Broken Embraces

Pedro Almodóvar’s Broken Embraces is an attempt at film noir; it comes off as film rose. The movie has all the elements that Americans have come to expect from romantic European exports—it’s leisurely, uninhibited, sophisticated, pretty. But Almodóvar tries to jam the appurtenances of old-school American pulp on to the frolicsome Old World obverse, and they just don’t stick.

This isn’t to say that film noir is a Teflon genre; it’s been a popular pomo-tivator for artists in the last few decades, partly because of the movies’ idiosyncratic gaudiness. Filmmakers understandably like to toy with canted angles and chiaroscuro, with light filtering in from louvers, and the silvery wisps of smoke that hover in it. All this can be show-offish, yes, but it’s also shorthand for how yummy those dark corners of civilization can be. (The problem arises when filmmakers overwork the fancy-pants effects to compensate for their creative shortcomings—when, after the smog disappears, and the coughing fit abates, one sees that there was nothing behind the fumes.) Crucially, though, noirs’ nocturnal underworlds betray outdated notions of justice and evil. Modern filmmakers who’ve co-opted the noir style—such as the Coen brothers, David Lynch, and, to an extent, Martin Scorsese—can dig the ostentation while still having it inform their descants.

Like most factory-film genres, noirs were often normative. Bad things happened to bad people in most Hollywood releases; but, in noirs alone—following in the ’30s gangster movies’ wake—the bad people were the protagonists. (I’m speaking less about detective features than I am thrillers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, which, like Broken Embraces, concerned infidelity.) By contrast, the lawmen and pioneers of Westerns were poster children for good-ol’ American Progress. Until circa Vietnam, the notion that our frontier forebears were anything but tough-willed and pure at heart was considered unsalable in the mass-media marketplace. However, the dregs dredged up by noirs (which were set in the present day) were everymen who’d given in to temptation. By the standards of 1940s and ’50s censorship, those were justified grounds for finger wagging; but, to audiences, such indiscretions were probably a welcome relief from their usual doses of Hollywood virtue. Some noirs winked at the audience from behind their censorial cages: If Bogart and Bacall’s double entendres in The Big Sleep were literalized, their dirty talk might make sexters squeamish. But all noirs were products of repression—censorial and societal.

Francisco Franco prehistory aside, Almodóvar’s blue-skied Madrid seems as repressive as a topless beach. The only agent of repression in Broken Embraces is, true to form, the rich cuckolded husband (José Luis Gómez). He knew all along that he wouldn’t be able to maintain his grip on lovely Lena (Penélope Cruz—performing well, though lacking the vivacity she had in Vicky Cristina Barcelona), particularly when she signed up to make her acting début in a film by pickup artist Mateo (Lluís Homar), alias: Harry Caine.

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In Daybreakers, vampires are truly mainstream. They make up the bulk of the population, and have for 10 years. Humans who haven’t assimilated to this change in demographics hang on meat hooks; the vampires mine their veins, and squirt the blood into their morning coffee. (This is a clever touch, though the analogy seems a bit off. The undead need blood like the living need water—not half and half.) The few remaining human holdouts are hunted down, but they haven’t enough blood to satisfy the vampire society’s collective thirst; what’s needed is a red revolution in agriculture. Ethan Hawke plays Edward (a Twilight in-joke?), a hematologist working to produce synthetic blood for a profiteer named Bromley (Sam Neill). But Edward finds an alternative solution in “Elvis” (Willem Dafoe), a hick vampire who, when exposed to the sun, regenerated into a healthy human.

Unfortunately, one must squint to see this nifty premise through the cascading blood. Daybreakers’ fangs haven’t penetrated very far into the box office’s neck, and one can see why: It’s nibbling with baby teeth. This isn’t to say that I think it deserves failure. But it disappoints me that the German-born, Australia-based Spierig Brothers—Michael and Peter, who wrote and directed—seem to undermine their own intelligence. Released by Lionsgate, Daybreakers is in that dusky region between commercial bloodsuckers like Twilight; indie gadflies like Shadow of the Vampire or Cold Souls; ghoulish giggle-fests like Sorority Row or From Dusk Till Dawn; and Rob Zombie’s psychopathic orgies. Ethan Hawke is not a big enough name to fill a multiplex marquee, nor does he square with Michael Meyers. The Spierigs have opted for choppy scenes and shock cuts that people with heart conditions should be cautioned of; they also seem to have robbed a few blood banks in order to play platelet paintball at regular intervals. But nothing quite gels. The techniques seem derivative and beneath the subject.

