Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Mr. Beaks has been hard at work seeing how much absinthe one human being can ingest in a 72 hour period, and the good news for you is that means a brand-new column today! Seriously, though... the thing that scares me most about Mr. Beaks is that he has my home address. This is one twisted mutha...
THIS COLUMN HAS NO NAME, BUT THAT’S NO REASON TO LEAVE ME FOR ANOTHER MAN, SUSAN, VOL. 8
Before we begin the beguine, I’d like to share with you an excerpt from THE MEMOIRS OF RYAN SHINE: BUTCHER, INTERNATIONALLY RENOWNED CAT BURGLAR, AND CHURCH LEAGUE BASKETBALL LEGEND, due in stores this fall from Knopf Publishing.
Rawleigh Collins moved to Stigwood, Indiana the winter my mother caught gonorrhea from an electric company meter reader (that this diseased city employee was also my biological father eluded my ken until two years ago, when I beat the information out of a county records clerk). He was a fat man and an utter imbecile who labored under the misapprehension that TOO MUCH JOHNSON was a ribald 19th Century precursor to Spike Lee’s SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT. He drank often, worked infrequently, and never availed himself of indoor plumbing, holding firm to the (thankfully outmoded!) belief that it promoted women’s liberation. There were many reasons to dislike Rawleigh, but there was an undeniable kindness in his eyes that demanded compassion, surrender, and utter forgiveness, which is probably why I did not kill him when he turned up on my doorstep one morning and announced that he was marrying my cat, Peabody. A conundrum with teeth! (Albeit de-clawed and spayed.) Condoning bestiality is asking a lot of a dedicated John Birch Society Member, but such was Rawleigh’s way that I pondered the issue for a second or two before I nixed it on account of Peabody’s being male. There may be come a day when man and animal can be legally joined in holy matrimony, but I’ll be damned if it’s Ryan Shine – Butcher, Internationally Renowned Cat Burglar, and Church League Basketball Legend – who fires the audacious first salvo across society’s restrictive bow.
Ate candied yams again today. The love affair is waning. My stomach craves sophistication.
Clearly, Knopf has a winner here. I charge AICN’s own Frank Bascombe to track down the galley, and introduce the world to a new literary talent.
MANN WITH THE HD CAMERA
Contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise) and his cab driver/hostage Max (Jamie Foxx) are but a few dead bodies into their unlikely evening together in Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL when they stop off at an out of the way jazz club down in South Central Los Angeles. It’s an odd digression because, up until now, Vincent has been coolly, calmly, but pointedly (and, best of all, loquaciously, as this is Cruise’s best performance since RAIN MAN, and possibly his finest work to date) all about efficiency. How does this guy have time to enjoy live music when there’s an early plane to catch and several more victims unexpectedly awaiting his hollow point scythe?
Such fussy, though valid, narrative-minded concerns fall away once the pair enter the club, where they catch a jamming jazz combo led by a proficient trumpeter (Barry Shabaka Henley). After the set, an impressed Vincent asks their waitress to invite the musician, Daniel, over for a drink. What follows is a brief discourse on the true nature of professional “cool”, elucidated via an anecdote featuring the man who refined the phrase, Miles Davis. It’s a captivating sliver of conversation, bubbling over with the enthusiasm of two jazz aficionados getting off on the insider’s spoken history of America’s most underappreciated (and un-listened to) musical genre.
Conventional plot mechanics dictate that something must happen here, and it does, but the incident isn’t rushed, nor does it shake out in a predictable manner. That’s Mann’s triumph for a goodly portion of COLLATERAL, which is hardly surprising given that he’s the master of the modern crime film, expanding brilliantly on a playbook already packed with ingenious variations from giants like Melville, Dassin and Lumet. His obsession with mood has flirted often with self-parody (e.g. MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY), or overwhelmed character and narrative completely as it did on the disappointing ROBBERY HOMICIDE DIVISION. But with COLLATERAL, his footing is sure, the balance is right, and the stage is set for what might be Mann’s most accomplished film to date.
That he falls woefully short due to a shockingly conventional third act that betrays every ounce of inventiveness that came before seems less of an issue in retrospect than it did when I walked out of the screening. I can wonder what happened (good ol’ writing-oneself-into-a-corner seems the likely culprit), but I’m tempted to write it a pass based on the phenomenal performances turned in by Foxx and Cruise, and the groundbreaking HD visuals captured by Mann and DP Dion Beebe, who, though he’s been in the business for a while, is suddenly emerging as one of the top cinematographers working today (forget CHICAGO and look to Jane Campion’s over-abused IN THE CUT for further evidence). In fact, I’m still marveling over an interior sequence shot in what appears to be the absolute darkness of a high rise office building, where the actors are silhouettes lit only by the distant lights of greater Los Angeles. It’s a visually arresting sequence that, sadly, works only so well because the film has, at that point, regressed to the standard suspense film clichÃ©s Mann had been eschewing for the last ninety minutes or so.
