From the Archive — Eastern Promises

easternpromises

This italicized portion usually contains some modern pontificating on the earlier writing presented in this weekly feature. In this instance, though, I have no annotations. This review was written for my former online home.

David Cronenberg’s last film was called A History of Violence, which would be an apt title for his latest since that is as good of a description as any for what is tattooed on the skin of the Russian gangsters at the center of the story. The inked markings are intended to be a map of their villainous accomplishments and stature within the organizational pecking order, and, through the lens of Cronenberg, it makes for an immediately imposing image, a sharp signal of the brutality that can emerge at any moment.

Of course, The History of Violence could be comfortably assigned to any number of Cronenberg films or maybe his career as a whole, so Eastern Promises is just fine as this new film’s title.

“Just fine” is also a decent summary for the film as a whole. A medical emergency brings a midwife played by Naomi Watts into contact with the Russian Mafia in London. Secrets emerge, family strife is laid bare, an infant’s future lies in the balance, and it’s largely sedate, predictable and–most shocking given the director–a little pedestrian. It’s not bad, by any means, but nor does it get under your skin. It improves in its last third with a few genuinely surprising twists that go a long way towards making the earlier portions more intellectually satisfying even if it doesn’t inspire a sudden emotional investment.

One thing that’s fully rewarding is to see a fresh entry in the collaboration between Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Just as Violence represented unprecedented accomplishment in Mortensen’s lead performance, so too is Promises another new pinnacle. He plays a criminal foot soldier who is both a stolid observer and a careful contributor. Mortensen takes this seemingly passive role and infuses it with a flinty inner life. Even before Promises sparks to life in its final third, Mortenson’s creativity is a cue that the film holds more potential than is apparent.

From the Archive — Superbad

superbad

Emma Stone and Jonah Hill have been nominated for the same number of Academy Awards. Stone’s win obviously gives her the edge in any tallying up of awards acclaim, but it remains an odd alignment given that any reasonable assessment of the two pegs Stone as the stronger actor. I wish I could boast that I celebrated Stone’s acting when I wrote about Superbad ages ago. The evidence is clear, though. Much as I found her winning, I didn’t feel compelled to cite her work. As always when it comes to features with Judd Apatow’s name on the credit, I devoted an overabundance of words to my mixed emotions around his clear influence in the finished product.

It’s amazing how quickly this Judd Apatow brand has developed. Just a few years ago he was best known, if he was known at all, for serving as producer on a batch of television series that were woefully underappreciated, even though they just got better and better and better. Now he’s the anointed savior of big screen comedy, the guy who single-handedly is rescuing moviegoers from the entrenched safety of tepid, PG-13, mirthless constructions in favor of wildly profane expressions of the id, wringing high comedy from the minefields of modern masculinity. This perception is now so entrenched that the new film Superbad arrives with nary a mention that creators other than Apatow were deeply involved, even though Apatow is only credited as the producer of the film.

In a way that’s understandable as Superbad feels more directly related to Apatow’s own directing efforts The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked up than other films he’s signed his name to as producer in recent years. The tone is recognizably in line with Apatow’s own, his primary theme of the tug of war between maturity and ribald boyishness is vividly in place, and it has the suddenly familiar parade of old Freaks and Geeks friends, including the scary old drunk guy from “Beers and Weirs.” And it’s hard to believe that Apatow didn’t have a hand in helping Freaks and Knocked Up cast member Seth Rogen shape the screenplay he wrote with a high school friend into something that could entice a major studio. Maybe the really remarkable thing is that Apatow has developed such a clear signature with so few film outings.

Superbad is a familiar comedy about high school buddies looking for sexual conquests as graduation and a world of nothing but changes looms. It is delivered with a bit more intelligence, far more daring, and aspirations to something more lasting than the films that haunted the late hours of HBO in the mid-1980’s. While very funny, it’s also somewhat scattershot. There are stretches that spin with improvisational glee, but could also have used a little pruning. Director Greg Mottola employs a technique that’s clean and open. He draws it all in and orchestrates certain sequences very well (a nightmare vision of what happens when you’re still throwing high school parties fifteen years after graduation is especially notable). A little added panache in the editing room might have bolstered the whole film. There are plainly portions of the film where Mottola doesn’t seem to know that he’s already delivered his joke and it’s time to move on.

