Saturday, June 6, 2015

Far From The Madding Crowd



Wayfarers across the centuries, English novelist Thomas Hardy and Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg meet in the fictional country within a country of Wessex, which the novelist described in his preface to Far From The Madding Crowd as "a merely realistic dream country."  It is in the partly-real, partly-imagined Wessex and Hardy's 1874 novel that the writer and filmmaker quite amicably meet and combine their talents.  Of course, such bonhomie does not necessarily guarantee excitement, the kind of friction that often produces artistic brilliance.

This latest  (and fourth) film version of Far From The Madding Crowd demonstrates a shared feeling for landscape and a somewhat reluctant romanticism on the part of Hardy and Vinterberg.   Brought newly to the screen, Hardy's beloved novel is above all a handsome piece of work in which the visual appeal of its actors, its wardrobe and landscape are happily allowed to trump the novelist's typical fatalism and tendency to put his lovers through the mill before any ultimate reunion.  Among its most felicitous points of convergence, Far From The Madding Crowd gives us Hardy's heroine Bathsheba Everdene as personified by the radiant Carey Mulligan.


Mulligan is the young, independent Bathsheba, leading us into the story of Far From The Madding Crowd in voiceover, wondering at a first name for which she has no explanation (her parents are long-deceased).  Bathsheba arrives to live and work on the Wessex farm of her aunt, where she meets a local shepherd, affixed with a name that would seem to anticipate by some decades a strapping character from the pages of a romance novel.  This Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts), and a sturdy (ahem) lad he is.  Such is the appeal of Bathsheba, or such the dearth of nubile women in this Wessex, that marriage proposals are proffered about as readily as "Good day."  Gabriel is the first man to blurt a quick proposal.  After but a couple of fleeting encounters, the shepherd appears at the home of Bathsheba's aunt to bestow upon her a lamb.  The darling creature is just a pretense, Gabriel explains, when the aunt is out of earshot.  He's really come to propose a marriage.  Bathsheba is a bit flummoxed, flattered and then gently dismissive in turn.  She has little interest in marriage and thinks the laconic shepherd is hardly the man to tame her into the such a conventional life.  

The dapper shepherd:  Mattias Schoenaerts as
 Gabriel Oak in Far From The Madding Crowd.  
Thus we have the standard set-up for a Thomas Hardy novel.  Woman A really belongs with Man B.  Alas, some bit of tragedy, some reversal, some foolish obstinance on the part of one of our would-be lovers, or perhaps a fateful ragout thereof, drives them apart.  The novelist might have us believe this the hand of fate, when really it is the heavier hand of Hardy.

Bathsheba's initial rejection of Gabriel is seemingly cemented by his own reversal - a mad sheep dog drives his herd off one of those chalky white English cliffs a fateful night (one of the film's few and effective instances  of special effects, resulting in a kind of ebb tide of sheep death on the beach below), ruining his plans to buy outright the land on which he had been plying his trade.  Gabriel is rendered homeless, even if he would seem to maintain a wardrobe of simple elegance and a jaunty satchel in which carry his world belongings.  The shepherd's wandering is brief.  When he seeks work at a farm at which he's told there might be work, he arrives in time to find the buildings in flames.  With seemingly no one in charge, Gabriel saves the day and the barn.  When the farm's grateful owner appears on the scene and lowers the hood of her cloak, Gabriel is very surprised to see Bathsheba.  She had been inheriting the formerly impressive farm while he had been losing his land.

Gabriel assumes the position of shepherd and go-to man at Bathsheba's estate.  He's must also play witness to the awkward courtship between his mistress and William Boldwood (Michael Sheen).  Bathsheba sends the widower a valentine in jest, which eventually unleashes a torrent of repressed emotion from the unhappy man, even if the flood rarely takes the form of any words a woman of passion might find enticing.  As did Gabriel Oak, Boldwood makes an abrupt proposal, speaking less of affection than acreage, dresses to be bought, a piano to be acquired for his would-be bride.  But she already has a piano, Bathsheba reminds Boldwood.  Not to mention her own estate.  The saturnine fellow is left with a thread of hope, but really hasn't a chance.  Gabriel scolds Bathsheba for toying with poor Boldwood, which results in a not-terribly-convincing pique of anger and abrupt firing of the shepherd.

So, this strong but shifting association between Bathsheba and Gabriel is severed once and for all, right?  Well...no.  Not long after the shepherd quits the estate,  Bathsheba's sheep are discovered agog in field of rich grass on which they have unwisely feasted, resulting in the the likely-fatal bloat.  Guess who's the only man with the expertise to save the wretched animals?  Bathsheba must swallow her pride and recall Gabriel herself.  And a-galloping they go back to the afflicted sheep, where Gabriel is able to expertly puncture all of the distended bellies and save the day.  One could use such a man after a visit to one's favorite Indian restaurant....

Bathsheba and Gabriel are thus thrown together.  And torn apart.  And thrust back together again.  So goes Hardy's plotting from novel to novel, man and woman jerked hither and yon to serve the almost arbitrary turns of story.  But the novelist has also given us this heroine, a woman in late-19th century England who has little interest in marriage, even before a considerable inheritance.  Not exactly what one would expect of a male novelist of the period.  Even less, his later heroine Tess, a "fallen woman" whom he refused to see as such.


Both Gabriel and Boldwood must bear reluctant witness to  Bathsheba successfully wooed by the dashing Sergeant  Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge).  The impetuous and handsome Troy had earlier suffered his own reversal when his bride went to the wrong church at the appointed hour of their nuptials, leaving the proud young man to march out of the church with his best man instead.  It's not easy being a character in a Thomas Hardy novel.

Troy and Bathsheba meet one evening when she is doing the rounds of her estate.  Entranced by her beauty, Troy sticks around, working briefly among Bathsheba's employees until she agrees to a forest assignation, very much over the warning Gabriel.  But this is not your average pastoral tryst, if there is such a thing.  Troy arrives fulled bedecked in his soldier's scarlet jacket and sable trousers and proceeds to thrill Bathsheba with a demonstration of his swordsmanship.  And an impressive swordsman he is.  Ahem.  Of a more conventional coming together of young flesh there is only a kiss.  But this is Bathsheba's first.  More than anywhere in Far From The Madding Crowd, Carey Mulligan carries and frankly saves this scene with her expressive but complex reaction:  hands held out, though not predictably quivering, those brown eyes an enigmatic show of surprise, fear, bewilderment.


The silly sword show is but one instance of David Nicholls' script, quite faithful to Hardy's novel even when it needn't be.  The overcome Bathsheba foolishly weds Troy, even if she quickly realizes that she has married a restless boy with a man's vices, possessing a depth of feeling only for that lost love, Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), reduced to wandering penury and flung back into the story by Hurricane Hardy like debris from another county.

Alas, poor Boldwood.  Reduced to near madness as Bathsheba is taken in by Troy.  Allowed to hope anew when the rakish Sargeant is apparently drowned.  Pushed completely round the bend when the cad reappears to reclaim his wife.  The wayward passions present in Far From The Madding Crowd and other of Hardy's novels are really only evident here in the desperate intensity of William Boldwood, which Michael Sheen's expresses most eloquently in moments when he speaks only with a telling gleam of  dark, lost eyes.  Otherwise, the edges of determining passions - Bathsheba's initial disdain for Gabriel; the shepherd's pride  - are rounded off.   This is not entirely a bad thing.


While some of the frisson of conflict and ultimate coupling is lost with the extreme emotions of Hardy's novel, the lower simmer is a welcome departure from the more extreme convolutions of plot and more in keeping with the pastoral tone of much of the work.  Despite the typical crash and rending of man and woman, Far From The Madding Crowd is one of Hardy's most satisfying works.  That prior to the darkening tone of his last novels, Tess and Jude The Obscure, in which his tragic vision is pounded like a spike into the Wessex soil (not to mention the unfortunate reader's cranium).

