Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Darkness, darkness.  Poor Father James (Brendan Gleeson) may be a priest in Count Sligo, but his parish seems more a hell on earth than the picturesque Atlantic Coast of Ireland. This apparently good priest is made to answer not only for the trangressions of his church, but all of the pent-up outrage of his country in the early 21st century. "You have to put up with shit like this on a regular basis?" asks his visiting daughter, Fiona (Kelly Reilly).  "There's a lot of it going around, let's put it that way," responds the weary man.

Calvary is, among several other things, the result of writer and director John Michael McDonagh avoiding the sophomore slump much more nimbly than his brother Martin.  The younger McDonagh followed his highly original first feature In Bruges (2008) with the deeply mediocre Seven Psychopaths (2012).  Perhaps the moral of that brief story is to make sure that you have Brendan Gleeson at the head of your cast. Gleeson played the older of two Irish hitmen hiding out in the eponymous Belgian city in Martin McDonagh's first feature, very much the grave heart of that bracing film.  He was not among the strong cast assembled to minimal effect in Seven Psychopaths.

John Michael McDonagh has been wise enough to place the likable actor at the center of both of his films. Gleeson's Gerry Boyle is a Connemara law enforcement officer who is seen partaking of more vice than stamping it out in The Guard (2011). This time out, he's a feeling, well-intentioned, but no less unconventional priest, who answered the call relatively late in life after the death of his wife.  The success of John Michael McDonagh's first two features has depended largely on Brendan Gleeson, so convincing as men replete with the sacred as well as the profane.  More deeply, both films, perhaps not unlike the nation where they have been set, recognize the inextricable connection of those elements, or even how arbitrary can such distinctions be in end. 

Calvary begins with a bang.  Or as Father James says, "It's certainly a startling opening line."  This his response to a man beginning an apparent confession by saying, "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old....Nothing to say?"  The man on the other side of the confessional screen proceeds to unfurl yet another case of sexual abuse on the part of a Catholic priest that has hounded a child into adulthood.  He sees no point in reporting the priest, who is now dead.  "What good would it do anyway if he were still alive?  What would be the point of killing the bastard?  That would be no news. There's no point in killing a bad priest.  Killing a good one?  That would be a shock!"  The good priest, of course, is the unfortunate Father James.  He's told to get his affairs in order and meet his would-be assassin on the beach, Sunday week.  Violence, then, is promised early on in Calvary.  But as the days to the fateful meeting are announced on screen, it's in the moments quiet amid the menacing noise of conflict in which the film makes its greatest impression.  This McDonagh's juxtaposition of tone to match the darkness and light battling in the content of his story.  

The troubling confession and promise of murder is merely the opening salvo against the priest, whose entire parish seems teeming with threats to his wellbeing, challenges to his faith.  All of this complicated by the visit of his daughter Fiona from London.

Beyond its often thoughtful, occasional humorous marriage of the sacred and profane, Calvary bears the mark of the same hand that crafted The Guard.  Young Michael Og is on hand in both films, operating as a kind of Dead End Kid by way of Shakespearean fool.  In the film at hand, he's a smart-alecky altar boy to Father James, when not painting slightly otherworldly watercolors by the seaside, present, as in The Guard, at significant moments for Gleason's characters trying to find some meaning amid the chaos.  There is also that particularly Irish dance with death.  In McDonagh's first feature there was the dying mother of Gerry Boyle.  With Calvary, Gleeson's character has to contend with his depressive daughter, who attempted suicide in the months before her visit to Ireland and would seem to require a bit of convincing to hold on to her particular mortal coil going forward.  What is especially Irish here is the candor, immediacy and even humor with which the subject is met.  When Father James sees his daughter's scarred wrists shortly after her arrival, he says,"Don't tell me, you made the classic error.  You're supposed to cut down, not across."  

At the pub are but a few of the locals who torment the priest, each in his fashion.  Chief among them is Dr. Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), whose manner and enunciation are as sharply groomed as his slightly demonic mustache and soul patch.  Dr. Frank is all too happy to repeat the "You made the classic mistake" observation about Fiona.  Much as he later owns - after  he's wearily chided by Father James for his lack of originality - that good material is hard to come by:  "Sure. The atheistic doctor. It's a cliched part to play.There aren't that many good lines.  One part humanism to nine parts gallows humor."

TThe doctor is one of several suspects that McDonagh places before us as the possible assassin of Father James.  Another is a hapless local butcher Jack Brennan. This Chis O'Dowd, playing well against his usually charming type. The father calls upon Brennan not to investigate the threat against him, but to confront the man about the shiner borne by his wife, Veronica (Orla O'Rourke), which explains why the butcher's wife is first seen taking communion behind a large pair of sunglasses. The husband assures Father James that it wasn't him this time, but probably her lover, Simon (Isaach De Bankole, laconic as usual as we've seen him in the films of Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and others, if more menacing in this case).  Even the slightly battered Veronica has her sport with father James, alternately flogging the lost cause of her soul, or leading their exchanges into more suggestive directions:
     Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.
 Say one Our Father and ten Hail Mary's.
 I've sinned more than that. 
 Make an ascent to Croagh Patrick, then. On your knees. 
 On my knees, is it? What made you say that?

Yet another possible owner of that threatening voice in the confessional is local plutocrat, Michael Fitzgerald.  Irish comedian and actor Dylan's Moran, typically arch, is the man abandoned by wife and child to roam his estate and many well-appointed rooms.   He's one of several examples of supporting (threatening) characters, like the sharp-tongued doctor rendered sharp but thin.  Away from its center, Calvary is rescued a bit by those working in the roles so stylized by McDonagh.   

Moran in particular is charged with bringing some human credibility to pronouncements like, "What do you see when you look at me? I'll tell you what you see.You see a handsome, sophisticated, eminent man in the prime of his life.  A colossus, let's say. Who once bestrode the world of high finance...and became profoundly influential in certain spheres."  Fitzgerald, by his own admission, was one of the rogue capitalists who helped tank the Irish economy at the same time as their avaricious brethren were doing the same in the United States, Iceland and elswhere.  The meetings between Father James and Fitzgerald are increasingly confrontational, culminating with the rich man threatening to remove a fairly priceless painting from his wall and urinate on it, if only because he owns it and and can.  "People like you have pissed on everything else, I suppose. So why not?" is all the priest can say.

 The theme of havoc-wreaking bankers getting off scot-free is later picked up by the town's embittered publican (Pat Shortt):
  "How come I never hear your mob preaching about that? 
 About what? 
 About all these bankers who have brought this country to its knees?  I suppose when you have a history of screwing the Jews out of their money, and collaborating with the Nazis. It's like the pot calling the kettle black, eh?"  

That amiable exchange all in a day's work for Father James.

So, quite enough dumped into the lap of the priest's soutane (which on posters for the film quite intentionally make Gleeson look like some figure in a Western, the outer garment flapping like a gunman's duster in the wind).  But McDonagh gives him yet more, including the counseling of a French woman whose husband is killed in an accident, as well as a maddening visit to a young serial killer intent on playing at remorse so as to win admission to heaven.  The father's life and death ruminations also find outlet in peppery discusssions  with an aging writer (M. Emmet Walsh) to whom he ferries supplies.  These conversations at least, like those with his daughter, offer some rare amity and rapport for the priest.  

Little wonder that we see Father James crawl wearily into bed with his dog upon one return to his his home, Gleeson himself a sympathetic beast with his rumpled figure, full head of hair and creep of red-grey beard up his ample cheeks.  Alas, both recumbent beasts eventually find themselves in harm's way.   

McDonagh, abetted significantly Gleeson, manages all this roiling strife gracefully enough to allow Calvary's reflective moments to breathe the film's richest atmosphere.  Only in a couple of significant scenes does does the writer/director's taste for absurd extremes get the better of his story.  

Not uncommonly for a small Irish town, a good portion of the locals seem gathered at the public house one evening.  Certainly, most every one of Father James' antagonists and his potential assassin seem present.  Veronica and her lover are found snorting cocaine in the lavatory. The aforementioned run-ins and come-ons with the pub owner and Veronica ensue, the circle of hell atmosphere only enhanced by the bordello red of the walls.  Finally, someone tells the priest that his church is on fire.  He doesn't take the remark seriously at first, but is made to look out the window and across the water to his church, very much in flames.  "Jesus Christ," says the priest - cut to a statuette of J.C. himself amidst the hellish conflagration, the flames of which are then seen bursting out of cut-outs of crosses in the buildings front doors.  This the dark or mordant humor to which so many reviews of Calvary allude.  Also the chief instance of McDonagh going rather too far.    

