Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Swimmer

Spoilers....

Director Frank Perry's THE SWIMMER (1968), based on John Cheever's short story, is a contender to be a part of what I call The Great Suburban Angst Dramas. Films that take an unflinching look at the affluent, externally shimmering yet inwardly decrepit folks who share mai-tais at the club while engaging the latest gossip. All in their tennis whites, of course. Other such films in this canon? ORDINARY PEOPLE, AMERICAN BEAUTY, SHOOT THE MOON, THE ICE STORM. All of these films are flawed, but to their very essences understand those who will keep up appearances no matter what, be it the dissolution of their marriages or even the death of their children. Infinite denial. THE SWIMMER predates all of the above films, and is no less trenchant, though a few unfortunate choices keep this film from truly joining such lofty ranks.

Neddy (Burt Lancaster) appears in a sunny meadow, walking towards a sky blue pool in a neighbor's backyard. He was not invited, but is greeted warmly by a husband and wife who wonder where in the heck he's been lately. Another couple drops in and they are similiarly pleased to see the swim-trunked clad middle ager with the impressive abdomen and Adonis-like air. The women flirt with him; the men admire him. In one scene, we gather that Neddy had bought into and lived the coveted American Dream. Past tense?

While chatting with the neighbors, he looks out over the valley of their tony Connecticuit neighborhood and formulates an intriguing idea: he will swim his way home, pool by pool. His friends laugh when he explains the journey, calling it "the river home", naming it after his wife, even. Neddy has a great love of poetry, saying philosophical things that blow past most of his friends, even quoting Song of Solomon at least twice during this trek.

We meet many more neighbors, including a young girl who used to babysit Neddy's daughters. He convinces her to join him on this unusal aquatic trip, and she opens up to him that she had a childhood crush on him and even once stole one of his shirts. Neddy beams, flatters her. He feels validated in an instant. She shares more personal things. He offers to accompany her to work, to watch over her. She gets a bit creeped out, perhaps mistaking the much older man's attention for lust. She runs away. Neddy is puzzled and saddened but continues on to the next pool.

The clouds darken overhead. Neddy begins to shiver a bit. The trip becomes more hostile. An older woman in the next yard is not at all welcoming; her son, Neddy's friend, had recently died. She scolds him for not visiting him, not even once. Later, a large garden party is filled with faces of recognition. Neddy is far from welcome, and is all but a pariah there. Each exchange with guests (and eventually the hosts) is riddled with tension. What did Neddy do to them? They were obviously once friendly, but something went very wrong. THE SWIMMER tells little, but we can guess the backstory. Why are the women especially red faced? Spurned mistresses?

Neddy eventually arrives in the backyard of a former lover, Shirley Adams (Janice Rule). She too is hostile, but as the scene plays the tone (and her attitude) shifts from anger to embarrassment to possible forgiveness to pity and resentment. This scene, reportedly directed by Sydney Pollack after Perry and crew suffered those dreaded "creative differences", is vital as it really shows us the depths of Neddy's downfall: he can't recall key events, not those with Shirley, and not those with his own family. Lancaster does some fine work. It becomes clearer that the man perhaps was away in some sort of facility, recovering from a breakdown. On this day he swims home, he thinks perhaps that it is years earlier than it really is. When he finally reaches his ultimate destination, it is one of the most memorably poignant and emotionally resonant scenes I've witnessed in a film.

It's an interesting coincidence that in the same week I watched THE SWIMMER I also saw 2 other films that deal with the sense of loss of relevance: ONE TRICK PONY and BUBBA HO-TEP. Neddy was once the embodiment of American Success (home, family, high powered position) who got distracted and chased the darker impulses. This movie can well be taken as a parable for The Dream itself, its supposedly noble attainment rather often a black hole of broken relationships and regret. Perry and his wife Eleanor's script makes several potent observations, though the film is undermined by Marvin Hamlisch's schmaltzy score and a few scenes that are just ridiculous (such as when Neddy runs with the young girl in slow motion across a field, even jumping over equestrian obstacles!). Some of the heated verbal exchanges in this film also border dangerously on camp melodrama.

