Sunday, December 19, 2010

Absolute Power

Clint Eastwood stars in and directs Absolute Power (1997), a reasonably entertaining thriller that's well acted, well directed, and certainly exciting, but given the subject matter, it's not provocative enough. While entertaining, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Consummate thief Luther Whitney (Eastwood) breaks into a mansion and proceeds to rob the place when a drunk couple stumbles into the bedroom. Whitney ducks into a hidden room behind a two-way mirror and watches as their kinky behavior becomes violent. The man starts roughing the woman up, and when she fights back, he screams for help, and two men storm in and shoot her. Turns out, that man is the President of the United States, Allen Richmond (Gene Hackman).

That's just the first 20 minutes or so. We're introduced to a whole crowd of conflicting parties: the President's chief of staff executing a cover up (Judy Davis), the elderly billionaire who helped Richmond become president and husband of the dead woman (E.G. Marshall), Whitney's estranged daughter (Laura Linney), a sympathetic detective (Ed Harris), a remorseful secret service agent (Scot Glenn), and another agent whose loyalty never falters (Dennis Haysbert).

To Eastwood's credit, this cast of characters never falters or becomes hard to follow. All the parts are well cast. Everyone is recognizable and easy to follow, so you're never asking yourself who's who. Plus, each character has his or her own angle on the events that went down, and it's fun to match them up as the viewer, figuring out what they know and don't know. There are some characters who are forgotten about for long stretches, and some, like the hit man Marshall's billionaire hires, hardly factor in at all once their initial scenes are over.

Unfortunately, as skillfully made as Absolute Power, I think it missed something of an opportunity. Instead of making a movie about the president involved in a scandalous murder and cover up, we get a cat-and-mouse thriller that just happens to involve the president.

Hackman is good in an all-too-small role as the hypocritical sleazebag who embraces at a press conference the man whose wife's death he caused. But very little is made of the fact he's president. There are hints of scandal, and there's the obvious cover-up. I'd like to seem more of him. We never meet his wife or learn about his presidency. Is he a family values conservative or a man-of-the-people liberal? How has he managed to conceal his private habits from public view for so long? That's never developed; he's just the bad guy.

There are tense moments: the initial break-in, a meeting between Eastwood and Linney as police and others plan an ambush, and an effort on someone's life in a hospital. Even the dialogue heavy scenes, such as Harris and Eastwood's meeting in the museum, work well because they're laced with delicious irony, and some characters, especially Marshall's, are more complex than expected.

Absolute Power is an enjoyable thriller. There's plenty of suspense and thrills, but I'm somewhat disappointed. I'd have liked to see the subject matter explored as more than just a backdrop. Still, it's worth checking out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Rumble Fish

In many ways, Rumble Fish (1983) is a perfect double bill with The Outsiders (1983). Both are about troubled teens from the wrong sides of the track, both are based on novels by S.E. Hinton (who helped with the screenplays), and both are directed by Francis Ford Coppola. But whereas The Outsiders maintained a degree of gritty realism, Rumble Fish is more stylized and has an almost mythic quality.

Rusty James (Matt Dillon) idolizes his older brother, the feared and respected Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke), who built the gang Rusty James now leads. When the Motorcycle Boy returns after a lengthy absence from town, Rusty James believes the glory days of gangs will return, but the Motorcycle Boy has no interest in reviving the past.

It seems off putting at first the protagonist is always referred to as Rusty James: not Rusty, not James, or even RJ. But consider what Coppola is going for. The name brings to mind the urban youth punk made famous by James Dean, the dashing, brooding anti-hero of the 1950s. But in the 1980s, that idea feels a little antiquated, a little long in the tooth, rusted out. Instead of a rebel without a cause, Rusty James, in a modern light, is a thug who idolizes a questionable role model, cheats on his girlfriend, drinks, smokes, picks fight, and gets thrown out of school. The rebel role isn't so romantic anymore; it's merely self destructive.

