The Rules of the Game

Excerpts from my review of two stellar sports movies, today in "Now and Then," at Thompson on Hollywood:

With a homey, lived-in style and a strong command of performance, [Tom McCarthy's] three films behind the camera (the other two are The Station Agent and The Visitor) capture the particular anxiety of suburban life. And though he’s never lost his sense of humor, McCarthy’s progression from oddball character study to fully conceived narrative has displayed an impressive engagement with real people and real worries. Win Win only amplifies the trend: without quite meaning to, McCarthy has emerged as a master of middle-American quiet...

Unassumingly, the film builds to a clever understanding of recession-era blues: it’s hard to do what’s right when the spoils seem to go to those who don’t. As Terry says when Kyle gets disqualified from the big match, “We were right there, Mike. Right fuckin’ there. Now we got nothin’.” Nothin’ is something, though, if it means treating people with decency, a value at the heart of McCarthy’s style. Kyle wins his matches with a move the team calls “Whatever the Fuck It Takes,” but what wins in wrestling — pinning the opponent, crushing him, whatever the fuck it takes — is not always what wins in life.

It’s because of [its] glimpses outside the lines that I respond to Hoop Dreams, and why it upsets me, too. Not every kid from a bad school in a rough neighborhood can play hoops or throw touchdowns; though the non-athletes may be equally talented, intelligent, witty, and hard working, it just so happens that their area of expertise is something less valued in this country than being able to make a lay-up or a jump shot. Says a guidance counselor at the public high school to which Agee transfers, the system “doesn’t make sense”: “Once [private school students] walk in those doors, they expect to get their diploma and go to college…Whereas our students, to get out high school, for a lot of them, it’s an accomplishment.”

Despite its greatness, Hoop Dreams only alludes to the fact that for too many, life isn’t about hoops at all. It’s wholly about dreams — dreams deferred, denied, fulfilled, forgotten. It would be unfair to expect a film to do anything other than what it’s trying to do, but this documentary gets so close to the issue that not addressing it more fully seems a cop-out. So we’re back to question of whatever the fuck it takes, which in sport might be the right pin or the right three-pointer at the right moment. But in the question of what’s right, of what’s just, I’d like to think it takes something else entirely.


Lost in Translation

From my review of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, at TOH:

Semper Fi: Always Faithful, Rachel Liebert and Tony Hardmon’s affecting if imperfect exposé of water contamination at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, takes its title from what the Corps website calls “more than a motto — a way of life.” Some life. From 1957 to 1987, the USMC exposed nearly one million people to toxic cleaning agents in Camp Lejeune’s drinking water. Then the Corps tried to cover it up...

Juxtaposed with the canned statements of USMC representatives, these tales gather to them an undeniable power; such stories give average citizens a voice. “We are not numbers in a study,” says a woman whose newborn son died to a public hearing of the National Academy of Sciences. “We are human beings in a great tragedy.”

The human quotient overcomes the film’s flaws, because the personal histories, such as McCall’s, belie the central meaning of semper fidelis — that we’re all in this together. Her unnecessary death from cancer, in the middle of filming, shows just how cavalierly the Marine Corps neglected its supposed way of life, all while she, Ensminger, and countless others upheld their end of the bargain. Watching Semper Fi , I was reminded of another soldier and another Latin phrase, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country.” The poet Wilfred Owen, writing during World War I, called it “the old lie,” and he was right. It is a lie, especially when your country is what kills you. 


The Belly of the Beast

I’m a little late to the Winter’s Bone bandwagon, certainly too late for my ringing endorsement of Debra Granik’s sharply observed indie drama to count for much. But that said, if you are reading this and have not seen the film, stop at the end of this sentence and go watch it: you can come back to me later. 

Set in the grim far reaches of the Missouri Ozarks, the gray hills buttressed with crumbling lean-tos and burned-out trailers, Winter’s Bone is a terrifying portrait of the American underbelly. Ree Dolly (Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence), a 17-year-old with an invalid mother and two young siblings, knows her way around guns and squirrel guts. She’s the family caretaker, and, it turns out, the muscle — when the law comes around looking for her meth-cooking father, she’s the one who goes searching for him. He’s put up the house as bond collateral, and if he doesn’t show up in court, Ree and the rest of them will be forced to leave.

