Sunday, April 4, 2021

THE MISSION - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2010.


Roland Joffé's 1986 drama The Mission is a lush, if maybe slightly undercooked, historical epic about faith, exploitation, and redemption. It stars Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, a Jesuit monk who has traveled to the jungles of South America to build a church in a remote outpost. His assignment is up in the hills, above a massive waterfall that the previous missionary was dumped over. He was murdered and set adrift, lashed to a rudimentary cross, a sign of how much the Guarani tribe that lives there initially wanted to be converted to Christianity.

The Mission is set in 1750, at a time when foreign interest in this part of the world varied. In opposition to Father Gabriel's more humanitarian goals is Rodrigo Mendoza, played with a subdued fire by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a slave trader, and it seems the only one bold enough to go that deep into the rainforest to kidnap the Guarani. After Mendoza kills his own brother (Aidan Quinn) in a dispute over a woman, the mercenary seeks his penance in Gabriel's monastic order, giving himself to God and helping to build the mission where the locals will worship.


Unfortunately, just because Mendoza has stopped rounding up the natives doesn't mean that the threat is gone. Both Spain and Portugal have interest in the slave trade and the natural resources found in this land, and they don't appreciate the missions creating productive farming communities that compete with their bottom line. The Papacy, hoping to secure the Catholic Church's position in the region while also maintaining power back home, sends a Cardinal (Ray McAnally) to sort the situation out. Though he presents himself as having an open mind and is even moved by the conversions he sees, he ultimately gives the land to Portugal and orders the various missionary outposts to shut down. The Guarani don't want to leave, and despite the threat of excommunication, the monks decide to stand their ground, as well. Only, the two men split once again. Gabriel will put his trust in his faith and stage a peaceful protest; Mendoza will pick up the arms he previously renounced and fight. Who will be more effective?

The Mission is a gorgeous movie. It was shot on location throughout South America, with actual indigenous people performing as the movie's extras. Joffé and cinematographer Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work, embrace the majesty of the rainforest and the mighty Paraná River. Their awe of the wild landscape is infectious, and the widescreen photography looks phenomenal in high definition. Watch it on a big TV, and you will feel as if you have taken an expedition to the Amazon. It's an immersive experience, particularly with the way Ennio Morricone's vibrant orchestration further envelopes you. This is a movie that dazzles the senses.



I didn't feel quite the same way about the characters, however. The script is by Robert Bolt, who wrote most of David Lean's more famous historical epics, and though The Mission matches those in scope and ambition, it lacks the soul of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean that in multiple ways, too. Not only did I not feel like I got to know the characters very well or understand exactly what made them tick, but I didn't feel Joffé was able to communicate the spirituality that was essentially the main motivator for everyone. In that kind of environment, and with cold-hearted capitalists serving as enemies to the pure intentioned, it should have been easy. Yet, while the villains are broadly drawn, the heroes seem like mere sketches.

The actors are not at fault for this. The two leads, in particular, inhabit their roles with convincing purpose. Jeremy Irons is soft-spoken and warm, and his expressive eyes carry many scenes, particularly as his communication with the Guarani is either silent or in the untranslated native language. The script fails Father Gabriel in the final portion of the movie, not giving enough attention to his crisis of faith, instead throwing the narrative support behind Mendoza. This rough beast represents the real arc of the movie, going from a calculating egotist to penitent and then somewhere more in the middle, when he must stand up and act with purpose. De Niro is fantastic, squashing most of the easily imitated mannerisms that he is known for, and delivering a cerebral performance. Mendoza is meditative--a thinker--and when you watch De Niro, you can see the wheels turning in his head. It may also be that I identify with his character more than I do Gabriel, who arguably shies away from his personal responsibility in the destruction of a people. Even if one accepts that he had good intentions, his presence in the jungle is as violent an invasion as the Portuguese marauders.

Which I suppose is where the real thematic resonance of The Mission lies: the rich political subtext. By being offered these two men as our identifying figures, Joffé and Bolt ask us to wrestle with our own conscience. Which would we be? The idealist who embraces nonviolent protest, or the one who acts when circumstances demand a response? It could be that neither option is ideal. The only thing that is sure is neither worked for those caught in the middle.










Friday, February 19, 2021

COTTON COMES TO HARLEM - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was written in 2014 for DVDTalk.com.



Sometimes you really do come across a movie and think, "Where have you been all my life?" Watching Ossie Davis' 1970 blaxploitation picture Cotton Comes to Harlem last night, I couldn't believe I had waited all this time to see it. I missed the memo that it was such a fun blend of energy, politics, and genre subversion.



