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Thursday
Jun232016

It Ain’t All Ambrosia – Gods and Goddesses Cavort in A Bigger Splash

An astute, merciless, Pinterequse duel to the death. Courtesy Fox Searchlight

 

Vanity Fair only profiles four types of people:

1) Someone young, glossy, gorgeous, mad fuckable, talented, lucky and on the rise. She wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole and her week beats your year. *

2) Someone in the prime of life and career. A gleaming armor of success gilds his wealth, beauty, fuckability and celebrity. His weekend beats your year.

3) Someone in their golden years who either remained successful, gorgeous, fuckable and famous or who lost it all. Whether reminiscing from their cashmere couch or scarfing cat food with their remaining Tiffany spoon, his or her memories of a single glorious night beat any ten years you can barely recall.

4) Any of the above who get their comeuppance/martyrdom by dying/getting killed.**

A Bigger Splash features all four types. And on first viewing, proves as irritating as any Vanity Fair profile. There’s something profoundly irksome about “all this useless beauty,” glamor and privilege. ***

Yet the very aspects of Splash that seemed so off-putting prove to the most fascinating and sustaining. First time round, the mostly naked Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Ralph Fiennes and Matthias Schoenaerts prove too distracting. They’re so darn purty! And worldly! And chic! It’s hard to focus on subtext when Swinton does one of her patented, languorous angel/demon/alien pre-coital stretches. Providing more distraction is an unending parade of movie star full-frontal. Ralph Fiennes dick? A gynecological close-up of Swinton from behind? Schoenaerts’ scrotum? All you might want and more. Johnson plays a 17-year old and so appears only naked from head to toe.

Schoenaerts and Swinton are in love. They’re hiding out up in glamly understated villa on the barren, serene island of Pantelleria. Swinton’s former flame and Schoenaerts’ former pal Fiennes shows up, with his maybe-daughter Johnson in tow. Swinton’s a rock star recovering from surgery. In flashbacks of her onstage, she’s a semi-Bowie figure and Swinton – who’s rumored to be considering playing Bowie in a biopic – makes you believe. She makes you believe by never singing onstage, a rare moment of restraint from director Luca Guadagnino. His previous film, the camp, risible I Am Love, suggests that restraint is not in his quiver.

Fiennes is a guy we all know: nonstop energy, unquenchable sex drive, outdrinks/drugs everyone and wakes up un-hung-over and ready to go go go! Produces the Stones and knows a rundown house on a back alley where an Italian granny-lady makes the world’s best ricotta. You know a guy like that, right? Neither do I.

"I'm not fucking my daughter!" Courtesy Fox Searchlight

It’s the performance of the year and of Fiennes’ career. From Schindler’s List to In Bruges, Fiennes played a bubbling volcano, a seething mass of repression. Here, the lava spews. He’s a conniving prick and totally upfront about it. Fiennes’ frantic, scampering dance around the villa gives the Stones’ Emotional Rescue more credit than it deserves, but should win Fiennes an Oscar.

He incarnates this universe of hard-earned license, individuality and id. Did these folks get world famous by being nice? Or putting anyone else first? This is a nest of lovely vipers. I mistook Splash for Bertolucci lite: a stylish, empty wallowing in the haut lifestyle – like Stealing Beauty. It turns out to be something much richer: an astute, merciless Pinteresque duel to the death.

Over love.

Though Bertolucci’s style informs every frame, the characters evoke Chabrol and even Hitchcock. The suspense derives not from the action, but the conversation. You have to pay attention. This sophisticated bunch lives for a multi-layered retort. They hide their venom in verbal cookies full of arsenic; indicating what they mean, never saying it outright. The truth hides in every deceitful word or ambiguous shrug as the non-stop camera whirls to the next exquisite landscape, naked ass or gyrating poolside supermodel. It’s compelling and at times exhausting, but irresistible.

Everyone’s feelings for everyone are complex, and, as Keith Richards told a judge fifty years ago, not concerned with petty morals. Johnson’s constantly cruel – always seeking the most furious response. Swinton’s superstardom’s brought her compassion. When Johnson attacks, Swinton responds with truly moving kindness. At some point, everyone behaves exactly as you thought they never would.

Splash is a remake of the 1969 decadent French nugget la Piscine.**** By ‘69 standards, Piscine’s as explicit and steamy as Splash, with va-va-voomy Romy Schneider languidly strolling naked by the pool or lolling around in bed. There’s one big difference: Alain Delon plays Schoenaerts’ role. Swinton’s nursing Schoenearts as he recovers from a half-hearted suicide attempt. Given Schoenearts’ sensitive reticence, you buy it. But Delon? He’s indestructible. So why title this version with a meaningless Hockney reference? Please see “camp, risible,” above.

