MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

MW on Movies: The American, Machete, Going the Distance, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 and Lebanon

The American (Three Stars)
U.S.; Anton Corbijn, 2010

I like George Clooney. No off-color psychological speculations, please.

What I like about him is the easy-going “good guy” way he plays the Hollywood game. I like his politics, his philanthropy, his unpretentious smarts, his good-natured jock style, his taste in movie scripts, his daring as a director, his wry grin, his sense of fun and his sense of seriousness.

And I like the fact that he‘s a stunning-looking guy who can effortlessly get all the things available to stunning-looking guys — the ladies, the jobs, the laughs and whatever else — but that he doesn’t rub our noses in it, or act like he‘s always on the make, or pump himself up with vanity and vacuous self-regard. I like that he makes fun of himself, and even makes fun of the American obsession with stunning-looking guys and gorgeous women and using your looks to get ahead.

As Clint Eastwood likes to say about himself and his philosophy, Clooney takes the work seriously, but not himself seriously. (Once, talking about Hollywood acting careers, Clooney said frankly that it was usually the better-looking guys who got the parts, and he made clear he thought that was a mistake — and also that he was one of the beneficiaries.)

Clooney’s special spot in American movies is the one Paul Newman used to have, and Newman was a special favorite of mine too. Both of them are (or were) likable superstars, golden boys and unpretentious liberals, smart jocks who like a good time, but work damned hard, and, in some ways, are over-achievers. (Newman was a spectacular over-achiever, in more than just acting.)

The American, Clooney’s latest movie, is a good example of that striving, of that reach that almost exceeds the grasp. It’s an eye-popping, laconic, dramatically perverse mix of art film and classy romantic thriller that deliberately tramples on the current norms and box-office formulas. Instead, it summons up memories of esoteric European suspense dramas like Melville’s Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and Antonioni‘s The Passenger, rather than the more obvious models you’d expect, like Bourne and Bond.

It’s a good film, beautifully visualized, a little self-indulgent maybe, and a little spare of script. Clooney‘s star role is as an assassin/gunsmith variously known as Jack, Edward and Butterfly, dodging bullets on a working idyll in the lush Abruzza mountain country of Italy, and involved with several knockout ladies, a philosophical priest, and an impatient employer (some or all of whom may mean him harm). It’s an uncharacteristic minimalist job, fraught with tension and less heavy on the usual Clooney trumps of charm and personality.

Like Le Samourai, that classic neo-noir of the ‘60s with Alain Delon as a somber Parisian hit man, The American is about a perfectionist in murder whose world is coming apart and who (unwisely, perhaps) seems to fall in love. So the film begins with a botched attack and a startling rub-out and it stays tense and opaque, keeps mixing sex and menace the rest of the way.

During most of The American, a movie in which Clooney’s character fends off attacks, constructs a super-gun for another (female) assassin, engages in some very authentic-looking lovemaking and strolls around the hilly streets and chic shops of that Abruzzi village, Jack simply looks scared shitless or about to be. Or lost in some confused, apprehensive reverie. He looks as if something is sneaking up behind him — and it is.

The movie’s source is the novel A Very Private Gentleman, by Martin Booth, which is apparently less opaque, and less spare of story. And screenwriter Rowan Joffe (who is now at work adapting that classic British thriller Brighton Rock by Graham Greene), gives it the Harold Pinter strip-the-dialogue-to the-bone treatment. People say little and conceal their meanings and feelings, if not their private parts. But then how much is there to say when you’re in Abruzzi, ducking your boss (Johan Leysen as the sinister, corpse-like Pavel) pretending to be a photographer, walking around by yourself, or making a gun, or frenziedly copulating? I’d be mum too.

A lot happens in The American, and it happens very stylishly, thanks to cinematographer Martin Ruhe, designer Mark Digby, and director Anton Corbijn. Corbijn is the Dutch filmmaker and music video maker who made Control, that very stylish black-and-white bio-drama on front man/suicide Ian Curtis and Joy Division, and here he fills the screen with beauty and dread, the way Polanski and Hitchcock do or did, but somewhat less bitingly and with far less lacerating suspense.

