Sunday, November 22, 2015

Margot at the Wedding: A Reappraisal

When I first saw Margot at the Wedding back in 2009, I was 16, had never previously seen a Noah Baumbach film, hated this one, and really had no idea how to talk about movies. I'm not sure I do now, either, but at least I have the sense to recognize, after a fresh viewing, that this is a really good movie.

If you read any of the negative press the film received, it largely has to do with how despicable all of Baumbach's characters are. That's also the main reason I disliked it. My 16 year old self wrote this about the movie, which follows Margot and her son Claude attending the wedding of Margot's sister Pauline-who has a daughter from a previous relationship-and Malcolm, a failing artist: 

What follows is a tedious hour and a half of yelling, screaming, bickering, fighting, crying, swearing, all of which is totally unbearable.

I wonder why what what I found to be totally unbearable back then to be quite funny now? Perhaps it's because I was able to understand that the fighting, crying, and swearing is Baumbach's way of telling a massive joke. I imagine my growing familiarity with Baumbach's work helped, too. He loves unlikable characters, which is not a virtue in and of it self, but becomes one when they're used effectively. Baumbach is a master at this, but what makes Margot at the Wedding somewhat of an anomaly for him is that, unlike his other films, he doesn't try to earn his characters sympathy from the audience. He's set on their absurdity, their mean-spirits, and their utterly self-absorbed natures. In doing so he sacrifices the pathos that's snuck its way into his later work (most notably in Mistress America and the way he keeps us from forming what could have been complete disdain for Greta Gerwig's Brooke). 

And yet it also allows him more liberty to really wallow in the repugnancy of his characters and find interesting ways to present their nastiness and the situation at whole. In a way, it almost feels more like an experiment, as opposed to most of his other films in which theme, personal realizations, and denouement are major focal points. He almost always deals with the transition from disorder to order, even if that order means disappointment for his characters. Here, though, he works in the opposite direction. We're given the sense of control as Margot and her son travel by train to attend her sister's wedding, and then slowly that control unwinds and gives way to total disarray. And it's this movement towards disarray that allows Baumbach to experiment, because rather than trying to get somewhere specific, he's attempting scatter his landscape, to spin his characters out of control.

One of the ways he does this is to take the idea of family gatherings as something of a horror story (the first thing Margot asks for when she arrives at her sister's house is a glass of white wine-alcohol is typically a way to survive those difficult family encounters, and the fact that Margot wants it before any real encounters have begun indicates that this is going to be a particularly exasperating couple of days) and to accentuate it by employing tropes from the actual genre of horror.

Now, I'm not sure if this is something Baumbach was directly thinking about, but I certainly noticed it, as did Greta Gerwig: "I thought it was a horror movie," she says somewhat jokingly in the New Yorker profile on Baumbach from 2013. The most blatant example are the Voglers, the redneck neighbors of Pauline and Malcolm, who create a stir when they demand the large tree under which the wedding ceremony is to take place be cut down because the roots are extending into their yard and destroying their garden.

We first encounter them during a family walk in the woods. The Voglers are ahead on the trail and mistreating their child, at which Margot exclaims: "Be careful how you pull that child's arm! You'll pull it out of its socket." It's a strange, somewhat unsettling line from Margot, one of many Baumbach's packed his script with. Something isn't quite right with people and the way they talk in the world of this movie, he seems to suggest. The mother calls Margot a bitch and we immediately know these are not neighbors to mingle with. To add to the unease, later on the trail they encounter one of the shoes of the mistreated child. "Your mom started a war," Pauline's adolescent daughter Ingrid says in the next scene. "We have to make sure we wear shoes because they might star throwing glass."

Afterwards, Margot goes over to their house to make amends, but before she knocks she spies through the window and sees the husband and wife lay a massive object wrapped in a tarp on the table. Turns out it's a slaughtered pig, but you get the sense that if this was an actual horror film, it might be a dead body. Margot is horrified, and as she continues to watch, suddenly the Voglers' teenage son is at the window staring at her. At dusk his face is mostly a grey shape, like a ghost, and I, like Margot, was legitimately scared for a brief moment. 

There's another scene with the Voglers' kid that's also a little creepy. Claude and Ingrid are walking through the woods when they encounter him shirtless, in cut-off jeans. He taunts them briefly and then attacks Claude, tackling him to the ground. "You're fucking dead," he jeers repeatedly before biting Claude's neck in a drawn-out way that suggests a vampire. Or a cannibal, which brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a film that also shares a very similar woodsy setting and the most terrifying family in movie history. While Margot at the Wedding never comes close to that film's most horrific elements (and it would be absurd if it did), the equation of family and dread is something both films share. And just as Sally, the sole survivor in Tobe Hooper's classic, manages to escape at the end in the back of a truck, so too does Margot flee at the end on a bus with her son (quite literally, as she chases down the bus). 

There are other horror elements as well, like when a car crashes into a tree and characters are forced to walk through the woods in the dark, or when Margot speaks to her son as she might a lover, disappointed by his behavior. And even the look of the film is eerie, with low-lit interiors and grey exteriors, the overcast skies like a menace hovering above these troubled people (ideal for DP Harris Savides). Baumbach has stated that he wanted the movie to look like those times when you're talking to someone in a room without any lights on, and then suddenly it starts to get dark outside and the room takes on a strange, dim ambience. The result is film with a look so eerie that it almost takes on a sinister air to it. 

