Short Cuts: Film Reviews (Pre-Oscars Special Edition)

Home again, home again, jiggity jig! It's been a couple of months since my last posting here, as the rush of the holidays and post-holiday work meant blogging time shrunk considerably. It's ironic, too, as I've been consuming more popular culture since late November than I have in ages, catching up on television (Boardwalk Empire, the final season of Gossip Girl, all three seasons of Downton Abbey, and much more), comics (I commend Batwoman, The Flash, Daredevil, and the ongoing one-two punch of Matt Fraction's dazzlingly intertwined Fantastic Four and FF to your attention), and pop music (Frank Ocean, Adele, Japandroids, P!ink, and new singles from Prince, David Bowie and Justin Timberlake are all worth your time). And of course, movies. I'd like to touch on those other aspects of pop in future posts, but since we're only a few hours away from this year's Academy Awards, I'd like to devote this moment to the movies, with quick takes on all the stuff I've been watching since Thanksgiving. After all, the "end" of the previous film year is really marked by the garish, grating, glorious hilarity of Oscar night, isn't it? The movies below range from 2012 blockbusters to tiny indie films to 1933's vision of the ways PTSD gets displaced onto class (dis)order. Good, bad, beyond awful and utterly brilliant, they've all been wonderfully vivid reminders of cinema's power for me the last three months, even if only a few have a chance to win one of those statuettes described by one wag as being the perfect symbol of Hollywood: "It cuts off the head right where the brains are, and leaves a blank space where its balls should be."

Just a note: I still haven't seen the following films: Argo, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Master, Amour, The Hobbit, Les Miserables, and Beasts of The Southern Wild. But this isn't a year-end "best" list, and anyway, you're probably sick of hearing about those movies anyway, yes?

Hello I Must Be Going (2012) is full of fantastically beautiful cramped images: characters pushed into the foreground as arguments blur in the back, or shoved to one side of the screen by a looming bit of mise-en-scene, or caught in close-up as a hand-held camera probes for flaws and feelings. Which makes it all the more interesting that it is, at heart, a comedy, full of wonderfully observed moments of very funny discomfort, witty exchanges, and even the occasional pratfall. At the center of this constant back-and-forth between dramatic dysfunction and hilarious release is Melanie Lynskey, whose wounded face and rubbery comic's body perfectly embody the movie's two not-so-opposite poles. That she missed an Oscar nomination is just another example of that august body's general awards failure-- the way she shifts from fantastically subtle to absurdly broad (sometimes in a single scene, or a single moment) as her character works out her post-divorce life is a wonderous thing to behold, like a tightrope walker who not only keeps her balance but makes the journey a revelatory bit of art (and she's ably supported by John Rubinstein and Blythe Danner, if not by a generally one-note Christopher Abbott). If the last fifteen minutes is a mishmash of childish epiphanies, first-year-writer's-program resolutions and one or two insightful shots, it doesn't undercut the moving jumble of feelings and framings that the rest of the film provides.

I imagine I'll be wrapping my head around The Day He Arrives (2011) for many months. Writer-director Sang-soo Hong offers a New Wavish meditation on a simple story and theme that builds like a slow, harmonically rich jazz riff, each variation and repetition carrying you into a slowly dizzying world of visual and verbal rhymes, self-reflexive gestures, deadpan meditations on cinema and performing to the camera: it all creates an emotional territory both inviting and slightly paranoid (the subtle shifts between documentary framings of Seoul by day-- all flat hard light and ambient noise-- and the more noirish shadows and deep focus of the restaurants and nightclubs the characters frequent at night only adds to the sublimity of it all). It's structured like a quest, it has the rhythms of a comedy, and the uncertain tension of a horror film, and it adds up to something that's stimulatingly philosophical even as it floats lightly like a dream. To reveal more of the story or the characters would be deny the sense of surprise that's so central to the movie's power, but it's easily one of the best films I've seen in the last year.

My Valentine's Day movie? Zero Dark Thirty (2012), of course. I mean, it's about a girl who chases a guy around the world for ten years.

