Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (Claude Berri, 1986)


A surprisingly deep and poignant, and even more surprisingly brisk-feeling, 2-film, 4-hour epic about…carnation-farming and water displacement. Two farmers, Cesar (Yves Montand) and his ne’er-do-well nephew Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) (names borrowed for similar characters in the Simpsons episode “The Crepes of Wrath”), fresh off of Ugolin’s idea to grow and sell carnations and in need of fertile land to do so, conspire to block off the water supply to the neighboring land belonging to a newcomer, the hunchback Jean (Gérard Depardieu), hoping to drive away the formerly city-dwelling tax collector in despair and acquire the land on the cheap. What follows in the first film is Jean’s charmingly stubborn and hopelessly oblivious attempt to grow crops and breed rabbits relying on water from miles away while the two conspirators next door play friendly, while in the second film, Jean’s now-grown daughter, Manon (Emmanuelle Béart), avenges her unknowingly victimized father. As the plot progresses and soon other people in the town become aware of it but do nothing to tip off Jean, it’s clear the main motive for the plot, especially for the townspeople but even for Cesar and Ugolin, in addition to their precious carnations, is an inherent disdain towards the outsider, any stranger who would dare invade their carefully-insulated world (although for the older Cesar, the motive is revealed late to be decades in the making and personal). This alienation of the outsider and a critique of isolationism seem to be one of the film’s main focuses. True, it may be a bit too on-the-nose to make the outsider in question a hunchback, so physically separate from everyone else that his status as an “other” couldn’t be more symbolically obvious, and indeed their constantly referring to him as “the hunchback” gets old after a while, but this isn’t exactly the pinnacle of realism, as both films are peppered with moments of melodrama and humor that humanizes both victim and victimizer. As hopeless as his plight is and as obstinate as he may be, you can’t help but admire Jean’s persistence, often carrying gallons of water miles on his (hunch)back to keep his fledgling farm going (an image that reminded me of, of all things, Setsuko Hara in Kurosawa’s “No Regrets for Our Youth”). His persistence and innocent optimism serves as a refreshing contrast to the slimy corruption of his two scheming neighbors. Which isn’t to say, though, that he’s a flawless hero, as his steadfastness is basically, in the end, not worth it, and indeed rather stupid, to the point where that persistence even makes you roll your eyes…as surely it must make Cesar and Ugolin’s. Many scenes focus on Jean and his supportive wife and daughter, true, but the film does a brave thing by putting as much, if not more, of the point of view on Cesar and Ugolin, the supposed villains. As Cesar is seemingly obsessed with continuing the lineage and wealth of his precious Soubeyran name and Ugolin feigns helpful friendship with Jean, even their vile scheme to drive out / ruin an honest man becomes shaded with humanity, with Ugolin arguably developing a genuine affection for the man while ruining him and the viewer is challenged to split his or her allegiance between two shameless crooks and a well-meaning but ignorant newcomer – not exactly easy, storybook choices.

The wildcard amongst this cast of characters is Jean’s daughter, Manon (Ernestine Mazurowna in the first film, Béart in the second). To call her precocious would probably be an understatement, as she silently observes her father’s mostly fruitless toiling with sad curiosity, and the suspiciously doting Ugolin with clear distrust and disdain. Her quiet observations and expressive eyes say more about her than much of the film’s actual dialogue says about its other characters. It’s as if she’s not only wise beyond her years, but downright prescient, plotting justice for her wronged father before the extent of his being wronged even becomes clear. In the second film, that penchant for quiet hyper-observation and even quieter plotting remains in the now-teenage Manon, with an added degree of willful isolation. She almost seems autistic in her persistent lack of communication with anyone, her obsessive tending of her goats, and her joyfully dancing naked out in broad daylight. She’s incredibly enigmatic, perhaps too much so, but that enigma provides one of the more fascinating aspects of the second film, as Ugolin falls hopelessly in love with her. True, any heterosexual male with eyes could easily fall in love with a young woman as beautiful as Emmanuele Béart, but you get the sense that Ugolin’s obsessive, tragic infatuation arises chiefly from his guilt over what he did to the girl’s father years before. You can’t help but pity the poor man as he falls all over himself trying to woo the silent woman who is planning his destruction, precisely because we’ve spent a full film and a half seeing things through his seedy, tragically flawed perspective, unlike with the town’s young, handsome (and bland) schoolteacher in his own wooing of Manon, in one major subplot that falls majorly flat.

While Ugolin is clearly a tragic figure, he’s cartoonish and buffoonish in bringing about his own downfall. His uncle, Cesar, experiences a much more subtle downfall that will stick with me for some time. Not once does he interact with Jean the hunchback, in trying to wash his hands of guilt. His goal, of continuing the Soubeyran line and supposed fortune, is admirable, and indeed his attempts to coax his pitiful nephew and heir into child-bearing marriage is even endearing, as his curmudgeonly interactions with the stunningly immature Ugolin are among the more charming and likable scenes across both films. It’s just his way of going about it that is reprehensible, and ultimately unforgivable. That this story is wrapped up neater than a soap opera, complete with a last moment plot twist, cannot be ignored and is quite disappointing for a 4-hour epic that otherwise unfolds at an otherwise wonderfully leisurly pace, the excellent cinematography of the farmlands and sounds of cicadas and footsteps on arid dirt putting you right in the midst of an agriculturally devastating heat wave. But if that conclusion is abrupt and unsubtle, the wordless facial acting of the great Yves Montand in the town cemetery is anything but. In the end, Cesar gets exactly what he wants. And it destroys him.