Calvary has plenty of time to find itself and does so before the priest goes to meet the man who has promised to kill him on the beach.  One more episode of keen violence awaits, but that very much in keeping with the dark logic of the film's plot.  There is, finally, a scene of possible reconciliation after the reckoning.  But is bloodletting necessary to bring it about?  So easy to watch for all the aggrieved humanity that Brendan Gleeson brings to the role of the keenly-tested priest, Calvary ultimately lets no one off easy, audience and main character alike.      


Friday, August 8, 2014

The Rover

No, it's not that film.  Not a Road Warrior for a new generation, a new century.  The Rover is set amid the seared, forbidding landscape of Australia's Outback.  The time is post-something - maybe not post- apocalypse, but post-"collapse."  There is violence.  There are vehicles and pursuit.  There is at the story's center a man whom one might well characterize as a road warrior, though for what he so single-mindedly fights besides the return of his automobile, one is hard pressed to determine for most of the film's duration.  And yet....

Ply as it might the lonely roads of nether Australia, David Michod's The Rover confines itself to a very small emotional map.  So too that grim fellow in the short pants and dress shirt, both long absent from the wash, hell bent to recover his car.  All the more impressive that The Rover so involves us in its story, it's anti-hero's almost inexplicable quest, wrings so much emotion out of such a narrow range, like water divined from that arid Australian ground.

The Rover is the second feature written and directed by David Michod.  He apparently conceived the story with actor and writer Joel Edgerton, one of the many veterans of Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom, who contribute to The Rover.

All in the family:  David Michod's first film, Animal Kingdom.
Michod's brief directorial career has also proven an exercise in drawing a lot of action and emotion out of limited thematic ground.  Though ostensibly more mobile and more minimal than its predecessor, The Rover echoes Animal Kingdom in violence and relative lawlessness and its considerations of family, specifically a kind of innocent groping after some sense of belonging.  What has most distinguished David Michod's first two feature films are their integrity of story and character.  Mr. Michod has made two very uncompromising films.

The Rover's story is basic enough, even while some of the specifics of plot and backstory of its two main characters are only hinted at in asides, mumbled bits of dialog, or parceled out in brief allusion.  Our rover is presumably Eric (Guy Pearce), sitting in his car as the film begins, looking out on a barren landscape, seemingly seeing even less life than is actually present.  We have been told that the time is 10 years after "the collapse," apparently a world economic free fall even more comprehensive than its havoc-wreaking 2008 predecessor.  The life of this desolate, wandering man intersects with a group of criminals who have just perpetrated some sort of caper gone wrong.  Like most all action in The Rover, this intersection is a sudden and violent departure from a near-static scene.  As Eric sits in a kind of canteen at the end of the world drinking a glass of water, the truck with the criminals flies silently by the window behind him on its side, the vehicle having flipped out of control after a squabble breaks out among its motley group of passengers. When they cannot extricate the truck from the roadside where it came to rest, one of the men hot wires Eric's car and they speed away.  This turns out to be the worst decision the criminals make in a day chock full of them.

English-born and Australian-raised Guy Pearce tends to make any film worthwhile, a traveling companion that enlivens even otherwise pointless journeys.  When  material and execution are equal to his chameleonic abilities, then we really have something.  Such is the case with The Rover. There's nothing pretty about Pearce (consider the sort of elegant figure he cut in  L.A. Confidential and as the future Edward VIII in The King's Speech) or The Rover, but its hard to take your eyes of either.

One can only imagine how Eric and most other inhabitants of this post-collapse Australia might smell. Pearce's hair looks to have been trimmed with garden shears down to an Outback-practical shortness and prominent recession.  The rough growth of salt and pepper beard adds to cheeks and jaw which seem puffed, as if all the man's misery has drifted downward along the face, seeped from the troubled mind to settle around the mouth.  The spring, or perhaps cauldron of this misery is in the eyes above.  Dark, nearly black, Eric seems to be forging them to lifeless coal with the intensity of his fury. 

An initial chase between the Rover and the men who stole his car sets the tenor of the story, demonstrates the tenacity of the man.  He quickly frees their truck and gives pursuit, coming abreast his car until one of the men pulls a gun.  He drops back but continues to follow.  This almost absurd chase is all the more menacing in its relentless, inexorable start and stop.  Finally both vehicles do come to rest.  The group confronts the solitary man and he eventually throttles one of the trio against the trunk of his car as if none of the other men or their guns are present to stop him.  He catches a rifle butt to the back of the head and wakes up at the side of the road some time later.  Of course, this does not deter our anti-hero in the least. 

Eric's pursuit of the men and his car is both complicated and ultimately made possible when he crosses dusty paths with Rey, left behind by his older brother and the other two criminals.  This relationship begins coercively, as Eric first finds a doctor to tend to the wounded young man and then forces him to lead them to where the trio is holed up. Eventually, the seemingly slow young man trails after and even defends Eric with something like the used but fierce loyalty of an abandoned dog that finds a new master.  
It is perhaps to be expected that these two disparate characters so initially at odds will forge a kind of bond as their journey ensues.  True enough, but what little feel good the story provides is hard earned.  The Rover distances itself from any sort of buddy or road film cliche both in its particulars - story, character and setting - and the grim logic of the journey's result.

Even as a showdown between Eric and the men who stole his car is inevitable, even while he and the young man left behind do ultimately attach themselves like two burned sections of skin reluctant to take a graft, things do occur on the road that are anything but predictable.

Most strangely, before he meets Rey, there is a near-Lynchian digression in which Eric first wanders into a home to ask if anyone has seen his stolen car. This turns into a veritable odyssey that begins with a young man answering the Rover's questions while several others sprawl around them in a living room asleep.  It ends with Eric attempting to buy a gun, a transaction that goes very poorly for the seller.  In between and after these encounters, there are two Chinese acrobats, a midget and a woman who sits placidly in white blouse miraculously untouched by the dust which pervades most everything else in this world, half oracle from The Matrix, half procuress, cooing "What's your name, honey."  This extended scene is the weirdest example of how The Rover proceeds down it's crooked, if inexorable course:  we're never sure what the next turn will reveal and where violence might flare up.  And yet there seems a logic behind it all.  Even before a rusty circus vehicle is seen outside the house, thus explaining the odd personages playing cards that Eric discovers in a kind of opium den, nothing or no one in the bizarre establishment seems so out of place as to stretch credibility to the breaking point, such is the authority of the storytelling.

The quick resort to violence while bargaining for a gun is the first of many seen from Eric, lest we begin to find the comfort we likely would with his character in a Hollywood rendering of this story.  Think of The Town and its bank-robbing protagonist who's able to send a hail of automatic weapon fire at police without killing anyone.  The Rover's anti-hero will kill whenever and wherever necessary and there's nothing comic book about this violence; the bullets find and tear flesh, they kill.  His years as a solider explain the proficiency with which he wields pistols and rifles, as when the Chinese acrobats show up for revenge at the home of the doctor (Susan Prior, also an Animal Kingdom vet.) at which Rey is being treated, only to be dispatched with a couple of shots.

It is at the doctor's remote compound that we also see the first sliver of sentiment betrayed by this desolate man.  Like many scenes in Animal Kingdom, there is a tense winding through place and time with an almost palpable sense of menace at every turn.  Eric is drawn through a  passageway and into a room where we don't know what awaits him in the darkness.  When a florescent light flickers into harsh illumination, it's not some frightening adversary, but cage upon cage of stray dogs that the doctor has taken in.  When the woman joins Eric, she's surprised at the interest he has taken in the ragged creatures.

