Thursday, June 30

Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)

Jean Renoir's satiric gutting of René Fauchois' play is one of the director's finest works, a biting work whose ambiguous target (does it ultimately side with individualist anarchy or bourgeois liberalism?) is less the result of an unfocused screenplay than an even-handed work of humanity. With roots in Herman Melville's similarly perplexing short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," Boudu Saved from Drowning is both an absurdist ode to rebellion and a sympathetic, even positive portrayal of goodness within the oblivious bourgeoisie.

The titular Boudu is the tramp qua tramps, played by that great beast Michel Simon of L'Atalante fame (or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Vigo's film later featured Simon of Boudu fame). Gigantic, scabrous, and stumbling in a way that suggests less habitual drunkenness than a body that infuses red blood cells with gin, Boudu is the Dionysian keeper of a park on the Seine. When his dog runs away, the distraught bum hurls himself off a bridge into the river, drawing a crowd of middle-class people who gasp and shriek but do nothing. It is up to a bourgeois man named Edouard Lestingois, who sees Boudu jump while mockingly watching the man through a telescope in his apartment, to run downstairs, across the street, down the bridge steps and finally, slowly leap to the man's rescue. Even the hero must maintain composure and be sure not to get all his nice clothes wet.

Renoir's framing of that save, at once suspenseful and comically protracted, defines Lestingois with almost no words: he is a kind man, unable to let Boudu drown as a crowd down below watches in a horror that turns to fascination, but he also adheres to his social status. He only sees the tramp in the first place because he people-watches for freaks, and his composed half-run across the street and slow walk down to the river show him valuing his image as much as this man's life. But no matter, bourgeois onlookers shower Edouard with praise even as he is still trying to revive Boudu, commending the man and promising him medals as he slaps the bum about the face to bring him back to consciousness. They don't particularly care about this hobo, only that Edouard did something interesting; Lestingois' own wife, Emma, seems to regard this beached, bearded beast as an inconvenience, only reluctantly lifting up his head when Edouard asks her to as he continues to perform exercises on Boudu.

Eventually, the man comes around, and a joyous Edouard takes the tramp into his home to clean him up, unconsciously following that proverb that whomsoever saves a life must continue to look after it. But Lestingois soon comes to regret that decision: Boudu, far from grateful or humbled by the rescue, brings his explosive temperament and anarchic habits into Edouard's home. He thanklessly tosses aside shirts he does not even try on before declaring they won't fit, spits on the floor and refuses to eat their meals, demanding simpler repast like sardines and bread. Later, forbidden to hock phlegm on the floor, Boudu slinks around a room looking for some salivary outlet, at last settling on the pages of a book by Balzac with a look of impish victory.

Like Bartleby, Boudu is wholly at odds with a modernizing, collectivizing society; he takes orders from no one, does not alter his ways and proves so immobile that even those who grow sick of his presence cannot seem to eject him from their lives. Edouard, like Melville's narrator, is weak and overly kind, never taking direct action with Boudu though he grumbles behind the tramp's back. Speaking with his wife after Boudu has become a poltergeist in their home, Lestingois says, "One should only come to the aid of one's equals," his sardonic tone not hiding how convinced of this statement he has become.

Renoir clearly delights in Boudu's unshakable primitivism: he suffuses a tracking shot of the man limping around the park with his uncynical grace, morphing a shot of this grotesque creature into a pure evocation of the park's warmth and idyll. In comparison, the camerawork in the apartment is more confined, mathematical. Renoir uses long shots that put window- and doorframes between the camera and the actors, constricting them further in the compartmentalized bourgeois world. In one masterful shot, Renoir places the camera outside several perfectly aligned doorways, peering into the deep background at the dinner table as the maid, Anne-Marie, gets up to go to the kitchen. Only when the camera tracks left with her movement to frame the young woman in two window sills does it become clear that Renoir was in another apartment across the way, emphasizing how cramped and conformist the bourgeois structure is.

The clear aesthetic preference for the open, inviting natural world stacks the film in Boudu's favor, but Renoir takes great pains to complicate Edouard. The first shot of the film, in fact, is a visualization of the man's unorthodox, almost pagan daydream, frolicking like wood nymphs with Anne-Marie, with whom he carries on an affair. That search for sexual rejuvenation shows how badly Lestingois wants to break out of his limiting social structure, a character revelation only deepened by his relationship with Boudu, who clearly tempts him on some level with his primal connection to the id. Yet he still follows convention and even bends Boudu into the bourgeoisie, or at least so he thinks.

Amazingly, this boisterously comic movie nearly sparked riots in Paris upon its release, though (according to Renoir and Simon) simply because Boudu ate with his hands. That is almost certainly an exaggeration, and even if it was the stated reason for disruption, the visceral French reaction against the film likely stems from its commentary on the prewar bourgeois values it exalted: Anne-Marie engages in an affair with Edouard because she sees it as her way of climbing the social ladder. Boudu is driven to throw himself off a bridge because the cops won't help him look for his dog, but a woman who comes along saying she can't find her 10,000-franc puppy draws damn near the whole precinct in a search. Emma, like the original audience, finds Boudu's unclean hands revolting, yet Boudu notes how much more disgusting it is to spit and sneeze into a handkerchief and then place the mucus-soaked rag back in one's pocket for decorum.

Boudu is so utterly offensive to middle-class, socialized tastes, so outside norms, that one soon discovers he is not rebelling against convention so much as entirely removed from it. A condescending woman has her child give him five francs at the start of the film, which confuses him as money has no value to the man who only needs to beg a sandwich off someone to be happy. When a wealthy man pulls up in a car, Boudu hands him the fiver sarcastically but also reveals that money is not a concept he particularly understands or cares about. And when the tramp briefly adopts bourgeois attitudes late in the film, he does so solely to mess with the middle-class, seducing Lestingois' wife and wooing Anne-Marie as well when he wins a lottery.

But in the end, Boudu has the last laugh over his saviors, capsizing a boat at his wedding, dumping the party into the river as he suddenly displays the ability to swim and flees from the middle-class life he seemed to have in the bag, a complete reversal of the traditional ending of the play. Eager to get out of his bourgeois trappings, the soaked Boudu grabs the clothes off a scarecrow, but the savior imagery of the Christ-posed scarecrow does not entirely suggest the bum is a deliverance figure for the trapped bourgeoisie. It's just as easy to feel relief for the Lestingois family at being free of the man, but as Renoir's satire closes, it's clear that Boudu has shown them the true worth of the foundation of their lives, decent as these people may be.

Wednesday, June 29

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)

If there is any sliver of decency in this universe, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the third entry in the most crass, vile and offensive big-budget franchise in Hollywood history will be its last. If it is any better than the series' previous installment, that is only because it sublimates its racial, gender, political and aesthetic travesties into an even longer, more interminable celebration of reactionary ideals. For a series predicated on the idea that some things are more than meets the eye, the Transformers movies represent one of the least varied, consistently shallow sagas to ever hit the big screen: Transformers 3, like its predecessors, is a masturbatory affair, perhaps even more so than the execrable Revenge of the Fallen. Whatever shred of humanity existed in these films is obliterated, leaving only an unadulterated tribute to He-Man masculinity in response to hysterical conservative perceptions of the Obama era.

Sam (Shia LaBeouf, whose increasingly greasy look in each film he does suggests he hasn't showered since Even Stevens got canceled) saved the world and brokered an alliance between man and Autobot, but no one will give him a job out of Ivy League college. The poor guy has to settle for an absurdly large D.C. apartment and being supported by his disposable new girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), whose car-collecting boss, Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), openly flirts with her in front of Sam, further emasculating our hero. Compounded by the American government having locked Sam out from communicating with the Autobots, he needs a complete world invasion of Decepticons to let him prove his manhood, raising the question of just how many people need to die for Shia LaBeouf to feel comfortable about his dick size.

The film opens with the most crass, avaricious distortion of historical footage since Forrest Gump to turn the moon landing, a genuinely awe-inspiring event that continues to provoke wonder and human pride today, into a front for investigating a spaceship crash. Turns out, Prime's predecessor, Sentinel, crash-landed on the Moon 40 years ago, carrying with him an important weapon that would have decided the Civil War on Cybertron. Now, the Autobots must retrieve the deactivated Sentinel Prime and the device before Decepticons discover the ship.

That's all the plot background you need, really. However, those who continue to absolve Bay as someone who caters to experience over story sure are ignoring the endless pile-ons of narrative threads and convolutions that affect all the Transformers films but this 155-minute slog most of all. Dark of the Moon is really no different from its predecessor, only bigger. But that increase is all proportional, so while the climactic war for Earth might be on a larger scale than what came before it, it takes up about the same percentage of screen time.

Ergo, we get more individualist hokum as all government officials are yet again portrayed as feckless, spineless bureaucrats holding back Sam and the Autobots from getting the job done. We also have to sit through Sam's usual relationship drama, albeit this time with a character simply dropped into the franchise and given no development; Bay's idea of character establishment for Carly is a tracking shot closed in on H-W's ass as she walks up a staircase to greet Sam. And we also get endless exposition, told-not-shown mythology for a bunch of goddamn toys that eats up at good hour and a half of the 2.5-hour movie.