Director Thomas Vinterberg has an eye for the beauty of his setting, even if the farm work is presented in almost idealized form.  We do see indications that dirt might adhere briefly to the body, that sweat might darken the occasional strand of hair of one engaged in such toil, but this is not a film to meditate upon how physically breaking working the land can be.

This Far From The Madding Crowd is ultimately about the wry, wise and otherwise expressive visage and voice of Carey Mulligan.  There has long been an intelligence beyond her years quality in the work Ms. Mulligan.  As her face has taken on more definition, as the slightest indication of lines appear around the eyes, that intelligence is matched by a beautiful face which seems to expresses a life experience to justify the knowing smile.  Vinterberg and his crew certainly know what they have in Mulligan (and the cast's handsome men), clothing and photographing them  to fullest advantage.  Never more is this the case than an early shot of Mulligan in a black blouse, against a rich brown background of tilled soil.  Stunning.

So, a couple of hours in the company of this lovely, intelligent young artist and a satisfying if predictable resolution.  One might long for a bit more, that further realm where greatness can be found.  But then if one happened to see Far From The Madding Crowd, as did I, after a numbing series of trailers for supposed art films on the way, one might not be so greedy.  The most stupefying of these coming attractions (or warnings), titled with leaden literalness, Learning to Drive, features Patricia Clarkson as a New York Woman - yes -  learning to drive, the road and life lessons being provided by a taxi driver played by Ben Kingsley (of course), the white woman getting her modest groove back thanks to the wise Sikh.  Really.  Really.  After the relative eternity of these trailers, one felt not unlike a Hardy character, jerked around by the fates, chastened by reminders how very, very bad things could well be, grateful for the lovely thing at hand.


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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Babadook


"I'll soon take off my funny disguise....And once you see what's underneath...you're going to wish you were dead!"  And hello to you, too!  The rather dire warning comes from "Mr. Babadook" through the agency of a very persistent children's book that bears name of the monster.  Thus, The Babadook, writer and director Jennifer Kent's creepy and assured feature film debut.  Is the Babadook real? Merely a projection, a top-hatted fiend from a children's book that sets off a couple of already febrile minds?  Or perhaps...we have seen the monster and it is us?   

Ms. Kent demonstrates a very sure hand and supple knowledge of film history, the latter manifesting itself in  the action of The Babadook, the film's set design and a particular channel to which the television of Amelia Vannick (Essie Davis) seems permanently tuned, showing everything from the fantastical early cinema of George Melies to the more colorful exploits of Italian horror master Mario Bava.  One film that does not appear for Amelia's troubled t.v. viewing could readily express the unsettling issue at the core of The Babadook.  This When A Stranger Calls (1979) and its now immortal line, "It's coming from inside the house!"  Quickly establishing herself as an intrepid and knowing explorer of dark places, Jennifer Kent understands that the most frightening spaces are often found within our troubled beings, the dusty, dark corridors of the mind.  

To say the very least, Amelia Vannick is having a hard time.  She might be nearly seven years removed from an auto accident which resulted in the decapitation her husband, driving the couple to the hospital for the delivery of their son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), but life for the single mother and son would seem to be getting worse instead of better.  Young Samuel, cute and wide-eyed though he may be when flouncing about in his spangly magician's cape and gloves, is increasingly fractious.  Like many a child, he worries about monsters lurking beneath his bed, in his closet.  But our Samuel is a problem solver.  He invents weapons to battle his bogeyman if and when it should appear, the most impressive of which is a shoulder-mounted catapult, sort of a kiddie rocket launcher. Samuel's flair for ballistics and obsessive train of thought make him equally unpopular with exasperated school officials, disturbed relations and his own increasingly worn out mother.


Amelia spends most of her waking hours caring for others, wrangling her cute persona non grata of a son and tending to elderly patients at the nursing home at which she's employed, wearing a pink uniform that is one of the film's few chromatic departures from its palette of deep blue, maroon and stark white.  One of The Babadook's few moments of levity occur as Amelia calls a bingo game for a room of seemingly clueless patients.  "Maybe someone will win this year," she despairs.  Finally, she pulls a ball out of the cage and announces "Five billion.  Does anyone have five billion?"  The only one who notices the sarcasm is her supervisor at a side of the room, clearly not amused.  

It is at her workplace that there would seem to be some potential for a little care and warmth coming back to Amelia, in the form of another nurse, Robbie (Daniel Henshall), clearly smitten with her.  This budding romance, like virtually every other scrap of independent life, is blotted out by the dark cloud of Samuel and her troublesome relationship with him.  We twice see Amelia stare longingly at happy couples - one on television and another sharing pleasantries in the front seat of a car parked near her in a garage - as if observing an inviting ritual completely removed from her existence and fading from memory.  Even when she attempts to quiet her libido one night, Samuel bursts in upon her, unknowingly accomplishing vibrator interruptus.  The poor woman cannot get a break.  

  The libido clamors.  Loneliness chokes like an invasive species.  And the ghost of her late husband and that fateful car ride continue to haunt Amelia, as the film's opening dream sequence vividly demonstrate.  All of these clamant tugs on her consciousness, her sleep, her sanity.  Not to mention the aching tooth in her mouth.  Quite enough to threaten anyone's sanity, even without a riotously obsessive son, whose behavior runs from the merely tiresome to full-on berserk, the latter state particularly the case during a couple of car rides that Samuel takes with all the equanimity of wet cat stuffed into a carrier cage.  '

Of course, what sends both mother and son round the bend is the arrival of Mr.
 Babadook.  Samuel pulls the tome of the same name, bound in cloth of blood red, from a book shelf for his bedtime story one evening, though neither son nor mother know whence Mister Babadook (the book itself) came.  In its black and white (mainly black) rendering and equally dark theme, Mister Babadook is like Edward Gorey in a really bad mood.  The ominous picture book confirms everything that young Samuel had been sensing and gives him license to freak out at home and abroad.  The story also gets under the skin of mom, disturbed by the content, the reaction of her son and the fact that the book has many blank pages after its series of sinister admonishments.     


 Jennifer Kent gets so much right with The Babadook, beginning with this spooky children's book (an expanded version of the one seen in the film will actually be published).  This extends to the name of the monster itself, at once simple and complex, bespeaking a warm babble between child and parent and some darker, percussive, intruding force.  Those contradictions consistent with the film's full, flawed characters.  

Mainly, Kent succeeds with her elemental storytelling and a shooting style which avoids cheap thrills and a lot of special effects.  Like all good horror, The Babadook taps into primal fears, abiding human darkness.  There is the child's (or adult's) basic fear of the dark and unknown.  Samuel is anychild, even if a particularly trying example, clamoring for assurance that a monster will not emerge from beneath the bed or from behind a wardrobe door not long after the lights are extinguished.  Ultimately, the child's fear and the mysterious book are an avenue into the film's real darkness:  what's happening to Samuel's mother Amelia.     

After the initial reading of the book, the idea of the Babadook begins to trouble the mother almost as much as the son.  As the monster begins to "dook-dook-dook" at the doors of her house, make its apparent initial appearances, Kent's touch as writer and director is measured, searing.  Like much about her story, she go goes right to ageless basics, but presents them in a chilling relief that seems new and all her own.

As Amelia begins to fear the monster as much as Samuel, we see her revert to that immemorial defense against supernatural bedroom invaders - she pulls a blanket over her head, cloaking both she and her son in the protective blindness of the covers.  The camera is under the blanket as well, and we see a series of shudders on the part of Amelia followed by a light burning upon the surface of this wispy membrane of protection.  As with the film's first scene - an apparent dream sequence in which a stunned Amelia is jerked around her crashing vehicle amidst a spray of glass - it's not immediately apparent what we're seeing, but both Essie Davis and Jennifer Kent make it completely arresting.     

