgil citizenry will carry on despite the invasion of outside ideas? Given that the climactic song is all about how love is more important than material goods or even freedom, such a theory would not be a stretch. It’s even called “People Like Us,” an inclusive statement, and sung in the movie by John Goodman, the saving grace of True Stories.


Only a few years into his career at the age of 34, True Stories was a pretty substantial role for Goodman. The Big Easy and Raising Arizona would soon follow, and John Goodman would become the John Goodman we all know and love, but the part of Louis Fyne shows the performer as an almost naïve neophyte. Louis works at the microchip manufacturer just like everyone else, and at night he turns his attention to finding love. Goodman plays him as both self-assured and meek, one trait masking the other, and there is a sweetness to the performance that makes it impossible to not want Louis to find what he’s looking for (or maybe for the actor to appear in a revival of Marty). Though more fresh-faced than he’d even appear in his first collaboration with the Coens, all the classic Goodman traits are there: the smile that is both endearing and tricksterish, the expert comedic timing and physical precision, the natural line delivery. His presence on the screen is so amiable, it imbues the rest of True Stories with a similar likeability, meaning that even if David Byrne’s threads never weave into a single tapestry, it’s hard not to still feel good about having spent your time taking a tour through his made-up utopia of would-be normalcy.


Monday, December 10, 2018

SOME LIKE IT HOT - #950


It’s funny how movies come to you sometimes. For years, the only thing I knew about Some Like It Hot was that it was mentioned on an episode of The Facts of Life. The show’s matriarchal figure, Mrs. Garrett (as played by Charlotte Rae), was comforting the girls in her charge following the death of someone close to them. Mrs. Garrett shared that when her father had passed, the grief was too much to bear, and so she and her siblings went to see Some Like It Hot. They laughed for two hours, forgetting for a brief time that they had previously been crying...and that was okay. Life has to move on.

This stuck in my head for years before I ever saw the film. I don’t know if I finally sought it out because of my teenage obsession with Marilyn Monroe or my Billy Wilder hero worship, it could have been both, but upon first viewing it was immediately apparent why the Facts of Life writers had chosen Some Like It Hot as their example: it was a comedy that was empirically funny, that could be mentioned to any film fan, casual or devoted, and they’d be able to say, “Yes, that’s a good one.”



The slugline of Some Like It Hot is rather simple: two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) inadvertently witness a gangland execution. To escape mob retribution, they dress as women to hide out in an all-girl band. As a result of the close quarters, one of them, Curtis’ Joe/Josephine, falls for the group’s blonde lead singer Sugar (Marilyn Monroe), and he woos her under a third alter ego, that of the heir to an oil empire. But once they are in love with each other, how does he reveal who he really is?

It’s not exactly a classic case of mistaken identity, more like misdirected identity. For his part, the other fugitive, Lemmon’s Jerry, a.k.a. Daphne, ends up running interference by letting himself be wined and dined by a legitimate millionaire, a goofy little fellow named Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). He’s a persistent Casanova, ready to shower Daphne with diamonds and talk of marriage. Surely no one is going to get hurt when the truth comes out, right?


Actually, that is right, and that’s what allows Some Like It Hot to resonate all these years later. Thematically, it’s about a group of misfits who, for better or worse, being unable to fit in their current situation, create a space where they belong. This can be in the literal sense, with Joe and Jerry remaking themselves to avoid gangsters, or it could be in the more metaphorical sense. Sugar’s foibles and bad decisions with men keep getting her in trouble, so she ostensibly removes the male temptation by joining a band of women who themselves all seem to be a little out of place in polite society. Joe falls for Sugar knowing these things about her, she’s confided her weakness to him woman to woman; he loves her anyway.



More important, however, is Osgood’s acceptance of Daphne in the movie’s famous last scene, and its oft-quoted final lines. As the four of them rush out to sea, Joe and Jerry having ditched the mob at last, Jerry--still dressed as Daphne--tries to let the smitten tycoon down easy. Except he rejects every reason Daphne can come up with to say they can’t be together, until, in exasperation, Jerry rips off his wig and declares he’s a man. To which Osgood simply replies, “Nobody’s perfect.”


And indeed, nobody is, not in this group, not anywhere, and the simple acceptance of that is, well...the simplest perfection. Released in 1959, Some Like It Hot was coming at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meaning it was still subject to the morality police that had required the studios to create a homogenized image of American life for several decades running. Homosexuality was considered taboo, and even with more enlightened times to come, it would be many years before the notion of a character in drag would be played for anything but ridicule. It would have been easy for Billy Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond to wring laughs out of scenarios where people were reacting “ewwww, it’s a man in a dress.” That there is not a whiff of that anywhere here is not just commendable, but astounding. Not to mention subversive! Ending the film where they do, Wilder and Diamond are suggesting that Osgood and Jerry could stay together...and that there’s not anything wrong with that. Because they’ve already set up Joe to take Sugar without any judgment for past misdeeds, and her to forgive him for not being on the up-and-up.


