Friday, September 21, 2012

A Battle That's Been a Trillion Years in the Making

Paul Thomas Anderson is to contemporary Hollywood something only maybe Terrence Malick can also be claimed as--an heir to the prestige rank of what the New Hollywood of the 1970s had established and set out to do. In his last two films he's found an actor willing to take on a gutsy unsympathetic lead and forged some unforgettable character studies. I bring this up because among the primary narrative elements used in a screenplay--character, setting, plot, dialogue, and genre--Anderson of late has mastered character and setting most. And since the only other top rank big budget director aside from Anderson and Malick that I can think of is Fincher, I find it telling of current Hollywood fiscal trends that Fincher specializes in plot and genre, for that's where the big money is at for artists of their caliber.

While almost every other Hollywood director has gone HD and begun pushing that envelope, Anderson remains committed to the potential of what film can do. A final Fincher comparison to ponder is he and Anderson's key collaborators for both of their last two films, the composer especially. Anderson's DP, Robert Elswit, ASC, was absent from his latest production--for the first time in their careers. That still leaves him with composer Jonny Greenwood and production designer Jack Fisk though. And this suits him just fine.

And some other trivia: Mihai Malaimare Jr., who shot Anderson's new film, shot Youth Without Youth (2007), Tetro (2009), and Twixt (2011) for Francis Ford Coppola, the last remaining figure from the 70s New Hollywood contiunuing in that vein of filmmaking, which Coppola calls "personal" fims.

Elswit first gave Anderson sprawling Ophülsian large canvass ensemble mosaics, then dark, naturally lit-appearing, artifact speckled tableaux. In The Master (2012, Anderson), the cinematography does not call attention to itself; and, no offence to Elswit, but, in a good way.

And Greenwood's score is less prominent.

Okay, here we go.

From the simple windsor font against a black background single title card, Anderson is relentlessly restrained. We're plunged into the world of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and observe him on the beach, post WWII, catching some R&R with some fellow sailors: with little dialogue or context, we begin to study his character through action--his behavior, his rowdy primal lusts and pursuits.

And then, aside from the introduction of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the narrative keeps adding tiny crucially revealing pieces to the layers and layers of Freddie's existence, identity, and ultimate place in the universe.

And after most of our curiosities about Scientology are allowed to explore this similar narrative, imagining the parallels to Freddie's Master in the same way Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant) did with a Cobain analog, it becomes possible to view The Master as an alternate take on There Will Be Blood (2007, Anderson). Plainview courted our empathy, but here Dodd does not; and, that leaves us with an even more cynical worldview to process. We empathize with Freddie. If Plainview glorified our dark side, Freddie reminds us how lost we can get.

And that's the scary part of the master. Because by the end, I actually did sympathize with Dodd. Maybe I should leave it at that. These are big questions. What does it take for Freddie to allow himself to be subjected to Dodd's demands? Is he worse off? Maybe not. All's I'll say is I reconfigured my connotation of what a cult is after watching The Master.

Anderson's breakdown has become signature. Plainview bitch-slapping Eli started something. And Anderson's most intriguing when he bridges man's spiritual identity to his animal nature. The Master shows Freddie going rabid on more than one occurence.

Dodd is a return to the nucleus that formerly held the surrogate band of miscreants in Anderson's early films together. And his stalwart wife and daughter remind one of Plainview's reliance on HW to sell his family image to his buyers. Philip Seymour Hoffman is magnificent in the way he truly embodies the charisma that needs to be that believable for this thing to really work, which it does.