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004)

“Before Sunrise” was an incredible exercise in on-screen chemistry and depiction of youthful romanticism as Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse, two twentysomethings traveling across Europe, meet on a train, decide on a whim to explore Vienna between trains, and personify all that is good about mutual attraction and falling in love without a care about the next day. Now, nine years later in this sequel, Jesse is in Paris promoting his novel about that fateful night, happens to glance to his right while answering questions during a book signing, and there sees his lost love. After tongue-tyingly cutting his Q&A short, he walks over and says hello, she says hello back, and off they go, continuing the odyssey they hurriedly cut short with an unfulfilled promise to meet in Vienna in December on that train platform nine years earlier. Jesse’s complete lack of surprise upon greeting Celine is striking and telling, as indeed later on he’ll admit that he thinks he wrote his book partly to draw her back to him. This is their reunion in Vienna in December after all.

“Before Sunset” essentially shares the same format as its predecessor, as Celine and Jesse traverse the city discussing topics far and wide, profound and petty, with some differences. “Before Sunrise” sprawled over the course of a night, while this sequel occurs essentially in real-time. Ironically, I sensed more time-based desperation between the two in the first film, as an impending sense of doom, as the sun would act as harbinger to their inevitable separation, contributed to their headlong passage into love as much as their sheer chemistry did. Here, they’re nine years older, more jaded, and at least at the outset have no illusions about rekindling that spark, as they’re looking back at that night with fascinated amusement as much as anything. That they do rekindle that spark once again should hardly come as a surprise, an outcome that is delightfully inevitable, yet that sense of idealized reverie I felt after the first film was lacking here. I’m struggling to remember a large majority of what Celine and Jesse discuss in both films – a flaw in the second film, a virtue in the first. In their first meeting, their inherent chemistry and body language speak leaps and bounds over what they happen to be speaking with their mouths, never more apparent than during my favorite scene in the first film, as they share a listening booth in a record store, listening to a record while both incessantly sneak glances at one another, never daring to meet each others’ gaze. Does Jesse want to kiss Celine, does she want him to? Their attraction is depicted flawlessly in those eyes, and that attraction carries them towards sunrise and an unknown tomorrow. I thought “Before Sunset” relied more heavily on dialogue, but damned if I could give a damn about the random crap they’re talking about. Yeah, it’s natural and organic, moreso than the endless dreck of most romance movies in this day and age, and maybe I’m unfairly looking for that once-present youthful spark in these two that’s, like their youth itself, simply no longer there, but for the first time while watching these two incredibly-written characters, I grew bored, and that cannot be discounted.

If nothing else, this film is an incredible technical achievement by Linklater, for his minutes-long single tracking shots, and by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for never missing a beat during said shots, walking and talking as fictional characters in a very real city, the difficulty of which I cannot imagine. Ultimately, I was often admiring those technical accomplishments of a film director and actors more than the story – I was admiring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rather than Celine and Jesse, and that lack of immersion that the first film practically bathed in left me wanting. But, maybe I as a 27-year-old who would like very much to meet and fall for a beautiful french woman on a train to Vienna am just yet to experience the perspective of these two now-older people, revisiting, and perhaps re-becoming, those different people they once were. After all, we don’t even learn into well into the film that **SPOILER** Celine is seeing a war photographer and Jesse is in an unhappy marriage and has a son he idolizes **END SPOILER**. I was startled by these revelations, but to Celine and Jesse, and to the screenplay, it’s just another topic amongst the many covered by these two. If I can’t identify with such momentous life changes, I can at least hope to examine them with the delicate grace that these two do. I can’t wait to be as unprepared for Before Midnight as I was for this.

A Late Quartet (Yaron Zilberman, 2012)

