Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Kingdom

Somewhere in The Kingdom lies the rapidly beating heart of a fun, straightforward B-movie, the kind of film that is enjoyed and forgotten until it appears in graduate theses about the cultural landscape of a certain time period or the ground-breaking start of a particular auteur. The plot is full of conventional action thrills and formulaic buddy-cop beats with a high-concept twist, and, much like other B-movies, the majority of the film serves only to drive the audience to its most rousing set-piece—in this case, a thrilling shootout in a hostile Saudi Arabian neighborhood. No one making the film seems to have noticed this, though, and as a result, The Kingdom overreaches. The hollow plot is padded out, drama is sacrificed for verisimilitude, and the film is stuffed with dumbfounding scenes that answer questions no one is asking.

After a terrorist group explodes an American housing complex in Saudi Arabia, Jamie Foxx leads an FBI team that heads to the crime scene—-against orders—-ostensibly to help Saudi law enforcement find the perpetrators of the attacks, but really to avenge the death of a friend of his that was killed in the blast. Upon arrival they encounter resistance from the locals, but nevertheless manage to form a mutually beneficial partnership with Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, a Saudi who helps them solve the mystery by telling them about local customs and using his awesome powers of translation. The film takes so many detours before the characters even begin their investigation, though, that they mystery fades into the background. And even when they do start their investigation, there’s no sense of discovery, no joy in the procedural aspects of their work. Despite the flash of text depicting each character’s name and specialty at the beginning of the film, I didn’t even have a grasp as to what most of the agents were supposed to be doing. And, at times, it seemed as if they might be confused as well.

Ashraf Barhom is really quite good as Colonel Al Ghazi, but it’s a thankless role. The character is just another version of the local guide, helping these (much more important) yokels navigate the harsh jungles of his native land while goggling at the weird, wonderful technology they bring to his rustic backwater (in this case, it’s not a Walkman or a flashlight, but Jennifer Garner’s breasts). The film offers plenty of screen time devoted to showing how very real and human he is, but it’s a humanity I never had cause to doubt, particularly as he’s depicted as competent, sensitive, and caring early in the film. Nevertheless, this dunderheaded film bravely depicts that this is a guy who is able to both be a Muslim and love his family and country. Huhwhaaaa????! Such a noble, noble man, and to think, for the entirety of the movie he’s pretty much stuck babysitting Jamie Fox, telling him that Americans aren’t allowed in that alley or in this room people don’t eat apples or whatever.

The notion that citizens of Saudi Arabia, even terrorists, are, deep down, no different than Americans is the ostensible message of The Kingdom. That the viewer needs to be told this is about as idiotic an assumption as I can imagine a mainstream Hollywood film making. What’s more, the set-piece at the heart of the film invites the viewer to participate in the gleeful slaughter of the bad-guy Arabs. This shoot-out is fantastic, as good as these kinds of urban warfare action scenes get. And it’s the only time in the film where what’s at stake is clear and unambiguous, not mired by unnecessary red tape. When the movie concludes by asking the viewer to ponder the moral ambiguities of enjoying such a bloodbath, it feels cheap, phony. It may be the most unconvincing, ridiculous moral to the end of a film since the racial harmony ending of Volcano, where a little boy looked at the ash-covered survivors of a Los Angeles volcano and declared, “They all look the same.”

Would be a good double feature with: Proof of Life

Thursday, February 21, 2008


When There Will Be Blood is over, on first reflection, it feels as if it's said nothing. The film has no immediately apparent over-arching thesis that people (myself included) love to discuss at breakfast tables or on internet forums, nor does it seem like a movie which would yield treasures after applying the regular subtextual analysis that often makes sense of difficult films. Over time, it retains this impenetrability, but it ceases to matter so much. The movie is so good doing what it does, it's enough that it simply is. And, anyway, as the experience of watching this great work dissolves into memory, it becomes clear that what makes it impenetrable is not that it is saying nothing, but that it is saying so much.

The film tracks the ascension of misanthropic, super-capitalist Daniel Plainview from silver miner to hyper-wealthy oil tycoon in late 19th and early 20th century America. The main thrust of the movie's plot details how Plainview harvests the oil underneath a rustic, undeveloped California town. As the oil company infastructure moves in, a conflict brews between Plainview and Eli, the local minister who wishes to harness some of Daniel's wealth and power for his fledgling church. Through this, the film manages to explore themes of family (particularly focusing on brothers, fathers, and sons), privacy, self-deception, loyalty, greed, wealth, poverty, language, life, death, religion, and capitalism. That it manages to touch on all of these themes without feeling overwhelmed in the slightest is one of its many great achievements. The writing is as sharp, intimate, and multi-textured as any great novel.

