Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Movie Posters


When I recently saw Carl Franklin's One False Move, I didn't immediately think of Blue Ruin. However, the former's poster looked strikingly familiar. Upon further research, I found that Franklin's outstanding neo-noir directorial debut was one of Saulnier's major influences. His poster for Blue Ruin is a borderline rip-off, but the film itself is so singular it totally doesn't matter. Now let's hope his career doesn't fizzle after a couple dynamite features the way Franklin's did.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Green Room (2016)


On the surface Green Room is a brilliantly construed potboiler: a touring punk rock band called the Ain't Rights arrive at a grungy dive outside of Portland to play one last show before heading home back east. From the get-go things aren't quite right, from the venue miss-spelling their name as The Aren't Rights on the sign outside, to the band rashly choosing to open their set with a cover of Nazi Punks Fuck Off in front of their neo-nazi skinhead audience. They see it as a joke, but they're obviously naive when it comes to the sensitive and violent natures of the white supremacists who inhabit these eerie American regions where civility and equality are foreign terms. The rough start quickly turns to a nightmare when the band witnesses the aftermath of brutal murder in the venue's green room and suddenly find themselves shut in there as the management tries to figure out how to deal with the sudden dilemma. 

When people talk about the movie, it's usually the pulpy elements they refer to, the nauseating violence, the white knuckle thrills, and how memorable Patrick Stewart is as the cunning villain holding this punk rock band captive in the green room of his music venue that covertly functions as a drug den.

That's certainly how I reacted and spoke of it after I saw the film when it was released in Dallas last May. But I was a different person in May, and our country was a different country, and as things have changed, and the future awaits at best as a grey cloud and at worst as a cold and windy storm, the function of film as antidotal is in full force.

Perhaps that is why when I began to consider Green Room again a few weeks ago, I cared less for the film's visceral thrills and more for the care with which it was made and that strange, mysterious soul I hadn't noticed before. Context is crucial. I’m different than I was, we’re different than we were, and that creates new avenues of experience. In times like these we wonder, fear, hope, and watch movies, this time through a different lens, and hope to see something that resonates with our needs. We value the good movies of 2016 maybe a little more than we would in a different year. 

Of course Green Room was objectively the same film a second time through, but with the world seeming suddenly far different than it did when I saw it seven months ago, I found new and unexpected things to value in it. And unexpected is the key word here, for I'm a punk rock neophyte and have no real affiliation with its culture. Put that within the trappings of a pulpy genre thrill fest and I'm fully on board for something wild and entertaining. The last thing I'd expect though is to be moved as I was by this movie. And coming when it did, at the twilight of the strangeness that was 2016, I needed it.

The elements that make Green Room a strangely emotional film are not hidden. Rocks need not be turned over to find them. Instead the film puts them in plain sight and allows the viewer to perceive them if they're willing to take in the film as a whole. However, most people I've talked to, and most reviews I've read as well, did not ingest the film's emotional core. This is hardly a problem, as Saulnier does not make it easy to pick out the nuances in his story simply because its central action is so nerve-wracking. It can be difficult to find poignancy in a story when you're having a breakdown (the latter, I’d say, being the chief function of a good thriller).

So let's see just what remains of Green Room when you strip away its brilliant tension, violence, and genre thrills. The first key to understanding how Saulnier's emotional landscape is constructed is through what at this point can be called a motif in his body of work: In his little-seen Murder Party (2007), his breakthrough Blue Ruin (2014), and now in Green Room, Saulnier has demonstrated a penchant for discarding the use of archetypes in genre stories. If you look at most of the great genre films, the archetype is crucial to the narrative, which is why you often hear about genres being interchangeable. In John Carpenter's classic Assault on Precinct 13 (which seems to be a major reference point for Green Room), a cop and a criminal must team up in order to defend a police station under siege by a malevolent street gang. There's a parallel between the cop-criminal tandem and the archetypical outlaw and sheriff in the Old West, which is why it's easy to imagine Carpenter's film as a Classical Hollywood Western. With Saulnier, this sort of mindset isn't possible.

