Friday, November 6, 2015

99 Homes

Often pulsing with a score of ominous, insistent electronica, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes seems an echo from the fictional side of the story telling divide opposite documentaries of tragic economic chicanery like Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9 and Inside Job.  All are films, whether apparent truth or fiction, concerning themselves with the deregulation of the financial industry that found its most devastating expression in the Global Financial Crisis (the swath of destruction vast enough that we can now grant it capital letters, like a world war) of 2008 and beyond.

We're not given a specific date when we're dropped into the midst of the action, the great reversal, taking place in the U.S economy, but the setting is Orlando Florida (with unrecognizable suburbs of New Orleans standing in).  What's clear is that the economic crisis, initiated largely by a multitude of doomed mortgages, is quickly fanning and settling like a gangrenous rot.  This is quickly signaled from the site of a cookie-cutter house construction whose framing is abruptly halted when word arrives that the company funding the building has gone bankrupt.  The word is given to Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield, late of the Spiderman suit), apparently something of a foreman on the site.  He stops the progress of his nail gun, whistles and informs his crew members that the job is over and no one is getting paid for the previous two weeks' labor.

As he has done through his five feature films, Ramin Bahrani grounds his stories of crisis and people on the economic margins in very credible specifics.  We're made privy to any number of disturbing particulars through the 112 minutes of 99 Homes, some relating to the mortifying plight of those unceremoniously thrown out of their homes, many others to the opportunists who continued to feast on the carcass of our outsized and tragically compromised banking industry even as political leaders made great shows of addressing the problem.  Real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) is one such shrewd character, arriving on the scene of personal tragedies in a series of linen blazers, glib if authoritative declarations at the ready about the inevitability of such encounters, a Glock pistol in an ankle holster in case the former owners of homes take the evictions particularly badly.

Even as he has graduated in a sense to larger budgets and name actors with 99 Homes and his previous At Any Price (2013), Mr. Bahrani hasn't lost his eye for (or discipline in finding) detail, nor, apparently, his sympathy for those on the margins of the economy involved in a kind of hand to hand combat to survive.  Nonetheless, that score by Anthony Partos and Matteo Zinageles rumbles like an approaching, reckoning storm in 99 Homes. The problem is that these big, broad American stories tend to arrive with their drama already built in.  The showdown to which 99 Homes builds certainly results in a tense climax, but to what end?  

As it happens, Dennis Nash, skilled though he may be, is one of the legion of Americans just several paychecks from the street.  The loss of the construction job we see at the outset of 99 Homes marks one such fateful surcease of income.  In short order, the desperate man finds himself before a not-terribly-sympathetic judge in a "rocket docket" in which the case is quickly decided against him, making phone calls to lawyers in an attempt to stop the foreclosure of his family home and, within days, answering the door to that dapper grim reaper of Orlando real estate, Rick Carver.

In a ritual that Bahrani effectively repeats in 99 Homes, we see a stunned family literally given minutes to collect their most valued items before being accompanied by waiting law enforcement out of their homes.  If they linger on the front lawn, as does Dennis Nash, his mother (Laura Dern) and son Connor (Noah Lomax), they are told that they actually need to move to the street curb.  The helpless Nash, must watch as Carver's team swarm in after him to change the locks and even poke through his toolbox standing in the driveway.  The entire scene - fear at the summoning knock on the door, the initial disbelief and bargaining with the eviction agent, the inevitable anger as the action takes on its galling momentum and ultimately the helpless staring at a home suddenly not one's home - is powerful and involving.

The Orlando setting was apparently chosen because Florida was one of four states most profoundly affected by the mortgage crisis.  Mr. Bahrani went on runs with real estate agents (all armed, he says) as they evicted homeowners.  As does Rick Carver in 99 Homes, the real real estate folk lamented the upturn of their vocation; those who took jobs to put people in houses found themselves primarily evicting stunned individuals and families from their homes.  Of course, some embrace chaos with more enthusiasm than do others, the crisply attired Mr. Carver being one such member of the new economic vanguard.

Bahrani and his co-writer Amir Naderi weave together the fates of remover and removed, a clear contrivance on its surface which echoes the strange bargains and bedfellows littered throughout our economy.  When Dennis Nash goes to Carver's office to confront the flunky he believes stole an expensive tool, he instead finds himself accepting an offer to assist on a particularly unpleasant job.  Occupants of a house on the verge of eviction have not only stripped the establishment of anything valuable and hastily spray-painted "Kill BANkers" on an interior wall, they have also blocked the septic system, causing its contents to back up into the house.  Young Nash's job, should he choose to accept it:  literally shoveling shit.  Like a whispered, insistent chorus, those dark questions of capitalism assail the principals in 99 Homes - "What are you willing to do?" "How much is it worth to you."  Demonstrating that he's of harder stuff than Carver might first have reckoned, Nash bargains the initial offer up to $200, recruits a couple of the crew to join him, covers his nose and sets to work.  Having surveyed this scene and allowed us to imagine the stench, Mr. Bahrani doesn't dwell too much in these unsavory particulars.  We next see Dennis Nash show up at the motel to which his family has relocated, proudly waving the cash he's earned.  Somehow he's clean.  His workingman's clothes, which likely would have had to have been burned, betray no sight or smell of his disgusting labors. 