I'll just close by saying that a few years ago I did some searches about Scientology, as I had just heard about it, and I read about it for hours. I still can't think of any movies other than A Woman of Paris (1923, Charles Chaplin), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), All the King's Men (1949, Robert Rossen), The Last Hurrah (1958, John Ford), The Last Tycoon (1976, Elia Kazan), Velvet Goldmine (1998, Todd Haynes) or Last Days ("last" is common in these titles) where the biopic's subject has been thinly disguised while obviously resembling the real he or she quite a bit, but The Master's focus on Freddie safeguards itself against it being a Hubbard bio. The Master remains as a character piece, and one that boldy portrays our weaknesses and most lasting needs we shuffle through along the way to our own searches for a master, on whatever paths they lead us, which often resemble just these kinds of ethical and moral wrestling matches that take place beteween Freddie and his master.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

I Just Knew It Was Going to Happen

Being human is weird. Some stuff disturbs me and I don't quite know why. I get mega creeped out by bodybuilders, opossums, and semi-trucks.

In the age that I live in, the monsters that scare me the most are those who take advantage of others out of a morbid sadism. This train of thought first began for me years ago when I began to imagine who invented junk mail, telemarketing, spam emails, or who turned those channels into agents of malicious harassment. This generated no answers.

Even more recently I learned that a friend of mine used to engage in elaborate prank calls in his teens. I won't go into detail, but I (a little shamefully) must admit that it altered my view of him as a person. Timid as I am, I can't accept how some people exploit the misery of others for their own sick amusement.

Prank calling has never creeped me out more after watching Compliance (2012, Craig Zobel).

Does anyone remember Bye Bye Love (1995, Sam Weisman)? It was the first movie I saw that took place in a McDonald's and I freaked. That's all I remember about the movie because anytime the action took place at the McDonald's, I was riveted by the chance to glimpse backstage. I don't know why this was the only time that happened--I was nonplussed by McDowell's in Coming to America (1988, John Landis), I have yet to see Goodburger (1997, Brian Robbins), Waiting... (2005, Rob McKittrick) looked too invested in a certain type of disgruntled comedy that never seemed worth watching.

But Compliance takes care to craft the world of ChickWich with the utmost attention to detail. The first act introduces us to the fast food restaurant and its assortment of workers. They are individuals, each fleshed out in their own way (oops, pun). There's Harold the custodian, who abstains from his shift meal--undoubtedly due to its poor nutritional or dietary quality. And this is effective because I myself was already thinking about how gross fast food is. And later in a gruellingly uncomfortable scene Sandra (Ann Dowd) offers some of the people waiting soft drinks, and a couple of them ask for, "Diet Coke."

The second act is the bulk of the narrative and it feels too long. The frustration is inescapable. It finds Becky (Dreama Walker) the victim of a strip search that harrows into increasingly bizarre ordeals she must suffer. But this is intentional.

The third act makes up for the second. Zobel orchestrates his sociological case-drama with just the right beats. What seemed like impossibly dim character motivations in the second act become more palatable. We reflect on their mistakes, which become less improbable, just as the demands taxed on them hit a crescendo of respite.

The acts of transgression toward Becky visually resemble something of a modern day Salò (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini). And the libertine decadence of inflicting such horrid demands on her gives the film some link to timeless themes.
Compliance felt like a true horror to me. Because this is the kind of stuff that really scares me: grimy fast food restaurants resembling dungeons being turned into real dungeons of human depravity and debacle. But Zobel's Milgram discourse saves the film from being nothing more than torture. Good. I can't stand those films that are nothing more than evil deeds for the sake of evil; like, Breakdown (1997, Jonathan Mostow) for example--J.T. Walsh's character is truly frightening, but that's a little thin to sustain a feature narrative.
Most of the film features little music, but the cello on the score punctuates and underscores the movie tastefully. The cinematography is always looking for nuances in the location in service of atmospheric verisimilitude.
If someone asks you to do something super fucked up, think twice before you comply!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Revocate the Agitator

Takashi Miike makes directing look so fun. His material ranges from gruesome torture macabre to G rated children's films, hitting almost everything in between along the way. What genre hasn't he tackled?

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike) is majestically sparse.

