Friday, January 11, 2013

Oh What Heights We'll Hit

Because it's just that time of year, I wrote two pieces surrounding the Oscars. The first is a consideration of the term "Oscar bait," which I find totally meaningless for a variety of historical and aesthetic reasons.

The second is a standard reaction piece to the nominations, but I like to think I gave it a little extra punch. Please?

Battleship Pretension, where you'll find a variety of top ten lists in the weeks ahead, was kind enough to host and encourage each.

Broadway (Pál Fejös, 1929)

The glut of 1930s dramas and comedies that take place partially or entirely in the backstage of some song-and-dance show can get a little overwhelming, in a which-one-was-that kind of way, but I have to say it takes a lot for me to really dislike them (a statement that will be tested once my Busby Berkeley set arrives this week). So while Pál Fejös' 1929 musical is, yes, a little stodgy and awkward in that way only early sound films could be, and it's definitely far too long (104 minutes at a time when most ran around 90, often much shorter), and the story is familiar to probably even those who have never seen a single film made before 1990, I gotta say, there's a lot to like.

Let's start from the outside, so to speak. The film never ventures beyond the walls of the Paradise Nightclub, and even the auditorium area is reserved only for the musical numbers, which are themselves pretty staid affairs, but which produce a reaction in their audience like a tent revival. Nightclubs in other such films are usually portrayed as fairly refined affairs, where someone is inevitably thrown out for behaving a little too bawdily after several too many drinks. At the Paradise, that behavior seems to get you in the door! There are people dancing on tables, throwing things onstage (in a congratulatory manner, it would appear), and the level of rabble-rousing far exceeds anything I've seen in any other film. Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby looks restrained by comparison. Fejös' camera, which he stuck on a crane uniquely developed for this film, swirls up and down and around the massive performance space, nearly as unrestrained as the attending audience.

Backstage, things are hardly more civil. Like any respectable nightclub of the era, there's heavy gangster involvement at the Paradise, but the sin hardly stops when bootlegger Steve Crandall leaves the room. One girl's spying for a competing mobster, good-girl Billie Moore is frequently seen with Steve himself, and our hero, Roy Lane, is no gentleman in trying to tear her away. He's trying to put together a routine for the she and him, give them a name of their own to put up in lights and some extra money along with it, possibly enough to get married on. Though she's more than eager, and goes to every rehearsal he sets, it's not enough as long as she's out with Steve every chance she gets. So he does what so many guys do - takes petty, selfish actions to try to separate them and win her over, treating her pretty poorly in the process, and never really telling her how he feels.

This might not make for the most nuanced story, but it's a hell of a lot more than the usual bit where the guy and girl, way too nice for anyone's good, are separated by unconvincingly-stretched misunderstandings and -communications. I've certainly lost out on girls because of that, but more often than not, the trick is just treating her decently and being halfway attractive, and while the film cuts these future lovers some breaks along the way (especially with an offscreen mother serving as the Deus ex Machina), it's sweet enough on its own terms. Tack on some fine personality courtesy of star Glenn Tryon (familiar to all good cinephiles as the star of Fejös' Lonesome), some passable musical numbers (Tryon's pretty clearly relying on a double in all arenas), lavish production values, plenty of gangsters-and-showgirls banter, and a Technicolor ending, I've certainly had less desirable evenings at the movies.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Peggy Sue Got Married (Francis Ford Coppola, 1986)

Is it okay to criticize a film for having the wrong ending?

Peggy Sue Got Married is one of those many films Francis Ford Coppola made in his "coming back from bankruptcy" phase, and one which I came to watch as an effort to see all of the man's films I'd not yet in more-or-less chronological order (I'll be doubling back on his 1960s works later on). There's a lot to recommend the film on, not the least of which are early performances by people who went on to be stars and reliable standbys (including Kathleen Turner, Nic Cage, Joan Allen, Kevin J. O'Connor, Jim Carrey, and Helen Hunt), but most excitingly, it plays as a very stripped-down, more personal version of Back to the Future, more forcefully confronting the 1980s' nostalgia for the '50s/early '60s and exposing its emptiness, before, sadly, finally succumbing to that sentiment itself.

