Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Looper


Grade: 93 (A)

With his 2005 high school-noir Brick, Rian Johnson established himself as one of the most exciting new filmmakers around. With his flawed but fascinating 2008 follow-up The Brothers Bloom, Johnson upped his ambition considerably. Now with Looper, Johnson has attempted to make a Christopher Nolan-like crossover into mainstream filmmaking. But Johnson hasn’t made a safe, predictable studio film here. Rather, Looper is as twisty-turny as his previous films, and it only further showcases why Johnson is one of the leading talents in film today.

After an economic collapse, organized crime took an upswing in the United States. In 2074, time travel was invented and immediately outlawed. The mob now uses time travel illegally in order to dispose of bodies (near impossible in their time due to new tracking technology) by sending their captures back to 2044, where specially trained killers called “loopers” shoot and dispose of them. Additionally, the mob occasionally sends the loopers’ future selves back from to the past in order to erase any connection to them by killing them; this is called “closing the loop”. Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a looper, and a damn good one at that. But when a future version of himself (Bruce Willis) escapes, Joe has to catch him before his boss Abe (Jeff Daniels) and his loose-cannon enforcer Kid Blue (Noah Segan) decide to fix the problem by killing Joe. Things get complicated when Joe learns what Old Joe has planned and a farmer, Sara (Emily Blunt) and her odd son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) get mixed up.

Saying any more would be an act of cruelty. As with any of Johnson’s films, part of the fun is getting blindsided by the ways the director twists the story in unexpected ways. Without a doubt one could nit-pick certain details about the way time travel works in this film, but the important thing is that Johnson has thought the world of the film through exceptionally well, and that he seamlessly integrates details that start out as futuristic bric-a-brac only to become more important to the plot. It doesn’t hurt that he’s a skilled action director, and his best set-pieces suggest a cross between Christopher Nolan and the Coen Brothers (a fitting description of Johnson’s style as a storyteller, come to think of it). Johnson also has a way with actors: Jeff Daniels gives his best performance since The Squid and the Whale as a sardonic mob boss who doesn’t need to raise his voice to be threatening. Also excellent: Paul Dano as a sniveling associate of Gordon-Levitts, Segan (Dode in Brick) as a dumb but brash enforcer, Blunt as the heart of the film, and a remarkably unmannered and unprecious performance from young Gagnon.

This is Johnson’s second film with Gordon-Levitt after their previous collaboration on Brick. Gordon-Levitt has best stay in touch with Johnson, because few directors use him this well. The actor has a completely believable yet never distracting make-up job to look like a younger version of Willis (that is, a young version of modern Willis, not Willis in his Die Hard days), and he never goes for mere impersonation. He’s a brash, overconfident killer who has a bigger conscience than he thinks he does. Willis does some of his best work in ages as the older, wiser Joe, but the central theme in Looper comes from how much we change as we age, how we promise not to make the same mistakes, and yet how we manage to be blind to how closely our present situation mirrors our past. And then there’s the ending, which only a total bastard would spoil here. I’ll just say this: what are we willing to give up in order to do right?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.12: Roman Polanski's Frantic


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 64 (B)

Roman Polanski had put all of his time and energy into Pirates, his first film in seven years, and all he got was a $6 million dollar gross against a $40 million budget, not to mention scathing reviews. With several years in exile and an expensive bomb on his hands, he needed to keep working if he wanted to save his career. It’s no surprise, then, that his next project, 1988’s Frantic, is easily the most straightforward entry in his filmography, missing almost all of the nasty, surreal touches that made his best films simmer. But just because it never truly amazes doesn’t make it a bad film by any means.

Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) has traveled to Paris for a medical conference. Accompanied by his wife Sondra (Betty Buckley of Carrie), he’s jet-lagged and disoriented as he reaches his hotel room. Sondra realizes that she picked up the wrong suitcase at the airport when her key will not open the bag. Soon, while Richard is in the shower, Sondra disappears from the room. Richard searches for her until a man tells him that Sondra was forced into a car outside a cafĂ©. Richard takes this information to the Parisian police and the U.S. Embassy, but neither seem particularly sympathetic. Richard then takes the investigation into his own hands and connects his wife’s kidnapping to a murder, a young smuggler named Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), and a plot for a nuclear weapon.

It’s a pretty pale imitation of a classic Hitchcockian plot, complete with one of the lamer macguffins of the period. The film isn’t helped by some fairly unmemorable villains, nor by Seigner’s weak performance. The role of Michelle calls for someone with a punk-like energy, but Polanski’s future wife mostly just poses and pouts. But what likely makes the film so exasperating to some Polanski fans is its pedestrian exploration of Polanski’s pet themes: the sexuality never connects, nor does the power play considering the weak villains, and the ending plays like a pale imitation of Chinatown (whose writer, Robert Towne, did some uncredited rewrites on Polanski and Gerard Brach’s script). One might doubt whether or not this is a Polanski film at all.

