Friday, December 29, 2006

Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006)

Hailed almost unanimously as a welcome reinvention of the James Bond character, Casino Royale gives us a secret agent that is superior to his predecessors presumably for the same reasons that Christian Bale’s Batman was deemed by many comic book fans to be superior to Michael Keaton’s: he is dark and emotionally distant. Director Martin Campbell hammers home this point early on with an opening scene that shows Bond earning his ‘double-0’ status by killing two targets. In what passes for style in this wholly unengaging and downright depressing action film, the sequence in shot in black-and-white. We watch Bond pummel the first man in a public restroom, bashing his face ruthlessly into walls and sinks (*sigh*, our hero!) and then swiftly execute a second man mid-sentence with the mere twitch of his finger. It is the contrast that Bond feels between the two incidents that not only earns him his place as our protagonist, but also provides the dark undercurrent to what presumably is intended to be a pleasurable movie-going experience. In a scene that comes perilously close to self-parody, Bond is put in a situation where he must resuscitate himself with a defibrillator – a sequence apparently written to establish definitively that this Bond does indeed have a heart.

Daniel Craig’s Bond is not charismatic in way that his dashing forerunners have been – unless you are the sort that finds arrogance and robotic masculinity charismatic. He is undeniably, to use the popular phrase, a ‘bad-ass’, but is that really all we should ask from our action heroes? That they be able to inflict a great deal of pain quickly and without conscience? Apart from the fact that he seems to be on reasonably friendly terms with the reputable Judi Dench, there is little that distinguishes him from the film’s villains. Emotional detachment not only serves as a defining trait of Bond’s personality, but also as a bedrock theme that the film returns to with its banter, double-crosses and casino setting where poker players attempt to stifle their emotions in order to best their opponents. The connection is so clear as to be artlessly blunt – the life of a secret agent involves bluffing, calculated risks and the ability to read other people’s tells. By the time we have spent over two hours with Bond, he has learned the hard lesson that no one in his life is to be trusted. We can say to ourselves that this is just an action movie and these observations should not be important; however, I think that it is no coincidence that both Bale’s Batman and Craig’s Bond have been hailed as heroes for our time. I do not wish to belabor the point by making tenuous connections to the national zeitgeist; but, simply put, this is not the kind of protagonist that I personally enjoy seeing at the center of a popcorn film. I do not enjoy cheering on his thoughtless brutality uncritically. I do not enjoy seeing the reinforcement of the idea of a world devoid of meaningful connection and trust.

I accept the fact that the opinions I have offered above are in the minority. Casino Royale will no doubt spawn highly popular sequels that make loads of money offering viewers more of the same. This does not surprise me. What does surprise me is that this film has received a pass for its awful pacing and bizarre narrative structure. After early action sequences that, while not exactly thrilling, are undeniably frenzied and loud, Campbell sits his audience down for the better part of the film’s second hour as a witness to Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. Not only do the screenwriters have their major players exchange banalities lifted directly from Poker for Dummies (“everybody has a tell”), they have a secondary character offer up ridiculous commentary because they are concerned audience members will be too dim to understand that Bond has all his chips at stake. Following the resolution of the gambling, Casino Royale indulges in at least two false endings and sets off on a couple more action sequences that feel not so much like integral parts of the film, but rather encores that we never wanted. After what seems like an eternity, the filmmakers finally, mercifully, decide to roll the closing credits rather than offering up a brand new plot twist in which Judi Dench steals the millions of dollars in poker winnings at gunpoint and then sets off swimming across the English Channel. Thus ends the latest installment of Bond – and, most likely, my interaction with the franchise.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Lang, 1933)

Like Fritz Lang’s classic M, his second film of the sound era is an exciting search for an elusive criminal. In fact, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse even has the same investigator. However, unlike the earlier film, the Germany of Dr. Mabuse is a place haunted by an influence that nothing short of supernatural. Locked up in a mental institution where he scribbles down diabolical schemes on copious amounts of paper, Dr. Mabuse shouldn’t be a threat to the outside world. And yet, somehow, the crimes that he conceives actually begin to take place. Later, when it seems as if Mabuse is utterly incapable of plotting, let alone finding a way to instruct a gang of criminals on the outside, the disturbances continue. Even when Mabuse’s gangsters are captured and interrogated, they are of no use to the police because they all claim to have never seen the face of the man who serves as their leader.