The motel to which Nash, his mother and son are forced relocate is another of those details of which Mr. Bahrani was made aware doing his research for 99 Homes.  Those without other recourse find themselves in this kind of housing limbo, amongst other such evictees, fellow transients of the economy and even cheek by jowl with blatant criminals.  Such motels, like the real estate business of the time,  given darker purpose, like check cashing joints and convenience stores providing their dubious sustenance even as they keep the poor in their place.  Nash's family does also find some measure of community (there are so many such stranded families that a local school bus stops at the motel) at this weigh station, Connor finding playmates, Nash's mother plying her hair styling business in the open air.

The family's one-room residency ultimately seems protracted for effect for some time after their enterprising young breadwinner starts to make serious money with Carver.  The ostensible reason is that Dennis Nash wants to reclaim his modest home, despite his mentor's repeated admonition, "Don't get emotional about real estate."  What the longer than necessary stay at the hotel really accomplishes is a confrontation between Nash and a man whose family had recently been evicted. Confronted in the motel parking lot by the man, Nash screams in vain, "I don't know you!"  "I know you!" comes the rejoinder, which might as well emanate from Dennis Nash's own shit-smeared soul as from the incensed man trying to get a piece of him.

There's an apt puppy dog eagerness about Andrew Garfield, playing this young man so desperate to keep his family in a home, whatever it takes.  Those brown eyes spend much time dilated in concern, to importune, to await reinforcement.  Glamorous as the movies may elsewhere make him, he seems to embody through his very pores and make particular what is a common type of American young man, his striving and even his sense of honor like a piece of newly-poured iron, dangerously capable of being ill-formed while relatively new and hot. 

Young Nash is able to graduate from t-shirts and ball caps to polo shirts (or a long-sleeve shirt rolled restively up from the cuffs) and black jeans, working man's dress clothes which seem to chafe a bit even in their relative comfort, as he quickly wins the trust of Carver by proving himself skilled not only at all manner of home construction and dismantling, but with an enterprising kind of ruthlessness.  When the real estate agent asks him to relocate, as it were, air conditioning units from vacant homes, Nash swipes the pool pumps as well, knowing their resale will bring extra cash.  The shifting around of such pumps and condensing units, the moving of kitchen cabinets from one home to another like a shell game.  Here more convincing, dire detail from the script of Bahrani and Naderi as Carver frequently defrauds Fannie Mae, the Government Sponsored Enterprise, like Freddie Mac, operating at the time with all the effectiveness of Victorian governesses trying to police a maximum security prison.

When Dennis Nash is slowed by misgiving, Carver has convincing speeches at the ready, all the more effective because he's smart and elouquent enough to point out everything that is broken in the American economy and the government's deregulation of banking.  With these insights, Carver adds rhetorical flourishes which also bear the stench of underlying and rarely-aired truth, "America doesn't bail out losers. America was built by bailing out winners, by rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners."

Later, Carver adds the weight of Biblical metaphor to his exhortations "Only one in a hundred is gonna get on that ark, son.  Every other poor soul is gonna drown."  Michael Shannon has frequently proven that he has a scene stealing, even a film-carrying (as in Jeff Nichols' Take Shelter) presence.   With Rick Carver, his charisma is as dangerous, even as mad as anything he's portrayed because of its apparent normalcy.  There's certainly a powerful charm, even a kind of humility when he chooses to go in that direction.  Bahrani and Naderi have created a character who can conveniently give eloquent voice to their story's dark sub-themes.  And yet, there are men like Carver out there.  Many less polished, but our country produces them in undending supply. 

99 Homes heads propulsively into its climax with a storyline about Frank Green (Tim Guinee), like Nash, being evicted from his home.  Carver is trying to arrange a deal for 100 homes, which will lead to even grander things for he and his reluctant protege, Nash.  But Green refuses to go easily into foreclosure and mounts an effective legal defense, leaving Carver one "box" short of his planned 100.  This one and ninety-nine relationship lends the film its title, echoed also in Carver's remark about the determined one percent aboard the ark.  Of course, there is also the 99 percent rallying cry which emerged from the Occupy movement.  

Like Nash, Green is presented as a good man pushed to extremes.  He's first seen when Carver confronts him after catching sight of a power card and water line running between Green's home and one of Carver's vacant properties.  Green assures Carver that he's an honorable man, this is not who he is.  Green is unsurprisingly unforgiving when finds that Nash is an agent of Carver and all that he has come to despise.   The proud man disdainfully dismisses Nash when he subsequently comes to check on him.  Ultimately, Nash is charged with delivering a forged document that will undo Green in court.  Nash's moral dilemma and its ramifications then determine the film's final, violent confrontation.     

In addition to the tortured Nash pacing around a courthouse rotunda with the poison document in his hand, we also get images at the same site of Green and Nash's children affably recognizing one another.  At this point, we might as well be in some story of endless, tragic bloodshed in the Middle East, children of Arab and Jew alike in oblivious foreground play.   Which is to say, we're in the realm of the cliche.

It is with this last foreclosure gone very wrong that Mr. Bahrani's story overheats in such a way that he can't recover it.  Even with a slightly ambiguous conclusion, there's a kind of all-clear catharsis that lingers as the closing credits appear in 99 Homes.  It's effective enough in terms of film script convention, leaving audiences (particularly American) where they prefer to be left, as if stepping off a frightening but ultimately contained amusement park ride.  

