PICKS OF THE WEEK
U.K.: Roman Polanski, 1966, Criterion Collection
Roman Polanski's Cul-de-Sac -- one of the great English-language films of the '60s and a classic of neo-noir -- begins with a long, still shot of a car on a road in a nearly empty landscape. The road lies under a hot-looking sky with a string of telephone poles running along the right, and on it, an old black car is being laboriously pushed by a disheveled gangster named Dickie (Lionel Stander), while his bespectacled, near-delirious partner Albie (Jack MacGowran) supposedly steers.
This opening shot seems to last forever (or at least for the length of the credits accompanied by composer Krzysztof Komeda's unsettling Theremin main theme), before the car suddenly stops, and the two lost crooks will begin squabbling like a more sinister version of Laurel & Hardy, Albie bitterly complaining about the machine gun digging into his side. Both men are gunshot-wounded, escapees from some sort of botched robbery -- Albie can barely movie and Dickie has one arm in a makeshift sling -- and, after Albie's inattention to his steering makes them crash into a fencepost on the car's left, he and Dickie quarrel for a bit (Dickie, who looks menacingly troll-like, is surprisingly tender with his dying partner), and Albie pronounces his despairing judgment on things: "Well here we are: In the shit!"
"In the shit" is a piece of dialogue that basically updates Laurel & Hardy's "Here's another fine mess." But it would have shocked some audiences in 1966, still only a few years away from the collapse of the Production Code. And it also might well have served as another title for Cul-de-sac. It's a film Polanski long described it as his own personal favorite -- and as highly as I esteem both Chinatown and The Pianist, I agree with him.
Cul-de-sac goes on from that seeming blind alley of an opening, shot on Holy Island, or Lindisfarne, to introduce Dickie and us to the main inhabitants of the bizarre island area the two hapless robber/fugitives have stumbled onto -- on a little-traveled road that will soon be covered with water and cut off from the Northwestern mainland. Those Holy Island denizens, trapped in a sadomasochistic dead end of a marriage and living in an ancient castle that suggests Rob Roy as seen by Kubrick or Bergman, are bald, timid retiree George (Donald Pleasence) and his promiscuous French wife Teresa -- played by Francoise Dorleac, Catherine Deneuve's just-as-beautiful older sister.
Albie's imminent exit seems to leave George, Teresa and Dickie as the main or only characters in this bleak island-scape, the strangest of strange movie triangles, and for much of the movie they are -- though for a brief interlude they are joined by George's nosey, irritating and phonily cheerful relatives (Geoffrey Sumner and Renee Houston), their randy son Christopher (Iain Quarrier), one of Teresa's lovers, and a posh group that includes the young, silent but irresistible Jacqueline Bisset.
But the triangle doesn't play out in any of the usual ways. When Dickie first sees the married couple, George has been teased by his wife into dressing up as a lipstick-smeared, falsetto-voiced big baby, an almost complete demasculinization of her already tenuously virile husband. Dickie seems to have no interest in Teresa, whom he treats like -- well -- shit, and instead is focused on contacting his boss Katelbach and engineering a getaway, a plan Katelbach, whom we neither see nor hear in Dickie's increasingly desperate phone calls, seems increasingly uninterested in aiding. And Teresa, a sexy hellion, who looks like a divine angel-imp and acts like a mischievous child, simply tries to manipulate everyone to her ends, which in the case of the males (excepting Dickie), she can.
Polanski and Brach pitch all this as comedy, but comedy of the darker Billy Wilder or Coen brothers kind, full of seemingly cynical amusement at the foibles and follies and dead-ends of life. Dickie's situation is a dangerous one -- and so are George's and Teresa's -- but they rarely register the reactions we'd expect. They act childishly, destructively, and self-destructively. George is attracted to Dickie's dour resilience and sour self-confidence. Teresa keeps cutting up, even with loaded guns. And Dickie keeps pinning his hopes on a man, Katelbach, who won't return calls and who, like Samuel Beckett's Godot, seems otherwise engaged.
I mention Billy Wilder (we all should), but the true antecedents of Cul-de-sac's script are the critically lauded international playwrights of the '50s-'60s Theater of the Absurd: Harold Pinter (The Caretaker, which had starred Pleasence), Eugene Ionesco (Rhinoceros, which had co-starred Olivier and Welles), maybe Edward Albee and especially Beckett -- whose Waiting for Godot (which had starred MacGowran), had been a dream project of Polanski's and whose rights he had unsuccessfully tried to purchase.