Although the set-up is a fairly standard police investigation, Lang’s execution is anything but conventional. Scene after scene draws us deeper into a world that is far more complex and mysterious than we initially expect. Lang’s film crosses over from thriller to horror to mystery to allegory effortlessly, providing an experience that is both immediately entertaining and rich in substance. In a virtuoso sequence, Lang cuts back and forth as characters in two different locations are trapped in desperate situations. Either one of these would have been more than capable of holding us in tense anticipation; yet, Lang offers them simultaneously, heightening our investment, rather than dissipating it. As audience members, we have the mystery largely pieced together before the on-screen investigator does. However, while this might spell boredom in a lesser film, Lang employs exhilarating special effects and masterful pacing to insure that we are kept in rapt attention all the way through to the end.


Monday, December 18, 2006

The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)

Coming from the actor-director combo that brought us characters as memorably violent as Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta and Max Cady, The King of Comedy is a refreshing change of pace. There is just one notable act of violence in the entirety of the film, an act that does not directly involve Robert Deniro’s central character, Rupert Pupkin. Rupert Pupkin spends a lot of time introducing himself to various people that he hopes will be able to assist him on his quest for stardom; but, despite his best efforts, he has a name that people just can’t seem to get right. Somewhere in his life, somebody told Rupert to not let anyone stand in the way of achieving his dream. He pursues the big break that he knows must be waiting just around the corner with unwavering tenacity. At one point, a television executive politely offers him sound advice about honing his craft in local comedy clubs and working his way up. However, for Rupert, who prefers to rehearse his stand-up comedy material in the comfort of his mom’s basement, there is no need to allow others to critique his presentation. He is a star already, a diamond just waiting to be discovered and displayed.

The unfortunate recipient of the bulk of Rupert’s attention is television star, Jerry Langford, played with supreme focus and control by Jerry Lewis. Langford is clearly modeled on late night king, Johnny Carson, whose act has been recycled and revamped by countless followers – from David Letterman and Conan O’Brien to Arsenio Hall and his direct inheritor, Jay Leno. Even daytime hosts such as Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen Degeneres owe a debt to Carson. Scorsese gives Langford a majestic curtain from which to emerge, a jolly sidekick named Ed, a goofy bandleader and even goes so far as to incorporate Carson’s favorite song (“Come Rain or Come Shine”) into his opening credits. However, most of what we see from Langford is not his on-stage persona. Instead, we see a human being who desperately craves privacy. In an effort to maintain the semblance of a regular life, he walks unescorted down a New York street only to have someone wish cancer upon him when he refuses to honor a fan’s absurd request. Casting Lewis is an excellent choice by Scorsese because it means we do not really need to see much of Langford’s on-screen persona. We simply transfer Lewis’ potential for zaniness over to Langford and note with astonishment at how tired and serious he seems when patiently waiting for Rupert to go away.

Over the course of the film, Rupert, with the assistance of another rabid Langford fan played by the uniquely insane Sandra Bernhard, forces his way into a spotlight that he has not earned. Although the presence of Deniro keeps us on guard for a sudden explosion of violent rage, Rupert approaches every situation with a sunny disposition. Even when he is being tossed from a building, he does not lose his temper, opting instead to inform those responsible that they are making a huge mistake. Whereas other Scorsese thugs might use a gun, a knife or a fist to get their point across, Rupert’s weapons of choice are persistence and civility. Films about our obsession with celebrity are not in short supply; however, Scorsese’s film is noteworthy for the way in which it subtly exposes Rupert’s motivation. Ultimately, we realize that Rupert’s desired reward is not truly fame or fortune, but simply the opportunity to gaze upon someone’s face as it occurs to them that Rupert Pupkin is somebody that matters – somebody worth remembering. When we finally get a chance to see Rupert’s stand-up, it is decidedly average at best. However, it allows us to see how Rupert has taken a lifetime filled with disappointment and focused it into a solitary goal.

Both Deniro and Scorsese are clearly working outside of their safety zone. Yet, this is precisely what makes the film endearing and ultimately worthwhile. Operating without their most reliable weapon – brutal violence – they are forced to find another way to engage the audience. This means that while The King of Comedy may lack the polished confidence of a film like Goodfellas, it comes across as a one of Scorsese’s most thoughtful and affecting efforts.


Monday, December 11, 2006

Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966)

In his essay for the Great Movies series, Roger Ebert writes of Au hasard Balthazar that the film’s donkey protagonist is the “perfect Bresson character.” It is a sentiment with which I agree. However, unlike Ebert, I don’t necessarily think that this is a compliment. One of Bresson’s most noticeable stylistic choices is the way in which he forbids his actors from … well … acting. In a misguided attempt at trying to achieve emotional purity, Bresson instead creates emotional inertness. With films like A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, this can easily pass for quiet intensity or purposeful stoicism. However, in both Lancelot du Lac and Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson trips over the fine line and lands squarely in ludicrousness. Bresson’s oppressiveness is palpable throughout both of these films and, in the latter, characters speak of their joy and anger in the same forced monotone, performing as if in fear of electric shock. The donkey Balthazar consequently becomes a kind of unintentional self-parody, allowed extravagant indulgences like flinching and braying that Bresson wouldn’t dream of permitting in his human actors.

