Saturday, November 21, 2009

On DVD: "The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter"

Few true crime tales have so fascinated filmmakers as the 1969 Tate/LaBianca murders, from the two TV movies of Helter Skelter to the grindhouse and exploitation “dramatizations” to numerous documentaries dating back to the 1973 Oscar nominee Manson. And it is, no doubt, a dramatic story, symbolizing (for many) the bloody end of the hippie era and a shocking example of the sheer randomness of violent crime. But why is Hollywood so drawn to this tale? Well, first, it all happened right in their back yard—and the most famous victim was one of their own, Sharon Tate, the beautiful actress and wife of famed director Roman Polanski. But there are all sorts of peculiar connections within the story—from the vague Beach Boys associations of murderous mastermind Charles Manson to the star-powered clientele of hairdresser victim Jay Sebring. Those associations are, in theory, the topic of the new documentary Six Degrees of Helter Skelter.

I say “in theory” because Michael Dorsey’s documentary is too all over the place to focus on a single thesis; that’s the hook, but the film is really a wide-ranging examination of the entire case, in the form of a guided tour through the various places where it happened. And when by “guided tour” I mean just that—the websites and are listed as presenters of the films in the opening credits (same as studios and production companies), and the film is “hosted” by Scott Michaels, a Hollywood tour guide who escorts visitors to the places where famous people died. Michaels is a weird, interesting dude, and Dorsey utilizes him both as a charismatic on-camera presence and as a fast-talking, hard-boiled narrator.

Once the credits are done, we start with an oddly out-of-tone prologue that introduces us to Michaels, fills us in on his background, and gives him the chance to show off some of his death memorabilia (scored with oddly chipper, up-tempo music). He eventually arrives at the Manson case, and you have to give him this: he is a wellspring of information about it. He then takes Dorsey’s cameras on a tour through the entire story, and the places where it happened, going in a roughly chronological order—though, true to the title, there are plenty of detours and sidebars.

No detail is too insignificant for Michaels; when detailing the Tate murders, for example, he rattles off the manufacturer of the hand towel that Susan Atkins used to write “PIG” on the door in Tate’s blood. Some of the intricacies get into the weeds a bit (yes, the fact that the Abbey Road cover was shot the same day as the Tate murders is a juicy bit of trivia, but what of it?), and not all of the road trips add much to the tale. But some of the footage is pretty remarkable (such as their late night journey up Cielo Drive on the anniversary of the killings), and Michaels is particularly good at debunking many of the urban legends that have sprung up around the case—such as Manson’s audition for the Monkees (he was in jail at the time) or the countless celebrities who supposedly turned down invitations to the Tate-Polanski home that evening (“Everyone in Hollywood wanted to make the murders about them”).

As is almost a given, some of the film smacks of exploitation; I’m not sure that the addition of gunshot sound effects while detailing the murders is necessary, and the inclusion of the grisly crime scene photos (in full, detailed color) is in pretty poor taste. There’s definitely a home movie feel to the enterprise; it’s mighty light on B-roll (we keep seeing many of the same photos and footage over and over again) and some of the handheld camerawork is shoddy. But is it even trying for conventional documentary? Or is it just an artifact for Manson aficionados, a videotaped version of the tours that sponsored it?

Six Degrees of Helter Skelter isn’t much of a documentary, and it sure isn’t cinema—I’m not sure what the hell it is. Except that, in spite of my intellectual objections to its scattershot structure, its questionable filmmaking, its exploitative overtones, and its lack of consistent tonality, I kept watching. The story it tells is a fascinating one, and the people who made it know that story backwards, forwards, and sideways. It’s not much a movie, but it is compelling, fascinating, highway-rubbernecker viewing.

I can’t, with a clear conscience, fully recommend Six Degrees of Helter Skelter; it feels too much like a ghoulish exploitation job, or a commercial for the guided tours that appear to have funded it. But there are plenty of people (myself included) who have read Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter and have seen the TV movies and the other documentaries, and there is something indisputably fascinating for those true-crime buffs to see these locations and revisit this grisly chapter in modern crime (and pop culture) one more time.

"The Six Degrees of Helter Skelter" was released on DVD on October 6th.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On DVD: "TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers"

Ask the average moviegoer with at least a passing knowledge of film history to name some Hitchcock films, and they’re more than likely to call up something from his late Universal period: Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds. These were the years in which the master of suspense was firmly entrenched as one of the world’s few superstar directors, a man whose name above the title was just as likely to pull an audience as the (considerable) stars who fronted them. Hitch became a brand, thanks to his successful TV show, his anthology magazines and books, and so forth—people saw him every week on their televisions, using his droll wit to introduce tales of suspense and horror.

