Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Beat that My Heart Skipped

Much has been made of the man-bites-dog fact that The Beat that My Heart Skipped is a French remake of an American movie. That’s unusual, all right – in fact, James Toback, the director of the 1978 original, Fingers, thought it was the only such remake until Terrence Rafferty of the New York Times told him he knew of one other. But what’s most interesting about this movie is not that it was done at all but that it was done so well.

In an age of mindless retreads, director Jacques Audiard takes an interesting idea that was poorly developed in the original and makes it pop. The characters and situations are utterly believable and the story is poignant, thanks to impeccable acting, intimate close-ups shot with a handheld camera, and smart, colloquial dialogue by Tonino Benacquista, who also wrote Audiard’s Read My Lips.

When the movie opens, 28-year-old Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) is caught up in a brutalizing routine his father has led him into. He works in a sleazy corner of the Paris real estate market that involves dirty tricks like infesting buildings with rats, cutting off water, or even beating people to clear them out of the buildings Thomas and his partners are trying to sell. As if that weren’t bad enough, his father periodically calls him into duty as an attack dog, sending him to rough up people who are welshing on their debts. And at night, he hangs out with his partners in bars, doing coke, picking up girls, and getting into fights.

Surrounded by people who take advantage of him – and everyone else – Thomas has learned to act tough. But he’s more sensitive than his callous father and partners, and he wants more from life than the deadening rut he has fallen into. He finds it when he comes across the manager who represented his concert pianist mother when she was alive. Thomas accepts the manager’s offer to polish up his rusty piano skills, hiring Miao-Lin (Linh-Dan Pham), a pianist who recently emigrated from Vietnam, to help him learn a challenging piece he can play at an audition for the manager. Thomas throws himself into his practicing, hoping to leave behind his job and become a professional musician.

The piano on the soundtrack is played by Duris’s sister, who is a professional musician (that’s her you hear rehearsing when Thomas listens to one of his mother’s tapes). She also coached him on how to play, which may explain why not just the actor’s fingering but his expressions seem so authentic. Laboring to master his piece, Thomas runs the gamut from frowning concentration to frustration to trance-like flow.

In the uneven original, the main character, who was played by Harvey Keitel, was a dangerous thug who didn’t seem to have any real doubts about his way of life, despite a few too many Actors Studio-ish scenes of him practicing his fingering on restaurant tables. In this version he’s far more sympathetic, treating people with consideration and struggling to balance his love for and obligation to his abusive father with his affinity for his dead mother and her instrument. Toggling between violence and vulnerability, Duris makes us feel Thomas’s ease and self-assurance in the brutal world he’s accustomed to, his initial awkwardness and diffidence in the world of classical music, and the effort required to pass from one to the other.

The relationship between Thomas and Miao-Lin is also touching. Communicating with just a few words (she doesn’t speak French and he doesn’t speak Vietnamese), they grow steadily closer as she helps him approach her implacably high standards, watching over him with quiet intensity.

Just when you might start to misinterpret Miao-Lin’s reserve as weakness, Thomas shouts at her in frustration and she shouts back and wins, earning his apology. Watching her stiffen up to rebuke his abuse, I found myself imagining the far worse trials she probably had to endure to get from Vietnam to Paris.

My first thought was that the roadblocks Miao-Lin faced would probably make Thomas’ look like tinker toys. My second thought was what a pleasure it was to be watching a movie whose characters were so real that you wondered what they did before the story began.

Written for TimeOFF

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Land of the Dead

Writer/director George Romero has wrestled over a dozen movies into existence over the past 40 years and none of his favorites feature flesh-eating ghouls, yet he’s known almost exclusively for his zombie movies. “I don't think any of them are wonderful films,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review of his first three. “Every one of them ... the wolf was at the door.”

Romero’s seminal zombie quartet started in 1968 with the rawly unnerving Night of the Living Dead. It continues now, 20 years after the last, with his most technically proficient and arguably most thought-provoking installment, Land of the Dead.