His method is to replace the archetype with normal everyday people who are completely out of their element in a genre movie. That's why Blue Ruin was so strange and invigorating, because Macon Blair played an awkward character in a juicy revenge plot who had no idea how to make revenge look cool. And that's why the punk rock band in Green Room, consisting of bassist Pat (the late, great Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), singer Tiger (Callum Turner), and drummer Reece (Joe Cole), aid the movie in its audacity and energy: they're stuck in a room surrounded by violent thugs and have no idea how to go about dealing with that problem. After all, they're musicians, not bad-ass macho movie heroes.

As I re-watched the movie, I knew how it would play out, I knew where the violence would pop up and knew that its grisly nature would make me cringe. I also knew that in the wake of an election that has thrown this country into a strange disarray that the best kind of antidotal cinema is that which reminds of the possibility of a sublime narrative, image, or idea.

But for the most part, Green Room is an awesomely harsh, ugly film, exquisitely crafted yet so cold to the touch it's numbing. But that's precisely why the beauty Saulnier manages to bring to the movie matters so much. It's when something so grim manages to find amidst the rubble a kind of grace and elegance that you don't just take notice, but truly value it. On its own terms, such beauty has less power, but when surrounded by things that terrify us--like getting trapped in a tiny room by neo-nazis, like getting your hand nearly severed by a machete, like getting mauled by a vicious mutt--that it becomes magnificent.

For Saulnier, this begins with the expunging of archetypes replaced by real people. The Ain't Rights is a tight-knit pack, bound by camaraderie and a sense they're participating in an act of preserving the purity of music. Whatever that means. In a film this swift, you can only speculate about it.

At the film’s start when they crash with a radio host named Tadpole, Tiger examines his music collection and says "This dude's legit. He's true." Regardless of their actual talent, the band takes the idea of music and how it ought to be played and experienced dead seriously. When Tadpole interviews them towards the film's beginning, he comments that the Ain't Rights are "Hard to find. Why no social media presence?" he asks. Pat, who represents you might say the heart and soul of the group, responds, "No one wants to starve, but when you take it all virtual, you lose--the texture. You gotta be there. Music is...for effect, it's time and aggression, and it's shared live, and then, it's over." Tadpole then asks the Desert Island Question, the one artist you'd take if you were stranded on an island, and as the rest of the band spews various names, Saulnier keeps his camera focused on Pat, who looks utterly perplexed and stressed by the question. Like his own music-making, he takes these sorts of things dead seriously. You can imagine the other band members drifting away into other avenues of life down the line, but Pat strikes us as a lifer, the one who will always stick around because he loves the music too much. Similar, I should add, to how the film is structured, with each member of the band eventually being struck down until it's just Pat who remains. We don't just want to see him survive because, hey, that's how the logic of good-versus-evil genre films work, because he’s "the good guy," but because he's partaking in the kind of life that's really worth something. He cares. As such, we care.

Green Room does not indulge much in the psychology of its characters. Nor does it offer much exposition about them, who they are, where they come from. Frankly it doesn't have much time to. But it does provide snippets, brief moments that elevate the film if you notice them. When I first saw the film maybe I did notice these things, but I must have forgotten about them immediately once the carnage began. This time around it was these brief moments and small details that stuck with me: the snippets of character explication, the pockets of empathy, and the love Saulnier seemed to have for the Ain't Rights. I realized that Green Room is not the year's most unsettling movie because of its violence, but because Saulnier displays a sensitivity towards the individuals who become victims of the violence. And it's not just the band he cares about.

There's Daniel, a skinhead traitor who tries and fails to help the band escape, just as he tried and failed to escape with a girl whose stabbing by a jealous boyfriend instigated the entire mess at the center of the film. There's Gabe (Blue Ruin's Macon Blair), a bouncer who's so concerned about doing his job that he loses track of the fact that all the violence that takes place is in conflict with his personal values. Note the sadness in his eyes when he realizes he’s gone too far and too much blood has been shed. And of course there's the wonderful Imogen Poots as Amber, a friend of the murdered girlfriend turned ally for the Ain't Rights as they try to escape this nightmare of a situation.

