Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by That Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Jesse James was one of the first American criminals to be celebrated by a public still troubled by the wounds of the civil war. Setting the stage for Al Capone later on, he was considered an outlaw in the vein of Robin Hood and probably America's first real celebrity. Before there were movies, he was fictionalized in countless news reports and dime novels achieving legendary status in his own lifetime and long afterwards.Brad Pitt's portrayal of Jesse James here is flawless, showing humanity, brutality, and an otherworldly quality that's suits the status of his subject.

Pitt's Jese James exhibits a deep weariness, as if he's seen everything that will happen already, but can't help trying to prevent it. When James appears (always unexpectedly) in a room, you can feel the unease of of everyone around him. James asks simple questions with deeper meanings and watches everyone squirm to answer right. Switching instantly from the most affable man in the room, to an inhumanly accusing stare. You get the sense that Jesse James could kill you with a look if needed. Jesse himself says "There ain't no peace when Jesse's around." and he's absolutely right.

As the film progresses, Jesse starts questioning everyone around him, suspecting (rightly so) that the record breaking bounty the government put on his head will drive his friends to betray him. He moves frequently renting homes under different names. Even his kids don't know who he really is, thinking of him instead as Mr. Howard. You could call it paranoia if his suspicions weren't always right. An official talking rith Bob Ford after he's agreed to bring in Jesse James says, "we don't know how but he always knows what's going on. He'll know I was here talking to you. Count on it." Jesse reads the future from entrails, he reads signs from nature, he even gives snakes the names of his enemies and then kills them. He comes across more as a force of nature than a man at times.

However, as hard as it is to remember when Jesse James is around, this movie isn't really about him, it's about Robert Ford the man who shot him. Casey Affleck plays Bob Ford in a performance that's as great as it is hard to like. Bob Ford is a smitten kid who worships a legend. His awkwardness when trying to make an impression on Frank and Jesse is painful to look at. He drops sentiments like "I'm destined for great things." into conversation, not realizing that it's about as convincing as writing  BADASS on your T-shirt.  Frank James (Sam Shephard) immediately dismisses him as a nuisance, barely hearing a word that Bob Ford says. Bob manages to get around Frank and fortunately (or not) discovers that Jesse at this point in time will let anyone ride with them.

After robbing a train with the James gang, he can't stop smiling from ear to ear. He finally gets a minute alone with Jesse, joining him to smoke a cigar on the porch. He tells Jesse all about the books he's read about him. "All lies" James tells him adding that he doesn't have to keep smoking the cigar if it doesn't agree with him. Ford is ecstatic the next day when Jesse sends the gang home but lets him stay. He doesn't realize that he's only staying to help Jesse move. Unexpectedly he allows Bob to stay a few days extra, during which time Bob fantasizes about staying forever accepted as a "cousin" to Jesse's kids. Jesse gets unsettled realizing that Bob is watching him take a bath. He asks Bob "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" before sending Bob home. Bob struggles to handle the rejection from his idol, but clearly never gets over it.

Voice over narration is used throughout the movie, giving it the feel of a documentary, or a movie that's a novel at the same time. (The movie was adapted from the novel of the same name.) The low key smooth narration also adds to the sense of the inevitable, reminding that this is possibly what really happened (for the purposes of the fi;m) This gives the acting a weightier feel as if we're watching people caught in history on the screen.

Keep in mind that this is a very long movie, (160 minutes) and while there is some action, it's more a slow deliberate period piece focused on characterization far more than action. I wouldn't recommend watching unless you have some time set aside and feel relaxed enough to absorb it. (Personally I didn't even realize the length when I first watched it as the story quickly grabbed my attention) Director Andrew Dominik seems to take his time intentionally as if trying to prolong our visit to a time that's been forgotten for a long time now, but is still relevant today. The cinematography is breathtaking, contrasting the harshness of the old west with careful attention to character movement. We can tell who's lying the same way Jesse James can, by watching their tics as he questions them.

In an inspired choice, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a delicately somber soundtrack. I can't think of anyone better given Cave's affection for outlaws and murder ballads. He even shows up for a cameo, after the shooting, singing the song that summed up public opinion of Robert Ford

Every supporting character is superb as well. Sam Shephard's Frank James is the perfect foil for Jesse, distanced and practical as Jesse is hot headed and emotional.  Frank can't wait to disband the gang, planning to sell shoes somewhere in peace and quiet. Sam Rockwell is Bob's brother Charlie, the only character supporting Bob for most of the movie. Knowing Bob's admiration for Jesse, he continually talks up his brother as perfect for upcoming jobs. After some particularly lavish praise, Jesse looks at Charlie and says, "You forget, I've met Bob."