Which reminds one of that great bit on the Simpson's about Enron stock ownership, the "Enron Ride of Broken Dreams" seeing its riders soar toward the heavens - "We're all gonna be rich!" - before they're sent crashing down into the poor house.  That, of course, not a kind of satire in which Mr. Bahrani is interested. 

Unfortunately, the director and writer loses focus with 99 Homes, much as his concern for the disenfranchised of our economy seems clear enough,  his characters Dennis Nash and Frank Green standing proxy for many similarly afflicted.  Through his first four films, Ramin Bahrani has not strayed far from the personal and the specific.  This was the case in his first two features - Man Push Cart (2005) and Chop Shop (2007),  featuring first generation immigrants truly laboring on the outskirts of America's massive economy.  Even the more dramatic dimension - a man planning his suicide - of Goodbye Solo (2008), maintains its proportion with it very personal stories.  

Ramin Bahrani's progress to larger projects has been more problematic.  Somehow, the farming and stock car story At Any Price (2013) works, Dennis Quaid's stylized performance symbolic of the film's ultimate success, the often emblematic actor still somehow affecting despite  his Henry Whipple being composed of found bits of character and line delivery.  At Any Price sheds it's big story and equally broad themes in time for a consideration of personal responsibility, guilt and compromise.  

With 99 Homes, the sense of personal suffering of its men - and it's almost exclusively about men and a kind of enraged impotence - ultimately serves a larger, contrived drama, not the other way around.   Mr. Bahrani's drama is very effective, but when we're drawing off the suffering and iniquity of our hopelessly imbalanced economy, is catharsis really what is called for?     


Thursday, August 6, 2015


There are in a big city many cities happening all at once.  These simultaneous cities are overlaid,  in places intersect.  And yet they exist almost separate unto themselves, share as they might some sidewalk or stretch of asphalt with another version of the city more readily known.  Such is the Los Angeles captured and imagined by filmmaker Sean Baker in Tangerine.

The world, the city of Tangerine exists mainly in West Hollywood, not so far from those thoroughfares whose sidewalks are inlaid with stars, above the river of the 101 freeway.  But in experience, practically a planet removed from the destination of most tourists who swarm to Hollywood with a far more sterile, prepackaged experience in mind.

The Los Angeles of Tangerine is one of strip malls, cheap motels, diners and doughnut shops where all manner of business is transacted.  It's an L.A. where people actually walk and ride the bus (sorry, Ms. Didion).  Rather bleak if you look at it in a conventional way, but incontrovertibly pulsating with life and color (the film apparently takes its title from the preponderance of orange that makes its way into the frame) as seen in Mr. Baker's film.

Tangerine also shows us a city within the greater city frequented by transgender sex workers.  We meet two such individuals at the outset of Tangerine who turn out to be our co-heroines: Sin-Dee Rella (Kiki Kitana Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor).

Sin-Dee Rella is fresh out of jail as the two share one of the offerings at the doughnut shop that inspired Baker's film.  "Are we supposed to share it? asks, Alexandra, laughing.  "Yes, we're supposed to share it, bitch, I'm broke!"  So frequently go the verbal exchanges between the two, words sharp as their determined gait, perfectly extended hair or flawless ensemble draped on lean physiques; the word "bitch" like a hand that can caress as readily as it can give you its back and slap.

The genial catch up takes a turn for the ominous when Alexandra lets slip that Sin-Dee's pimp and main man, Chester (James Ransome), has been cheating on her with "some white fish" (a cisgender woman).   "Chester's fuckin' cheating on me with a real fish?," says Sin-Dee, frequently pounding the table with a makeup brush as if she's brandishing a dagger.  "Yeah bitch like a real fish girl like vagina and everything."  Alexandra confirms the bad news and then must follow her best friend on a long day's revenge odyssey into the Los Angeles night, leaving her side only to dispense flyers for her singing gig that night and later wait for Sin-Dee to show up at the bar, offending real fish in tow.

While Sine-Dee and Alexandra prowl this nether Hollywood, we also are taken inside the cab of an Armenian immigrant, Razmik (Karren Karagulian).  Like Mickey O'Hagan who plays Dinah, the slight, woeful woman who is the subject of Sin-Dee's wrath, Karagulian is a Sean Baker veteran, part of the fairly seamless mix of professional and non-professional actors in Tangerine.  Initially the story simply cuts from the propulsive hunt of Sin-Dee to the travails of Razmik, transporting a series of eccentrics (including pink-haired style blogger and Hello Kitty enthusiast Francis Lola, making a non-speaking cameo) on the day before Christmas.  The most humorous of these passengers is played by Clu Gulager, explaining his feminine name while he slouches in the back seat.  To those who recognize Gulager, his presence is almost surreal in Tangerine, reminder not only of that other Hollywood where the big films get made, but a Hollywood that doesn't quite exist any more, Tangerine demarcating cities in space as well as time.

The series of Christmas Eve fares, seemingly a kind of filler to remind us just how colorful is this world into which we are peeking, quickly gets to a point of diminishing returns, reaching its nadir with two men who vomit all over Razmik's back seat. "Animals," he practically hisses, after dragging them to the curb and driving off in his befouled cab.  What looks to be a West Hollywood Slacker by way of Taxicab Confessions actually has a more organic connection to the life of the film than Baker initially reveals.  The scenes with Razmik, his family and other Armenian immigrants show us yet another Los Angeles subculture.  We also find out that the taxi driver not only knows the transgender sex workers as part of his rounds through the streets and alleys of their common neighborhood, he's sometimes their customer.  The lives are indeed connected and we see an example of  infidelity in Razmik's life as we do in those of Sin-Dee and Alexandra.

