Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

Imagine you're Norman Jewison. You've been spending the first half of the decade as a director-for-hire, directing studio vehicles for Tony Curtis, James Garner and Doris Day. So far, it's a modest filmmaking career; indeed, it's the kind of career that usually befalls young filmmakers trying to get into Hollywood's big time. You're not exactly recognized as an artist at the moment, although you have made a friend in Sam Peckinpah, the breakthrough artist who crafted Ride the High Country -- one of the greatest Westerns ever made. There is some question as to whether or not you will ever achieve that level of success. Then Peckinpah is fired from a movie he has been working on with Steve McQueen, and suddenly you have been hired to replace him.

This is what was happening behind the scenes during the making of The Cincinnati Kid. Before Jewison came onboard, the end result was destined to be something completely different from what it is now. Peckinpah's original vision for The Cincinnati Kid was to shoot the film in black-and-white, and fill the story (in typical Peckinpah fashion) with visceral sequences of sex and violence. But Hollywood was not yet ready for Peckinpah's “fascist works of art” (as dubbed by Pauline Kael in her Straw Dogs review), and with Jewison replacing Peckinpah as director, Steve McQueen's next anti-heroic vehicle was about to become something more passive, less aggressive. Arguably, it ultimately became a better film.

Let me put it this way: wouldn't The Cincinnati Kid feel a lot like a rip-off of Robert Rossen's The Hustler if it had been shot in black and white? The stories of the two films are definitely similar: both are about hotshot sports talents who get in over their heads, womanize their female companions, are excruciatingly tested by their opponents and, tragically, manipulated by their own mentors. But The Hustler was a film about pool, whereas The Cincinnati Kid is about stud poker; and what was so wise about Jewison's decision to shoot The Cincinnati Kid in color instead of black-and-white was the fact that the many colors of red, yellow and green seen throughout the picture could then be illuminated to striking effect. Such memorable images as a glowing lamp fading to a golden blur, the provocative red dress of a girl in attendance at a cockfight, and the illustrated graphics of the actual poker cards, would never have endured if Jewison and his cinematographer, Philip H. Lathrop, had not been afforded the wonders of Metrocolor photography. To be sure, Jewison has fun with some shots that probably could have looked just as great as they do without color, from the camera's constant habit of peering through curtains (in doorways and on beds), to the startling transitional image of an antagonist pointing a gun straight at the camera (for the purpose of target practice).

The screenplay for the film, based on a novel by Richard Jessup, was originally written by Ring Lardner Jr.; when Jewison found it overly serious, he brought in Terry Southern to polish it up with more humor, particularly towards the monologues of the film's villains that threaten McQueen's protagonist. Jewison himself was responsible for the film's remarkable narrative framing device. The film begins with McQueen's character, the Kid (his real name is “Eric Stoner”, although he is rarely ever referred to by that name during the picture) passing through a lively African-American funeral in New Orleans. He is then approached by a beaming young African-American Shoeshine boy (Ken Grant), who challenges him to a quick game of penny-pitching on the sidewalk, and who will challenge him again in the middle of and at the end of the film.

“Hey, man, hey Cincinnati- come on, man!” exclaims the eager boy. “I'm gonna get you one more time! Come on, man!” We presume that the Kid and the boy have been at this before, and that the boy has always been unsuccessful in the past. The Kid consents, but of course, being the experienced poker player with the fast hand, he ends up winning. “You're just not ready for me, yet!” he reminds the boy. Normally this would be a crushing experience for a young child, but it is not: the little boy is filled with a sense of awe. In the course of this film, the characters will suffer a multitude of crushing disappointments and losses, but in this opening sequence between McQueen and the boy lies the film's ambition, as well as its undying love of the game. This scene is followed by a sequence in which the Kid ends up fleeing from thugs running a shady game of poker; we watch, exhilarated, as he beats the living heck out of the bad guy, runs across a platform spinning over a gorge (McQueen did this stunt himself), and dodges some moving trains on the way. Already, Jewison and McQueen have us intrigued.

The internal conflict of The Cincinnati Kid springs forward when poker legend Lancey Howard (an excellent Edward G. Robinson, who literally enters the picture through a cloud of steam) comes into town for a lunchtime poker game with the wealthy gangster Slade (a young, unrecognizable Rip Torn), who -- with his homely wife and children, menacing bodyguard and exotic mistress- doesn't seem like he necessarily needs to be wasting his money losing thousands at stud poker, but no matter. When the crusty old Lancey easily beats him in the lunchtime game, Slade vows revenge.

“I wanna see that smug old bastard gutted!” Slade hisses to his loyal dealer, Shooter (Karl Malden). He then informs Shooter of a nasty plan he is hatching: in the upcoming, much-anticipated game that will take place between Lancey and the Kid, Slade will bet on the Kid -- and, to ensure that things go his way, he wants Shooter to deal the game and secretly fix it so that the Kid wins. Shooter initially refuses, but then Slade blackmails him, reminding him that he's “carrying markers” on Shooter, while adding that he can always recognize his markers as “null and void, if I happen to suddenly realize that you are not of sound mind.”

