Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Dreams Of A Life

Dreams of a Life (2011)
Dir. Carol Morley
Written by Carol Morley
Starring Zawe Ashton, Nelson Mandela

DREAMS OF A LIFE begins with an extremely intriguing and depressing premise. Around Christmas in 2003, an English woman named Joyce Carol Vincent died alone in her apartment. Somehow, her death managed to go apparently unnoticed for three long years. When her landlord finally got a locksmith to unlock her door for failure to pay rent, police found remains too decomposed to visually identify or determine cause of death -- a skeleton and a stain, essentially. The TV was still on. Police searched for clues; witnesses, co-workers, family, friends, all without success. It seemed as if Joyce Vincent was a ghost, whose only interaction with the world came in signing the lease to an apartment. How does a thing like this happen? How, in this interconnected world, can a person fall through the cracks like that? How does someone’s death go completely unremarked on, unreported, and apparently unnoticed? For three long years?

It seems like the perfect setup to talk about the festering specter of modern alienation. The people who disappear into the system, the lonely, the elderly, the adrift, quietly sitting alone in a million apartments across the world, separated from their neighbors by nothing but a thin wall and a universe of cold, technological indifference. It’s easy to picture Joyce, a lonely, elderly white lady, no children, husband dead, alone in the world and unable to draw so much as a glance from a fellow human, even in death.

This story made Rupert Murdoch ever so slightly richer.

That would be an interesting movie, but it turns out that DREAMS OF A LIFE is even more interesting than that, and in fact borders on the shocking. Because Joyce Carol Vincent was not at all the person you might assume she was, nor is her story as clear-cut as it would appear. We know this because director Carol Morley decided to go on her own campaign to track down people who might have known Joyce Vincent, complete with billboards, side-of-van ads, the whole works. And, amazingly, she succeeded where the police and authorities had failed: she found people who knew Vincent; a lot of people. And from there things simply get more and more unexpected.

Turns out Vincent is about as far away from the frail old English spinster as you could imagine. She was a young woman, only in her early 30s at the time of her death. The daughter of a Jamaican immigrant, she is remembered by a slew of ex-boyfriends, co-workers, and acquaintances from all walks of life as being outgoing, charming, beautiful. She dated musicians, recorded music, had long phone calls with Isaac Hayes and dinner with Stevie Wonder. She met Nelson Mandela! A former boyfriend admits that he had read the initial news story about her death but hadn’t come forward simply because he didn’t believe it could possibly be the same Joyce Carol Vincent that he had last seen only a few years earlier. And yet, it was. Somehow, the garrulous, captivating, and attractive young lady in the photos managed to die friendless and alone. How?

In some ways, as much as Morely’s film answers questions about who Joyce Vincent was it also makes her even more mysterious. Morely uncovers a woman who seemed to be known to many, but maybe really understood by no one. Someone who moved easily between different groups of people, but also made sure those groups never met each other. Someone who seemed like different things to different people. Was she being deliberately deceptive with someone, or was she just a an enigma onto which people projected whatever they wanted to imagine? Hard to believe you could fit into so many world and remain yourself in all of them. Was it easier, in the end, to be part of none of them?

This is boyfriend #1. Morley doesn't identify anyone she interviews in the film, so you can only pick up on who they are and what their relationship is through context clues. It works fine for the major players, but you're virtually certain to forget other faces which are less frequently seen. I know we all hate those documentaries which insist on putting a person's name and title into every frame they appear in (Dave Grohl -- not exactly a anonymous face-- identifies himself by putting a label under his face within the last 15 minutes of SOUND CITY, a film in which he not only appears dozens of times but he also directed and narrates and introduces himself directly to the audience through narration. OK Dave, I know you're a modest dude but we get it, we know who you are now.) but surely there's a middle ground we can find here, huh?

The net result is that although the film resolves the initial riddles about the Joyce Vincent case which baffled the authorities, it raises more than it solves. Vincent was a mystery even to those who seemed to know her best. Not one of her boyfriends -- both of whom she stayed with, on and off, for several years -- had ever met her family, or is really able to offer almost anything of substance about them. Her father was a bit of a player, her mother (an Indian immigrant) died young. But what exactly this all meant to her, or how it shaped her... on this topic they have no answers. Vincent was in life, it seems, the same as she was in death: an enigma about which we can speculate endlessly, but never know.