Poots has a wonderfully evocative face, her massive eyes and slightly drooping mouth expressing a natural sense of melancholy and disappointment. As such hers is a perfect bit of casting: you might see her as a badass rebel chick who gets to help the good guys, or you just might take note of how tragic this situation is for her. She’s just seen her best friend get killed, and now she’s in an impossibly difficult survival scenario. If you watch her performance closely, her face, the way she draws out her syllables, you realize she’s not just a genre heroine, but, like the members of the Ain’t Rights, a real person, dealing with the shocking and tragic nature of the situation. 

You might argue that I’m taking this way too far, that these elements are unintentional and that this is a straight genre film with a mean soul. After all, this is a film with killer mutts, dogs trained to slaughter and who in fact take out a two unfortunate members of the Ain’t Rights. Yet in the film’s end, when Pat and Amber at last emerge victorious and the trainer of the dogs is shot dead, we see one of them walk over and rest its head on its master. It’s troubling, but also a deeply sad, potent image, and one that I don’t think Saulnier would have included if he didn’t intend Green Room as something just a little more than a brilliant exercise in genre filmmaking. When you get into the film’s exciting beats and rhythms, this is something that’s easy to miss. But all you have to do is watch from the right point of view and you see it was there all along.


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wiener-Dog (2016)


The new Todd Solondz movie Wiener-Dog is funny, sad, and cruel and a host of other potent adjectives. In other words, it's like all Todd Solondz movies, and your adjectival description of it will largely be based on your perspective on him and the world around you. Can you differentiate mean-spiritedness and comedy? Can you find pathos in cruelty? Above all, can you attempt to understand and appreciate Solondz's stance on life even if it's not your own?

What's that stance? Well, as Wiener-Dog and just about all of Solondz's other works indicate, life is confusing, painful, and above all, ugly: from bodily fluids and physical oddities, to the futility of dreams, mental disease, and old age, what is life other than a grand burden? One thing Solondz does value is the comedy that is inextricable from the drama of existence, and something he certainly does not deny is a human's capacity to feel, to engage emotionally with another person. Wiener-Dog in particular has some of the most emotionally raw material Solondz has ever written. I should also be clear in stating that when I say Solondz is interested in emotion while also overemphasizing the ghastly facets of life, he's all but allowing himself to be labeled a humanist. We're back to perspective, and if you cannot see that Solondz prizes existence, perhaps consider it.

Narrative wise this his version of a dog movie, as we follow an adorable, albeit mostly inexpressive Dachshund around from various owners. The four homes the wiener-dog finds herself in suggest a roadmap of sorts through life's stages: We start with a young boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who gets the dog from his parents (played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy, both excellent as always). Remi has the sort of philosophical inquisitiveness typical of the children in Solondz movies, but when it comes to the practical handling of a pet, he's got a few lessons to learn.

Eventually we'll follow Wiener-Dog as she is rescued from euthanasia by Greta Gerwig's Dawn (a resurrection of the character played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz's first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse--seen within the context of that film, this segment takes on additional power), who goes on a road-trip with an old high school classmate, played by Kieran Culkin. While this would represent the youth-in-revolt element of the film's "journey-through-life" structure, it's also the kindest and most gentle portion of the story, thanks in large part to Gerwig's awkward vulnerability and sweetness, the polar opposite of when we saw her in last year's Mistress America.

The final two segments of the movie involve Danny DeVito as an aging and emotionally fraught screenwriter and New York film professor, and then finally Ellen Burstyn as an old woman who seems to have had the life sucked out of her and has decided to name Wiener-Dog Cancer. The DeVitto sequence is powerful (one monologue is especially heart-wrenching and is proof that all you need is one dynamite scene to make an unremarkable character a giant) though some of the satire of New York film school seems a bit obvious given the director's eclectic sense of humor. And that's it: The Journey of Life, Todd Solondz-Style.

