Friday, August 15, 2014

On Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and what we lose when an icon dies

It has been a rough week, to say the least, for film fans. The loss of icons Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall in the same week has taken a definite toll. Tens of thousands of words have been written on both, and it is not my intention to add to the noise – however sincere and heartfelt that noise may be. Williams and Bacall were legends who touched countless lives in the eight decades of work between them, and they deserve every word of honorific praise bestowed on them.

All in all, it has felt like a tough year. Williams and Bacall. Ruby Dee. Bob Hoskins. Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I certainly have not named them all. By coincidence, I had only just finished my review of A Most Wanted Man, Hoffman’s stunning final lead performance, when I heard the news about Williams. Hoffman was a personal hero of mine, and I used the review as a way to honor the actor I loved and will remember.

After that, I could not immediately turn around and write on Williams. It just was not in me, so I gave it a day. The next afternoon, I sat down to write an appreciation of the critically dismissed, nostalgically revered Hook to honor Williams and belatedly Hoskins, and the news of Bacall’s death came. Williams has grabbed the lion’s share of headlines and deservedly so – a major talent, a long life well lived yet still tragically brief – but Bacall is no less than a paragon of Hollywood cinema, a throwback to the classics of yesteryear.

In that, I found a similarity. I mentioned nostalgia, which is a word that gets used a lot these days. The Internet is an ideal place to revel in the joys of our youth, and oh, in how many joys of our youth did Williams play a part? He was the Genie. He was Peter Pan. He was Mrs. Doubtfire. He was a lost boy found in Jumanji. He was so much more of course, but to my generation, who grew up with those films and many others, he represented childhood memories that will now be colored by just a little pain.

Bacall is a representative of old Hollywood, the studio system, the “They don’t make ’em like that anymore” pictures. She taught a whole other generation how to whistle. She was Bogie’s girl and so much else. But what strikes me is how the nostalgia is the same. Loss is always painful – be it marked by the years past or the loved ones passed on – but when what we lose represents something even deeper, the pain takes on new shapes and colors and levels.

I wrote after Hoffman died that the important thing to focus on and respect was the grief of a family who had lost a father, son, and loved one. That remains true of Williams and Bacall, of Hoskins and Dee, and of any others lucky enough to influence large swaths of people. Most of us did not know them personally, and the pain we feel is not the same and could never be. But the loss we feel, that is as real as it gets.

The loss of Bacall hurts because she connected us to our past, both cinematically and nostalgically. She has gone and taken a little part of history with her. The same is true of Williams, and for many, the loss feels more personal because his films were a part of our personal histories.

When I think of Jumanji, it is tied up in memories of my grandparents’ living room – of my grandmother who has been dead nearly a decade now and of my grandfather whom I am lucky enough to have still around – a place where we would sit on the floor, too close to the TV, chins resting on our palms, and stare up at the screen. My grandmother cooked and my grandfather researched the family as they obliged their grandchildren to take over the room with children’s movies.

And what are Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire about if not the love of fathers for their children, so rarely portrayed in movies with any real insight or care. Raised by a single father myself, I know what that love looks like, and as engrossing as those films are, what I take from them is the love of fathers for their children and how it might not hurt to send a little of that back the other direction.

So, yes, let us mourn the passing of Williams and Bacall and all those others. The loss of icons is great, but the loss of what they represented will be felt even as the years press on. Those memories of my grandmother’s French toast, of walking around the lake with my grandfather, of my own father who went to work every day but always came home – those memories are tinged with just a little more sadness now, but I will take the sadness as long as I can keep the memories.

Monday, August 11, 2014

New movie review: A Most Wanted Man

Philip Seymour Hoffman leads a team of spies in A Most Wanted Man.
There are times when it is easy to feel sorry for ourselves and what we will never have. How many more great songs would Kurt Cobain have recorded? How many more great books would John Kennedy Toole have written? And how many more great performances would Philip Seymour Hoffman have given?

At best, these questions are unfair, and at worst, they diminish the value of the work we do have. Cobain gave us some of the best rock music of the 20th century. Toole gave us one of the most insightful comic novels ever penned. And Hoffman, well, that is another matter altogether.

With performance after performance in film after film, Hoffman elevated acting to the level of art. He was not simply one of the best of his generation. He set the bar for his generation. The work he left behind will be studied and dissected for years to come, and in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, he has delivered one final masterwork.

Based on the novel by John le CarrĂ©, A Most Wanted Man is an international spy thriller for the post-9/11 world. But this is not Jason Bourne or James Bond. Modern spy movies have become overly obsessed with the bomb going off, while showing little concern for the business of preventing it. Corbijn’s film, adapted by Andrew Bovell, finds the tension in that trade.

Of course, the pieces are all there for a traditional action-suspense film – shadowy government agencies, elite teams of spies, suspected terrorists, and figures of international high finance. Year after year, we have watched filmmakers assemble these parts into rote drama and uninspiring action. But the artists behind A Most Wanted Man find a new way to fit the puzzle pieces together, producing a picture of true depth and intelligence.