Watching the climactic raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, I kept thinking that even with all of the modernism of her cutting and framing, and her roots in the avant-garde, Kathryn Bigelow was the real heir to the Hawksian tradition of no-nonsense, graceful-men-under-pressure narratives that so many contemporary films either strip too bare or overload with sentimentality. Watch that scene on the plane as the SEALs are flying in, and how well Bigelow intermingles the easy banter and the black humor with the preparation and the slowly mounting sense of the violence about to be unleashed. Or, in a much starker way, how matter-of-factly she allows Jason Clarke's CIA agent to waterboard and psychologically manipulate various detainees in the first half of the film: contra Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald, this frighteningly casual process-- like someone clocking in at a particularly dirty and difficult job-- doesn't at all undercut the moral terror of what's happening: it enhances it (for the most thorough takedown of Greenwald's bad faith, see Glenn Kenny). It draws us in precisely because it treats it as a process, a profession with its own twisted sense of honor, and then it allows us to feel increasingly queasy as Jessica Chastain's rookie agent builds her own sense of moral fervor around its instability and false answers (Kyle Chandler's no-nonsense station chief is also crucial here, as Chandler brings his usual, brilliant minimalism to the role-- I always get the sense I'm eavesdropping on his characters when I watch him, like the camera just happened to catch him unguarded). It's a film rich with irony, which not even the occasionally anvilicious turns of Mark Boal's screenplay (to say nothing of the weird pluckiness he injects into its second half, as if trying to make Chastain's character the lead in particularly twisted romcom) can undercut. And the final images around a transport plane-- echoing and reversing the final shots of The Hurt Locker--act as a devastating frame for Chastain's finally-released emotions: for character and audience, the reminders of all that's been lost hang in the air, but there's no real going back from everything into which we've been implicated.

Twelve years ago, Graydon Carter rather fatuously declared that 9/11 marked "the end of irony," so it seems deliciously appropriate that the Vanity Fair editor plays a snookered businessman in Arbitrage (2012), a pretentious middlebrow thriller whose too-easy ironies and uneven plotting sink what might have been a smart movie about family economies of all kinds.

Richard Gere, as a morally conflicted, utterly corrupt trader, is as good as advertised, and he's well-matched by Stuart Margolin, Brit Marling, and a criminally underused Chris Eigeman (one shot of Eigeman at the end, pensively gnawing at the end of his eyeglasses at a charity gala, is worth pages and pages of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki's moralisms); Tim Roth chews the scenery as a detective straight out of Dick Wolf casting, and Susan Sarandon flounders in an underwritten role, but neither of them are given much to do (and the sudden, unbelievable twists in Sarandon's character are almost offensive; there's absolutely no acknowledgment of how much she's privileged by the crimes of Gere's character that she rails against). When the movie is exploring the details and dark underbellies of financial deals, the film works beautifully; but the homicide investigation that is its other plot thread is poorly handled, and fits thematically but not stylistically with the Wall Street material-- nothing about this merger feels organic, and its crass manipulation undermines all of the hard work the cast puts into things. In the end, what resonates is not the dumb endings, or Jarecki's smug posturing, but the lived-in exhaustion of people's bodies: how they walk, bend over, and most of all sit; a slumped back, a tilted head, a shrugged shoulder are all more expressive explorations of time, memory, loss, and regret than anything the movie speaks out loud.

2 Days In New York (2012) is wildly erratic, particularly early on, when the film can't quite figure out how to juggle the sweet and the scatological. But like the blended families the film's comedy explores, the jangle of voices, styles and moods eventually finds its own odd and workable rhythm. As a director, Julie Delpy has a lovely eye for New York locations, colors and textures that draw the eye in even as the characters' neuroses and foibles push you out; its a back-and-forth sway that allows Delpy to use overlapping voices, cramped close-ups and the aural wash of background noise to generate a world and a set of character histories that feels lived-in and pleasingly implied, as much as ever explicitly stated. And it's very pleasurable to see Chris Rock in a role that let's him be sweet, harried, quiet and serious-- his slow burn and puzzled expression hold things together even as the narrative threatens to spin out into something twee. What begins as frantic ends up being warm and enveloping, without ever losing its impishness and ability to surprise.

