Monday, January 23, 2012

HAYWIRE (Soderbergh, 2012)

In Steven Soderbergh’s HAYWIRE, Gina Carano (untrained actor, trained fighter) reminds us that good acting and good emoting are not necessarily synonymous – though her attempts to express a depth of feeling sporadically required by the script are robotic and stilted, she’s always watching, always aware of her surroundings, her darting eyes the only part of her performance that betrays a nearly serene reserve. It’s a trait, small yet noticeable, that instantly lends credence to her role as highly-trained former black-ops Marine Mallory Kane, a soldier who has to remain several steps ahead at all times in order to survive. She may not be a great actor, but she gives a great performance.

She’s the most credible action heroine since Linda Hamilton in TERMINATOR 2, in part because she’s never portrayed as superhuman, just supremely skilled and confident. When escaping from some armed guards in Dublin, she attempts to climb down a drainage pipe and ends up falling some 15 or 20 feet to the ground. She lands with a thud that nearly knocks the wind out of her – as she slowly gets to her feet, trying to determine how injured she is even as she continues to move, Soderbergh’s steady eye allows us to witness every moment of this intensely internal process. It’s the kind of physical awareness that could only come from someone who knows firsthand what it is to get hurt and keep on going. Carano’s magnetic performance is not so much a subversion of the standard female action heroine as it an inversion – taking an archetype that is often required to be overly sexualized and mythologized and subtly transforming it into something internal, private, quiet and strong.

Being the restless genre deconstructionist that he is, it’s no surprise that Soderbergh’s HAYWIRE initially seems to be several different films in one. In some cases (most recently last year’s CONTAGION) this approach can result in a film that feels distant, with the director at an almost clinical remove from his subject. HAYWIRE, however, blends genres and tones loosely, almost cavalierly dismissing any notion of a coherent narrative so that the end product is more akin to improvisational jazz, its odd rhythms a welcome counterpoint to the frenetic pacing of contemporary “chaos cinema”. Many elements of HAYWIRE boldly defy action-movie norms: the low-key, evocative lightning, absent any trace of blue filters, the long, steady shots framing the action instead of fragmenting it, and the incongruously vintage instrumental score (itself a nod to 1970s “blaxploitation”, a clear influence on HAYWIRE) that drops out whenever the fighting begins.

It’s an ingenious choice to replace the relentlessly bombastic accompaniment of most contemporary action films with an organic symphony of punches, body blows, and objects colliding against one another with real weight and impact. The care and precision with which Soderbergh lights, frames, and edits these sequences (as with many of his other films, he handled both cinematography and editing himself, under two different pseudonyms) serves to showcase the stunningly swift, fluid fight choreography performed by Carano and an array of game but amusingly overmatched (male) actors.

The  film’s centerpiece, a knock-down, drag-out brawl in a luxury hotel suite between Carano and Michael Fassbender, itself functions as the climax to an extended flashback - a job in Dublin in which Carano’s Mallory Kane plays wife to a dashing MI6 agent. (“You want me to be eye candy?” she asks her handler, notes of bemusement and incredulity in her voice. She may as well be taking the audience to task for their expectations of a female action star.) As Carano and Fassbender play the scene, it could almost pass for a romantic comedy in miniature – Attractive Girl and Attractive Boy meet, are drawn to one another, then assume a façade of glamorous couplehood (the moment where Carano emerges from the hotel bathroom dressed in an elegant black gown is straight out of PRETTY WOMAN). While the two do eventually tumble into bed, it’s in the course of a brutal security-deposit-obliterating fight.  The coupling is lethal yet no less sexual in nature, Carano finally choking Fassbender to death between her thighs. The staging of this fight is the film’s most direct acknowledgement of the sex/death dichotomy at the core of, well, every action movie ever made, but particularly prominent in those starring women. (A pair of shots, roughly an hour apart, in which Carano uses the same forceful pulling motion to both undo Channing Tatum’s belt and disarm an attacker using his own gun’s strap addresses this even more artfully.)