One wouldn’t be looking hard enough. True, it’s fairly weak on a thematic level, and Seigner’s performance isn’t the strong female lead the film needs. But Polanski gets strong work out of Ford as an increasingly exasperated man dealing with ineffectual bureaucracies (including a wonderfully condescending John Mahoney) and a jet-lag that just won’t quit. Polanski matches Ford with a slow-burning tension and haze that hangs over Paris. When a bleary-eyed Ford first notices his wife is missing, Polanski takes his time establishing that something is terribly wrong. Polanski also pulls of some dynamite set-pieces, particularly one involving Ford trying to avoid being seen or heard on Seigner’s rooftop. It’s all elegantly, subtly wrought, tense, and well-acted by the lead. It just doesn’t feel like much more than a transitional film for a director who really needed a respectable film ASAP.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Director Spotlight #11.11: Roman Polanski's Pirates


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 17 (D)

Christ, so it comes to this. Roman Polanski’s Tess was a critical and relative commercial hit, but the director spent the next several years in exile just trying to get past his 1977 sex crime. When his stage production of Peter Schaeffer’s Amadeus was a critical hit, he tried to option the film only to be beaten out by Milos Forman. When Tunisian movie producer Tarak Ben Ammar approached Polanski and asked him if he had anything ready to go, Polanski dusted off the script for Pirates, which he had written back in 1974 as an intended follow-up to Chinatown. Polanski and company saw a potential blockbuster. The rest of the world? Not so much.

Captain Red (Walter Matthau in a role originally conceived for Jack Nicholson) and his French first mate Frog (Cris Campion in a role written for Polanski himself) are stranded at sea and on the verge of cannibalism until they’re picked up by a Spanish Galleon. The two are forced into slavery by the odious Don Alfonso (Damien Thomas), but they mutiny and take over command of the ship. The Frog falls for Maria-Dolores (Charlotte Lewis), the niece of a Spanish colony governor, while Captain Red leads the ship on a series of adventures.

If that seems like a rather thin plot, you nailed it. Polanski and Gerard Brach more or less thought up a bunch of situations they thought would be funny (Red and the Frog forced to eat a rat, an interrogation scene involving a threatened rape and Red chewing on the toes of a man with gout) and threw them together. This is a story that needs a solid through-line if the bawdy humor is going to work (for a strong example, see their infinitely superior work on The Fearless Vampire Killers), and Pirates doesn’t have it. The astronomical miscalculation doesn’t end there: most of the performances are bland and forgettable, but let’s ponder Walter Matthau’s casting. Matthau was a great character-actor who people go to see for his personality. Burying him under hair and make-up and forcing him to mask his recognizable voice with a horrendous pirate accent seems questionable, to say the very least.

The film isn’t even well put-together: Polanski and editor Herve de Luze (who, to be fair, have done great work together since) inexplicably chop up most of the action scenes (which themselves aren’t much fun anyway) and leave in a long scene of business in a bathtub that doesn’t go anywhere and drags out an already interminable experience. Pirates isn’t totally without interest: there are impressive moments of pure spectacle, and one must admire Polanski’s choice to build a full scale ship for the production (now a tourist attraction in Tunisia). Still, there’s a reason Pirates has never been made commercially available on DVD Stateside. When the best selling point for a movie is “Hey, at least it’s better than What?, it’s best to just skip it.

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Director Spotlight #11.10: Roman Polanski's Tess


Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. October’s director is master thriller/horror filmmaker Roman Polanski.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 69 (B)

Well, that happened. Roman Polanski was on his way to prepping a film called The First Deadly Sin before the rape of a 13-year-old-girl sent his life through a spiral. Polanski moved on to a remake of John Ford’s Hurricane during the utterly bizarre circus of a trial (well-documented in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, now available on Netflix Instant, which doesn’t deny Polanski’s guilt but brings up the legal complexities of the case) before he fled the United States. Polanski then moved on to a project borne out of his desire to make “something beautiful”: Tess, based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which Polanski’s late wife Sharon Tate gave to him before her murder. Tess was released to wildly positive reviews and garnered Polanski his second Best Director nomination. But years later, does the film really stand out as one of the director’s best?

Tess Durbeyfield (Nastassja Kinski) is the daughter of a poor farming family. When her father discovers the family’s distant relation to the rich D’Urbervilles, he sends Tess to live with and work for the family. There, she meets Alec (Leigh Lawson), a “cousin” who has bought his way into the family and who eventually rapes Tess. Tess leaves and gives birth to a child which soon dies. She then finds work as a milkmaid and falls for Angel (Peter Firth), the son of a parson trying to make his name as a farmer. The two marry, but Angel deserts her when he learns of her past with Alec. Tess is forced to become Alec’s mistress, but when Angel returns she is pushed to action that will lead to tragedy.

