Friday, October 26, 2007

Eastern Promises, or On Ending Before You're Done

Eastern Promises treads tricky ground, moving carefully between sombre London melancholy and Tarantinoesque gangster swagger. And given just how damn overdone both of those ingredients are, it could be lauded as a remarkable success.

But then, this is canny Canadian story-wizard David Cronenberg: treading tricky ground only just gets you in the door. With a body of work as gruellingly masterful as his, it’s fair that we want something more. And he offers it: Eastern Promises’ characters are the most human, dirty, stinky, flesh-and-blood group of ruffians yet depicted by the director.

Mortensen, as Cronenberg’s tortured wanderer du jour, offers a far more interesting performance than his History of Violence cipher. And Vincent Cassell is… well, he’s Vincent Cassell, which is to say he’s a loathsome rat-man, so if you’re casting him as a loathsome rat-man, congratulations, instant star turn.

Yet, just when you think Eastern Promises is doing something really brave and departing from all the things that unite Cronenberg’s oeuvre (visceral body-angst, subjective realities, etc, etc), things go a little bit… Cronenbergian.

Let’s steer clear of anything that happens past an hour in, because there’s this awesome scene, followed by one plot development that happens that just whips you about the chops and forces you to sit up and wonder what movie we’ve just been dropped into. Unfortunately, everything after this point answers that question adroitly: A really shit one!

So what’s the deal? Is this a movie that turns story on its head, or is it just an intriguing movie with a really crap last act? Like Spider and Violence before it, there’s no easy answer to that one - kind of like most of the questions in a Cronenberg movie.

Dave, in the words of your countrywoman: Why’d you have to go and make things so complicated?

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Friday, October 19, 2007

Perfect Creature, or On Underdirection

Perfect Creature makes you glad you’re not a lot of people – anyone involved with Perfect Creature, for a start. But in particular, it makes you glad you’re not Dougray Scott.

Scott has clearly been given exactly two pieces of direction for the entirety of Perfect Creature: “look dour” and “now tilt your head”. Whenever nothing’s happening (this is often), it’s Scott’s job to act morose, make sure nobody’s having any fun.

What a trial! Trying to get through a scene, remembering the time you stopped a bullet for John Malkovich, your days filled with almost-actors snarling in your face thinking they had pathos! The poor fellow doesn’t even get any scenes with the delightful man from the Ferritt ad…

Oh, but wait - maybe this is the scene where Dougray gets to fire the magic vampire-killing bullet-time gun! Wait, Dougray, before you do anything rash, let’s have that head-tilt that’s the only piece of character you’ve been given and thus have used in every single reaction shot in the fucking movie!

Whether it’s the requisite scientific mumbo-jumbo or the requisite religious-metaphor schtick, good ol’ Dougray’s there, being dour. And on the frequent occasion that Perfect Creature gives the plot a rest and focuses on the unique visual universe it’s cobbled together from all the movies with the exact same story – you can bet he’s out there somewhere, not smiling, and tilting his head.

At the end of the movie – well, I say “end”, but being as nothing much has happened, all we really get is a cessation of the dullness and some credits – Dougray stands, looking dour, and solemnly intones that his character would like a sequel.

And somewhere, in a parallel universe, everyone’s seen this movie, so they don’t care whether the next installation is called Perfect Creature 2 or Underworld 3 or Blade 4. Everyone except Dougray’s chiropractor. He’s just bought a boat.

[originally appeared on Flicks]

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death Wish/The Brave One Redux, or Further On The Myth of Vigilante Justice

"You don't look too bad - here's another."

In the light of Death Wish, it's easier to understand - and countenance - The Brave One as an act of genre subversion. Not only do the two play almost shot-for-shot at times, but the narrative of both movies conforms to the same rigid structure, beat-for-beat - a structure, ironically, largely dictated by Death Wish, a book whose author hated the movie because it advocated vigilantism. And yet they arrive at points whose opposition to one another couldn't have been better if the writers had actually been playing Duellin' Screenplays.

An early scene in The Brave One has Jodie Foster's Erica Bain staring up at a larger-than-life photo in an art gallery, of a gun store frontage. If one were prone to overanalysing composition (and one is not, believing this method prone to divulging most any which point the author wishes to make while willfully casting aside any hope of analysing a piece of film with the awareness that this is a technical product subject to onset issues of practicality... but if one WAS), one could say a lot about this sequence of shots.

Erica, still in her happy place, stands dwarfed and impressed by the image, a doorway over which hangs a slightly cartoonish three-dimensional revolver. One could point out that the shot compresses the distance and enlarges the frontage even further, pulling Erica into its looming doorway. One could make much of the fast that the signage's sculpted handgun is angled so Foster - and the viewer - are looking right down the barrel. One would doubtless wryly note that Erica, when expressing her admiration of the piece, enthuses that it exudes realness: by being photographed, blown up and hung in an art gallery, such a thing becomes art, fiction, a sliver of narrative - but its accessibility nonetheless has reached her. And at any rate, one would not be surprised when, a half-hour-odd later, Erica needs a gun and this very gun shop is the place she goes.