Fassbender does a fine job with a minimal role, he and the rest of the supporting cast notable mainly for their varying reactions to the central figure of Mallory Kane. Both Carano’s reticence and Dobbs’ economical screenplay keep her internal life largely unknown to us – what we understand about Kane comes primarily from watching a cast of seasoned actors respond to her. A moment late in the film when Mallory’s father, played by Bill Paxton, witnesses her skills in action briefly reflects our own fascination, awe, and horror at what she can do back at us. Soderbergh clearly shares this response – having crafted the entire film around Carano, he’s smart enough to know when to stay out of her way, going as far as to stage the final duel in near-silhouette on a beach at sunset, the two dark figures fighting for their lives against an idyllic (and classically cinematic) backdrop. If Soderbergh ultimately seems content to let both Carano and HAYWIRE be little more than curious objects in motion, at least he allows us to see her in her element. The film, after all, is just a means of containing the subject, and when the subject is as compelling as Gina Carano, it may be that no amount of precise, technical filmmaking is enough to contain her.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Films of 2011

First, a fact: I saw more theatrically-released films in 2011 than I have during any previous year of my life. Considerably more. Since we’re making lists, here is a short list of reasons why I think this came to be, from “hmm, it’s possible” to “yes, that would be why” in no particular order:
  •  Sporadic periods of unemployment
  •  First full year out of school
  •  I am fortunate to live in New York City and have access to pretty much every film that gets released
  • A steadily decreasing number of scruples with regard to movie-hopping/piracy/abusing my expired student ID
  • Hey, not my fault! Lots of worthwhile movies to see!
  • Gradually recognizing that I have more or less an addiction to seeing movies
That said, here are the honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):

A DANGEROUS METHOD (dir. David Cronenberg), MELANCHOLIA (dir. Lars von Trier), PUTTY HILL (dir. Matt Porterfield), SHAME (dir. Steve McQueen), TAKE SHELTER (dir. Jeff Nichols), TOMBOY (dir. Céline Sciamma), UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES (dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The Top 15:

        15.   LE HAVRE (dir. Aki Kaurismäki)
My first exposure to the work of Finnish auteur Kaurismäki, this wonderfully humanist fable offsets a year of grim premonitions with wry Buster Keaton-esque humor and and the radical notion that the generosity of a community can provide stability in a socioeconomically fractured world. Kaurismäki is too wise a filmmaker to pretend that the simple act of an old man taking in a young refugee boy will heal Europe, but he’s not too cynical to suggest that such an act could constitute, in its own way, a minor miracle.

            14. THE SKIN I LIVE IN (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)
2011 found Spanish master Almodóvar letting his freak flag fly in this quite frankly nutballs tale of love, vengeance, and extreme plastic surgery. Not knowing anything beyond the basic setup is the best way to approach this one – the film desperately wants to catch you off guard, so why not let it? Antonio Banderas redeems a decade of SPY KIDS and SHREK franchise hell as a mad scientist unraveling what must be one of the most insane revenge schemes this side of OLDBOY. So good, you’ll want to lock it up in your tastefully-appointed mansion and make it fall in love with you!

13. MONEYBALL (dir. Bennett Miller)
A feat of Hollywood alchemy that somehow transforms baseball statistics and big-money negotiations into a movie about how ideas take on lives of their own, and the part those ideas play in our attempts to reconcile romantic notions about the pursuits to which we devote ourselves with the realities we can’t ignore. This was the surprise of the year for me, featuring a career-best performance from Brad Pitt (a reminder of why we still need movie stars) and a revelatory supporting turn from Jonah Hill. Their onscreen odd-couple chemistry generates more sparks than that of any rom-com duo in recent memory.

12. A SEPARATION (dir. Asghar Farhadi)
The opening scene of A SEPARATION functions essentially as the film itself in miniature – from the POV of a silent judge, we hear the testimony of Nader and Simin (the excellent Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami), a middle-class couple in Tehran in the midst of a divorce. Not having any information on the characters or their situation aside from what they tell us, it is as though Farhadi is daring us to take a side. As this domestic drama unfolds, however, truth proves to be elusive and the consequences of applying a code of absolutes to complex, ambiguous life situations become crushingly clear. Farhadi’s is the finest screenplay of the year, as riveting and precisely calibrated as a classic thriller.

11. MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (dir. Sean Durkin)
Debut features this assured do not come along every year, and this particular one heralds the arrival of a major new acting talent as well. It’s difficult to imagine a more fitting match of actor and role than Elizabeth Olsen’s Martha, at once maddeningly opaque and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Durkin all but obliterates the distinctions between memory, dream and reality in telling the story of a young woman who only thinks she’s escaped the cult that held her in its sway for two years. DP Jody Lee Lipes (yet another immensely promising young talent involved with this film) purposefully underdeveloped the film during post-production, his deceptively alluring images a brilliant visual parallel to Martha’s incomplete sense of self.