The plot slowly emerges through the mists of glam. Fiennes came to win Swinton back. He brought his daughter as a honey-trap for Schoenaerts. That’s how these people roll. Then playtime ends and something terrible happens.

Guadagnino indulges in a deflating Hitichcockian conceit: a dim, fawning cop bedazzled by stardom. It’s the only point Guadagnino pounds with a hammer: the blind love of silly mortals lets the gods soar free. In the final shot, the gods realize they’ve escaped. They did horrible things. They learned unexpected lessons about their own corruption. But their luck held and they love one another all the more. A final, bitter triumphant smile makes all the plot and character elements suddenly cascade into order, like film of a collapsing Lego structure run in reverse. It may take that smile, and the clarity it brings, to realize this is the best film of the year. It only took me seeing it twice.

Uneasy even in mud.  Courtesy Fox Searchlight

 I Am Love was Guadagnino aping Visconti. He sought grandeur but lacked Visconti’s gravitas – who doesn’t? Splash is Guadagnino as Antonioni, finding profundity in the jet set with all their angsty solipsism. For Antonioni, alienation meant stillness. His characters, even when running, so vested in every gesture they seemed in slow motion. Living with their existential pain took so much effort. Not these folks. You can feel them fidget, vibrating with unease. That unease lingers long after the movie ends. Not the amazing clothes or the celestial light or the perverse bonding. What sticks is everyone’s unspoken terror that – despite all they’ve earned and been given – they’re flying too close to the sun.

* Lou Reed from the liner notes to Metal Music Machine

** Thanks Sarahjane Blum

*** Elvis Costello

****Amazon Prime https://www.amazon.com/Piscine-English-Subtitled-Alain-Delon/dp/B009ASU1JI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1465596067&sr=8-1&keywords=la+piscine

Friday
Apr012016

I Saw The Light

 Sony Pictures Classics

When Hank Williams set out to get famous, Hillbilly was a niche. His 35 Top Ten songs in only six years turned it into mainstream Country. Nonstop night-after-night gigs, the amphetamines that fueled them, the barbiturates that brought sleep afterward and the liquor that made life bearable in between triggered the heart attack that killed Hank – at only 29 – in the back of his Cadillac on a twolane blacktop on the way to another show. With his skinny elegant frame, bottomless Satanic eyes, pursed redneck mouth and astonishing bespoke cowboy outfits, Williams provided the (white) wild-ass prototype for all the Dionysian self-destructives who followed him into popular music.

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams with the Drifting Cowboys Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But Williams had something they – and pretty much every other songwriter in history – lacked: A genius for setting nursery rhymes of universal sadness and longing to jaunty, unforgettable melodies. Dude had some appetites on him, too, and the determination to indulge them. In other words, Williams was a Colossus, and now ripe for a biopic.

What shines, and makes the film worth seeing, is an immersive, mesmerizing star turn by English actor Tom Hiddleston. He perfectly captures Williams’ self-contained suspicion, damn-fool contrary country pride and unselfconscious joy at performing. Hiddleston sings Hank’s tunes himself. He’s credible and it’s a relief not to hear a dead man’s voice coming out of an actor’s mouth. Hiddleston's onscreen band plays and recorded using period instruments, amplifiers and techniques, guided by Nashville curmudgeon and self-appointed guardian of country-roots authenticity Rodney Crowell. The songs sound good.

Williams had outrageous style. One visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame will convince you he could match Miles Davis, Gram Parsons or Sly Stone for elegant flamboyance and that’s saying something. Hiddleston wears suits embroidered with giant musical notes and fringed white-satin cowboy shirts with natural insouciance. He ambles onstage in these deranged wonders as easy as if in his PJs – to the stage and stardom born. Hiddleston finds the inner fire that lit up Williams when he sang. Hank’s tragic cycle: Fully human only when performing, but the toils of performing killed him. It’s a formula most music-martyr films indulge, but seems hard to argue with here.

Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Director Marc Abraham’s obsessively researched portrait never quite escapes biopic conventions. The production design captures the subtleties and status/class motifs of the clothing, cars, instruments, modes of speech, mannerisms and showbiz gestalts of the era, but all that detail feels oddly pro forma and unspecific. None of it illuminates Williams’ prodigious inner demons. He does stuff and folks around him shake their heads. “Whoo-eee, that boy’s a puzzlement – even to hisself !” is about as much of a character reveal as the screenplay provides.