Bay might have subtracted some of the more onerous aspects of Revenge of the Fallen, but he's only found all-new ways to make the same dumb movie. Bay frames so many shots from low angles that after a certain point it seems less an affectation to stress the heroic properties of the Autobots and Americans than the result of getting rid of the tripod for budget reasons. The 3D looks good but is still nothing more than an add-on, and one can only make out snippets of stereoscopic depth because of the usual editing and compositional clumsiness. In fairness, Bay does lengthen the shots, though it seems the average shot length of his action moments has gone from .8 seconds to one whole second. (An integer? Oh, Mr. Bay, you spoil us with your 24 frames!) And when a shot is held for one of a seemingly unending series of slo-mo shots, the constantly moving parts of incoherently smashed together Transformers turn what are meant to be moments of gasp-inducing wonder into headache-causing confusion. ILM had their job cut out for them with Tranformers, animating hundreds of moving parts on each robot, but I've come to regard their work as something similar to overzealous scientists in outbreak movies: they were all so eager to see if they could make something so frame-collapsingly complicated that they never bother to ask if they should.

Even by Bay's standards, the disregard for acting here is horrific. Huntington-Whiteley makes Megan Fox look like Meryl Streep: she says her lines as if reading cue cards without her contacts in. I'm worried about sounding paternalistic here, but frankly, this isn't her fault. She has no experience and no charisma, but that's what Bay wanted, and it's not like she has much of worth to say anyway. Bay met her while shooting Victoria's Secret commercials, and this may be the first case where more was demanded from her for a lingerie shoot than acting in a big-budget film: the women in Axe Body Spray commercials have more meaningful lines than Huntington-Whiteley does here. Saying she should have known she was just there to be hot and to get suitably dirtied up is akin to saying she was "asking for it," and at this point I feel sorry for anyone who has to work with both Bay and LaBeouf.

Besides, why pick on her when she appears in a film with a whole host of people who ought to know better? Frances McDormand and John Malkovich join fellow Coens alum John Turturro, who unfortunately returns once more to speed-talk his way through pompous, histrionic lines. Malkovich coasts on autopilot, taking off from his forcefully smug condescension to reach a cruising altitude at manically infatuated with robots. McDormand's performance is better, but she fares worse for being the bureaucratic punching-bag who keeps a leash around the Transformers' wrecking-ball testicles until she realizes that she should have let them run rampant after all. Ken Jeong appears to add another Asian stereotype to his C.V., also hinting at aggressive homosexuality for a couple more yuks. The best actor here is Buzz Aldrin, brought out of retirement to excuse Bay's tacky appropriation of one of the true feats of American exceptionalism. Aldrin, a true American hero who has experienced the true awe of space travel and exploring the unknown, has to paint a look of overwhelmed reverence on his face to talk to a pocket of air to later be filled in by an unimaginatively humanoid alien. Now that is a performance.

And so, Dark of the Moon is another arduous foray up Bay's vas deferens, a wantonly destructive paean to distorted, boot-in-your-ass American shit-kickerism. Autobots never fight more than 50 yards away from a American flag billowing behind them, and they even seem content to kill Arabs for Uncle Sam. Hell, Megatron, who keeps coming back from total annihilation because the source material has a dearth of other standout villains, even wanders around the desert wearing a cowl over his half-destroyed, almost leprotic face like an Arab terrorist organizing a sleeper strike. And finally, we have Sentinel Prime, the revived Autobot leader who clearly becomes an Obama stand-in, surrendering to our enemies. Of course, the only group to whom Obama has actually capitulated are Republicans, but Bay paints Sentinel as a weak appeaser letting terrorists come in and destroy the world just so he can say he brokered a deal for the greater good.

Bay loves a good apocalypse under Democratic presidents, forcibly tearing apart any liberal globalism so America alone can triumph in the end and prove reactionary politics the only true virtue. Of course, in real life, America flourished in peacetime under Clinton and Obama had bin Laden shot in the face, while Bay has done nothing more than make obscenely expensive, morally bankrupt commercials for General Motors. So let me modify an earlier statement with its obvious true meaning: the human race does not face extinction so Sam Witwicky can feel better about his masculinity but so Michael Bay can feel like a big man. Like Bill O'Reilly, who appears in the film, Bay is loud, obnoxious, and posturing; he uses the achievements of others to promote his own cult of personality and disguise how little individual might he truly demonstrates. In a sense, Dark of the Moon stands as Bay's masterpiece, the auterist statement to make irrelevant the idea of auterism as the predominant measuring stick for film as an art form. It is the Tree of Life of shit, a career-summarizing monument that definitively proves Michael Bay is not merely an awful director but a repugnant human being.

Addendum 6/30: The more I think about this film, the more I find it incredibly disturbing that the carnage of the final act, in which Chicago (incidentally Barack Obama's home turf) is ripped apart by Decepticons in the absence of Autobots, who essentially hide to teach humans a lesson about not respecting them. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people die, just so we'll appreciate our robo-allies. That is profoundly messed up.

Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)

One of the chief reasons Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby is the king of the screwball comedies because it never stops. It has a straight man in Cary Grant's hysterically put-upon paleontologist, but no one in the movie is at all normal. Hawks himself later criticized this after the film proved, amazingly, to be a complete flop, saying he should have had at least one person acknowledge the lunacy and provide some kind of sanity anchor. But that's what makes the movie so great: it never steps outside itself to note how ridiculous (and downright naughty) everything is.

Some of the first lines of the film are pure innuendo, showing Grant's David Huxley, framed in an unflattering, goofy Thinker pose trying to figure out where a brontosaurus bone goes and telling his fiancé "I think this one must belong in the tail." "Nonsense," she says, "you tried it in the tail yesterday." This sets the ball rolling on a flagrantly sexual movie that inverts gender roles, making Grant the creepily stalked object of affection of Katharine Hepburn, who flashes into the movie like a firecracker and only gets more spectacular from there. While David is out playing golf to woo a potential museum investor, Hepburn's Susan walks up and plays his ball. Then, she drives off in his car, dragging him along on the running boards. Take a deep breath, this is as calm as the film gets.

Grant had already established his comic persona that would serve him well for the remainder of his career, but he still plays entirely against type here. He's so good at being clumsy, using his acrobatic talents for the first time in film in service to magnificent pratfalls, that it's easy to forget that this is Cary Grant, sexiest man who ever lived and a powerhouse leading man. He submits entirely to Hepburn, who has never seemed more masculine despite the absence of her usual suits. Hepburn is the aggressor, sizing up the bumbling paleontologist and seeing that beneath his obscuring spectacles and stick-up-his-ass gait, he is indeed Cary Grant. Naturally, she'd like a piece of that, so she begins contriving wilder and wilder reasons to keep David from his wedding to the frigidly, ironically named Miss Swallow (who almost certainly has no idea what her surname references and would be appalled if she did).

The titular Baby of the film is not, as one might have guessed, a human child but a tame leopard Susan's brother sent back from Brazil for their aunt, the same patron considering the donation to David's museum. Before long, the whole world's gone mad, with David and Susan chasing around their leopard; another, far less agreeable one they let out of a zoo truck under the impression it's Baby; and George, Aunt Elizabeth's dog, who steals the brontosaurus bone David has with him and buries it. All the while, Susan's antics attract attention and her lies grow more and more fanciful.

Hepburn and Grant had already co-starred in two films, the even more gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett and the commercially disappointing but critically lauded Holiday, and they had another coming in 1940's The Philadelphia Story. Their familiarity each other makes for intense chemistry, even as both convince the audience they've never met before in this movie. By the same token, Hawks incorporates enough self-reflexivity—Susan using Grant's character name from The Awful Truth to identify him in an elaborate lie to the cops, the use of the star dog Asta for George—that the look of knowing on Susan's face from the moment she sets eyes on David suggests she has some of her actor's awareness. As fast as the film moves, the actors needed that past working relationship to let them feel so believably attracted. It's difficult to describe how the movie builds their romance even as it never flags, something the film itself points out when David says, "It isn't that I don't like you, Susan, because after all, in moments of quiet, I'm strangely drawn toward you. But, well, there haven't been any quiet moments."

Not quite as fast-paced as Hawks' own His Girl Friday, Bringing Up Baby nevertheless feels the most breakneck of the screwballs even as it is also one of the most carefully composed. Obviously, it takes skill to move at this speed, but that wouldn't automatically make it good: think of all those showboating heavy metal guitarists who wow everyone by playing arpeggios over, and over, and over. Like, yeah, great, you can do scales, now when are you gonna be a big boy and write something? Bringing Up Baby doesn't simply assume that by pushing forward it is funny. It relies on a perfect cast of loony characters* to complement Grant and Hepburn, who crucially play their roles with conviction. Hepburn purportedly did not realize the importance of this at first, overselling her lines because she was in a comedy, but Grant, by then a close friend, set her straight**. If Bringing Up Baby is a film where no one is a reasonable, sensible human being, it is also one where everyone in it likes to think himself reasonable and sensible. That, fundamentally, is why it remains one of the most enduringly funny comedies more than 70 years after its release.