10. ATTACK THE BLOCK (dir. Joe Cornish)
A slick genre hybrid elevated to instant-classic status by a rare element of social awareness, Cornish’s sci-fi-horror-comedy slyly subverts the conventions of British urban-panic cinema. If it’s a bold choice to introduce your underage protagonists in the process of mugging a defenseless young woman at knife-point, it’s an even bolder one to expect your audience to rally behind the ragtag bunch as they defend their council estate against an alien invasion. The cultural specificity of the film pays off in surprising, satisfying ways, the slang-heavy script serving initially to alienate us from the world these kids inhabit, then allowing us to see through their eyes the self-sustaining community they must fight to protect.

9. HUGO (dir. Martin Scorsese)
Horrendously mismarketed as a post-Harry Potter kiddie fantasy, Scorsese’s adaptation goes above and beyond most “love letters to cinema” by combining state-of-the-art technology with the work of Georges Méliès and other pioneers of silent film to recapture the wonder that audiences felt watching those early movies. It’s also the most openhearted portrait of an artist (or in this case, several artists) since RATATOUILLE and Scorsese’s most personal film in a decade. Having made film preservation one of the dedicated causes of his life, he now shows all of us that what we have to gain from revisiting the past is nothing less than our own impulse to create.

8.  BEGINNERS (dir. Mike Mills)
Drawing on his own experiences, Mills' deeply sincere film elegantly draws parallels from the past to the present to tell the story of a man (a never-better Ewan McGregor) reflecting on the history of his father, a gay man who came out only a few short years before his death. Christopher Plummer is simply astounding as Hal, the father – his absolute refusal to let anything, even terminal illness, prevent him from enjoying the most fulfilling life he’s known is brave and indelible. Don't be fooled by the more self-consciously "quirky" affectations here - BEGINNERS carries the rare and unmistakable sting of truth, capturing how what we learn from our parents shapes our own relationships, for better and for worse.

7. WEEKEND (dir. Andrew Haigh)
A film so subtle and understated, it's easy to mistake what an achievement it is. Intensely intimate yet surprisingly universal, Haigh’s delicate second feature is a love story in the truest sense, as two gay men try to negotiate their complicated relationship to love as a concept and what role it should (or even can) play in their lives. Tom Cullen and Chris New give two of the most natural, daring performances of this or any year, and Haigh’s innate understanding of the at times insurmountable divide between what we want and what we can have imbues the simple story with an unexpected, lasting resonance.

6. THE FUTURE (dir. Miranda July)
Miranda July’s second feature provoked ridicule and hatred in some angry corners of the Internet, mostly because 2011 found the twee/hipster backlash in full swing and the trailer prominently features a talking cat. The film itself, however, is a devastatingly self-critical look at a young couple colliding head-on with the emptiness of their lives. July (who wrote, directed, and stars in the film) fearlessly dissects her own need to be watched and admired, and exposes the inherent falseness of an entire self-satisfied genre (and generation) in the process.

5. HOUSE OF TOLERANCE (dir. Bertrand Bonello)
Inexplicably re-titled HOUSE OF PLEASURES for the U.S. release, this hypnotic puzzle-box of a film conflates the day-to-day existence of women in a turn-of-the-century Parisian brothel into an exploration of how cinema distorts the passage of time and the progression of history. Inexhaustibly enigmatic, with a handful of magnificent performances and the most provocative final shot of the year, in which an abrupt cut from luscious 35mm film to grainy digital video signals the sudden destruction of an entire way of life.

4. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (dir. Tomas Alfredson)
One of the most meticulously crafted films in years, a seamless collaboration of form, content, narrative, and design.  Alfredson’s decaying Cold War-era Britain is so airless that the viewer might suffocate if not for the achingly vital performances of this ensemble cast, anchored by Gary Oldman as a quiet, watchful MI6 agent slowly overcoming the inertia of betrayal and disappointment. But Maria Djurkovic’s production design is the secret weapon of the film, her compartmentalized interiors perfectly capturing the paranoid isolation in which the characters are mired.