Peggy Sue Bodell (Turner) goes to her 25th-year reunion (she graduated in 1960), haunted by her recent separation from her high-school-sweetheart husband, "Crazy" Charlie (Cage, embodying the crazy through and through), and woefully out of place upon arrival in a dress she'd hung onto since those happy days. Nevertheless, she's the bell of the ball, winning the equivalent of Prom Queen, alongside a former nerd who, surprise surprise, became quite the business tycoon in the years since. But Charlie had just arrived as she won, and, overwhelmed by everything going on around her, she faints, and, inexplicably, awakens in 1960, just as her senior year of high school is coming to a close.

The film never explains her trip, and there are later hints that it was far more than the extended hallucination one might be tempted to see it as. Even when it threatens to get into the realm of practical fantasy as Peggy tries to return to 1985, it thankfully diverts back towards the mystery. Though it inevitably resorts to the some of that knowing, wink-wink humor (Peggy giving ideas for inventions to people, mostly), the film spends a great deal of time in 1960 showing her make the exact same mistakes she made in high school, falling all over again for her future-cheater of a husband, staying out too late with the wrong crowd, throwing her sexual caution to the wind, and ignoring those who have her best interests at heart. She's pretty insistent early on about correcting her old mistakes, telling Charlie the first chance she gets to take a hike, but especially as she wasn't the one who broke up their marriage in 1985, she's not particularly resilient to a very direct reminder of the man she fell in love with in the first place. She's more a teenager than she could have imagined or expected, impetuous, losing sight of herself even as she recognizes the singularity of an experience she's, ironically, living twice.

This is strong, potent stuff, particularly as Coppola's direction (and Cage's uniquely off-putting portrayal of Charlie) tell us he couldn't possibly be right for her, and her late discovery and declaration that she doesn't want to marry anybody, be it Crazy Charlie, beatnik Michael (O'Connor), or brain Richard (Barry Miller), all of whom propose to her in one form or another, feels perfectly in tune with her character's development and the film's themes of revisiting your past to account for your present. "Peggy Sue got married," she cries, repeating the title not in a sense of celebration, but of mourning. That's her whole life, she says, the entire encapsulation of her adulthood. And now she has a chance to change that.

But then she wakes up. Charlie is by her side, and apparently had been for the entire time she'd been out. The only change in their relationship is that she was perhaps a little bit more resistant to him back in the '60s, but that doesn't seem to have changed anything for their present - Charlie still had a fling with a much younger woman, they still had kids at a very early age, and Charlie's youthful dreams of pop stardom still landed him running a family-owned appliance store that's turned his local celebrity into something of an embarrassment. There's a mention late in the 1960 game about the importance of her kids to her, and obviously they wouldn't be around if she didn't marry Charlie, but if that's the deciding factor here, she should have been a little bit more enthused about them throughout the film. Besides that, there's nothing from a character perspective keeping her there, and yet that's precisely what she decides to do - continue trying to win him back.

In terms of storytelling, Peggy Sue goes through a tremendous amount of effort to grow not at all. She still pines for her dirtbag husband, but how are we supposed to take her final decision? The screenplay's tone is decidedly triumphant, recalling a conversation she had in 1960 with her terribly-kind grandmother, but Coppola puts a weirdly otherworldly touch on it with a mirror illusion he established at the opening. It still seems the film is trying to leave us happy, but over what? That she decided to forgive her husband, even though his remorse was purely selfish?

Finally, thematically, this totally goes against the film's established purpose, leading one to wonder what the purpose was of it at all. And so I return to my initial question - does this regressive ending undo everything interesting the film had already established? Not totally, I'd say. So much of the narrative tension hinges on the titular declaration, and in what manner it is fulfilled, and it'd be hard for me to call it a successful film, let alone a very good one. And yet...there's so much in the interim that's suggested, occasionally realized, and often flirted about, an experience with which Coppola fans are not unaccustomed. There are moments of naked emotionalism in Peggy Sue, particularly toward the beginning and end, and some fascinating meditations on the limitations we possess in receiving and processing information in conversation that few filmmakers will ever touch on. Peggy is constantly saying things that don't make a lick of sense outside of the context of her time travel, but people around her just accept them and squeeze them into their own sense of reality (perhaps a comment on "the times" as well, but I think this theme is resonant in any setting).