*My favorite side player is Walter Catlett's Constable Slocum, a bumbling sheriff so forgetful he finds himself in pleasant chats with those he seeks to arrest, only to snap back to reality and explode in rage at having been "duped" into treating the perps with pleasantries.
**For a far more thorough account of Hepburn's on-set evolution, read this piece by Sheila O'Malley.

Brian De Palma: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Brian De Palma may be perennially mistreated by a Hollywood that doesn't fully understand where he's coming from, yet I don't know of many directors who have been given so many chances to lose his backers' money. By this stage in his own career, John Carpenter had been all but finished by an industry tiring of his diminishing returns, but De Palma was on just on the cusp of being a validated mainstream filmmaker despite his box office receipts: he'd been given a glamorous gangster picture and a moralizing war film, both of which he infused with his own film-school geekdom even as he demonstrated an ability to play by Hollywood's rules. Having established himself as the '70s film-school leftover best-suited to the decade he'd already mocked with Scarface and Body Double, he finally had his chance to climb to the top.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is the apex of the director's late-'80s rise to prominence within the industry, and damn near the nadir of his career. To be clear, it is not as awful as legend would have you believe, or at least, it isn't to me as I've yet to read Tom Wolfe's source novel. I have actually come across some people who not only defend this film but say they prefer it to the book. If that is true, Wolfe's novel must be a real piece of shit. For even without the knowledge of the book's full contents, De Palma's fiasco feels so incomplete and haphazard it's a wonder the director only realized the problems in retrospect.

If Wolfe's roman à clef was meant to be a detailed account of '80s New York in all its schismatic glory, highlighting the split between the budding Wall Street aristocracy and the terror of crack-ridden streets below the high-rise apartments, De Palma's film paints broad strokes of weak satire. No, that's not right; the film only softens one side of the dichotomy between wealthy, oblivious whites and impoverished minorities. Which side gets it easier in the eyes of majority-baiting Hollywood? Oh, take a wild guess.

Tom Hanks, not yet moved beyond his lighthearted comic image, plays Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street investor who makes millions by the minute and enjoys living the life of luxury. Hanks, only a few years out from his dramatic breakthroughs in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, occasionally flashes an edge that he could have brought to the fore had the screenplay wanted him to truly delve into the seedier aspects of a Wall Street player. Instead, the film uses Hanks' comic charm, portraying him as out-of-touch but not particularly loathsome in any capacity, despite his general celebration of his garish lifestyle and infidelity with a Southern gold digger named Maria (Melanie Griffith). Even when the two accidentally drive into a crime-ridden area of South Bronx and run over one of two black men who accost them, the film does its best to absolve Sherman while placing any blame for the racist and classist attitudes brought up in the hit-and-run squarely on the shoulders of Maria, caricatured out of human recognition into a whining harpy.

This simplified satire might have worked had the same humanizing effect been given to the other half of the film's overview of New York. Instead, poor Sherman, in the wrong place at the wrong time, runs into the undiluted fury of the poor and minority bloc of the city, their grandiose anger exposing hypocrisies and self-defeating extremism while the privileged enjoy a charmed interpretation of white-collar oblivion. The caricature of Al Sharpton, Reverend Bacon, borders on the racist, with De Palma's low-angle shots of bulging eyes and flaring nostrils nearly framing actor John Hancock in minstrel poses.

Bacon rails against the notion of the unidentified driver of a Mercedes getting away with the cops' indifference, rightly noting that they wouldn't just drop the case if some black driver had run over a middle-class white family. But like Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, Bacon is as much a self-promoter as he is a civic crusader, and he clearly plays up for the cameras to make himself the focal point of the manipulated outrage. But he's successful, and soon he's got Weiss (F. Murray Abraham), the D.A. looking to for a way to win the minority vote after prosecuting minorities overwhelmingly, quaking in his suit. Abraham removed his name from the billing over a contract dispute, but part of me wonders if he did so after reflecting on his performance. If Hancock must make out the leaders of the black community to be nothing more than charlatans looking to crucify a white devil to maintain their stats, Abraham plays Weiss as a flagrant Jewish stereotype, greedily hunting power and also looking for a way to get one up over on the WASPs. When Bacon accuses him of letting the wealthy white go unpunished, Weiss frets over being seen as a "hymie racist pig," then muses aloud how the Italians, Irish and WASPs will love to see him squirm.

Obviously, this is satire, but it's paper-thin, and De Palma inserts nothing to offset the racist view of the city's minorities being wholly self-serving. Instead of flecking human beings with ironies and contradictions, he presents two-dimensional caricatures with comedy that isn't funny enough to absolve the troubling simplicity of their ethnic identities. Pointing out the class blindness that affects the underclass is a perfectly valid criticism, but here the blacks and Latinos come off as nothing more than a mob looking for a white scapegoat. And even when De Palma finally gets down to going after the elites—presenting them as entertained by Sherman's connection to such a pedestrian crime like Roman nobles approvingly watching enslaved gladiators torn to ribbons—he still lets Sherman almost completely off the hook. At the ridiculous trial that closes the film (presided over a black judge instead of the book's Jewish one so as to make Sherman's acquittal seem victorious rather than proof of the system stacked against non-whites), poor, frail Sherman is framed against a screaming, hissing, even singing (hymns, natch) crowd of the poor and pigmentally varied. Whether the De Palma meant it or not, and the swelling, unironic strings that accompany the verdict suggest at least someone did, the audience is meant to root for McCoy to get off Scot-free.

This is all bad enough, but various other additions weigh down the film in subtler ways. The film nearly approaches cleverness when Sherman attends a performance of Don Giovanni and clearly sees himself in the character, a point De Palma then drives him with a sledgehammer, ruining the one good part of the film. Bruce Willis, foisted upon De Palma and a noted pain on-set, plays the alcoholic reporter Peter Fallow, who desperately launches the hit-and-run case to give himself a popular story to justify the paychecks he drinks every day. Whatever role Fallow played in Wolfe's novel, he has no reason to exist here, and De Palma must resort to a framing device that awkwardly inserts him into the movie so Willis can deliver stiff voiceovers in that noncommittal drone of his.

The Bonfire of the Vanities is so clumsy that even the moments of pure De Palma fail to add some life into the film. A swirling overhead shot of Sherman and a coworker is an ingenious touch that makes great use of the striking floor design, but it only goes to show how little time the director spends in Sherman's corporate world. A split-screen between Bacon's self-aggrandizing harangues and a changing right image first showing an amused Fallow looking on then a nervous Weiss watching on TV feels like someone trying to ape De Palma with no regard for composition or juxtaposition. Even the elaborate, wildly entertaining tracking shot that opens the film, following Fallow as he arrives for a speaking engagement through the underground of a complex past admirers and pack reporters, fails to maintain its power when placed in context with the rest of the movie. When the film soon moves completely away from Fallow for an hour, the shot, maybe even Fallow's entire presence in the film, seems a self-serving addition.

After filming completed and The Bonfire of the Vanities went out to a critical and commercial savaging, De Palma finally admitted his error, even letting Julie Salamon come in and write a tell-all on the film's troubled production. I want to read that book as much as Wolfe's source novel: even a basic summary suggests studio tampering, uncooperative stars and wasteful expenditures. But hell, all of that is visible on the screen. It is stunning that a filmmaker as radical (aesthetically and politically) could make a film so firmly reactionary in its ultimate absolution of the luxury class—compare the subverted race roles of the "Be Black, Baby" segment of Hi, Mom! to the clearly demarcated racial cartoons drawn here. Almost as unforgivable, it's one of the director's dullest films. Even the "punchline"-lacking Untouchables (to take a page from Pauline Kael) felt more alive than this.

The only good thing I can say about The Bonfire of the Vanities is that it sports simply one of the greatest shots to ever appear in a De Palma film, a perfectly, almost freakishly timed shot of a Concorde jet landing at sunset as the landing strip aligns perfectly with the descending orb. It is a stunning, arduously planned moment, and it's the best indication of how much better the film might have been had De Palma and his crew been given a better cast and screenplay. From what I can tell, a more accurate representation of Wolfe's novel might have been right up De Palma's alley; he would have delighted in tearing everything apart. Instead, he made by far his most reactionary film, a lighthearted spoof of the upper class and a vicious portrayal of the poor and disenfranchised. Had De Palma not made his mea culpa later, I might have thought he did this on purpose; his other big Hollywood spectacle, The Untouchables, is also conservative. But even the wide berth I give to De Palma's irony has its limits, and if The Bonfire of the Vanities was meant to be as bad as it is, well, mission accomplished.

Monday, June 27

Blood Money (Rowland Brown, 1933)

Rowland Brown's snarling Pre-Code feature Blood Money was thought lost for decades, perhaps out of wishful thinking for decency's sake. The story of cop-turned-amoral bondsman Bill Bailey (George Bancroft), Blood Money is an unsentimental, occasionally repellent dive into the criminal underworld by way of one of its transitory members. Bill talks a big game and hands out Cuban cigars by the handful, but his arrogance is tempered by the quiet knowledge that the criminals he considers friends and allies will desert him at the earliest sign of trouble.