In the leading roles, Jonah Hill and Michael Cera both play on established personae to great effect. Hill is the same sort of aggressive, exasperated character he played in Knocked Up, and Cera’s incredibly sincere Evan lets him use the awkward stammers and other verbal card shuffles he honed to perfection on Arrested Development. The contrast between the styles is sharp and strong enough to enhance their comic teamwork even if it makes it a little hard to see the hearty friendship that is central to the movie’s emotional pull.

Since I’ve already (like everyone else) extensively considered this film’s placement in the Apatow oeuvre, here’s one more thought. Both Virgin and Knocked up seem to argue that the warm comfort of romantic relationships in better than the the dispiriting cycle of male friendship atrophied into redundancy. Superbad is the counterargument. As the boys connect with charming, highly understanding and forgiving girls, their friendship is symbolically and sadly sacrificed. Visually it is literally depicted as a descent. Maybe the film’s viewpoint is unique, after all.

From the Archive — Atonement

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Since I recently lobbed a few ill words in the direction of Joe Wright’s latest Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures into the plot, I’ll look back to a far more admiring assessment of an earlier effort from the director. Atonement was also a Best Picture nominee in which the evacuation of Dunkirk figures in the plot. How about that? And ten years ago, because of the same film, little Saoirse Ronan was also getting ready for her first trip to the Oscars. 

Atonement is a terrific book, so artfully taking advantage of the storytelling opportunities unique to the medium of the novel that the prospect of adapting it to any other form seems destined to disappoint. So much of the appeal of the first portion of the book derives from author Ian McEwan expertly switching perspectives among his character on a busy and, ultimately, momentous day at a British estate in 1935. Beyond providing a rich understand of each and every character that populates the novel, McEwan’s approach is especially apt given the devastating turn of events hinges on matters of perspective and perception. Then the closing passage of the book uses a simple but crafty technique to thoroughly upend the reader perception of the action that has come before it. Dragged into the more constrained realm of film, is there anyway that Atonement can actually maintain its resonant poignancy?

The answer is “not quite.” That doesn’t mean, it turns out, that the novel can’t be reformulated into something nicely rewarding. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Joe Wright have seemingly approached the material with some degree of McEwan’s devotion to wringing every possibility out of the chosen medium. Throughout the new film version of Atonement there is a clear-eyed creativity in letting story elements emerge. The scene in which the son of the estate’s housekeeper types out a salacious note is presented in a way that is clean and crafty. Later when the film turns to a wartime setting, Wright shows that the payoff of all those fussy, pointless extended tracking shots in his prior film is that he can pull off a technical tour de force with a single shot stride through the busy beach at Dunkirk right before the British evacuation. Like the similar efforts in 2006’s Children of Men, the shot has real purpose: enhancing our understanding of the mayhem of that day by plunging us into at as free from the clarifying safety of an edit as the soldiers in the sand. When the camera finally rests, surveying the vast sea of humanity it has just navigated, the impact is formidable.

There is smart attention to key details throughout, such as the purposefulness of thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) stalking through her house, her forceful precociousness signaled before she has spoken a word by the hard pivots she uses to take corners, that physical detail revealing the precise efficiency of a dedicated mind. Dario Marianelli’s score merits special attention as well. The simple but riveting choice to incorporate the sound a typewriter hard at work into the music, essentially serving as the percussion to the score. It’s a very unique approach to the sonic landscape which has the added benefit of enriching the narrative payoff at the close of the film.

There are moments here and there that don’t quite work, mostly the result of the necessary compression from 370 pages to two hours which makes a few pieces of story either too truncated or robbed of their fascinating uncertainty. These are the exceptions, however. For the most part, Atonement represents a troupe of collaborative creators working at the top of their craft.

From the Archive — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

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The nominations for the ninetieth Academy Awards will be announced this coming Tuesday, which I will, by self-set tradition, use as impetus to begin counting down my selections for the ten best films of 2017, six weeks or so after practically everyone else has already completed the task. While I’ve never been one to take umbrage with the notion of ranking films (in fact, I find it to be a useful exercise in sorting out my intellectual and emotional reactions to the art in question), I do dependably burble about my mixed emotions when it comes to the instinct to find prevailing trends within a cinematic year. Now, I write up an introductory post to serve that purpose, a step I realized I required when, ten years ago, I let the observations invade the review of an individual movie.