The first hour of the film generally consists of the events leading up to the showdown between Lancey and the Kid. We meet the Kid's girlfriend, Christian (Tuesday Weld), who loves him and maybe even wants to marry him, but feels rather shut out by his poker addiction. Midway through the film is a sequence in which the Kid tries to show how much he cares about Christian by visiting her at her home in the country. In an ordinary film, this kind of sequence might have felt pointless, but there is a wonderful moment when the Kid impresses Christian's socially impaired parents (Karl Swenson and Irene Tedrow) with his card tricks, somewhat miraculously casting off the awkwardness of his being there. Even though the Kid isn't too charismatic a person, there's no doubt about it: he's got a hell of a way with cards.

Knowing that first Peckinpah and then Jewison were involved in the making of The Cincinnati Kid, it's astonishing that another future great filmmaker was also involved: Hal Ashby. At this point in the 1960's, Ashby was an editor, and his editing work on this film is- to put it mildly- sublime. It's the fast-paced last forty-five minutes of The Cincinnati Kid, crisply edited by Ashby and expertly crafted by Jewison, that everybody always remembers. These scenes are so captivating, and so thrilling, that one not even have to be familiar with the rules of stud poker (this writer included) in order to be entertained. We watch as inferior players such as Yeller (Cab Calloway) and Pig (Jack Weston) are forced to drop out of the game, one by one, until only Lancey and the Kid are left. And, of course, there is tension behind the scenes, as we realize that Shooter is under constant pressure by Slade and his gang to keep fixing the game in the Kid's favor. As we watch with some amusement at the silly, laid-back behavior of Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell), who usually switches off with Shooter as dealer, we can sense that Shooter only wishes he could be just as relaxed.

It doesn't help that the Kid is under some pressure of his own. For example, Shooter's flirtatious, puzzle-cheating wife Melba (Ann-Margaret) has got the hots for the Kid, and is continuously trying to steal him away from Christian; earlier in the film, Melba almost succeeds in tempting the Kid, until he gives her a good spanking for stepping out of line (only McQueen could make something as vicious as a spanking look sexy on-screen). Melba's advances are bizarre, considering that she's best friends with Christian, and also when considering that both girls share each other's boy problems on a daily basis. Melba complains that Shooter is too controlling and not a whole lot of fun, but Christian is not convinced. “At least you know how much you mean to somebody”, she sighs. The idea is that Christian's relationship with the Kid will improve eventually, but, sadly, it does not: during the poker climax, Christian comes to the game to show her support... only to find the Kid and Melba in bed together. In the film's final scene, the Kid and Christian reunite on the street after the game, but this cheap, unjustified “Hollywood ending” was forced into the film at the last minute, against Jewison's wishes.

For me, the best performance in the film is by Karl Malden, whose Shooter was unquestionably one of his finest post-On the Waterfront roles. As the film moves along, we actually feel more sorry for Shooter than we do for the Kid; even though the Kid is the one running the risk of losing his money, it is Shooter who is being held tight on a leash by his boss, forced to cooperate, perhaps even in danger of being whacked if things don't go as Slade has planned. Malden has a great scene in which he confronts the Kid in-between rounds, wanting to know why the Kid folded winners in the last hand. Then the Kid, already suspecting Shooter of foul play, grabs him and throws him against the wall. There is a real sense of fear in Shooter's eyes; Malden was reportedly stunned by McQueen's unexpected force. “Kid... you gotta understand,” he tries to explain, “...this wasn't my idea! Slade's got the squeeze on me! You think I wanna deal a phony hand? You think it don't mean something to me?” But the Kid doesn't sympathize with him: “I'm gonna win this game, Shooter! And I'm gonna win it my way! And you ride along with it, or you're out. You're finished!”

All of this is only a warm-up for the last remaining minutes of the poker game, during which Jewison raises the suspense to almost unbearable levels. It's that moment at which Lancey and the Kid each have only one overturned card left that is the most suspenseful moment of all; Ashby edits the sequence so that we see the various expressions of the spectators watching over the game, their faces enshrouded in shadow. The Kid has an ace of hearts, and thinks he's got Lancey right where he wants him. Then Lancey flips his card over, and... damn it all, it's a jack. The Kid jut sits there with a wide-eyed look of shock on his face; Lancey, meanwhile, happily puffs on his cigar, pleased to have beaten yet another potentially serious player. “You're good, Kid,” he cracks- in the way that only Edward G. Robinson could say it- “but as long as I'm around, you're second-best. You might as well learn to live with it.” As the Kid walks out the door, he thinks he's got a chance at redeeming himself with a final game of penny-pitching with the Shoeshine boy (who, hilariously, appears out of nowhere), but even this simple effort ends in vain. “You tried too hard, man!” pipes the boy, using the Kid's own lines against him. “You just ain't ready for me, yet!”