We first see Jack in Sweden, my grandparents’ beloved homeland, where we kibitz on a foiled hit that might be described as Bergmanesque. Then comes that Antonionian trip to Abruzzi and encounter with the lady killer, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a sub-Fellini interlude in the local bordello with a knockout local whore, Clara (played by the spectacularly beautiful Violante Placido, the daughter of The Godfather’s Simonetta Stefanelli, Michael Corleone’s bride), a somewhat De Sica-ish or Ermanno Olmiesque conversation on American existentialism in a graveyard with an elderly priest, Father Benedetti (Paolo Bonacelli), stark scenes of Melvillean samurai loneliness where the hatless Clooney channels Alain Delon, architectural beauties out of early Alain Resnais documentaries, and a final enigmatic shootout that suggests Sergio Leone hired as a gunsmith by hit man Bernardo Bertolucci. (Both were involved in Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Jack sees here on TV. A grand allusion?)

The American sometimes seems like a film festival disguised as a picturesque neo-noir thriller. But it’s a neo-noir that also plays as if it would rather be a psychological drama about alienation and personal collapse, and that keeps avoiding the violent paydays we seem to expect of our supposed “thrillers.” Despite those inviting Abruzzi mountain roads, for example, there’s no car-chase scene, not even one reminiscent of Dino Risi and Il Sorpasso, or of Fellini and La Dolce Vita — though, at one point near the end, Jack does drive very fast.

Who but Clooney could get away with something like this? Corbijn’s Control was bleak and sad, and this movie is so sparse, so melancholy, that Jack’s fiddling with the gun becomes a sort of action scene by default. The movie’s sex almost totally supplants the usual gunfights, which was fine by me. I saw three other movie shootouts the same day anyway.

In a way, Clooney’s previous persona works for this role the way Jack Nicholson’s past history worked for The Passenger. Like Nicholson‘s tamped-down, oddly unaccented and very quiet performance as the runaway British war correspondent David Locke in The Passenger — in which the movies’ master of the temper tantrum was mostly confined to cryptic conversations and enigmatic stares, but where we still always sensed something like “chicken salad on toast, hold the chicken” underneath, ready to erupt — the memory of Clooney’s infallible charm gives this movie a special charge and an undercurrent. Anyway, the visual beauty of The American’s individual scenes and shots, is its own best defense.

Not for the more right wing TV pundits and critics, of course, who would hate Clooney no matter what he does (though they’d love him if he made exactly the same movies, and supported the same causes, but said something nasty about Obama). Those clowns probably equate The American’s European cinema style and mood (and the craftsmanlike brilliance of Clooney’s European colleagues) with European socialism and the European health care system, and maybe everything European, including whatever bizarre alleged new international conspiracy has lately transfixed God’s Own Man Glenn Beck, rapt and bug-eyed at his blackboard.

Yet, lugubrious though it may seem to some, The American is not anti-American, no matter what Father Benedetti existentially mumbles in the graveyard. The presence of Clooney alone tips the balance in our favor. There is a specific pro-European bias that has always been part of American culture, and they (especially the French) have often returned the compliment — as indeed, Jean-Pierre Melville did in Le Samourai, The American‘s cinematic godfather. The compliment is mutually exchanged here.

Want to see a beautifully-shot thriller, with beautiful people in beautiful surroundings? Here it is — despite a script that could be better, and too much fancy bleakness, and dialogue that could be sharper and wittier, and no car-chases in sight. It’s no Syriana. It’s no Michael Clayton. And it’s certainly no Samourai. But it looks like a nice working holiday for our pal George. He deserves one.

Machete (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Robert Rodriguez, 2010

For me, this was a big disappointment. Robert Rodriguez can be a great pulpy filmmaker, as he is in Desperado and Sin City, and here he seems to have a platform ripe for good cheap thrills and schlocky shocks, crazy comedy and acid social commentary: the no-holds-barred ultra-violent Grindhouse tale of a Mexican EveryHitman named Machete, who‘s mistakenly hired by a mysterious politico (Jeff Fahey, of White Hunter, Black Heart) to take part in a phony assassination scheme rigged to boost the candidacy of a right-wing, anti-immigration U.S. Senator (Robert De Niro), who’s secretly in league with a vicious Mexican drug lord (Steven Seagal, off-type) and a psychopathic border vigilante chief (Don Johnson).

