Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Streetfighter Experience

Carano and Fassbender have a bad date in Haywire.

* *  Haywire. Written by Directed by Lem Dobbs. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. 

Director Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Che, Traffic) is developing a pattern of casting unorthodox female leads for his films. For The Girlfriend Experience (2009) we got porn star Sasha Grey in her first mainstream role, and under Soderbergh’s direction, not badly acquitting herself. Now we have Haywire, in which Gina Carano, a championship-level “mixed martial arts” fighter (currently 7-1 in competition) plays a black ops super-soldier out for revenge against her double-crossing employer (Ewan MacGregor). So does she do as well as the porn star?
            The short answer is, well, yeah. And while this film will undoubtedly make more money than Grey’s, and Carano can almost certainly kick her ass (and Ron Jeremy’s too), it’s also a far more formulaic movie than The Girlfriend Experience. In fact, after the unexpected pleasures of Soderbergh’s last film, Contagion, Haywire seems so numbingly conventional as to be actually depressing.
            Carano is Mallory, a former Marine now in the so-called “private sector” of covert ops. By some contortions of Lem Dobbs’ incomprehensible script, she is sent on a mission to Barcelona that turns out to be a set up, which she instantly and without apparent justification sniffs out. Naturally, instead of escaping to make inquiries from a safe location, she goes on a Jason Bourne-style vendetta against MacGregor, his pal Antonio Banderas, her ex-partner (Channing Tatum), and anybody else with a gun and a penis who happens to be in the way. And while she’s unstoppable, and she’s relentless, and swears “I don’t wear the dress,” she apparently does pause to put on lip-gloss before heading out to kick male butt. Bet neither Tom Cruise nor Matt Damon could pull that off.
            There is a lot of action in Haywire, and some of it is well done. Soderbergh shoots Carano’s fight scenes at eye-level and with minimal cutting—just a master (or is that a mistress?) of her craft showing her skills. Then again, the professional actors here look pretty skilled too, including Michael Fassbender as an MI-6 agent so scrawny he’d barely outweigh Taylor Swift. Carano is no siren in a catsuit, no Kate Beckinsale. Her appeal lies in bringing a certain pantherish grace to the mat, along with a thick, Gina Gershon-esque sensuality. But it’s still not obvious here what a professional fighter can bring to a movie that a professional actor can’t, with coaching.
            Perhaps the best (as in symptomatic) scene here is when Carano and Fassbender come back to their hotel room from a dinner date. Both look good, and the air between them is charged with erotic possibility—until they get into the room and start beating the bejesus out of each other. This is symptomatic because this, apparently, is what we Americans would rather see two attractive, unattached people do in a hotel room than the obvious alternative.
            To his credit, Soderbergh has developed a style that can make a shit sandwich taste like it just needs a little mayonnaise. Though Haywire is a formula movie through and through, he works hard to deglamorize it, to shun the marquee set-pieces and landmarks typical of, say, the Mission: Impossible movies. Here, everything is just a little more ordinary, just a little bit smaller than life. The result isn’t the worst thing in the world. But one can’t help thinking that a guy with Soderbergh’s talent should stop wasting his time making better-than-average shit sandwiches.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Don't Eat the Cobbler

Foster, Reilly, Waltz and Winslet stuff their pie-holes in Carnage

*** 1/2 (out of five stars) Carnage. Written by Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski, based on a play by Yasmina Reza. Directed by Roman Polanski. 
Two couples, strangers to each other, meet in a Brooklyn apartment. Broker Nancy (Kate Winslet) and corporate lawyer Alan (Christoph Waltz) are a New York power couple; writer Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), a hardware supply salesman, are a pair with a working class/bohemian feel. The purpose of their meeting is to work out an amicable settlement of a schoolyard fight between their kids, wherein Penelope and Michael’s son lost a couple of teeth. The tone at first is cordial, as all think of themselves as “evolved” human beings, and are nothing if not reasonable people. And indeed, all goes well—until Penelope uses a few provocative terms to describe the beating (“intentional” and “disfigured”), and Alan the lawyer, who annoys everyone by not turning off his cell phone, turns to Penelope and asks—with threadbare civility—“Now why would you use a word like ‘disfigured’?”
            Thus begins the descent into decidedly unevolved behavior that is Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play, The God of Carnage. To call this film enjoyable is perhaps to stretch the meaning of “enjoyable” for some people. By turns appalling, outrageous, dispiriting, and yes, hilarious, the best comparison to it might be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—albeit in a polite urban setting instead of an academic one. The pleasure here, as in the Edward Albee play, lies in watching the complacent masks people wear in public slip, droop, and fall away. Not exactly a good date movie, this.
            What it does offer is four terrific actors making the most of a script so sharp it may just make your ears bleed. Reza, a daughter of Iranian/Hungarian Jews working in Paris, has written material that is not only bitterly funny, but transcends our expectations in multiple ways. We naturally expect the conflict to unfold along the lines of the fight in the schoolyard, with each set of parents loyal to his/her kid. But as Reza works out the implications of her premise, the players constantly make and break other alliances with each other—alliances of class and sex—as well as break along the fault-lines of their troubled marriages. The cross-crossing patterns of recrimination and disappointment, as well as compassion, leave an impression that is bewildering in its complexity—Inception for grown-ups.
            There are no weaknesses in the cast. As the chronically aggrieved Penelope, Jodie Foster digs beneath type here, uncovering the moral smugness that often lurks beneath the sort of political correctness exemplified by, yes, Jodie Foster. Winslet the wan broker and Reilly the doltish plumbing supply salesman are more alike than you’d expect, insofar as they’ve both given up on expecting fulfillment from their respective relationships. And Waltz, with his silky condescension, plays what might as well be the domesticated descendant of the cultured Nazi he played in Inglorious Basterds.
            It comes as little surprise that this concentrated bit of misanthropy comes from Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, The Pianist), still an international fugitive from a statutory rape charge in California. Indeed, it’s not hard to see what might have attracted him to this material, featuring as it does a basic transgression (an assault in a schoolyard…or a sex crime) that must be remedied by people who ultimately reveal themselves to be as flawed as those they purport to judge. Like the meeting between Reza’s characters, both the legal and the public trials of Polanski have become circuses. In Polanski’s defense, after a childhood spent fleeing the Nazis, an adolescence chaffing under Communism, the murder of his wife by the Manson gang, and the transnational bungling of his rape case, he at least comes by his jaundiced view of people honestly.
            It would be fair to call Carnage misanthropic, but that description would not be complete. There are moments of unexpected sympathy here too, and a kind of eloquence amid the screeching. I didn’t come out of this movie hating humanity, but with the fondness that comes from looking at it from a wry and pleasant distance. Perhaps this is the way Roman Polanski lives with his memories.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Silents is Golden

