Saturday, May 14, 2011

Last Tango in Youth, with Death

Major spoilers included.

Infamous butter fingers precede Last Tango in Paris. I was hardly expecting the screen to be slathered in it, of course, but such cultural definitions of a film inevitably colours expectations of it as a whole: not narratively, but emotionally, certainly. So anticipating a dark erotic thriller, instead unfolded a funny, melancholy, farcical tragedy. Bernardo Bertolucci's film is that occasional piece of cinema that manufactures its situations in such a completely barefaced manner that you have to allow for the unreality of the formation to comprehend the emotional truths that are revealed as it progresses.

Last Tango... has many obvious dichotomies - male and female, youth and death, America and France - but it never feels like these are being forcefully played against each other, despite the chemistry and friction between the central characters. Marlon Brando forces Maria Schneider into his life, and though the initial bizarreities of their meeting seem completely foreign to my own sensibilities, the whole project of the film is really occupying some kind of gulf between frankness and mystery. Schneider might lie there, her bare breast filling half the screen, a carefree smile on her face, but the question lying (metaphorically) next to her is whether Brando's insistence on their not sharing names could ever actually mean that they don't know each other as well as Schneider and her fiancee Jean-Pierre Leaud do.

It's hard, in a way, to take thoughtful resolutions as any kind of truth in a film where Brando monologues about climbing up the "ass of death". But personally, the fact that Last Tango in Paris has such an absurdist, ridiculous way about its characterization makes it a fresher pill to swallow. Sobering conclusions feel more organic when the film doesn't expunge the unbalanced possibilities for lunacy and laughter and sexual abandon that might come from dealing with a great tragedy.

Perhaps it's because, as I become older - now, almost 23, I can certainly be classed as an adult - I don't feel "grown up" in the way I think children expect they eventually will. When you're a child, adulthood feels like an entirely separate plane of existence. It might be something you look forward to or something you want to keep away from as long as possible (I'm afraid the time period is pretty much set, kids), but the world of responsibility is a foreign one to the majority of children. So you expect some sort of switch to flick in your head at some point, and so suddenly you're an "adult", capable of coping with managing money and maintaining relationships and facing the long walk towards death. Alright, so I must have realised at some point in my teenage years that it was hardly going to be that simple, but I still didn't come to the obvious conclusions that I'd have to actively learn and struggle to do these things, and that childish impulses don't just get washed out of your brain, and that you have to figure out whether any of that attitude can be integrated into your existence as a functioning adult.

The point in relation to Last Tango in Paris is that it understands this crisis. Provoked by his wife's suicide, Marlon Brando spins into a head-space where he wants to abandon responsibility. Adult virility mixes irrepressibly with his infantile spirit and he throws himself without warning at Maria Schneider - who, for her own reasons, cannot resist, and seems to engage just as wilfully as he does. Brando's insistence that they not use their names, or indeed discuss their lives outside of the apartment, suggests his longing for a childhood where freedom reigns, where friendships are pure enjoyment, not emotionally demanding. Names, other people, locations - they're all restrictions of the world of responsibility.

Maria Schneider happily engages in all this, because, so close to her own childhood, she can still sense it and recall what it was like; but her sexual encounters with Brando also have the allure of the freedom from childhood, from the restrictions imposed on her - restrictions that Brando's nostalgia seems to have forgotten. And the whole apartment block seems to be a place free of rules. The landlady, a manically cackling black woman, has no idea when people move out and in; and rats run free, Brando morbidly teasing Schneider when she finds a dead rodent lying on their mattress.

Reality is inescapable, of course. Ironically, the freedom of their sexual relationship must be contained if it wants to be free - within the apartment, still surrounded by the city, still bound by their lives outside so that maybe, when they arrive, the other isn't there to be free with them. And though they are happier together, they are ultimately not entirely free while together; and Brando realises that he doesn't want to be free, but wants to be with Schneider, to know her name and everything about her.