Coppola shoots the film in a style suggesting the end of an era. Except for a couple of fish a and brief reflection, the entire movie is shot in black and white with many deep shadows and off-center angles, very reminiscent of film noir and German Expressionism. Those genres employed often employed the dark, stylized cinematography to reflect existential angst. While those genres flourished against the backdrop of the rise of fascism and Cold War paranoia, Rumble Fish is about the downfall of a legend.

Strangely enough, the Motorcycle Boy's relationship with Rusty James reminds me of the title character's relationship with the boy in Shane (1953). Here is this violent individual with a mysterious, shady past, hero-worshiped by someone younger who wants to be just like him. And just like Shane, the Motorcycle Boy seems aware his time is drawing short and that he's no hero. Patterson the Cop (William Smith), an officer who'd loved nothing better than to be rid of him, follows him everywhere like a uniformed angel of death. A colorblind, somewhat deaf individual, the Motorcycle Boy sees and hears things differently from everyone else, giving him a different world view. One character says of the Motorcycle Boy he has no idea what he's thinking. Most just conclude he's crazy.

That central relationship between Rusty James and the Motorcycle Boy is really the strength of the movie. To be honest, anytime Mickey Rourke is not onscreen, the film falters. He makes his entrance atop his motorcycle not unlike a gunfighter appearing on his horse and brings to halt any activity. He never yells. He just stares off into space and barely speaks above a whisper. Dennis Hopper shows up as the boys' drunk father, and he's good in a role that amounts to little. Laurence Fishburne, Diane Lane, Nicholas Cage, and Chris Penn show up in early supporting roles, but they seem forgotten as the movie progresses. Vincent Spano is a clean cut childhood friend of Rusty James, and he has a little more do. I think he's meant to be the audience stand-in, the outsider in the fold.

My recommendation: watch The Outsiders and Rumble Fish back-to-back. More than anything, it's a fascinating to see how the same writer and director can explore similar themes in such divergent manners.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stroszek

German director Werner Herzog believes in the "voodoo" of a location, meaning audiences sense when there's something about a genuine location that can't be replicated. It's why he led his crew hundreds of miles into the jungles of South America to push a large boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo (1982) and used local natives as extras.

In Stroszek (1977), while he doesn't go to such extremes, Herzog once again relies on authentic locations and non-professional actors to create a movie simultaneously grim and bizarre. Whether in the rundown slums of Berlin or cold, rustic Wisconsin, the film's settings are real, and while undeniably sad and bleak, Stroszek captures several surreal and funny moments as its character grow distant from each other.

Bruno Stroszek (Bruno S.) has just been released from a rehabilitation house in Berlin after his alcoholism got him into trouble with the law. Outside, he goes back to playing instruments in the street and makes friends with prostitute Eva (Eva Mattes). To escape her violent pimps, the two, along with Bruno's neighbor Scheitz (Clemens Scheitz), decide to move to Wisconsin. Scheitz's nephew is a mechanic there and promised jobs and a place to live. But even in America, there is no escape from hardship, and hopes for a better life become dim.

I don't usually discuss the DVD box art, but I think it's warranted. Instead of Bruno, the cover depicts the Native American mechanic's helper (Ely Rodriguez), who works for the nephew. We see him on the cover holding a little American flag, and in the film, he doesn't do or say much. Why include him? To serve as a historical and cultural reminder. Bruno, Eve and Scheitz come to America hoping to improve their lot in life, as many Europeans have over the centuries. But there was a problem; the land already had tenants, Indians. Most tribes were wiped out or assimilated as America came to be. To fulfill their goals, the colonists, immigrants, and settlers destroyed an entire civilization, and this mechanic's helper is a reminder that despite promises to the contrary, not everything is harmonious and beneficial. People get hurt, and not everyone reaps the rewards of prosperity.

Bruno's first disappointment with the country occurs when his beloved pet bird Beo is confiscated by customs (off screen). Instead of being open and promising, his new home is already restrictive. In another, more humorous set piece, he witnesses two farmers wielding rifles as they pass each other while riding tractors because they both staked claims on a slice of land. Even the land itself is a letdown for Bruno. While not as crowded or dirty as Berlin, Wisconsin is just as cold and alienating. The land is flat, and there are not many people around. Worse, only Eva is bilingual, the language divide yet another isolating factor.

