Thursday, October 23, 2008


An odd and largely unsatisfying mix of parody and trite psychodrama, Oliver Stone's W. can't decide if its central figure is a shrewd calculator eager to play up his religious conviction for votes, an earnest sap who really believes he's doing what's best for the country or a figure of outright ridicule who can barely form a coherent sentence let alone run the most powerful nation in the world. But one thing's for sure, in the simplistic view of Stone and screenwriter Stanley Weiser, just about every action taken by President Bush (played here by Josh Brolin) is done with one eye toward his father, a man whose desperately sought admiration always seems to elude him. Shuffling back and forth in time between the eve of the Iraq War and the embryonic stages in their subject's personal development - from his rabble-rousing frat boy days at Yale to his first aborted run at local politics to his eventual rise to the Presidency - the filmmakers attribute the hubris of the current administration to a desire on the chief executive's part to not only earn the senior Bush's respect but to outdo him at his own game. George W. may be speaking in earnest when he tells his cabinet that invading Iraq will help protect the United States (the motivations of Cheney and Rumsfeld on the other hand are predictably more sinister), but the film has grounded the President's psychology so firmly in filial neurosis that we have difficulty accepting any other motive but the desire to impress his implacable Poppy.

If that sounds reductive, it is. The film works better when taken as something approaching parody, allowing us to savor the unsettling sensation of seeing the near likenesses of contemporary public figures repeating their now signature lines (Bush worrying about Saddam's "misunderestimating" him, the bit about trading Sammy Sosa) for our amusement, but without the explicit just-for-laughs intent of a late-night comedy sketch. In those sequences where elementary "psychobabble" (the term itself figures in the script) is set comfortably aside, Stone offers us the chance to see the most powerful people in the world rendered as puffed-up grotesques, an impression heightened by Stone's frequent use of the wide angle lens, as the various stupidities, hypocrisies, and power plays of Bush and his cabinet members are injected with a frightening measure of exaggeration. Stone systematically deflates the image of these men (and one woman - Condoleezza Rice played by Thandie Newton as an unbearably high-pitched squeaker), while at the same time bringing to their presentation a sort of hyperreality - rendering Bush and his cohorts as at once larger-than-life and pitifully, despicably human. As Stone zips us through a narrative that we've already learned by heart (no surprises figure in the film's catalog of events), the portrait of its central figure becomes, finally, incoherent, as the director's desire to play fair with his subject is undercut by his obvious disdain for the administration's policies. But Stone's Bush registers, too, as oddly endearing, an impression heightened by the director's establishment of an unsettling proximity - always tempered by a certain quasi-mythical distance - between audience and principal character. In the end, this push-pull relationship between viewer and subject ensures that Bush remains as before, a man at once overly familiar and hopelessly remote from an America that likes to pretend it knows its public figures far better than could conceivably be possible.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


In Mary, Abel Ferrara throws a lot of information at the viewer in a little amount of time and most of it's not without interest. But amidst all the film-within-a-film formal play, interviews with real life theologians, interpolated television footage of Middle East unrest, and earnest discussions of personal faith, the central throughline boils down to little more than a story of a man coming to accept a personal engagement with Christ and vowing to live a better life when confronted with tragedy. Yet even this story, intellectually dull where much of the film is stimulating, gets over on the heightened intensity Ferrara brings to its presentation and the impassioned emoting of Forest Whitaker.

Whitaker plays Ted Younger, a talk show host whose program consists of surprisingly measured discussions about the nature of Christ. (Astonishingly such a program - engaging as it does in intelligent discussion of various conflicting doctrines rather than mere hysterical proselytizing - has earned him top ratings.) But there's little indication that Younger takes any personal interest in his subject, content to confine his involvement to the level of the intellectual. Still when his wife goes into labor and complications threaten both her life and that of his newborn son, he begins to reflect on his own spiritual condition, ruing his past sexual infidelities, vowing to be a better husband and accepting a more doctrinaire view of Christianity. Younger's conversion finds its vivid apotheosis in an impassioned church scene in which, like Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant, Whitaker emits various tortured squeals while speaking out his appeal to a wooden Christ. Ferrara cuts between the actor's face enshrouded in darkness and the icon surrounded by the light seeping through a window. The symbolic juxtaposition may be obvious, but as a statement of a hard-won faith, the scene's earnestness is tough to dismiss.

Running parallel to, and intersecting with, Younger's crisis is the story of Tony Childress (Matthew Modine), a filmmaker who has just wrapped a production of This is My Blood, a revisionist take on the Christ story, especially with regard to the role of Mary Magdalene. Taking his cue from the apocryphal Book of Mary (whose contents are expounded for the audience by Gnostic Gospels author Elaine Paigels), Childress fashions his story from the idea that Magdalene was not a whore, but one of Christ's disciples, challenging Peter for leadership and finally marginalized in historical accounts because of her gender. The film-within-a-film, of which Ferrara includes ample chunks, hardly seems very accomplished, striking a tone of pedantic solemnity and consisting of dark, nearly illegible close-ups, but it allows the filmmaker to explore another, more feminized, understanding of Christian doctrine and then, later, to confirm Younger's conversion by having him reject, on his television show, the reading offered by Childress' film.