Of course, this requires a lot more than good intentions to work. Some Like It Hot is an embarrassment of riches. The sharp dialogue and clever comedic scenarios provide a solid foundation. Just about anybody could have made that script funny, but it’s important that not just anybody did. The pitch perfect casting of Curtis, Lemmon, and Monroe--all at the top of their game, all potentially never better--means that we like all three of the characters they portray as much as they like each other, and thus we can also accept them for who they are, even when their actions are, let’s be honest, totally underhanded. We want to see Joe and Jerry get away, we want to see them all find love, we want them to be happy.

Because their happiness makes us happy. And allows us to forget our troubles.

Just like it did for Mrs. Garrett. Laugh instead of crying.


This is not the first time Some Like It Hot has been on Blu-ray, but it is the first time from Criterion, and the black-and-white image is phenomenal. The picture is so sharp, it looks like Some Like It Hot was shot yesterday. This restoration is the best you’ll have seen this movie. It’s pretty much perfection.

Owners of previous editions of the movie are also treated to new supplements, but also some behind-the-scenes featurettes that are holdovers from the MGM packaging (meaning you’ll weigh hanging on to old discs based on what is missing here). The bulk of the extras focus on interviews, with all the principles represented, via archival pieces featuring Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe, and Wilder.


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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES/CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002 - CRITERION CHANNEL

EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008.



Made in 1993, the Chinese comedy Eagle Shooting Heroes (Dong Cheng Xi Jiu) is a parody of the wuxia genre, the flamboyant martial arts movies that years later would become popular in the U.S. through arty takes on the format like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. Classically, these historical kung-fu pictures were less high-brow and more mainstream entertainment and were often based on sprawling prose serials featuring larger than life heroes, impossible quests, and eternal love. In this case, Eagle Shooting Heroes is based on a novel by the master Louis Cha, and it's the same novel that provided the story for producer Wong Kar-Wai's more serious directorial effort, Ashes of Time [review], a year later. Apparently Kar-Wai saw a greater opportunity in Cha's convoluted plots and crazy fighters, going forward with two different takes on the same text.

Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who has helmed various incarnations of Chinese Odyssey over the years, and written by no one apparently (there is no credited screenplay), Eagle Shooting Heroes is as nuts as anything that came out of the Zucker factory post-Airplane and generally as hit-and-miss as those low-brow satires, as well. It's only intermittently funny, and even then probably only if you have some passing knowledge of wuxia conventions. Lau and his cast appear to have never met a silly joke they haven't liked, even resorting to Three Stooges-style eye pokes and rubber gorilla suits. When you press play, buckle up and expect anything.


Plot is immaterial in this sprawling movie. I was never entirely sure who was after what mystical book or royal seal, nor could I always tell who hated whom and why. Dastardly master of the bullfrog school of kung-fu Ouyang Feng (Tony Leung Chi Wah, 2046 [review]) and his lover (Veronica Yip) want to take over China (presumably) and must capture the Third Princess (Brigitte Lin, Chungking Express, [review]) to clear the way to the throne. Along the way, they enlist the help of a bumbling sorceress (Maggie Cheung, In the Mood for Love [review]), while the Princess is teamed up with a naïve martial artist named Yaoshi (Leslie Cheung, Happy Together). Yaoshi has a lover, Suqiu (Joey Wang, A Chinese Ghost Story), who jealousy pursues the pair, while also attracting the attention of the king of the beggars, Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung, Days of Being Wild). Hong Qi teams with Feng, Suqiu teams with the Princess' fiancée Duan (Tony Leung Ka Fai, Lost in Beijing), and everyone gets chased by the vengeance seeking, chubby homosexual Zho Botong (2046's Carina Lau playing a man). Most of the characters change allegiances at least once, several do so while hallucinating, and one even becomes a floating head before ascending to Heaven. This should give you a hint of how crazy Eagle Shooting Heroes gets.

