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Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Catching Billy, If He Can
The odd saga of our most successful filmmaker casting about for his artistic persona continues with "Catch Me If You Can". Steven Spielberg, who seems to have used up all his own artistic material years ago (possibly as long ago as "E.T."), has already imitated David Lean ("Schindler's List", "Saving Private Ryan") Stanley Kubrick ("A.I.", "Minority Report"), and even himself ("Jurassic Park") with consistently mixed results; apparently now that Billy Wilder is safely dead, he's next on the list.
But alas, this latest homage is, like all the others, only a strangely muted copy of the original master's work. "Catch Me If You Can" would be the perfect Wilder vehicle - if only the story had been available in Wilder's heyday (it's true, the Wilder of "Avanti!" hacking through it might be a bit dispiriting). As it is, we get all the ingredients of an acidic Wilder farce - a charming cad, a bumbling, upright nemesis, a wittily framed pursuit, the unexpected intrusion of true love, the irony of everybody's moral position, the eventual comeuppance, the final reversal (not to mention the retro title sequence!) without any of the sweet-and-sour sting that made "Sabrina" and "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment" and even "One Two Three" so memorable.
What we get instead is another bastard hybrid of Spielberg's sweet, synthetic sympathy and the darker insights of another, better director. Thus Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonard DiCaprio), the con man and scapegrace who swindled people out of millions while fraudulently pursuing the lifestyle of a pilot, a pediatrician, and a lawyer (yes, it's all pretty much true) is sweetened up from the sociopathic user we can feel, instinctively, that he really was, into a lonely youth from a broken home who just somehow hopes to get Mommy and Daddy (the excellent Christopher Walken) back together again. In Spielberg's weirdly paternal (and patronizing) embrace, Frank's strangely passive with women (who fall over him, believably enough, because of his fake credentials), confused and lonely in the grown-up world, and even to be pitied when he's impersonating a doctor in an emergency ward!
All this makes what should have been razor-sharp a bit soft - even a little soggy. What's weirdest is that the material closest to Spielberg's own heart (he, too, was a brilliant, lonely transfer student in high school, as his parents' marriage fell apart) never catches fire either. Only a handful of scenes really shine (DiCaprio's clueless wooing of a high-price hooker, his first ride on a real jet, his deft escape from Hanks in a hotel room) - and these, as usual for Spielberg, hinge on an immature young man taking a scary, thrilling ride. We begin to wonder if this is the only thing Spielberg can really DO. Long ago, in movies like "Jaws" and especially "Sugarland Express", Spielberg was capable of a shaggy, vulgar vitality - remember the mayor of Amity, in his whale-print suit, or Goldie Hawn's entire performance in "Sugarland"? But somehow, after the mystical hooey of "Close Encounters", he lost anything like an adult common touch.
Still, even if Spielberg's no farceur, the movie's not bad - it's even intermittently entertaining. DiCaprio's not good-looking or suave enough for the lead role (and he doesn't really project the kind of white-hot smarts the kid must have had), but he holds his own and scores a point or two every now and then, enough to keep the movie rolling along. Tom Hanks, as the upside-down Javert to DiCaprio's backward Jean Valjean, is convincingly earnest in his struggle to be more than just waddlingly competent. But it's Walken who walks off with the movie, because he's not afraid to give DiCaprio's father a cheap, top-o-the-world-ma kick beneath all the pathos Spielberg keeps pouring over him. When we're watching Walken, we can almost understand his son.
Actually, to be brutally frank, "Catch Me" is probably Spielberg's best movie in years - simply because it's got the best script. For once Spielberg hasn't tampered much with his screenplay in mid-flight (he probably just didn't have time), and Jeff Nathanson has structured a solid (though not streamlined) arc that lands subtle points just where you want them. The film is blessedly unriddled with the kind of bravura "thrill rides" Spielberg inserted almost willy-nilly into "Minority Report", and this time the script's little ironies actually WORK - unlike "Ryan", "Report", and "A.I.", this movie, in its small way, makes thematic sense. It's true the film has one two many climaxes, and is maybe fifteen minutes too long, but for Spielberg, this counts as a big step up in self-discipline. Let's hope he keeps as tight a schedule on his next project (a Hitchcock picture? maybe a Howard Hawks?).
