Friday, March 28, 2014

Brazil

It's tempting to describe Brazil (1985) as Monty Python's 1984, and it wouldn't be entirely inaccurate to do so. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the American member of the troupe who created the surreal animation segments for the Pythons, Brazil can be described as a satirical, whimsical, and cheeky take on a futuristic dystopia where the citizenry lives in fear of an oppressive, faceless government. Gilliam has fun illustrating the absurdities of the state bureaucracy, the ridiculous extremes people will go for the latest technologies and trends, and pretty much every character exists as a cartoonish caricature brought to life.

However, there are moments in Brazil that are absolutely unnerving and even chilling. This is a world where innocent people are hurt, and this corrupt, self-serving, self-perpetuating system remains intact; there is no revolution or uprising to right the scales of justice. Gilliam also films the movie in a disjointed, off-kilter style that is equally disorienting, freakish, and even nightmarish at times. Many of the characters resemble distorted, inhuman monsters while the buildings and vehicles are large, industrial, and dirty in a way that suggest this is post-apocalyptic.

Yet, there are moments of great beauty and imagination. Even in this dark, warped, and bizarre world, there exists some solace for those seek it. The state can dictate so much about your life - where you go, where you work, what form you need to do this or that - but the state can't take away your dreams.

Following a glitch in which is an innocent man is mistaken for a terrorist and arrested (because of a squished fly on a form), low-level government employee Sam Lowry(Jonathan Pryce) attempts to correct the mistake, and when he visits the man's widow, he sees Jill Layton (Kim Greist), a woman who was not only a witness to the wrongful arrest but who also resembles the woman of Lowry's frequent dreams, dreams in which he is a heroic and dashing figure who battles monsters and giants. Lowry attempts to contact and help her, both because he's fallen in love with her and she's now considered a terrorist for trying to report the mistake, something the government will never admit to.

Brazil, in a word, is a busy. It can also be described as chaotic and hard to watch. There's a lot of activity going on in front of the camera almost all the time, and it's easy to feel overwhelmed. In almost every scene, there's an explosion, a bustle of people coming and going, a fleet of vehicles at work, or a group of police breaking through walls and windows, and Gilliam film it all with a frantic, ever-moving camera and a wide-angle lens that gives all the characters a distorted, almost other-worldly look, like a cartoon rendered in real life. It's a movie that rarely allows you to feel comfortable. Nothing looks normal.

The look of the film is so important to conveying this world: vast, imposing halls and torture chambers; office complexes that resemble mazes as lines of bureaucrats file paperwork endlessly; heating vents and air ducts that jut out of the walls into the open space; and buildings that seem to tower infinitely into the sky. At times, the movie is claustrophobic and paranoid as Sam becomes lost in tight corridors of emotionless people. At other times, it's disquieting and bleak, such as when the camera frames him as this tiny, individual figure that is dwarfed by his the halls and walls around him, rendering him insignificant.

Gilliam has fun depicting the absurdities in this world: the police who give a receipt to the wife of the man they've just arrested, a supervisor contemplating suicide when a piece of paperwork becomes unaccounted for, the plastic surgery that involves stretching the patient's cheeks out to grotesque levels, and the terrorist repairman Archibald Tuttle (Robert de Niro), who is portrayed almost a superhero by zip lining out of Sam's apartment after performing an illegal repair without, gasp, the proper paperwork. In one bit that wouldn't have been out of place on Flying Circus, Sam arrives in his new office (which looks like a basement broom closet) and fights with his co-worker next door (Charles McKeown, who co-wrote the script with Gilliam and Tom Stoppard); the thing is, the desk is shared between both their offices, divided by the wall, so they struggle to keep the desk on their side.

But darker material grows from the wackiness. Gilliam's fellow Python Michael Palin turns up as Jack Lint, an employee of the state. Jack's is presented as an overly cheery family man and good old chap, but he's revealed to be a man who tortures people for the government; he brings one of his children to work, and meanwhile, he's covered in blood and rationalizing the death of one subject because of someone's else clerical error, resulting in him not knowing of the man's heart condition. "The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?" Jack reasons. At the end, when it's Sam's turn to sit in the torture chair, Jack prepares to work on him while wearing a freakish baby doll mask that hides the jolly old friend beneath.

