30 September 2011

RIGHT ON THE MONEY

In 2002, the Oakland Athletics did not win the World Series. You might think that this is a sufficiently common event that it wouldn't be worth making a movie about it, but then there's Moneyball, which is happy to prove you wrong. You see, the A's didn't just fail to win the World Series - or make it very close to the World Series in the first place - they did so in a most unique and spectacular fashion, unsettling all of the given rules about how to accrue baseball players to a team, using the close analysis of statistics that have not, typically, been regarded as very interesting or significant. For baseball, as we know, is the most stats-heavy sport in America, and I should imagine in the whole wide world, and there's probably not a single element of a player's style that isn't quantified in some way by a decimal with three numbers after it.

Now, Moneyball is at heart a process story - I've not read Michael Lewis's book upon which the film is based, but certainly the career of Aaron Sorkin, one of two credited screenwriters (with Steven Zaillian; Stan Chervin, whoever he is, adapted the story), is rife with process stories, and is indeed full of nothing but process stories, if you want to look at it a certain way. And whether the process involved is television producing, website building, or military jurisprudence, they have a way of being about the personal conflicts involved rather than the actual subject matter. So just because Moneyball is nominally concerned with one of the most ungodly dense and alienating topics in life (apologies to the baseball stat nuts out there, but Christ, you even make us Oscar nerds look like dilettantes), it's not a movie that assumes the viewer really gives a shit about on-base percentages and so on, requiring only a working knowledge of how baseball functions - if you know the difference between a "walk" and a "hit", you're 90% of the way there - and spends the rest of the time looking with awe and admiration at the individuals involved in getting the A's from a reconstructing team without its three stars to a tie for the most wins of the season (and I don't want to give Sorkin too much credit for shaping a narrative with so many fingers in it, but this much at least is true: it's alarmingly, even distractingly easy to tell which parts were written by Sorkin and which by Zaillian).

In the film's eyes, this is primarily the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), Oakland's general manager and decent everyday fella with a little hint of a family problem (he has an ex-wife and a rather too-sweet daughter), who realises that The Way Things Are isn't working out well for a baseball team too damn poor to afford any decent players, with those bullies the New York Yankees throwing around cash like drunk frat boys (the movie does an outstanding job of tricking us into liking the A's from before its first shot: it opens with a title card comparing the total dollar amount spent by the Yankees and the Athletics, and from that second, every viewer who fucking hates the Yankees - which is to say, every viewer who doesn't live in New York and some of those who do - has instantly been connived into rooting for the Little Team That Could). Billy finds an ally in the form of composite character Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a 26-year-old with an econ degree who has figured out a system of getting the most wins per dollar spent on players using an entirely different set of criteria than baseball talent scouts have been using since time immemorial. This particularly appeals to Billy, on account of his *wavy lines* Tormented History, in which those awful scouts managed to convince him that he was fated to be an all-time great player, and when it didn't pan out, wrote him off as just one of those missteps that happens every season*wavy lines*. Of course, this kind of unorthodox thinking is opposed by the forces of tradition, as represented by pretty much everybody else in film, but especially team manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Billy and Peter become, not just baseball executives, but messiahs of a new way of thinking.

It pretty much writes itself, though if this were a work of fiction, Oakland would have won the Series, or at least made it more than one round into the playoffs. But no matter: as Sorkin and Zaillian and Chervin handle it, this is very much a movie about Billy coming to terms with his demons, and proving that his whole life hasn't been one long fuck-up. Win or lose, baseball is the yardstick by which Billy's personality is measured, but little more: even the absolutely crackerjack scenes of him prattling along with other GMs, trading baseball players like they were baseball cards, is ultimately more about his drive than they are about assembling a baseball team, even as they are very much the most entertaining inside bas scenes about the arcana of the subject matter in the film.

The movie relies on Pitt, in other words, to a potentially ruinous degree, but the actor-producer brings his A-game; I'm too fond of what he did in Inglourious Basterds, The Assassination of Jesse James... and especially Burn After Reading to come anywhere near the "his best performance in years!" train that so many folks seem to be riding, but it's damn good work, and one of the most fascinating star turns of the year: while at all points we are aware that we're watching Brad Pitt, and that the reason we like Billy Beane so much and don't mind that the movie is playing with a stacked deck to make sure that he seems as much like a saint and martyr as possible is because Brad Pitt is playing him, there's never really a moment at which the actor relies on being Brad Pitt, as he did even in some of his very best performances. It's not invisible, he doesnt' "disappear" into Billy Beane, he just... stops being Brad Pitt, I guess.

Everything around him is achingly simple: Bennett Miller, making his sophomore feature six years after Capote, has not significantly changed his aesthetic since that movie: he's still refusing to adopt a personal style and stay out of the way of the script and performances, which only really hurts the movie in a swollen running time that sags here and there, but not as badly as it could have. Wally Pfister makes a rare trip outside of Christopher Nolan's neighborhood to make something that's handsome without being pretty or indulgently romantic (the latter sin being terribly common in baseball pictures), and that's about as far as craft goes.

It's a simple film, basically - a nice crowd-pleaser that the adults out there get to enjoy without feeling pandered to, but not nearly smart enough to be that ever elusive Film For Adults. It's this year's The Blind Side without the dubious sociology; it wants to make you feel nice, and it largely does so, without saying anything much about humanity, the world, and especially not the sport of baseball, but that topic, I fear, is for a different kind of geek than I to attack.

7/10

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: EUROPEAN VACATION (1985)

In the sequel-mad '80s (every bit as bad as we have it today, hard as that may be to believe), it was surely not a surprise that something as successful as Vacation would generate a quick follow-up, and indeed it took but two years for European Vacation to come out. Now what do we know about quick sequels? Right! That they usually suck. And so it was with European Vacation, which did a fair enough business but met with nothing like the acclaim of its predecessor, and managed to put the National Lampoon brand name back in mothballs, just two years after Vacation had resurrected it. So it goes.

We are here to talk about the film in the context of screenwriter John Hughes, who had in the two-year interim become something of a big deal as a director with Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, a pair of critically-acclaimed movies that set him up as a Filmmaker To Watch, even if only the second of them really lit the box office on fire. By the time that European Vacation went into production, of course, Hughes had no reputation as the creator of iconic teen films, and one imagines that he could have assumed during the writing stage that if, God forbid, Sixteen Candles did miserably, he'd never have another chance to direct. Thus, a job like European Vacation must not have struck him as ugly hackwork; it was a way of making sure he continued to have enough money to eat. It's only with the benefit of hindsight that we can look as his composite filmography and note that it stands out as the single weirdly out of place element in a span of distinctively "John Hughes" films that otherwise stretches, uninterrupted, from 1984 until at least 1990.

But at any rate, hackwork it is, and not terribly inspired hackwork. Hughes wrote the story, and co-wrote the screenplay with Robert Klane; so even though it's a collaboration, there's no protecting Hughes from the worst of it, as there was in the case of Nate and Hayes. Because the film's problems do indeed begin with the story, which seeks in the most arbitrary way possible to send the Griswald family - renamed, oddly, from Griswold in the original - on an all-expenses paid vacation to England, France, Germany, and Italy, after having won the grand prize on a game show called Pig in a Poke. We get our first look at how different the new film's idea of "comedy" shall be when we see this game in action: it's a Family Feud knock-off (replete with a physically affectionate host played by John Astin, though his name is a parody of Wink Martindale), in which for some reason the contestants are dressed in full-body pig costumes. I think, in light of the film's subsequent twitting of Ugly Americanism, this show is supposed to mock American consumer culture or something along those lines, and if that is the case, it fails.

Anyway, the bulk of the film finds Clark (Chevy Chase) and Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) and their kids Audrey (Dana Hill, in for Dana Barron) and Rusty (Jason Lively, replacing Anthony Michael Hall, who at the grand old age of 16 was apparently bright enough to realise that his career was heading in better directions than an uninspired Vacation sequel; for it was his refusal to come back that led to the franchise running gag of having new actors play the kids every time) being completely, flailing idiots in every place they go and at everything they do.It's a classic, even quintessential example of one of the primary faults that afflicts so many comedy sequels: do the same stuff as before, only do it BIGGER. For in Vacation, the Griswolds were basically just a normal American family, with the haplessness cranked up a bit: the situations were exaggerated but not impossible, and Clark in particular was enough of a real human being, albeit drawn in thick, caricatured lines, that his descent into madness over the course of the film made sense. The comedy was drawn up from the situation in what was, given the film's broadness, a realistic and sensible way.

European Vacation, in contrast, has the Griswalds knock Stonehenge over (I like to imagine that the otherwise inexplicable change to the second vowel of the family's name was Hughes's subtle way of protecting the original family, for whom he obviously had a great deal more affection and respect: see, they're not the same people! Of course, I'm sure that's not actually the case, but one can dream). They do much else besides knock Stonehenge over; they get involved in a criminal conspiracy in Rome and other hijinks - for "hijinks" is the only word that can properly describe the grimly programmatic wackiness of European Vacation.* But knocking Stonehenge over is a good example of what I'm talking about: the new film's rotund sense of slapstick is a damn clown show next to the character-derived physical humor of the first movie: awkward and unamusing and ridiculous in the bad way, and that's true of the "little" moments as well as the bigger ones.

Compared to that terrible development, the film's other primary comic sin is just an annoyance: its horribly unimaginative embrace of national stereotypes - the overly polite Brit (culminating in Eric Idle's mortifying cameo as a cyclist who apologises for letting the Griswalds run him down in their car), the superficially nice but intensely haughty Frenchman, the seductive but sleazy Italian (the Germans get away scot-free, if you consider the massive Lederhosen-clad dance-off in the town square "scot-free"). This kind of humor can be done well, but not in a movie so otherwise devoid of creativity as European Vacation.