Now, of course, Baumbach's trying to make a comedy, and indeed it's funny, often in unexpected ways (Margot showing off her tree climbing skills only to get stuck and require fireman to rescue her, Malcolm trying to flick a cigarette out the car but landing it on a passenger in the back seat), but I've never seen a comedy pack such a sense of unease and strangeness in its look and feel. That, combined with the aforementioned moments that seem like they're straight from a bonafide horror flick is one of the ways to see Baumbach's film as an experiment. It's startlingly good if you look for the right things and don't base your opinion on your judgement of these characters. Because that's certainly not what Baumbach's doing, and nor does he want you to. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


It was announced the other day that Christopher Nolan's 2000 hit Memento is getting a remake. The announcement was met with a general reaction of annoyance, pretty typical anytime an unnecessary remake is announced. But the frustration, which is normally dealt with by a shrug of the shoulder, was a bit more amplified because we're not dealing with franchise property settling for an easy cash grab, but a vital film in the canon of an elite filmmaker, and to some, a visionary artist. While it's easy to explain most remakes, this one is more perplexing, resulting in a sense of pessimism and exasperation for the future of mainstream filmmaking. It's as if studios are saying that because they can't get their hands on good original material, and because they don't like the idea of producing mediocre movies that people don't like, they will start taking bonafide works of creativity (AMBI pictures, which acquired the rights to the film, will also be putting out a remake of Donnie Darko) and making them over again. It's tough not to walk away scratching your head at that. What's worse is that the statement made by the company sounds downright idiotic:

“Memento is a masterpiece that leaves audiences guessing not just throughout the film, but long after as well, which is a testament to its daring approach,” Bacardi stated. “We intend to stay true to Christopher Nolan’s vision and deliver a memorable movie that is every bit as edgy, iconic and award-worthy as the original. It’s a big responsibility to deliver something that lives up to the mastery of the original, but we are extremely excited and motivated to bring this puzzle back to life and back into the minds of moviegoer's."

To "stay true to Nolan's vision" sounds like they will try to replicate what Nolan did. Here I should say that theoretically I don't think remakes are a bad thing. Movies have been being remade since the early days of Hollywood, and ideally a remake should be an invitation to alter or to expand, not stay true to the original. 

It continues: 

“’Memento’ has been consistently ranked as one of the best films of its decade,” Iervolino added. “People who’ve seen ‘Memento’ 10 times still feel they need to see it one more time. This is a quality we feel really supports and justifies a remake. The bar is set high thanks to the brilliance or Christopher Nolan, but we wouldn’t want it any other way. Our acquisition of the EMG library reinforced our commitment to build a strong global studio with a strong pipeline of commercial films that can play to a worldwide audience. Bringing a new ‘Memento’ to audiences is an initial example of how we intend to execute this strategy.”

This is an absurd justification. The idea is that people re-watch Memento many times, and yet always feel they need to see it again. This is a big compliment for a movie. He thinks it's the reason they need to re-make the film, when in fact it's the very reason it does not need to be remade. If people had grown tired of Memento, if it didn't hold up after multiple viewings and no one ever wanted to see it again, then a fresh take on it might be understandable. But Lervolino has stated the opposite (which is true for me--I've enjoyed the film immensely each time I've seen it and would always be willing to watch it again), in which case we should be grateful for the movie as it is and that we'll always be excited to re-visit it. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Of the mainstream Thanksgiving movies opening this year, there wasn't anything I was excited about except for the new Jeff Nichols movie. Delayed till the spring, which is quite the disappointment, but at least we got a poster: 

P.S. Blue Caprice is now streaming on Netflix. Watch it if you dare. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Read This

Years ago, Roger Ebert's Great Movie essay on Vertigo made me consider the film in a way I hadn't before. He wrote this: "There is another element, rarely commented on, that makes Vertigo a great film. From the moment we are let in on the secret, the movie is equally about Judy: her pain, her loss, the trap she's in." Now, for their November issue on Hitchcock, Bright Wall/Dark Room has published this outstanding piece by Lauren Willford that investigates this idea of how we can read Vertigo as Judy's film. Only rather than simply dealing with the second part of the film, Willford looks at the movie's entirety through Judy's eyes. Insightful stuff for anyone who loves the film. Coincidentally, you can read the piece for free at Ebert's website. 

A Little Coincidence

Sometimes I plan a day of film watching around a structure: it might be that there are a few films I've been reading about and have been itching to see, so I'll watch them. It might be that I want to spend a day with a director, so I'll watch a few of his works, or with a certain genre, era, film movement, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes though I just pick something at random and watch it. Today was one of those days. Perusing the Criterion Collection streaming selection on Hulu Plus, I came across Rohmer's 1972 Love in the Afternoon. I realized it had been far too long since I'd seen a Rohmer film (My Night at Maud's, nearly two years ago), so I watched it.

Afterwards, while doing some research on Nicholas Ray, I stumbled upon the story about the making of his first collaboration with Humphrey Bogart, the courtroom drama Knock on Any Door. There was all sorts of conflict during the film's production, particularly with its other leading actor, the inexperienced spoiled Hollywood pretty boy John Derek. Though there was some potential star hype surrounding Derek after the film's release, his career never really amounted to much, I learned after briefly scanning his biography. His only real legacy is that he was married to Bo Derek and directed her in a few steamy movies in the 1980s. This made me realize I knew nothing of Bo Derek's career, at which I decided I'd better watch that famous debut of hers, the 1979 Blake Edwards film 10

Afterwards, it struck me that both of these movies share quite a bit in common. Now, Love in the Afternoon is a slow, talky drama while 10 is a snappy, restless comedy, and the specifics of the films' plots are completely different. But at their core they're about pretty much the same thing.

In both movies we're introduced to men who seem to have perfectly ideal lives but whose somewhat vague discontents keep them from fully appreciating their situations. In Love in the Afternoon, Frederick (Bernard Verely) practices law at a low key, low-stress firm and lives in a comfortable but average home with his wife and their young son (another baby is also on the way). He likes the ease of his job even though he could make more money somewhere else, and his wife, an English teacher who gets to engage in scholarship while he's at work, seems perfectly content with their situation as well. In other words, these are two people who have managed to steer clear of the bourgeois malaise. As Roger Ebert aptly pointed out, they're still living living like students. 

In 10, Dudley Moore, in the role that made him a major star, plays George Webber, a successful composer who has good friends, all the comfort life can provide, and to boot gets to live with Julie Andrews. 

Both of these men, though, are discontent with their lives, not so much because of circumstance but because of time. They're both noticing it's beginning to slip away. 10 opens with George walking into a surprise party for his 42nd birthday, but he's anything but thrilled. Gone are the glory days of youth and George only finds himself looking back and longing to be 20, or even 30. 

