18 August 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 15-21 Aug

/Crimson Tide/ (1995, Tony Scott): 70

Weird, arresting tension here between the dramatic structure, which is entirely one-sided in favor of Denzel the cautious humanitarian, and the dialogue and performances, which take great pains to make Hackman's case for launching not just defensible but downright sensible. "What'd you think, son? That I was just some crazy old coot putting everyone in harm's way as I yelled 'Yee-ha!'?" Screenwriting courses should teach the drill sequence, which establishes the conflict in miniature even as it teaches the audience everything we need to know about the rules of nuclear engagement, thereby freeing us to enjoy the later spectacle of two powerhouses shouting each other down in one of the most electrifying stand-offs of the modern era. (Screenplay is by Michael Schiffer, who also wrote The Peacemaker—not nearly as strong, but still surprisingly sharp by studio standards.) Tony Scott, for his part, has the good sense to stay largely out of their way, even if he makes a mess of the sub's spatial coherence—it's always apparent that we're looking at one of several disconnected sets rather than contiguous areas of a single vessel. (That I watched Das Boot not long ago didn't help.) Crowd-pleasing entertainment with just a soupçon of ethical ambiguity; I turned it on late at night expecting to hit the sack after maybe half an hour, pick it up in the morning, and suddenly the closing credits were rolling. Pity that the timeless quality—profanity aside, this could almost be a '50s movie à la The Caine Mutiny (only better)—gets ruined by Tarantino's sore-thumb contributions, which were cringeworthy even in the immediate wake of Pulp Fiction and are just painfully embarrassing now. I suspect even he would agree.

Submarine (2010, Richard Ayoade): W/O

Now I know what Wes Anderson movies look like to people who don't find them remotely witty or charming. Ayoade's timing is impeccable but I found the combination of breezy and whiny off-putting—Max Fischer's delusions of grandeur are funny because he's so mightily industrious, whereas it's hard for me to empathize with Oliver Tate daydreaming for several minutes about the outpouring of grief that would consume Wales if he died. Thought maybe I was just in the wrong mood until Ayoade cut from Oliver telling off the school bully to Oliver lying prone and bleeding on the ground with Jordana sitting impassively nearby, which was sharp enough to suggest the movie I wanted to be watching and wasn't (with that exception and one other I can recall). And then right at my standard W/O point there was a chapter heading informing me that the film would now shift focus to Paddy Considine's mullet-headed New Age rival for Mum's affection, which thank you no. Oddly enough, the one aspect that really appealed to me was the unexpectedly striking location work. Postcard-stunning views that might seem insipid in the period dramas where you usually find them take on surprising weight in this context.

Paris, Texas (1984, Wim Wenders): 61

Quite the rollercoaster ride, this one.  First of all, a theatrical print eluded me forever, and it's such an essentially modest film that years of accumulated hype and expectation do it no real favors. Then it kicked off in what I think of as Ballast mode, with the protagonist's soulsickness exaggerated to the point where he seems neurologically damaged. (It's not the movie's fault, obviously, but watching one brother struggle in vain to communicate with another, on a road trip necessitated by the damaged brother's freakout over the prospect of flying, had me constantly thinking of Rain Man, especially during the scene in which Travis insists on finding the exact same rental car.) Once Travis magically snaps out of it and starts behaving like an actual human being, Wenders finds a gently lyrical groove; the middle section, depicting the slow reparation of Travis and Hunter's severed bond, comes thrillingly close to perfection, with the progress of their relationship echoed visually by their surroundings as they travel from L.A. to the director's beloved forgotten America (with one small moment that must make Sicinski laugh aloud: "This is Houston?!?"). And then, just when I was ready to surrender my heart completely, it suddenly turns into a fucking Sam Shepard play. I kind of hate Sam Shepard, to be honest (as a writer, including for the stage)—his spill-your-guts approach to dramaturgy, while catnip to actors, tends to be the exact opposite of what moves me, and the extended finale here, which I assume the movie's ardent fans treasure, seemed to me that most egregious of sins, the regurgitated backstory. (I will give him and Wenders some credit for making it cinematically compelling via the one-way mirror, though even that gets negated by the implausibility of her failing to recognize his voice for as long as she does.) Part of my dissatisfaction, I confess, may stem from the mistaken assumption to which I leaped as Travis and Hunter were tailing Jane's car, only to find two similar-looking cars heading in different directions; to my mind, the final act becomes 10x more potent if Nastassja Kinski actually isn't Jane, yet Travis speaks to her as if she is. (The home-movie footage kills that idea in advance, but that only occurred to me some minutes later.) That's really the only context in which hearing about Travis' lost years is remotely justifiable; if he's actually narrating his past trangressions to the woman who endured them, it's just mannered bathos. Which is to say, a Sam Shepard monologue.