Indeed, even as people who seem to have known her extremely well offer interesting and tantalizing tidbits, you get a sense that there are large parts of this story missing. Vincent would disappear from people’s lives for long stretches, sometimes abruptly and always, seemingly, without explanation (which explains how no one worried about her in those three years she lay decomposing on her couch). There’s a consensus that she seemed to have had a string of abusive boyfriends (she checked herself into a shelter for victims of domestic violence near the end of her life) but no one seems to have any idea who they might  have been, or what might have happened. Morely’s chart of Vincent’s life --assembled like a police file in a procedural thriller -- has entries like “finance breaks off engagements” which appear, uncommented on, in the background, sometimes even appearing to contradict the story being told by the people interviewed. Wait, fiance? Who? What happened? Nobody seems to know. There’s a tacit suggestion that her father may have been abusive, and that her life ended up spiraling back into that cycle of abuse. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of any of this except general impressions left upon her friends, many of whom had not seen her in years. Would these gaps help explain the mystery of how Vincent ended up quitting her high-paid office job and working as a maid from a run-down, government-subsidized apartment? Or would they just offer more puzzles? Did anyone truly know this person?

Beats being a civil war reenactor. More skin-tight vinyl dresses, less beards.

This is gripping stuff, but unfortunately Morely’s direction sometimes needlessly oversells it, pushing too hard for an emotional hook which is already there in the bare bones of the story. The film is already rife with powerful and deeply sad moments, why push the point with long musical montages and meandering reenactments? It’s a jaw-dropping moment when we first hear Vincent sing. Holy shit, that’s her voice! We’re hanging on every word about this woman, and suddenly she takes a huge step out of the ether towards us, becoming viscerally real and nearly tangible. Hearing the vitality in her voice and feeling this unexpected and somewhat disorienting connection to someone we only met after her death is a truly profound experience. But does it need to go on for the song’s entire runtime, while a reenactor playing the part dances around her ratty apartment?

Aside from THE THIN BLUE LINE (which uses reenactors to visually depict the alternate scenarios it explores) I’m generally of the opinion that reenactments in documentaries are not a good idea. You gotta either tell a story using what’s available well enough for us to imagine it, or you gotta just make a fictionalized version if you insist upon recreating the scenario. You can’t have both; it just makes the whole enterprise feel fraudulent and manipulative. Still, this one has --at least on paper-- an interesting idea for the reenactments: it depicts a silent Vincent (portrayed by actress Zawe Ashton) on her last day of life, reconstructing what might have been going through her mind by examining the minutiae of her death scene. We see her pick out the blue floral dress she was found wearing. See her wrap the Christmas presents that were sitting around her (who were they for? They never say!) See her put on the last record she would ever play. Kind of neat, but probably unnecessary in light of the real images available of her, and certainly unnecessary to fill up what seems like a full fourth of the film’s runtime. There’s a germ of a good idea there, and had it been used better it might have helped give the film structure and focus, as well as offering a visual reference. But as it is, it just adds bloat to what would otherwise be a lean and elegant exploration. Even more damning, Morely’s yin for drama also pushes her to ad a subtle intimation early on that foul play might have been involved, a pretty indefensible and baseless hook in a movie which certainly doesn’t need any other hooks. Had Morely simply trusted the story itself to move you -- rather than add a bunch of extraneous manipulators just to be sure you’re feeling things -- she might have had a true classic on her hands, instead of a just a fascinating film.

Still, it’s hard to trust. That, I think, is the main point here, and the thing that makes it not just a fascinating story but a unique and important one. We fret sometimes about the loss of a cohesive family unit, the social community, how no one talks anymore, how instant communication has alienated us rather than brought us together. But in the case of Joyce Vincent, we’re reminded that genuine human connection is more complicated than merely exchanging words with a real person every once in awhile. Connection is about trust, about allowing yourself to be vulnerable to someone else, about offering some kind of truth about yourself. That, it seems, was what eluded poor Joyce Vincent. She didn’t move through life without human contact, as the original reports might lead one to believe -- but perhaps she managed to do it without much genuine connection. A busy life, but maybe a lonely one anyway. The movie might be better if it were more able to help us understand why she ended up this way, but as a portrait --or dream-- of a life we seldom get such a clear look at, it emerges a riveting and deeply moving (if sometimes frustrating) document.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Last Stand

The Last Stand (2012)
Dir. Kim Ji-woon
Written by Andrew Knauer
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Forest Whitaker, Rodrigo Santoro, Eduardo Noriega, Peter Stormare, with Harry Dean Stanton and an old lady with a shotgun (yes, that old lady), and supposedly Sonny Landham is in there somewhere, too?