The Depression-era underworld Brown drifts through is a topsy-turvy fever dream of transvestism, bootlegging and sadomasochism. There's no moral to offset the madness of the film's crime-ridden social pits; if anything, Brown considers crime a completely viable form of business in the Depression. Without it, how would you know you were in the city?

Brown's film has some of the awkward pacing of the early talkies, but his brutal wit manages to box back any snags in the narrative. Innuendo infuses nearly every line, and Brown's blunt visual style keeps matters so off-keel that the occasional moments of stiffness never slow down the nightmare. Bill's movements through speakeasies and racetracks offer some baffling sights: a woman in drag (complete with monocle) stands like a butler at a party. When Bill offers her a cigar, she drawls, "You big cissy" like a disappointed father. Even stranger, Bill wheezes with uncontrollable laughter, one of several indications that he too might fall somewhere in-between sexual roles.

Some of the film's transgressiveness isn't even intentional but the result of retrospective career evaluations. Frances Dee, who would later be known for more wholesome roles and her early retirement to raise a family, here plays a bored rich girl slumming around the underworld to tend to her dark fetishes. She shoplifts for the fun of it, suggests a bisexuality primarily based on a need to screw whomever's nearest, and a sadomasochism she pins down to a need for someone to "give me a good thrashing." Judith Anderson, one of the great stage actresses of the era, makes her film debut as Ruby, a speakeasy madam and Bill's only true friend in the world. Despite her talent, Anderson only ever got cast as the gruesome hag in film because of her looks, and Brown's nonjudgmental view of his characters is perhaps best exemplified by his casting of her as a sex symbol and the only character in the film with anything approaching true beauty.

But that's not to say Brown condemns anyone else. He prefers instead to show the blurred lines that separate out the various touchstones of civilized society. As has been said, gender and sexual distinctions muddy with the cross-dressing and sexual ambiguity. Naturally, Brown also erases the thin blue line separating cop from criminal: Bill spends his nights carousing around the underworld, but he can also rub elbows with legitimate businessmen, even the D.A. himself. The cops do chase the criminals, but they also seem to accept the idea of crime; after all, without it, they'd have no job.

That unspoken agreement between the law and the street trash forms the basis for the climax: Drury, Ruby's deadbeat jailbird brother, robs a bank as soon has he gets out of prison, a move that threatens a life sentence. Bill, for Ruby's sake, gives him the bail money, but Elaine, smitten with this dangerous criminal, swaps out Bill's cash for worthless bonds and absconds with the robber, who thinks himself Scot-free. When the bail bounces, people assume Bill shortchanged Drury, and the one thing that cannot be forgiven in this sleazy world is a double-cross. Even Ruby, who clearly still loves Bill despite his faded attraction to her, cannot abide such a transgression, and her organization of the criminal elements against him seems more a response to this breaking of the rules than any emotional attachment to her own flesh and blood.

The climax of the film is hilarious and, considering its utter lack of redemption, oddly touching. The mob uses an 8-ball packed with explosives to kill Bill while he's playing pool (a reference to a similar, albeit lighter, element taken from Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., perhaps?). The truth is uncovered with only minutes to spare, leading to a brilliantly cross-cut sequence of Ruby racing to the billiards hall as Bailey has an almost unfortunately good game that speeds him through his shots. But when the crisis is averted, Bill and Ruby get back together as if they'd just come through the typical rom-com Big Misunderstanding. Elaine, dumped by Drury for making him an unwitting traitor, runs into a woman walking out of an office in tatters, sobbing that she answered an ad about modeling work and was instead viciously assaulted. Elaine forcefully asks where she can find the man, but before she marches off, the look of pure lust and hunger on her face suggests she isn't going to go put a stop to the man's violent streak.

Spared the moral shackles of the Hays Code, Brown never has to worry about saddling his film with a message. Because of this, his grimy portrait of an amoral society actually feels more identifiably human despite its lunacy. Brown doesn't judge anyone for his or her weirdness, doesn't validate the system after spending so much time in the depths of it. There's no outright violence or sex in Blood Money, but it feels dirtier than the glorified softcore porn that passes for action fare these days. But for all its sordid detail and for-the-cheap-seats acting, Blood Money is still an engaging and unexpectedly intelligent film. I've not seen many Pre-Code pictures, but this ranks among my favorites.

Doctor Who — Series 5

Doctor Who's fifth series takes the strengths of Russell T. Davies' revival and smooths out nearly all the issues that routinely gave me pause. WIth the exception of an unnecessary two-parter and a useless Dalek return (now with Freeze-Pop colors!), the start of Steven Moffat's tenure as showrunner elevates the series from a whimsical but dodgy program to one of the best shows currently on television.

Admittedly, I think just about everyone expected an uptick in quality when Davies handed off the series to its best writer, but Moffat completely overhauls Doctor Who without sacrificing its innate charms. It still feels like the classic space serial it is, but Moffat trades Davies' only fitfully earned "golly gee whiz" mood for a more grounded wonder, one that is a payoff to the adventure rather than the default tone of voice. I'm told the original run of Dr. Who had its moments of darker energy, and Moffat very much targets that side of Who, to the point that the series, while still feeling appropriate for a family, might actually challenge, even alienate, viewers.

But first, let's talk about the casting, because it's as important to the success of Series Five as the tightened writing. David Tennant was spellbinding as the Tenth Doctor, his incessant grin and goofy frame perfectly suited to Davies' vision of the series. Matt Smith had a great deal to live up to when he took on the role, suffering reams of preemptive criticism as if he'd been the one to push out Tennant, but damned if he doesn't shut everyone up from the start.

As I said in my review of the first episode, Tennant played the Doctor as if he wanted nothing more than to be human; Smith's Doctor, on the other hand, is quite content to be a higher being. But he does still admire our potential: in the series finale, he responds to a show of immense compassion from one of his companions by sighing, "Why do you have to be so human?" his voice mixing exasperation with affection in an almost paternal sense. Smith makes for a slier, wittier, more scabrous (if still amiable) version of the Doctor, and while I figured I'd prefer Moffat's time as Who head over Davies', I was most surprised to see how quickly I not only accepted Smith but came to favor him over Tennant.

Backing up Smith's revelatory performance is an equally powerful one from Karen Gillan as the new companion Amy Pond. At once a continuation of Donna's feisty presence and a whole new breed of Companion, Amy is such a fantastic, compelling character in her own right that she's the first Companion I wouldn't mind following around even without the Doctor.

Amy is a bit unbalanced, her own complexes arising from the Doctor himself, who appeared to her as a child and then inadvertently disappeared for years, leaving her to endure ridicule and therapy. This gives her an intriguingly spiky edge with the Doctor, burying some friction between their happy adventures. Davies' Companions always fit into some easy categorization with the Doctor: Rose had an outright romance with him, Martha unrequited love and Donna an almost sibling-like interplay. Moffat gives more depth to Amy: her relationship with the Doctor is Platonic, occasionally suggestive, deeply committed but also occasionally contentious. This is reflected in the Doctor's treatment of her, which isn't always so friendly and supportive.

Moffat uses Smith's and Gillan's total chemistry and rich characterizations to great effect. Neither the Doctor nor Amy ever seems to know where they stand, an ambiguity that weighs even heavier on poor Rory (Arthur Darvill), Amy's fiancé. From the moment we see the sweet but defensive lad, it's clear that he's dealt with Amy's issues (it can't be easy hearing tales about the "raggedy Doctor") but that he loves her dearly, and the zeal with which she joins the Doctor unsettles him. The Doctor invites Rory along too about halfway into the series, but it's amusing that he seems to do so both willingly as a means of preventing Amy from getting to close to him yet reluctantly because part of him maybe likes this gorgeous, loopy lady.

Because Moffat and his writing team create such richer characters, they also have a responsibility to write better, deeper stories. Boy, do they deliver: from the mournful, disturbing first episode to the glee of the Venetian episode, Doctor Who's fifth series connects more fully to both the creepy genre horror and the idealistic elation of the show. In-between, Amy's muddled feelings for the Doctor are drawn out through an adventure that forces her to choose between him and her fiancé, an adventure that also happens to be one of the creepiest bits of TV I've ever seen. Elsewhere, we get a particularly heartbreaking portrait of the kind but troubled Vincent Van Gogh, who might only be driven more mad for the kindness he receives from his new but transitory friends. Also, the series-long arc is woven into each episode with far greater subtlety than the haphazard "Bad Wolf" reminders of yesteryear.

Best of all is the two-parter that brings back the Weeping Angels from Moffat's mini-masterpiece "Blink," somehow making the damn things even more terrifying while simultaneously moving deeper into the overarching mystery of the cracks in space-time. "Time of the Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" work as a two-part episode should, the first establishing the story, defining the characters' roles within it and culminating in a narrative shift so seismic it necessitates a follow-up to address the upheaval. These two episodes were so brilliant, so scary, so well-acted and so unexpectedly poignant that I didn't watch another episode for two weeks afterward so I could mull them over more, and when I resumed the series, I rewatched these first.