Set in 17th century Japan, this Jeremy Thomas-produced, Ryuichi Sakamoto-scored costume samurai buskin portends a solemn, restrained ballad of desaturated hues, tons of silence, and ominously zen rock gardens.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai doesn't appear as a filmed play, although because of its minimal use of characters and locations, it easily could have. Miike overcomes this pitfall by shooting ornate tableaux with a floating 3D omniscient POV through predominantly wide-angled lenses.

Miike often makes movies without any graphic violence, but just because Hara-Kiri:Death of a Samurai doesn't illustrate the explicit carnage doesn't mean that the film isn't visceral--it is.

The gut becomes the epicenter of where a man's test of self is played out. In Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai a nuclear family has to deal with the throes of insurmountable poverty. Motome, Miho, Kingko and their unnamed white cat inherit the same set of circumstances most Hollywood casts battled during the Great Depression, with a similar uncorrupted innocence.

The film's themes are embedded in the arc of Hanshiro and his virtue in the face of oppression. He's up against impossible odds, and Lord Kageyu of the House of li represents an unswayable set of fixed values as old as the rocks and wood that make up the architecture of the various structures the film occurs in. The plot is classically archetypal, yet is stripped down to the grim mechanics of the court martial-like interrogation of the samurai Hanshiro.

Characters are sketched lightly. The dominance of the House of li's military might is in direct opposition to the starving family--and this is the heart of the film. Doomed lovers practically deserve their own genre. From Romeo and Juliet to You Only Live Once (1937, Fritz Lang) and They Live by Night (1949, Nicholas Ray), the death of young romance is the fodder of endless photoplays.

And seeing as how this is one of those rare occurences where the victims (Motome and Miho) are completely faultless, their struggles earned my sympathy especially in the way in which I kept thinking about how this story is so relevant today. What's the solution? Beats me.

We're a frail species.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Behead the Prophet (No Lord Shall Live)

A trend currently common among narrative feature filmmakers is to shoot a feature on HD, with a budget of around $1-5 million, on location, in order to more freely experiment without the pressures of studio financing. It is uncertain when this first began. Soderbergh shot The Girlfriend Experience (2009) and Ed Lachman lensed Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime (2009) on the Red One, Damsels in Distress (2011, Whit Stillman) on a Red One MX; Tim Orr shot Prince Avalanche (2013, David Gordon Green) on an Arri Alexa; and Red Hook Summer (2012, Spike Lee) was shot on a Sony F3.

Red Hook Summer is subtle.

On one level it is a coming of age tale about Flik (13) spending the summer with his crotchety grandpa, Da Good Bishop Enoch. This comprises about 2/3 of the narrative. As typical with the coming of age genre, Flik tries to combat boredom and his grandpa expounds life lessons through wisdom. The Red Hook neighborhood is an Our Town microcosm ranging from church parishioners and a youth group, to others with less optimistic plights. This aspect I'll call the Church Chat portion.

The Church Chat portion achieves a level of vicarious restlessness, as Enoch's sermons drone on and on, for Flik becomes our surrogate and we are forced to sit through quite a bit. Hey, I'm always one for sentimental sweet excursions away from the fast-lane of mainstream Hollywood to spend some time with some peaceful, good-natured old folks anytime, and the slight unfolding of their world was a little charming.

Red Hook Summer skewers the Bishop as iconoclast.

Near the climax of Red Hook Summer, conflict rears its ugly head (up until this point, the only conflict per se was a few bags of potato chips and bottles of soda missing from the church commissary).

Bishop Enoch has some backstory. He committed the taboo involving a priest and a little boy--that's a crime and hot button in itself, you don't even need to use your imagination when those two nouns are joined.

And while Red Hook Summer invests in this thread prominently, it does so in a way I despise. But, I want to despise this particular hot button, so, I suppose that's a good thing. As strong as my sense to recoil from this awkward debacle's revelation was, it did endear the neighborhood to me as characters even more.

There's a place for these kinds of personal films, and Spike Lee seems to be doing this for the love of making movies. It's tender, bittersweet, and biting with Lee's cynicism. His trademarks include Blessing's entrance (subject floating toward camera lens on z axis on unseen skateboard dolly underfoot), portraits of characters from a shared community snapped and often directly addressing the camera, and cutaways to sports statistics/and/or history.