As someone who considers Metropolitan an utterly perfect movie (and ranks Barcelona not far behind), I wasn't sure at first how to take Whit Stillman's Damsels In Distress (2011). Its first ten minutes or so are so flattened, its close-ups and group shots so suffocating, the dialogue stretched out to a place somewhere beyond absurdity, curving back into banality in its never-ending, obsessive-compulsive detail, its constant drag towards minutiae. And then slowly, the movie snuck up on me, as the superb cast found all kinds of layers in their characters: Greta Gerwig is so good at hinting at the vulnerability beneath Violet's chatty exterior; Analeigh Tipton carefully arranges the evidence of Lily's monstrous selfishness without ever breaking character or condescending to her role; and Adam Brody speaks the false bravado of Stillman's dialogue like a dream. Most of all, Damsels uses backgrounds and frame edges more beautifully than any other film I've seen this past year. There's a wealth of detail in its set design, and the bunches of students and townspeople that stream around our central protagonists give the film dynamism and emotional depth-- their activity and bright energy wittily comment on the neuroses at the center of the frame, making it far more affecting than it might otherwise be. And it ends with a musical number! All in all, Damsels In Distress is pretty magical.

Of course, there are less magical musicals, too.

Can't Stop The Music has nothing on Rock of Ages (2012), a movie so in tune with the fun of 1987 glam metal that it ends with Journey song from 1981. It's not just that the film wastes the game talents of Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, and very looped-out and wonderfully weird Tom Cruise, nor that it ignores the potent kookiness these performers could provide in favor of a tired boy/girl/fame triangle involving the Smurfette-like Julianne Hough; it's not just that Adam Shankman directs movie musicals as if he's never seen one before, overlooking the potential pleasures of rock sensuality and 80s video excess in favor of smug camp and incoherent camera angles that obscure rather than reveal; it's not even that the film can never figure out how its songs fit into various narrative moments, how on-stage numbers work in relation to off-stage numbers, or what any of these songs mean to any of characters singing them.

It's that, even for an adaptation of a cheesy Broadway jukebox musical, Rock of Ages seems to have no idea why its source material was so popular, or why it might have a lasting power for its audience. What 80s pop metal lacks in terms of musical innovation and cultural cachet, it makes up for in sheer energy, crassness, knowing theatricality and a heartening belief in the power of melodic loudness; even in the Kidzbop versions that litter the movie, the head-pounding fun and cartoonish danger of the songs shines through. "Oh, my god, I can't believe I'm actually here, " Julianne Hough chirps while standing on the Hollywood sign, to which the audience for Rock of Ages can only respond-- baby, you were never really there.

Red Hook Summer (2012) weaves so many stylistic registers into its tapestry that it's often dizzying: just when you think you have a handle on it, it spins off in a different direction, barely allowing you to settle before it spins off again. This can be a bit maddening, but also breathtaking, funny, and quite moving. And its self-conscious juggling of documentary realism, theatrical and highly stylized performances, improvised (almost sketch-like) comedy, gospel-as-narrative-allegory and avant-garde visual play makes it the Spike Lee film which most bears the mark of one of his idols, Melvin Van Peebles. By the end, I felt wrung out-- as Clarke Peters' flawed and hypocritical preacher puts it at one point, in one neighborhood you see a whole world, and Lee makes sure it's one that's overflowing at every turn. And that final, pre-credits montage is fantastic.

Uptown, that vibrant life is turned inside-out, drained of its earnestness, and overloaded with menace. Cosmopolis (2012) has the narrative outlines of a tragedy, but the internal rhythms of a comedy. Which is not to say that David Cronenberg's latest is funny-- although it sometimes is, in a very dark and deadpan way--but that it's wonderfully and existentially absurd, down to the tiniest elements of its dialogue, its performances, and its extraordinary cinematography, which looks at everything through the heightened reality of a wide-angle, forcing us to feel the dizzying illusion that we can somehow take it all in, even as the wealth of detail on the screen creates the anxiety that we never will. And Robert Pattinson is superb-- more than in that little franchise of his, it is here that is fully, frighteningly, hilariously vampiric.

