Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
I believe in truth in advertising. I also believe in keeping things short. I watch a lot of movies. This is where I'm going to write about them. Let's roll.
Sunday, March 9, 2014
Remember, you're not looking for merit. This is a cynical business. We seek only imperfection.
In Ridley Scott's The Counselor, life isn't cheap so much as it is intrinsically worthless. Then again, I should probably attribute that to novelist/first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy since that is a theme which appears to run through much of his work. In The Counselor, McCarthy takes the fatalistic worldview that informed No Country for Old Men and The Road and applies it to a drug deal that goes bad for the unnamed title character (Michael Fassbender), a heretofore straight-arrow lawyer seeking relief from some pressing money problems, almost from the moment he agrees to go in on it. Then again, the way McCarthy lays out the plot, it's clear that it was going to go south whether Fassbinder was involved or not. He just chose the wrong time to go into business with high-living club owner Javier Bardem (sporting his second frightful hairdo in a McCarthy film) and cautious middleman Brad Pitt.
A fairly unsubtle predator/prey theme is introduced in Bardem's very first scene, in which he and wife Cameron Diaz (playing a Barbadian without a trace of an accent since it was eliminated in post) watch their pet cheetahs chase jackrabbits in the desert. This is echoed in a later scene where Diaz appraises the diamond engagement ring Fassbender bought in Amsterdam (from Bruno Ganz) for fiancée Penélope Cruz. Since they're poolside, it's impossible to miss the cheetah spots tattooed on Diaz's back and shoulders, which I suppose makes Cruz the jackrabbit. She's certainly set up to be the innocent victim pretty much from the get-go.
All the while, Scott and McCarthy show us the progress of the drug shipment from its origin point in Juarez, Mexico, where it's loaded into a septic tanker truck, and the work that goes into shanghaiing it after it crosses the border into the States. (As horrible as it may seem, one has to admire the ingenuity of the process by which a motorcyclist is relieved of his head.) Before the shit has the chance to hit the fan, though, they drop in scenes like the one where Diaz goes to a priest to "confess" her sins, which have to include the time she fucked Bardem's Ferrari, which he subsequently had to get rid of. ("You see something like that," he says after relating the story to Fassbender, "it changes you.") Also, once Pitt tells Fassbender about a particularly gruesome method the drug cartels use to behead their enemies, it's a given that we'll be seeing it in action before everything is over and done with. I know I would have been disappointed if I hadn't.
The truth may not set you free.
In an interview near the end of Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate, Benedict Cumberbatch as WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is asked what he thinks about "the WikiLeaks movie" and he asks "Which one?" before deriding the very one he's in. It isn't stated explicitly, but I imagine the other one he's referring to is Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, which goes beyond Condon's film to include the sexual assault charges that have dogged Assange since 2010, as well as an interview with one of his accusers, whose face is obscured at her request. No wonder Assange isn't a fan.
In addition to profiling Australia's most infamous hacker (and touching on the notoriety he enjoyed in Melbourne in the early '90s), We Steal Secrets also doubles as a mini-bio of intelligence analyst/whistle-blower Bradley Manning, whose story is inextricably linked to the rise and fall of WikiLeaks. Even if Gibney doesn't secure an interview with Assange, who demanded a fairly substantial fee to appear on camera, he had plenty of footage to work with since Assange's activities both before and after the release of the Afghan War Logs were well-documented. And when that doesn't suffice, he can splice in clips from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (for when Adrian Lamo, the hacker who turned Manning in, makes reference to the Kobayashi Maru), WarGames and (very briefly) Hackers. In the end, though, it still feels like we haven't gotten the whole story. I guess that will be up to the next WikiLeaks movie.
Saturday, March 8, 2014
I am here. I don't know how I got here.