Still, THE SWIMMER is well worth seeing for Lancaster's stellar performance (sources state that he considered his work here to be his best) and for the many lacerating themes introduced, perhaps not so familiar in films to 1960s audiences. It is fairly obscure and not the easiest to seek out, but THE SWIMMER is a vivid prism of suburban brokenness, one not easily forgotten. Whenever the temptation to grab a bigger piece of the pie or cry "entitlement" may knock on your door, think on Ned Merrill's last stop, and remember what he finds when he returns home.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Adjustment Bureau

Many things bugged me during 2011's THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, but the corker was how inept this "Bureau" was in carrying out its business; business that involved no less than the fate of the world. More specifically, how Life (macro- and microcosmically) is to play out for human beings. Every choice we think we make, every alleged coincidence-it's entirely engineered by an all-male, suit and tie clad corporation who work for "the Chairman". There is a master blueprint and it must be followed. Deviations have unimaginable consequences.

As I said, these guys are pretty sloppy. One of them falls asleep on a bench and is too late to prevent a somewhat reckless New York Congressman named David Norris (Matt Damon) from meeting a quirky woman named Elise (Emily Blunt) on a city bus. Best howler of a line from the Bureau: "He takes the same bus every day for years? Who does that?" Additionally, someone else utters the old standby: "It's above my pay grade," second only to "I'm too old for this shit" in the Movie Quote Cliche Pantheon. I don't recall if "He's gone rogue" was spoken, but it might as well have been.

In any event, Norris had previously met Elise in a washroom a month earlier while he was rehearsing a speech. Chemistry was evident then and continues as he flirts with her, learning she is a promising dancer. Destined for each other? Two souls with infinite potential and talent, capable of Bigger Things? On the road to worldy acclaim and sucess is that pesky detour called Love. Apparently for these two, the Chairman does not want that to happen. Now you know why you and your eighth grade crush didn't end up being lifelong soulmmates.

Norris is eventually apprehended and introduced to the shadowy organization led terrestrially by Richardson, who explains their modus operandi . They are not exactly angels, rather more like insurance agents. "Free will", Richardson explains, once did indeed belong to the human race until The Dark Ages, then was given back, then taken away again after two World Wars and nuclear proliferation. Perhaps it might've been more interesting in this story, after all of this is explained, to have had Norris travel back in time and bump off Robert Oppenheimer.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU, very loosely based on Philip K. Dick's "Adjustment Team" will go on to explain how the team works, including their employment of "adjustment", an erasing of one's mind in the short term and the far darker "reset", which is basically a labotomy. This will happen to Norris, Richardson warns him, if he tells anyone about the Bureau.

The remainder of the film is less concerned with sci-fi, with a definite emphasis on wooing its audiences with a "Love Conquers All" scenario. Norris will repeatedly outsmart the Bureau until a big gun named Thompson (Terrence Stamp), a real pro at reigning in the loose canons in the free will game, shows up to lay down the metaphysical law. He will explain the Chairman's Plan, what is expected of each of them, and how selfish it would be of Norris to wander from The Path.

The closing scenes are unabashedly romantic, at least thematically recalling the finale of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, where Robin Williams' character not only accepts possibly living in Hell for eternity to be with his love, but then later being reborn on Earth so he can meet her again. It's effective in a bathos-saturated sorta way, but leaving you with the same feeling as if you've just scarfed half of a layer cake.

THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU is one of many films that lives more in its ideas than its execution. I'll bet that many viewers can build more interesting storylines and outcomes than what writer/director George Nolfi does here. Having the Bureau so clumsy in its efforts - seemingly to drive the film's cozy messages - does not help matters. Opportunities for some theological exploration are jettisoned early. The actors are appealing and the film is reasonably entertaining, but it is not an exemplary Dick adaptation. Though how many have there been? You're better off breaking out the paperbacks or Kindle.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Life on the Fourth Floor

Late last summer we finally moved out of our charming but woefully space restricted apartment to a much larger place. Our new domecile is in a gated community, the multitude of units identical. The idea of this never appealed to me, but after nearly 6 months I can say that we've settled in nicely. More space is a good thing. Our kitty must feel like he is living in a penthouse by comparison.

We live on the fourth floor, which has more benefits than debits: no chance of flooding from storms, and it's quiet. As any freshmen physical science student knows, heat rises, but a/c management has been easier than expected. The bill is certainly higher than at the previous pad, but not prohibitively so. We can see the clubhouse and pool from our living room window, and also Interstate 95 beyond it to the West. Sometimes at night you can hear the roar of semis if you have the windows open, but nothing too distracting.

Cutting right past our apartment building is a street on which the other side and beyond are a collection of attractive and distinctive homes. They are not carbon copies of the ones next door, though there are a few McMansions. Mostly, there are imaginative and tasteful places (some of which date back to the 70s) that I wouldn't have expected beyond the gatehouse. The road runs a few miles to the other guard gate on the southwest end, the sidewalk providing a nice jogging trail that I use a few times a week. Folks are friendly, too.

Our apartment building has a very diverse cross section of residents of varying ages and ethnicities. We have not gotten close to anyone but have met a few. One morning as I was changing a flat a guy came out to offer help, even. My wife met several people one afternoon after an elderly couple two floors down forgot to turn off their stove burners and caused an incident, sending everyone out to the lot. I missed all the excitement as I was visiting my grandmother across town.

Guests? We had some family spend a weekend in October but otherwise, sadly, no one else. Our fault. We're often so tired during the week from our 10-12 hour workdays that we don't do much cleaning until the weekend. We've also had several stages of furniture bequeathals, retrievals, and deliveries that have rendered the living room *almost* impassable, but we're working on it. We were trying to get rid of stuff! Oh well...

More later. Just wanted to update you, invisible audience. We will now return you to our regularly scheduled cinematic blathering.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Red Tails

A well known film critic once ended a review with the words "the kind of film that comes out in January". I don't recall for what movie it was, but I was in total agreement. January released films are often the most formuleic, lazily produced, one-dimensional genre pics that (nevertheless?) often clean up at the box office. I am not including holdover films from the end of the previous year, which are usually Oscar contenders. Sometimes, a film that opens in January was already released in N.Y. or L.A. in December and is now just making its way to your town;I'm not talking about those. I'm speaking of movies like THE AIR UP THERE, CONTRABAND, and, appropriately enough, THE JANUARY MAN. Unfortunately, I'm also speaking of RED TAILS.

It is really a shame, because the subject of this film deserves a rich, deep, thoughtful analysis rather than the cornball, relentlessly cliched, rah rah treatment it gets. This movie is as hokey as any of the WWII films to come out of Hollywood in the 1940s. I went to see RED TAILS with a friend who almost never goes to the movies, but his interest was piqued as his maternal grandfather was a mechanic for the planes flown by the Tuskegee Airmen during said World War. Those African-American fighter pilots were no less brave than their Caucasian counterparts, but consistently denied permission to fly against German aircraft due to reports of their race being "inferior in battle". In the early scenes of RED TAILS, the men are relagated to firing upon the enemy on the ground only. Trains and such carrying weaponry.

Back in D.C., Colonel A.J. Bullard (Terrence Howard) faces the endless bureaucracy and not-so-veiled racism from the brass. Even getting his Airmen newer aircraft is a monumental struggle. Perhaps it is Bullard's tenacity, perhaps it is the Airmen's performace during the landing at Normandy (they also ignite a German airfield), or maybe it's simply the Colonel's endless speecifying (Howard's performance is alarmingly one note) that allows the Tuskegee Airmen a chance to escort bomber planes during a mission against the Luftwaffe pilots. The mission is a success. Not a single bomber is lost.