After several interactions convince Bob that Jesse James will never be impressed with him, Bob decides he'll get his fame and fortune another way by turning Jesse in for the reward money. Watching him at a party where he's set to meet the Governor to discuss terms, you get a feel for his ambitions. Although the arrangement is not supposed to be public, Bob can't help but sneak into the party, trying to be seen among the important people. The Governor dresses him down for this and of course Bob turns meek and bashful again, but still decides to go through with it.

Eventually Bob and Charlie are all that's left of the gang. They go to live with Jesse while planning a bank job. Jesse is suspicious of everyone at this point and both brothers know he may kill them suspecting a plot against himself. Bob tells Charlie about his arrangement with the governor to kill Jesse James. Charlie responds, "But, he's our friend." That's Charlie, loyal to a fault, to both Jessie and his brother. Unfortunately if you know the story or read the title, you know he only gets to keep one of them. Of course the atmosphere is almost unbearable for Bob and Charlie. Jesse's behavior becomes more erratic daily. They don't know if Jesse needs their help, plans to kill them or both.

The scene where Bob shoots Jesse James is played wonderfully and James almost seems to be inviting Bob to do what he came to do. He announces his taking off his gun belt (so the neighbors don't see his guns in the window) lays them carefully down and walks across the room to get up on a chair to dust a picture high on the wall that doesn't really look dusty, all while knowing that Bob has a gun (that Jesse had just given him as a gift) We're shown the reflection of Bob raising the gun and aiming in the glass of the picture. Jesse James doesn't seem at all surprised and doesn't even move, as if he expected it to happen. Afterwards Jesse's wife Zee comes into the room screaming and sobbing. Bob just sits on the couch as if exhausted, unaffected by Jesse's  wife and kids' turmoil, even swearing to Zee with gun in hand that he didn't do it.

Bob immediately tries to play up his celebrity, staging reenactments of the shooting for audiences every night. Charlie acts out Jesse's part and this soon takes it's toll on him. Bob is called a coward everywhere he goes and ends up as despised as Jesse James was admired. Even in death people love Jesse James, paying to see his corpse, which is travelling around the country, or even paying for pictures of it. Clearly Bob hasn't arrived at great things, his betrayal has only cemented the legend. He imagines visiting the surviving relatives of James' victims and announcing himself, still desperate to be as big as James was. He thought that the man who shot Jesse James would be a hero and on paper he would've been right. Bob Ford was on the side of the law after all.  The Jesse James/Bob Ford story tells us that being a "hero" or not, has less to do with the moral code, than the qualities we admire (or dislike in Bob's case) in a man. Speaking to a girlfriend of the incident long afterwards Bob says. "I thought there'd be applause."

He just forgot that the public loved Jesse James.  Jesse James (in their minds) had strength and courage and heart, all of which were seriously lacking in Bob. The people felt the betrayal so acutely (his shows probably helped with that) that he may as well have betrayed them. Eventually it catches up with Bob, although his death is not mourned by anyone. (I should also add that Jesse James was quickly adopted by film. Over fifty movies have featured him starting as early as 1921. His influence refuses to go away.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cool Hand Luke

A man comes home from a war and doesn't know how to fit into normal society. He ends up wandering the streets, drunk, beheading parking meters. It's not really the crime of a hardened criminal, (he doesn't even take any money) but the parking meters are public property, so symbolically you have the character of Luke already established (perhaps overly punctuated by the VIOLATION flashed across the screen every time a meter falls) Destruction of public property means two years served at a Southern prison camp/chain gang.

Paul Newman's Luke is a Christ figure appropriated for the those disenfranchised with the Vietnam era rule makers. Christ parallels are so frequent in the movie, that it's really not even debatable. But Newman's performance is so compelling that it's easy to forgive the heavy handed symbolism (and there is a lot of it.)

When first presented to the Captain, (Strother Martin in a bone chilling performance) the power behind the prison camp, and asked to explain why he took out the meters, Luke just says that he wasn't thinking. He doesn't have a plan, he just wants some space to be himself. He is not the typical anti-hero, he's not vicious, aggressive or manipulative. Luke doesn't want to lead a movement. He's a revolutionary only in spite of himself. His smirk and his inability to hold his tongue are his only weapons, but they prove much more threatening than a fist or a gun.

Luke's first challenge is the most insidious authority, that which the inmates themselves create. His criticism of Dragline (George Kennedy), the self appointed inmate leader's apologizing for the bosses throwing an inmate in "the box" (a tiny shed outside the quarters where a prisoner can barely move) for no good reason develops into Dragline's instant dislike for Luke.

Dragline: He ain't in the box because of the joke played on him. He back-sassed a free man. They got their rules. We ain't got nothin' to do with that. Would probably have happened to him sooner or later anyway, a complainer like him. He gotta learn the rules the same as anybody else.
Luke: Yeah, them poor old bosses need all the help they can get.