Among its many influences and points of cinematic correspondence, The Babadook does share a good bit of ground with The Shining.  In both there is a parent sequestered with a child - the child more quickly open and attuned to apparent supernatural forces, the parent descending into a sleep-deprived madness.  I've read one interview with Jennifer Kent in which Amelia Vannick is referred to as a combination of both Jack and Wendy Torrence from The Shining, and there's something to that.  Ultimately, The Babadook has at once more heart and greater courage (or insight) to dip into far more unsettling waters than Stanley Kubrick's film, even with all the latter's blood and "redrum."   

Since the book bearing its name would seem to have introduced the Babadook to her home, Amelia responds to the burgeoning menace by tearing it apart and banishing the pieces to a trash can.  Alas, the door  is later pounded and on the doorstep lies a patched-up and expanded version of the infernal picture book, the previously blank pages filled with images of a mother doing violence to both a child and dog.  Not to mention more ominous text:  "The more you deny, the stronger I get...the Babadook growing right under your skin."

As the horror becomes more explicit in The Babadook, Jennifer Kent eschews both the disposable thrills of CGI-laden effects scenes, as well as the more nervous camera movements that contemporary horror films sometimes adopt, that would-be documentary approach that serves as a short cut to something real and frightening. Radek Ladczuk's camera moves fluidly through the stylized home interiors of the Vannick home, whose muted colors and stark architecture and decoration reveal a hint of  German Expressionism.  When the monster does appear, it's never made to completely emerge from the darkness.  Just the scarecrow outline and top hat.  Kent and her team apparently used puppetry and some stop action photography, among other techniques, to capture the sometimes sinister sweep, sometimes staccato progress of the Babadook.  As with the best horror, the best fantasy, there are hints and triggers that let mind fill in the blanks, whether Amelia Vannick's, or ours.


The overburdened Amelia continues to slip into madness as the Babadook's seeming absorption into her life and being becomes complete.  Here, yet more parallel's with The Shining:  the brandishing of a very big knife and cutting of communication with the outside world; as with the former residents of the Overlook Hotel asking for murderous action from Jack Torrence,  Amelia's dead husband appears twice in lieu of the Babadook, the first time explicitly commanding, "Bring me the boy."

From retrieving and cradling her dead husband's violin like an infant, to sitting fully clothed in a tub of water - "It's nice and warm in here" - Amelia becomes more and more unhinged.  All suppressed frustration with Samuel begins to find snarling, increasingly malicious expression:  "If you're that hungry, why don't you go and eat shit!.... You don't know how many times I wished it was you and not him that died....Sometimes I just wanna smash your head against a brick wall until your fucking brains pop out."

None of this, of course, likely to win Amelia any laudatory statuettes come Mother's Day.  But so The Babadook bravely and frankly delves into the woman's grief, loneliness (in more ways than one), frustration and mere difficulty of being a single mother.  The Babadook frightens with all the fleeting glances of its titular monster.  It also chills every bit as much with the taboo of  a mother at wit's end with her child.

The hints are present even before unwelcome visitor with the considerable wingspan and top hat appears on the scene.  Early in The Babadook, Samuel puts his arms around his mother's neck, an embrace from which she recoils.  "Don't do that!" she exclaims, though it's not clear just what the offending "it" is.  A somehow inappropriate gesture as Samuel's small hands clasp and almost massage her neck?  Or is she merely weary of the touch and presence of her son?  Her feelings are made more explicit, even if expressed from without, when Amelia quarrels with her sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney) at her neice's birthday party.  "I can't stand to be around your son, says Claire.  "You can't stand being around him yourself."  Or as Jennifer Kent has said in interview, "There is something monumentally troublesome with a mother who cannot or won’t love her child—it’s almost a taboo subject. And part of what makes horror special is that it deals with taboos very well....The Babadook is about somebody who can’t or won’t...."

The job of playing this harried, ultimately crazed mother falls to the very capable Essie Davis, an old acting friend of Jennifer Kent.  Davis, often wide-eyed like Noah Wiseman playing her son, ranges not only between meek solicitude and outright menace, but from the child-like to rapidly-aging adult. The sleep deprived weariness and eventual madness are extremes to which Davis takes her character without any loss of credibility or feeling.  So too the reversion to primal, child-like fear in facing some terrifying thing in the dark of the bedroom, or the reluctant body language she expresses when called upon to leave her bed in the safer light of day, like a child unwilling to face a school day.      





Jennifer Kent frequently uses the term "in camera" in interview.  She apparently means that the look and action of the film are composed and captured, as much as possible, right on the set, without an a lot of post-production tinkering for effect.  It's one of the reasons the sometimes ambiguous action of The Babadook maintains its resonance, its connection to primal fears.  Ms. Kent also has a clear idea what she wants in the frame, from the film's most frightening and fanciful moments to finer threads of storytelling:  those dancing fragments of glass we see in the first moments of the film reappear in Amelia's soup as she and Sam sit for a dinner to maintain a semblance of normal family life; the several shots of bare tree limbs amidst power lines are answered after the film's denouement with a bough in full bloom.

The most explicit of The Babadook's influences:
 Lon Chaney in London After Midnight
The influences are many with The Babadook, but the synthesis all Jennifer Kent.  There are the connections to The Shining, all those horror films playing on that unusual television.  There are reminders of The Exorcist as well:  during one confrontation with the Babadook, Amelia and Samuel ride a shaking bed as did a possessed Linda Blair; Samuel's "Do you wanna die?" echoes Regan's "You're gonna die up there."  Despite the liberal element of influence and homage, Ms. Kent does manage something all her own, a work unique and of the present that is likely to live well beyond the limited lifespan of mere pastiche.  But even the references in The Babadook bespeak discrimination more than cheap plundering.  One of the images that appears on Amelia's single-channel t.v. is that of Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  Hardly a film to be curated with the likes of The Shining and The Exorcist, but if you know the film, as does Ms. Kent, you know that it too involves mayhem, familial strife and a woman trapped in her own life.  


Old friends Jennifer Kent and Essie Davis are two women clearly unafraid of plumbing murky waters.  Both manage to give full expression to Amelia Vannick's feelings, whether noble or disturbing.  It doesn't hurt that director of The Babadook is a woman, moving with a combination of compassion and candor its main character from the usual position of shrieking object to three-dimensional subject.  Mainly, The Babadook succeeds because Jennifer Kent is an artist of confident vision and rigorous execution.  

It's been an encouraging year for horror, even if the multiplex remains oblivious, as ever, to the more refreshing currents in film.  David Robert Mitchell, while dwelling more ambiguously in the past, delivered It Follows, reminding moviegoers that the waiting for the scary thing  - all apologies to Tom Petty  - might be the hardest part.  Sustained suspense - what a concept.  They only thing clearing wanting in It Follows is any sense of subtext, something its past/present dance and Detroit setting seem all too ready to provide.  The Babadook derives its power from the presence of a story that frightens on its surface and echoes ominously with its deeper theme.  The story's candor cuts as deeply as might that big knife wielded by Amelia Vannick (or Jack Torrence, or....) possessed by demons without or within.

 If you're unconcerned with subtext, no matter.  The Babadook is an intelligent film.  It's also a  horror film, whose household encounters with the insistent figure in the top hat might stick with you into your next few evenings of longed-for sleep.  It also provides a very useful, fundamental reminder - when a monster comes knocking, pull that blanket up over your head try to hold out until dawn.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

It Follows

Poor kids.  Whatever admonishment they might have received about  VD in their time- indeterminate heath or sex ed. classes couldn't have prepared them for this.  The "It" which trails the unfortunate young people in It Follows might find its eventual victims through the congress of young fluid and flesh, but it's far more nasty and persistent than a case of the clap.  Ironically, the only hope - and this is one of many things about It Follows which is less than clear - of ridding oneself of the ghost of hookups past is to have sex with someone else and pass "It" on.  Thus, the walk of shame becomes the sprint, the desperate bike ride, the speeding car ride of terror.  And yet..."It" does inexorably follow.  Pick those partners carefully young lovers.