But the Airmen suffer also suffer a downed, captured pilot and another who nearly perishes when he loses control of his P-51 Mustang (new planes were part of Bullard's deal)when trying to land. Meanwhile, pilots "Easy" (Nate Parker), a straight arrow and "Lightning" (David Oyelowo), a reckless, hot dogging ace, continue to butt heads, their behavior threatening each mission in varying ways. Every movie about fighter pilots seems to have a character like "Lightning", the guy who bucks superiors, gets chewed out by them, gets into fistfights, flies his own risky manuevers, etc. etc.

It doesn't stop there. In fact, RED TAILS seems to have in John Ridley and Aaron McGruder's screenplay a laundry list of cliches and tired dialogue that would make even Jerry Bruckheimer or Michael Bay wince. Main character struggling with alcoholism? Yes. A big scene where the same character finally dumps the whisky bottle? Yes. A gratuitous romance (which begins when "Lightning" waves from his jet to an Italian girl hanging clothes down below, mmm hmm)with zero chemistry between the actors? Yep. A scene where the Airmens' Major (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) gives a rousing speech? Sure. A key character who "lived by the sword" also dies the same way? Affirmative. A hissable German ace pilot nicknamed "Pretty Boy" who spouts hackneyed one-liners in subtitles? Uh huh. A scene where "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" is playing in a bar? It's true. Weren't any other songs played during that era?! I hope the songwriter's estate is reaping some hefty residuals, 'cos every damned WW II pic plays it.

And the credibility factor? L o w. This is not good for a film depicting real life events and trying doggedly, ernestly to be factual. For example, I never believed the way the main characters behaved in the cockpits during the film's numerous dogfight sequences. Everyone wisecracks and treats the attacks like a video game. I was unfavorably reminded of Will Smith's flying antics in INDEPENDENCE DAY! I imagine there would've been more fear and trembling in the pilots' demeanors. Spielberg had a nice moment in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, when Tom Hanks' character's hand is shown shaking uncontrollably just before the beach landing. Perhaps George Lucas, exec. producer and financeer of this pet project (long in development) should've screened his compadre's movie a bit more (though RYAN has problems of its own I'll possibly address in a future review) thoroughly. STALAG 17 would've also been a good homework assignment for RED TAILS' filmmakers (note the latter film's POW subplot, also quite unbelievable).

Also, I did not buy the scene where the Tuskegee Airmen walk through a plaza filled with their white fellow pilots who, instead of chastizing them as earlier in the picture, now buy them drinks and bond after they all man a successful joint mission. No more epithets; they're brothers now! If only. This sort of wishful thinking and pat resolution belongs in maybe a Hallmark Channel movie, not a major motion picture trying to crisply and realistically retell a piece of forgotten history. And why does almost every scene fade out before there is a chance for more character (and plot) development. Who do I blame, the screenwriters for being lazy or the editor for being hasty? Director Anthony Hemingway for orchestrating it all?

I'm in the minority on RED TAILS. During the screening, the audience hooted and cheered and buzzed in the lobby afterward. I heard a few "Best I've ever seen!" comments. It made everyone feel good. Like, yes, TOP GUN twenty-five years earlier. Unavoidable (and entirely justified) comparison. This movie is slickly designed to stir your heart and ignore your mind. The jet fighter scenes were mostly well-done and occasionally exciting; I'll admit that. But otherwise, I have to say it: this is the sort of film that opens in January.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Words From the Wise

Thelonious Monk's advice to his musicians, you dig?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Caution: Spoilers.

