Saturday, April 19, 2014

Under the Skin

Ever since Scarlett Johansson went from indie darling to A lister, she's generated inexplicable resentment. True, Johansson's made some risible movies (The Black Dahlia anyone?) but the snob backlash has disquieting overtones. Critics often dismiss her as a lightweight sex bomb, as if doing The Avengers is a mortal sin. How dare an actress be talented, pretty and successful!

Praising Johansson's the easiest way to approach Under the Skin (2014). Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi show is profoundly unsettling, abstract to the point of incomprehensible. Amidst the enigmatic imagery and sound design, the disturbingly deadpan Johansson provides a compelling hook.

Early scenes introduce an extraterrestrial being who assumes the form of Scarlett Johansson. This entity cruises Glasgow, picking up young men and luring them back to her apartment for nefarious purposes. But Johansson's detachment gradually turns to empathy. She spares several potential victims and even experiments with human emotion. Yet as might be expected, her self-discovery has tragic consequences.

It's futile to reduce Under the Skin to plot points. From its symbol-heavy introduction, flashing lights giving way to interlocking spheres, it's a surreal nightmare that eludes classification. Frazer's most frequent image involves victims stripping nude, then sinking into a pitch black floor. There's an obvious sexual metaphor, and indeed Skin recalls Species (1995), a decidedly non-cerebral film about an intergalactic honeypot. Yet Under the Skin's more like The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), from its imagery to Glazer's determination not to cast his alien as a misogynist bogey.

The alien's calculating but gets no pleasure from her work. From the onset, she selects victims without friends or family who will miss them. This could just be a way to avoid detection or to lessen damage from her actions. When she encounters a disfigured man, she discovers pity and understanding, unable to see him as another victim. Gaining curiosity about her humanity, she stops behaving like a monster; yet it's implied it violates her very nature.
Glazer mixes bizarre sights with Kubrick-esque detachment: master shots and long takes of hillsides and beaches, closing in for unsettling effects like a bawling infant. Rave clubs, quaint diners and picturesque forests become as unsettling as the alien's lair. The Glasgow scenes occasionally skew docudrama; it's said many of Johansson's conversations were unscripted interactions with non-actors. Mica Levi's score undercuts this, all eerie strings and electronic buzz adding menace to the most banal scenes.

Under the Skin is an absorbing experience with few signposts for its audience. The alien's motives become clear enough, but the sparse dialogue and nonexistent story seem designed to frustrate engagement. Arresting as many images are, they occasionally seem indulgent or repetitive. Characters are victims or background noise while key threads are left hanging. Notably, our heroine's boss/collaborator tools around on a motorcycle without doing much. Not to mention the damp squib ending, which plays like Glazer wrote himself into a corner.

Scarlett Johansson provides a dispassionate intensity that's hard to quantify. She speaks with posh English accent, enough warmth to flirt without breaking her essential coldness. She subverts her sex bomb image, with several nude scenes that are anything but erotic. Later on she develops subtle glances and mannerisms, evincing more curiosity than "humanity"; Johansson's alien remains an outsider to the end.

Under the Skin likely requires repeat viewings to absorb. Highbrow cinephiles should enjoy teasing meaning out of its endless abstractions. Others will find it an infuriating waste of time. My own first impression is admiration mixed with puzzlement - though I'm filled with renewed appreciation for its star.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Titanic (1997)

James Cameron's Titanic (1997) scarcely needs an introduction. A phenomenon when released, it smashed box office records, played for nearly a year and won 11 Oscars. Then came the backlash: resentment at Cameron's grandstanding ("I'm king of the world!"), thousands of parodies, millions of snarky internet reviews. A successful 2012 rerelease restored some of its luster, no doubt helped by its creators' subsequent successes.

Titanic certainly isn't a bad movie. It delivers the expected spectacle, adding likeable leads and impeccable period detail. Yet anytime Cameron tries to transcend popcorn entertainment, Titanic feels hollow.

Aged Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart) watches scientist Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) recover a drawing from the wreck of the Titanic. In 1912, rich, teenaged Rose (Kate Winslet) is unhappily engaged to snobbish heir Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Onboard she's saved from suicide by Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a free-spirited steerage passenger. The two fall in love, infuriating Cal and Rose's mother (Frances Fisher). But their romance takes a backseat to history, as the Titanic hits an iceberg.