When we ultimately find out why the man has been so determined to recover his car - "You must really love that car," the otherworldly madam murmurs to him during their strange encounter - the earlier scene in which he regards the abandoned dogs gains a greater resonance, a powerful echo.  So too his relationship with Eric

One brief action eloquently and efficiently illustrates the relationship that develops between Eric and the young man who had come to Australia, like his brother, to find mining work after the economic collapse. Rey's wound becomes infected.  Eric helps him reapply a bandage after first disinfecting the wound with gasoline and drying it with a rag.  Rey responds to these rough ministrations as some scruffy, ill-used dog who has been scratched behind the ears.  So starved for affection is the young man that as gasoline is poured on his afflicted torso and mopped with a dirty piece of cloth, he responds with a brief, contented near-smile. The eyes nearly roll beneath his dark, thick, undulant eyebrows.

Beneath and behind those redoubtable eyebrows is Robert Pattinson.  The much-swooned-after star of those Twilight films apparently auditioned for the role of Rey, beating out several rivals.  Neither that willingness to audition nor his work in The Rover bespeak any young movie star vanity.  It's a performance that's a little mannered, a little blinking, swaying slightly toward a kind of Son of Sling Blade under duress. But mainly Pattinson gets this simple young man across, gaining credibility as the film progresses.  Rey even blossoms slightly, becomes freer with his speech as the bond with Eric strengthens along the road.  Pattison's work here stands on its own, relative to the rest of his brief career and holding its own for the most part against the power of Guy Pearce.  But watch Pattinson in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis (possibly the thinking person's Wolf of Wall Street), the quick intelligence required of him throughout that film.  You begin to have a sense of some range and promise.

Antony Partos composed the varied score for The Rover, as he did for Animal Kingdom.  Here it ranges from the percussive to the wailing early on. At times, a piano drifts in as if from another dimension, a splintered sonata.  Later a keyboard is heard like one submerged in water, giving way eventually to wavering spiritual.  All of this no mere discord, cacophony for effect; this is not John Cage having a bad day.  But signaling and reflecting the action of the film, themes emerge, however spare, however sad.  As the Rover and Rey grow closer, a kind of tenuous harmony is introduced.    

The story, like the music of The Rover is a spare, sometimes very rough surface from which any expression of humor - "I've got things in something!" admonishes one exasperated shop keeper with his rifle - or tenderness emerges in all the more stark relief from the emotional landscape about it.  Much the same can be said for the work of Guy Pearce.  In lesser hands, his would be an interminable, one-note performance. With Pearce, that often unvarying tone hints at and ultimately reveals the holding back of an awful flood. When his eyes well at the film's climax, the brief expression is a kind of deluge.

Even with Eric's rare show of emotion and the film's final, sad revelation, there is not catharsis so much as weary resolution.  So it's gone through David Michod's first two features.  The logic is severe but the integrity offers a kind of exhilaration.


Friday, August 1, 2014


Those all-too-willing participants in reality shows have wrought even more damage than is obviously the case.  Of course, there is the mental toll:  billions of brain cells, lonely outposts of thought surrendering to the onslaught of gleeful indignity, seemingly as many as would drown in a Pacific of bad whisky, to the likes of the Kardashians, Real Housewives of Atlanta, New York, Orange County...the pawn shop owners, the late-to-the-party nauseam.  All of this, presumably, to distract viewers from the pain, the loneliness, or just the oppressive banality of their lives.  

Less obvious perhaps is the obscuring of the value of life stories wrought with any measure of thoughtfulness. Stories that not only distract us, remove us for a time from the pressing matters of our existence, but inevitably carry us back to a reflection on those same lives.  For however banal, uneventful, or ordinary... be it ever so humble, there is no story like THE story:  the master narrative; the story of our life.

Like a good piece of conceptual art, Richard Linklater's engrossing, 166-minute Boyhood derives most of its power from its premise.  Shot intermittently between the summer of 2002 and the fall of 2013, Boyhood follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his family from the time he's a five-year-old boy until the outset of his college years.  We see this soulful, questioning boy grow up before our eyes in just less than three hour and it's a moving experience.

In Boyhood, we see a lot of  passing time heralded with young Mason's ever-changing hair styles - involuntary buzz cut to a kind of Texas Fauntleroy of girlish length and curl about the face still maintaining a good bit of its baby fat - not to mention those skirmishes of acne playing out on his adolescent face as it gains angle and definition.  This photo album (or Flickr page) given motion is replete with built-in sentiment.  There is also the boy himself.  Linklater's premise might be watchable enough with any young actor as its lead, but Ellar Coltrane's subtle performance throughout provides a depth of feeling after which Boyhood itself sometimes quests with a little too heavy a tread.

Where Boyhood might tend to go wrong and where it ultimately succeeds is demonstrated quickly enough in the film's opening moments.  We're made to regard one of those summer skies of brilliant cerulean and drifting, knowing cumulus.  Over this timeless background the film's title appears in a kind of aw-shucks, pseudo-hand-written font.  This to the accompaniment of the Coldplay's "Yellow." It's a precious little balloon that is voided of its warm air when the perspective switches to that of young Mason Jr., supine on his lawn.  When Linklater lets his camera focus on the blue eyes and serious visage of Ellar Coltrane, he never goes too wrong.  Mason Jr.'s face, like that summer sky he regards, seems lit from within and yet drifted by its own enigmatic clouds.

Fast enough on the heels of "Yellow," we see and hear Mason receiving the unwonted serenade a la Britney Spears from his older sister, Samantha (the director's daughter, Lorelei).  Not long after that highly successful bit of annoyance, it's The Hives "Hate To Say I Told You So," as Mason and a young companion indulge in a bit of graffiti.  Musical cues both to the early 2000's.  When Sheryl Crow arrives at the party soon thereafter, it seems that Boyhood might be on its way to three hours of montage punctuated by interludes of significant dialog.  Fortunately, Linklater lets the music drift into the background where it belongs and away from its rigid chronological moorings.

The mere audacity of Linklater's concept seems to be winning the director lavish praise that he hasn't quite earned.  Boyhood is a great concept that the director doesn't always trust.  Where many a film utilizes flamboyantly bad hair to illustrate the passage of time, Boyhood has the actual stuff.  Lorelei Linklater - who settles into her role after a gratingly energized start - has had any number of styles and even colors immortalized, one bang-heavy arrangement particularly tragic.  So it goes with Ellar Coltrane and his aforementioned extremes of style and length.  Much more significantly, we see time playing out in most profound way:  these kids grow up before our eyes.  No elaboration is necessary.

And yet Linklater has the camera come to rest on several generations of video games and controllers with such conspicuous focus that you would think a product placement deal with Nintendo and others was in place.  Similarly, Mason Jr. and some friends walk down a sidewalk, each one of them with a particular iteration of the Coke can in hand, the sort of consensus found only in advertising.  This might not be quite the pages flying from calendar, the clock hands spinning madly around their circle in the hack films of yesteryear, but it's close.

As the writer/director model goes, Richard Linklater has usually distinguished himself much more as a writer who directs.  Not necessarily a bad thing.   Even something as seemingly experimental as Waking Life (I've not seen his adaptation of A Scanner Darkly) with its nervous animation is still mainly a film about conversations, still more verbal than visual.  Through his varied body of work - drifting warily toward the Hollywood mainstream and back to his native Texas for stories set in that state - Linklater has been reliably competent director with occasional flashes of something more.  Me and Orson Welles, for one, is a little-seen gem that you wish Hollywood could produce more often, an intelligent package of pure entertainment in which the director (he did not contribute to the film's script) draws the best out of his actors and presents a story to its best advantage.  But for those who remember Richard Linklater, they are likely to remember words and not images.

The director's touch is not always light with the would-be-profound raw material of Boyhood.  And even Richard Linklater, the normally rock solid writer and storyteller loses his way occasionally through the expanse of the story.

Is she really going out with him?  And him?
  Patricia Arquette
and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood.
 As Boyhood begins, Mason Jr. and his sister are being raised by their mother (Patricia Arquette), while their father (Ethan Hawke) is busy keeping maturity at arm's length in Alaska.  As the mother tries to keep the family together and even return to college so they can all enjoy a better life, she marries not one, but two other men who celebrate their matrimony and responsibilities by becoming sour drunks.  This is particularly the case with a college professor (Marco Parella) of the Arquette character.  The two marry and join their families, but before long - in the grand tradition of mental health professionals or teachers who cannot begin to heed the sound advice they espouse - he's guzzling way more alcohol than soda in the plastic bottle he carries around the house, on his way to becoming a drunken, glass-hurling Great Santini.  As is his easygoing way, Mason first greets the professor with a smile.  But we subsequently see the boy looking on warily as the man and his mother flirt.

