Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Femme Fatale (2002)

Written and Directed by: Brian De Palma
Starring: Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas

It’s taken me years to come to terms with Brian De Palma. On one hand, I find him to be an incredible craftsman, undoubtedly an auteur, but there is no substance to his work. I could never figure out why so many thought so highly of him. I’m like that with Warhol’s work. I find it pretentious and superficial at best. A piece of canvas with a couple of piss stains on it is not a work of art; it’s a piece of canvas with a couple of piss stains on it. But I’m very aware of the possibility that I’m not looking at it right and that everyone else is correct in their assumptions of his work. I find Mark Rothko mesmerizing, while I’ve known people who’ve looked at his stuff and found it pointless. I guess the point that I’m clumsily trying to make is that not every artist has to reinvent the wheel; they only have to know how to get the wheel to move. De Palma can move a wheel. In fact, in Femme Fatale, he manages to get everything working: wheels, gears, heart rates, and imaginations. In a way, the film represents everything good about De Palma, while offering endless insight into the artist. We see all of his fears, desires, obsessions, and stylistic indulgences. In that sense, the film is a thing of beauty. If I have to make a reference to Hitchcock (I think De Palma does enough of that for all of us), I would say that this film is his Marnie: flawed, extremely entertaining, and absolutely vital to the understanding of where he is coming from as an artist.

In the convoluted excuse for a plotline, Romijn stars as a sexy and mysterious woman (is there any other kind?) who betrays her equally troublesome and mysterious cohorts and makes off with a batch of diamonds that she finagles from a floozy at the Cannes Film Festival. She flees the city, only to return seven years later as the wife of a very na├»ve Ambassador (Peter Coyote). After a while, she’s up to her old tricks again, seducing a sleazy and gullible photographer, played by Banderas with infectious coolness. Or is she? Or did she? Or has she? Whatever. Just sit back and take in the marvelous set pieces that De Palma has devised. He uses all his sorcery (absurd angles, split screens, freeze frames, wild point of view shots, excruciating slo-mo, etc.) to milk every drop of suspense that is humanly possible. If you can let your guard down and get the filmmakers wavelength, you’ll be mesmerized. I guarantee it.

While I’ll always praise De Palma’s skill, I can’t help but knock the acting in his films. The performers in his films either come across like pieces of furniture (The Black Dahlia) or they seem to confirm that the catering service could only provide cocaine, Pixie Sticks, and Mountain Dew for the duration of the shoot (Scarface). But Femme Fatale isn’t all that bad in the acting department. I’ve already mentioned Banderas, and Romijn is too forceful for my taste, but she looks good and she’s naked enough to overlook her thespian deficiencies.

If Femme Fatale is De Palma’s Marnie, Romijn makes a poor Tippi Hedren, but you could argue that she is exactly what De Palma wants and needs. She is willing and photogenic and completely unbelievable. But I don’t put in a De Palma film expecting realism. I’m not asking for The Battle of Algiers or Bicycle Thieves. All I want is to find an escape route from the everyday, and take a trip with a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing. Femme Fatale provides just that, and I’m thankful for it. It is many ways the culmination of the career of an artist who has managed to stick to his guns and stay true to himself for four decades. That’s quite an accomplishment, no matter how you cut it. Especially in Hollywood.

Trailer: WARNING: This trailer literally gives away the entire film. Only watch it if you have a poor memory or have absolutely no interest in watching the film, and are therefore reading this post only out of pity.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Color of Money (1986)

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Richard Price
Starring: Paul Newman, Tom Cruise

I think that it is virtually impossible for a great director to make an uninteresting film. They can make bad ones and even horrible ones, but they will always be entertaining. Take Oliver Stone for example. Alexander is the very definition of a horrible film, but it provides beautiful cinematography as well as the ability to make the viewer laugh hundreds of times per minute. What makes that film so interesting is the fact that it so incredibly horrible that it could only come from the mind of a mad genius. The Color of Money, on the other hand is brought to us by the greatest of all American filmmakers and it features wonderful performances by two of the most charismatic actors in modern cinema. With all it has going for it, the film is nowhere near perfect, but it is made with so much skill and bravado that it is in many ways more interesting than the majority of the films of its decade.

Based on Walter Tevis' novel, Scorsese's film is a belated sequel to Robert Rossen's The Hustler, but it does work as a standalone film. In fact, I first saw The Color of Money many, many years ago, well before I got around to watching Rossen's film, and as great as the first film is and as much as admire it, I have found myself repeatedly drawn to the sequel time and time again. Why? Because it's a hell of a lot of fun. Check out how easily Newman slips back into the persona of Eddie Felson, and marvel at the blast Cruise is having playing the upstart pool shark who "couldn't find big time with a road map." The interplay between the two is more than enough reason to recommend the film, but that would be ignoring Richard Price's dialogue, which is fast enough to knock your neck out of place. Then revel in the way that cinematographer Michael Ballhaus prowls various pool halls with his camera. He starts in slow then lunges across pool tables as if the camera were as light as a cue stick, and Scorsese does for billiards what he did for boxing. Robbie Robertson's score is effective without calling too much attention to itself, and with Scorsese's help, the two lay down a bevy of tunes (from Clapton, Phil Collins, Warren Zevon, etc.) that you would expect to find in dank and smokey mid-'80's hangouts. The technical achievements of the crew obviously cry out for better material, but you can't make Taxi Driver or Goodfellas each time you step behind a camera, every now and then you have to collect a paycheck.

Yes, there are many flaws. The biggest of which comes from the fact that Scorsese and Price evidently left the climactic scene on a hotel desk somewhere and never got around to finding it, so as a result, the ending is not even remotely satisfying. More importantly, though, while the film is exceptionally well made, as you would expect from this filmmaker, there is nothing personal about it. As with The Aviator, The Color of Money is not a true Scorsese film, nor does it feature anything resembling substance. But with so much talent playing to the rafters-including Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John Turturro, and the brief yet priceless Forest Whitaker-there is nothing shameful about indulging yourself in this little stylistic exercise of a movie.

Note: This film provided the great Paul Newman with his only Oscar win. Yep. Only. And you thought Scorsese's Oscar was overdue.