But his mass success was hard-earned; he’d been making movies since the silent era, cultivating his particular style in pre-war England before coming to the States in 1939, signing a lucrative multi-year deal with David O. Selznick. Under that contract, he directed his first big Stateside hits (Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent), before Selznick loaned him to RKO as part of a package deal with Joan Fontaine (whom he’d just directed in Rebecca) to make Suspicion.

The picture marked his first collaboration with Cary Grant, who would star in a total of four Hitchcock movies and is considered by many to be the perfect Hitchcock leading man (though there’s certainly an argument to be made in Jimmy Stewart’s favor as well). Grant plays a handsome, unapologetic lout; his Johnnie is a sharp-dressed dandy who has never worked a day in his life and, contrary to appearances, doesn’t appear to have a dollar to his name. In the arresting opening scene, he shares a train compartment with Lina (Fontaine), and Hitchcock deftly uses intercut close-ups, almost directly into camera, to create a rather unnerving point-of-view camera that plunges the viewer right into the middle of their tense, awkward flirtation. After an odd, strained courtship (Johnnie’s affectionate pet name for Lina is, um, “Monkeyface”), the pair are married, and Lina starts to get an idea of exactly what she’s in for; Johnnie is an irresponsible, flighty leech with a gambling problem.

The screenplay (credited to three writers, including Hitchock’s wife Alma) strikes a peculiar tone in its second act, delving into the waters of domestic comedy/drama and marital strife, in a style not dissimilar to Hitch’s undervalued comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith from the same year, but with occasional sinister overtones. But then, as Lina begins to suspect that her husband may have murderous intentions (first towards his friend “Beaky,” played by Nigel Bruce of the Sherlock Holmes pictures, then towards her), Hitchcock introduces a sense of dread—first subtly, then wildly (Franz Waxman’s music is enjoyable bombastic). Watch the way Harry Stradling’s lighting scheme shifts as the film becomes a potboiler in the third act; during Lina’s frightened stroll through the foyer of their home, the shadows of the window frame her like a spider caught in a web.

In the striking photography and tight editing, Hitch beautifully conveys Lina’s ever-increasing paranoia, and the shot of Johnnie bringing a presumably poisoned glass of milk up the darkened stairs (reportedly lit by a bulb inside the glass) is justifiably famous. By the time we reach the car climax, Hitchcock is playing with us—the photography is over-the-top, the music is out-of-control. But then the movie deflates, thanks to the notoriously compromised ending (spoiler alert), which changes the source material (the Francis Iles novel Before the Fact) from its logical conclusion (that Johnnie is a murderer and Lina is his eventual victim) to a slapdash conclusion that negates much of what has come before (Lina’s just crazy, I guess?) in order to avoid having a big star like Cary Grant playing a murderer. It’s an unfortunate fact of the studio system, made worse by the fact that Grant’s dark character, sunnily played, is one of his most interesting creations, and one we would have liked to have seen played through to completion. In the indispensible Hitchcock/Truffaut, Hitch claims to have wanted a more congruent ending (with, indeed, an ingenious payoff), but reports of the accuracy of that claim vary. (end spoilers)

Hitchcock spent the remainder of the 1940s cultivating his style, crafting such masterpieces as the Thorton Wilder-penned small town drama/thriller Shadow of a Doubt, the stunningly effective 1946 love triangle Notorious, and the tense 1948 experiment in unbroken photography Rope. But he made one of his greatest films for Warner Brothers in 1951, the quintessential elegant Hitchcock thriller, Strangers on a Train. The story is one of his best-known (thanks in no small part to its reworking as Danny DeVito’s 1988 black comedy Throw Momma from the Train): Tennis ace Guy Haines (Farley Granger) strikes up an on-train acquaintance with an odd man named Bruno (Robert Walker), who’s full of peculiar proclamations like “I certainly admire people who do things” and “People who do things are important!” In the process of their chat, both reveal the identity of someone who their life would be easier without; for Guy, it’s his first wife, a philandering good-time girl who won’t let him out of the marriage so he can wed his true love Anne (Ruth Roman), while Bruno longs to be ride of his hidebound father (Jonathan Hale). Bruno explains that they have stumbled upon the perfect murder scheme—they each take on the other’s murder for them, since neither man would have a motive for the other killing.