So the ending. Brando's foetal body, dead on the balcony, is the infantile frozen in immobility. For Schneider, it is her enjoyment of freedom simultaneously crystallized and consigned to the past. Brando will always be her reminder of the childish freedom she enjoyed, hence why he dies in that particular position. But dead, and, as she deliriously rationalizes, without name and identity to her, Schneider can 'forget' him, can proceed to adulthood and responsibility without guilt, for all she did was shoot a stranger intruding into her private adult space.

The film itself almost sees the linear regression of Brando, indulging in ever-more vulgar infantile behaviour and language, with big boy words like "pig-fucking" and smirking puns like "my hap-penis". By the time of the titular scenes in the dancehall, his relationship to Schneider has shifted to a maternal one: "I get to milk you twice a day. How about that?" His final desperation to live with her, then, is not wanting to love and care for her, but to be loved and cared for by her, his attachment relentless in the same way a baby craves for its mother's breast.

Schneider's inconsistent attitude towards Brando starts going batshit in the final part of the film, but it's not bad direction or Schneider losing grip of her performance. Her dilemma is exactly that of the young adult, stranded between looking over their shoulder at the irresponsibility of childhood and looking forward to the allure of adulthood's new adventures. While she's happy with Brando, it's because he is giving her a glimpse of both at once - childish games and newfound sexual liberation. But then she becomes engaged to Leaud and faces the responsibility of marriage, and is simultaneously confronted by Brando's growing attachment to her, which is in itself both a reflection of Leaud's demands and the allusion to the further responsibility of motherhood.

Our last moments with her are her disorientated rationalizations, and so we are left with the question of how she'll function now, free of the man whose name she may not know, but will perhaps be forever tied to all the stronger for that mystery. Their last tango fittingly ends in a sharp shock of tragedy, characters frozen in separation, but forever transformed by their dance.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Source Code is...

... 30% bullshit. Let's face it. All the explanations we get in Source Code are completely fanciful claptrap that don't really make sense if you think about them for more than five seconds. And that's completely fine and dandy until it starts taking everything so seriously in the final act, and pulls some sort of magic time-bending trick out of thin air that exists on the exact basis that it can't really be explained. It's a bit like in Duncan Jones' previous feature, Moon, when the fun sci-fi concept got all heavy and serious and drained all the life out of Sam Rockwell. It's harder to suck the life out of Jake Gyllenhaal here, since that's already kinda happened, but it's essentially the same situation. I don't mind a dramatic conclusion. But try not to craft it at the expense of the fun you've already been having. It depresses me.

... 20% Jake Gyllenhaal. 2010 was the year when Jake finally got thrust into the carrying a mainstream movie ballpark, with the highest-grossing video-game adaptation EVER in Prince of Persia, and the quite-frankly execrable "romantic" "comedy" "drama" Love and Other Drugs. But Source Code feels like the first time he's really holding a feature by himself, being responsible for the entire mood of the thing, convincing us of its scientific and romantic leanings - basically, he's the one selling the thing. And he does a rather good job. It helps to be so swoon-fully good-looking, of course, but we already knew, too, that he has charisma in abundance, and most crucially he sells the difficult mental journey Colter Stevens is forced to take, constantly thrust back into the same section of time over and over again while simultaneously learning, or remembering, his own reality. The "bullshit" takes over in the end, but it's Jake's sympathetic smarts you'll remember.

... 17% Quantum Leap. I did a sad little squeal of geeky delight when I spotted Scott Bakula's name at the end of the cast list as the credits rolled up. In a delicious little nod, he supplied the voice of Colter's father. My mother was a massive Quantum Leap fan, so while I couldn't name you the episode Jennifer Aniston guest-starred in, I still hold a certain fondness for the show. Of course, the constant jumping back in time to another person's body is basically stolen from Quantum Leap, and, like Dr. Sam Beckett, Colter's task is to "put right what once went wrong". Not a plagiarist, Colter actually says this line, and Bakula's cameo is begun with the show's other trademark line, "ohhh boy". Source Code isn't nearly as good as Quantum Leap, but it's a lot shinier.