Frederick relates similar sentiments, feeling closed in by domestic life and continually thinking about the time when he was single and free to pursue any girl he chose to. His only real liberation now is the bustling streets of Paris, where it seems every other passerby is a beautiful young woman. It's physical beauty he's after, and he takes immense pleasure in simply looking at them, justifying this to himself by saying that because his own wife is beautiful, his appreciation of female beauty in general is simply a passive way of appreciating his spouse. It's a weak argument, but he'll only continue this sort of rationalizing as the film progresses and a woman from his past, Chloe (Zouzou) begins to make visits to his office. 

In 10, George has a similar encounter with Jenny, a tall, thin, tan blonde who simply takes his breath away. He sees her in a car on her wedding day and is so struck by her beauty that he crashes into a police car. She, of course, is played by Bo Derek, who exists in the film largely as an object not just for George to gawk over, but for the viewer as well. 

The way these two men pursue these women is also somewhat similar. Frederick at first treats Chloe as an old friend, someone to talk to and listen to. But as the film progresses, so does their relationship. Their conversation becomes more intimate, their bodies get closer, a kiss on the cheek becomes a kiss on the mouth, and all the while Frederick is finding ways to alleviate any sort of guilt over this.

George, who goes to off to Mexico to get away from his current situation, coincidentally runs into Jenny and her husband while on their honeymoon. He spies on her and is immensely attracted to her, and yet obviously she's a newlywed and so it would absurd to make any sort of move. In perhaps the film's best scene, we see him watching her sunbath on the beach, her smooth skin glimmering almost like gold as he fantasizes about having her as his own, all while her husband is floating in the ocean on a surfboard. When he hears that a man recently fell asleep doing the same thing and disappeared, he realizes that the husband is pretty far off in the water and probably has passed out. And yet he keeps still because in the back of his mind he knows that if the husband disappears, maybe this dream woman could be his. It's the kind perverse thinking that sex incites, but then suddenly we see George in a boat going off to rescue the husband. What are his motivations? Perhaps his conscience simply took over and he realized he couldn't let an innocent man possibly die. Or maybe he thinks that he'll be a hero for doing this and the the couple will invite him into their lives out of gratitude. 

George is a good man at heart but he's also in a time of crisis, so both of these motives are likely true. In any case, everything goes accordingly and better, as not only does George get to meet Jenny, but he does so alone while the husband is in the hospital. 

The two films share almost identical climaxes, as both women come onto the men (Jenny, it turns out, is basically a free love hippie with no inhibitions when it comes to infidelity, while Chloe has proclaimed to Frederick that she wishes to have a baby and wants Frederick to be the father-whether this is indeed her intention or just a ploy is simply part of Chloe's mystique, as she's a woman who needs other people while simultaneously expressing a devaluation of humanity) at which point both men reach their own respective epiphanies. These epiphanies seem to be related to the idea of guilty love versus non-guilty love, as both men would be arriving at the culmination of their dishonesty by allowing themselves to be swayed by these utterly sexy women. 

They both choose to walk away, seeing a better life ahead of them by doing so. And both films end in almost identical fashion, as they each return to the women they truly belong to and transfer their near sexual encounters with the wrong person to the deserving party. It's a two-fold gratification: physical and moral. 

With countless films having dealt with infidelity that usually wind up in same sort of dramatic territory of consequence and guilt, it was refreshing to see these two movies about men who engage in the game of infidelity only to realize that it's better to quit the game than to seek a victory that's not possible. 

Big Eyes (2014)

When he's not directing remakes, adaptations of classic stories, special effects extravaganzas, or creepy animated tales, Tim Burton seems to have his sights set on oddball dramas about people who try to create worlds in which they're perceived as something greater than they really are (Ed Wood and Big Fish are the strongest examples). Thus it's no surprise that he would direct a film about one of the great acts of fakery in the 20th century, the lucrative art scheme by husband-wife duo Margaret and Walter Keane, in which the former created immensely popular paintings of children with massive eyes while her husband took the credit for it. 

Even more fitting is that the film is scripted by Larry Karazsewski and Scott Alexander, the screenwriting team who penned Ed Wood, which is arguably Burton's best movie. But while I was intrigued by the story and never once found the film boring, it comes across as a lackluster effort on both Burton's and the writers' parts. While Ed Wood was meticulous in its rendering of the artistic process while also generating an astounding amount of real emotion, Big Eyes for the most part sidesteps Margaret Keane's artistic undertakings and motivations while also struggling to make us feel anything for its two central characters. 

Instead the writers settle for a more standard bio checklist approach, rushing through the events of the Keane story with just enough information to tell us where we are and what's happening, but not nearly enough to give the film any real sense of psychological complexity. For example, it gives us a picture of Walter Keane as a pathological liar, a man who doesn't just lie about his wife's paintings, but about life in general (he tricks Margaret into thinking that he too is a painter, when in fact he's just taken another artist's work and colored over the name in the bottom corner). He's created a system wherein the only way he can reach success is through fakery, and yet the movie never really investigates how he really feels about this, instead allowing Christophe Waltz to scenery chew his way through the performance (this is one of his worst pieces of acting in my mind, relying on his trademark loopy villainy at the expense of any emotional nuance--while previous big roles of his didn't demand any real complexity, here I think the film would have benefited if it attempted in some detail to capture a sense of inner-torment inside him). 

As for Margaret, she's taciturn and compliant for most of the picture, and while Amy Adams builds her performance more around facial expression than dialogue (it's good acting on her part; not many actors can use their mouth and eyes to communicate such moral discomfort), the stark contrast with Waltz's overblown characterization of her husband simply feels awkward. When they're acting together, the disproportion of their methods-too little versus too much-makes the dramatic weight of their entire relationship fizzle. But even when she's not with her husband the film doesn't afford Margaret much chance to come alive as a character. When her daughter finds out about the painting scheme for example, the film skips a detailed mother-daughter confrontation in order to keep the story moving. It quickly rushes the two of them off to Hawaii after Walter becomes a drunken threat to their safety, and while it's there that Margaret is finally free, it doesn't try to capture her new state of mind in any detailed way. At this point it seems the film is so eager to end that we get a rushed intervention from some Jehovah's Witnesses preaching the importance of honesty, a comic trial scene between the Keanes, and, to settle things once and for all, a paint-off between the estranged couple to show who the really artist is. 