It was, curiously, a line by Liam Neeson in “The Grey,” of all films, that came to mind as I watched the emotional unravelling of “A Late Quartet”‘s world-famous string quartet when he describes “men unfit for mankind.” Of course, Neeson’s character in that film was describing “Ex-cons, fugitives, drifters, assholes,” while the men (and woman) of this film are gifted, famed musicians who have devoted 25 years of their lives to not only the perfection of, but more importantly the unification of, their craft. To put forth such beautiful music, they have had to shun their individual talents (and, thereby, egos) in favor of making a melodic whole, as well as any semblance of personal lives and continually push back each of their neuroses, insecurities, and foibles as the music comes first, letting those flaws first fester and then grow inside each person until they can no longer be contained. The catalyst of that lack of containment comes when Peter (Christopher Walken), the group’s cellist and oldest member, announces that he likely has the early stages of Parkinson’s Disease and will soon have to step down. Now, when this well-oiled machine finally faces its first true threat of breaking apart, the endless rehearsals and the music can no longer serve as a band-aid with which the quartet can mask their previously-disavowed flaws. Second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) almost immediately brings up, seemingly out of the blue, a suggestion that he and first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) switch between first and second chair going forward. He’s not fooling anyone; the idea has been smoldering in him long before Peter’s grim announcement. Violist Juliette (Catherine Keener), Robert’s wife, must confront her failings as a wife and mother who has mostly forsaken loving relationships for her work – a pitfall of many a professional musician, as she explains to her enraged daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), a burgeoning violinist in her own right…who happens to be carrying on an affair with Daniel, the youngest member of the quartet – initially gruff and cold as he tutors Alexandra, now reduced to a romantically-blubbering schoolboy when Alexandra’s bed comes into the equation. I should have no business becoming so absorbed in such melodrama, professional insecurities and romantic tribulations and triangles so well-trodden in lesser films, and yet, the power of these melodramatic sub-plots comes in seeing how each member of the quartet seems so clueless on how to navigate these uncharted waters. They are, indeed, unfit for mankind, or rather, unfit for and unprepared to handle mankind’s desires, hatreds, flaws. The perfection of Beethoven and Shostakovich has done anything but prepare them for the imperfections of being human beings – Peter’s physical decay and mourning of his recently-deceased wife, Robert’s crippling talent-based insecurities and yearning for yet more fame and glory, Juliette’s inability to love, Daniel’s sudden hyper-ability to love – all separate facets of the human experience that they’re just now confronting, as their 25-year shield against such dreaded horrors finds itself dissolving.

As the film progresses, we get tidbits of information here and there concerning the quartet’s relationships and how its members came together – just enough to make us realize that there is a complicated history here, to allow us to speculate on so many different levels. As we learn that Robert and Juliette were practically forced to marry when Alexandra was conceived, Robert uses this fact when confronting his wife about her long-standing emotional distance. When we learn that Peter was in a previous quartet with Juliette’s mother, psychological possibilities abound. Peter is already, clearly, the wise, revered patriarch of the group, but is he literally so, literally a father figure, to Juliette? Does he see himself that way, and indeed towards the others? There are so many more questions to ask about the interpersonal relationships of these four people that the screenplay only hints at the answers to, and you can only come to one reasonable conclusion – 25 years is a long time. A long time in which to play music together, and shun important outside influences – together. For better or worse, they’ve always been able to return to the music, to work off of each others’ personalities and talents to become a whole, made literal by their effortless eye-based communication-without-words during performance that has clearly taken years to perfect. They’re one, a family, overseen not by a quartet’s traditional “leader,” the first violinist, but by the older, wobbly-handed cellist. Christopher Walken sheds his self-parodic image to portray a man with such dignity and grace as I have rarely seen in any movie character. While his fellow musicians flail about in a puddle of their own neuroses, Peter confronts his Parkinson’s on a treadmill with bizarre doodads hooked up to his body with nary a complaint or flash of shame, or sits mournfully in his study listening to a recording of his late opera singer wife, imagining her singing before him. When he explains the nature of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, opus 131 to his students or tells them about his humorous encounter with famed cellist Pablo Casals, his appreciation towards his chosen art form can be felt on a deep, poetic level. Robert, Juliette, and Daniel no doubt love the music they play – you must in order to achieve their level of talent and fame over so long a period of time – but Peter has gained an introspective admiration for his work, his life, that his younger collaborators have simply not yet achieved. But, if their reaction to Peter’s actions during the performance that bookends the beginning and end of the film is to be believed, if they revere their elder statesman’s heroic acceptance of his fate and his person as much as I do, they’ll get there. They soon may, like Peter, become people as beautiful and complex as the music they play, if they aren’t already, flaws and all.

Affliction (Paul Schrader, 1997)

Of all the scenes that comprise this incredible performance by Nick Nolte, the ones that affected me the most and burrowed the deepest under my skin to give me chills were those between his small-town cop Wade Whitehouse and his young, quasi-estranged daughter. We meet them in the car as he has her for a limited time over his ex-wife, driving to a Halloween school function. As he consistently tries to convince her to go to this school, and later tries harder and harder to ingratiate himself with her, he doesn’t quite become overtly hostile, but nevertheless, something is very wrong with this man and his behavior. He seems far too desperate to get on his daughter’s good side and be a cool dad, or a loving dad, a task that proves hopeless, particularly in a late, disturbing scene in a café in which he snuggles up to her and baby-talks her as if she’s a toddler (before he assaults the proprietor, but that’s a whole other matter of a movie’s worth of plot development…). This poor girl must bear the brunt of this woefully damaged man who’s trying desperately to compensate for his crippling insecurities and emotional scars. Something bad happened to Wade in his past, something that’s now making him scramble, in cringingly exaggerated fashion, to be a good man, or convince himself that he’s a good man, or give off the facade of a good man. He’s in the fight of his life to, if not be someone he’s not, then to not become a figure he knows too well. He’s an ideal addition to Paul Schrader’s long line of insecure, self-loathing anti-protagonists from Travis Bickle to Jake LaMotta to Yukio Mishima to John LeTour to Jesus Christ.