Best of all, the hero/antihero part of Machete is played by Rodriguez’s favorite Danny Trejo, who has great tattoos, a great weathered face, a good working knowledge of dangerous criminals, and happens to be one of the most prolific (and reliable) actors in movie history. Trejo has actually done 70 movie roles since the joke trailer for Machete appeared in Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature in 2007. He‘s done (or is slated for) 195 movie roles throughout his career, ever since Andrei Konchalovsky jump-started Trejo’s acting career in 1985, by casting this deadly-looking acting amateur and obvious natural as the main boxing match heavy in Runaway Train. And I haven’t checked IMdB yet this morning.

Trejo also has two terrific leading ladies: Jessica Alba as knockout border cop Sartana and Michelle Rodriguez as Luz, a drop dead activist and immigrant-smuggler who operates a Mexican underground railroad out of a burrito stand. And I haven’t even mentioned Cheech Marin as the local Padre (who gets crucified), and Lindsay Lohan as April, Fahey’s drug-addict daughter, who runs wild in a nun’s habit.

Unfortunately, I had more fun writing out that cast list than I did watching the movie. Not that the show isn’t entertaining. (How could it not be?) But after dreaming up that franchise peg (Machete, to be followed in Bond-like procession, by Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again) and after hiring that cast, and especially after getting Danny Trejo locked in, Rodriguez seems to have thought the script would write itself. It didn’t.

I hate to say it, but this picture — designed to look like a bad, sleazy but fun and exciting ’70s movie actioner, something like Truck Turner or Billy Jack — actually is (often) genuinely bad and sleazy.

Rodriguez is famous for doing everything on his movies (I think, on one of his movies, I even saw Rodriquez credits for boom man, hairdresser, key grip and personal assistant to Danny Trejo.) He‘s delegated authority here, and he even has a co-director, Ethanas Miniquis. But sometimes it’s best to get a little more help from your friends. Rodriguez’ best movie, the modern classic neo-noir Sin City, has a terrific script, as well as a terrific cast and terrific direction, and happily there’s a Sin City 2 on Rodriguez’s current dance card. Now, couldn’t he get Sin scribe Frank Miller, or somebody like him, to help sharpen the next Machete?

Then maybe he wouldn’t have to crucify Cheech Marin again, or have another joke credit like “Introducing Don Johnson,” or give Lindsay Lohan another nun’s habit. Talking about joke credits, how about “Introducing John McCain?”

Going the Distance (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.; Nanette Bernstein, 2010

Rom-com anyone? This thinking person’s romantic comedy about a long-distance relationship between San Francisco journalism student Erin (Drew Barrymore) and Manhattan music industry guy Garrett (Justin Long), has a snappier more verbal script (by Geoff La Tulippe) than usual.

It’s certainly not drivel like those would-be comedies The Switch and The Back Up Plan. And thank God there‘s not a sperm donor in sight. (There are two screwing-on-the-dining-room table gags and I’m sorry, I don’t get them. The dining room table? Couldn’t these hot-pants lovers wait at least until they staggered to a couch?) But it continues my disaffection from most modern rom-coms: an awful abbreviation for a once great but now sadly damaged genre.

The biggest problem here: Barrymore’s Erin and Long‘s Garrett, partly due to the smart-alecky script, never struck me as being wildly enough in love to sustain any kind of long distance relationship for any length of time or space, even between Minneapolis and St. Paul. Erin seems like she kinda sorta likes the guy, he’s cute, okay, as long as she didn’t have a better offer, or maybe some roller derby tickets, by Tuesday. And Garrett seemed to be running some kind of con game involving frequent smiling and incessantly widened eyes. Sometimes, there s more affection between Garrett’s two goofy buddies, Charlie Day as toilet-conscious Dan and Jason Sudeikis as “cougar”-hunting stud Box. Or between Erin’s tart sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and her boob hubby. But maybe that’s the point.

The two kids of Flipped, Madeleine Carroll’s Juli and Callan McAuliffe’s Bryce, struck me as a far more romantic (platonic) couple, and I’d suggest La Tulippe and director Nanette Burstein try to catch that movie for tips. Burstein, by the way, does make a good, smooth transition from documentary (The Kid Stays in the Picture, American Teen) to fiction features.

Strong point in the movie‘s favor: These Going the Distance characters, unlike all too many modern movie rom-com couples, do have topical conversations and they do make topical jokes about politics and culture. Good going. And the movie, if nothing else, may start a new craze for dining room tables with retractable foam mats in drawers.

