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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


I’m on board with any movie that takes two broad comedy characters, deposits them in a Terrence Malick movie and then asks me to take them as seriously as the lush beauty of the sometimes harsh natural world around them – and succeeds.  David Gordon Green fuses his two-headed career into one mind and creates a tone that greets the receptive viewer with what can best be called gentle broadness.  The film gets started on a questionable note, as we’ve yet to acclimate to Alvin’s (Paul Rudd) quasi-formal speech patterns toward his road crew employee, Lance (Emile Hirsch) – they work together to paint yellow lines on long stretches of newly-restored fire-ravaged roads in 1980s Texas.  Alvin feels like some of the same self-mocking characters we’ve seen from Rudd before, but made especially ironic by his thickly-groomed matte of a mustache, which has a power all its own to destroy our trust in the filmmaker.  But we soon learn that this is who he is – a not-so-pleasant loner attempting to cultivate an air of intelligence possibly beyond his grasp, even if it’s only to fool himself.  He’s cloaked himself in a kind of transcendental, self-reliant, self-indulgent Thoreau-lite, but we learn from his time in the woods that he’s mostly just avoiding his problems – namely his girlfriend, who also happens to be Lance’s sister.  His more-Walden-than-thou façade may have worked to give him a self-regard makeover, but it’s also worked on his charge, whose open-faced acceptance of Alvin’s wisdom is a sweet-souled, near-Lenny-esque take on the empty-headed, 20-something drifter with no plans beyond the next girl he’s going to bed.  Lance is the kind of guy who, while searching for his co-worker among the trees, cries "Alvin!" at the top of his lungs, but is completely unaware of the cultural reference. Together they form an act suitable for a particularly patient southern Vaudeville circuit.

These two are cut from the same cloth that normally gives us Step Brothers, or Year One, or any such not-so-novel vehicle for bodily function jokes and unconvincingly affected, stammering, faux-macho insecurity.  The blunt force of these kinds of movies and the characters that populate them is usually wielded to generate the easy laughter of superiority, if not, for some, genuine dunder-headed identification.   But Green is a smart filmmaker, and despite his recent penchant for pot-head empowerment, or perhaps even in that same vain, just from a different, less-fogged route, he shows here that he’s still as deeply connected to the earth as he was in his first three features (George WashingtonAll the Real Girls, and Undertow).  And as the plot, thin as it is, if not willfully non-existent, lolls forward along the un-yellow-lined road, these two 2-dimensional constructs are drawn out into their third dimension, depth, by sheer virtue of being slowly imbued by the magical force of their natural surroundings.  It’s far too much to say that what we end up with is a rich and compelling treatise on man in the universe, but it is at least an earnest and engaging revelation of what might make these kinds of guys tick.

The movie has its moments of internal illogic – why aren’t the guys fired for their moment of drunken, yellow-lined road doodles?  They survive that episode in the same way that Sylvester the cat survives dynamite exploding in his face, by a simple cut to the next scene.  But concerns like this are redeemed by the hopeless amount of charm that exudes from their basic nice-guy souls.  We like them, we like the quiet of their surroundings, and we have a latent envy of their relative freedom from supervision, heavy traffic, oppressive schedules, and, save for each other, human beings.  It’s an idyllic life with simple responsibilities and lots of time to think.  It’s nature.  And we miss it when we see it photographed so well.  In the film’s single best sequence, we’re treated to an extended musical montage of Alvin’s weekend alone, while Lance has gone into town, and we see over the course of a few minutes just what the director is up to – flowers, trees, Alvin, clouds, grass, Alvin, wildlife, flowing water, Alvin – the rhythm is calculated to make us view Alvin himself as part of nature, a human creature whose life, and all the complications therein, is just another manifestation of the unpredictable, elemental fabric of the earth.  These are high-falutin’ words, especially since the sequence is also funny: this comical little man in his baggy workman’s overalls, communing with God’s naked earth.  Funny until the sequence ends with Alvin intruding upon an old woman scavenging through the ashes of her home, which was destroyed by wildfire.  The woman’s slow, catatonic groping for lost items is a decidedly downbeat reminder that the bucolic scenery we’ve just been treated to could explode into fury whenever it pleases – and lives can be destroyed.  Later, Alvin finds another abandoned wreck of a home and does an impromptu pantomime of some luckier man’s life, opening invisible doors and talking to various members of an imaginary loving family – a weirdly comic, vaguely poignant interlude that feels at once like the found moment of an improvising film crew and the revelation of this man-child’s most inward need.
Some may say these sorts of detours spoil whatever fun we may be having watching the characters flail inside of their bruised egos, and that it pulls the movie into unnecessary pretension and unearned pathos.  Maybe.  But for me, interludes like this, and there are a few, give the movie the patchwork feel of a docudrama wrapped in a comic dream, and function as a dark parallel to the ultimate lesson these fellows learn, which is that our problems will always be ours, but our humanity is defined by our capacity to help mitigate each others pain – pain that can arrive and destroy so naturally.

Thursday, August 15, 2013


We love watching people crack up.  Stewart in Vertigo, Deneuve in Repulsion, Nicholson in The Shining, Portman in Black Swan.  There’s something perversely entertaining about seeing someone succumb to the level of frustration or fury or paranoia that results in a total mental disconnect.  But Woody Allen goes further in his new movie – or anyway, allows his lead actress, Cate Blanchett, to take his movie beyond what could have been just a simple entertainment.  His storied distance from actors whom he’s hired, typically avoiding any meaningful communication with them, gives them as much latitude as they can handle, and it’s mostly up to them to deliver the character.  Some fail to connect (often in a cringe-worthy way: Kenneth Branagh, Jason Biggs), while others grab hold, pull themselves up and make themselves indelible (Keaton, Caine, Weist, Davis).  But none do quite what Cate Blanchett does as Jasmine French in Blue Jasmine.  Blanchett takes what is essentially a standard comic premise – the city mouse and the country mouse, or the fish out of water; following a high society woman, sent low by a crooked husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), and now cobbling together a new life in the sticks – and by the naked truth of her manically radiating despair bends the comedy into a tragedy.  This is the two halves of Melinda & Melinda rolled into one.