As it turns out, he’s trying to be the father that his father wasn’t. As played by James Coburn in an Oscar-winning role, Wade’s father Glen is a drunk and a brute who gets off on inflicting as much physical and emotional abuse as possible on his wife and children, and you can see how any son would try to emotionally divorce himself from such a monster. Ultimately, however, Wade cannot. It’s just a shame that Schrader relied on clichéd spousal/child abuse-centric flashbacks to introduce us to Glen and his cruelty and the clear reason for Wade’s present-day flaws. Watch Nolte and Coburn act together in this film, watch their pitch-perfect, terrifying chemistry (or whatever you would call the polar opposite of “chemistry”), and you’ll see how those flashbacks are simply not needed to get a full sense of how Glen has ruled over his son for decades and inflicted permanent and cruel psychological harm. A health care professional could have a field day simply watching these two characters interact, in scenes that are as subtle and complex as those flashbacks are unoriginal and over-the-top. For better or worse (much worse…), Glen is the most important figure in Wade’s life – not his incredibly patient girlfriend Margie (Sissy Spacek), not his quiet and measured brother Rolfe (Willem Dafoe). Wade will try to separate himself from his tyrannical father, sure, whether through his daughter or through investigating the suspicious accidental hunting death that rocks his quiet town. As the details of this case envelop the plot of the film overall, the speculations over the “accident” and the possible motives of possible murders concerning Real Estate and what-not, the movie started to lose me, as Wade gets lost in the case. I suppose this is the point, that Wade so fully immerses himself in this one maybe-crime to dull decades of emotional pain, to dull the Glen inside him, to feel like a semi-important, semi-useful man rather than the mostly-useless man-child his father has made of him, that the details of the case become so complex and nonsensical and out of control as Wade becomes more obsessed, but I dunno, a little too much focus on this formulaic mystery and not enough on how it affects Wade.

Of course, we eventually learn that the mystery isn’t so formulaic after all, via Rolfe’s narration (an unexpectedly weak moment in the narration, by the way, explaining everything like in that intelligence-insulting final scene in “Psycho”, when in fact the true nature of the death, and by extension Wade’s mindset, are rather obvious long before the story’s tragic conclusion) – narration that was excellent, as Rolfe’s detached, monotone voice contains the slightest hint of distaste and he acts as the audience’s stand-in, judging the sad players of this tale with both pity and scorn. I actually wish it was used more than it was. The differences between the two brothers, raised by the same monster, are downright alarming. Rolfe somehow found the ability to get the fuck out of dodge, while Wade, try as he might, cannot (at least until an infected tooth and a can of gasoline have their say) escape this vortex of nature and nurture, cannot draw himself away from this dance with the monster who begat him.

The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)

I’m really starting to dig the meek, outwardly-sheepish Edward G. Robinson of “Scarlet Street” and “The Woman in the Window” and “The Whole Town’s Talking” over the confident and bombastic Robinson of of “Double Indemnity,” “Key Largo,” and, well, “The Whole Town’s Talking” (even if his performance in “Double Indemnity” remains one of my all-time favorite performances), because while the ruthlessness of his Johnny Rocco in a film like “Key Largo” is as plain as day with no room for deeper interpretation, that sinister side is much more subtle and insidious in his more mellow roles; it’s a side that even his own character may not be aware is in him until he’s covering up a crime with no opportunity to turn back. It’s almost like he’s two different actors, if not for that obscure, dark instinct inherent in his characters. Here, that instinct is initially invisible as his Professor Richard Wanley enjoys teaching, sees off his loving, happy family as they head off on a vacation, and enjoys an evening with friends as they discuss the painting of the eponymous woman in the window next door to their little men’s club. It’s when that woman manifests herself in the form of Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) while he admires her portrait that his world comes crashing down, as an initially innocent rendezvous in her apartment to admire her other portraits turns into a death by self-defense. In the moments that follow, Robinson is fascinating to watch, as Richard almost immediately shrugs off his first inclination to call the police and instead methodically works out, out loud, how to dispose of the body and evidence. It’s as if this previously-infallible academic was born for a forbidden moment like this, had the entire plan swimming around in the deepest recesses of his head for years and decades, and he’s just realizing it as it happens, remaining calm, collected and professional as he tells Alice what to do and when to do it – he might as well be teaching one of his classes, doing his job without a second thought. And yet, a sense of excitement, of having fun, of arousal, is barely concealed by that matter-of-factness; as he gives both himself and Alice explicit instructions and she struggles to control her nervous hysteria and then becomes as calm as he is, this might as well be their version of sex, as if committing this crime is his unique version of, and only way of justifying, being unfaithful with that Norman Rockwell-esque wife of his. It’s an interesting commentary on what must have been the people of that time’s natural mistrust towards authority, that any intrusion on a previously-unblemished lifestyle had to be dealt with personally lest you inevitable get blamed. But in the here and now, it raises very interesting questions about Richard; if he can so smoothly transition from soft-spoken, girl-shy professor into self-assured death cover-upper, what else is lurking in that id of his?