I don't blame Burton much for the film's shortcomings, but at the same time I question his investment in these characters. He sticks very closely to the shooting script (though there is a nice Burtonic touch when we see Margaret wander through a supermarket and everyone has her trademark eyes, looking downright creepy) when it could have used significant alterations. I wanted something weird and wonderful and what I got seemed plain uninspired. Burton's visual sensibility remains unique, with everything bright and colorful in ways that echo Edward Scissorhands. But you get the feel, as you do with so many of his 21st century films, that at some point he just sort of stopped caring. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Day In the Country (1936)

Due to bad weather conditions, Jean Renoir never finished shooting A Day in the Country, a film from 1936 that he wrote and directed from a short story by Guy de Maupassant (close friend of Renoir's father, whose paintings of 19th century life amidst nature seem to have inspired his son's visual choices in the film). Yet the film's incompletion hardly matters. It's just about perfect as it is at 40 minutes.

Most of the movie is set during a single afternoon in the French countryside as a family of Parisians, led by Monsieur Dufour (Andre Gabriello), his wife, Madame Dufour (Jane Marken), daughter, Henriette (Syliva Bataille), and his assistant and future son-in-law Anatole (Paul Temps). 

As the film opens, they're arriving at a roadside restaurant, where they draw the attention of two young men, Henri (Georges D'Arnoux) and Rodolphe (Jacques Brunius). Initially the two men bicker about their arrival, predicated on the idea that wealthy city folk are outsiders whose presence in the country is like an intrusion. When they hear that the guests include a few women, their bitter feelings let up a bit, as Rodolphe, the spirited womanizer, suggests they woo them. Henri is more reserved, as despite his admittance to being an idyllic dreamer and hopeless romantic (at one point he refers to a secluded spot in the woods by the river as "his office"), he's afraid of taking on responsibilities. He's aware that courtship in this scenario implies sex, and he's literally afraid of impregnating someone. As they discuss this at a table in the restaurant, Rodolphe opens up the swinging windows, cuing soaring music as the two men get their first look at Henriette as she sways back and forth on a swing. Smitten by her beauty (and only that; Henriette is actually standing up as she swings, and they hope she'll sit down for a "better view"), both men realize that they must go a-courting, but since there are two of them, they must make a move on both the daughter and the mother. 

If there's a point to the film, it seems to be that city people and country folk alike are problematic, and that their clashing is an opportunity for comedy aplenty. Renoir doesn't take sides with either group, instead pointing out the absurdity and the stupidity of their lives to generate laughs. The film's greatest pleasures come in its fluid and logical structure (ironic in a way since it's a film largely about passion and indulgence), the way Renoir employs the comedy that comes with these city people encountering the country to propel its plot. 

He particularly stresses the stupidity of Monsieur Dufour and Anatole, with the former thinking he's experienced with the ways of country life when in fact he seems to know very little (Asked if he can swim, he retorts that of course he can, followed by, "I used to, but I've forgotten. I'm too busy now."), and the latter is but a buffoon incapable of even trying to sound like he knows anything (the joke here is that it enhances the Monsieur's own ineptitude as he uses Anatole's stupidity to instruct him in matters of life when in fact this only accentuates how little he actually knows. For example, he notes that it's getting cloudy and then licks his finger to check the wind, though he immediately puts it back down before he can check its direction-plus he's under the roof of a boat dock. He then proclaims there's a squall coming. "A squall?" Anatole asks. "Don't you know anything?! the Monsieur bellows). 

When they settle down for a picnic, Monsieur drinks too much wine and falls asleep (much to the annoyance of Madame Dufour, who, also a little tipsy-notice how she chugs her wine as if the countryside has smothered her city manners-wants to wander in the woods for some intimacy with her husband), while Anatole gets an obnoxious case of the hiccups. 

Rodolphe and Henri are watching and scheming all along, using Henriette's hat that she's left in a field and a couple fishing rods to offer the men in order to get the women to themselves. Just as important as their charm and cunning though is that Henriette and Madame Dufour seem to have at least some sort of subconscious desire to spend some time with these men. Henriette has a one-with-nature feeling about the country, which makes her perfect for Henri's dreamer mentality (note also the similarity of their names), while the Madame is already frustrated by her husband's lack of attention towards her, which would make Rodolphe's charisma irresistible.

There's an unexpected and rather melancholy conclusion to the film, and it's clear that Renoir could have used some more time to really create an interesting dichotomy between the breeziness of the main chunk of the movie and the darkness of the rest of it. But as a narrative it still wraps up without any real continuity problems, so the viewer doesn't really feel like they've been cheated out of an unfinished project. 

As the film stands it's one of the best things he ever made, with the comedic timing of a Preston Sturges movie, the lush visuals of a tone poem, and the haunting notion that dreamers and romantics can't come out on top without a little nudge in the side from reality. 

The Birds: Melanie Daniels Unchecked

Melanie Daniels is spoiled and beautiful: she drives a gorgeous Aston Martin coupe, dresses in a slim, green designer suit, and has a pristine physique to go with her perfect face that looks like it was carved out of stone. As the daughter of a newspaper mogul, she’s never had to take on any real responsibilities or trials, instead leading a reckless and lavish lifestyle of parties, travel, and—as we quickly learn in the film’s opening sequence—the impetuous pursuit of handsome men.

Arriving from San Francisco in the small seaside town of Bodega Bay, Melanie looks downright out of place next to its rusty pick-up trucks, overalls, and grizzled faces. “She’s always mentioned in the gossip columns,” one character says, stressing a particular notorious event in which Melanie was caught frolicking naked in a fountain in Rome.

Melanie journeys to the town to deliver a few love birds to the sister of a well-built, good-looking San Francisco lawyer named Mitch (Rod Taylor), whom she meets in a bird shop in the opening scene.

Mitch wanders into the shop, notices Melanie, and asks for help. Melanie glances up, at first a little surprised, but when she sees that Mitch is attractive, she gives a subtle, mischievous smile and goes along pretending to be an employee at the shop. He questions her about various birds, and despite her ignorance she manages to sustain the act by exuding confidence and charm. We get the sense that she’s well practiced in this sort of behavior, that she sees the world as a playground on which she sets the rules.