Predictably, the story posits woman-trouble as the engine of Hank’s drinkin’, druggin’ & whorin’. That legendary whorin’ all takes place offstage; the multiple Williams’ descendants listed in the Thank You credits may account for this relatively sanitized saga. Elizabeth Olsen, despite her astonishing eyes (what Godard could do with her face!) never quite convinces as Hank’s hard-ass wife Audrey. She’s at least granted more depth than Maddie Hasson and Wren Schmidt. Though based on real folks, they come off as only window-dressing, underwritten story-fodder. For reasons never made clear or credible, Hank’s instantly smitten with one but not the other, even though the other will bear his child. The actresses compensate for their superficial roles by being made-up, done-up and coiffed to a fare-thee-well regardless of plot circumstances. Even the redoubtable Cherry Jones gets reduced to a stereotype – the dangerously over-protective southern mama.

(The mighty, mighty) Cherry Jones as Lillie Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In the opening shot, Hiddleston leans against a stool, singing acapella in an iconic but false-seeming pose. He’s bathed in shafts of beatific light. The camera circles as he sings. As the song comes to a close and the camera draws near, the light recedes to reveal the human face of this clearly angelic – that is, long-dead – figure. It’s the only expressive or metaphoric shot in a film of quotidian naturalism and sets an artificial tone. It’s the kind of moment producers impose on a finished picture they think doesn’t show its star as sufficiently starry or its subject as sufficiently mythical.

Abraham refuses, to his credit, to traffic in visual or narrative myth. Weirdly, though, he never fully exploits the genius of Michael Mann’s go-to cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Public Enemies, Heat; Manhunter). Abraham’s frames are simple prosceniums from which actors declaim, like expensive television. The absence of visual style and the awkward editing – especially of Hank achieving his lifelong dream of singing on the Grand Ole Opry – drag the story down. So does the labored device of cutting to B/W “interviews” of Hank’s collaborators.

The ending – uh, sorry: Hank died in his car – comes off frustratingly matter of fact. There’s little sense of untimely tragedy. As with other crucial moments, Abraham’s laudably sincere love of the music and of his subject cannot compensate for his pedestrian storytelling.

Friday
Mar182016

Neither Heaven Nor Earth  

                                    

New Directors New Cinema   

            Screening at the Walter Reade 3:45 Saturday 3/19 and at MOMA 3:45 Sunday 3/20 

A Film Movement Release   

Making the unreal real’s easier with CGI, but showing the monster always undermines the poetry. Just ask Rod Serling. Or, better yet, Edgar Allen Poe. Poe describes events, not the underlying cause, which events conceal and, in time, reveal. Metaphor is all the explanation you’re going to get. The Raven says: “Nevermore.” Any questions?

 First time director/screenwriter Clément Cogitore understands the tension between knowing and showing. He walks that tightrope to near-perfection. Though he frames his tale as a war story, Cogitore’s vested in Noir, and how noble impulses prove fruitless in a corrupted world. Cogitore’s subtle camera and intelligent screenplay combine to make Neither one of more thought-provoking, memorable and enjoyable films of the year – brainy, gritty and unpredictable.

 Cogitore offers no more clarification than is available to the boots on the ground. Those boots belong to a French army force guarding a remote, lethal valley in the Afghan boondocks. The landscape and lonely guard-shacks perched atop inaccessible ridgelines evoke Sebastian Junger’s fine documentary Restrepo. Neither captures Restrepo’s universe of soldier’s time-passing banter and instant, out-of-nowhere warfare. Cogitore reveals their lives and character, as did Restrepo, in telling details – who’s reliable; who’s a headcase; who’s trigger-happy. The soldiers are restless. They want a battle. They fetishize their weaponry, but every pointless sura with the local elders proves they have no power.

 Jérémire Renier embodies this frustration as French Captain Bonassieu, a staunch military man with the inner torments of a Noir protagonist. Bonassieu’s a new archetype of war hero. He recognizes the limits of his reach, defaults to compassion instead of violence and believes he can think his way out of most dilemmas. Afghanistan proves him wrong, of course.

 The story starts with bored soldiers and establishes the depth of their isolation, whether in their ridgeline shacks or their bristling base in the valley. The soldiers have cell phones and Skype and a nearby ancient village of civilians who laugh in their faces, call them filthy Christians and wish them dead. One night, the villagers climb an adjacent ridgeline and burn something in a huge-ass, ritual bonfire.

 The soldiers peer through night-vision goggles and infrared scopes, but the blaze washes out their technology. Here’s the first link in Cogitore’s powerful chain of metaphors. The French have the gizmos, but can’t parse the ancient world. They see in the dark, but remain blind.

After the bonfire, a French soldier disappears. Vanishes into thin air. Then another. Then, another. The Noir-faced captain assumes desertion or Taliban abduction. Bonassieu rips up the village to no avail. Everyone there knows what’s happening, and find his rage amusing. He sets up the usual useless protection against nocturnal forces: motion detectors, spotlights, sturdier walls. Bonassieu won’t admit it, but he’s scared shitless. His men are scared shitless. He shouts down the valley through a loudspeaker, asking the Taliban for parley. When they finally show up, guess what? The Taliban are scared shitless, too.

