Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Town

(Ben Affleck and Rebecca Hall in The Town/dir. Ben Affleck, Warner Brothers)
       The Boston enclave of Charlestown has always been one of the most scenic locations in the city, and a major tourist attraction to boot. Ben Affleck and company care about this fact in a most malicious way. What they want us to know is that Charlestown is also the most crime-ridden spot in Boston, with a history of gangs and robberies that stretches back decades. Several quotes provided at the start of the film introduce the neighborhood as such.  So although the geography of the neighborhood is covered, as if we are watching some ultraviolent travelogue, and although the camera keeps returning to the outstanding Bunker Hill monument, these are just cynical launching points for the moral corruption that lies at the heart of this city.
            The corrupt ones we meet here are Doug MaCray (Ben Affleck), a hoodlum since childhood, who is running his own small gang of thieves, including best friend James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and Albert Magloan (Slaine). His former hoodlum father (Chris Cooper) sits in a prison for the rest of his life, while his sometime-girlfriend and the sister of Coughlin, Krista (Blake Lively) hangs out at the same bar each night, in a reliably altered state of consciousness. Doug needs a real woman, and he meets her through the most unlikely circumstance possible; after robbing a bank—the scene that opens the film—Doug finds himself taken by the pretty bank manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall) who opens the safe for him and his buddies at gun-point. He encounters her a few days later in a Laundromat and, seeing that she is still traumatized by the robbery, takes her out later that night. The relationship that ensues between them—she completely unaware of who Doug is, he falling in love with her while using her to get information on the F.B.I—is the shakiest, most dangerous step either of them could take. Yet neither of them seems to realize it. Not even Doug, who knows the FBI is on his tail, and that it is only a matter of time before his girlfriend finds him out. He follows through on another planned heist anyway. He gets in further over his head with an old rival of his father’s (Pete Postlewaith; nearly funny, completely sinister). He also finds time to buy Claire a necklace.
            It’s a great setup; a suspense film where there is no mystery, the female lead actually has nothing to hide, and there’s enough violence to tip it in to action movie territory. The way Affleck (who directed) approaches the material is appropriately aggressive, yet very awkward. For an actor, he does not seem to trust other actors to fill in a scene when the camera is at a loss. The best performance in the film nonetheless comes from Jon Hamm, who plays the F.B.I agent Adam Frawley, the man assigned to round up Doug and his partners. Hamm never tries to be the center of attention, speaks his dialogue in spare, domineering tones and steals every scene he is in. Watching Hamm rush down Lansdowne Street with a shotgun in his hand makes him look like both a brutal, cold action hero, and the most sensible guy around. The same can’t be said of the other actors, though they all do a competent job. The accents are authentic and the chemistry between Affleck and Hall is just right; that is, almost there, but severely strained.
            It is the film’s awkwardness in other respects that drags it down. Affleck shoots the film, with cinematographer Robert Elswit, in emphatic close-ups and establishing shots that try to rein everything in. He seems to have taken his cues from Martin Scorcese and John Woo. Yet he has an unhealthy obsession with time-lapse photography and the supposed glories of slow motion. More complicated, however, is the very tangled script. This could be because there were three writers (Affleck, Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard), or because they wanted to be all too faithful too the Chuck Hogan novel Prince of Thieves on which the film is based. Either way, we get lost. First, the relationship between Doug and Claire starts to move to the center of the story. But Affleck spends too much time on the friendship of Doug and Albert, the latter never coming off as anything more than a deplorable creature. It is predictable enough that eventually Claire will find out the truth about the man she has been seeing; but this happens halfway through, and afterwards, we have to endure a few highly implausible scenes and actions by certain characters that reduce our sympathy for them. Affleck tries to balance things out by throwing in a few more scenes with Doug and Krista, but these come so close to the end that they feel distracting. None of this is a failure of technique so much as a failure of ambition. The film wants to be about love and honor; friendship and betrayal; personal demons and guilt. Slow down, Tolstoy.
(Jon Hamm in The Town/dir. Ben Affleck, Warner Brothers)
            The crispness of the whole affair wins out in the end. The three heists—at the beginning, middle and end— provide enough of a framework to stabilize the film. The final showdown, staged outside Fenway Park in an event that provides more entertainment than the Red Sox could ever muster, is a blast, literally. This is probably the best film about Boston made in at least a decade, but in being the best, it also shows how far cinema has to come with this city. It makes one want to see a genuine local perspective on Boston crime. So far, we’ve gotten this through the fiction of Dennis Lehane and several other crime writers, but nothing in film. For this reason, The Town is at its best when it is locally oriented. Short scenes near the beginning show Affleck walking down the streets of Charlestown, at night and during the day, while the chatter of him and his buddies plays on the soundtrack. They will resonate with anybody who has roamed the streets of this town, either to wrestle with themselves, or for the hell of it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Motion Studies: Kinski smiles Verde, dir. Werner Herzog/Werner Herzog film Production and Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1987)