The dog itself is ultimately less a character than a tool for human investigation. If there is a statement at all about canines here it's the misanthropic notion that the variety of ways humans are rotten renders them incapable of caring for pets. It's a false notion and I doubt one that even Solondz's bleak outlook finds accurate, but it's here because it fits into the director's idea of comedy. Humor is present in everything, intertwined with even the bleakest and toughest of circumstances. Which brings me to the film's ending, which I won't reveal, but nonetheless feel compelled to say something about: It does go too far. I've sat through many a sick joke by Todd Solondz but I always find a way to see where he's coming from and to find virtue in his point of view. Here though I've a hard time looking beyond the sick joke. Ultimately though, I don't mind because I know Solondz doesn't care what anyone thinks about his work as long as they react strongly to it in some way. And I hope he keeps making films. I'll still come back for more.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dune Revisit


I re-watched David Lynch's Dune last night, a good seven years after I first saw it. My original impression was that it was confusing but impressive, very bad in a very good sort of way. Now I see it as a confounding piece of non-entertainment, an utterly boring slog that left me wondering: should we even try to talk about what's wrong with this film, or should we just ignore it all together?

First off, in terms of plot and ideas, there's very little to say. I recall having difficulty understanding what exactly was going on when I first saw the movie. This time around, the story made more sense mainly because I realized how simple it actually is beneath the muddled means by which its told. It's basically a story about a messianic "chosen one" who saves a planet. The mechanics of the plot involve rival planets, power schemes, trickery, and revenge. The devices for narrative momentum consist of a dangerous drug and giant worms lurking beneath the sand of a desert planet where most the film's action takes place. The rest of the movie consists of inane action sequences, too many non-sensical conversations between under-developed, dull characters to count, failed attempts at exposition, and of course the visuals.

Lynch does provide some striking imagery, such as a unborn baby in a womb that looks like an infant's head sticking out of a pool of blood. But perhaps the biggest disappointment of Dune, once you realize that it's an empty vessel with regards to plot, character, and emotion, is that despite Lynch's flair for style, he's still unable to come up with a coherent or memorable sequence. The action scenes involving the worms could have been thrilling given the money that went into them, but instead Lynch shows no understanding as to how to make them coherent or interesting, let alone exciting (there's also major editing problems, wherein important moments of action seem to just end with no explanation of their resolution). Or take the climactic knife fight between the film's hero, played by Kyle MacLachlan, and one of the baddies, portrayed by Sting (who must have thought he was signing up for a magazine shoot instead of a movie). Like every other action scene in this movie, Lynch is either uninterested in generating suspense, or simply acknowledging that he doesn't know how it's done. The sequence is completely inept and devoid of any intensity, as if Lynch had never seen a single good action scene in his life. You'll find this sort of listlessness all over Dune (another standout is when MacLachlan is supposed to be training his new people with sonic weapons and Lynch recklessly rushes through this rather than attempting to show the process).

That, to me, is Dune's biggest flaw. That the story and the characters and the themes are so trite doesn't bother me too much. There are great movies out there with similar problems. But when I'm also bored by what I am seeing, by this supposedly fantastic world Lynch has conjured, I cannot quite accept it.

One final point: the dialogue is pretty horrendous, but to its credit the film does have one great line. I'm not sure if Lynch wrote it or if he took it from Frank Herbert's novel. I love it either way: "Without change, something sleeps inside us and seldom awakens."


Friday, August 26, 2016

Written on the Wind (1956)


Grand, melodramatic, colorful, and supremely entertaining, Written on the Wind in many ways seems like the definitive Douglas Sirk movie. The film oozes with melodrama to the point where you might question Sirk's sincerity, and its story doesn't feel as rooted in the 1950s as Sirk's most popular film, All that Heaven Allows, does. While the latter is certainly pretty great, its reliance on social issues for much of its dramatic weight makes it feel too of a time rather than timeless.