The whole ghastly affair was overseen by Amy Heckerling, who was certainly a step down from Harold Ramis in the comedy mastermind department, but even so, she was absolutely capable of more than this: only three years earlier, she'd overseen the instant-classic <I>Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a bawdy comedy with all the personality that European Vacation pointedly lacks. It's also the film that jump-started the '80s teen movie wave that Hughes would turn into his personal empire by the decade's end; it's a damn pity that their single collaboration should thus be a joyless farce cashing in on the reputation of a far better movie. But you know, the '80s. Better filmmakers than Hughes and Heckerling gave into the siren call of money in those days, and worse films than the utterly inconsequential European Vacation were often the result of it.

28 September 2011

DOGGONE REMAKES

There's nothing that's not lazy about the statement "they didn't need to remake X", because the fact of the matter is that they did (or maybe they didn't but then you're just being weird to complain about it), and you can either whine or deal with the thing that now exists. Still and all, they really, absolutely didn't need to remake the 1971 Straw Dogs: 40 years later, cinephile culture is still trying to figure that one out, and it's fair to say that, whereas many films that get remade are famous, Straw Dogs is notorious, and the nature of that notoriety makes it vanishingly unlikely that either the people who love or the people who hate the original would possibly give a damn.

Nevertheless, Rod Lurie has taken it upon himself to write and direct a brand new Straw Dogs for the modern day, replacing Dustin Hoffman with James Marsden, Susan George with Kate Bosworth, and a cozily old-fashioned corner of England with a milquetoast liberal's nightmare version of Mississippi, with rednecks that differ from those in such manifest classics as Two Thousand Maniacs! only insofar as they aren't actual Confederates. The basic plot is much the same: newlyweds David and Amy Sumner return to her childhood home, not entirely to her pleasure. When they arrive, the generally icky behavior of the locals, particularly Amy's ex-boyfriend Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), who is helping to repair the Sumners' house, starts to put a strain on both members of the marriage, and on their relationship itself; she accuses him of being mewling and ineffectual, because he basically is, and when he tries to prove his manliness by accompany Charlie and some other good ol' boys on a hunting trip, they ditch him in the middle of the woods so that Charlie can sneak back to the Sumner home to rape her. Some days later, for unrelated reasons - in fact, Amy has not even told David of the rape - the couple is besieged by Charlie and his pack, and David proves his masculinity in the most aggressive way possible.

The original film had its controversies - Pauline Kael called it fascist, though she tended to do that a lot - but some of that has calmed down a bit over the decades, and I think most of us can agree that it is a lot more ambivalent about male privilege than the most reductive reading suggests (David is worthless when he is weak and equivocating and draft-dodging; David is a Strong Man when he goes cavemen on the man who raped his woman). Certainly, anybody who thinks that the whirlwind of death and violence that ends the film meets with Peckinpah's unmixed approval is not interested in watching the movie at all. My own take is that the film is essentially defeatist and nihilistic: not taking action and being a pussy girly-man is bad, but being rough and physical is even worse, and basically the whole universe is just all kinds of evil regardless of what you do or don't do.

Naturally, the remake eschews all of that: first by making David's initial flopsiness infinitely less severe (he's now a screenwriter in the country for a while to do away with distractions, not a Vietnam-dodging math professor), so that Amy's turning on him - which happens later - seems much less reasonable. Then, and this is the important part, rather than observing his end-of-film rampage with clinical disgust, Lurie celebrates it, as though this was any run-of-the-mill action sequence against any run-of-the-mill home invaders. Which, in this film, with its wholly unchallenging hero vs. rednecks mentality, it is.

(The other big point of comparison is, of course, the rape scene: easily the most contentious part of the original, given the troubling indication that Amy is, at least somewhat, enjoying herself. I just know you'll be shocked that it's not remotely that way in the remake).

Of course, being infinitely weaker than Straw Dogs '71 isn't really a referendum on Straw Dogs '11; like I said, it exists, and it's best to deal with what exists. But there's not all that much there to exist. Other than its wildly over-the-top treatment of native Mississippians as a pack of thuggish tribalists - James Woods's bug-eyed turn as the insane football coach is a particular treasure - the film doesn't seem to have any ideas but to tread water until the big action scene at the end, and hope that Marsden's incredibly vanilla take on a character who didn't have a whole lot of complexity to him in the first place will be sufficiently compelling to the viewer that the film's tentative stabs at raising tension will work. It comes closer than I've made it sound, mostly because Skarsgård was a damnably lucky bit of casting, and he manages to exude enough oily meanness through his model-like good looks that the character seems genuinely dangerous, even if Marsden and Bosworth aren't so entirely interesting, likable, or believable as human beings that we're terribly invested in whatever happens to them.

Closer, but it still fails: because the Sumners aren't interesting, likable, or believable, two of which adjectives applied to their Peckinpavian counterparts. Besides, while the new film's transition to the South is carried off with generally thorough results - the football material is a nice touch - Lurie's adaptation leaves one howlingly big question: in 1971, Hoffman and George were stuck in that horribly rapey England town because they could not go anywhere else: Marsden and Bosworth are in Blackwater, MS to rebuild her familial home and so he can write in peace, and there is no suggestion that they plan to stay there for keeps. When the 1971 couple was being menaced by hateful locals, there was a sense of dead-end desperation underpinning it: but Marsden and Bosworth, at the first sign of trouble, could easily zip right back to Los Angeles. Once you've let that into your head, any possibility that the new Straw Dogs could really work flies out the window: unsympathetic characters are hard enough to take, but sheer goddamn idiots, now that's just bad filmmaking.

4/10

27 September 2011

I SUPPOSE IF YOU SQUINT REALLY HARD, THERE MIGHT BE SOMETHING RESEMBLING AN "ABDUCTION" IN THERE SOMEWHERE...

I would like to take credit for calling Abduction, the first feature headlined by soul-crushingly generic teenage hunk Taylor Lautner, by the alternate title Abs-duction. Sadly, I cannot, for it isn't mine, but was given me by a friend who is welcome to claim it in comments. I have shared it with you not because it is especially cunning or original - on the contrary, it's the kind of joke that feels like it was just lying around for whoever wanted to grab it - but because it sums up in one snitty pun the sole reason that the film exists or that anybody would joyfully go to see it, which is that Lautner has muscles so tight and well-formed that you could use his stomach to grate cheese, and it is apparently in his contracts that he cannot spend more than 67% of any film wearing a shirt.

And to the significant plurality of my readership made up of 14-year-old girls, that is surely reason enough, and please don't let me dissuade you. For the rest of us, a nice tight action/thriller plot might have helped, and the truly galling thing about Abduction is that it appears, for a good while, to give us just that: a perfectly fine, superficially enjoyable genre picture. That's before everything goes to hell, as of course it was going to do: probably because the light reflecting off Lautner's abs got in the line producer's eyes.

Lautner plays Nathan Harper, a tough kid from the affluent upper-middle class side of the tracks in Pittsburgh, where he gets roaring drunk and is in all ways surly and louche, because film executives have figured out that nice teenage girls with disposable incomes enjoy bad boys & anyway well-behaved young men don't take off their shirts so very often. And yet Nathan also expresses a certain kind of begrudging adolescent fondness towards his parents (Maria Bello and Jason Isaacs), because actual rebellion isn't the in thing right now, and we want to be assured that the bad boy with the ripped abs is also an unthreatening sweetheart that we can take home to Mother.

For what I am certain is not the half-hour that it feels like, we get to follow Nathan as he enjoys his comfy, happy life, with his good friends and the supercute girl across the street, Karen (Lily Collins) who is dating the school douchebag and totally wants to hook up with Taylor Nathan, squee! And then, after being assigned to work together on a damnably vague school assignment (it appears to be something along the lines of "ten pages on an aspect of society"), they accidentally stumble across what looks for all the world like Nathan's baby picture on a website for lost children. Rather than trusting his parents - or are they? - Nathan contacts the website to see what the hell, and this kicks off a terrible shitstorm that results in his not-biologically-parents-but-we-love-you ending up dead in a particularly cold, efficient assassination, with Nathan and Karen running this way and that along the eastern seaboard with nothing but a few cryptic clues from his psychiatrist, Dr. Bennett (Sigourney Weaver, who, bless her heart, gives an actual performance), a secret CIA plant, much as his fake parents were, and also much as his actual parents were, and it's because of his heritage that Nathan is now being chased by the transparently dirty CIA operative Burton (Alfred Molina, who, bless his heart, isn't trying in the slightest to give a performance) and notorious Russian bad guy Viktor Kozlow (Michael Nyqvist who, bless his heart, is Swedish and sounds it).

There's a brief window in between the Harpers' deaths - the best part of the film, particularly the shockingly casual way Bello's character is gunned down - and the inevitable exposition dump around the film's halfway or two-thirds point during which Abduction is good enough, which is obviously not the same as "good", but any port in a storm, and if "Taylor Lautner's first leading role" isn't enough of a storm for you, than blimey but you must have a cast-iron resistance to bad movies. The action jumps along, and Edward Shearmur's unattractively anonymous action movie score gets the blood to pumping, and John Singleton's direction is sufficiently kinetic, though he relies throughout the film on zooms like it has never stopped being 1973, and by the way, when do we stop feeling sorry that this is the same man who made Boyz n the Hood and just start loathing him for how thoroughly he sold out? Because I think I'm ready to make that jump.

Outside of that window, the film is a fucking wreck. The opening sequence is little but shrill lifestyle porn, watching as Nathan raises hell and shows off his chest, and everything once the movie starts to earnestly answer the questions of what is going on is just stupid, intensely and grindingly stupid. We learn that Nathan is, in fact, going to be used as a bargaining chip - his dad has some awesome piece of intelligence that both Burton and Kozlow want, and they figure that if they threaten Nathan's life, they can get it; and that is, as such things go, a perfectly reasonable plot, except it's also awfully anti-climactic. I had a sneaking suspicion going into the film, and even for the first third or so, that he was a Hanna-style human experiment, but no. He's just important because his dad is a good spy, and the film doesn't really make any effort to explain why, exactly, he had to learn this fact from a shady missing children website.