It will take a minute to get to the film at hand. Do bear with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I find pieces that identify trends in cinema to be faulty. While I believe that filmmakers are aware of and influenced by what their peers are up to, especially those who push the envelope most majestically, there are also artisans who are operating independently trying to get the most of the material they’ve chosen to work with. Influence takes time and any evidence that members of the vast, sprawling film community are simultaneous preoccupied by any given topic or stylistic approach is more likely to be simple coincidence than some grand mind-meld. This aren’t the old studio days and Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes aren’t bumping into each other at the lot commissary to chat over Monte Cristos about how to best employ the latest editing techniques. The patterns in film are there because we imagine them to be there, just as assuredly as a smear of ink on a white card doesn’t actually depict a phallic-shaped monster. Stephen Holden can write in the New York Times about Sweeney Todd as a commentary on “the age of Al Qaeda”, but he can keep that rabbit hole for himself and any other hatters mad enough to follow him into it. The great films of 2007 exist in 2007 because of the vagaries of release schedules, not because some benevolent movie god grouped them there because they matched up nice thematically.

This is on my mind in part because this will almost certainly be the last lengthier review I post before embarking on my own annual excursion into backwards counting, admittedly another sort of fruitless grouping. But it’s also because I find myself throwing my better judgment down a flight of steps and marveling at the wildly inventive messiness that serves as the common denominator to some of the year’s most gratifying films. The audacity of the shifting identity study that is I’m Not There feels completely kindred to the anti-plot verisimilitude of The Savages or the resolute ambiguity of Zodiac and it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize the films enough to imagine them staring on admiringly at the fully intentional tonal spin-out of There Will Be Blood‘s cataclysmic final scene. You can say these filmmakers are challenging the rules, but it’s more like they’re operating as if rules never existed.

One last, but central, reason this is on my mind is that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents another entry in this list. Tally up another one for questionable choices that are the very point of the film, an overt awkwardness that fuels the film’s considerable power. In some ways, it feels like Diving Bell is the epitome of this sloshing creativity. Of course, part of the reason it feels this way is because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen that I can hold up as an example.

Director Julian Schnabel works with Oscar-winning The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood to adapt Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir about living with “locked-in syndrome” after a catastrophic stroke. Bauby was about as paralyzed as a human being could be, effectively limited to movement in only his left eyelid. Eventually, a painstaking method of communication was developed which involved others reciting a modified alphabet to him until he blinked at a certain letter, spelling out his words piece by piece.

For a significant length of time at the beginning of the film, maybe the first reel or so, Schnabel places the audience inside Bauby’s inert form. The extended opening plays out as stylized point-of-view shot as physicians and therapists bend over the bend and give dour pronouncements, countered only by the internal voice of Bauby which has no means to reach the world. It is a cheeky filmmaking trick and it goes on for too long, well after the point has been made, the discomfort imparted as well as it can be to people who can bobble their legs on cushioned theater seats for personal assurance that they remain mobile. And yet, once Schnabel abandons this limited perspective (timed to coincide with the point in the narrative when Bauby has decided to stop pitying himself for his condition), it opens the film in ways that otherwise may not have been achieved. It is in part relief, but it’s also the welcome schism of contrast. The world of the film, still painfully confined, seems oddly free and diversions into fantasy are more welcome because they’ve been earned in the stasis of the opening. As with the films namechecked above, the fearless riskiness engages the mind with a dizzying challenge.

I can’t say that every choice of Schnabel’s yields the same rewards. His attempts to make the metaphors of the title visually explicit are an unnecessary distraction. We don’t need an image of Bauby in a diving suit floating motionless in a blue expanse of watery nothingness to understand his isolation after a heartbreaking phone conversation with his housebound father. It’s an exclamation point that drains the emotional impact from the scene.

Subtlety is only an occasional guiding principle here. Schnabel, from the overt technique of the opening to the flights of imagination he allows Bauby to the occasional shots clearly framed with an artist’s eye (red hair whipping in the wind comes to mind), is engaged in a manifest dialogue with the audience. There is no attempt to make the directing choices invisible to the viewer. Instead, they are there, big and bold, pushing you to consider them as they are happening on screen. You’re not intended to fall into the narrative, immersed in character and motivation and mood. You’re to admire the technique and assembly of well-chosen frames as if it were unspooled from the metal reels and strung up on gallery walls. The movie is a challenge, at times maybe even to the very way we watch movies or consider their impact. That may keep the movie from becoming a full-fledged achievement. The paradox is that it’s also the aspect that makes it so intellectually thrilling.

