Friday, October 30, 2009

The Conversations #10: Trouble Every Day

The tenth installment of the Conversations is here, just in time for Halloween. In this latest discussion, Jason Bellamy and I turn our attention to Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, a startling and deeply enigmatic film about vampirism, lust, infidelity and addiction. As usual, our discussion is fairly lengthy and intensive, covering not only the film itself but also diverting into a debate about what constitutes the horror genre. We always hope with this series that our piece will be just the beginning of a larger conversation, so please stop by and weigh in with your own thoughts, either about this film or about horror in general.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Gingerbread Man

A John Grisham potboiler would seem an unlikely subject for director Robert Altman, who nevertheless made Grisham's The Gingerbread Man his own, mapping the familiar Altmanesque casual pacing and loose aesthetics onto this lurid thriller plot. The film opens with a lengthy aerial shot of a Southern delta on an overcast day, suggesting a storm about to come. Indeed, the entire film is building towards the not-so-threateningly-named Hurricane Geraldo — not the TV personality, as one character wryly points out. Altman is essentially telegraphing the Short Cuts-style ending that he so loves, writing the internal anguish of his characters onto the landscape itself, into nature, which grows more and more ugly and sinister as the central character, the lawyer Rick MacGruder (Kenneth Branagh), spirals into confusion and despair. From the beginning, we know that a storm, both emotional and physical, is coming, and its threat hangs over the whole movie, even when the sun briefly breaks out.

This tension and moody build-up adds some much-needed heft to the film's rather silly and convoluted story, built on a series of genre clichés and reversals of expectations: the dark-haired, sexed-up damsel in distress (or femme fatale?) and the sinister, crazy hillbilly. MacGruder's downfall begins when he gets wrapped up with the waitress Mallory Doss (Embeth Davidtz), who strips off her clothes at the slightest provocation and quickly embroils MacGruder in a tale about her crazy father, who's been stalking and harassing her. The lawyer, who normally wouldn't think of doing anything not on the payroll, is suddenly convinced that he can do a good deed for this woman he wants so badly, and he helps her commit her nutty father, the unruly wild man Dixon Doss (Robert Duvall, communicating menace with his clear blue eyes and language of grunts and muttering). This is only the beginning, of course, as Dixon quickly escapes from the mental institution with the help of his hillbilly posse, and goes cavorting off through a graveyard in a wonderfully silly/creepy night scene, wisps of fog hanging over everything, white and fluffy in the darkness.

The film's plot takes some increasingly loony twists and turns from there, but it's clear that Altman isn't so much interested in delivering a satisfying genre experience so much as just riffing on all these unlikable characters. Certainly, MacGruder is an astonishingly rotten protagonist: a self-centered jerk, a womanizer, and of course that oldest of crime fiction archetypes, the high-priced defense lawyer who keeps getting "scum" released back onto the streets. He's divorced from Famke Janssen's Leeanne, who's taken up with the couple's divorce lawyer now; another genre cliché fulfilled. When MacGruder gets his kids for visits, he's so inattentive that he lets them wander off everywhere while taking cell phone calls, even when he starts receiving threats about them, presumably from the missing Dixon. All this lazy parenting sets up the wonderfully handled late scene where MacGruder is making a call at a phone booth, with a visual line of sight to his kids through a hotel room window across the way, when a truck pulls up right in front of him, cutting off the view; it's a great sight gag and also a piece of formalist visual suspense worthy of Hitchcock.

There are many other pleasures to be found here as Altman lazily meanders through this story. There's a great shot where Mallory lights a cigarette and Altman syncs the flash of the lighter's flame against the cigarette tip with a crack of thunder outside, making a simple gesture seem epic. At the finale, all this sturm und drang pays off in the fantastic hurricane sequence, which makes suspense from missed cell phone connections and the flickering of lights, where everyone is silhouetted in windows, framed against the stormy perpetual night outside. MacGruder goes running around through the storm like a lunatic, always missing the obvious, always thrusting himself into danger — he's a totally incompetent thriller hero, but the film's arc is about him realizing what a lousy guy he's been, deciding at the end to stop fighting, that he deserves what he gets, that he shouldn't try to wriggle out of it even if he probably could. Meanwhile, Altman's camera is as busy as ever, using zoom as a device to make right-angle turns within a scene, unexpectedly pointing out details of interest, as when a slow zoom into a meowing cat foreshadows its grim fate.