And yet when he asks to see a canary, she quickly grows a little anxious. As she tries to remove the bird from the cage she lets it loose, and her sense of authority is diminished as she helplessly watches it flutter around the room. In a way this opening scene is a microcosm of the film as a whole: we see a glimpse of Melanie’s recklessness and then its repercussion by the bird escaping. It’s Mitch who catches it, and as he returns it to its cage he says: “Back in your little cage, Melanie Daniels,” revealing that he’s seen her before and that he was the real actor in the scene, pretending to have thought she worked in the shop. “I just thought you might like to know what it’s like to be on the other end of a gag,” he playfully snarls in reference to a previous prank of Melanie’s that resulted in a broken window.

This is important information because we learn that Melanie doesn’t always get away with her practical joking and also because of the way Mitch equates the bird to Melanie when he puts it back in the cage. There’s an implication that Melanie’s bad behavior unleashes problems that are beyond her control. Her small little joke in the opening scene precipitates a small little problem. As her reckless actions grow stronger through the film, the problems become stronger.

Melanie’s first task when she arrives in Bodega Bay—a quaint seaside town with rolling green hills and crudely paved roads—is to find out exactly where Mitch lives. As she arrives there’s a clear sense that she’s intruding on a place not accustomed to big city women in fancy fur coats driving fast cars. As she pulls up to a general store, we see a woman in the background walking by holding grocery bags. As Melanie gets out of her car, the woman slows and stares at her, as if Melanie is some sort of threat, and then hurries out of the frame. And when Melanie enters the store and asks the clerk about Mitch’s whereabouts, he seems uncomfortable with her presence, vaguely answering that he lives “right across the bay there,” as he stacks a pile of envelopes.

Melanie, in her forthright manner, insists on specific directions, and when the clerk complies and explains the precise location of the Brenner’s home, Melanie looks up in alarm. “The Brenner’s?” she asks, “as in—Mr. and Mrs. Brenner?” Melanie is a puzzle box, but one of the great things about the film is the way it reveals her motives through her subtle questioning, and then allowing the viewer to reach conclusions through the way she asks the questions, communicating more through body language and facial expression than words. Her concern implies that if there is a Mrs. Brenner, then this seemingly kind bird delivery would actually be pointless, because Melanie’s ulterior motive is really just to see Mitch again.

Luckily for her, the Mrs. Brenner is actually Mitch’s mother, at which Melanie gives a playful smile of relief. Her game continues.

In one of the film’s best scenes, we see Melanie rent a boat in order to sneak around the backside of the Brenner home and deliver the love birds unnoticed. After slipping in and out of the house, she crouches in the boat and watches as Mitch, who’s working in the nearby barn, wanders into the house. Anticipating that he’ll see the birds, she waits for him to come back outside. She wants to be seen. When he runs back outside and spies her with a pair of binoculars, she starts up the engine and heads back toward the town. She knows Mitch will follow because she’s helped him by delivering the birds and because she’s fully aware of her physical allure. Gliding back towards the town, the camera hones in on her smug, self-satisfied smile. This is a game she’s probably won countless times in her life and she’s winning it again.

It is at this point though that the bird problems begin. The first attack is a mild one yet it still has an element of shock as a gull swipes down nips Melanie’s brow just as she is arriving at the dock. It also the beginning of a pattern we shall see throughout the film: the further Melanie takes her game, the closer she gets to Mitch, the more aggressive the bird attacks become. To actually interpret the meaning behind the birds poses a challenge that really doesn’t seem to have a solution. All we can really understand about them is that Melanie has brought birds to the town (literally) as well as a spoiled, haughty temperament that’s in conflict with the working class simplicity of Bodega Bay. She’s unchecked in a place where people live responsibility and are simply trying to put food on the table. She’s a problem and the birds are literal manifestations of this problem. Melanie is a realistic character and Hitchcock goes to great lengths to give Bodgea Bay a sense of authenticity, which makes the bird attacks all the more jarring, like something out of a nightmare. Without the birds Hitchcock could have still made a compelling dramatic picture, but, lest we forget, this is at the end of the day a horror film.

Melanie’s integration into the Brenner family home is as sneaky as her initial purchase and delivery of the lovebirds. As Mitch takes care of the gull wound on her forehead, and bemusedly suggests she really likes him, Melanie retorts that she loathes him, that he “has no manners, is arrogant and conceited.” Yet her tone is flippant and intentionally so, as Melanie knows that this sort of language will only make Mitch more curious about her. There is no reason to think that she has any real feelings for Mitch, thus she has to sustain her joke as much as possible. She’s even created an alternate reason for visiting Bodega Bay: she’s seeing an old college friend, Annie Hayworth, when in reality the two had only just met when Melanie went to her to get the name of Mitch’s little sister. What’s interesting is that Mitch is fully aware of Melanie’s scheme, and, just like the opening scene in the bird shop, he plays along.

Mitch is one of the few characters in the film that doesn’t see Melanie as some sort of threat, in part because Melanie is both attractive and vying for his attention, and also—let’s not forget—because he’s a big city lawyer. He’s from Bodega Bay, but he only stays there on weekends, the rest of the time attending to his profession, law, which also is a type of game in the way it relies on manipulation and deception. Melanie’s game might work better on a gullible, shy type, but Mitch is too smart and too experienced to not catch the transparency of her act.

That he plays along, though, only heightens the intensity of the film, particularly when his mother, Lydia (Jessica Tandy) arrives on the scene. She’s introduced when entering the drug store where Mitch is tending to Melanie’s bird wound. She seems uncomfortable just by the sight of her son with another woman, and when Mitch explains that Melanie was delivering a pair of love birds for Cathy, Lydia’s cold “I see,” evinces clear disapproval. Hitchcock frames the scene with Lydia standing between Mitch and Melanie, a visual representation of Lydia’s role in her son’s life. Any time a young woman tries to take her son away, she does her best to get in the way of things.

