Wednesday, April 16, 2014

ENEMY (2014)

I've been having a good time at the movies over the last few weeks. One of my favorite new films is ENEMY, a kind of slow-boiling surrealist thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, based on the book by Jorge Saramago. It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a history professor (the movie never says, but he has that adjunct look to him) named Adam Bell who discovers, quite by accident one day, that he has an exact double walking around. His double (also played, in a bit of seamless moviemaking magic and topflight acting, by Gyllenhaal) is a callow Z-list actor named Anthony Clair.

The plot involving doubles has been done many times, probably to greatest effect in Kieslowski's THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE. Kieslowski took "the double" as way to dramatize one of the central tragedies of life--that we have but one life to live. The idea of the double is so strangely haunting because it taps into some fantasy part of ourselves--that "who would I have been if I had been born somewhere else" mind game we sometimes play.

ENEMY is a darker look at this idea, though, because it puts the doubles in opposition to one another. Both Adam and Anthony have reason to want to escape their lives. Adam is depressed, stuck in a job that is just a loop of giving canned lectures to bored students, and stuck in a go-nowhere relationship with the lovely Mary (an excellent Melanie Laurent) that consists of sex and little else. Adam, meanwhile, has a pregnant wife named Helen (an equally excellent Sarah Gadon) who doesn't seem to trust him--in fact, she doesn't even seem to like him very much. We suspect that both Mary and Helen are right to be unhappy with these men. Adam is empty, incapable of joy or any real happiness. And there's something that's too aggressive about Anthony, something too entitled and angry.

One can't help but thinking that Adam and Anthony might, together, form one whole man. Maybe that's the appeal of "the double" plot--the sneaky suspicion that we're all missing something. What if all those questions we ask ourselves in private--Why can't I be smarter? Why can't I be more assertive?--what if those questions could have a physical expression? 

In some ways, ENEMY reminded me of the 1948 HOLLOW TRIUMPH starring Paul Henreid. In that film, an ex-con on the run from the cops stumbles across his double and decides to murder the man and steal his life. ENEMY takes this kind of ridiculous plot and embraces its lunacy by approaching the material with surrealist flair. This is not a "realistic" movie in any sense. There are visions here that appear randomly like something out of David Lynch, or even further back--there's a spider here that reminded me of the "god as spider" vision in Bergman's THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. And the final scene of this film, which I would not dare ruin for anyone, made me laugh with unexpected joy at its boldness.

Every movie sets its own rules for an audience. ENEMY requires both a rapt attention and an up-for-anything acceptance. I found those things very easy to provide. This is a great time at the movies. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Captain America

I'm not going to devote much space to writing about CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER because I'm busy with other things. I did love this movie, though. For my money, it's a great popcorn flick--a big, ridiculous, consistently entertaining blockbuster. I wish the modern Hollywood had space for more kinds of films (smaller, smarter, deeper), but if we're going to be saddled with flashy superhero movies for the foreseeable future, then this is the way to do it.

I wrote about Captain America: The First Avenger back in 2011.

I also did a piece at Tor about the Ed Brubaker's original Winter Soldier story line in the Captain America comic book series.

Lastly, I want to link to this excellent review of the new film from Michael Burgin at Paste. He pretty much nails it on the head. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

NOAH (2014)


I don't know why I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky's version of the Noah's Ark story. Maybe I still had some leftover good will from BLACK SWAN, which I loved. Maybe I just wanted to see that big ass boat and the CGI flood.

What makes it odd for me to see this movie is that I don't like biblical epics. There's just something about them that throws up an especially daunting obstacle, an obvious artificiality that is trying so earnestly to be real. Biblical epics are campy in the worst way. The actors speak in English accents no matter when or where the story is set. They walk around in clothes that always seem too clean and too machine-made. Worst of all, despite their absurdity, the films tend to take themselves too seriously. 

For their core audience, though, this balance of absurdity-to-seriousness is the key component. The biblical epic is to cinema what the Easter passion play at a Baptist church is to live theater--it sucks, sure, but for its audience it's essentially quality-proof. The message matters more than the form.

