Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Secret Honor (1984)

My sense of dissatisfaction with most everything about Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon except Frank Langella's fine performance finally convinced me to bump Robert Altman's take on Tricky Dick to the top of my Netflix queue. Good move.

It took me a while to get around to Secret Honor because the project -- a cinematic adaptation of a one man play that imagines despondent former President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) reciting a shaggy, ferocious stream of consciousness monologue into a tape recorder -- sounds like the total opposite of prime Altman material. Altman is a director whose best films burst to the edges with actors and characters (Nashville, Short Cuts) with dialogue exchanges between them that flow and overlap in ways that, if not quite like actual speech, are not quite like anything else we hear in movie theaters. One guy, in one room, for ninety minutes? Who will Altman cut to? Who will interrupt him?

Perhaps this is part of what interested Altman about the piece; to challenge himself with a setup so seemingly alien to his traditional milieu. You watch the film and you see how he solved both dillemas. Secret Honor is no contemplative slow-burn; Hall as Nixon is an inferno of rage and bitterness, and he needs no other characters to interrupt him because he does that fine on his own; changing thoughts mid-stream, then changing again as he alternately defends himself against charges of corruption and points the blame at a variety of perceived guilty parties in his downfall. The problem of what to cut to in a room with one man was solved by Altman himself on the first day of production when he conceived, on the spot, of the notion of Nixon extending his well-known tendency toward self-recording to encompass a video camera and monitor system, so that Nixon can film himself as he speaks, and watch himself on a bank of TV screens as he does it.

Hall's Nixon, much like Langella's, has felt like the outsider all of his life, and much of his drive to succeed comes from his desire to show those handed power because of wealth or class that they shouldn't have dismissed or doubted him. Now the system has chewed him up and spit him out. Altman, in a period of his career where work was not easy to come by in Hollywood, could relate. The film's final and literal middle finger to the audience, to the whole world, suggests that Altman was unwilling to compromise his vision to get back in the movie industry's good graces. He'd simply wait until his interests and theirs reintertwined. Until then, as Nixon says, fuck 'em.

Visually, the movie isn't much to write home about. Invention of the surveillance system notwithstanding, Altman doesn't have a whole lot to work with, and with such a commanding performance from Hall front and center, he probably didn't want to. The movie is shot in television aspect ratio and it does feel, at times, like someone recorded a play. But then there are moments and images like the one below, in which Altman suggests a modern rematch to the pen and the sword may have a slightly different outcome, that remind you that Altman, like Nixon, was not a man to be underestimated. He would be back.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Gran Torino (2008)

After the white elephantitis of Changeling, Clint Eastwood re-affirms his place at the forefront of American cinema with the laid back Gran Torino. A microscopically small scale drama about how a grizzled Korean war vet spends his days after his wife kicks off, it's nigh unclassifiable. At once a comic treatise on aging akin to his own Space Cowboys, as well as a meditation on the tolls of violence with shades of Unforgiven, it's a concise and heartbreaking précis of his thematic obsessions over the past decade, and all filmed in rich autumnal tones by Tom Stern, a long time Eastwoodian who got one of his first gigs as a gaffer on Honkytonk Man (1982).

The film opens at his wife's funeral, and Walt Kowalski's rage at the modern age. His nephew arrives in a oversize Detroit Lions jersey (0-15 and counting!), while his granddaughter sashays in with a bare midriff, texting her friends throughout the ceremony. Here the growls start, and the predominantly comic first half of the film. Clint has always had a nimble comic personality (see: Bronco Billy), but here his charm is teased out slowly by his teenage Hmong neighbors Sue and Thao, who chip away at the encrustations of his stubborn old age. There are a number of beautifully modulated scenes between the three of them, with Sue (played smartly by newcomer Ahney Her) offering Walt a number of tart and supremely confident responses to his kneejerk racism. She knows his vocabulary is a relic of his age, and lets it slide off her back, charmed by his otherwise amusing cantankerousness.

This rich, embattled relationship is contrasted to Walt's non-existent connection with his children, who have chosen not to see beyond his exterior rage and write him off as nothing more than a burden. These pudgy middle-class strivers are quick to motor him off to an old folks home. It's hard to blame them at first, though, with Walt's asshole act leaving little room for engagement - he even admits to his priest that he never knew how to talk to them. Everyone has their reasons, even bourgeois pigs.