Written on the Wind, released a year after Heaven, fits within a grander tradition of storytelling, rife with portentous notions about family, friendship, honor, and jealousy, honesty, deception, expectation, fulfillment, disappointment, love, and the complex neuroses weigh down people with that much on their shoulders. I list these items with no intention of describing any of them in depth. The film, honestly, doesn't afford the viewer much opportunity to do so. It's aware that these themes are embedded in the narrative, and it's also aware that it doesn't really address them in any complicated way. It sounds like an epic, but at only 100 minutes, it's actually not interested in being one.

The movie opens with an impromptu trip to New York by Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and Mitch Wayne (Sirk regular Rock Hudson). One's a alcoholic playboy and heir to a lucrative oil business, and the other his longtime chum and geologist for the business. One's reckless, the other responsible, and the former gets the girl the latter secretly admires, Lucy, an executive secretary played by Lauren Bacall. Despite her fairly distinguished position in New York, Lucy envisions settling down with a husband and kids, and describes herself at the beginning as a "soul searcher." Though she recognizes that Kyle is deeply problematic, the fact that he seems to see in Lucy an opportunity to change his ways and settle down indicates to her that this could be a mutually beneficial relationship.

After the film's lengthy opening bit, we skip ahead five weeks where Kyle and Lucy are now married, while Mitch saunters in the background, resentful from his secret love for Lucy and the fact that he did not act upon it as quickly as his friend did. At this point we're introduced the fourth major player in the film, Kyle's sister maniacal sister Marylee (Dorothy Malone). Cut from the same cloth as her brother, Marylee drinks too much, has serious daddy issues, and is both obsessed with and incapable of getting Mitch to fall in love with her. Her self-destructive behavior is both a cause and a result of her loneliness, and I'm reminded of a line from a certain song, "I drink 'cause I'm lonesome and I'm lonesome 'cause I drink." She also, as the plot progresses into something that borders on pulp, displays attributes of a Shakespearian menace, a little Iago here, a little Lady Macbeth there.

Like all of his 1950s melodramas, Sirk brings his trademark ornate visual style, loaded with artificial autumnal exteriors and intensely lit interiors full of blues and reds. But it's not simply Sirk's sense of production design and lighting that makes him such a memorable stylist, but also his ability to put together a memorable sequence. What happens in a Douglas Sirk movie is always dramatic, but how it happens is the reason he's so intoxicating. Take the scene in this film when Marylee returns from a reckless night out with a gas-station attendant which results in the police taking her home. She goes straight up to her room, puts on a silky red gown, blasts music from her record player, and starts to dance. Her father has just become fully aware of the sexual deviant his daughter really is, and when he hears the loud music from upstairs he decides he must confront her. Sirk intercuts Marylee dancing intensely in her room--like she's under some sort of spell--with her father moving up the stairs towards her room. Sirk frames Marylee from the waste down as she dances, like she's some sort of firestorm, crazed, not quite human. We finally see her face as she collapses in a chair, laughing gleefully, and at the same time her father also collapses down the stairs, dead from a heart attack. It's a sequence that's just as energetic as it is tragic. We see Marylee even more deranged than we'd seen her previously because now her father is fully cognizant of and forced to grapple with the degree of her promiscuity.

One aspect of the film I still have trouble with is the level of sincerity with which Sirk approaches this story. If you read Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film, you'll find he spends much of it talking about Sirk's subversive approach to the material and the irony that pervades it. It certainly makes sense given Sirk's disdain for the cultural norms of the time coupled with just how serious a lot of the so called "great works" of the 1950s really were. But at the same time I still find in his films-even this one-a decent commitment to the characters' psychology, an attempt at capturing something like real emotion amidst the trashiness of it all. However, I think it'd be a mistake to read the film as somehow both sincere and ironic. It's one or the other, and I suppose the beauty of it is that both viewpoints work. When you consider the aforementioned "themes" of the movie you can't help but snicker a little. But at the same time the movie approaches them, however shallowly, with a genuine sense of emotion.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Two Men in Manhattan (1958)


This is the sort of movie that's main value is to satisfy the cinephile's need to find the unknown and unheralded works of a great director. Jean Pierre Melville's 1958 merger of French and American aesthetics and ideologies is ok in and of itself, but for anyone obsessed with his body of work it's a must-see. I suppose you've got to love the way he suggests a juicy pulp noir with a plot involving a French reporter and his sleazy buddy photographer as they attempt to track a missing French diplomat in New York, only to offer a fairly mundane journey into Manhattan nightlife that anticipates the calm coolness of the New Wave crime films that would emerge in full swing a year later with Godard's Breathless.

