Saturday, September 26, 2009

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Directed by Mike Nichols.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
In a Nutshell: Two married couples meet for drinks and expose marital secrets.

Adapted from the Tony Award winning play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is gold standard in black comedy. It is a barrage of marital hatred, tenderness, victimization, and whatever is left in the emotional gamut. The plot is two couples; George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) and Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) with George and Nick professors at the same university. George and Martha are middle-aged, unaccomplished, and stuck in a routine of one-upmanship and hateful verbal sparring. Nick and Honey have far less contempt for each other, but realize through George and Martha’s union just how unstable their rock is. As the two couples unite one night for drinks, the true nature of the two marriages unfurls in a fury of emotional wounding and booze-soaked tirades. The title comes from a poor joke repeated past its expiration date, a fair metaphor for the film’s comedic sensibilities. Though according to Albee, it relates to the fear of living without false illusions, a fear that defines the lives of George and Martha.

Mike Nichols (making his directorial debut) has the right sense to stick to the sharpened, wounding (and very adult) dialogue and claustrophobic scenery; the later credited to cinematographer Haskell Wexler transforming the suburban home into a cavernous lair into Hell. The casting of matinee couple Taylor and Burton caused the most publicity, but both display not a shred of star vanity. Taylor’s alcoholic is a matron Godzilla and the bully of the foursome; loud and cruel to safeguard her own demons. Burton is far quieter, but a slight vocal inflection or wincing look gives us all the insight we need. Segal has the least showy role, but is apt as the audience proxy while Dennis explodes from reserved housewife to childish drunk under George and Martha’s tutelage.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is unforgiving, but would not be as cutting if it did not provide some resonance. Both George and Martha have holed up in their routine of put-downs and incessant wrath, but it is that empty desire of one-upmanship that has kept together for this long. Their sudden friendship with the na├»ve Nick and immature Honey is only an extension of that self-superiority. I shall not reveal George and Martha’s damning marital secret, but it can be seen as an empty cipher to imprint their pains and struggles while exercising their desire to control (for so much of George and Martha’s ambitions have been lost in weakness). George and Martha are ugliness amplified, but like the film, do not seek to merely terrorize.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Contempt (1963)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli.
In a Nutshell: A confrontation with a film producer dissolves a screenwriter’s marriage.

Contempt may be the most Hollywood of Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography, but it is also his most personal. It is a film with big name stars and audience-appeal touches while also serving to deconstruct Godard’s clash between art and commerce. As its characters create a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, their own lives begin to mirror the same story as well as Godard’s tumultuous relationship with wife Anna Karina and the film’s American distributor. In the Godard role, screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is asked to rework his Odyssey script by a crass American producer (Jack Palance) to make it a Hercules derivative. Paul accidentally leaves the producer alone with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Following the encounter, Camille has nothing but resentment for Paul and his work.

Camille’s sudden contempt is never explained to Paul or us. Perhaps the ease at which the producer steals Camille led her to believe Paul was letting her sleep with him as a bargaining chip. Neither Paul nor Camille clears the misunderstanding. Paul ends up accepting the producer’s job and is moved to the rich, spacious apartment that Camille always wanted. The couple hole up in their new home, embroiled in an extended marital spat. Both struggle to reclaim an unconditional love so that at least one will not have to admit fault. It is painful to watch the two half-heartedly communicate without exposing their insecurities; Camille to her wounds of betrayed love and Paul to his (possibly) accidental prostitution to further his career.

While a devastatingly hopeless tale of love gone awry, Contempt is still Jean-Luc Godard’s catharsis on the battles facing him as an artist in the film industry. The odious producer and the steadfast director (Fritz Lang as himself) fight over the final Odyssey cut, just as Contempt is torn between photogenic eroticism and raw marital anguish. This is where the film may not completely connect. As a love story, it is heartbreaking. Though balancing that with a movie about the making a movie, while serving as a commentary on moviemaking, Godard’s meta angst calls too much attention to itself. It is in Paul’s new apartment, where the lavish set, cinematography and showy direction threaten to vulgarize Godard’s matrimony deconstruction into cheap commerce. It is a sly, subtle joke, but far more effective than a petulant Jack Palance hurling film reels.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grizzly Man (2005)

Directed by Werner Herzog.
In a Nutshell: An analysis on the life and death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell.