Battleship (2012) is so enervating, unimaginative and unpleasant that it almost makes one long for the relative wit and sophistication of Armageddon.

Sometimes the most powerful films are those caught in snatches, removed from their full narrative context by chance, by the flick of a switch. I caught the first 40 minutes or so of William Wellman's Heroes For Sale (1933) by channel-surfing across it late one night on TCM last month (before sleep prevented me from seeing the rest), and was really struck by how the film dealt with postwar PTSD, addiction, and readjustment-to-civilian-life issues. It felt far more straightforward and bracing than anything being made on those issues today.  It starts with Richard Barthelmess in the trenches of World War I (trenches were a recurring image across much of the pop culture I watched this winter, actually), saving the life of a friend who gets the glory and becoming a methadone addict due to his wounds. He's fired from his job, moves to Chicago and becomes involved with a shady Communist in a business deal-- and that's all in the first 30 minutes. The film moves fast, and is utterly unsentimental while still being deeply affecting. You can read about the film here, and learn more about how its narrative unfolds. It sounds fantastic, and I'd like to catch up with the rest of it someday (as well as those other Wellman films I haven't seen), but not yet, and not soon; there's something about its raw power in this disjointed, unsettled state of the half-watched that's incredibly affecting, a dream cut loose from its frame to drift across eight decades of cinephilia and popular culture.
I'm inclined to like any animated film that casts Elaine Stritch as the voice of a ghostly grandmother, just one of the many evocative and witty choices that make ParaNorman (2012) such a textured, funny, and spooky affair. The stop-motion animation is beautiful, its play of light and shade making the film quiver between an exaggerated plasticity and an often breathtakingly lived-in three-dimensionality (its diaphanous visual layers kept bringing to mind Moonrise Kingdom, another fable about the difficulties of adolescence). And that deep space extends to every aspect of the film: the writing is top-notch, and manages to find perfect pitch as it slides from the satiric to the winsome to the truly horrific (Jon Brion's lovely score helps immeasurably). And as with such YA forebears as James Henry Trotter, Harry Potter, Peter Parker and Buffy Summers, the film never loses sight of how powerfully the fantastic elements of Norman's travails act as metaphors for loneliness, difference, and community. A lovely, very sweet and wonderfully spooky good time.
Sure, there was a Hobbit movie out this winter, but I decided instead to settle down with Legend (1985), Ridley Scott's utterly bizarre, strangely engaging fever dream of a fairy tale, a children's film for adults. Not all of it works-- in fact, a lot of it doesn't work, at least in the 90-minute version (there's a longer director's cut out there somewhere)-- but the combination of the dreamy, perfume commercial landscapes with Tangerine Dream's score creates a hypnotic setting that it's very pleasurable to drift through. And while he might seem miscast as an impish woodland creature, Tom Cruise's actually works quite well-- his earnestness and ever-present passion gives "Jack" a bit of weight, making his quest to maintain his love and innocence amidst Ridley Scott's visual kink all the more poignant. There are times when Legend is really terrible, but I liked it quite a bit.
Scott's talent for crafting otherworldly, layered spaces is show to particularly good effect in Prometheus (2012). Its gorgeously grimy images and retro-futurist iconography raise the question: why did this man ever stop making science fiction movies? Nominally a prequel to Alien (1979), Prometheus works best as a standalone meditation on horror (as both a general concept and a Hollywood genre): from the Lawrence of Arabia reference at the start, to the screens-upon-screens of the spaceship consoles, to the way in which the deep caverns of the alien world suddenly light up and transform into a postmodern lantern show, it's Scott's love letter to the power of cinema, and a stunning display of his own gifts. Oh, and it's scary as hell.