There's surprisingly little tension in the film, both in terms of characters and plot. There's also not any real sense of danger (the bulk of the movie consists of the main characters questioning various women, such as a singer, an actress, and a dancer, who may have connections with the man in question) and when the French ambassador is finally discovered, you almost laugh at how unremarkable the secret behind his disappearance really is. There's potential for a great examination of media exploitation for personal gain, as the French reporter, played by Melville himself, is at odds with the photographer, who wants to manipulate the events behind the diplomat's disappearance for personal gain. As Jonathan Rosenbaum points out in a great discussion on the DVD's Bonus Features, the movie presents a dichotomy between The French and American attitudes with regards to public scandal. In France, you remain hushed, but in America you muckrake your way to glory. It's not that the film sidesteps these issues, but it also never really commits itself to the issue the way, say, Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole did.

Two Men in Manhattan is a minor film with minor pleasures. It paints Manhattan as a city that seems to stay awake just for these two ambitious scoundrels. There's a certain artificial and sometimes surreal quality to the nightlife painted here, as if Melville created a New York he imagined that in fact does not really exist (most of the interiors were actually just sets made in France). Perhaps the most American-obsessed of all the great French filmmakers, Melville finally got to make a film about America, yet it remains stubbornly French. Watching it, you sense Melville either gave up on the film, or didn't even fully commit himself to begin with. Unlike a lot of great directors, Melville's most popular works are, I think, his best. If you've never seen Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows, Le Samurai, or Bob Le Flambeur, start with those. Then perhaps check out Leon Morin, Priest, and The Silence of the Sea. Seen within the context of his great work, I think there's some real enjoyment to be found with Two Men in Manhattan. Outside of such a framework, it doesn't offer much.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Lauren Wilford on Room

The immense accumulation of praise Room received last year from its debut at Toronto to its awards season push left me a little perplexed when I finally saw it earlier this year. I didn't think it was especially great even though I admired its intentions. People ask why film criticism matters, and while there are a myriad of answers, one is quite simply that a really stellar and thoughtful piece can alter your initial reaction to a work and make you see it an entirely new way. This may sound a tad trite, but it's not when you actually sit down and experience the act of reading and how great writing will alter notions and perspectives. That's not to say that one should not always try to come up with their own ideas about something and let criticism simply support those ideas. That, after all, is a chief academic ideal for anyone who's gone through an upper level English college course or beyond. But sometimes you find the criticism before you find your own ideas, and sometimes you have to simply accept and embrace its power.

Since I saw Room I've barely thought about it at all (not exactly fitting given the idea expressed in the previous paragraph, but hey, you can only think about so many movies!) I recently happened upon this essay by Lauren Wilford (a deeply thoughtful writer whose latest piece on Darren Aronofsky's Noah and the nature of literary adaptations is a must read) on the movie and started to read it and found it to be extremely enlightening, particularly in its analysis of Brie Larson's character. I found the performance to be good, but the character to be underwhelming as in: there's so much that could be done with this character but the film doesn't seem very interested in doing that. In retrospect, perhaps I didn't wrestle with this film enough. Wilford writes: 
Ma is a victim of affliction. Weil stresses that such a condition cannot be shared. It is “specific, irreducible to any other thing, like sounds we cannot explain at all to a deaf-mute.” When Ma decides to tell Jack part of the truth of their situation in Room, she must try to explain the unexplainable — about how there’s a whole real world outside, with room for all the cats and dogs — but for some things, he still has to stay in the wardrobe. Some days inside Room, Ma would have a “gone day.” We see Ma in bed, submerged in sorrow, in a montage of shots showing how Jack passes the time when she is away. There is a shot in the latter half of the film where Jack tries to follow a distraught Ma, but she slams the bathroom door behind her, shutting him out of her suffering. The camera stays outside the bathroom. It is an echo of the wardrobe door that Ma gently shut on Jack the start of the film. There are places that he cannot go. There are places that we cannot go.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