I’m sure it frustrates the director that so few people have seen his beloved Martin or Bruiser while so many have seen Dawn of the Dead, but he ought to be proud of his undead quartet. His zombie movies are uneven, but even the worst have great moments, and they all share a Hitchcockian wit and eye for human foibles, giving you something to think about when you’re not clutching the side of your seat in terror.

His zombie films, Romero told the Pittsburgh paper, are “me showing my political side.” Like a downmarket August Wilson, he uses each one to say something about the decade in which it was filmed. Night of the Living Dead was a Vietnam-era critique of our lack of respect for the dead – and the living. Its downbeat ending and bleak vision of a world perhaps irretrievably out of balance reflected a Sixties cynicism about authority figures and a then-new awareness of our dangerous disconnect from nature. 1978’s Dawn of the Dead lampooned consumer culture, its zombies heading to the mall where they had spent so much of their lives only to stumble around mindlessly, much as they always had. That one also looked at the dumbing down of media, showing the people covering the zombies as a bunch of preening, uninformed boobs. And 1985's Day of the Dead was a cautionary tale about how wrong things can go when technology outstrips ethical standards.

Land of the Dead casts a cold eye on the tendency of America’s increasingly pampered upper classes to insulate themselves from the rest of the world. Like all of Romero’s zombie movies, it takes place in a city modeled on Pittsburgh, where the Bronx-born filmmaker has spent his adult life, but the geography that matters most is a series of concentric circles. In the bull’s eye is a high-rise, multi-use building called Fiddler’s Green, a vertical gated community where the rich live in oblivious luxury. Outside the tower, protected by an electric fence that keeps out the zombies, the people who serve the rich live in slums, face to face every day with the zombies the privileged classes never encounter. And outside the fence are the zombies that have taken over the rest of the country.

The movie’s main hero is Riley (Simon Baker), whose quick wit, even temper, and air of quiet authority make him a natural leader. He and his developmentally disabled sidekick Charlie (Robert Joy) live in the slum and scrape out a living by making forays into abandoned, zombie-infested towns for supplies.

Riley and Charlie shoot zombies only in self-defense, but some of their coworkers, led by the coldly charismatic Cholo (a brilliant John Leguizamo, once again stealing every scene he’s in), get a thrill out of blowing them away or stringing them up for target practice. When Cholo and his boys roar through town on their bikes, blasting away as they go, Romero makes you feel the first stirrings of sympathy for the zombies. After all, they were just minding their business when the raiders invaded.

If the bikers remind you of the besieged, mistrustful U.S. soldiers patrolling Iraq, shooting at whatever moves before it can shoot at them, the reference is intentional. Romero told LA Weekly that the image of “a tank riding through a little village and mowing people down while we wonder why [the zombies] are pissed off at us” is one of the nods to our grim post-9/11 reality that he built into his long-completed script before shooting. The callousness with which captive zombies are treated in the shantytown, where they’re set loose in cages to fight or tied up so people can have their pictures taken with them as they lunge at their chains, is reminiscent of another set of images from Iraq. If that weren’t enough, Dennis Hopper, who plays Kaufman, the contemptuously cool Mr. Big of Fidder’s Green who manipulates the public’s fear to maintain dictatorial control of the city, says he based his portrayal on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

So is Romero equating zombies with Iraqi civilians? I don’t think so. More like arguing that we need to find humane ways to coexist with others – even those who want to harm us. To underscore that point, the movie’s second hero is a zombie, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), who suffers on behalf of his more-or-less-people. Romero’s zombies have been undergoing a slow but steady evolution ever since they lumbered into motion in Night of the Living Dead, and this lot can learn by imitation. Soon enough, they follow the precocious Big Daddy as he pursues the marauding humans back to their city, learning to use tools and shoot guns along the way.

Romero has always made zombie movie for liberal-humanist types, and this one's no exception. Land of the Dead isn’t about learning that there are scary things out there trying to kill us and figuring out how to get them first. It’s about accepting them as a fact of life and figuring out how to live with them.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Batman Begins

Christopher Nolan’s ingenious second feature, Memento, unfolded in reverse. After watching Batman Begins, I wonder if his career is headed in the same direction.