With its placid suburban point of origin and sonic pressure gauge of blaring synthesizers, It Follows pays a good bit of homage to John Carpenter.  As with Carpenter's Halloween, only the virginal seem likely to get out of It Follows alive.  Fortunately, there's no such puritanical edge to David Robert Mitchell's story.  Instead, the writer and director cites adolescent dreams as the genesis of the film's plot.  The morbid and the erotic swirl around young minds in strange ways.  Compare It Follows treatment of that dark blend to something like Park Chan-wook's leering admixture of the same in Stoker (2013) and you realize one of the several ways in which It Follows is better than so much of the torture porn and cheap thrills that have passed for horror in American film the past couple of decades.  Mr. Mitchell is not thinker nor story architect enough to make It Follows a masterpiece. However, It Follows succeeds in the manner audiences most want it to succeed, draping one in an unease not easily shaken.   

As a director, Mitchell seems to understand something about building and sustaining tension which is beyond the ability or interest of most of his colleagues.  There are moments of jarring action in It Follows, interludes frequently heralded by cresting waves of ominous synthesizer so redolent of Carpenter (who composed synthesized scores for some of his films as well as directing).  Occasionally, these walls of sound tumble into an atonal and percussive wash.  Rich Vreeland, experienced mainly in gaming soundtracks to this point, apparently listened to John Cage and Krzystof Penderecki (whose work is featured in The Excorcist and The Shining) prior to composing the score for It Follows.  Between these instances of blaring soundtrack and blatant action, Mitchell allows the tension to slowly mount.  The central plot question in any horror film is whether and when the dreaded thing, the "It" will appear.  The director doesn't shy from letting us view several incarnations of "It."  For the most part though, we, like kids in It Follows, wait for the next appearance of the pedestrian from hell.  The tension becomes palpable.

It Follows is largely a triumph of mood over plot.  Most of the following, the plot, such as it is, afflicts the unfortunate Jay (Maika Monroe), apparently a college student home for the summer. Before we see Jay floating in a backyard pool, regarding tree branches and the summer sky beyond - a scene we're aware is far too innocent and placid to remain long undisturbed - the mood has been well set.  

We're taken through a subdivision at twilight before the camera comes to rest.  A young woman emerges from one of those cookie-cutter houses like a driver from a race car burning with invisible methanol flames - we can't see the problem, but the girl's tremulous movements and breaking voice make it clear that she's fleeing something sinister.  This pre-title interlude continues as she sits on a beach, lake behind her and car before her, that latter throwing its combined spotlight of head lamps onto the resigned, sitting figure in sand, while she apologizes to her father via cell phone for the ways in which she has been a pain in the ass kid.  When morning arrives, we get an example of director Mitchell's sharp framing.  The young woman is still there on the beach, but what is that poking its way into the top, right, portion of the frame:  a horn?  a hoof?  a tree branch, perhaps?  We're given the answer with a more removed perspective.  Just a brief shot, but chillingly effective.  


Bodies of water, natural and man-made, figure prominently in the action of It Follows:  the pool in which Jay floats dreamily, the lakes to which she and that first victim ultimately flee; the municipal pool in which Jay and her friends attempt to lure what follows her so they can perhaps electrify the body in which it which it has taken up residence.  Sanctuary is sought in the water, on its verge.  But as ever, water brings its evocation of danger, the unknown, something sinister beneath the shimmering surface.  Rather like the wariness with which sex is sometimes pondered by those who haven't yet taken the plunge.  Certainly the wariness with which any of the kids in It Follows come to view sex and the possibility of bringing "It" plodding inexorably into their lives.  

David Robert Mitchell is from the Detroit suburb of Clawson.  He has placed both of his features (including his first, The Myth of the American Sleepover) in the Detroit area, much as the city is never explicitly named in It Follows.  It's at the city's west side Redford Theater that Jay accompanies the relative stranger, Hugh (Jake Weary) on a date.  A game of trying to figure out who the other person would like to be in the crowd of movie attendees continues from the concession stand to auditorium.  But when Hugh indicates a woman at an exit he thinks might be Jay's alter ego of choice, she can't see the figure to whom he's pointing.  Hugh nervously decides to cut short the preliminary of the movie and get to the main event of the date.  We come to realize the his ulterior motives are more darkly freighted than most young men on the make.  

As with several shots of cars gliding by abandoned lots and derelict buildings and the exploration of Hugh's fake address in one of those ghost houses, Mitchell uses his insider's knowledge of Detroit to more thorough advantage than most Detroit-set films.  Jim Jarmusch clearly relished the beautiful ruins of the city utilized in Only Lovers Left Alive, but his was still a tourist's point of view. 

 Jay and Hugh's date proceeds to an overgrown lot adjacent to one of the city's many disused factories.  The two have backseat sex in Hugh's luridly-lit 1970's vintage Chrysler.   The brief shot of girl mounted upon boy gives to Jay, prostrate across the back seat, head out an open door, teasing a wildflower with one hand, while musing on how she had previously imagined how just such evenings would go.  Her post-coital reflections are cut short when Hugh climbs on her back, wraps an arm around her neck and then presses a chloroform-soaked rag into her face.  Jay awakens strapped to an old wheelchair in the nearby factory.  This the legendary Packard Plant, one of the grandest of Detroit's industrial ghosts.  It's the same site by which vampires Adam and Eve merely drove (in a Jaguar, for heaven's sake) in Only Lovers Left Alive, so Adam could exclaim,  "the PACK-ard plant, where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world."  According to Maika Monroe, the first site the film crew tried to use for the scene was problematic in that a dead body was found on the premises, hardly an unusual occurrence in Detroit.  The city's reality continues to frighten more than any of its projected fictions.

      

Hugh proceeds to explain that he means Jay no harm, or at least no further harm.  "You're not going to believe me, but I need you to remember what I'm saying....This thing...it's gonna to follow you....Somebody gave it to me and I passed it to you....Wherever you are, it's somewhere...coming straight for you...It's slow, but it's not stupid."  Hugh explains all of this while "It" in female form moves steadily through the vegetation of wild Detroit, crosses a disused section of train track and approaches the factory.  He's good enough to wheel Jay away before the thing can get her (he later explains that if she's killed and "It" will come for him, go "right down the line") and dump her unceremoniously in front of her house.  Good luck!

So begins Jay's torment and flight from "It."  Her first sighting occurs one afternoon at school, while a teacher is reciting Eliot's "Profrock" to her class.  On this occasion, "It" is an old woman in a hospital gown, plodding in Jay's direction and visible to no one else.  The desperate Jay eventually enlists her sister and a few neighborhood friends to help her.  They come to realize that there is something real stalking their friend, however invisible to them.

The odyssey of Jay and her friends take them all over the city and presumably many miles north to a vacation home where they have a beach confrontation with "It."  There's a good bit David Robert Mitchell's story gets right with these group of kids.  The removal from the present day frees him from dialog which strains after an of the moment credibility.  Instead, there's something more timeless in the tribal nature of adolescents, it alliances and jealousies.  It's Greg (Daniel Zovatto), the relative outsider, who provides a car for the group's detective work and escape.  It's his family's vacation home "up North" (as we're wont to say in Michigan) to which the group flees the infernal follower.  Greg even has sex with Jay knowing full well the consequences, very much to the chagrin of the Paul (Keir Gilchrist), more the pining nerd to the late-comer's young alpha male.  Paul has been aching after Jay for years and would willingly be torn limb from limb by "It" to win her affection.  

The parents are almost completely absent in It Follows.  This is certainly convenient to plot, but it's another quietly fitting aspect of Mr. Mitchell's story.  The mysteries of adolescence, the daily struggles and the blatant dangers, seem to require a certain amount of detachment, even estrangement from the parents.  And so it goes in It Follows, the kids operating almost entirely on their own. 