By the way, I was very unsatisfied by the ending here, though I’m too tired to stick in a SPOILER ALERT.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (Three Stars)
France; Jean-Francois Richet, 2008

Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One (Three Stars)
France; Jean-Francois Richet, 2008

These two movies, a triumphantly prize-winning return to French filmmaking by Jean-Francois Richet, who had a Hollywood interlude with the outlandish 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13, are entertaining all star crime dramas based on fact: on the incredible and bloody ‘60s-‘70s career of the amazingly self-promoting real-life French bank robber and jail break expert Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassell), who wanted to turn his life into “Bonnie and Clyde” — and did.

The script is by Richet and Abdel Raouf Dafri (A Prophet), based on Mesrine‘s memoirs, and it’s a little too episodic and non-gritty, and maybe a bit too tolerant of Mesrine, but nevertheless full of action and personality.

So is the acting, especially by the relentlessly genial Cassell — an outlaw so charismatic and charming he looks as if he could sell lottery tickets to the tellers even as he robs them — but also by Gerard Depardieu as a tough crook and the Dardenne Brothers regular Olivier Gourmet as a wily cop. Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer are quite touching as Pere and Mere Lesrine, and the rest of the crackerjack ensemble includes Cecile de Franc and Ludovine Sagnier as Jacques’ ladies, Anne Consigny as his avocat, and Gerard Lanvin and Mathieu Almaric (who never smiles, balancing out Cassell) among his cohorts.

This movie‘s Part 2, by the way, also features probably the worst interview scene in any movie anywhere, ever. Miffed by the reporter’s jibes, Mesrine grants pompous reactionary scandalmonger Jacques Dallier (of Minute) a face-to-face talk. Then he takes him to a cave, forces him to strip naked, handcuffs him and then shoots him — and, to top it all off, he fails to turn on the tape recorder.

Crime movies, especially the new ones in France and Italy, have lately become regular high prestige film projects, somewhat like the prestige literary movie adaptations of old, and I suspect the big influences on Mesrine and the others are The Godfather and Goodfellas. Richet’s and Dafri’s two films don’t approach either of their models, and they don’t really have an epic quality, but they hold your interest. And Cassell, who won the Cesar (French Oscar) for playing Mesrine, is obviously having the time of his life. He plays this superstar bank robber with such gusto and zest, we can even forgive him when he tells one victim that he‘s serving him with a “Warrant Beatty.”

Lebanon (Four Stars)
Israel; Samuel Maoz, 2010

Lebanon. Spring, 1982. The war.

We are inside an armored tank with four Israeli soldiers, in Beirut, in the throes of the Lebanon War. The battle is a raging hellfield punctuated with death, only barely comprehensible to the men or to us. Israelis battle Arabs battle Phalangists (Christian Arabs). The streets pop with gunfire. You can’t tell civilians from killers. The tank is hot and stinking and so small, the four can barely move around — tempers flaring, nerves frayed — as they roll though the streets, and peer through a periscope or gun sight seeking traps to avoid, enemies to kill.

This death-battered tank crew consist of a commander, Assi (Itay Taran), a driver, Yigal (Michael Moshonov), a gun-loader, Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) and a gunner, Shmuel (Yoav Donat). The gunner is young and scared, and when he gets his first targets in his sights, some gunmen in a car, he’s so struck by their humanity, their all-too-vulnerable flesh, that he can’t pull the trigger — and his hesitation gets some Israeli soldiers killed. To be a good soldier of a kind, he learns fast, you have to be a killer. Automatic. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Press the trigger.

Occasionally an officer named Jamil (Zohar Strauss) shows up and enters their crowded confines. He tells them everything is going okay, to hang in there, says they are headed for a rendezvous at a place called San Tropez — same name almost as the famed French resort. Jamil seems to be some kind of bullshitter. They come to realize they can only trust their eyes, trust and live the moments — and their eyes only show them what’s happening though the rectangular viewer of the periscope, through the electronic gunsight on the tank. They see people outside, ravaged streets, gunfire, empty streets, the flurry and the wait. “Safe” within the tank, they keep rolling forward, stopping, waiting, firing, waiting, firing again.

Where is San Tropez? Who is Jamil? What’s going on outside? They are trapped in hell, in the sweltering “No Exit” belly of the tank. But they’re not dreaming; it’s no nightmare. It’s their reality (and ours) then and now. They have to stay clear. They have to play soldier. They have to push their fears way way down, down to the darkest pit of their guts and brains, and twist them up and lock them in and throw away the key. They have to do their job. Don’t think. Don’t feel. Press the trigger.