Listen to Jewison's priceless commentary track on the Special Edition DVD. One of the most interesting aspects of the production he reminisces over is his relationship with McQueen on the set. At first, the star was at odds with his director, and Jewison recalls incidents such as McQueen's bafflement at not being allowed to see the film's dailies, instead being told to concentrate on his own performance. “What are you trying to do, man- you tryin' to twist my mellon?” he allegedly snapped at Jewison at one point, in that hippy action-hero sort of way that McQueen usually talked in. Observing that McQueen was probably in need of a father figure, Jewison eventually came up with something of a peaceful resolution for his star. “Look, Steve, I'm not old enough to be your father,” he claims to have told McQueen, “but I can be you older brother, and I'll always look out for you... you just relax, and do your job- and I'll always protect you.” From then on, things were different between star and director.

Three years after The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison and McQueen made The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) together. On a technical level, it's a superior film, thanks to Pablo Ferro's split-screen imagery, Ashby's advanced editing style (perhaps improved thanks to his winning an Oscar for his editing on Jewison's In the Heat of the Night), and the infamous “chess with sex” sequence (innovatively shot by Laszlo Kovacs) between McQueen and Faye Dunaway. Yet for all of its stylistic accomplishments, The Thomas Crown Affair is awfully shallow in terms of narrative storytelling; if I prefer The Cincinnati Kid by comparison, it's because I cared about its characters more, and because McQueen and Jewison's healthy working relationship comes into stronger focus. On the DVD commentary for The Thomas Crown Affair, Jewison recalls visiting McQueen in the last months leading up to his death; McQueen had grown a caveman's beard by then, and a sort of "wild" expression was starting to grow in his eyes. It's amazing to wonder about the kind of film that they could have made together by the time McQueen was in that state of health and grace.

Think about the amazing effect that The Cincinnati Kid had on the filmmakers involved. In some ways, being fired from the film was one of the best things that ever happened to Sam Peckinpah- it allowed him to spend the next four years recuperating from the embarrassment, before reemerging with the masterwork that is The Wild Bunch. Ashby's editing career led him to further exceptional editing work until he transitioned into becoming one of the best filmmakers of his generation. But by the 1980's, Peckinpah and Ashby had both succumbed to drugs and alcohol, and both had dropped dead.

Fortunately for Jewison, he survived. His legacy, however, has yet to be as respected as that of his two deceased peers. Which is a curious matter, considering what many of his greatest films have in common. When the Kid is beaten at penny-pitching by the African-American boy at the end of The Cincinnati Kid, it is the budding scene in what would eventually flower into some of the most unforgettable sequences in some of Jewison's later films. Could it possibly, for example, have served as the spark for the landmark scene in In the Heat of the Night (1967) -- another film with a Ray Charles theme song -- in which Sidney Poitier slaps the white florist? Isn't this influence also felt during the scene in A Soldier's Story (1984) in which Howard E. Rollins fiercely questions a couple of racist white soldiers? Just as Sam Peckinpah and Hal Ashby once did, after a long and rewarding career in the movies, Norman Jewison has established himself as a born filmmaking artist -- and it all began with McQueen.

Submitted to Jason Bellamy's Steve McQueen Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer: Scorsese and Polanski On Top of the World

Ladies and gentlemen, the new decade of cinema has officially opened with the arrival of two great films by two legendary filmmakers. Fate must have had a hand in deciding that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer premiere, together, in the first few months (and in the same weekend, no less!) in 2010. A good decade of cinema is over. The new one has begun, and it had to begin not with just one smashing directorial comeback, but with two. The last time this exact same phenomenon occured, Gangs of New York and The Pianist were being released in late 2002. Oh, you may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one: Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski are on top of the world. Again.

Now listen carefully. Because both films have basically been reviewed to death (plot summaries and all) since their releases in February, I'm going to strain to talk about the elements in each film that traditional critics were not allowed the creativity and publication space to go in depth over--so this means major spoilers ahead. I strongly recommend that you attend both of these terrific films before reading any further. It would be a true shame if the rare, delicate magic of a Scorsese or Polanski release were ruined because of what I am about to make an attempt to go over.

Curiously, both films begin with the same opening sequence of a ship approaching the mainland. Scorsese opens Shutter Island with a ferry enshrouded in fog and mist, at daytime. Polanski opens The Ghost Writer with a ferry that is traveling at night, but through clear waters. We enter Scorsese's film in a state of bewilderment. Does the ferry know where it's going in all of that fog? We enter Polanski's film in a state of observation. The ferry certainly appears to know where it's going, but why is there a car onboard with no driver inside?

Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are both conspiracy thrillers. Teddy Daniels will spend the eternity of Scorsese's film in constant fear that the establishment is out to get him. He is wrong. The Ghost will spend the eternity of Polanski's film suspecting the same type of threat. He is right. Shutter Island begins with fog overclouding the ferry because Teddy Daniels is a man going in circles. There is nothing of value for him to find- he is lost in the mist of his subconscious, chasing his own tail. The Ghost Writer, however, does not begin in fog because there is definitely something of value to be found. Once the Ghost thinks that maybe he's onto something, his findings do not disappoint.

The two films are both set in a sort of gray, chilly atmosphere. Whether it be the remote title location off the coast of Boston in Shutter Island, or the rainy Martha's Vineyard in The Ghost Writer, Scorsese and Polanski are electing to drape their films with an ominous romanticism. To call their methods “Hitchcockian” would be appropriate, I guess, although to me that term is so overused it's becoming a cop-out. And to call their methods “Kafkaesque” would just be downright laughable--not least becomes one of the characters in Shutter Island actually uses this term at a key moment. That'll teach those pretentious art students to watch their language.

When one looks at the long list of classic films that Scorsese screened to his actors in preparation for Shutter Island, it's baffling that Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor isn't on the list. Certainly Dennis Lehane must have had Shock Corridor in mind when he was writing up the novel that inspired Scorsese's film: it's another movie about a protagonist who attempts to get to the bottom of an insane asylum mystery, and, in the process, winds up becoming insane himself. Perhaps Scorsese didn't screen Shock Corridor to his cast because he didn't want to try to end up with a film that felt like a clone of Fuller's earlier approach. At any rate, if Shutter Island, thematically, feels closest to Shock Corridor, structurally and emotionally it actually feels closer to something like The Trial. If you think about it, Scorsese's entire output from the past decade has been an effort to replicate Orson Welles' artistic success: Gangs of New York is his Chimes at Midnight; The Aviator is his Mr. Arkadin; The Departed is his Touch of Evil; and No Direction Home was, arguably, his F for Fake. Now here is Shutter Island and, yes, it can be compared to The Trial.

Of all of Polanski's previous films, The Ghost Writer has shades of Knife in the Water (in its allusions to a man fallen overboard, possibly to have drowned), but structurally it shares most in common with The Ninth Gate. Like that film, it is told from the viewpoint of a literary scholar who goes hunting for a buried truth. Also like that film, there are select scenes that share a strange proximity with scenes from Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. You may remember a big fuss that was made over the sequence in The Ninth Gate (released the same year as Kubrick's film) in which Johnny Depp walks into a satanist ceremony much like the orgy ceremony that Tom Cruise crashes in Kubrick's film. In The Ghost Writer, the scene in which the Ghost heads deep into the woods to the mansion of Paul Emmett (Tom Wilkinson) reminds us of the scene in Kubrick's film in which Cruise visits the orgy mansion in the morning afterwards, desperate for more information. But The Ghost Writer is better than The Ninth Gate, not just because it is the more believable film, but because it concludes more satisfyingly. With The Ninth Gate, Polanski left us hanging on an anticlimax, fading to white before the revelation of something that was supposed to be Earth-shattering could even be revealed. At the end of The Ghost Writer, Polanski again fades to white, but this time he at least remembers the punchline. More on that later.

Aside from the parts of the two films that we could only have expected from the two filmmakers, Scorsese and Polanski also try to experiment with political allegories that we never would have dreamed they had any interest in. In Shutter Island, Teddy has flashbacks of liberating a Nazi death camp, and these scenes (which play as a nice contrast to the finale of Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds) are ironic considering that Scorsese was originally supposed to be the director of Schindler's List and- up until this point- has never portrayed the Holocaust onscreen. The Ghost Writer is very clearly a criticism of the administrations of Tony Blair, President Bush and other right-wing, pro-torture government officials (currently in office or not); and because Polanski has never been an inherently political filmmaker, this comes at a surprise. With that being said, the film isn't really a message movie, so perhaps the choice of content is not so bizarre after all.

The supporting casts in both films are inspired. Was it just a coincidence that Scorsese got Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch to play the wardens of Shutter Island? If you recall, Levine played Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, and Lynch played the prime suspect in Zodiac. Why shouldn't Teddy be afraid of them? They both have histories as serial killers for crying out loud. Furthermore, when we get a glimpse of Elias Koteas as the sinister, cut-faced Andrew Laeddis, we've completely forgotten Koteas as that noble soldier from The Thin Red Line. And where did Polanski, meanwhile, get the bright idea to cast freaking Jim Belushi, everybody's favorite ABC sitcom superstar, as the Ghost's employer?

