Thursday, February 28, 2013

Understanding Auteurs: David Cronenberg (Fast Company and The Brood)

After establishing himself as a skilled low-budget horror craftsman with Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), David Cronenberg took a surprising turn with his third professional feature.  Fast Company (1979) is a drag racing exploitation film following the conflict between a star driver (William Smith) and his sleazy manager (John Saxon).  There isn’t much more to the story than that.  The film packs in all of the expected racing film requirements (copious racing footage, gratuitous nudity, John Saxon) but lacks any of the elements that set the best exploitation films apart from the pack (subversive political statements, offbeat humor, edgy content).  Fast Company is an utterly generic little movie that isn’t notable as a standalone film or even recognizable as a Cronenberg project.

The Brood (1979), on the other hand, is about as Cronenbergian as a movie could possibly be.  The action develops around the Somafree Institute, where psychotherapist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a technique called “psychoplasmics” that allows patients with mental problems to release their suppressed emotions through physiological changes in their body.  Raglan’s prize patient is Nola (Samantha Eggar), a former victim of child abuse who is currently locked in a custody battle with her estranged husband Frank (Art Hindle).  After discovering some disturbing marks on his daughter’s body, Frank becomes increasingly determined to invalidate Raglan’s work and gain custody of his daughter.  As Frank gets closer to discovering the truth behind Somafree’s research, people sympathetic to his struggles are murdered by strange, dwarf-like children that resemble Frank and Nola’s daughter.  It is eventually revealed that these are the psychoplasmic offspring of Nola, who target the sources of Nola’s rage (her abusive mother and neglectful father, a teacher who she mistakenly thinks is sleeping with Frank, etc.).

The sci-fi plot is ultimately as silly as it sounds, but the violence is presented in such a matter of fact way that the film takes on a genuine air of menace.  Shivers and Rabid were both gross and creepy, and perhaps a bit unnerving in their best moments, but The Brood is outright disturbing.  The climactic scene revealing Nola’s psychoplasmic condition is one of the most revolting and fucked-up things I’ve ever witnessed in a piece of entertainment, but Cronenberg’s willingness to go as far as he does gives the film distinction and power.  I generally subscribe to the old Val Lewton idea that what is unseen and suggested is scarier than anything that is shown, but Cronenberg is using viscera and gore here to create images that we couldn’t imagine.  Frank’s disgust with his wife’s physical and mental state is palpable only because we are allowed to see what he sees.

In many respects The Brood is Cronenberg’s most accomplished film up to this point, but it is also certainly his least pleasant.  The filmmaking is smoother overall than in Cronenberg’s earlier horror films – perhaps owing to the director’s discovery of several crewmembers that would go on to be regulars in his staff, such as cinematographer Mark Irwin and editor Ronald Sanders, both of whom first worked with Cronenberg on Fast Company – and the cast is stronger overall than in Shivers or Rabid.  For a movie with such a goofy plot, The Brood isn’t much fun; the film seems to have been an outlet for Cronenberg to take out his frustrations with his real life custody battle and divorce settlements with his first wife, which were ongoing as the film was made.  But it is a powerful, genuinely scary film, and Cronenberg’s most advanced look at the collision of psychology and biology up to this point.

UP NEXT  Scanners and Videodrome

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thoughts on This Year's Best Picture Nominees

The most surprising news in the announcement of this year’s Best Picture nominees – aside from the fact that the field has been inexplicably narrowed from ten to nine films – is that Michael Haneke’s ultra-austere Amour is among them.  The first foreign language film to receive a Best Picture nod since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima, Amour is an unblinkingly realistic look at the ways that our bodies inevitably fail us as we get closer to death.  Haneke’s film maintains a tight focus on its central elderly couple, portrayed by French New Wave icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who struggle to maintain their dignity after Riva suffers a stroke which paralyzes half of her body.  This is hardly the most obvious award show friendly material - the film rarely diverts attention from Trintignant’s increasingly desperate efforts to accommodate his wife’s wish to live her last days in their apartment rather than in a hospital, and Haneke’s effectively minimal style (unsparing long takes, with the occasional background music only coming from onscreen sources) does nothing to encourage the viewer to read Riva’s health struggles as “inspirational.”  In past films Haneke has overstated the cruelty of humanity and/or the universe in order to make stern points about our capacity for destruction, but here he mostly seems interested in testing the limits of a longtime couple’s love in the face of incredibly stressful circumstances.  That Trintignant and Riva make an utterly believable married couple makes the film’s inexorable slide toward tragedy all the more devastating, with the scene of Riva’s death being appropriately unbearable.  This type of stark emotional honesty is rarely recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but it is refreshing to see a genuinely powerful, beautifully acted film like Amour being acknowledged as one of the best films of the last year.