Really, the problem is that it robs Nathan of agency: he doesn't drive anything, and the stakes are only incidentally his life and safety. He's not even the one who matters; he's just a prop in his dad's glamorous spy life. It's not "wrong" or "bad" writing, but it's awfully pedestrian. Worse still, it's sloppy - a whole entire character is mentioned and turns into a significant clue and then with absolutely no fanfare the film just forgets he existed; the backstory involving the fake CIA agent parents fails to make sense on multiple levels and only manages to be hand-waved away because the people involved are dead by that point, for some reason it ends at Pirates home game. What isn't sloppy is stilted: thankfully I have forgotten the dialogue by now, except that it was the kind of "let me describe a situation we both understand in clear, simple, exposition so that if some objective third party were watching us, they would learn about our personalities and backstories" nonsense that would get you laughed out of an introductory writing class in college (the screenwriter, Shawn Christensen, is the frontman for an indie rock group, just so we all know).

Of course, the whole thing really dies because Abs McGee can't act worth a damn, but why belabor that? Criticising Taylor Lautner for being a shitty actor is the refuge of the unimaginative. It is, perhaps, worth suggesting that of the three Twilight leads, he has the most contemptible solo career (this and Valentine's Day): whereas Kristen Stewart at least tries to play bendy characters in interesting projects, and Robert Pattinson has a certain affinity for theoretically serious dramas, Lautner's work is transparently trying to cash in on teenyboppers, before they and he are too old. But a bad actor? Yes, and the ocean is wet. Of course he leaves a hole in the center of the movie where the drama is meant to be, one that is not filled at all by the proper actors who all look marginally embarrassed, or by Lily Collins's glassy stares of indeterminate agitation. Though, to be fair, she's probably just wondering why her male co-lead has bigger tits than she does.

3/10

26 September 2011

JOHN HUGHES: THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985)

The right thing is to first begin with the horrible admission, and it is that I was 29 years and 9 months and 7 days old the very first time that I saw John Hughes's iconic teensploitation picture The Breakfast Club, which happens to have been the day before writing this review. I bring this up because being a breath away from the start of one's fourth decade on this Earth is a somewhat unfortunate time to make the acquaintance of a film that, even by the standards of the hyper-nostalgic world of '80s movies, seems to have entranced the vast majority of its hefty fanbase because those fans had the good fortune to watch the movie for the first time when they were about the same age as the characters depicted onscreen, i.e. 15-18 years old, and have never quite shaken the feeling of how it spoke to them when they were at that tender, vulnerable age.

Not that it's a bad movie. In fact, I will own to being very, very surprised that it's not a bad movie. It is, however, a movie that has far more problems than its reputation would suggest, the kind of flaws that can be very readily glossed over in a fit of fond remembrance. At any rate, I didn't find it at all as true as John Hughes's previous work, Sixteen Candles, though his sophomore effort as a director is undeniably more self-assured and mature in its craftsmanship, and lacks the outrageouness of his debut's most objectionable elements (viz. Long Duk Dong, who will haunt my nightmares until I die or The Hangover, Part III comes out, though I expect those two events will occur at about the same time).

In case you have somehow managed to remain ignorant of the film's content, possibly by eschewing any and all contact with English-language cinema in the last 25 years, it's a bit like this: on 24 March, 1984, at Shermer High School in Shermer, Illinois (and thus does Hughes's fictional version of Northbrook, IL receive its permanent name in honor of that city's former name of Shermerville), five students are held for an all-Saturday detention: Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall), Andrew Clark (Emilio Estevez), Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald), and John Bender (Judd Nelson), who are introduced in Brian's opening monologue as five archetypes of high school: the Brain, the Athlete, the Basket Case,* the Princess, and the Criminal. Over the course of the day's nine hours and the movie's 98 minutes, those five individuals move from mutual incomprehension and loathing to a chain of soul-baring sessions by which they learn that they're too complex as people to be reduced to stereotypical labels.

Structurally and conceptually, this is a fairly brilliant movie, or at least a colossally nervy one. Even if only because of its defiantly uncinematic devotion to the Aristotelian unities, with some 80% of the film taking place in a single room, though thanks to some singularly tight editing (by the great Dede Allen, so no surprise there) it never even once registers that we're watching, in essence, a stage play. Formally, at least, it's the editing where the film works the best, and where Hughes's shooting style is most evolved - late in the film, there is a big climactic sequence in which all of the characters are revealing their darkest truths, and finally breaking through the "roles" that they're expected to play to find that they can, in fact, connect with people from outside of their pre-approved social units. This lengthy scene consists almost solely of close-ups of individuals, and for the great bulk of it that fact nagged me like an itchy T-shirt tag: "This is their big bonding moment!" I wanted to cry, "use a fucking two-shot to demonstrate that visually! You're just reinforcing the paradigm that they don't know how to exist in each other's space!" And then the sequence ends with an oh-so-casual cut to the five of them in mystified silence, just a nice solid whack of a cut that made my heart stop for a few seconds. It's a coup de montage that you would not expect from what is, after all, a genre picture, and though this is the most striking moment of all, it's not even slightly the only dazzling piece of editing. And it's not the kind of editing you need to be a film junkie to appreciate; to notice it, maybe, but that kind of shocking violation of an editing rhythm is something you feel intuitively, like music.

The other thing that's so bloody brave is that Hughes effectively courts cliché by making his five characters embody the blandest stereotypes possible, so that he can shatter those stereotypes from within. It's a fantastic trick, if you can do it right. Here, then, is where the film's legions of fans and I part ways, because I don't really thing Hughes did it right. There are two problems, basically: one is that the stereotypes work so damn well, and we spend so much time with all of them, that the transition at the end isn't entirely believable. The other is that the film is really just trading one stereotype for another, but I'll return to that.

For about 70 minutes of the movie, we are subjected to one moment after another of the kids behaving exactly as they're "meant" to, and it's decently amusing - the film can't decide whether it's a comedy or a drama with comic incidents, but it doesn't really matter, it works either way. Over the course of the movie, they all realise that it's possible to have fun with people they're not "supposed to" hang out with, and it's lovely and charming. But the more that Serious Talks sneak in, the more contrived it all feels, until the big final scene - the one that's so snazzily edited - when we're meant to see that these people are all so concerned with their socially-mandated shells that nobody has ever noticed all the humanity and hurt inside. They're not stereotypes, dammit, they're people!

Except... except their hurt and humanity is itself stereotypical. The Princess is torn in half by her parents' sham marriage of convenience. The Criminal is just mean because his father abuses him. The Brain is so despondent over getting a bad grade that he wants to kill himself. Those are all valid, real-life issues, but they are also the exact issues that you'd give these characters if you wanted to reinforce all of the lazy clichés about your stock character. And given how much exertion the film puts into telling us in its best Message Movie tones that these figures are better than cliché, the only possible conclusion I can come to is that writer-director Hughes was spectacularly unimaginative, and we know from other evidence that this cannot be true.

I did not, mind, include Andrew and Allison, for two very different reasons: Andrew is the one genuinely rounded, unexpected character in the bunch - less so now than he'd have been in 1985, perhaps, since he has been copied so many times, but the whole sensitive athlete with a poet's soul thing is just discordant enough to seem fresh (by my reckoning, Estevez gives the best performance, and that can't be a coincidence). Allison, meanwhile, makes no goddamn sense - she's a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, basically, communicating through yolps and strange gestures until she starts talking and tries to impress on us how freespirited she is. Unsurprisingly, she and Brian are the designated Author Avatars - the smart writer, and the playful artist, those two most beloved vehicles of writers and creative types (but let me not give Hughes too much shit about it: writers identify with what they know, which is writing - Billy Wilder and Sunset Blvd. this is not, and was not supposed to be), but if Allison makes any sense at all as a character, I don't see it - my fault, perhaps, for not being born in 1970 and taking part in this world firsthand. She also gets saddled with an unforgivable ending in which she has to give up her personality and conform to the "right" idea of looks in order to get a boy. It was grating when that happened in Grease: here, in a film with a pronounced anti-conformity message, it reeks of hypocrisy.

Anyway, there's an out to all of this, and it goes like this. The big, super-famous ending speech, which subtly recycles the opening speech with a more pronounced "fuck you, adults!" bent, comes right out and says in giant screaming letters, "We are all God's perfect snowflakes who cannot be contained in one little box. We know this because we're all able to relate to one another despite having different backgrounds." The kicker, though, is when they go around repeating their five roles, and claiming that all five of them contain elements of all five clichés.

Maybe it's just my curmudgeonly soul talking, but what this says to me is: "we're all special because we're all so similar to one another", and if that's not irony, I don't know what is. Part of me likes to think that The Breakfast Club is just a huge piss-take: demonstrating in a remarkably subtle way that American teenagers manage to turn even anti-conformity into a role they're playing; certainly the fact that most of the characters announce that they know deep down that this wonderful catharsis isn't going to last once school picks up on Monday suggests that Hughes didn't really believe the contrived bullshit of the last five minutes, in which people pair off just because they damn well can.

Then again, these are teenagers we're talking about: not, as a class, the most logical or settled subset of humanity. And maybe that's what the film is demonstrating, that adolescents are inherently erratic and questing people who haven't figured out who they are yet and use social roles as props to get them intact into adulthood. That's at least a more charitable take on it, but it leaves us with a Breakfast Club that does a damn poor job of fulfilling its mission statement as a celebration of the inner lives of the young.

Maybe just maybe, the lesson from all of this is that people shouldn't write generational statements for folks 20 years younger than they are.

