Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I

I was disappointed with last year's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Commendably ambitious, it nonetheless felt like a padded-out interstitial chapter. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part I doesn't entirely shake that feeling, not least because for splitting Suzanne Collins' final book in two. Yet I enjoyed Mockingjay much more than Fire: by blockbuster standards it's a smart, often daring movie.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens in District 13, headquarters of an incipient rebellion against PanEm's Capital. Resistance leader President Coin (Julianne Moore) plans to use Katniss as a propaganda weapon against President Snow's (Donald Sutherland) regime: initially reluctant, Katniss agrees after seeing her home District 12 laid to waste. Personal concerns struggle with politics: Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), captured by the Peacekeepers, becomes a mouthpiece for Snow's government, and she wrestles with feelings for Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Their revolt spreads, and Snow resorts to increasingly brutal retaliation.

The first two Hunger Games movies were straightforward popcorn flicks, milking a grisly premise for escapist fun. Eschewing the gladiator set-up entirely, director Francis Lawrence instead opts for the grim consequences of war: summary executions, air raids, terrorist attacks. The movie doesn't lack for action - highlights include Katniss staring down two bombers Patton-style, and a tense commando raid intercut with a propaganda broadcast - but it's more grounded and horrific than the often-fantastic arena violence. For a YA adaptation it's heady stuff.

Collins (and her adapters Danny Strong and Peter Craig) daringly sideline their protagonist. Bewildered by PanEm politics, Katniss remains devoted to family and friends: one condition for supporting Coin is rescuing Peeta, even after his apparent defection. As the Capital exploited her in previous installments, Coin's revolutionaries maker her a poster child. Katniss even parachutes into a war zone for propaganda videos, shot by a shaven Leni Riefenstahl wannabe (Natalie Dormer). She's become a propaganda pawn, her image outweighing her life.
Mockingjay might collapse if it were ponderous or self-important. But we're so invested in Katniss and friends at this point that the film withstands turning serious. Katniss remains compelling, while the mere presence of mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) or wardrobe Effie (Elizabeth Banks) draws chuckles under grim circumstances. While Snow's genocidal henchmen make easy villains, Coin's supports (wearing Mao jackets and chanting fascist slogans) aren't appealing either. This promises an even more ambiguous finale.

Jennifer Lawrence remains extremely compelling. From installment one she's given Katniss the same devotion as something like Silver Linings Playbook. Though Katniss is largely reactive, Lawrence handles her emotional arc well: burned-out bewilderment, anguished determination and fragile humanity. Tossed into a nightmare, she's forced to become a hero, nearly losing herself in the process. Lawrence's performance should even wavering Hunger Games fans hooked.

Most of the franchise regulars are back, with Elizabeth Banks skulking about her lost wigs and Woody Harrelson slurring quips and wisdom. Josh Hutcherson finally shows some range as Peeta, but Liam Hemsworth remains an impassive hunk. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright benefit from expanded roles, and Julianne Moore makes a nice addition. But the standout remains Donald Sutherland. His affably evil dictator grows more compelling with each installment, the perfect monster to root against.

Many reviewers are trashing Mockingjay - Part I as a cash grab, designed to milk moviegoers of every last dollar. Fair enough. Yet this movie holds up both as part of the franchise, and an unusually strong standalone. If Part II is half as compelling, count me in.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

RIP Mike Nichols

Today brings sad news that legendary director Mike Nichols passed away at age 83.

Born to German-Jewish parents, Nichols' family fled Germany in 1939 and settled in New York City. Nichols pursued an acting career and played various minor roles on stage, winding up in Chicago with the Compass Players. He gained notice playing opposite comedienne Elaine May in a satirical revue, An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, which made its way to Broadway under Arthur Penn's direction.

