Playing Catch-Up — The Deadly Affair; Dear Ruth; Breathless

deadly affair

The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967). Only the second film adaptation of a John le Carré work (it’s based on his novel Call for the Dead, although rights reasons prevented the studio from using its main character George Smiley), this espionage drama is a wholly characteristic excursion into complicated duplicity and highly refined emotional agony. James Mason plays Charles Dobbs, an MI5 agent whose cursory investigation into reports of early Communist leanings of an Foreign Office official (Robert Flemyng) seemingly triggers tragedy. As usual in films tied to le Carré, the British reticence is almost to a fault, twisty complexities dispatched with minimal raising of the pulse. The terse, direct style of director Sidney Lumet toughens it up around the edges, though. Mason is very strong in the lead role, as is the ever-fascinating Simone Signoret, who plays a widow of layered secrets.

 

dear ruth

Dear Ruth (William D. Russell, 1947). This shrewd, piercing comedy is set during World War II, when everyone on the home front felt some obligation to support the boys overseas. For headstrong, politicized teenager Miriam Wilkins (Mona Freeman), that’s meant, in part, sending poetry-laden letters to lonely G.I. Bill Seacroft (William Holden). Since she’s a little too young to flirt with a grown man through the post, Miriam poses and her older sister, Ruth (Joan Caulfield). Then, unexpectedly, Bill comes calling. Filled with splendidly sparking dialogue (credited screenwriter Arthur Sheekman adapted a play by Norman Krasna), the film offers a kinder version of one of Preston Sturges’s comedies of society’s foibles. Holden is endearing as the eager soldier, and Freeman is outright wonderful spouting anti-war, proto-feminist with cheerful petulance. Director William D. Russell occasionally betrays the film’s stage origins with a slightly confined feel, but he calibrates the tone perfectly, a trickier and ultimately more important task.

 

breathless

Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). A iconic offering of the French New Wave, enlivened and deadened at the same time by director Jean-Luc Godard’s customary cinematic defiance. The plot fades in and out of relevance, but basically involves a vagabond miscreant (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and the gamine American expatriate (Jean Seberg) who he pursues romantically across Paris. It’s Godard’s squirrelly intellect and brash, buoyant deconstructions that are the real stars of the show. The way he builds in clear yet disarming narrative echoes is a particular fascination, giving the strong sense that the film can be sorted through forever without completely cracking its riddles. Breathless is seductive and yet holds the viewer at a mildly taunting distance. Basically, it’s quite French.

Now Playing — The Miseducation of Cameron Post

cameron post

In The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Chloë Grace Moretz plays the title character, a high school girl who is caught outside the homecoming dance making out with one of her female friends (Quinn Shephard) in a parked car. Cameron’s aunt and caretaker (Kerry Butler) is a good Christian, so this behavior just won’t do. With dismaying haste, Cameron is squired off to God’s Promise, a remote camp facility that employs a mixture of scripture and trite psychological manipulations in a program supposedly guaranteed to eradicate those sinful same sex attractions. The film is set in the early nineteen-nineties. Tragically, it remains brutally pertinent in the here and now.

As directed by Desiree Akhavan, the film’s tone is one of aggrieved understatement. As much as possible, Akhavan steers away from melodrama. These stories of institutionalized teens in crisis almost always include some blood spilled across bathroom tile, and the film doesn’t entirely avoid such trappings. (Adapted from Emily M. Danforth’s novel of the same name, the screenplay is co-credited to Akhavan and Cecilia Frugiuele.) Even so, Akhavan is clearly — and blessedly — less concerned with how the unduly maligned youth rage against their villainous overseers and is instead committed to conveying the contained weariness that comes from merely surviving. There’s greater authenticity to the approach, and with the truth comes a lovely poetry of quiet perseverance.  Praise be to those who scramble to freedom, but there’s heroism, too, in the joyful relief of singing along to a mediocre pop song while still mired in the ugliness.