3. DRIVE (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)
This flawlessly rendered, neon-tinted neo-noir was a more fitting tribute to the pleasures of pure cinema than THE ARTIST. Ryan Gosling’s Driver became instantly iconic (the character that launched a thousand Williamsburg scorpion jackets), his increasingly pathological need to protect the vulnerable girl of his dreams challenging the audience’s perception of movie violence with every skull-shattering kill. This is not a think piece, however – watching this film is a full-scale auditory/visual seduction, one to which I’ll happily surrender again and again. “You keep me under your spell”, indeed.

2. MARGARET (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
I walked into the theater on the final day of MARGARET’s one-week NYC run expecting an unsalvageable mess. I walked out convinced I had seen a modern masterpiece. With his second film, Lonergan has crafted a sprawling, raw drama in the tradition of John Cassavetes; a great New York movie, a great post-9/11 movie, a great coming-of-age movie, and thanks to the legal disputes surrounding its release, now one of the great Lost Films of our time. If you have the opportunity to see this film (and if the advocacy of a contingent of critics and fans calling themselves #TeamMargaret continues to grow, you hopefully will) please don’t pass it up.

1. TREE OF LIFE (dir. Terrence Malick)
Only Terrence Malick could imagine a cinematic through line from the origins of the universe across vivid memories of a childhood in 1950s Texas and then beyond, into the unknown - and only a singularly masterful cast and crew could bring such a vision into being. Prodigiously talented newcomer Hunter McCracken gives the single best performance of 2011 – every second he’s onscreen he’s observing, taking it in, testing his boundaries and exploring the world around him and he’s matched by the peerless Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera which, liberated from the confines of fixed perspective, becomes nothing less than a conduit for consciousness itself. To see TREE OF LIFE is to witness the possibilities of cinema thrillingly reaffirmed and even redefined.

And one last note: Though these films were not 2011 releases, having the opportunity to see the rarely screened masterpieces LOVE EXPOSURE (dir. Sion Sono), A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY (dir. Edward Yang), and L’AMOUR FOU (dir. Jacques Rivette) was unquestionably one of the highlights of my cinematic year.

I was also fortunate to see the as-yet-unreleased THE COLOR WHEEL (dir. Alex Ross Perry), KILL LIST (dir. Ben Wheatley) and THIS IS NOT A FILM (dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb & Jafar Panahi). These remarkable films will almost certainly appear on next year’s list.

Here's to 2012!