Ordinarily, I don't like to end by trying to justify myself, but I feel I have to here. If I have been harsh on the movie, it's largely because it came down on such a lofty reputation of being a true and wonderful and meaningful depiction of teenage life, like it was some kind of masterpiece, and I didn't get that at all. One overreacts, maybe, in such circumstances; but there are enough people talking about what works in the film, and not so many taking it to task. The hell of it is, I actually liked the movie: in the beginning, when it's all John "Social Observer" Hughes documenting the ways that different cliques and economic classes interact in the absence of supervision, the thing is every bit the equal of Sixteen Candles, if not better. It does more with the unspoken tension of the North Shore's division into old money and lower-middle class strivers than any of Hughes's other films. And besides Estevez, Ringwald and Hall are great, developing their John Hughes Stock Company personae in satisfying ways (I am told that many people love Judd Nelson in this. That is their right). It's only the last 20 minutes that come along and completely fuck everything up, and turn a satisfying comedy-drama into a miserable attempt at saying Something Important that doesn't, not one iota. In my opinion, of course, and the odds say that your opinion is different. But then, does not The Breakfast Club itself teach us that differences of opinion are necessary and good?

25 September 2011

JOHN HUGHES: SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984)


"Samantha Baker is turning sixteen and she’s fallen in love for the first time. It should be the best time of her life.

"But... her family is so preoccupied with her sister’s wedding they totally forget her birthday, the boy she loves doesn’t know she exists and the class clown is putting the make on her.

"And... she still has to go to school, ride the bus, put up with an annoying younger brother, a hopelessly vain older sister, four delirious grandparents and a whacked-out foreign exchange student.

"Well, hang in there, Samantha. The day’s not over yet. You may still get one wish."
The copy on the poster for Sixteen Candles does not, at any rate, leave much room for the imagination. In this respect, it is pairs well with the film it advertises, for Sixteen Candles is that kind of movie that announces itself early on as being more concerned with observation than with cleverness. Even allowing that in 1984, the high school film had not become as obvious as it would eventually - allowing, further, that Sixteen Candles was one of the key moments in the development of the contemporary high school film if not the primary text for the whole genre - writer John Hughes would not appear terribly concerned with challenging the viewer, so much as he is allowing us to follow along on an exploration of a theme, setting a cluster of characters and events in motion to see what happens.

I'm sorry, writer-director John Hughes. After the success of Mr. Mom and Vacation, he was finally given the keys, as it were, and the result was the first thing we would be inclined, in hindsight, to call a "John Hughes" movie: a music-heavy comedy with just a light swirl of the serious and the adult that treats the matter of high school and high schoolers with a particular gravity and respect, though from a distinct outsider's perspective.

The plot- oh, but the poster already did the plot for me, didn't it? Anyway, Sam is played by Molly Ringwald, who became in an eyeblink the Face Of Her Generation when the movie came out, and for a little while got all the good roles and even worked with fucking Jean-Luc Godard. She's a sophomore, it's the day of a school dance (which is theoretically meant to be prom, I think, but forgive my ignorance: do sophomores get to attend prom?), and she is, as mentioned, newly sixteen, and confused as hell about that means. She is desperately infatuated with senior Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), who is dating the class bitch Caroline Mulford (Haviland Morris); she is meanwhile fending off the advances of the Geek (Anthony Michael Hall), a freakishly awkward freshman.

Like all of Hughes's scripts to that point, Sixteen Candles is largely about what fills in the spaces in between the story, and like all of them, that filling is largely broad-strokes comic interludes in which realistic-ish characters get involved in wacky episodes. What makes it unique in his canon is that it doesn't have even the fig leaf of a driving conflict as did Mr. Mom (learning how to take care of a house) and Vacation (getting to Walley World). Sam's disconnect from her family is barely used even as a crutch in the 93-minute film's middle third, and it's resolved around the one-hour mark; her crush on Jake is presented more as a situation than as a dramatic force. In effect, Sixteen Candles tells us what the background is for the main character, and then proceeds to go through a single night, morning, and afternoon of her life, stopping along the way to pay attention to the events that occur to the people around her in that time. Structurally, it's most similar to Class Reunion out of Hughes's scripts, though with the significant difference that its characters are not parodies or grotesques. Not mostly, anyway, as there are some key exceptions.

In short, Hughes seemed to be aware even before he started that he had a reputation as a chronicler of high school sociology to maintain; for in essence, that is all that Sixteen Candles does, and all it aims to do. The problem Sam is made to overcome is not, as we might expect, that her parents are idiots, her siblings annoyances, and her grandparents gargoyles. Nor is it that she can't bring herself to tell Jake that she has a crush on him, and thereby learn that he has a crush on her, and that if one of them would just damn well open their mouths they'd both be happier off. Her problem is that she is a sixteen-year-old high school girl, and that is a problem which cannot be resolved in a film that only depicts a roughly 36-hour period. Two and a half decades of Hughes imitations - some of which he wrote himself - have obscured what a bold gesture this must have been in 1984, and explain why the film was so broadly celebrated despite its appearance, to contemporary eyes, as being appealing but slight and incredibly dated.

There are, broadly speaking, three films inside Sixteen Candles. First is the one I just described: the wry depiction of high school as an existential trap, told with sympathetic detachment by a man in his mid-'30s. This is much the best of the three: Ringwald is just plain terrific, for one, and that is generally the most important element in any given character study, which is basically what this amounts to (it's also the specific sub-category of character study that I personally find hardest to resist: the Long, Dark Night of the Soul, in which the protagonist learns all about her strengths and weaknesses over the course of a singularly incident-filled night. For another film that plumbs this territory and borrows liberally from Hughes in the process, see Superbad).

The second one is the teensploitation romantic comedy about Sam's farcical inability to hook up with Jake until the very end; a more typical film and undermined by Schoeffling's decidedly wobbly performance (very few of the young performers match Ringwald, or come even a little close: Anthony Michael Hall does, though it's a rough go given that the "right" performance of his character is necessarily annoying, and in a small role, John Cusack makes a huge impression and it's easy to see how this film - his second - set him on the path to bigger and brighter things, though he often fails to live up to the promise he showed here). Still, as the closest the film has to a story, it binds things together nicely.

It's the third film where things go wrong: this is the part of the film that has to do with the other characters besides Sam, the part where a charmingly brittle teen comedy turns into a boisterous R-rated comedy of stupid people (and yet the film slipped by with a PG, despite having a few precision F-bombs and a fully-naked shower scene). And, dismayingly, it's in this third movie that John Hughes, director, really shows off. For the most part, the film is directed by-the-numbers, exactly what you'd expect from a writer making his first feature. When the wacky comedy really amps up, though, that's when Hughes indulges in a love of unamusing slapstick and drunkenly obvious camera set-ups driving us to the gag, and worst of all are the sound effects, squeaks and bongs and whooshes and a Chinese motif that plays whenever the foreign exchange student is mentioned...

Undoubtedly, the worst part of Sixteen Candles, worse by far than the blowsy comedy, is Gedde Watanabe's performance as Long Duk Dong, staying with one set of Sam's grandparents, and forced into her life for the night with "comic" misadventures, which consist almost entirely of him being Asian and therefore Not Like Us. Also because he has a name which is only a breath away from "Long Duck Penis", because haha, the Chinese. There's not a single moment the character is onscreen mentioned that I wasn't cringing myself into the fetal position, and I might as well point out that in the beginning of the movie, the idea that a white girl would date a black man is treated as silly and funny on the face of it.

It's a lily-white film, all right, but there is a significant consideration to be made about the "dating a black guy? HAHA!" moment: the film is set on the North Shore of Chicago, Hughes's first long-term cinematic treatment of his beloved adolescent home (he went to high school in Northbrook not technically a North Shore community - it's not on Lake Michigan - later immortalised in his films behind the name "Shermer", though the city in which Sixteen Candles takes place is never named). And it was certainly true of the North Shore in 1984, and is largely true of it still, that it is a place where rich white people live. It is clearly not the case that Hughes is satirising the heavily conservative milieu of his characters: on the contrary, he plainly has a great deal of affection for Chicagoland, as one will; the film opens, not with any of its characters, but with Chicago radio institution Dick Biondi giving us a traffic report about I-290, the sort of detail that is local color if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, and is a thick marker of regional pride if you do.*

But back to Sixteen Candles. It's good more than it's not: Sam is a fantastic character played beautifully, and her life is just specific enough that she can be universal without being vague. I don't know that Hughes "gets" women at this point - the cheesecake shot of a showering high school senior doesn't belong in a chick flick of any stripe - and his ability to direct comedy was incredibly immature relative to his ability to write comedy, and hence we get all of the shticky gags in all of the B-plots, a uniformly low-brow tone that is unsatisfying somehow even when it works well (as, for example, the matter of the Geek borrowing Sam's underwear to prove his manhood). It makes a good start for the Legend of John Hughes, though, a high school film just smart enough to be special and bad enough that it could be improved upon.

22 September 2011

BEHIND THE WHEEL

In Drive, Albert Brooks plays Bernie Rose, a former movie producer turned mobster in Los Angeles (the film refrains, but only barely, from making the joke that those two occupations are the same thing), who at one point quietly reflects upon his former career. "The critics called them 'European'" he says (or close enough). "I thought they were shit". It is the most leading moment in a film that doesn't hurt for such things, the point where director Nicolas Winding Refn (who rewrote huge portions of Hossein Amini's screenplay, it is said, and I'd bet a lot that this line of dialogue was one of those portions) tosses all his cards on the table face up and announces in a loud voice, "By the way, if you hadn't noticed, this is a genre pastiche. And if you did notice, I've just confirmed it for you. You're welcome".

A genre pastiche par excellence, too: big heaping piles of Jean-Pierre Melville (an anonymous protagonist who barely speaks and only then in clipped, hoarse sentences), the inevitable sampling of Point Blank, a visual style that suggest Michael Mann as a 1920s German filmmaker, and according to Winding Refn himself, it's all a crypto-remake of John Hughes's Sixteen Candles, a contention so unbearably fascinating that I fear my own inadequacy to explore it whatsoever. The score is all new music that is made to sound so much like the synth-besotted neo-noirs of the early 1980s that it hurts, though not as much as the hot pink used for the opening credits. (I have not seen Walter Hill's The Driver, another film frequently cited as an important influence).