The Theater of the Absurd, one of the least sentimental of all theatrical genres, posited a world empty of meaning, a world without God, without solace, without much of what we call humanity, in which everything had been stripped to an essential bleakness, in which communication (and love) was almost always ridiculous and foredoomed, and every quest led, absurdly, to another blind alley. That's what Polanski shows us in Cul-de-sac. But, if his people lack heroism and sympathy and humanity (except, in a weird way, Dickie), the black-and-white visuals of the movie are so powerful, they endow the humans set against them with something like humanity and with a near medieval authority: unstoppable Dickie, insatiable Teresa and unhappy George. (The stunning photography of Cul-de-sac is by Gilbert Taylor, in the peak period when he also shot A Hard Day's Night for Dick Lester, Dr. Strangelove for Kubrick, and Polanski's Repulsion).
Polanski's amazing camera eye (subjective and eerie) and his sense of the macabre, awful underpinnings of our lives -- fitting maybe for a World War II Jewish orphan who lived by his wits after escaping from the Krakow ghetto of Schindler's List -- endow Cul-de-sac with qualities, visual and dramatic and even philosophical, that flawlessly recall the dark side of the '60s, of the British class system, and of life. (Extras: the 2003 "Making of" documentary Two Gangsters and an Island, with interviews with Polanski, Taylor and producer Gene Gutowski; 1967 TV interview with Polanski; trailers; booklet with David Thompson essay).
U.K.-U.S.: Joe Wright, 2011, Universal Studios
Hanna, an action film for people who love action movies and also for some who don't, is Kick-Ass and The Bourne Identity filtered through Pride and Prejudice. And I don't mean that as a knock.
Director Joe Wright, who made the 2005 Keira Knightley version of Jane Austen's best-loved novel and the BAFTA-winning 2007 film of Ian McEwan's grim tale Atonement, is a director with a style both flashy and sumptuous. And in Hanna, he's demonstrating something we wouldn't quite have expected from him: burn-down-the-house action-movie skills. The movie -- starring Saoirse Ronan (the jealous little girl from Atonement) as the kick-ass title heroine Hanna, Eric Bana as her action-mentor dad Erik, and Cate Blanchett as Marissa, the vicious CIA agent villainess -- is such a departure from what Wright has done before that it's hard not to be impressed.
Wright starts the film with what have been the action showpiece in most of his other movies: a snowy deer hunt and kill in the wilds of Finland, where the gifted 16-year-old Hanna, trained in all manner of martial arts and assassin skills, brings down a stag and muses philosophically. Then the story moves with dizzying speed to the Moroccan desert, Hamburg and Berlin, escalating into spectacular brawls, subway battles and bloody showdowns.
It's quite a ride. The whole movie is a long three-sided chase: Hanna is captured early on by Marissa when Erik leaves her on her own, after arranging to rendezvous with her later in Berlin. Then Hanna escapes and Marissa pursues both her and Erik. The fights are all set-pieces and Wright shoots one of them in a virtuosic unbroken Steadicam take, which reminds you of the spectacular tracking shot on Dunkirk Beach in Atonement.
The three lead actors -- along with Tom Hollander as the perverse villain Isaacs, Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng and Jessica Barden as the British family Hanna meets in the desert -- have the kind of acting chops you don't usually see in movies like this, and they display them as much as Seth Lochhead and David Farr's script lets them.
All the characters, in fact, have more fullness and surprises than the action-movie norm. They're reminiscent at times of the psychologically detailed or richly eccentric characters in an old-style British thriller by Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell-and Emeric Pressburger or Graham Greene and Carol Reed.
We haven't had many really literate thrillers lately (The Bourne movies excepted), and it's a pleasure to see one here, to see filmmakers who are trying to please us on a multitude of levels and not just trying to blow us out of our seats. The results are drop-dead gorgeous and exciting, but not completely satisfying. What we'd expect from Wright -- memorable characters and high-style high drama -- are here, but not emphasized as much as the story sometimes needs in order to make total sense.
The action scenes are scorchers, and they're shot beautifully by cinematographer Alwin Kuchler on stunning sites and sets by designer Sarah Greenwood. But I thought they became a little too set-piecey at times, took over the show a little too much.
Ronan has a talent for bewitching the camera and for suggesting levels of thought, memory and passion beneath the surface. Ronan is kind of strong and silent here, which deepens the film's mysteries, including any nagging questions we might have about the relationship among Hanna, Marissa and Erik. That ability to hold the screen with quietude is just as important as the ability to make your lines sound spontaneous, real and meaningful. Ronan seems to have it all instinctively.