Guy thinks Bruno is joking around, but he comes to realize exactly how serious the affable chap is. The film’s first carnival sequence, in which Bruno stalks and kills Guy’s estranged wife, is pure, perfect Hitchcock: inventively assembled, beautifully photographed, subtly menacing, and filled with splendid moments (Bruno’s encounter with the kid holding the balloon) and jaw-dropping trick shots (the reflection of the deed in her fallen eyeglasses). Indeed, the picture contains some of Hitch’s most potent visuals (such as the moment Guy spots Bruno in a tennis match crowd).

It’s also one of his most clever screenplays, adapted from the novel by Patricia Highsmith (who wrote the “Ripley” books) by the great Raymond Chandler and Czenzi Ormonde (with an uncredited assist by the legendary Ben Hecht). The dialogue scenes between Guy and Bruno are affably uncomfortable at the top of the picture, gradually growing more and more tense (and more and more rife with homosexual subtext). But it’s also a witty script, full of funny toss-off scenes like Bruno’s discussion of murder planning with a pair of dowagers at a ritzy society ball (a scene which is followed by the great line, “This is a nice thing for the gossips—next thing you know, they’ll be talking about orgies!”). Able comic relief is supplied by Hitch’s daughter Patricia, who turns in a spark-plug of a performance as Anne’s slyly funny, bespectacled sister Barbara.

Hitch pulls the picture taut as it barrels to its conclusion; the construction is whip-smart, and the craftsmanship is superb. A misplaced lighter becomes the film’s MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s buzzword for the thing that the plot hinges on, just so it hinges on something), leading both Guy and Bruno back to the carnival grounds for the famed carousel ending. That suspenseful sequence keeps upping the stakes—Hitch isn’t satisfied just having our hero fighting for his life, no, he’s got to put a little kid and old man in danger too, just for the hell of it. This is a director who’s having a great time thrilling an audience, and his efforts and effects work; Strangers on a Train is one of his best films.

His follow-up to that highlight was the lesser I Confess, a picture that Hitchcock himself dismissed (in the Truffaut interview) as “rather heavy-handed” and “lacking in humor and subtlety,” ultimately stating that “we shouldn’t have made the picture.” It is certainly one of his weaker efforts. Montgomery Clift stars as Father Michael Logan, a priest who receives the confession of an accidental murder and must keep that secret, even when he is fingered for the crime himself. He’s brought to trial by Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden, in a workmanlike performance), who assembles his case based on the good father’s unfortunate associations with Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), whom he loved before becoming a man of the cloth.

The opening scenes are a bit turgid, delving into a melodramatic style that the film has some trouble shaking. The construction of the screenplay (by George Tabori and William Archibald, from Paul Anthelme’s play) is reasonably sturdy—I liked the way that they gradually reveal Ruth and Father Michael’s past—but the flashback scenes are corny (and done no favors by Dimitri Tiomkin’s otherwise able score), and they go on long after we’ve got the point. Hitchcock explores some interesting framings in the courtroom scenes, and the closing sequence is cogent, if predictable.

Clift is a peculiar casting choice—his hyper-realistic performance is seemingly at odds with Hitchcock’s flamboyant, theatrical style (they reportedly did not get on well on set), though Hitchcock seems to recognize the power of a tight close-up on Clift’s quietly expressive face. He seems, in fact, to be purposely attempting to work in a more naturalistic style, shooting on location (he makes fine use of the film’s Quebec settings) and toning down the razzle-dazzle. Trouble is, he drains the passion as well. I Confess is not a bad film by any stretch, but it is a rather dull one.

His next attempt at naturalism would prove far more successful. After several of his slick, signature elegant thrillers (like To Catch a Thief, the remake of his own Man Who Knew Too Much, and my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window), he returned to Warner Brothers for the vastly underrated 1956 effort The Wrong Man. The innocent man wrongly accused was, of course, the favorite running theme of the Hitchcock filmography, but The Wrong Man packed a bit more of a punch, as Hitch himself explains in the picture’s opening voice over. “This is a true story,” he assures us. “Every word of it.”

Henry Fonda is the title character, a jazz musician and family man who all but seals his fate early in the film when his wife asks him, “Aren’t we the lucky people?” and he replies “Sure we are.” Not for long. He is mistaken for an armed robber (in a nice bit of foreshadowing, he is framed behind the bars of a teller’s window), he is arrested and charged, and his attempts to make a case for his innocence prove so difficult and fruitless that his wife is driven to insanity.

Perhaps due to the “based on a true story” construct, Hitchcock shoots the film with fewer frills and a more direct style (he only engages in two trick shots: a rather unfortunate scene inside Fonda’s first cell, and a more effective bit that follows him into a cell through the slot in the door). The results are compelling and effective. He doesn’t have to amp up the drama for us—in a quietly disturbing sequence like Fonda’s visits to the scenes of his purported crimes, the straightforward (almost documentary-style) photography serves the story masterfully, and paints a portrait of Hitchcock as a director of enormous tact and control. In some ways, it’s his police procedural—Law and Order forty years before its time.