Yet NOAH is an interesting piece of work. For one thing, it's an adaptation of the story of the flood as found in the book of Genesis rather than a wax museum recreation of events. Aronofsky and his longtime cowriter Ari Hendel use the biblical account as a jumping off place for a fantasy story. (This will be a problem for people who consider the story of Noah to be a literal historical fact that must only be recreated with a certain precision--though since the story in Genesis is little more than a sketch of preposterous events, notions of precision here are subjective.) What the filmmakers have produced here is quite interesting.

Aronofsky's Noah is very much in keeping with the obsessed protagonists of his earlier films, from the math genius gone mad to the ballerina, uh, gone mad. Noah chases his vision of the end of the world, which is rendered in some powerfully effective scenes. The filmmakers also do a fine job of teasing out disturbing elements of the Noah story that rarely get much play. There's a great scene of Noah sitting, cold and silent, among his animals in the dripping ark as his family begs him to let in some of the screaming people being dashed to death by waves outside their doors. In the last third of this film, he becomes the de facto villain of the piece (though the film lamely keeps a real bad guy hidden in a storage compartment for no good reason other than to have a fistfight at the end). Convinced that mankind must die and that only the innocent (the animals) must survive, Noah determines to murder the child of his pregnant daughter-in-law. It's pretty dark stuff, but it seems fitting. Aronofsky's Noah is seized in an "end of mankind" fever--which makes him a perfect protagonist in our eschatological age.

Most biblical movies stink for the simple reason that they tend to be geared toward audiences more interested in biblical fidelity than dramatic impact or cinematic ingenuity. I'm reminded of a something Roger Ebert once said about some Civil War movie--that it was made for people more interested in the Civil War than in movies. That nicely sums up the problem with most biblical movies. The conventional wisdom that "the book is better than the movie" is never more true than for people who consider the book to be the unerring Word Of God. One wonders, then, what the point of the movie could possibly be.

The only reason to make a biblical movie, it seems to me, is to take an ancient story and try to see it with new eyes. Love them or hate them, movies like Pasolini's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW or Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST or Gibson's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST were startling interpretations of biblical texts that reframed the central story of Christianity in different ways. (Pasolini used it as a Marxist parable. Scorsese used to to explore the fraught relationship between body and spirit. Gibson cast it in almost psychotically fundamentalist terms.) Say what you will about Aronofsky and his new film--taking the story of Noah and using it to explore our current day obsession with the end of the world is a daring experiment.   

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

SORCERER (1977)

Maybe I should go back and give William Friedkin another chance. Sometimes you have to warm up to a filmmaker. I came to Friedkin in what I assume is the usual way, through his hits. But I've never been a big fan of either THE EXORCIST or THE FRENCH CONNECTION. It's not that I especially dislike either film, it's just that while I came to them long after they'd acquired the status of classics (and I won't dispute their impact on other films or filmmakers) they just didn't leave much of a mark on me. 

A few years ago Friedkin's KILLER JOE did leave a mark on me. It damn near scarred me--which, I gather, was the intention of such a wickedly funny and disturbing piece of work. (Quick side note, KILLER JOE is the movie that should have won Matthew McConaughey his award).

Now that I've finally caught up to Friedkin's little seen 1977 jungle epic SORCERER, I can happily report that it is a masterpiece. It's every bit a Friedkin film--gritty, physical, dark. If you haven't seen it, be on the lookout for it in theaters. Friedkin has recently restored it and brought it back to the big screen with a Blu-Ray release on the way. You don't want to miss it. It's the director at his best. 

It is an adaptation of the novel LA SALAIRE DE LA PEUR by Georges Arnaud, which was previously made into the film THE WAGES OF FEAR by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Friedkin's film is fully his own, though, departing in many ways from the Clouzot film. He begins his story by following three disparate men as their lives fall apart. There's Victor Manzon (Bruno Cremer), a French businessman whose life goes into a tailspin when his business goes bankrupt and his partner/brother-in-law commits suicide. There's Kassem (played by Moroccan actor Amidou), an Arab terrorist who is on the run from the Israeli military for his part in a bombing. And there is Jackie Scanlon (a never-better Roy Scheider), a hood from New Jersey who makes the mistake of trying to rob a church bingo game run by a gangster's brother.