Part of what drew me to Moffat when he was simply one of the show's writers was his interest in the actual time element of the Time Lord. Nearly the whole of the series plays on Moffat's fascination with the possibilities of time jumps, and he even makes the fits and jerks emotional. Amy was clearly traumatized by the Doctor disappearing for years, while River Song returns with an even greater air of tragedy to her as the person who lives the reverse of the Doctor's timeline. Moffat likes to bewilder, but he always makes his episodes easy to follow provided one doesn't seek to iron out the very fabric of space-time to understand everything, and part of the reason he never loses sight of the endpoint is that he always gives the audience a reason to care about what's happening.

As I said, not everything in the series is a triumph. I'm somewhat biased against the Dalek episode because I'm frankly tired of them, but "Victory of the Daleks" also irritates for its assumption that the audience will love the WWII throwback despite how uninvolving it is. Worse is the Silurian two-parter, an utterly dull narrative that lacks the plot to even fill a single episode stretched to infuriating lengths. And the fact that it ends with one of the series' most poignant, devastating moments actually made me angrier; after such wonderfully incorporated arc material, the writers just drop in a key moment of the series without any real connection to the uselessness of the two-parter's plot.

But these are hiccups in an otherwise incredibly consistent series. Because the writing and acting is so strong throughout, the finale can go further than I've ever seen the show travel, ripping apart space-time in a way that feels both epic and terribly isolating and small-scale. In response to his critics, Smith, so ruthlessly mocked for being so young, looks older and wearier than any Doctor I've ever seen in his wrenching goodbye speeches to the adult and child versions of Amy, his tone brotherly and fatherly in equal measure and communicating a love that goes far, far beyond "will-they-won't-they" TV tension.

If Davies' Who had the power to occasionally grip me with moving moments of danger and loss, Moffat's show has me so completely wrapped up in these characters that the thought of any of them slipping through one of those cracks in space-time, not only killing them but erasing all memory of their existences from the universe, truly terrified me. I care about these people. I feel their fright when a monster actually scares, their fear of losing each other and their joy when the show's irrepressible optimism peeks through even in the darkest hour. After all is said and done with the series and the Doctor invites his pals to stay on with him, the sense of delight that bursts out of Amy and Rory has been so battle-tested by despair that their undiluted enthusiasm hit me harder than just about any moment of the "Allons-y!"sunniness of the show as it existed. The strong end-run of Davies' tenure warmed my occasionally tepid response to the series, but it was Moffat who made me a true fan.

Sunday, June 26

Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2011)

I will not ask why Cars 2 exists because I've seen the merchandising figures from the first film. Nevertheless, it's a question I couldn't force out of my mind while watching this two-hour bore. After a string of ambitious, beautiful films that established Pixar as one of the most respected studios on Earth, they finally sink to the sad state of their bosses at Disney. This isn't a film, it's a preview of coming attractions at a theme park. I didn't stay through all the credits, but I nearly did just to see if it ended with an advertisement to come check out Cars Land next year at Disney California Adventure.

Underlining the sheer cynicism of this film's conception is the near-total lack of characterization. John Lasseter, whose erstwhile evocation of the young, winsomely childlike George Lucas here brings out the mercenary side of the Star Wars creator, transparently structures the film to avoid personal connection in favor of selling toys. Forgettable as the first Cars was, it at least spent time with its characters; Cars 2 throttles past the drama between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his loving but tiresome best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), preferring instead to get in as many new vehicles as possible to make sure Disney's merchandise wing ends this year in the black.

For whatever reason, Cars 2 plays out both as a world-spanning Grand Prix and a spy movie, forcing incessant cuts between McQueen's unimportant exhibition match and an insultingly simplistic spy mystery that even a child could guess within the span of about 10 minutes. The two threads converge over a new alternative fuel pushed by a reformed oil tycoon (Eddie Izzard), the race sponsored by Axelrod to test and promote his new product and the spy stuff uncovering a plot by Big Oil to protect its interests. You thought the environmental message in Wall•E was on the nose? At least that was part of a beautiful and beautifully told story; here, Lasseter just ladles on some social commentary in the midst of his choppily edited action sequences.

There's something profoundly disturbing about the perception of this film as Pixar's most kid-friendly movie, considering the casual gun violence sprinkled throughout. Other Pixar movies contain danger and more ambitious ideas, but that doesn't exclude them from children. This film, on the other hand, is insipid and shiny and hollow, Pixar's first great capitulation to ADD. Because it makes no effort to get the audience to care about any character, Cars 2 can have fun with its explosions and gunfire without worrying about a child getting upset. Compare the banal "suspense" scenes of contrived danger here to the wrenching near-death of Wall•E: if Lightning McQueen suddenly contracted HIV (CIV?) I still wouldn't care about him.

Admittedly, Cars 2 has the decency to sport some of Pixar's strongest animation. Like its predecessor, the film offers the animators a chance to particularly hone their lighting work, and Cars 2 at times outstrips the look of anything the studio has done. The belched flames of oil refineries look even more real than the swirling inferno of Toy Story 3's incinerator, and the animated Tokyo might be even more dazzling than the real thing. But nothing ever wows in this movie. Whatever magic Tokyo might have held is instantly dispelled by the stereotypical humor used for cheap laughs (hahaha Japanese toilets are confusing!), while the nature of the Cars universe continues to be so vexing I can never connect with it.

Why do the cars eat when they seem to fill up like real automobiles? Who built any of this world without hands? Are the vehicles born or manufactured? (I think the answer to this one is both, depending on the setup.) And why are there shitting metal detectors in an airport? I know it's a cartoon, but that only means this childish response is all the more appropriate: I don't like this world. I don't like its meaningless, undeveloped characters. I don't like its villains all cheap models like Gremlins and Pacers, an unfunny joke period and certainly one that won't work on children. I don't like its environment, meticulously animated solely for visual and spoken puns and never given flavor and personality the way Ratatouille's Paris, Wall•E's trash-ridden Earth or the various playpens of the Toy Story movies are. And I don't like its puerile, inconsistent humor, none of which connects because the characters are so undefined they provide no anchor for the comedy.

Cars 2 wants to tread in the same waters as the first film, stressing the importance of friendship, but Pixar already developed this theme with far greater resonance in the Toy Story pictures. And with Mater jet-setting around with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, the only person even trying to give his character some flavor) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Lasseter never even bothers to flesh out Mater's insecurity and hurt feelings save for clumsily inserted scenes of reflection. And don't even get me started on the rivalry between McQueen and Italian F1 racer Francesco (John Turturro), a mutual dislike so dull that the filmmakers can only hope that we care about who wins based on past familiarity with the American car.

Cars 2 will make its money, perhaps even faring a bit better overseas now that it adds more European and Asian models, but if every Pixar film sets out to prove some artistic or moral point, Cars 2's message seems to be open, cynical confirmation that the studio truly can make not merely a weak film but a dismal, greedy one. Be sure to bring a copy of your disappointment with you to California next year, everyone; you'll get a Fastpass for half price.

Broadcast News (James L. Brooks, 1987)

None of James L. Brooks' films condense his sitcom sensibilities better than Broadcast News. Where so many of his movies feel treacly and thin, Broadcast News offers a well-rounded portrait of fully realized characters whose story does not overstay its welcome. That's the other thing: were it any longer, or were it a television series instead of a one-off movie, the archetypes Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks embody might have consumed them and left only two-dimensional cut-outs for easy humor that turned stale in short order. Somehow, Brooks positions the film perfectly in the middle, clearly drawing upon his television outlook but making something uniquely filmic out of the material.

Using his stint as an CBS News writer as the basis for the film, Brooks casts a spotlight on the news industry in flux. Television has become the dominant means of news communication, and Brooks looks into the medium shortly before the likes of CNN completely altered the format from individual news programs to a 24-hour machine. At times, though, one can hardly tell that the characters only produce news for an hour-long (if that) block of programming, as the Washington newsroom bustles at all times with people desperately trying to get segments finished on-time and watching playbacks with fervent hope that the lead anchor up in New York, a godly presence appropriately played by Jack Nicholson, will give even the slightest indication of approval.

For cynical journalism majors like myself, Broadcast News offers not just an accurate view of TV news in the '80s but a disturbingly prescient view of the ethical shift in journalism in the modern age. Or perhaps that's the wrong way to put it: as the jumpy Blair (Joan Cusack) tells the network's news president, newspapers hunt readers as viciously as TV seeks viewers. Two of the three main characters, the gifted but overly acerbic reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks) and the blunt producer Jane (Holly Hunter), constantly rail against TV news, though they not only work in the profession but even cut video segments for calculated impact.

It's better, then, to say that Broadcast News shows the changing face of that ratings grab, moving away from unique story ideas, exclusive interviews and more appealing writing to mere flash. The papers might have their fluff stories, but they'd at least try to have good writers pen them. Now, TV simply requires shiny images to win over the public. At a conference on the state of TV news, Jane rants about the dangers of the modern approach to news as an assembly of colleagues yawn, chatter amongst themselves and even walk out en masse. Flailing, Jane makes one last attempt to prove her point by showing a tape of a meaningless domino display that every network ran instead of covering something serious like nuclear treaty talks. The audience of adults who supposedly entered journalism to spread truth suddenly turn back in delight and even applaud the video of cascading, colorful dominoes.