When Mitch invites Melanie to dinner, she expresses hesitation, which we can assume is intentional. She doesn’t want Mitch to deduce that this entire act is built around her attraction to him because then she would be remitting both her own sense of authority as well as the game itself. She needs the two of these because that is simply how she operates in life: Mitch is ultimately a plaything, a way for her to stave off boredom, and if she expresses any sense of commitment to him, then that would lead to responsibility, which for her is a foreign notion and something to be afraid of. You get the sense that she would be more comfortable hooking up with Mitch for a night and then never seeing him again. She wouldn’t have to surrender her life to someone, plus there’s always going to be another handsome man in the city who will fall victim to her conniving ways.

When Melanie arrives for dinner, there are the expected formalities: she meets Cathy, who is ecstatic over the birds, she admires the house, and Mitch makes drinks for them. What’s strange though is that we see all this in the background, as the foreground is occupied by Lydia as she makes a phone call to her chicken feed supplier to complain about how her chickens have stopped eating. She learns that it’s not the chicken feed that’s the problem though, as a neighbor is also experiencing the same issue with a different brand of feed. With a guest in the house it’s unusual that Lydia would make this phone call, but because Hitchcock puts her in the forefront of the frame while Melanie lingers in the background, the viewer is informed that this phone call is important. Lydia is uncomfortable with Melanie’s presence, and it’s as if her concern about her chickens is Hitchcock’s way of expressing her anxiety about Melanie. After all, we’ve already seen that Melanie is equated with bird problems, a pattern that will only continue through the film.

After the meal, as Melanie casually plays the piano while smoking a cigarette, Hitchcock cuts to a scene in the kitchen where Lydia is washing the dishes and talking concernedly to Mitch about his new girl. This is the first time we get to see Mitch talk about Melanie, and while his intent has been ambiguous till this point, here he suggests that Melanie is simply an object of attraction and amusement. He’s also aware that his mother is afraid of letting him go, and he satisfies this fear with a near Oedipal treatment of her, addressing her as “dear” and “darling,” and kissing her cheek as he assures her that he can "handle Ms. Daniels" as Melanie slowly begins to become part of the Brenner household to the point where she is essentially taking over Lydia’s role.

It begins when Melanie, who has gone to Annie Hayworth’s house to stay the night, gets a call from Mitch asking her to stay in Bodega Bay one more day to attend his sister’s birthday party. At this point perhaps Melanie’s feelings for Mitch have grown, and it takes little convincing for her to accept the invitation. Immediately after, a bird dies as it crashes into the door, maybe a warning for what’s to come as a result of her decision to stay in Bodega Bay.

The next scene is the birthday party, and as Mitch and Melanie wander away together through the sandy hills, we realize that the game is over and now there really is a mutual romantic interest between them. Mitch again tries to get her to stay for dinner after the party, only this time she’s insistent on leaving because she has to get to work in the morning (“you have a job?” Mitch asks incredulously).

As Lydia comes out of the house with the birthday cake, we see her look up in the direction of the two lovebirds with a frightful, uneasy look in her eyes. We then hear someone shout “Look!” as a bird swoops down and attacks one of the kids. Once again there is a parallel between Melanie’s intrusion and the birds. Lydia sees her with Mitch alone, and the implication of romantic interest coincides with the bird attack.

This is the most severe attack yet, as several birds end up preying on the kids at the party, giving the celebration an abrupt ending. More importantly, this keeps Melanie in Bodega Bay, not out of choice, but circumstance: Because of the attack, Mitch would be much more comfortable if Melanie stayed at least through dinner, to which she readily agrees.

She ends up staying the night after another occurrence in which fifty or so sparrows fly into the house through the fireplace, chaotically whizzing through the air like they’re on some sort of drug. At this point the film shifts tone entirely, as the threat of Melanie gives way to the threat of the birds. No one in the town can make any sense of the events, with some attributing them to unusual migration behavior and others calling it the dawn of the apocalypse.

The only time we see an attack in which Melanie is not involved is when Lydia goes to see her neighbor the next morning and finds that the birds have gouged his eyes out. But this results in a key moment in which Melanie becomes even more cemented in the Brenner family. Fraught with peril, Lydia returns home and lies in bed, forced to rely on Melanie for comfort.

Already she’s seen Melanie become the romantic interest of her son, and now, in a strange way, she’s taking on a maternal role as well. Not only does Melanie try to calm Lydia like a mother would her child, but she also goes to the town school to make sure Cathy is safe. Lydia is incapable of ensuring her daughter’s well being because of the birds, and she’s already losing her son to Melanie, thus rendering her on the verge of obsolescence.

But as Melanie becomes more and more the dominant female presence in the Brenner household, she simultaneously gets more worn down as the bird attacks escalate in their severity.

As the viewer now anticipates, when Melanie arrives at the school, she brings the birds with her. Waiting nervously on a bench outside the schoolhouse, she notices a few birds gathering on the playground. Then, in one of the film’s most terrifying images, the playground is suddenly covered in large black birds. Because we know an attack is likely imminent, simply seeing them gathered, waiting, is almost more frightening than the attack itself. Another assault ensues, and Melanie flees to the town drugstore, where she makes a phone call and describes the attack. The town people around her stare at her with mysterious and concerned faces, as if they’re just as alarmed by her as by her description of the birds.

Hitchcock continues the pattern of Melanie bringing the attacks to wherever she goes as moments later the town experiences its first onslaught of the aggressive birds as they dive down upon pedestrians and drivers, interrupting the smooth, comfortable everyday life of Bodega Bay with a startling surge of mayhem, terror, and bloodshed. As people crowd in the drugstore for safety, one woman approaches Melanie, her eyes wild, proclaiming: “They said when you got here the whole thing started! Who are you? What are you? I think you’re the cause of all this—I think you’re evil!” At this point the viewer feels some sympathy for Melanie, but that’s largely because the rise of the film’s intensity upon the start of the bird attacks makes us forget a little just how unlikable she’s been for most of the film.

Hitchcock first and foremost wanted to make a horror movie about creatures universally loved for their beauty and tranquility becoming malevolent. But in the process he did also create Melanie Daniels, and the entire film feels directed towards this statement by the woman in the drugstore. Melanie is a woman who has built her life around bad behavior, and in coming to Bodega Bay she’s found the wrong place to exhibit it. The film takes the idea of actions having consequences to its most extreme by employing the genre of horror to exhibit those repercussions.