In the course of 103 minutes, Eagle Shooting Heroes covers multiple searches for eternal love, musical numbers, gender bending, comic misunderstandings, and at its best, big fight scenes. Most of the cast were also part of Ashes of Time (and also formed a kind of Wong Kar-Wai ensemble troupe over the years), and most of them are extremely skilled in movie martial arts. It helped that the stunts were all coordinated by Sammo Hung, who also worked with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, meaning that the action is both exciting and funny. Really, it's the fights that are the best part of Eagle Shooting Heroes, when the movie can take a break from the headache-inducing script (or lack thereof) and show off a little. Of particular note is an extended duel between Tony Leung Chi Wah and Jacky Cheung. Hong Qi has decided he would rather die than live without Suqiu, and he enlists Feng to do the deed for him; only, he can't hold back his reflexes, and every time Feng goes in for the kill, Hong Qi devastates him, leaving him a bruised and swollen mess. It also features some of the more fun plays on the various martial arts styles. In addition to Feng's bullfrog system, this movie also has a Tsunami Fist, Flirty Eyes Sword Style, and other strangely named attack techniques.

The big finale is also an over-the-top extravaganza, with the entire cast engaging in one massive brawl. The sets and the costumes are incredible to look at throughout the movie (well, except for the gorilla and his friends the eagle and the dinosaur), but they are particularly bright and colorful in the palace. Eagle Shooting Heroes was shot by the awesome Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger; The Promise [review]), which only adds to the incredible roster of talent that threw standards to the wind and made this goofball adventure. It makes it all the more of a waste that Wong Kar-Wai didn't hire a real comedy writer to whip the material into shape. All of his people are ready to totally go for it, just what "it" is seems to confuse them all.



CHINESE ODYSSEY 2002

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.



Princess Wushuang (Faye Wong, Chungking Express) and Emperor Zheng De (Chen Chang, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) are the Royal children of the Ming Dynasty, the descendents of the Empress Dowager (Rebecca Pan, In the Mood for Love), who still rules over the land. Not content with courtly existence, the heirs apparent regularly make escape attempts in hopes of breaking out of the palace and seeing life in the real world. At the start of Chinese Odyssey 2002, Wushuang is finally successful, using the distraction of her brother's capture and her Iron Headbutt martial arts technique to bust through the gate of the Forbidden City. Disguising herself as a man, she heads to a nearby village, where she is taken in by Bully the Kid (Tony Leung, Faye Wong's Chungking Express and 2046 co-star), a local thug and restaurateur who thinks he may have found a husband for his sister. Phoenix (Wei Zhao, Shaolin Soccer) has not yet found love thanks to her tomboy style and also the local fear of her brother. Believing he has a psychic bond with her, Bully knows this makes her heart ache.

Except there is no psychic bond. As we discover in voiceover, the deep thoughts Bully believes his sister is having are far more trivial when the audience is allowed to eavesdrop on them. He thinks she is transmitting feelings of deep yearning, she is wondering why he hasn't washed his face. It's a silly joke, and indicative of the kind of broad slapstick style that makes Chinese Odyssey 2002 a lot of fun. Directed by Jeffrey Lau, who also helmed two unrelated Chinese Odyssey movies with Stephen Chow and has a new movie called Kung-Fu Cyborg, wrote and directed this over-the-top send-up of arty wuxia pictures, recreating them for laughs but employing the same exacting (and often very pretty) art direction. Lau mimics and mocks such big budget kung-fu flicks as Hero and Ashes of Time, playing up the metaphysical themes, superpowers, and convoluted plotting. The latter reference is especially pointed, as Lau places Tony Leung in similar shots and situations as ones from Wong Kar-Wai's puzzling deconstruction of the genre. Fittingly, Kar-Wai is a producer on Chinese Odyssey 2002, and he takes his lumps with dignity. References to 2046 and Days of Being Wild pass with a wink, and Lau and cinematographer Peter Ngor (Sex and Zen) play on Kar-Wai's slow-mo style, as well. The jabs are lovingly thrown; in fact, this isn't the first time the director and producer teamed up for this kind of jokefest. In 1993, Kar-Wai produced Eagle Shooting Heroes, Lau's alternate adaptation of the same Louis Cha books that spawned Ashes of Time.

What a difference a decade makes, though. Where I found the slapstick of Eagle Shooting Heroes to be overdone and flat, I found the similarly styled comedy of Chinese Odyssey 2002 to be delightful. A far more sophisticated hand guides us into a script that has much more going on than just an unmannered grasping for yucks.


Once Princess Wushuang gets to the city and we get through the neo-Shakespearean gender-bending set-ups and gags--in one scene, Phoenix, Wushuang, and Bully all cross-dress together, with the other two never realizing that Wushuang is actually revealing her true self--a tender romance starts to develop for real. Bully is drawn to the Princess, mistaking genuine affection for the residue of his perceived sibling bond. When Wushuang is taken back to the palace, she leaves her new friends believing that she is the actual Emperor, allowing them to then be caught unaware when Zheng De comes to town disguised as an actor and inventor who dreams up anachronistic objects like platform shoes and afro wigs. Phoenix falls for the rapscallion, not knowing that to love him fulfills her misconstrued betrothal to the Emperor rather than betraying the person she thought was said Emperor. Sure, it sounds confusing on paper, but trust me, the movie flows along just fine.