The basic riches to rags story is decorated with lightly comic moments that get wrenched into drama with the piercing gaze of Blanchett’s thousand-yard stare.  The script has her correct someone by saying that another character didn’t die from choking to death when he hung himself, he died of a snapped neck.  The darkness in the heart of the blankly delivered correction makes the audience chuckle, but the stare, the insistent, bleak fact of the death that’s written into her countenance, makes us stifle the smiles, refocus our attention, and acknowledge her pain.  Later, recounting her memory of taking a job in New York, post-downfall, and having to wait on her old socialite friends, the chutzpah of her belittling a “menial” retail job in front of her minimum wage sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), is funny – until she sits up, looks off and begins shouting bitterly to one of the friends, who is obviously not there (“I saw you, Erica!”), and we recoil at the undiluted psychosis. Again, later, Jasmine receives a phone call from a prospective new date, and it comes on the heels of a frantically funny search for her ringing cell phone.  She takes a deep breath, regains her poise, and we’re content to enjoy watching her desperate effort, until, after hanging up, she suddenly weeps with such a deep brokenness that we want to reach out and comfort her.  These shifts put the tone and intent of the movie on a see-saw.  It’s difficult to discern how Allen feels about her.  While the director busies himself with nurturing the comic wallpaper around her (why is Michael Stuhlbarg’s dentist character named Dr. Flicker, immediately evoking young Alvy’s “universe is expanding” scene from Annie Hall?), Blanchett’s fully-engaged, raging, bewildered performance draws our admiration even as we’re turned off by her character’s super selfish, condescending attitude.  It’s a mixed bag, but you don’t quite notice, or at least don’t mind at first, the strange friction of loose comedy and tight drama because you can’t look away from Blanchett writhing behind her red-rimmed, steel blue eyes.  It’s a diamond performance in a slapdash setting.

Both the comedy and drama are constructed atop class contrast: we only see how far Park Avenue Jasmine’s fallen by the boxing match playing on the TV of her new temporary home and we only know the humble conditions of her new bunkmates by the stoli martini she’s ordering another one of.  The way Allen makes us think about wealth by showing us how it looks against relative poverty is similar to, of all things, Small Time Crooks – which is getting slightly better with time – wherein the streetwise rabble turn their bank robbing front into an accidental springboard to untold wealth only to lose it again.  In both films, Allen’s noblesse oblige deigns that the poor get the last word on what has value in the grander scheme – in Small Time Crooks, Allen’s character rejects the loot he’s stumbled into in favor of the simple life of beer and cheeseburgers; in Blue Jasmine, sister Ginger’s brief grope toward upward mobility, by her standards, is dashed by a harsh reality that drives her back to her rough-necked but loyal boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). There’s a constant reshuffling of our allegiances between the haves and the have nots.  When Jasmine orders another stoli as a spite to Chili (and most of the people in the audience), we root for the man as he throws insults at her – but later, as we watch her make a slow but earnest effort to get her footing in her new, un-gilded world, we find a real sympathy for her.  It’s as if Allen enjoys giving us a berth to judge both, but to ultimately come down on the side we’d least expect – the one that doesn’t have an apartment on New York’s Upper East Side.
This is a story about a fable-in-progress that comes to a grinding, life-changing stop.  Like most people, Jasmine sees herself as the author of her own story, in complete control of the next sentence, the next chapter, until, abruptly, violently – she isn’t.  And just like her, we all sweep the less tidy truths of life under our own narrative rug, with a “habit for looking the other way” – but in her case, the swirling storm of criminal deception and marital infidelity was so obvious, any ignorance of it must have been willful, and it finally spills back out and destroys her.  As she flails toward her new life in San Francisco and proceeds to go about the business of recreating something from nothing, she depends on new personal facts spun from whole cloth, sometimes on the spot, and trusts only the new lies she tells to provide the platform for mounting her new push to the penthouse.  She’s in top form as she tells her potential new lover, Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a couple of whoppers to avoid him knowing the truth, and he falls for the elegant widow she wants him to see.  Following this coup of deception, she provides what is perhaps the key line of the entire movie, “It’s all better… I met someone.  I’m a new person.”

But it’s a testament to Allen’s attention to his entire canvas of characters that, while we’re wagging our finger at Jasmine, we get a fuller sense of Dwight’s shallow motives, too.  A man with an eye on a political future, it’s clear he’s willing to marry for less than love in order to present himself to the state of California as the perfect (married) candidate.  Later, when he happens upon the truth of her past, he seems less furious at the lie than at the fact that the lie means he has to fish for a new trophy wife. And Dwight’s not alone in his soft misogyny.  In fact, for the amount of criticism Allen might receive for creating a female character who completely crumbles at the mere loss of her man and his money, none of the men are blameless, either: Hal is a dead-eyed financial sociopath, Chili is prone to fits of property-damaging rage, Ginger’s ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) is her ex-husband because he beat her, Dwight is a hollow status seeker, Ginger’s potential new-and-improved boyfriend Al (Louis CK) is hurtfully deceptive, and Jasmine’s son Danny (Alden Ehrenreich), perhaps rightfully so, heartlessly crushes Jasmine with a final face-to-face rejection.  Many of these faults are left hovering upstage, sometimes only back story, but they create an implicit world of cruelty and selfishness that at once forces Jasmine’s edge toward total meltdown and justifies the film’s final bleak note – one that, despite the shambling comedy that fills out the edges of Jasmine’s tragedy, fits in perfectly with Allen’s own perennial worldview.  Boiling evenly the primary elements of his latest slew of movies – the tragic morality tales of Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, the broad and breezy characterizations of Scoop and Midnight in Paris, the “short story collection” vibe of Tall Dark Stranger and To Rome With Love, as well as a healthy dollop of 1990s, Judy Davis-brand hysteria in Husbands and Wives and Deconstructing Harry – Blue Jasmine is a familiar kind of fun for the fair-weather Woody Allen fan, but retains the familiar bite for his most foul-weather admirers.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