More strange casting decisions. There is the matter of child stars suddenly out of their element: Jackie Earle Haley, as the vile, abused inmate George Noyce, is a long way away from that bicycling kid we remember from Breaking Away; ditto for Timothy Hutton, who, as the straight-faced Sidney Kroll, is no longer the troubled, suicidal youth from Ordinary People. Most refreshingly, Scorsese and Polanski each include the casting of a wise-man who's seen it all. Isn't it fitting that the Ghost receives a vital bit of information from Eli Wallach--famous worldwide as the Ugly? Or that Teddy almost gets injected by Max Von Sydow--the Exorcist himself? If we remember Wallach's amusing cameo in Eastwood's Mystic River (also based on a Dennis Lehane novel) or Von Sydow's swansong performance in Spielberg's Minority Report, it's wonderful to see that both actors are still hanging in there, and doing an amazing job yet again.

I don't share the disgust that some of Scorsese's fans have had regarding his continuous collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio. I would be happy to see them work on another film together, if they see fit. I thought Scorsese brought out a raw viscerality in DiCaprio, in Gangs of New York and The Departed, that he hadn't shown before. His performance in The Aviator (my favorite of Scorsese's films from the last decade) was nothing short of spellbinding. It's certainly tempting to say that Shutter Island contains the best work he's done in all of Scorsese's films, but I won't go there. Let me just hint that by the time the film reaches the point where Teddy is wallowing through a pond, howling up to the sky with his three dead children in his arms, it is the very definition of a great performance reaching its climax. This scene is bookended by devastating scenes in which Ben Kingsley and Mark Ruffalo try to convince Teddy--and the audience as well--that everything we have just seen is a lie.

To me, Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, in The Ghost Writer, have each given the finest performances of their respective careers. I think what I admired most about McGregor in the film is that... well, I kept forgetting he was Ewan McGregor. He's given strong performances before, in films like Big Fish, Black Hawk Down and especially Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but in those films he also carried the weight of Hollywood's celebrity pomposity. In this film, he is more subtle, and disappears into his character. The same can be said even more for Pierce Brosnan. Any actor who plays James Bond eventually needs to find a redeeming role that can break the 007 curse; if John Huston and The Man Who Would Be King (or maybe John Boorman, with Zardoz) provided that opportunity for Sean Connery, then Polanski, here, has provided that opportunity for Brosnan. There is a scene in The Ghost Writer in which the Ghost relinquishes small-talk and confronts Brosnan's character, the Blair-like Adam Lang, with the truth. Then Lang explodes right back at him, telling him to cut that bleeding-heart liberal hogwash. That's the moment when we realize that 007 is no more, and that the real Pierce Brosnan is here to stay.

Make no mistake that the women in both films get similarly rich opportunities. The women of Shutter Island beautifully resurrect stereotypes of film noir: Emily Mortimer is the damsel in despair; Patricia Clarkson is the shadowy figure who serves as a relay for hot information in Teddy's futile quest; and Michelle Williams' performance as Teddy's dead wife is unspeakably chilling because, even from the grave, she never ceases to exist as a terrible influence on Teddy's course of action. By comparison, the women of The Ghost Writer are, shall we say, more realistic. Unlike her forgettable roles in The Sixth Sense and Rushmore, Olivia Williams' portrayal of Adam Lang's angry wife is scene-stealing; this is her strongest role since George Hickenlooper's The Man From Elysian Fields (2002), and we have every reason to believe it when she becomes the most threatening presence in the way of the Ghost's life. Kim Cattrall is sexy and calculating as Lang's aide; I'm kind of thrown for a loop by the criticisms of Cattrall's English accent in the film, considering that Cattrall herself is English by nature (if you recall, she also had an English accent in the 1990's- when De Palma cast her as McCoy's wife in The Bonfire of the Vanities).

Something else to note on this subject is that Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer are stark critiques of the misogyny that plagues the male-dominated environments in both films. Teddy Daniels, for example, is at first merely willing to admit that he “killed” his wife; it is only after some pondering that he is willing to confess that his crime was an act of murder, very much akin to his unit's crime of murdering Nazi prisoners of war at the death camp. And Adam Lang and the Ghost are aware that, since they are living in the time of John Edwards, things like adultery are easy to get away with in the political world. But the women do not forget about it.

The soundtracks of both films are something to be desired. Polanski's composer for The Ghost Writer is Alexandre Desplat, whose music alternates from thrilling to quirky- much like his previous work on the soundtrack for Fantastic Mr. Fox. Scorsese's music supervisor for Shutter Island is, oddly enough, Robbie Robertson. The two have been friends ever since they made The Last Waltz in 1978 together, when Robertson declared that sixteen years with The Band was long enough. Now here he is adapting eerie cello music for the opening and closing of Shutter Island, and it's enough to put a smile on one's face.