Drive has been as hyped up as any other film of 2011, and it's probably inevitable not to feel a slight note of deflation as a result, but before I get into that, my one incredibly petty, totally useless complaint: for all that I love a good Melville/Point Blank pastiche, it has been only two years since we got a really fucking fantastic one in The Limits of Control (which is, admittedly, a movie that is by no means universally regarded as "adequately watchable", let alone "fucking fantastic"), and Drive is no The Limits of Control. It is a sublimely compiled mixtape of ideas and themes and visual notions from the past 50 years of moody, existential action films, and in the manner of Quentin Tarantino, Winding Refn steals with such intelligence and thoughtfulness that there is a boldness and creativity to the film even though hardly a single moment of it is "original" in any way. But it holds back a little too much from greatness: it's too aware that it falls within a tradition of chilly movies about wordless action heroes, and parts of it are brittle as a result. Parts of it are not brittle at all, and there are two sequences in the film that rank among the absolute best thriller setpieces of the last, I don't know how many years.

Drive is about a man played by Ryan Gosling who works in a garage for a living, and occasionally helps his boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), in a side business of doing car stunts for movies, and even more occasionally acts as getaway driver for hire - our introduction to him, and his movie, comes as he speaks in measured tones to somebody on the phone about the very particular rules under which he'll do this kind of work. The driver has no name, and once you've noticed that he has no name, the little ways that the movie nearly breaks itself in two to make sure that he never accidentally reveals his name to the audience ache like a mouthful of rotten teeth. That's the sort of thing I mean, when I say that Drive suffers from too much self-awareness: it has to be done because it is The Thing That Is Cool, but having to be done does not mean that it is done gracefully.

Over the course of the film, the driver gets to know his neighbors, a woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos); his promising flirtation with her jams to a halt after her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, but in the meantime the driver has come to idealise the family as everything that is good and nice in contrast to the emptiness he sees everywhere else, and so even with his chance for love knocked down, he still offers to help Standard out when some former associates of his in prison come looking for an impossible sum of money. The plan to raise this money goes spectacularly wrong, and keeps going spectacularly wrong, and in due course this man of the most elemental simplicity is confronted with the implosion of his entire life, in which the one good outcome is that he might be able to preserve the safety and innocence of those two people so dear to him.

Cosmic nihilism is no new territory for Winding Refn, of the grim Pusher trilogy and the operatically brutal Bronson. That's a big part of what makes Drive successful, for there's little point in denying that the film it's nasty potency. Anchored by Gosling's "man who wasn't there" glacialness in the central role, the film is slow and methodical, not in the "boring and pacey" way, but in the "stalking, looking for where to shiv you" way. The scorpion jacket the driver wears constantly is explained in-film through that old chestnut, "The Scorpion and the Frog" (which is, thankfully, not repeated in full, other than the punchline), but outside of the film, the even better answer is that the film is itself predatory, and so is its protagonist, the thoughtful, slow kind of predator that hides in damp places and springs out in a flurry of claws. Which, in Drive's case, is the abrupt turn it takes into stomach-turning violence about two-thirds of the way through, a descent into gore as well-timed and unexpected as one could possibly hope for.

The film is best when it's plumbing barbarism like that, not always in such visceral terms. Drive is a mercilessly cold film, beginning with its characters - particularly Brooks's Bernie, an immaculate performance of a matter-of-fact psychopath (there is a moment in which he kills another person, and immediately starts to speak in soothing tones that everything is okay & the worst part is over as his victim bleeds to death - it is the most chilling, even terrifying moment I've seen in a theater all year) so perfect it makes one wish there was more of him, though of course part of what makes him so effective is that he's not diluted from overexposure. Gosling doesn't have the luxury of being nearly so colorful, but his slowness and quiet are a perfect fit for what the movie requires of him.

Then there is the style of the piece, evoking Mann and Melville especially but doing something not quite either of them. I could never shake the feeling of it being an excessively "electronic" movie, what with the music and songs, and then the gorgeous cinematography of Newton Thomas Sigel, noir with all the deep blacks flattened into the hazy never-dark of an urban environment plastered with street lamps and stoplights and sickly fluorescent that you can almost, but not quite hear buzzing.

So mechanical and fabricated is the film's world, and brilliantly so, that the purported humanism of the Irene/Benicio material fails entirely to be convincing, even as a dream the driver briefly has of a better life. Perhaps this is the point, I'm not certain. At any rate, Gosling too carefully renders the driver in immutably opaque shades, and Winding Refn and company too persuasively leach all the life and goodness out of the visuals, and the shift back into something resembling comfort and warmth and happiness falls completely flat. This doesn't even hurt the movie, as such: the harshness of it is what makes it so memorable, along with the precision of its big setpieces (a thrillingly choreographed opening getaway, and the entire matter of the mid-film caper and how it goes wrong, culminating in a hotel room scene that completely earns that laziest of encomiums, Hitchockian), and the leaden Irene material - magnified by Mulligan's extremely game attempt to play a character she's not well-suited for - bogs the film down as padding, without lessening it.

Of course, 100 minutes of existential chilliness modulated by an awkward "saved by the love of a good woman" subplot, all adds up to a kind of deliberately nasty exercise that does not, at any rate, equal a terrifically fun or edifying night out. It is an excellent, even magnificent machine: but with its inadequate feint towards humanism, and without the intuitive feel of its best models, Drive must settle for being just an awfully damn good movie.

8/10

21 September 2011

2011: THE YEAR SO FAR

Over at his place, Nick Davis has just wrapped up his annual review of the film year as it stands thus far, occasioned by his 50th viewing of a 2011 release. Since horrible outside circumstances have put a pinch on my schedule this week (John Hughes is coming back, but he's not doing it right away), and since I am an inveterate listmaker, I've decided to play along. It's your standard "if I ran the Oscars, and they were happening right this minute, what five things would I nominate?" exercise, and since I don't want to limit myself to the first 50 movies I saw - too many Hops and Season of the Witches in that company - I'm going to make eligible everything I saw before 2 September (why not 1 September? Because that eliminates The Help, and that hurts my Best Supporting Actress bracket a hell of a lot).

It's a decent time to do it, anyway, what with September marking the start of Oscarbait season and all.

Best Feature
Certified Copy
-A slightly programmatic exploration of what "truth" means in a medium predicated on fictions, raised to excellence by dynamite performances and haunting cinematography.
Rango
-A viscerally beautiful film that severely examines the legend of the American West with as much cunning as any film ever has, and none of those were comedies starring a neurotic lizard.
The Tree of Life
-Cinema as religion, as act of devotion, as spiritual odyssey. Twisting the very medium this way and that and using pure image and sound as a vehicle for studying the human and the divine and their intersection.
Tuesday, After Christmas
-A breathtaking, heartbreaking character study with the kind artistic discipline you could use to hone a knife: unsparing, unsentimental, terrifyingly real.
Winnie the Pooh
-A movie for children insofar as it plays completely honest with a child's point of view and sense of logic, though there is nothing even moderately immature about it.

Best Director
Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy
-For moving the film through its bramble of abstract concepts so fluidly it's not until long past the turning point that you realise the film you were watching has long since ceased to be the film you are watching.
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life
-For creating a seamless whole out of seemingly unrelated notions of time, space, character, image, and sound, building a unique tribute to the human spirit from what could easily have been incoherent chaos.
Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas
-For crafting something devastatingly human using only the sparest and most unforgiving aesthetic choices, turning a national style into a personal statement.
Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff
-For combining sweaty, desolate realism with a poetic sensibility that verges on the mythic, and turns a story of death in the West into a referendum on human fear and ambition.
Gore Verbinski, Rango
-For combining sincerity with deranged quirkiness in creating a Western comedy that draws heavily from generic tradition without even once abandoning its enthralling sense of anarchy.

Best Actress
Juliette Binoche, Certified Copy
-For grounding the film's heady intellectualism in basic, intense human emotions of love & longing, betrayal & rage.
Jessica Chastain, The Tree of Life
-For playing a woman who is at once a narrative concept, an object as reflected through a child's eyes, anda living, breathing human with needs of her own, doing it all with an ethereally light touch.
Mirela Oprişor, Tuesday, After Christmas
-For allowing herself to be wounded to the very core of her being without ever begging for sympathy, and without having to resort to excessive theatrics to demonstrate with utmost clarity her character's strength and pain.
Michelle Williams, Meek’s Cutoff
-For a recklessly anti-egotistic embrace of a grubby, semi-anonymous character whose sole trait is her flintiness and making of that character a brand new kind of genre hero.
Yun Jeong-Hie, Poetry
-For portraying that most baity of all afflictions, Alzheimer's, without forgetting to put a deep and rich character behind it, so that we understand exactly who she is and what she risks losing.

Best Actor
Mimi Brănescu, Tuesday, After Christmas
-For playing an insulated, self-deluding man who is blindsided by the knowledge that his actions effect other people without lapsing into villainy or pleased self-justification.
Johnny Depp, Rango
-For at long last breaking out of his comfort range just enough: risking that his character will be more alienating than charming and doing more with just his voice than he's done with his whole body in years.
Andy Serkis, Rise of the Planet of the Apes
-For the new high-water mark in motion capture performance: not just an eerily accurate portrayal of a chimp, but a completely expressive and sympathetic characterisation using only the subtleties of gesture and bearing.
William Shimell, Certified Copy
-For creating a recogonizable human being with feelings and experiences out of a character deliberately written to have no coherent backstory or personality.
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris
-For making the stock figure of the Woody Allen Authorial Stand-In his own, allowing himself to be likable while subtly acknowledging the sense of entitlement at the core of the figure.

Best Supporting Actress
Angela Bassett, Jumping the Broom
-For turning the obviousness of a functional part in a bland movie into a rich and complex depiction of a woman wrestling with the worst kind of inner demons.
Viola Davis, The Help
-For bringing gravity and dignity to a character who could have easily served as a prop in a tepid feel-good message movie.
Vera Farmiga, Source Code
-For taking a role with absolutely no personality whatsoever and playing a character full of nervousness and sympathy and a tragic sense of irony.
Maria Popistaşu, Tuesday, After Christmas
-Unlike the other four, she got a well-written character in a rock-solid script to work with, but that should in no way blunt the effectiveness of her depiction of the sensibility and quiet anguish of a reluctant Other Woman.
Octavia Spencer, The Help
-For grounding the stock figure of the Sassy Overweight Black Woman with a real sense of outrage and anger and keyed up sense of her own value.