In the film’s final scene at the Brenner’s boarded up house, we see Melanie on the couch comforting Cathy, continuing her role of the mother while the real mother, Lydia, sits in a chair backed against the wall aside a portrait of her dead husband. It’s the most full-fledged image of Melanie’s intrusion into the family, as we sense Lydia longing for the order of her old life when her husband was still living, and Melanie, by default, taking over the maternal role. Mitch, meanwhile, saunters about the room, utterly perplexed by the whole situation.

As if saving their most ambitious attack for last, the birds slowly penetrate and enter the house, their beaks cutting through the boarded windows as if made of steel. Melanie, who after that initial attack in the boat has avoided being physically victimized, finally becomes the object of the birds’ violence. Cut up and speechless, Mitch and Lydia help her out the car like she’s an infant not yet able to walk or talk. It’s only at this point that we see Lydia embrace her, putting her arm around her like she’s her own child. The birds have now rendered Melanie powerless, the polar opposite of the strong, confident woman who arrived in Bodega Bay a few days before. As Mitch drives the car away, the birds simply watch. Melanie is leaving town for good, and that strange, mysterious trouble she brought with her is leaving too.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Crimson Peak (2015)

Guillermo Del Toro's new movie doesn't hold back in letting the viewer know that something is wrong with Crimson Peak, a nickname of sorts for Allerdale Hall, an enormous gothic mansion located in the English countryside. When Mia Wasikowska's character Edith Cushing opens the film with the line "ghosts are real," we gather that there will probably be ghosts in the house. They end up showing up even sooner, in fact just moments after this opening line of narration, as we see Edith's dead mother appear to her as a ghost and tell her to "beware of Crimson Peak." That the viewer is essentially warned that this place has all sorts of creepy stuff going on might seem like a weak piece of storytelling, something that could have been communicated in more mysterious ways, like it was in similar gothic stories like the Jack Clayton's 1962 film The Innocents, or Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre (I know the former was a direct influence on the film, and I suspect the latter was as well). 

But as it turns out, that's part of the film's genius, for what I think are two central reasons: the first is that it takes a surprisingly long time for the film to actually get to the house (I didn't check my watch, but it felt like a good 40-45 minutes). Del Toro really takes his time establishing all of the film's characters, yet because we know we're going to end up at Allerdale Hall eventually, it makes this buildup all the more tense. How is Edith going to get there when it seems as though everything is going against her favor to do so? 

First off, she's an aspiring writer of ghost stories and she needs her father's (Jim Beaver) office to type them out (this also points to the fact that Edith is protected from the world by her status: she doesn't have to work, stays in her father's comfortable home, and and gets to satisfy her creative urges at the expense of getting any real experience outside of her comfort zone). More importantly, her father is wary of Sir Thomas Sharpe, an Englishman who's arrived in America seeking to gain him as an investor for a clay mining machine he's designed. The father's dislike for Thomas is initiated by his distinctly Un-American process of attempting success through status rather than experience. The father feels Thomas' hands and calls them the softest he's ever felt, a comment on the fact that Thomas is seeking fame without working from the ground up. His poor regard for the man is only heightened when Thomas shows interest in Edith, a poor option in his mind when the town physician, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), is readily available. 

Del Toro's generous time allotment to what could have been a rushed introduction is actually one of the best things about the movie. While you'll generally hear the film's stunning visuals attributed the sequences at Allerdale Hall, that's really just because they're trying to draw more attention to themselves. The scenes in America are impressive for different reasons, and show that Del Toro is not just a master at creating haunting, mysterious spaces, but also conventional ones. For example, take the scene that cements the mutual interest between Edith and Thomas, a gorgeous ball where Thomas picks her to waltz with him "english style," (rather than trying to integrate himself into the styles and manners of Americans, Thomas is purely advertising his European sensibilities) so graceful that one can hold a candle during the dance and it won't extinguish. Before that we're also introduced to Thomas' sister, Lucille (Jessica Chastain) as she plays a dramatic piece on the piano for the guests. This further establishes that the Sharpes are dramatic and ambitious siblings who enjoy basking in the attention drawn on them. I loved the way Del Toro's camera slowly creeps up behind her as she plays, not revealing her face until she strikes that final dramatic note and receives generous applause. It's the kind of big reveal of a character's face you tend to only get in classic Hollywood movies, the exaggerated introduction that blatantly signals that this person will be of crucial importance to the film. I loved that ball scene in general, especially the way Del Toro's camera sweeps around the room, going from intimate personal exchanges to wide shots that accentuate the film's beautiful production design and costumes. It feels like something Kubrick might have shot in Barry Lyndon

Or take a later scene at a park, where Thomas reads Edith's manuscript, the grass littered with leaves and the background full of people lounging about on blankets or picnic chairs. It gives the sense that Thomas has not just come to a new land, but a new society that's distinctly American and that he doesn't quite know how to fit into. This is the upper class society of America, where people do things in groups and always seem to be around. As we will learn later in the film, Thomas most certainly is not used to that. Perhaps that's why he seems so drawn to Edith, a recluse who prefers staying at home to read and write rather than go out to parties. 

Throughout all of this there is tension building, tension in the audience as we wonder if we're seeing a costume drama or the horror film we expected, and tension in the story itself, as Edith's father hires a private detective to find some sort of evidence against Thomas so that he can bribe him to return to England and leave his daughter alone. 

To avoid too much exposition, I will just say that, by a few great moments of characters taking the situation into their own hands (one quite literally), Edith does end up moving to Allerdale Hall as Thomas' new wife. This eventful and energetic first big chunk of the film almost works like a mini movie in and of itself, which leads me to the second reason I believe the film's blatant early admission of its ghostly workings are actually a good thing: once we arrive at the gothic mansion, and apparitions show themselves more apparently, we realize that what we thought was a pronouncement for what sort of film this would be is only a small part of the whole that Del Toro's is seeking to build. We realize that rather than being a house with ghosts, Allerdale Hall is a house that happens to include ghosts. Other aspects of it are far more intriguing, and it's these aspects that largely contribute to Crimson Peak's greatness. 