So it goes with the next candidate, a handsome, youngish veteran named Jim (Brad Hawkins) who somehow manages to win mom's affection and hand before seeking commiseration in too many cans of beer during off hours from his work as a correctional officer.  As that relationship begins to develop, we once again see Mason look upon his mother's growing fondness with skepticism if not outright displeasure.  This shot almost mirrors the earlier focus on Mason looking askance at his mother and Professor Bill.

While it may well be true that shrinks and teachers of psychology come off the mental rails as disastrously as anyone else, while mommies and daddies do sometimes make the same mistakes repeatedly, this repetition in Boyhood seems an excessive bit of rough road thrown in before mom and son can eventually arrive at a more satisfying place for both, much as the mother has to eventually face the sadness of her empty nest.

The most glaring shortcoming amidst all that goes right in Boyhood may well be a scene in which a teenage Mason and one of his contemporaries hang out with some older boys in a house under construction. Linklater does at least avoid obvious conflict or crisis - some sort of humiliating ritual; the circular saw blade being thrown into a section of drywall like a kung-fu star doesn't actually come to rest in some young body as you fear it might - in this scene, but nothing rings true in the execution.  We hardly need an interlude of stilted dialog and clumsy line readings to demonstrate that boys often act and talk down to a very low common denominator of bravado when performing for each other in a group.  It's a surprising misstep for a writer who has gotten this sort of thing so right in the past (at least as well as one remembers films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused...).  

The men don't acquit themselves very well in Boyhood.  We're given a pretty dubious sampling of fathers and would-be fathers.  But with Mason Sr., Richard Linklater not only creates a character of complexity, but winds the story along an unexpected though no less realistic course.  When he first reappears on the scene, the older Mason impresses one as an absentee father off an assembly line, bearing gifts and an exaggerated enthusiasm he seems unlikely to maintain.  When the father does show up or drive off into a sunset of limited responsibilities, it's in a cherry GTO, the sort of starter object of love from which many men never seem to graduate.

But to our surprise, Mason Sr. sticks around and sustains an interest in his children, in having actual conversations.  Easy enough, one might say, when you only have to parent every other weekend.  And perhaps largely a matter of assuaging a guilty conscience.  But as some men streak from mortality, others embrace the trappings of convention, perhaps a second shot at a family with all the energy with which they earlier scorned those things.  Mason Sr. is this sort of man.  Ethan Hawke hits truly upon all the fluctuations of this particular father, the bending of him by life into something that fits into his world.  

The power and the pleasure of Boyhood is to watch its young protagonist question his way through those early years, rarely angry but also rarely happy, a fine, wavering line between his admirable skepticism and an unfortunate tendency to feel that nothing much can be trusted.  A natural enough complexity in a boy who has had the ground so often shift beneath his feet.  Richard Linklater generally tells this story well, renders dialog that make us believe Mason Jr.'s struggle and development.  This is never more the case than some lovely exchanges between Mason and his high school girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham, quite good), two intelligent young people trying to sort out the world and their feelings, not necessarily in that order. 

Ellar Coltrane is well cast to carry this long film, through all the years and fluctuations in hair style. Throughout the eleven years condensed into 166 minutes, there a light in those blue eyes which tells us that life is happening right then and there. 

Just how good is Boyhood?  "A Moving 12 Year Epic That Isn't Quite Like Anything Else In The History of Cinema!" (exclamation mark added; about a dozen exclamation marks implied).  So exults one version of the film's poster, quoting a gushing critic who apparently doesn't get out to the movies often enough. And, well...let's not get completely carried away.

Perhaps our overly-eager friend who shall remain nameless has never heard of English film directors Michael Apted and Michael Winterbottom.  That's not easy as it might seem, as those talented directors have quite literally been all over the place, in subject matter as much as geography.  Among his extensive and varied body of work, Mr. Apted continues with his fairly towering "Up" series that has followed a group of English children from the age of seven well into their sixth decade.  For his part, the mercurial Winterbottom premiered Everyday in 2012, which depicts a man and particularly his wife and children during the five years of the husband and father's imprisonment.

Boyhood is neither unprecedented nor great, nor must be it to be worthwhile.  It is essentially a mural to most film's neatly-framed pictures.  To look upon the expanse of any mural rendered with a good degree of competence and style is to be a bit awed, to be carried away by the sweep of the thing.  So it is with Boyhood. Linklater's mural generally does bear scrutiny, even if some of the detail reveals a common touch.  

Seen another way, which might partially explain the inordinate enthusiasm with which it has been greeted, Boyhood  is a big, green oasis in the particularly drought-ridden cinematic summer of 2014 (never mind that arid Texas ground so often on display).  Sit down and watch this film and you are likely to be aware of its breadth, of the time being stretched and yet feel no hurry for the experience to end.  Rather like life that way.

Beyond the story of Mason Jr., whom we leave in Big Bend National Park, tripping peacefully on mushrooms with a few fellow freshmen (this isn't quite the principals of Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon looking awe-struck at the eponymous hole in the ground at film's end, but it does get perilously close), Boyhood will almost inevitably lead you to reflect upon the stealthy passage of time in your own life, when images from your youth might seem as incongruously fresh as something that happened just a few hours ago.   


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Cold In July

"Are you alright?"  "Uh-uh."  This question and answer occurs between Ann and Richard Dane, not long after their home has been invaded and the husband has shot dead the intruder.  Unfortunately, the answer applies as well to Michael C. Hall, playing the everyman increasingly in over his head as director Jim Mickle's Cold in July proceeds along its dark and meandering way, something of a dangerous idea that almost makes sense.

Employing Hall to labor beneath a starter mullet that enhances his already prominent brow, the producers of Cold in July would seem to have overshot East Texas of the late-1980's and placed him somewhere up (or down) The March of Progress.  He never quite finds the character of the framing store manager, rendered vaguely to begin with by writers Mickle and Nick Damici.  As with Emile Hirsch in another story of Texas mayhem, Killer Joe (2011), Hall is a non-entity with a half-hearted drawl at the center of the film.  This is unexpected and disappointing, given the interesting work the actor has been doing on Six Feet Under and Dexter in the past decade plus.  This failure occurs despite the Mr. Hall's obvious efforts to the contrary.

It is to the benefit of Cold in July that its plot drifts a bit away from Richard Dane to cast some of its focus on both Ben Russell (Sam Shepard) and his private eye friend, Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson). The story is not entirely what it appears to be on first or second impression.  The script of Mickle and Damici, based on the novel by Joe R. Lansdale, does manage to surprise with its several changes in course. Unfortunately, the shifting tone of the story is managed with less skill.

Ben Russell is the father of the man Richard Dane shoots in his living room, or so both men are led to believe by local sheriff Ray Price (Damici).  Once sprung from prison in Alabama, the elder Russell heads straight for East Texas to terrorize, if not exact revenge on Dane.  Price and his deputies are no match for the determined old coot.  If you've seen a trailer for Cold in July, you are led to believe that this is where most of the action and tension will be expended, this possible eye for another son's eye.  Not so.

Russell does no harm to Dane's boy, despite the opportunity to do so.  Of course, his appearance in the child's darkened room is announced by an illuminating flash of lightening.  Verily, a dark and stormy night that the family survives intact.  They are thrilled to hear that Russell is soon thereafter apprehended in Mexico. The only problem, aside from removing all the mud and blood from the nocturnal misadventures in his home, is that Richard Dane sees a mug shot photo of Russell, Jr. on a wall at the police station.  The face does not match the man whose brains he spattered against is living room wall and bric-a-brac.  Sheriff Price assures him - a bit too stridently - that they got the right man.  Unable to shake his doubts, Dane happens upon Price and his men hauling Russell Sr. into an alley outside the jail, beating him and then driving off into the night.  The confused man follows and ultimately pulls Russell of the train tracks where he had been left him to die, set up to look like he passed out drunk.  Dane first holds Russell hostage at his late-father's cabin, but the two men eventually team up to find out what's going on, where the younger Russell might be.  Enter Jim Bob Luke.

Keeping less than a low profile in a red Cadillac with a license plate that reads "RedBtch," Luke is a part-time pig farmer, part-time private eye, full-time cowboy of the post modern sort.  Like Sam Shephard, Don Johnson manages Cold in July's convulsions of plot and tone much more gracefully than does the film's script.

As his work here and as Kenny Power's father on HBO's East Bound and Down would seem to suggest, Johnson is settling nicely into grey-haired character work.  Still, the role of Jim Bob Luke allows the peacock in Johnson to strut a good bit.  It also reminds us the actor's presence, that smartass charisma, has the the potential to age like good bourbon.  As Luke, Russell and Dane speed along a highway by night, there would seem to be a homage to the show that made Johnson famous, the synthesized score Cold in July pulsating in a manner reminiscent of Jan Hammer's famous Miami Vice theme.

With it's bloodletting and that synthesizer-heavy score, Cold in July offers a nod to the work of John Carpenter.  Carpenter both directed and provided the music for the likes of Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), even Vampires, something of a 1998 throwback to the director's earlier work.

Cold in July succeeds well enough in terms of look and sound.  The choice of locations and Annie Simeone's art direction evoke a slightly shabby East Texas of the late 1980's, a backwater of both fashion (Dane managing in plaid short sleeve shirt and knit tie) and decoration.  The Dane's might aspire to a kind of suburban gentility, but something more squalid exists on the other side of a pretty fine line, just as violence lurks at the periphery of their ordered lives.  As husband and wife attempt to remove the blood and grey matter from their living room after the shooting, the wall of the prefab house gives slightly with the scrubbing.

Director Jim Mickle has shown a good eye through his first four features.  It could be argued that he's more craftsman than artist, but the work he's done in most every aspect of film production shows in the assured execution of his films.  With Cold in July, Mickle dwells nicely on lights in the darkness, the glow of a red taillight in the night.  Again, nothing supremely original, but well rendered.

The problem with Cold in July, as so often is the case, is one of story.  At a time when horror films are most often succeeding when steeped in irony or humor (Sean of the Dead, Zombieland; the recent vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive succeeded mainly by being uniquely Jarmuschian), Mickle and Damici as writers have demonstrated a real seriousness of purpose in their treatment of these genre films.  Their vampire apocalypse in Stakeland (2010), worked as well in its elements allegory as with outbreaks of violence and gore.  Mainly it was a success in its consistent, mournful tone, which Mickle elicited from his actors and mirrored with restraint in the look of the rural and post-apocalyptic America of the film.  The writing team's zombie (ish) story, We Are What We Are (2013), is slow going for much of its 100 minutes.  But even there, Mickle and Damici show a real respect for their subject matter, a restraint and integrity of story and character unusual in a genre dominated by cheap thrills which jolt people in their theater seats for a few seconds, only to be quickly forgotten.

The problem here may well be one of source material.   Writer Joe R. Lansdale has jumped around quite successfully in genre fiction, sometimes playing havoc with the various traditions of the western, science fiction, horror, etc. (the film Bubba Ho-Tep was based on his novella).  There is a point at which Cold in July attempts a last shift into something quite powerful, almost tragic.  The story simply does not have the stature to see it through.

Ben Russell not only finds out where is son living, but what he's been up to.  It's not good.  So heinous are the younger Russell's actions, that his father compares him to a dog gone rabid that must either be chained or put down.  Ben Russell, hardly a man of half measures, decides it must be the latter.

With father setting off to kill his own son, the story embarks for the realm of tragedy.  Unfortunately, in Lansdale we do not have a Texas Euripides.  Nor can Mickle and Damici adequately elevate the material to the high ground (by way of the lowest deeds) to which the story aspires.  There had already been evidence of laziness in the story before the final confrontation.  The sardonic bloodhound Luke had found out that young Russell was in the Witness Protection Program, hiding from the "Dixie Mafia." Now, I'm no organized crime expert, but the Dixie Mafia?  Really?  And when the unlikely trio discover that Ben Russell's boy has been taking lives in a particularly abhorrent (let's just say it was not self defense) manner, Luke says the wayward young man is beyond the redress of criminal justice because he's under government protection.  Again, really?

If Mickle and Damici want to transcend their genre roots, they might want to seek out source material with a little more literary weight.  Perhaps someone contemporary like Daniel Woodrell, whose Winter's Bone operates both as a kind of Ozarks Antigone and chilling contemporary tale at once, as adapted (with Anne Rossellini) and brought to the screen  in 2010 by Debra Granik.

Too often, when we're served these stories of regional mayhem, whether Killer Joe or Lawless (2012), it's all so much KFC in the guise of something genuinely Southern.  The chicken franchise actually features prominently in Killer Joe, where it is referred to as  "K-Fry-C" by the titular killer. Only Matthew McConaughey's gonzo performance in the lead makes the lurid trash of Tracy Lett's story (is there a more overrated write in America?) worthwhile.  Even then, be warned:  you may never look at a drumstick quite the same again.

To see where Cold in July fails is to be reminded where superior films like Winter's Bone or last year's Mud (featuring yet another strong McConaughey turn) succeed.  Mud, despite its own contrived flare-up of violence at the film's climax, succeeds even more by Jeff Nichols' storytelling than his steady direction.  In Mud there is something that seems genuinely of an American region, marrying elements both contemporary and relatively timeless, a strength of writing that Nichols has demonstrated through his three features (Shotgun Stories (2007) and  Take Shelter (2011) being the first two).

It will be interesting to see what Jim Mickle does going forward.  It's a shame that he's limited with a story in Cold in July that lacks the conviction, the bones to carry the weight that it takes on.  A scene relatively late in the film, in which Dane does a bit of reconnaissance in a video store operated as a front by the younger Russell and his criminal partners suggests something far more interesting than what the film finally delivers.  The very brief look we get at Wyatt Russell (this the actor's name, as opposed to Freddy Russell, the character) as the lost son teases us with a complex presence:  dangerous, seductive, lost; a life that might have gone quite differently.  Would that Cold in July had started with the fascinated, fatally flawed father and son, instead of the Michael C. Hall character with whom it begins and ends.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

"So this is your wilderness...Detroit."  So says Eve to Adam as they drive by night through the moribund Motor City in a white Jaguar.  Only Lovers Left Alive is not, as it happens, an update of the book of Genesis that Jim Jarmusch has overlaid onto the urban wasteland of Detroit.  The action Only Lovers Left Alive occurs by night, as Adam and Eve are vampires.  While they're not the primeval lovers of the Bible, the names do obviously carry significance.  Mr. Jarmusch's eleventh feature is an elegaic one, lamenting not only the tenuous existence of analog recording, lovely old guitars and other beautiful objects, but the looming loss of our very own paradise of a planet.

There would seem a certain inevitability in Detroit if you happen to be a vampire.  What better place to take up residence?  A city built for two million now now home 700,000. It is n significant ways -  figurative and quite literal - a city of night.  Former residential blocks now exist as open fields of grass.  Once grand residences stand solitary on otherwise abandoned streets.  The devastated quiet is broken at night by coyotes as well as stray dogs.  "Everyone left," says Adam to Eve during their first nocturnal drive about the abandoned streets.

In his own forlorn structure on such a street lives Adam (Tom Hiddleston), not only a vampire but a kind of reluctant rock star. This makes Detroit an all the more logical place to do his daylight sleeping. From an upstairs window, amid the clutter of lovely, throwback instruments and recording equipment, he occasionally peeps out to the street from between his heavy drapes, either to acknowledge his Man Friday, Ian (Anton Yelchin), or eye warily the "rock and roll zombie kids" who have managed to track him down.

There would also seem to be an inevitability in writer and director Jim Jarmusch landing in Detroit. From the very outset of his career, Jarmusch has often set his stories amid the decay and fading beauty of American cities.

Only Lovers Left Alive actually has two settings.  While Adam broods amid the dereliction of Detroit, his partner, Eve (Tilda Swinton), resides with her beloved books in a flat within the hillside labyrinth of the Tangier medina.  We see the two vampires, each living a kind of elegant junkie's existence, in early rotary shots from above.  First we see a black night sky full of stars. As the image begins to swirl, the sky is replaced by the black vinyl of a 45 rotating on Adam's record player, Charlie Feather's "Can't Hardly Stand It."  Finally, the separated lovers recumbent with their favorite objects about them.  So begins Only Lovers Left Alive.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Jim Jarmusch's film is no way a typical vampire film.  The fact that Adam and Eve are vampires who have lived for centuries - she for several more more, apparently - merely invests them with knowledge and world-weariness that suits the writer/director's mournful narrative.

Only Lovers Left Alive is a strong return to form, or perhaps a return to the winning, stylish formlessness for which Jim Jarmusch has become so known and loved.  All the more welcome is the arrival of the writer/director's latest feature, following as it does what may well be his worst film, The Limits of Control.  Jarmusch's previous effort had its nearly mute hit man (Isaach De Bankole) roaming about Spain, exchanging matchboxes with a series of  characters of various nationalities, who expound upon molecules, film, the derivation of the word Bohemian and other esoteric topics, before they drift mysteriously on.  So minimal tends to be the dialog and plot in Jarmusch's films, that much depends on atmosphere, cinematography and a delicate balance between the measured silences and telegraphic utterances of their characters (Coffee and Cigarettes being a major exception in that regard).  Perhaps for the first time in his body of work, that balance seemed woefully off in The Limits of Control, rendering the information dumps of the matchbox-swapping drifters almost laughably pretentious at its worst moments.

Both Adam and Eve of Only Lovers Left Alive are full of their own knowledge, almost to the point of omniscience.  But here the fit is better, the balance returned to a far more pleasing position.  We see an early example of this when Ian brings Adam several vintage guitars, all of which the vampire can readily identify. As he hoists a lovely old Chet Atkins, Adams recalls having seen Eddy Cochrane play a slightly modified version of the same guitar..."on YouTube," he adds to quiet a suddenly confused Ian, who does not know his boss' ultimate secret.  Regarding another beautiful guitar, Adam proclaims, "I shall call him William Dawes."  This after the 17th-century English composer of funeral music whom, Adam explains, was shot dead by a Parliamentarian during the English Civil War.  "That sucks," says his Ian, with his dude's understatement.

Eve for her part is also full of knowledge and redoubtable mental powers.  She names all flora and fauna encountered by their Latin names, as when as skunk crosses her path as she walks toward Adam's front door.  "Ah, mephitis mephitis!" she says delightedly.  The stylish vampire also possesses the ability to determine the age of objects by touch.  Adam guides her hand to the body of an old acoustic guitar whose age is one of the few bits of information he seems to lack.  With eyes closed, Eve says, "Ah!  She's a pretty one.  A Gibson.  1905."  

Otherwise, the pair are indeed like a pair of globe-trotting junkies, their waking routines dictated by the need to acquire what their bodies crave: "the good stuff," "the good shit" as the vampires refer to their pure blood in turn.  Not that they come by their blood the old-fashioned way, either "drinking" or simply "turning" victims.  The fangs into the neck business is something these sophisticates find gauche.

These vampires go about the drinking of blood with style, each sipping the rich, oxygenated stuff from antique cordial glasses. Then a neck-craning kind of ecstasy, which Jarmusch matches with a tilt of camera, a kind of visual baptism into the satisfied abandon.  That elegance of consumption notwithstanding, neither vampire is above the lure of fresh blood coursing through the humans about them.  We see both Adam and Eve tempted by the cuts or wounds of people they see.  Swinton, ever mesmerizing, has Eve respond to the opened finger and dripping blood of a passenger near hear on a plane with the slightest, feral twitch of lips.

To acquire his coveted pure O negative, Adam dons surgical scrubs, sunglasses, an outdated stethoscope and a name badge that reads "Dr. Faust," to collect blood from a Detroit hospital.  He's abetted by a doctor working in the lab, who accepts large wads of cash for his assistance.  This Jeffrey Wright, amusing as he was in Jarmusch's Broken Flowers, supplying Adam with metal canisters of "Type O...NEG-ativo," while unwisely tweaking his vampire client, calling him "Dr. Strangelove," "Dr. Caligari" during their brief transactions.

Eve must stroll by night through the lonely Tangier medina to get her blood, alighting at the Cafe Mille et Une Nuits for the "really good stuff," which her source acquires from a French doctor.  The source: Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).   Not that you should refer to him by name:  "I told you this! Never call me that name in public!" he protests. "You nutcase," Eve's affectionate reply.  She thinks her old friend in the four hundred year old waistcoat is being silly and considers it high time the world know more about the English writer. She prods him to let the cat out of the bag to "the most outrageously delicious literature scandal in history." This, of course, the theory that it was Kit Marlowe who wrote those 37 plays commonly attributed to Shakespeare.

Given the audience to whom Jarmusch is playing with this literary fancy, further elaboration is hardly necessary.  But he gives us more, as when Marlowe later says of Eve's partner, "Anyway, give my regards to that suicidal romantic scoundrel....Oh, I wish I met him before I wrote Hamlet.  He would have provided the most perfect role model imaginable."  After they part, we see Eve on a plane enroute to Detroit and hear Swinton in voiceover reading the final lines of sonata 116 ("Let me not to the marriage of true minds:" as with Hamlet, a choice that approaches cliche), after which she quietly exclaims, "Marlowe!"  The point has more than been made, but one last broadside is uttered by Marlowe on his deathbed, attended by both Adam and Eve.  When mention is made of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, we see the most familiar image of Shakespeare tacked to a nearby wall.  "Illiterate zombie philistine," says the dying Kit, fairly expectorating his words.  No explanation of why the picture of the despised figure would actually on his wall.

Jarmusch does sometimes wear his would-be cool a little too proudly on the vintage sleeve.  As with the heavy-handed reference to literature's greatest conspiracy theory, Eve's "So this is your wilderness...Detroit" statement portentiously announces the setting well after it is necessary.  Like his English 101 choice of the Shakespeare play and sonnet, Jarmusch takes us to the most commonly known sites of romantic Detroit ruination.  Adam and Eve wonder at the remains of the Michigan theater, now a parking garage.  This after Adam had driven them past the oft-explored (and photographed) Packard Plant.  Or as Adam says, "the PACK-ard plant, where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world."

And yet there is in the personalities of the two vampires a pleasing balance consistent with the best spirit of the films of Jim Jarmusch.  Much as the director might be something of a punk, enjoying his jabs at beloved cultural figures like Elvis Presley and Shakespeare, there is an obvious reverence for beloved people and things.  With all the vintage trappings there is usually a progressive spirit; Jarmusch might frequently antique his way through past, but he keeps an open eye and ear for the best of the present.  So, here analog Adam with his old guitars and recording equipment, looking like a late 70s Jimmy Page, holed up in a dark room, taking a violin bow to one of those guitars, recording his funeral music listening to evocative old 45's, wearily proclaiming "what a drag," when Ian tells him that his reclusiveness might actually make his fans seek him out all the more.  There his counterpoint Eve, no less discerning, but exuding a spirit of inclusiveness, even optimism.  Adam manages his half of their transatlantic Skype conversation with a complex arrangement of devices that leaves Eve looking like a soap opera character in permanent Cathode ray close-up; Eve simply turns on the camera of her sleek, white iPhone and stares lovingly at Adam, noting how tired he looks.

Beyond the estimable cool with which Jarmusch's films teem, particularly in his knowledge and use of music, there is something approaching exuberance in the way he sometimes throws around names and characters, as when we find out that the names on the vampires' passports:  Daisy Buchanan and Stephen Dedalus. Adam might twice protest that he has no heroes, but we see Eve examining a veritable wall of fame in his house while he is out procuring blood, pictures of everyone from Marlowe to Mark Twain to Iggy Pop adorning the wall, all likely beloved of Jarmusch as well.  

In a downright sweet moment, Jack White receives the ultimate name check during the couple's first night drive around the city.  Just prior, there is the film's best stealth joke, when Adam asks, "Do you want to see the Motown Museum?" before adding, "Well, there's not much to see from the outside."  "I'm more of a Stax girl myself," answers Eve.  "Actually, there is something I could show you," says Adam.  This the boyhood home of former the White Stripe.  "Ah, I love Jack White!" exclaims Eve.  "Aw...little Jack White.  Nice."