As Tangerine begins in Donut Time with Alexandra and Sin-Dee, it's not clear whether Baker and his cast are really going to draw us into their world.  Sin-Dee taps the metal window frame with yet another makeup implement and offers the sort "Hi" that's a playful two-syllable come on.  Alexandra hoots in response, and its as though their director had just said "Okay...go," without any preparation, any thought to script and character.  But once the pair quit the doughnut shop and begin their various quests, the story gains its momentum and texture.  More significantly, all the characters we see - major and minor - seem fully formed and much more of the Los Angeles street than movie studio. 

Sean Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch apparently met Mya Taylor at a Los Angeles LBGT center.  At subsequent meetings, Taylor would share stories from the neighborhood.  Baker's initial idea to make a film about the bursting-with-life doughnut shop at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Highland Avenue began to find the dimension and depth it needed.  The writer and director was wise enough not to impose his vision about a community of which he had only superficial knowledge.  The conversations at a Jack in the Box restaurant also eventually included Kiki Kitana Rodriguez.  Baker had his stars.  

So, we have these by turns formidable and vulnerable women.  Baker and Bergoch's dialog was kept real by input from Taylor and Rodriguez , an example being the phrase, "What's your tea?  - meaning What's your problem? or What's your deal? -  apparently common currency in the neighborhood.  It was apparently Ms. Rodgriquez's idea that the story take the form of woman scorned narrative.  Overall, instead of sassy stereotypes, we have full, flawed people.  It's hard to imagine watching Tangerine and not loving these characters, but both are shown at their best and near-worst.

Sin-Dee's scorches a good bit of barren L.A. earth on her way to finding Dinah, dismissing if not bowling over everyone in her path.  When the unfortunate Dinah is at last yanked from the depths of a particularly seedy motel, Sin-Dee drags and occasionally smacks her down streets, against buildings, in and out of a bus, unconcerned that the ill-used women has only one shoe for most of the journey.  And yet this is the same Sin-Dee who later, almost tenderly, applies makeup to Dinah's face in the bathroom of the bar in which Mya performs.

For much of Tangerine, Alexandra is certainly the calmer of the pair, almost a long-suffering older sister to Sin-Dee.  However, Alexandra does a little dragging of her own when a client doesn't come forth with the $40 owed her.  As the two begin to struggle, she says, "You forget, I've got a dick too!"  Ultimately, the hapless man is hectored within sight of the amused members of the L.A.P.D.  Like many interactions in Tangerine, this adjudication runs not to pat drama (nor hobnailed authority), but to wry dismissal.

For all their moments of documentary-like authenticity, Sean Baker's films neither wallow in any found darkness, nor resort to pessimism which seems readily at hand.  Tangerine's sometimes serious, sometimes decidedly comic tone was apparently a conscious desire on the part of Baker, one with which Mya Taylor in particular agreed.  That humor at times draws us in while demonstrating a kind of survival mechanism for those living these challenging lives.  We hardly see this facet of the sex trade at its most dark or dangerous.  Instead, the few transactions we witness are more expressions of comic misunderstanding or exasperation (Alexandra's sort-of hand job for which she doesn't get paid; Razmik's unwelcome discovery of a vagina beneath a female prostitute's skirt), or, a rare stylistic flourish on the part of Sean Baker.  Not that harsher realities are entirely banished.  When Sin-Dee is doused with a cup of urine flung from a passing car at key point late in the the film, that is apparently an echo of a kind of assault that has actually befallen more than one sex worker in the neighborhood.

The stories of Alexandra, Sin-Dee and Razmik are allowed to flow where they might -  realistically, fancifully; comically or quite dejectedly - while Tangerine impressively captures its smaller details and lesser characters.  The first motel scene alone is like a mini-documentary.  When Sin-Dee bursts into the "party room," it's like we have shone a light on some little seen nocturnal world, all the more so for the warren of sub-rooms and their very unglamorous inhabitants.  The woman, Madam Jillian (Chelcie Lynn, whom Baker discovered on the Vine video platform),  who serves as a kind of gatekeeper to this party is one of many secondary characters that are brought fully to life with just a few lines of dialog and a well-directed performance.  Madam Jillian is less howling Cerberus than a woman canny enough to know just how much toughness is required to survive in her world.  

Apparently it was Karren Karagulian (Razmik), a long-time collaborator of Sean Baker, who recommended that Tangerine also use its subplot of the cab driver as a window into the Armenian immigrant community in Los Angeles.  The narratives ultimately come crashing together in a climactic scene both cutting and humorous at Donut Time, where Razmik's mother-in-law (Alla Tumanian) pursues him to prove his infidelity, while Sin-Dee is doing the same, having reunited Chester and Dinah.  A conversation between the mother-in-law and another Armenian cabbie (Arsen Grigoryan) on the way to the Donut Time showdown demonstrates what a rich, detailed piece of work is Tangerine.  The mother-in-law speaks critically of having Christmas in such a place as Los Angeles.  The city is, she ultimately says, is "a beautifully wrapped lie."  We see an ambiguous smile on the cab driver's face.  "Agree to disagree," he says.  He adds that he's still learning English.  More subtlety to be found in that little shimmer from this small film than many a indie feature in its precious entirety.  

