Monthly Archives: September 2010

Catfish

Catfish is not being served well by its marketing team.  That it is a documentary with a marketing campaign, however limited, is remarkable, but the horrible job they are doing is sure to attract an audience expecting something completely different from what they will get.  Expecting a creepy mystery/thriller, the audience, drawn by the ads full of ominous music and warnings not to tell anyone the secret a la Psycho, is bound to be disappointed.  They, of course, will turn around and tell all their friends how boring it is, etc.  And the movie’s natural audience is almost sure to be put off by the clear attempt to make it look like the next Blair Witch ProjectCatfish is surprising (only because of the marketing) in that it a more thoughtful and poignant exploration of relationships in our era of Facebook, instant messaging, and texting, where we can develop relationships without ever actually meeting face to face.

There really is no big secret in the movie; it’s pretty clear what is going on well before our suspicions are confirmed.  I won’t give it away (and, yes, by not telling I will be participating in the ridiculous marketing campaign by pretending there is a big twist), but I’ll lay out the background.  See if you can’t figure it out.

A couple of years ago New York photographer Nev Schulman received a package in the mail from an 8-year-old artist named Abby from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  Abby sent Nev a picture she painted based on one of his published photographs.  Nev was impressed with her work and soon became Facebook friends with the young girl, her mother Angela, her father Vince, and her older, 19-year-old sister Megan.  He continued to receive paintings from Abby and had long conversations on the phone about the budding artist with her mother Angela.  To make things juicier, Nev kindled a cyber-romance with Megan, exchanging pictures, talking on the phone and texting back and forth late into the night.  Nev tells us he knows he will not really know if Megan is the girl for him until they meet, but we can see he has high hopes.  She has already won a place in his heart.

Somewhere along the way Nev’s brother Rel and his partner Henry Joost became interested in this long distance relationship Nev was having with Megan and her Michigan family.  Being filmmakers they picked up cameras and began filming Nev’s end of the relationship.  It is never clearly explained exactly why they thought this was worth filming (which is why the picture is a suspected phony doc like last year’s Paranormal Activity or street artist Banksy’s critique of the art world Exit through the Gift Shop), but we know that there must be something more to this story than we have been lead to believe.  Why else would we be watching it?

The commercials prepare us for something creepy, something scary.  I waited for the violent climax when Nev, Rel and Henry journeyed to Michigan for a surprise visit to Megan and her entire family after Nev realized there were cracks in her story.  Instead I got something subjectively worse: emotional violence.  Martin Scorsese has called The Age of Innocence his most violent movie.  Not the obvious violence of broken bones and split lips from which one can heal in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but the insidiousness of emotional repression that eats away at souls and destroys relationships.  Catfish is a similarly brutal movie, though it doesn’t wallow in its dysfunction.  Lucky for us, once the truth comes out, everyone is civil and they quietly grope around for understanding despite the emotional shell-shock.  Getting to that point though is the nail-biter.

There has been some criticism, most notably from A.O. Scott of the New York Times, that the filmmakers have exploited Angela, the woman at the center of everything, essentially acting as snarky big city know-it-alls sneering at this less educated, rural woman (and he liked the movie).  If anything, the humiliation goes both ways; Nev doesn’t come off as a bright guy.  (What adult Photoshops a picture of himself with one of a woman he never met?)  What Angela was getting out of their relationship is fairly obvious, but Nev was also looking for something he wasn’t finding in this increasingly disconnected, non-personal world.  He found his connection, as so many others do, on the internet, on Facebook.  A better movie would have fully explored why Nev and Angela connected, what they found in each other that they didn’t find in Michigan or New York.  Or, to be more ambitious, why is it so much easier for us to meet people online now than it is to meet real people, face to face, without the comforting anonymity of cyber-filters.