SUPER 8 (2011)

In Woody Allen's little, warm fairy tale of a movie, Midnight In Paris, Owen Wilson takes a trip back through time to visit his literary heroes, who give him notes on how to write his book.  For the blockbuster crowd, released only weeks later, there's also a big budget version.  It's called Super 8, in which J.J. Abrams takes a trip back through time to visit young Steven Spielberg, who gives him notes on how to make his movie.  Both films wallow in nostalgia for those things that influenced them.  Both films also rely on thin character signifiers to bridge us from the sources we know so well to their use in the new context.  Both take the surfaces of former icons (literary personalities and film images, respectively), reconstitute them for a new purpose, and shuffle them together into a new entertainment.  So if both films egregiously bastardize their sources, then mold their plots around cheapened and truncated versions of their former meanings, why is it that I finished Woody Allen's movie light and happy but I finished J.J. Abrams' movie angry unto silence?

Good question, so I did a little bit of soul searching.  And finally a little bit of admitting to myself that I'm simply not as knowledgeable of the warp and woof of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Stein as I am of the vast catalogue of unforgettable images supplied to my young imagination by Spielberg; so I had less room to be mad at Woody.  But deeper than that, it's clear watching Midnight In Paris that Allen has no desire to unpack the dark side of any of his heroes; it wouldn't serve his greater point to take those personalities more seriously.*  They are there to coax out a self-described "minor insight" in the context of a deliberately whimsical, airy fable.  But when Abrams re-uses Spielberg's icons, he has every intention to bring us to an emotional point similar to the original icon's power.  No, when I see in Super 8 the first shots that are clearly taken directly from the Spielberg songbook -- the bits in friend Charles's bustling kitchen, taken in overlapping activity and tone from the home life in Close Encounters -- I'm not shaken to anger.  I knew from the trailer that this was (as all the advertising was pleased to inform me) as much a Spielberg movie as an Abrams movie.  But by the end, the homages had stacked high, and the weight began to physically hurt.  A few of the many tributes --
  • the group of anonymous men in the dark searching with flashlight beams that wave and cross each other in the dust, like the beginning of E.T.
  • the camera pushing quietly over hilltop shrubs to view the expanse of a small suburb at night, also like E.T.
  • the power company truck rolling in wide shot under a densely starry night sky, like Close Encounters.
  • the beleaguered small town Cop-Dad trying to appease angry residents in a town meeting, like in Jaws.
  • the mass evacuation of an entire town, people practically trampling over one another, like in Close Encounters.
  • Cop-Dad smashing a military man over his head to steal his uniform, like in Raiders.
  • the small bit of Cop-Dad's dialogue delivered in silhouette that, because of the last Raiders moment, felt a lot like the "What truck?" moment in that movie.
  • the overturned vehicle crawled over by a large beast... and the business with a pane of glass above the children, like in Jurassic Park.
These plus many others meant, on average, a blatant visual rip-off per every ten minutes or so, a barrage that constitutes a kind of affront to anyone who grew up loving those movies, so arbitrarily were they fitted into the plot.  A shot or sequence you recognize and remember loving from a favorite movie, now tossed into a greatest hits salad such as this can only make you recall how much you liked the original movie better.  

But this list could have been absent entirely, and the effect of the final sequence would have still done the trick -- the Joe/Cop-Dad reunion hug in the final sequence, lit and framed to mirror E.T., complete with cutaway to the blonde female in his life (the girl here, the mom in E.T.), followed quickly by a finale that's a near shot-for-shot lift of ship taking off, friends looking up in awe, and dark-haired, wind-whipped, ambiguously resolved, young protagonist staring earnestly at the closing credits coming his way.  The rest of the list could, in comparison to this ultimate example, still be construed as individual moments of innocuous "sampling" inserted at moments of less than key import to the plot.  But to make the end of your movie virtually indistinguishable from its inspirational source, while also expecting the moment to rise to the same emotional pitch as that source, is to ask us to cry bittersweet tears over what, by the overt, shameless manner of its replication, has been rendered a virtual spoof of the moment.

Indeed, the affect of co-opting a movie moment as high-profile as the end of E.T., especially in the service of a movie that is uneven in so many other ways**, reminds me more than a bit of the affect of the attempted humor in deliberate movie spoofs like Scary Movie and Epic Movie, whose visual references have no life of their own outside of their basic ability to make the viewer recall their scenes' original use.  Abrams' movie is clearly much better than that brand of film, but the construction and intent are unsettlingly similar: follow a collection of undeveloped characters across a typical genre plot (in this case, the Spielberg genre), and hang obvious odes onto the construct along the way (in this case, father-son concerns, alien visitation, Hawksian masculinity/romance), each intended to wheedle an enjoyable shock of recognition and, Abrams seems to hope, borrowed depth.