I adore his certified classic films as much as we all do, but what I really admire about Coppola is found in his less obviously Great films, the minor works such as this, or The Outsiders, or Tetro, or One From the Heart, or most especially Rumble Fish (which should really be considered alongside the Greats, but that's another topic), this artistry tangled up in an unapologetic vulnerability that never quite allows for the total, mannered approach he took in the 1970s. Coppola will never be as reigned in as he was with The Godfather or The Conversation, and there are those who see his work suffer as a result, and maybe that's true. But it's resulted in a flowering of his artistry, and for that, I am thankful.

Further reading:

Nataniel R. wrote a very nice piece on the occasion of the film's own 25th anniversary, and the screencap at the top of his article is indebted to him for finding the defining moment in the film.

Roger Ebert, one of the critics who's best in tune with the intertwining of personal history, nostalgia, and art, wrote an especially fine review on the film's release.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Best Films of 2012

Insofar as there’s no such thing as a “bad year” for movies, the process of whittling down dozens of films (in my case, in this year, 139) to a mere ten “best” features is sort of an impossibility, but as impossible activities go, one of the more fun ones.

A word about eligibility - if I can make a case for it being a 2012 film, it gets considered. Feel free to inquire about specifics.

Honorable Mentions

And to think I nearly eschewed my beloved "honorable mentions" this year. I usually reserve these slots for flawed films which I nevertheless feel merit consideration beyond that which they've yet received, but all of my favorites were easily justifiable this time out. Then an extended discussion on Twitter reminded me how much I really, really like Ridley Scott's Prometheus and how totally...well, I suppose it does deserve some haranguing, but not to the extent it has received, especially as much of it (not all, easy now) seems to stem from arrogant dissatisfaction that some measure of expectations were not met. Anyway, I've already written at length about the film, acknowledging its many, many flaws, but feeling it had it where it counts. Even if that area was, in all likelihood, completely unintentional.

Runners-Up (in no particular order)

All I can say is this one had me firmly in its clutches, and I wanted to jump for joy as the climax hit. It's got some pacing issues in the first half, but as soon as Affleck tells Cranston that the mission is a go, and Cranston goes tearing down the hall with the camera just a half-second behind him, this thing is just the best.

Magic Mike
About as much fun as the movies can offer, but when the drama hits, it hits. The greatest trick Soderbergh ever pulled was turning this into a hit.

Killer Joe
Electric and thrilling, this is what modern film noir should feel like - not a lot of referential throwbacks to deep-shadowed cinematography, but a pitch-black dive into greed, lust, sin, and desire that leaves a mark.

The Raid
Dance that leaves scars.

No, I don't totally "get" it, but I feel like I get it.

Holy Motors
Love every weird second, can't say I figured out a damn thing without some help, but boy what a joy this film has been to live in.

Declaration of War
The year's most overlooked film - heartbreaking, pulse-pounding, and often soaring beautiful.

Après Mai (retitled Something in the Air for U.S. release)
Olivier Assayas exercising his nostalgia muscle, but not without some deep self-criticism. As much an admiration of youthful passion as a biting look at how much that can be little more than a fashion choice.

Somebody Up There Likes Me
The most I laughed all year, and deeply insightful.

One to revisit, knowing the heights to which the second half would soar.

The Deep Blue Sea
The story of Anna Karenina made somehow even more stagebound than Joe Wright's adaptation. Contains some of the finest shots of the year.

The Top Ten

10. Post Tenebras Lux
As mystifying, terrifying, affecting, and purely wrought as they come, Carlos Reygadas’ follow-up to his landmark Silent Light is perhaps not as Great, but at least as galvanizing. Ostensibly the story of a well-off family situated in a poor region of Mexico, Reygadas traverses this country and several others, emerging with a film I could not explain, but which I feel I understand on an almost chemical level. His audacious imagery speaks for itself, insofar as words never could communicate his artistic purpose, but the totality of the experience is so singular, so resolute, and so unwavering that to ignore it is an act of futility. It’s haunted me for months. It’s also the only film I’ve ever seen that almost started a fistfight in front of me, so there’s that.

9. Girl Walk // All Day
On the total opposite end of the spectrum is a pure blast of 70-some-minute joy. A dance film set to the Girl Talk album All Day, Jacob Krupnick’s debut film defies classification. Anne Marsen (in one of the finest performances of the year) plays The Girl, who breaks free of a stodgy ballet class, taking to the streets (and subways and boats and shops and motorcycles) of New York to find a home and purpose for the unbridled joy she feels in her freedom. Shot entirely on location, and mostly without the cooperation of various passers-by, it quickly transforms into a celebration of the power of art and live performance, the use for, and respect and celebration of the public space, the unshackling of consumerist allure, and more than anything, the true joy of communal creation. The perfect synthesis of several imperfect mediums, Girl Walk // All Day emerges as pure cinema, through and through.