Titanic remains a benchmark for special effects work. Cameron employs a seamless mixture of models, computer effects and green screen work that have rarely been topped. The visuals are absolutely stunning: scenes like the Titanic "stretching her legs" inspire awe as few other CGI-era set pieces do (Jurassic Park comes close). Seeking verisimilitude, he also restages Ken Marschall's iconic paintings: the Titanic half-sunk as flares burst overhead, corridors flooding with seawater. Only occasional long shots give the game away.

Even viewers who dislike Titanic's romance give the sinking high marks. Cameron makes the last hour a bravura set piece, tragedy dwarfing its two leads. Cameron skillfully ratchets up the intensity as the disaster's scale becomes apparent: nonchalance gives way to scrambling for lifeboats, panicked leaps off the stern, a thousand splashing victims chillingly silenced. Moments that could be cloying (a montage set to Nearer My God To Thee) become strikingly effective. James Horner tops things off with a wonderfully emotive score.
Too bad about scenes featuring humans. The main culprits are Jack and Rose, who come on like leads from a bad high school play. Neither's remotely credible: Rose is a very modern heroine who swears, smokes, collects art and reads Freud; Jack a footloose starving artist, teaching Rose how to hawk loogies and flip the bird. Reams of painful dialogue ("Draw me like one of your French girls") exacerbate the cheesiness. Titanic never grows beyond its snobs vs. slobs dynamic, contrasting the lively poor with the stuffy rich.

Other dramatic scenes aren't much better. Besides cartoon villain Cal, Cameron reduces other passengers and crew to paltry vignettes. When not adding ridiculous set pieces (does the sinking need a shootout to be exciting?) he lifts whole scenes from A Night to Remember. Some bits border on slander, like depicting Officers Murdoch and Lightoller as trigger-happy martinets or crewmembers locking steerage passengers below decks - inspired by the 1943 German Titanic. Cameron, so thoughtful in his science fiction, treats reality as a realm of clichés.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet embody youthful awkwardness. The two effectively spark off each other, but their performances veer drastically from charming to terrible. That Leo and Kate salvage anything from the chintzy characterizations is a credit to their skill. Cameron's script would sabotage Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, let alone these talented but still relatively untested stars.

Certainly, Cameron locks a solid supporting cast into one note performances. Victor Garber (Thomas Andrews) is pained concern, Bernard Hill (Captain Smith) unshakable dignity, Jonathan Hyde (Bruce Ismay) pompous arrogance, Frances Fisher (Rose's mom) icy hauteur. David Warner (as Cal's ruthless retainer) and Kathy Bates (a lively Molly Brown) fare better, but Billy Zane's ghastly villain nearly derails the film on his own.

Titanic's one film where battle lines are clearly drawn. Its fans needn't be phased by criticism; detractors won't be convinced of its virtues. Groggy remains modestly entertained but mostly unimpressed.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Man Hunt (1941)

Among Classic Hollywood's German expatriates, Fritz Lang evinced the most bitterness towards his homeland. He considered Germany irredeemably sullied by its pact with Hitler, a view he maintained after World War II's end. It's reflected in movies like Hangmen Also Die! (1943), whose Gestapo villains are subhuman degenerates begging for extermination.
 
Accordingly, Man Hunt (1941) struck one of Hollywood's first blows against Nazism. Lang's film generated controversy in still-neutral America, one censor labeling it a "hate film." If its "topical" antifascism plays stridently today, Man Hunt is still a first-rate thriller.
 
British Captain Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) goes hunting in Germany, stumbling across Adolf Hitler's private retreat. Thorndike takes aim at the Fuhrer only to be arrested. Thorndike insists it was a harmless "sporting stalk," but Gestapo Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) tortures him to confess. Thorndike escapes to England, tracked by Nazi agent Jones (John Carradine) and seeking refuge with Cockney girl Jerry (Joan Bennett). Hunted by Nazis and ostracized by the British government, Thorndike fakes his death in an effort to clear his name.
 
Man Hunt's based on Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel, a pulp thriller encapsulating the fears of prewar England. Hence Lang provides a weightier riposte to Nazism than Hitchcock's frothy Foreign Correspondent. Screenwriter Dudley Nichols pens windy philosophic debates, arguing England must drop its civilized façade to beat Hitler. English appeasers aren't misguided but budding Quislings; Germans range from genteel monsters to swinish spies. In this regard, Man Hunt falls into the Stanley Kramer trap: brave in its day, today it seems stilted.
Yet Lang often balanced sermonizing with entertainment. If Man Hunt's message occasionally clunks, Lang's narrative sense is well-attuned. Thorndike and Jerry's romance isn't a distraction but integral to the story, enlivened by snappy dialogue and brusque humor. The effective Thorndike/Quive-Smith rivalry drives the narrative, two sportsmen matching wits and ideologies. And the finale's still strong enough to jolt modern viewers.
 