Maybe outrage like mine is overblown.  It's crossed my mind.  It's just a movie.  It's just an homage.  And the movies he's riffing on are far from perfect themselves.  And the filmmaker he's riffing on made his career by quoting the great filmmakers that came before him, most notably David Lean, John Sturges, Howard Hawks, and John Ford.  I'm willing to concede that I've wasted an afternoon breaking down the obvious.  In any case, it will take me awhile before I can watch the end of E.T. (a movie I still very much enjoy) without feeling a jolt of lip-curling disgust over Super 8.  Just thinking out loud here, but an antecedent to this movie could be the Howard Hawks-produced movie The Thing from Another World (1951), the highly regarded science fiction film directed by Hawks's editor Christian Nyby; but for all practical purposes, visually, thematically, and character-wise, actually directed by Hawks.  As producer, Spielberg was surely involved in the creation of this movie as deeply as anecdotal evidence indicates Hawks was involved in The Thing.  So, at least for me, it begs the question, if Spielberg was the one suggesting these ransacked moments, or even if he wasn't, why would he allow them to be used in such a way as to diminish the originals' impact?  The answer can only be that he either has lost touch with his own emotional ownership of that iconography by virtue of time passed, or, in a manner that horrifyingly mirrors his buddy G. Lucas, he just doesn't care.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


Ray Harryhausen was my first hero. He goes as far back in my memory as no one besides family and, perhaps, Charles Schulz – my other childhood hero. Every birthday when I was a kid, I had a secret wish that my parents would arrange for Harryhausen to make a surprise visit. My mind would have been blown! Full disclosure: that wish never went away. He’s so deep inside my creative DNA. It may sound silly to most, who only see dumb, herky-jerky monsters with questionable rear-screen projection. For me, he connected me to my imagination in a way like NOBODY ELSE DID, and his art requires zero apology. I could watch certain scenes and entire movies all day today, and might just do that. Some favorites are the Allosaurus attack in “One Million Years B.C.”, the New York rampage of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, the Cyclops doing anything at all in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”, and the Talos sequence from “Jason and the Argonauts.” Each one a beautiful marriage of fantasy, adventure, dreamscape, and utter technical mastery.

Harryhausen killed MANY creatures on screen, even seemed to take a morbid joy in giving us the thrill of the kill shot – but more importantly, he NEVER let us get away from the scene before making us feel sorry for the loss. We were always forced to watch the creature take its last breath. That moment is in virtually all of his movies, from the Rhedosaurus succumbing in “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” to Medusa’s decapitation in “Clash of the Titans.” Our excitement at seeing the monster (in whatever form it took) get taken down is, in the hands of such a humane storyteller, replaced by pathos and a real feeling of guilt as we watch the last ebbs of life push their way out, and we are made complicit in the destruction of a living thing. In a strange way, through his hand-crafted, slow-motion art, Harryhausen taught me compassion.
I finally got to see Harryhausen in person, during one of his many sold-out presentations around Los Angeles. This was probably around 2000 or 2001. He was showing off a few of his models at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences in North Hollywood – a mere five blocks from my apartment at the time. I carried with me the first book I ever bought with my own money, when I was seven, a book called “From the Land Beyond Beyond”, an in-depth, film-by-film discussion of all of his movies up to “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger” – and a book that was by then so lovingly handled for so long, it was in four tattered pieces. After the presentation, I was determined to get him to sign that book. But when I saw this gentle, sweet old man engulfed by a swarm of fans, I thought to myself, “It’s enough that this book, Ray Harryhausen, and I are all in the same room together.” I’ll cherish that memory for as long as I live.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Whiffs of Malick.  Strains of Cronenberg.  Suggestions of Eternal Sunshine and Close Encounters and Wings of Desire.  The movie could almost be called a flip-book of film influences, if it weren’t that the pulse of the movie is the earnest, intelligent, ever-curious Shane Carruth, whose mathematic, probing scripts make everything he borrows his own.  But for a man as deliberate, level-headed and academically inclined as Carruth, Upstream Color is a strange miscalculation. 

I approached the movie positively, my sails still full of hale regard for Carruth’s first feature, Primer, which had me muttering to a friend, “I would sell all I own and follow this man as a disciple.”  Primer pulls the audience in, despite the movie’s sheer indifference to whether we understand the jargon of its lead characters, by providing us with a nifty procedural that we somehow know is leading to something remarkable – and it does.  There are themes in Primer that are imbedded in the situation, and implications branching out from the multiple-timeline structure, especially in the last fifteen minutes, that we’re delighted to draw out in post-viewing roundtables.  The themes are not, however, the meat of virtually every visual we’re fed, as they are in Upstream Color, wherein Carruth trades the fun, head-scratching, conversational mystery of Primer for seemingly deliberate opaqueness – a glut of images that are all symbol, to be decoded, many with almost zero narrative weight.

It is impressionist cinema, to be fair, and not designed to be dependent on dialogue or straightforward plot, rather on images strung together leaning toward meaning.  It’s sometimes successful.  The first ten-minute sequence, in fact, is an engaging exercise in making meaning out of the mostly-unrelated images and characters, until, finally, you behold the somber head of the plot emerging from the swollen river of information.  It’s an exhilarating challenge, to gather up the stray facts running past you, and cobble them together on the fly – before the next one comes along – and construct in your own mind what would, in a usual movie, be offered up on a plastic spoon.  But by the final minutes, the sheer volume of unexplained and half-explained and unsatisfyingly-explained and should-never-have-been-explained elements had piled up, LOST-like, and I couldn’t help thinking the images were as much the product of busy work, and nearly as disposable, as the paper chains crafted by the drugged victims in the story.

Chief among the less satisfying aspects of the film is the manner in which the purely symbolic becomes the hard-grounded fact of our characters’ lives.  That the so-called “Sampler” – whose deific pastime seems to be hanging around the emotionally destroyed among us and gathering up their pain for the purpose of making music to sell in the CD section – is first presented as a Wings Of Desire style entity who can be among people but not seen, until later, together with his porcine menagerie of transplanted souls, they become flesh and blood, killable, lovable.  Whatever meaning I may have missed in the shift from one to the other (I probably missed a lot, as did you) could not have made up for the fact that an hour and half of moodily fractured emotional invention and surprise pays off in the final shot of a woman cuddling a pig.  Cut to credits off of that, and I don’t know any other way to feel but had.