The marketing campaign is reducing this sad story to a cheap thriller.  Abby’s mother Angela turns out to be a lonely, frustrated woman who opens her heart and bears all her humiliations for their camera.  She isn’t a villain; she is a woman who dreams of something more than she has and the internet allows her the opportunity to participate in a life out of reach in rural Michigan.  But by reducing her troubles and embarrassments to a goofy mystery, the distributor is truly exploiting her in ways that Nev, Rel and Henry never intended.

But the marketing appears to be working.  It is now in 57 theaters around the country and has grossed over $800,000.  These are impressive numbers for a low budget documentary.  There are, however, still lots of pissed off ticket buyers griping on message boards because it wasn’t what the ads lead them to expect.  They did, however, go see it.  That’s something.  Hopefully enough of them recognized that this movie deserves more respect than the shoddy filmmaking and misleading marketing suggest and they take some time to think about what we are missing when we replace an actual phone call with a text and depend on Facebook instead of real world interaction to cultivate our relationships.

GRADE: B+

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Never Let Me Go

Many consider Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go a modern classic.  It was the last entry in Peter Boxall’s momentous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Despite all the praise though, the book is cold; Ishiguro doesn’t give us enough to truly connect with his characters or the world around them.  It isn’t a bad book, but it isn’t one anyone truly must read before they die either.  It is competent without being extraordinary (which any book someone tells me I have to read before I croak should be).  I’ve heard it described as a dystopian novel, but that never rang true.  The book isn’t about a dysfunctional future (or, in this case, alternate history), but a listless melodrama following the lives of clones bred solely for the purpose of organ donation.  Ishiguro seemed to think that there was no need to consider the world that produced these children because he feels it isn’t all that different from our own.  But, of course, it is.  People in the world he created accept the idea that cloning people and mining the offspring for organs until they die is acceptable, we don’t.  Whether we could or will get to that place is another question, but when Ishiguro failed to address some of these basic questions, when he failed to have one donor question their fate or contemplate escape, when he tossed out the precedents of other great dystopian novels (like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower or Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and The Year of the Flood), he sacrificed the depth and consequence the book could have had.  He may have been trying to avoid explanation to cleverly force us to consider the self-destructive practices in which we all participate – like if we don’t want any more glaciers we should keep driving three blocks to the supermarket – but that hardly makes for a compelling story.

The movie adaptation turns out to be a mixed bag.  It is sumptuously photographed and well acted, but the script marches us through the events of the story as economically as possible without characters to latch onto.  It is emotionally chillier than the book despite some good work from stars Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Kiera Knightley.  In the end, the screenwriter and director didn’t sense that the characters of the book (with the possible exception of Tommy) weren’t well developed and didn’t make any necessary corrections.  The critical praise was enough for them to assume they had all they needed.

The early scenes of the picture recount the lives of three young organ donors at a boarding school in the English countryside.  Of course they don’t know that their future is mapped out and terminated earlier than most; that knowledge will come later.  Kathy is a sensitive young girl drawn to the shunned and volatile Tommy.  The other children pick on him, mostly to goad him into absurdly frenzied outbursts.  As Kathy develops a tender relationship with Tommy her friend Ruth swoops in and dazzles Tommy’s attentions.  Pretty and popular Ruth is jealous that a plain girl like Kathy could have grown up romantic and sexual experiences before her.

This is the dynamic that will define their relationships for much of the rest of their lives:  Kathy pining for her lost love, while Ruth jealously maintains her emotional hold over clueless Tommy.  And this romantic triangle will dominate the rest of the picture to the exclusion of much else.  (With the exception of the final scenes as two characters race to try and get a legendary deferral bringing them face to face with a familiar face from the past – the best scene in the movie.)  It is difficult to believe that no one will seriously question the way things are or the ethics of creating and sacrificing life in order to save others.  These considerations could have overwhelmed everything else in the picture, but Ishiguro is a good enough writer to integrate them with the story.  Mary Shelley balanced the consideration of similar ethical issues in Frankenstein with the demands of her gothic horror story.  But Shelley gave the Monster more emotional depth than these characters have; it’s as if screenwriter Alex Garland has implicitly acknowledged that these characters are soulless.  They go through all the paces of a human being, but with little curiosity, inquisitiveness or instinct for rebellion.