Bresson’s donkey is the link between a variety of troubled characters who temporarily serve as the beast’s owner. The way that each of them treats Balthazar reflects something of their respective personalities. Marie, the reckless romantic showers him with love while the young delinquent, Gerard, subjects him to cruelty. Throughout his lifetime, Balthazar is subjected to all sorts of suffering and indignity, only to bear it all quietly without complaint. His level determination is presumably intended to be contrasted with the human characters that fall in love with the wrong person, sedate themselves with alcohol, or scheme to make more money. Unlike these people with their aspirations, expectations and disappointment, Balthazar does not carry with him past troubles. He also does not fret about the future. He lives perpetually in the present, plodding through his life with single-minded stubbornness.

There is a critical moment in Au hasard Balthazar that will likely have a great impact on whether an individual viewer accepts or rejects Bresson’s artistic offering. Noting all that the donkey has endured over his lifetime, one character declares without irony that Balthazar is a saint. Such a straightforward statement of the film’s intent forces the viewer into a decision. Have we merely been watching politely, following the events of the film with a modicum of interest because those involved seem so sincere? Or have we really absorbed Bresson’s thematic exploration and bought into the substance of what Balthazar symbolizes? My reaction was to resist a spiritual connection that Bresson, in my determination, had not earned because his scenes of human interaction were not believable or compelling. Thus, the rest of the film struck me as somewhat ridiculous, an ineffective reach for profundity. Based on the film’s stellar reputation, your results may vary.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Fountain (Aronofsky, 2006)

When has there ever been a film that fluctuated so wildly between utterly captivating and utterly banal? The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s long awaited follow-up to the superb Requiem for a Dream is a film with a superb premise and admirable ambition. Jumping between three wildly different settings -- two of which may very well exist only within the imagination -- it is the story of a man who finds himself confronted with the ultimate in inconvenient truths. Simply put: with humanity comes mortality. Everyone we have ever known and ever will know will someday die. It is inescapable fact. And yet, through various intellectual and philosophical contortions, humanity has long made an attempt to convince itself otherwise.

There is a definite joy early on in The Fountain in watching Aronofsky introduce the various elements of his story. Watching a scene with Spanish conquistadors on a quest for the Fountain of Youth cut sharply into a scene with a man and a tree floating through space in a giant snow globe sets our minds whirring. Aronofsky boldly asserts that his intention is to think large and with great anticipation we await insights of great resonance. What is this beautiful limbo in which Hugh Jackman’s character lingers? Where is he heading and what will it mean when he gets there? Dutifully we place our trust in Aronofsky and await something magical or, at the very least, meaningful.

Unfortunately, once the film starts to explain itself, it begins a gradual plunge into the mundane. The film is never again as exciting as it is in the first ten minutes when we are disoriented and relying on our own presumptions about what the film might be. At the heart of the narrative is a plot that is disappointingly simple and surprisingly unaffecting. A doctor conducts medical research that he hopes will one day save his wife’s life. The problem is that her condition is very serious and time is running short. Even when he attains success, he is disappointed when the results are not immediately practical for his situation. His colleagues protest and tell him that he is “losing perspective.”

One of Aronofsky’s key mistakes is explaining away his other two settings by making the doctor’s wife the author of a novel-in-progress. This choice spoils some of the fun we might otherwise have had by making the connections too literal. Consequently, all that is said in those alternate settings becomes a part of a simplistic message offered by the wife to her husband: death is coming and it must be accepted. It eventually dawns on us that this strange, audacious film that literally reaches for the stars and is occasionally quite beautiful has an alarming lack of substance. No doors of perception are opened. No revelations are made. The central storyline is not even involving emotionally. Instead, Aronofsky takes the most basic of truths -- something that should be plain to any person old enough to want to sit through the film – dresses it up in fancy clothes and calls it philosophy.

The discussions that follow The Fountain will no doubt be far more compelling than the film itself. This is because there is no doubt that Aronofsky is dancing around some compelling ideas here. Unfortunately those post-show discussions will arise not from Aronofsky’s artistry and insights, but rather the lingering desire to fill out for ourselves what he might have accomplished.