To follow his "Europa Trilogy," Lars von Trier conceived with story collaborator Tómas Gislason and screenwriter Niels Vørsel an epic television event about a deeply dysfunctional Danish hospital where ethical lapses and supernatural shenanigans are the norm rather than the exception. The result was The Kingdom, the first series of which premiered in 1994, with the second to follow three years later. (I'm sure I won't wait that long to get to it, though.)
One of the most compulsively watchable things Von Trier has ever directed (with Morten Arnfred), Series One of The Kingdom introduces a great many characters and subplots over the course of its four and a half hours, but never feels overstuffed or like it's giving any of them short shrift. The man who's most front and center, though, is irascible Swedish consultant neurosurgeon Ernst-Hugo Järegård, whose autocratic style doesn't go over too well with the medical professionals and patients he has to deal with on a daily basis. The one who receives the brunt of his ire is junior registrar Søren Pilmark, who's in the bad habit of overstepping his bounds, at least in Järegård's not so humble opinion. He also has to put up with the irritating management style of administrator Holger Juul Hansen, who has brainstorms like the "Operation Morning Breeze" initiative and insists on Järegård joining The Sons of the Kingdom, a secret society that holds as much interest for him as the herbal remedies and Haitian voodoo rituals his secret lover, fellow doctor Ghita Nørby, is always going on about.
Other thorns in Järegård's side include the threat of a malpractice suit after he botches an operation and the persistence of spiritualist Kirsten Rolffes, who keeps checking herself into the hospital -- much to the consternation of her son, porter Jens Okking -- so she can solve the mystery of the ghostly girl that haunts it. Meanwhile, Pilmark gets a love interest of his own in the form of fellow neurologist Birgitte Raaberg, who doesn't put him off when she reveals she's pregnant with her previous boyfriend's child, and gangly medical student Peter Mygind (who believes he can be blasé about his studies since he's Hansen's son) confirms his crush on nurse Solbjørg Højfeldt, who monitors the hospital's sleep laboratory, by presenting her with the head of a cadaver, which puts him in dutch with pathologist Baard Owe. In the interest of keeping everything straight for the audience, von Trier and Arnfred frequently cut away to a pair of dishwashers (Vita Jensen and Morten Rotne Leffers, both of whom have Down syndrome) who curiously seem to know what's going on. Oh, yes. And Udo Kier in there as well, but he doesn't have much to do until the final episode, when the whole edifice threatens to come crashing down.
To be sure, plenty of what goes on in The Kingdom is horrific (or at the very least unsettling), but as in Epidemic, there is an undercurrent of black comedy that runs through it as well. From Järegård's rooftop cries of "Danish scum!" to von Trier's direct addresses to the audience over the closing credits of every episode, it should be clear as day that nobody should take it too seriously. Alternately, as von Trier himself says, "Should you wish to revisit the Kingdom, be prepared to take the Good with the Evil!"
If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.
Whenever I watch a movie -- even one I've seen before -- I generally take a lot of notes. Tonight, though, I hardly took any because Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused is the preeminent hangout movie, and when you're hanging out with old friends are you in the habit of taking note of what they do and who said what? Didn't think so. This is not to say I consider any of the characters in Dazed my friends -- old or otherwise -- but Linklater's way with an episodic film is such that few single episodes stand out from the rest (even if certain lines of dialogue do).
It all starts with a high school quarterback (Jason London) getting presented with a pledge that he's expected to sign saying he will refrain from drinking and smoking, and it ends with him tossing it in his coach's face and taking a road trip with a potential pedophile (Matthew McConaughey) to get Aerosmith tickets. In between, London and his friends drink a lot of beer and smoke a lot of weed and a few asses are beaten. End of story. Okay, maybe there's a bit more to it than that, but the saga of The Pledge is the closest Dazed ever gets to a story with stakes, and even those are pretty low considering they're just about whether one senior will decide to play football or not. Hardly what anyone would call a life or death decision.