Mark Romanek’s direction trots along at a deliberate pace, without creating or capturing the potential emotional impact missing from the book (which so many people seem to think was there).  There are many elegant close ups of mundane, everyday objects that are simply gorgeous, but they feel like afterthoughts, visual comments unrelated to the drama of these three character’s lives or the themes of the story.

The performances are uniformly good, especially when the story moves to the characters in adulthood.  It was either A.O. Scott or David Denby who said the quality of acting in movies today may be the greatest of all time, but the scripts may be the poorest we’ve ever seen.  Though the screenplay for Never Let Me Go isn’t bad, it isn’t strong either.  We have some fine actors doing their best with the thin script.  Carey Mulligan and Kiera Knightely command their characters with confidence, but Andrew Garfield – one of our finest young actors – really stands out.  His awkward jitteriness captures the insecurities and emotional instability of Tommy perfectly.  And in supporting roles Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Rampling steal a couple of scenes.

All in all, Never Let Me Go is a competent if unsubstantial film.  There was so much more to be mined here, but Romanek and Garland were too confident in Ishiguro’s source material.  By being too reverent to the original book they let too many opportunities pass by and produced a picture with the same flaws as the book.

GRADE: B-

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Best Actor of 1935 – Peter Lorre (Mad Love)

Other Notable Performances:  Peter Lorre (Crime and Punishment), Charles Laughton (Ruggles of Red Gap), Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), Victor McLaglen (The Informer), W.C. Fields (The Man on the Flying Trapeze), Boris Karloff (The Bride of Frankenstein), Gary Cooper (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), Ronald Colman (A Tale of Two Cities)

Peter Lorre an actor who has been remembered for his quirky voice and disturbing eyes that we often forget he was a fine actor.  He came to Hollywood from Germany in 1935 and immediately turned in two fantastic performances.  In some ways his portrayal of Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment is meatier than the obsessed doctor in Mad Love.  While Lorre has some great moments in Crime and Punishment – especially after he begins to overcome the guilt of his crime and toys with the inspector – his task is tougher in Mad Love.

Lorre pulls off the near impossible:  he plays a crazed villain that the audience can empathize with.  Dr. Gogol, a brilliant Paris physician known for performing daring and intricate experimental operations, is an awkward, socially inept man who can only love from afar.  His love for actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is unfulfilled.  He has never talked to the beautiful woman; he only sits in the same box every night watching her perform.  On the last night of the show he works up the courage to go backstage and introduce himself, eager to discuss her schedule for the next season.  But Yvonne graciously explains that this show has been her last because she is going to England with her husband Stephen.  Gogol is heartbroken.

Things change however when Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) is seriously injured in a train wreck, his hands crushed beyond repair and Yvonne, anxious for her pianist husband to play again, goes to Gogol and begs him to help.  Gogol reluctantly agrees, unable to say no to the woman he loves.  What he doesn’t tell anyone is he has to amputate the hands and attach new ones onto Stephen – new hands salvaged from the body of a recently guillotined knife thrower which will have disastrous unforeseen consequences.

The plot about Stephen Orlac’s new hands is not what makes this picture compelling.  Peter Lorre’s characterization of Dr. Gogol drives the movie.  He is creepy but not inhuman.  We can connect with his shyness and social discomfort.  In fact, Gogol is acutely aware that he is unattractive and inarticulate; early in the picture we sense that he knows better than anyone Yvonne could never love him.  Maybe it is this knowledge that pushes him over the edge when circumstances thrust her back into his life.  He finally sees a way to have the once unattainable but the closer he gets to having her (in his mind) the more his own inadequacy is highlighted, pushing him further into obsession and psychosis.