Director Sidney Lumet's 2007 cinematic swan song, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD is a relentlessly downbeat two hours of tedium that is not distinguished enough to be worth the bother. Especially from a director of Lamet's stature. As with the film's plot, the film itself seems an awful lot of trouble leading nowhere, or at least somewhere we've been one too many times.

First off, several minutes should've been trimmed. This would've eliminated redundant scenes and tightened the tension. Admittedly, there's plenty of tension and portent, but it is worked against by the film's tendency to underline its points with extras we didn't need. One of the film's main characters, Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is established as a hulking mess of a man. Did we need to see multiple scenes of his visits to a drug dealer to confirm his excesses? One potent scene would've been enough. This one thread is indicative of the movie's excesses. I don't mind having my face rubbed in the grime, but repeated baptisms in it (without shedding any new light on the characters) only tries my patience. What could we expect, though, when the very first scene graphically shows Andy making love to his sad wife, Gina (Marissa Tomei). It sets the dubious tone of this picture. Why are we:

a.) seeing this at all?

b.) being treated to a choice angle of rear entry intercourse? Is this establishing anything relevant?

This film's willingness to embrace the lurid so readily reminded me of another great director's misfire: Martin Scorsese's CASINO. In one scene, a guy's head is squeezed into a vice; we see it all, including popping eyeballs. The point would've been made without the lingering lens. Our minds are capable of much more. What separates this scene from the thousands of others in grade Z exploitation pics?

Allow me to cry against high definition video once again as well. The artificiality of the "look" of BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD kept me at arm's length from start to finish. It was another very revealing exercise for me, confirming that if the atmosphere isn't right, little to nothing else matters. Oscar worthy screenplay, acting, direction are for naught if the filmmakers can't immerse me in their manufactured world. If you've read my past reviews, this rant is nothing new. For comparison, witness the crisp and stark cinematography of Lumet's great THE VERDICT. The lighting choices, the hues, the instrinsic appearance of celluloid really fleshes out Frank Galvin's story, which also has a marvelous screenplay by David Mamet. HD video just can't capture the right mood, in my opinion. My take will certainly be in the minority among younger viewers, especially those who've never seen a pristine 35mm print of an older (50s and earlier) title in a moviehouse.

But it's so true. It may seem so surface, so technical, so "form over substance". But the form is the substance for cinema. The canvas is as much an indicator of worth as are the aforementioned elements. I have given a pass to films that didn't "put me there", but BEFORE THE DEVIL's problematic storyline and execution only adds to my central dilemma. But what about this story...?

Desperation drives the successful and ne'er do well character alike to often unspeakable actions, ones that might've seemed unthinkable even a moment prior. In the closing scenes of BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, Andy finds himself making larger messes while attempting to clean up earlier ones, and not just his own. His brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) has botched an allegedly foolproof plan and the fallout just keeps coming.

Plan? It sounds so airtight. The Hansons' parents own a suburban jewelry store. Andy, a white collar finance executive (about to face an audit) one day pitches an idea: since both brothers have crippling debt, why not rob the store? The insurance will cover the losses. Can't miss. Classic noir set-up. Even with careful planning, every detail is to go awry. Their mother was not supposed to be in the store. The stick-up guy Hank hires is a psycho. Guns are drawn.

The film tells its story with non-linearity, a device whose novelty has long since passed. BEFORE THE DEVIL treats it as if it is novel, trying to intrigue the audience the way say, PULP FICTION did 13 years earlier. In fact, the surmounting dread would've been far more effective if Lumet had made this an A to Z. He should've done an old school, no frills narrative. How fine it would've been for him to bow with such a throwback. Instead, we get a fragmented mess of a film that simply becomes a bout of endurance.

Why didn't I care about the characters and their predicaments? It isn't merely because I didn't much like them, as that should never be a criteria for objective film criticism. Hoffman once again sets the screen ablaze with powerhouse acting, and Hawke is also effective as the pathetic Hank. Albert Finney is perfect and perfectly cast as their father who gradually learns the truth, leading to a predictable climax. Turns out dad always favored Hank over Andy, etc. I wasn't invested because the entire scenario just felt like a screenwriter's exercise, a dung hill of contrivances. Sorry, Mr. Lumet.