Wisely, Linklater gives the audience a pair of surrogates in the form of two incoming freshmen (Wiley Wiggins and Christin Hinojosa) who endure the barbaric and humiliating initiation rituals inflicted upon them and, as a reward, get to hang out with the cool kids for the night. He also gives me a trio of characters I can relate to (misfits Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi), even as I recognize just how insufferable Goldberg is at times. To be perfectly frank, I can stand him a lot more than Rory Cochrane's stoned ramblings.
Tuesday, March 4, 2014
I don't go on a trip every day of my life.
The eighth time was the charm for Geraldine Page, who finally won an Academy Award for 1985's The Trip to Bountiful. It was her fourth nomination for Best Actress (after Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, and Interiors) and one of her most demanding roles, but she proved to be more than up to the task. Written by Horton Foote, based on his own play, and directed by Peter Masterson, the film stars Page as Mrs. Watts, an elderly widow who lives in Houston, Texas, with her respectful son Ludie (John Heard) and intolerable daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), with whom she has a less-than-amicable relationship. Seeking to return to her hometown one last time before she dies, Mrs. Watts hides her pension check from Jessie Mae and sneaks away one morning when she's left on her own after one of her "sinking spells." She's undeterred, though, when she's informed at the station that there are no trains to Bountiful and resolves to get there by bus (which was likewise discontinued its service to that dried-up town).
If I had to choose one word to describe Mrs. Watts, it would be "determined." For Page's performance, it would be "devastating," particularly for the scene on the bus where she regales a fellow passenger (Rebecca De Mornay, who's largely along for the ride) with her life story, which she is able to do without resorting to histrionics. If any one scene earned Page her Oscar, it was that one. For from going it alone, though, she's backed up by a terrific ensemble, with everyone pulling their own weight, just as her character is helped along by just about everyone she encounters. Even the sheriff (Richard Bradford) who could have easily brought her journey to an abrupt end twelve miles short of her destination comes through for her when it counts. The law's the law, but sometimes you can just tell when bending it is the right thing to do.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Airplanes are beautiful dreams. Engineers turn dreams into reality.
Throughout his career, master animator Hayao Miyazaki has returned time and again to his fascination with flight in general and flying machines in particular. From Nausicaä to Castle in the Sky to Kiki's Delivery Service to Porco Rosso to On Your Mark to Spirited Away to Howl's Moving Castle (and plenty of other films in between), he has seen fit to include characters who either want to fly very badly or have an inborn talent to. That's why it's so appropriate that his latest feature, The Wind Rises, which may turn out to be his last if he's serious about his retirement announcement this time, is centered on a man whose desire to be a pilot is scuttled by his nearsightedness, so instead he pours his passion into designing planes for others to fly.
The Wind Rises has attracted a certain amount of controversy because it's based on the life of Jiro Horikoshi, who built the Zero fighter for the Japanese Navy, but when we meet him as an idealistic youth he wants nothing more than to design beautiful airplanes. Reality, alas, conspires to make him apply his talents to the empire's ever-expanding war machine, which he's decidedly ambivalent about if his vivid and fantastical dreams are anything to go by. (In one, he meets Italian aero engineer Giovanni Caproni, who becomes his long-distance mentor of sorts.) Miyazaki follows Jiro to university and then to Mitsubishi, where he's put on the Falcon Project, which literally goes down in flames, before he's allowed to take the lead on his own.
Meanwhile, Jiro reconnects with Naoko, a girl he met-disastrously during the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Theirs is a doomed love, though, owing to her persistent tuberculosis, which Jiro chooses to overlook so they can be together. At the same time, Mitsubishi works to protect him from the secret police, who more than likely want to speak to him about his association with a German pacifist (voiced in the English dub by Werner Herzog; I'm sure he's great, but I made a point of catching the subtitled version since I was given the option). His loyalty is no longer in question, though, once his design for the Zero passes with flying colors and goes into production. After its wildly successful demonstration, one can't fault Miyazaki for skipping past the war years (although plenty of people have). As far as Jiro was concerned, the less said about what the government chose to do with his work, the better.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Some things are unforgivable.