This will come as no surprise to those who have followed Corbijn’s feature film career. From the gorgeous biopic Control to the classically European thriller The American, Corbijn has an almost unparalleled facility for subverting genre. He eschews the shallow tropes and tricks of lesser films in favor of taking audiences on a trip into the murky depths of the human psyche. In Hoffman, he finds the perfect vessel for just such a journey.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, the leader of a team of spies tasked with tracking terrorist activity in Germany. As the film opens, Issa Karpov (played by Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen convict, illegally enters the country after suffering untold tortures in a Russian prison. We learn that Karpov’s now-deceased father amassed a fortune profiting off terrorist activities, and Karpov has come to Germany to collect his money. Rachel McAdams plays the human rights attorney helping him in his quest, and Willem Dafoe is the banker who holds the key to the fortune.

As a Muslim with family ties to terrorism, Karpov becomes priority No. 1 for Bachmann’s team as they try to make connections to a larger ring of terrorists and their financial backers. Robin Wright appears as an American intelligence official with a keen interest in anything Bachmann’s team uncovers.

In short, there are a lot of moving pieces, as loyalties shift and motivations come into and go out of focus. Corbijn keeps these plot mechanics running smoothly as he delves deeper into what makes these people tick. While the action is an expert recreation of the business of spying on an unknown and unknowable enemy, the film comes most to life in the small moments that illuminate the characters.

As Bachmann takes a cigarette break on the balcony, he looks out over the land he has sworn to protect. It becomes clear that when you have made your life’s work the safety of an entire nation, work never stops. But in the modern world, the war on terror is increasingly borderless, meaning people such as Bachmann truly bear the weight of the world on their shoulders.

Hoffman slides into this milieu like a bullet going into the chamber. He plays Bachmann as a towering figure who still cannot stand taller than the bureaucracies that govern him, and when he tries to step beyond the walls, he finds only more walls. This is Hoffman at the height of his powers, projecting a weariness that only people who have seen the worst of this world can understand.

The performances all around are solid with McAdams a particularly pleasant surprise as a would-be idealist who cannot outrun a growing pessimism based on all she sees and experiences. One wishes Dobrygin had been given more to do as the most wanted man of the title. Too often he reads like a cypher onto which the rest of the characters project their own feelings about life. Still, Dobrygin does an admirable job of portraying a man so threatened by the world, he hardly realizes the threat he poses.

If the film has a flaw, it is the failure to address the implications of domestic spying or the ramifications of the war on terror. The introspection of the characters does not extend to the world they inhabit as it does in, say, the great German spy film The Lives of Others. It could be argued that these characters would not be able to see beyond their world, beyond the walls within walls, to take an objective view of the work they do. They simply are doing a job, and the onus is on the audience to parse its meaning.

None of this is to say the film is overly cerebral. The excitement is there, right down to an electrifying final sequence that will leave you gripping your arm rest. This is a smart thriller for smart audiences who crave substance as much as suspense. More than that, however, it is a fitting swan song for Hoffman, an actor who always gave us everything he had. How lucky we are to have received it.

See it? Yes.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On the color version of Alexander Payne's Nebraska

Bette Davis wears a red dress to the ball with Henry Fonda in the classic Jezebel.

“Keep Ted Turner and his God damned Crayolas away from my movie.” – Orson Welles on the possible colorization of Citizen Kane

The dress is brown. In an iconic moment from a near-forgotten classic, a Southern belle wears a red dress to the ball. She means it as an act of defiance but quickly regrets this decision. To prove a point, the target of her defiance – and the object of her affections – forces her to dance with him. The floor clears, and all the attendees watch the shameful display of the woman in red who has crashed their party.

The film is William Wyler’s fantastic Jezebel, a Best Picture nominee in 1938 for which Bette Davis, the belle, won her second Best Actress Academy Award. Henry Fonda plays the love interest. It is a classic epic romance of the time period, preceding even Gone with the Wind by a full year. The performances are grand, the scenery is lush, the racial politics are suspect, and it is, of course, shot on black and white film stock.

Colorization is a tragic business-over-art decision that has thankfully been avoided throughout the years, though there are any number of classic films available as candy-colored nightmares if you look hard enough. The true artists of cinema have always fought back against this kind of commerce-first decision making, including people such as Orson Welles, as evidenced by the quote that heads off this article.

It is hard to blame the money men. Black and white is a tough sell. I once knew a girl who refused to watch Casablanca because she did not like black and white movies. Best Picture winners The Artist and Schindler’s List are among the few exceptions, and for every one of those, there is a Good Night and Good Luck or a Nebraska the studio heads look at and say, “What if they had been in color?”

Well, this weekend, they get their wish. Epix, a cable movie channel you may or may not be familiar with, will air the colorized version of Alexander Payne’s wonderful Nebraska. It is a version that exists as a compromise between the filmmaker and the studio, which ever-concerned with its finances wanted a more commercial option. It is not the version anyone should see, nor is it the vision Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael intended to communicate.

I urge you to avoid this version. Do seek out the film. You will not be disappointed. It is witty, charming, a little sad, and ultimately uplifting. It is a great film that landed firmly in my top 10 of last year, but what it is not is a color film.

The truth is: Red does not really read on black and white stock. The blood in Raging Bull is chocolate sauce. The same is true of the black and white sequences in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films. And so too is Davis’ dress in Jezebel. The dress is brown because that is the art of shooting a film in black and white. The technology exists to make it red, but it would be nothing more than a coloring crayon representation of a classic film. The money men will always color their pictures, but that does not mean we have to hang them on our fridge.