Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013)

Poisoned oak

What's so remarkable about David Gordon Green's Joe (his adaptation of the Larry Brown novel) is that it deals with so much--the deterioration of one father-son relationship and development of another, a youth's dogged attempt to build a better life, an ex-con's tortured attempt to deal with inner demons--and yet doesn't feel all that weighed down. It moves deliberately but not solemnly, in a manner that seems eerily in tune with its surroundings (Taylor, Bastrop, Lockhart--three of several small towns surrounding Austin, Texas).

The film begins with the camera lens trained on Wade (Gary Poulter), crouched in a shallow stream; on the screen's right edge Wade's son Gary (Tye Sheridan) is softly bitterly cussing out his dad, telling him how selfish and deluded he is, how he'll be beaten for what he's done (we don't know what, exactly). Wade cuffs Gary across the face (a swift vicious blow, like a cottonmouth strike), then climbs a nearby slope, the camera still following. Two men approach, words are exchanged, the two batter Wade to the ground.

It's a great opening shot: father and son's relationship summed up in a single scene around which their world is deftly sketched, full of incidental beauty and unexpected danger. We get a taste of Wade's violent temper, his hard-luck attitude (he stands impassive as the men challenge him, then manhandle him).

As for Joe (Nicolas Cage) we're given the portrait of a middle-aged man doing relatively well in life (he's supervisor for a work crew), is widely liked (he's popular with the local prostitutes, and has the local police chief's bemused sympathy), is appropriately softhearted with regard to strays (he puts Gary on his work crew). And yet Joe has rough edges: he's an ex-convict with a fearsome temper (he sics his dog on an equally vicious dog; in a barroom he slams a man's scarred face on the counter). He has this ongoing routine  where he zooms past a known speed trap and the local officers with guns drawn try coax him out of his car. That latter is a memorable bit of business from Green: the tone veers wildly from rote slapstick ("C'mon Joe--" an officer pleads as if for the umpteenth time) to tinderbox tense ("How bout you put that gun away and we talk about this like grown men?"). 

Joe recalls Lito Lapid's Oscar in Mario O'Hara's violent musical melodrama Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, an--I kid you not--unholy cross between Prison on Fire and A Star is Born), where the ex-con protagonist seems more comfortable behind bars. I'd say part of Joe's tragedy is that he's too good a fighter; if he'd been beaten up more often in prison he'd probably have learned to hold his tongue--not an ideal role model for Gary, but they seem genuinely taken with each other. 

Might add that Joe also reminds me of someone I happen to know very well, my father. Took time to recognize Joe was my dad, about when he makes his first visit to the local whorehouse--his easygoing way with women; his ability to inspire strong feelings of loyalty from others; his awareness of how this loyalty both weakens him (he counts on it no matter how abusive he gets) and weighs him down (too many people willing to follow him, often into trouble). All traits my father failed to pass onto me (for better or worse), yet still something of a shock to see portrayed--superbly, by Cage--on the big screen.

Then there's Gary's other father. Wade is played by Gary Poulter, a homeless former street entertainer (the slow-motion breakdance he does onscreen was part of his show) who died only months after the film was released, and he's amazing--charismatic and unpredictable both. People talk of how effortlessly Wade embodies evil (he physically abuses Gary, and it's unspoken but implied that he's also  responsible for the trauma that silenced Gary's sister) but that's not what's so disturbing: it's his certainty that's unnerving, how comfortable he is in his own skin doing what he does (at one point stalking a fellow vagrant for a bottle of wine), the elaborate well-practiced monologues he spins out explaining his way of life ("I go out looking for work, looking for a way to support you and you do this to me?"). He doesn't feel like some character stepping out of the pages of Brown's novel, or the scriptwriter's imagination: he's complete and irreducible, playing himself on the big screen. 

Wade's familiar too--I know people like him, know they can't be explained away by book or screenplay. They exist, sometimes live near you (sometimes with you, for years); you ignore or confront them at your peril. 

Joe seems to know the peril. He visibly dislikes Wade, yet seems reluctant to deal with him--at one point he's witness to a small sample of Wade's cruelty, forces himself to look away; at another he faces Wade after learning the full extent of the man's malevolence (or anyway full extent of the man's malevolence at that time), and still finds himself unable to come to grips--a moment that shouldn't make sense but somehow does, to me at least: Joe can't bring himself to punish Wade because (I suspect) he recognizes Wade. He sees in Wade an older, less charming, more broken-down version of himself, and knows he can't render final judgment--it's too much like rendering final judgment on himself, too much like a foreshadowing of the final judgment on himself. Joe can't decide what to do with Wade; only Wade knows what to do with Wade. 