Early on, when Edward’s lab coat appears in his rear-view mirror sans his face or hands, I sensed that the filmmakers were giving the generic conventions a playful poke. But the Spierigs—after setting up their world—don’t poke; they shove. When Dafoe’s hokey yokel ribs the audience with Southern circumlocutions, one almost cries out, “Bad touch!” A sense of relief set in when I realized how jocosely Dafoe plays the hackneyed role, but the whole comic weight of the movie is on his shoulders, and the Spierigs have lobbed him with a 10-ton sack of corn. While he’s stuck shucking, Hawke glowers like a low-energy, yuppie-haired Tom Cruise, and Edward’s should’ve-been love interest—played by Claudia Karvan—ossifies in the corner, stuck being the token chick. A pallid New Zealander named Michael Dorman plays Edward’s brother in the Army. It’s a sympathetic performance that elevates itself above the grindhouse; but, under duress, Dorman’s American accent regresses to a Christopher Walken impersonation.

Oozing with greasy, self-aware smoothness, Neill successfully toys with his James Masonry. He also provides me with a good segue. Bromley’s teenage daughter (played aptly by Isabel Lucas) is a still-human runaway who’s resisted conversion. Her pusillanimous pa has a minion bite her, and after she transforms, she tries to imbibe her own blood—to poison herself. Bromley attempts to intervene, but she foists her bleeding wrist on him, daring him to drink. And, for a moment, eerie intimations of an Electra complex wriggle out, and provide the movie with the morbid sexuality that has given vampires their cultural longevity. Like it or not, their myth has endured in part because they make necrophilia a seamy, train-wreck turn-on. (Frankenstein’s monster isn’t as kinky—though, depending on whose body parts he’s assembled from, he has potential.) Victorian mores are famously at the core of Dracula, but so is the encoded allure of sexual deviance. Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight books, merely continues the parochial hypocrisy—hanging smutty pin-ups on teenie-boppers’ walls, and then promising the kids a prize if they keep their hands idle. Daybreakers isn’t that hoity-toity; but it pumps blood everwhich way except one—down the channel that forks before hitting porno theaters and art houses.

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The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I slipped into a 6:40 show of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus at 6:50, hoping to have only missed some previews; instead, I apparently missed out on half the plot. Unless the director, Terry Gilliam, has devised a newfangled approach to storytelling that condenses an hour or more of exposition into a five-minute intro, I can’t really blame tardiness for my ensuing 112 minutes of befuddlement. That said, befuddlement has its perks. You sort of lean back smiling, and say, “Uh-huh.” To borrow from Anthony Lane, you know that Gilliam’s train of thought is going nowhere; but that’s not so bad when you’re riding first class.

Christopher Plummer, playing the immortal Dr. P., is at the center of the director’s three-ring circus. Looking like a rag-and-bone Father Time, he trucks around London in a mobile theater, footlights and all. At show time, the doctor (made up like a swami) meditates—in a (typically, alcohol-induced) stupor—while his 15-going-on-16 daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and a teen-tramp straggler they’ve adopted, Anton (Andrew Garfield), incite on-lookers to hop onstage and push through the shiny plastic flaps of their mirror—the titular “imaginarium.” And in there is where the head scratching starts. It is apparently an entry into the doctor’s imagination; but it’s also a manifestation of the visitor’s. Alrighty. But let’s shove on.

The troupe, which its diminutive driver (Verne Troyer) describes as being “on the margins of society,” rescues another straggler: Tony (the late Heath Ledger), a smooth-talking amnesiac with some sort of connection to children’s charities and the Russian mob. And then, of course, there’s the devil (Tom Waits—who’s as suitable to play Satan as Morgan Freeman is God), who got the doctor—a montane monk-cum-slakeless gambler—into this mess. He granted Parnassus immortality on the condition that if the doc had a daughter, the devil would inherit her on her 16th birthday. To ensure that Valentina doesn’t celebrate her super-sweet 16 in Hell, Parnassus shakes on another wager: If he can collect five souls faster than the devil can, he can save the girl.

