Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last Year at Marienbad

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14 features 80 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Last Year at Marienbad
(1961, d. Alain Resnais)

A man and a woman discuss a statue in a French garden. In the male stone figure, the man sees a protector, cautioning his wife against a danger up the road. The woman sees it differently, that the female figure has a spark in her eye from something that lies beyond.

Is this a statue of doom or fascination? The camera circles the stone. It picks apart the figures, examines them piece by piece, hand, foot, head, all outside of the context of the whole. Then we pull behind the figures to find a vast pool of water in front of them.

What is this body of water before them? Have they reached the sea? Is this what frightens or fascinates them? No and no, of course. We know the context. We know it's not the sea, only a pool at a chateau, its position in front of the statue a seeming coincidence. How do we draw these lines of coincidence? Where does art end and reality begin? Where does the observer end and the observed begin?

Two men play a game. Set out on a table are cards, toothpicks, finally photographs. The only rule - the same man wins every time. The crowd spins theories as to this feat of domination. They try to wrestle this fact with words. The victories move forward, indifferent to explanation, game after game.

A woman receives a photograph. A man insists this photo was taken last year, maybe at Marienbad (maybe not), when the two were lovers (or were they not), when they spun elaborate plans to run away together. The woman insists she does not remember. The man must be mistaken. How can he remember it so well, and how can she remember it not at all? The photo could be anywhere, anytime. Isn't this proof? How can a woman staring at a camera grasp the entirety of a past?

They say one thing in one room, then run into the same words later on the balcony. The images have shaken free of the words, follow their own drummer, circle back on themselves. Times change. Colors change. Details change. Never the same. Who are this man and this woman? Did they really meet one year ago? Did it happen? Is it happening now, if there is even a "now?" Are they flirting? Avoiding suspicion? Is he only the romantic fantasy of a lonely wife? Is she only the fictional muse of an artist who has thrust himself into his own story?

A mystery wrapped in an enigma, baked into a delicate chocolate eclair, and placed in a vase at the center of a hedgerow maze for years, weeks, days, seconds, centuries – because really, when it comes to time, wouldn't an artist say it's all just a blink of an eye? - there is no way out of Alain Resnais' brilliant, maddening, and brilliantly maddening Last Year at Marienbad. We glide through corridors of an ornate chateau that seem to have no end. The music swells and sharpens, dies and sharpens. A voice repeats a paragraph, fading in and out of sound. Shadowy men and women circle, chat, freeze. Are they real, ghosts, unstuck in time?

The architecture imitates the circular nature of the human mind - the way we visit an idea, consider the possibilities, visit the idea, draw a conclusion, inject a meaning, visit the idea, reopen the book, change our mind. Marienbad prefers this psychological reality over a linear and material reality - a baroque collage formed from imperfect fragments of memory, knowledge, speculation, intuition, fantasy, desire, nightmare, art and context.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, the co-writer of this script, was a noted mid-century French writer whose work was often noted for attacking the use of symbolism, preferring to analyze each thing as itself rather than as a stand-in for another. Why should an object have a second meaning when we're not sure that it has a first? In writing, this meant long, descriptive passages about objects and a characters' movements. In film, I think he has gone about it another way - by making the audience aware of how each member - like the couple theorizing about the statue - projects a psyche, a context, and ultimately a meaning onto the work of art. The film undermines meaning by making it clear that this meaning comes from us and not from it. The most important question about Last Year at Marienbad isn't "what does it mean?" The most important question about Last Year at Marienbad is the question before - "Why does it have to mean anything at all?”

The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth

(1937, d. Leo McCarey)

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 4 to Aug. 14 features 80 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Faced with a prolonged economic calamity of devastating proportions, Depression-era America did the only sensible thing that a self-respecting bankrupt nation could do - it made an endless series of comedies about zany millionaires.

If in the thirties you lived in a tent in the Arabian desert and only knew America through its films, then you would be convinced that every American woman was an oddball heiress who probably owned an unusually spunky dog. The image that America sent into the world was quite different from its real domestic life.