When the case goes to trial, the setting shifts to a room unlike any movie courtroom you’ve ever seen—it’s dull, people chatter, and no one’s paying much attention. The portrayal of a half-assed justice system gels nicely with the earlier scenes conveying Fonda’s helplessness at being zipped through a maze of confusing bureaucracy. Fonda shoulders the bulk of the picture handily with his no-nonsense performance, while Hitchcock regular Vera Miles, as his wife, handles the unexpected turn of her character to near-nihilistic madness well—it sounds contrived, but within the context of the story and the confines of her grounded performance, it’s entirely convincing. The climactic religious overtones are a touch heavy-handed, and the film’s potentially powerful closing confrontation deflates in the face of a weak line, poorly delivered. But for most of its running time, The Wrong Man is an undiscovered Hitchcock gem, showing the master working outside of his comfort zone and maintaining his considerable power over the form.

Not all of the pictures presented in TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers are among Hitch’s best, but even the weaker ones are interesting, if for nothing else than for their place in the great filmmaker’s canon. With one legitimate masterpiece (Strangers) and one underrated work (The Wrong Man) in the mix, along with mostly-sturdy audio and video and some fine bonus features, this bargain-stickered collection is a steal at twice the price.

"TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers" hit DVD on Tuesday, November 3rd.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kael of the Week: The split audience

I promise to start making more of an effort to actually do this feature every week.

“In recent years, the movie audience has split into the audience for popular films—the mass audience—and the art-house audience, and movies, once heralded as the new great dramatic art, have followed the route of other arts. The advances are now made by ‘difficult’ artists who reach a minority audience, and soon afterward, the difficult artists, or their bowdlerizers,a re consumed by the mass audience. Yesterday’s interesting, difficult new directors become commercial, and their work becomes part of a film industry’s anonymous product, which will never be compared to Chartres. Infrequent moviegoers are likely to be irritated when they go to a highly recommended art-house picture and find it bewildering and obscure. What they many not be aware of is that in this new, divided world of film the commercial movies have become so omnivorous and so grossly corrupt that frequent moviegoers may, for the first time in movie history, be looking for traces of talent and for evidence of thought, and may care more for an ‘interesting’ failure than for a superficially entertaining ‘hit.’”
- From "A Sign of Life"
The New Yorker, December 28, 1968

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On DVD: "Gomorrah"

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is a film that requires, demands, and rewards our attention. In its opening sequences, it introduces a dizzying array of characters and potential plotlines, and expects us to keep everyone straight and figure out exactly what they’re up to. To a casual, disengaged viewer, these scenes may seem aimless. But an adjustment is required, to cinema from a foreign soil, free of the flat-footed explosion that plagues so much of American film. You have to focus on a film like this. Once you have, it works you over.

Director Garrone is one of six credited screenwriters; the film is adapted from the bestselling book by Roberto Saviano, which detailed the inner workings of organized crime in Naples, Italy so thoroughly and with such accuracy that Saviano became a marked man (he was given a permanent police escort by the Italian government). His focus is the Camorra, the oldest criminal organization in Italy (older than the Mafia, and arguably more powerful).

Garrone’s adaptation follows five of the multiple story threads from the book, spanning from kids on the street to men of power (think of it as a kind of Italian Wire). We meet Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a 13-year-old grocery delivery boy whose morals are quickly corrupted when he joins a street gang; Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), a pair of Scarface-quoting stick-up kids with a self-destructive streak; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor in the Camorra-controlled fashion industry who takes a high-paying risk when he begins training workers at a Chinese sweatshop; Franco (Toni Servillo), who coordinates the illegal dumping of toxic waste; and Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a powerless money man whose loyalties are clearly for sale.

The first words that blast across the screen are the most comforting ones imaginable in preface to a gangster film: “Martin Scorsese presents.” It’s easy to see why Scorsese took to the picture, with its dark criminal overtones, played out in a style that is simultaneously fresh and clearly steeped in the tradition of Italian neorealism. Garrone’s filmmaking is spare, clean, direct, no-nonsense; his organic camerawork manages to pull off the neat trick of being stylish without being showy (okay, the shot near the end that follows Marco and Ciro’s motorcycle is pretty showy). He uses no score and precious little source music, and he gets the kind of hyper-naturalistic performances from his cast that feel like documentary, like moments grabbed rather than staged (the bonus featurette spotlights a working method that not only encourages improvisation, but insists on it).