From the Archive: There Will Be Blood

there will be blood

We’re in that part of the film year when patience is necessary. While a few big cities have every Oscar hopeful cramming onto their screens, those of us residing in less populous burgs have to wait and wait. On a recent trip to New York, I have the opportunity to get ahead of the roll-out release schedule somewhat, but there are a whole slew of titles that have me drumming my fingers while giving sidelong glances at the calendar. Among them is The Phantom Thread, the reunion of director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the latter purportedly in his final role before retiring from the screen. Digging up this old review seems a perfect way to bide my time. This was originally published at my former online home.

There are so many things to say about There Will Be Blood. It’s difficult because I want to bring up specific scenes and choices to get to the complexities of what Paul Thomas Anderson achieves here, the way the intricacies of his storytelling pile up, double-back and sometimes burst forth like a strangely artistic jack-in-the-box. But, as always in this space, I’m reluctant to devote too many words to the details of the plot, the twists of the story, the striking transformations of the characters. One the great joys of moviegoing is the surprises delivered, especially by the most wildly creative artisans of the medium, a category that should certainly include the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, so I’d rather not be one of those that undercuts those strange gifts of revelation by condensing them to a couple sentences to reinforce my own points.

So what can be said instead? There is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, an act of uncanny transformation, bracing focus and deeply realized characterization that manages to dwarf his previous efforts, a thoroughly astonishing thing to assert give the high caliber of all that prior work and yet I believe it whole-heartedly, almost breathless at the though of his riveting performance. There is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, which seems to reinvent the very notion of movie scores with its bending sounds and insistent rhythms. There is the cinematography by Robert Elswit, gorgeous photography that tremors with life. Part after part after part can be named only as precursor to marvel at Anderson’s ability to assemble into something that is as wildly ambitious as the works that made his mark, and yet more tightly controlled, more locked in, more committed. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s love letter to the splendor of movies, their endless possibility and satisfying reward.

Even when the film starts to rattle on its own rails with the extended final scene, the culmination of all the themes and deeply considered psychology, while it is jarring, even off-putting, it is a less of an affront and more of strange invitation. The tone is different, the performances pitched in a drastically different register, the incidents of the film veering towards comedy, almost farce, and it becomes a puzzle to solve. What has happened here and why? Can it just be Anderson caving to indulgence or is there something more tactical going on? Anderson has spent the entirety of this long movie dazzling with the entire vocabulary of filmmaking: the opening reel free of dialogue, the epic, the intimate, the bellows of anger and the whispers of deep, punishing love. What’s one more wild trick? I’m not entirely convinced I can nail down what Anderson is trying to do in these closing minutes, but I feel it a little thrilling that the question is even there. And it’s worth asking.

It’s worth noting that one of the final credits on the screen is a note that the film is dedicated to Robert Altman. The two-and-a-half hours that precede this notice are filled with such audacity, vision, sprawl and tenacious devotion to wild narrative tendrils to the point of foolhardiness that it’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to that lost master.

From the Archive: Michael Clayton

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Since I carved out a little digital space this past week to express my disappointment with one of the new movies being aggressively positioned as a Oscar contender, I’ll use this regular archival rummaging to share a review from ten years ago that examined a film that I felt was also overpraised. I actually find Michael Clayton to be a solid movie, but the fervent celebration it enjoyed left me a little perplexed. I’ll take director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up, Duplicity, over this one any day.

Screenwriters routinely see their work savaged after they submit their printed pages to the money machine that cranks out films, so it’s hard to begrudge a writer who, given the opportunity, perhaps adheres a bit too closely to their nicely processed words. Tony Gilroy, with plenty of produced screenplays since he made “Toepick” into a smugly satisfied put-down fifteen years ago, makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, and the film plays like the script probably reads. There’s a novelistic seriousness and sturdiness at play in this legal drama about a major law firm’s fixer and the crisis of conscience he faces when he’s called in to bring a mentally unhinged attorney under control. Gilroy wants the story to carry the weight, which generally works nicely, but there are passages where some directorial flourishes and inventiveness may have transformed the more familiar elements into something fresher. Even the actors sometimes seem overly beholden to the script, really punching the emotions that likely showed up in the stage directions. “Worried” and “Manic” come across clear as the studio logo at the start of the film.