First thing’s first: this film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Polanski and cinematographers Geoffrey Unsworth and (after Unsworth’s death) Ghislain Cloquet make every shot a portrait, as if they saw Kubrick’s (superior) Barry Lyndon and said “I’ll show you!”. Whether Polanski and company are in the beautiful hills of Locronan, France (posing as England) or the dusty interiors of a farmhouse, Tess has to be just about one of the most lovely looking films ever made. The soft haze to a number of the shots gives a false sense of calm to the viewer, particularly in Alec’s attempted seduction of Tess (see: suggestive shot of Tess with a strawberry) before his eventual rape of her in an equally hazy scene. It’s subtly powerful stuff.


Peter Firth and Leigh Lawson are both adept as the hypocritical Angel and the slimy Alec, but the film wouldn’t work without Kinski’s fine work as Tess. There’s a natural awkwardness to Kinski’s performance, but that’s perfect for a character who never finds her place in life. Tess is a woman shamed not by her own hand but by the actions of another, and her tentativeness around Alec gives his every action a queasy overtone even before he violates her. Her hesitation around Angel, meanwhile, comes from her own knowledge that the world is cruel towards women, and that she may not be forgiven even for something that wasn’t her fault.

The film is ultimately another play on Polanski’s pet themes of power and an unfair world. Tess truly never had a chance: class differences and dominance by her own unyielding father have forced her to stay with an odious man. Her fellow workers despise her for Alec’s attention towards her. Her whole life is a push-pull between her love for a man who won’t overlook a past trauma (in spite of his own indiscretions) and an exploitative creep who preys on humanity’s worst tendencies. It’s ripe ground for Polanski.

So I loved Tess, right? Well, no. It’s a highly admirable film, far more accomplished than the stodgy literary adaptations and period costume dramas I abhor, not to mention far more ambitious. But Tess moves at a snail’s pace, often feeling more like a richly imagined but essentially shapeless book on film that desperately begs for someone to realize that what works on the page doesn’t always make for compelling drama and cut the chase. And while Polanski deftly brings across the tension of Tess’ situation, he’s far more suited to films with constant threats of violence than he is to a quaint period piece. Tess is an admirable film, alright, but admirable and gripping aren’t always the same thing.

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Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Innkeepers


Grade: 77 (B+)

With The House of the Devil, Ti West made a name for himself as a modern horror director worth watching. West’s follow-up The Innkeepers (ignoring a direct-to-DVD Cabin Fever sequel that West has disowned), West further demonstrates his talent for slow-burning, atmospheric horror in the vein of classic masters like Roman Polanski or John Carpenter. The Innkeepers doesn’t quite pack the same punch as The House of the Devil, but it’s a more than worthy addition to West’s filmography, and a sign that we’ve got a real talent on our hands here.

Claire (Sara Paxton) is an asthmatic college dropout working at the Yankee Pedlar, a hotel about to close after one last weekend. Claire works with Luke (Pat Healy), who runs a website that documents paranormal activity in the hotel. Both are fascinated by the legend of Madeline O’Malley, who supposedly hung herself in the 1800s after being abandoned by her husband on her honeymoon. Claire and Luke deal with only a handful of guests, including an old man who insists on staying in the honeymoon suite, an irritable woman and her young son, and Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), a former actress now working as a medium. Claire and Luke notice more overtly strange occurrences in the hotel, and soon the amateur ghost-hunters get more than they bargained for.

Like The House of the Devil before it, The Innkeepers builds tension first by focusing on everyday behavior of its characters: boredom, time-killing, and especially a sense of twentysomething anxiety that Claire shares with Jocelin Donahue’s Samantha in the earlier film. Both films do an expert job of capturing what it feels like to be in a spooky place by yourself late at night: even if nothing much happens, it’s a creepy and often tense situation, and the fact that it might all be in your head doesn’t  do much to dissuade you of how serious it feels. West is particularly gifted in the use of sound: Claire skulks around the hotel wearing an EVP meter, and West uses that sense of isolation by headphones to slowly build onto the soundtrack until the slightest noise, even if it’s only slightly more amplified, gets the blood racing.

The Innkeepers owes a heavy debt to ghost films of the past, most notably The Haunting, Poltergeist, and The Shining. West is great at slow-burning tension and explosions after the fact, and The Innkeepers, like The House of the Devil, kept my stomach in knots throughout. But his films show an unfortunate thinness beyond their considerable strengths as genre exercises. College-age anxiety aside, The Innkeepers and The House of the Devil don’t seem to have much on their minds aside from being old-fashioned bump-in-the-night horror stories. West has it in him to make a real masterpiece one of these days, but until then his reverence for the genre and intelligence in filmmaking will have to make up for lack of depth. Still, it’s hard to complain West is working that voodoo that he does so well.

This film is available on Netflix Instant. 

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