The film is heavy with symbolism: Wade represents Evil; Gary, Innocence; Joe himself Redemption, or at least the impulse to reach for it (significantly his work crew's task is to poison trees, kill existing growth to make way for more profitable pines--even his job involves an element of self-destruction). Green works against the obviousness with everyday details heightened by regular collaborator Tim Orr's inimitable cinematography, the screen filled with gravelly railroads, rusted steel bridges, vase-littered front porches, all drenched liberally (like so much syrup) with gorgeous Texan sunlight.

It's no Beasts of the Southern Wild, no barely-in-control poetic-pretentious fable about the devastation wrought on Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina--if anything Green displays near-absolute precision, with hands loose enough on the steering wheel that the film doesn't feel overdetermined, claustrophobic. It's no Mud, which started out well enough, a Southern Gothic romance told through the eyes of a child (Sheridan again, who seems to have a lock on the type) then devolves into a faintly preposterous melodrama involving powerful mob bosses and yet another violent shootout.

It's no George Washington (Green's debut feature and in my opinion strongest work), which draws much of its power (and is near-indistinguishable) from real life. Joe builds to the standard-issue (albeit well-staged, shot, and edited) shootout, but moments do stay with you, not all loud--Joe teaching his young charge the Cool Smile (basically pull a pained grimace, then smile); Gary awkwardly pleading for work, later sampling his first can of cold beer. Then there's Wade, glaring straight at the camera with his unforgettably blue eyes, daring us to account for people like him. 

First published in Businessworld 7.10.14 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014); The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013); Night Zero (premiere episode of 'The Strain,' Guillermo del Toro, 2014)

(WARNING:  plot twists and story of the two movies, one TV show--and in one case an entire franchise--discussed in detail)

Aping The Planet of the Apes 

Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is arguably better than its predecessor, the remake of the third sequel to the original adaptation of the Pierre Boulle novel. Where the latter traces the nascent development of human-level intelligence in apes, this--the sequel and remake of the fourth sequel to the original adaptation (pay attention!)--has the full-grown Caesar (an impressively motion-captured Andy Serkis) struggling to lead his band of brothers into an Arcadian paradise. Apes at this point are capable of serious log cabin construction (their spiky spiraling structure could stand proudly beside some of the cruder motte-and-baileys seen in the Game of Thrones series); the words "Ape not kill ape" are scrawled prominently on a teacher's neolithic Smartboard. All that's missing, really, is some seriously decadent vegan cooking to transform this into a particularly esoteric episode on glamping from The Travel Channel.

Then the humans come in. Tense moments follow. Hope for the future is offered--and quickly dashed to the ground, resulting in large-scale digitally rendered, fairly engaging action sequences. The movie ends on the same image it began, with camera tight on Caesar's ominously pensive face--nice little touch, there.

Interesting--where Caesar in the original comes to the realization that apes are no better than humans, here he does a bit of syntactic sidestepping. "You are no ape," he declares, dropping his foe (and himself) down a long slippery slope involving precise etymologies (untermensch, anyone?).

Might add that the apes have not improved their tactics much since the last picture. Where previously they launched a full-on frontal attack against heavily armed troops on a suspension bridge (it's all right, they've got plot armor), here they launch a full-on frontal attack on a fortified city, and only when an armored car is commandeered (by an ape on horseback--see aforementioned story trope) do they actually make any headway. Some of the apes happen to be gorillas; couldn't they have taught their fellow anthropoids an alternate method?

Okay, cheap joke.

The movie's an impassioned plea for interracial/intercultural/interwhateveral co-existence; that much I got. Maybe my biggest problem is that it falls far short of what Boulle's novel was trying to do, what  the best science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) tries to do: refract real-life issues through the genre's distorting lens, in an attempt at a fresh approach. The key word is distorting: Boulle's novel was satire in the tradition of Swift, with some withering things to say about our pretentions to standing on the top rung of the evolutionary ladder; Reeves (and Wyatt before him) seem to be trying to serve up a deadly earnest drama about yet another socioethnic minority group clawing its way to acceptability. Where Boulle and Franklin J. Schaffner's '68 film presented apes as exaggerated mockeries of the worse humanity has to offer, these two reboots present them as just an evolutionary step upward from what you see in your local zoo, down to the zoologically accurate body language of the motion-captured actors. Despite what today's filmmakers might tell you, realism is not a virtue in satire; a clear view of the target is required, shining through the effects. You miss the dark humor, the comic-horrific sense of ordinary life turned upside-down (Schaffner captured Boulle's satiric thrust best; Burton's, while scattershot shallow, still managed to plant tongue firmly in furred cheek). 