Shmuel was about 20 when he served in the Lebanese War. 27 years later, that scared young gunner’s real-life model had grown older and become an Israeli filmmaker named Samuel Maoz, the man who wrote and directed Lebanon and saw it win the Golden Lion (Grand Prize) of the Venice Film Festival. So what we are seeing here is mostly what moviemaker Samuel, or what the good soldier Shmuel, remembers of his experiences as a 20 year old gunner in a tank — frightened, inexperienced, screwing up, squabbling with his tank mates, trying to do the right thing, trying to stay alive, trying to figure out what in hell is going on all around them. Trying to keep himself primed so he won’t make another mistake.

As a gunner, he probably did. As a filmmaker he doesn’t.

Great war films, and Lebanon is certainly one of them, are often made by men who actually saw the fighting or participated in it — like the combat soldiers Sam Fuller, Oliver Stone or Maoz. There have been some extraordinary Israeli war films in recent decades, some from participants like Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), and what’s remarkable about many of them is their objectivity, the determination of these filmmakers to stay clear-eyed and hue to the truth.

Few of those movies strike you as so relentlessly objective, so fiercely devoted to the naked fact, as Lebanon. Maoz goes outside the tank only three times, at the opening and closing. Everything we see is in those iron confines, though periscope or gun sight. Everything we see may well have happened and been told to Maoz, or, more likely, happened right before his eyes. If War is Hell, this is the window to it.

“Every truthful movie about war is anti-war.” So said WW2 “Big Red One” veteran turned Hollywood filmmaker Fuller. That’s true. So I don’t agree with some admirers of Lebanon, who insist it has no agenda and no political viewpoint. Telling the truth is an agenda. Getting the facts right is a political viewpoint. It’s just that these viewpoints and agendas are not tied irrevocably to any national motive, political cliché or ideological imperative. They’re reasoned, principled, not automatic.

Maoz’ agenda here is very clear: to put us inside that tank, to let us know what it felt like to be 20, to be scared, to be confused, to be riding though a world of terror and slaughter, to feel the embrace of chaos, to hear the crackle of gunfire, to see the bodies drop, to have a human being in your gun sights. Don’t think. Don’t feel…

(In Israeli, with English subtitles.) Music Box, Chicago.

One Response to “MW on Movies: The American, Machete, Going the Distance, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1 and Lebanon”

  1. john eskow says:

    Actually–and weirdly–Mesrine refers to a “Warrant Zevon.”

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“By the time the sounds of the Von Trapp children warbling ‘Silent Night’ drift through The Giver, you may find yourself wondering what fresh movie hell this is. In truth, the enervating hash of dystopian dread, vague religiosity and commercial advertising-style uplift is nothing if not stale. Adapted from Lois Lowry’s book for young readers, the story involves an isolated society that, with its cubistic dwellings, mindless smiles, monochromatic environs and nebulous communitarianism, seem modeled on a Scandinavian country or an old Mentos commercial.”
~ Manohla Dargis’ Deadly Lede For Review Of The Giver

“It’s possible that in the coming days or, God forbid, weeks, the president could have something more specific to say about the freighted decades-long history of political imbalance at work, in this case between a mostly black working-class town and its majority white government and police force. But this is a black man who must choose his words about race, governance, and law enforcement even more carefully than a white politician would. And this is the third summer in which, as president, he would have to do so…

“Until this point in the turmoil, the absence of the crucial second face in the incident seemed to heighten the distance between police and the people they serve. It grants them both an anonymity and autonomy that matches the bizarre transformation, in Ferguson and elsewhere, of police into troops. The riot gear turns 2014 into a dot on a Jim Crow–era timeline. Since the officer’s name wasn’t made public more immediately, it should have seemed urgent for the police to lose the riot attire and take steps to minimize distrust, to dispel the contagious assumption that silence equates racism…

“What is so affecting isn’t just that 18-year-old Michael Brown was killed when he was barely a man. It’s other things as well. One was how many reports of the incident that first day mentioned that he was about to start college. That’s a rite that’s universally emotional. But for a black male from a poor family, the first day of college is a freighted day that usually requires the sacrifice of more than one person. Black people know the odds of getting to and graduating from college, and that they’re low. That Brown seemed to be on the right path compounded the parental, local, and national outrage over his being wiped from it.”

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