One thing I was not expecting, however, was Scorsese's decision to play the song “This Bitter Earth” during the end credits of the film. The song has been used in movies before, most prominently by Charles Burnett on the soundtrack for Killer of Sheep--to help visualize the harsh reality of poor black suburbia. I am not sure why Scorsese uses the song in the end credits for Shutter Island, although the decision to align Dinah Washington's vocal lyrics with a new violin score inserted by Robertson may or may not have something to do with what the film is all about. Teddy has awoken from his living nightmare, only to seemingly fall into it again. What a bitter Earth, Scorsese appears to be suggesting, for allowing this to happen to such a courageous federal marshal.

That Scorsese and Polanski's accomplishments are being hissed at in certain places by cynics who do not appreciate their unconventional challenges to the art form are, alas, a given. I suppose A.O. Scott thought he was doing the rest of the critical community a favor, in his Shutter Island review, when he told his peers that it was okay to trash Scorsese's latest. And I bet Kyle Smith was feeling very proud of himself when he allowed his partisan politics to get the better of him in his Ghost Writer review--which is full of cheap shots at Polanski's personal life, and not at all valid as an actual critique of the film itself.

I wish more people could understand how much of Scorsese and Polanski themselves are in each of these two films. Polanski, now a family man in his late 70's, is no doubt beginning to appreciate the values of life--it is brave of him, then, to end The Ghost Writer on a note of such poetic misfortune, as the Ghost (he is unnamed for the entirety of the picture) is struck by a car off-camera, killed just when he has finally uncovered the secrets behind the awful truth. Scorsese, meanwhile, is in his late 60's, still getting to make epic, glorious films while affording to still take life for granted a little; he is equally brave, however, to allow Teddy Daniels to walk into the hands of his enemies and give up, after he realizes that there is no awful truth for him to discover. The point is, whether their films end with papers flying in the wind or with a stoic lighthouse that is home to the worst punishment imaginable, Scorsese and Polanski have retaken the hill. They are, once again, great kings of cinema. Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer represent them at the pinnacles of their craft. I hope I am not alone when I say- right here and right now- that I am screaming for more.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Top Five of 2009

No, it wasn't the explosive year in cinema I was hoping for- in part because we were denied two very-much-anticipated releases (Tree of Life and Shutter Island) after they ended up getting pushed back a year (one because of an unfinished editing process, another for admittedly wise marketing reasons); and in part because I got into some of the most SERIOUS modern movie debates of my life. I don't remember the last time I've felt so... alienated from majority opinion.

Oh, wait a minute, now I remember: last time that happened to me, it was 2008. The year before. The year when I thought that Synecdoche, New York and Revolutionary Road were the year's best films, and neither film got much praise. I wasn't too happy about that.

The good thing about 2009 was that the movies were better than those in 2008. The bad thing about it was that, again, I felt so much in the minority. You know what the worst part of it was? I reached a point where I couldn't debate with people about Avatar, Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker without getting into political debates. The three films certainly seem to have been spawned by the venomous cynicism that was just waiting to spring out after eight rocky years of George W. Bush and one rough year for Barack Obama. Avatar is basically James Cameron's middle finger to Bush. Inglourious Basterds may not seem like an inherently right-wing film, but it's not insane to wonder if maybe Quentin Tarantino takes issue with Obama's anti-torture stance. And Kathryn Bigelow has openly admitted that The Hurt Locker was partially born out of her total disgust with ALL political films; she wanted to make a war film that took no political stance (and, if you think about it, that's a political stance in itself).

Already some of you are going to start yelling at me because I'm generalizing here. "You're a retard if you can't admit that Cameron has crafted the ultimate science fiction epic!" "Tarantino makes movies about movies and you're hypocritical if you don't appreciate that!" "Bigelow's movie is the first great film about the Iraq War and you'd have to be crazy to prefer those other movies that are unsubtle and biased!" People... I've heard all of it.

That's why none of these three films are going to make my top five of the year. I don't really have the heart to defend or attack any of them without feeling as though I'm crossing the laws of film criticism somehow. People say that The Hurt Locker would have been spoiled if it had taken some sort of subjective point of view. I merely question how a film that takes no stance on a controversial war would fly if, say, John McCain had been elected. Dozens continue to insist to me that Inglourious Basterds shouldn't be viewed as a film that is in favor of ideas like torture and capital punishment. I'd love to think so, but it's hard to buy that argument when so many other dozens of people I know seem to love the film because they think it does. Finally, although I was a huge fan of Avatar at first, I've come to agree that it should have been a little more discreet in its political commentary and that some of its liberal messages reek of contradiction.

All three of them are good films. Later in the post, I will try to honor them- along with some of the other films from the year that I admired. But in 2009, there were only five films that resonated personally with me. I actually felt like I was having something of an intimate conversation with them. I would treasure them in any other year.