Timothy Treadwell is such a Shakespearian portrait of fortitude on the edge of madness, that it is no wonder he caught the eye of Werner Herzog. A quick backstory; Treadwell was a drug addict and a failed actor who found a communion with nature, specifically with the grizzly bears living in an Alaskan peninsula. He resided amongst the bears for thirteen summers as a grassroots preservationist, interacting with them like an equal. For the last five years of his study, he brought along a video camera to capture authentic bear footage. However, following the summer of 2003 an altercation at the airport inflamed his contempt with humanity, and he and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard, went back to his home with the bears. Unfortunately, many of Treadwell’s familiar bear companions were in hibernation and the scarcity of food led to Treadwell and Huguenard being mauled by a grizzly. Herzog, no stranger the cruelty of nature, has constructed a breathtaking nature film, a portrait of a lone environmentalist resisting civilization, and a haunting story of a troubled man stalked by his own doom.

Despite the debate that Treadwell’s eccentricity has caused amongst his peers (illustrated through interviews of Treadwell’s friends and family as well as disapproving naturalists and park rangers), Herzog remains unbiased in his retelling of Treadwell’s life. Herzog also possesses audio of Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments, but honorably refuses to play it and instructs one of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriends to destroy the tape. In fact he only interrupts Treadwell’s musings to weigh in on what he feels is “the overwhelming indifference of nature.” He holds a fascination with nature as intense as Treadwell (as evidenced in his other works) but lacking any sort of romanticism. All he sees the chaos of nature that enveloped Treadwell and is the closest Herzog gets to showing his cards on his subject.

Grizzly Man is a peculiar movie, but nothing short of engrossing. It may contain the most unrefined videos of grizzly bears in the wild (a view shared by Herzog, who praises Treadwell as a filmmaker), but never romanticizes nature. And Treadwell remains a study in himself; either an outcast who found an unexplainable unity within America’s most dangerous carnivores or an exhibitionist grasping for the attention he never received as an actor. Herzog certainly tries his best to paint an accurate portrayal with the footage Treadwell allowed to be filmed. We see Treadwell rage incoherently about civilization, baby talk to the bears, set up multiple takes for “spontaneous” observations, and so on. Whatever our interpretation we can see how such a man of oddball idealism could have found himself exiled by society and identified only within the perilous splendor of nature. Herzog dutifully does not prod us to judge, but to merely observe this tragic life of one man’s lonely embrace with death.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Collateral (2004)

Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.
In a Nutshell: A cabbie is forced to aid a hitman in a string of nighttime killings.

Collateral is one of those films that manage to overcome its paltry script with exhilarating direction and first-class acting. It plays like the darkest of buddy comedies, playing heavily with the conflicting personalities of the two leads. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a skilled assassin who must kill five witnesses before morning. To get around, he gets into a cab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx) and attempts to keep his job a secret until one of his victims accidentally falls on top of Max’s cab. Now, Max is forced to transport Vincent from hit to hit, and the two men are continually at odds with each other. Vincent believes not just in “living in the moment” but at accepting and living with the spontaneity of life. Meanwhile Max, who is in his twelfth year as a cab driver, carefully plans out each moment while aspiring to one day have enough money for his own limo company.

If the characters feel organic, it’s not because of the writing, which saddles them with awkward chunks of monologues posing as character development. It is far too clunky for Michael Mann’s smooth direction, turning nighttime L.A. into the bleakest of wastelands. The city’s own haunting emptiness plays off Max, now trapped in his cab with Vincent acting as his catalyst to aim for a better life. Tom Cruise got a lot of attention for finally playing the villain, albeit a “safe” villain role. On paper, Vincent, with his philosophy quotes and superhuman assassin skills, could have been a chic Terminator, but Cruise gives him the necessary dimension to avoid being a complete monster. Foxx is even better and despite his comedy background, never overplays Max’s initial shock and weakness when confronted by his misfortune. When Max is forced into self-empowerment through Vincent’s teachings (and whatever plot diversions come his way), it feels wonderfully unforced even the face of an uninspired third-act chase.

Being a Michael Mann film, Collateral still has its action (check out the Asian nightclub scene with Vincent at odds from both sides of the law). Even more notable are the duo’s various meetings with other denizens of the night. From Vincent’s targets to Max’s comic relief mother, Mann treats us to vignettes that open up the underworld to breadth of stock characters made genuine. Less so is the finale that finally pits Max’s newfound empowerment against Vincent. But by this time, Mann’s visuals have managed to buck the clumsy script to maintain a naturalistic vibe within the moody L.A. underworld and the opposing nature of his leads. Collateral is little more than a fun ride, but succeeds in playing far better than it reads.