Plus I miss Helena Bonham-Carter's Ari, all ape makeup surrounding a pair of soulful, sensual eyes, the single most subversive element in Burton's remake. Cornelia, Caesar's mate (Judy Greer), is about as sensuous as a hair shirt--you wanted to give her not sympathy but a bottle of industrial-strength tick powder; Bonham-Carter's Ari on the other hand was capable of inspiring a serious erection--she made you want to rethink the arguments against the practice of bestiality.

Stranger in a strange land

James Gray's The Immigrant despite its melodrama despite its flaws is extraordinary, a retelling of Vito Corleone's entry from Sicily into New York, only from the point of view of a woman. Ewa (Marion Cotillard) has traveled from war-torn Poland to Ellis Island with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) in tow. Magda's coughing gets her quarantined; Ewa faces a different problem--rumor has it that she's a girl of 'loose morals,' and will probably be deported.

The Godfather analogy is inevitable; Gray seems to be setting himself up as the millennial equivalent of Coppola (even his We Own the Night, which I thought was terrific, openly invites comparison), though not just Coppola--one is reminded of Guiseppe Rotunno's work on Luchino Visconti's The Leopard, and of Miroslav Ondicek's for Milos Forman's Ragtime, the kind of stately amber handsomeness that can be mistaken for White Elephant filmmaking--only Gray adds an emotional obliqueness that belongs more in an Ozu or Naruse film, and in the case of Joaquin Phoenix's Bruno a volatility that recalls--well, recalls Phoenix at his most unhinged. The emotional dynamics also resemble the tortured relationship between pimp and imprisoned prostitute in Kim ki-duk's Bad Guy, only told almost entirely from the prostitute's point of view--Phoenix does not make deadly with a paper dart, alas, but does share Han-ki's relentless, often contradictory obsession with his captive.

Bruno introduces himself gently into the picture, as a courtly well-dressed gentleman willing to take troublesome Ewa off state hands. He takes time in revealing his darker side; when he does it's an explosive outburst that frightens not because it's so violent or sudden, but because it's so indignant: he believes--or has long since talked himself into believing--that he's doing Ewa a huge favor setting her up, that she's being incredibly stupid or irrational or perverse turning him down. 

What sets Bruno apart from most if not all pimps is that he's enthusiastically backed up by his charges. The other girls are all over him, kissing and hugging, cornering him in all kind of sensual clinches. They're so convincing in their ardor and he comes through for them, especially Ewa, so often--sometimes at cost to himself--that you begin to wonder: maybe he's not such a bad guy after all, maybe it's Ewa who's the problem.

Cotillard is a marvel, and perhaps a measure of her achievement is that you can't quite put a finger on why she's such a marvel. Her Ewa is no pistol-packing take-charge heroine; most of the time she's just awkwardly stumbling into one form of trouble after another, helplessly clutching an iron pick plucked out of a coal bin to defend herself (rather feebly) against potential attackers. 

But--when you think about it--what can Ewa do? She's a woman in 1920's New York, a foreigner at that. If she speaks her mind, she's mannish and arrogant; if she resists she's unreasonable and stubborn; if she surrenders she's a whore. She's defiant after a fashion, but it's a furtive kind of defiance, defined by her strictly straitened circumstances: she has to steal her moments when no one's looking, keep them hidden like treasured jewels, like a secret identity. 

Ewa keeps saying it's all for her sister, and I believe her, or at least believe she is totally invested in  what she says, but at a certain point you wonder if maybe she uses that declaration as a rallying cry, a goal in life, an impossible dream she can look at above the muck she's in, neck-deep. Certainly it's for her sister, but I'd say it's also very much for herself; if she fails to rescue Magda, if her sibling dies before being rescued, she would probably have killed herself in despair.

Sometimes Ewa gives in, perhaps more often than she wants; but--crucial difference--she never gives up. Behind her eyes you sense an unbelievably tough kernel of intelligence watching, waiting for a chance. 

Ewa never gets that chance, at least not the way she would in a conventional drama (or conventional melodrama). Instead (and here I go into the film's climax in considerable detail) Bruno arranges for her to escape, but beforehand declares the true nature of their relationship once and for all. He tells her of how he first saw her, plotted her capture, sabotaged her chances of meeting her family; of how he treated her, abused her, used her worse than any of his women; he tells her her true role in their shared narrative--as a victim of sexual, emotional and spiritual rape for years on end, his plaything and slave, his unforgettable, unforgivable sin. She's his damnation--because of what he's done to her he's reduced to being less than a man; he's nothing.