1. A Serious Man

This isn't the first time Joel and Ethan Coen have made a film that felt so true to life for me that I was on the verge of tears. The first of theirs I ever saw was Fargo. I wasn't sure what to think at the time, but I remember deeply pitying Jerry Lundergaard for what had happened to him, and when Marge and her husband finally sat down to watch television for the night, hoping for things to get better, I felt as if I was in there with them. When I later saw Miller's Crossing, I had no idea a mob film could feel so tangible to a Greek tragedy. Barton Fink reminded me of my own problems with writer's block, and leaving Barton out there on the beach to do nothing left but observe a beautiful redhead was so devastating for me. And then came No Country for Old Men. At the time it was released, I was a junior in high school who was terribly angry about a lot of things: my inability to pass my Driver's Exam, my failing grades in Chemistry, and various other things. Then I went to see that film... and it made everything so much better. By allowing Ed Tom Bell to give up, the Coens allowed the rest of us in the audience to move on.

In my opinion, A Serious Man is like the comedic equivalent of No Country for Old Men. With the exception of a key dream sequence, it has none of the violence of the former film- although it does have the unflinching brutality. It's set in the 1960's, but it reminds us too much of the post 9/11 era we live in still. In my favorite male performance of the year, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Larry Gopnik, a math professor for whom everything that can possibly go wrong, well... does.

No doubt various other reviews for the film have already gone into detail about the troubles that he ends up going through, so instead I'll lavish on how funny it all is- how, if we were Larry ourselves, we would probably stand back and laugh after thinking long and hard about everything that has happened. But the climax in the film occurs when Larry, fed up with his issues, finally snaps, and takes out his anger at an innocent record clerk over the phone. It's the one moment in the film that really isn't funny at all, and suddenly we've sympathized with Larry. And oh, how I adore the ending, in which a bar mitzvah for Larry's son starts out ridiculously and then ends so movingly. After all that has happened, there is still hope for Larry's marriage, family, job, and perhaps even his life. Yet the Coens are too sly to let us completely off the hook, and wisely leave us on a note of pondersome uncertainty.

2. The Road

I waited two long years for this film. When The Road didn't get its much-anticipated 2008 release, I was hopping mad. I felt like we had been denied the masterpiece of the year. I didn't want to wait another year. I was already a huge fan of director John Hillcoat; his The Proposition (2006), a Western homage to Huston and Peckinpah, was one of my favorites of the decade, and I was simply intoxicated by the thought of him bringing a Cormac McCarthy story to the screen. But ultimately, I'm glad for the delayed release: it gave me time to read McCarthy's novel, a task that I carried out shortly before the film finally got its release here in St. Louis, in November 2009.

The common criticism everybody had of this film was that it just doesn't do as magnificicently of a job as McCarthy did of putting us in the shoes of the Man and the Boy. McCarthy's prose is so exotic and poetic (the best of its kind since Faulkner) that many have called it unfilmable. After all, this is a story about nuclear holocaust, and we have to be in the company of two struggling characters for most of the time. Can one only connect to the warmth of their relationship by reading about it on paper? Many complained that the film felt cold, and despite being true to the content of McCarthy's novel, didn't quite connect to its spirit.

I say: it's close enough. Honestly, in twenty years, isn't it possible that audiences are going to look back at this film and judge that it didn't get its due? Viggo Mortensen's performance here, as the Man, is the crowning point in what is now officially a great acting career. Kodi Smit-McPhee makes a true impression as the Boy. And what bothered me about all the complaints over The Road is that people weren't realizing how rare this kind of movie is. So many films these days are loud, obnoxious, or over-hyped. The Road is not exploitive. It takes its visions very seriously. It is simply a story about a father and son who stick together and try to stay alive. Nothing else. But in my opinion, that is everything.

3. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

"What are these FUCKING IGUANAS doing on my coffee table?" Having never seen Abel Ferrara's original Harvey Keitel vehicle, I went into this feeling unprepared- but as a Werner Herzog fan, I knew that I had to quickly run out and catch this (I had never seen a Herzog film in theaters) before it was gone. For my money, this is Nicholas Cage's best performance since Bringing Out the Dead; he just completely goes off the wall as a crack-addicted corrupt cop, and I ate up every minute of it. In terms of Herzogian theme, the film has more in common with Fitzcarraldo than with Aguirre- The Wrath of God or Grizzly Man, since it ends on a more positive note. I kind of love how it's alternately hilarious and... surreal. You'll know what I mean when you see it.

4. Fantastic Mr. Fox

Enough has been said by my friends in the blogosphere about just how strikingly awesome Wes Anderson's voyage into claymation is. I'll just say what no one else has said: there are clever cinema references to Welles (a farmer destroys a toolshed, Citizen Kane style), Pakula (a coded message reeks of All the President's Men), Nicholas Ray (characters quote Rebel Without A Cause at a key moment), and even Truffaut (the Cole Porter theme from Day for Night plays during a waterfull sequence). Along with all of that, it's the year's finest animated film.