Without flagging, what follows is an ingenious mixture of mystery and case study, peopled by mean, crazy fucks ever poised at their thresholds, waiting for trouble to arrive. As Ree digs deeper, her already closed-off world tightens; most of those she visits are at least distant relations, but the thickness of blood can trap as easily as it can free. The movie is shot in dusky, dirty hues that are less color than it’s negation. Where there is a spot of brightness, it comes almost as a shock — a yellow garden hose lays coiled on the cold ground like a snake.

Everything about the film works, enveloping you in this dim world even as it worries. But what anchors it, what gives it the necessary spark, is Lawrence. It’s a career-making performance, hard-nosed yet nuanced, glowering but kind. She has a soft, round face and steely eyes, which pretty much sums up Ree’s dual existence. I’ve rarely rooted for a heroine harder, and when she finally breaks down, in a creaky rowboat gutted by the sound of her wails, it almost comes as a relief. “Never ask for what oughta be offered,” Ree tells her little brother early on — but don’t be afraid to demand it, she seems to suggest. And then she does just that.


This Kind of Movie

“Can I tell you something that’s going to make you livid?” my roommate said as the score swelled. “I hate this kind of movie.”

He’s right on both counts: Rebecca is not for everyone — it’s old-fashioned, melodramatic, inconsistent, formalist. Yet the suggestion that the 1940 Best Picture winner is anything less than a classic tends to piss me off...

The real relationship is the fearsome triangle of our heroine, Rebecca, and housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. Played by Judith Anderson as though channeling Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Danvers is an indelible villain — just try not to get the creeps as she shows the shaking Fontaine Rebecca’s mausoleum of a bedroom, brushing the girl’s face with an old fur and lovingly patting the dead woman’s underwear. 

From here the two face off in a thrilling psychological battle. The new bride directs the housekeeper to dump Rebecca’s old crap (“I am Mrs. de Winter now,” she says); Danvers exacts retribution by tricking her prey into a dress matching one Rebecca wore. The sight sends Max into a rage and Fontaine into gag-sobs, which Danvers capitalizes on by opening the window and hissing out what amounts to a witch’s spell, capturing Fontaine in a trance: “You’ve nothing to live for really, have you?” If Rebecca , eccentric and exciting, is “this kind of movie,” that’s fine by me: like Mrs. Danvers’ chilly whisper, it’s almost a form of magic.

Though less fantastical, Jane Eyre is still a tough nut to crack. Twenty or so screen adaptations precede Cary Fukunaga’s stab at Charlotte Brontë’s heroine. But with talented Mia Wasikowska in the lead, he captures Eyre’s balance of propriety and vigor...

This is, as you might expect, a difficult book to film, what with the terrible childhood and the potential mistress and the harsh secrets. What Fukunaga does well — sexual tension, misty moor-scapes, shadow houses where flames hide from darkness — he does impeccably. Certain of the other elements, like the wan interlude with St. John Rivers (boring!), seem shoved into what’s left, there to get us from Point A to Point B. What tips the balance is Wasikowska as Jane, fierce but never vicious, staring down a mean life and making something of it. She is not a “machine without feelings,” as she says in her most powerful monologue — she’s a force to be reckoned with, and Jane Eyre is all the better for it.

Excerpted from today's "Now and Then" column, now posted at Thompson on Hollywood.


Fighting Words

I review two new independent documentaries today at Thompson on Hollywood, excerpted here:

Following community members who stand up against the flashy new development, Battle for Brooklyn emerges as a truly great work of advocacy journalism. It amasses maps, interviews, archival footage, voiceovers, renderings, and still photographs to expose an issue and bring it forcefully to life.

“I’m not much of a patriot, but it’s un-American,” says face of the opposition Daniel Goldstein (pictured above), who lives in the area to be razed, about the way in which corporate greed has superseded individual rights. But then he corrects himself: “No, maybe it is American. What [Ratner’s] doing, it seems to be the American way.” And for all the catcalling and flaring tempers, the claims and counterclaims of flyers, conferences, church meetings, and press releases, the film captures a valiant effort to take back “the American way” and make it what it should be. Whatever side you’re on, whatever the outcome when the project is finally complete, it’s inspiring to see Americans put a lie to the suggestion that they are apathetic, self-obsessed, greedy, fat, and stupid. Watching Battle for Brooklyn, my only wish was that I could say the same thing about the politicians who run the place.