Though Zheng De is able to pull rank on his mother and insist Phoenix is the woman for him, Wushuang and Bully aren't so lucky. A superstitious ritual gives the Empress reason to dismiss Bully, who suffered a similar rejection in the past. It's another very Wong Kar-Wai-like subplot, and the movie requires an equally Kar-Wai solution. Things actually get a little heavy as the Princess goes mad and Bully must learn to stop being a Kid and become a man, and the whole theme of switching roles finally pays off in a big romantic way. Of course, what more can you expect from a movie that has Romance itself personified in a metamorphosing rabbit named Solid Gold Love (played by Athena Chu, herself named for a goddess of love)?

It's a surprising turn of events for a film that set itself up as a mere parody of period-piece martial arts dramas--complete with its own well-choreographed action scenes. (I particularly liked the Emperor's fighting style that allows him to draw power from flirting.) Chinese Odyssey 2002, like its many characters, only begins by presenting itself one way in order to have more impact when it throws off its disguise. Though the comedy may be too goofy for some, the love story gives it a good balance. It's light fare, but it's got heart.


It's also got Tony Leung and Faye Wong, a reteaming that should be enough for all the Chungking Express fans out there to give Chinese Odyssey 2002 a look. They are both quite good at comedy, and they are also both gorgeous, which isn't such a bad thing in a film where you are rooting for the two leads to eventually make kissy faces. The scene where they are reunited is as tender as the other scenes are ridiculous, and the exchanges that pass between them are wonderful.

I suppose on one side it's arguable that this film has something for everyone--comedy, action, romance, good acting, a vibrant visual style--but as a bit of fair warning, you should know it's also very much rooted in cultural and cinematic traditions that may not be to everyone's tastes or even completely recognizable. Still, if you enjoyed House of Flying Daggers or maybe even Hot Shots back in the day, there should at least be some access points for you. If you've seen your fair amount of Chinese period pieces or just dig Hong Kong cinema in general, enter safely.


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

THE FOUNTAIN - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007.



Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain was barely a blip in theatres during its release last year. A willfully challenging art-house picture with the shine and substance of a sci-fi brainteaser, it was a conundrum to some, a yawner to others, and a revelation to many. It's the kind of movie that was made to be debated and argued over, defended and loathed in equal measures.

I missed it at my Cineplex, instead catching it on a transatlantic flight. Not exactly the most ideal of situations to watch a film, particularly one as beautifully shot as The Fountain, but even viewing it on a tiny picture screen on the back of someone else's chair could not dull Aronofsky's fervor. I was instantly enthralled, joining the "loved it" camp without reservation. This was a surprise to me, because I wasn't necessarily predisposed to like it, having mixed feelings about both of Aronofsky's previous efforts, Pi and Requiem for a Dream. It was as if I had been sleeping, unwilling to believe, and The Fountain struck me both intellectually and emotionally, hitting with the force of an awakening slap. The Fountain is a passionate movie, and it moves with the inconstant waves of human feeling. For as much as it tickles the philosophical centers of the viewer's brain, if you try to intellectualize it too much, you'll lose it. You just have to let it happen and accept the irrational flow.  The Fountain is about grief, about life and death, about sacrifice and the act of creation through reduction. Don't try to force the pieces together; the movie will assemble the puzzle for you.


Darren Aronofsky's script, written from a story conceived with Ari Handel, runs on three separate but intersecting timelines. The main line is in the present, where Dr. Tommy Creo (Hugh Jackman) is searching for a cure for cancer. He is driven and obsessed, determined to outrun the tumors that threaten to take his beloved wife away from him. For her part, Izzy (Rachel Weisz), indulges his dream. She yearns to spend more time with her husband, but she understands his compulsion. As a writer, she is trying to solve her own riddles about death. Her work-in-progress is a book called The Fountain, a period piece about a Spanish conquistador named Tomas (Jackman, again) searching for a Mayan temple believed to hold the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, which is, essentially, the Fountain of Youth. Tomas was sent on the mission by Queen Isabela (Weisz), who seeks eternal life for herself and her kingdom. Adding a perilous deadline to Tomas' expedition is the Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie, 300 [review]), a power-mad zealot who is spreading through Spanish society like the cancer that attacks Izzy. He'd have Isabela killed if it meant taking the throne himself.

We see the Spanish storyline played out as Tommy reads the manuscript, its narrative intertwining with his scientific mission. Izzy explains to him the various Mayan creation and afterlife myths she's uncovered in her research, and it inspires Tommy to seek different techniques. All the while, the third timeline, the future, runs its own course over the top of both of the other stories. This story is the most open to debate, possibly being another part of the book, but also possibly more connected to Tommy's consciousness.