Altman also has some fun with the character of MacGruder's private detective, Clyde Pell (Robert Downey, Jr.). Downey is always a blast to watch, and his leering, drunken private eye is a welcome presence in this film that so thoroughly mocks thriller conventions: just as the hero is a jerk who's blind to what's going on around him, the detective is sloppy but also strangely effective, always seeming to know exactly what's going on. In one of the film's funniest scenes, while Mallory is taking a call from MacGruder, Clyde lurks outside, pressing his ear against a window, listening in. Altman is frequently composing in depth like this, shooting with windows revealing crucial information or sight gags outside, like the spectacle of Downey exaggeratedly listening in, his whole body leaning in towards the phone conversation. Even funnier are the scenes with Downey hanging out in a bar with a couple of trashy-looking girls; when he's pulled away for a case, the girls shrug, look at one another, and kiss, as though with him gone they'll just have to settle for each other tonight. These little throwaway touches are so obviously Altman's work, infusing some quirky eccentricity into a film that could've been a paint-by-numbers thriller.

On the whole, The Gingerbread Man is a rather slight and goofy offering from Altman, a film that finds the director dabbling once more in the thriller genre. It lacks the self-assurance and thematic depth of his better genre deconstructions like The Player or The Long Goodbye, but it's nevertheless a fine example of Altman playfully mixing together noir and legal thriller conventions into an off-kilter confection. The film is more satisfying for its textures, for its small touches, than for its actual plot.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Judex (1963)

Georges Franju's Judex is an arch, playful tribute to the serials of the influential silent filmmaker Louis Feuillade. Franju shuffles through the plot of Feuillade's lengthy serial of the same name, about an adventurer named Judex (Channing Pollock) whose revenge against the corrupt banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) unleashes a complicated series of schemes. The film is defined by its complex twists and turns, its melodramatic indulgences: a wronged father (René Génin) who's searching for his missing son; the fiendish femme fatale Marie Verdier (Francine Bergé) who faces off against Judex; the plots centering around Jacqueline (Edith Scob), the daughter of Favraux; the incompetent detective Cocantin (Max Montavon), who seems more comfortable as a babysitter than an investigator. The film opens with Favraux being blackmailed by Judex, who threatens to expose the banker's many crimes if he doesn't give his ill-gained fortune back to his victims.

Fittingly, Franju opens with an iris-out, and will close the film with an iris-in, only the most obvious of his nods to his inspiration. Franju sets his film primarily in the same kinds of gritty, realistic locales favored by Feuillade, who loved shooting on the streets and in scenic exteriors. The texture of the image here is grainy and dark, tending toward shadowy nighttime scenes where cloaked figures skulk through the abandoned streets, framed against the moon, heading out on mysterious errands. Franju is riffing on the magical, playful qualities of Feuillade's classic serials, and the imagery is lush. Judex's grand entrance in particular is stunning, set at a costume ball where he arrives in a massive bird mask, his outstretched, upturned palm holding a seemingly dead bird before him as he weaves through the revelers, with Franju's camera bobbing behind him. He then proceeds to perform a series of magic tricks for the assembled guests, pulling scarves from his sleeves and turning them into doves, which then flutter around the room. And, foreshadowing one of the film's central twists, he even brings the dead bird back to life with a gesture, allowing it too to fly off his palm into the audience. It's an amazing introduction, establishing the film's basic theme, its tribute to the magic and mystery of the cinema, the sleight of hand by which the filmmakers can divert the audience's attention and create startling effects.

This scene establishes the sense of low-key fun at the film's core, its predilection for toying with genre elements. This is especially true of the gleefully evil femme fatale Marie, the film's best character — and its best performance in Bergé, who really projects the slinky, haughty evil of her versatile seductress/criminal. Stalking through the night in her tight black jumpsuit and domino mask, she seems like a master criminal, which makes it easy to miss the fact that all of her schemes actually don't go so well. In one of the film's most delightful inventions, when she's breaking into Favraux's house, her henchman is snared by a handcuff trap that unexpectedly pops out of a desk, right at the spot where the crook had his arm resting to pick a lock. Marie is actually foiled at every turn, often by the unflappable Judex, who drifts around with his black cape flopping behind him and a black hat on his head.