Nichols soon moved to directing theater: among other works, he headed Broadway productions of Barefoot in the Park, Luv and The Odd Couple. He won an Oscar nomination for his debut feature, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but it was The Graduate that cemented Nichols' place in cinema history. Nichols continued directing well-received films for decades: Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, The Birdcage, Primary Colors and Charlie Wilson's War among them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Fugitive (1947)

The Fugitive (1947) proved an expensive setback for John Ford. This highbrow religious allegory befuddled audiences used to his Westerns; critics still debate if it's an unappreciated masterwork or overwrought mess. It's certainly a bipolar movie, beautifully shot but dramatically stillborn.

Set in an unnamed Latin American country, The Fugitive focuses on The Priest (Henry Fonda). The government's outlawed religion and police brutally repress spiritual leaders. The Priest considers leaving the country but can't abandon his new-found flock, even at risk of reprisals. The Lieutenant (Pedro Armendariz) pursues him, but can't help being drawn to The Priest's simple faith. Both men are drawn to The Woman (Dolores Del Rio), an Indian girl with an illegitimate child.

The Fugitive is Ford's most conspicuously artistic movie since The Informer. Ford shoots in Mexico but the real highpoint are Gabriel Figueroas's amazing compositions. The iconographic staging, deep focus photography and extreme closeups often resemble a silent movie. Hence the Priest attending worshipful villagers in chiaroscuro, his conversation with a whore drowned out by a calliope, or Dolores Del Rio resembling Falconetti's Joan of Arc in weeping close-ups. Fugitive's less a collection of set pieces than tableaux, beautifully shot but stiff.

Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols adapt Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, while neutering its edgier content: the Woman's illegitimate child was fathered by the Priest, not the Lieutenant. Instead, Ford's protagonist is that most nauseating of movie priests, utterly guileless, without fault or personality. One critic labeled him a "creeping Jesus," but even that's generous: the Priest inspires but barely acts, merely suffering for a nation's sins. All of Ford's Christ imagery and obnoxious choral music can't make him compelling.

Ford invests his villains with more passion and nuance. The Lieutenant provides Fugitive's best scenes: his ideological torment, grudging respect for the Priest and personal failings combine for a fascinating character. It's unfortunate that when he actually confronts the Priest, we get pedantic lectures on faith and morality. Other characters perform allegorical functions: the unnamed Woman, the trickster (J. Carrol Naish) who betrays the Priest. Though Greene drew on Tomas Garrido Canabal's anticlerical repression in Mexico, Ford's Fugitive is too unworldly for any "topical" relevance.

Henry Fonda gets one of his worst roles: Nichols' script provides no depth or shading, merely mute anguish. In contrast, Pedro Armendariz exudes passionate torment with a full-blooded performance. Ford later gave Armendariz meaty roles in Three Godfathers and Fort Apache. Ward Bond's enigmatic character never amounts to much. Dolores Del Rio weeps and wails as an overwrought Mexican Madonna; J. Carrol Naish kills his scenes with obnoxious overacting.

John Ford once called The Fugitive his most perfect movie. Indeed, as a directorial showpiece it's flawlessly crafted and beautiful to watch. But it's awkwardly-constructed and only intermittently interesting. Ford is so caught up crafting a masterpiece that he doesn't bother making a good movie.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Last Hurrah

Some John Ford films get lost in the shuffle, and The Last Hurrah (1958) seems unfairly overlooked. A poignant if somewhat misguided political drama, it's anchored by Spencer Tracy's marvelous performance.

In "a New England city" (that can only be Boston), Mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) prepares to run for his fifth term of office. A poor Irishman made good, Skeffington's an effective Mayor and shrewd politician who's not above scheming or bribery to smooth his way. Skeffington's political enemies team against him, running the colorless war hero Greg McCluskey (Tommy Earwood). Reporter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) covers the race: he's Skeffington's nephew, but his wife (Dianne Foster) is the daughter of Skeffington's chief rival (Willis Bouchey). Watching McCluskey's smooth but vacuous campaign, Skeffington realizes his days are numbered.