Mitchell gets good work out of his young cast.  It's not easy being the stalked one in a horror film, the acting options tend to become rather condensed and a one-note hysteria is the common result.  And who wants to hang out with THAT person?  Maika Monroe evinces a vulnerability of both  spirit and flesh common enough to late adolescence.  "Is something wrong with me?," she fairly sobs while sitting against a bedroom wall, hands around her knees.  At the time, she and her friends are in holed up in the locked room to keep "It" at bay.  But Jay's lamenting question echoes through the psyche of most kids, even if they're not being pursued by some avenging spirit in changeable flesh.  There's something touching in the way that Jay's friends circle around her even after their understandable initial doubt.  Mitchell's young characters, like his story, do not run to expected extremes.

David Robert Mitchell's story, however fresh, does sometimes execute its unexpected turns by way of short cut.  This happens in both his handling of time and the vague nature of just why and how "It" proceeds.  The temporal setting of It Follows might be undetermined, but its aesthetics, it's automobiles, its wall rotary phones place it mainly in the past.  In a general sense, there's something effective in having this vaguely 1960's/70's setting share the same streets with more contemporary vehicles and the expressions of urban blight.  It's like a place overlaid, haunted by its own past.  But the compact-sized, clam shell reader on which Jay's sister recites from The Idiot doesn't take It Follows out of specific time so much as burden it with a silly (and pretentious) anachronism.  Similarly, the cell phone conveniently available to the first victim of "It" - a innovation of which no one else in this world seems aware - is much more a cheap device of plot than a handy accessory of the timeless world of the film.

As for "It" - male, female, old, or young - the thing does move in mysterious ways, but always at a speed which allows the story to move or hover at its desired velocity.  Like any peripatetic movie spook, one can best "It" with a steady jog.  Not so difficult until you realize that you must keep going.  And going.  And going.  When Jay and her friends escape the city for parts North, presumably a distance of many, even hundreds of  miles, "It" arrives the next day after a very impressive power walk.  At other times, as when Jay lays in a nearby hospital bed after she and her friends had battled with "It" on that northern beach, the persistent thing seemingly has days to find her and doesn't do so.

 The beach encounter proved that "It" can take a bullet. A later confrontation when "It" is lured to a municipal pool (where the lights just happen to be on, the pool full of water, even though the kids had to climb a fence to break into the closed facility) ends with a cloud of blood enveloping the pool, "It" apparently having taken one to the head.  No explanation why that particular bullet worked, no resolution to the scene, nor explanation why "It" thus stopped is able to continue with its following before long.  Mr. Mitchell handles suspense very skillfully, but doesn't seem to realize that some logic, however far-flung, is required as well.  His authority is such that we're able to let many unexplained things flow with the dark mosaic of his story, but there are vague patches that are harder to ignore; we believe the mysterious presence even when the logic itself doesn't follow as effectively.


The distance between very good and great for It Follows might have been traversed with some level of subtext.  When Jay and her friends are heading toward that closed municipal pool, there's the slightest hint at what might have been.  One of the kids mentions the parental warning never to stray south of 8 Mile, the northern boundary of the city.  Here, at last, a chance for social allegory, the ills of the city coming to roost in those placid suburbs, white flight have been followed in its own way.  Even avoiding the choppier waters of race (which continues to give George Romero's 1968 Night of the Living Dead resonance and life decades on), there's rich potential to make use of Detroit for something more than a post-industrial fun house.  Unfortunately, Mr. Mitchell betrays no such interest.

It be derivative in its way, it might lack the allegorical bite of a greater film, but like that other low-budget American Horror film, Night of the Living Dead, David Robert Mitchell's galvanic It Follows is likely to stalk its way assuredly into the future.  Watch most would-be horror films and you have experience of being bounced from your seat a few times, only to shed the experience moments later.  Let It Follows envelope you in its 100 minutes of dread and you might just look over your shoulder a few times as you walk away from the theater.  


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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Abandon all thought, ye who enter here.  And squeamishness as well.  If you share any such distaste for bloodshed with the film's villain Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), best to check that at the door.  The body count is steep in Kingsman:  The Secret Service, although the violence is increasingly cartoonish as the film proceeds giddily through its 129 minutes of mayhem.  At the helm with a steady hand, an iron stomach and no qualms apparent is Englishman Matthew Vaughn.

Surprisingly, "Kingsman" is loosely based on a comic book.  Not on a Chekhov short story, as one might assume.  The comic series in question is The Secret Service, by Dave Gibbons and Mark Millar.  Early in the graphic proceedings, an environmental scientist, Mark Hamill (yes, the same) is kidnapped.  The real Hamill, looking a bit like Eddie Izzard's ill-used older brother, is present in "Kingsman" too, as climate scientist James Arnold, held in Argentina by Valentine and his blade-footed minion, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella),  When Hamill makes his exit early in "Kingsman," he goes the way of many a scientist.  You know...via an exploding head.  The unfortunate Agent Galahad (Colin Firth), who had been confronting the scientist, is sprayed across face and glasses with something that looks more like an exploding blue die pack from a bag of stolen loot than projectile grey matter.  Eventually, countless other heads will explode in "Kingsman," skulls bursting like colorful fireworks while Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance" is heard in stately irony.  Like all such forays into irony in "Kingsman," the spray is a mile wide and about an inch deep.


Harry Hart (Agent Galahad) is haunted by an incident in which his carelessness necessitated a fellow agent throwing himself on a suicide bomber.  This interrogation gone wrong follows a CGI-rich title sequence in which a Secret Service helicopter swoops over a couple of locals with rocket launchers. We told via a title card that it's "The Middle East, 1997."  No need to be more specific here, as opposed to the later title that tells us we're in Argentina seventeen years later.  You know...the Middle East.  The  locals are just like some pesky, aggressive native species.  You've seen one such country, you've seen 'em all, rocket launchers handed out to young extremists like baseball (or cricket) bats.

As with the later panoply of colorfully-bursting heads to Elgar, there's every potential for rich irony here, as with the lampoon of the OSS 117 film adaptations, Jean Dujardin playing a culturally (and in most ways) clueless French agent in the manner of James Bond.  Alas, "Kingsman's" main target of parody is itself, even though Vaughn and his writing partner Jane Goldman don't seem to have suffered that realization.  There's a coursing energy that sweeps one through the film's two hours, but it's hardly an intelligent energy.  But this is a kind of punk rock, some reviewers have claimed on behalf of Kingsman:  The Secret Service.  Not so fast, gushing critics and bloggers.  The best punk songs meld sonic fury and intellectual focus into a truly formidable weapon.  "Kingsman," meanwhile, fires loud, if sometimes colorful blanks.

Colin Firth as Galahad/Harry Hart brings a gravity to his role that the film doesn't nearly call for.  But at least he's not winking his way to the bank to deposit the sizable check for services rendered in "Kingsman."  Cashing in a good bit himself these days (he's one of three Brits featured in those recent Jaguar television ads), Mark Strong is Merlin, another veteran Secret Service operative.  Strong too, works hard enough for the money in this case, adopting a Scottish burr and providing refreshing moments of drollery amid "Kingsman's" fireworks and monsoon of bullets.  The Knights of the Round Table conceit, apparently, not part of the nomenclature of the comic series, is the creation of Vaughn and Goldman.  As with much about their script, it lazily evokes some big thing for effect and doesn't bother to do much with the idea.

On the rare occasion when one of the Kingsman agent falls, as when the unfortunate Lancelot is sliced neatly top to bottom by the lethal Gazelle, the agents gather in corporeal or virtual form and toast their fallen comrade with a glass of Napoleon brandy (although it's actually referred to as "Napoleonic brandy," which gives you some idea Vaughn and Goldman's attention to detail, or their limited sense of humor).  The virtual agents are made visible when their comrades in bodily attendance sport special Kingsman spectacles, which makes them look rather like a 1960's Michael Caine, as in his far superior cloak and dagger film, The Ipcress File (1965).  And wouldn't you know it - Sir Michael himself presides over the unround table, quaffing the old Napoleonic as Agent Arthur.