In this future, Jackman plays a monastic caretaker for a tree that grows at the center of a star, its similarity to both the Tree of Life and the star that the Mayan's believe houses their souls after they die being immediately apparent. From where I sit, this symbolic plotline is a manifestation of Tommy's thoughts, of his inspiration and his guilt. The answers he seeks (and make no mistake, the questions change, it's not as simple as all that) lie in somehow connecting this future story to the rest, steering the star to the Mayan temple and Izzy's hospital bed and not necessarily halting death, but at least finding some kind of understanding.


A synopsis of The Fountain reads like a recipe for something pretentious and self-important. In Aronofsky's kitchen, the movie is a delicate soufflé. All it would take is a loud rejection from his viewer to make it collapse on itself. Note that I put the survival of the picture in the audience's hands. It's because I think the director has given us all the pieces, all of the information we need to connect everything in his tale. He's perfectly in control of a rather unwieldy narrative, and he gingerly leads his audience from one element to the next. He makes the interweaving of the three lines apparent through repetition of events and dialogue, but he also uses visual rhymes to add resonance. For instance, as both Tommy and Tomas head off on their quest to save their beloved, they enter the shot upside down and exit right-side up, or the hairs on the back of Izzy's neck resemble the living filaments on the tree within the star; there is also similar framing used on the various characters, recurring images of rings and spheres, and design motifs that echo, such as the Mayan dagger and the screen in front of Isabela, brain scans and nebula patterns, and the jewelry worn by Isabela and Izzy.

The art direction in The Fountain is meticulously gorgeous. Aronofsky insisted on hand-crafted, live effects wherever possible, and the end product is more lush than any big-budget CGI-fest. More important than the visual details, though, is the heart that pumps the blood through this picture. Aronofsky never loses sight of the emotional impact that keeps The Fountain from being just an empty mind-bender that's more satisfying to look at than it is to watch. Here is where casting is oh so important. Hugh Jackman had already had a hell of a year with a comedic performance in Scoop [review] and playing the conflicted hero (villain?) in The Prestige [review], and his turn as the lead in The Fountain adds an even greater mark to his resume. He's never had so much passion onscreen, and as bright as his fire burns when he chases the various relics of his quest, the explosion of despair that follows tears everything down and razes the emotional landscape. You'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing more can grow there, but Aronofsky and Jackman still have a few surprises up their sleeves.


Of course, no obsession is complete without its central, driving object, and Weisz is resplendent as the muse. Izzy/Isabel is the less showy role. As much as she is the inspiration that pushes the explorers to action, she is also the finish line. She already knows what they will find, and she is required to provide both sympathy and encouragement even as she disintegrates. Rachel Weisz is more than emotionally able as an actress, and I have no trouble buying that she could be the catalyst for world-spanning expeditions and sleepless nights in search of salvation.

Needless to say, I loved The Fountain. Every defiant, arty minute of it. It took about six years for Aronofsky to bring the film to life, and even the crushing blow of one production being shut down just as it was getting started couldn't stop him. Just like the character in his script, he wasn't going to let anything prevent him from pursuing his journey all the way to the end. I'd say I'd like to know how that felt, what kind of buzz he achieved by fulfilling that dream, but it's all right here  in the final scenes of the movie. The rush of innovation, the joy of understanding, the contentment of spiritual nirvana--author and creation are, for once, occupying the same space. Tommy's fictional discovery is Aronofsky's artistic discovery playing on an endless loop, growing exponentially with each play, like a chain reaction of supernovas. Like the Fountain the characters all seek, The Fountain is Aronofsky's source of eternal life--a motion picture that will endure.


Monday, November 26, 2018

PERFORMANCE - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007.


Chas is a brutal enforcer who is really good at his job. Played with a bluntly arched eyebrow by James Fox (recently seen as Mr. Salt in Tim Burton's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory), he works for a homosexual East London crime boss named Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas is the guy Harry sends round when he wants to convince other people to his way of thinking, because Chas has a knack for getting his point across. When the thug goes against Harry's instructions and deals with a business matter in a personal way, though, he finds there are some situations he can't talk or shoot his way out of.

On the run, Chas overhears a conversation about a basement apartment that he can con his way into leasing. Things aren't as clear-cut once he is inside the house, however. It turns out that the landlord is a faded pop star named Turner, here played by Mick Jagger. Turner is a recluse, creating a pansexual hideaway with his drugged-up girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg, the real-life girlfriend to Mick's guitarist, Keith Richards) and a few other androgynous moppets. Before long, it's not clear who is running a con on whom, as Chas is suddenly on the same psychedelic trip as everyone else in the house, searching for Turner's "demon," the artistic muse that once drove him.