It’s not just an empathy for the resounding satisfaction that must come from preserving work that’s often discarded which inspires an inclination towards forgiveness for these minor faults. There’s also the simple fact that all the pieces of the film, including these that I’ve just mildly maligned, add up to something satisfying. It’s hardly groundbreaking — the story of corporate malfeasance harming good, working people echoes from the spirited rambunctiousness of Erin Brockovich and the earnest crusading of A Civil Action to cite two recent examples — but it leavens its familiarity with its solid storytelling. It may be a marker of its era as much as anything that a film with the sheen of peak professionalism and a movie star at its center feels refreshing simply because it’s free of masses-massaging compromise. It’s very craftsmanship is the film’s greatest attribute.

George Clooney, the movie star in question, continues his trend of choosing projects that strive to say something. It may be amusing to identify this as continued penance for prior crimes against moviegoers. Truth is, as Clooney has gotten more capability to chose his projects, he’s defaulted to the sorts of 1970’s potboilers-with-a-point that he adores. His performance here may be more about presence than plumbing depths, yet he does artfully get to the title character’s weary problem-solving and desperate opportunism. He’s just as likely to get out of the way and let Tom Wilkinson verbally pinball through a scene as the conflicted lawyer off his meds, or, better yet, bob in the gentle wake of Sydney Pollack’s beautiful underplaying as a senior partner impatient with the needless distractions he’s facing. As the Dorian Gray portrait of Pollack-the-director continues degrading in the attic, the Pollack-the-actor who periodically waltzes through supporting roles grows more and more vibrant.

This is what movie-making looks like when a writer preserves the integrity of his own vision. This what movie-making looks like when everyone involved cares about the finished product with something more valuable that box office rewards in mind. Studio movie-making used to look like this far more often. It is something of an achievement, that it can briefly look like it again.

From the Archive: Ratatouille

ratatouille

On the weekend that brings a new Pixar release — thankfully not a sequel or other overt franchise stab — I’ll import this review from my former online home. 

There are plenty of creators working in animation, computer or tradition, who know how to use the inherent flexibility of the technique to expand the parameters of what they can include in the storytelling. The can turn sentient candelabras or tough guy baked goods into supporting characters and use the wildest of worlds as settings that are as easily attainable as a suburban kitchen. But until Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I don’t think I’ve even seen a director take full advantage of the limitless possibilities of animation when it comes to things like staging and shot construction. Bird creates images that are astoundingly dense with details and concocts camera angels and placement that truly ingenious.

The story revolves around a French rat named Remy whose pronounced sense of smell causes him to eschew his family’s garbage-eating ways in favor of the life of a aspiring gourmand. This gets a boost when an unexpected disruption separates Remy from his clan and he winds up in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant using a strange, follicle-driven method of marionette-esque manipulation to guide an otherwise unskilled member of the staff into creating dishes that become the talk of the city. While Remy’s methodology in controlling his culinary figurehead don’t make much sense, neither does a rat who can rescue a disastrous soup after a few deep sniffs, so griping too much about the necessary devices to drive the action would be a needlessly curmudgeonly response to the wonders onscreen. Besides, the involuntary muscle responses yield at least on scene that serves as a worthy, animated successor to Steve Martin’s astounding physical achievements in All of Me. The willing suspension of disbelief is richly rewarded.

If there’s any complaint that can be leveled, it’s that Bird’s film is so stuffed with ideas, that his themes and overall points sometimes get a little muddled (for a little stretch, the film seems to be presenting the argument bros-before-hos, which doesn’t really mesh with the film’s earlier standpoint on the female character that makes up the latter part of that equation). But that same bustling, bulging busyness more often develops into grand set pieces, such as the film’s inspired scene of kitchen rescue late in the proceedings or moments of unexpected grace and insight like the monologue about the art, futility, and daring of criticism (and Bird is certainly not picking a fight; as the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles he’s been the beneficiary of their largess).

When it comes to that monologue, it’s definitely elevated by Peter O’Toole’s cragged mountain voice, one of many wonderful vocal performances in the film (one of the best, surprisingly enough, comes from Janeane Garofalo). The great cast is just another way that Bird makes the most of the options afforded to him by working in animation. I don’t know if he’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how to use the inherent adaptability of his chosen style of filmmaking to push past standing parameters into grand new achievements. I do know, however, that that’s absolutely what he’s accomplishing.