It goes without saying that Ledger’s untimely death in 2008 hampered this production; but the actor had completed all the “real-world” shoots beforehand, so needed only to be replaced in the imaginarium sequences. Resourcefully, Gilliam and company recruited some of Ledger’s friends (Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Colin Farrell)  to take his place in a world in which men can change their face. (You can tell how this giddy dreamworld has affected me. I might need to consult a doctor other than Parnassus.) Gilliam is free to fiddle with the physics of his fantasy scenes, but he ought to throw us a bone in “reality.” Ledger’s swan-song performance is energetic and full of slippery delight; but Tony’s motivations are so obscure that it doesn’t amount to much of a role. From the 92+% of the movie that I managed to see, I was unable to discern whether Tony was actually amnesic, or just pretending, and for how long. I wasn’t sure what the significance of his flute was, or what relationship, if any, he had to the devil. Were any of his motives in helping the troupe unselfish, and if they were self-serving, then how?

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It seems a faux pas to review Avatar from any spiritual age older than 12. If my prepubescent self could be roused for comment, he’d probably say, “Gee whiz, those 3-D blue-cat people are totally rad!” But as a (slightly) older person, who views excessive promotion in the same way that that 12-year-old viewed cooties, I regard Avatar as an inevitable technical achievement and a decent, enjoyable, respectable, pretty, but altogether stunningly unoriginal movie. This is the sort of production in which the writer-producer-director-demiurge, James Cameron, recruited a U.S.C. linguist to concoct a language for the alien species. It’s bucketloads of perspiration and almost no inspiration. All that sweat—and all the rest of the movie’s liquidity—seems to be dumped everywhere; but the movie might well have been imagined by a calculator, using Joseph Campbell archetypes as variables.

Cameron can tell a story, and the story is in apposition to his techniques. When humans invade a moon called Pandora, in search of a rare element called Unobtanium—just because Cameron isn’t laughing at these names doesn’t mean you shouldn’t—one straggler, Sully (Sam Worthington), decides to join with the scientists, in opposition to the military and their capitalist overlords, in protecting the pre-industrial natives known as the Na’vi. He mingles with the Na’vi—who look like the missing link between tabby cats and the Blue Man Group—by wearing a bioengineered virtual-reality suit (his “avatar”), and he immerses himself into their eco-friendly culture. Sully even gets a pussycat-Pocahontas: Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Terrence Malick also took a stab at the Pocahontas story when he made The New World. So much of that film was like staring at a landscape painting in a museum without the freedom to move to the next picture; but whenever the Europeans and indigenous Americans encountered each other for the first time, he instilled a state of pure anthropological exaltation. Cameron never quite hits that. Malick’s characters can sometimes seem nonexistent, but Cameron draws his from comic books; and this technocrat’s vistas twinkle without coming to life. The pulp players in Avatar have some witty lines, but I never felt the lithe vibes of Up, or the trashy exuberance of Star Trek. Cameron is too busy “[disrupting] an entire industry” to realize how silly his enterprise is. (The director of the first two Terminator movies and Titanic hasn’t been one to sort out the plethora of ironies in what he’s doing with capital and technology.) Money is the alchemy that converts frivolity into gravitas, but it sometimes takes an alchemist to fill seats in theaters the world over. For all its technical innovations and left-wing undertones, Avatar is a deeply old-fashioned movie: one that, conceivably, anyone could enjoy.

What I think people may be reacting to—aside from the kinesthetic roller coaster effects—is Cameron’s stalwart pre-postmodernism. His self-seriousness has bulldozed away any snark, any irony; it’s been so long since we’ve experienced a new fantasy blockbuster without self-effacing self-awareness that we’ve forgotten how it feels to be genuinely wooed. (Traces of anything like the winky gay subtext in Lord of the Rings have been Febreezed away.) But I can appreciate the despotic director’s dedication to the plot without feeling much emotional attachment to it. (Although I did feel the blow when Sigourney Weaver’s hard-ass scientist was dispatched. She has so much strength and physical presence as an actress that she exposes a shortcoming in all the groundbreaking hooha: She holds the screen much better as a human being than as Catwoman.) I can also appreciate the beauteous landscapes; the garrulous veloci-panthers; the veiny, phosphorescent trees; and the ground that sparkles like a night light when trodden over. But I’ve seen all this in movies before—just not quite so realistically rendered. So when I read such ex-cathedra ballyhoo as “let’s be entirely clear about one thing: There is no other movie like Avatar, and there never has been,” I feel like launching myself into space—where no one can hear me scream.