Now, any idiot can tell the news, a change in broadcasting personified by Tom (William Hurt), a sports anchor looking to make it big despite his lack of education, experience or even basic intelligence. Hurt's performance is perhaps his finest: from the second he walks up admiringly to Jane in the aftermath of her disastrous address, he communicates utter stupidity in his eyes. Before he even opens his mouth, his beaming, empty smile gives him away, and sure enough, he soon proves himself an idiot, albeit one with as much ambition as either Jane or Aaron. Crucially, however, Tom knows he's a dolt with no understanding of news, and Hurt plays him with an earnest desire to learn and get ahead that gives dimension to what might otherwise have been a one-trick prop. That complexity also allows the audience to buy, however reluctantly, that Jane would so quickly fall in love with him though she knows he represents everything she hates.

Brilliantly, Brooks weaves together two distinct threads, the love triangle between Jane, Tom and Aaron (who's been Jane's best friend for years but cannot come out and say how much he loves her) and the workplace satire of the newsroom, into one unified narrative. The professional mixes with the political: Tom's rapid ascension within the network mirroring Jane's conflicting feelings of love and repulsion, while that personal turmoil tugging at Jane fleshes out her professional behavior as a blunt, almost aggressive ringleader. Some of the film's finest scenes perfectly encapsulate Brooks' deft handling of the two plots; Tom's first time in the anchor's chair necessitates complete planning by Jane to prevent his inanity from slipping out, and Brooks films the resulting broadcast from behind the scenes, showing how Tom's charisma filters Jane's instructions, most of which come from Aaron's wide base of knowledge on key news topics. In essence, we see the triangle played out through a completely professional prism: Aaron, unable not to help and support his friend and love, assists her in making Tom look good, which only makes him more attractive to her, and Tom's own elation at succeeding draws him closer to Jane.

At every turn, this feels like a James L. Brooks film, but at times I wondered if the other Brooks involved did some punch-up. Albert Brooks gives such an impeccable, completely A. Brooksian performance as Aaron that part of me refused to believe he was reading someone else's lines. Albert Brooks directs the comedian's own cynicism against himself, positioning Aaron's hostile wit as an outgrowth of his pain over Jane's strictly Platonic view of him. Anyone who has ever been in the "friend zone" with a pal you'd give anything to be more than a friend will find Brooks' performance acutely, almost unwatchably real. He tries to drop hints to Jane, asking with wistful neurosis, "Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive? If needy were a turn-on?" Aaron makes one final, desperate appeal for Jane with a monologue that mixes the best of both Brookses: in a fit of pique, Aaron unleashes a half-series rant on how Tom is the devil, expounding on the idea that Satan is always attractive, kind and unassuming, but that he subtly tears down everything until all that's left is misery and chaos. It's a hilarious outburst, but also one that mingles not only the same personal and professional concerns simultaneously weighing on these characters but Aaron's biting sarcasm and genuine agony over losing Jane. And when, after so much waffling, Aaron finally admits his love for Jane, I was so happy Albert Brooks got the part, as no one else could have sold the line, "How do ya like that? I buried the lead" with infinite heartbreak and bitter resignation instead of snappy punnery.

But no one compares to Hunter. Jonathan Rosenbaum said Jane was "the most intricately layered portrait of a career woman that contemporary Hollywood has given us," and that seems the best summary of her character. Hunter has to walk a fine line, portraying a career-driven woman who also longs for a relationship without falling into the numerous stereotypical pitfalls that await nearly all depictions of such characters in Hollywood. But Hunter pulls it off; rather than play Jane as bitchy, Hunter brings out the social awkwardness and stress of Jane and how her work is both the cause and product of these traits. Hunter is a hilarious crier—she pulls her whole face back as if trying to squeeze her tear ducts shut, afraid that tears might give her away only to end up a moaning, warped wreck who looks like she's having a seizure—but her comically exaggerated sobs belie a wracked misery of the incessant demands of her job and the feelings for Tom she wishes to suppress and further explore. Brooks didn't write Jane to be simply the opposite of the stereotypes but to delve into the complex emotions that ultimately settle into broad types.

For all its written and even physical comedy, Broadcast News hits hardest when it lets its triumvirate subsume the commentary into their deeply felt drama. A journalistic strand of pessimism hangs over the whole affair—when a professionally and personally satisfied Tom good-naturedly asks Aaron "What do you do when real life exceeds your wildest dreams?" Aaron hisses back "Keep it to yourself." Some might consider that dour view to extend to the coda, placed seven years into the future and settling the love triangle in a way sure to please no one. Yet the ending deals with the very cinematic construction of the rom-com love triangle in a very earthly, relatable way: love doesn't exist in a vacuum, and the same careers that help and hinder the advances of the three continue to affect their personal lives. Admittedly, I wanted the pat ending, if only because Albert Brooks reminded so much of a personal crush I had on a friend that years later I'd still settle for a facile vicarious victory. But the real, human conclusion to the film only cements it as Brooks' best, funniest yet most poignant movie, and the best journalism movie to say something about more than just the occupation.

Saturday, June 25

Blindness: Modal Verb for Ability - CAN

Saramago's book had a decent adaptation, which was filmed in São Paulo. This intriguing scene is great for beginners to pracice the modal verb for ability CAN.

I Watch the movie segment and check the activities that the main character in the segment can do.

1. ( ) Drive home

2. ( ) Hear the car horns

3. ( ) Open the car window

4. ( ) Say what happened to him

5. ( ) Walk without any help

6. ( ) See the traffic light

7. ( ) Go home without any help

8. ( ) Call his wife for help

II. Now rewrite the sentences using CAN or CAN'T.


1. He can't drive.




2. He can hear the car horns

3. He can open the car window

4. He can say what happened to him

5. He can't walk without any help

6. He can't see the traffic light

7. He can't go home without help

8. He can't call his wife for help

Brian De Palma: Casualties of War

On a first viewing, I found Casualties of War to be a fitfully intriguing, if overly quotidian Vietnam film that offered up a unique story but a predictable payoff. Furthermore, the tonal upheaval that occurs in the final act turned what had been one of Brian De Palma's most solid films into a well-meaning but sappy liberal morality play. Looking at it now, however, I see one of De Palma's better films, and a slyly literal take on the illegality of war that proposes such a simple, self-evident solution that it never seems to come to mind: what if someone actually took the horror and wrongness of war to court?

Unlike a court-martial film, Casualties of War is neither about a kangaroo court to make an example of the enlisted or a demonstration of the rotten chain of command. In fact, it isn't about the trial itself but the courage to bring one's fellow soldiers to that trial, overcoming self-doubt over incriminating one's fellow servicemen and intense pressure from everyone else to let the whole thing go. Coming off the upswing of strong (and strongly critical) Vietnam films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, De Palma's film sticks firmly with the men on the ground. Less forgiving than Stone's semi-autobiographical film and less heady than Kubrick's movie, De Palma's feature shows the same breakdown of sanity and humanity not as the result of an officious, out-of-touch command but of the absence of any clear structure in an environment so confusing the trees themselves seem to be hostile.

De Palma opens in the present on a subway, but he soon moves into a flashback in medias res, wading through the jungle at night with soldiers who are already paranoid about potential tunnels under their feet. Suddenly, the VC ambushes the American squad, throwing the film instantly into pandemonium before we've even learned the names of all the characters. De Palma finds unexpected means of generating tension by layering the different horrors of field combat in Vietnam into one sequence. As mortar explosions burst and roar around the men, Max Eriksson (Michael J. Fox) inadvertently runs over the roof of a tunnel, which collapses and leaves the soldier dangling precariously as mortar fire draws closer to his position. Meanwhile, Vietcong move through the tunnel, and the one in front spots Eriksson's swinging legs and moves in for a silent kill. At last, Sgt. Meserve (Sean Penn) pulls him out just before the mortars reach the position and as the VC underneath lunges, wringing the last drop of suspense from the moment. Everything is in chaos, and when Meserve punctuates his killing of the Vietcong soldier in the tunnel with a tossed-off "Some mad fucking shit, isn't it?" he doesn't even scratch the surface of the lunacy.

Unlike the dreamy depiction of Vietnam's horrors of Apocalypse Now or the moralizing reflection of Platoon, Casualties of War goes for a much more straightforward approach, tempering the director's romantic tendencies. But it certainly doesn't spare his more vicious side: enraged over the death of a member of the unit and frustrated because of leave being cut short for redeployment, Meserve stops at a hamlet as the men move out and kidnaps a young Vietnamese girl, Oann (Thuy Thun Le), to use as a sex slave.

De Palma's camera is clearly repelled by the actions of the men, all of whom—the twisted Meserve, the downright evil Cpl. Clarke (Don Harvey), the feckless and weak Hatcher (John C. Reilly)—rape the woman over Eriksson's desperate protests. Even the new replacement, Pvt. Diaz (John Leguizamo), gets roped into the beatings and rapes, intimidated by the sinister pressure placed upon him and Eriksson to fall in line to ensure total complicity among the men. Fox, perfectly cast to look mousy and meek against his comrades, can only squeak out pleas for sanity in the middle of an insane land. De Palma, usually so up close and personal with his camera, pulls back into the stylish objectivity he used with The Untouchables, but to far more troubling and memorable effect.