The picture has moments of warmth and flashes of humor, but they are fleeting; when the violence comes, in happens in a flash, and there is skill and real terror in the brutality. After a good ninety minutes of set-up and disparate storytelling, Garrone begins to pull the drawstrings, to bring the seemingly disconnected threads together into a searing, powerful conclusion that lands like a punch to the kidney. A palpable sense of cold anxiety pervades the closing passages, as each story slams into its inevitable conclusion; one might wish for an ending that holds out a little more hope, but that would be an artifice, a fraud. For these people, it was never gonna come out any other way.

Gomorrah’s scattershot storytelling may test even the most patient of viewers, and it does indeed drag in some spots. But when it pulls its far-flung elements together into a closing symphony of blood and dread, it is powerful, skilled filmmaking of the highest order.

"Gomorrah" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 24th.

Today's New DVDs- 11/17/09

Well, this is a good week to blow a paycheck on DVDs and Blu-rays.

Star Trek: J.J. Abrams' deservedly celebrated "reboot" of one of pop culture's most venerable franchises is thrilling, beautifully made, and infectiously fun.

Bruno: Sacha Baron Cohen (and director Larry Charles) followed up Borat with this similarly-styled mock-doc shock comedy; it sunk quickly at the box office, and can't recapture its predecessor's subversive glee, but it still has some awfully funny stuff in it.

The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection (Blu-ray): One so-so movie (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), one great movie (Clerks) and one modern masterpiece (Chasing Amy) make up this new Blu collection from one of our most undeservedly polarizing filmmakers.

Andy Barker, P.I.: The Complete Series: Here's a funny show that you didn't see, gone after a too-brief six outings; it's the kind of fast, funny, smart TV comedy that is constantly getting the quick cancellation, while junk like Two and a Half Men thrives.

Margaret Cho- Beautiful: It's been a long time since I'm The One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O., as this only fitfully funny concert DVD confirms.

The Limits of Control: There are few filmmakers I'm more willing to trust than Jim Jarmusch, but he blows that trust big-time with this aimless, meandering, and downright boring journey of self-indulgence.

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (Blu-ray): Twenty years after its release, Steven Soderbergh's out-of-nowhere breakthrough picture still holds water, and stands as perhaps the most personal film to date from the idiosyncratic filmmaker.

New on Blu: "The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection"

In one of the bonus documentaries included in the new Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection, Chris Rock inadvertently pinpoints exactly why Smith is such a polarizing filmmaker. “Clerks is one of those movies that makes you write a movie for a couple of days,” Rock notes of the director’s first film, before going on to explain that after those couple of days, you realize that it’s not as easy as it looks.

But if you visit just about any Internet message board or comment thread, you’ll find that Smith is a filmmaker that inspires fierce opinions: everyone seems to either love him or hate him. The passion he ignites among his detractors is somewhat befuddling—we’re not talking about a Michael Bay or a Brett Ratner, making mindless but ubiquitous tentpole blockbusters or fumbling beloved franchises. This is a guy who makes innocuous, low-budget comedies, basically utilizing a fairly tight crew of collaborators and aiming only to entertain some folks. Why does he inspire such vitriol?

The last, saddest refuge of someone under attack is the childlike response, “They’re just jealous,” but I think there might be something to that when it comes to Smith. When Clerks was released in fall of 1994, Smith’s backstory was as much a part of the marketing blitz as the picture itself—the film school dropout not only wrote the script (about a convenience store clerk who commiserates with his best friend, the video store clerk next door, over the course of a long and eventful day) from his own experiences, but shot the picture in the very stores where he worked, pulling day shifts and shooting during the overnight hours when they were closed. The meager production, with a price tag of around 27 grand, was financed by a combination of maxed-out credit cards, refunded school fees, a chunk of flood insurance, and the sale of part of Smith’s prized comic book collection.

But what it lacked in production value and professionalism, it made up for with real wit and intelligent writing. Smith’s dialogue (described at the time as “David Mamet meets Howard Stern”) was remarkable, a fast-paced mixture of conversational rhythms, pop culture references, high-minded wordplay, and low comedy. Like fellow Miramax kid Quentin Tarantino (whose monster hit Pulp Fiction hit a couple of months previous, with Clerks trailers attached to its prints), Smith wrote in a distinctive style that was very much of that moment in movies—post-post modern filmmakers, whose characters and dialogue were as informed by what they learned from TV and movies as what they had experienced in real life.