Silver Linings Playbook represents the opposite of Amour’s emotional honesty, and its eight Oscar nominations are much more representative of the Academy’s usual habit of rewarding manipulative crowd-pleasers.  Writer-director David O. Russell made his name with a series of raw films (such as 1996’s Flirting with Disaster and 1999’s Three Kings) that rendered their characters’ neurosis uncomfortably palpable.  Russell found a satisfying middle ground between his signature style and mainstream convention with 2010’s The Fighter, but that film’s Best Picture nomination seems to have convinced him to go full Hollywood.  Silver Linings Playbook purports to be about characters suffering from mental illness, but insultingly treats these genuine problems as cute quirky obstacles for its leads (Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, both doing the best they can in roles for which they are fundamentally miscast) to overcome so that they can fall in love.  Glossing over the real-life effects of mental disorders might be justifiable in a broad Farrelly-brothers style comedy, where a certain amount of stereotyping is allowable, but Russell is willing to play his characters’ conditions for either laughs or pathos depending on the needs of individual scenes.  Treating the characters’ vaguely defined mental problems in a coherent, respectful, and realistic manner would presumably get in the way of the film achieving its simplistic comedic and dramatic effects.  The stellar supporting cast prevents the film from being a total loss – Robert De Niro, as Cooper’s gambling-addicted father, seems engaged by a role for the first time in nearly two decades – but ultimately Silver Linings Playbook is little more than a better executed variation on sappy wish-fulfillment films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Garden State (2004).

Though it’s a light-weight dramedy with minimal pretentions to deep meaning, Silver Linings Playbook, with its easy grabs for laughs and tears, is perhaps the closest thing to a conventional Oscar film in the Best Picture race.  Anyone could’ve predicted that prestige films like Les Miserables, Life of Pi, or Lincoln would be nominated, but none of those films entirely conform to obvious awards-bait formulas.  Though it’s a lavish adaptation of a hugely successful stage show done in an old Hollywood genre (the musical), the hyper-stylized Les Miserables is in many ways a wild swing for the fences, as if Tom Hooper wanted to justify his 2010 Best Director win for his modest work on The King’s Speech by proving that he could handle an ambitious, technically demanding production.  Unfortunately much of Hooper’s work here is garish, consisting of an endless series of overly frantic montages that obscure the considerable quality of the source music.  The general lack of focus is all the more baffling considering that the film’s unquestionable highlight – Anne Hathaway’s emotionally raw performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” – succeeds largely because it’s captured mostly in one stationary close-up that trusts the source material (and the performance) to keep the audience engaged.  Hooper’s ambition is appreciated, but his Les Miserables might have actually been a better film overall had it been spared his relentless (and often pointless) obtuse camera angles and instead been filmed and edited in a more old-fashioned MGM musical style.

Unlike Hooper, Ang Lee has experience with hugely ambitious and technically challenging productions (such as 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and his Best Director nomination for Life of Pi is fully deserved.  Lee’s adaptation of Yann Martel’s hugely popular novel is a genuine technical marvel, boasting the most sophisticated use of digital 3D technology in any film to date, as well as a seamless integration of gorgeously filmed live-action footage and state-of-the-art CGI effects.  But the film’s ravishing beauty can’t make up for the deficiencies in its script, which is structured around an annoyingly unnecessary frame story and is full of silly New Age claptrap.  Where Les Miserables is a failed attempt to bring strong source material to the screen, Life of Pi is a powerfully beautiful film dragged down by its dubious foundation.

On the surface, Lincoln would appear to be the most obviously Academy-appealing of the nine Best Picture nominees, but it is surprisingly less an award-groveling prestige film than an intellectually demanding consideration of the democratic process.  The film is ostensibly an epic presidential biopic, but is really more of a complex chamber drama about the machinations required to make the 13th Amendment a reality.  Some of Steven Spielberg’s trademark sappiness slips through the cracks, which occasionally makes the film feel like it’s divided against itself – for example, John Williams’ corny emotion-stoking original score seems like it belongs in the generically stoic biopic that Lincoln could have been.   Thankfully, Lincoln mostly eschews easy melodrama in favor of a John Ford-style consideration of the moral compromises and mortal sacrifices required to make progress possible.  Jonathan Rosenbaum has argued persuasively that Lincoln is ultimately an apologia for corruption, but even if this is the case, the film certainly provides more to think about than any previous Spielberg film aside from A.I.:  Artificial Intelligence (2001).  That the film boasts a terrific ensemble cast and handsome production values is simply icing on the cake.