What is so remarkable is that Lorre created a whole person who isn’t defined by his insanity.  If things had gone a different way we sense he would have continued as the quiet and reclusive genius, without turning murderous.  Lorre is alternately scary and sympathetic, though we know the scary will overcome as the picture progresses.  With Mad Love Lorre proved that he was one of the most interesting and dynamic actors of the 1930s.

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Best Actress of 1935 – Katherine Hepburn (Alice Adams)

Other Notable Performances:  Margaret Sullavan (The Good Fairy), Greta Garbo (Anna Karenina), Bette Davis (Dangerous), Sachiko Chiba (Wife, Be Like a Rose!), Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp), Carole Lombard (Hands across the Table).

Katherine Hepburn gave one of the most touching and nuanced performances of her career as Alice Adams.  Her natural range brought the necessary depth for a successful performance of Booth Tarkington’s discontented heroine.  The role of Alice is tough – Hepburn needed to play sympathetic while also acting snobby and lying to make a handsome rich man believe her family is wealthy and, in turn, she is worthy of his affection.  She pulled off the balancing acting marvelously.  We watch her foibles and insecurities undermine her ambitions and we truly feel for her, something only an accomplished actor like Hepburn could have pulled off.

Since we can see through the upper crust artifice she assumes, we can’t help but feel sorry for her.  This isn’t an icy gold digger, but a sweet girl dazzled by the promise of a life with money.  This is especially harrowing during the ill-fated dinner she has for Arthur with her family.  Slowly her pretence of wealth crumbles and her face becomes increasingly dejected (see the photo above).  One thing after another – from a surly hired maid (wonderfully played by Hattie McDaniel), to the obvious humble furnishings, to food ill-suited for hot weather – betrays Alice and her family as an ordinary middle class family.  Alice’s mortification becomes our own because Hepburn’s characterization is so charming and relatable that we understand why she lies and, even as we know it’s wrong, we forgive her.  All we want is for her to be happy at whatever cost.

She partly builds the audiences sympathy in scenes where she exhibits fierce loyalty to her father.  One of the best scenes of the picture is when Alice confronts her father’s former boss, Mr. Lamb, after he has done his best to financially ruin his former employee.  Her indignation and pain bubble up into a passionate tirade in defense of a good and honest man.  A lesser actress could have flubbed this moment and misled the audience, making us believe her anger stems from the realization that her family will never have the wealth she feels she needs for the life she wants.  Hepburn, however, hits all the right notes, never betraying our confidence or sympathy.  We know she is angry because her father is hurt; her own concerns are secondary.

Hepburn plays scene after scene like this and should have won the Academy Award that year.  Bette Davis won for Dangerous but that was really the Academy making up for their oversight of her stunning work in Of Human Bondage the year before.  Davis delivered a fine performance as an alcoholic actress in Dangerous, but even she acknowledged that Hepburn should have won for Alice Adams.  She was right.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#1) – The Bride of Frankenstein

(U.S., James Whale)

How hearts must have sunk when Universal announced plans to produce a sequel to their great (loose) adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  What else was there to do but exploit and tarnish the legacy of the original film?  That studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. didn’t rush the picture into production after the massive success of the original should have encouraged fans.  Laemmle allowed screenwriter William Hurlbut time to develop a story that didn’t simply repeat the premise of the original.  Instead Hurlbut expanded on the movie’s themes, continuing to explore the ethical and moral quandaries of Dr. Frankenstein’s work and tracing them to their horribly logical conclusions while considering our natural garrulousness and our conflicting aversion to anything new or out of the ordinary.

Boris Karloff brought an unexpected depth to Frankenstein’s Monster and builds on his accomplishment in this picture.  All of his pathos, confusion and pain are articulated more clearly here as the Monster’s grunts and groans are replaced by rudimentary speech.  (“Alone bad.  Friend good.)