8. Anna Karenina
Speaking of synthesizing several art forms into pure cinema, Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina brings together dance, theatre, and Technicolor movies to craft the most potent modern melodrama I’ve seen in I don’t even know how long. Its unashamed artifice (the film is set mostly in a rundown theater) reveals not only the performative aspects of public life central to the themes inherent in the text - Anna’s punishment for straying from her marriage is not a legal one, but societal - but also the blatant fake-ness of such films as these, which utilize British performers to play Russian characters. That it manages these playful aspects without subverting or narrowing the drama at hand is merely one of its many fine attributes, though perhaps the most important. Unafraid of her selfish character, Keira Knightley goes all-in as Anna, rendering a portrait not entirely sympathetic, but deeply moving in its excess. The same, I suppose, could be said of the film.

7. Amour
I’ve yet to find Michael Haneke’s intellectual approach distancing, insofar as he always matches it with a purity to his direction and an honesty in the performances that reveal the emotional undercurrents of his philosophies. Here, the two reach the kind of synthesis one can only dream of, in the story of an elderly man, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), caring for his dying wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). Both testing and fulfilling the promise of the title, the events that transpire - limited almost entirely to their apartment - are at times shocking or heartbreaking or even scary, but the quietly stated emotional undercurrent, which occasionally blossom into warm affection, are what makes this the resonant film that it is. Love stories are abundant in cinema, and it’s one of the things the medium does best, and this is the sort of total encapsulation of the concept that few filmmakers are given the license to explore.

6. Lincoln
This is my kind of Americana. From its opening scenes, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln makes no bones about it - this is folklore, through and through. Abraham Lincoln may be a flawed man, unable to reconcile his passion for politics with his rather removed stance on his home life, but when he’s in his element, he is the master of the house. The particular house he must master is that of the Representatives, and the particular maneuverings required to secure the number of votes necessary to pass an amendment to the Constitution outlawing slavery provides the film no small measure of entertainment value, wrought so beautifully in the banter that screenwriter Tony Kushner revels crafts, and the so-precise-it’s-scarcely-being-noticed camerawork on behalf of Spielberg and longtime cinematography Janusz Kaminski. But it is Lincoln’s longer monologues, those about Euclid and past cases and British bathrooms and recognizing one’s moment in history when it has arrived for which I most dearly love the film. In these passages, Kushner’s superb dialect is unleashing into the kind of flowering, effervescent speech sorely missing not only in our day-to-day conversation, but in the cinema which seeks to represent us at our best. Day-Lewis’ performance isn’t just engrossing for the totality of his transformation, but for his character’s much-needed magnetism - Spielberg’s camera can scarcely look away, satisfying our own optic instincts.

5. Killing Them Softly
SO. AWESOME. Killing Them Softly is Samuel Fuller for the modern era, ripped from the headlines, pulsating with rage, and aesthetically adventurous at every turn. It’s an open wound that refuses to be mended until justice is done or revenge is exacted, whichever seems right at the time. The parallels between mob crime and the American economy are boldly stated and clearly underlined - lest anyone think writer/director Andrew Dominik is being too emphatic, I’m fairly certain that’s the point - but it’s the degree to which the American Dream in infused in these characters that I find most damning. We’re all told to find success doing what we do best, with those who turn out the best profit margin going the furthest; Killing Them Softly takes that edict to its natural conclusion. And miserable they are, seemingly pulled out from the sewers (in the case of Ben Mendelsohn’s character, perhaps literally) and put up in hotel rooms, these aren’t the charming gangsters that populate the cinema. These are scumbags, the lowest of the low, and their connection to the engineers, proprietors, and executors of our financial system is no mere talk, for neither is terribly concerned with the fallout of their quest for more greed. As scathing as they come, Killing Them Softly is the sound of the gates of Hell opening before you.