Les demoiselles de Rochefort (1967)
A ray of cinematic sun
It's hard to put your finger on exactly what it is about the atmosphere of Jacques Demy's musicals that's so - well - appealing, but "The Young Girls of Rochefort" opens with a pretty big clue: the dancers assemble on what looks like a funny kind of suspension bridge, when suddenly the platform lifts off (as does Michel Legrand's music), to float over the water to the other side. The kids (including "West Side Story"'s George Chakiris) dance away as they drift along in mid-air, giving us the perfect metaphor for what Demy's about to offer: a sunny bagatelle that sets you free from gravity, but which is clearly - well - a little mechanical.
Or perhaps "artificial" is a better word - Demy's always straightforward about what he's doing, and the play of artifice in "Rochefort" is one of its peculiar charms. He doesn't seem to care that the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve and her real-life sister, Francoise Dorleac, aren't really dancers (or that even the "real" dancers are sometimes slightly out of sync) - they simply carry on with their numbers through sheer star power and happy sang-froid. As do their characters - what might count as tragedy in an American musical is always merely accepted in Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" being the ultimate example). Only "Rochefort" is about tragedies constantly being averted or diverted - if "Umbrellas" was drenched in a perpetual rain shower, "Rochefort" is pure sun.
Gene Kelly is also on hand to do a few cameos as Francoise's love interest - and his main dance is a charming, quick-time take on what he used to do on a much broader canvas. George Chakiris is, as we remember from "West Side Story", a charming dynamo; Danielle Darrieux is her usual sublime self; and keep an eye out for a young Michel Piccoli as the ardent Monsieur Dam. Michel Legrand's score, again as usual, relies a bit too heavily on its big theme - but it's also about as jazzily sophisticated as musical scores ever got. The choreography doesn't offer any breakthroughs, but there are some charming sequences which are nearly as through-danced as "Umbrellas" was through-sung.
Altogether a charmer - big wigs, even bigger hats, and an exquisite pastel palette - what's not to like?
Minority Report (2002)
A Disappointing "Report" Card
***SLIGHT SPOILERS*** It's easy to see why the critics have been doing hand-springs for the mediocre "Minority Report" - another dud for Spielberg (and a second bomb, after "Vanilla Sky", for its star, Tom Cruise) could begin to impact both of their high-flying careers. And Spielberg has, in recent years, become something of a middle-brow human revival house: he's made two David Lean movies ("Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan"), followed by a Stanley Kubrick movie ("A.I."), without ever really forging his own style or perspective (while taking breathers with the "Jurassic Parks", which were just family-sweetened "Jaws" rehashes).
In artistic terms, Spielberg's been running on empty for as long as twenty years (since his last good-all-the-way-through movie, "E.T."), and at some base level, everybody knows he's leveraged to the hilt - but he can still put together dazzlingly kinetic sequences (D-Day in "Ryan"; the attack on the Jewish ghetto in "Schindler") that give the audience something to like. It doesn't matter that "Ryan" and "Schindler" can't come close to Lean, or that "A.I." basically rewrote - and botched - Kubrick's ironic ending. They SEEM like the old kind of popular, yet artistically successful movies; we can pretend they are, at any rate - and that's worth something. With Spielberg in serious decline - and Sam Raimi waiting in the wings - the whole boomer 70s Hollywood balloon seems somehow in jeopardy.
And so the laurels are thrown for a movie far more muddled than "A.I.", but not nearly as interesting. Spielberg has drenched "Minority Report" in a grainy, silvery light, as if we were watching the whole thing reflected on chrome - obviously we're supposed to be like one of his "pre-cogs", dreaming the future in a silvery secret sauce. The film is based on a Philip K. Dick short story, but Dick would probably do a few revolutions in his grave if he saw it. His amusing, paradoxical idea (of stopping crime by seeing into the future and preventing murders, but then prosecuting the would-be killers anyway) has been extended far, far beyond its limited ability to distract us. As he demonstrated in "Ryan", Spielberg seems to believe that he can inflate even slim ironies and paradoxes into two hour-plus meditations. Alas, he can't.