Unfortunately, at least until the very end, that question isn’t explored all that deeply. Richard may have a yen for covering up a (justifiable) death, but that yen certainly doesn’t translate to skill, as he and Alice leave behind a trail of evidence and witnesses as long as eternity. Granted, that’s about what you’d expect for first-time offenders such as these two, but that’s where this interesting character study collapses, as Richard is generally out of the picture and Alice must deal with a blackmailing snake who witnessed the crime. It’s standard, even boring, noir shadiness and backstabbing, and I quickly lost interest and was eager for a resolution, disappointed that a reflection on a macabre shift in a character’s psyche became standard, forgettable pulp noir. At least it led to a downright astonishing final shot in which the blaring sound of a ringing telephone gradually mutes and the camera pulls into a glass: an abrupt punctuation mark of irony as this sordid saga that never needed to happen reaches its (extremely convenient and tidy…) conclusion.

Except it wasn’t the final shot, as an additional Hays Code-mandated five minutes nearly ruins even the best parts of this film. At the very least, it off-handedly reminded me of “Mulholland Dr.,” of all films, but otherwise it’s unforgivable (other than perhaps adding a shred of analysis to Richard’s psyche, but that’s really stretching it given the jarring change of tone from the 100+ minutes that came before). Just pretend that the pull-out from the glass and all that comes after it never happens, and the pull-in will, as it should, seal Richard into his self-made fate of guilt-ridden eternity.

The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012)

If there’s a way to perfectly translate the feel of a cheap, trashy novel sold in a drugstore with the cover torn off into a film, Lee Daniels has found it. The bright colors and lighting, the jagged yet stylish editing, the period music, it all gives this the feel of a low budget B-movie from the 70s, while more importantly evoking a sense of (lurid) place to glorious excess. When sweat pours off of John Cusack by the bucketful as he bends his wife over a washing machine and fucks her, we feel it. When Zac Efron awakens one morning and comments that he stinks, after his jellyfish-stung face was pissed on by Nicole Kidman, we smell it. When Cusack’s backwoods uncle and possible alibi nonchalantly guts an alligator while being interviewed, entrails splashing onto the ground, we taste it. By watching this movie, you are transported to this shitty Florida town circa 1969, and you will want to take a shower.

And by the way, this wonderfully revolting barrage on the senses happens to have some great characters with great motivations as tangible as the humidity, sweat, piss, blood, cum, and swampwater that the camera delivers to you. Or, at least when it comes to the main character. Zac Efron’s Jack, the champion swimmer-turned-college kickout tagging along with his newspaper reporter older brother to investigate a possibly innocent man on death row, is a desperately unfulfilled loner, who needs to latch onto anyone or anything, as long as it gives him a sense of purpose or at the very least engages his senses for a minute or two. That he falls head over heels for Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte, the pen pal-turned-betrothed of the man on death row, is therefore unsurprising. She happens to be beautiful, she happens to be flirtatious, she happens to be there. Nevermind, to him at least, that her outward personality and mannerisms are, to put it nicely, pretty much in line with someone who would fall for and marry a crude, cruel prisoner based solely on words on a paper. Jack’s reasons for falling for such an ostensible loser, other than out of sheer loneliness or boredom, remain vague, and that’s just fine; it’s all about subjectively experiencing that longing from his point of view, rather than objectively deducing the reasons for it. This is where those audacious song choices and jump cuts and shots and poses that make even the most vile aspects of this time and place attractive and appealing (quite a feat) make their mark. That this hyper-subjective music and editing and slow-motion and what-not are used in a striking fantasy sequence as Jack imagines Charlotte exiting her apartment in a wedding dress, and then too in the periphery of the decidedly non-fantastical image of Jack getting pissed on by his foul-mouthed love at the beach, this style seems to both accentuate Jack’s inner world of romantic, whimsical machismo, and ironically comment on his grimy real life. Reality and fantasy seem to be blurring, namely Jack’s imagination-enhanced muse vs. the white trash she actually presents herself to be.

Really, the only other character with any kind of depth is Macy Gray’s Anita, the housekeeper for Jack’s family. Not only is she literally the narrator, but we arguably see the story through her eyes even moreso than through the supposed protagonist Jack’s. Just as was the plight of anyone daring to have black skin in those days, Anita is invisible to her employers on a good day, or downright belittled on all the other days. All the while, the ever-present look of disdain on her face and her snarky commentary tells us that she’s just simply watching, and judging, the players in this unseemly morality play that’s unfolding around her. We may be able to see the world as Jack sees it, but make no mistake, Anita is the audience’s stand-in. It makes sense, then, that the relationship between the two of them is the most warm and human in the story, one that’s lovingly contentious and ultimately of mutual respect in a world where respect towards oneself and others is as foreign a concept as taking a shower. I just wish everyone else was, if not a pure stereotype used to fuel the setting, then just glossed over, namely Jack’s brother Ward. Ward’s motivations for finding the truth about the prisoner Hillary Van Wetter, and in fact anything about him really, remain vague until late in the story, which is a shame as Matthew McConaughey plays him as an outwardly confident and affable investigator who clearly has searing inner turmoil and pain bubbling within, but to have that turmoil explained away in one shocking encounter in a hotel room was a letdown. True, it’s wise to maintain Jack’s point of view, thereby making Ward something of an enigma, but, eh, I dunno, more could’ve been done with him, because instead of any kind of insight into Ward, we get an overabundance of commentary on racial issues in 1960s Florida, namely when it comes to Anita and to David Oyelowo’s Yardley, Ward’s black, British colleague also investigating Hillary’s incarceration. Many dirty looks and cruel comments by the white man a la “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” later, and the point becomes old, fast, in a story and setting that’s otherwise too thrillingly trashy for such messages to be so outwardly espoused (although one late reveal about Yardley’s true nature, further driving home the racist society angle, is very funny and unexpected…). Much of the storytelling around this is sloppy, sometimes for good, sometimes, most prominently in this particular regard, for bad. John Cusack’s Hillary is just as underdeveloped and caricatured, but at least with him it’s wholly appropriate. From the start, Hillary is little more than a hard-breathing, sweaty, violent, cruel monster, truly an ogre keeping the princess locked away in the tower, or in this case the musty swamp, without a shred of humanity or characterization. He is, then, the utter personification of the sights, sounds, and attitudes of this over-the-top story and setting: every fear and insecurity brought on by this place that Jack must overcome is embodied by this man, in a terrifying finale that feels like so much more than rescuing the damsel in distress. In the end, “The Paperboy”‘s lessons are as messy as its narrative: not so good a thing for the latter, utterly vital for the former.