So, I guess the thing is now, that people don’t like fun. I get it; really, it’s been a long time coming. Years of shiny mopey vampires earning top dollar, fun concepts like THE MATRIX and PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN getting bogged down in convoluted overbuilt antinarratives, people accepting Matt fucking Damon as a action hero, James fucking Bond turning into a menopausal weepy melodrama, a remake of TOTAL RECALL starring Colin Farrell. I get it, it’s our fault. It’s not like we didn’t have the means: sure, we may not have had the adorable ‘roided-up ├╝bermensches of the past, but we got Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel and even Wesley Snipes. And what did we do with them? Wasted em on disposable, phoned-in-wannabe-hip postmodernist crapola. We locked up Snipes, let Statham star in a Uwe Boll movie, forgot Vin Diesel existed entirely, and were so starved for action heroes we never even noticed that Johnson didn’t even fucking get around to making a non-remake proper action movie until goddam 2010*! And even then, the poor guy has to make a bunch of grim, brooding revenge thrillers like FASTER and SNITCH that are fine but totally squander his naturally hilarious novelty oversized charm.

So I’m not saying I didn’t see it coming. But you know, I guess I didn’t realize how bad it was. I mean, there was the EXPENDABLES movies, they made a pile of money and even though they were pretty lazy gimmicky jokey cash grabs they sort of had a sense of fun to them on and off. And Stallone’s RAMBO and ROCKY movies did pretty well and managed not to totally shit on the legacy of their respective franchises. They even had those FAST AND FURIOUS movies which started off so laughably inept and gradually got kind of good. I don’t know, I guess they must have made some money since they’re now worming their way towards a seventh sequel. And let’s not forget the KILL BILLs, and fuck, they even let RZA make a Kung-Fu movie. So I sort of had reason to hope.

Guess not, though, because audiences avoided this one in droves. Apparently they don’t actually like fun; what they like is recognizable franchises they can recognize references to other recognizable franchises in, and if possible could it star some sad-eyed pretty boy hipster with a perpetually manicured five o’clock shadow he could wear in a misguided homage to actual manliness, that would be great, thanks. Lesson learned. But fortunately for this world, not that you ungrateful bastards deserve it, but it turns out there is one guy left around who likes actual fun, and as it happens he is also one of the best directors working in the world today. Ladies and gentlemen, androgynous layabouts of generation Y, I give you: Kim Ji-woon. Having directed A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, A BITTERSWEET LIFE, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE WEIRD, and I SAW THE DEVIL, Kim had already left a trail of genre masterpieces littered across the South Korean landscape and established himself as one of the world’s most fluent cinematic voices long before THE LAST STAND came calling; in fact, he’s so ludicrously overqualified for this kind of thing that it seems almost insulting to ask him, sort of akin to asking the Secretary General of the United Nations for help with your Spanish homework.

But, Kim knows the unspoken rule that all great Asian directors must endure the trial of an embarrassing Hollywood action debut before they can return home to make great movies again. For whatever reason, probably something to do with prophecies of a chosen one, Mr. Kim chose to make his American debut the same time that one Mr. Schwarzenegger decided to take a cue from Michael Jordan and come back off the benches for one last blaze of glory. They decided (I can only assume) to find the most ridiculous, cliche-laden action script possible and prove to the world that the age of the violent, musclebrained dinosaur could, nay, must return.

Well, it looks like that’s not gonna happen (poor Stallone and Walter Hill got it even harder when they tried to follow Arnold and Kim with BULLET TO THE HEAD, which was gone from theaters so fast I didn’t even have time to look up the showtimes). But it was a fun dream while it lasted, because THE LAST STAND turns out to be exactly what the title promises: an empty-headed but big-hearted celebration of shooting, car chasing, crashing, exploding, being Peter Stormare, muscles, shooting, wrestling, shooting, blowing up, and cowboying the fuck up. The last stand of the unironic action movie.

For some reason, this image didn't test as well as it might have a few months earlier.

Arnold stars as sheriff John Stand,** a small-town sheriff who is happily living out his golden years on the American side of the Mexican border, glad his violent days as a LA narco cop are well and truly behind him. Sommerton Junction, NM doesn’t see much crime, and in fact it seems like the majority of Sheriff Stand’s policing efforts are spent keeping his comically inept deputies in line. But that’s all about to change when a slick drug kingpin escapes the custody of hard-ass FBI agent Forest Whitaker and makes a run for the border in a racecar so fast it can outrun a helicopter. And he’s headed straight for sheriff Stand’s town. There are lines you just don’t cross. His border is one of them.