At least "Ryan" was founded on a real (if small) irony; but from the beginning we sense problems with "Minority Report"'s "paradox". After all, if the pre-cogs are really seeing "the future", shouldn't they see the police bursting in and STOPPING the crime, too? In fact, the police could save themselves a whole lot of detective work by just shouting out the address when they arrive (which they would hear back in the past) so they'd know exactly where to go. For some reason, of course, the "pre-cogs" are dreaming an ALTERNATE future, which takes into account the murderer's free will, but not the intervention of the police, or the pre-cogs themselves. This isn't a "paradox" - it's just not thought all the way through.
Oh, well - we're willing to ignore this, of course, if the movie can tease out some interesting thematic material from its premise. But it can't. After the initial souped-up chase, and the shocking twist! (Cruise is fingered as the next murderer), the movie begins to pile on the filler: technology that's not quite interesting enough, half-baked plot strands that are then dropped (like the back story of Cruise's eye surgeon), and long, expository scenes alternating with chase after chase through a future world not nearly as interesting as the one in "A.I.", much less "Blade Runner". Meanwhile the themes of justice and free will seem to be put on permanent hold as the action-picture gears begin to grind.
But even as we're puzzling over the non-paradoxical paradox of the pre-cogs, we can't help but notice that the main plot is a mess, too. (SPOILER ALERT.) Cruise's simple backstory, for example, is so heavily underlined that we have no trouble guessing exactly why he might want to murder someone (you feel like a pre-cog in more ways than one while you're watching this movie). We expect, of course, that he'll realize this himself as he gets his come-uppance - and maybe a little self-awareness in the process, too. But no. He ends up on top o' the world, without even a dent in that orthodontically-enhanced smile. Likewise, we expect, after a lengthy sequence in which he's chased by digital spiders trying to scan his newly-implanted retinas, that he'll be at least partly blinded by the experience ("King Lear", anyone?). But again, no. The movie works up a whole "vision" theme, then drops it with a clunk (Cruise drops his old eyeballs, too).
The movie does right itself, briefly, when Cruise arrives at the murder scene, with a pale, shivering pre-cog (Samantha Morton) in tow. For a few minutes, the omens and portents of her dreams (the man in sun-glasses turning out to be a billboard, the creepily-laughing woman with a pipe) play out with a genuine chill.
But alas, once THIS plot has been resolved, we're off and running with a SECOND plot even less convincing than the first. Of course Cruise was "set up" by someone, and if you can't guess who, you really need to see more movies (or at least "The Fugitive" and "L.A. Confidential"). Colin Farrell's on hand as the handsome red herring (in the process demonstrating an easy charisma that almost blows Cruise off the screen), but he's soon disposed of, too - and by now the plot mechanics are SO awkward that the only suspense lies in wondering just how much they think we'll swallow. The very pretext of Von Sydow's vast set-up is ridiculous: Morton grabs Cruise for a split second as a few obscure images splash over her screen - hardly enough to make Von Sydow immediately jump to murdering Cruise, which wouldn't solve the problem anyway (the problem is Morton!). And how did the set-up work, anyway? How did Von Sydow know Cruise would eventually FIND the set-up, for Morton to dream about, since he wouldn't know about it UNTIL Morton dreamed - oh, fuggeddaboudit! Then there's the issue of exactly what the "minority report" is supposed to BE. First we're led to believe that it will exonerate Cruise, then we learn it doesn't really exist, then we think it DOES exist about another murder, but then we learn that the evidence is really a bit of pre-cog "deja vu", not a minority report at all. Uh - what?
Clearly, as is his wont, Spielberg's been rewriting on the fly, and the results (as in "Ryan" and "A.I.") are a tangled mess. Why can't this guy respect the parameters of a genuine story, and just leave well enough alone? Steve, you're a DIRECTOR, not a writer! You're good at effects, not ideas! It would probably be a good thing if "Minority Report" bombed (I think after a huge opening weekend it will taper off significantly) - but only if Spielberg could be made to understand WHY it bombed. But that of course will probably never happen. Bring on Sam Raimi!
La pianiste (2001)
More brilliance from Haneke
The only director who really matters right now is Michael Haneke. The 60-ish Austrian is only just now becoming known to American audiences (despite having been making films for a decade), because in this age of false freedom and faux radicalization, he's the real thing: a genuine free thinker and radical.