Childress, for his part, is at once unbearably self-obsessed and admirably serious, a man who, only half-jokingly, cites the financial success of The Passion of the Christ as his reason for making his own film, but then brings an impressive commitment to the project. At the movie's premiere, as picketers both Jewish and Christian protest the screening and the theater is evacuated due to a bomb threat, Childress locks himself in the projection booth and screens his film for an audience of one - the ultimate expression of directorial egotism - as Ferrara brings his own film to a typically overheated close. As far as explosive moments go, this ending scarcely compares to a few that the director's already given us - an attempted carjacking shot in jerkily incoherent handheld, a bomb blowing apart a Shabbat dinner table in Jerusalem, Whitaker's aforementioned histrionics - but conjuring the very real possibility of annihilation seems the only proper way to end such a heavily charged exploration of modern faith. Ultimately, what defines the film's method is the alternation of these hysterical rhetorical outbursts with measured, intelligent discourse, the juxtaposition of theological complexity with a simplistic acceptance of doctrine. Ferrara doesn't try to sort out all these contradictions of tone and meaning, he simply lays them all in the viewer's lap and lets him make out of them what he will. This is finally what makes Mary both so exhilarating and so frustrating.


My review of Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tokyo Sonata

Tokyo Sonata is a film of a profound sadness, not peppered lightly across the picture's surface, but wedged so deep into its marrow that it's impossible to shake off. A thoroughgoing critique of the demands of patriarchy in contemporary Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's film unfolds not as political tract, but as affecting family drama, a balancing act that impresses through its skillful subsuming of abstract thematics into the particularities of individual lives.

Taking in the familiar milieu of the Tokyo salaryman, Sonata begins with the dismissal of Ryuhei Sasaki (Teruyuki Kagawa) from his middle-management post. Summoned into his boss' office, he's asked what other positions he may be qualified for. He remains silent, his back to the camera. Cut to him silently boxing up his belongings and he's off to his comfortable single-family dwelling to break the news to his wife. Or, as it turns out, not. In a system that's based so heavily on the assertion of male authority (in the workplace, in the home) there's simply no way to accept the sudden dismissal of that authority. Above all, one mustn't let on to one's family.

So Sasaki continues to dress up every morning in suit and tie, tells his wife he's off to work and then sets out to suffer the dual humiliations of the employment agency (In one scene he's forced to sing a song for the amusement of a foppish job counselor. He lets out a single tortured note before Kurosawa mercifully ends the sequence, cutting to Sasaki thrashing discarded applicances with a metal rod in a junk heap.) and the free food line at the park. But Sasaki is hardly alone. He soon uncovers a whole culture of out-of-work businessmen, determined, above all, to keep up middle-class appearance. In one of the film's moments of bitter humor, a fellow unemployed salaryman programs his cell phone to ring five times every hour, illustrating the painful level of commitment that these men are forced to bring to their act of deception.

But what are the larger costs of this enforced maintenance of social roles? Expanding his critique, Kurosawa widens his purview beyond Sasaki's perspective, giving equal weight to the lives of the other family members; his wife who, for all her intelligence, finds her social function reduced to baking donuts; his older son, a drifter who eventually joins the American army and gets deployed to Iraq; and the younger son, an aspiring musician who is forced to take piano lessons on the sly since Sasaki forbids them. Eventually the plotting becomes a tad labored, as Kurosawa and his screenwriters attempt to involve all four characters in suitably dramatic adventures, pushing each to his inevitable breaking point, but when we consider the comprehensive scope that these manipulations allow Sasaki to bring to his view of contemporary capitalist society, and the delicacy with which he continues to handle his characters even as he puts them through their exaggerated paces, a few bits of credibility straining melodrama hardly threaten to undermine the whole project.

Especially when it becomes clear just how devastating Kurosawa's critique really is. In a society that demands above all the assertion of male authority, the psychic cost on its inhabitants quickly tends toward the unbearable. The desperate affirmation of that authority, at all levels of society, means that it inevitably manifests itself in violence and the attempted humiliation of others, especially when it feels threatened. When Sasaki's wife learns of his dismissal, the father's misplaced attempts to reassert his lost authority result in the beating of his youngest son. When that son's teacher finds his control over his students threatened he resorts to acts of humiliation. When a would be kidnapper finds his hold over his female victim to be all too tenuous, he makes half-hearted stabs at sexual aggression. But whether this questionable authority stems from the film's literal patriarch (Sasaki), his daytime stand-in (the teacher), or from a broader jurisdiction (George Bush, implicated through the Iraq War subplot), Kurosawa takes pains to continually undermine its propriety. In stable socio-economic times, the ethical backbone of the power structure may go unquestioned, but when the system starts to break down, the uses of authority become more and more desperate until it can only express itself in increasingly oppressive measures against its own citizenry.