 And so was I.

I was scared shitless this weird, self-aware character study in the guise of a war movie was about to turn into supernatural horseshit. Happily, my fears were groundless. But if I explain why, I’ll give away the plot.

It’s a horror-movie and Afghanistan-movie trope to present Westerners and natives as embodying the rational and irrational in opposition. The trope states plainly or indicates that the natives possess inbred wisdom and inchoate chthonic powers the over-thinking, fair-playing Westerners will never – and really, shouldn’t want to – understand. Horror movies and Afghanistan movies present this binary as a threat to the very (Christian) soul of Westerners. If they embrace the local dark arts, their mortal selves will be in peril. This goes as far back as King Kong and appears as recently as American Sniper. Neither vests in this binary, but only to the point of illustrating the profound and unshakeable mutual hatred between invader and invaded. It escapes being colonialist propaganda – is there another Afghanistan war film that does? – by one simple expedient.

The awakened chthonic forces attack both sides with the equal force. This is the next link in Cogitore’s metaphor-chain. In a philosophically less complex film, the villagers’ bonfire would symbolize the locals unleashing their primitive mojo against which 21st Century industrialization proves powerless. Instead, Cogitore leaves no doubt that both sides evoked the demonic by their treatment of each other. It isn’t the villagers, per se, that are sick of their warrior bullshit. It’s the soul of the land itself.

The Captain is scared shitless

The Taliban employ a cruder, more homemade talisman against disappearance. In one of the most unsettling and memorable shots of recent times, they come around a corner of a mountain trail, tied to one another by long, dusty ropes. When the French soldiers see those ropes, their jaws drop and they look at each other all: “Sacré merde!” We’re in Poe territory now.

The Taliban leader calls to the Captain: “Where are my men?” Bonassieu’s answers with the same question. Cogitore’s metaphors now define the action. He’s compressed the Afghan conflict to one query and its echo. Each adversary wants to know what the other’s done with his men. Neither can answer, because neither knows.

Cogitore’s formal rigor and control ensure nobody asks about the ropes. We see them. Everybody knows what they’re for. A more obvious director would cut to big whomping close-up of a rope around somebody’s ankle. But Cogitore never gilds the lily or cheats. He builds suspense without giving the game away. He relies on simple compositions, steady narrative rhythm, recognizable exploitation devices, moments you’ve never seen before and rich, credible characters, especially the Taliban commander. The story does not hide knowledge or clues from the viewer. The audience knows what the soldiers know and shares their what the fuck?

The two sides form a hair-trigger alliance. The seething hatred of the Taliban’s leader underscores his bafflement and terror. Heavy shit’s going down, or these groups would tear each other to shreds. As Bonassieu pursues increasingly deranged solutions, the fate of the disappeared becomes less important than the fact of their disappearance. It slowly dawns on everyone they ain’t coming back.

Cogitore builds wrenching claustrophobia from the building – and justified – panic of the French and the Taliban. Any second now, they might start blasting each other out of sheer frustration. That they don’t underscores the power of the mystery surrounding them. They’re too awe-struck to kill.  When they finally accept that greater forces are at play, neither offers camaraderie. The two squads drift apart, back to war, content to believe each suffered equally.

Jérémire Renier’s balanced performance – at times totally in control, at times berserk with frustration – fuels the tension. His understated charisma  vests in his struggle. Bonassieu may accept the power of the irrational, but his superiors sure won’t. To protect the mystery, he enacts an honorable solution to cover any administrative questions. The solution leaves his career in tatters. Bonassieu takes the blame, as he feels he should, but for what? His self-sacrifice in the face of the unknowable raises another metaphor of this war, of worthy ideals shredded for nothing.

Like a lot of recent debuts, Neither doesn’t end when it ought to, but tacks on two or three extraneous shots that weaken its power. Those are Cogitore’s only structural errors. Lesser directors would preach about the pointlessness of war or signpost every crucial moment or have someone monologue about how the rhythms of the unseen thwart human intention. Instead, Cogitore gets his Howard Hawks on and simply tells the tale.  

 Sacré merde!

 

Tuesday
Jan192016

The 14 Best Films of 2015 – Genre Kicks, Artfilm & Agitprop

Kurt Russell brings the humanity

Not much of a year for Big Entertainment or Big Sincerity. Spotlight, Trust and The Martian proved to be nothing more than – in the immortal words of Ice Cube describing Boyz 'n the Hood  –“After-school specials with cussin.’” The Revenant, the film I most looked forward to, turned out to be worse than a snow-covered macho grunt-fest; it’s a boring snow-covered macho grunt-fest. Form without content – that’s ‘decadence, right? And long an issue with Hollywood tentpoles. This year’s disillusion – each year brings its own –stems from decadence-creep crawling from tentpoles to supposedly more personal, if still large-scale, expressions. 2015’s best, save one, aren’t tentpoles. They’re willfully idiosyncratic visions of genre kicks, artfilm, agitprop or all three at once. 