Best Supporting Actor
William Fichtner, Drive Angry
-For playing a henchman from Hell Itself with a laid-back easiness that captures our attention without ever once showboating, a grimy genre turn that could only be carried off by a great character actor.
Tommy Lee Jones, Captain America: The First Avenger
-For playing up the comic book exaggeration of his sharp-tongued military man without ever once letting us believe that he is, himself, a cartoon, and bring a needed sense of fun back to the superhero movie.
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
-For mixing the giddy joy and brittle sorrow of being an old man just discovering how to love life as he is on the threshold death, without lapsing into pathos or mucky sentiment.
Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris
-For playing a concept of Ernest Hemingway beautifully informed by the author's clipped prose, a parody/homage as intellectually stimulating as it is hilarious.
Hugo Weaving, Captain America: The First Avenger
-For playing the most enthusiastically hissable bad guy in recent memory but grounding his robust evilness in just enough human detail that he remains realistically threatening.

Best Screenplay
(I will happily follow Nick's lead in combining Adapted and Original; by this point in the year, the bulk of the film's I'd even consider for the former category are the worst sort of placeholders)
Certified Copy, by Abbas Kiarostami
-For dealing with incredibly abstruse topics in a clearheaded way that leaves the film feeling heavy with meaning rather than simply pretentious.
Meek’s Cutoff, by Jonathan Raymond
-For finding a completely new story of the American West that is told with an immaculate eye for detail and a potent sense of history.
Rango, by John Logan and Gore Verbinski and James Ward Byrkit
-For whipping together a riff on two genres that reveals a deep knowledge of both, while being at times almost paralyzingly funny.
The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick
-For studying the relationship of humans with the divine in whatever form it might take with respect and awe and elliptical subtlety as suits this most daunting of subjects.
Winnie the Pooh, by Stephen J. Anderson & Clio Chiang & Don Dougherty & Don Hall & Brian Kesinger & Nicole Mitchell & Jeremy Spears
-For answering the expectations raised by two children's classics - the books, and the 1977 movie - with care and respect, but also a willingness to be of its own time as well, playing with ideas new to this incarnation.


Best Cinematography
Hanna (Alwin H. Küchler)
-For combining ragged industrial interiors, blinding snowfields, hazy deserts, and dreamy tableaux out of a fairy tale in one tightly controlled and highly consistent visual schema.
Meek’s Cutoff (Christopher Blauvelt)
-For the uncanny way he suggests the broad landscapes of the American West in a stuffy, cramped 1.37:1 frame that reminds us the suffocating sameness of travel across those same desolate landscapes.
My Joy (Oleg Mutu)
-For some of the most ecstatically unconventional compositions in recent memory, a vision of the world that is undeniably "realistic" but disorienting all the same, and the rock upon which the film is built.
The Tree of Life (Emmanuel Lubezki)
-For capturing the dusky nostalgia of Terrence Malick's vision, creating a sublimely beautiful visual poetry that perfectly complements the impressionistic rendering of character and spirituality of the script.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Yukontorn Mingmongkon & Sayombhu Mukdeeprom)
For depicting in visual language the point where the realms of the living and the dead mix and overlap, in the most evocatively gloomy jungle you could ever hope to see.

Best Editing
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Lee Haxall)
-For mixing and matching locations and characters with a nuanced and deceptively cunning rhythm, and proving that the key to a great comedy is an ace editor to mange the beats.
Certified Copy (Bahman Kiarostami)
-For letting each moment linger just as long as it absolutely needs to, for a few seconds or a few minutes, and using each cut as a definite punctuation mark and not a way to pass the time.
Insidious (Kirk M. Morri & James Wan)
-For playing out the space between the "oh no" and "holy shit!" moments so essential to the creation of horror and tension with exquisite, perfect timing.
Source Code (Paul Hirsch)
-For moving so smoothly in and out of a myriad fictional realities and never letting the ticking-clock scenario slow down for even a second.
The Tree of Life (Hank Corwin/Jay Rabinowitz/Daniel Rezende/Billy Weber/Mark Yoshikawa)
-For preserving the abstraction of the film's scenario without flying off into incoherence, while implying a relationship between events that makes sense on an intuitive, musical level rather than a descriptive one.

20 September 2011

THE 47TH CHICAGO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - THE SCHEDULE!

This is probably not interesting for the great majority of you, but since a large portion of the next month is going to be devoured by the Chicago International Film Festival - aka "Not the swankiest or most important fest, but it's mine, goddammit" - I thought I should point out that the full schedule of films was announced today, and can be found here. I could grouse that it's a bit light on South Korea compared to some years (South Korea being, along with Romania and Iran, one of the countries that I always make a point of hitting hard at CIFF because it's always a safe bet), but this is, by and large, one hell of a good collection of films, and my kudos to the people who put it together.

The assembly of my viewing schedule is always a tortured and days-long process, but in the meanwhile, here is a list of 20 movies that I'm particularly intrigued by. If anyone has some insight as to what I simply must see, or what I simply must avoid, I'd love any bit of advice.

Chico & Rita
As is generally known, animated films are like catnip to me, and of the two animated features at CIFF this year, this is the one that seems to have a more expressive style and point of view.

Cinema Komunisto
One of my fascinations that virtually never shows up on the blog is vintage propaganda films, doesn't matter what country, doesn't matter what period. A documentary about Tito's state-run studio sounds like candy.

Cold Sweat
An Argentine torture porno with satiric overtones? My good sense is probably going to take a backseat to my curiosity on this one.

Day is Done
Elliptical autobiographical essay-films that the festival guide can barely express in a coherent manner have gone very well for me in the past. This might be the most intriguing film to me in the whole slate.

Don't Go Breaking My Heart
Johnny To's action films have given me a fair amount of pleasure up till now, and I am absolutely fascinated to see what he can do with a romantic comedy - apparently not new territory for him, but new to me.

Gandu
There's an exciting overabundance of Indian films this year compared to others, of which the most interesting seems like it might possibly be a kind of counter-Slumdog Millionaire.

Goodbye
Slim pickings from Iran this year, but even if there wasn't this guerrilla-style study of women fighting the system would seem like a sure thing.

Haunters
A South Korean action-thriller with a paranormal edge? Yes please.

Juan of the Dead
I suspect the title gives away the game here, but as with Cold Sweat, a chance to see a genre film done in another country - a Cuban zombie film, no less! - is too much for my good judgment.

Le Havre
The new Aki Kaurismäki picture. That's all I need to know. It'll probably show up eventually, but I am an impatient man.

Love Is in the Air
The three phrases in the guide that caught my attention: "color saturated", "musical", and "Denmark".

Loverboy
A Romanian film about young men trapping women in lives of prostitution? Sounds like a swell date night. Anyway, you had me at "Romania".

Madame X
If there is a way to make "transsexual Indonesia superhero" not sound like the most amazing idea for a movie ever, I do not know what it is.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
A week ago, this would not have been here. But in the last couple of days, I finally saw Distant, and now I am completely in the bag for director Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Oslo, August 31
Joachim Trier is a Young Director to Watch if there's any such animal out there right now, and I'm a pushover for Norwegian cinema anyway.

Pina
I wouldn't have thought that with a Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders film in the mix, I'd be more excited about the Wenders; but a 3-D study of experimental dance just sounds too beautiful to resist.

Rabies
Seriously, all you need to do to get my attention is put zombies in a foreign country. In this case, Israel. Which is such a strange and marvelous mixture of genre and national cinema that I can't stand it.

The Turin Horse
It's going to pretty effectively squash any possibility of a Béla Tarr retrospective later on, but I absolutely do not want to run the risk of the film not making to the United States after all.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
There's always one mainstream release that tests my resolve not to see anything that will be coming to theaters in the next couple of months, and the meeting of the great Tilda Swinton with the great, and long-dormant, Lynne Ramsay is going to be really damn hard to resist. I'm kind of hoping that it sells out, so I don't have to make the decision on my own.

The Whisperer in Darkness
There are two absolutes: filmed adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft are always disappointing (the exceptions), and Lovecraft fans will see all of them regardless.

19 September 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: NATE AND HAYES (1983)

In determining which films deserved a slot in the "Hughes as Screenwriter" portion of this blog's John Hughes retrospective, my initial thought was that Nate and Hayes would be the first title that it made perfect sense to skip over. It was the first Hughes screenplay that was written in collaboration, with David Odell (whose career swung from the peak of The Dark Crystal to the deep, dark valley of Masters of the Universe), from a story Odell adapted solo from an idea by producer Lloyd Phillips; this is already enough to knock us out of anything resembling auteur territory. It was also Hughes's third feature released in 1983, which meant that there was no real chronological value to taking a look at it.

At this point, mind you, I knew nothing of the film but its title, a miserably anonymous thing that could describe anything from a sleek crime thriller to a bittersweet love story to a weightless dramedy about suburban pre-teens getting into scrapes in the 1960s. There is, in fact, virtually no genre that could not support a movie titled Nate and Hayes. However, the actual Nate and Hayes just so happens to be a pirate movie, and from the moment I learned that, it was all over. A John Hughes pirate movie was just too damn weird an idea to resist, even though I was sure deep down in my heart that this was a "John Hughes" movie insofar as Hughes was paid for a weekend of script doctoring and polishing up the dialogue.* And so, here we are.

The film opens at the end, with dread pirate "Bully" Hayes (Tommy Lee Jones) on the losing end of a battle with the soldiers of this or that Pacific government, leading into an extended flashback that takes us back a year and a half to the time when Hayes found himself involved in an adventure with two island missionaries, Nathaniel Williamson (Michael O'Keefe) and his fiancée Sophie (Jenny Seagrove), who are captured by Hayes on their way to a new posting. After he deposits them there, they are shocked to learn that he is one of the most notorious slavers and murderers and general bad sorts to be found in those seas, but an even worse pirate is about to make his presence known: Hayes's former colleague, Ben Pease (Max Phipps), who kills everyone on the mission except Sophie, whom he steals to sell her into bondage. He fails to note, as does the woman, that Nathaniel has managed to survive, and the missionary quickly falls in with Hayes and company on a mission of rescue and revenge.