... 13% The War. Bombings ---> terrorism ---> wars of the Bush regime. It's a simple, inevitable chain, and though the actual bomber doesn't fit into this pattern, he might as well do. Point is, Colter is haunted by his war experiences, and as such, reacts to the idea of a bomb, the suspects on the train, and the actual bomber, in the mindset of a soldier. Again, before it becomes all heavy-handed, this approach is quite cleverly used, a sharply realistic view of how both soldier and public function in this post-9/11 society, yet still in the guise of a pulpy thriller. After, it feels like you've been smacked in the face with a wet chain of bullets.

... 10% North by Northwest. Those credits, gliding diagrammatically over Chicago's streets, remind of the angular credits of Hitchcock's famous thriller. The music, by Chris Bacon, is very menacing bombast, with the low, growling horns and panicked flourishes of strings, and percussion generally going a bit bananas. And quite a bit of both takes place on a train. I mean, it's basically the same film.

... 5% completely obvious clues that probably don't even matter. You might not have seen Source Code yet, so I won't spoil it... but I figured out who the bomber was from the moment (s)he did that possibly-inconsequential-but-really-quite-important-if-the-identity-of-the-bomber-is-even-important-which-I'm-not-sure-it-is thing that (s)he does.

But like I said, I doubt it matters.

... 3% Vera Farmiga. From the moment she first announced herself in 2004's Down to the Bone, Ms. Farmiga immediately established herself as the best thing in any film she deigns to appear in, and it would be the same here if she had just a smidgen to work with. Throughout, she supplies an unsuffocating melancholy to her role as the Air Force Captain instructing and advising Colter through his mission, but what really gains her points is how she almost manages to sell that unfortunate final act of the film. Gyllenhaal is largely incapacitated and the burden of the film's emotional thrust, inevitably stepped up, falls to Farmiga, and though she could do it in her sleep, she makes the dilemma at the core of the film's conclusion seem painfully uncomfortable. Give her your best salute.

... 2% slow-motion explosions. I mean, what is this? A Zach Snyder film?


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Thor is...

... 35% Chris Hemsworth. I doubted. I narrowed my eyes and I didn't believe that this hunk- no, this slab of a human being could possibly have the charismatic smarts to pull off this role. If I'd been paying attention, I'd have remembered that he impressed with hardly any time at all at the beginning of Star Trek, but I don't get paid to write these things, and until I do my attention will be vague and inconsistent. (I'll just wait here for the offers to come flooding in.) But not only does Hemsworth prove to have a superb sense of comic timing, a surprisingly sparky chemistry with Natalie Portman and a fist that could knock a hole through walls if it wasn't so busy swinging that bloody hammer, but he manages to be that self-important Norse god without condescending to the fanciful folktales (... oh; forgive me, great King Odin! I did not mean to anger you. But these mere mortals... they do not understand...) that the script revels so gamely in, and playing obnoxious without obscuring why he's the hero here. Basically, he's pretty much perfect here. Go figure.

... 20% complex villainy. What seems to give Thor a slightly distinctive edge in the somewhat overstuffed superhero sub-genre is its central villain, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Loki is Thor's brother, and from the very beginning, Loki's unbrotherly attitude to Thor is pretty much signalled with flashing neon warning signs. But that's just it: we're meant to be suspicious of Loki, but the nature of that suspicion shifts constantly throughout the film, and the film's often awkward movement between the Earth that Thor is banished to, and the Asgard that Loki remains on, means that Loki is as focused on as Thor is. Being family, of course, the deepest depths of Loki's villainy are suspect to the idea that maybe, possibly, they're not as dastardly as they might seem. Even the reasons for his darkness are toyed with to confuse us - oh so that's wh- oh no, he's just evi- oh, wait, maybe not... Hiddleston sometimes hits discordant notes in his performance (and his haircut wasn't going to fool anyone), but as a character concept, at least, it is finely realised.