These men all make their way to Porvenir, a nowhere village in the jungles of South America, where they work for an oil company. When a well explodes 200 miles away, the company decides to hire drivers to transport some highly-explosive nitroglycerin across the jungle to put out the resulting well fire.

There is not a boring moment in SORCERER, though the film is deliberate in setting up each of the these plotlines. While most films would have begun in the jungle, Friedkin doesn't even get to the jungle until well into the film. This kind of pace-setting has crucial payoffs because we get to know the men. They don't have "back stories"--they just have stories, each of them, for why he has found himself in this terrible place.

Of course, the big payoff is the epic journey across the jungle and Friedkin doesn't disappoint. In the film's most famous scene, the men attempt to drive their giant sputtering trucks across a crumbling wooden bridge. This scene is picture making of the highest order--visceral and nerve-racking. 

The whole film is a triumph, really. It actually deserves the overused term "existential" because it is a film about survival in its raw state. It's something else, too. From the lush, sweaty cinematography to the weird, off-kilter score, to the note-perfect performances of all of the cast SORCERER achieves the goal of being Pure Cinema. It's the best time I've had at the movies this year. Hell, it's one of the best times I've ever had at a movie.

So, yeah, I guess Hurricane Billy Friedkin is pretty damn great.

PS. Check out this site dedicated to the film. A lot of good stuff here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Reflections on STREETS OF LAREDO (1993)

I wrote an appreciation of Larry McMurtry's LONESOME DOVE a few years back for Criminal Element. One of the points I made was that the success of that book and its sequel, prequels, and film adaptations have long since become a kind of cross for the author to bear. McMurtry did not set out to write the kind of blockbuster that would eclipse all his previous (and subsequent) successes, but that's pretty much what happened. For better or for worse, Larry McMurtry is known for being the guy who wrote LONESOME DOVE.

Since that book is a masterpiece, we will have to temper our sympathy for McMurtry by observing that most authors would kill to have written a book half as good as LONESOME DOVE. It's a brilliant work--sad, exciting, deeply realized, and ultimately haunting.

Allow me to suggest, however, that its sequel, STREETS OF LAREDO is a fascinating novel in its own right. It's a dark book--outside of Cormac McCarthy it is perhaps the darkest novel of the American west that I've ever read. And it does McCarthy one better by being far sadder than any book that notorious downer ever wrote.

I hasten to add that part of the brilliance of STREETS OF LAREDO is that, despite the sadness of its story, it is a hypnotic pager turner. McMurtry is a master at assembling and moving a giant cast of characters with action, grace, and humor. 

The novel concerns the final mission of Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Ranger turned bounty hunter. At the novel's start he sets off after a psychotic young Mexican killer named Joey Garza. He's joined by an eastern banker named Brookshire, a hapless local deputy named Plunkert, and his old Ranger associate Pea Eye Parker.

To understand the original LONESOME DOVE, one must understand that McMurtry never wanted to write a proper saddles-and-spurs shoot 'em up Western. He set out to write a novel about the west. Of course, he was too good at making it move, too good at capturing the ethos of physical bravery and personal loyalty. For all the darkness of the book, it gave us characters whom we could admire. STREETS OF LAREDO does the same thing.  Half the novel concerns the women whose lives are directly impacted by Captain Call's mission. Joey Garza's mother Maria Garza is locked in a twisted Oedipal battle with her son. And Pea Eye's wife Lorena is, in her way, as strong and decisive as Call. Maria and Lorena are both frontier women--brutalized by life (which means, mostly, being brutalized by men) but unbroken and unbowed. Of course, this being a McMurtry novel no one is purely a hero, but between them Maria and Lorena manage to hold civilization together.

Ultimately, however, the novel is about loss and age, about moral and physical failure. This is not the last sterling adventure of Woodrow Call, this is the story of his undoing. He is, as Lorena observes, just a tired old killer. The novel finds him in the twilight of his powers, as he slips from being the man he was (or considered himself to be) to being a crippled shadow of that man. It is a brutal portrait, really--a way for McMurtry to drive home the point he wants to make about the myth of the West--that it was based on violence and racism and greed and all the unquestioned assumptions that make such evils possible. It is also, one suspects, the author's way of clarifying the meaning of LONESOME DOVE, which he felt got lost in the hoopla of its success: that bravery and cruelty were found on all sides in the story of Texas. The clash of cultures brought out the best and worst of men and women. And that's why STREETS OF LAREDO--Call's last ride--takes its title from the famous cowboy lament about death and the futility of human striving. McMurtry quotes the song in the novel's epigraph: "We all loved our comrade, although he'd done wrong..."  