      Suddenly, out come the choir of young African nuns. Each one is a skinny girl wearing only beads, leighs and tribal skirts. Six stand in a circle around one in the middle; all sing a call and response anthem in their language that consists of two repeated phrases. The choir leader, in the middle, nods to the camera, smiles like a pop star who knows she's the hottest sensation, and vaguely points in our direction to let us know each of her solo lines are directed at us. Each girl has a blissful expression on her face. They look in our direction as if indifferent to the fact that they live in a conflict-torn country, in a palace where they are the king's property. Like most other Africans in the film, they are slaves, but they are content, image-conscious, ebullient slaves. They are a presence which contradicts the entire notion of slavery, and tells off the solemnly romantic tone of the film surrounding them.
       Cobra Verde sees what we see, though he is out of the frame, to the left. After a minute or so of their song, he quietly slides in to the middle of the group, glancing at each girl with an affection that Kinski the actor wants to downplay. But just as the girls know the camera is their audience, Cobra Verde knows Kinski is the real person. This is hardly an instance of breaking the fourth wall. Herzog's films often contain moments of direct address to the audience, never for the purpose of self-reference. It is too obvious that this film is about both Kinski and his character from the beginning. Both are nearing the end of their careers, lives and sanity. Both are tired of working, but still mustering considerable ambition. Yet in this one shot, Kinski is finally mellow; he looks almost like a fond uncle figure to these signing girls. Just before the choir finishes their song, Kinski smiles.

        This window of playfulness in the film-- Herzog's last collaboration with Kinski-- comes before the final blow that ends Cobra Verde's authority and symbolically ended Kinski's career. The film plays as a sort of elegy to something that is not quite over; hence the presence of sunsets and the vast expanse of ocean. Exactly what we needed to see was a long shot of a group of singing girls, there for just this moment, for our pleasure. Most importantly, they bring out the humility left in Kinski, no small feat.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two in the Wave Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut in Two in the Wave/Lorber Films, 2010)

Anybody unfamiliar with Francois Truffaut, Jean Luc Godard and the New Wave will sympathize with the child Jean Pierre-Leaud as he runs in to the dying waves on a beach in a remote location in France, turns to the camera, and looks confused, directionless and numb. Two in the Wave is a documentary for the initiated, and those who want so much as an introduction will feel stranded.
            In fact, it is not so much a documentary as an obligatory response to various information on Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc-Godard that has recently been published. Richard Brody published a biography of Godard last year, and previous to that, wrote a New Yorker article illustrating the breakdown of his friendship with Truffaut. Emmanuel Laurent, who has produced several television series, directs this film. What one can say of his film is that it tries, as hard as it can, to be a document. It does not succeed at this ambition. Two in the Wave can best be described as a lumpy film; it is yet another recent French film waxing nostalgically over the glorious past of French cinema that has now been reduced to tired gestures. Yet it has such major digressions in to archival footage of New Wave cinema that it views more like a collection of fragments than a narrative documentary. It wants to be chronological, yet zigzags back and forth in time (usually between the years of 1960-1963) so frequently, that we become lost in footage of Godard and Truffaut, rather than their friendship.
What Laurent is trying to illustrate is that their relationship was defined by movies. But this assumption is dishonest, considering how little he seems to care about the two as people. He briefly sketches the contours of their childhoods; Truffaut’s poor and neglected, Godard’s prosperous and cultured.  Truffaut’s adolescent experiences of constant movie-going, jail and the army were the inspirations for The 400 Blows. But Laurent’s passive, hurried way of inserting interview footage of Truffaut talking about these autobiographical leanings makes him guilty of a sin worse than audience condescension. He assumes we know all this information and will simply get a kick out of hearing it from the man himself. What is mainly interesting in the footage of Truffaut is how honest he is about the autobiographical nature of his work, as compared to other directors who dance around these aspects. Laurent did not stop to explore why Truffaut might have been so honest, and whether that was a sign of nobility or attention craving. He assumes we know the facts and want nothing more, so he’ll keep it brief. His is a sin of skittishness, or wimpy-ness.
But his faults bring to mind a very clever experimental film recently given limited release earlier this year, called Double Take. That film was about one of the New Wave’s idols, Alfred Hitchcock. Except that it was really about “Alfred Hitchcock.” The film interspersed archival footage of Hitchcock’s appearances with footage from his films, recreations of scenes from his films and a narrator who posed as a Hitchcock-like figure wandering through a paranoid sixties mystery, encompassing all the lunacy of the immediate postwar decades. In being a study of Hitchcock’s aura—his imagery, his deviancy, his themes—and by not taking itself deadly seriously, that film was a loving tribute to Hitchcock’s films and the persona he created, as opposed to the person he really was. If Two in the Wave took the same approach, it could have been a similar study of the films of the New Wave and the perceptions of Godard and Truffaut. There are moments when it almost gets there. Archival footage from several rare New Wave films—Jean Rouche’s I, a Black Man (1958), Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961)—is a pleasure to see for pure cinephile value. So is footage of the articulate film curator Henri Langlois, a film patriot if there ever was one. But it is only at one point, when the film trails off and becomes lost in toying with footage, when we see that Laurent really does care about assembling motion picture imagery. He finally gets inspired and speeds up a series of still photographs of Truffaut conversing with Alfred Hitchcock. Across a jerky series of photographs, Truffaut’s finger wags back and forth as if to lecture Hitchcock about the hip new generation of artists. It’s a scene that could have come from Double Take. But here, it is only an ephemeral moment of amusement.
Throughout the film, a mysterious red haired girl makes her way through various Paris locations and flips through a book of photographs of Truffaut and Godard. She at one point seems to be narrating, as a woman talking about Truffaut’s filmmaking methods. Yet she is too young to have an obvious place in the story and her sad eyes look sad for no clear reason. Is she Truffaut’s granddaughter? Is she sad to know that Godard and Truffaut would later exchange angry letters and never speak again? For the record, she is the young actress Islid Le Besco. It feels as though this is another thread Laurent toyed around with, but was too afraid to complete. This young woman has nothing to be sad about. Though she has a good reason to get angry at that camera, almost poking her face one minute, then discarding her for uncertain black and white frames in the next.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Better of the 'Oughts