Still, if Public Speaking (2010) is any indication, nothing is scarier than the full flower of Fran Lebowitz's ego. Fifty-four minutes into Martin Scorsese's documentary about the writer and public personality, I began to realize that was about as much time as anyone involved had spent thinking about it. Public Speaking came at the tail end of a fall spent engaging with those Scorsese films I hadn't seen, including many of his documentaries. But where No Direction Home (2005) finds the perfect, trickster-like subject for Scorsese's cinematic flourishes in Dylan, and Made In Milan (1990) uses its roving camera and editing patterns to create an ironic web around Giorgio Armani's pretensions, Public Speaking is so besotted with Lebowitz's sub-Dorothy Parkerisms that it never really notices what an insecure monster she is (it's a hero-worship flaw the film shares with Scorsese's Living In The Material World (2011), which expends a tremendous amount of energy trying to convince us of George Harrison's saintliness, and not enough exploring his flaws and contradictions). With Scorsese and Graydon Carter (that dude's everywhere!) as her on-screen laugh track, Lebowitz seems content to nod smugly, light up a cigarette and toss out another bon mot. It's not that she's not occasionally funny or observant-- it's that her insecurities and boomer entitlement have closed her in a bubble of her own thoughts, cut off from the culture she's claiming to critique (it's this monomaniacal certainty that gives an unintended edge of irony to Scorsese's referencing of Taxi Driver, as Lebowtiz steers her own Yellow Cab through Manhattan).
"Of course, I left out the panhandle. And a lot of people do..." Richard Linklater's Bernie (2011) is a wonderfully strange, very funny, and deeply affecting film. I've been obsessed with Linklater's work since I was in college-- Slacker was released in 1991, just before the start of my freshman year. But it was the Renoir-like generosity of Dazed and Confused-- a film whose inimitable combination of profanity and perceptiveness would influence everything from American Pie to Friday Night Lights in the ensuing twenty years-- that made me a fan for life. Whether working in the western, the romantic comedy, the social problem film, or animation, Linklater's searching eye, intertextual imagination, sense of time and clear-eyed love of character is always apparent. Still, nothing prepared me for just how deep and funny and cutting Bernie is, or how subtly Linklater uses the visual frame of the documentary form to both deceive and reveal its small-town, Texas world to his viewers (watch the final courtroom scene, and pay attention to how Linklater's slow reframing of Matthew McConaughey completely transforms the character). Central (in all senses) to this experiment is Jack Black, a gifted performer whose own boisterousness has sometimes hidden how skillful an actor he really is; it is his exasperated sweetness, mixed with a silent-but-potent sense of moral certainty, that anchors the film, and acts as its ironic heart-- Bernie is kind, but if he didn't feel the need to force that kindness on everyone, he wouldn't get in such trouble. Like nearly all of Linklater's films, Bernie's unclassifiable story and tone made it hard to market, but it's a gem.  (If you like Linklater's work, I would be remiss here if I did not recommend my friend David Johnson's Richard Linklater, part of the University of Illinois Press's Contemporary Directors series, and a brilliant, one-book survey of why the Austin auteur is such a crucial part of American filmmaking).
The Cabin In The Woods (2012): Oh, Joss Whedon. You continue to warp my mind quite pleasantly. Between this and The Avengers (the most fun I had in a theater last year), I can hardly wait for his  Much Ado About Nothing.  
Lincoln (2012) is beautiful, big, and passionate, a sentimental epic whose juggling of tones, rhetorical modes and even the occasional banalities of Tony Kushner's script are all integral to its success-- it needs a large canvas and a multiplicity of stylistic voices to explore all its ideas and contradictions. Daniel Day-Lewis is predictably brilliant (he really, really is), but for me it was Tommy Lee Jones who made the film-- Thaddeus Stevens gives him a role whose scope deploys his stoicism, his hamminess and his dry wit in equal measure (the full Tommy, if you will). Best of all, the film is an action blockbuster for policy wonks and history buffs-- to paraphrase one Abigail Bartlet, this is nerd hot talk on a grand scale. For a longer, thoughtful take, please read my friend Bill Ryan's lovely review.