Part XIII, The Great Overrated

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Hugo

Spoilers!

HUGO is a film that works beautifully despite a dubious recipe: Martin Scorsese directing what appeared to be a NARNIA-like children's fantasy, liberal use of CGI (the entire Paris landscape, in fact), Sacha Baron-Cohen in a sizable role, and all of it in 3-D. I did not get to see this movie in 3-D. I caught a screening (the only one that day) after it was re-released post multiple Oscar noms last week. Everything I read about this film raved of the magnificant use of three dimensions, of depth of field. None other than James Cameron, who invented special 3-D cameras for his AVATAR, declared HUGO utilized 3-D better than any other movie he'd seen.

I am a bit disappointed after the fact that I saw Scorsese's film in mere two dimensions, but it was such a delight that such a thought never nagged me, not even once in a just over 2 hour running time. The opening shot, a flyover zoom of a bustling late 1920s/early '30s Paris right on down past passengers in the Gare Montparness railway station suggested the sort of restless energy seen in many Scorseses of the past. As we are introduced to Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a 12-year old who, with his uncle, winds and maintains the several clocks in the station, gigantic gears fill the screen, evoking memories of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Jacques Tati. Behind the walls of the station is a great labyrinth of machinery that also reminded me of Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS. As the plot of HUGO unfolds, we'll find that these homages were no accident.

Hugo comes to live behind the station after his father, an inventor (Jude Law, seen in brief flashbacks) perishes in a museum fire. The boy manages to save from the blaze a mechanical bust of a man - an automaton, which his father was building/restoring. Also, a book of blueprints. Hugo spends his days thieving parts (and croissants) in efforts to complete the machine, to see what will come forth from the ink in the pen it is clutching. After the blueprints are confiscated by a crusty, yet sad toy shop proprieter (Ben Kingsley), and Hugo meets up with the old man's goddaughter (Chloƫ Grace Moretz), it is revealed that a heart-shaped key will be the last piece to unlock the mystery of the automaton. When that moment arrives, we will also learn what this movie is really about.

I don't want to ruin it for you, but.... I can say that HUGO does not develop like any other family-friendly fantasy I've seen. There are not fantastic creatures of the sea or sky or well coiffed Flavor of the Moment young actors brandishing swords. There are masterfully rendered chases (on foot) and runaway trains. But this is really a movie about...the love of movies. HUGO's plot will develop to involve the earliest days of the French film industry and the love and ingenuity that went into each film. This is absolutely Scorsese's domain, his own reverence and activism for film preservation quite well known. His enthusiasm for the films of yesteryear translates into his own - he makes HUGO a loving ode to the medium.

That means that many will feel misled and left cold by HUGO, a film whose advertising campaign does indeed make it look like yet another standard issue fairy tale. It is anything but. I want you to discover the events of the film on your own. I don't normally write reviews to simply advertise a film and get you to spend $ but in this case, it would be time and money very well spent. HUGO's plot blossoms into something quite unexpected, but absolutely beautiful. You don't have to be a film buff to love it, but it definitely helps. I'm hoping to catch a showing in 3-D; I may have to up my rating to "nearly perfect" then.

P.S. - I forever pick on Sacha Baron Cohen because of his turns in the crudefests BORAT and BRUNO (though both are hysterically funny). However, he does a nice job here as the ominous Station Inspector Gustav, always ready to snatch deviate children and send them to an orphanage. That his character is partially crippled allows for some gentle (never cruel) comedy, also in some ways reminiscent of the silent clowns.

P.P.S. - You'll note that Johnny Depp is one of the producers of HUGO. I can see why he would be attracted to this project. He would be right at home in such a film. So would Tim Burton, for that matter....