1) BONE TOMAHAWK – How did first-time writer/director S. Craig Zahler enable Kurt Russell’s most human, nuanced performance since…ever? How did he see that Patrick Wilson has layers? Zahler’s wild ideas have no business in a Western but belong here. He vests in genre conventions, demonstrates the depth and worth of those conventions, then transcends them while smashing them into neurons. His screenplay’s witty and self-aware but never self-conscious or precious. Stars and bit players work in balance and each makes clear the necessity of the other. Zahler’s technique seems at first raw and slightly amateurish, but slowly reveals the breadth of his sophistication, which Zahler (kinda) conceals because he might feel full of shit if he didn’t. The film grants increasing pleasure the more you know its references but never makes knowing its references key to enjoyment. The story offers soaring joie de vivre, but mercilessly, pitilessly remembers the brutal mortality beneath. Plus, the invaluable Richard Jenkins, character actor supreme.

Richard Jenkins - nobody does it better

2) VICTORIA – Nicholas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy of tight, naturalist, low-budget, mean-spirited street-Noirs are among the smartest, most thrilling thrillers. Clearly influenced by Refn, Sebastian Schipper – writer/director of this tight, naturalist, low-budget, weirdly hopeful street-Noir – had the courage or idiocy to shoot his 134-minute romance/caper in one unbroken take, one unbroken shot that wanders Berlin's demimonde in the wee hours. That unbroken shot proves neither stunt nor gimmick. Schipper’s amphetamine narrative drive and hood-rat street-dialogue make you forget it’s happening. At the same time, that one shot brings the story alive as a signal episode in Victoria’s life – like a cherished memory or dream. Like Refn, Schipper’s a cineaste and tells his story in pure cinema. The performances never falter; the suspense never lets up. Victoria is what a thriller should be: gritty, tough, hilarious, bumbling, romantic and almost escapist. Because, really, who in a street-Noir ever escapes?

 

Laia Costa wanders the demimonde3) BLACK COAL, THIN ICE  – The homicide cop hero of this quirky, blood-drenched, yearning Neorealist Chinese policier believes he’s the last feeling being in a universe of bureaucratic indifference and small-time corruption. Too bad for him his precious feelings prove a liability in today’s meatgrinder China. The unrequited love he pursues – in his monosyllabic, existentially crushed way – will only ruin him. Director Yi’nan Diao got his Dreiserian portrait of the wreckage of working-class lives past the censors by pretending that social context is background, not the whole point of the exercise. Shot in haunting pastels, Black Coal evokes the Korean policier masterpiece Memories of Murder. Like Memories, it’s an economic critique, a study of ordinary folks chiseling out daily survival and a classic of murky suspense.

4) THE GETT – Why divorce is so expensive? Because it’s worth it!

5) CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA – What an incongruous commercial success: a drama with hardly any apparent drama about sophisticated people splitting hairs over their art. Olivier Assayas’ most watchable pictures – Carlos, Summer Hours – don’t meander. His most heartfelt films do. The intuitive camera, the jarring cutting, the untied narrative threads, the schematic plot and the even more schematic play-within-the-film should push you away. But Assayas’ camera and edits follow states of mind – not action. They nourish narrative purpose and emotional tension. Assayas’ off-kilter compositions illuminate the tiniest, most potent exchanges – every shot, cut, word and gesture bears meaning and the dialogue rewards attention. Assayas draws an extraordinary performance from Juliet Binoche. She emerges from her career-long veil of beauty and testiness to show genuine unease and kindness. Kristen Stewart’s a revelation. So present, true to each moment, charismatic – a shockingly subtle actress and a movie star.

6) EX MACHINA – Any movie bearing this gift belongs in the Top Ten: http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a624000/watch-oscar-isaacs-incredible-ex-machina-dance-scene/

7) MAD MAX FURY ROAD – The year’s best long-form commercial for a video game. Maybe one day someone will acknowledge underground comix master Spain Rodriguez’ early ‘70’s Route Zero as the prime source for so many Mad Max ideas and bitchin’ cars…http://www.lastgasp.com/d/4224/subvert-3

8) MERU – Mountain climbers aren’t necessarily insane; they just do insane things. Then they come home and try to be people. And that can prove harder than bagging a knife-edge 22,000-foot peak in the back of the back of the beyond of Pakistan. The surprisingly touching aspect of this ingenuous, homemade saga derives from the contrast between the climbers’ embrace of their insane urges in the wild and their brief, laden moments of self-preserving rationality at home. The most human, immediate and true climbing movie ever made. Mind-blowingly gorgeous and insane.