Based on a book by Chester Himes, this spin on pulpy police stories features two New York City detectives on the hunt for money stolen from a dubious charity. Smooth-talking Reverend Deek O'Malley (Calvin Lockhart, Coming to America [review]) collected $87K from Harlem residents promising them passage on a boat to take them back to Africa and away from the oppressive conditions of the American state. No sooner has the cash been gathered than armed robbers make off with it. Deek and his henchman chase the getaway van in their gold-plated armored car, and they in turn are pursued by Grave Digger Jones (Godfrey Chambers, Watermelon Man) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques, The Green Berets), the police officers assigned to the Harlem beat.




Just about everything you need to know about Cotton Comes to Harlem is in these opening scenes. It's a mingling of life on the streets and black politics, with Black Panther stand-ins the Black Berets squaring off against police and taking exception to O'Malley's hokum even while everyday citizens cheer him on. There are bullish white officials hanging around, asserting their own agenda, and there are also lots of colorful characters, including a junk collector (Red Foxx), a pickpocket (Van Kirksey), and a street painter (Cleavon Little). Once the chase is underway, Davis, who is perhaps best known now as the actor who played Da Mayor in Do the Right Thing, throws all pretense out the window. He and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein) take in everything along the escape route, letting the cars go on their merry way while they stop to look at what's happening on the sidewalk. The digressions are generally humorous--an undertaker puts on his good hat and jacket to await the oncoming business, a catcaller nearly has his head blown off while admiring three lovely ladies--and meant to give a flavor of the neighborhood. Davis is both playing with and celebrating African American stereotypes, taking a certain ownership of them while poking the white gaze in its eye. This is, after all, a pursuit where the cops spin out after crashing into a watermelon cart. Their frustration here and throughout Cotton Comes to Harlem is both with the perception of their community and how often members of it fall into the trap of conforming to negative stereotypes. These are guys just trying to do a job, but everyone and everything manages to get in their way.



From there, Cotton Comes to Harlem has one major plotline--finding the money, which has been hidden inside a bale of cotton that went missing in the shootout--but Davis isn't afraid to go careening off in whatever direction strikes his fancy. Some of the action is predictable--a gunfight at the junkyard, for instance, follows certain expected standards--and others not so much. Davis' regular go-to for disrupting everything is O'Malley's spurned girlfriend, Iris (Judy Pace, Brian's Song). Neither a femme fatale nor a patsy, Iris is a self-determined agent of chaos. In one hilarious (and sexy) scene, she seduces a white cop in order to trick him into lettering her go; in another, she brains O'Malley's new mistress, and then nearly gets the Reverend locked up for it.




The Reverend himself is your typical snake-oil salesmen, but it's interesting that most of the resentment that comes his way is for missing an opportunity to be a true leader. Gravedigger and Coffin think he's scum not just because he preys on his own people, but he colludes with white crooks to do it. Though, this is also status quo: not only do the cops acknowledge that their hands are sometimes tied by their white bosses, so too does Harlem's leading crook (Maxwell Glanville) answer to an uptown mafia boss. Every choice that Davis and his co-writer Arnold Perl (Malcolm X) make is a political one.



Yet, Cotton Comes to Harlem is far from a message picture. Rather, it follows the grand B-movie tradition of nestling its more enlightened points within genre tropes, disguising the larger message with sex and violence. One could easily watch Cotton Comes to Harlem at face value and it's still a cracking good time. Weirdly enough, the anything-goes tone reminds me of anime, the way the storytelling flits from action to drama to comedy to scandal without ever really stopping to worry if the viewer is ready for the mood swing. It's the sort of film where you just have to strap yourself in and prepare yourself to accept whatever comes next. Because, geez, it's a blast getting where you're going, and so worth it once you realize where that is.




Sunday, February 14, 2021

AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review written in 2013 for DVDTalk.com.



Let's get this out of the way. Ain't Them Bodies Saints looks like a Terrence Malick film, and there is certainly an influence there. I only bring this up because everyone else does, even though it's like saying some contemporary author writes in a sparse style a la Raymond Carver who also himself writes like Ernest Hemingway. Of course, he does!





While writer/director David Lowery is certainly more akin to that contemporary talent thrice removed, this directorial effort transcends simple homage and becomes its own thing, fitting snuggly in a school of crime-flavored films told with a Southern drawl and a molasses pace. It's a school that star Casey Affleck seems to like a lot, as Ain't Them Bodies Saints could almost be a kind of link between two of his other movies, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford [review] and Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me [review]. Like that latter film, unfortunately, Ain't Them Bodies Saints never entirely finds its sweet spot, but that doesn't stop it from being worthwhile viewing.





The younger Affleck stars as Bob Muldoon. In the artful prologue to the movie, we see that Bob is kind of an old fashioned outlaw, perhaps a descendent of the aforementioned Jesse James, if not a more direct follower of Clyde Barrow. After a crime spree and a shootout with Texas troopers, Bob ends up in jail, covering for his sweetheart, Ruth (Rooney Mara, Side Effects [review]), who is the one who really shot the cop (Ben Foster, The Messenger [review]) and should have gone to prison. She's pregnant, however, and chivalry is not dead, so Bob falls on that sword, vowing to one day escape and get back to her and their child.