The plot, of which *way* too much is given away in the new trailer, has Max, a savvy cab driver who’s viewed his job as a temporary stop on the way to starting up his own limousine company for the last decade, picking up Vincent, a supposed real estate shark, and agreeing against regulations to ferry him to five different locations as he collects signatures for a highly lucrative deal. Both men are gifted bullshit artists, and Max could very easily maneuver his way out of Vincent’s proposal, but, in the end, the money is too easy and the sin is just too glancing; thus, Max assents to Vincent’s seemingly innocuous Faustian bargain, and they’re off into the unpredictable Los Angeles night.
The central thematic dilemma of COLLATERAL is a moral one, hinging on Max’s willingness to break the rules to get over. Ten minutes after joining forces with Vincent, a dead body lands on his car; his vehicle – the spotless, carefully maintained symbol of his dutiful, law abiding professionalism – has been scarred. Max immediately wants out, but Vincent isn’t prepared to let him off the hook; they’re bound to each other until dawn. Like it or not, Max’s little crime is leading to bigger and bloodier transgressions.
At long last, the idea of getting over just to get ahead is, post-Enron, no longer merely relevant to those gaming the welfare system, and I love the way Mann’s ethical conundrum leapfrogs from the slightest of misdeeds to the largest one in, well, The Book. Transitioning from his dual study of rebels fighting to upend the system – THE INSIDER and ALI – back to a more familiar depiction of two men attempting to exist, legally or illegally, within it, Mann is, at least, back on more commercially viable ground. But he commendably risks connecting with regular moviegoers by refusing to subscribe (along with co-scripters Frank Darabont and Stuart Beattie) to the sliding scale of wrongdoing that generally allows us to if not approve of then at least stomach dramatized thievery and vigilantism. Throughout the picture, Mann appears to be asking us, “How comfortable are we with condoning selective lawlessness?” As Max is thrust into the criminal underworld, he quickly realizes that this isn’t his racket, and continually tries to rectify his sole misdeed through a number of bold actions – none of which succeed. One of the film’s most thrilling sequences finds Max forced into dealing with a Mephistophelian mob boss (a great walk-on turn by Javier Bardem) after destroying Vincent’s PDA, which contains his victims list. Surprisingly, he actually thrives in this do-or-die situation, talking the talk even after guns are drawn. But no matter how brilliantly he responds, he still wants no part of this life. The moral compromises are too great, and, frankly, he just ain’t that kinda guy.
The less said about the police investigation running concurrently with Vincent’s murder spree, the better; though, as a plot thread, it’s at least more satisfyingly resolved than the main narrative. When it’s on, COLLATERAL is as good a crime film as I’ve seen in a long time, and Cruise is a major reason for this. There have been numerous attempts over the last five years to subvert his fresh-scrubbed, movie star persona, but only the Kubrick variation had any rigorous thought behind it. In Mann, Cruise has finally found a collaborator who isn’t just posturing, and he’s repaid this seriousness by making Vincent an unflinching embodiment of seductively articulate evil. INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE was just a classroom exercise in preparation for this performance. Vincent’s still too cool for this to be considered, say, a Fred C. Dobbs level of willful image tarnishing, but it’s certainly on par with Henry Fonda’s Frank in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. For once, Cruise is actually going to earn his inevitable year-end Oscar buzz.
Lastly, lest you Mann junkies fret, rest assured that the action sequences, when they happen, are sharp and memorable, particularly the club shootout, which does not lack for frenzied verisimilitude. But Mann is so clearly grasping for more that the pat final act mutes the exhilaration of what went before. At the screening I attended, you could sense the audience’s enthusiasm deflate all at once. It’s akin to watching Miles Davis wrap up a blistering solo by practicing his scales.
Dreamworks Pictures will release COLLATERAL on August 6th.
ARE YOU READY FOR SOME OZU!?!?
You’d better be, ya pantywaist. Click here to get your EARLY SUMMER on, and while you’re over at the J, be sure to check out this insightful write-up of Criterion’s PORT OF SHADOWS by the mysterious DSH.
THREE GOOD MUSIC CUES, NO BAD ONES
I hated THE HOURS, Stephen Daldry’s turgid film based on Michael Cunningham’s acclaimed MRS. DALLOWAY riff, but I attributed my distaste to David Hare’s disappointingly literal adaptation and Philip Glass’s ponderous score. In theory, I rather appreciated what Cunningham was going for, and figured that, one of these days, I might pick up the book to see if he’s worthy of the heat he generates in Hollywood. Having recently viewed Michael Mayer’s deeply felt A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD, based on Cunningham’s 1997 novel, that probably won’t be necessary. Considered alongside the smart narrative audaciousness of THE HOURS, this looser, peripatetic tale proves that Cunningham clearly has an idiosyncratic way with a story, which is rare enough these days to make him eminently valuable.