At the far end of cracked roads and heat haze, parched earth and low-slung vegetation, Darwin is a paradox — a town whose inhabitants hide from the past (deaths, disagreements, divorces, drugs) as though it were a monster, and in which the past is omnipresent. Brandestini’s film is not unsympathetic, but for that its candor is all the more chilling. The wind chimes tinkle incessantly, as though haunted, and the unending horizon begins to feel like a trap. “That’s one thing we don’t talk about too much,” Monty tells us, referring to the reasons people stay in Darwin: we like our secrets around here, and don’t you forget it.

It would be easy to say that Darwin doesn’t amount to much — it’s not a narrative so much as a group portrait. Some formal touches, like an awkward coupling of slow motion and voiceover, are awful enough to wake you from reverie. But generally the style of the film serves the place well. In Darwin, the same stories are told, the same grudges held, by the same people who’ve been telling and holding them all along. This is a town, still, of gunslingers and water board bickerers, of hippies, and artists, drifters and drinkers, grandstanders, prophets, addicts. Monty’s shirt is on to something: Darwin really is a Wild West, always about to become a ghost town. From what I could tell watching Darwin, it already is. 


Brave Bitch

Build a swimming pool. That’s what Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) does when she learns her melanoma is terminal in the pilot of The Big C, Showtime’s offbeat cancer comedy now in its second season. Oh, she also kicks her husband (Oliver Platt) out of the house, befriends a brassy, foul-mouthed teen (Gabourey Sidibe), and fucks a hot painter (Idris Elba) from the school where she teaches. Repeatedly.

We’ve been here before: protagonist, knowing death is imminent, grabs life by the reins. At first glance, what makes The Big C different are its two main conceits — one, that Cathy decides to keep her illness secret, and two, that each season of the series corresponds to a season of the year, starting with summer. The former adds a certain element of intrigue as the series finds its footing, then grows tiresome. It’s a blank check for Cathy to act bizarrely, and there’s good fun to be had in some of her hijinks, but eventually the overdone quirkiness adds up to little more than a few funny set pieces. (It doesn’t help that the weirdos of Cathy’s lacuna spend so much time seeming like they’re forcing it.)

It turns out that the latter conceit, which ingrains The Big C with a certain unexpected patience, is the key to the series’ growing appeal. Once Cathy gives up the ruse, Linney’s expert ability to capture strength and pain in the same line starts to soar. When she irks the parents of the girls’ swim team she coaches in season 2 by kicking their helicoptering asses out of practice, they hold a meeting to have her fired. One of the moms calls her a bitch, and Cathy, referring to a the words on a shirt she wore to get through chemo, says, “That’s right. I’m a brave bitch!” In this moment Linney is at once frightened and forceful, vulnerable and vigorous — her slight shake could be nerves or anger, and is probably both. There is nary a more likable, flawed, human character in any situational comedy on TV right now, and she alone would be reason enough to start watching.

But it just so happens that when the writing allows Linney to up the ante, her rising tide lifts all boats. Paul, once mincing and whiny, becomes valiant but frustrated; Andrea opens up without losing sass. And Cathy’s son, Adam (Gabriel Basso), heretofore a snippy brat, gets to show why The Big C is really different, a brave bitch of a comedy that unleashes a hell of a lot of smart quips but sneaks in a hell of a lot of real feeling, too. In the season 1 finale, Adam discovers the storage unit Cathy has filled with the gifts she won’t be able to give him, the souvenirs she wants him to remember her by. His tears flow so fast and hard they could fill that swimming pool, and in a single moment The Big C has become something much more than it initially promised. This isn’t a cancer comedy. It’s a survivor’s handbook.  


Grifter with a Heart of Gold

They say sex sells, but it never flew off the shelves quite like it did in the heyday of the studio system. Back then a guy didn’t need a six-pack to get us melting, though it didn’t hurt — just try to resist the swaggering muscularity of Brando, busting out of that white T-shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). What the stars had then was energy, suavity, glamour. Clark Gable drove us mad with the glint in his eye. Errol Flynn swashbuckled his way into our hearts, while Cary Grant smooth-talked his way into our dreams.

Humphrey Bogart was not this type of star.