4. In Another Country
If Reygadas used his imagery to terrify, Krupnick to inspire, and Wright to move, Hong Sang-soo uses his to tell a joke. The opening shot contains a very simple camera adjustment that nevertheless inspired uproarious laughter in my theater, hooking us immediately while quietly seducing us to its charms. Consisting of three insanely simple stories about three French women (all played, superbly, by Isabelle Huppert) who visit a seaside town in South Korea, have common interactions with the locals of the area (most notably a lifeguard played by Yoo Jun-sang, who made me laugh out loud merely by walking), and in some way work out the struggles in their lives that brought them there, the film may not prove terribly deep, but its simplicity is somewhat deceptive as well. Provocative, light on its feet, and unabashedly charming, In Another Country doesn’t precisely fit the classical definition of a “crowd-pleaser,” but I’m unable to see it any other way.

3. Moonrise Kingdom
Yada yada, Wes Anderson sure is a specific artist, yada, if you don’t like the films he’s made before, you won’t like this one, yada yada. I don’t know at what point having a singular, specific style was declared to be a bad thing, but let me know when that one makes sense. Until then, Wes Anderson will continue to delight me, even if it would be unreasonable to expect them all to be this grand. This is about as stripped-down a film as he’s made, telling a simple story over a very short period of time that nonetheless builds towards the most spectacular climax of the year, one as boldly expressive as the whole of most other films. The building blocks are assembled so specifically and deliberately that one may miss a few details along the way, yet the film never leaves you behind.

Beginning with a series of careful pans around young Suzy’s house, then introducing us to the love of her pen-palling life, Sam, through the environment he has just escaped, Anderson seems almost to be answering his critics who say he builds dioramas first, characters second. By the time we settle in with Sam and Suzy, they turn out not terribly different from any other pre-teen kids, yet so distinct in their specific building and pairing that I was won over instantly. Their interactions are at turns endearing and terribly uncomfortable, as they negotiate the way people don’t always turn out exactly like you want them to be, but are somehow better for it. Anderson’s cast is filled with actors doing their best work in years, but it is Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward on whom the film rests, and with whom it so resoundingly succeeds.

2. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
I was familiar only with the name, and not the work, of animator Don Hertzfeldt before seeing It’s Such a Beautiful Day. Shortly afterwards, I ordered as much of it as my wallet could bear. Actually a trilogy of short films that Hertzfeldt retroactively turned into a feature (the final third shares its title with the whole, lest one is confused), the film is more or less about a very simply-drawn character named Bill, who we understand fairly quickly is in some degree of medical trouble, the severity of which is not immediately clear. But his various musings and specific modes of thinking are not common to someone with a healthy, engaged brain, to say the least. The film’s emotional tenor is at once removed and intensely engaged, expressing how something can be both hilarious and deeply tragic all at once, creating an uneasy tension not only in our engagement with the film, but in the very way we engage with our lives. That’s a pretty high calling for any piece of art to aspire to, one which I see the cinema only scarcely touch upon, and if I declare this to be anything less than the finest film of the year, let it only be the result of some personal preferences and modes of engagement. It is an astounding achievement, so full of the kind of warmth that will eventually destroy you.

1. The Master
The Master is almost overflowing with thematic concerns of varying weight, so much so that it’s tough to know where to begin, or in what manner to condense my appreciation and affection for it. More than anything, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson wrangles the vulnerability he displayed in his earlier films into a form at once more manageable and more unwieldy. This is not the carefully-arranged, multifaceted breakdown of Magnolia, nor the perfectly-formed disintegration of There Will Be Blood - this is messy, and purposefully so. Even a scene as finely-crafted as that initial “processing” encounter between Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leaves room for the wild, the inexplicable, and the unexpected, leaving us unable to possibly grasp its outcome even as its eventuality seems inevitable. “Pick a point,” Dodd challenges Freddie late in the film, belying the emptiness of not just the cult he’s founded, but the whole of American life in the postwar years during which this film takes place - Anderson matches his own challenge by speeding towards the wild blue yonder.

What I return to most is the final encounter between Dodd and Freddie, wherein Anderson wrings the most potent emotion he’s yet found in a discussion of dreams and balloons sent across nations and, somehow, not the first time a character sings to express something outside of his capacity for verbalization. This scene is so tender, so raw, so unblinking in its sideways depiction of longing and regret that to ascribe either emotion to any one element of either character is hopelessly reductive. It is the very essence of art, moving past that which is being depicted, past the act of depiction, and into an emotional stratosphere of its own creation. And for all its many attributes, it is for this that I love The Master. I can’t imagine the cinema will remain unchanged for it.