Adapting Edwin O'Connor's novel, The Last Hurrah shows the same ambivalence as Ford's later Westerns. Skeffington loves his city, knows every constituent by name and does much good: throughout the film he's trying to raise money for a housing development. Simultaneously however, he reveals cutthroat ruthlessness. He raises campaign funds at a friend's wake and blackmails a hostile banker (Basil Rathbone) by appointing his dunderhead son (O.Z. Whitehead) fire chief. As a self-made man with a tragic back story (like many Ford heroes, he obsesses over his dead wife) Skeffington retains our sympathy.

Compared to his idealized frontier communities, Ford's City is unusually jaundiced. There's heavy resentment between the Irish and blue-blooded Brahmins: newspaperman Amos Force (John Carradine) bristles at the thought of Protestant-Catholic intermarriage. (For good measure, a throwaway line labels him an ex-Klansman.) The Establishment resents Skeffington's rise and connive to put him in his place. Skeffington can't count on the fickle public, who parade for Skeffington in the film's opening but later march for McCluskey.

Hurrah's most effective scenes satirize the "new politics" of television and vapid talking points. Ford scores big laughs with McCluskey's TV ad: his wife reads cue cards while a Checkers-like dog barks throughout the broadcast. McCluskey's deemed a "mealy-mouthed maneuverable piece of dough," manipulated by Skeffington's enemies. This distrust of youth extends to Skeffington's own son (Arthur Walsh), a brainless playboy. By film's end, Skeffington morphs into a typical Ford hero: the indispensable iconoclast who outlives his time.

Nostalgia's always tricky, especially with politics. We're inclined to damn our leaders against their idealized predecessors, even if they were corrupt or incompetent. O'Connor based Skeffington on James Michael Curley, the Boston Mayor and Massachusetts Governor twice jailed for fraud. Praising crooked machine politics seems problematic, to say the least, even if the alternative's a moron like McCluskey.

Thankfully, Spencer Tracy assuages any reservations. At first glance Skeffington seems akin to Tracy's other late career founts-of-wisdom, proffering sage advice to callow observers. Yet Tracy relishes Skeffington's rounded personality: his sincere sentimentality, slick humor, resentful ruthlessness and weary resignation. Tracy's pitch-perfect throughout, tough yet amiable, down to his excellent kiss-off line.

Jeffrey Hunter makes a friendly but bland foil. The John Ford Stock Company turns out in force: Willis Bouchey plays a pompous rival, John Carradine a scheming journalist, Ken Curtis a priest, the ubiquitous Jack Pennick a policeman. Even Jane Darwell from The Grapes of Wrath makes a cameo. Donald Crisp gets the best role, playing a cardinal exasperated by demands for his endorsement; Edward Brophy is a slow-witted but devoted ward boss. Pat O'Brien, James Gleason and Dianne Foster also feature.

The Last Hurrah isn't readily identifiable as a John Ford movie. Pictorially it's rather straightforward, aside from a beautiful scene where Skeffington silently ponders his defeat. Certainly the big city setting and political satire seem anomalous. But Hurrah merely transports his concerns to 20th Century America. His cynical idealism fits 20th Century politics as well as the Old West; only Frank Skeffington's opponents could be more dangerous than any Comanche.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Interstellar, or why I'm sick of Christopher Nolan

For all Christopher Nolan's shortcomings, his fatal flaw is a deficit of humanity. The Dark Knight trilogy's most believable character is a psychotic clown. Inception ping-pongs cardboard archetypes inside its convoluted dreamscape. Nolan's characters have no warmth, zero humor, marginal capacity for growth, only fall in love so they can mope when their partner dies. Casting big stars only highlights their one-dimensionality. There's no reason to care about anyone, whether Christian Bale or Extra #56.