Lincoln was the final Spielberg movie I watched last winter, in preparation for its Oberlin arrival. The completist in me (okay, the geek) wanted to see all the Spielberg films I hadn't yet, and so I dove in with War Horse (2011), and almost immediately regretted it. I felt a mounting dread in the first fifteen minutes or so, which, despite Janusz Kaminski's landscapes and John Williams' score (both stirring), are full of treacly sentimentality and unearned, Spielbergian takes on the John Ford of How Green Was My Valley (a favorite of mine, to the extent that I half-wished Spielberg had gone all in, and shot War Horse in black-and-white). But damned if the thing doesn't build magnificently, using its horse-as-relay-object structure to explore the landscapes of war in a way that unleashes Spielberg's surreal side-- it's both beautiful and frightening. By the end, I'll admit that I felt stirred by that identification scene in the war hospital, whose power felt so earned that I didn't even mind the overdone oranges of the sky when Albert and his horse came home.
Less successful was Always (1989), one of those films that makes one sigh, "Oh, Steven." What a strange, frustrating, sweet, ham-handed and occasionally beautiful mess of a film Always (1989) is. For every wrongly framed image, badly cut sequence, on-the-nose reaction shot, poorly chosen music cue; for every time Audrey Hepburn is wasted, Holly Hunter is asked to look beatific, Marg Helgenberger has nothing to do, and Richard Dreyfuss acts like Richard Dreyfuss; for every time that John Goodman dances with wit and grace across a tarmac, or spins Hunter around a barroom floor, or grins in such a charismatic way that you wish Spielberg had manned up and just cast him as the lead; for all of the ways in which the film seems more than a bit scared of sex and weirdly distant from the romantic relationship that is supposedly its engine (to the point that you wonder if it maybe should have been called The 43-Year Old Virgin); for all of that, there are still some breathtaking scenes of real imagination and heartache, where you can see the better film hiding beneath all the hoke. It's definitely down there with Hook and The Terminal as one of Spielberg's lesser movies, but it's got its moments.
Moneyball (2011) is fascinating, because while I think it more or less fails as an adaptation, it works really well as a movie. Translation is a tricky thing, and so much of the success of Michael Lewis' fantastic book relies on its authorial voice, which is at once clinically distant and deeply sympathetic. While Aaron Sorkin's script and Bennett Miller's direction are both assured (very, very engaging, in fact), they never find a visual analogue for that voice, and suddenly the "celebrate the little guy" pitfalls that were always inherent in Lewis' narrative become more apparent. Ironically, while so much of the book Moneyball was about working against shibboleths and cliches (they were what kept scouts from noticing what was actually happening on the field), and trying to form new paradigms, Moneyball the movie ends up recycling many a sports film cliche-- the wily good old boy athlete, the nerd who turns out to be cool, the underdog triumphant, the athlete looking for a comeback. And it's entirely due to the shift in media-- seeing the ballplayers on the field, hearing the score, listening to the words coming out of actors' mouths generates a viewpoint antithetical to the form and pacing of the book. But if you can get past the reversals, it's a rousing movie, told with great skill and heart. And Brad Pitt is just effortless-- I don't think he's ever been better.
I know Andrew Sarris placed John Frankenheimer in his "Strained Seriousness" category, but man-- that run between The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds is pretty damn impressive. Just before that stretch, there was Berry-Berry Willart. All Fall Down (1962) begins on a bus bound for Key West. As it crosses a long south Florida bridge, there's a gorgeous overhead helicopter shot, and some wonderfully evocative shots of the harbor and the town. I lived in Florida for nearly a decade (albeit in the northern part), and these early moments had a palpable, almost Proustian quality for me-- they thrust me right into Berry-Berry's drifter decadence. But if these early shots evoke Hemingway and John D. MacDonald, the film quickly falls under the social problem, faux-poetic Freudianism of its screenwriter, William Inge (adapting a novel by James Leo Herlihy), and moves northward to Ohio (ironically, where I live now, as if the film is shadowing my every move). And Frankenheimer is right when he said the Key West sections are far better than the shot-on-the-lot Ohio sequences that dominate the film. But the problem is less the sets (Frankenheimer's blend of the documentary and surreally discomfiting has always relied on a bit of artificiality in the mix, and he composes some haunting wide-angle shots) than Inge's forced moralism, which wastes a wonderful cast (a sweet Brandon de Wilde, a scary Angela Lansbury, a very sad, brutal Karl Malden), especially a raw and sensual Warren Beatty and an emotionally scarred and touching Eva Marie Saint. The palpable realness of the actors rubs uneasily against the schematics of the narrative, leading to a disappointing but fascinating film.