Moretz’s performance aligns perfectly with the tone of the film. The common route in playing a teen with terse dialogue is sullenness or sarcasm, signaling the roiling feelings contained in the words unsaid. Moretz instead fills Cameron with a light confusion and a protective reluctance. She isn’t rebelling against the questions asked of her. She doesn’t get why all this probing of supposed inner conflicts has to go on. Why can’t she simply be? She finds allies in fellow “disciples” Jane and Adam (Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck, respectively, both marvelous), but the trio doesn’t study their misery. They bond and joke and trade thoughts, just like any kids free of the agenda of a surrounding meaningful fiction. The purposeful grounding of The Miseducation of Cameron Post lends it a tremendous power. It’s a subtle but unmistakable reminder of the ongoing reality of this persecution of those whose love is still maligned by enough bigots that overt assertions of pride are necessary. The cruelty isn’t being perpetrated on characters, but rather against people.

From the Archive — All the King’s Men

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As we are about to slip from the boom-boom-boom of the summer movie season into a fall stocked with awards hopefuls, allow me to offer a gentle reminder that sometimes even sterling source material, a skilled filmmaker, a cast stocked with tremendous actors, and the best of intentions can add up to a dreadful couple hours of cinema. This review was original written for and posted at my former online home.

The new film version of All The King’s Men is a bad movie. Whenever a movie aspires to something more than just the latest piece of junk off the Hollywood assembly line, the temptation is to celebrate it despite its shortcomings. Writer-director Steve Zaillian is clearly trying to craft something deep, meaningful and resonant here, and while that is more admirable than, oh say, filming a bunch of dolts performing idiotic stunts and assembling the wreckage, it doesn’t automatically means the end result will be worthy. Indeed, it is that very sense of heavy importance, the telegraphed value of what’s been created, that most damages the film. It smothers itself in self-veneration.

Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (which was made into a film once before), the film follows a Louisiana politician named Willie Stark as he climbs from discarded local office holder to the most powerful man in the state, a governor who breeds enemies as he employs the nastiest back-room tactics to do the people’s work. Warren’s story means to convey the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most honest of men. His Willie Stark is a self-described hick, a simple man who drags himself upwards through the system motivated by a persistent need to refute the power-brokers who underestimated him and others like him. As Stark reaches higher office, his morals become just a slippery as those of his predecessors. This doesn’t really come through in Zaillian’s film version.

Part of it may be that, in playing the lead role, Sean Penn seems disconnected from the smaller life of Willie Stark. It’s almost as if he’s biding his time, simply waiting until he can tear into the big stump speech monologues and glowering duplicity that will come. He’s not alone on the list of misfiring actors. Across the ticket, a strong cast is wasted or wandering. Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo barely make impressions with their pivotal characters. Patricia Clarkson tries to wring some life out of the role of political consultant Sadie Burke (although, I’m not sure you’d really be able to even define the character’s role with only this film as reference), which was juicy enough in the 1949 film version to earn Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in her film debut. We get only glancing exposure to the character and there’s little recognizable from scene to scene; Clarkson may as well have been cast in multiple different roles, given how much consistency is built into the character. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Around the time of 1998’s dread-inducing Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkins announced that he was quitting acting. You could present his performance here as evidence that he followed through on that pledge; he simply didn’t stop appearing in films.

Zaillian’s screenplay and film show little commitment to developing the characters. There are there and the plot moves around them, but there’s little personal impact, there never seems to be anything at stake for any of the people onscreen. Instead, Zaillian lathers James Horner’s typically bludgeoning music score over repetitive scenes of contrived import. He re-uses footage to a tiresome degree, perhaps believing that the audience needs extra reinforcement of certain points, perhaps wanting to remind us of the elegance of the filmmaking. Regardless of the reasoning, I’d trade the redundant glimpses of a lazy lakefront conversation or clenched jaw plotting in a parked car for some different moments that actually enriched the movie.

Everything about the way the film is put together gives the impression that the filmmakers were deeply respectful of the gravity of their material. All of that leaden seriousness only serves to show us that really, sadly they have nothing to say.

The Art of the Sell — “Real Life” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Let’s be very plain and direct about this. It’s entirely possible that this, created to promote (sort of) Real Life, the directorial debut of Albert Brooks, is the greatest movie trailer of all time. There was a time when Brooks took every last opportunity available to deliver absolutely ingenious comedy, and the world was better for it.

Playing Catch-Up — Ugetsu; Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind; Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

ugetsu

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953). Drawn from stories in the eighteenth century collection Ugetsu Monogatari, by Ueda Akinari, Kenji Mizoguchi’s film proceeds like a hazy dream that’s periodically jarred into wakefulness by jolts of pointed pragmatism. Set in the time when earning a post as a samurai was the height of upper mobility, Ugetsu examine the ways in which people — men, really — became trapped in bad situations because of their own misguided dissatisfaction with perfectly respectable accomplishments. Mizoguchi directs with empathy and wisdom, lingering over scenes in a manner intended to evoke the experience of perusing storytelling scrolls. Though hardly a film that gets the pulse racing, Ugetsu has a weighty power, settling comfortably among that many other achievements of postwar Japanese cinema.

 

robin

Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind (Marina Zenovich, 2018). Filmmaker Marina Zenovich doesn’t limited herself to documentaries about entertainment figures that scrape away and and all complications, but it’s definitely a specialty. After soft-pedaling Roman Polanski’s crimes and somehow making Richard Pryor seem smaller than life, she turns her attention to the legacy of Robin Williams. As with the Pryor documentary, Come Inside My Mind mostly skims across career highlights, with talking head remembrances that rarely deepen the insight. Zenovich at least has the benefit of ample archival footage of Williams in action, and his live wire performance works particularly well carved into segments. Occasionally, Zenovich couples together the pieces with a kinetic energy that almost mimics the distractible leaps of Williams’s own comedic intellect. That’s probably inadvertent, though, a lucky byproduct of the attempt to smush a forty year career into a two hour movie.

 

valerie

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Jaromil Jireš, 1970). Yes, I think it is fair to say that Valerie experiences a distinctly notable seven days. This signature offering from the Czechoslovak New Wave movement — similar to the roughly concurrent French cinematic trend of the same name, but reacting to a much rougher political and social landscape — is trippy and disturbing. Adapted from surrealist Vítězslav Nezval’s novel of the same name, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders follows the title character (Jaroslava Schallerová) as she endures an especially tumultuous journey of self-discovery, complete with twisty familial discoveries and vampiric predators. The film is vivid, warped, elusive, and precisely the sort of the product that less daring moviegoers once imagined with dread when the possibility of venturing to an arthouse theater was broached. I present the last observation with no ill judgment. Much as I enjoyed it, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is proudly impenetrable. Director Jaromil Jireš fills the screen with so many brashly divergent ideas that he practically encourages intellectual exhaustion.

From the Archive — Children of Men

children of men

There are times in the process of seeing, writing about, and, yes, ranking films, when the best feature of the year is immediately evident upon first viewing of it. For me, that was the case with Children of Men. That’s not such a feat in some respects — it was a December release, after all — but it was also a movie that was at least somewhat off the radar, having missed the screening deadline for many critics to include it in their year-end tallies, since that ritual had already moved up to a place on the calendar well before the midnight countdown of New Year’s Eve began. The film is set in 2027, less than ten years from now. If anything, it appears Cuarón and his collaborators were overly optimistic about how long it would take us to get to this broken version of society. I wrote and published this review at my former online home, with the experience of seeing the film still recent and raw.

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Children of Men is set twenty years in the future and begins as society mourns the death of the world’s youngest person, an 18-year-old male. A generation of unexplained infertility has thrown the world into chaos. England seemingly stands as one of the few intact countries, and it has become a brutal, totalitarian police state, rounding up immigrants (referred to as “fugees”) for confinement and deportation. This information is not delivered with clunky exposition or other tired film contrivances. We know this because we are absolutely immersed in the world of the film. Cuarón skillfully lets the details be revealed by the day-to-day challenges the characters face and the central quest which ignites the plot.

That artful assembly of the building blocks of the story is only the beginning of Cuarón’s accomplishment. Children of Men is a parade of astonishing scenes, notable for their simple wisdom, thrilling confidence, and, in a few key instances, bravura technique. Cuarón inserts some extended tracking shots that are absolutely mind-boggling, holding scenes for long stretches as action unfolds at a heart-racing rate. Whether doing this in the cramped confines of a small vehicle or across blocks of a city transformed into a war zone, he enhances the splendidly offbeat shot choice with perfectly choreographed action in the frame. The image is thick with movement and detail.

This isn’t indulgent technical showboating, like sending a camera through a coffee pot handle just because it’s achievable. Cuarón’s cinematic wizardry has a real purpose: plunging the audience as deeply into the action as possible. Jean-Luc Godard famously said “every edit is a lie,” and Cuarón proves the truth of that statement with these elegant, energized continuous shots. The tension of the scenes is accentuated because we feel completely in the moment, watching action unfold as if we were embedded into the scenes. We are there for the horrors and the momentary surges of hope. Some directors take approaches like this because it is cool, superficially enlivening due to mere difference; Cuarón does it because it’s the absolutely, unequivocally the best way to stage the roiling trauma of the film’s most fraught, compelling segments.