Lee makes a cameo as Mookie (which didn't seem as funny as I'd hoped) and Isiah Whitlock hilariously reprises his role as Detective Flood from 25th Hour (2002, Lee). Whitlock's Flood is famous for his use of the word "shit," which he draws out as, "sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit." (He also riffed on this catchphrase playing another entirely different character on HBO's The Wire.)

Additionally, the student film feel of this prosaic tale is oddly scored. Bruce Hornsby? Nonetheless, it feels like classic Spike Lee.

I do dig the Baptist gospel music though, since Lee's scores are never shy on soul.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Dead But Dreaming

Who newly emerged in the US during the 80s as auspiscious personal filmmakers? It doesn't seem like there were many. Michael Mann, Tim Burton, John Hughes, Jim Jarmusch, (unofficially) Oliver Stone,  James Cameron, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher, Rob Reiner, James L. Brooks, Lawrence Kasdan, Joel & Ethan Coen, Sam Raimi, Kathryn Bigelow, Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Gus Van Sant, Hal Hartley, David Mamet, (barely making it) Steven Soderbergh and Cameron Crowe; and, Spike Lee are the only ones I can think of.

Impressively, it is Spike Lee that proved in the 90s to have the most prolific body of work, with 9 features and 2 documentaries. And they remain fascinating, varied and sometimes bordering on trivial, entertaining time capsules of 90s pop culture in a significant way.

Since it was over 10 years since I'd seen Summer of Sam (1999, Spike Lee), all I had been able to recall were a scene of a large black lab tormenting Berkowitz and the protests of a friend of mine in PDX who was aggravated and intolerant of the movie she continually renounced on the grounds of Mira Sorvino's character squeaking in Brooklyease, "I could taste her pussy juice all over your face," to her Leguizamo-played husband in one scene.

Interestingly, when I saw the film this past weekend those two scenes are still the ones that stand out most, and maybe even work best for me.

The two strongest elements supporting Summer of Sam are the self-destruction of Vinny (John Leguizamo) and Terence Blanchard's, umm, Harlem Renaissance-stately, Aaron Copeland-like, sweeping operatic swells contrasted against 70s punk rock--okay, I'm going to argue that as far as I've known The Who were never punk. Am I wrong?

The visual look is a kinetic frenzy closer to Oliver Stone than the suave rapture style found in Mo' Better Blues (1990, Lee) and Jungle Fever (1991, Lee). It starts with the classic Hollywood studio crane sweep of a cavernous set to evoke 70s disco glamor, but is one of so many similar sequences that even use the same music, like Boogie Nights (1997, Paul Thomas Anderson), The Last Days of Disco (1998, Whit Stillman) and Blow (2001, Ted Demme). Although the context of "Best of My Love" is sly here.

Lee's visual fever isn't as nauseating as Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone) because he's succeeded with something closer to the 90s MTV music video aesthetic, yet uses it strategically so as not to let it get stale. All of the Berkowitz cutaways are ghastly (the greens especially) in the distorted result of cross processing, and on top of that, he heaps a tilt shift on the lens. These moments are disturbing, and inserts within them like the homicidal messages misspelled with children's building blocks further enhance some of Lee's most ambitious stagings. And the plastic, commercial, store bought production design that's supposed to show Berkowitz's squalor looks like it's all brand new and they bought it at a Toys R Us--which I really enjoy.

The comedy fits well too. Lee again squares off two pressure keg factions in a Brooklyn neighborhood, and this time its an Italian-American civil beef. Ritchie (Adrien Brody) doing a Brit accent and taunting the rough and tumble heavy hitters in their dead end neighborhood is one of the main ingredients in this thriller, but those scenes are also often funny at the same time in the way some of the best scenes in movies can have you laughing one second, then recoiling in tension the next.