If Nolan were Michael Bay this wouldn't be a shock, or even a demerit: blockbusters generally aren't known for depth. But Nolan's somehow known as a cerebral filmmaker, though his ideas are facile and obnoxiously overstated: less blockbuster Stanley Kubrick than lowbrow Stanley Kramer. Batman Begins subjects us to endless lectures about fear; The Dark Knight's protracted finale only shows that gee, maybe humanity isn't evil after all. We almost pine for the innocent witlessness of Transformers.

When Nolan's not explaining themes, he's bludgeoning viewers with endless exposition. Nolan often takes 1,000 words to explain what a better director could convey with one image. Four-and-a-half years later, I still hate Inception for one particular scene. Ellen Page asks Leonardo DiCaprio what he's feeling. Guilt, DiCaprio replies. Followed by a fifteen minute, plot-stopping monologue explaining said guilt's origin in excruciating detail. When did pomposity become a substitute for intelligence?

Nolan's latest offering, Interstellar, offers the same failings on a grander scale. Beautifully conceived, it tops last year's Gravity in its jaw-dropping, immersive special effects. But for all its existential pondering, it's an empty shell.
Former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) dreams of abandoning life as a subsistence farmer in the near-future. He stumbles upon Lazarus, a secret government project transporting humans to faraway galaxies through a wormhole. Cooper signs on, thinking it's the only way to save Earth's population from blight and dust storms. As Cooper and his crew mates travel to Saturn and beyond the infinite, Earth's situation worsens: daughter Murphy (Jessica Chastain) becomes an embittered scientist, while son Tom (Casey Affleck) clings to his dying farm.

The surliest cynic can't deny Interstellar's technical brilliance. Nolan brings intergalactic travel to new heights, with Double Negative crafting amazing imagery. Shots of the Endurance spacecraft wending its way past Saturn, a tiny dot in space, are jaw-dropping, as are set-pieces making brilliant use of space silence (though not Hans Zimmer's typically tone-deaf score). If the wormhole scenes and snarky robot strongly recall 2001: A Space Odyssey it's hardly a demerit. The actual planets are equally impressive: an ice planet recalling Inception's snowbound finale, a sea with perpetually churning waves.

Sadly, Interstellar falls down elsewhere. Nolan and screenwriter-brother Johnathan revisit their usual faults: clunky dialogue, sloppy plotting, themes and arc words repeated ad nauseum. This movie's big howler has a marooned astronaut (Matt Damon) claiming that Cooper's buddies literally raised him from the dead. "Lazarus," Cooper helpfully mutters. Characters recite a Dylan Thomas poem four times, then it's shown onscreen for slower viewers. And of course, Nolan intercuts Cooper's revelation with flashbacks. This evinces either poor writing or utter contempt for Interstellar's audience. Possibly both.

Like other Nolan films, Interstellar gropes with interesting concepts. I enjoyed the early scenes, showing a dying society's indifference towards intellectualism: Murphy's school textbook proclaims the Moon landings a hoax! And unlike Inception, the rules about space and time travel are mostly consistent. Yet the second half reiterates, time and again, a "needs of the many" dilemma (clashing with "the power of Love") that wears thin fast. Interstellar ends with an inspired idea, trapping Cooper in a personalized limbo that holds the story's key... only to ruin things with, you guessed it, a tedious monologue. Imagine 2001 ending with the Starchild explaining the Monolith.

Matthew McConaughey's incessant mumbling makes Marlon Brando sound like Rex Harrison. But he at least allows glimmers of emotion to shine through. In contrast, Anne Hathaway is a lifeless plank; Jessica Chastain, usually a vibrant, engaging actress, merely conveys sourness. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck turn up so the third act has human villains to jeer. John Lithgow's excellent... for the ten minutes he's onscreen. And Michael Caine is embalmed playing yet another snarky mentor.

Christopher Nolan has big ideas but little clue how to render them. It's hardly a question of "getting" a message that's pounded into you with a sledgehammer. At least his Batman films, Inception and The Prestige offer thrills and clever moments, however fleeting. With Interstellar, an ambitious but soulless mess, he's finally struck out.