Right away, you got to be impressed by the simplicity of that premise. No gimmicks, no convoluted plot where everyone is trying to betray everyone and nothing is what it seems. Actually, everything is pretty much exactly what it seems. There’s this one asshole who’s heading to town to cause trouble, and only one man (and a few other people) who dares last stand in his way. That’s it. As clean and elegant as premises come, and hence a perfect instrument for an action movie, where the whole point is to make memorable detail out of the testosterone-fueled conflict. Honestly, this is the kind of thing that makes or breaks an action movie. It’s not the notes you play, it’s how you play them.

Train in Vain

Fortunately, Arnold is an old hand at this song, so he plays them pretty fucking perfectly. I was worried after his embarrassing anti-performance in EXPENDABLES 2 (which seems to consist entirely of a random patchwork of lines from his other movies) was so awful that I honestly might have preferred his computer-generated doppleganger from TERMINATOR: SALVATION. But my fears turned out to be ill-founded; given a real --if minimal-- character to play, the guy proves once again that he’s a human tentpole, easily able to support whatever action fabric anyone wants to drape around him through sheer teutonic charisma.

Obviously, Arny doesn’t exactly have the biggest range in the world, but he’s oddly believable as a regular guy who just happens to look like a cartoonish superman. Age has given his face some character, shaping his austere geometry into something weatherbeaten and full of history. There’s an interesting scene where a young deputy approaches him about his dream to leave this smalltown nowhere and find some action as a big city cop. Arnold sits back thoughtfully, agrees to help him pursue his dream, but also offers a word of caution about mistaking action for worth and meaning. It’s not a scene I think young Arnold could have pulled off, but this version finds something quietly sad in the perpetual allure of violence and youth and it comes through in his kindly but worth-weary delivery.

I swear, the guy's starting to look like Charlton Heston.

Obviously it’s not all so serious, but I appreciate Kim’s commitment to providing enough foundation that the action has substance. It’s all about icing, but he wants to make sure we have cake, too. And if you’re gonna make cake, you might as well make good cake, so Kim doesn’t let any of the background material feel obligatory or phoned in. It’s a good thing, too, because despite a number of well-choreographed action sequences peppered throughout, a lot of the film is about waiting for the enemy to arrive. Preparations on both sides, as we see the conflict draw inexorably closer. In fact, the film it mostly closely emulates (believe it or not) is HIGH NOON, with Arny taking the place of Gary Cooper as a sheriff who has to try and fortify before the storm arrives. Of course, he’s Arny, so unlike with Gary Cooper lots of people are gonna volunteer to help. Sorry Gary, but there’s a reason you’re not running America’s richest state. Just sayin’.

Those volunteers include Luis Guzman, Johnny Knoxville, Jaimie Alexander, Rodrigo Santoro, Zach Gilford, Forest Whitaker, and Harry Dean Stanton (presumably playing the same character he played in THE AVENGERS; you know, that guy who wanders into a scene and says something so that the audience can go, “hey, that’s Harry Dean Stanton!”). Those opposing him include Eduardo Noriega (ABRE LOS OJOS), Peter Stormare, and a bunch of heavily armed paramilitary dudes. Peter Stormare speaks entirely in what must be --in his mind, anyway-- a redneck accent. This is gonna be good.

I mean, hell, you had me at Luis Guzman. How often do you get to see such a crazy ensemble of fun character actors all shooting guns every which way? Not often enough, is the correct answer. Their performances range from outlandishly broad (Johnny Knoxville) to the more staid (Santoro as a troubled war vet) -- if not exactly realistic-- but seem to somehow comfortably occupy the same world together. A lot of critics complained that Kim’s limited English produced performances which are all over the map, but actually I think this is both completely intentional and fairly common for this kind of movie. After all, similar tones are visible in both Kim’s other works and (to an even more extreme degree) in a lot of Asian action cinema. You know those hardcore Thai asskicking films which suddenly turn into weepy melodrama and then wacky comedy? Or those endearing Chan-Wook Park films where there’s a bunch of goofy, awkward mugging and then somebody will get raped with a shark and find out they ate their own deformed twin brother who was actually their son by incest? Be thankful it’s not like that. This one merely sets the twin worlds of over-the-top ridiculousness and cornball earnestness side by side, happily dipping into each one at the appropriate time.