Upstream Color matches the off-the-cuff, loomingly-eerie and unabashedly egg-headed tone of Primer so closely that it effectively hammer-stakes his claim on the combination.  If the Mamet-light delivery of the dialogue, all truncated and revised trippingly in the moment, has you frustrated for its grating affectation, like it did me, then maybe embrace it, like I tried, as just a Carruth stamp – a tick of speech style that is as much his as Whit Stillman’s is his, or Wes Anderson’s is his.  If the salad shooter editing style, seemingly with little intent beyond the thrill of a fast-forward stumble through the ids of a desperate couple, has you wanting just a little bit more of a connection to these poor, broken souls, like it did me, then just sit back, because eventually, you can learn the visual language enough to fall into the rhythm of quasi-controlled mental-visual chaos and come out the other side, if not entertained, then at least with a general impression of having been through something meaningful.  And if you sense that everything I’m saying sounds like a back-handed compliment, then points for reading between the lines, because I am deeply and exactly disappointed by Upstream Color.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Hank Quinlan is a border town cop bloated by secrets swallowed.  Mike Vargas is a Mexican drug enforcement officer riding his career on the momentum of his perceived integrity.  A jazzily meandering tracking shot brings them together in the firelight of an official’s exploded car, and together they play out the universal allegory of good versus evil.

Welles lowers his story into the pulpy darkness of hypocrisy, murder, sex, drugs, desperation, and revenge, and never brings it back up for air.  It is a claustrophobic world, stinking with death, where the liveliest moments come from a pianola played by no one, where a smug, lurid chuckle barely masks the condescension of institutionalized corruption, where “intuition” is as good as justification, and where even the man for whom all the busy police work is set to avenge (the city elder expended in the opening scene) is himself a brazen philanderer estranged from his family.  But Welles does it all with his indelible style, upgrading a B-movie, as he even called it, into that which cannot be ignored for its visual power and its ever-resonating thematic punch. 

The melodrama is as corpulent and sweaty as Quinlan, so thoroughly shot through with dread and dirt, it renders even more disturbing the already blunt dialogue: “An hour ago [he] had this town in his pocket… Now you can strain him through a sieve;” “We don’t like it when innocent people are blown to jelly in our town.”  And running underneath, seething racism, all of it subtle.  Vargas’s newlywed wife, embarking toward an American motel while Vargas diverts back into Mexico to investigate the explosion: “I’m just going to an American motel for comfort… not for safety.”  Quinlan to Vargas: “You people are touchy.”  And Vargas’s own reverse racism, contained quietly in his observation that the idea of peace, in the form of a 1,400 mile border without a single machine gun in place, is “corny” to his American bride, as if American hubris is uncomfortable with the idea of going warless for so long.

But the film is also stilted up by the themes of duty and idealism.  Quinlan, as few scruples as Falstaff, but none of the fun, orders his world of planted evidence upon a simple and good philosophy: “When a murderer’s loose, I’m supposed to catch him.”  And this reasoned exchange with his partner:

MENZIES: You’re a killer.
QUINLAN: I’m a cop…  I don’t call [my job] dirty, look at the record.  All those convictions.
MENZIES: Convictions, sure.  How many did you frame?
QUINLAN: Nobody… nobody that wasn’t guilty.
MENZIES: …Faking evidence –
QUINLAN: Aiding justice, partner.

Evil there, but with good in the balance: the borderline self-righteousness of Vargas.  The slow show of Quinlan’s dark deeds often stirs Vargas into sanctimonious diatribes.  To Quinlan: “In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent…  A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.  That’s the whole point, Captain.  Who’s the boss, the cop or the law?”  And to Quinlan’s partner, laying it on thick: “What about all the people [Quinlan] put in the death house.  Save your tears for them.”  In fact, the greatest fault of the film is that it allows Vargas, the mouthpiece for glib, nickel-plated platitudes, to finally elude the moral griminess of the real world.  Though he is touched by evil (or rather, it is his wife who is groped by evil, and he is only threatened by the possibility of being forever associated with evil), he is never fully in its grasp, never made to suffer the crush of evil, the kind of evil that creates the Quinlans of the world.  He even makes his exit before Quinlan’s death plunge, falling into his wife’s exonerated arms, speeding away into marital bliss, so that he doesn’t have to personally bear witness to the final, bloody result of his revenge.

Rising above the grime, and giving the movie its ultimate grace, is the fun it has with being a movie, how Welles never lets us forget that he is loving telling this story:  The first image of the movie, fingers twisting a timer on a homemade bomb, feels akin to someone winding up a toy and watching it go.  Quinlan’s pitiful entrance, attempting to pull himself out of his police vehicle with all his tremendous girth holding him back, is a wonderful counter to Harry Lime’s magnetic, stylized hero’s entrance in The Third Man less than a decade before.  Marlene Dietrich’s small role – and enchanting eyes – provide the perhaps unwanted evidence of Quinlan’s former love life… and a great excuse to use chili as a euphemism for sex.  Uncle Joe Grandi, the comic embodiment of inept local power by birth, manifested as a self-important devil on Quinlan’s shoulder, allows for a scene illustrating Quinlan’s heavy, sweating denial of his own capacity for “making deals,” though that is exactly what he’s doing.  The five-and-a-half minute, one-shot scene in the heart of the movie (inside Sanchez’s one-room apartment) that tracks the emotional movement of characters as beautifully as the opening shot tracks physical movement.  The visceral swamp of images in the Grandi death scene.  And, despite Pauline Kael’s rebuke, the final Quinlan epitaph, remarked by Dietrich at the close of the film: “What does it matter what you say about people” - a negation of one of filmmaking's primary functions, even as the final images plant an urge to want to twist the timer on the clock once more.