Monday, November 14, 2011

J. EDGAR (Eastwood, 2011)

No one can be faulted for thinking Clint Eastwood was going to play it safe. Eastwood, one of the last surviving icons of old Hollywood, has spent the past decade churning out increasingly monochromatic dramas, draining the vitality out of his stars (his amusingly cantankerous turn in Gran Torino excepted) and bleaching the complexity out of his themes. His last two films, Hereafter and Invictus, seemed to mark the end of his willingness to challenge his audience or even engage to with his subject matter on any compelling level. The first trailer for J. Edgar only confirmed the diagnosis: here were all the Eastwood trademarks - the same grayscale color filter, the same ploddingly obvious score - with the added bonus of the same high-profile biopic beats we’ve seen in countless other Oscar-hungry true-life dramas, applied to one of the twentieth century's most enigmatic figures.
But Eastwood’s J. Edgar is not the film that’s been advertised, and that’s made abundantly clear from the first moment we see the man himself, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in heavy age makeup that lends him an uncanny resemblance to a wax figure of Jon Voight that’s been left out in the sun. The first time we see DiCaprio’s Hoover is a crucial moment in the film, perhaps the most crucial – are we, as an audience, going to accept this instantly recognizable actor caked in questionable choices as a major player in our country’s relatively recent history? Many critics, from the well-respected to the most notorious quote whores, have emphatically answered no, dismissing the film with vaguely condescending reviews that all uniformly point to the bad makeup as a reason why the film need not be taken seriously. I must respectfully disagree.
For me, that first shot of DiCaprio in what amounts to old-man drag firmly removes J. Edgar from the senior-class-photo of well-intentioned, cleanly conventional biopics and shoves it under the bleachers to hang with the bad kids. This movie bums cigarettes off of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, a willfully diffuse shattered-glass portrait of Bob Dylan that left both neophytes and devotees confused or even angry. The makeup (on not only DiCaprio, but also Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts) functions as a theatrical device of the kind employed by Bertolt Brecht, the hugely influential playwright and director who invented the concept of the verfremdungseffekt (from the German meaning “to make strange”) to prevent his audience from responding to his allegorical dramas of social unrest with merely emotional catharsis. He wanted his audience to consider the implications and the causes of what they were witnessing, to be free to draw parallels with the political and social climate of the day, and ultimately, to incite social change and political upheaval. We cannot attribute these motivations to J. Edgar – it lacks the clarity of purpose necessary for that. What Eastwood’s Brechtian devices do invite us to do, however, is consider the film as the product of a man’s grappling with his legacy, and his place within the country that turned him into a cultural icon.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay – pointedly not based on any pre-existing material – reconstitutes some of the major episodes of the first half of the twentieth century as a bizarre, time-shifting pageant of history, replete with a seemingly never-ending parade of readily recognizable actors portraying iconic figures they barely resemble, if at all (“Hey, there’s Josh Lucas!”, etc.) and an odd framing device of Hoover dictating his memoirs to a succession of blandly handsome young actors, whose names and faces are so vague as to suggest they are manifestations of Hoover’s obsession with young male bodies more than actual characters. All this turns what could have been a textbook-dry stroll down memory lane into a sort of comic grotesque, capped off by the most ridiculous Nixon impersonator this side of Point Break. The interplay between Hoover’s past and present (“present” here being the early 1960s) also provides the film’s most effective recurring visual joke, in which a cross-dissolve repeatedly transforms DiCaprio and the strapping golden boy Hammer into their desiccated latter-day counterparts. Hammer, in particular, looks like a carnival-attraction mummy in his old-face, which lends his already impressive supporting performance as Hoover’s lifelong companion and soul mate Clyde Tolson an unexpected layer of poignancy, as he valiantly struggles to wring real tears from latex. Watts, as Hoover’s secretary and confidant Helen Gandy, fares better, mostly due to her relative lack of screen time. Her performance, age makeup be damned, is an understated marvel in a film that flirts with caricature at every turn.
Yet it’s this same inclination toward the grand gesture that makes J. Edgar worth discussing. When the simmering sexual tension between Hoover and Tolson finally boils over, it does so in a tremendously melodramatic glass-shattering, furniture-tossing outburst that leaves the mouths of both male leads smeared with blood like angry slashes of red lipstick. When an older, paranoid Hoover suspects Martin Luther King, Jr. of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government, he clandestinely bugs King’s hotel room and is later shown in half-light, hunched over the reel-to-reel, his fantasies of King’s illicit encounters shown as imagined shadows on the wall, an exaggerated parody of white fears of black sexuality. Even Hoover’s cross-dressing is depicted here as an homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, a distraught DiCaprio wrapping himself in his dead mother’s gown and clutching her necklace until it breaks and sends pearls clattering to the floor in slow motion. Make no mistake, this is not a subtle film. But it is a fascinating and surprisingly subversive one, especially coming as it does from one of the few remaining emblems of Hollywood’s conservative masculine ideal.
Indeed, this is a film obsessed with image, much like the character of Hoover, who is shown several times studying a portrait of Washington on the wall as he enters the Oval Office. Sure, he’s tried to uphold the ideals of the country he’s sworn to protect against any threat from within or without, but how exactly did he come to inherit those ideals? He tells his Mommie Dearest (played by an appropriately campy Judi Dench) she’s the only one he can trust, and we already know she’s a hateful bigot who deploys “daffodil” as a gay slur. What J. Edgar suggests, through the makeup and the stunt casting and the many meta-cinematic references (a scene of Hoover watching James Cagney in The G-Men serves as something of a response to Dillinger watching Manhattan Melodrama in Mann's Public Enemies), is that for these men, the personal and the political are inextricably linked. And as a climactic revelation implies, neither Hoover nor Eastwood can be trusted as a narrator. 

In J. Edgar, both Hoover and Eastwood are men in the twilight of their years, racing against death itself to rewrite the narrative of their lives and their country, even as they doubt that such revisionism is right or even possible. It’s telling that while the first words we hear are attributed to Hoover, the last belong to a supposed lover of Eleanor Roosevelt, the “horse face” Hoover sought to discredit in the eyes of the American people. We’re hearing DiCaprio’s voice as Hoover, reading the letter composed for the film ostensibly by Dustin Lance Black, writing under the guise of a woman lost to history, and somehow, through all those layers of artifice, what once invited ridicule seems almost devastatingly honest.