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Wendell Corey

Today marks the 100th birthday of the great character actor Wendell Corey. Corey, who passed away in 1968, was an indispensable part of the classic crime film. With his sad eyes and world-weary delivery, he helped ground movies like Byron Haskins's I WALK ALONE (with Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Liz Scott), William Dieterle's THE ACCUSED (with Loretta Young), Budd Boetticher's THE KILLER IS LOOSE (with Joseph Cotton and Rhonda Fleming), and Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW (with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly).  In every case, Corey gave the proceedings an air of reality. He also costarred alongside Liz Scott, John Hodiak, and Burt Lancaster in one of the most hilariously bad movies ever made, Lewis Allen's masterpiece of awfulness DESERT FURY. It was Corey's first film. After that, everything must have seemed like an improvement.

The son of a minister, Corey worked in films until the end of his life, but he also dabbled in conservative politics. He ran for Congress in 1966, but lost the primary. When he died two years later, he was only 54 years old, but apparently a lifetime of drinking caught up to him early. You sometimes read that he was drunk onscreen, but--at least for me--whatever private demons he wrestled with only made his work more interesting. I'm always happy to see his name in the credits.

One of his best (and most underrated) noirs was the excellent HELL'S HALF ACRE with Evelyn Keyes and Marie Windsor. I did a write up of the film over at Criminal Element a couple of years back. Check that out here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Crime Without Passion (1934)

One of the great unheralded organizations of Chicago is the Northwest Chicago Film Society which works in conjunction with the Patio Theater to program a series of rare and interesting films. Tonight they showed the rarely seen 1934 proto-noir CRIME WITHOUT PASSION.

This is one hell of a movie. It's famous in film geek circles as the first film that was co-directed by the famed screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur and the cinematographer Lee Garmes, but I have to admit that I wasn't prepared for how good it would be.

It tells the story of an attorney named Lee Gentry (Claude Raines) the self-style "Champion of the Damned" who is infamous for getting his clearly-guilty clients off the hook for all manner of awful crimes. But Gentry has one weakness: women. He's caught between two women as the story begins--an earthy dancer named Carmen Brown (Margo) and a society blonde named Katy Costello (Whitney Bourne). He tortures Brown, unsure if he wants to string her along or crush her for loving him too much. The opposite power balance seems to be in place with Costello--he loves her precisely because she seems unsure if she loves him.

Without giving too much away, I'll say that after an argument with one of these women, Gentry finds himself in trouble. His analytic lawyer side takes over, quite literally, in a special effect in which Gentry's ghostly image is superimposed onto scenes to give him advice.

The film is fantastically entertaining. There's a freaky opening sequence by the brilliant montage expert Slavko Vorkapic in which we see the birth of the Three Furies that will bedevil mankind. It's a surreal sequence, all the more effective for being inserted without any overt connection to the plot. The rest of the film is gorgeous--a testament to the enormous talent of cinematographer/co-director Lee Garmes (probably best known to noir fans for his work on NIGHTMARE ALLEY). It's full of askew angles and moody effects. In the broadest outlines of its plot it's just another story of a cocky bastard who gets his ironic comeuppance, but visually it's noir with a surreal bent.

The cast is a mixed bag. Claude Raines was as good an actor who ever worked in movies. Here we find him in only his second starring role, and he's already got the charisma that would make him famous in pictures like MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and CASABLANCA. Smart and self-satisfied, he makes a perfect foil for the Furies. As the objects of his affection, however, neither Margo nor Whitney Bourne manage to burn up the screen. Making matters worse, neither have particularly rich roles. Hecht and MacArthur fail to inject as much personality or consistency into either of these parts as they do into the lead role.

Still, CRIME WITHOUT PASSION is a real achievement, an odd and ambitious film that was a harbinger of the dark noir tide that would overtake crime films in the forties.

For more on the making of the film, check out this excellent piece by Kyle Westphal, a film historian who works with the NCFS.