Lang again invests genre fare with striking direction. Photographer Arthur C. Miller provides ace camera work, making foggy London as foreboding as M's Berlin (with smoky interior scenes recalling Lang's Dr. Mabuse movies). Lang draws on his silent roots with beautiful, wordless set pieces: the opening stalk, bloodhounds pursuing Thorndike through the German forests, Jones stalking him through the London Underground. As entertainment, Man Hunt scarcely puts a foot wrong.
 
Walter Pidgeon makes a stiff but redoubtable hero - though he barely disguises his Canadian accent as an English gentleman. Joan Bennett's charming Cockney is a fine love interest. George Sanders provides his trademark suave swinishness, while John Carradine plays yet another cadaverous dastard. As Thorndike's relatives, Frederick Worlock and Heather Thatcher play creaky stereotypes. Roddy McDowall appears the same year as his breakthrough, How Green Was My Valley.
 
Man Hunt ranks high among Lang's Hollywood movies. Clive Donner later remade it as Rogue Male (1976), downplaying the speechmaking for thriller dynamics. Yet Lang's film - tightly paced and stylishly directed - remains the classic.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Milius (2013)

John Milius is a true Hollywood original. As a screenwriter he's penned some of cinema's most quotable scripts: Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Jaws' Indianapolis monologue and Apocalypse Now among them. As director, his efforts range from stellar (The Wind and the Lion) to kitschy (Red Dawn) to terrible (Farewell to the King). Offscreen he's remembered as a right wing wild man toting a gun in one hand, a surfboard in the other, sunglasses and scruffy beard completing the ensemble.

Joey Figueora and Zak Knutson's stellar documentary gives Milius his due. Milius (2013) is a wide-ranging, irreverent not always flattering but always compelling portrait of this one-of-a-kind director.

Milius's first appeal the incredible star power. and  assemble seemingly every Milius acquaintance: actors Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen and Richard Dreyfus; directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas; his son Ethan, daughter Amanda and numerous friends. And that's only a partial list. Milius himself, incapacitated by a 2010 stroke, features mainly through archival interviews.

Like most movie brats, Milius enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, he grew up comfortable in California. Yet he soon developing a nonconformist personality, a tough guy who enjoyed surfing and carousing. Milius candidly describes his desire to serve in Vietnam and die by age 26 - an aspiration foiled by asthma. Disheartened, Milius channeled his fantasies into filmmaking.

Milius attended USC alongside future legends Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Randal Kleiser and Caleb Deschanel. Milius befriended them all, standing apart for his personality and his undeniable talent. An early student film, Marcello I'm So Bored, announced his literary skills - mixing aureate prose with snide self-awareness - to Hollywood. Soon Milius wound up writing screenplays for American International Pictures including a biopic of Evel Kenievel featuring George Harrison.

These early segments bristle with wild anecdotes, sketching Milius's outsized persona. Milius relished, rarely appearing without a firearm, a sombrero and sunglasses, describing himself as a "zen anarchist" and a right-wing hippie. Friends recount Milius demanding "girls, gold and guns" in exchange for a screenplay, or bringing a loaded Colt 1911 to a pitch meeting. The Big Lebowski's Walter Sobchak, supposedly inspired by Milius, seems comparatively demure.

Milius's career arc is even more impressive. He broke out of the B movie ghetto by scripting The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean and Jeremiah Johnson (both 1972). AIP tapped him to direct Dillinger (1973), a wild mix of comic strip violence and outlaw romanticism. Milius leapt to MGM for his next project, the magisterial The Wind and the Lion (1975). Milius's surf epic Big Wednesday (1978) flopped, but Apocalypse Now (1979) restored his critical cache while Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984) proved blockbuster hits.

Milius's success is impressive enough, yet Milius (and the documentary) occasionally gild the lily. Milius implies he wrote Dirty Harry singlehanded, even though at least four others contributed. Similarly, the segment on Apocalypse Now ignores how much Coppola's end product differs from Milius's bizarre script (which ended in a cape-wearing Kurtz leading his tribesmen in a pitched battle). Steven Spielberg does challenge Milius on Jaws' famous Indianapolis speech, showing that Robert Shaw heavily rewrote Milius's efforts.