Eve, enjoying a blood pop.  Type O-negative, of course.
Swinton gets most of the punch lines in Only Lovers Left Alive.  When her sister Ava (Mia Wasikowksa), making an unwanted visit to the couple in Detroit, greedily "drinks" Ian after a night out and then complains of feeling sick, Eve exclaims,"What do you expect?  He's from the fucking music industry."  Once Ava has unceremoniously been shown the abandoned street, Adam and Eve have to dispose of the body.  They pull into an abandoned factory and toss poor Ian into a pool of...well, "don't ask," says Adam.  The corpse initially sinks and then bobs to the surface, the face quickly being rendered down to bare skull by the acid (apparently) in the gathered water, before sinking again into the toxic soup.  "That certainly was visual," says Eve, with a grim look and delicious understatement.

The appearance of Ava is a rare and seemingly superfluous plot digression in one of Jarmusch's typically lean stories.  The younger vampire who both drinks Ian and destroys one of Adam's beloved old guitars  - he appears to be more upset at the loss of the Gibson - seems to on hand as another sign of a world going to hell.  These kids today...even the vampires, apparently.

When Ava tells Eve and Adam that she had been spending time in Los Angeles, the latter's response is typically, almost childishly negative, "Oh great - Zombie central."  At the first mention of zombies in Only Lovers Left Alive, it's unclear just to whom Adam refers.  The answer would seem to be humanity in general, the truly benighted ones destroying the planet.  "And now they've succeeded in contaminating their own blood..  Never mind the water."  This Adam says with disgust as Eve tries to draw him out of a gloomy mood shortly after her arrival in Detroit.  Given that so much of humanity daily finds new ways to distract themselves as dire problems loom, Jarmsuch's characterization, if not entirely original, is certainly apt.

Once they dispose of Ian's body, the vampires decide it best to leave the country, Adam regarding his vintage guitars as children he must leave behind.  They return by night flight to Tangier, where they stagger up the stairs of the medina like any tourists desperate to reach their room for the night.  With the vampires, the enervation is even more urgent, as they need some pure blood to restore them.  Sadly, a visit to Marlowe results in just a few precious drops of  the "good stuff."  The poet lies on his deathbed, a victim of contaminated blood.

Jim Jarmusch has found with his story for Only Lovers Left Alive and these characters who just happen to be vampires an excellent vehicle to both celebrate much of what he finds sacred and mourn what seems almost inevitably lost.  The film's elegaic air reaches its deepest pitch after Adam and Eve leave Marlowe's deathbed and wander the medina.  Even with their own timeless existence on verge of extinction, Eve goes off on her own to buys Adam a beautiful oud as consolation for the instruments he left behind.  As he waits, Adam it transfixed by a female singer performing in a club.  "Jasmine...she's Lebanese, " says Eve as she leans over Adam's shoulder.  "I'm sure she'll be famous."  "God, I hope not," Adam's quite predictable response.

Adam and Eve consider a reprieve for their impending demise that's " fucking 15th-century."  Perhaps there's more life, further centuries of nocturnal reading, composing, making love, even grousing, for the sophisticated vampires.  Whether there will still be planet worth inhabiting is another question.  At least for the present, the discriminating outsider who is Jim Jarmusch seems to have a good bit of life left in him.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Grand Budapest Hotel

Think pink.  Welcome to the Grand Budapest.  
Popular this year in Andersonia:  mustaches, the colors purple and pink...and yet more mustaches. Continuing to trend very well:  uniforms, exotic names and art direction so inlaid with detail and saturated with color to produce retinal overload or high blood sugar.  Or both.  If mise-en-scene be the food of love, give me surfeit of it! one might say...if one happened to wander off the set of Twelfth Night and onto the set of Wes Anderson's latest film, where the forgetting of one's lines, not to mention connection to life on planet Earth would be quite understandable.

It is the fictional European Alpine state of Zubrowka in which Grand Budapest Hotel is set.  But make no mistake:  we're deep, deep in the heart of Andersonia.  Perhaps deeper than we have yet been, we brave souls who have witnessed all eight of the director's feature-length films.  Yet only eight?  Can that be possible?  Surely there has been enough madly specific art direction, ample bolts, nay acres of colorful fabric, enough preciously-named (I suppose Anderson comes by this somewhat naturally; his father is named Melver, after all) characters to fill up two dozen epics.

But no, this is but number eight.  And one can't help but wonder, even for devoted fans and American critics ever ready to rubber stamp Wes Anderson's visually rich work as a kind of genius, if there is a limit to which these films about virtually nothing can continue to fill seats in the art house.  The Sunday night screening I attended in Chicago was more full than not .  But by the time the stories within stories had concluded and retracted to their point of origin, after all the color and wit had been served, there was a kind of sated silence in the group amongst which I sat, suggestive of people who had devoured too much dessert without eating any dinner.  

For those who were wondering...Grand Budapest Hotel is presented in color.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, at least the grand 1930's version of the hotel which is featured in much of the film, seems an apt metaphor for Wes Anderson's body of work.  Former lobby boy Mr.Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham) reminisces about Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), calling him "a glimmer of civilization in the barbaric slaughterhouse we know as humanity," recycling one of his mentor's own pronouncements.  So too, it would seem, is the Grand Budapest.  There is coursing through the films of Wes Anderson a longing for a different, prettier, more orderly world.  Not so much a world gone by as one that never quite existed.   Understandable, perhaps, in this oft ugly world of actuality that is ours.  But potentially cloying in its richness and repetition.  

Not surprisingly, we don't walk right through the entrance of the Grand Budapest as the film begins.  Christmas with Uncle Wes involves finding one's present in a box...within a box, within a box...within yet another box.  In each case, of course, the wrapping is immaculate.  We first see a young woman, presumably in the relative present, with a book  (in pink hardcover) of the same title as the film.  She leaves a key on a monument to a writer.  That author (Tom Wilkinson), offers in the 1980's a brief disquisition on the nature of the writer's imagination and work...when not fending off an obnoxious kid lurking in the same the room.  The author refers us to the source of his story, related by the adult Zero Moustafa to yet another writer (Jude Law).  This is the 1960's Grand Budapest, not really so grand anymore.  This older Zero (who, one must say, has aged considerably in the space of 35 or so years...), now the owner, still sleeps in his tiny servant's quarters.  The ever-detailed art direction of Anderson's films (led by Stephan O. Gessler in this case) makes the appropriate adjustments for the heading downhill aesthetics of the 1960's.  The deep saturation bombing of red, pink and purple of the 30's hotel gives way to a 60's palette of gold, orange and muted yellow.  

So, all of this before Grand Budapest Hotel begins in earnest.  It's a kind of hypnosis, the stories as nesting dolls, the intricate framing.  One could easily be lulled into submission before the frenetic plot and candy store of colors of the central story commence.  And perhaps that's the idea.  Heaven knows it has worked quite well on American critics, as ever a complimentary zombie chorus.

    The big pink of the 30's Grand Budapest (whose interiors where shot in disused German department store) is the aesthetic focus of Mr. Anderson's latest film.  Its concierge, Monsieur Gustave, is the hero.  M. Gustave is certainly as close we get to a real character in Grand Budapest Hotel.  There are not quite three dimensions of humanity contained within the purple uniform of the concierge, but the one or two we see as the film plays out certainly teem with amusing detail.  

Tilda Swinton as Madame D - rich, old, insecure,
 vain, superficial, blonde...and apparently very good in bed.
Monsieur Gustave is a classic Anderson character:  dandified, discriminating, peacefully out of touch with the world about him.  If Wes Anderson were a bit more committed to character - which is quite feasible, even within such a completely artificial world  - M. Gustave might well be the gay man he appears to be (while in prison, he is complimented by a fellow inmate for being straight; no one has every said that about him, Gustave responds).  But no, the concierge is a ladies man...of sorts.  As Zero later explains, Gustave liked them "rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial and blonde."  And he does more than dote upon the old ladies, he beds them.  As M. Gustave and Zero speed to the side of the recently-departed Madame D. (Tilda Swinton, droll and nearly buried beneath makeup, aged skin and a ziggurat of white hair), the concierge feels compelled to say, "She was a dynamite in the sack, by the way."  "She was 84," responds the incredulous Zero.  "Hmm. I've had older,"avers Gustave. 