All this precludes what finally drives the main three character apart: the threat of losing their home. Bills pile up, their jobs don't pay enough, and the bank threatens to re-possess the trailer. Hard-working as they may be, they can't keep up. The bank employee tries to be helpful and is overly polite, but he's got a job to do. In perhaps my favorite shot, after the trailer is auctioned off to the public, we see Bruno, alone and small in the foreground from a slight high angle as the home is taken away. All this is one unbroken take as the full frame gradually empties.

However, the characters aren't blameless. While they start out fairly happy in America, their troubles cause strain and lead to a lack of communication. Bruno descends further into beer drinking, Scheitz becomes paranoid and delusional, and Eva, working as a waitress, starts seeing the truckers she serves as her ticket out of an overwhelming mortgage. Bruno, a man of little ambition or vision, doesn't seem to realize or care. He accepts everything that happens as just another day and really doesn't do much to advance himself.

Not everything is bleak. There is a degree of nuttiness. Believing the loss of the trailer is a conspiracy, Scheitz takes a shotgun and drags along Bruno to rob the bank, but it's closed. So, they rob a nearby barber shop for about $15. Bruno buys a frozen turkey, but Scheitz is arrested, so Bruno carries the turkey and shotgun. Later, at an Indian casino, Bruno finds several animals performing weird tricks: a piano-playing chicken, dancing duck and riding rabbit. I'm not sure how to describe that sequence except strange and dream like.

Strange and sad are probably the best descriptions for the movie. Herzog has always valued authenticity even when events come out of left field. Stroszek shows how people come to America hoping for a better life, but they don't achieve the American dream because the country isn't the utopia they're promised and their own nature.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Fury

This is my first Salman Rushdie book. I wasn't too sure what to expect. Apart from his various appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher, my knowledge of Rushdie's work was limited to knowing his novel The Satanic Verses (1988) resulted in a fatwa being issued calling for his execution, and he had to go into his hiding. From hearing him talk, I knew him to be a very intelligent, well-read, thought-provoking individual, and it was my hope those elements would carry over into his 2001 novel, Fury. Thankfully, that turned out to be the case.

Malik Solanka, a well respected professor and acclaimed doll maker, carries within some sort of rage. He's not sure why it's there or what to do about it, but when he fears he might bring harm to his wife and child, he leaves London without warning and flees to New York. There, he traces the source of his fury, all the personal, historical, social, financial, and professional reasons, as he tries to escape who he was in Great Britain. .

Fury reminded a lot of the novel Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow. That also featured an intellectual retreating into his mind and analyzing his relationships and past, and just like Herzog, this novel sticks to it protagonist's thoughts and interpretations to a large degree. Both protagonists are separated from their wife and child, in mid-life crises, angry at the world and developing a relationship with another woman, among other parallels. Both feature uncertainty about the reliability of our main characters.

Unlike Herzog, Fury maintains more clarity and isn't written as stream-of-conscious, nor does it shift from third person to first person. Rushdie also will go off at times to explain the backgrounds of other characters and historical events from a more detached standpoint. There's numerous other differences: Herzog's wife leaves him, whereas Solanka leaves his; Herzog wants to find himself while Solanka wants to lose himself; Herzog is a writer while Solanka makes dolls; Herzog wants to kill his wife, Solanka wants to keep his safe.

Fury can be difficult. Rushdie packs the novel with numerous references and allusions, ranging from deep philosophical concepts and historical events to pop culture. It's easy to get lost. But it's also very funny, and darkly so. It's also sad at times. Some of the people Solanka are particularly tragic and more miserable than he is. The novel essentially describes how people, shaped by their experiences with society and others, can drive them to make more destructive decisions.

I don't know. This is a hard book to write about because to describe the character would be giving away stuff you learn as you read. It's not really a high concept plot you can summarize easily. On one hand, I risk saying I didn't get it and having people say it's beyond me. On the other, I can pretend like I get it and hope no one notices. I guess the best I can say is it makes want to read more Rushdie.