For a director frequently (and sometimes justifiably) accused of misogyny or at least a fetishization of the male gaze, De Palma shows a key restraint in his filming of the abuse heaped upon Oanh, never letting his camera linger upon the acts even in horror lest he inadvertently oversell the shock. Casualties of War features a number of zoom-ins and foregrounded mise-en-scène but few genuine close-ups, almost never moving nearer an actor's face than a medium close-up that leaves enough of his torso in the frame to ensure some personal space. For example, when Eriksson moves to see what Meserve is doing with Oanh and spots him about to ravish her, the camera cuts back to a medium-long shot for Fox's reaction of disgust and panic, maintaining focus on him but also arranging the grisly act in the background, an objective moment that almost plays out as a brief glimpse into Eriksson's head as the image of Meserve's violation burns into the back of the private's memory. In this way, the director's removed framing has the unexpected result of being more affecting than easy, exploitative close-ups and male gazes.

De Palma's distance also serves another purpose, leaving a grim suggestion out in the open that the horror of the Americans' treatment of Oanh is unremarkable and unworthy of special attention within the larger context of the Western presence in Vietnam; by some standards, in fact, what Meserve and the other four do to the girl might be nothing more than a literalization of the war itself. Nagged at by latent guilt for his actions and driven paranoid with terror of his crimes being discovered, Meserve orders the men to kill the girl—notably, he does not do the deed himself, Penn's voice cracking with the death throes of his humanity, his war-torn sense of decency holding on just enough to keep him from pulling the trigger. But as American choppers fly in to support the squad's fight against a band of VC, the four men at last deal with the problem, riddling the woman with bullets as Eriksson cries out helplessly.

It's a ghastly end to a sordid affair, but the film has an entire act left, which it devotes to Eriksson's quest for justice with the military authorities. Here, De Palma gets to work enhancing his political statement, which brings up a fair amount of his old radical stances through a more subdued visual approach. At last we meet the officer corps, and sure enough, they want to hear none of this story. Where so many anti-war films follow a top-down hierarchy of responsibility for atrocity, starting with detached generals making foolish demands for personal glory and bloodily trickling down to the enlisted man, Casualties of War muddies the culpability. Here, the soldiers move outside of communication with brass, lose their minds in war's atmosphere and commit horrible crimes, and then the leaders take steps to cover up the actions to maintain morale, decorum and image.

De Palma is perhaps the first director who, what with his metacinematic and pop culture flourishes, filters war through an understanding of its meaning in modern media. It's not that he's saying soldiers are rapists or baby killers or what have you, but he's not lazily foisting all responsibility onto the military heads. Westmoreland didn't order the My Lai massacre, but he damn sure participated in the cover-up to prevent word of the atrocity spreading. De Palma's understanding of the post-television landscape of war's popular front gives Casualties of War a resonance beyond its demented, moral chasm of a narrative: the cover-up the military unsuccessfully mounts against Eriksson could be seen more recently in the Abu Grahib situation.

As if to prove that he does not seek to simple saddle the average soldier with the psychic weight of Vietnam's horrors, he smartly cast young actors in the roles of the squad soldiers—ironically, the oldest, Fox and Penn, both nearing 30, actually look the youngest of them all. Thinking about this now, I suddenly realize after years of trying to pin down what it is about Saving Private Ryan (a film I recently talked about in a less-than-positive review) I find so irksome: Spielberg's film asks if the current generation can ever match up to the Greatest one, but he does not even give youth a voice, instead using actors well into their 30s and looking like career Army men. Only a few characters in that film actually seem like kids plucked from their hometowns to fight Hitler. De Palma's complex look at the moral casualties of war is all the more potent and believable because he recognizes how mere kids were thrust into the insanity of this situation and expected to behave as noble warriors. When Eriksson takes his case to a captain (Dale Dye), the career man tries to gently dissuade the private from prosecuting his comrades, finally exploding when he reminds the private that Meserve is only 20-years-old and in a place he no doubt finds as bewildering and terrifying as Eriksson. It's a sobering point, and one that takes some of the steam out of Penn's wide-eyed, sputtering fury though he's not even in the scene.

But De Palma also knows that the adult thing to do is not to lump blame or let someone off the hook, and as top-heavy as the film can feel, this final act becomes more evidently vital to me with every viewing. Complete with a coda in the present-day as Eriksson tries for a fleeting connection with a Vietnamese-American girl who reminds him of Oanh, Casualties of War at last emerges the maturation of the director's radical '60s politics, a coming-to-terms not only with his his own waning fury but his generation's moral failure to contemplate and process the illegality and atrocity of Vietnam. My main issue is that the trial for the four soldiers feels too grandiose to fit into De Palma's appropriately humble sense of scope, something he only half-successfully works back into the film after the verdict is read and that same captain hisses in Eriksson's ears that none of the men would serve anything close to their full sentences. (That, by the way, was true; the actual soldiers who really did commit these acts all received shorter sentences; Hatcher even got out completely on an appeal.)

Nevertheless, Casualties of War holds up as a solid, if wisely non-showy, display of De Palma's most mainstream style. But it's that older, wiser but still irascible view of Vietnam that gives the movie its power. I used to think of the film as nothing more than an average exercise: good, but Teflon-coated against any connection, much the same way I viewed The Untouchables. But if my opinion of De Palma's gangster film has only lessened, my approval of this war film grows with each new viewing. There are flashy snatches of direction—that initial skirmish in the jungle, the grandiose horror of Oanh's murder—but De Palma's generally tame approach might give off the impression of rote repulsion. Still, the director uses his omniscient frame to pose serious, reaching ideas on the lingering issue of Vietnam on the national psyche, and I can finally say without hesitation that I would rank it among the finest movies ever made on that turbulent, ever-relevant conflict.

Friday, June 24

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948)

The Blu-Ray cover for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre depicts Humphrey Bogart in a moment of sober, slack self-recognition, a repulsed and vacant stare into nothingness. A more representative image, however, would have been one of the countless looks of uncontrollable hunger and desire that crosses Bogie's face throughout this vicious fable of greed. Like his greatest performance in Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place, Bogie's work here channels the actor's vulnerability into a self-annihilating fury, an unfocused explosion of fear and loathing that can consume anyone caught in its blast radius.

When we first meet Bogart, as Fred C. Dobbs, we see the actor at his most vulnerable, shuffling around a harsh Mexican town with no prospects bumming pesos off fellow Americans. Bogie's hangdog expression has never drooped so low; if it sagged any further the flesh would fall off his skull. But when he and compatriot Curtin (Tim Holt) hear about a potential gold vein from an old prospector who's played his luck enough to squander the fortunes he's made, the men drag the old-timer, Howard (Walter Huston), with them on the hunt for gold, utterly ignoring the warnings made to them.

John Huston wastes no time delving into the film's macabre moralism: he introduces Howard in a seedy, cheap motel room where bums share a giant space in rotting cots rambling on about the evils of gold and how he's back here in the dumps after finding his share of wealth, but all Curtin and Dobbs can think of is those mountains of gold Howard says undid him. Howard cautions that the yellow stuff changes and corrupts people, something he himself proves when he instantly agrees to join the men's expedition. After his borderline soliloquy on the evils of gold, he goes right back to being a slave to it.

With his sturdy, uncluttered compositions, Huston uses his honed workman style to greatest effect here. Using a dusty, hollow mise-en-scene, vast enough for howling winds and kicked-up sands to swirl around the triumvirate of losers, the director leaves gaps of space in his tight 1:37:1 frame to let the atmosphere accumulate over the men. When those sandstorms die down, all that's left is static, arid air that crackles with the electricity emanating from the three as the gold they actually discover begins to addle their brains.

And no one loses sight of his humanity faster than Dobbs. Bogart runs the gamut of his range in this movie, from the always-on-the-verge-of-tears look of infinite sadness on his face to animated glee at the thoughts of rivers of gold. But it's that aforementioned naked greed, that twisted, paranoid avarice cracking the caked dirt and sweat along evil wrinkles. Having gone bald from alcoholism and hormonal injections to help conceive a child with Lauren Bacall, Bogart wears a wig that doesn't look fake (it's too damn dirty to tell) but suggests a receded, eaten away scalp underneath the thick, unwashed lump. His smile is as unsettling as the look of ecstasy in his face as he imagines the murder in In a Lonely Place; his grin is gap-laden, jagged and grimy—you can practically see a thin film of plaque on the teeth. When Bogie gets this look on his face, Satan himself wouldn't rush to collect this damned soul.

Dobbs' descent into madness is exacerbated by the dangers the trio face in their trek. The train they take to get to the area is attacked by banditos. The cave they dig out to extract gold collapses on Dobbs and jars his head. Another gold hunter follows Curtin back from a trading post, forcing the three to consider whether to cut him in on the work to ensure the secrecy of their dig or kill him and face both the risk of being discovered and the moral repercussions of killing for money. At last, a group of banditos ascends the mountains, having bought the miners' ruse of being hunters but come all the same for guns and ammunition. All of these issues weigh on Dobbs' mind, splintering the focus on his distrust and anger until he can no longer find his way back to sanity after his outbursts.