Even in his early days playing second-tier gangsters in movies like The Roaring Twenties (1939), his face was slightly drawn, his voice as gritty as a gravel trap. Though he was the son of a New York surgeon, an attendee of Andover and Yale, he exuded blue-collar gruffness. Maybe it was just a mark of his talent, but I watch his unsavory trucker in They Drive By Night (1940) and see a city tough who made it to the big-time through guile. Dropping the “r” or the “g” off every other word, he steals Raoul Walsh’s classic noir from right under George Raft’s nose. When he grabs a shady compatriot by the collar, demanding the $300 he feels he’s owed, Bogart’s slim frame effortlessly mixes trickery and strength — he’s an actor whose unscrupulous means and moral ends are not contradictory but fitting.

Read the rest of my column on TCM's Bogart retrospective at TOH! And catch a more in-depth look at The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in my 2009 piece at The Filmgoer. 


The Kids Are Both Right

The “all right” part of The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010) obviously means that Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson), the kids in question, are safe and sound. But there may be an alternate meaning. I first saw this funny, heartfelt story of a lesbian couple, their children, and their sperm donor with my parents and little sister. This made the already ungainly and uncomfortable sex scenes even more awkward, but it also reminded me that for all the wisdom parents impart to their offspring, the old dogs can learn new tricks from us, too. My parents, for instance, would never have bought the movie OnDemand if I hadn’t been pining to see it (and known how to work the OnDemand).

I think that’s why I’ve long wondered whether the title has an alternate meaning, that the kids are all (as in both) right because they’re correct. Better than their mothers, Joni and Laser understand that, in a family, space and proximity are always performing a tenuous two-step, recalibrating the balance. Nic (Annete Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) oscillate between extremes of closeness and distance, with the kids as with each other. One moment they’re smothering, the next they’re leaning away — jumping forward and back but ultimately going nowhere, like a car spinning its wheels.

Moore was underrated here. After so many repressed housewives, the languid, drifting Jules is a strong example of playing against type — when she embarks on an affair with the sperm donor, Paul (Mark Ruffalo, looking just like his name sounds), it honestly feels like someone stumbling into something she didn’t expect, and for which she doesn’t understand the consequences. But it’s Bening, hair shorn almost as short as Nic’s fuse, who elicits our memories of unrequited longing. Trying to warm up to Paul by discussing his love of Joni Mitchell, she strains out a dinner-table rendition of “All I Want” that captures just how beautifully The Kids Are All Right matches Joni and Laser’s sense of balance. Poised perfectly on the line between comedy and drama, Bening sings off-key: “Do you see — do you see — do you see how you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue.”

Retreating to the bathroom moments later, she discovers the affair on the end of a hairbrush, and when she returns to the table it’s a moment of quiet revelation. How easily we adults forget what kids know instinctively, and the work we have to do to remember once more.

Mean Streets

The nastiest, meanest, toughest brawl in The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010) doesn’t take place in a boxing ring. It’s the knockdown, drag-out, hair-pulling, nose-breaking front porch melee between Mickey Ward’s girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), and the women of his family — seven sisters and their mother, the leathery, foul-mouthed Alice Ward (Melissa Leo). This is no erotic mud wrestling or pillow fighting. This is Mean Streets with a bouffant hairdo, Lowell, Mass. circa 1993. Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) has to carry Charlene off squirming so she doesn’t get picked to the bone.

Lived-in moments like this, especially in the treacly genre of Cinderella sports movies, are a rare thing indeed. The Fighter does fall victim to some of the old tropes — its “true life” depiction of Ward, perennial underdog, misses his epic trilogy of fights against Arturo Gatti in service of a simpler story. Yet, Russell provides a focused, honest depiction of a city and a family stuck somewhere before their respective revivals. He’s willing to risk showing what’s most unsavory. Micky’s coach and brother, Dicky (an electric Christian Bale), is wiry and strung-out, a crackhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Alice, though she may mean well, is vindictive and venomous, snaking about looking to throw a jab.

Bale and Leo, both Oscar winners for their roles, pull off their tasks with panache; by the end of the film Dicky and Alice seem all-too-human victims of a world that’s dealt them, like the city they live in, a pretty crummy hand. The Fighter luxuriates in this loose, easy texture, lingering in smoky bars and crowded living rooms like a neighborhood sipping a High Life. That’s it’s real genius, getting just right the confluence of time and place, fashion and foibles, that created, even loved, “Irish” Mickey Ward. The climactic fight scene is great. Don’t get me wrong. But in the annals of great boxing movies — Raging Bull and Million Dollar Baby come to mind — it’s what goes on outside the confines of the ring that matters. That’s where the most blood is drawn, and where the bandages eventually come off. 


Scar Tissue

Lovely & Amazing, writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s sophomore film, is exactly what its title promises. Set in the same liberal, artsy, affluent world of her two most recent films, Friends with Money and Please Give, it floats along delicately; the first act in particular is measured, slow even. Brenda Blethyn is Jane, prepping for liposuction and flirting with her doctor as her three daughters — Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), a struggling actress, Michelle (Catherine Keener), an unhappy artist, and Annie (Raven Goodwin), a mischievous tween adopted from a crack addict — fail to find direction. One might complain, and not without merit, that the plot lacks about as much drive as the women in question. But to some extent this misses the point: Lovely & Amazing is a story about people without a narrative, sleeping around and lashing out, looking for work and lacking companionship.

The stellar cast is what helps the movie find its voice. Mortimer’s Elizabeth begins slight and submissive, nearly transparent. Then, thrust into the role of caregiver when there are complications to her mother’s surgery, she becomes wryly assertive, keeping her family in orbit as everything goes awry. Keener, for her part, takes the deeply unlikable Michelle, mean-spirited and caustic, and lends her an undercurrent of daring fragility. The film’s threads come together in a roadside McDonald’s, of all places: Annie, tossed about by her immature family, tries to escape there, while Michelle stops in to watch her life fall apart. Their conversation, like the rest of the movie, is all implication and innuendo, but it’s possible to read between the lines and witness a family facing its literal and figurative scars. By the time Annie finishes her milkshake, the movie, like an apparition, is already beginning to dissolve. But it’s easy to want to spend more time with these lovely, amazing women, if only to watch how they heal.    

No Magnetic North

My other piece in this issue of Bright Lights is on Aaron Sorkin's "moral compass," specifically focusing on The American President, Sports Night, The West Wing, and The Social Network:

Note the sheer volume of strung-together words, especially in contrast with the deluge of one-liners that preceded them. Note the admission that "being President of this country is entirely about character." Note the quiver of facts and figures so readily deployed, the logical argument mitigated by the tenacity of the moral suasion. Note the long sentences, the pounding cadences, the focused repetitions. (Note, too, that this is my style of writing as well, and either forgive me or not. But you understand by now the thing we dislike most in others is always that which we dislike most in ourselves.) Note how late each monologue falls in the narrative, climax and denouement at once. Note the way each monologue ends with a throwaway line, a closing off of the potential response: hope you enjoyed the chicken, back to the briefing, I am the President, away we go. For in the final estimation we never get mere answers from these idealists, these ideologues. We get what Sorkin considers the Truth. That he thinks we can't really handle it is clear, because we have to take it in one gasping gulp, with no time left to digest. The Great Monologue always moves on before any other voice can be heard, and then we fade to black.

It is all too easy, if you are a good Sorkinian liberal like myself, to agree unthinkingly to all of this. Easy to let conloquor slip past in favor of the part where we are meant to listen and to learn. In fact, I agree on the merits. I believe it is wrong to support subsidies that make it harder for the poor and more profitable for agribusiness. I believe no crime was ever prevented by making it easier to get a gun. I believe that the ACLU should defend the Bill of Rights even when it is used by homophobic lunatics protesting at military funerals. I believe in limiting global warming, in the right to burn a flag, in the need for honest debate instead of ad hominem attacks. In other words I believe, or would like to believe, in Aaron Sorkin's America. I just don't believe The Great Monologue is any different from the moralizing of Bill O'Reilly or Michelle Bachmann. I just don't believe that he "raise[s] the level of public debate in this country."
You understand by now that the thing Sorkin dislikes most in others — his bête noire, hypocrisy — is the thing he most dislikes in himself.

The Horror, the Horror

An excerpt from my essay on body politics in documentary film essays in the latest Bright Lights:

The essay, on film as on paper, creates its argument from the fabric of the person writing it, such that the subjectivity of the essayistic investigation becomes an integral part of our belief in its essential truth (as opposed to Truth). Like Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's investigation of French life at the dawn of the 1960s, these films attempt to order or narrate our world's complexity, and seem all the more genuine for honestly admitting that they are just one possible organization of the same information. It is no longer possible, in our post-Cold War era of diffuse globalization and identity politics, to present the world as one of simplistic binaries and logical conclusions — thus the supposedly scientific "objectivity" of a movement like direct cinema feels forced, and the political documentary can no longer concern itself with "proving" injustice so much as asking the cozy viewer to experience it as well. Rather, fragmentary glimpses on an individual basis are the path to understanding and thus addressing complex problems...

Thus the corporeal embodiment of the filmmakers and their sicknesses in these films mirrors their figurative embodiment (representation of) broader concerns: Gore's bereavement asks us to connect the dots before our own day of reckoning; Varda's hand, horrible but continuing to glean, asks us to understand the valor of salvaging the disregarded and dispossessed; Spurlock's direct address narration at the beginning and end of Super Size Me claims his experiment to be emblematic of an entire epidemic, and makes clear that our bodies and his could share the same fate. "If this ever-growing paradigm is going to shift," he says, "it's up to you. But if you decide to keep living this way, go ahead. Over time you may find yourself getting as sick as I did." Perhaps most forcefully, Tom Joslin links the ostracism he and Mark suffer as gay men with AIDS to their sense, and possibly our own, that such treatment of putative "outsiders" is suggestive of a larger cultural death. "This civilization's so strange," he says in a mournful voiceover. "I've never felt much a part of it. I think being gay separates you a little. Certainly having AIDS and being the walking dead, if you will, separates you." To bridge that gap requires not the proof of a scientific experiment but the proof, on an individual, "brother-to-brother" basis, that Tom and Mark are human, too; their intimate lives, we see in Silverlake Life — their loves and passions, their jokes and sorrows, their sicknesses and deaths — are in essence no different from our own, even if their choices of who to sleep with and what medicines to seek may well be. To this end, Tom shoots Mark reading from a book arguing that "blatant is beautiful," that being openly gay is not only nothing to be ashamed of, but also a display of the gay body (like that of Marlon Riggs) necessary to show the public that the LGBT community poses no threat. "The personal is the political, the economic and the cultural," Mark continues. "Gay is the revolution."


Cult Followings

This week's column at Thompson on Hollywood:

Developed by Veena Sud from the Danish original, the first season of [The Killing] tracks the investigation of the murder of Rosie Larsen — an investigation led by Det. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). Pulled from the brink of retirement by the case, she ducks and weaves through the morass of suspects with her ostensible replacement, rookie Det. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). The list of potential killers may seem ripped from the headlines — the ex-boyfriend, the teacher, the druggie, the mayoral candidate — but the caustically funny rapport of Linden and Holder is the beating heart of each episode. Enos, her forehead lined and jaw set, plays Linden sharp and doubtful, a reluctant heir to Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect. She doesn’t down whiskey, screw strangers, and destroy relationships with Jane’s consuming fire, but she’s equally willing to sacrifice her personal life to do her job. Kinnaman, playing her stringy, rangy boy Friday, is the line to her circle — his lackadaisical speech and wary eyes combine to give him a watchful, unembarrassed sex appeal that lends all their exchanges a little frisson of excitement.

You can see by now that The Killing invites comparison. And you will understand my skepticism when it was suggested I watch it alongside Seven, David Fincher’s dystopian thriller about an aging detective (Morgan Freeman) tracking a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), the detective’s newbie partner (Brad Pitt), and the youngster’s wife (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a subtle star turn of quiet pain that ranks among her best). The similarities are powerful: in both, the veteran retiring detective is pulled back into obsessive crime-solving mode when the callow, less reliable new partner is about to take over. My trepidations stemmed from my memory of Seven, which in my mind seemed way off the AMC series’ ken. It was popular among a certain subset of offbeat teens at the time I was in high school, the sort of thing a budding hipster would mention, after Fight Club became a cult hit, to stake his claim on having gotten there first. These memories were clear but not fond — the way you play back an embarrassing moment again and again in your head, waiting for a different ending.

I wait, still. The thickness of the allusive web, lines of Dante and Milton and Shakespeare; the unending terrors of a dying Baltimore; the willingness to build slowly to a point: we are talking here about a director who was always a technical savant, but didn’t quite know at this early stage how to play our strings with heart as well as shock. Watching Fincher’s pitch-black riff on the seven deadly sins now, I am more appreciative of the craftsmanship than ever, because I know he’s learned how to use it — what Seven lacks in precision, he found in Zodiac, what it lacks in cunning, he uncovered in The Social Network


The Vanishing Point

From my review of Second-Story Man, now up at TOH:

Dr. Spock surely did not recommend bringing your kid on a crime spree. But Monique’s desire to get Maria away from this unstable life for good precipitates the bank robbery from which the rest of the narrative descends, and which forms the best evidence of the filmmakers’ potential. Eric Zabriskie’s bumbling, operatic score mars the scene immeasurably — it clashes with the very sounds on which our tension, like Arthur’s, is predicated — but we’re still left with a startling exercise in increasing panic. Watch as Domring’s watery eyes tighten and the aural evidence piles up: the gunshots, the screaming, the voices that are everybody’s and everywhere except the one he is waiting for.

Reaching such a high-water mark this early in a film can be dangerous, and Second-Story Man eventually succumbs to the close, arid atmosphere it creates. The tone switches from gritty criminality to emotional Rorschach blot, an earth-toned canvas onto which we project romance, buddy movie, heist flick, or indie drama. Trying to be all of these, the film ends up being none; the final-act hysterics are but an overwrought imitation of a movie we’ve already forgotten about. Such twists of plot don’t do justice to what Second-Story Man seems really to be about: the aftermath of a terrible mistake, the lurching effort to pick up and try to start over from scratch.

Faced with the particulars of their past, these are people practically willing themselves to disappear. And so instead of a fitting ending it’s necessary to rely on the film’s uncannily sorrowful images of the world around the characters, like a high, snow-white field used for target practice, where all that is solid melts into air and the ground recedes into sky, or on Arthur’s explanation of a second-story man as “me, when I was younger” — a non-answer, an obfuscation, like that Impala on the point of vanishing.


Partners in Crime

From this week's "Now and Then" at TOH:

"Thelma & Louise is risky, hard-nosed, and freewheeling, passing through desert landscapes and low-slung towns on the way to freedom. Brilliantly, Sarandon plays Louise high-strung and nervous, dragging on every cigarette as though it’ll be her last; Davis elevates Thelma above a funny femme fatale with the merest inflection. 'Somethin’s crossed over in me,' she tells Louise, her voice flickering between exhilaration for her new life and regret for wasting her old one. 'I can’t go back. I couldn’t live.'

"The world we do live in falls short — unfortunately, it’s still one where an attractive woman who has one too many drinks and dances cheek to cheek 'had it coming to her.' Our heroines rightly give ’em hell anyway: a sleazy truck driver learns his lesson, Brad Pitt obliges us with some male objectification by baring his backside, and the police see that happiness is more than a little tract house on the prairie. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Thelma & Louise, uncertain whether it’s unquestionably happy or unbearably sad. I’ve never had the same ambivalence about Thelma and Louise themselves, because in the end their facility with a gun is less important than seeing their hands clasped together in a kind of communion, grabbing control of their destiny. Sink or swim, they’re in this thing together."

"Whereas Thelma & Louise soars and scats its way west, Rizzoli & Isles sounds like it’s still missing the high notes, especially as it gets up to speed. One reason the rollicking adoption-scam yarn of the second episode came as a nice surprise may have been that the painful exposition of the premiere had already to put me to sleep. The long-term problem, though, is how forcefully 'quirky' the series wants its characters to be.

"As Det. Jane Rizzoli, the damaged tomboy who took a bullet to save three colleagues in the Season One finale, Angie Harmon handles this with aplomb. Jane is plucked clean from a bad facsimile of the Cagney & Lacey playbook, but Harmon is impressively funny, especially in the exchanges with her overbearing mother (the decisively witty Lorraine Bracco). They both know how to hit the laugh lines with just the right off-centeredness, like drummers keeping a blues beat. Even in the more weighty moments, when the show tends to go downhill fast, Harmon holds her own — something about her scratchy voice, a full octave below sunny, makes the woodenness of the writing seem like a tough-gal defense mechanism."