With the film's main conflict, one might expect it to become arch or mythic--Capitialism versus Christianity, get yer tickets now!--like something found in, say, a Sergio Leone film. In this way, There Will Be Blood certainly has its moments, but it's more interested in the characters than the competing philosophies. Over and over again, Anderson teases the line of allegory, but refuses to define his two main players solely by their beliefs. These are people, not caricatures, and, as they both seethe and roil with the anger they feel for the other, they, realistically, supress their feelings and go on with their business. It's easy to spot that their business is the same--themselves--but Anderson's too clever to simply make some glib point about the commonalities between Capitalism and Christianity and think that's a movie-worthy point to hang his film on. No, he's found something much more captivating in Plainview himself.

Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis's rendition of Daniel Plainview is a stunning and, I would say, wholly new creation. At times, he's some sort-of capitalist, Frankenstein monster, a simulacrum of humanity cobbled together from competition and greed. But the portrayal goes deeper. He has an adopted son who he clearly cares for, and the anxiety he feels when his son stands in the way of his financial success makes him endearing. His indifference to the suffering of others inspires rage. But through it all, he knows what he wants and is so unflinchingly determined to get it, that the sheer force of his personality compels an unwavering attention. The movie reflects this, zeroing in on Plainview with the long-take intensity of an interrogator. And, yet, despite the fact that the movie runs for over two and a half hours and Plainview is nearly always onscreen, he remains an enigmatic character, his psychology as foreign as a Martian's. He's presented as a man who fiercely guards his privacy, but it feels like he's hiding himself against us, the audience. Or maybe Anderson's camera is bearing down on him so fervently, that he can't help but retaliate with a dogged insistence that he need not show everything there is to him.[1] Whatever the case, the creation is a terrifying mystery. And remains so.

The movie's conclusion is disorienting--there's a jump of location and many years' time between it and the portion of the film that precedes it. While debate rages over its merit and its meaning, it is undeniably powerful and would be as challenging an ending to a film as any in recent memory if No Country for Old Men hadn't also come out last year. There's a sick and perverse joy in watching the angry, disenfranchised Plainview, who has attained such wealth that he can afford to isolate himself from the rest of society, emerge as a full-blown, alcohol-fuelled monster. In isolation, he reverts to his former self as the rugged, lonely silver miner but absent the goals that drove him to form lasting relationships with other human beings or the physical trials that distracted him from his repressed rage. Daniel Day Lewis, completely unleashed, embodies this rage with a mad performance for the ages. He stomps about, drools, vigorously eats a steak with his hands, and screams his dialogue with the gusto of someone who enjoys feeling righteous indignation more than serenity. If this performance and the final scene seem to lift the movie off of the tracks, it seems better to blame the tracks than this fearless, unhinged moment of cinema.

Throughout, one can feel Anderson as a master at the top of his game. The movie's so assured in every aspect and unfolds with such density of thought, that, critical thought be damned, I couldn't help but fall in love with it. As every moment rolls by, burned into the celluoid with a single-minded ferocity that mirrors the character it's depicting, the intensity is so eminently watchable, so pleasureful to look at, that it's almost nauseating. All of Anderson's work has this energy, this joie de cinema, but it's never felt so fully earned as it does here. In their structure or their execution, his past work pointed, at times, to the past successes of Altman or Scorsese. There Will Be Blood points to only Paul Thomas Anderson and, in doing so, to the future.

Would Make a Good Double Feature With: The Wages of Fear

[1] Note that this is one of those performances that is so good, you start referring to the character as if he was really being filmed as he lived his life.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Long Goodbye

Like a lot of Robert Altman films, The Long Goodbye is a finicky, restless experience. The camera glides along, never still, always zooming, dollying, closing in on the faces of the characters, and even focusing on the visual space between two people in conversation. The dance between the angles and the actors is well-suited to this detective story based on a Raymond Chandler novel. The movements reflect a sort-of Chandler-esque patter, like the camera itself is the real detective, getting paid fifty dollars a day, plus expenses to uncover the mystery of the film.

The plot itself is typical of Chandler stories. Philip Marlowe, private eye, takes a friend, Terry, to Mexico as a favor. The next morning, it’s revealed that Terry has beaten his wife to death and used Marlowe to flee the country. Not believing that his friend would commit such an unspeakable act, Marlowe tries to uncover the truth behind Terry’s disappearance and the wife’s death. Along the way, the plot complicates with the introduction of a wealthy, abused woman (it’s always a dame), her drunken husband, and a host of gangsters looking for money that Terry left behind.

The Long Goodbye is atypical, though, in the way it uses its retro, Golden-Age plot to explore a different era. It, subtly, strands the very 1950s character of Marlowe in the early 1970s, a time that does not fit him. He’s not into yoga, doesn’t really care about making lots of money, and, even when facing certain death, won’t remove his tie. His outlook runs perpendicular to that of the more post-modern attitudes found in the other characters. It’s a sly tweak to the whole genre, exposing the moral rigidity of the hard-boiled detective archetype, and leads the film to an interesting, challenging conclusion.