The Baron of Arizona (Samuel Fuller, 1950)

Vincent Price just rocks as James Reavis, an ambitious and motivated (to say beyond the least) forger and con-man willing to go to downright stupefying lengths to acquire the entire territory of Arizona through fraudulent land claims and lineages. The first portion of this film is a spectacle of deranged tenacity on Reavis’ part that would require an incredible suspension of disbelief if this weren’t, incredibly, based on a true story. Reavis finds an unassuming girl from the backwoods of Arizona and culture-fies her, in a kind of foul twist on My Fair Lady to groom his own unknowingly fake heiress to a vast Spanish legacy with whom he can marry into the rights to Arizona itself, creates fake messages in stones, and goes so far as to spend years – years! – at a Spanish convent going through all the rites of becoming a monk, just so he can eventually find a brief opportunity to alter a land grant in the library to further validate his fictitious family tree. It’s an impossibly complex and ambitious scheme, and most if not all of the fun of this film is derived from trying to get into the head of this man, as you can’t help but think, is acquiring Arizona worth this staggering amount of deceit and risk? He’s well-spoken, charming, obviously intelligent, and apparently a man of means, able to afford a years-long trip to Spain as if it’s a trip to the supermarket, surely that’s enough to build a respectable life? If anything, you can’t help but admire his ambition and drive, even if that ambition and drive are completely deceitful and self-serving. You get the feeling that he is simply reveling in the process, in putting his admittedly incredible skills of forgery and duplicity to work, rather than looking towards the end-game of essentially becoming the king of a vast desert, and indeed, Vincent Price excels at this, his combination of suavity and humility completely fooling both his fellow monks and his ward-turned-wife, while a certain degree of sliminess reminds us of the sheer immorality behind it all. We dare not root for this ruthless snake, all while we almost must root for him nonetheless, just to see whether this impossibly cruel, impossibly incredible scheme can actually come to fruition.

As in-his-element as Reavis seems while putting this ridiculous scheme together, he seems just as out-of-his-element, and utterly lost, once he’s gotten what he wanted. And so too does the film itself lose its way. I was having a blast watching Vincent Price act the snake, charming his way through forged documents and using rube-like monks as his playthings, but then as heavy became the head that wore the crown and stereotypically redneckish displaced landowners and the bland common girl-turned-baroness (whose undying devotion to her husband is both baffling and irritating…if we the anonymous viewers of a film can see the reptilian underside of this Baron of Arizona, surely his own wife can, after a while…) and the government powers-that-be who smell a rat replaced the fascinating James Reavis as the focal point of the narrative, things got more conventional, and interest is lost. To compound that, Fuller cheats and gets a bit lazy in his storytelling, using a bunch of wealthy old white guys sitting in a parlor to reflect on the life and times of James Reavis and narrate the proceedings and give us a rather needless guide to what we’re seeing with our own eyes (although, to be fair, their explaining Reavis’ backstory at the film’s outset was helpful). But, at the very least, most of the footage of these men is set at a fixed mid-angle shot, not all that close to these men and indeed with some of their backs turned to the camera, making these indistinguishable wealthy old white guys seem even more indistinguishable and wealthy and old and white – pretty much the polar opposite of Vincent Price’s Reavis, who literally emerges from the rain one night and works his degenerate ass off to get to the top, only to in all likelihood stick out like a sore thumb in the presence of men such as these – a dark mirror image of the American dream. His eventual shot at redemption feels like all kinds of false and unsuitable and reeks of Hollywood conventions at the time demanding a, if not happy then at least tidy, ending. But, at least his clear and somewhat amusing surprise at such an outcome leads to all kinds of opportunity for speculation about his character. He clearly knows he’s a shameless scoundrel, but whether he’s actually repentant or merely relieved is a fun question to ask during an otherwise disappointing conclusion to a film that started with great promise.