Challenged to a fight outside, Luke gets pounded into a bloody mess, outmatched entirely. He can't land a punch, but gets up and heads right back for Dragline's fists every time he's knocked down. Everyone begs Luke to stay down. Dragline himself feels bad and asks him to stay down, but Luke says "You'll have to kill me." The bosses watch with interest as everyone just walks away tired of watching Luke get beaten, leaving Luke to circle all alone. Later on, after winning a poker hand with an outrageous bluff, Dragline observes that Luke won the hand with nothing, comparing it to their fight earlier. "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand." Luke responds. giving Dragline the idea for his nickname.

The inmates admire Luke's stubborn refusal to conform. Dragline's early enmity transforms into an over the top affection, and soon he's fawning over Luke like a schoolboy with a crush. Dragline is effectively Luke's first and closest disciple. After the fight, the bosses see that Luke will be a problem, feeling threatened by the gross display of will power. Luke's influence spreads like an infection. Authority chafes at him more and more but he never raises a hand, he instead chooses "harmless" ways to rebel, such as convincing the inmates to work as fast as they can on a job, leaving the bosses no choice but to let them stand around when the work is done, and "do nothing."

The most ominous authority figure is Boss Godfrey ( Morgan Woodward) the silent boss who leers menacingly, eyes always hidden by his reflective sunglasses (symbolism that works) He oversees the men at work on the chain gang. Now and then he motions an inmate to fetch his rifle so he can demonstrate his accuracy (and remind the inmates not to try running) by shooting game out on the road. His silent inhumanity is a perfect foil for Luke's smile and human charm.

Luke's last benign rebellion is the "egg eating" scene. Luke bets that he can eat 50 eggs without throwing up in one hour, uniting everyone in their interest in the outcome. Everyone thinks it's impossible (making it a "miracle" perhaps) This leads to the well known "crucifixion" scene. Luke, spent after forcing the last egg down, sprawls out on a table just like Jesus on the cross. Notably, Carr, the boss who watches them in their quarters, is drawn into the excitement, even agreeing to time the event, giving Luke his second subversive triumph over authority.

Luke is soon forced into "the box" when his mother dies. The Captain explains that it's to prevent him from running, due to thoughts of attending his mother's funeral. The guard escorting him apologizes, saying that he's only doing his job. Luke replies, "Calling it your job don't make it right." Luke's finally had all he can take and his thoughts turn to escape. He runs and gets caught, getting fitted with leg irons to prevent it from happening again. It's for your own good, the Captain explains, prompting Luke to answer. "I wish you'd stop being so good to me." The Captain loses his cool and strikes him, before giving his famous "failure to communicate" speech.

Of course Luke is still set on escaping and makes a break for it with the leg irons on. He gets a little further this time, convincing some kids to break his chains with an axe, and borrowing pepper and curry powder to mess up the dogs. He gets away farther, even sending the inmates a magazine doctored with a picture of Luke living the high life with a couple of pretty women. Of course they catch him again, returning with Luke badly beaten and angry for the first time. The Captain tells him they're going to "get his mind right." giving away the real struggle here, and the reason Luke's smile is so unbearable to the bosses.

This time they decide to break him definitively, forcing him into the box for days and then feeding him a plate of rice that he can't possibly finish, telling him if he doesn't clean his plate he goes right back in the box. His fellow inmates each take a handful of his rice, perhaps in response to an earlier outburst from Luke, telling them to stop feeding on him. He's then forced to dig a grave sized hole, and fill it back in, then dig it again, knocking him into the grave to drive the point home. Exhausted and still feeling the beatings, he sobs and pleads that "his mind is right." (Of course here the Jesus parallel again holds up, as Luke is changed by the grave and returns)

Luke's defiance subsides, (still dead) and he now jumps to fulfill the whims of the bosses, knowing they'll kill him if he escapes again. His stubborn streak rises though and he runs for it again, this time stealing the keys to the bosses truck, with Dragline tagging along. Dragline is proud that Luke fooled everyone, but Luke corrects him, telling him that he was really broken. He also leaves Dragline telling him that the has to go on his own. (like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane) Luke knows that he's gone as far as he can go, so he hides in a nearby church and takes a minute to talk to God, (Like Jesus asking God to take the cup from him) before determining, of course that he has to take up his own cross.

Dragline panics, and sells out Luke's hiding place (Judas) forcing the inevitable confrontation with the man in the sunglasses. The confrontation is quick giving Luke just enough time to parrot "What we've got here is failure to communicate." out the window before he's shot by the man with no eyes. Luke can't reach him, but Dragline is so distraught, he charges the man with no eyes, knocking off his glasses, giving Luke the biggest triumph of his life, indirectly. The Captain is still beyond his reach, but Luke smiles with his last breath as he dies in the Captain's car, which is running over the reflective sunglasses.