Sleeping Sickness (2011, Ulrich Köhler): 48

[Pedigree: Berlin '11 Comp. {Director}; NYFF.]

Save for the fact that it's quietly observational rather than (I presume) an overbearing shoutfest, I'm not quite sure what sets Sleeping Sickness apart from White Man's Burden, the Travolta flick set in an alternate universe where Caucasians are the oppressed minority and African-Americans like Harry Belafonte control everything. Köhler's film takes place in the real world, to be sure, but his agenda seems much the same; apart from the ironic contrast of a German who feels so at home in Cameroon that (UNEXPECTED-ELISION SPOILER!) he abandons his family to remain there—"you're blacker than I am," one local helpfully observes—with a French-born black dude who finds Africa threatening and disorienting, there isn't a whole lot going on here. It's essentially a high-concept film that does everything possible to obscure and/or downplay its high concept, which sounds laudable in theory but only winds up making ostensibly mundane scenes look pretentious. The opening bit, for example, in which Dr. Velten confidently negotiates terms with a military officer seeking a ride into town, seems impressively thorny and multifaceted...until you realize that it exists solely to dovetail with the later scene of Dr. Nzila refusing to get into an illegal taxi for fear that he's about to be robbed and/or murdered. (I surely would have responded more strongly to the latter sequence had I not felt like I was being prodded, as I've been in that exact situation myself more than once.) Köhler obviously has considerable chops—I quite liked Bungalow, for the record, never did see Windows on Monday—and I get the sense that he wants to say something cogent about the utility of foreign aid, but the implicit didacticism overwhelms whatever questions he hopes to raise, at least for me. Fine performances, expert direction, assured rhythms, all in service of CLONK!

/Bullitt/ (1968, Peter Yates): 74

Astonishing to think that a movie like this could have been a hit once, thrilling car chase or no. (Adjusted for inflation, it grossed roughly $120 mil.) I'd dimly remembered it as being faintly dull whenever hubcaps aren't flying, and now I see why: Yates deliberately flattens everything into a near-autistic level of procedural concentration, creating a stealth character study that grows steadily in power as McQueen's canny non-performance just keeps yielding nothing. That car chase acts as a single enormous spike in an EKG that's otherwise strictly horizontal; even Robert Vaughn's unctuous, interfering pol, last seen perusing the Wall Street Journal in the back of a limo, brushes the movie off his trousers like so much lint after being defeated. Scene after scene is uninflected to the point of seeming perverse. I even briefly thought Jacqueline Bisset's freakout when she sees Frank unaffected by some woman's corpse would play without dialogue, shot from a distance—that approach didn't seem remotely out of character. Alas, someone clearly felt the need to throw the audience at least one tiny bone, so Bisset (whose character otherwise has no function) does get a too-pointed speech accusing him of being inhuman, to which he responds with predictable indifference. Thing is, though, while we can admire Bullitt's integrity and professionalism, his laconic terseness, unlike Eastwood's, isn't remotely "cool," which the film's amazingly prosaic final shot seems to recognize. He doesn't even get to toss out a few unconvincing "I love you"s, like Carol in Safe. But he's just as much of a hollow shell. 

Mr. Tree (2011, Han Jie): W/O

[Pedigree: Shanghai '11 {Jury Prize, Director}; TIFF '11 CWC.]

If I ever need to explain to somebody what visual rhythm entails, remind me to use this shambling Jia wannabe (he produced) as an example of what it looks like when a film has no discernible rhythm whatsoever. Possibly the most formally/structurally incompetent picture I've seen since Dogma—individual shots look fine (in a generic fest-approved way), but Han has clearly put zero thought into how they'll interact, so that you seem to have switched the channel to a different movie with every cut, even when the action is continuous. Which probably sounds more interesting than it plays, because it plays choppy and maddening. Meanwhile, Mr. Tree himself makes for a singularly uninteresting layabout, and the modernization angle feels like Jia's reheated leftovers. Reviews suggest it turns pretty surreal later on, but that sounds like a threat in this case.