Where Lincoln deals with slavery as an abstract political concept (which is appropriate, given that most of the figures in Spielberg’s film only experienced slavery as an abstraction), Django Unchained handles the brutality of the Antebellum South in the bluntest, most visceral fashion imaginable.  Strangely, it’s hard to think of many other films that have actually bothered to depict the torture and humiliation that African Americans suffered during the slavery era (1975’s Mandingo, which I haven’t seen, is apparently a rare exception).  In the infrequent cases where violence toward slaves has been depicted onscreen (such as in the famous 1977 miniseries Roots) it is usually presented in a way that shows off the stoic nobility of the people being abused.  This tendency to present oppressed people as standing tall in the face of unimaginable cruelty is well intentioned, but ultimately underplays the too rarely discussed horrors of American slavery.  Certainly the weight of slavery is felt more strongly in Django than Shoah was in Quentin Tarantino’s previous revisionist-historical epic, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds.  The film’s more disturbing elements have a powerful sting beyond what is needed as grist to justify the outrageous revenge plot.  Django’s mixture of fantastical exploitation film tropes and genuine ugly American history is far from politically correct, but the film displays a moral outrage and a willingness to upset the audience that is new for Tarantino.

Django has caught a fair amount of flak for using slavery as a backdrop for an ultra-gory exploitation story, but Tarantino certainly treats the Antebellum South with more gravity than director Benh Zeitlin treats post-Katrina New Orleans in his off-putting (yet highly acclaimed) feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Granted, Zeitlin’s film is technically set in a fictional sinking town, but the allegory is unmistakable.    Unfortunately the film’s impoverished characters come off as repellent lower-class stereotypes that are depicted in most scenes as either hard-drinking, abusive hicks or as nobly struggling savages.   It’s a shame that Beasts seems so weirdly contemptuous of the community that it’s ostensibly celebrating, because it is also one of the most distinctive and resourceful films of the year, with striking production design and impressively stylized low-budget special effects.  It’s nice to see a truly left-field, uncategorizable film like Beasts of the Southern Wild getting recognition from the Academy (as well as widespread support from critics and audiences), but I’m afraid the novelty has overshadowed the film’s many flaws.  Too often Zeitlin’s film feels chaotic when it should be lyrical and didactic when it should be mysterious.

Like Django and Beasts, Ben Affleck’s Argo conflates fact and fiction in sometimes dubious ways, but given that old Hollywood artifice is part of the film’s subject matter, the flights of fancy seem largely justified.  The film is based on a bizarre real-life incident in which a CIA operative (Affleck) rescued a group of US diplomats during the Iranian hostage by helping them pretend to be a film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie.  The film’s synthesis of verisimilitude and bullshit seems bizarre in hindsight; an opening comic strip montage leads into a very realistic feeling building siege, while an obviously fictitious race against the clock finale (involving armed security guards chasing down a commercial flight) arrives shortly before a closing credit reminiscence from Jimmy Carter.  But thanks to Affleck’s smooth direction the transitions between plausible and implausible material don’t seem jarring while watching the film.  While I wouldn’t argue that he deserves the many awards that he’s already won (or that he was snubbed by not receiving a Best Director nomination at the Oscars), Affleck has become a very proficient craftsman of old-fashioned suspense films, and Argo is his most entertaining effort to date.  It’s a much goofier film than its acclaim would suggest, and has more in common with an Indiana Jones adventure than it does with serious docu-dramas, but Argo is one of the more purely entertaining of this year’s Best Picture nominees.

The massive awards show success of the crowd-pleasing Argo seems in some ways like a squeamish voter rebuttal to Kathryn Bigelow’s intense and politically contentious Zero Dark Thirty.  Where Argo allows audiences to view the US in a heroic light, Zero Dark Thirty provides a bleak warts-and-all document of our nation’s recent foreign policy misadventures.  The fact that prominent leftists and conservatives have both attacked the film shows that it’s struck a genuine nerve.  But while Bigelow’s film is in many respects the most controversial and heavily debated film in recent memory, its message and political agenda is actually much easier to parse than that of Lincoln or Django UnchainedZero Dark Thirty suggests that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was an extraordinary but ultimately fruitless labor that wasted countless man hours, resources, and lives to achieve something that did nothing to erase the pain brought about by 9/11.  That type of uncomfortable truth-telling will likely prevent Zero Dark Thirty from winning on Oscar night, but will probably allow this most contemporary of films to remain relevant long after some of its fellow Best Picture nominees have been forgotten.