There’s no question that Clerks has some problems. The performances are wildly uneven; Smith and his buddy Jason Mewes, in the first of their many appearances as Jay and Silent Bob, tend to fare the best, and while Brian O’Halloran (as Dante) and Jeff Anderson (as Randall) make for a good team, O’Halloran is frequently whiny and irritating (his “I’m not even supposed to be here today!” incantation is meant to be a funny running gag, but it’s merely annoying). Neither of the female leads is particularly good, and some of the bit players are just horrible (though, in all fairness, when you write that many speaking roles in a no-budget feature, you have to take what you can get). Smith’s script is, for the most part, structurally sound, but a key climactic event (involving Dante’s ex-girlfriend and her unfortunate trip to a darkened bathroom) is jarringly out of tone with the otherwise-realistic story. And the grubby black-and-white camerawork (heavy on long, uninterrupted takes and static, medium-wide framing) is utilitarian, but not terribly inspired.

The picture’s lack of aesthetic polish was a criticism that its detractors would continue to level at Smith throughout his career, though (in this case, at least) it was certainly forgivable when taking the next-to-nothing budget into account. But the idea that he wasn’t much of a filmmaker, at least from a visual standpoint, was an idea that Smith would attempt to diffuse by embracing it and making it a cornerstone of his self-deflating persona. It didn’t quiet his critics, though. It accumulated as part of the anti-Smith narrative: that he wrote a script about how his job sucked (which, they would say, anybody could do, if they just took the time to do it), scraped it together into an ugly, dumb movie, and got lucky. The director quickly seized on the best defense: in his interviews and public appearances, he would own those criticisms and perceived shortcomings, but shrug them off with a laugh. Whether he was a talented filmmaker or not, he’d say, as long as someone kept paying him to make films, he’d make them, and if you didn’t like them, there were plenty of people who did. And perhaps one of them would like to buy a Jay and Silent Bob T-shirt?

Both camps—those who had embraced Smith and those who had booed him—got a chance to take their shots with the release of his sophomore effort, the 1995 studio comedy Mallrats. Its six million dollar budget dwarfed that of Clerks, but the film tanked at the box office and with critics. Though it later attained a cult audience on home video (and was certainly better than the bulk of the scathing reviews would have you believe), it was a disappointing follow-up, swinging for goofy slapstick and formula hijinks, retaining Clerks’ vulgarity but none of its heart or wit.

The failure of his second film must’ve been a bitter pill to swallow, but two good things came out of Mallrats. First, he worked with Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, and Joey Lauren Adams, and second, that made him write a film for them. Chasing Amy was a deliberate return to his roots, a talky, low-budget comedy drama that is Smith’s best work to date. What sounds like a high-concept sex comedy—straight guy (Affleck) falls in love with a gay girl (Adams), much to the chagrin of his best friend (Lee), shenanigans ensue—is instead an uproariously funny, blisteringly honest, and quietly moving tale of male sexual anxiety and the difficulties of trust in relationships (both between friends and between lovers).

Amy is still no great shakes to look at—the compositions are frequently flat and Smith continues to see the frame as a proscenium arch for theatrical-style staging—but the storytelling and dialogue are so involving, we seldom notice or particularly care. Smith crafts his edgy boy-meets-girl tale with flair, investing Affleck’s crush and Adams’ cautious response with genuine emotional stakes, and the film gingerly and expertly negotiates the line between light-hearted comedy and full-on drama. The performances help; Affleck has seldom been better, while Lee is every bit his equal. And Adams’ work is a revelation (watch the way Affleck knocks the wind out of her the first time he utters the words “finger cuffs”) that begs the question: why didn’t we see more of her after this? When the film turns to serious matters—in Affleck’s rain-soaked confession, in their bitter argument outside of a hockey game, in the stunningly risky scene in which he proposes a resolution to their sexual issues—Smith proves that he’s no lucky-schmuck flash-in-the-pan. He’s an honest-to-God artist, and in Chasing Amy, he paints his masterpiece.

Smith followed it up with the long-awaited Dogma (a project he’d been promising, in his closing credit crawls, since Clerks); that film, which dealt irreverently with Biblical themes, proved so controversial that distributor Miramax (a subsidiary of Disney) sold it off to Lionsgate. One can hardly blame the filmmaker for wanting to take on lighter subject matter with his next film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. It was his first all-out comedy since Mallrats; it would also prove to be his weakest effort since that film.