To Live and Die in LA (1985)


The last masterpiece William Friedkin made (though Killer Joe's pretty great), To Live and Die in LA is like The French Connection crossed with a Michael Mann movie only without that director's sense of painful longing and romanticism. However, you do get a fair amount of Mannisms here in that the film is set in LA, explores the fine line between cops and criminals, and uses action as a part of dramatic storytelling rather than for its own sake. Consider the film's berserk car chase two thirds through, which is predicated on the fact that the film's "heroes" have just committed a crime and must do anything to escape, as they, after all, are members of the Secret Service.

I bring up Mann though partly because this film almost feels like a precursor to his crime film, Manhunter, released a year after this. While the star of To Live and Die in LA, William Petersen, had actually appeared as a bartender in Mann's debut feature, Thief, this was his first major film role after a successful venture in the Chicago theatre scene. In Manhunter, he famously portrayed scarred detective Will Graham, who comes out of retirement to catch an ostentatious killer. In To Live and Die in LA, Petersen plays a similarly haunted and obsessed man of the law who is determined to take down a likewise showy deviant who has killed his long-time partner.

The antagonist, Rick Powers (Willem Dafoe, who, like Petersen, was prior more known for his work in the theatre, his casting in part due to Friedkin's determination to have a cast of unknowns), is a world-class counterfeiter who also happens to be a legit painter. One of the great villains in movie history, you get the sense that painting isn't enough for Powers, who's the kind of man who's so smart he thinks he can get away just about anything and hide in plain sight while doing it. When we first meet Powers, he's burning a piece of artwork, and afterwards we see him in his print house creating a fresh batch of 20 dollar bills. The sequence is meticulous in its details of the process, suggesting that for Powers this is a higher form of art than putting paint on a canvas (Friedkin found a a real-life counterfeiter to assist here, which, going back to Mann, recalls the opening of Thief where we witness the painstakingly realistic process of James Cann breaking into a safe). Dafoe plays Powers as a full-on kinky, off-kilter dude who nevertheless exhibits an alarming degree of calmness on the surface. He comes across less as a criminal than a man who simply has extreme hobbies (we learn he's also into making sex tapes) and an alarming degree of confidence than he can get away with anything. At one point, Petersen's Richard Chance and his new partner, John Vukovich (John Pankow) try to infiltrate his counterfeiting business disguised as Palm Springs bankers. They meet at a gym and Powers gloats that he's been coming to this place regularly for years. "I'm an easy guy to find. People know they can trust me."

Watching the film, you get a strong sense that Chance doesn't really give a rat's ass about being an honorable agent for the Secret Service, that he's more interested in the environment the job offers him, the thrill of catching a perpetrator and, in certain cases, the need to (as mentioned, he's into this particular case because he wants to avenge the death of his old partner).

One of my favorite "making of" stories in any film is during a scene when Chance and Vukovich are trying to track down one of Powers' movers, a shady dealer played by John Turturro (another great actor in his first big role), at the airport. It's a foot-chase scene between Petersen and Turturro, and at one point Petersen finds himself on a crowded moving walkway and decides to jump on the rails to get across it more quickly. During the filming, this was a stunt that airport officials told Friedkin was prohibited. At one point, during a rehearsal shot, both Petersen and the director realized this would be an amazing aspect to the sequence, and so Friedkin hinted that if Petersen was so inclined, that he could "experiment" since this was only a rehearsal take. Of course Petersen, a former college athlete, leapt on the rails with the camera following on track, and of course Friedkin didn't do another take. It really livens up the sequence as a whole, and I laughed when I heard the story behind it, and also realized that it's sort of a perfect metaphor for the kind of character Chance really is.