So the Monster isn’t a monster at all, a fact we in the audience knew all along.  This makes his exile from society all the more heartbreaking.  He doesn’t understand why most everyone reacts with horror when they see him.  His violent outbursts usually result from people’s overreactions; he just wants them to stop screaming but becomes frustrated when he can’t reason with them and lashes out.  Only a blind man, blissfully unaware of his physical grotesqueness, opens his home and heart, giving the Monster an all too brief glimpse at the joys and possibilities of companionship.

The companionship he craves though is idealized, unrealistic.  Consider the relationships of the “normal” people in the movie:  Hans and Helga’s obsessive attachment to their dead daughter, Edward and Elizabeth’s frustratingly unconsummated marriage, and Dr. Pretorius’s vicious hold over Edward.  The Monster’s desire for a bride, a task assigned to Edward and Dr. Pretorius, is doomed to fail like all the other relationships in the movie.  No one considers the possibility that the Monster’s bride will have a mind of her own and be just as repulsed by him as everyone else.

The Bride of Frankenstein is the rare sequel that surpasses the original.  It is also one of the rare horror movies that isn’t satisfied with titillating or frightening the audience.  Like Night of the Demon, Night of the Living Dead, and Carrie, it has something more to say about the human condition.  Whale wants us to reflect on the dichotomy between our overwhelming (sometimes obsessive) need for human companionship and our conflicting aversion to anything different.  That these are contradictory impulses (after all, isn’t everyone different in some way?) is lost on most of us, but Frankenstein’s Monster bitterly learns this lesson at the end of the picture.  He is lost; hopefully the rest of us, rather lamely symbolized by Edward and Elizabeth, are not.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#2) – Ruggles of Red Gap

(U.S., Leo McCarey)

This is simply the finest comedy of the year, featuring Charles Laughton in another superb performance.  (For those who pay attention I chose Laughton as the best actor in 1933 for his work in The Private Life of Henry VIII and as best supporting actor in 1934 for The Barretts of Wimpole Street.)  Like most great comedies Ruggles has something to say beyond its attempt to make us laugh.  It celebrates the freedom and opportunity the United States offers to all comers (as long as they are white of course, more on that later), over the antiquated socio-economic rigidity of Europe.  Sure McCarey and screenwriter Walter DeLeon may lay on the American Dream stuff a bit thick, but the movie still reminds us of the ideals that have helped to make this country so great even as small minds tried (and still try) to undercut them.

Charles Laughton plays Ruggles, a gentleman’s gentleman who is lost by Lord Burnstead in a poker game to the uncouth and unrefined cattle(?) tycoon from the American West.  Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles) is mortified at the idea of having someone serve him and insists on treating Ruggles as an equal, much to Ruggles’ initial discomfort.  But Egbert’s wife Effie (Mary Boland) sees Ruggles as crucial for sprucing up her embarrassing husband and raising their social standing in their hometown.

When the Flouds take Ruggles back to Washington State, Ruggles begins to shake off the metaphorical shackles that have bound him his entire life.  Since Egbert treats Ruggles as his equal everyone in town assumes Ruggles is a British gentleman, not a valet.  Ruggles, much like many new Americans, begins to understand that he is no longer under obligation to a repressive social system and the man blossoms, eventually opening up his own business and initiating a romance with a local woman (played by Zasu Pitts).

This movie doesn’t challenge the veracity of the American Dream, the assumption that we have more opportunity for advancement than the crumbling empires of Europe, but reifies it.  But even in 1935 this wasn’t entirely true and today even less so, when for the first time since World War II, we will have a generation that will be poorer than the generation before it.  And it parrots the unintended irony of the American Dream: that while everyone slaps Ruggles on the back and tells him he is just as good as the richest man in town, no one considers bestowing the same treatment on the Black maid or the Chinese cook.  In fact, at one point someone offhandedly observes that there used to be a restaurant in town owned by a Chinese man but someone shot him because he didn’t know how to cook ham and eggs correctly. (“He was always doing something Chinese to them.”)  I’m not sure that it would be correct to read this as an implicit critique of the racial limitations of the American Dream; the filmmakers appear to be as clueless on this matter as the characters in the story.