Just as Blanchett does. I wouldn't call this one of Blanchett's best roles, but any opportunity to see her act is a treat to relish, even if her villainy is slightly upstaged by Hollander.
And Wright definitely hit the brass bell here. Now I'd like to see him do something ambitious and novelistic again, but more epic. Maybe something by Dickens or Thackeray or Eliot, or something more modern on the same level. And with roles for people and artists like Blanchett, Ronan and Hollander.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
U.S.: Greg Mottola, 2011, Universal
Suppose you were to rethink E.T. as a combination '70s road movie and Three Days of the Condor-style paranoid anti-CIA thriller, with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, of Shaun of the Dead, as a couple of RV-riding, geek-slacker Brits named Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost), who make up a comic book artist-writer team, and Seth Rogen as the voice of a little green man/E.T. named Paul, who's even more of a geek-slacker than they are.
Kristen Wiig is the romantic interest, Ruth Buggs, a skinny gal with a deformed eye and a Bible-thumping pa (John Carroll Lynch) who's chasing them all, and a new-found fascination with four-letter words. (She's more romantic, and a lot funnier, in Bridesmaids.) And Jason Bateman is one of the spooks. And Blythe Danner is an old-time UFO-spotter. And, oh yeah, Sigourney Weaver, in a gown, is the main government villain, The Big Guy.
It sounds sort of funny. But, as written by Pegg and Frost, and directed by Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland), it's sometimes a little witty, sometimes a little campy or likably slap-sticky, but more often scruffy-looking, forced and obvious. The magnum opus graphic novel of Graeme and Clive, for example, has a cover sporting an alien supergal with three breasts, but not one memorable bra joke. For some reason, creationism gets them all angry. And little Paul keeps making smart-ass remarks and exposing himself to unwise scrutiny.
Oh yeah, Steven Spielberg is in this thing too. As Steven Spielberg. I'm afraid he can't tip the balance.
Mars Needs Moms (C+)
U.S.: Simon Wells, 2011, Walt Disney
Mars Needs Moms, which probably takes its title from the infamous 1968 Mars Needs Women, is a pretty good feature cartoon, and that points up again how generally better, and smarter, animated features are these days. It's about an adventurous boy (voiced by Seth Green), who hitches a ride to Mars, when his mom (Joan Cusack, who's very, very good) is kidnapped by the Martians. These Marsmen run a regimented society, bossed by the tyrannical Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, of Austin Powers land) and they need to steal a mom every once in a while, for maternal help, in getting their divided sexes to grow up.
The movie was directed and co-written (with wife Wendy Wells) by Simon Wells, great-grand-son of H.G. Wells, and the director of the 2002 film of his great grand-dad's The Time Machine. Robert Zemeckis was one of the producers, and the movie was done in the motion-capture process (refined here to something called "emotion capture") that Zemeckis used for The Polar Express and the Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol -- which means the actors supplied some movements and expressions as well as the voices for their characters.
It's an okay movie, as I say. And Cusack is gangbusters as the movie's mom. But there's another performance that really is incredible, fantastic: Dan Fogler as a chubby Earthling faddist, enthusiast and gimmick-guy on Mars called Gribble. Fogler has been in a handful of movies including some bad ones (where he was good) like the current Take Me Home Tonight. He usually plays overweight sidekicks, awash in pop culture shtick, which is what he is here. "Awesome" and "totally" are two of Gribble's favorite words.
But Gribble has more: a spontaneity, wild humor and a sweet, flaky quality that makes this role really shine, creates a star-making turn.
Germany: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978, Olive
R.W. Fassbinder made Despair -- an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a candy manufacturer in '30s Germany who's going crazy and thinks he's found his doppleganger -- in the middle of his greatest period, 1978-1982, the time of The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lili Marleen and Fassbinder's masterpiece Berlin Alexanderplatz. But it's not as strong as those pictures, and for a movie set in Germany during the rise of Hitler, it sometimes seems unsettlingly disengaged. It wasn't the English language breakthrough he wanted.
But it's a very good film anyway: an intelligent, high-style examination, of decadent lives and a civilization about to plunge into Fascism and madness too. In a way, Despair is an homage to Luchino Visconti, another gay art film master, and to the movie Fassbinder once named as his all-time favorite, Visconti's 1969 epic of moral and social collapse The Damned -- whose star Dirk Bogarde here stars for Fassbinder as the deranged candy man Hermann Hermann. With Andrea Ferreoll, Volker Spengler, Peter Kern and Bernhard Wicki (who directed the classic German anti-war film The Bridge). Photographed, smashingly, by Michael Ballhaus.