Huston's great strength was his economy, but he takes his time out here in the Sierra Madre range, not only letting the space air out the narrative without losing flow but even throwing in a few extraneous scenes that successfully add flavor without feeling like add-ons. The most memorable of these is a moment late in the film when Mexican Indians emerge from the dark politely requesting help in reviving a semi-drowned boy. Howard heads out with them, leading to a beautiful, strange scene of the old man using pre-CPR methods to work some life back in the boy as an almost impossible number of Mexicans stand by in this tiny village, as if Aztec ghosts suddenly appeared behind the gathered corporeal beings to monitor the future of this latest descendant of the bloodline. That scene is so striking in and of itself that its mesmerizing, almost dreamy quality somehow fits within the stark moral desert of the rest of the film's tone.

But that scene also serves to demonstrate the different moral states of the men. If Dobbs rests at one end wholly consumed by his greed, Howard has achieved a self-aware wisdom that may not prevent him from still going out on these damn fool digs but gives him the clarity to rise above the corrupting influence of gold and to entrust his goods with the others to do the right thing and help someone. In the middle is Curtin, whose own corruption is handled more subtly than Dobbs'—when the mine partially collapses on the latter, Curtin has a brief moment of hesitation, the look on Holt's face suggesting, if only for a millisecond, that he could leave his friend and partner to die and take his share. But he also has flecks of humanity and decorum, tiny displays of better judgment that only further strain his relations with Dobbs.

Their various levels of temperance in the face of gold's influence bear out in their ultimate fates. Like a Coen brothers film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre shoves its grisly climax back from the very end of the film, turning what could have been a trite, obvious comeuppance into a removed, finely observed moral reckoning with dramatic space afterward to truly reflect. Dobbs' actual demise is blunt, half-seen, uninviting to audiences seeking a thrill in the villain's downfall, and the critical distance of Huston's lens pulls back as if getting nature's view of the situation. As such, it makes odd but undeniable sense that his death should have nothing to do with the gold and that the stuff should finally return to the mountain dirt from whence it came. Howard and Curtin come to terms with this in gales of laughter: Howard knows that he has a shot at a comfortable twilight with the Indians who respect him, while Curtin is, by his own admission, no worse off than when he started, but now he has the same clarity Howard got through experience and can perhaps carve out some happiness.

Importantly, however, Huston does not resolve solely to fates reflective of one's moral status. Cody, the potential usurper who comes to the camp, helps the strangers who reluctantly agreed to kill him fend off the bandits, and we learn that he sought riches to care for his family, from whom he'd been away for a long time. But he dies in the bandito raid, his own complex, human morality entirely separate from the end that befell him. Make no mistake: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is assuredly a fable, but Huston does not present his location-shot adaptation of B. Traven's book in a moral vacuum. Cody's death, like Dobbs', is meaningless and inevitable in the unbending, dispassionate view of nature.

Wednesday, June 22

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

The only comedies that have stood up as agelessly as Some Cast It Hot are the works of Chaplin and Keaton, and they have the benefit of the universality of silent film. Billy Wilder's farce never lets up; even its deceptively action-packed opening is absurd (and proof of the director's capacity for visual humor in addition to his written wit), and every shot has something funny in it. The men-in-drag comedy has become an overplayed trope in the decades since the film's release, but Wilder's still stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. Unlike so many who followed in his footsteps, Wilder does not accept the premise as a joke so funny it needs no further work to make an audience laugh. Instead, he layers double- and triple-meanings into numerous lines, resorts to callbacks to make sure the crowd is paying attention and always parlays the easy joke of the hysterically transparent drag duo of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Curtis looks better, if only because he's placed next to Lemmon's side-splitting hag) into a far craftier gag.

Those opening shots of a bootlegging hearse being chased by cops lead to the humorous image of liquor seeping out of a bullet ridden coffin and a host of funeral puns when the mobsters arrive at a converted funeral home. We then briefly meet musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), who see that one of the patrons is taking out a badge and silently pack their instruments to make an escape before the raid comes crashing through the door. Later, they inadvertently witness the same gangsters who hired them gun down rival mafiosos in a garage, prompting the saps to run away from freezing, crime-ridden Chicago to sunny Miami by hiding among an all-girl band of musicians.

Lemmon and Curtis are, even by their standards, a scream. Curtis plays Josephine with a constant pout, as if the words "Well I never!" are constantly on "her" lips. In contrast, Lemmon interacts with people as Daphne with such braying, overbearing loudness it's a miracle he isn't discovered. Lemmon, who must have looked in a mirror after being dressed up as a woman, saw what a hideous creature he made and decided to go whole-hog. His wheezing laugh and toothy grin make Daphne vaguely off-putting (Lemmon kind of looks like the Joker from Batman when he smiles as Daphne), yet it's his deadpan frustration with Joe in private that makes for the funniest facial language. The faces Lemmon makes when he tells Curtis "You tore them" several times in rapid succession are so funny I continue to laugh until I have to wipe tears from my eyes.

Yet both Curtis and Lemmon nearly meet their match in Marilyn Monroe. Sugar, a ukulele player and singer, captivates both of the men to the point that they both nearly blow their covers trying to woo her. Monroe was reportedly a nightmare during production, but all one sees on-screen is that overpowering innocence peppered with sexual knowledge that made her such a knockout. She brilliantly uses Sugar's own dysfunctional sweetness to drive the men wild, perfectly positioning her body to lean in for sisterly whispers with "Josephine" and "Daphne," also subtly shoving her chest closer to them at every turn. Code limitations and Wilder's own intelligence prevent the now-requisite close-ups of the breasts, which makes the joke all the more funny; we know damn well what Joe and Jerry are really thinking, and watching Curtis and Lemmon try to keep their tongues from flopping to the floor makes for much funnier stuff than shot/reverse shot of cleavage and bug eyes.

Some Like It Hot works because, like all great broad comedies, it gets progressively zanier and more ridiculous as it goes. Wilder doesn't halt his film to get across some message, nor does he blow his best gags early: as funny as the train ride is, with its sexual tension between the two men and unsuspecting women swarming all over them in sororal friendliness, things go off the rails in Miami. Seeking to play to Sugar's dreams of marrying a kind millionaire, Joe adopts the persona of the heir to the Shell Oil fortune, speaking with a devastatingly funny and accurate Cary Grant impersonation. Meanwhile, Jerry finds himself the object of a lecherous old playboy's (Joe E. Brown) affections, despite how obviously mannish Daphne looks and how openly Jerry disdains this Osgood Fielding III. In the film's best sequence, Wilder moves with increasing tempo between Joe and Sugar on their date and Jerry and Osgood on theirs as both leads play hard to get. Of course, Joe does it to drive Sugar wild; Jerry does it to get this old man off him.

I love how everything in this film is blatantly contrived and silly, yet Wilder still takes the time to set up something as clever and well-paced as that oscillation between Joe's and Sugar's blossoming love and the lunacy of Jerry actually getting into his date with Osgood. The unmissable gags (the cross-dressing, Osgood's oblivious groping, the return of the mobsters under the guise of meeting for a society of Italian opera lovers) lose none of their luster over the years for the more low-key, sly comedy sprinkled throughout. For instance, I love that Wilder does not call explicit attention to the uselessness of Prohibition even though he shows everyone in the film constantly within reach of some kind of alcoholic beverage. I also wondered if Wilder was being a bit naughty when one of the musicians butts into a conversation Daphne and Sugar are having in Jerry's bed on the train by asking "Is this a private clambake or can I join?"

Some Like It Hot notably features as the AFI's pick for the funniest film of all time, and it seems every current evaluation of the film weighs it against that standard. It is to the film's credit that it continues to hold up under such scrutiny. I don't know that I would say it's the best comedy ever; for my money, Wilder's own The Apartment is the best-written film ever made. But, pound for pound, it may be funnier than Wilder's masterpiece. Not a single scene fails to make me laugh, either through a callback, a visual cue, a razor-sharp exchange or the terrific body language of the actors*. Culminating in perhaps the finest of Billy Wilder's treasure trove of indispensable last lines, Some Like It Hot is a farce for the ages, the best distillation of Wilder's early days as a screwball writer for other directors into the directorial craft he'd by then honed through his noir work. I don't return to the film as often as I do Wilder's more cynical works, perhaps thinking in the absences that the movie won't hold up as well upon a repeat viewing. Yet whenever I sit down with this film, I laugh as hard as I did the first time. Forget about the film's remarkable lack of dated material (especially given the clichéd, stereotypical pitfalls of the premise); the fact that it gets funnier with every viewing is the greatest testament to its legacy.

*For me, the best bit of physical acting comes when Jerry, who earlier seriously entertained the idea of dressing in drag to get the Florida job to offset his and Joe's crippling debts, realizes that Joe is finally agreeing to the plan after they witness the murders and need to escape. The slack, hungry and confused look on Lemmon's face slowly tightens, his face pulling in thirds. First, the eyebrows go up in surprise, then the cheekbones raise in understanding. Finally, the mouth upturns in approval and satisfaction with Joe's solution to their problem.