9) THE TRIBE – Global capitalism is one harsh toke. The underclass never bonds against oppression and eats its own with gusto. The more desperate the circumstances, the more everyone’s social/human value derives from how the powerful can exploit them. Love offers no redemption; vengeance offers plenty. Newcomer Miroslav Slaboshpitsky presents a fully realized, unwavering fable – deadpan camera, instinctive performances, metronomic cutting, compelling subculture and unspeakable degradation.

10) IT FOLLOWS – Yes, the fantastic aspect proved inconsistent and violated its own rules. But the notion of culpability transferred from person to person by indulging in the slightest human connection, that shit’s all too real.

11) BLACK SEA – As our new Michael Caine, Jude Law proves the truth of Barry Gibbs’ assertion that “You can’t pander insincerely.” Like Caine, Law shifts from blockbuster to low-rent genre without a trace of condescension. Like Caine, he plays far more compelling and unhinged characters when he’s free from having to act classy – as Law proved in Dom Hemingway. Like Caine, Law never mails it in. And, like Caine, Law likes nothing more than to mock himself or go berserk with rage or both. Despite several less-than-credible plot points, Black Sea is a submarine movie – the absolute bestest kind of movie there is. Law makes it shine.

Today's Michael Caine

12) WHITE GOD – Ki engedte ki a kutyákat?

13) SON OF A GUN – Violent, workmanlike, 1970’s-style, unselfconscious Aussie crimesploitation. When Ewan McGregor gives a shit, few match his charisma.

14) THE SALVATION/SLOW WEST – The art-Western returns and not even Tarantino can stop it.

 

The Hateful 8  – The Most Disappointing Film of 2015 

As Lester Bangs wrote of a certain album, Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful 8 is “stupid with none of the virtues of stupidity.” It’s dispiriting – because I love his movies so – to see him so vest in such a C+  idea.

Pauline Kael said that Godard’s genius did not run to making masterpieces; Tarantino’s seems to. There’s little middle ground in his oeuvre: fucking amazing or self-indulgent crap – that’s his range.

Remember, this is the one filmmaker in America under no limits – absolutely no artistic or financial pressure. Tarantino can make any film he wants any way he wants and find eager backing and distribution. And this puny exercise in what he mistakes for épater la bourgeoisie is the best he can do with that rare, precious license?

 Tarantino’s films – good and bad – delight in surface without a glimmer of narrative, character or visual metaphor. All that breathtaking style and not a molecule of content. Only his exacting stylistic rigor gives Tarantino’s great films depth. Without rigor, what remains are his base urges. Foremost is the urge to always go too far. The Hateful 8 delights in going too far, and goes nowhere at all.

His cramming genre conventions full of steroids – like shooting a so-called Western that’s 90% interiors in 70MM and crowing about it – leaves me as numb as if I sat through Transformers III or Titanic or Pearl Harbor. Tarantino’s last two films left me numb. Everything prior granted me exhilaration. Has Tarantino gone numb himself? Can he feel anything without jacking up the Grand Guignol to 11?

English novelist Margaret Drabble writes about characters who prefer the numbness of depression to the sharp pangs of anxiety. Sound drama always provokes anxiety, especially for the creator. Creating art means not knowing what’s going to happen and living with that uncertainty. If the creator can no longer stand the anxiety of creating, he or she no longer creates drama. All 2015’s best films were profoundly unpredictable – I mean, I figured Charlize Theron would survive Fury Road, but that was about it. When the writer knows before he or she starts writing what every character will do or say, the resulting work is always schematic, forced, Dead On Arrival. It becomes, like The Hateful 8 or The Revenant, a showcase for the director as puppeteer. Characters never speak or act like living beings; they’re only illustrations of the director’s ideas, notions and themes. There is no uncertainty, no drama, no depth. This is why movies today can be impressive and even entertaining, but remain empty and unsatisfying.*

I’ve long considered Tarantino a genius adolescent – an 8th grader at heart. His glee for obscure film references, transgressive speech, graphic violence and cheesy soundtracks all speak to a stunted consciousness. But now it’s time to regard his work as expressing a fully formed artist, for good or ill. Tarnation’s puerile machismo’s not adolescent – he hasn’t and will never outgrow it.** It’s purely American, a thoughtless shorthand that obviates any profound questions or comedy underlying Tarantino’s joyous bloodletting and woman-lynching. Hateful 8’s gory slapstick is as sophisticated as adult Tarantino gets. There’s something permanently unflowered in the dude – he ain’t gonna mature.