Performance was made in 1968 and held back for two years while Warner Bros. tried to figure out what to do with it. Co-directed by two first-time directors, Nicolas Roeg (Walkabout [review], also the D.P.) and writer Donald Cammell (The Argument), Performance is a classic of the trippy midnight movie genre. I'm not normally a fan of Roeg's, I find his weirdness to be meandering and pointless for the most part, but something about the collaboration with Cammell gave their artistic vision a laser-like precision. Performance is really the clash of several genres. Chas' gangster society has tints of kitchen sink drama while also playing with the conventions of classic British crime pictures. Cammell saw a kindred spirit between the swaggering street toughs of old films and the new outlaws of rock 'n' roll. Performance grows from the thesis that if you pushed these cultural rebels toward one another, you'd suddenly have mirror images in the center.

This is something that the directors make great visual use of. For a drug-fuelled movie of the late '60s (Pallenberg openly disperses chunks of magic mushrooms, and there is no mistaking those funny shaped cigarettes), they avoid the usual pictorial cliché of other hallucinogenic flicks. There are no lava lamps or fish-eye lenses. The surreal journey of Performance is an existential one, it's all about identity. The first act sets up a dicey world. Focusing entirely on Chas' brutal routine and flight from the same, it's edited in a choppy fashion, juxtaposing attacker and victim, and messing with time. This is said to be the uncredited work of editor Frank Mazzola, who would go on to make this his signature style and influence the entire video music genre in the process. In this outing, it keeps the action moving while putting the audience on shaky ground. The blood and the sex and the violence come like a rapid assault we are powerless to stop.


Yet, as Turner's introduction approaches in the story, the filmmakers are already inserting him in the mix, giving us quick tastes of what is to come, already breaking down any separation between gangster and idol. This melding begins in earnest once Chas is in Turner's home. Mirror images, double exposures, and other visual tricks are employed to start to suggest that Chas is Turner and Turner is Chas. They even engage in a bit of dress-up, most notably in the "Memo from Turner" music sequence where Chas' earlier drama with Harry is replayed with Jagger in the lead, instructing his underworld minions through song. Here Jagger moves from slinking panther to something more forceful, just as the events leading up to it show James Fox losing his edge and drifting in a narcotic haze.

Where both men end up is the subject of much debate and probably a matter of personal preference, but suffice to say there are curves on the path to complete fusion. Chas needs Turner's house to protect him from those that would do him harm, whereas Turner needs Chas' visceral lifestyle to break him out of the constipated mental funk that has arrested his creative process. Roeg and Cammell may end the movie by showing a lot of doors being closed, but from a plot standpoint, they leave many open to interpretation. Some of you out there may find the trickery maddening, but if you put yourself in Chas' shoes and let Performance slip you a mickey, you might find the experience...well, I wouldn't go so far as to say transformative, but how about inspiring?


Sunday, November 25, 2018

BAD TIMING - #303

Nicolas Roeg with Theresa Russell shooting Bad Timing.

Director Nicolas Roeg passed away yesterday. The filmmaker responsible for such films as Don’t Look Now [review], Insignificance [review], The Man Who Fell to Earth [review], and Walkabout [review] was 90 years old.

As you’ll see reading my previous pieces, Roeg and I did not always get along.  Prior to today, I would have said the only movie of his I enjoyed outright was Performance [review]. Even so, his death seemed like a good time to watch the one film of his in the Criterion Collection I hadn’t yet given a spin, and I’m sure glad I did. Bad Timing surprised me with its vigor and its incisiveness, and it perfectly showcases Nicolas Roeg’s sharp editorial eye. The 1980 feature is maybe his most grounded, but its boundaries create an excellent vehicle for Roeg to fully realize his fascination with fractured narratives.


Bad Timing is essentially a love story between two people who are horribly wrong for each other, but the kind of wrong that puts them on a collision course with doomed romance. Theresa Russell plays Milena, the sort of female character that once upon a time would have been dubbed a “free spirit.” This means she acts on every impulse, refusing to be tied down or restrained, less “manic pixie girl” than she is a grown woman demanding her own agency--while potentially being manic. This makes her the perfect sexual fantasy for someone like Dr. Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel), an academic who is drawn to her wildness but wishes to possess it, as well. As I said, they are all wrong.