Director Stuart Rosenberg's only flaw was the overindulgence in symbols, as the same story would have been told without them. Other than that, he does a fine job keeping the scenes relevant to the story, at times even finding truly beautiful and original imagery. Considering the fact that this was his first film, the accomplishment is remarkable. The cast is fantastic all around including (Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper are both fellow prisoners) and a lesser actor than Newman could have easily been eclipsed by so many other strong characters. Fortunately, he's at the top of his game here and handles it easily.

Although echoing the story of Jesus, Luke is clearly his own character and this is not a religious movie. His smile and wit are both his own, and it's the humanity of Newman's performance, is what makes Cool Hand Luke a masterpiece. Cool Hand Luke was created as an anti-hero necessary for his time, but became like Jesus, or Tom Joad, a figure suitable for any time that the rules are used to crush our humanity. The individual must conform or die, when facing "the rules" head on. But they can’t make him insignificant. Luke had to lose, as conforming wasn't in him, and the bosses were too powerful to be defeated, but only he could decide to lose so gracefully, getting back up with nothing every time.

Here's a clip in memory of Paul Newman, one of the greats, as watching Cool Hand Luke should tell you:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Little Ceasar

Mervyn LeRoy's Little Ceasar is more than a movie, it's the proper birth of the anti-hero in film. There were other pictures about gangsters before, but it took this one to get the "gangster movie" started, serving as a blueprint for the coming genre to pull from.
Released in 1930, Little Ceasar was adapted from a novel of the same name by William R.Burnett. This enabled Warner Brothers to use Burnett's thinly disguised version of Al Capone (Al Capone was alive at the time, so some disguise was required.) Edgar G. Robinson's Rico, a ruthless gangster who wants big things and won't take no for an answer. As the title suggests, he's all ambition, wanting complete control of the city's crime organization. Robinson's Rico is from the first minute, intense, brutal and insatiable.

All of the conventions so prevalent in future gangster films were firmly established here; the snappy patter, the secret slang, (molls, cannons,) the catchy nicknames for each member of the crew, (Big Boy, Pete Montana, Little Ceasar) even the "heist gone wrong." Squealing tires and storms of gunshots were played to full effect here, to make full use of the very new addition of sound to the movies. "Talkies" were still a new phenomenon at the time.  And then there's Edgar G.Robinson.  His portrayal is so strong that even if you haven't seen the film, you've seen a parody, imitation or tribute to it in the years since then.

Of course to really appreciate its effect, you have to consider the times that produced Rico Bandello. Still feeling the effects of the depression and the prohibition, real gangsters like John Dillinger and Al Capone captivated the American public by taking the American Dream by force. Despite their brutality and disregard for the law, these characters were sympathetic "Robin Hood" type figures to the disaffected public, giving them a chance to cheer for these self-styled entreprenuers who wouldn't accept the fact that success was out of reach, even if they had to change the avenue to reach it.

Of course, in the 30's gangster's couldn't win in the movies and "Crime doesn't pay." had to be observed. It's pretty clear what's coming from the opening biblical quote "He who lives by the sword will die by the sword." It's interesting the effects that censorship has on the film. We see a heist being planned, but little of the actual heist, for fear of teaching people how to commit crimes. We see people falling from gunfire but we don't see Rico shooting at the same time, as that would have been too shocking. This gives the gangsters a more businesslike appearance, which is a parellel that I'm sure didn't escape the viewing public. LeRoy takes full advantage of Robinson's fierceness to make the criminal element clear.

Rico starts out as nearly a force of nature. He walks right up to what he wants and takes it. It's not enough for Rico to take over his bosses' slot. He has to gloat every time, with his sneering "You can dish it out, but you can't take it. You're through!"  It's never enough for Rico, for each boss he knocks out of place, he sets his sights on the next one.

Douglas Fairbanks is Rico's friend Joe, who starts out with Rico, but really wants to be a dancer. Joe ends up falling in love with Olga Stasoff (Glenda Farrell), a fellow dancer, and gradually trying to get out of the criminal life. Of course this also leads to another future staple in the gangster film "You can't quit the family." Rico feels personally betrayed by Joe's diminishing involvement, threatening to kill Olga and even deciding to kill Joe. This leads to the big turn for Rico. While appearing as an unstoppable engine of ambition (he doesn't drink, he isn't into women, he's fearless) up until this point, he can't bring himself to kill Joe. LeRoy uses a long close up on Robinson's face approaching Joe with a gun and realizing he can't do it. You can see the vulnerability creep into his Rico's eyes, and once his big flaw is exposed, it has to be downhill for Rico.