If this wasn't exactly using art to capture the zeitgeist, it at least had the benefit of being damn funny. Among the best of these films - arguably the best - is Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth. The Thin Man might be more romantic and polished. Bringing Up Baby, wackier. The Philadelphia Story, more star-studded, His Girl Friday better known. But The Awful Truth runs on a wry series of ironic lines, arched eyebrows, knowing glances, and a genuine, recognizable emotional current that makes it stand out from its competition.

The Awful Truth has Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a stylish and unfaithful New York couple who choose to divorce on a whim. They realize their mistake early, but pride keeps them from reconciliation. Each one gets engaged, and each one sabotages the new engagement – his with an heiress, hers with an awkward millionaire from Oklahoma who lives with his mother across the hall (Ralph Bellamy).

To understand what I like about The Awful Truth, you should first know what I dislike about The Philadelphia Story. In that 1940 comedy, Cary Grant does nothing to earn the heiress (Katharine Hepburn) except show up, sit around, be rich, wait for Hepburn to let her guard down and for the Hollywood star system to kick in. He doesn’t work for it at all, as he does in The Awful Truth. Grant may be polished confidence on the outside, but he’s a playful and vulnerable child inside. He wants what he wants, and he's willing to play ball to get it. One of the film's best moments is his cage match with a sitting room chair in the middle of a singing recital. He does the thing that a star can never supposedly do – he lets the chair win.

So much is written about Grant and not enough about Ralph Bellamy. The definition of “character actor,” Bellamy was formed out of some scientific goo as the Anti-Cary Grant. He spent the thirties playing that part in movie after movie. There was good reason that he served as the Anti-Cary Grant – he was darn good at not being Cary Grant. If his part were written today, he would be a high-rolling jerk who never listens to the heroine, shows up late, and says nasty things about her friends. As an oil-rich Oklahoman on a mission to the big city, Bellamy gives us a comic manufacture that’s alternately creepy and sweet without ever losing sympathy. We know he’s not the right guy for Dunne, but you never doubt there’s some sweet girl for him back in Tulsa.

There’s a famous nightclub scene in The Awful Truth, in which Grant lassoes Dunne into dancing with Bellamy. Ever the oblivious Oklahoman, Bellamy leads her in a vigorous dance in which she can barely keep up. The perfect look on Dunne gives to Grant screams, “Rescue me.” Grant obliges by having the band play the song again. It’s a moment that cuts through the games being played and tells us what we already know - that when the theses two are meant to be together. It’s hard to imagine this couple living out their lives entirely content or faithful. But you know they’ll spend a lifetime of chasing each other around the kitchen table.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Grade: C
Cast: Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison
Director: Guillermo Del Toro

If we were loading cultural items onto a deep space vessel headed beyond the Milky Way and you wanted a prime example of the horror movie with a disturbed little girl (Bailee Madison) moves in with her father and stepmother in a threatening old mansion, a crazy secret murder in the basement, a grumpy groundskeeper who knows all the secrets, an oblivious father (Guy Pearce) who refuses to move even after the mutilations begin, a mother-bear maternal figure (Katie Holmes), an ominous teddy bear, little man-eating monkey-men crawling through the shadows, a lead character who always does the dumbest thing possible to move the plot along (Creepy voices slithering out of the furnace? I think I’ll open it!), and superbly stylish framing and editing, then your choice might be Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark might be the one you pick. It’s the Voyager II candidate of well-made derivative schlock.

One Day

One Day

Grade: B
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jim Sturgess, Patricia Clarckson, Romola Garai
Director: Lone Scherfig

We've reached the point that a significant portion of the English-speaking world - that bankrupt, riot-helmented, penalty-kick-blowing island named England - has reduced all acting to one thing - the ability to perfect the British accent.

The land of Olivier has ceased caring about things like sympathy, emotion, delivery, comic timing. They are only interested in an American's ability to speak in their certain way, as if the rest of us are somehow deficient. It raises the question: why don' they do the rest of the world a favor and start speaking like us?