The respite from the absurdities of the bureaucracy and the horror of the government is either buying consumer goods and plastic surgery as Sam's mother does, ignoring it, or imagination, which Sam finds in his dreams. Instead of a nervous, sweating clerk, Sam in his imagination appears as a dashing hero with a flowing locks, angel wings, and a massive sword as he battles monsters and other villains (some who wear baby doll masks) to rescue a fair, imprisoned maiden. These dreams sequences play mostly dialogue-free and feel very abstract. It's in Sam's dreams we see the beautiful sky and clouds. 

At the end, when Sam becomes lost in his mind, oblivious to the torture inflicted upon him, he begins to hum the song "Brazil."

Friday, March 7, 2014

Desperate Hours

I had heard almost entirely negative things about Desperate Hours (1990), based on a novel and play by Joseph Hayes that also served as the basis for a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. But I remained intrigued. After all, it was directed by Michael Cimino, the filmmaker behind The Deer Hunter, and it stars performers I usually enjoy greatly, not just stars Mickey Rourke and Anthony Hopkins but also reliable character actors Elias Koteas and David Morse. So, I sat down and watched Desperate Hours, and while it's not the complete disaster I had expected, it's not very good, falling mostly into the realm of cliched melodrama, contrived suspense situations, and erratic plotting.

After breaking out of custody using a gun smuggled to him by his attorney, criminal "genius" Michael Bosworth (Rourke), along with his brother Wally (Koteas, looking like John Stamos from his Full House days) and his brother's buddy Albert (Morse, looking like a scruffier, thinner Nick Frost), heads to a random suburban house, where he takes the Cornell family hostage. The family includes the estranged husband Tim (Hopkins) and wife Nora (Mimi Rogers), along with their young son (Danny Gerard) and teenaged daughter (Shawnee Smith). Bosworth terrorizes the family while waiting for his attorney and lover Nancy (Kelly Lynch) to arrive. Meanwhile, FBI agent Brenda Chandler (Lindsay Crouse) plans to use Nancy to get to Bosworth.

In a pot boiler thriller like, it is absolutely essential the plotting be as tight as possible. The details of what the plan is, what's at stake, who all the players are and their roles are, and where every element and potential complication are must be conveyed. Not everything needs to be spelled out or revealed up front, but it is imperative of the filmmakers to present everything coherently so the audience can follow what's happening. Consider The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which illustrates how the crooks seize the subway and take hostages and how important their timing is, or for a more action-oriented example, Die Hard, which gradually reveals the terrorists' scheme to use the involvement of the police and FBI to crack the safe in the building.

Unfortunately, this is where Desperate Hours goes off the rails. It's not that there are too many elements to keep track of; it's that many of these elements aren't presented in a coherent fashion. For example, when Albert leaves and dumps a body somewhere in the desert, we're told (not shown, a common occurrence in the film) the FBI has found the body, but Albert is still wandering lost in more or less the same spot.

Other problems arise from weird character behavior. Bosworth's plan of waiting for his lawyer really calls into question his being labeled a genius. Why didn't he wait for her in Mexico, out of the reach of the U.S. officials instead of taking hostages in an upper class neighborhood where the odd behavior he makes the Cornell family perform will stand out? Chandler's idea of tailing Nancy is to send two speeding cars chasing after her while following in a low-flying aircraft that's clearly visible; wouldn't it make more sense to let Nancy think she wasn't being followed so she'll take you right to who you're really after? Of course, Nancy is troublesome character; her change(s?) of heart seemingly takes place off screen and is otherwise unsupported.

The Cornells fair slightly better. Nothing they do is quite as ludicrously implausible, but they're all stock characters, and their arc - the family under siege that finds the strength to come together and fight back - is obvious from their very first scene.

This kind of material could be elevated by the right performances, but the actors, not helped by overwrought dialogue, can't make it happen. Hopkins is ok as the family patriarch, but  Koteas is wasted in a role that adds nothing while Morse does the best of the bunch; how his character exits the situation and the movie is downright bizarre. Rogers can't overcome the cliches of the role, the kids are fine for what little they have to do, but Lynch and Krouse, who seems like she belongs in another movie, are downright awful.

Sadly, the biggest letdown is Rourke as the criminal mastermind. This role seems like it would be a home run for him, but I was never convinced of his supposed genius or his romance with Nancy. Compare him to Robert Shaw or Alan Rickman in the aforementioned movies, and he's disappointingly uncharismatic. He's not a villain you enjoy hating; he's a just a jerk and a bully without much to back it up.  By the end, you just want him to go away.