And then her response. Not the blows she rains on him, a weak pummeling that wouldn't harm a kitten, but her absolute denial of his claim. "You are not nothing!" she declares, and in that simple little statement is a wealth of implication: I am not your victim--or I have been for years, but refuse to be only your victim. I refuse to play a role in your drama any more. I refuse to remain marked by your revelations, no matter how painful. 

I refuse to be your sin--to be the one who weighs you down, drags you to hell. I refuse to play the woman who hates you endlessly. I care for you, in as much as a person can care for someone who has both helped and hurt her so much. 

And I move on. I am free, and intend to live the rest of my life as I see fit.

Would like to take a moment to point out how closely (and rather recklessly of Gray, who I have to assume is a churchgoing member) Ewa's stance seems to hew to the Catholic position on such matters; to 'turn the other cheek' when one is wronged and 'love one another,' and so forth. Call Catholicism a passion or delusion but occasionally it's the evoking of older faiths--of centuries-old words or terms or ideas--that inspires the most potent emotional moments. Either it works for you or doesn't, you're free to respond according to your will (you must be; that's a crucial Catholic requirement for salvation, a defining characteristic of the human soul).

In this Gray joins the small group of fellow American filmmakers who focus on their Catholicism onscreen, or at least on the Catholic concepts of sin and guilt and redemption--Martin Scorsese, Abel Ferrara and, yes, Francis Coppola--with maybe a crucial difference: where Travis Bickle, The Lieutenant (or Thana, if you like), and Michael Corleone would probably seek retribution if they were in a similar position, Gray's Ewa opts for a more radical reply: not to kill Bruno or punish him but transcend him. She's a victim, but refuses to let that define her life.

In an extraordinary shot Gray slices the screen in two with a mirror and follows Bruno and Ewa as they flee to their respective fates. The moment isn't celebratory--if anything it has a pointedly mournful tone--but it does feel like a stopping point of some kind. Whatever future they have in store for them Gray isn't saying--we can choose one of several alternatives, or choose not to assign one at all; again, we are free to respond accordingly. 


Guillermo del Toro's novel has been adapted for television with the filmmaker himself directing the premiere episode; the results sad to say are, well, not effortlessly achieved or easy to like. 

The contemporary setting directs our attention to the rather wooden characters; the dialogue lacks the kind of wit that enlivened the banter of a Blade or Hellboy (maybe they need to introduce a super-powered character or two, drily commenting on the action). The ostensible protagonist, a CDC officer, has marriage issues and is a control freak. We're basically setting up the story here, and so far the human side of the story is less than engaging. 

That said, it's handsome to look at, even on the small screen. Del Toro lights his huge sets in deep reds and greens, the better to set the tone, and during one of several exceptions--where everything is bathed in a dim steel blue--the impression is so striking it makes you want to shiver from sheer cold. 

That exception is actually a direct steal from the granddaddy of all vampire novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula, only instead of a dead ship we have a dead plane. The device still works, and del Toro still manages to direct an appropriately creepy little sequence, set inside the darkened jetliner. The episode is a study of contrasts, of juxtapositions between the medieval and the 21st century: ancient carved coffin sitting in an industrial warehouse; menacing sycophants in a plush corporate setting; an ancient evil loose in an ultramodern city. Del Toro is retelling the story, this time without the swooning sensuality and twinkling sentimentality; he's telling the story straight, using (to these inexpert ears) authentic epidemiological terminology, the latest CDC can offer. 

Two other sequences stand out: there's something unsettling about video footage depicting something inexplicable--in this case what looks like several hundred pounds of crated dirt suddenly vanishing into thin air. 

And then the morgue sequence: palm, burrowing worm, scalpel. Need I say more? 

I'm giving this one a chance. Hopefully they beef up the characters a little; unlike on the big screen, plot and dialogue matter more in a TV series. Del Toro directs with impressive panache--more than impressive, considering he's working on a TV budget--but he needs some solid writing in his episodes to firm them up for the long haul.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Planet of the Apes (Tim Burton, 2001)

In response to the latest installment of an ape-old franchise, an old post from 2001:  

Monkey pee, monkey do

I regret to report that despite my better judgement and capacity (admittedly limited) for logical thinking, I enjoyed Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes. It's a true guilty pleasure--I experienced pleasure and felt extremely guilty about it. It's a piece of ordure, by most standards; there's no reasonable way to explain my liking it--the screenplay doesn't make sense; the dialogue, when it isn't trying for lame one-liners, is leaden; characters are introduced and dropped, new ones inserted with nary a care for coherence; the ending cries out for a reshoot, maybe even an entire sequel that improves on this misshapen mess.