But with the breakdown of patriarchal control comes the opportunity for an openness to other kinds of experience. In the film's breathtaking final scene, Sasaki sets aside his prior opposition to his son's piano playing - a serious pursuit of the arts being antithetical to the accumulation of wealth and therefore anathema to capitalism except as an ornament of "culture" - and attends a recital in which the boy interprets Debussy's "Clair de Lune", the piece played in its entirety, Kurosawa introducing a few visual cutaways, but allowing the soundtrack to continue uninterrupted. After the performance, both parents walk over to their son, the father laying a kind hand on the boy's head. A bleak, increasingly difficult life may await the family, but, with this single irrepressible gesture, Kurosawa grants them the possibility of a newfound humanity, a humanity open to aesthetic experience and more importantly, to the possibility of a self-assertion for all members of the family. This one gesture doesn't wipe away what must still be deeply entrenched notions of domestic structuring, but it represents a hard won, if preliminary, step in a far more sustainable direction.

My review of Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's Nights and Weekends has been posted at Slant Magazine.

Saturday, October 4, 2008


A modest triumph, Lance Hammer's Ballast marries a calculated indie aesthetic (hand-held camera, elliptical editing, de-emphasis of narrative event) to a low-slung portrait of the Mississippi Delta and its inhabitants, with local non-actors enlisted to embody the film's characters. The story of three black residents of an impoverished farming town, the film is the product of an extended immersion in the region by the director/screenwriter, himself a white Californian. Hammer brings an outsider's detachment to his observations, but his obvious familiarity with the region results in an unforced authenticity, whether taking in the generosity of a neighborly gesture or a drug-dealing subculture that seems oddly similar to its urban counterparts.

In keeping with the languorous pace of the geographical region, the film's narrative reveals itself slowly, taking its own time to spell out the connections between its characters. Following his brother's suicide and his own botched attempt at self-murder, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Jr.) spends his days rotting away in a state of spiritual vegetation. Visited regularly by a young boy, James (JimMyron Ross) who pulls a gun on him and takes his money to buy drugs (with the man's tacit consent), Lawrence eventually arises from his torpor and re-establishes a relationship with the boy and his long-suffering mother, Marlee (Tara Riggs), the exact nature of which only gradually becomes clear. Eventually the three, all at various personal lows by film's midpoint, reap the benefit of the mutual association, opening up modest possibilities of fulfillment (financial, emotional) through each other.

To watch Ballast is to continually navigate the tensions between artifice and naturalism that arise from the gap between the film's very deliberate aesthetic and its unforced presentation of character. The result is a push-pull relationship between film and audience, the actors' presence drawing us in with its lack of affect while the camerawork keeps us at a measured distance. And nowhere is this tension more evident than in Hammer's repeated use of his most consistent visual strategy, the rack focus. With rare exception, he and cinematographer Lol Crawley never allow multiple planes to remain in simultaneous focus, preferring to shift between foreground and background within single shots. The result is that even as the three desperate characters draw closer together, any question of the establishment of a sustainable intimacy is continually undercut by the filmmaker's separation of the trio through the distancing strategies inherent in his mise-en-scène.

When late in the film, Lawrence and Marlee share an unexpected scene of Platonic intimacy and the former ruins it by making romantic advances, we've been prepared for this moment of misunderstanding by an aesthetic which has refused to allow the characters any visual cohabitation. There's no question that the three exert a mutually beneficial influence on each other, with Lawrence returning to some semblance of life, Marlee re-opening Lawrence's general store and turning it into a profitable enterprise and James avoiding the temptations of crack, but there remains the sense that certain gaps of comprehension - partly the result of characters' past actions, partly inherent in the nature of interpersonal relationships - remain unbridgeable.

Perhaps the film's most telling shot occurs late in the narrative, when James sits behind the counter of the store watching his mother and Lawrence talking in the building's doorway. Although there are no direct POV shots in the film (a point Hammer stressed in a post-screening Q and A), this shot is clearly meant to take in the boy's perspective even as his head remains visible in the corner of the frame. The appearance of the two characters in the background takes the director's strategies of focusing to new extremes, the figures of Lawrence and Marlee barely visible, abstracted into outlines of pure color. James may have benefited from a change of perspective thanks to his renewed relationship with Lawrence, but if we take this blur to be any indication of how he sees the two people closest to him, then the young man may be more frightfully alone than we ever might have imagined. So, then: a potential intimacy continually undermined by contradictory visual evidence. In the last analysis, that seems to be Ballast's reading of the possibilities of human interaction.