Aside from his enemy gangsters, Rico's nemesis is Sgt. Flaherty (Thomas E. Jackson) who shows up in each stage of Rico's development to remind Rico that he's watching and waiting for him to fall. LeRoy deals with  imposed limitations well, and omitting the details of Rico's criminal acts, allows him to focus on Rico's character and move the story along briskly. He promises Rico's coming end by focusing on time, starting out with Rico at the beginning setting a clock back, to shots later in his career that linger on his pocketwatch. But it's Robinson performance that's used to tie it all together and make it work. From his body language, to his ever present cigar, to his nasty sneer, this is a performance you won't forget.

As hard as he pushes to get to the top, he falls just as hard. Towards of the film Rico looks wretched, waking up in a flophouse, in shabby clothes, his face a total mess. And even now, Sgt. Flaherty appears, taunting Rico in the newspapers, that "he can dish it out but can't take it." Of course Rico's pride can't handle that and it sends him off to his last stop.

LeRoy's Little Ceasar is a must see, the performance that justly made Edgar Robinson a star, and the starting point on the road that led to film-noir, The Godfather, Dirty Harry and every anti-hero since.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fight Club

Fight Club (10th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]Fight Club is a very important movie, not for the solutions it offers, but for the questions it asks and the bold assertions it makes. David Fincher (adapting from Chuck Palahniuk's novel) is very aware of the world he's creating and uses every power at his disposal to create a harsh and chaotic world that doesn't even want to be likeable (except for the soothing IKEA world and the office which are both soothing to the point of sleep.) The visuals are jarring, harsh clashing colors and seemingly random cuts , flashing cigarette burns, characters talking into the camera, and subliminal images, combine with loud dissonant music to frame a brutal world without regard for anyone in it. Fight Club is no bedtime story.

It's no accident (and nothing in this film is an accident) that the opening scene is the narrator faking testicular cancer to belong in a support group for men who've had their testicles removed.

Our main character (Edward Norton) is a powerless man feeling completely trapped in a life that he feels, is all about owning different things. The corporations he says, will one day control the universe. And what is one life compared to "the corporations." The only time he feels anything, is when faking different conditions to attend support groups for the legitimately suffering. Things start to change when he meets Marla (Helena Bonham Carter) a fellow faker at the testicular cancer group. She stifles his ability to cry and so they agree to alternate nights. He soon runs into Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a plane, and he's taken with Tyler's observation on the real purpose of oxygen masks.

On arriving home his apartment and all his belongings are blown up. Not having another place to go he calls his new friend  Tyler. "How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight." Tyler Durden(Brad Pitt) asks Norton's character. he then asks Norton to hit him as hard as he can. Tyler reciprocates and our narrator is amazed at the sensation of real pain a punch in the gut produces.Suddenly, he feels alive.

While some see this film as about finding an outlet for male aggression, I think that view misses the whole point. Albert Camus once said that rebellion (as opposed to revolution) is a man who says "No." Ultimately this is a movie about rebellion, a man who tries to say no, in every way that he can. While video games and news stories used Fight Club as a term for any informal brawling association, they completely missed the fact that Fight Club was not really about men hitting each other at all, but why they would want to. Norton's character has to go to ridiculous extremes to even consider this. But, once he starts, men from all around are joining the Fight Club to test themselves with pain.

To explain the need for Fight Club, Tyler says to the members:
"Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off."

Edward Norton's character and Tyler Durden use Fight Club to rebel against the life that's been sold to them. But it's telling that the Fight Club's first outside assignment is to start a fight, which they also have to lose. As Norton observes, most people will do anything they can to avoid a fight. In Fight Club's world, normal people are used to being safe, and confrontation, especially physical confrontation poses a challenge to their whole consumerist bubble of a safe clean world. The actual physical fighting is just an outward symbol of the rebellion, the idea of living life without fearing scars.

Norton is terrific in a very tricky role. He has to be able to present himself as a listless drone, who gradually evolves into a truly dangerous individual. Brad Pitt is pitch perfect as Tyler, the sociopathic bad influence that Norton's character needs to help him reject the numbness consuming him. Rejecting nothing less than all of society and modern civilization turns out to be not an easy task.Helena Bonham Carter is brilliant in her darkly against type role as Marla. Her role evolves as she develops a deeper relationship with both Norton and Tyler. She's at least as numb as Norton is, but more fascinated with death. She speaks calmly on the phone, while thinking she took too much Xanax. "It's not a suicide thing, more of a cry for help thing." she tells them without emotion. The relationship with Marla complicates things, as she gets deeper under the narrator's skin than he would like, leading him into some big revelations about himself.