For his follow-up to the Academy Award-winning A Separation, Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi looked to the The Past, as do most of his characters. Chief among them is Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who flies to Paris from Tehran to finalize his divorce from Marie (a ferocious Bérénice Bejo), a pharmacist with two daughters, both from a previous marriage that also went sour. Teenager Lucie (Pauline Burlet) is on the outs with her mother due to her intense dislike of her new beau Samir (Tahar Rahim), a dry cleaner with a young son and a wife in a coma. Younger daughter Léa (Jeanna Jestin), meanwhile, just likes to play with Samir's son Fouad (Elyes Aguis), who is very standoffish with Ahmad at first. (Gee, I wonder why.) The longer Ahmad sticks around, the more he gets involved in their lives, in spite of the fact that he made the trip specifically to disentangle himself from them.
As it turns out, there are a great many entanglements, not all of which stem from the dissolution of Ahmad and Marie's marriage (which is carried out in an extremely civil fashion when they have their day in court). Rather, the big question becomes who bears primary responsibility for putting Samir's wife in her coma. (In true The Trouble with Harry fashion, the blame shifts from person to person as more information comes to light.) By the time Samir's illegal worker Naïma (Sabrina Ouazani) gets added to the mix, one begins to see the wisdom of Ahmad's friend, restauranteur Shahryar (Babak Karimi), who advises him, "Don't get sucked back into this." Ahmad's a born fixer, though, as we've already seen in the scene where he unclogs Marie's sink. As much as he'd like to stay out of it, he can't help trying to put things right.
Thursday, February 27, 2014
Always stand by your first count. Odds are, you're right.
British director Mike Hodges spent a fair amount of time in the commercial wilderness before emerging in 1998 with Croupier, a welcome return to form and the film that effective introduced Clive Owen to the world. A tightly constructed neo-noir/character study written by Paul Mayersberg (whose screenwriting CV includes Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth and Eureka, as well as Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), it cast Owen as a croupier who thinks he can deal with gamblers without having to play with them. Suffice it to say, before the wheel stops spinning, that belief gets called into question.
As the story opens, Owen's Jack Manfred is a struggling novelist (his literary aspirations foregrounded by his wry narration) who takes a job at the Golden Lion casino in London at the behest of his father (Nicholas Ball), a professional gambler who always calls him from one casino or another. (This goes a long way toward explaining why Jack never gambles himself.) Jack's girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a former policewoman-turned-store detective, believes in him, but his publisher (Nick Reding) wants him to write a tawdry page-turner about a sexed-up footballer, which runs counter to the adage "write what you know." And what Jack knows is the world of casinos, having worked in one in South Africa before emigrating.
Once installed at the Golden Lion, Jack finds his protagonist in crooked croupier Matt (Paul Reynolds), who's gaming the system and living an approximation of the high life, and gets mixed up with a couple of women, one of whom he immediately pegs as "trouble." That's co-worker Bella (Kate Hardie), with whom he has an ill-advised liaison outside of work, but the one he really should be watching out for is punter Jani (Alex Kingston), a fellow South African who asks for his help because her creditors need an inside man to pull off a robbery at the casino. How Hodges and Mayersberg (who rightfully share the film's possessory credit) tie everything together, I will leave for you to discover. Should you have the 94 minutes to spare, I reckon you'll find it's worth the gamble.
Wednesday, February 26, 2014
You underestimate the danger of this disease.
The impish Lars von Trier that seemed to come out of nowhere in 2003's The Five Obstructions was already present and accounted for in his second feature, 1987's Epidemic, the middle part of his "Europa Trilogy." In it, von Trier and his co-writer, Niels Vørsel, lose the script they've been working on for the past year and a half (which has the unpromising title The Cop and the Whore) and decide to ditch it and write something "more dynamic" in the five days they have to come up with a replacement. In no time at all, they settle on a title -- Epidemic, which is superimposed on the screen as it is typed in and stays there, effectively burned in for the remainder of the running time -- and research the great plagues on the past looking for just the right one to dramatize.