The problem isn’t that J&SBSB lacks humor; indeed, it has isolated moments that are as laugh-out-loud enjoyable as any Smith has committed to celluloid (like Jay and Bob’s visit to the set of Good Will Hunting II). But on the heels of Amy and Dogma, it feels like he’s slumming. He’s at his best when his humor is at the service of a serious topic, whether it’s religion, relationships, or working-class ennui (as in the Clerks films). Without a hook to hang his jokes on, Smith ends up wallowing in mindless vulgarity; J&SBSB spends too much of its running time indulging in fart jokes and homoerotic subtext. There is precious little of the rat-tat-tat back-and-forth that made his earlier scripts so memorable.

It’s also too reliant on callbacks and crossovers to his previous efforts. Throughout his career, Smith has cultivated himself as a brand, doing numerous Q&A appearances (themselves collected on three DVDs and counting), marketing countless pieces of tie-in merchandise (from shirts to figurines to comic books), and engaging the kind of occasionally questionable hucksterism that makes one wonder if there’s anything he won’t sell (his most recent book consisted of transcriptions of his weekly podcast with producer Scott Mosier; the one before that was a collection of his blog posts). That’s all good and well for servicing the fans, but Strike Back is pitched only at them—it ultimately amounts to a 104-minute inside joke.

What’s well worth noting, however, is the strides he takes as a director; under the eye of cinematographer Jamie Anderson, J&SBSB is downright slick, full of polished camerawork and bold compositions. His more recent efforts have attempted to merge that newfound sense of style with a return to character-driven form; while Jersey Girl was indeed a misfire, it was a misfire with heart, and both Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno showed the director playing to his strengths while taking some interesting new risks. What remains to be seen is if he will ever recapture the passion and hunger of the best of his early work.

"The Kevin Smith 3-Movie Collection" and the individual releases of "Clerks" and "Chasing Amy" street on Tuesday, November 17th.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

New on Blu: "Heat"

Nate calls McCauley with the good news. “You’re home free,” he tells him. His out is solid, everything is set, he’s on his way to the airport with his best girl by his side. He hangs up the phone, and their car enters a tunnel; the light inside is so bright, it’s almost blinding. Then they drive out of the tunnel, back into the night, into the dark. Hesitation flickers across McCauley’s face. He turns the car around. He has one more thing to take care of.

That is perhaps the defining moment of Michael Mann’s brilliant 1995 crime picture Heat, the moment where we fully grasp exactly what Mann is up to; that he is no mere stylist, but a true-blue filmmaker with a gift of using his considerable visual talents at the service of a genuinely compelling and intelligent story. He had directed several films previous to this one (including the hit Last of the Mohicans and Manhunter, the first film to feature the character of Hannibal Lecter), but he was best known for his extensive work in television, specifically as the producer of the slick but seminal Miami Vice. Heat, in fact, had its roots in television—the script was a reworking of Mann’s 1989 TV movie L.A. Takedown (and he later produced a television series called Robbery Homicide Division that was essentially a TV version of Heat, with the film’s co-star Tom Sizemore in the Al Pacino role). Heat, with its all-star cast, dense structure, and epic running time, proved him as a major Hollywood player; his next effort, The Insider, would garner him multiple Oscar nominations.

At the time of its release, though, Mann’s coming of age was not the headline. The big story was that for the first time, acting titans Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino would share the screen (both appeared in The Godfather Part II, but in entirely separate timelines, with DeNiro playing the younger version of Pacino’s father). Playing familiar, perhaps archetypal roles, DeNiro stars as master thief Neil McCauley, while Pacino plays Vincent Hanna, the LAPD detective on his trail. Our introduction to McCauley is wordless and strangely striking; as the credits role, we watched the goateed DeNiro exit an L.A. subway train and, wearing a uniform, stride confidently through a hospital, out the back door, and into an ambulance. Only upon repeat viewings do we notice that he opens the hospital door with his elbow, so as not to leave any prints. This guy’s a pro.

We next see Chris Sheherlis (Val Kilmer, then white-hot off of his turn as Batman) at a construction supply outpost, picking up some explosives. Two more men, Cherrito (Tom Sizemore) and Waingro (Kevin Gage) share a tense ride in a big rig. Only when these men arrive at their destination do we realize what they’re up to—in a tight, ruthlessly efficient action sequence, they take down an armored car in about three minutes flat, grabbing only an envelope of valuable German barrel bonds. These skillful opening passages introduce several characters without getting bogged down in extensive exposition; we first know them by what they do and how they act in a crisis. There will be time for proper introductions later.