"Talk to me, Guz!"

LAST STAND is not exactly lacking in action, but you’d be forgiven for noting that I’m talking about the cast first. For a big dumb action movie, it’s ambitions to be the biggest spectacle on Earth seem surprisingly slight in the wake of the special-effects extravaganzas which have now destroyed Earth wholesale ad nauseum to the point where the full-scale annihilation of mankind has become rote. As the age of machismo died out in the 90s, our expectation of enjoying good action came to be replaced by our expectation of ever-escalating spectacle, and so I think a modest, focused movie like this can come off as underwhelming to some. Shouldn’t there be a gigantic CGI robot with a celebrity voice in there somewhere? I paid my $12, I want to see something that looks ridiculous and expensive!

I think, though, that those who are looking to be entertained rather than overwhelmed will find copious proof that Kim is one of the most intuitively gifted visual filmmakers alive today. Each action sequence is a tightly choreographed, eloquently communicated visual story, making certain to milk every drop of excitement out of the scenario by deftly communicating what’s happening, what’s at stake, and how the relevant players relate to each other spatially and emotionally. In a cinema which is increasingly defined by chaotic, handheld sequences which deliberately try to involve you by not clearly showing you the awesome stuff which may or may not be happening somewhere off camera, Kim manages to make certain you understand the significance of every shot fired, and --crucially-- he manages to do so without seeming the least bit retro or dated. He effortlessly creates dynamic, involving shootouts, car chases, fireballs, and hand-to-hand smackdowns by trusting that we’re actually interested in seeing the action play out, provided it’s stylishly and effectively presented. Even while mostly lacking in gimmicks, THE LAST STAND has a comfortable surfeit of memorable action beats, from the western-style gunslinger battle on main street to the police blockade busted with a semi outfitted like a train to the final, oddball automobile chase through a cornfield in zero visibility. Kim’s so good that it’s easy to forget what an impressive feat it is to successfully manage so many varied action tropes and have them all seem cohesive and exciting.

Arnold subtlety demonstrates his contempt for the subsidized US industrial corn machine.

If you get that right in a movie like this, almost anything can be forgiven. In this case you’re gonna have to overlook a script which seems to be cobbled together from cliches so tired that they’d been rejected by every other movie. I honestly think writer Andrew Knauer (nothing) arrived late to the meeting with his producers only to realize he’d forgotten to bring his copy of the script, so he has to quickly create a new one out of discarded pages from other scripts he found in the trash in the men’s bathroom at Planet Hollywood. Yes, they literally do have a sweet little old lady who whips out a shotgun to blow a baddie away.

Even so, Kim never directs it like it’s anything less than vitally important, and despite a few groaners in there he somehow manages to drag enough life out of these old dogs that they feel classic, rather than absurdly hackneyed. Case in point: there’s a scene in the middle where exactly what you know will happen in order to make the stakes more personal and establish an element of danger, happens. It’s exactly like you already know it will be in absolutely every detail except that it’s treated as a serious, tragic trauma. Arny --just like Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON!-- lowers his head in sorrow, fighting back tears, and then slowly looks back up at the camera. And I suddenly realized I was feeling a twinge of actual emotion in a movie where a mentally ill Johnny Knoxville fires a gattling gun out of a school bus. And Luis Guzman struts down a battle-ravaged main street blowing away anything that moves with a tommy gun. And a guy uses a souped-up racecar as a ramp to jump police SUVs off the road. And Arnold tells a drug dealing Brazilian that “You make us immigrants look bad.”*** And did I mention Peter Stormare talks in a redneck accent? And a guy gets blown up by a flare? And the villain has a butler with a full suit waiting for him to change into while he’s still breaking out of custody? And there’s a car so fast that the cops mistake it for a low-flying airplane.

You know what, America,  this movie is too good for you. Forget I said anything and go back to waiting for another remake of an 80’s TV property.

*Ok, maybe THE RUNDOWN counts. I shouldn’t be so mean.

**Just kidding. This is why it’s important to read footnotes. Actually his name is Ray Owens, which I like for some reason. Arny kind of looks like he could be a Ray, it seems right. But obviously they missed a perfect opportunity to turn the title into a lame pun, and for that reason I’m against it.

***To my knowledge, the only mention of Arny’s history as an immigrant in his entire filmography.