5. Disney's A Christmas Carol

The year's most terrific holiday treat. What looked dreadfully like another lame bastardization of a literary classic instead became a wonder for the eyes and the imagination. Then again, we shouldn't have expected any less from Robert Zemeckis- he remains overjoyously thankful to Dickens, keeping the story's support for the plight of the lower classes alive and well. It may sound odd, but Jim Carrey is a splendid Scrooge, too; he rarely ever plays the character for laughs and, for the most part, is a spitting image of exactly what Scrooge should be (he's by far the best Scrooge since Michael Caine- or maybe even George C. Scott). What's more, Zemeckis just makes the story all his own, and infuses it with dazzling crane shots and long takes. When we finally do get to see the three Ghosts, they are unlike any of the versions we've seen before. And, again, we'd expect no less from Zemeckis.

Now to honor the runners-up. I didn't have any strong love for these films, but they are good films and need to be given their due. In alphabetical order:

Avatar- Goddamn it, I like this movie. If it wins Best Picture, I won't be angry, even though it's not quite one of my favorites of the year. James Cameron obviously has a vivid imagination, and I'm glad he was true to it. Personally, I found Pandora to be a seductive planet, and the Na'vi people to be sexy and strong-willed. That being said, even though it's nice to have a liberal Hollywood epic every now and then, did the movie have to be so obvious in its left-leaning objectives? And if the Na'vi are as respective of dead creatures as they appear to be, then why don't they mourn the deaths of all of those humans they kill at the end? With all that said and done, I still cannot side with the popular movement out there to kill this film. Avatar may not be a milestone in my book, but it's a unique film and fitting for Cameron's return to the art form.

District 9- Again, a film that's easy to hate, thanks to what Armond White and others who took offense to its apartheid allegories and whatnot. To me, this film was pretty good until the ending, which ends with your standard Big Robot Fight. It can't be denied that Neil Blomkamp is a talented filmmaker, and I look forward to more of his films (Halo adaptation or not). Same with Sharlto Copley, whose performance in this film as the victimized Wikus is nothing short of marvelous.

The Hurt Locker- I'll be happy when Kathryn Bigelow wins Best Director on Sunday. She deserves it. It may not be one of my top five favorites of the year, but I can't argue that it's the best directed. And I can bitch about the supposed superiority of Redacted all I want- it won't change the fact that this film is far more accessible. It's certainly entertaining. And it works excellently as an action/suspense picture. As a war film of great consequence? That, I don't know. I still think K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, is Bigelow's best film to date.

Inglourious Basterds- My problems with this film are far from over. There are still a lot of things about it that bother me- whether it be Tarantino's questionable political intent or his refusal to take WWII seriously, as he very well appears to be viewing the concept of Nazi extermination more as a reactionary exercise in filthy revenge than as a realistic consequence of wartime. But I'm done with all of that. I want instead to lavish praise on Tarantino's direction: he is a great filmmaker, and he will continue to make quality films. Obviously this film is viewed by many as one of his all-time great accomplishments, and I'm glad people were able to respond that well to it. As a narrative, it does indeed work. Perhaps, in my case, I simply need to wait for this film to age: once the politics surrounding it are all gone, and perhaps even once all the hype dies down, I can become an even bigger fan of it. I know for sure that it's a good film. I just don't think it's great... yet.

Paranormal Activity- I'm going to confess that the night I saw this film, I had to lay awake in bed for about five minutes before putting my mind to rest. Oren Peli came up with something new here. And, yes... scary, too. I keep hearing rumors that Brian De Palma is being considered to direct the sequel. Sounds interesting (you know how much I love De Palma), but would it be the same without Peli? Or Mikah and Katie? Good question.

Up- Due to its conventionalism (which compares poorly with the innovation of Ratatouille and Wall-E), this wasn't one of my favorites of Pixar. However, Pete Docter had a Capraesque sensibility that I found hard not to cherish. I wish it had ended on a stronger note; it might then have been something more.

Where the Wild Things Are- I was a little let down that this film wasn't the groundbreaking epic that I thought it was going to be when I saw the theatrical trailer for it last spring. Did Spike Jonze do anything all that enlightening except craft a movie that's basically all about the dangers of horseplay? Or playing God? At times it reminded me too much of 1995's The Indian in the Cupboard in this respect. Still, it's a rare film; the kind we don't get to see very often. That made it great for some people, so I won't argue. I can most definitely say that Max Records has all the charisma of a young Haley Joel Osment.

Here's to 2010. It's already been a year of Scorsese (Shutter Island) and Polanski (The Ghost Writer). With luck, it may also be a year of Malick (Tree of Life), Stone (Wall Street 2), Lynch (Maharishi), and the Coens (the True Grit remake). And maybe even De Palma- word on the street is that either Tabloid or The Boston Stranglers will finally be getting off the ground. Hello, beautiful.