... 16% phallic symbols. Men playing with their swords. (Thor has a hammer, of course, but we'll get to that.) It's a long-accepted metaphor for men comparing penis size (or something like that), and even when they don't have swords, they can freeze thin air and stab you with their ice penis. Idris Elba's gatekeeper might have the mightiest penis - I mean, er, sword, of all, since he can plunge it into the middle of a big hole and open a gateway to other worlds. And if that's not a metaphor for an orgasm I don't know what it is.

Asgard is also pretty much built out of giant phallic buildings, although, to be fair, buildings mimicking vaginas are probably better for some kind of underground society.

... 15% The Avengers. "Thor will return in The Avengers." So we were told at the end of the credits, and though I'm surprised they had the restraint to leave it until most people had long left the cinema, I am quite excited about it. The whole series of Marvel films have shown a superb knack for casting - Robert Downey Jr. stands imposingly in a dapper suit above everyone, but Chris Evans is always charming, Mark Ruffalo is a daring choice for the third Hulk in ten years, and I personally liked Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2, so shut up. Thor doesn't hammer (sorry, that was inevitable) the franchise idea too hard into your face, but there are moments like a wink to Tony Stark and the slightly shoehorned inclusion of Jeremy Renner's (future?) Hawkeye to back up the deadening line when Thor promises Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) that even though he might be off to a battle he can't return from, he'll definitely be part of the S.H.I.E.L.D. team from now on! Gee whiz. (Oh, and then that's whole bit at the end of the credits. So maybe ignore the lights flaring up and the cleaners staring impatiently at you, and stay seated.)

... 6% hammer. If I had a hammer, I'd a-hammer in the morning... Only Thor's hammer isn't for hammering out love. It is, as you might expect, a mighty hammer, Thor's calling card, and it is he - and only he - and only he when he deserves it - who swings it and throws it and bashes it through mens' abdomens like they're not even there. (Except it makes quite a noise, so they probably are there.) The sword-in-the-stone moment is quite a hilarious one, although my personal favourite hammer-related moment in the film was the beautifully blunt thwack it made against the high-pitched clank of Loki's shining spear. Yeah, 'cause there might be all of those phallic symbols, but all that masculine insecurity exists for a reason - Thor's the man. He's got the hammer.

... 5% eyes. Anthony Hopkins, bearable for the first time in years thanks to the similarly scenery-chewing Kenneth Branagh being the director in charge here, has a strapless eye-patch, which is really quite cool, and I'm even considering gouging one of my eyes out so I can have one too. But eyes aren't just a cool accessory to lose in battle - they function as somewhat of a metaphor. Odin (Hopkins) loses one in a fierce battle where he gains a son - and it is his sons, intentionally or not, who weaken him. And then there's Elba's eyes - that glowing orange sign of life, sign of hope.

And then there's Hemsworth's eyes, which are terribly blue. Terribly.

... 2% crop circles. Or at least that's what the markings that the arrival of Asgard residents upon Earth landings looked like to me. Natalie Portman agrees; forget the man she just hit with her car, she needs to draw that bloody marking!

I'm not sure Thor really makes the most of the human reaction to conspicuous alien landings, but this type of film is often overstuffed. If this was a stand-alone film, without the necessary basics for connecting itself to The Avengers, it might be able to feel a bit more fleshed-out - the Asgard sequences feel more fully realised, although slightly less sharply directed - but something had to give, and Thor plays a good enough hand in this area with Stellan Skarsgard and...

... 1% Kat Dennings. I can't deny my Kat at least one hundredth of this post. She's in the film less than I'd like, and gets saddled with a few lines that make her character sound like an idiotic twat, but she's still funny and I love her. The end.