There is no escaping the resonance of the film in a post-Iraq world.  A story of a dirty cop planting evidence in an assumed guilty party’s home and behaving with the cavalier assumption that the act is justified based on intuition of guilt is one that seems tailored to rouse an audience trying to live beyond the Administration that authored that war. An interesting, if easily unrecognized thing happens when viewing Touch of Evil today.  The somewhat tacked-on resolution of the Sanchez story (he who blew up the car but maintained his innocence throughout the film) is said to have finally confessed his guilt to Quinlan’s men.  This is presumably meant to layer the end with irony, that all of Quinlan’s hunches were correct, and that planting the evidence (and indeed his very death) was unnecessary.  But in a media environment saturated with debate on the legality and dependability of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a modern audience is left with an even murkier ending, one that calls to question if the confession drawn out of Sanchez under duress can be trusted to be true, or if he just said what was needed to be said to abate the fists.  It is wonderfully, terribly fascinating to consider that, even as often as art influences society, it is also true that society can forever alter the meaning of art.  And in this case, the mystery of meaning can make Touch of Evil, to use Welles’s own words, “just exactly a thousand percent more effective.”

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s movie is that it so successfully dresses up its ninth grade premise with spit and shine, you finish up feeling actually entertained.  The basic mind-invasion conceit is one that sounds at its root like it was cooked up in the back row of computer science class by a bright 15 year old, and it's so proudly offered on a silver platter of fine, earnest imagery and energy, you can't help but admire its precocious verve. But the movie takes a cue from its own idea-planting premise and knocks you unconscious with its relentless, always-at-the-climax music and absorbingly-shuffled time-space just long enough to make you think a nice little Möbius bow has been tied around your mind while you were out, even though it hasn't.  By the time you come to, sometime toward the end of the closing credits, the movie's as vacant as your now-emptied popcorn bowl.  

The film is blocky, heavy, emotionally inert even in its most emotional moments, visually homogenous - AKA boring (though the van takes the Nestea plunge in an agreeably Peckinpah-ish way, it still only acts as a series of cool but gimmicky stakes along the faux opaque journey), and its music pummels you into exhausted submission. You're constantly rattled and you think this Rube Goldberg spectacle will surely fall over at any moment - but to its credit, it never quite does. Like the beer-gutted raconteur on a spindly barstool, it spouts its braggadocio across the head of its tenth Budweiser, but never passes out. Then, the film is not so much full of ideas as full of rules for one idea (see Chesterton). And each newly-coined rule justifies itself in the very next scene, giving the repeated feeling of a man laying concrete to take his next step. It's hard to tell if Nolan is the genuine wunderkind whose idea is gilded with enough fresh surprises to keep us beguiled (and it does, to a point), or if he’s the old cynic who just wants to test how long he can keep us distracted by shiny, spinning objects.

If the legitimacy of the movie were to be found in the furrowed, ever-earnest brow crease of Leonardo DiCaprio, then it is legitimate in spades.  His forehead, the score, the editing, all work in overdrive to make you take it all seriously.  I kept wishing for something a little more leavened with - though it's a stretch for this filmmaker - a Tati-like amusement with the fact of the multiple, explorable strata of mind-time - or maybe just a hint of self-awareness that its overblown seriousness renders it a kind of sci-fi Sirk, if only it could trade even a few of its bombastic moments of import for a beat or two of actual, non-portentous fun.  But the exuding slick, silver-black ambiance matches the paneling inside Nolan's desperate need to be received as an important filmmaker, an open-faced plea that was like a metal rod down the back of his entire Batman series, with their veneer of political importance and social relevance that near-audibly screams "tag me meaningful!"  My only sin, and this movie rebukes me over and over for it, is that I didn’t love it as much as Christopher Nolan did.

Outside of the other obvious filmic antecedents like Eternal Sunshine and The Matrix, I keep thinking of the great little time travel movie Primer, another story that asks you to accept the truly impossible after only giving you the simplest of tools to make that impossibility happen  (also just a box, for goodness sake). But whereas Primer cast the audience as eavesdroppers on the kinetic mind-play of a specific kind of science, with its exposition wrapped in dense but off-handedly spoken jargon leading to a premise you believe because you trust that the characters, down to the man, know what they’re talking about, in Nolan's movie you have rules thuddingly catechismed in by necessity of what has to happen/can't happen next in the plot.  The continual dogpile of rules for the idea to work makes it ultimately cumbersome, like when kids gather in the street for a game and make up their own rules as they go along.  You never begrudge them their fun, and it’s sweet to watch such elemental creativity on display in ones so young, but eventually you want to stop watching and go back inside to finish Shutter Island.

Friday, January 25, 2013


Mike Leigh’s film is nominally a reflection on the ways in which we cultivate the relationships around us, but more so it’s a dissection of the prickly dynamic between the emotionally strong and weak.  Fortunately the film overcomes the prosaic symbolism of a garden, managed over the span of a year, by burrowing into the disparity between those who wish to give others help and those who clearly cannot be helped until they first help themselves.  It’s a set up of character conflict that promises drama, but Leigh doesn’t seem as interested in anything as fabricated as drama, in the sense of any “movie” drama we’re trained to expect.  Instead, the four pieces of his story – each corresponding to a season of the year – demonstrate the filmmaker’s gift for recording simple life moments, some triumphant, some humiliating, all of it true and awkward and real.

The movie asks us inside with the ease and hospitality of its two central characters, content, aging couple Tom and Gerri – yes, they acknowledge how funny their names are.  In fact, the casual way they wave off a guest’s comment on their names – names we know could have been anything the writer chose them to be – is only one example of the lengths Leigh will go to establish a credible atmosphere and tone.  Tom (Jim Broadbent) is an industrial geologist who “digs holes” and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a psychiatric counselor who helps people out of theirs.  But mostly they’re the quietly blissful, unassuming curators of a growing menagerie of stray people.  Most prominent is Mary (Lesley Manville), one of Gerri’s co-workers at the clinic, a mid-50’s woman of such all-engulfing neediness that the steady revelation of her myriad failures – with love, with money, with everything – becomes, in time, a black joke, especially in constant contrast with the piston-true calibration of her emotional benefactors.