Though rushed and episodic enough in its structure to suggest that Mayer and Cunningham, both of whom collaborated on the screenplay, have pared down a work of far greater complexity, the film is ingratiatingly suffused with the unabashed good-heartedness of the hippie era it wistfully mourns, which makes it pretty irresistible even during its most maudlin chapters. The tale concerns the sad plight of Bobby (Colin Farrell), an unconditionally loving being who amazingly weathers the tragic (and cruelly gradual) early loss of his entire family without succumbing to juvenile delinquency or massive depression. His spirits remain buoyed in part through the kindness of his friend Jonathan’s (Dallas Roberts) inclusive parents, but mostly via the soulful music of the idealistic time in which he was probably meant to stay. Upon reaching adulthood, Bobby flees his Cleveland, Ohio confines for New York City, where he is reunited with a leerily welcoming Jonathan. Despite being madly in love with the gay Jonathan, Bobby (who is less a bisexual than an innocently indiscriminate romantic) eventually falls for their eccentric roommate Clare (Robin Wright-Penn), with whom he has a child. There are unresolved relationship issues aplenty with this trio, but they stick it out long enough to make a move to Woodstock, NY, a most unfashionable destination in what is now the 1980’s. Getting back to the garden, however, does not provide the desired shelter from the storm of the darkening outside world, and these out-of-time dreamers are finally forced to confront the toll of their promiscuous (e.g. Jonathan), non-traditional (e.g. Bobby and Clare) lifestyle. In other words, the tragedy and loss of Bobby’s loving life is unremitting and inescapable.
A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD is awash in the same unabashed sentimentality that should’ve drowned last year’s IN AMERICA, but, like that film, its honest intentions keep it unexpectedly afloat. Make no mistake; Mayer is not yet as visionary a director as Jim Sheridan, but, in his initial foray away from the New York City stage (where he excelled with a fantastic revival of Arthur Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE), he displays a sure hand with his actors, particularly Farrell, who *will* have a great film career once he gets choosier with his scripts. Fine performances aside, what I really found myself responding to was Mayer’s spot-on (i.e. non-trite) music cues that deftly convey a real time and place rather than Hollywood’s stale notions of these eras. I know this might seem like a facile element to celebrate, but it really does contribute greatly to the film’s period texture. A young Bobby and Jonathan getting stoned to Laura Nyro’s “Desiree”, Yaz’s “Only You” scoring an adult Jonathan reuniting with Bobby in early 1980’s Alphabet City, Bobby and Jonathan falling into an impromptu sing-along to “Look Out Cleveland” by The Band – these astute selections suggest an authentic understanding of the characters’ milieu that eludes most filmmakers, who’d doubtless be trotting out the overused likes of “Brick House” or “Tainted Love” to evoke lazy nostalgia. Even though, at ninety-five minutes, the film is entirely too truncated for what it’s trying to say about America’s shifting values, small touches like these kept me engaged throughout.
I’m surprised that I’m bothering to write about A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD at all, because it is a deeply flawed film. But it’s stayed with me for the last two weeks since I saw it, which is more than I can say for such heavily hyped “indie” fare as OPEN WATER and MARIA FULL OF GRACE. I suspect that there’s a longer version of the picture stowed away somewhere on an AVID, and while I don’t know that an extra half-hour would address all of my misgivings, there’s so much to like about this pleasantly uncynical work, I’m tempted to hold out hope that there’s better yet to come.
Warner Independent Pictures is releasing A HOME AT THE END OF THE WORLD this Friday in New York City and Los Angeles. Because the WB mothership will be cheapening humanity with CATWOMAN on the same day, I can safely say that you could do a whole helluva lot worse than to check out this imperfect little gem instead.
JAMES BOND WILL RETURN IN…
Comic Con is approaching like a crackhead with pleurisy and a mangy, vomit-encrusted beard. Quint’s going to be bringing the Steve “Psycho” Lyons share of the ruckus from San Diego, but I’ll be down there, too, talkin’ to the geek friendly glitterati, perusing the dealers’ room for shit I don’t need, and bitching about the Gaslamp Quarter’s fascination with horrible live music. Yay.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my review of Harold Pinter’s REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST screenplay, Orson Welles’s fully restored director’s cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and an extensive report on the State of the Internet/Film Biz/Domestic Beer Distribution Union. Prepare the Pulitzer.
As usual, Beaks, a pleasure.