It is also a film fiercely alive with ideas. As in the best science fiction, Children of Men is set in the future to better evaluate the here and now. The socio-political commentary throughout is understated enough to avoid becoming didactic but rich enough to give the film a rewarding relevance. Corollaries can be drawn to multiple ideological battles raging across the Yahoo! news page with the film standing as equal parts cautionary tale and bleak predictor of the inevitable.

While the gifted cast yields no shortage of performers and performances worth celebrating — Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, and the uncommonly rascally Michael Caine among them — lead Clive Owen is given a complex, internalized character and the necessity of holding the film together, and he responds with deceptively quiet and soundly sensational work. He carries the pain and strain of his character with precious few opportunities for overt emoting. It’s simply not the sort of film that will gift an actor with scenes of showy grandstanding that can readily garner awards attention, but it demands a control and focus that is, finally, far more impressive.

It is another thing to for a film to have something to say, to have a message or a worldview to convey. It is another, more elusive achievement to construct that film so it carries its ideas with the added weight of great artistry. That’s precisely what Cuarón has done with Children of Men.

Now Playing — BlacKkKlansman

blackkklansman

Across thirty-plus years of commercially released feature films, director Spike Lee has rarely lacked for ambition. Near-perfect or fatally flawed, his efforts are routinely packed with ideas, manifesting as narrative deconstruction, wildly inventive manipulations of cinematic technique, or heated social commentary. For better and worse, Lee directs with the exhaustive impulses of an individual who’s certain the camera will be taken away at any moment, maybe because Hollywood has been tacitly threatening just that from the very beginning. Lee seemingly transforms every creative notion into an element on screen. That can make even his strong films cluttered, but when one works — really, really works — it’s something like watching an expert magician perform their best illusions in a carnival ride operating at full throttle. For me, BlacKkKlansman is one of those Lee movies that works. Really, really works.

In Lee’s preferred nomenclature, BlacKkKlansman “is based upon some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t.” Set in the early nineteen-seventies, the film follows Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), a rookie officer with the Colorado Springs police force who impulsively launches an undercover investigation into a resurgent local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ron can bluff just fine on the phone, but his dark skin prevents him from following through on the necessary face-to-face encounters as he engenders greater trust with the organized bigots. Fellow detective Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) is enlisted as Ron’s double, and the two push deeper and deeper into the group, until Ron is being groomed for leadership roles and forging a relationship with the new national leader of the KKK, David Duke (Topher Grace).

While largely avoiding explicit narrative commentary on the enduring pertinence of examinations of the insidious reach of white supremacy movements (and handling it with admirable deftness when he does indulge), Lee burrows in to why the opportunistic spread of hate is an unavoidable part of the long, troubled story of the U.S. of A. By the end of the film, when Lee incorporates more recent news footage — including the real David Duke enthusing about the messages offered by the current occupant of the Oval Office — it has a power that has been deeply earned. The complexities of political messaging are held up to the light, whether in the Black Power movement or the countering groups that girded themselves in hate disguised as ever-so-reasonable pride in their own heritage. And, adding a thrilling dose of the particularly personal, Lee holds cinema itself to account, dragging out The Birth of a Nation for understandable derision, but also sparing a conflicted thought for the blaxploitation films of the era in which BlacKkKlansman is set.

If the thematic particulars of BlacKkKlansman wander with striking range, the tone is even more freewheeling. For much of the time, the film is exuberantly fun, easily hitting comedic notes ready for the playing in its audacious premise. But Lee is able to shift with forceful certainty, pivoting to introspection, poignancy, high tension, and bold confrontation. The film swerves wildly and yet is always clearly under Lee’s control. He know when to cut away quickly and also when the material is strong enough to allow him to linger, holding scenes until they feel lived rather than shot and constructed.

Into his sixties, with a lifetime achievement Oscar on his shelf and a recent retreat to a revised version of his very first feature, it was natural to assume that Lee might be officially past his time, far removed from his days of artist provocation. BlacKkKlansman smashes that theory to bits.