Franju's approach to this story is inherently anti-logical, infusing Judex's adventures with a laidback, drowsy surrealism. The spectacle of the bird-headed hero performing magic tricks is absurd enough, but more subtle is the way the film utterly rejects the idea of death, allowing characters to pass fluidly between states. Characters are constantly being declared dead, sometimes even buried, only to suddenly come back to life, as though they had merely fainted and were able to recover: the convention becomes so familiar that when the villainess actually seems to remain dead after falling off a building at the denouement, it's startling. Franju's characters defy death, not because of any narrative logic — these resurrections are never explained — but simply because the magic of cinema and the strange anti-logic of this film allows it. Similarly, Franju creates complex shots where the camera starts from the distinctive Feuillade static camera angle, at a medium distance from the action, only to begin flowing into the scene, creating new compositions. This fluid camerawork suggests the technological limitations of Feuillade's cinema only to replace it with the more sophisticated possibilities available to Franju. At other times, he achieves striking effects with the editing, as when he cuts from Jacqueline walking up a staircase in her home to Marie walking up one as she schemes against the other woman.

The film's pacing is languid despite all this plotting, allowing plenty of time for Franju to explore the texture of the images, the vibrant characters, and the subtle jokes embedded in the mise en scène and performances. Perhaps the best sequence is the denouement, which keeps escalating as Judex and Cocantin engineer a showdown with Marie and her lover. It's a rich scene, though the action is less important than the whimsical touches, like the way the detective acquires a young sidekick who imitates his idol's every move, parroting his shuffling gait, the way he folds his arms behind his back, the way he nervously paces while waiting for Judex to save the day. At the scene's climax, a circus suddenly pulls up, owned by one of a Cocantin's friends, an acrobat (Sylva Koscina) who thrusts herself into the middle of the action by climbing up a sheer brick wall to the top of the building, where she rescues Judex from the clutches of the villains. Before she does, however, she pauses at the top, smiling and waving as she looks down at Judex's masked henchmen clustered below, looking up with the white eyeholes in their masks seeming to glow in the dark. She finally winds up stealing the show from the titular hero, even getting the final battle with Marie. The villain in her tight black jumpsuit and the acrobat in an equally form-fitting white outfit: light and dark, white hats and black hats, good and evil, all the movie conventions about heroes and villains inscribed in the clothes of these two women.

Franju's Judex is a compelling tribute to the silent cinema and the conventions of classic, pulpy genre storytelling. This film takes what might've been a straightforward story and infuses it with a moody visual sensibility and a subtly surrealist perspective that really locates the magic and mystery in these well-worn genre archetypes.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Some announcements

I've got a couple of updates here, for those who are interested. The first is that, as some of you may have noticed, my brief attempt to start a calendar to keep track of film blog events was quickly aborted. The fact is, I underestimated how much work it would take, I couldn't settle on a good format for updating, and when you get right down to it, I'd much rather be doing actual writing — or watching movies, for that matter — in my free time instead of working on a project like that. I do really apologize for not following through on that site for longer, and I thank everyone who supported and helped promote the idea after my initial announcements.

In somewhat better news, I've started writing about comics for the online comics community and shop Poopsheet Foundation. I'll be writing about small-press and independent comics and minicomics there, at a fairly regular pace. My first review, of the anthology Ghost Comics, has been posted already, and I'll have much more to post there in the coming weeks.

If you're interested in following my writing about comics, take a look at my newly revived other blog, Disorder & Its Opposite. Over there, I'll be putting up links to all my Poopsheet reviews as they're posted, and will also likely be doing other sporadic posts about comics and music. Since this blog is exclusively focused on movies, I'll be using that site for anything else I want to write about. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Conversations #9: Pixar

The ninth of my conversations with Jason Bellamy has now been posted at The House Next Door. This latest installment of the series is a contribution to the Pixar Week event, which is running from October 4 through October 10. Our conversation focuses on some of Pixar's recent output — especially WALL-E, Ratatouille and The Incredibles — in order to evaluate the animation studio's place within contemporary cinema. As with most of this week's pieces at the House, this conversation is an attempt to challenge some of the conventional ideas about Pixar and to take a more serious, in-depth look than usual at the studio's acclaimed films. It's also an opportunity to air some of my grumpy contrarian rebuttals to the commonly accepted wisdom about the quality of Pixar's films.