And yet I like this film. I feel affection for the 1968 original with its shock moments (the manhunt in the fields, the first spoken words of defiance, the 'surprise' ending) and Charlton Heston's inimitable straight-man performance, but I've always thought the premise silly (you land in a planet where they speak English and don't think it's Earth?) and the attempts at social commentary equally silly (Rod Serling, God help us, was the kind of earnestly profound scriptwriter the Manunuri would have approved of, except he wrote science fiction).

I consider Burton a more gifted fantabulist than the original's director, Franklin J. Schaffner (though Schaffner is admittedly the better storyteller); this Planet has the kind of perverse heedlessness only possible in an intensely personal filmmaker. Burton quickly takes on racism, sexism, fanaticism--the usual targets of social satire (and of Pierre Boulle's original novel), and as quickly drops them--possibly because the filmmaker has the attention span of a six-year-old, and focuses only on matters that interest him.

In this case, the apes. Complaining about Mark Wahlberg, Estelle Warren and Kris Kristofferson's almost uniformly leaden performances is beside the point, I think; Burton lavishes all his attention and love on the simians, not the humans. The makeup is a definite improvement over the original's--you see the actors' features more, see them as distorted versions of themselves, as if through a funhouse mirror. Their movements are surprisingly eloquent--Lisa Marie as Nova sways and sashays like a vamp, only one with prehensile toes; Michael Clark Duncan as Colonel Attar stands tall and impassive, a pillar of military discipline (decked out in the softest glossy fur); and David Warner as Senator Sandar is reassuringly statesmanlike. Even Charlton Heston, playing General Thade's father on his deathbed, is instantly, startlingly recognizable--you feel muleheaded conservatism and paranoia rising from him like a fever heat.

Of this vivid, varied menagerie, three stand out: Paul Giamatti as Limbo, a craven slave trader, has the most ghoulish, skull-like face (he's Burton's designated Beetlejuice figure, only without the magic powers), and all the best lines; Tim Roth as General Thade is all flaring nostrils and psychopathic glare (Roth seems liberated by heavy makeup--the way Olivier was in Richard III, or Welles in Touch of Evil--to create a villain more outrageously evil than would be possible using their own faces).

Then there's Helena Bonham-Carter as Ari, a liberal ape intellectual--daughter of Senator Sandar, she's a spoiled and pompous and faintly silly dilettante who makes all kinds of noises about ape-human equality. Yet through the course of the story she grows (the only character in the entire film to actually do so) into her convictions and, in the end, wears said convictions with genuine dignity.
And--Burton's best joke in the film--she's totally, helplessly, hopelessly in love with Mark Whalberg as Leo (the picture's alpha male). Bonham Carter is a beauty and has a vibrant glow in costume dramas like A Room With a View or Wings of the Dove, but I've never really warmed up to her as an actress--maybe because I never felt she was particularly passionate about anything or anyone. Decked out in ape makeup, with mouth distended and hair extended over  cheekbones, we're forced to stare at her huge brown eyes and they're stunning. Bonham-Carter easily outshines Estella Warren, a reputed model, who does have undeniable appeal--both on prominent display--but is otherwise as disposable as soiled toilet paper. When Ari looks with those melting, Spaniel eyes at Leo you want to slap the idiot upside of the head for not noticing. Their "affair," more suggestion than anything concrete--a series of smoky stares and uncomfortable silences--is perversely all the more exciting for being so understated. And (skip to the next paragraph if you haven't seen the movie) the quick buss Leo finally grants Ari crackles with more electricity (is, I'm willing to bet everything plus a truckload of bananas, possibly the reason why Burton agreed to do the film) than all the clashing armor that precedes it.
I admit it--I fell for Ari as hard as she fell for Leo, and think Leo's too stupid to realize how unworthy he is of her love (or of how richly he deserves the bleak 'surprise' ending Burton tacks on--the third after the 1968 version and Pierre Boulle's and easily the silliest of the three). I still can't take either the original or this version’s take on racism, sexism, fanaticism and all that jazz seriously, but on the subject of sexual tolerance and possibility of interspecies sex? I'm sold; I'm sold all the way.

First published in Businessworld 8.10.01

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