The Fight Club evolves into "Project Mayhem" a full on anarchist campaign designed to wreak havoc on the outside world as opposed to the insular Fight Club dynamic. Of course this leads to many problems including a casualty. Anarchy taken to it's logical conclusion is one person left in the world, the system destroyed with nothing to replace it and Tyler is perfectly OK with that. Where the Fight Club was about rebellion, Project Mayhem is about an anarchist revolution. Norton's narrator feels more alive than ever, but he doesn't realize that the members of the group have only traded one program for another as evidenced when "Project Mayhem" operatives attempt to follow their orders to emasculate anyone who interferes.

In the end Norton's rebellion against being powerless before society only leaves him powerless again, but the struggle this time is against himself, having become his own worst enemy. While failure to change society was inevitable, against himself, he at least has a chance. The rebellion against society was necessary, if only to let him face this fact. (without giving it away if anyone hasn't seen it, I'll just say that this is shown in a very literal way.)

Fight Club is full of testoserone, but I don't think it should be dismissed as a "man's movie." while modern man's emasculation is certainly a major theme, taken a step further, what we're really considering is the loss of the individual in a society that easily reduces us to numbers, and how we handle that. The testicles after all, are just a symbol for our names (bloodlines, heirs) and that's what's being lost. The issue of the narrator's name for example, is a pretty big deal, and he doesn't know what it really is. Eventually, for Norton's character it comes down to this, "should he be more concerned with the credit record or with Marla?" And that's a dilemma that could easily applied to either sex.

Albert Camus once said that artistic rebellion was the only true rebellion, because we can recreate the world without destroying the world that was. Fight Club does exactly that, without sparing society, or the revolutionary, the government or the citizen. I'm sure there are many that still refuse to believe the world that Fight Club creates. It's easy to say that it's only a movie and an unrealistic one. But David Fincher has definitely created a work of art with Fight Club. It asks real questions, hard ones, and leaves it to us to give the answers. A lot has changed since 1999, but the changes in the world only make this work more relevant. Do we feel any more in control? There has to be more to life than IKEA world, but only we can define what the more is. It is after all a movie, not an instruction manual.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Man on the Train

Milan(Johnny Hallyday) is the Man on the Train, and we open with him suffering a headache on a train ride and finding he's out of aspirin. In the first ten seconds we know from his weathered and rough appearance as well as the music building in the background that this guy is possibly dangerous, composed and also very tired. Something in his eyes makes him seem like a barely caged tiger.

The train drops him off in a small town and at the drug store he runs into Manesquier (Jean Rochefort) a retired poetry teacher who is as mild as Milan is bold. Manesquier offers Milan a glass of water on discovering that the aspirin he bought is soluble. He is clearly fascinated with Milan, who surprises Manesquier by complimenting his house, which is full of family belongings, that Manesquier himself downplays as useless and boring.

He asks Milan why he likes the house, and Milan replies, "It's full of the past somehow." That's also an apt description for these characters, both of them carry all of their past with them, seemingly unable to change who they are. As they each head toward their own inevitable moments, (a bank heist and an operation, both the coming Saturday morning) they examine each other as if they've been given an opportunity to take another road. Since the small town hotel is closed, Milan stays with Manesquier in an extra room and they form an instant if unlikely friendship. A bond quickly forms between them, as Manesquier can't stop talking and Milan says little at all. Each is so different from the other that they can't help exploring through conversation and small experience, the life they always wondered about that the other represents.

This is not a role reversal film, each character knows who he is (perhaps too well) but all the same Manesquier can't help but play with Milan's guns when he is out of the house, even draws the pistols while watching himself in the mirror talking like Wyatt Earp. Milan tries on slippers for the first time, and also smokes a pipe in a robe, while filling in as teacher for a private poetry lesson that Manesquier forgot about.  Each brings out something else in the other, and you get the sense that even though they will part on Saturday, this could be the most important meeting of their lives. Maybe they can change or at least not be completely trapped, by the identities they've built.

Manesquier says of himself at one point, when talking of his will to his sister, that one day they just "struck a pose and turned into mummies" They fit so completely into their roles that they didn't have to live anymore. And that's we're watching, people who became the characters they were playing, finally realizing what they've done. The story is not complicated but it's captivating to watch it happen. In one scene Milan is teaching Manesquier to shoot a pistol and Manesquier, missing badly asks what it takes to shoot well. Not talent, or even practice, Milan tells him, "Nobody knows. Maybe a lack of pity." It's clear that Milan could have had this quality, but he's aging, and for one who repeats that he doesn't ask questions, he begins asking quite a few. Notably, in the same scene, he asks Manesquier about a poem he knows two lines of, which Manesquier fills in "On the Pont Neuf I met/No dog, no stick, no sign/Pity for those in despair/ That the crowd turns aside from." (There's more to it, but that's enough to get the idea started)