This makes his work scarily demanding, but on top of that, it's also relentlessly un-sensational: while he works on only the most extreme ideas and projects, Haneke suppresses all superficial gratification. Heads don't blow off, guns never fire, and nothing ever explodes - even though there's a high degree of emotional violence, the release mechanisms of cinema are completely suppressed. Catharsis is to be excised, avoided, or parodied; Aristotle's polemics are treated as laughably passe; most of Haneke's work ends abruptly, intentionally doesn't resolve, or actually re-starts at square one. As a result, his movies have been called "torture mechanisms", although his method is completely understandable: in a world of movies designed entirely as mindless catharsis, Haneke is staking out its antithesis as the province of his art: he's focusing on what everyone else has been avoiding.
The results can be cruel but are always exhilarating. Even I can't quite recommend "Funny Games", in which he turns the revenge cheapie (think "Last House on the Left") on the audience itself, forcing the viewer to suffer along with his victims. With its suffocated family dog, obliterated little boy, and eventual meta-narrative, "Funny Games" is probably the most disturbing intellectual statement since "A Clockwork Orange".
But while at first I felt that Haneke was Kubrick's heir, I'm becoming more and more aware of his debts to Kieslowski. In structural terms, Kubrick worked musically, and tried to impregnate the image itself with a novelistic depth. Haneke, on the other hand, avoids impressing us with his technique; instead he designs submerged structures and paradigms which illuminate but never directly state their themes. There's never a memorable shot in Haneke, much less a clever camera angle, or "dazzling" sequence; he simply disdains all that; he doesn't "love light", or edit with "a sense of rhythm"; somehow he just knows how to grip you without them. In "Code Unknown" he actually parodies the tracking shot - sometimes the camera keeps going when the characters have stopped, sometimes vice versa. In fact the one masterfully "suspenseful" sequence in the movie turns out to be a film WITHIN the film - Haneke just throws it in there to show that yes, he knows exactly how to do that, too.
Which brings us to his latest, "The Piano Teacher", with Isabelle Huppert, the first of his films to achieve even an arthouse release in the U.S., and certainly the most interesting film so far this year. Part of this new visibility, of course, is due to Huppert's presence, and part of it is due to the subject matter: everybody thinks they "understand" movies about frigid, bitchy women who are sexually perverted, and everyone expects them to be dirtily exciting beneath a patina of intellectual respect. In other words, they're dependable arthouse fodder, since that crowd loves nothing more than looking down its nose at other people's sexual mores.
Of course, with Haneke, the arthouse is in for a surprise. Rather like those who were shocked that "Eyes Wide Shut" did not give them an erection, some critics have had to turn away from scenes in which the main character nonchalantly sniffs semen-crusted tissues in a porno booth, or cuts her labia with a razor to "simulate" menstruation. What's almost worse is that these events usually occur just out of our line of sight, turning us into failed voyeurs - the furtive sex all happens with the characters mostly clothed, although their note-perfect performances tell you exactly where they are in the course of each act. This is de rigeur for Haneke, but it sends some folks into a tizzy (Where's the sudden, split-second shot of the bloody wound to make me scream? They can sense Haneke is messing with them, but unlike with, say, Tarentino, they can't figure out why. There are no ironically-framed immature gratifications here; what's all this FOR? (They just can't figure out that they have to figure it out.)
To be fair, there's a lot to figure out. Most critics have grabbed onto the old "repression" handle to explain Huppert's character, Erika Kohut, a sadistic piano teacher at a top Viennese academy. Erika lives alone with her aging mother (Annie Girardot) in an abusive psychological "marriage" in which the two women even sleep in two beds pushed together. So the "repression" handle seems good as far as it goes, but it doesn't really go very far - Mother's comment that "we're a passionate family" after Erika hits her full in the face is the first hint that repression ain't what this is all about.
Erika's relationship with her mother may be the starting point for her emotional state, but she's hardly repressed: in fact, she's in full, chilly flower. She has her own theory of Schubert (her specialty) - something about being poised at the brink of madness, and the composer's desolate "Winterreise" is practically her theme, with its creepy lyrics about hounds pulling at their chains. Erika is fully conscious of her desires, and knows exactly what she wants - she just can't get it in the "normal" course of human events. So she's reduced to various forms of voyeurism. Perhaps the film's eeriest image is of her wandering among the cars at a drive-in movie (in Vienna?) like a lonely ghost; she's looking for a couple in coitus to watch and climax with (and eventually she finds one, with humiliating results).