Then the movie, with the slowness of a lap dissolve, shifts into vigilante mode, as Kowalski is reluctantly drawn into a conflict with the local gang, who have unsuccessfully tried to recruit Thao to join them. The uses of violence and the value of vengeance are given a deeper consideration here than even in his Mystic River, which took that theme as its main subject. It handles it obliquely, even stoking visions of Dirty Harry before gently pulling the rug out from underneath itself, and our aged Harry is in danger of breaking his hip.

See also: Tativille on Gran Torino


My top ten list is up on Indiewire (as is Matt's), but I'll have a more complete list posted up here soon, with both released and unreleased films, and plenty of uninformed babbling. Stay tuned!

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Opening Credits With Mood Swings:

Okay so shot one:

Sort of hard to see through the title card there, but we've got two lovers walking arm and arm on a tropical beach into the sunset, beautiful just-past-magic-hour light. It's warm, it's romantic, it's sweet.

Four shots later (after two of the couple at a peaceful luau, and one getting off a plane and receiving a lei):


The rest of the movie isn't half as awesome as that juxtaposition, and it's actually a lot less silly than I expected (I guess that comes in the sequels). Then again, the movie does cast Jeff Goldblum as the face of inner city gang violence. Yes, that Jeff Goldblum.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Ghost Town (2008)

Imagine you're a misanthrope (you're reading this blog, how hard could it be?). Now imagine you go in for routine surgery, the hospital botches the anaesthesia, and you have a near-death experience. On the one hand, you are filled with a perverse sort of pleasure: almost dying while having your colon scoped is exactly the sort of evidence a misanthrope needs to prove his worldview is correct. On the other, it's sort of a disappointment. To the misanthrope, a near-death experience is not quite near enough, especially when the net result is a wholly unwanted ability to see and interact with ghosts who roam New York City's streets looking for a way to complete their unfinished business here on Earth. When these spirits realize the misanthrope can fulfill their final wishes, they all come to the misanthrope asking for help.

You can probably conceive of a few stories that could shunt off quite easily and pleasurably from this premise, but you wouldn't imagine that that myriad of spectres and their unusual problems would be totally discarded in favor of a Ghostian love story, while the movie's early, peppery flavor is watered-down by -- well, let's call it "chicken stock": stock characters, situations, and emotions engineered by the film's creators out of fear of really challenging audiences with something unique and special.

Ghost Town's misanthrope is perfectly played by Ricky Gervais, the British comedian and actor who has an almost supernatural gift for turning his characters' suffering into sheer comedic bliss. Desperate to rid himself of the mewling phantasms following him everywhere he makes a deal with a tuxedoed ghost named Frank (Greg Kinnear) who promises to get all the other free-floating full torso vaporous apparitions off his back if he'll shanghai Frank's wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) in her new relationship with a guy that Frank doesn't care for. No explanation is given how Frank could convince or compel hundreds or even thousands of persistent ghosts from bugging Pincus (probably he couldn't), nor does the relatively shrewd Pincus have any reason to believe him, other than it's needed to move the plot along. This general disinterest in the full specifics of the afterlife is further exposed by the ghosts' inconsistent interactions with the corporeal world. They can walk through cars and walls because it makes for a cool visual but they can sit in chairs or on beds because it's convenient for the plot.

But this is probably nitpicking in a film that has much larger problems. The movie has Gervais and Leoni, two of the most fearless comedic leads in the world of entertainment and it makes them play it safe and traditional and entirely by the numbers. I suppose the idea of a crotchety loser forced to help ghosts with their problems in order to achieve a little peace and quiet is an idea better suited to an open-ended television series than a 110 minute Hollywood feature but you can't start off the movie with as great a sequence as the one where Pincus realizes he's nearly died and then is chased by a ever-increasing pack of desperate phantoms through Central Park, then sweep them off the stage in exchange for one boring one, played halfheartedly by Kinnear, who looks like he's stifling back yawns during all of his dialogue scenes. To tell the truth, so was I. The attempted tearjerker ending feels like the sort of nonsense that Gervais spent an entire series called Extras making fun of.

The screenplay was co-written and directed by David Koepp, a favorite collaborator of Spielberg's who worked on Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and others. If Ghost Town was his idea, all credit to him for it and for the casting of Gervais, whose natural delivery and perfect comic timing do a good deal more for the material than the material does for him. There are some laughs (mostly thanks to Gervais) and some clever moments but Ghost Town is a disappointment, and in some ways a less satisfying experience than other, worse movies, because you can feel within it the potential for greatness that is going to waste in scene after scene. It's always more frustrating to watch something that's okay that could be great than something that's terrible through and through. It's enough to turn a writer into a misanthrope. Imagine that.