Consider the house itself. It has a terrifying presence from our initial introduction to it, as we see it planted in the middle of a the desolate English countryside surrounded by nothing but barren fields and empty hills, the wide aerial shot giving a sense of the forlorn and the creepy. Del Toro probably could have scouted our an old English manor to shoot in, but, as he's stated as saying the house is a "vital character in the movie," it makes perfect sense that he actually built this place to fully accommodate his vision. 

And what a grand vision it is. As Thomas introduces Edith to his home, she immediately comments that it's colder inside than out. Thomas explains, pointing her towards the ceiling, where we see a massive hole in the roof with shards of woods protruding from the edges like knives. Just as unsettling as the fact that there's this hole is the nonchalant way Thomas explains its presence, showing no intention of having it repaired. We'd expect a husband to fix such a problem before moving in his new wife, and the fact that Thomas doesn't is one of the great ways Del Toro manages to put the audience on edge and make them feel uncomfortable about the entire situation (he does it countless times--another favorite including a stray dog that we find out isn't actually a stray--and it's moments like these that I found far more creepy than the more in-your-face scare moments that come later in the movie). 

Just as unsettling as the gap in the roof is the fact that the house is rotting and slowly sinking into the ground. It sits above a massive reservoir of red clay, which Thomas explains through demonstration by pressing his foot against the ancient wood floor. We see a bubbly red goo rise up through the cracks, and I was equal part giddy and unsettled. What fun Del Toro's having with this creation, what care he's put into it, but also, how dreadful this must be for Edith. Sheltered her whole life, she's finally ventured out of her comfortable surroundings, and she gets this. It's more disquieting than the fact that she's had encounters with the supernatural and will continue to her new home. Ghosts are something she can fathom, but being in a foreign place with her first husband is something beyond anything she's ever experienced. The sheer opulence of the rest of the house, the ancient furniture, the enormous fireplaces, a squeaky elevator, would be enough to make anyone in this situation a little ill at ease. That it's falling apart and that Thomas isn't simply indifferent, but almost a little proud of its decrepit state ("a house as old as this one becomes, in time, a living thing," he says) makes us feel all the more sorry for Edith. 

I've only touched on a few of the components of Del Toro's grand creation, and there are many more. It's all to say that, as this is Edith's story, her opening statement about the reality of ghosts ends up mattering less than we're led to expect. Sure, ghosts play an important role in the film, but the mysteries, horrors, and surprises that Del Toro has on top of that end up taking precedence over them. There's so much more to say about the movie, about the finely tuned characters, the massive amount of feeling Del Toro manages to pack into them, about the tension and suspense he derives from them, and about the house itself, that the picture's opening moments end up feeling like a false tease for a movie we expect and don't get. And that's a good thing, that's why I think the movie's so wonderful, and I wonder if that's why so many were let down by it. 


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Walk on the Moon (1999)

A Walk on the Moon sounds great on a dramatic level: a story about the romantic ideal of the family unit being usurped by the "summer of love" mentality, the sense of following one's passions at the expense of paternal responsibility. Only adding to the intrigue is the fact that the film is literally set during the summer of love, that wistful Woodstock summer of 1969 right on the cusp of the Age of American Paranoia. We're given what appears to be a rock-solid family: a loving, sensitive mother, Pearl, (Dianne Laine), Marty, the responsible father (Liev Shreiber), two beautiful children, and to boot, a grandmother who takes the notion of "family sticks together" to its extreme by being a kind of emotional advisor to the clan. 

As the film opens they're preparing for their annual summer vacation to a summer camp. The only problem is that Marty's going to have to be driving back and forth between home and the camp so that he can continue to work. It's a particularly urgent moment for him because his television repair job is flocking with patrons needing work done on their sets so they can watch the historic moon landing. 

Coinciding with that is the arrival of the "blouse man," a young handsome man (Viggo Mortensen) who makes his rounds to the camp to sell shirts to all the moms who are desperate for some excitement to counteract their daily bland discussions over picnic tables and lemonade. Young, well-built, and with the perfect amount of stubble to compliment his high cheekbones and long hair, we get the sense that Walker Jerome (his name's backwards, people keep saying, a rather obvious way of suggesting that he's a free man of the age, the opposite of these campers tied down by family and responsibly) does this every year just for giggles. Maybe there'll be a young housewife desperate for liberation who he can woo with his stunning good looks and charm.

And sure enough, that's exactly what Pearl is looking for, especially with her husband being out of the picture for so much of the vacation. They begin the expected affair that's all perfectly bland, complete with a sensuous water-fall sex scene that looks like it's taken from some 80s soft core porno. 

As expected, Pearl's adventures can't be sustained, as Marty finds out through the grandmother and explodes. In one of the more interesting choices the film makes, Pearl doesn't actually stop her rendezvous with Walker. Because Woodstock is happening at the same time, we know the film is going to wind up there some way or another. Pearl ends up sneaking out with Walker and, in one of the few really inspired scenes that director Tony Goldwyn is able to conjure up, we see them sink into the legendary concert event, surrounded by young hippies, face paint, music, and kids trying to get their hands on bottles of liquor probably thinking it's apple juice. The only problem for Pearl is that her teenage daughter (played by Anna Paquin) has also snuck off to the show, and when she spies her mother's shocking display of hedonism through a pair of binoculars, she's left with a trouble hypocrisy: her mother's been trying to protect her from the hippie lifestyle because she's too young while simultaneously exhibiting the same behavior of a child rebelling against her parents. 

There are some good dramatic scenes that follow as Pearl tries to make her daughter understand the situation without seeking any sort of justification for her actions, and her husband at least consider not breaking up the family. The actors are all good, particularly Lane, who's the master of making the cheating wife a sympathetic figure (see Unfaithful), and Paquin, who's got the teen angst and rebellion thing down pat. The men in the film however come across as bland and predictable, with Schreiber hitting all the obvious notes of rage when he finds out about his wife's affair, and Mortensen registering not so much as a character but as an attractive physical presence who's so perfect in everything he does that no woman could resist him. 

In other words, the film feels too pre-packaged, lacking any real sense of adventure or spontaneity, which is a shame when it's about those very things.