So yes, Tangerine was actually shot on an iPhone 5s.  This apparently invention born of economic necessity.  But as Sean Baker has said in interview, having a hand-held device that will accomplish a lot of the work of shooting hardly precludes the need to utilize a hundred years of filmmaking know-how.  One still must understand lighting, the vagaries of sound.  And the phone themselves were not quite enough.  Baker was able to acquire prototypes of anamorophic adaptors which made a wide screen perspective possible.  A Steadicam device was also necessary at times.  But the darting mobility of the phones did allow the director to do things like circle or pass his actors on a ten-speed bike.  There's an excellent example of this early on when Sin-Dee departs Donut Time to begin her hard target search for Dina.  Sine-Dee's crisp, take no prisoners stride (and cruel intent) find perfect sonic accompaniment in "Team Gotti Anthem," by DJ Heemie & DJ Lightup, complete with martial clicks and simulated shots fired in rhythm, the momentum of this accentuated as the camera speeds at Sin-Dee then past.  Too look at Tangerine, you certainly wouldn't guess that it was filmed on an iPhone.  Among other post-production touches, Baker added grain to the appearance of the film, while also more deeply saturating the color which was already present.  

Clearly, Sean Baker knows how to direct a film, much as he rarely feels the need to remind us of this fact.  The camera sweeps here and there, but almost never for simple effect.  Tangerine lets itself get a bit drunk with style only once and it's woozy ride worth taking.  This a carwash scene in which Alexandra has to get Razmik off before the cab reemerges into Los Angeles daylight.  Perhaps it's been done before, but it probably hasn't been done more effectively, the sense-obscuring wash of soap and water, the sensuous, overwhelming caress of brushes and wraparounds a near-perfect analog to sexual abandon.      

Tangerine is Sean Baker's fifth feature, and his second impressive foray into a parts of Los Angeles rarely seen on film.  His previous film, Starlet (2012), recounts an unlikely friendship between a young porn actress and a solitary older woman, avoiding, as with Tangerine, the very obvious potential for something more exploitative.  Baker's two New York films (like the excellent early features of Ramin Bahrani, Man Push Cart  and Chop Shop), Take-Out (2004) and  Prince of Broadway (2008) are stories of the immigrant experience that have a similar documentary feel melded with a minimalist if slightly optimistic storytelling touch.  Baker apparently made Tangerine (with seed money help from the Duplass brothers) because he couldn't make something bigger, the sort of film for which one's crew might actually get paid in a timely manner....

Given the results so far, one almost wishes such continued financial constraints on Sean Baker, selfish though the thought may be.  His body of work to this point is like a great dive bar where all are welcome, a place teeming with all manner of humanity.  Given the relative success of Tangerine, he might get to make that bigger film next time out. 

In the meantime, Tangerine is more of the admirable same from Sean Baker.  We see people on screen that we don't normally get to witness in American film.  That transfer to film or video occurs without loss of humanity or dignity (and in this latest case, with a good bit of humor).  Baker clearly respects his subjects and his characters.  There is perhaps no better example of this in Tangerine than when Alexandra's performance takes place, a privilege for which she, not the bar owner, pays.  Instead of some expected bit of camp lip syncing, we get Mya Taylor in closeup with a sweet, moving rendition of "Toyland."  

Tangerine is ultimately just a human and humane story.  The late rift and subsequent reconciliation between Sin-Dee and Mya is actually one of the film's more nakedly engineered twists.  And yet there's no lack of depth in the ultimate shot when the two sit in a darkened laundromat at film's end.  This owing to the execution of Sean Baker, but mainly to the personality and vulnerability that Kiki Kitana Rodriguez and Mya Taylor invest in these memorable characters. Doused with urine, Sin-Dee has to surrender the entire ensemble for washing, including - most troublingly - her impeccable hair.  Before the two join hands, Mya takes off her wig and gives it to Sin-Dee.  It's like a transfer of armor, a sharing of identity.   


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

"I used to be a cop," says the man who only very late in the proceedings of Mad Max:  Fury Road, owns that his name is actually Max.  "Fury Road" is a kind of continuation of the Max Max franchise, some thirty years after the third film in the series, "Beyond Thunderdome" came and unceremoniously went.  However, from the first memorable Mad Max film to this most recent, there is a kind of honing of character, from a specific man with a specific job to a near-mythical character roaming, Western fashion, a dusty, post-apocalyptic world.  Not quite a man with no name, but very close.

As the Mad Max films have gotten less specific in terms of character and place (most of the desert action here was filmed in Namibia), "Fury Road's" more international cast is fitting.  So too the presence of Englishman Tom Hardy in the role of the eponymous wanderer.  Mr. Hardy's voice has drifted sonorously if a little vaguely all over the globe in roles of  the past decade.  Change though it might from one key scene to another in "Fury Road", Hardy's drifting inflection inadvertently suits a character who has become something of a shifting presence, even while the actor's sturdy physique gives this Max a formidable vehicle with which to pursue and mainly be pursued.  Or as he says in the film's busy pre-title sequence, "I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead."

The often frenetic, almost cartoonish prologue to "Fury Road" provides about all the film is going to give you in terms of context and exposition.  The voiceover comes mainly from Hardy, enunciating as though his already ample lips were a bit swollen from all that running around in the desert - too little water, too much heat  "My world is fire and blood," he intones, the consonants no more crisp that the rounded vowels.  He is, he tells us, "A man reduced to a single instinct:  survive"

To further set the post-apocalyptic scene, we're told that there were "thermo-nuclear skirmishes."  That dire news to the accompaniment of a blanched image from stock nuclear blast footage, trees almost in x-ray recoiling from the shock waves.  "As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken," a lugubrious Max informs.  A female voice adds, "We are half-life." 