Despite these ideological problems, Ruggles is still a wonderful movie.  Laughton’s performance is spot on, perfectly capturing a stuffy valet with a long repressed sense of humor and worth.  It is well worth seeing, just be prepared for a heavy dose of American Exceptionalism.

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Best Pictures of 1935 (#3) – The Informer

(U.S., John Ford)

The Informer was something of a passion project for John Ford, but RKO was less than enthusiastic about bringing this dark, depressing tale of poverty, betrayal, guilt and the endless cycle of hate to the screen.  (Of course any movie we call a “passion project” is almost always by definition opposed by studio execs.)  RKO finally relented, but only gave Ford $250,000 to make it.  Ford cut corners, including waiving his own salary, to bring this picture in on time and under budget, but it still flopped.  It was not until it won several Oscars, including a best actor award for Victor McLaglen, that audiences discovered it and turned The Informer into a major success.

Ford transports us to British occupied Ireland 1922.  Institutional poverty and British oppression weigh heavily on the city of Dublin.  Hulking Gypo Nolan (McLaglen) is worse off than most.  He was once a foot soldier of the Irish Republican Army but was cut loose after he failed to carry out an assassination order.  Now he tries to exist on the fringes of both British authority and Irish loyalty, neither side ready to completely embrace him.  He scrapes together a meager living, though he can’t save his girlfriend Katie (Heather Angel) from a life of prostitution.

They dream of leaving Ireland behind and sailing for the United States, but the tickets are prohibitively expensive at £20.  That’s a small fortune for Gypo, Katie, and just about everyone else in the city.  However, Gypo finds a solution: the authorities are offering, as if by divine providence, a £20 reward for the capture of an IRA member who happens to be Gypo’s close friend.  Since he no longer has a stake in this fight for independence, he determines to turn him in and use the reward to take Katie to the United States.

That their potential escape comes because he sacrificed a friend’s life gnaws at Gypo’s conscious.  He immediately begins spending some of his newly earned blood money on alcohol to assuage his nagging guilt.  Meanwhile the IRA leadership launches an investigation to find the informer and Gypo isn’t covering up his tracks too carefully as he gets drunker and spends more of the money everyone knows he shouldn’t have.

Ford’s mise-en-scéne, dominated by oppressive shadows, ominous fog and sparse lighting, is clearly influenced by the films of German Expressionist directors.  Though his limited budget probably necessitated the judicious use of dark (a director doesn’t have to pay for that which we cannot see), Ford used his limitations to elevate the material.  He made a picture that succeeds in breaking out of the studio system’s cookie-cutter look; it has a personal vision in a system that discouraged individual perspective.  There is a wonderful shot early in the picture when British troops break into a house.  They splinter the door and light pours into the dark room from outside.  The soldiers burst into the room as faceless silhouettes.  It’s a visually stunning moment that heightens the drama of the violent moment, but also buttresses the idea that violence, direct or indirect, is always easier when we reduce our victims to non-human status.  The British and Irish clearly detest each other, but their hatred is broad and non-specific, like the silhouetted figures breaking into the house.

John Ford doesn’t just elevate the visuals.  He took a mediocre actor, Victor McLaglen, and, from all reports, painfully extracted a great performance from him.  The day before they filmed the climatic trial scene, Ford told McLaglen he wasn’t needed the next day and he shouldn’t worry about his lines.  Apparently Ford knew he would go out drinking if he thought he had the day off, but when Ford pulled him into film, the hung over and belligerent actor delivered exactly what Ford wanted.  (And I would venture to guess McLaglen delivered something he would not have been able to on his own.)  The Informer, more so than any other Hollywood movie of 1935, illustrates that the studio system wasn’t always oppressive of a great director’s vision.

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