Stolen Desire (1958, Shohei Imamura): 59

Never thought I'd see a Japanese film that merits the term Fellini-esque. Detailing the ribald misadventures of an itinerant theater troupe during its sojourn in a provincial wasteland outside of Osaka, Imamura's debut features hints of perversity to come but traffics largely in exaggerated leering and catcalling in the tradition of Amarcord (or Porky's, frankly—there's even a peeking-while-they-shower bit); it's a sprawling collection of raucous comic incidents intermittently interrupted by an unconvincing love triangle and the whining of Imamura's onscreen stand-in, who can't persuade his actors to take artistic risks that might alienate the punters. Film's apparently a direct response to Ozu's A Story of Floating Weeds, which I haven't yet seen (though I've seen the '59 color remake, possibly same diff), but its ramshackle goofiness and casual vulgarity suggest repudiation more than homage. Which makes me wonder about its most perplexing moment: Whiny director, determined to run off with the lead actor's wife, goes to confront him but winds up silently watching him rehearse, as Imamura slowly pushes in on whiny director's awestruck face—a visual gesture that  unmistakably conveys dawning respect and clearly sets up his decision to gracefully bow out. And then whiny director goes ahead and says "I'm takin' yer woman" anyway, as if that moment had never happened. That's gotta be intentional cynicism, right? Even so, it's rare to see a filmmaker confound viewer expectations strictly via mise-en-scène; I can't think offhand of another case in which the entire meaning of a shot gets ignored. Pretty sure I would have flagged this dude as Someone to Watch.


Ryan said...

Haven't seen Bullitt in quite a while, but I remember the rhythms being more Point Blank than Dirty Harry.

In any event, you need not look far afield for a contemporary example: The American, which grossed about $27.50 when you factor in all of the refunds demanded by vexed patrons.

md'a said...

I thought of mentioning Point Blank but my memory of that film (also pretty dim, another I need to revisit) is that it's far more aggressively avant-garde than Bullitt, the artiness of which mostly involves what it omits (i.e., all conventional dramatic emphasis). But equally bracing. And yeah, I suspect it would sink like a stone today.

dd said...

I've read your comments on SLEEPING SICKNESS several times now, and I'm still not sure what you think its agenda is - I'm guessing to comment on racism by showing a black person not fitting in in Africa and a white person doing so? Because that wasn't my take on it at all - whilst updating the race (and, presumably, sexuality, though I don't recall if the original addresses it) of the protagonist of Heart of Darkness adds some nice thorny complications, the core text felt the same as the original, which is to say the complications and problems of colonialism. (I haven't read HoD since I was 17, so forgive me if I oversimplify.) The main difference being: in a post-colonial era, we're no longer plundering*, we're sending aid, but that aid in turn creates as many complications (from dependency to corruption) as it solves. And a "Western guilt" perspective (having Nzila being black, incidentally, disables the "white guilt" reading of the film that would otherwise be present) means that we think there's something that can be done, but neither having conferences, nor sending well-meaning youthful layabouts (such as those Nzila interviews), nor going there yourself, works the way you want it to in theory.

And ultimately, that's one reason I liked the film - I have a strong feeling these issues aren't easy, and unlike many "issue films", the film makes no pretense of an easy solution, but rather complicates things to a degree that hopefully will linger for the viewer the next they're asked in real life to donate 7 cents a day to cure a disease in Africa. And that text still works, even if you turned Nzila into a white man.

(I'll admit, though, that being an expatriate might help, ever so slightly, with various sympathetic pangs with our two leads.)

*(well, we may be [and probably are] plundering from various places, but that's not the point of the film.)

md'a said...

It's more that it's using race to comment on colonialism, in a way that I found overly pointed, too neat and wholly distracting. Either Dr. Velter or Dr. Nzila alone would have worked fine for me; a diptych narrative involving both can't help but imply a contrast, one that K√∂hler actively encourages with specific scenes like the ones I mentioned. And if Dr. Nzila is merely meant to signify Western guilt, why is he second-generation Congolese, and why does that become a significant point of interest? It's a very different film—the one you describe, perhaps—if he's Dr. Williams from Detroit who can trace his ancestry back to the 18th-century plantation.

dd said...

This may have something to do with my dim-wittedness as a viewer, but I didn't pick up on the symmetry between the two scenes that you mentioned (driving/arrivals) on an initial viewing* - and, in retrospect, my first reaction was less "wow, that's a thudding parallel using race" and more that the distinction was that "how you relate to the country when you've been there" than "how you relate as a newcomer". The film is constantly discussing the distinction between the experience on the ground and experience from a distance. And I think that's the point of the split narrative - to allow us both perspectives, and I don't see how telling either of those stories in isolation makes the film stronger, since it's not a traditional diptych narrative (as the stories conjoin at the end).

Obviously, the choice of making Nzila 2nd-generation Congolese has additional intended weight above and beyond the "Western guilt" reading, but while it makes race an element of the contrast, it adds the fundamental question about where we belong and what (if anything) that has to do with our race - which I find it makes things far more thorny than the individual narratives of "white man goes troppo" or "Westernized African man loses touch with his roots".

Either way, for me, that's the sauce, not the dish.

I'd love to get Waz in this discussion, since as far as I know he's the only other person who's seen it.

*I should also note that in my viewing, the title card cleaving the narrative was unsubtitled, so I was spending an inordinate amount of time figuring out what the hell was going on - I eventually remembered enough German to know that three somethings had passed, but had no idea what they were until it eventually unfolded narratively.