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

**SPOILERS**

For its duration, even as the focus not-so-subtly transitions completely from Rooney Mara to Jude Law, this is an unnerving, uncomfortable portrait of depression, and to a lesser extent a critique of our miracle pill-popping culture. Lesser, because the film deemed it necessary to shove it down its audience’s throat. Granted, the main players in the story are cogs of this industry, so obviously they’d be talking shop, but when every other word out of the mouths of Jude Law’s Dr. Banks and his colleagues in both medicine and the business side of pharmaceuticals concerns this funny-named antidepressant or that, the point is driven home early on, and the rest is monotonous overkill. But, when that critique of an industry’s over-reliance on a tiny pill becomes embodied by Rooney Mara’s depressed and suicidal Emily, we get Soderbergh at his very best. Muffled sounds, muted colors, and claustrophobically close and low-angle cinematography box this woman, her husband newly-released from prison, their previously-affluent lives shattered, into an stifling prison cell as invisible as her husband’s was visible. This is a deeply sick person, who any half-competent person will tell you cannot be cured with a simple dose of Ablixa, and one knife and blood-strewn apartment later, that point is driven home.

And then the last 15 minutes happened.

A lot of people will despise the big twist, most likely for its utter implausibility and how it practically undoes the aesthetically dynamic portrait of a mentally damaged woman. The biggest problem is its implausibility, how 7093274320987432839 things had to go right for this dastardly scheme of greed and lust to work out, and that Law & Order: SVU, 11th hour revelation-esque implausibility does to a degree distract from an overall message the film is trying to put across. But, if it does indeed completely alter Emily at the snap of a finger, if anything it’s even more of a testament to Soderbergh’s skill as a filmmaker, to so convincingly depict the mental agony of a character through simple filmmaking techniques, only to find out that Soderbergh, and Emily, fooled us the whole time. You could even argue that it was a necessary 180 for the character, a final step in completely transitioning the flawed protagonist role from Emily to Dr. Banks. Before we know the truth about Emily, Dr. Banks’ search for the truth is a draining one for the man, as embodied by his increasingly-visible stubble, increasingly-invisible home and professional life, and simple things like Jude Law’s hunched posture when being grilled by both the cops and the powers-that-be in the psychiatry field about his treatment of Emily. Even before the truth totally comes out, and particularly afterwards, it’s hard to deny that Dr. Banks’ obsession is more about his own self-preservation than the fate of his maligned patient, yet we’re still drawn into his plight, in a wouldn’t-YOU-want-to-save-your-own-skin? kind of way. This is one of Jude Law’s best performances, as a man who’s initially well-meaning but ultimately tangled in the flaws of his branch of medicine and his own very human desire for a quick solution and money, and ultimately fixated on saving himself above anyone else, with just enough of a twisted desire to see justice done to make his shoes big enough for us to fit in.

I think the plot twist’s ultimate benefit is its greatly expanding the scope of the film’s message. What began as a critique of legal drug culture, right down to those shrill and insulting TV ads, becomes a critique of the entire psychiatry industry surrounding those drugs. As a seemingly manically-depressed woman murders a loved one while in a drug-induced stupor, an industry’s lazy and profit-driven over-reliance on a quick fix has failed one whom it has sworn to help. As it’s revealed that that manically-depressed woman is actually a sociopath who has gamed the system and won a ticket to a mental facility, safely ensconced with the Get Out of Jail Free Card that is the double jeopardy law, so too has that industry’s failure extended to our legal system. Ultimately, that plot twist beckons us to go back and watch the whole thing again, both to pick up on clues like the camera focusing on the cop’s nametag, and to see how much Soderbergh screwed with us in general. If this is indeed his final film as he claims, it’s unfortunate we’ll never again see something new from the man, but at least we’ll have an opportunity to watch something a second time and find something new after all.

Oscar Round-up, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

The last third or so, when shit gets real and they have to get out, is proof enough what a joke it is that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  Suspenseful to no end despite knowing how it’ll end up if you know the true story (clichéd to point that out, I know, but it still applies).  I usually can’t stand when people in a movie theater applaud when the heroes prevail at the end, but I found myself waiting and wondering what everyone was waiting for when the plane got into the air, and was relieved when it happened.  Pretty good sign of quality filmmaking from my point of view.  There was just the right amount of screentime devoted to the Americans holed up in the Canadian ambassador’s home – not too much so that they’d develop, and be defined by, genre stereotypes, not too little so that they’d be nothing but macguffins.  I just wish the movie as a whole didn’t rely quite as much on humor as it did…this is an amazingly improbable, ridiculous true story; that improbability and ridiculousness should speak for itself (plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a running gag get as old and irritating as quickly as “Argo fuck yourself” did).

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Its perceived glorification of independence and the will to survive sometimes strays distastefully towards, instead, pigheaded obstinacy and an irresponsible shunning of outside assistance, especially when you’re dying, you know you’re dying, and your little kid’s gonna be alone in a fucking swamp when you’re gone.  Despite that, though, you have a feeling that little Hushpuppy will be alright.  Her father Wink can be a prick, can be hard and stern, but when living in said fucking swamp, that’s the father he needs to be.  Putting aside qualms about the reasons Wink and the other Bathtub inhabitants so virulently shun the outside world, their methods of survival are fascinating and exciting to watch.  Those titular beasts were stupid, though.  Let this captivating setting, and the ability of this little girl to both tune out and adapt to/survive the outlandish challenges of that setting, speak for themselves, without the empty symbolism of imaginary, prehistoric animals.