This scene seemed pat to me at first - an obvious bit of foreshadowing followed by an over-neat payoff. (The only thing that stuck with me was how beautifully it was photographed: as much care has been paid to isolating and lovingly lighting specific objects in the background as the protagonists themselves, which seems something of an obvious statement of intent that's not really followed through on). But it makes more sense in the context of its twin scene in Death Wish.

In all probability, whatever lyrical, lasting weight Death Wish manages to attain is due to the Tucson sequence. Bronson's character, Paul Kersey, is in a bad way: his wife's dead, his daughter slipping into catatonia. Paul would appear to be treading the fine line between displaying a stoic refusal to give in to grief, and providing a tragic parody of bereaved machismo. (Actually, by displaying neither life-stopping defeat nor dismissive callowness, he's actually doing a pretty good job, but don't worry, the whole thing'll mess him up soon enough). Paul's urged to take a trip to Arizona to work his architect-magic on a development his firm wants to buy into. Initially hesitant, he goes along for the sake of the work.

In Tucson Paul's urged, by the gee-shucks realtor who'll serve as his guide, to forget his big-city ways and adjust to the Tucson pace. So they take in a "cowboy show", where an old-West tale of thieves ruthlessly gunned down by a square-jawed sheriff is performed for a tourist crowd. The spectators are loving it - how quaint! - but their responses are contrasted with Paul's, who's taking the whole thing rather seriously. His eyes light up and you can see that here's a guy who feels he's bearing witness to a deeper truth.

Shortly following, Paul and the realtor bond over a shooting contest (Paul hasn't fired for years, having been a conscientious objector in the Korean War). And thus he's given a gun. In the Tucson sequence, as in The Brave One's art gallery scene, we've witnessed two inextricably-bound things: how our protagonist first becomes enthralled by the myth of independent street toughness, and where they'll get the gun that enables their becoming a part of that myth.

So if you were explaining Death Wish or The Brave One to someone, what you'd say is that they're both about vigilantism. But if you were explaining at length, what you might actually say is that they're about how two characters, faced with similar circumstances, discover the narrative of street justice, and the process by which they give themselves over to becoming protagonists in a retelling of that narrative. What the movies are actually about is people faced with dire circumstances and electing to deal with the fallout by becoming characters in a prewritten story.

And what you might go on to explain is how that narrative bites back. Because what's weird about Death Wish - it being something of a genre-definer here - is how it just knows it has to have The Public Response as a major plot point, and it doesn't really even seem to want to (it'd rather just be 90 minutes of Charles Bronson killing people, unencumbered by narrative or sequential sensibility. It'd rather be Justice Porn). The first time it's stated that Paul's actions are becoming part of a larger narrative is the (unintentionally) funniest moment in Death Wish: a newspaper is slammed onto a table, and the huge-type front-page headline is, "EX-CON SLAIN; KILLER UNKNOWN". What the fuck kind of city is Paul living in? This is like if you picked up the paper tomorrow and the lead headline was "MAN INJECTS OPIATE INTO BLOODSTREAM; CALMNESS ENSUES".

Both Death Wish and The Brave One stop just short of having sensationalist front pages swirling onto a black screen to the sounds of a manic horn section. But in both cases, it's hard not to imagine J. Jonah Jameson sitting in his office barking out the headlines as we'll see them; that's the level of "and now the media will proceed to sensationalise our protagonist's struggle" subtlety on which we're operating. Both movies use the device of media filtration of our character's actions to show that the narrative is now picking them up and sweeping them away, and both movies later use media-relayed citizen interviews to further that story, and add the element where The Common People make it their own.

But after similarly mythologized beginnings, snowballing into similarly "traumatized citizen caught up in mythological whirlwind" narratives, what's lovely is how the two end: as polar opposites.

McKee reminds us that a skillful story is one in which the characters' wants and needs are different, and one where the final frame can see them successful in one respect but failing in another. What we might call the protagonists' material goal in both movies is clear: avenging their loved one's death. But the deeper goal both movies are concerned with is learning a way to keep on living.

Paul Kersey finds a way to keep on living, alright. He never makes any attempt to track down Jeff Goldblum's murderous Jughead lookalike: he just goes round killing folk until the Police run him out of town. The final frame, delightfully, has him smiling like a loon at the idea of having a whole new city full of ne'er-do-wells to callously gun down. His wife hasn't been avenged, his daughter's been indefinitely institutionalised, and one presumes the job that saw him through his rough patch hasn't come with him to Chicago. But none of that matters worth a whit to Paul - who, one feels, if you asked him, "so Paul, four more movies' worth of this sort of thing, eh?", would give that lazy laconic grin and ask where he could sign up.

Whereas Erica's reign of terror is more successful in that she kills more influential criminals, guns down the guys that killed her husband, and manages to get policemen to be a ridiculous degree of sympathetic. So in basic story terms, she's succeeded far more admirably than Paul.

And yet... the way Jordan and Foster tell it, there's no doubt whatsoever that Erica has no fucking idea how to walk this world alone. However you choose to quantify the successes that justify Death Wish's bizarrely upbeat ending, there's no question that Erica has failed in all the exact same ways. The vigilante story that carried Paul so well has failed her completely. All the business of her story is played out, and yet she's got nowhere to go.

This is how The Brave One works as an indictment of vigilante justice: by allowing the story to play out to a degree of success many found just impossible to give credence to, and then leaving its human center in an impossibly lost mess. Through all the bullshit tough-guy swagger - much of it borrowed wholesale from Death Wish - the movie reveals itself as the story of a woman who, really, gets almost absolutely nothing done for herself. It's cruel, and difficult, and - after the progression of more and more cinema-badassery - surprisingly, admirably real.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Brave One, or On The Myth of Vigilante Justice

I am going to advance a theory about The Brave One that I readily admit seems hard to stomach.

What I think makes The Brave One brilliant is that, while it's perfectly acceptable as a mediocre vigilante thriller, it's also utterly superb as a commentary on vigilante justice, via commentary on mediocre vigilante thrillers, by virtue of accepting its status as a mediocre vigilante thriller.

The thing about vigilantes is, of course, that their existence is predicated on the narrative power of their actions. While his[1] whole schtick is empowering the individual to become the centre of his own universe and all that, the paradox of the vigilante is that he relies completely on his presence in a larger diegetic whole in order to make sense of his role.

The just plain old hero can walk into a situation and save/defeat/befriend as he sees fit. Though it's a slightly outdated way to look at the hero (nowadays heroes can't do heroic without a dark, mature chapter in which yadda yadda yadda, the upshot of which being that almost no hero created in the last twenty-odd years is without a pinch of antihero to his character makeup), the traditional concept of the hero is one in which the entire universe, for our purposes, pretty much revolves around our guy.

Whereas the vigilante, without a larger context, is just a crazy guy. No vigilante story can run its course without at some point establishing that the Law can't take care of the problem/the Lefty justice system just coddles murderers and degenerates/people don't know what's right no more/etc. This bigger world continues to push and be pushed by the vigilante as he goes about takin' care of business: it's very rare that you'll see a vigilante tale that doesn't include the chapter where we see what the Man On The Street thinks of our guy, whether it's via newspaper headlines or a background talkback show (this is a good device because it situates the vigilante in a world of dangerously unhinged people while reminding us that yes, but he's the right kind of dangerously unhinged) or just what other characters are saying about the vigilante when he's out of earshot. (Alan Moore has often said he was disgusted to see his uber-vigilante, Rorschach, adopted as some sort of hero-figure by people who just glossed over the parts where his contemporaries complained that he stank and was totally lacking in the social graces; Both Batman and Spiderman, a couple of the c20th's most enduring vigilantes, occupy universes in which every other fucking person is a plucky journalist determined to get to the bottom of this whole beating-up-criminals thing).

So being that the vigilante is completely reliant on being part of a larger narrative that forces him to go about his grim business, and being that once he does so, a huge part of the story is what uninvolved third parties think of said business, the vigilante myth becomes as big a part of any given vigilante story as the vigilante himself or any of his leering, cowardly victims. And so the smartest vigilante stories - The Dark Knight Returns or Memento, for instance - become hugely meta affairs in which the story interrogates the myth scrutinises the character.

The script for The Brave One is not one of the smartest vigilante stories. The script for The Brave One is actually kind of shit. The cops banter like movie cops - "Rap sheet as long as my dick!" "No priors, then?" - and the attempts at poetry feel strained and inappropriate (beyond the acceptable, ie this is not just a story about a woman who talks a lot but is not very poetic) and there's a weighty subplot that feels yanked from a whole nother movie, one which would have a hard time getting cinema release.

And yet there's something about the depth of Foster's performance - making all the standard phases of the vigilante's-progress story feel less like waypoints on a well-travelled timeline and more like believable human behaviour - and Jordan's compassionate yet interrogative storytelling that forces you to give it more credit than that. This is a consistently gripping, impeccably well-told story that hits all the standard beats, but provides a counter-rhythm in which the whole business-as-usual vigilante fable is quietly second-guessed every step of the way.