While Tom and Gerri’s patience and care frame the story, it’s Mary’s emotional unraveling that drives it.  Mary spins in a predictable cycle of denial and despair, but the shock of how short the frequency is from one to the other spikes her performance with just the right amount of manic urgency.  Because the despair follows so hard upon the denial, we’re never fully convinced that either is self-inflicted.  Her romantic desperation, manifested in a bureau’s worth of age-inappropriate attire, is aligned with anyone in the audience who’s ever feared the loss of their youth or the dimming of their allure.  She is guilty only insofar as any of us are guilty of holding on too long to the idea of our own singularity in a world of pretenders.  Manville gives a hair-flipping girlishness to the character, enough that she is blithely separated from any responsibility for what comes to crush her, but Leigh’s intimate camera is in such constant communion with the lines in her face that we can never fully forgive her the innocent act.  It’s a delicate formula, and Manville’s talent keeps it uncomfortably true – that is, tragic.

Leigh’s fascination with Mary’s dive-bombing psyche keeps it turning in all directions.  Even as she sadly pines, in terribly mis-guided fashion, for Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old, single son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), she rebuffs the earnest, albeit drunken, advances of Tom’s equally desperate friend, Ken (Peter Wight) – for being unattractive, giving Mary’s sexual attraction to Joe, the son, an even deeper shade of Pitiful.  Of course, Joe all but leads Mary on in her gambit for his attention by playing along with her double entendres and letting her continue to compliment his physique and good looks.  We can infer that his odd deference to her flirting, surely not actual reciprocation, is a learned response from watching his parents, who he’s seen give Mary a wine vat’s worth of behavioral latitude since he was ten years old.  If his attitude toward her, though, is deferential, it metastasizes into thick condescension only after he finds an age-correct girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez).  It’s as if through the prism of something “real”, he can more clearly see Mary for the boozy cougar she is, and the sad lout his parents always knew she was. 

It’s in these moments of truth for Joe that we also begin to see Tom and Gerri in another light.  The quasi-enabling allowance given to her slow, confessional, profane drunkenness in an earlier scene, accompanied by a hug given by Mary (earnestly) to Gerri (awkwardly received), gives way toward the end of the movie to their subtle, head-cocked disappointment and condescension in the final scenes.  One is left to deduce – though it is subtle enough that it might simply be an impression, with none of Leigh’s intention to name it – Tom and Gerri might keep Mary around not to be her healing angels, but as part of their own need to be seen as the perfect model.  Like a perfectly kept garden is as much decoration as it is source of replenishment, this gaggle of scruffy need-niks might be all they need to keep their superiority intact.

Leigh is not afraid to make the audience work – and this is refreshing.  We’re brought into many situations that linger for minutes before we’re enlightened to key information.  In the “winter” segment, Tom brings Gerri and Joe to his rustic hometown for his sister-in-law’s funeral.  They find his brother Ronnie (David Bradley) in a state of walking catatonia, barely grunting between drags on his cigarette and beer.  But was he this way before the death, or is this his response to it?  It’s up to us to decide.  Left to wonder, it seems clear that he became this way over years spent with an unpleasant woman.  Ronnie stands recoiled, gaunt, and near-mute, as a foil for the hyper-conversational Mary, so that, if this were a typical movie, it would be as inevitable they’d be together as it was inevitable she’d be with Ken, for all the par-for-the-course misery she and Ken would no doubt bring each other.  But nothing plays out as we expect.  From the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to people who sometimes come out of nowhere with their sorrows fully formed, and who we never see again, with no resolution.  The movie pretends for its first ten minutes to be about Janet (Imelda Staunton), a darkly depressed patient of Gerri’s who just wants a good night’s sleep to blot out the horrors of her home life.  Then, just as soon as she is wholly rendered and our hopes are fully pinned to her recovery, she’s gone forever.  After half an hour, the audience gives her up.  But Leigh’s lesson has been learned: just like life, don’t expect resolution here.

This is a movie that has the power to refute a year’s worth of explosions, bombast, gunplay, melodrama, psychic breakdown, pat history, and filmmaking gimmicks with a final encapsulating moment of irreducible melancholia.  Like earlier moments, wherein Mary (and us) are left to feel like we’re on the outside of an inside joke, Leigh has, in this ultimate moment, created an empty sigh of pure loneliness.  In such purity, there is perfection, and it is Leigh’s adeptness with that last dread feeling that can leave the viewer feeling at once weighed down by his lesson on life and uplifted by the power of his art.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


This essay is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon 2015 - which is an effort to restore, score, and stream Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel silent comedy. Click the GORT "donate" button to the right to contribute to this worthy cause. This year's blogathon is science-fiction themed, and I thought, what's more science-fiction than the mind of a crazy despot. Read on to see what I mean...

I realize I’m in a quiet minority, but I’m bound by a DNA-imprinted love for quaint and questionable fare to always say yes to watching a man stomp around in a rubber monster suit.  It’s a weakness that’s never left me.  You can still catch me watching Godzilla vs Megalon or Gorgo or The Land That Time Forgot, but you won’t see me laughing derisively – you’ll see me smiling warmly at the memory of childhood belief.  In the case of 1985’s despot-bankrolled Pulgasari, which I’ve just seen for the first time, I’m a sucker not only for the direct, electric connection to my pre-teen taste for the destruction of miniature sets, but for the way this particular specimen subverts the expectation of three-gong cheese with ever-so-brief flashes of weighty political ornamentation, pop mythology of the North Korean kind, and moments of legitimate cinematic flare.  It’s just the kind of thing that hits me right in the nexus of personal nostalgia and fascination with political history – it’s dyed-red communist propaganda in the guise of one of the most magnificent giant monster movies I’ve seen. 