The scenes are slow and graceful, dark and muted. The blue tones that begin in the opening carry through and the beautiful melancholy persists to the end. The music at times acts as another character, particularly given Manesquier's love/hate relationship with playing Schumann (he identifies with his "love of failure.")
Thoughtful and full of conversational and visual poetry, it is to me a celebration of the idea that no matter how far we're set down a certain road there could still be time to be more than we thought we were. Patrice Leconte's film manages to capture the best in these two characters, making each of them much more than they ever thought they could be. Maybe if it's too late to change, you can lose gracefully. That should count for something. Man on the Train is a heartfelt meditation on the lives we choose.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Miller's Crossing

In Miller's Crossing the Coen's created a world suited entirely to Tom Reagan(Gabriel Byrne). Sometimes grim and gritty, other times like a comic book in its over the top, prohibition era gangster imagery. They succeed in creating the 1930's that would have been  if Dick Tracy and Jimmy Cagney collaborated to make the world.

Tom is clearly a loner by nature, quicker with a wisecrack and smarter than anyone he knows. He's also deeply pessimistic, and mean spirited, but highly principled. Tom doesn't want to run things though, he's happy playing number two to his close friend Leo (Albert Finney) the Irish crime boss who runs the town. Running things wouldn't be a privelege to Tom, only pointless work. Tom and Leo start off as close as brothers, Tom being the only person Leo listens to, but they both have a blind spot when it comes to Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo's girlfriend who Tom is also sleeping with.

The problems start when Verna's brother Bernie (John Turturro) anger's the local Italian gangster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). Bernie's costing Caspar money and Caspar wants him dead. Leo won't allow it because he promised Verna he'd protect her brother. Tom can't talk Leo into budging although he tries, thinking that Bernie's not worth a gang war. With neither side budging, a gang war is clearly on the way, the perfect time for Tom and Leo to have a falling out. Tom switches sides and is forced to kill Bernie to prove his loyalty. Tom manages to spare Bernie, while convincing Caspar that he killed him.

Byrne's Tom is an instant classic, he has serious drinking and gambling problems, which have his creditors chasing him throughout the film. It's telling of the character that when they catch up to him and explain that the beating he's about to get is policy, Tom just takes it and says, "Tell Lazarre, No hard feelings"  and the thug replies "Jesus Tom, he knows." Tom always pays what he owes (whether it's the money or taking the beating). Leo has even freely offerred to clear his debts, but Tom insists that he pays his own way.

It's clear that Tom always has a plan, what we don't know for sure is how far he's in over his head. His advantage is that no matter how deep he's sunk, Tom doesn't lose his head. He's got principles but all the same he's naturally sharp and can't help cutting people down to size with his remarks. But smart as he is, he can't control everything, he has to do a lot of adjustments on the fly, particularly when his good deed of sparing Bernie comes back to bite him, when Bernie realizes that being alive gives him leverage over Tom.

The dialogue, and the stereotypes are as over the top as the scenery. Everybody's larger and smaller than life, except for Tom. Tom's the realistic contrast with his environment, as if he's the only photograph in a comic book. That doesn't take away from other performances. Leo in particular is amazing in a scene where he's attacked in his house by a ridiculous number of bullets and charges forward guns blazing while in his bedclothes, untouched like a force of nature. Verna's a great bad girl and Tom's kindred spirit. For all their sparring they can't keep from being attracted to each other, despite the fact that they both care deeply for Leo. Whether they love or hate each other is not really a choice, as both emotions are mixed too thoroughly to be seperated. Turturro is tremendous as Bernie a sleazy opportunist with no principles at all, beyond the quickest buck he can make. His character becomes less likable every minute he's on screen.

Tom's what it's all about though. He's too smart to be likeable as many people point out in the movie. It's tough to like a guy that won't owe you anything. Tom is too smart for the world he's in, so the world has to throw everything it can manage in his way, and the over the top nature of the world makes the violence and pressure he endures that much more intense by contrast. Watching the results of his doublecrosses, we worry less for Tom than wonder where his true loyalties lie and how they'll pay off. He's a great distillation of all the hard-bitten smart-asses in gangster movie/film noir history, but thanks to Byrne's performance, the character doesn't feel borrowed. Here, the Coen Brothers craft a fine love letter to the old crime genres and create a great character to fit into that tradition.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Henry Fool

Henry Fool is more about Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) than Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) Henry is more a helpful devil on Simon's shoulder than the lead of the film. Simon is an awkward and introverted trashman who has resigned himself to a miserable existence, living with his severely depressed mother Mary (Maria Porter) and extremely promiscuous sister Fay (Parker Posey) Nothing in the world ever goes right for Simon and he has stopped expecting anything at all.