Roeg, shooting from a script by Yale Udoff (Eve of Destruction), opens the movie in Vienna, on the night Milena overdoses, placing us in her ambulance alongside a concerned but strangely cold Alex. But we don’t stay with this present state for long; nor do we stay anywhere for long. Roeg and editor Tony Lawson (Barry Lyndon, Straw Dogs [review]) create a chopped-up but never choppy timeline of Milena and Alex’s relationship, jumping back and forth between the here and now and various points along their dalliance. While the current story progresses in what resembles a linear fashion, the past does not, and as the police get involved in figuring out what happened to bring Milena to the brink of death, they start to invade the memories, entering the scene of the crime, reimagining some of what went down. Harvey Keitel rounds out the main cast as Inspector Netusil, someone whom we can surmise becomes nearly as obsessed with this toxic love affair as the couple living it. We don’t really doubt him as one of the narrators, his intrusion on things he could not know is too brief; rather, he is the catalyst to undo lies and denial.


The trope of the ethically compromised professor and the wild child that so intrigues him is not a new one. My suspicion is it largely sticks around as a way for egghead writers to assert that brainiacs can be interesting, too. It can often be a gross paradigm, particularly when it’s a teacher and student, but luckily Roeg and Yudoff avoid that dynamic here (Milena is not a student, in other words). Some of the clichés still persist--particularly Alex’s hesitancy to act, and how that opens him to Milena’s manipulations--but they also sidestep any of the obvious backstory. There is no trauma or abuse that makes Milena behave the way she does; on the contrary, she simply is who she is, and the more we get to know her, the more we realize that despite her self-destructiveness, she is living her most honest life.


And the more we get to know Alex, the less we believe he is either rational or well meaning. There is a genuine power shift going on over the course of Bad Timing. We go from Milena being the girl who won’t take no for an answer, to Alex being the creep that won’t take no for an answer--and Milena is stuck not knowing what exactly a “yes” would mean. While at the end of the movie it’s clear whose side we should take, for most of Bad Timing, it’s tough to say whose contribution is the most combustible. The lovers share responsibility for the fire, but there is good fuel and there is bad fuel. I’d say our allegiance particularly swings toward the girl on their trip to Casablanca when Alex’s jealousy starts to take on a racist overtone--but then, the filmmakers are also guilty in this scene of making men of color the dangerous “other.” The camera eye offers a different point of view than could strictly be Alex’s, and based on what is shown, how the men are portrayed, it’s clear that the audience is expected to feel a threat, as well.

Which is too bad for a film that otherwise manages to create a rather progressive portrayal of male/female dynamics. I don’t know if Udoff structured his script in the same fashion as made it to the screen, but the decision to turn Bad Timing into a kind of “greatest hits” highlight reel of the relationship’s race to rock bottom means that we don’t get stuck in a standard him/her tennis match. And as the police investigation picks up heat, it lends more urgency to the love affair’s disintegration. Roeg avoids any overly symbolic montage, using camera tricks sparingly to move us from one scene to the next, zooming in on an object and then cutting to another scene, but never relying on a strict one-to-one ratio (for instance, when Alex looks at a pipe leaking steam, we don’t go to a tea pot whistling or the like). The editing is the most suggestive in the more intimate scenes, creating a collage of the lovers’ bodies rather than any strict depiction of sex--except maybe when the looking is intended to make us uncomfortable. The most effective moment, though, is in Alex and Milena’s emotional standoff at the university. Director of photography Anthony Richmond (Legally Blonde) chooses to get tighter and tighter on their faces, while the backgrounds fall out of focus and turn into abstract patterns, reminiscent of the Klimt paintings shown in the opening credits. It’s a simple, yet effective, way to show how these two, when they are truly together, inhabit their own world.



Sad to say here is another spot where Roeg missteps, using a terrible piano instrumental to score the scene. It feels mawkish and out of place. Also, what is up with the on-the-nose employment of the Who’s “Who Are You”--not once, but twice--when Alex is trying to uncover someone’s identity? Is this where the CSI producers got the idea?

Luckily for Roeg, his cast is so talented that they can bring Bad Timing back to Earth from just about anything. Who knew Art Garfunkel, the quiet one in Simon and Garfunkel, could be so focused and not just intense, but menacing? In Carnal Knowledge, he is more a foil to Jack Nicholson than a full presence. Not so in Bad Timing. Garfunkel’s performance isn’t showy, but all the better for it. He needs to stand firm against his co-star’s energetic onslaught. Theresa Russell gives the performance of a lifetime, fully possessing Milena, embracing all her flaws while making sure she’s more than just a collection of foibles and male perceptions. She is alternately sexy, infuriating, inspiring, and sad. Just like we all are. Just like love can be. More importantly, though, is how present and alert she is. For as much as Alex, in his capacity as a “research psychoanalyst,” police witness, and man possessed, is always keeping his eye on her, Milena’s gaze is the one that is laser focused. It feels at times predatory or self-serving, but also protective. Too bad she can’t see what Alex will become...or is that part of the fun for her?