The dapper devil must be given his due:  Wes Anderson has wit.  And it is through the vehicle of M. Gustave that it finds its best and most frequent expression in Grand Budapest Hotel.  "...oh, dear God. "What have you done to your fingernails?," Gustave asks of his aged paramour before she departs the hotel for the last time. Taken aback, she responds, "I beg your pardon."  "This diabolical varnish. The color is completely wrong," Gustave can't help but comment.

Much of the concierge's personality is captured in the more complimentary words he has for Madame D, when he sees her laid out in her coffin.  "You're looking so well, darling. You really are. I don't know what sort of cream they've put on you down at the morgue, but I want some."  Among his accomplishments, Monsieur Gustave might the most flamboyantly heterosexual man in Zubrowka, if not the solar system.

With the unforgettable concierge, ever walking briskly ahead of a vapor trail of his signature fragrance, "L'air de Panache," Grand Budapest Hotel enjoys its best moments.  Be the concierge straight, gay or Andersonian other, Ralph Fiennes reminds us how convincingly he can play from the entire spectrum of maleness.  He's done this from the start, following his breakthrough performance in Schindler's List as the quietly brutish Nazi Amon Goeth with much gentler characters, as with his starring roles in Quiz Show and Oscar and Lucinda (there a supremely passive man).  In the past decade, the brightly clad M. Gustave, who tends to refer to even strangers as "darling," comes after Fiennes has quite credibly planed a Cockney crime boss in In Bruges and the braces wearing old school bureaucrat destined to become the the next M, in Skyfall (sadly, the entire Bond franchise seems to have veered toward an old school machismo, complete with reinstalled glass ceiling).   

In the person of Gustave, Anderson also grounds Grand Budapest Hotel, if ever so slightly, to Earth. The concierge's general tone of conversation might be as fragrant as his cloud of L'air de Panache, but occasionally even his veneer of gentility drops, as when we hear the first iteration of the line later repeated by Zero, "You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it."  A tenuous verbal connection to human existence as we might recognize it, but Gustave's occasional, exasperated resort to the profane provides some needed salt amid the mountains of sugar that constitute Grand Budapest Hotel.  

Mr. Fiennes as Gustave is joined in his adventures by many Anderson veterans. In addition to Messrs. Schwartzman, Murray and Wilson (Owen), Brody,  Norton, Swinton, etc., a growing list of luminaries have been swept up in the avalanche of obsessive mise-en-sence, wardrobe, dialog and soundtrack which is Grand Budapest Hotel and the Wes Anderson experience in general.  In addition to the aforementioned newcomers Fiennes, Abraham, Wilkinson and Law, there is Jeff  Goldblum, Mathieu Almaric and a disturbingly shirtless Harvey Keitel.  Say what you well, but the director does throw a party with an impressive guest list.    

Villains conveniently clad rather villainously - Willem Dafoe and
Adrien Brody in Grand Budapest Hotel.

A shirt, please, for Mr. Keitel.  And perhaps a bra.  

Edward Norton as the basically charming, Inspector Henckels. 
The other two newcomers to Andersonia are Tony Revolori as the young Zero Moustafa, lobby boy in training, and Soirse Ronan as Agatha, Zero's love interest and comrade in cloak and dagger.  Ms. Ronan, instead of flashy wardrobe, bears an exotic birthmark (M. Gustave describes it as shaped like Mexico; it looks more like a sea horse) along her right cheek, is winsome and charming enough for her part.  Revolori drifts between a low, low-key charm and nonentity as Zero.  Of course, there's not a whiff of chemistry between Zero and Agatha.  This hardly a new development in Wes Anderson's films, where it's usually difficult to imagine sex taking place at all, as so little blood would seem to  flow beneath the pretty surface of his work.  

The death of Madame D sets in motion Grand Hotel Budapest's frenetic plot.  Poor Gustave is both charged with her murder and pursued  by Madame's son, Dmitri (Brody).  The clearly up to no good Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (even the Russians could look askance at Anderson's nomenclature) fumes when the reading of his mother's will reveals that the valuable painting, "Boy With Apple" (like the L'air de Panache scent, the portrait was commissioned for the film) is to go to her former lover.  When he sees the hostility with which the bequest is met, Gustave decides to make off with the painting -  "The rest of his shit is worthless junk," he confides to Zero, surveying the opulence in Madame D's home.

In its occasional, almost cartoonish detachment from reality, Grand Budapest Hotel seems of a piece with Anderson's satisfying Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Several of the exterior shots require CGI or outright animation (let's call it AGI - Anderson Generated Imagery).  These on lofty alpine walkways or towers, hotel funiculars and the like.  There is also a fanciful, snowy chase in which Gustave and Zero are pursued by Dmitri's henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe).  

The lives of M. Gustave, Zero, Agatha and all in Zubrowka are complicated by an army invasion, the approach of war.  This is 1930's Europe after all.  Setting a story on the the continent during that fraught decade without acknowledging the forming dark clouds is perhaps even beyond Wes Anderson's ability to skirt reality. 

Thus, trains shuttling M. Gustave and Zero are twice stopped in the middle of a barley field.  The first interlopers are a grey-clad unit of "police," led by the basically decent Inspector Henckels, well disposed to Gustave because the concierge showed him kindness while he was a lonely boy languishing during his parent's stay at the Grand Budapest.  Among the second wave, the black-uniformed death squad called the "ZZ," Gustave finds no such favor.  These ostensible Nazi's seem present mainly as further exercises in uniform.  Gustave might rail against their limited color palette, but Anderson at the same time turns the death squad's two-letter symbol into a kind of electrified zigzag when they take over Gustave's hotel in his absence and festoon the establishment with their banners.  

Depending on one's point of view, this steadfast escapism, non-engagement with a harsh history so close at hand, is perhaps a kind of strength.  Or just a further symptom of a child-like worldview.  Not quite so painfully simplistic as something like Life is Beautiful, but none-the-less....Fantastic Mr. Fox was so satisfying because Wes Anderson finally found medium, a kind of animation, which suited his framing and exuberant mise-en-scene.  The story's simple parable was a satisfying marriage of form and content.  As Anderson veers toward any unseemly human reality, he usually seems a man out of his depth.   

Mendl's Bakery:  a pretty, colorful vehicle delivering sweetness, seemingly
oblivious to the realities around it.  Somehow, that sounds familiar....
To take the example of a very different filmmaker, Steve McQueen has proven through three features that an engagement with the some of the most unpleasant aspects of human existence need in no way preclude their presentation among beautiful imagery.  A hunger strike, sex addiction, alienation and slavery have all been depicted in McQueen's features amid shots of striking beauty.  So goes life, wretched suffering often beneath the bluest of skies and so on.  One hardly expects this level of seriousness in the work of Wes Anderson (frankly, we'll know the end is nigh should such grim subject matter present itself in his films)  And any art form is richer when it finds the contributions from such disparate points of view.  It does, none-the-less, seem a symptom of a consistently empty core in the writer and director's work that Nazi's are essentially evoked mainly for the purposes plot contrivance and decoration (or lack thereof, as far as Gustave is concerned).  

The dreaded ZZ finally does perpetrate some murder, but it occurs so late and off-handedly in Grand Budapest Hotel to be void of impact.  As with the voiceover pronouncement by the adult Zero that Agatha had succombed at a young age to the "Prussian Grippe," Gustave's unceremonious hauling off that train stopped in the Barley field seems a late attempt to attach some emotion to a pretty, hermetic piece of work that shuns any such involvement for most of its 100 minutes.  Wes Anderson's films are full of such emotional shortcuts.

Grand Budapest Hotel might offer more in terms of plot than most Anderson films, but what looked to be a virtue in its filmic confection of nothingness within its sweet and immaculate package, leaves the least satisying aftertaste of any of the writer/director's work since the insufferable The Life Acquatic With Steve Zissou.

Anderson fans may well devour Grand Hotel Budapest with the same enthusiasm they have consumed his previous work.  Just consider yourself warned:  the sugar high is brief, the sugar low deep, my friends.  Dine with care.