In this time of "petroleum wars," water and untainted blood are as dear as oil.  In his initial hermit's headdress of long hair and face- obscuring cascade of dusty beard, Max is pursued by the white-powdered, skinheaded War Boys. He's caught, escapes,  is pursued and caught again.  In the midst of  this excitement, Max is given a back full of brands and tattoos, the most significant of which indicate that he's a universal blood donor.  Most all of the movements in this sequence occur in a hyper,  herky-jerky rhythm.  The cartoonish tone is set at the outset when a two-headed lizard is seen in the foreground on the red dust, before skittering over to our isolated hero, his back to the camera.  Without looking, Max stomps a heel on the lizard and puts the creature into his mouth, the wiggling tail protruding from his lips.  Perhaps that's why he's having such a hard time getting his words out...

If you happen to be new to the Mad Max franchise, or even if you are quite familiar with the first two or three installments, the particulars of "Fury Road" might  remain a mystery to you through much of the film's two hours.  If that's the case, you likely won't have time or inclination to dwell on your ignorance.  What's eminently clear is that Mad Max:  Fury Road is an absorbing, imaginative, seamlessly constructed action film by George Miller, a man with enough experience to know that the most elevating and enduring thrills are those that are most real, those most clearly defined amid their clouds of chaos.

Some have described "Fury Road" as a film with essentially one scene.  Much as Miller is able to maintain the excitement of chase and battle scenes for impressive spans of time, there are several key, distinct scenes or sequences in "Fury Road," even while transported on a boomerang of plot.  The first post-title scene, somewhat bewildering in its detail and teeming action, occurs at the Citadel, home base for the War Boys, where presides Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, veteran of the first Mad Max film).

Amid the frenzy of activity, we see "Cult Leader Joe" readied to address the wretched souls who await words and water on the dry ground beneath his verdant aerie.  Before a kind of molded, plastic armor is placed over his torso, the imperious Immortan has powder thrown over his back, a relief map of wrinkles, scars and boils.  Here, a hint that the powder in which Joe and his War Boys appear might be part uniform, part balm.  What the relatively lucky inhabitants of the desert penthouse and those scraping in the dirt below have in common is deformity, confirmation of Max's earlier statement that all were broken in their own way by the war and it's attendant radiation.  

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the next Republican nominee for president.
Hugh Keays-Byrne as Immortan Joe in "Fury Road.
The ceremony for which Immortan Joe dons his fearsome habiliments (including a mask with massive if artificial chompers) is the sendoff of a tanker to be driven by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to procure some of that precious fuel at Gas Town, as well as a stop at the Bullet Farm... where, presumably, one shops for bullets.  This occurs with considerable fanfare, complete with music, salutes (a kind of triangle of obedient arms and hands above heads) and a speech by Joe. There is even a brief opening of fresh water channels to cascade upon the rocks and wretched souls below.  The largess is painfully short-lived for those hoping to fill their makeshift vessels with water. After the flow is quickly stopped, the Immortan addresses the desperate throng in his growling, amplified baritone:   "Do not become addicted to the water.  It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence."  This literal and quite incisive demonstration of trickle down economics revealing that our man Joe has the makings of an excellent Republican candidate for the American presidency.

The key action in "Fury Road" occurs when Furiosa goes off road not long after leaving the Citadel, heading east when she's supposed to be on the way to Gas City.  She has secretly absconded with Joe's coterie of five wives, whom he uses for breeding, if not their physical beauty in a world in which that is true of virtually no one else, men or women (including to an extent, Furiosa, living with most of her right arm missing; although this is still Charlize Theron and good bone structure will out, as will those blue eyes that gleam from behind any dust or the raccoon smear of black greasepaint with which she might swath her forehead and eyes, all of which allowing her to quite convincingly rock the buzz cut that she sports throughout).

The detour of the convoy is obvious soon enough to Joe, as is the disappearance of his wives.  And the chase is on.  Joe and his War Boys head out, including the weakened Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who must take Max along as a "blood bag."  Why one's blood bag would be mounted to the front of one's badass pursuit vehicle like a glorified hood ornament is something of a mystery, but a minor lapse in logic that George Miller earns with the overall coherence of his story.

Though generally spare of dialog, there's plenty going on in Miller's story beyond its roiling action.  There's an undercutting of this particular male cult of personality, as well as a more general critique of governance conducted by way of machismo.  Not to mention the desperate young men who do the bidding of these male figureheads.  Fearsome as they might be with their shaved heads, the powdered musculature of their bare torsos and intense manner that suggests the ingestion of a few too many post-Apocalyptic Red Bulls, these are obviously boys questing after identity, belonging, affirmation.

As with much else in "Fury Road" Miller captures this madness almost without dialog.  Instead, a simple, memorable visible cue. Before launching themselves into a particularly dangerous moment of battle, the War Boys spray their mouths with chrome paint.  And then they really get crazy.  Here, perhaps, both a token of the cult of the mechanical, of those hybrid, souped-up vehicles so prized by these adrenalized man-children, as well as a verbal element of Immortan Joe's cobbled together philosophy.  When Nux goes to the Immortan with a plan to stop the renegades, he receives the honor of having the spay applied for him by Joe, who promises that he will deliver him personally to Valhalla, "shining and chrome" should he succeed.
Alas, the hapless Nux is quickly tripped up.  Immortan Joe shakes his head contemptuously.  If  you want something done right....The fact that Nux thereafter joins the very band of  escapees he had been trying to capture is actually quite consistent with his lack of identity.  Given a bit of affection, he's a homeless mutt ready enough to adopt a new home to which he'll transfer his all his single-minded loyalty.  The story grants him some dignity in this most meaningful switch of alliance to the escaping women and Max and ultimately gives him something truly worthwhile for which he might fight or even die.

That this stray is quickly adopted by one of the Vuvalini (the Immortan's wives), Capable (Riley Keough), and that the strong, wary personalities of Max and Furiosa fairly quickly fall in together seems, at first blush, a shortcoming of Miller's story.  However, the unlikely alliances are actually in line with the characters we come to know.  Consistent as well with Miller's elliptical storytelling that trusts us to make implied and harmonious connections.

The strange team of Furiosa, the Vulvalini, the lone wolf Max and lost War Boy Nux first come together in one of "Fury Road's" signature scenes, all the more memorable as it is one of the film's few actions sequences not propelled by escape and pursuit, by its teeming, motorized mayhem.  The initial attempts to intercept the tanker driven by Furiosa having failed, we see what looks like a small mountain of still sand.  Here, Miller playing with perspective, as it's actually a buried Max who stirs and unearths himself, jerked into consciousness as usual as much by his ghosts as any imperative toward breathing and wakefulness.  Good news:  he's still alive.  Bad news:  he's still chained (and masked) to his War Boy.

Max's attempts to undo the chain, which devolve to the option of gnawing off Nux's hand, are interrupted by the vision of the Vuvalini, scantily arrayed in their gauzy togs, rinsing their startling beautiful selves clean at the side of the parked tanker.  Something out of a post-apocalyptic music video at first glance, but in addition to the bare legs and midriffs, the barely concealed breasts, there is also the prominent belly of one of the pregnant "wives," cutting short any leering tendency of the scene and reminding us just what the lives of these young women have been about.  Max gets the jump on Furiosa, but it's not long before they're locked in combat, the much larger man by no means getting the best of it.  The fight gets much more interesting when Nux - still chained to Max - awakens and the fight becomes a three-way, with the Vulvalini also occasionally leaping into the fray, yanking on the chain.

Mad Max:  Fury Road is not simply an action film in which a female actor is granted a supporting role.  It is Furiosa who determines the action from the start and lands the film's decisive blows.  By the time that the tanker and its motley contingent U-turn back to Citadel, it's a liberation force, a small army composed mainly of women, young and old.  Max abets their efforts at most.  Unlike the man with no name model of Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, Max is saved every bit as much as he does any saving.  Even the weapons proficiency which mark the Clint Eastwood and Toshiro Mifune characters in their respective films is undercut in a scene in which Furiosa, not Max takes the ultimate shot, blinding the head Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter).  Max, chagrined, voluntarily yields a rifle after twice missing the mark.

The elder females join Furiosa and the Vuvalini when she manages to drive them east to what she expects to be the "Green Place" of her youth, from where she had been taken (a faint echo, perhaps, of Australia's "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal youth).  She and her passengers find a small band of women, mainly of the silver and white-haired variety.  Even more than their younger counterparts, these women defy expectations from the start, roaring in on motorcycles as any number of attacking men had earlier set upon the escaping tanker.  These "Many Mothers" are Furiosa's kin.  She and her her passengers are all welcomed (after a brief bit of wariness) by the formidable elders.  The celebratory mood is cut short when Furiosa is told that these are actually the last of her people.  Worse, the Green Place of her youth is no more.  She's told to her shock that the miasmic, nightmare landscape (complete with damned, shaggy creatures moving above the poisoned ground on long poles)  through which they had just driven is the fertile landscape of her childhood wasted like all else by "skirmishes" and their fallout.

The desire to return, get home, is one of the many plangent sub-themes of Mad Max:  Fury Road, that not only give it its emotional resonance, but connect it to something more timeless in cinema and the long strand of human storytelling.

Like so much about "Fury Road," Miller more than satisfies expectations with while at the same time defying them, with the Many Mothers as with Max.  After realizing that the Green Place is no more, Furiosa, the Many Mothers and the Vuvalini resume their journey east on motorcycle, an uncertain journey across a vast salt flat.  Max is offered one of the fully-stocked bikes, but demurs.  Another key action in "Fury Road" occurs when Max reconsiders, catches up with the women and Nux and convinces them to turn back to the only green place left, The Citadel.  

Max certainly plays his significant role in this unlikely rebel force, but he's merely one of many.  This a significant departure from the tales in which the man with no name saves the town, the trampled upon, etc.  Here the male loner is indeed saved as much as he saves.  Max's decision to at least take a break from his desperado ways signals, along with the renunciation of Joe and his eager to please War Boys, a more collaborative approach, particularly with regard to gender.  Furiosa is fomidable.  The Vuvalini are rather more than pretty, passive witnesses to the action.  And the Many Mothers are not senior citizens with whom anyone should trifle (like most of the cast, these women apparently did the majority of their own stunts).  We might not want to get carried away and call "Fury Road" a work of feminism.  But there is a kind of encompassing humanism at work.