* Thanks Greg Burk of metaljazz.com

** Thanks Sarahjane Blum

Sunday
Nov292015

CRITERION'S HEAVEN'S GATE

Class War, Willful Myth-Making, Fin de siècle Grandeur and Bottomless Irritation

It’s all Sergio Leone’s fault. Only he had the audacity to rain graveyard post-Beat humor and existential irony all over the sacred Western. After 60 years as the dominant mythological trope in American cinema —the first American feature, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, was a Western —who knew the form was so played, so ripe for a toppling? Even more destructive than Leone’s cartooning of the holy Western (moral) landscape was that, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood, “it was the first time in history the hero fired first.”

Leone’s trio of spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) formed the first domino. Four years later, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch proved the flaming sword that swept all before it; equivalent to the first Ramones album, only bloodier. Every subsequent foray had to grapple with Peckinpah’s new cinematic West, one of paralyzing moral ambiguity, villainous heroes, and contemporary social commentary.

Peckinpah, romantic even at his most bloodthirsty, unironically furthered Leone’s themes: That the supposed heroic cowboy brotherhood proved to be male-bonding/sexual sublimation amped to the level of psychosis; that the outlaws’ only moral code was, as William Holden put it, “ten thousand dollars cuts a lot of family ties”; and that the true lure of the Old West was its opportunities for unfettered capitalism made manifest by the (slow-motion) shooting of anybody who stood between you and the money. This was not John Ford territory.

Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller provided the final nail. Altman presented the noble pioneer homesteader as a desperate, morals-free empire builder - Warren Beatty as an ineffectual, love-struck wannabe pimp - whose miserable, hard-earned toehold would be ruthlessly looted by better-organized, more corporate predators. Economic critique was not Leone’s or Altman’s locomotive, however.

Both wanted to strip Westerns of their simplistic, post–WWII romantic optimism and replace it with a more complex, modern, post-Vietnam, post-Beckett pessimistic vision - the romantically failed vision of those who once believed. By 1973, even Peckinpah wasn’t making Westerns anymore; his Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a eulogy for the form, with another shoot-out ’n’ funeral every fifteen minutes. And yet, these ferociously destructive revisionist pictures remain among the best Westerns, and the best films, ever made. Even these debunkers, at heart, loved Westerns.

Over a decade after the first temple pillars fell, Michael Cimino went to Wyoming with the world’s finest cinematographer - Altman/Spielberg collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond - several wheelbarrows full of cocaine, and as the stories go, a miniature of the Oscar he won for The Deer Hunter dangling around his neck. Supposedly he shook that miniature at anyone who dared disagree with him demanding to know - in an enraged shriek - if they had one, too. If they didn’t, they could shut (the fuck) up and do as they were told. Few movies have produced the variety and depth of deranged drug-fueled anecdotes that emerged from the Heaven’s Gate shoot. Most center on Cimino’s greed and hubris.

Few movies have been so universally reviled upon release. 

United Artists supposedly went bankrupt over Cimino’s excesses. He spent close to $40 million on his artistic vision, various mountain properties, and them wheelbarrows of cocaine. But are 40 million 1980 dollars all that excessive compared to the $120 million dropped on, to cite just one egregious example, Jackie Chan’s Around the World in 80 Days?

Another Heaven’s Gate legacy — which, like the financial and pharmaceutical excesses, can’t be separated from the viewing experience — is the rabid, pack-dog chickenshitedness of the massed American film critics at the time of Gate’s release. Each tried to outdo the other in shrill condemnation, hollering that it numbered among the spectacularly worst films ever made, that it was an obscene squandering of coin, a travesty of the immortal horsey idiom. Most took a stridently high moral tone against Cimino’s mad ego, even though that’s what gets directors get hired.

Suffice to say, Richard M. Nixon's reputation got rehabilitated sooner than Heaven’s Gate's. What should be obvious in the face of that kind of critical unanimity is that the movie is a harrowing masterpiece, a poetic epic of the kind hardly attempted - by Americans at least - since D. W. Griffith, a detailed study of the pathology and sociology of class war in the guise of an action-driven historical epic wrapped around a heartbreaking love triangle with class-war implications of its own. With Cimino/Zsigmond’s wide-screen Bierstadt vistas and Leone-scale close-ups, it’s a privilege to see this new print on Blu-Ray. Those not compelled by the mythology of Westerns will be enthralled; those who crave it (Does anyone still crave it besides me?) will be transported.