It’s all rather intoxicating. Bad Timing has a lot to sift through, but it never feels that the director is obfuscating for no reason. His feints and sleights of hand are there to intrigue...and to reveal. So, cheers to you, Mr. Roeg. I am glad we could part on such kind words, given our own contentious relationship as storyteller and armchair critic. May you rest in peace, wherever you’ve chosen to go.



Saturday, November 24, 2018

ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS - #335


There is something dazzling about how softly Louis Malle weaves together all the narratives in his 1957 debut, Elevator to the Gallows. What is seemingly random happenstance, a sorry turn of fate, eventually swirls its way back around to be important, to affect change and create an unavoidable outcome. Elevator to the Gallows is perfect French noir, taking the bleak criminal narratives of American film noir, injecting a touch of politics, and amping the existential irony to degrees that would impress even Sartre. Every well-motivated action will bring about bad results, every attempt to escape just tightens the noose.



The plot is supposed to be simple: army veteran Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet, The Fire Within [review]) is going to kill his boss (Jean Wall), a war profiteer, and make it look like suicide so he can run away with the man’s wife, Florence (Jeanne Moreau, The Lovers [review]). The plan is to do the deed in the boss’ office on Saturday, leaving him to be found when the workweek resumes. After a distraction causes Julien to miss a crucial detail, however, he has to head back to the scene of the crime--where he promptly becomes locked in the elevator when security shuts down the building for the weekend.

With Julien trapped, things begin to unravel. Feeling jilted when he misses their rendezvous, Florence wanders the street looking for him--even after she spots his car leaving town, the young girl from the flower shop (Yori Bertin) riding in the passenger seat. What she doesn’t see, though, is that Julien is not the driver. Rather, it’s the girl’s delinquent boyfriend (Georges Poujouly, Forbidden Games) taking the convertible for a joy ride. And from here we have as series of misadventures and misunderstandings, the night intensifying, becoming more desperate, the narratives growing simultaneously more disparate and more tangled.


Elevator to the Gallows works as a taut crime thriller, but it’s also a story of romantic longing. While on the elevator, Julien worries less about being caught and more about leaving Florence waiting. He tries everything he can to escape, Ronet turning in a quiet, determined performance, showing the soldier thinking through every potential angle. Malle works the tension of the moment via the claustrophobia, putting the camera in tight so as to almost insert the viewer into the scenario. I can’t imagine myself being even close to as resourceful as Julien were I in the same situation. There is also one moment of genuine peril that gets the heart racing in a movie that otherwise takes its time.


It’s really Jeanne Moreau who carries the film, however. A seemingly simple role, the part of Florence mostly involves walking the streets, peering in doorways, and conveying a sense of deep longing. Even without her voiceover to give us further insight into her feelings, Moreau’s performance is so compelling, her sadness so electric, one can’t take one’s eyes off her. Indeed, as she passes pedestrians, they all stare, proving how magnetic Jeanne Moreau truly is. It’s not the camera they peer into or that draws their attention, it’s her. And her true strength is how expertly she blocks them all out. Watch her in the one shot where she crosses the street, never looking at the cars, but yet passing perfectly through traffic. How did they choreograph that? It looks more dangerous than Julien’s elevator shaft stunt!


There is a contrast to be seen here between the two sets of lovers, between the dedicated and deeply felt adults, willing to take any chance to be together, to the more impulsive and superficial bond between Louis and the flower girl. The troubles that befall Julien and Florence are unforeseen consequences of considered decisions; the trouble Louis causes is a product of adolescent chaos, and Véronique’s solutions just the same. In most other stories, the inevitability of tragedy would be reserved for the younger star-crossed lovers. How much more tragic, then, that we never actually see Julien and Florence together, and almost never see Louis and Véronique apart? In noir, there is no young and old; all of us must receive our due comeuppance.



Malle’s approach is a mixture of New Wave realism and Dassin-esque artistry. The grainy exteriors mask the artifice of the plotting, while the naturalistic performances invigorate the carefully constructed story machinations. Moving through all of it is Miles Davis’ famous score, lending a bit of Americana to the very French proceedings, while also emphasizing Elevator to the Gallows’ aimless melancholy. The music seems particularly on point when it shares the screen with Moreau, as if she were the muse teasing every note from Davis’ trumpet.

Beyond the story, Elevator to the Gallows is the meeting of these three singular talents, a chemical formula that would have been impossible to predict, much less replicate. It couldn’t have worked if any of the participants had been swapped out, and yet it’s also so organically magical, it doesn’t feel like it could have been planned. It’s the perfect collision of performance, of visual and audio, resulting in a film that transcends its own genre trappings to be something entirely unforeseen.