Elliot Gould’s Marlowe is a first-rate acting class on how to deliver off-hand, witty lines while staying in character. It’s a perfect rendition of the hurting, cynical detective archetype, and Gould’s lanky physical appearance adds a new layer of vulnerability to the character. He doesn’t look nearly as tough as Bogie or other cinema detectives, and in Gould’s hands, the detective’s wit becomes his only defense against the violent world he inhabits. It’s a charming performance from top to bottom, and the film is twice as engaging for his relaxed, confident portrayal.

The movie’s full of little visual riches and manages to expertly balance a mostly jaunty, comic tone with very grim, serious events in the plot. The final payoff feels rushed and it’s not led up to very well (the film sort-of meanders to its conclusion), but it’s a startling ending and makes sense in retrospect, particularly in light of its wrong-time/wrong-place Marlowe. It’s refreshing, too, that Altman and co. resisted the urge to deliver ten minutes of explication for those audience members who couldn’t keep up. The Long Goodbye always makes perfect sense on a gut level, if not always a textual one, and it understands that the thrill of a mystery is in diving into a pile of information and trying to make sense of it all.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Romeo Is Bleeding

Romeo Is Bleeding is a convoluted mess, a dispirited neo-noir that inspires no passion or suspense. The plot twists and turns and raises the stakes, but there's nothing recognizable at its core but recycled, worn archetypes of the film noir genre. The film provides no compelling reason to once again dredge up these femme fatales or the corrupt hero who brings about his own spiritual downfall. And, even watching it as a straight homage, it fails to recapture the spark or wit of the films that are its inspiration. As the histrionics climax and ebb, climax and ebb, over and over again over the course of one hour and fifty minutes, it's like watching a ghost of cinema past; what was once vibrant and sexy is here pale and withered, empty and lifeless.

Gary Oldman stars as Jack Grimaldi, a corrupt police Sargent who offers the mob information about protected witnesses in exchange for money. He's amassed a good deal of dirty money over the years, but has a crisis of conscience when one of his tip-offs leads to an off-camera bloodbath where the cops protecting the witness are also killed. Now he's not just an informant, but a cop-killer as well. Feeling that the mob has not lived up to their end of the bargain, he attempts to extract himself from the dirty dealings but finds he's (gasp!) in over his head. Then, Lena Olin shows up as an ambitious and nihilistic hit woman named Mona who's been marked for death by mob boss Roy Scheider (doing his best Kirk Douglas from Out of the Past impression). Mona (double gasp!) seduces Jack in order to secure his allegience in helping her escape with her life. This complicates Jack's relationship with his wife, his mistress, and the mob.

Like all noir-ish plots, this has the ingredients for a good, tawdry time at the movies where the audience feels a Puritanical glee at seeing a corrupt soul punished for his (and it's always his) ethical ambiguity and a concurrent delight in watching a man overcome seemingly omnipotent malevolent forces. But Jack never emerges as a relatable character or anything worth investing in, either for or against. He leads so many contrary lives--cop and mob informant, husband and philanderer--yet somehow there's nary a hint of danger that he'll be found out. There's not even a sneaky thrill at the outset that he's getting away with it. His affair is joyless, his mob relations are testy, and we never get to know his cop buddies. The only spark of joy in the film is when he hordes his money; his love for this growing pile of cash is the only relationship that connects. But later in the film, the movie asks us to believe that he really, really, truly, no-seriously-I-mean-it-this-time loves his wife (despite everything we've seen), and he abandons his money without so much a moment of hesitation. He comes off not as an anti-hero, but an anti-person, a vessel into which the film pours its plot.

Absent a main character, Romeo Is Bleeding also fails to find a tone that reflects the material. Rather, it's slow and moody, takes little delight in turning the screws on the duplicitous Jack, and, at times, even asks us to take his undoing seriously. It thuds along at a metronome-like pace, with no escalating rhythm or discernable tempo. The score's a distraction, too heavy-handed in its references to older noir scores. Even the shots of the film are disorienting; people in the same scene often feel like they're in different rooms.

Though, to be fair, some of that disorienting quality could be due to the acting. Oldman delivers a fun, theatrical-but-nuanced performance, yet he never really connects with any of the other performers. There's no chemistry between Jack and his wife, his mistress, or Mona. Even the wonderfully disarming Roy Scheider can't seem to penetrate the wall of Oldman's acting and forge a genuine relationship. Lena Olin is the only one besides Oldman who seems to be having any fun, but her performance is a cartoon--Jessica Rabbit playing a James Bond villain. Juliette Lewis, as the mistress, just looks like she's trying to keep up.

Romeo Is Bleeding's only redeeming feature is the lengths to which it goes in torturing its characters. It's gutsy to have a character remove an arm in order to serve the screenplay's labyrinthine plot or to have the unwitting hero forced to bury a man alive. A better film would have played with these moments more, found more absurdity in them, and used them for comedic purposes. And that may have been the intent with this project at one time. But if the movie's laughing at all, it's only a nervous, guilty laugh--a sexist joke from a misogynist, searching the crowd to see which fellas are with him.

Would Make a Good Double Feature Wtih: Angel Heart

Edited to Add: RIP Roy Scheider. May the curse of your living corpse haunt us all.