To Live and Die in La wasn't revered upon its release, though it faired far better initially than Friedkin's best film, Sorcerer, did back in 1977. Today it lives in a better place among the minds of critics and moviegoers, though I still feel it's not talked about enough. It's an immensely complex film in terms of both structure and psychology. It's a counterfeiter action movie that ends up being about how the idea of counterfeiting extends far beyond making fake copies of twenty dollar bills. Consider every character in the film: Is there a case where counterfeit acts do not occur, either professionally, personally, or both?


Monday, August 15, 2016

Quote of the Day

"You want the photography to be almost caught by surprise by what the characters are doing..." William Friedkin, from the Director's Commentary for To Live and Die in LA.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Hell or High Water (2016)


David Mackenzie, one of the most unique and unsung filmmakers working today, moves from the geometrically precise confines of the prison in his last movie, Starred Up, to the wide, expansive, and unpredictable world of West Texas (though it was actually shot in New Mexico) in Hell or High Water, easily one of the best new movies this year.

The basic structure of the film is nothing new, as two brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), start robbing banks (for initially unspecified reasons) and are pursued by a pair of Texas Rangers (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham). But it's brand new stuff for Mackenzie, whose energy and commitment to the material makes it feel like something we've never seen before even though we simultaneously know that's not the case. It also helps that he's working from a script from hot-shot actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, who previously penned last year's Sicario. In a film like this in which a great director is not involved with the script and that script happens to sizzle with interesting characters and rich dialogue, it can be harder to discern whose film this really is. But Mackenzie still brings plenty to the table, whether it's in his unobtrusive use of the long take (note the film's opening shot, or another halfway through in which Toby beats a young punk to a pulp), the way his shot-reverse-shots will alter based on who's talking (there's a scene in a diner with the brothers where the camera gets far closer to their faces than you'll normally see), how a two shot accentuates the creak of a windmill in the background, or in the way he gets Chris Pine to mumble his words in certain scenes to such somber effect that you'll think Michael Shannon's talking if you close your eyes.

And speaking of Pine, this is probably his best work as an actor, as he jettisons his Captain Kirk pretty boy sheen and charm in exchange for scruffy facial hair, sad eyes, and a persona altogether more weathered and gruff. While it's no surprise that he plays the more responsible of the two brothers (Foster is essentially a lose-cannon baddie with a boatload of reckless charm and intimidation--his encounter with a bitter Comanche is one of the best cinematic moments all year), Toby's hardly a saint. The bank robbing scheme after all is his plan, and while he seems fairly harmless when sized next to his brother, the fact that he's divorced and has a son for whom setting a good example has all but been forsaken sort of evinces the fact that he's tired of trying to be good in this world.

While this may all sound like fairly serious stuff, Hell or High Water supplies a surprising amount of laughs along the way, mostly from the male banter between Bridges and Birmingham. Bridges' partner is part Indian and part Mexican, and the majority of their interactions consists of racial insults from the former towards the latter. While these are played for laughs, mainly because we sense Bridges-who's in Rooster Cogburn mode here-needs something to entertain himself as they pursue the two brothers (one thing the film does really well is in showing how for the most part these sorts of "chases" are fairly uneventful and at times downright boring), Sheridan's script is too smart to let this humor simply exist for its own sake: underlying the facetious racism is the idea of the frontier and the expelling of native Americans, only to have the white settlers in turn be torn apart by modern day corporations. I won't reveal how this all makes its way into the narrative except to say Sheridan weaves it in with a kind of deft precision such that the film never feels like it's about "social issues" even though they underly the central premise.

Instead, Hell or High Water feels like something a little more raw and rough-hewn. Its pace is often gentle, its mood somber, its humor the result of men searching for ways to communicate with one another. Townes Van Zandt's Dollar Bill Blues plays during the opening credits (I should also note that the end credits include a song from Chris Stapelton's outstanding debut album from last year, Traveller, which I believe is the first time a song of his has been used in film), quite apropos considering that Mackenzie's picture as a whole sort of has the sad, languid feel of those Townes songs where people are fraught with trouble and do strange or bad things to solve their worries.