And ooohh, but am I on the shakiest of shaky ground here, because if you liked The Brave One, you'd be inclined to see the cloying idealisation of Foster and Andrews' relationship as clever deference to the obvious trope where obviously the demise of the most perfect relationship ever is what sets the whole murderous rampage in motion; whereas if you weren't so hot on The Brave One, you'd be liable to say, well, they just never had that much chemistry to begin with. And if you liked The Brave One, the horrible business with all the gun-swapping and story-setting at the end would just be a piece of business to be breezed through before the somewhat lovely ending; whereas if you didn't like The Brave One, if it never managed to get you on its wavelength, that would be the ending, and damn if it wouldn't break the whole fucking movie for you.

Which I suppose means that your warmth toward The Brave One may depend on just how addicted you personally are to the modern myth of the loose cannon who takes matters into his (slash her) own hands; which I suppose, it being now and all, makes The Brave One something of a classic bit of communal dreaming.

[1] My way of solving the perpetually-thorny gender-assignation-in-brief-references thing here will be to adopt the convention of The Brave One and always refer to the vigilante as male until we're specifically talking about Jodie Foster's character.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Black Book, or On Nietzche

Jet-black swastikas on blood-red banners; graphic violence and frontal nudity; characters as serious as a sermon. It must be a Paul Verhoeven film.

Verhoeven’s “good” movies – Robocop, Starship Troopers – are skilful critiques of his adopted America. In the guise of pulpy sci-fi, these are some of Hollywood’s cleverest critiques of Western capitalist excess and Imperialist foreign policy – revealing, in both, the worrying fascist undertones and gleefully pointing out how much we get off on them.

But across the good and not-so-good, constant across Paul Verhoeven’s career is an (often graphic) exploration of the human will to power. And the danger is that peering into such an abyss is a two-way thing: the monster at the bottom is liable to peer back. (The question looms often in Black Book: Is Paul Verhoeven an explorer of fascism and misogyny, or is he just a fascistic misogynist?)

And the thing of this is, you can be obsessed with Nietzschean principles, and you can be subject to Nietzschean foibles, but it don’t make you Nietzche. Paul Verhoeven may have some very deep concerns, but he’s hampered in his pursuit of them because he’s a fucking clod.

So in making a movie set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, the problem becomes obvious: if your stock-in-trade is subversively revealing the power-crazed undercurrent of an era, you don’t really have much to do if your movie is about the Third Reich. Subverting American values, yes, fine - but is there really much of a market for eloquent condemnations of the politics of the Nazis? These were bad guys: we’re aware of that, Paul, you’re going to have to give us something more.

And he does: toward the end of Black Book’s 2.5 hour running time, we’re treated to something of a violent reversal that goes some way toward musing on some tricky truths about power. It’s just a shame it takes about 90 minutes to get there. And that’s 90 minutes of clever but pedestrian plot, laden with violence that’s more than token but less than wrenching, and sexuality that veers from refreshingly frank to screen-breakingly stupid.

Which is to say, Verhoeven’s back in town.

[appears edited at Flicks]

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Kingdom, or On The Wonderful Cinematic Legacy Of Oliver North

In the first ten minutes of The Kingdom, Islamic fundamentalists have mowed down a crowd of civilians, a suicide bomber has killed several dozen people, and a rave-visual title sequence has turned 9/11 into a Nike commercial. The credits say Michael Mann, but this is what would happen if Syriana had been produced by Jerry Bruckheimer.

The Kingdom’s director, Peter Berg, is on an oft-stated mission to do for action what Roth, Rodriguez and co did for horror: taking it back the old school while keeping the slick film-literacy appreciated by today’s cinephiles. And The Kingdom is the most shit-kicking throwback to Reagan-era Big Loud Action Movies since 300. This is a movie where the heroes are loose cannons, the stuffed-shirt bureaucrats just don’t fucking get it, and the villains, nasty foreigners all, get blowed up real good.

But it turns out if you want a climate where gung-ho, shamelessly bloody action movies get made, all you need is to stoke global politics to a powder-keg of heavily-armed strife. Action pictures haven’t been this beer-and-red-meat since the days of Golan-Globus, John Milius and Oliver North.

So, yes: for all its Mann/Foxx/Cooper pedigrees, The Kingdom is fundamentally pretty dumb, in a lovable-jock kinda way. However, it nonetheless entertains pleasant notions of political awareness: besides the obligatory Sympathetic Arabs, the plot is far from asinine and the ending coda surprisingly poignant. It strains to have more – an intellect, a conscience – but that straining is a dull murmur beneath all the painstakingly-detailed gunfire and explosions.

And yet, in the hands of Mann and Berg, the seemingly impossible occurs, and the big explosions and quaint ideological wrangling seldom get in each others’ way. And for all its adherence to the action-thriller rules of engagement – some scenes could be shot-for-shot from the Jack Ryan movies – there’s surprisingly little in the way of firmly-entrenched cliché.

Complex political ambiguities – fuck yeah!

[originally appeared at Flicks]