That day comes several years later and serves as the main section of Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Bob has escaped from prison and is trying to make his way back to his family. Meanwhile, the wolves are circling around Ruth. Some of them, like their former benefactor/father figure (Keith Carradine, Thieves Like Us [review]), merely wants to see Bob back behind bars with a minimum of fuss; others, like the wounded cop, have other outcomes in mind. He has fallen for Ruth, apparently as oblivious as everyone else to who really pulled the trigger those years ago.



The distance between prison and home is great, and the consequences even greater. As all of these characters circle one another, their dance absorbs others, particularly as Bob seeks help from friends and enemies come looking for revenge. The main engine of Ain't Them Bodies Saints, however, is the central quartet, all of whom have their own motivations. For the men, it all has something to do with Ruth; for Ruth, it's about protecting her daughter.






Performance-wise, everyone is very much at ease here. Ain't Them Bodies Saints breathes a rare, chilled air, and the tone is consistently quiet. There are very few instances where anyone raises their voice above a conversational volume. Ben Foster benefits the most from being restrained. I can't remember the last time he appeared on screen when he wasn't working some exaggerated tic or overdoing it in some manner. (It probably was The Messenger, actually.) Here he appears lonely and heartbroken--which is also Ain't Them Bodies Saints' standard mood. Everyone is suffering some disappointment, no one has what they originally envisioned and desired for themselves. They live, as the saying goes, lives of quiet desperation.






Ain't Them Bodies Saints is a well-made movie. Its tone is inviting and the clear, understated storytelling makes it easy to watch. The script provides plenty of space for the actors to draw out and work with their characters' inner lives. Lowery doesn't seem concerned about the showier aspects of writing. He doesn't go in for stylized or explanatory dialogue, there is no speechifying in Ain't Them Bodies Saints. The closest he gets to that is in the music, when Daniel Hart's score indulges in a stylistic divergence, such as the handclaps in one of the shootout scenes. Then again, if there is any place it might be acceptable to go a little off model, wouldn't that be when there's serious gunplay? The heightened rhythm mimics an accelerated heartbeat, fitting the mood and paying nicely against cinematographer Bradford Young's naturalistic approach to lighting.





Except given that Ain't Them Bodies Saints otherwise fails to fully engage, it makes such shifts all the more noticeable. There's an element here of too much control and a concern with perfection, and Lowery never really breaks from that. This makes for a movie that often feels like it's going through the motions, hitting its marks, and making sure everything is attuned just so. It lacks the emotional rawness that would give it the kind of depth that would make it truly special.




Wednesday, January 27, 2021

CARANCHO - CRITERION CHANNEL

 This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.



Two people meet out on the job. Simple enough. She's an EMT, he's an ambulance chaser who works for a private social services agency that helps car crash victims fight insurance companies. She is naturally suspicious of him--his job is not one a good lawyer chooses for himself--and yet he is attracted to her, wants to prove to her that he's an okay guy. The dude convinces the girl to have coffee, the conversation goes well, and things start to take their natural course. Except they both have their secrets, and when those come to light, each will have to choose how acceptable they find the previously unknown character traits.





This is the basic set-up of Carancho, a film from Argentinean filmmaker Pablo Trapero. Though it may sound like a conventional romantic drama, Carancho slowly morphs into a bleak crime picture, one that grows darker with each successive frame. Some may find it unrelenting, and folks with aversions to car crash footage may want to look away (I lost count of how many collisons there were); though I didn't think it was perfect, I thought Carancho was pretty good.





A large reason why the movie works is its excellent cast. Luján the EMT is played by Martina Gusman, who was amazing in Trapero's previous (and better) motion picture, the prison drama Lion's Den [review]. Luján is biding her time riding around in ambulances until she can get shifts as a doctor. She's also got a bit of a morphine habit; nothing that interferes with her day to day, but enough that her bosses probably wouldn't approve. In essence, she has a good heart, and so her suspicions that the group that the lawyer works for is not really helping the victims come from a good place. Sosa is played by Ricardo Darín, the lead from The Secret in Their Eyes [review]. Meeting Luján has come at the right time for Sosa. He has almost gotten back on his feet, and her distrust reminds him of the man he always intended to be.







The main problem here is that Luján is correct in her assumptions. Sosa works for bad men who not only bilk their clients out of most of their settlements, but they also create fake accidents to get even more payoffs. One of these accidents goes wrong, providing the narrative fulcrum for Carancho. Faced with his own deceit and with the woman he loves knowing what a heel he's been, Sosa has to face the music, and he tries to put things right--something that gets both him and Luján in hot water with some dangerous people.