For all of the crew’s skill, the job goes awry due to the itchy trigger finger of Waingro, the sole outsider. “Their M.O. is that they’re good,” announces Detective Hanna (Pacino), surveying the scene, but he’s good too—correctly piecing together how the job went down and where it went wrong, thinking out loud and banging ideas around with his fellow detectives (ably played by Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, Ted Levine, and Jerry Trimble). Mann’s primary fascination in Heat, it seems, is dedicated men who are good at what they do, both the crew of cops and the crew of crooks, how that draws those men together in those groups, and how it influences how all of them see each other. Hanna’s relentless (some would say obsessive) pursuit of McCauley isn’t rooted in any particular public need—he’s no more dangerous than any number of ex-cons pulling down scores. But Hanna is fascinated by this guy, by his skill and proficiency, and sees that if he can take down a smarter crook, that makes him (it would seem to reason) a smarter and better cop. And conversely, if McCauley can elude this smarter-than-average lawman, his accomplishment is that much greater.

Both men’s dogged work ethic takes a toll on their private lives and personal relationships. Hanna’s about to lose his third wife, Justine (Diane Venora); they talk at each other, and past each other. “You don’t live with me,” she tells him. “You live among the remains of dead people.” Both are ignoring Lauren (a very young Natalie Portman), Justine’s daughter from a previous marriage, a troubled pre-teen ticking away like a time bomb. McCauley’s romance with Eady (Amy Brenneman), a gentle graphic designer, is smoother but less honest—she thinks he’s a salesman.

The intricacies of those relationships—and that of Chris and his bitter, philandering wife Charlene (Ashley Judd)—are a tip that we’re not dealing in a conventional, good guys/bad guys narrative. In its style, and in its broad strokes, Mann’s screenplay is like a modern Western. But in spite of his borderline-monochromatic color scheme (it is a film of whites, blacks, greys, and cool blues), there is no “black and white” in this film. Hanna is a driven law enforcement officer but an abusive and angry guy; McCauley has a criminal mind but a romantic soul. Throughout the film, he contrasts the simple aesthetic properties (the black and white hockey masks in the truck job, the sharply conflicting light and dark of the airport tunnel and the bright runway lights) with the various shades of grey that his characters dwell in.

Mann uses the picture’s expansive length (it clocks in just shy of three hours) and the considerable skills of a robust cast (there are so many good roles, they were able to fill them all with first-rate actors, and give everyone at least one great moment) to sketch in the kind of details and complexities too often left out of standard cops-and-robbers pulp. On its initial release, it was billed as “a Los Angeles crime epic,” and that’s an apt description—it is a dense, layered, sprawling story.

The construction of Mann’s screenplay is ingenious. He introduces Hanna and McCauley separately and keeps them apart for a good ninety minutes of screen time. It’s a smart framework on a basic structural level, and would work even if the two actors filling the roles weren’t icons. But the fact that this the film co-stars DeNiro and Pacino means that Mann’s script is playing on, and toying with, audience expectation—they’re each on a course that charts them towards the other, but that face-off is drawn out and delayed as long as possible, making their eventual sharing of the screen even more exciting. When that deservedly legendary scene arrives, it is somewhat awe-inspiring; these two contemporaries (and, presumably, sometimes rivals) have finally met their respective matches, and they bring out each other’s best work.

Elsewhere in the film, the duo give a hint as to the kind of work we could expect from them in the coming years—in some ways, it is a study in contrasting acting styles. Though Pacino is top-billed, he does turn in the weaker performance; we’re seeing the beginnings of the “shouty Al” turns that he would too often trot out in the ensuing decade-plus (“GIMME ALL YA GOT!” “I hear she got a… GREAT ASS!”). I can see what he’s doing intellectually (most of those moments come in interrogation scenes, when the character might be prone to theatricality, and there’s some chatter that we were to believe the character might have or have had a drug problem), but it doesn’t always play; that said, those moments are fleeting and don’t take over the entire performance. DeNiro, on the other hand, has seldom underplayed so effectively—he seldom raises his voice and projects genuine danger with just a look (and watch the way you can see the wheels turning after he drives out of that bright tunnel). That less-is-more approach lands perfectly here, though we find him sleepwalking through more and more performances in the years following.

It’s hard to write a review of Heat that doesn’t turn into a list of great scenes—the tight-as-a-drum bank robbery scene, the thrilling shoot-out in the L.A. streets that follows, the tense attempts at reconciliation, escape, and pursuit that take up the third hour (this may be one of the most cleanly-executed examples of a classic three-act structure in recent memory). There are a couple of minor misfires in Mann’s script, sure (some of Venora’s dialogue is too on-the-nose, and the story thread that implies that Waingrow is a serial killer proves to be a dead end). But by the time it reaches its powerful closing images, we’re witnessing Mann at his very best, capturing and defining male camaraderie and rivalry in a moving, definitive fashion. Heat is one of the great American films of the 1990s.

"Heat" was released on Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 10th.