Taking a quick peek again at the 1983 release date, and if your suspicion is that the mission of rescue and revenge ends up being an attempt at copying the '30s serial mentality of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I congratulate your fluency in the world of '80s genre filmmaking. In fact, it is frequently noted by the impossibly tiny minority of cinephiles who are even aware that Nate and Hayes exists, that the film shares a positively eerie number of similarities with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which came out less than a year later and could not possibly have been influenced by the pirate movie, although the fact that both are Paramount productions is suggestive more than it ought to be. These similarities, most prominently a rope bridge scene that would smack of plagiarism in any other context, and a big mechanical human sacrifice machine lowering a young woman in a white gown into burning death as a crowd of ooga-booga type natives looks on chanting, are certainly worth noting (for that matter, they're both appallingly violent for PG rated films, and one can imagine a different universe where Nate and Hayes was a hit and led to the creation of the PG-13), but it's probably best not to make a big deal of it: all those damn wannabe Indiana Jones movies were drawing on the same tradition of matinee adventures as were the proper Indiana Jones pictures, and a bit of cross-pollination was undoubtedly inevitable.

(On the other hand, Nate and Hayes bears an even more marked resemblance to Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl than it does to Temple of Doom, particularly the ending, and this is suggestive. But there are only so many ideas floating around, and some things just naturally fit a pirate movie).

Leaving all that behind us, Nate and Hayes is not a good film. But it's also not a terrible film. Class Reunion, to stay in the John Hughes family, is a terrible film: watching it feels like a punishment. Nate and Hayes is an extremely broken film, and that is a different thing. It is dysfunctional in ways that are almost as compelling and watchable as it would have been if it had no dysfunctions at all.

Some of it is just poor, shoddy writing and directing (it was helmed by Ferdinand Fairfax, a first-time feature director with virtually no experience before or after 1983 in anything other than British television): the fact that it takes 40 minutes until Nate and Hayes join up to chase Ben Pease is one of the most gaping problems - a 2.5 hour Pirates of the Caribbean movie can get away with that kind of slow build (though, arguably, it shouldn't), but at 99 minutes, a solid two-fifths of Nate and Hayes has been used up before anything terribly kinetic happens. It's all establishing characters and a couple of sub-sub-Raiders setpieces until that point, and there is just no damn excuse for something as frivolous as a pirate adventure to be as boring as that.

Once things kick in, though, Nate and Hayes becomes so spectacularly wrong that it's hard to take your eyes off it: the wild mismatch between Jones's twinkle-eyed, beardy "I'm in a period picture and isn't that fun?!" acting and O'Keefe's massive inability to be anything other than a superficial '80s actor with feathery hair - the sudden imposition of a sexual rivalry between the two men in defiance of anything resembling human behavior - the bizarre plot point in which Pease teams up with a German naval officer (Grant Tilly) in command of an experimental coal-powered submarine. It was this last one that made me give up even trying to resist the movie, for what it's worth, for although it "fits" - Bully Hayes and Ben Pease were actual South Sea pirates active in the 1860s and 1870s, a time when submarines were old news - the world of the pirate movie simply does not allow for that kind of technology without disrupting the generic integrity of the plot, not to mention that the German connection makes the whole thing feel like an unutterable hybrid of Errol Flynn and Das Boot.

Anyway, the film has no idea how to be a pirate movie and a contemporary sensibility (which may be the sole residue of Hughes's involvement in the project) keeps nudging in without ever being successfully grafted onto the material - even the title font makes it look more like an action film than a period picture - and other than Jones, nobody in the film gives more than an adequate performance, and the characters are drawn without enough distinction to make them stand apart as more than "Nate, Hayes, and Hayes's crew, one of whom is a samurai". It is a disastrously unsteady film, and like every other pirate movie between the end of Hammer Studios' experiments in the genre and the first time Johnny Depp swanned into the scene, it was a complete bomb. I will admit to finding it kind of amazing - no pirate movie can be so bad that I outright hate it - but it's a mess, and more to be studied as the sort of thing to avoid than respected as a forgotten gem that needs a new audience. But boy is it ever hard to turn away.

I JUST CAN WAIT

I know that I have that whole thing where I promised see and review every movie that went to #1 at the US box office, and part of me feels like I really had ought to see the first wide re-release of a Disney animated feature in years and years and years. But I also don't want to pay $15 for The Lion King 3D just so I can write a review about how incredibly shitty the conversion process was on a movie I've never particularly liked that I'm going to be getting on Blu-Ray in 3 weeks anyway.

Besides, long-time readers are already aware that I have reviewed the film already, at considerable length, during a mind-blowing Disney binge back in 2009. That review is here.

17 September 2011

HATE AND OTHER DRUGS

With Drive making its much-anticipated US debut this weekend, I thought it was a good time to finally acquaint myself with the cultishly adored films with which director Nicolas Winding Refn made his reputation.

One of the more storied debuts of the 1990s came in 1996, when 25-year-old Nicolas Winding Refn of Denmark shocked and awed Europe with Pusher, a bleak and brooding and altogether nasty study of life in the seedy underworld of Copenhagen. In a story almost too just-so to believe, it was expanded from a short Winding Refn made for his film school adaptation; upon being denied entry, he devoted himself to raising the money to make the feature himself, becoming so embroiled in the creation of the work that he turned down the school's later offer to let him in, anyway. An anecdote that might or might not have a whole lot to say about the movie, though I hope it makes all the other wannabe indie filmmakers feel as bad about themselves as I do.

The film was a major hit - "major", anyway, given the tiny scope of its creation - and the seeds were planted for Winding Refn's eventual emergence as an Artist of Note in the field of violent action thrillers cut with oddly experimental impulses that gave all his films the patina of arthouse respectability; but that would be a few missteps in the future. In the meantime, let us restrict ourselves to the thing itself: a few days in the life of Frank (Kim Bodnia), a lower-middle tier drug dealer unimportant enough to work the streets himself, but big enough that he can boss the other dealers around. Without getting too bogged down in all the plot details, Frank owes money to local narcotics bigwig Milo (Zlatko Burić), and thanks to a deal that goes spectacularly wrong, he ends up owing quite a lot more, and Milo offers him a short window of time in which to make good on the debts before Frank ends up dead in a gutter somewhere.

Every single plan Frank makes ends up going wildly off the rails, and it's not so very hard to squint really tight and see Pusher as a warped farce; given the famously upbeat Scandinavian sense of humor, I'm not prepared to concede that the film isn't at some remove, a comedy so damn black that it sucks all the funny back into its ravenous event horizon. At any rate, the busy cross-section of whores, thugs, mobsters, and junkies that Frank crosses paths with includes his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbæk), his unhinged skinhead sidekick Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen, in the role that kickstarted his career), and Milo's peculiarly kind enforcer Radovan (Slavko Labović), who acts as the Jiminy Cricket in this immeasurably seedy world, trying to help Frank get out of this with all his parts intact but unable to help though the dealer's epically poor judgment and worse luck.

It's all sort of dismayingly unexceptional: outstandingly well-done for a first-time director with no formal training on a shoestring budget, but something about it is unappealingly typical. Oh, yawn, another nihilistic European crime drama where even the nicest characters are dead inside and everything in society seems so irredeemably rotten that it's not worth fighting for it any long, one might think, and that wouldn't be completely wrong. It's a well-done version of that: the cast is all very good, with Bodnia carrying literally every scene of the movie in a perpetual state of blank desperation, suggesting that he isn't so much afraid of failing to meet his debts to Milo as he so certain of his failure that a washed-out blandness is the only thing keeping him sane.

The key, I think, is to bear in mind that the movie came out in 1996, not in 2011, not following God knows how many of the damn things. In 1996, the world was in the grip of a certain filmmaker called Quentin Tarantino, and a certain pair of movies called Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and in both America and Europe young male filmmakers were intoxicated by the former video store clerk's mixture of pop culture allusion, abstracted dialogue and characters, and brutal gangland violence filtered back and forth to the point where it isn't "romanticised", but certainly made "cool". Tarantino got away with it through a mixture of hubris, creativity, and an encyclopedic knowledge of genre films; most of his imitators simply made slick, painfully forgettable crime pictures.

1996 was just late enough that Winding Refn and co-writer Jens Dahl assuredly must have seen the first fruits of the post-Tarantino wave, and their Pusher is a pointed and largely successful counter to that impulse. It is the story of the kind of character found in all of those movies, with the kind of ticking-clock scenario that makes those movies nominally exciting, with a throbbing score that assures us that what we're watching is tremendously thrilling, and on the other hand it is caked in layers of grime and filth, an aesthetic so monumentally far from the snazzy flourishes of Tarantino and his ilk that it almost ceases to feel like the same art form. Only one part of the entire movie suggests artfulness at all: the non-diegetic introduction of the main characters in dramatically noirish top-lit poses facing the camera with their names superimposed. Otherwise, it's all handheld and bad lighting and swirling from point to point like Winding Refn and cinematographer Morten Søborg just pushed the "record" button and aimed the camera at the actors without bothering to rehearse blocking first. And not much in the way of elaborate violence, "cool" or otherwise: despite its pervasive sense of desperation and cruelty, there's only a little bit of action or violence to be seen in Pusherand what does happen is stomach-turning

I pray it's not parochialism on my part, a sort of "any Danish filmmaker is as good as another impulse", to see in this calculated anti-aesthetic an echo of the Dogme 95 experiment; I have little suspicion that Winding Refn obeyed any or most of the strident rules of that movement (whose first official film, The Celebration, was two years in the future) but the effect is unmistakably similar. It's a movie about the ugliness and physicality of life as it is lived (right down to the casting of actual criminals and junkies), not life as it is dreamed to be by style-besotted filmmakers. This impulse was widespread in Europe in the late 1990s; another point of comparison is the Dardenne brothers, whose major works all post-date Pusher. I have no interest in claiming that the European realists of the '90s and '00s were taking their cues from a gritty Danish crime film, box office smash or no; but certainly the fact that Winding Refn got there so early is impressive, and that he used this style to so effectively argue against the treatment of criminals and drug dealers as romantic, exciting figures (Frank is pathetic and thus earns our sympathy and even affection, but we never come close to wanting to trade places with him) that was prominent at the time is more impressive still. Despite a clutch of memorable performances, time has blunted the film's edge somewhat, but there's still something about that steely commitment to laying everything miserably bare that gives the film a sharp edge.