What they come up with is the story of Dr. Mesmer (also played by von Trier), a renegade epidemiologist who leaves the supposed safety of the city for the surrounding country, little realizing he's carrying the plague with him and doing more to spread it than eradicate it. In addition to the causal relationship between reality (von Trier and Vørsel writing Epidemic, shot in grainy 16mm) and fiction (the actual scenes they're writing, shot in 35mm), another layer is peeled back with the addition of a ponderous voice-over that narrates the screenwriting scenes, describing the actual plague that is creeping up on the young filmmakers and is due to break out the moment they complete their script. That, incidentally, comes in well short of the 150 pages the film institute (which is footing the bill for the project) is expecting, but von Trier invites a couple of surprise guests to dinner with their liaison to help sell him on it.
Speaking of surprise guests, Udo Kier pops in for a few scenes when von Trier and Vørsel take an unmotivated road trip to Germany, followed by an unexpected visit to a hospital and a trip to the pathology department which may very well have inspired von Trier's television miniseries The Kingdom, made in two parts the following decade. I won't know for sure about that, though, until I check it out for myself, which I plan to do in the near future. I don't know what it is about it, but this von Trier fellow's work is worth catching.
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
How terrible is knowledge when knowing is useless to he who knows.
Not long after tackling The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted another classic text with his 1967 version of Oedipus Rex, which ditches much of Sophocles's dialogue in favor or emphasizing the ritual (and cyclical) nature of the story. To do this, Pasolini dramatizes every stage of the title character's life, starting when he's an infant being breastfed by his mother Jocasta (Silvana Mangano, who also played the mother in the following year's Teorema) and including when he's left to die in the rocky wilderness by his father Laius (Luciano Bartoli), the King of Thebes who fears the prophecy that says his own son will rise up and kill him. Bound hand and foot, baby Oedipus (so named because of his swollen feet) is rescued by an old shepherd and brought to the King and Queen of Corinth (Ahmed Belhachmi and Alida Valli), who promptly adopt him. After he grows up to be a hotheaded young man (Franco Citti), Oedipus leaves them to seek answers at Apollo's shrine and is told point-blank he will kill his father and make love to his mother. Not wishing to do that to his nice (unbeknownst to him adoptive) parents, he flees Corinth and finds himself headed in the direction of Thebes, where, at a literal crossroads, he encounters Laius, whose entourage refuses to let him pass unmolested and, well, this is how tragedies happen, people.
Following his unwitting patricide, things quickly fall into place for Oedipus. First, he meets a messenger named Angelo (Pasolini's young lover Ninetto Davoli, who played virtually the same role -- with one extra syllable -- in Teorema) who takes him to blind man Tieresias (Julian Beck). The prophet doesn't have much to say right away, so it's up to Angelo to tell him of the dreaded Sphinx which has been bedeviling the people of Thebes. Instead of busting out his famous riddle for Oedipus, though, the Sphinx barely has time to say, "There's an enigma in your life. What is it?" before he is dispatched. From there, Oedipus goes on to marry Jocasta, just as Apollo's oracle predicted, and brings a plague down on the land, prompting high priest Pasolini to come to him begging for a solution. (This is the point where Sophocles comes in.) When all the evidence points to Oedipus himself being responsible, he rails against anybody (like Tieresias) who dares to suggest such a thing and only slowly comes to accept it himself. Once he does, he's quick to exact his own punishment and is whisked away to modern-day Rome along with Angelo, who acts as the now-blind former king's guide. This, by the way, neatly mirrors the opening of the film, which places the action somewhat earlier in the 20th century, namely fascist Italy based on the snazzy military uniform Laius wears when, thinking of Jocasta, he tells his baby boy, "She will be the first thing you rob from me." Turns out he got the order a little wrong.
The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney, 2014)
August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)
Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
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