Clearly, she equates romantic ecstasy with cruelty (which is not the same thing as repression) - and music itself, which operates in the film as a metaphor for love, has become a theater of sadism for her. She berates and humiliates her students, even mutilating the hands of one (this scene, in which Erika places broken glass in the girl's pockets, is one of the most chilling evocations of malice aforethought in all film).
Into this frozen maelstrom wanders Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel), a young pianist who's handsome, talented, sweet, and conceited. Klemmer is intrigued, then obsessed by Erika's icy disdain for his charms - which we can tell have always gotten him exactly what he wanted. Using his frustration as leverage, Erika slowly ropes him into becoming her partner in her own version of "love". This involves, of course, sadomasochism and degradation - only it's to be performed per her instructions exactly (and they run to several pages, single-spaced), in a way which will take vengeance on (of course) her mother.
Klemmer declares Erika "sick" - he's used to the usual give-and-take of standard sex, and he certainly doesn't hate women. But as he appreciates that domination of Erika physically actually means submission to her WILL, he reacts in a way that is subtly horrifying. Here Haneke plays his hidden trump card, for in Klemmer's "forcing" of normal lovemaking on Erika, we perceive that he is actually committing rape. In a word, he "breaks" her, and we can tell that she'll never recover. Her last horrifying gesture (and Huppert is unforgettable) somehow combines rejection with a kind of animal-like defiance.
As usual, Haneke has sprung a kind of trap, and turned the tables on the audience. How are we to dismiss Erika, when her perversities - all mirror images of idealized love - have produced such a cruel reaction in her sunny love-god - and in us? We're left floating in a kind of moral netherworld, like the singer of "Winterreise", in which we appreciate that our erotic pleasures have always had their dark twin of erotic disgust. And how are to say that this dark twin can't produce the same kind of transcendence? We deny it with no authority, as we - with Klemmer - are provoked to actual domination of Erika, just as she wished, but this time in OUR control, not hers. We want to hurt her - but why?
"The Piano Teacher", of course, is therefore concerned with the most basic issues of humanism - but it's an inquiry, not a treatise (this is where Haneke differs from his character, although they certainly share something in common). Unlike what all the pop critics label "subversive", this movie is ACTUALLY subversive - it gets under your assumptions and stays there. And for this, of course, it will probably be limited to a short run on the East and West coasts. But watch for it on video.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Artsy horror classic
This minor classic straddles artsy camp, the Keystone cops, and gross-out horror without ever losing its deadpan aplomb. The eponymous Phibes (Vincent Price) takes revenge for the death of his wife by murdering her surgeons one by one, using as his modus operandi the Biblical plagues of Egypt. Why? Oh, who cares? Director Robert Fuest and Set Designer Brian Eatwell deliver one of the most hypnotically beautiful horror movies ever, and the tension between the gorgeous, pristine images and the horrors being depicted gives the movie a weirdly engrossing pull. A bevy of classy actors (Joseph Cotten, Terry Thomas) drolly back up Price's over-the-top characterization - and this time, can you blame him? The good doctor apparently has vast resources, limitless luck, and of course the demented energy of a mad genius, and when he's not figuring out how to have someone eaten alive by locusts, he's pounding away on his underground organ, or whispering sweet nothings to his wife's corpse. He's an ARTIST, you see - every murder is outrageously stylized (and outrageously improbable), and he even has his mute assistant accompany his killings on her violin. The whole thing is so morbidly witty - and so perfectly poised - that you may just never forget it.
Voyna i mir (1966)
Gigantic, beautifully realized, but dramatically flat production.
An interesting proof of the fact that yes, we're better off condensing sprawling novels. "War and Peace" does its source fuller physical justice than probably any movie ever, and the battles of Austerlitz and Borodino are the big payoffs - there's one famous helicopter shot over miles and miles of Soviet troops battling in Napoleonic drag that is almost worth the rest of this bloated costume epic's seven hours. Almost. But the "Peace" department, I'm afraid, is pretty pallid, with only a handful of memorable scenes. You'll definitely find yourself going out to check the samovar during this one.