Yet soon afterwards, Milius's career stagnated. Through the '80s he returned to screenwriting, penning Extreme Prejudice, Clear and Present Danger and Geronimo: An American Legend alongside unproduced projects. Another anecdote has Sean Connery, unsatisfied with The Hunt for Red October's screenplay, requesting Milius as his personal script doctor! But his two directorial efforts, Farewell to the King (1989) and Flight of the Intruder (1991), were expensive, critically-panned flops which buried his career. 

Here the docu nearly loses perspective. Milius enjoys painting himself a martyr to "liberal Hollywood," a notion humored by several interviewees. Yet Clint and Arnold deflate his theory, noting their careers were never hurt by conservatism. Certainly there's much to support this: there's a snippet of a producer's meeting on Big Wednesday, where Milius reams out a producer for impugning his masterwork. He wouldn't be the first filmmaker done in by throbbing ego mixed with box office failure. Sam Elliot's observation seems prescient: Milius just pissed off too many people.

Regardless, Milius's decline makes for sad viewing. His TV film Rough Riders (1997) earned respectful reviews but didn't lead to more work. An accountant friend absconded with Milius's money, leaving him in dire financial straits. (Milius's son Ethan, now an Assistant DA, painfully recounts how Milius begged out assignments to cover Ethan's law school.) His work on HBO's Rome brought renewed acclaim, but Milius suffered a debilitating stroke, followed by pancreatic cancer. The end title promises future projects like a Genghis Khan biopic, yet these have long languished in development hell.

John Milius doesn't match his peers Spielberg, Coppola and Scorsese as an all-time auteur. But the man who wrote Apocalypse Now and directed The Wind and the Lion earned his place in cinema history. And Figueora and Knutsen do this unique filmmaker justice.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Sandra

Between The Leopard and his later epics, Luchino Visconti directed several middling small-scale films. Sandra (1965) is an operatic chamber drama, small-scaled but broadly emotive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it isn't the sum of its parts.

Sandra (Claudia Cardinale) is a socialite married to an American businessman (Michael Craig). She returns to Italy for a memorial dedicated to her father, killed in the Holocaust. While visiting her family estate she runs afoul of her stepfather (Renzo Ricci) and half-crazed mother (Marie Bell), who supposedly betrayed her father. Sandra also encounters brother Gianni (Jean Sorel), a ne'er-do-well about to publish a novel depicting unwelcome details about their relationship. Unfortunately, Gianni's feelings towards Sandra aren't entirely in the past.

By any measure, Sandra is an odd piece of work. Visconti loosely draws from the Elektra myth, two siblings avenging a "murdered" father, mixed with his obsessions with family discord and aristocratic depravity. Visconti can't quite reconcile his desire for grandiose melodrama with the modest staging. It's all overripe dialogue, overheated drama and flamboyant gestures in a few rooms and shadowy gardens. The same jarring opposition sunk Visconti's later Conversation Piece (1975).

As usual, Visconti provides delectable direction. Armando Nannuzzi's black-and-white photography makes of the restricted environment. He casts the crumbling chateau and courtyard in oppressive shadow, literally spotlighting relics of the past: statuary, paintings, mementos. Hence a perfect visual counterpart to his characters succumbing to their sordid past. The soundtrack mixes raucous swing music with Cesar Franck's classical pieces. Even minor Visconti's always a sensory treat, and Sandra does not disappoint.

Sandra works okay as baroque character study: Sandra wracked by resentment and guilt, Gianni a wastrel more pathetic than monstrous. Yet the drama finally veers operatic to outlandish. It's probably impossible to treat incest, implied or explicit, delicately. And Visconti doesn't treat anything delicately. As The Damned falters when Martin rapes his own mother, so Sandra crumbles when Gianni makes his affection explicit. The finale, juxtaposing the memorial dedication with Gianni's fate, is just a tasteless parting shot.

Claudia Cardinale handles a difficult character well. She provides Sandra's overwrought resentment with a thread of humanity running underneath, keeping her this side of credible. Nor has Cardinale smoldering pout been put to such great advantage. Jean Sorel (The Day of the Jackal) also faces an uphill battle: his character rapidly degenerates from creepy cad to sniveling wretch. Michael Craig's stuck in the straight man part, while the supporting cast mainly overacts.

Sandra mixes Luchino Visconti's best and worst tendencies in an unusually demure setting. It results in a feverish drama that's well-crafted but painfully overwrought.