The vitriol over Anne Hathaway's accent in One Day has been enough to ask the Archbishop of Caterbury to intervene. British fans of the 2009 David Nicholls novel wonder why Carey Mulligan wasn't chosen for the role of shy Emma (presumably the filmmakers want a few Americans to actually see it.) It's true, Hathaway's accent is a little dodgy, and it comes and goes. The rest of it she delivers pretty well in this literate romance.

Directed by Lone Scherfig as her follow-up to sort-of breakthrough An Education, One Day is relatively low-key affair. It prefers character development and relatively subtle shadings of dialogue (at least compared to the comedies of this summer) to build a genuine emotional base. The film even has one great scene, a frank mother-son discussion between Dex (Jim Sturgess) and his dying mother (Patricia Clarkson) that's incredibly tender.
Emma and Dex, the shy, studious girl and the registered heartbreaker, spend the night together after their college graduation on July 15, 1988. Emma's record player kills the romantic mood, spitting out Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' Bout a Revolution." The perils of late-80s political awareness.

The pair decides to be friends, and they join each other for each subsequent July 15 (for saints' fans, that's St. Swithin's Day). He meets quick career success, becoming a television presenter on an awesomely cheesy early 90s music show, but his fame overwhelms his life. She becomes a waitress, a teacher, and eventually a children's author. We navigate with them through their trials and successes until the inevitable crown of their relationship.

You can measure the tone of an era in several ways. Scherfig's feel for period detail of the 1990s, one of the best things about An Education, remains sure - dingy flats, combat boot fashion, sleek surfaces. She also captures the strangely matched impulses toward art, intellect, and integrity on one side and partying its tail off on the other. When Emma reads a book on a nude beach, it's Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. That's exactly the book that that girl would be reading in that time and that place.

Does anyone really know why a romance works? I can observe good chemistry between the leads. I can say the peppered dialogue is a grade smarter than we usually get for romances, and the characters a grade deeper. I can say that One Day is so honest and roundly developed that you don't notice the conventions that it does indulge. When it finally goes for the big melodramatic moment, it feels like a violation, which is a measure of the film's overall success.

30 Minutes or Less

30 Minutes or Less

Grade: B
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Aziz Ansari
Director: Ruben Fleischer

Like any good pizza delivery driver with a bomb vest strapped to his body, 30 Minutes or Less knows how to get there, get the job done and get it over with a second to spare.

When it comes to explosives, every second counts, and there aren't many films with such a clear-eyed grasp of its premise's lifespan. LIke a good pizza, it goes down with a smile before you can taste too much of it, before the cheese has a chance to get moldy and old.

Coming off of The Social Network, Jesse Eisenberg slides way down the food chain. He plays a pizza driver caught up in a murder plot hatched by the nincompoop son of a lottery winner (Danny McBride) who wantsto live the American Dream of opening a tanning store that doubles as a brothel. To pay for a professional hit, his accomplice locks a bomb vest on the pizza boy's body to force him to rob a bank, which drags in a friendly teacher (Aziz Ansari, a veteran of the Apatow circuit).

Director Ruben Fleischer, the writer/director of Zombieland, takes inspiration from action-comedies of the eighties and does a generally nice job with it. He gets another nice collaboration out of Eisenberg, whom I've never thought of as a genuine-article movie star, but maybe the mechanics are there. I don't get the cult of Danny McBride, though. He goes from movie to movie as a petulant dimwit with nothing else. He seems destined to ruin a Wes Anderson movie.

30 Minutes or Less might have the short lifespan of a meat lovers supreme on a table in front of a hungry teenage baseball team. But it will taste about as good.

The Change-Up

The Change-Up

Grade: D

Cast: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin

Director: David Dobkin

This summer, we’ve reached a crisis point in the American comedy: why can’t Jason Bateman get promoted or laid?

The summer comedies are stocked with middle-aged men who dream of having sex but never do. That’s a healthy sign for marriage, I suppose. But if you’re a married dad who secretly wishes he could spread the seed again, do you want to spend $10 to go watch a movie about another guy who can’t, either? Where’s the fantasy? Where’s the edge? Face it, this has been one long, scalding summer of “Whatever you do, do not make me have sex with the babysitter!”