Three years later, after the success of The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, Frankenheimer was asked by star Burt Lancaster to take over direction and producing on The Train (1965). Improvising a new script as they shot, the results are extraordinary: Frankenheimer's blend of European exteriors and shadowy interiors becomes the perfect visual corollary for the film's ambiguous political stance, and its exploration of the uneasy relationship between art and politics. Made at the height of the James Bond films, The Train stages its action scenes with effortless skill (there's a wonderful sequence of Lancaster breaking free from a Nazi-controlled hotel that uses the actor's circus training beautifully), but never forgets the brutality of the violence or how shockingly sudden it can be: there's a masterful shifting of tones from high adventure to tragedy that suggests a master at the top of his game.
The peak of Frankheimer's work would come with his next film, Seconds (1966). The film was a financial failure after a mixed premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, but Frankenheimer's filmmaking has never been more assured. The paranoia of The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days In May is in full effect here, but stripped of the dark humor of those earlier political thrillers. In place of the gallows political laughs is an achingly poetic strain that feels a bit like John Cheever or Updike; the lasting impact of Seconds comes from the fact that its truly horrific moments are its earliest ones, as Frankenheimer offers a smart, sympathetic look at a stifling suburbia, and a marriage slowly dissolving in front of its participants.  When these early domestic scenes rub up against the dark, more explicit horror of the rest of the film, the effect is harrowing: like Rock Hudson's businessman-turned-swinger, we're caught between two dissonant styles that refuse to synthesize and resolve themselves (intentionally so, I want to emphasize), creating a jarring, constantly dislocating, always reconfiguring style. Hudson is superb, and so is John Randolph (as the same character), but the star here is clearly the director: from the opening moments around Penn Station to the final, awful sounds as the screen goes black, Seconds is a tour-de-force.
It's fascinating to think what Frankenheimer might have done with a character like Batman, whose own divided personality, ambiguous morals and blend of crime and horror would have put him right in Frankenheimer's wheelhouse. After the mixed pleasures of The Dark Knight (2008)-- whose ambition and technical skill was matched by its lethargic pacing, reductive moralizing and waste of Aaron Eckhart--I approached the last chapter of the Gotham story with great trepidation. I needn't have worried. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is a film full of tremendous, vividly pulpish visual poetry. If it sometimes indulges an unfortunate urge to thematize and literalize its beautifully fleeting images, it's still a gripping experience, and a far richer one for me than its immediate predecessor, and it returns the character to the more balanced place he was in Batman Begins (still the best of this trilogy). That doesn't mean it's a perfect film. Tom Hardy strives mightily, but Bane is probably the least interesting Batman villain since the one-two flop of Batman & Robin's Mr. Freeze/Poison Ivy (although the real villain in that movie is George Clooney's bored stare); Marion Cotillard is wonderful, but needs more to do; there's no reason for Alfred to disappear for so long; and the Occupy Gotham narrative, while often witty and strikingly Brechtian, can also feel a bit single entendre at times. And like all of Nolan's post-Batman Begins work, there are pacing issues.
But there's so much going on in the film that none of those problems overwhelmed TDKR's sensual pleasures. It's a movie of cascading imagery: Anne Hathaway in the maid's outfit, robbing Bruce Wayne's safe; Batman's turbo-bike racing through the streets to evade the cops; the fight scenes outside City Hall in the snow; the flicker of a fire before Wayne Manor is shut down forever; the purple-yellow dusk of a Gotham sky; the cave whose waterfalls open for Joseph Gordon-Levitt; the Batplane flying off into the horizon one last time. All of it is striking, none of it translates properly to words, and that suggests that the power of The Dark Knight Rises is, at last, cinematic.  Roland Barthes called this "Third Meaning"; in Bat-terms, neither informational (Bruce) nor symbolic (Batman), but something other, beyond language, "evident, erratic, obstinate. I do not know what its signified is, at least I am unable to give it a name, but I can clearly see the traits, the signifying accidents of which this - consequently incomplete - sign is composed." It is "the one 'too many,' the supplement that my intellection cannot succeed in absorbing, at once persistent and fleeting, smooth and elusive..." You know, like Catwoman escaping on a superbike.
Watching Looper, I thought of that famous joke about The Sex Pistols: Only a few hundred people saw those early shows, but every single one of them formed a band.  Blade Runner might have flopped in theaters in 1982, but it seems that every single person who saw its initial run became a filmmaker, and Rian Johnson's Looper feels like its last, best child. The influence of Ridley Scott (that dude is everywhere!) and David Webb Peoples is most apparent in the early scenes of the post-apocalyptic city, with its mutated humans, rampant crime, gray streets and flying cars (to say nothing of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's noirish narration). But it's also there in the broader thematic sense-- like Blade Runner (and Peoples' later Unforgiven), the genre trappings are there as a entry point for thinking about questions of identity, family, violence, ethics and loss. Johnson's juggling of suspense and humor is breathtaking, and the science fiction elements are well-thought-out, but this is a film that rests on faces: a wounded Gordon Levitt hiding in Emily Blunt's barn, trying to keep his cool; Bruce Willis finding temporary happiness in Japan, then having to come back and confront his earlier self, the contempt he feels for his past barely contained (no film has used Willis' smirk better); a terrified Emily Blunt trying to hide her special child from the killers on the run. I suppose if this post has a mascot, it's Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who showed up in three of its films, and gave all of them a greater resonance (my favorite moment of The Dark Knight Rises is just Gordon-Levitt sitting on the roof of a youth shelter with a young man, dusk gathering over his shoulder, looking at a drawing of the Bat-signal: it's quiet, beautifully played, and says more in three minutes about heroism than anything else in the film). He's fantastic in Looper, a film in which he is nominally the hero, but is actually the least-likable of all its protagonists. Gordon-Levitt is fearless in his willingness to be the heel, and moving in his journey towards self-awareness, and he plays beautifully off of Willis. In his underplaying hands, an ending which might seem treacly or sophomoric feels earned.
I know there are still several big films out that I have yet to see, but I can't imagine any of them equaling the experience of Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson's visually rich, emotionally delicate fable, which has the keenest sense of place of any film I've seen this year (and I do mean "sense"-- his atmosphere is almost tactile). The list of moments is endless: the tracking shot through the house that opens the film; Suzy and her binoculars on the lighthouse tower; Bill Murray apologizing to Frances McDormand in bed on a hot summer night, "for everything"; Bruce Willis hanging down from a wire against the blue background of a church, as if Tin-Tin had merged with Feuillade; Sam besotted, stumbling backstage to find the angry birds shown in the photo above; Edward Norton trying to rally the Scout troop during the storm; the awkwardness of the camping trip; the use of the orchestra guide; the rich sepia of the cinematography; and the way all of these elements cohere around a narrative whose pitch is perfect, the distillation of everything Anderson has been moving towards since Bottle Rocket. It's no less referential, no less knowing, no less cinematic, no less fearless about finding the human through the artificial than Anderson's other films; but it comes together in such a way that it feels more organic, more effortless, more like a flowing dream. Moonrise Kingdom is absolutely extraordinary, and maybe my favorite of any film he's done.


Popular Posts