Simon couldn't be more unremarkable if he tried. He's the personification of "quiet desperation," at least until he meets Henry Fool who comes walking down the road out of nowhere, to find Simon with his ear to the ground. "Get up off your knees." Henry says, describing his characters whole purpose. Henry ends up renting a basement room from the Grim's. This allows him to be lit by a furnace while speaking to Simon, adding to his Luciferian overtones.

Henry is obnoxious, pretentious, confrontational. He frequently proclaims himself a literary revolutionary and has nothing but the highest praise for his own work, an unpublished manifesto, (which he won't let anyone read) which will, according to himself, shake up everything.  Simon eagerly listens, impressed by his worldliness and clear knowledge of literature and many other topics.

Henry does gives Simon a notebook and pencil after noticing that Simon has trouble expressing himself. Simon decides that he'll try this and we're well aware that this is a significant moment as Hartley zooms right in on the pencil touching the paper and holds there as he makes his first scratch. Simon ends up with a book length poem, which is everything that Henry claimed of his own work. (It also happens that Simon writes naturally in iambic pentameter.) Henry tells Simon they need to get it published, but nobody's interested, until it's posted on the internet and starts to cause a stir.

Simon's work has profound effects on its readers, like causing a mute girl to sing, and also causing outrage with it's "pornographic" content and "sick ideas." But in any event, everyone's talking about it. Soon every publisher wants the manuscript and Simon is living the life that Henry imagined he'd have. A publisher agrees to publish Henry's "Confession" in order to get the rights to Simon's work. Of course this changes once he reads it and Simon understands their problem as he has read it himself. Henry's work is apparently, just not any good.

Fortunately Henry has other interests aside from the literary. He manages to sleep with Simon's mother and then sister, eventually setlling down with Fay. Parker Posey does a great job transitioning from the youth obsessed slut character to stable domesticity in what seems a very natural progression. Meanwhile, Simon is whisked away into a life of success, Henry takes Simon's old job and almost entirely assumes Simon's old place, (right down to the same uniform) at least until a serious complication changes everything. Despite his earlier claims of connections, Simon is the only friend that Henry has, and we get to see the complete reversal of the two characters when Simon is called on to save Henry Fool.

It's interesting and understandable that neither of the two manuscripts are ever seen in the film. To try to produce work that is as "brilliant" as Simon's or as "bad" as Henry's would be nearly impossible as it would immediately open up a debate of taste, (which is a point mentioned heavily in the film) Both pieces work better when imagined. I didn't see this film as about the work itself as much as the opposite journeys that Henry and Simon take and the power that the work can have.

It's a beautiful idea that Simon could save himself by listening to his bad angel and writing out all the twisted things he's bottled up in order to function. However to take that approach we have to ask why Henry's work only dooms him further. Is it a matter of natural talent, taste, discipline or the shifting demands of the reading public? Is it Simon's necessity that creates the voice of "brilliance" (Henry seems fairly content with his lifestyle) A lot of questions are raised, but few are answered defininitively. (Even Henry's work which is seen as "bad" by Simon and his publisher manages to affect Fay very deeply.)  There's plenty of unpleasantness in this film's world, but at least it's a world where a mute girl can sing when she reads the words that an unassuming trash collector forced into the world.

Hal Hartley has a unique perspective when it comes to filming. His dialogue is both inflated and sharp. His characters pronounce deep truths and then move on. He's not afraid to have his characters spell out exactly what he wants you to know, but fortunately he chooses actors who can deliver without seeming forced. Henry can say things like "An honest man is always in trouble"  because his character imagines himself a philosopher. Mary, speaking to Simon of Fay's loud love-making in the next room, can tell Simon "She might as well get it while she can, she won't always have that ass." because her mental state excuses it.

His visual focus is much the same, every scene is carefully composed of exactly what Hartley wants you to see. If we need to see what Simon's saying, he zooms right in on Simon, not afraid to cut off Henry's head in the background. If a notebook is the important element, he'll zoom in on just the notebook for a moment. Every detail also carries weight and he has no fear of being symbolic. For example, Simon continues to wear his trashman's uniform even after he's quit his job. He doesn't change clothes at all, until he has a publishing deal.

I should also mention that there is a sequel, Fay Grim, which Hal Hartley refers to as his "Empire Strikes Back" It's a far different movie, although it does shed a new light on the characters in Henry Fool (particularly Henry Fool and his Confessions) I prefer to think of Henry Fool as a stand alone piece. (This is not a knock against Fay Grim, but it came out nine years after Henry Fool. so my experience with Henry Fool was well cemented by then, and I was just happy to see the characters again.)