Galahad has a chance to atone for his early career blunder by helping the son of the agent killed due to his mistake.  This Gary, "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), sunk into a kind of lower class purgatory with his mother (Samantha Womack), after his father's death some 17 years prior.  Mom's replacement husband is a brute, and poor Eggsy gets it coming and going, having to dodge the stepdad (Geoff Bell) at home and his young cronies at the local pub.  Eggsy ultimately is arrested for stealing the car of one of his tormenters.  When he calls in the favor owed to the family by the Secret Service, Galahad arranges Eggsy's release and offers the possibility of a very different life.

From here, the plotting in "Kingsman" proceeds, half Harry Potter, half seemingly every young adult novel published in the past decade.  Like the now immortal Harry, Eggsy is given the chance to flee a troubled home life and realize a potential he didn't know he had, reporting to Saville Row instead of Hogwarts.  As with the Hunger Games books and several other such warmed over series, young Eggsy gets to engage in a seemingly life and death struggle for the privilege of representing (very possibly dying for) the state.


The nimble Eggsy manages to better many of the other would-be Lancelots II, posh types who look down on the boy from the housing estate.  Ultimately, he loses out to friendly female candidate, Roxy (Sophie Cookson), who's able to complete a last test at which the tender-hearted Eggsy balks - turning a gun upon the puppy that had been placed in his charge for the duration of his training. Don't worry - no fictional hounds are harmed in "Kingsman."  Intelligence, sure.  Irony, absolutely.  But not the dogs; they get out unscathed.

Eggsy's banishment from the Secret Service is short-lived, once he's pressed into duty to avenge the death of his mentor.  Galahad is unceremoniously dispatched by Valentine after what one might call "Kingsman's" signature scene.

The crazy billionaire Valentine offers the world a lifetime a free texting, yammering, gaming, what have you, if they simply queue for one of his SIM cards to be inserted in their cell phones.  Of course, the world responds enthusiastically.  But these are no ordinary SIM cards.  No.  When activated via satellite, the cards and phones render their bearers uncontrollably violent.  Valentine decides to test this in a rural American church whose parishioners are already rather inclined toward a bit of the ultra violence, riled as they are by a preacher who spews hate from the pulpit.  As with the earlier title card, we're simply told this is "Kentucky, USA," as if the state name alone tells us all we need to know.  What is not explained is why this foaming at the mouth congregation would have the cards in the first place, as they seem as likely to take something from a black entrepreneur as they are to subscribe to The Advocate. Apparently hateful folk love free stuff as much as anyone else.

As he probably learned at Psychopath Academy, Valentine believes humanity in need of a purge.  His particular angle is that we're ruining the planet, oblivious to climate change and have to be stopped.  All very true, but still....Even more than its gleeful comic violence, "Kingsman" should be held accountable for attaching climate change to fringe lunacy.  It's not bad enough that we have a dipshit legislator walking into the Senate chamber with a snowball in hand to prove global warming is a myth, now the menacing issue is the playground of brightly-clad super villains.  Mr. Jackson, like Messrs. Firth and Strong does add some unique energy to the proceedings.  His lisping, violence-averse madman is a welcome departure from his usual one-and-a-half note intensity.


So well do the SIM cards from hell work that even Agent Galahad, on the scene to stop Valentine, is swept into the orgy of violence.  And quite a brawl it is, played out to the uptempo chorus and guitar free-for-all of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird."  Yee-haw!  Say what you will about Vaughn and Goldman, they don't lack conviction; they do throw a lively hoedown.  And Vaughn the director choreographs this Appalachian danse macabre with about as much clarity as seems possible.  Colin Firth was apparently required to train six months to be ready for the physical demands of the extended scene in which his character manages to dispatch every crazed Kentuckian who comes at him.

Here, as with that other classic penned by the Vaughan and Goodman, Kick Ass, the director is like a poor man's Edgar Wright.  Wright's films, the "Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy - Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World's End - and Soctt Pilgrim vs. the World teem also with comic violence.  But the body count (be it human, zombie or robot) is hardly the point.  The "Cornetto" trilogy also pulses with wit and a sharp satire of twenty-first century England.  Wright injects that same wit (visual as much as verbal) into seemingly every frame of "Scott Pilgrim." elevating what is another otherwise flimsy story derived from a graphic series.  At least with "Kingsman," Vaughn and Goodman have progressed from the near kiddie porn of Kick Ass, but that's a rather dire accomplsihment.  The film falls well below the mark of the one good film the writer/director has produced for adults, Layer Cake.

The word subversive also generously appears in reviews for "Kingsman." but the film's only brief flirtation real irreverence occurs when Agent Galahad details some of his exploits, including the foiling of an assassination plot against Margaret Thatcher.  Not everyone would thank him for that, says Eggsy.  Ah, out of the mouth of babes.  Mainly, Kingsman:  The Secret Service plays like a Masterpiece Theater production of Grand Theft Auto, complete with its own small roster of British acting nobility.  Shame we couldn't work in Dames Maggie or Judy, although there's clearly no room here for women unattractive or over the age of 30.  As Eggsy says to the finally vanquished Valentine, "This is not that film, bro."  


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Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Most Violent Year


The camelhair coat worn by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) shines as brilliantly as anything seen in J.C. Chador's A Most Violent Year.  The coat is merely the golden tan of most such garments.  The New York of A Most Violent Year - interior and exterior - pales by comparison.  It's 1981, and a most violent year indeed in and around the great metropolis.  Almost none of  filth of Abel's world - the fuel oil of his business, the frowning elements, dirt kicked up by a vehicle chase - seem to adhere to the impeccable coat.  But as he tries to make a major expansion of his business while attempting to fend off the grip and violence of gangsterism one one side and encroaching law enforcment on the other, the poised, well dressed man is sorely pressed to keep himself clean in the most profound of respects.

A Most Violent Year is a sprawling American story told revealing small.  The canvas is certainly large, even if spread with muted color.  Much of the action of the film takes place in Brooklyn, the camera occasionally drawing back to include the East River and the towers of Manhattan beyond.

The social sweep is equally broad - all the people with whom Abel Morales works, lives and does business:  his wife and two children esconced in a large, modern house in Westchester; employees that he molds and directs with commanding charisma;  the Teamsters union eager to arm drivers increasingly hijacked of their Standard Heating Oil trucks; the Hasidic businessmen from whom he wants to purchase an adjoining property with its storage capability and river access.  And there are the figures directly menacing his future and livelihood:  an assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) threatening numerous criminal complaints against his enterprise; business competitors and the gangsters looming within arm's reach of them; whoever it is siphoning off truck after truck of his company's heating oil.

Stretching beyond a deliberate two hours, Mr. Chador's film has drawn comparisons to the dark-themed and New York placed work of Sidney Lumet.  For his part, Chador has said it was his desire to create something “...like a good, old-fashioned gangster flick, with car chases and gunplay.”  Perhaps the writer and director is a more serious man than he realizes.  There are certainly echoes of The Godfather as well, both in theme and interior photography.  But if the Godfather is grand opera, A Most Violent Year plays out like the movements of a chamber piece.

For all its resounding structure and theme big enough to wrap the five boroughs, A Most Violent Year, from scene to scene, seems to go forth with a cast of...several.  Occasionally we see a pensive Abel Morales on his own.  Most often, it's the ambitious businessman in conference or confrontation with an interlocutor or small group; an employee he's eloquently bucking up, a gathering of competitors he warns to cease the hijacking of his fleet.  Occasionally, these conversations take place outdoors, but even then in oppressive industrial landscapes, beneath the weak, easily thwarted winter sun.  Most often, the speaking, the imploring and pleading is done indoors, that tentative light further refracted through lowered blinds, drawn sheers.

All the characters in A Most Violent Year could well be vampires for the lack threat from direct sunlight.  More significantly, this is a film whose look matches its theme.  The moribund industrial corridors, washed-out palette and hushed, conspiratorial interior settings are quite consistent with the world behind the world that Abel has to negotiate.  The decay and the darkness match the ethical corrosion he's trying to fend off, the corruption that's set in.