Dujardin and Bejo are the cat's meow in The Artist.

**** (out of five stars) The Artist. Written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius.

According to certain critics, it’s been all downhill for movies after the advent of sound, circa 1930. There’s some merit to the argument: in the silent era, without recourse to spoken dialog, filmmakers were obliged to be inventive in telling stories. And indeed, virtually all the visual tropes we now take for granted in movies—montage, close-ups, continuity, cross-cutting, dissolves, location shooting, even color—were pioneered and thoroughly explored before sound.
            But when actors began to speak, all too many movies became little more than canned theatre—actors trapped on soundstages, yakking. To see the difference, compare a classic from the golden age of silents, like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, with even a very good Hollywood talkie of the next decade, such as Gregory La Cava’s Stage Door (1937). Door had a crackling good script, but in terms of visual interest, there’s just no comparison—the silent film is light-years ahead, despite being ten years older. Here, as in many instances of technological advancement, something was lost in the exchange.
            French director Michael Hazanavicius’ The Artist evokes this loss vividly, touchingly, and irresistibly. As you may recall, Hazanavicius and his stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo last made an impression with their scrupulously perfect James Bond parody, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006). That film didn’t just goof or pastiche on an already oft-spoofed genre—it tunneled to its Cold War roots and channeled its very essence, right down to the look and feel of the film stock, and the way Connery/Dujardin wore his Saville Row suits.
            The Artist is more ambitious, resurrecting the entire pre-sound epoch in stunning detail, from the rich black and white cinematography to the lush, over-wrought musical cues. But its triumph is not just technical. Even more impressively, it recreates what was most emotionally satisfying about the era too—the drama on a human scale, the post-Victorian sentimentality, the way a star’s smile—in this case, Dujardin’s winning, cocksure grin—can light up a scene as brightly as an arc-lamp.
            The script by Hazanavicius concerns George Valentin (Dujardin), an Errol Flynn-type silent movie star who is flying so high he almost casually makes a star out of Peppy Miller (Bejo), a chorus girl he takes a shine upon. Trouble is, Valentin is too set in his ways to make the jump to talking pictures. His career crashes just as Peppy becomes the face of the new era onscreen. Even worse, Valentin is too proud to notice that Peppy is in love with him, or to accept her offers to help him out of his tailspin.
            Though the story is almost as generic as the film’s plain vanilla title, Hazanavicius more than makes up for it with his obsessively crafted execution. To someone of his turn of mind, his kind of Gallic rationality, a film about a silent film star—naturellement—must be silent too—which The Artist, in fact, is (with a few key exceptions). But before you punt at the prospect, rest assured the lack of spoken dialog is not missed here because it’s barely noticeable. What the critics have merely argued, Hazanavicius demonstrates—most of the talking in movies is dispensable.
            Where OSS 117 was hit or miss in the humor department, this time Hazanavicius hardly ever puts a foot wrong. There’s nothing extraneous in The Artist, nothing that doesn’t pay off handsomely in the end. Best of all, Dujardin and Bejo are terrific together—the onscreen chemistry hinted at in OSS is fully realized here, and as appealing as each is alone, they are even better as a pair. This may be the most poignant evocation of all: at a time when actors increasingly find themselves emoting in front of green screens, or opposite not other actors but guys in motion capture suits, this kind of simple, can't-be-faked human chemistry is another aspect of “old” cinema at risk in the digital revolution.
            If there a misjudgment anywhere in this film, it’s in one key detail in the soundtrack. At the climax in the story, when Valentin is about to hit rock bottom, Hazanavicius makes use of a key passage in Bernard Hermann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—a movie very much from the sound era. Of course, it is a ravishing piece, well-chosen for the moment. But for film buffs—a key audience for this film—it’s a musical cue that’s as recognizable as, say, that two-note string signature from Jaws. For however brief a moment, it dragged this fan boy out of the movie’s spell.
            But only for a moment.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro