Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Usual Suspects

The Usual Suspects
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Spacey, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollak

Right around the fifteen year mark is when a film’s worth is most tested.  Has it been remembered?  Do people still watch it?  Do people still talk about it?  No matter how much money it made, no matter how many awards it won, if, fifteen years later, it has been forgotten, the worth of the film is made clear. 

The fact that we’re still watching The Usual Suspects, more so than when it first came out, goes to show that it is just a crazy awesome film.

Customs Agent Kujan (Palminteri) is investigating an explosion at a Los Angeles dock, and there is only one witness, the crippled con man Verbal Kint (Spacey).  Kint’s testimony to Kujan has him telling the agent about the criminal gang run by Dean Keaton (Byrne) getting mixed up with the mysterious and deadly evil criminal mastermind Keyser Soze.  Soze ordered the gang to take over a boat at the dock, but soon, Kint and Kujan start to realize that things aren’t adding up.  Just who is Keyser Soze, and why did he bring these men together?

This is quite possibly the ultimate neo-noir.  It has so many thick, rich elements of classic film noir, just updated to appeal to the modern film viewer.  The plot, for one, has all the great elements of the best noirs of the 1940s.  The story is convoluted, with twists and turns and more characters than you can shake a stick at.  Hello!  Have you ever tried to make sense of a plot from a Raymond Chandler film?  Same thing!  Additional criminals are introduced who enter then exit, random cops show up but you don’t really know who they are… it’s all one big thick soup of a story.  Sure makes for one satisfying meal, especially when, after what has to be about my eighth time of really paying attention to the film when watching, the story suddenly made sense.

Apart from the plot, which is beyond gripping (I caught myself holding my breath at least five times when I rewatched it, and believe me, I know what happens by now!), the film borrows additional elements of film noir, making it an automatic love for Siobhan, because Siobhan really can’t get enough of film noir.  The use of the flashback is such a standard in noir: the flawed hero relating his tale of crime is classic.  In The Usual Suspects, not only are there flashbacks, but there are flashbacks within flashbacks, always relating back to the present.  Moreover, The Usual Suspects uses voiceover with the flashback.  By making the voiceover Kint’s conversation with Kujan, Singer manages to slip the voiceover past modern filmgoers who may consider the technique too dated.  Yet it is there nonetheless.  It absolutely reeks of Walter Neff’s confession in Double Indemnity, or Philip Marlowe’s story to the cops in Murder, My Sweet.  

This is such a macho film.  There’s only one female character and she is incredibly minor.  Edie Fineran is Dean Keaton’s girlfriend, and supposedly the reason that he’s trying to go straight.  While The Usual Suspects is unlike a noir in that there is no femme fatale to speak of, I will say that it is similar to a noir in that characters speak of love without really feeling it.  Often the femme fatale and the hero have a few conversations about loving each other, but you know that they don’t really mean it.  The hero is attracted to the femme fatale, but he doesn’t love her.  He might be obsessed or fascinated, but it is not love.  While Keaton keeps on protesting that he loves Edie, no one around him really believes him, and given how easily he seems to desert her, even after she tells him that she loves him, you doubt that this relationship is as meaningful as he claims it to be.  When Edie’s life is threatened in order to coerce Keaton into working for Soze, Keaton is coerced, but I doubt it was because of Edie.  Keaton would have been more frightened of a criminal capable of demonstrating such power than he would be of his random lawyer girlfriend getting taken out.

Because the film was made prior to the huge computer explosion of the late nineties, the sets maintain a timeless quality to them due to the lack of dated technology.  There is one instance of a comically large cell phone, but other than that, the police offices seem not so much accurate as ripped straight from the page of a hard-boiled crime drama.  Smoking fills the movie; I can’t count the number of times characters light up.  You don’t see that in modern movies, but it fills the classic film noirs.  

Singer’s direction is, quite frankly, staggering.  It took a director of uncommon confidence to take on this picture as his first major studio-produced film.  Singer had one full-length credit to his name, but it was a small film from a no name studio on a small budget.  I’m impressed that producers would agree to back the film; it goes to show that when Hollywood takes risks, it can still produce phenomenal films.  Singer delights in framing his criminal gang in interesting settings, often showing them standing all in the same frame, more often than not using deep focus to put them all into stark clarity.  

The names in the film are fantastic.  Names in film noir often hold substantial meaning; this film is no exception.  Take Verbal Kint.  The nickname ‘Verbal’ is rather brazenly significant, he being the one who is telling the story and narrating the film; his nickname hints at his personality.  He is a talker, a yarn-spinner, a storyteller.  Additionally, consider the last name ‘Kint.’  It’s related to the German word “kinder,” meaning “child.”  Verbal Kint is often treated as a child, told to stay behind, told he is not ready to deal with the real dangers of the rest of the gang.  He is small and capable of being manipulated.  Keyser Soze, the terrifying unknown criminal gangster, has a first name that sounds just like “Kaiser” or emperor.  He is a man who is in control, who is calling the shots, who is pulling the strings.  Apart from the meaning of the names, listen to them: Verbal Kint, Keyser Soze, Dean Keaton, Kobayashi, Fenster, McManus, Hockney, Agent Kujan.  These are highly unusual names, and they all have a hard edge to them.  Listen to the numerous “K” sounds and “T” sounds.  Hard, flinty, steel-edged names these are.  They paint the characters as beyond reality somehow.  There are no Jones’ or Richardsons’ or Smiths’.  They are most certainly characters, larger than life.

The Usual Suspects floored me when I first watched it as a high school student in the spring of 1996, and it continues to impress me today.  It’s so gratifying to have a film that I loved when I was young continue to enthrall me as a much more experienced film-going adult.  I really don’t think that thrillers get any better than this.  It’s so flinty, so gritty, so perfectly orchestrated, so beautifully executed.  I flat out love this movie.  Love love love.  It’s interesting, it’s thought-provoking, it tells a gripping story, performances are all in tune – it’s a big, big wow.  And it doesn’t get old.  It doesn’t lose its potency with repeated viewings; if anything, it gets better as it ages.  I love this film.  Easily in my top ten favorite films of all time.

Arbitrary rating: A perfect 10/10.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Written on the Wind

Written on the Wind
Director: Douglas Sirk
Starring: Lauren Bacall, Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone

I’m not a big fan of melodrama.  I find them sappy, dull, ridiculously manipulative, and tiresome.  So imagine my surprise when I rewatched Written on the Wind, only one of the most renowned filmed melodramas of all time, and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process.  The reason for this is undoubtedly Douglas Sirk, King of the Melodrama.  Sirk’s approach to the genre is unique, biting, intense, many-layered, and interesting.  There’s a helluva lot going on in Written on the Wind beyond the narrative, and I really appreciate that. 

The ridiculously soapy plot centers on a quartet of characters.  We open with Lucy (Bacall), a working gal, who gets selected by Mitch Wayne (Hudson) to be the next plaything for his lifelong friend Kyle Hadley (Stack), heir to an oil fortune.  Kyle is an alcoholic and outrageous wild child; Mitch is quiet, reserved, responsible, and practically an adopted member of the Hadley family despite his poor financial status.  Lucy balks at Kyle’s attempts to woo her with fortune, which makes Mitch like her, but also makes Kyle like her even more.  Kyle and Lucy impulsively wed and she tries to reform him.  When they meet the last member of the quartet, Kyle’s kid sister Marylee (Malone), another wild child who has harbored a lifelong love for Mitch, Marylee’s antics and Kyle’s paranoia and insecurities soon start to pull everything apart.

I’ll deal with the narrative first.  This movie is Over The Top – the capitalization is required.  Don’t think too hard about how Kyle and Lucy’s courtship is so damn short and wait, I thought she didn’t like him, and holy cow, that’s a cheesy line he threw her way.  It’s just a prelude to getting all four of our main characters under the same roof.  Once Marylee enters the picture, you start to understand the definition of “full tilt,” because that’s how Sirk plays it.  This is not about believability, ladies and gentlemen.  This movie spins with the same giddy energy of film noir, where everything is dark and dank and evil and shady.  In noir, that energy drives the story of crime and desperation.  Here, the energy crackles throughout the story keeping the volatility sky high.  I usually grow tired of melodramas as I find them tedious.  I would hardly call Written on the Wind tedious.

And yet, through his utterly ridiculous story of greed and paranoia and infertility and power, Sirk manages to make a very clear social statement.  Written on the Wind is a fairly searing indictment of the follies of the wealthy; despite their riches, the Hadleys are deeply troubled, mostly through their seeking of power or constantly needing to validate their own power.  Kyle is deeply insecure and, it is implied, impotent.  He has a lengthy discussion with Lucy at the beginning of the film that focuses mostly on Mitch, and Sirk is constantly implying that it is Mitch that wields the real power in this relationship, and for all of Kyle’s braggadocio, he is painfully aware of how small he really is.  Marylee is a nymphomaniac who throws her cooch all over town, except when she’s aggressively pursuing the one man she really wants – Mitch.  Again, it is Mitch who holds the power; he is the only one who could get Marylee to do something.  Kyle and Marylee together do not react well to their lack of control, their lack of power, and they lash out in harmful and self-destructive ways.  These are the rich, according to Sirk. 

Sirk also freely uses symbolism throughout the film.  Lucy and Mitch, who hail from the middle class and are steady and responsible (and also, frankly, boring), are constantly dressed in neutrals – browns, greys, and tans (even a rather ridiculous beige baseball cap worn by Rock Hudson pops up).  Kyle and Marylee, on the other hand, are costumed in bright colors that radiate off the screen thanks to the Technicolor production.  Guns are surprisingly frequent, given that this is a “weepy woman’s picture” about the melodrama of a rich family.  A clear representation of both power and violence, Kyle is paranoid as he makes certain he is constantly surrounded by guns although he rarely, if ever, wields one himself.  Mirrors are abundant throughout the sets, something common to Sirk’s films.  “The mirror is the imitation of life. What is interesting about a mirror is that it does not show yourself as you are, it shows you your own opposite,” quoting the director himself.  That is precisely what we have here.  The mirrors are representing a façade – perhaps the one we want to present to the world, perhaps the one we show to ourselves, perhaps the one others see.  But they do not represent truth, merely a weakly reflected version of it.  The color red is positively everywhere in Written on the Wind (except for the clothing of Lucy and Mitch).  Chairs are red, bedspreads are red, cars are red, the stairs are red.  Red flowers are in nearly every scene involving the wealthy, perhaps signifying their passion and violence and uncontrolled emotions.  Red represents danger, or signs to stop.  Lastly, the film is chockablock full of phallic imagery.  That’s no mistake that Sirk placed red Anthurium flowers in Marylee’s room – the dang things are more than slightly provocative.  The ending – Marylee literally fondling a statue of an oil well, which looks like a… well, you know… couldn’t be much clearer.  Kyle’s infertility and implied impotence is given additional heft by these constant references.  

It’s a little surprising that, given the cast includes Bacall, Hudson, and Stack, the one actor with whom I am least familiar is the one who captivated me the most.  Dorothy Malone rightly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Marylee.  Marylee is full-on unhinged, and Malone does not hold back in getting that across.   She likes fucking and looks like she doesn’t do it nicely.  She’s conniving and mean-spirited and is not above threatening imprisonment and general ruination in order to get her way.  Given Marylee’s sexual impropriety and Kyle’s impotence, there’s more than a bit of a hint of an incestuous past between the two.  Malone is tremendously fun to watch here.  

My first pass through this film, it barely registered.  I watched it then promptly forgot it.  I was not intrigued to watch it again, but it was playing on Turner Classic, so I thought “what the heck.”  Everyone always made such a fuss about Douglas Sirk, that even though I had never noticed a dang thing about his movies, I owed it another shot.  I always think a movie deserves a second shot – I never make up my mind about a movie until at least twice through a picture.  For Written on the Wind, I’m not sure why I forgot it the first time around.  There’s a lot here.  For “just a melodrama,” this is a surprisingly dense film.  Sirk was not merely throwing random lines or images or characters on the screen.  There is meaning here.  There are layers.  I’m fascinated by that, and to find it in a melodrama is unexpected – and refreshing.

And heck, if all you want is a soapy story, Written on the Wind will fit that bill as well.  Because honestly, it doesn’t get much more ridiculously soapy than this, and I found that tremendously entertaining.

Final verdict: soapy, trashy fun with all kinds of subversive meanings.  And editing to add - in the weeks since I saw this for a second time, I keep on thinking back to it fondly.  The more I think about this movie, the more I like it.  REALLY like it.  Want-to-own-it sort of like it.  And believe you me, I was not expecting to enjoy it that much when I put it on for a second viewing.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Own Private Idaho

My Own Private Idaho
Director: Gus Van Sant
Starring: River Phoenix, Keanu Reeves, William Richert

The story opens with a shot of Mike (Phoenix) on a road in the middle of nowhere.  Although the movie will take us far from this location, this is the emotional core of the story.  We learn more of Mike’s story, how he was a street hustler (re: prostitute) in the Northwest, befriending fellow street kid Scott (Reeves), who also happens to be the heir to a wealthy family.  Adventures and hijinx ensue upon the arrival of Bob (Richert), a gay overlord of the displaced street kid family.  Later, we follow Mike as he searches desperately for his birth mother, and feel for him as he falls in love with Scott.

The theme of those living on the outskirts of society has never held a huge attraction for me.  This can probably be traced back to an overly ambitious Reading teacher in seventh grade who insisted we each do a massive project on The Outsiders.  The overexposure turned that story into one of my least favorite ever, and I still get a bit of a bad taste in my mouth when exposed to it.  However, despite not being quite my cup of tea, My Own Private Idaho is very good at portraying that life in a manageable, understandable, yet unsentimental fashion, somewhat on par with the world that Jon Voigt inhabits in Midnight Cowboy.  That’s probably Van Sant’s greatest accomplishment in this film: while watching it, I was bemused and slightly intrigued.  When it was over, I started thinking about what I had seen, and the emotional impact started to hit me.  These are sad, sad people in this film, but Van Sant keeps the crippling depression at bay until the audience is ready to drink it in.  

Easily my favorite aspect of the film is the utterly bizarre yet beguiling Shakespearean section in the middle.  About a third of the film, that involving Bob and the street kids as opposed to Scott and Mike on their own, is a full on modern adaptation of Henry IV, with a touch of Henry V thrown in for good measure.  Because of the source material, it’s also an adaptation of Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight (1968), which is, you guessed it, an adaptation of Henry IV and Henry V.  Van Sant is paying homage to Welles in these sequences.  Bob is clearly Falstaff, wearing a bathrobe that quickly starts to pass as a cloak, and a costume that seems to have a codpiece.  He practically speaks in iambic pentameter, as does everyone else around him.  To his Falstaff is Scott’s Prince Hal, heir to a fortune but hell bent on sowing his wild oats amongst the street urchins.  Even the soundtrack changes to one of Elizabethan instrumentation.  It doesn’t take long to figure out that My Own Private Idaho has made the turn from loner story to Shakespeare. 

This is my favorite part of the film because I have long been fascinated with how Shakespeare is adapted in film.  I like the idea so much, I did an independent study course on it in college, one-on-one with my Shakespeare professor, despite the fact that I majored in Biochemistry.  I love to see how society continues to find relevance in Shakespeare’s work by updating it and applying it to new situations.  

Given, then, my fascination with this idea, I got legit excited when I started to see the Shakespeare in My Own Private Idaho.  Despite the fact that Keanu Reeves started to struggle with the dialogue here (while not lifted directly from the plays, the dialogue is significantly elevated in this section), I loved seeing how Van Sant equates Falstaff’s found family with that of Scott and Mike and street kid prostitutes. 

Imagine my disappointment when, just as abruptly as we dive into a Shakespeare retelling, Van Sant takes us right out of it again.  With the Shakespeare section, we explore Scott and his relationship with the street kids and his father.  The non-Shakespeare section, though, focuses instead on Mike.  This is a much sadder, considerably less farcical portion of the film.  There is humor, to be sure (a German john named Hans was good for a handful of laughs, as was the john who dressed Mike up in aprons and called him “Little Dutch Boy”), but the tone is much more downbeat.  Van Sant keeps it idiosyncratic enough (I very much enjoyed the “talking magazine covers” sequence) to prevent full blown pessimism, but it lacks the energy of the Shakespeare section.

Although I greatly preferred the Shakespeare section, it is in the other two thirds of the film that River Phoenix really shines as Mike.  Mike is a narcoleptic, a fact told to us in the very opening of the film, and he collapses at terrifically inopportune times throughout the story.  Scott is always there to take care of him, though.  Puts him in a cab, pulls him to safety, keeps him out of trouble.  It’s easy to see how Mike, a loner, emotionally attaches himself to Scott, a hedonist, only to ultimately find himself alone yet again.  Phoenix is all physicality, twitchy and tetchy, with his constantly shrugged shoulders showing how he is withdrawing from his world.  He is mumbling and fumbling, but when he slowly and awkwardly admits his feelings for Scott, it’s emotional and sad.

Ultimately, I felt too much of a disparity between the Shakespeare portion and the Mike’s story portion.  While Van Sant plays freely with film composition, employing several little oddities (stop-motion camera shots, freeze frames that aren’t freeze frames, animation, iris camera shots), the two parts are too different for me to reconcile them to the same movie, the same story.  Truth is, they aren’t the same story – Mike’s story versus Scott’s story – but it’s too far of a stretch to explain away as simply “idiosyncratic.”  It’s far too cut and paste for my taste.  I ended up wanting more of the Shakespeare section; make a movie of that on its own.  I would love that.  And while yes, Mike’s story is the heavy heart of the film, I’d rather watch the Shakespeare section. 

Overall, My Own Private Idaho is a quirky yet un-melodramatic look at street culture and loneliness.  The search for belonging is one that will never end for some.  The end of the film, somewhat ambiguous, I read as an unhappy epilogue to a fairly unhappy story, indicative of fantasy and perhaps heaven, not reality.  Others read it as a hopeful ending.  It’s a good ending, though; fitting to the oddball little flick that Van Sant created.

Arbitrary Rating: 7.5/10