Heaven’s Gate is also deeply, maddeningly annoying. Annoying in perfect proportion to its grand scale. Annoying at its most moving, annoying at its most self-conscious, and annoying at its most well-intentioned. Well, as the Spanish say, Maciado perfecion es un error.Yin & Yang

The twin avatars of this annoyance are, in order of impact, Isabelle Huppert and Michael Cimino. Huppert, the inexplicable romantic lead, plays a whore - avec integrity, bien sur - in 1890s Wyoming, torn between Kris Kristofferson’s old-money, Eastern-WASP sheriff and Christopher Walken’s immigrant murderer of immigrant cattle rustlers on behalf of the Stockman’s Association. United Artists' management went batshit that such an expensive film would star someone unknown to the American public who could barely speak English. And for once, the studio bosses were right.

At the time, Huppert had like total international art-house cred as a brimming-with-integrity arty French actress. But she also came off as a gratingly self-loving prima donna who took a creepily gleeful pleasure in spending most of her onscreen time naked while acting all innocent about it.

Among cinephiles, Huppert’s derriere was on a par with Susan Sarandon’s breasts: We knew it/they was/were going to be on display in every picture, and proudly. When the 2015 Huppert, a self-distanced, urbane echt-Parisian, disrobes, there’s an erotic/philosophical tension between her regal, armored essence and her naked bod. Not so in 1980. After seeing far too much of Huppert's bare behind in Jean-Luc Godard’s Every Man For Himself, Pauline Kale wrote in The New Yorker, “Sometimes you could swear it pouts as eloquently as her face.”

Huppert serves as the benign example of Gate’s naked (heh-heh) ambition. Cimino’s determination to make myth succeeds and fails repeatedly throughout the picture. When his aims become transparent - revealed by ten-too-many intercut shots of somebody’s ironic commentary on the action - the story falls away, leaving only the stunning impenetrability of coke-induced artistic blindness.

Cimino sought a Wagnerian scale, a self-conscious grandeur. When he achieves it, the visual/narrative results are mind-blowing, deeply moving tableau that seem wholly appropriate to the story. His particular mastery is the dialogue-free crowd scene. The best moments of Cimino’s career derive from the wedding sequence in Coppola’s The Godfather. No one can gather characters and turn them loose en masse with the community credibility that Cimino achieves. This underscores his debt to D.W. Griffith.

The film’s composer, fiddler David Mansfeld, leads off the film’s most astounding moment. He roller-skates around a canvas-roofed town hall, fiddling away, calling the immigrant villagers onto the floor. Hundreds follow him, clad in the trademark peasant outfits of eastern and northern Europe. As their sheriff, Kristofferson knows that a mercenary army, hired by the filthy-rich cattle barons of the Stockman’s Association, is en route to slaughter the entire town. The townspeople haven’t yet, as Brecht said, heard the terrible news, and this is their last revel. The dance hall and the frame become increasingly crowded as the music builds. Cimino never loses the details of individual character as each larks across the floor.

Kristofferson warns the villagers, and they turn on one another with predictable results. In the now-deserted great room, Kristofferson and Huppert take to the vast empty floor for a tender, doomed, extended waltz that’s too sweet to be borne.

After their dance comes class war with a capital C. The townspeople decide to fight and head out to meet the oncoming army. It’s among the most realistic, emotionally engaging, visually overwhelming battle scenes in cinema history. Cimino’s obviously haunted by the final shoot-out of The Wild Bunch, but he suggests a more timeless war, one harking back to Troy - composed of dust, blood, confusion, and madness. His presentation of the raw hatred of the rich for their usurpers and that of the downtrodden for their oppressors has no equal for bitterness and ferocity. They just want to kill each other, and by dint of being out West, beyond the law and armed to the teeth, they just can.

For a putatively drug-addled egomaniac, Cimino demonstrates a subtle grasp of classical structure. The first three-quarters of the nearly 200-minute film present the developing forces in opposition, each with their mores and minute idiocies. The opening twenty-minute set piece is Kristofferson’s Harvard graduation, with its implications of an Eastern elite determined to lift up the ignorant downtrodden of these here United States. It’s almost dialogue-free and proves Cimino a master of mise-en-scène from the jump. It also establishes Kristofferson as the moral center of the rapidly vanishing West: Cultured, two-gunned, shit-faced drunk, high-minded, grief-stricken, murderous, and conflicted.

The Stockman’s Association massacre is led by pompous high-WASP snotnose Sam Waterston in a performance of repellent conviction. Kristofferson’s got issues of his own as he tries to convince Huppert to flee the armed mob. Half of their scenes together are crushingly real and half seem to be between strangers reading dialogue. Still, Huppert gets better and better as the picture goes along. Kristofferson, in his prime, seems so damn American: Gary Cooper, Sam Shepard, John Doe, Kristofferson. They’ve all got that über-American face.

Cimino depicts the battle for America’s moral destiny as between the sincere, primitive immigrants and the decadent entrenched interests. The real struggle takes place in Kristofferson’s soul. And Kristofferson’s got the soul to pull it off.