Old Julliard buddies Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play the would-be power couple Abel and Ann Morales.  He's a first generation citizen from Columbia and she' a Brooklyn gangster's daughter;  the husband a representation of immigrant ambition and idealism, while the wife is the embodiment of good old American reality.  Two kids and several years into their marriage, the fire has clearly not gone out in the marriage.  But that electricity increasingly jars them apart as Abel tries to negotiate all their troubles without recourse to violence and blatant criminality, while Ann reacts like a member of a chorus or riotous audience screaming for blood with growing insistency.  

Moving purposefully in double breasted suits and that camelhair coat, his role in A Most Violent Year is another demonstration that Oscar Isaac is all too ready to be a star, to carry films.  Just as A Most Violent Year manages to be distinct and of the present, despite the comparisons to, echoes of New York crime and gangster films of decades past, Mr. Isaacs work stands clear of the roles of Al Pacino and others to which it has been compared.   Here as well as his leading role in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has played challenged and exasperated men that would logically result in commonality of performance, at least in many of their particulars.  And yet the two men would seem to have been brought to life by two quite different actors.  As with Mr. Chador's still young career, it's exciting to contemplate what sort of work Mr. Issac might do in the future.  Hopefully he won't be drawn too deeply in the slipstream of thunderous Hollywood make believe.  He's already attached to X-Man:  Apocalypse and  Star Wars Episode VII:  The Force Awakens (It's high time someone squelch the infernal force).  

Jessica Chastain's Anna Morales is more or less an equal mix of steadfast partner, mafia princess and Lady Macbeth.  Alas, Ms. Chastain operates with a far less enviable wardrobe than her on-screen partner in A Most Violent Year.  Clearly, the malaise New York City in 1981 extended beyond crime to matters of clothing, eyewear and coiffure.  As with the character of the youngish mafioso of throwback style,  Peter Forente (Allesandro Nivoa, fluid and versatile as ever), Anna Morales, as written by J.C. Chandor and realized by Chastain, seems ever so slightly derived from what has come before them.  Her twirl of index finger to precede the line "This was very disrespectful" when speaking to the troublesome assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo), is like a recessive mafia gene manifesting itself.  It's hard to say if the trait springs from unique DNA created by Chandor and Chastain, or a characteristic spliced from elsewhere. 

It's at Anna Morales' fiercest extremes when such questions seem most relevant, as when the couple hit a deer while on driving on an expressway by night.  When they realize what has happened, Anna reminds her husband that he has to put the deer out if its misery.  While Abel hesitates over the head of the dying and audibly suffering animal, two shots explode from behind him.  Anna has done the dirty work her husband was reluctant to finish  The seeming disproportion of the act is matched by the fact that the discharge of the weapon sounds like the relative cannon of a .357 Magnum, while the revolver later fished distastefully out of his wife's purse by Abel looks like little more than a Derringer.     


For the most part, J.C. Chandor's writing and direction eschews high drama for smaller, well-paced scenes, a kind of pointillism in favor of broad strokes.  Such was the case in his feature debut, Margin Call (2011).  The stakes and scope couldn't be larger in Margin Call, the collapse or near-collapse of world economies, yet the film often plays out on a personal level, small tragedies with almost unfathomably large repercussions.  We're all aware of the larger disaster looming, but Mr. Chandor is a skilled and wise enough writer and director to allow an audience to provide the connection.  It's a kind of horror film in which the monster never need enter the frame.  He understand that the most unsettling drama breathes best when given space and is built upon the most personal and profoundly difficult decisions that people make, often the decision they don't make. 

The hushed visual arena  in which Mr. Chandor's chamber music plays and resounds is constructed by cinematographer Bradford Young.  Mr. Young's preference for natural illumination is apparent in both the tentative light of winter days and those interior scenes in which that light is further diluted by curtains, blinds, closed doors.  Inside and out, settings are frequently awash in the amber or yellowed glow of wistful winter afternoons.  Only few nighttime interiors, particularly that gathering of competitors attended by Abel and Anna, are lit dramatically, a strong contrast of shadow and focused light.  Only these seem of a piece with those old fashioned gangster flicks of which the director is obviously fond, as the interior photography of Gordon Willis in The Godfather. 


Mr. Young has said that he didn't watch a lot of period films in preparation for shooting A Most Violent Year.  Instead, he was more influenced by the work of photographer Jamel Shabazz, particularly his images of what most would consider urban blight in New York.  In the cohesion of his photography, Bradford Young has managed to evoke a particular period of the city without resort to obvious reference to the films of that time.  A Most Violent Year begins with a sleek series of shots of New York - mainly in and around the river - in the deep blue of twilight, to the accompaniment of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)."  This relatively conventional, if elegant framing, places A Most Violent Year as big New York and (inevitably) American story.  But from that point, J.C. Chandor and Bradford Young fill the frame in their own, distinct manner.  After that opening, the juke box is rarely heard again.

The score of Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros fame) is occasionally heard with prominence as the action progresses.  This mainly when a lone trumpet is sounded at crucial points in the story, a departure from Ebert's otherwise subtle music for the film.  The clarion horn is the flourish of a poor man's Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone, highlighting a drama which is apparent enough without the musical cue.  It's the one, minor way in which A Most Violent Year overplays its hand.

The themes and symbols present in A Most Violent Year are large and many.  As with the relatively brief, computer-generated glimpses (blurred, ghostly) of The World Trade Center we're afforded in the film, they loom in the distance, reminders of the folly and futility that ever takes place in the human foreground.

After a climactic shot of a pistol, a body lies in the snow before a storage tank, the head in a telling stain of its own blood.  The bullet did its fatal work and then pierced the tank.  Abel Morales knows there's nothing to be done with the body, but removes a handkerchief from that impeccable coat and plugs the hole,  No standoff, no gunfight, the violence is self-inflicted. Then the small, almost dainty act to stop the bleeding of petroleum.  There is blood, and then there is the stuff of life.


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Monday, January 26, 2015

Whiplash


More a matter of motion sickness, I'm afraid.  Miles Teller thrashes his drum kit till he's a sweaty, bloody mess.  J.K.  Simmons gesticulates, glowers and spews vitriol in a near scat.  All the while, writer and director Damien Chazelle observes all this like an over-excited spectator at a tennis match.  So it goes in Whiplash, from the first to last frenetic touch of drum sticks upon snare.

Young Andrew Neiman (Teller)  is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City.  First we hear then eventually espy the solitary drummer down a hallway, before the camera proceeds into the rehearsal room in which he is working a drum kit in determined fashion.  In steps the imposing figure of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), causing Andrew to stop abruptly and stand.  "You know what I do?," the older man asks.  Yes, the young man desperate for greatness and fame (if not necessarily in that order), is quite aware that Fletcher conducts the conservatory's elite studio band, just a step or two from the big time, whether Lincoln Center or elsewhere.  Fletcher asks Andrew why he stopped playing.  When the drummer resumes and finally finishes, the conductor says, "Did I say to start playing again?.... I asked you why you stopped playing.  Your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up drummer monkey."  And that's just a puckish kiss on the check compared to what follows between teacher and student.

Asked and answered:  J.K. Simmons, heeding the
 direction to make Terence Fletcher "a monster, a gargoyle, an animal"
in Whiplash.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle starts, in a sense, with quite a lot in Whiplash.   There is jazz itself, after all. Notions about ambition and its fine border with obsession.  What it takes to realize the greatest achievement from raw talent.  And the director has the talents of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  All of these things, sadly, reduced and consumed within a feverish story which only occasionally lapses into lucidity.  It's certainly a fever with which audiences and critics alike have been happily afflicted.  Unfortunately, all that enthusiasm makes the overheated action of Whiplash no less ridiculous.        

Mr. Chazelle was apparently an aspiring jazz drummer himself in high school.  The character of Terenece Fletcher, in turn, finds some basis in a conductor with whom Chazelle had to deal while a student.  The director says that he realized early on that professional music wasn't for him.  As for the real conductor, now dead, Chazelle owns that he wasn't nearly so difficult.  And heaven knows there's little potential for cheap drama to be found in that prosaic circumstance.  So, we turn the young drummer into a near-automaton.  J.K. Simmons, meanwhile, was instructed to "...take it past what you think the normal limit would be."  The actor was further told by his director that "I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal."  Clearly, Mr. Simmons is good at taking direction, however dubious.

Nice guns, dude.  J.K. Simmons as the man in black in Whiplash.
Thus, Terence Fletcher:  a kind of Bobby Knight of jazz; bullying, sanctimonious, self-justified. Although Knight at his most expressive would be hard pressed to match the stream of invective that pours forth from the frequently angry and agape mouth of Terence Fletcher.  This verbal abuse often takes the form of gay slurs, as when the conductor torments one of Neiman's competitors, Carl:  "Well what do we have here? Gay Pride himself.  This is not a Sinead O’Connor concert, Tanner.  I am sorry to inform you we will not be serving Baked Alaska and Cosmopolitans tonight. Now why don’t you try playing faster than you give fucking hand jobs?? One! One! One! One!  OFF THE FUCKING KIT!!!"  Andrew Neiman and his rhythm section brethren are the recipients of most of their conductor's fury, the woeful trailer park to the unavoidable tornado of his vituperation.  Whether this is due to the importance of the tempo-setting position in his band, or a past torment doled out to young Fletcher by some drummer or another, the audience leaves none the wiser.  

In the halls and practice rooms of Shaffer, Fletcher operates with impunity, students and faculty alike cowed into downcast obedience before the intimidating man.  Some time after their first meeting, Andrew is part of a group practice, merely turning the pages for the drummer in first chair, when Fletcher bursts into the room, slamming the door and usurping the teacher, who meekly withdraws.  Like a sultan procuring fresh bodies for his harem, the studio band conductor allows all of the students about a nanosecond of playing time before dismissing them with contempt.   Despite his apparent rejection, Andrew is selected.

J.K. Simmons appears to be having a grand time playing furiously against his usual gruff but amiable type.  And he may well walk off the stage at the Dolby (nee Kodak) Theater in a few weeks with one of those gold statuettes.  Good for him.  But let's not confuse what it takes to embody a cartoon character and the subtlety required to animate a complex human being.  Simmons plays all the notes he asked to play, blaring and occasionally hushed, but it's a mighty narrow chromatic range within which he's asked to work.


Similarly confined is Miles Teller, one of our more promising young film actors.  There's little to be seen of the appealing, responsive talent so apparent in the coming of age film, The Incredible Now (2013), or even his relatively few scenes in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010).  Damien Chazelle has spoken in interview of the difficulty of getting Hollywood types interested in a film that might have unsympathetic characters at its center.  What he doesn't seem to realize is that Terenece Fletcher and Andrew Neiman are not characters, they're a couple of traits flung at actors who are asked to create whole beings.  If you've seen The Incredible Now, you know the complexity of which Miles Teller is capable.  He certainly commits to the role of Andrew Neiman, body as much as soul.   But like men in the gym who throw a lot of weight around with little sense of technique or direction... there's a lot of yelling, a lot of sweat, but little accomplished in the end.  

This snare drum has seconds to live.
Miles Teller in Whiplash.
Damien Chazelle's story does slow down just enough on a couple of occasions to approach insight.  A first date scene between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a young woman he meets at the movie theater frequented by him and his father (Paul Reiser), captures the staccato progress of their (or any such) conversation.  There's also the natural prick of defensiveness on the part of Nicole when the two compare schools and plans, the intensely-focused Andrew attending "the best music school in the country," while Nicole is without major at Fordham.

One of the few exchanges between Andrew Neiman and Terrence Fletcher that isn't patently ridiculous occurs relatively late in Whiplash, when the fortunes of both characters have suffered a major reversal.  Andrew wanders into a jazz club and is transfixed at the sight of "special guest" Terrence Fletcher at the keyboard.  The two have what seems to be a surprisingly frank, almost warm conversation, albeit one that focuses mainly on the older man.  Fletcher, with relativel calm, explains and justifies his philosophy of teaching.  This rationalization boils down to - with apologies to the late Barry Goldwater - extremism in the pursuit of the next Charlie Parker is no vice.  It's not a great scene, but in a film that expends so much hot air, manufactures so much empty drama on the subject of tempo, it's a reminder that action is defined as much by relatively stillness as speed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chazelle urges along his plot like some empty-headed beatnik who thought Bebop was about nothing more than breakneck speed.  Uh, sorry daddy-o.  The fire breathing and even chair tossing tyrant of a teacher is absurd enough.  But Chazelle conducts his ensemble faster and faster into laughable cacophony.  Andrew speeds in a rental car to make a recording date for the studio band.  One certainly expects an accident to ensue, and so it does - a nasty t-bone of a crash (and for once, one of Mr. Chazelle's intense close-ups actually conveys something meaningful).   This would be enough to temporarily slow the Terminator, but the determined drummer stumbles bloody and dazed to the nearby studio and takes his place on the drum kit, only giving up when his left hand can no longer hold its stick.  Not to mention the likely matter of concussion.  Poor Andrew is a bit like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who keeps fighting, keeps urging on his fellow combatant even as his limbs are lopped off one by one.

Though more physically credible, the film's final and climactic scenes in Carnegie Hall manage to surpass all that have preceded them in utter implausibility.  No small feat, that.  The contrivances, reversals and ultimate resolution that take place couldn't be more absurd unless Terrence Fletcher and Andrew Neiman ended up in bed together.  At which point the conductor would probably still be fulminating, as he did to his student during their initial day in studio band rehearsal:  "Now are you a rusher, are you a dragger, or are you going to be ON MY FUCKING TIME?!"

Amid the almost universal acclaim, at least a couple of critics have pointed out that Whiplash is not really a good jazz film, not really a jazz film at all.  The Chicago Reader seems especially proud of this revelation.  And true enough, there is little feeling of any depth for jazz in the film.  Typical of the superficial treatment of the music and its history is an anecdote twice shared by Terence Fletcher about Charlie Parker.  He tells young Neiman that the drummer Jo Jones once hurled a cymbal at Parker's head due to his out of sync tempo.  Young Parker then went off, practiced for a year and returned to stun the world with a solo that helped immortalize him.  It's relatively common knowledge among jazz afficionados that this didn't really happen.  Jo Jones merely dropped a cymbal to the floor to embarrass Parker off the bandstand.  And the year between the the cymbal episode and Parker's historic solo at a 1937 jam session probably involved more than the saxophonist learning to play as fast as he could.


For a man with a background in jazz, a friend of numerous musicians, Damaien Chazelle demonstrates not the least notion how to film the music in performance.  The camera doesn't move quite so randomly as was the case in his feature debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009; another film that manages to despoil multiple art forms), but rarely have close-ups and rapid editing revealed so little about their subject.

Dwelling too much on the jazz reduction in Whiplash is to miss the larger point.  Whiplash is not so much as bad jazz film as a bad film, period.  The film is simply ludicrous.

There are, of course, good jazz films to be seen.  Betrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, starring the great Dexter Gordon, is not a bad place to start.  But as it happens, there was an American film doing its modest rounds in the past few months, just as Whiplash was whipping  audiences into a frenzy. This Jeff Preiss' Low Down, about the late jazz pianist Joe Albany.  Low Down stars the ever-excellent John Hawkes as Albany and Elle Fanning as his daughter Amy-Jo.  Based on Ms. Albany's memoir about the ups and downs of life with her father, Low Down is not a great film, but one whose feeling for character, place and especially its music far, far surpasses anything seen and heard in Whiplash.  By all means, check it out in addition to Whiplash.  Better yet, check it out instead.  

Sorry Mr. Chazelle, not my tempo.  

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