Friday, July 28, 2006

Shock Corridor (Fuller, 1963)

There’s a compelling statement at the core of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor. A journalist has himself admitted to a mental hospital in order to gain access to three patients who were witness to a murder. These patients with their particular idiosyncratic behaviors represent the paranoia and guilt of America at the middle of the twentieth century. First, there is a man who believes that he is a Confederate general. He is also fiercely anti-Communist and is disappointed to discover that he himself betrayed his own country by becoming a Communist. Second, there is a young black man who spews vile racist rhetoric and even imagines that he has created the Ku Klux Klan. And, finally, there is the nuclear scientist who has regressed to the mentality of a child. Once we start to make the connection between these three characters, it becomes hard to see Fuller’s setting as merely what it seems on the surface. There’s a deeper purpose here. When we remember the Euripides quote that precedes the film – “Whom God wishes to destroy, he first makes mad” – it becomes clear that Fuller is issuing a warning for his time. Not only is the United States saturated with madmen he seems to say, but those who still retain their wits are in danger of being immersed and transformed.

Unfortunately, all this is buried beneath execution that varies dramatically from genuinely effective to horribly grating to unintentionally comic. Fuller’s asylum is reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch in which all of mental patients suffer from the same affliction – overacting. Peter Breck, in the lead role as the investigating journalist, is the worst offender. His performance style is over-the-top even in his quieter moments. When the time comes for him to convince the medical staff of his mental instability, he really lets loose, chewing not only the scenery, but the boom mike and several unfortunate crew members. Breck is not alone however, as Fuller has instructed his actors to shoot for a performance style that is all affectation and no honesty. One only has to look to the loonies of Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade to see how Fuller’s suffer by comparison. Hari Rhodes fares best in the role of Trent, the black student who believes himself to be a white supremacist. His performance leads what is by far the film’s most captivating sequence in which he protests school integration, dons a white hood and then leads a race riot directed against a fellow member of his own race. This scene points to the chilling experience Shock Corridor might have been with less meandering, more carefully observed performances and more focus on communicating the dark themes that drive the film’s script. As it is, Shock Corridor lands only a glancing blow, making it a somewhat engaging curiosity, but not an experience that is likely to linger.


Sunday, July 23, 2006

You Can Count on Me (Lonergan, 2000)

A single, sudden moment early on in the life of two siblings leaves them adrift in a world where both meaning and morality are elusive. Although the event is only mentioned out loud briefly, it clearly follows the brother and sister like an enormous shadow long into adulthood, affecting the way they lead their lives and how they interact with each other. Sammy, played by Laura Linney, and Terry, played by Mark Ruffalo, have taken very different approaches to dealing with this irrevocable event. Sammy has remained in the small town where they grew up and lives in their childhood home raising her eight-year-old son on her own. She has worked several years at the local bank, a place where changing the color scheme of your computer monitor can be seen as an act of rebellion. Terry, on the other hand has opted for a more nomadic, more turbulent life style. He is involved with a highly unstable partner and has spent significant time in Alaska and Florida, opposite sides of the country. You Can Count on Me takes place during a brief visit by Terry which may or may not be the last time he sees his sister.

Although Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay certainly has its merits, this is a film that belongs to the actors, particularly Linney and Ruffalo. The fireworks fly early on in a tense restaurant scene in which Terry explains his long absence and Sammy expresses her disappointment without fear of decorum. Linney is perfectly cast as the sharp, but surprisingly impulsive single mother whose conservative veneer is really just a mask disguising a woman who is in a state of spiritual tumult. As good as she is, Ruffalo is even better as the slacker, Terry, who swears openly in front of Sammy’s child and whose idea of quality babysitting is involving the boy in a pool hustle at the local bar. Terry’s relationship with the boy is a bit reckless, but cannot be described as negligent. He has his own ideas about what is right for the boy and offers him jarring experiences whether Sammy likes it or not. For Terry, Ruffalo has selected a rhythm perfectly suited to Lonergan’s somewhat broadly drawn character that also gives him the feeling of a unique individual. There have been many characters similar to Terry in the movies before, but through Ruffalo, we are drawn into a specific struggle and journey. He is deeply affecting without ever being hammy. Bookending the scene at the restaurant is a wonderful scene late in the film where their situation is left painfully unresolved. Although it is never spoken out loud, the film’s title rings in our head as a powerful subtext. Perhaps the next thought might be “Can I Count on You?”

Matthew Broderick’s anal bank manager character is somewhat less successful. I enjoyed the way he communicated through a never-ending stream of post-it notes. I also liked the surprising direction his character arc takes and how it helps to add depth to how we understand Sammy. However, Broderick’s performance doesn’t really seem to match the film. Juxtaposed against the effortless naturalism of Linney and Ruffalo, Broderick too often comes across like two-dimensional comic relief. I never really bought him as a plausible human being with a life outside of a writer’s screenplay. Broderick has pulled off this kind of role before, in Alexander Payne’s Election. Unfortuantely, he is far less successful here, providing the film with an unwanted dose of ‘phony’. I also felt that Lonergan’s screenplay fluctuated between insightful and overwritten. In the end, he gets the job done, communicating his themes and providing a moving experience. However, there are several times where we are given far more words than we really need. Lonergan’s direction is technically uninspiring, although I suspect that it may have been worth granting him that position in order to get the specificity of the primary relationships just right.

When it comes right down to it, Lonergan has created a memorable experience with characters that we are glad to have known, despite all their faults. He has created a situation that has a satisfying amount of specificity, but is general enough to apply to those of us who will never experience these particulars. Perhaps best of all, he has given Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo a showcase for their extraordinary abilities and created characters that have allowed them to demonstrate the full range of their talents.


Monday, July 17, 2006

Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier (Bjorkman, 1997)

Tranceformer: A Portrait of Lars von Trier, included as a bonus feature on the Criterion DVD for The Element of Crime, captures the Danish director at a critical juncture in his artistic progression. The film, made by Stig Bjorkman, lays out a quick picture of Trier's strange upbringing and allows him to describe how his parents raised him almost entirely devoid of authoritarian guidance. We see some of Trier's first films, made as a child, and note how they already include such features as experimentation with film stock, grim imagery and a long tracking shot shot from a bicycle. We then see how the technological heaviness of The Element of Crime and Europa has started to give way to the lighter touch of Breaking the Waves. Despite the film's inimate feel, we may be surprised to see just how large the crew for Breaking the Waves is. In one comical moment, the crew is reassured that 'not knowing what they are doing' is a part of the grand design. There is no mention of Dogme, but Tranceformer allows us to make palpable connections between a man who grew up with no limits and then decided to impose them on himself in order to generate compelling art.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

My 20 Favorite Films That Have Been BANNED In Malaysia

20. Scarface (DePalma)
19. Thirteen (Hardwicke)
18. 40 Year Old Virgin, The (Apatow)
17. Shadow of the Vampire (Merhige)
16. South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut (Parker)
15. Invincible (Herzog)
14. Exorcist, The (Friedkin)
13. Battle Royale (Fukasaku)
12. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick)
11. Boogie Nights (Anderson)
10. 8 ½ Women (Greenaway)
9. Evil Dead, The (Raimi)
8. Good Night, and Good Luck (Clooney)
7. Sideways (Payne)
6. Lost in Translation (Coppola)
5. Caché (Haneke)
4. Schindler's List (Spielberg)
3. The Piano (Campion)
2. A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick)
1. Amadeus (Forman)