Brave (Mark Andrews & Brenda Chapman, 2012)

Moderately disappointing by Pixar standards, which still makes it better than almost everything, ever.  My disappointment probably comes from the fact that the end didn’t make me outright cry like the last three fucking Pixar movies did, but the bear vs. bear fight was great, an exciting and fitting climax to the evolution of the relationship between Merida and her mother.  Pixar’s technical and visual prowess just keeps getting more astounding (look no further than Merida’s hair), and putting a strong, self-reliant woman in the forefront was refreshing, and yet, things like the narrative being interrupted by a song and the 11th hour spell reversal happy ending (I regarded the end of this similarly to Marlene Dietrich’s famous “where is my beautiful beast?!” reaction to the end of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast) made it seem like this was relying on Disney tropes of old.  One step forward, one step back for the genre.

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)

There’s Tarantino’s signature genre-mimicking, embellished here by the last third or so essentially being nothing but blood and gunfire, and then you throw in perhaps the most intriguing and motivationally complex character of Tarantino’s career in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen, and you have a downright brutal satire of slavery (not so current) and racism (much more current).  I didn’t even mind that the scene with the Klan’s misadventures in hood-wearing might’ve gone on too long and stretched the joke out too much, was still a well-timed instance of straight-up humor in a film of brutal imagery (i.e. the Mandingo fight…I’m still not sure what made me wince more, the fight itself, or Calvin’s hooting and hollering as he watched his property fight to the death.  Was a challenge to not look away, and an absorbing challenge at that) and even more brutal subject matter…a laugh-so-you-don’t-have-to-cry kind of subject.  To have comedy and atrocity mesh so easily and feel so natural together, you have to be one hell of a filmmaker, which Quentin Tarantino has again proven to be.

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Second-best film of 2012 featuring a character named Mr. Bilbo.

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

The raid was fantastic – perfectly filmed and edited, a textbook on how to hold the audience’s attention; the 80 hours preceding it were somewhat of a bore.  Usually don’t consider it a very good sign when it’s so easy to spot an actor’s Oscar clip (when Chastain about chews Kyle Chandler’s head off, her neck vein about to explode).

Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)

In her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis writes, “If you care about strong stories, don’t bother. Hardly anything happens here in conventional movie terms…”.  I disagree.  Although its narrative certainly isn’t conventional, as it’s told entirely from the first-person perspective of Tokyo-bound drug dealing/abusing American Oscar, both living and dead (though from the back of his head when glimpsing flashes of his past), the story of his life, death, and afterlife is told in a way that I feel covers a lot more ground than a more conventional narrative.  The first segment, a sort of day-in-the-life – style glimpse of Oscar’s life in a squalid apartment with his stripper sister Linda, doesn’t tell us much about this kid, but enough to intrigue.  After his death at the hands of trigger-happy cops, the collage of flashbacks and then what is presumably Oscar’s spirit drifting through Tokyo, overseeing the people he left behind, we’re presented with subjective, deeply personal information that a more objective, traditional narrative wouldn’t be privy to.  A different film would let us know that Oscar and Linda were deeply scarred by the car accident that gruesomely killed their parents, but Noé’s disjointed narrative, going back and forth through Oscar’s past as you’d imagine one’s life would flash before his or her eyes at the moment of death, repeating and emphasizing certain images like the accident, tell us just how much they were scarred.  The little snippets of past, presented in no real chronological order, give us just enough background and foundation into the story and the lives of the characters to make the present much more relevant.  Sure, the incestuous desire between Oscar and Linda is played up ad nauseam to the point of tedium, but nevertheless, the moment in which Oscar’s noncorporeal spirit enters the back of the head of the sleazy strip club proprietor / Linda’s employer while he’s screwing her, so that both Oscar and we are essentially screwing his very sister from the first person perspective, is a disturbing but psychologically captivating one, as Oscar, now dead, can finally fulfill his forbidden desires/fantasies without consequence.  Ironically, once Oscar becomes a silent, invisible, flying camera lens, his deepest fears, desires, and instincts become that much more tangible.

The psychadelic finale, with lots of people having lots of sex amongst lots of neon lights and mystical crotch-auras, may be overkill, despite being a technical marvel (and takes a page directly out of Spielberg’s Minority Report), but that sequence, as well as what immediately precedes it as Alex’s spirit/eyes transition between reality and a light-filled void, could represent his slipping further and further from our reality and into what lies beyond.  This certainly was not the 2 ½ hour completely non-narrative, drug-fueled, Brakhage-esque light-and-color fest I was expecting, as the busy-as-hell camera, flamboyant purgatory of Tokyo, and disintegration of the major players in Oscar’s life allow us to attach our own subjectivity to the silent camera that is the first-person perspective of Alex’s spirit, making our subjectivity his, and thus making an otherwise unexceptional story of a druggie’s death and how it affects the other losers who associated with him a lot more interesting than it ought to be.  This will be an incredibly divisive film, no doubt.  Those it doesn’t click with could hopefully, at the least, admire it as a technical marvel, despite its (literally) dizzying repetitions, both storywise and camerawise. For everyone else, this could be the future of cinematic narrative storytelling.

9/10

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.