So the infidelity comedy has become the fidelity comedy, and other than the audience, no one seems to get the short end of the stick – so to speak – as often as Bateman. He is the only guy in Horrible Bosses who doesn’t receive an explicit come-on from Jennifer Aniston. A couple of years ago in Extract, he got Mila Kunis into a hotel room where he …. promptly fell asleep.

In The Change Up, he plays a lawyer and family man who switches bodies with his irresponsible best friend, a womanizer having a hard time kicking off his acting career— probably because he has made the ill-advised career choice of living in Atlanta.

Disembodied from the ball and chain, the family lawyer gets to sleep in, smoke pot and figure out reasons not to have sex with Olivia Wilde. The womanizer takes on family responsibility that he knows nothing about, a legal career that he knows nothing about, and a tricky marriage to Leslie Mann (a gifted comic actress with a weird attraction to movies with recycled television plots.).

The question about The Change-Up – who is sitting around Hollywood thinking, “What this world needs is another body-switching movie?” And who is sitting around Hollywood thinking, “You know who I have always wanted to see switch bodies – Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds!” I once knew a girl without any artistic taste. She thought that the live-action Rocky and Bullwinkle movie “was going to rock.” And even she thought body-switching plots were stupid.

There are two ways that this most tired television plot could have any chance of being worthwhile. One way is to do it with two well-established and opposite screen personalities. It might be enjoyable to watch this plot with, say, DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman in their prime.

The other possibility is the arty one – have the characters excel in their new lives. The characters find they’re better being the other person than they are at being themselves. Their spouses are completely satisfied. The people around them like them better. Then you create interesting questions about what our identity really means to us.

You know you’re not going to find that type of soul searching in a movie that starts with a father of twins taking incoming fire while changing diapers. While Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin launched the R-rated comedy wave, that the only launch that The Change-Up is likely to make.

Crazy, Stupid, Love
Grade: C
Cast: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Kevin Bacon,
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

I like marriage.

I do. At least in theory. I am unmarried, myself. But my parents are married. My friends are married. It seems like a good deal.

So why is it that more and more, I find myself rooting against marriages when I watch them on film? In real life, whether divorce re-invigorates miserable people is situational. As movies go, for better or worse, it usually frees them. I’m not sure why. Perhaps writers overdo the marital suffering so the revival seems more dramatic, not realizing it buries the romance for good. That is certainly the case with Crazy, Stupid, Love.

I have a simple rule about the success of an onscreen romance. A good one feels like a movie is conspiring to keep the couple apart. A bad one feels like the movie is shoving them together against the movie’s will. Crazy, Stupid, Love shoves like a school lunch line on chocolate milk Friday. The marriage of Steve Carell and Julianne Moore is cemetery dead, probably in a way that didn’t play to the writers on the page. The worst marriages are those that don’t just die but drown the two people with them.

Their separation sets in motion the best (and luckily, longest) part of the film – the My Fair Lady transformation plot between the serial ladies man (Ryan Gosling) and Carell, a henpecked father of two decked out in baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers. In My Fair Lady, professor Henry Higgins tries to turn Eliza Doolittle into a proper lady. Gosling’s challenge is to turn Carell into an improper man.

Freed of marriage, this section crackles with life. The men have chemistry, each has a handle on the character’s (admittedly one-dimensional) tics and tacs. As Carell learns the pickup moves with predictable speed bumps, the story has enough momentum to carry things. Why does it retreat into a re-marriage comedy, when no one wants Carell to sink back into that lifelong of despair? The film charges hard for the comfortable landing, with a schmaltzy final speech that makes you want to burn a wedding dress.

There is some attempt to make it an ensemble comedy, the type that requires you to draw arrows Glenn Beck-style between pictures of the characters. An office mate (Kevin Bacon) has a thing for Moore. The mouthy son (Jonah Bobo) has a thing for the babysitter (Analeigh Tipton). The babysitter has a thing for Carell, who loves and leaves his son’s English teacher (Marisa Tomei). Emma Stone is in there, too, somehow and somewhere. She’s a young lawyer who hangs out with her lawyer friends and lawyer beau. If you want to know how far off some of Crazy, Stupid Love is from reality, the lawyers wear tailored suits everywhere they go. In reality, young lawyers have already surrendered to baggy jeans and New Balance sneakers, too.