As usual, we hope that this piece will spark a larger conversation, so please stop by, read what we have to say and offer your own thoughts and reactions in the comments.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Monday, October 5, 2009

Blue, White and Perfect

Blue, White and Perfect is the fourth film in the Michael Shayne mystery series, starring Lloyd Nolan as the hapless private detective who's always down on his luck, and who often bumbles through his cases on pure luck and the intervention of others rather than his own sleuthing skills. That's the case here as well, though this film puts the focus more on Shayne himself than the earlier films, with their great casts of character actors, did. Nolan has a lot of fun with this role, playing Shayne as a comic figure rather than an actual good detective: it's only in the film's increasingly less interesting second half that the film really settles into the mystery mold. It's much more fun when the script gives Nolan some comic business to do, like the great series of gags involving a convenience store that Shayne stumbles into, shocking the proprietor and his wife with his odd, plot-motivated behavior. First, he makes a call to his girlfriend Merle (Mary Beth Hughes, who played a different part in the earlier Shayne outing Sleepers West). She thinks he works in an airplane factory, so he accompanies the call with improvised industrial noises using a fan, blender and various metallic banging sounds. Of course, he's really on a case, trying to route out a gang of Nazi diamond smugglers, so when he next returns to the store, he's hiding from the bad guys by trying on a series of scary masks. Finally, he nearly lands on the store owners when leaping through their awning from a second-story window. It's all played for humor, with Nolan's broad mugging matched by the deadpan reaction shots of the store owners, who look on in amazement at all this buffoonery.

Equally fun is the gag where Shayne keeps returning to the office of a printer (Charles Williams) to get new business cards printed out, each time with a new name and a new occupation, and sometimes a horrendous accent to go with it — it's not clear if Shayne's hapless lack of talent as a master of disguise is an intentional part of the joke, or if it's simply a result of Nolan's limits as an actor. Probably, the filmmakers are in on the joke, especially since when Shayne disguises himself as a distinguished Southern gentleman, he tells the printer to "throw a 'Colonel'" in front of his assumed name, and opts for Lee rather than Sherman as an appropriate surname. This is the level of the film's corny humor, and only Nolan's laidback persona and sly wit can bring across the film's low-key pleasures.

Of course, in the film's second half the mystery itself comes to the forefront, though as usual in this series calling it a mystery is something of a misnomer. Because the film doesn't strictly follow Shayne but also spends time with the villains, the audience is ahead of Shayne in knowing what's going on. So there's no mystery, only the question of when (or if) the detective is going to catch on to the plot. The German smuggler Vanderhoefen (Steven Geray) is bringing stolen industrial-strength diamonds to Honolulu on board a steamship. (Never mind why the Germans are shipping things through Hawaii; don't look to these films for any kind of sense.) To help with his scheme, he enlists the lovely, crooked Helen Shaw (Helene Reynolds), who turns out to be an old friend of Shayne's. The onboard shenanigans are complicated by the presence of the absurdly named Juan Arturo O'Hara (George Reeves), a Latin/Irish playboy whose role in this plot is ambiguous, and the courtly steward Nappy (Curt Bois), who seems to be working for everyone and keeping an eye on everything from his inconspicuous vantage point. The action on the ship is largely static and circuitous, moving at a slow pace that defuses any real potential for suspense or intrigue. The mysterious gunshots that ring out periodically, always just missing any potential targets, only add to the pointless confusion.

The only real fun here comes in the interaction of Nolan with his supporting cast, especially the lively Reynolds, who's a far better romantic/comic foil for the leading man than his actual girlfriend, who's mostly reduced to stock throwing-objects-at-the-cad humor. Reynolds gives her character some real femme fatale frisson, casting electrically charged glances at Shayne as she covers her scheming with thick layers of playful banter. Director Herbert I. Leeds, taking over the series from Eugene Forde, who directed the first three films, proves himself just as anonymous and inconsequential as his predecessor. The staging is flat and sometimes awkward, and scenes drag on for too long with no real point. Leeds' one real saving grace is a modest feel for comic timing in some of the earlier scenes. No one would ever call the Michael Shayne movies great cinema, but they're fun enough for a light diversion, and Blue, White and Perfect encapsulates both the series' minor charms and its limitations.