Pulgasari is not on par, especially at first glance, with the somber greatness of the original, pre-Burr Godzilla (1954), but fall into the broad, theatrical rhythm of the movie and you might see how its dark, surprisingly rich connection to the plight of humans under political duress builds up a poignancy that, like Godzilla, transcends the wanting quality of the special effects.  In this case, the movie’s not as much a chilling allegorical frame placed around the radioactive grief of a country’s recent tragedy as much as it’s a prescient and anguished, even operatic, cry of a people whose grief was yet to be wholly manifest.  Pulgasari was green-lit, you see, by the most unlikely of movie moguls, “Dear Leader” himself, Kim Jong-Il, when he was just a 40-something upstart heir apparent, working out his jealous fascination with the teeming culture beyond his borders via a slate of films he sanctioned during the 70s and 80s, some of them – like Pulgasari – directed by a filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok, allegedly kidnapped from out of South Korea and into forced creative labor.  None of the films saw the light of day but this one, and you have to wonder if it was a point of pride or embarrassment down at the palace, given the movie’s premise:

In feudal, sword-wielding Korea, a tiny doll made of rice and earth, crafted by a dying old peasant, lolls to life under the single drop of his daughter’s pure blood, consumes all the raw steel in sight until it’s the size of the UN, and becomes the lumbering, horned and armored confidence of the people as they throw off the yoke of their evil, oppressive leaders. 

At first I was confused that a movie okayed by an oppressive regime would feature as its core drama an uprising of peasants… against an oppressive regime – was this an exercise in megalomaniacal denial?  A blind, unself-aware hubris?  Until I learned that Kim Jong-Il declared any story set prior to North Korea’s embracing of communism should be represented as chaotic and corrupt.  This leaves room for the lower class underdogs to be portrayed as innocent and true, and their government (representing pre-communist Japanese occupiers) to be shot through with cataclysmic arrogance and knee-jerk belligerence, not to mention comical incompetence as idea after idea presented to destroy Pulgasari fails miserably.  By the time the governors, kings, and generals have seized the holy farmers’ tools of replenishment and turned them into weapons of destruction, it’s time for a hero to rise.  Enter man in rubber suit, as symbolic of the unity of the collective as it is, by the end of the movie, a symbol of the ease with which over-consumption of goods (in this case, an infinite buffet of the world’s steel) can drag industry into lethargy.  When the movie’s “twist” arrives, and the righteous engine of vengeance becomes an inert layabout demanding more and more of what the peasants no longer have, the message is clear: we need communism, because communism will save the world from itself!

Despite the high-profile politico pulling the strings, the movie carries the pock marks of a woefully anemic budget, suffering as it does from high-school-stage production design, an overdependence on creaky, just-line-‘em-up character blocking, outdated – even for then – rear screen, poorly translated subtitles, gilded-cardboard acting, and enough continuity errors to feed a village, yet it still sports a quiver of filmic allusions that could lend an air of possibly accidental street cred amongst the legit kaiju crowd: intended or not, there are reflections of everything from Godzilla, to Harryhausen (the monster’s ominous growth spurts mirror the Ymir of 20 Million Miles To Earth; the beast turns to stone and breaks apart in a nearly shot-for-shot copy of the Kraken in Clash of the Titans [1981]), to Kurosawa’s always urgent samurai pictures, to the burning sacrifice of The Wicker Man (1973; the emotion wrung from simply dropping out the music while Pulgasari is “burning to death” inside a raging inferno speaks to the nuance and talent of its captive director), to Dino De Laurentiis’ overgrown animal diptych King Kong/The White Buffalo, and beyond.  Nothing at any given moment of the film could ever lead to the assumption of its greatness, but the steady rollout of these quotes, along with dollops of graphically charged and striking imagery (a woman is crushed by the wheel of a cart; an old woman is beaten and tortured with sticks in front of a small child; the fire-reddened monster, smoke ebbing away from him, positively engorged by steel and fire and looming righteously over the king’s scattering squad of cowards like a giant Satan and then boiling them alive in the sea), and all of it wrapped in a cloak of warbling, synthesized 80s Asian music that gives the monster a sort of embraceable, kitschy pathos, allows the movie to continually rise above its construction paper flimsiness.  There’s even a believable sense of scale, relative to most of the picture, during the battle scenes between the peasants and the king’s men, complete with chaotic group-on-group swordplay and exploding hillsides.  Several money shots adorn the proceedings, most of them successful for the sheer number of people in the frame – crowds that are, one must haltingly assume, composed of actual unpaid and starving peasants.

The final note of the film, the devolution of the redeemer into a fatigued, lounging god, is one of satire, nudging it close to, but not quite inside, the world of Dai Nipponjin (“Big Man Japan”, 2007), with its tired, lonely giant killer and its slow-motion critique of capitalist excess.  It stands, also, in a long line of stories that feature young and/or innocent protagonists thought-bonded to a large, sentient creature, including: virtually every Godzilla movie after the original; the tv series Gigantor and The Space Giants; The Iron Giant; and the Transformers tv and film series.  I’m fascinated by the perpetuation of this device – the befriending of a killer monster or machine and the turning of that friendship toward the rescue of the world.  It’s a silly idea from the mind of a small boy, and it’s that lack of guile in the center of the idea that keeps me always looking forward to its next incarnation. 

I’m realistic about Pulgasari not appealing to more than a scant few.  It’s a niche movie within a niche sub-genre, easily mocked because of the easily mockable man who demanded it be made, and easily relegated to the failure column for its surface “badness” – or at the least, consigned to the “so bad it’s good” column.  But it’s more than that.  The stirring mythology at the heart of it, married to the wobbly but earnest and sometimes near-operatic performances, and carried along by a nascent (but eventually recognizable) awareness of cinema and its place in it, makes it, for me, a nugget of irresistible gold.