In 1998, the 28-year-old director came charging out of the chute with Following, a memorably moody thriller with a twist. Two years later, Memento improved on that formula, giving the hero a memory impairment that makes him forget his own past and telling his story backwards to keep the viewers as off-balance as he is. Two years after that, Nolan added stars (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank) to the mix and cooked up Insomnia, another ingenious, atmospheric thriller.

You’d think a director with that much style, self-assurance, and sheer pizzazz would be a good pick to direct a Batman movie – and you’d be wrong. Sadly, Nolan’s Batman movie is just another bloated and gassy Hollywood product.

Sluggish, nearly humorless, and weighed down by phony profundities and a bombastic soundtrack, Batman Begins is close to two-and-a-half hours long, and you feel every minute of it. This is the kind of movie where people speak like fortune cookies, saying things like “To conquer fear, you must become fear” and “It’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.”

Batman really began a long time ago – in 1939, to be exact. Imdb lists more than 30 Batman serials, movies, and video games, and that’s not counting the campy ’60s TV show. Nolan, who co-wrote the script, built this movie around what serves as back story in the others: Bruce Wayne’s transformation from traumatized multimillionaire to caped crusader.

To make us care about Wayne’s struggle, Nolan strives to make his story feel real, revealing the hurting human beneath the bat ears. But that’s a losing game when you’re dealing with a guy in a rubber mask and tights and a nemesis bent on driving an entire city mad by poisoning and then vaporizing the water supply.

In classic pop-psychology fashion, every single thing that matters to Bruce Wayne (the baleful Christian Bale) – even his unconsummated love for the impossibly pure Rachel (Katie Holmes), who was his boyhood best friend and is now a Gotham City assistant DA – is traced back to his childhood. The thing that drives him batty is the guilt and anger he’s harbored since he saw his parents killed in a botched robbery. And fathers are very important to the dour bat-to-be, whose mother is a wan and wordless presence in his childhood flashbacks.

Bruce is mentored by a steady progression of father figures, starting with his actual father, a saintly physician/inventor/philanthropist zillionaire, and continuing with Alfred (the refreshingly tart Michael Caine), the family butler who raises him after his parents’ death; Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson in Star Wars sage mode), the mysterious warrior who takes him in and trains him to be a member of the cult-like League of Shadows; and inspector Gordon (nicely underplayed by a nerdily bespectacled Gary Oldman), the only honest cop on the crooked Gotham City force.

The first half or so of the movie follows Wayne as he grows up, learns to fight, studies the criminal mind, and hits on the idea of fighting crime as not a man but “a symbol.” We watch him string lights in the Bat Cave, piece together his outfit and utility belt, unearth the Batmobile, and create a ditzy playboy alter ego to serve as a smokescreen, with the help of Alfred and Lucius Fox (a twinkly-eyed Morgan Freeman doing his wise-and-noble schtick), a scientist and inventor who works for the Wayne family business.

You can practically feel Nolan laboring away in some dark corner of the Bat Cave, straining to domesticate Batman’s outrĂ© accoutrements. But comics aren’t meant to be taken literally. They’re wish-fulfillment fables, their heroes just human enough so readers can identify with them. The thrill of the Batman myth is imagining a truculent trillionaire who can bungee down out of nowhere to nab a bad guy, dodge barrages of bullets, or soar through the sky held up by nothing more than his cape. Trying to imagine the psychic damage that might have caused him to spend his evenings that way might be of interest for a minute or two, but an hour of that drains the fun from the fantasy.

There’s a faint hint of satire in the way Bale plays the playboy Bruce Wayne, who seems to be a cross between Paris Hilton and George W. Bush. The pace picks up a bit when he straps on the Batsuit, but even the action scenes fall flat. The chase scenes have been done too many times before, and the fights are generally filmed as if you were in the middle of the melee, too close to be sure what was happening and too punch drunk to see straight.

Maybe they called it Batman Begins because it feels like it won’t ever end.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Million Dollar Baby

In an era when mindless action dominates Hollywood, Clint Eastwood has followed his own path to success, making smart, chiaroscuro character studies. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil wasn’t one of his best movies, but it may have been his ideal title: His turf is the dark corner of the soul where men confront their shortcomings and search for redemption.

Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood’s latest movie as both director and star, is a film noir fable, like Mystic River and The Unforgiven. Also like those two, it’s about a man who’s struggling to do the right thing while burdened by the weight of an almost unbearable sorrow. It’s already hoovering up awards, including a Golden Globe for best director, and it probably made more critics’ top 10 lists than any other movie last year. It didn’t make mine, since I tend to resist movies that pull at my heartstrings this insistently. Yet it’s so well done, and the dilemma facing the main characters is so profound, that it teased some tears even out of me.

You can almost smell the stale sweat in The Hit Pit, the rundown boxing club managed by Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn, and the other locations are just as scrupulously rendered. The platonic love affair between Dunn and Scrap (Morgan Freeman), the old running partners who run the place together, also feels real. Dunn used to work the corner in boxing matches, patching up fighters’ cuts between rounds, until he quit to manage the club and the occasional fighter. Scrap used to be one of his fighters. Their mutual affection and occasional exasperation, and the rhyming sense of bemused authority that both men exude, make them believable as lifelong friends.

Scrap serves as the movie’s witness and narrator, describing in voice-over what we see unfold as Maggie (Hilary Swank), a young woman with talent but no formal training, convinces the reluctant Frankie to turn her into a fighter. Swank has said she feels closer to Maggie than to any other character she’s played, partly because they both grew up in trailer parks and made their mark through athletics (before becoming an actress, she swam in the Junior Olympics). She makes us feel everything experienced by the valiantly stoic Maggie, and she locates the quietly determined drive that allows Maggie to fight her way out of what Scrap describes as “someplace between nowhere and goodbye.”

But virtually everyone else has the pat, one-dimensional feel of an archetype. Maggie’s snarky sister, ex-con brother, and carping mom are a greedy collection of trailer trash without a single redeeming feature among them. I don’t know how much of that characterization was in the F.X. Toole short stories the script is based on and how much was added by screenwriter Paul Haggis, but wherever it came from, it was such contemptuous stereotyping that it distanced me from the story. So did a subplot about a sweet-natured, developmentally disabled club member who dreams of becoming the next Tommy Hearns, and who might have wandered into this movie out of a Dead End Kids tearjerker. Scrap’s voice-over narration, framed as a letter to Frankie’s daughter, written to let her know “what kind of man your father was,” can also get self-consciously "literary."

We never see that daughter, who cannot forgive Frankie for something (we never learn what) that he did years earlier. He’s haunted by guilt over that failed relationship, which may be part of the reason why he’s overprotective of his fighters, who he hates to see hurt. His paternalism drives away the fighter he’s grooming at the beginning of the movie, but it’s just fine by Maggie, who needs a father as much as Frankie needs a daughter.

Those neatly matching needs feel a bit formulaic at first, but once the two engage with each other, everything – and everyone – else fades into the background. “I got nobody but you, Frankie,” Maggie tells him on their way home from a visit to her unfeeling family. From then on we generally see them alone, as even the once-bustling Hit Pit turns into a backdrop for the story of a surrogate father and daughter and the life-altering decision he has to make about how best to help her.

There’s an anachronistic feel to Million Dollar Baby, which Eastwood told Film Comment he shot to look as if “it could have taken place in the Thirties or Forties, and it’s only the cars or what’s on the radio that tells you you’re in one time and not another.” Part of the old-fashioned feel comes from its contrasty, shadow-drenched noir look. But part comes from Eastwood himself. With his lined but still chiseled face, lanky body, skeptical squint, and laconic self-confidence, he evokes the stars of his youth, particularly Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper.

Here as in his other movies of the past decade or so, Eastwood the actor makes no effort to mask his age. Frankie peers over half-glasses to read the Yeats he loves and rises painfully from his knees after prayer, and when Maggie leaps into his arms in glee he complains about his back. But these things don’t look like weakness in Eastwood. They’re just another indication of his artist’s eye for detail and his sympathy for human frailty, which seem to be deepening as he ages.