It’s hard to judge comedies anymore. The standard has slumped so far. So a film like Crazy, Stupid Love can be fairly funny, with more character development than its competition, but still feel shallow. It’s certainly better than a lot of Steve Carell’s recent summertime mass-audience comedies, but is it good or just better? You want to pat it on the head for making a little headway. Yet you don’t want to encourage it too much, either, lest you wind up with too many more.

The Guard

The Guard

Grade: B

Cast: Brendan Gleeson, Don Cheadle, Mark Strong

Director: John Michael McDonagh

What is a veteran Irish policeman to do?

There he is, tending to his rounds of bar fights and domestic disturbances. Stealing drugs off car wreck victims. Indulging in lovely imported visitors from “the agency.” Thinking nothing of selling the IRA back their lost-and-found weapons.

His sleepy coastal town isn’t the first place that you would suspect for a major drug deal. But that’s what it comes to An international drug ring is running its goods through the town. It’s so big that it attracts an African-American FBI agent (Don Cheadle), whom Sgt. Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson) delights in engaging with racially-tinged deadpan banter.

Boyle Is a fabulous character to follow, a man who skimps on small moral matters but whose heart is in the right place on the big ones. His encyclopedic knowledge of his village grapevine plays out against the sophistication of the FBI.

Director John Michael McDonagh borrows Gleeson from his brother Martin (director of In Bruges) and gets a whale of a comic performance from him. He has different shades and levels in a way that an American comedy character would never have. Outside of the winning performances, McDonagh also gives us something comedies are often too afraid to give – a unique look born of the village in which it is set.

It’s a natural comedy, arriving from character and place rather than forced situations. It comes from comes from villagers who watch too much American television, philosophical criminals who cite Nietzsche as they shoot victims. At times, it might get caught up a little too much in Wes Anderson weirdness and homages to spaghetti westerns. For the most part, it’s a satisfying dark buddy cop action-comedy.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger
Grade: B
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Sebastian Stan
Director: Joe Johnston

Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But he likely invented modern life. He then used his fortune to build Greenfield Village, a park dedicated to the preservation of the horse and buggy world he had nudged to the past.

The further we go with technology, the more we have a fascination with the past. As the future becomes more artificial, we come to know the past as the only thing more grounded and authentic. So if the kids go online to buy vinyl records or swanky fedoras, it makes more sense than it appears.

With all the technological wizardry in filmmaking, nostalgia and sentimentality are increasing forces in this summer’s movies. The nostalgia wave extends from the Spielberg-retro Super 8 to the artiest of arties – Tree of Life. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the surprise hit of the summer, is a study of the joys and risks of living in the past.
Captain America: The First Avenger is the summer’s final sweet indulgence in sentimentality, a 3-D tribute to 1940s retro-futurism and patriotic nostalgia. It shares imaginative space with Spielberg’s Raiders flicks and countless World War II movies. The tearjerking ending of this endearing truffle will almost make you stand and sing “We’ll Meet Again” without a hint of Kubrick’s irony.

Captain America ambles along in this glorified past, when America believed itself an Arsenal of Decency and the nation believed in better living through chemistry. American power is undeniably beneficial. Science advances with flying car optimism. Love is something delayed in the name of duty. It is as if revisionism never happened, warmly embracing the nation’s most idealistic values.

Captain America is born out of this innocent time, when a science experiment to create a perfect supersoldier would seem like a great idea. It’s all the better to fight HYDRA, the Nazis’ scientific division, headed by the mutant Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who wants to teach Hitler a thing or two about mass murder. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a flimsy asthmatic chosen by a loopy professor (Stanley Tucci) to transform into a superhunk. Captain America becomes the model of humble power sticking up for the little guy.

With its amber-coated vision of burly GIs, saluting chorus girls, black-booted villains and a wildly pretty compatriot fighting in the perfect red lipstick, Captain America is something more than a fun summer ride. It’s a yearning for the innocence of yesteryear. Just as much, it yearns for the ways that movies used to make us feel.