Nobody knows what to call these past ten years, either as a decade or a personal experience. All we can be sure of is that they were troubled. This column is not going to get in to that trouble; we all saw it. But nobody will know what to call the films that came from the oughts (as some prefer to say), either. From the short distance we are at, we can say some looked a little bit like a rehash of sixties cinema without the freshness or sincerity, while others remained trapped in the all-is-irony mode that filmmakers--at least in America--don't plan on escaping from any time soon. In the purely mainstream realm, technological advancements including more and more CGI animation and 3-D movies diluted the moving image instead of enhancing it. Equally distressing as it was sometimes marvelous was the continuation of static-take driven, music-absent, "contemplative" cinema. This kind of cinema could come off as a cheap reaction against the perceived junk of Hollywood cinema, thereby defeating its own integrity.
If this opinion on the past decade sounds bitter, that's because no decade is a geyser of fantastic cinema and the majority of films produced will always fall from our memories in due time. So as a way of showing the bright side of the decade-- the decade as a whole, why not-- here is a personal list of the memorable parts from five of its best films. At nine months in to 2010, the distance is good enough to make a foggy judgement.

1. Cache (2005): In what theater did audiences not leap out of their seats when the coldest, most nonchalant most shocking suicide scene in film history occurred? While Daniel Autiel paced back and forth, the dead body slumped against the wall with a streak of blood behind it, we were as directionless as he was. We waited for him to leave that room, knowing that he wouldn't, with the static camera that may or may not have hidden recording it all for us.
2. Tropical Malady (2004): This was a film where watching  the structure develop was more rewarding than any single image. But that structure-- a two part film, first a contemporary narrative, then a jungle folk story-- gave us its greatest distance with a shot on top of a sunny hill overlooking the Thai jungle. The hunter (the boy)stepped to the top and surveyed the scene, pausing for some moments as if finally wondering, like us, just what kind of story he belonged in.
3. There will be Blood (2007): The sight of something gushing uncontrollably has long been one of the most dizzying and perverse images a film can offer. It happened with blood in The Shining and it happened with oil in The Wages of Fear. Here, it happens literally with oil and figuratively with blood.
4. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000): At the dawn of the decade, before we thought anything cataclysmic might happen, Bela Tarr knew better.
5. In this World (2002): This is one of the better films of the past ten years, though most people wouldn't know it. Part of the reason is that its director, Michael Winterbottom, makes so many films, that he has lost us by now. This one--sentimental at just the right times, a quintessential journey film, a sly blend of fiction and documentary, and a truly worldly movie-- is one that he shouldn't have let us forget. Jamal shoving his way through a nighttime crowd of refugees, staged to middle eastern vocal music, is one of the better shots Herzog never captured.