* * * * *


Despite Pusher's massive success, Winding Refn was not apparently inclined to revisit it, nor the corroded milieu. He knocked out Bleeder, a film of little reputation, in 1999; in 2003 he found his way into some Canadian and British money to make Fear X, a murder mystery starring John Turturro that died a brutal death at the box office and threatened to shutter the filmmaker's production company. Desperate for a sure thing, Winding Refn gave into popular demand and saved his company and possibly even his career by turning his grim crime drama into a grim crime trilogy. Though the scope of the series would broaden considerably, and while I will own to having no real idea why Pusher is regarded as anything but an interesting sidebar in the grand story of 1990s crime pictures, I have no problem understanding why a cult has accrued to 2004's Pusher II, even though in the aggregate, it doesn't strike me as being quite as "successful" as its predecessor. But its flaws are more fascinating than what the original Pusher got right, and that makes all the difference.

It seems, for a little while, that the sequel will be a stylistic advance on the original: it opens with a lengthy shot of a prison inmate (Jesper Salomonsen) delivering a monologue about conquering one's emotions framed in a way that is absolutely not at all unusual or quirky or inventive, and yet as it goes on and on, one something begins to feel disorienting about the moment. The best thing I can immediately call to mind to compare it to is the endless two-shot at the heart of the 2008 Hunger, though it is not nearly so long; but in both cases, the static shot is long enough that the filmmakers almost seem to be daring us to blink or lose focus, and the intensity of the moment becomes almost nauseating.

Nothing in the film will return to that, although it's certainly not without its style; but in the main, it's quite a bit like Pusher. Frenzied handheld, shitty lighting, grotty locations, pounding techno-flavored score that threatens to knock your heartbeat out of rhythm. Yet that opening casts a trance that lingers, something the original movie never even thought about. Now, the inmate is speaking to none other than our friend Tonny, the hedonistic scumbag from the first movie, still played by Mikkelsen. It turns out to be the last day in Tonny's latest stint in prison, and he is ready to return to a life of boozing and fucking, but first he has to get set up in his father's auto shop. His father, a crime lord called the Duke (Leif Sylvester), is a powerful and imposing figure - Tonny's prison friend let us know that already - and he has very little use for his messed-up adult son, doting instead on Tonny's young half-brother.

Tonny himself, it turns out, has an infant child, born to prostitute Charlotte (Anne Sørensen), which he learns quite by accident and to his great shock, and it is this event that turns the movie and thus the trilogy on its head, though it takes a while for this to happen. In the meantime, there's quite a lot of drug-dealing business with the Duke's loyal underling Ø (Øyvind Hagen-Traberg), and the colorfully awful Kusse-Kurt (Kurt Nielsen), whose name is helpfully subtitled as "Kurt the Cunt", and wrangling with Charlotte over the behavior properly becoming a mother of a baby. It's this last detail that seems to alarm even Tonny himself as being out of character for a licentious street tough, and where the movie slowly blossoms into something much more interesting than just another story about the ghastly life of Copenhagen drug runners. Which is good, because that part of the film is not at all so good as it was before, possibly because it is redundant.

Pusher was in its way a character study, of course: Frank's unraveling is interesting primarily because of the unexpected way the film lets us into his perspective and demonstrates the humane side of the wicked drug trade. But it's got nothing on Pusher II, and the way that we get to see Tonny discover by inches that his life and the society around him is a complete disaster. On paper, it sounds unforgivably sentimental: the way he realises that he is a terrible man and that his baby is heading for the same life, the emotional scars of his pained relationship with his own father, his growing awareness that his life in prison has left him a selfish teenager in a thirtysomething body on the verge of being too old to change, even the heavy-handed symbolism of the word "Respect" tattooed across his bare skull & all the ways thatit takes on all the meanings you'd anticipate.

In practice, it's not very sentimental at all, in large part due to Mikkelsen's restrained performance, which constantly implies without ever stating the undercurrents of the character, and the rest thanks to the continued harshness of Winding Refn's spare realism, though in this case it's not half so anti-stylish as it was before. In particular, the use of lighting becomes positively ingenious, particularly during Tonny's frequent trips to a brothel drenched in so much red light that at times the film becomes virtually nothing but a sheet of red with black shapes suggesting the human form moving across it. No, it's not subtle: this is Hell. But it fits in well with the grainy, putrid look of the more typically realistic scenes of street life.

Pusher II is a good deal more nasty and violent and bitter than Pusher, but by virtue of having such a clear character arc driving it, it has a hell of a lot more soul. There are still problems all over the place: the first half of the movie, before Tonny's desire for redemption has begun to penetrate his consciousness, is an unncessarily plodding retread of material Winding Refn had already done (maybe his way of bringing us back into this world after eight years away - I cannot say), and the obviousness of the whole thing robs it of some of its impact. But it's memorable all right, and Mikkelsen anchors the film with a tremendous presence that sells even the most soap-operatic moments with a lacerating, teeth-clenched honesty.

* * * * *


The third time was the charm: 2005's Pusher 3 (the shift from Roman to Arabic numerals seems oddly important, though I cannot say why) is something of a masterpiece that pushes the admittedly tiny "life and times of bedraggled men in the drug industry" subgenre to a place that it had never before gone and will likely not return. It is, like Pusher II, a character study of a man who is dimly aware that he hates his whole life and wants out of it; it is, unlike Pusher II, about a man who is so high up and so intractably buried within his criminal empire that he can't even make a good-faith effort to escape. For in this case, our "hero" is Milo the Serbian drug lord, played for the third time by Zlatko Burić, who by virtue of a cameo in Pusher II is the only actor in all three films, and if Pusher 3 had nothing else to recommend it besides demonstrating that even the seemingly untouchable kingpins of great drug cartels have their miseries and pressures from above, it would at least be something worth noting. But that's hardly all of what makes the film tick.

Winding Refn opens the film with a scene that is so bizarrely out of place, given everything we've come to expected based on the first two films, that I spent most of it looking for the hidden twist: Milo attending an Narcotic Anonymous meeting to explain to the supportive people gathered around that he's been really stressed out planning his daughter's (Marinela Dekić) 25th birthday celebration, and it's taking all of his willpower to avoid using a little chemical assistance to get through the day.

It has all the trappings of a stupidly broad joke: see, he's a recovering addict, but he's also a drug lord! Ain't it always the way, folks? In fact, the great majority of Pusher 3 acts uncommonly like a wacky comedy of errors that somebody absentmindedly forgot to put jokes in. Milo gets a shipment of ecstasy instead of a shipment of heroin, and has to find somebody who knows what to do with ecstasy. Milo tries to cook traditional food for his daughter's party, but gives all of his henchmen food poisoning. Milo wants to force his daughter's fiancé (Levino Jensen) into his sphere of influence, but his daughter starts to haggle with him over their cut. Milo loses all the ecstasy and has to play host to the leaders of a prostitution ring to make up for it. Wocka wocka!

Of course, Pusher 3 isn't meant to be a farce, at least not the kind that is funny in even the remotest degree, and that fact that so many of the incidents within it are at the level of a sub-par sitcom gives it a sharp bite of the inexplicable and absurd. The great Milo is reduced to absurdity, an impression helped considerably by Burić's clownlike burliness, yet this reduction is not ridiculous but tragic, an impression helped considerably by the haunted, empty look Burić wears in most scenes, particularly in the film's best moment, where he learns that the young woman being auctioned off in his kitchen is a person with life and a history all her own, and the actor's face tells us without having to tell us that he wants to be a better father to this strung-out innocent than to his own shitty, overprivileged offspring (it is horrible to contemplate that such a marvelous actor as Burić received what is unquestionably his most prominent role to date as the cartoon Russian mobster in 2012).

Though Pusher 3 shares with its forebears a shaky, hyper-realist aesthetic high on location grime and low on good lighting and polish, it's striking how dissimilar it is from Pusher II, given that the two films were presumably made all in a rush. Pusher II was, relatively, full of poetic abstraction and an attempt to externalise the protagonist's inner torments; Pusher 3 is perhaps the most staid of the three films, relying to a great extent on the repetition of frames, locations, and narrative beats. Except in a few key moments, it's not at all as hectic as the others, and while it is stuck in the same filthy world, it's not at all so fetid. The privileges of being the boss, maybe. Milo is not on the streets, and except for the third act, he never really has to muck about in the sordidness that was Frank's entire world in Pusher. Even then, the sucker punch of the movie isn't the big gory showpiece presented with such icy detachment as to be maybe the most grotesque scene in a violent franchise, but the lingering final shot, in which most of the frame is taken up the sky. Comparatively, Pusher 3 is an elegy, and while in the grand scheme of cinema, it's still a nasty movie shot with minimal artistic embellishment in Copenhagen's disgusting underbelly, next to the other Pusher movies, parts of it are almost stately and abstract. This makes it at least a little bit easier to take, but it also makes the brutality on display more existential and therefore universal than it was in Pusher, where the stakes never aim to be more than one man's life. The whole series is about rotten men in rotten circumstances, but it's only in the best moments of the third entry that the theme expands to be about the whole rotten world. It's harsh and cruel and I would not fight anyone who called it unacceptable nihilistic, but you can't argue with powerful filmmaking, and that is undoubtedly what's on display here.