But what of Max Rockatansky?  This Max is mad enough to earn his longstanding nickname, even if it's not spoken in "Fury Road."  He is haunted and often compromised by visions.  While trying to escape the War Boys in that pullulating pre-title sequence, Max faces a barrage of ghosts, faces from his past which shift one to the next in a nightmare flow.  For the most part, it is the image of his dead daughter which most often troubles and even aides the solitary man.  To adapt one of his own rounded statements, Max is both pursued by ghosts and something of a ghostly presence himself. Hardy, with his grunts and laconic utterances ever seeking their tune, succeeds in the surprising way that the greater film succeeds.  Rearing, as out of that seeming mountain of sand to impose the expected physical presence, rising to the anticipated scraps and tilts, he ultimately withdraws, a tough skin peeled back to reveal the surprising, insistent heart of "Fury Road."

All of this heart, this humanity, George Miller suggests with impressive economy.  Only once does his touch as a writer betray the otherwise sure, elliptical subtext of the story.  Tellingly, this occurs in one of the scenes in "Fury Road" most heavily freighted with dialog.  Furiosa speaks of her past to Max and the redemption she hopes to gain by escaping with Immortan Joe's wives.  Nothing about this scene is right.  Theron and Hardy, so solid throughout, fade a bit with the sagging material, the latter's accent drifting toward the odd, sort of Brooklyn accent of last year's The Drop.  Even Junkie XL's otherwise effective score goes astray.  At times galloping and percussive, at others like an orchestra on "guzzaline" with cellos from hell, his score is seemingly invaded by a plaintive string quartet in this superfluous scene.

Of course, there is a bit of action in Mad Max:  Fury Road.  The film's quieter, defining moments punctuate extended, breathless sequences of pursuit, escape and battle which predominate in the film's quick in passing two hours.  And while there is artifice and special effects at work - a pursuit sequence through a kind of electrical dust storm; night scenes shot in daylight and manipulated dark; the daylight sky itself sometimes rendered unreal; - "Fury Road's" intense action is able to maintain a delicate, high plateau of excitement largely because what we're seeing is actually happening.

Miller  has said that 90% of his film's effects are"practical."  This involves not only actors willing to do their own stunts, but performers with Cirque du Soleil and Olympic training.  Thus, the swinging "polecats" perched atop flexible poles and flung into pursued vehicles to pluck one of the Vuvalini or generally wreak havoc.  All of these soaring bodies and flying motorcycles creating the impression of an X Games at the end of the world. 

There is also the rich imagination of George Miller.  During the many years that "Fury Road" was on again, then off again, Miller obviously had plenty of time to develop and clarify his ideas.  Apparently the film's first two years (or so) of shooting occurred off story boards, no script.  Actors, without a clear sense of story arc learned to simply trust their director's vision.  Obviously, the trust was well founded. 

Miller's direction is assured, mainly distinguishing itself in the admirable coherence of the pursuit and battle scenes.  The general, sustained flow of these sequences, as the tanker is first chased on its flight from the Citadel and then back, through several periods of battle, are completely absorbing.  Within these longer movements Miller offers more striking moments, as when one of the smaller vehicles  accompanying the rogue tanker falls into a massive trap set by bandits.  In slow motion, the vehicle flips, sending one of its passengers flying right off the screen, an effect impressive enough even in 2D.  Only rarely does Miller let the action get gratuitous, as when another crash results in a disintegrating vehicle, whose skull-centered steering wheel is flung at the screen like a logo. 

 Not to be forgotten about what is so real and effective about "Fury Road," its practical effects, are the vehicles themselves:  cars, trucks, souped-up, adapted, fused together, outfitted (as the porcupine-like cruisers of the bandits who first assail the tanker) for most every eventuality (we see Max streak through a kind of chop shop while he's pursued by the War Boys during the pre-title scenes).  To be fed a steady diet of special effects is to forget how simply effective a camera can be when latched to the front of car or truck, practically scraping the ground as we are given the real. powerful perception of speed, depth and pursuit.  There is also actual sound, the roar, the whine of an accelerating machine.  Beyond Peter Yate's sharp direction and Steve McQueen's willingness to a lot of his own driving, the legendary car chase in Bullitt remains so gripping and memorable for the throaty growl of that Mustang. 

In its extended action as much as its moments of pause, Mad Max:  Fury Road succeeds by keeping matters as real as is imaginable with something of this scope.  Considered among its competitors at the multiplex this spring and summer, that's a considerable accomplishment.  Whether our increasingly attention-challenged world needs more films whose budgets exceed the GDP of poor nations (never mind that "Fury Road" has more than doubled its $150 budget at the box office) is another question for another time.

Mad Max:  Fury Road is a helluva action film that merits more than one viewing - its detail better to be appreciate, it's action just as breathless a second time around.  Like his drifting and shifting hero, George Miller is somehow just the person for the job, benefiting perhaps from a career that has ranged from the first Mad Max films to the likes of Babe, Happy Feet and back again.  So we have stellar action, within which is revealed a surprising amount of intelligence and heart.  Like Max throughout, Miller serves the greater story without imposing himself too much on the proceedings. For once, it's not all about the boys.   


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 worldly belongings.  The shepherd's wandering is brief.  When he seeks employment 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?  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 express 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.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Babadook

"I'll soon take off my funny disguise....And once you see what's'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 and try to hold out until dawn.