Cimino brings some style with his direction. There are some nicely composed shots, both outdoors in the desert and mountains of Utah and inside the house, but without a firm grasp of the characters and plot, it's all for naught. Desperate Hours is a would-be pressure cooker that peters out instead of exploding to life.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

No Country for Old Men

How to describe No Country for Old Men (2007), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy? At it's most basic level, it's a chase movie. Stylistically, it could be described as a film noir for how dark it is, yet it could also be called a modern-day western because so much of its action occurs in the harsh, unforgiving plains of Texas, and there are a few standoffs and shootouts. But by the very nature of its creator and adapters, the movie can't help but have an edge to it, a peculiar sense of humor when the blood's not flowing.

No Country for Old Men centers on three men: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), a hunter who stumbles on money from a drug deal gone bad; Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a psychopathic killer who tracks Moss; and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a sheriff who tries to find Moss so he can protect him. There are other characters - Moss's wife Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), Mexican drug dealers, bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), a businessman with some investment in the drug deal (Stephen Root), and more - but Moss, Chigurh, and Bell are the wheels driving the plot.

With that story, there are certain conventions we expect, specifically a final showdown between Moss and Chigurh with Bell coming in as the Seventh Cavalry to save the day; that's how the story probably would have played out in a more traditional narrative, but the Coens and McCarthy are anything but traditional. Yes, there is a resolution to this three-man chase, and yes, there are violent action scenes, but instead of turning into a story into a routine thriller, the movie becomes a meditation on the evil in the world; the random, arbitrary nature of death; and the despair the good feels in such a cruel, hostile place.

"You don't have to do this," say a number of people to Chigurh just before he kills them. Some try to bargain with him, some plead, and others run, but he is a man who cannot be reasoned with or talked out of doing what he sets out to do. "I would say he doesn't have a sense of humor," says Wells. "You could even say he has principles." In some ways, Chigurh is presented an incarnation of death itself: dark, emotionless, unstoppable, cold, he strikes silently from the shadows. Even his choice of weapons, an air gun used for killing cattle that shoots a bullet in the brain and sucks it back out along with a silenced shotgun, demonstrates a killer who has elevated himself to that of superior being over the men he hunts. When Moss shoots him in the leg, Chigurh's response is gruesome, clinical self-surgery. No one who encounters this monster emerges unscathed, even if he elects not to kill them.

Just as unforgiving and relentless as Chigurh is the environment. The film takes place in Texas, often along lonely highways under the blazing desert sun or in out-of-the-way gas stations and rundowns motel. There's little life in this world, and what life there is is often easily discarded, destroyed, or otherwise rendered meaningless. It's a world devoid of comfort, solace, or safety. Curiously, the film doesn't feature much in the way of music. The only music I can recall is played over the end credits; the movie lacks a musical soundtrack in several key scenes, including a cat-and-mouse shootout between Moss and Chigurh, but oddly enough, that proves an effective decision on the part of the Coens. Music tends to under the action of scene, but here, the lack of music creates a more desolate, lonely feeling; nothing is coming to help you as this killer gives chase.

Trying to escape this desolation, in more than one way, is Moss. The money he takes to provide him and his wife a better life sets off a pursuit he can never quite get away from. He's tough, determined, capable of thinking on his feet, but it seems no matter where he goes or how fast he is, Chigurh is always right behind him. Moss seeks to secure a better future, but he only invites death.

Right behind Chigurh is Bell, the grizzled lawman who has seen it all and still can't believe how horrible it all really is. The crimes he's encountered in his long years with the badge have never failed to shock or appall him, and they're weighing him down into despair. The sheriffs of years past, he says, rarely wore guns, but now, in his supposed golden years, Bell can only wonder whether his efforts have amounted to anything. In an interesting narrative decision, Bell has no direct encounters with Moss and Chigurh (who have two with each other, a shootout and a phone call), but he bears witness to their trail of death.

No Country for Old Men is as thrilling and suspenseful as just about any thriller you'd care to name, but because it's a Coen brothers' film, you know their peculiar sense of humor will sneak in somehow. Chigurh's encounters with random people are darkly funny; he is so ramrod uncompromising, they don't know what to make of him. Sort of like nervous, quiet laughter in the face of death. Meanwhile, Bell's observations, even when talking about horrific things, are rather folksy and blunt. The Coens also find laughs in the little details: Chigurgh wearing only socks to sneak up on people and stopping in Moss's trailer for a drink of milk, for example.

No Country for Old Men won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2008, and it's really hard to argue with that honor. It's bleak, violent, intense, exciting, poetic, and funny as it mixes and subverts so many different genres and expectations. I'd add one word: masterful.