Those expecting a big love story out of Carancho are likely to be disappointed. Though there are tender moments between Luján and Sosa, they come in between arguments, mistakes, and even unsettling eruptions of violence. Each step they take to try to get out of the moral quicksand only sucks them down deeper, culminating in a final desperate act. It's a variation on both "love on the run" and "one last job" film conventions--though Trapero and his writers keep their intentions pretty well guarded. For a lot of the movie, I couldn't guess where the characters were going or when the last double-cross was going to occur. I'd call Carancho a potboiler, but the general temperature is chilled by anxiety and fear. These guys aren't criminals, they are well-meaning people who have made some bad choices. Trying to correct them is harder than going along, that's the difficult of taking up residency in morally gray areas, and it's what makes their predicament interesting.








Trapero and cinematographer Julián Apezteguia shot Carancho with the RED digital camera, and much of the film has the immediacy of the verité style that the technology allows for. They shoot in close quarters, following their characters through their professional hazards and getting into the thick of it as things get rough; likewise, intimate moments between the two leads are shot in close-up, bringing us into their affair, as well as their pain. The stark photography makes Luján's struggles with her addiction grimy and unattractive--there is no romanticizing any of this. I loved Martina Gusman in Lion's Den, and she is equally fierce here, though the Luján role allows for more range and a different kind of vulnerability. Gusman is definitely an actress to watch.





Carancho starts stronger than it finishes. Once the mysteries of the story unfold and the characters reveal what they are hiding, there is a kind of perfunctory structure to how the rest of it plays out, even if the viewer can't see around every corner. It doesn't help that Trapero drags his feet getting there, making it harder to take when the movie continues to spiral downward into the darkness. The final shots push the irony a little too hard, and truth be told, it's the one move you're likely going to be able to call ahead of time. Even so, Carancho is a meaty cinematic effort, giving the audience much to chew on, and it's admirable that it avoids pulling its punches or delivering the ending most of us would expect, regardless of how much we may want it.





LION'S DEN - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog in February 2009 as part of my coverage of the Portland International Film Festival.



It's been a long time since I've seen as good an opening to a thriller as the first ten minutes of Lion's Den. Following a disconcerting animated credits sequence featuring a sing-a-long with South American children--I wondered it they had switched screenings on me--we get a series of quick-cut scenes where the film's heroine, Julia (Martina Gusman), slowly comes out of a state of shock to realize that there have been two bloody murders in her home. The way director Pablo Trapero (alongside three other writers) pulls you into the plot is deftly executed, moving rapidly to knock the audience off balance and put us in Julia's shoes.


Because from there, Lion's Den isn't really a thriller, but a prison drama about a young mother in a situation that has gotten out of her control. Unable to give a feasible account of the evening--which involved her lover and his boyfriend in a knife fight, leaving the boyfriend dead and the lover, Ramiro (Rodrigo Santoro), badly wounded--Julia is locked up pending trial. Since she is a couple of months along in a pregnancy, she is assigned to a maternity ward where convicted mothers can raise their own children until they are four. Depressed and nauseous with morning sickness, Julia takes a while to adjust to life inside, but eventually she becomes part of the community, even taking a lover, Marta (Laura Garcia), and using her outside connections to get goods for the inmates. Several years pass, and all the while Julia keeps fighting for her freedom. When her mother (Elli Medeiros) tricks her into taking her young son away, however, everything unravels.



Lion's Den is a harsh story filmed in a gritty style and lacking in any overt sensationalism. The script taps into a universal fear--of being caught in a legal system you can't get out of and incarcerated--and adds a specific and unique wrinkle I don't think we've seen in cinema before. The maternity prison is like a daycare center in Hell, a lethal combination of violence, boredom, and dirty diapers. A unique setting is nothing without a great character, however, and Julia is a fully realized human being with a real journey to undergo. The selfish, bleach-blonde girl at the start of the picture is vastly different from the confident, fierce mother that exits the final frame. Outside of one previous acting credit (Trapero's 2006 film Born and Bred), Martina Gusman has almost exclusively been a producer up until now and even has an executive producer credit on Lion's Den. Whatever prompted the switch deserves some kind of tribute or monument, because she's utterly convincing as Julia. So much so, I have cause to wonder if she really was pregnant during shooting. If not, Gusman sported the most impressive prosthetic belly I've ever seen. The performance shows an amazing range that is likely only just scratching the surface of her ability.


The film ends somewhere in the same territory where it began, with final scenes closer to a thriller than the hard-edged drama that passed between. Yet, neither the beginning nor the end feel disjointed from the middle, the transitions are as natural as Julia's changes. Behavioral action drives life, and it can drive a very good movie, as well. Lion's Den is one to look out for.