Ritchie is supposed to be some kid who would be prime trade at Warhol's factory, but as was the case with much of the 90s punk creations, looks like he bought all of his clothes at the mall brand new recently.

Vinny is not supposed to be Warren Beatty's character in Shampoo (1975, Hal Ashby), but he mostly is.

As most know, this film is about Vinny, Ritchie, their neighborhood, and incidentally the Son of Sam murders. The murders raise the tension, but I for one wondered why the film didn't bother to ever mention the victims' identities, any relevant details about them, or even the number of how many there were. The killings just kind of loom. Most of the film is dancing, sex, dancing in the sex industry, fighting about sex, fighting about where to dance, and people swearing. The first disco scene struck me as romantically special when the rest of the crowd disappear for a moment as Vinny and Dionna dance alone--yeah I eat that sugar up.

I find none of the ensemble grating, although I used to find Leguizamo really obnoxious. I think John Leguizamo is fantastic in Summer of Sam because by the end, he was what held it together--his plight was earned through its dramatic portrayal on the page and with his performance. And the escalating dementia of Vinny and Son of Sam parallel one another purposefully, to effective results.

While this film did a lot for me and I want to come back to it, by the end credits when I saw how the Brooklyn neighborhoods, New York Yankees, and other iconography seemed a perfect fit for Lee, I couldn't help being distracted thinking about what Fincher would do in SF 7 years later.

And one last thing I haven't checked: is that last beatdown scene copying the Rodney King beating? That's what it felt like. I thought if it was, that would be something to recognize the space and arrangement of those bodies and batons.


Sunday, September 09, 2012

Satan Spawn, The Caco-Daemon

If I were in the mood to watch a movie that takes place in a trailer park and boldly exploits taboos for shock value, I'd watch a Guiseppe Andrews movie. He's amassed an entire oeuvre doing just that and his films use non-actors and real locations.

I did not find Killer Joe (2011, William Friedkin) shocking in the least bit. It's a $10 million dollar competently executed, if not inspired, B movie with a strong, simple plot, with very limited locations and a few characters.

If I were to wager what a producer should try if they wanted a guaranteed hit, I'd probably come up with a formula close to what Killer Joe follows: plentiful female nudity and trashy revealing getups + disgustingly gory realistic attacks peppered throughout + a singular premise, easy to follow, that brings ever increasing obstacles before its central protagonist.

This is a formula movie of the most primitive variety and it's badly dated. Do bare bush and bloody broken bones actually hold any stimulation for anyone these days? Gratuitous is the word. And when you take that away, what Killer Joe remains as is a visually dull wannabe Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen). The sad part is that even though Blood Simple only cost $1.5 million, it's the flick I'll see a few more times, whereas I have no desire to see Killer Joe a second time.

Killer Joe is novel in the sense that it feels like something a dark lonely teenager would wet his appetite with in the form of a graphic novel. But that's to say it's kid's stuff. Its writer knows how to keep an audience paying attention, but that's not a feat to me--otherwise, I'd herald Mission: Impossible III (2006, J.J. Abrams) as the best movie of the 2000s.

I've always had the hots for Gina Gershon though. And I'm glad to see her in something for more than a few minutes. For me, she's the secret to why Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven) is a timeless masterpiece.

I guess I'll close by mentioning I don't use B movie pejoratively. While Killer Joe suffers from that hard to define filmed-play symptom, I do cherish the quality that pits all of its characters against obstacles that drive them to their own utterly devastating disintegration at the lowest possible point in their shared lives. It's a black comedy--I know it's PC to say "dark" comedy. And its tone is well crafted, just not quite fitting to my particular tastes. The blue strip club scene was nifty and there's some very effective use of jumping the line between Ansel and Chris during their conversation. And the seduction of Dottie is expert in its use intentional blocking; and, an open frame used in the same way Blow Job (1964, Andy Warhol) did.

McConaughey closes out by dominating Summer 2012 with a role that will rest along side his turns in Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater) and Magic Mike (2012, Steven Soderbergh).