Saturday, May 27, 2017

Go for Sisters (2013)

March 11, 2013, release date
Directed by John Sayles
Screenplay by John Sayles
Music by Mason Daring
Edited by John Sayles
Cinematography by Kat Westergaard (as Kathryn Westergaard)

LisaGay Hamilton as Bernice Stokes
Yolanda Ross as Fontayne Scott (neé Campbell)
Edward James Olmos as Freddy Suárez
Hilary Barraford as Cindy
Mahershala Ali as Dez
Harold Perrineau as Wiley
Isaiah Washington as Vernell
Jesse Borrego as Juan Calles
Héctor Elizondo as Jorge Menocal

Distributed by Cinema Management Group
Produced by Variance Films, Anarchists’ Convention, Olmos Productions Inc., Go for Films

Go for Sisters opens with an interview in a parole office. An unidentified female parolee tries, unsuccessfully, to defend her violation of her parole terms. Parole officer Bernice Stokes doesn’t believe her and assigns her to a court hearing. Thus, the film starts right away with lies and deceit, and with people trying to get away with something. The same opening scene sets up a mystery: Bernice gets a phone call during the interview about the whereabouts of someone she is looking for. Viewers don’t learn the identity of this person until a bit later, when they learn that Bernice is looking for her missing son.

Bernice needs help finding her son, Rodney Stokes, but she can’t turn to the authorities, of which she is a member, because her son is a suspect in a murder. One of Rodney Stokes’s friends has been killed. At this point, Bernice doesn’t know if her son is a murderer or if he is alive or dead. She knows what is expected of her as a professional, but she chooses to act as a mother instead, and she enlists the help of one her parolees, a former high school friend Fontayne Scott, to help her find the truth.

Fontayne agrees to help Bernice, partly because she has few options and partly because Bernice holds all the power at the start of their renewed friendship. They haven’t seen each other since high school, and they aren’t sure how much they can rely on one another now that they are adults. Through her contacts, Fontayne finds a former police detective, Freddy Suárez, who has his own backstory: He had to resign from the Los Angeles force because of an internal sting operation and his unwillingness to rat on a fellow officer. Fontayne and Suárez can navigate a world that Bernice doesn’t know too much about, even though she is working on the fringes of that world every day.

Fate plays a direct role in setting up the story: Bernice and Fontayne were high school friends who haven’t seen each other in twenty years when they meet again near the start of the film. Fontayne just happens to be a parolee assigned to Bernice, which means that Bernice has a lot of power over Fontayne’s future. Both Fontayne and Bernice are rather isolated at the start of the film. They work together rather tentatively at first because they haven’t seen each other in so long; they work with Freddy Suárez rather tentatively at first because all three of them need to build trust.

(This blog post about Go for Sisters contains spoilers.)

The search for Rodney Stokes forms the heart of the film. Bernice, Fontayne, and Suárez have their own reasons for joining the search, but they begin to bond and work as a team. The renewal of the friendship of the two women and the chance that Suárez has to rediscover his investigative skills allow them to support one another in dangerous situations. Rodney Stokes is in real trouble: The lead characters and viewers don’t know if he can be found at all, and no one knows if he is still alive. But Bernice, Fontayne, and Suárez persevere because they all become invested for personal reasons and because of their reliance on one another.

In the DVD commentary by writer, director, and editor John Sayles, Sayles calls Go for Sisters a road film. The search for Rodney takes the lead characters all over Los Angeles and eventually across the border, into Mexico. I would also call Go for Sisters a film brûlant (“burning film”), what others call a film soleil, because the heat is definitely a factor throughout, and especially when Bernice, Fontayne, and Suárez are in the desert following the truck and looking for Bernice’s son. All of them, not just Bernice, are under a lot of stress. The heat underscores the building tension: Will they find Rodney at all, let alone alive?

Go for Sisters may be an unusual choice for neo-noir because character development of many of the characters, but especially of the female leads Bernice and Fontayne, is central to the film. Learning about the lead characters as they hunt for Bernice’s missing son and watching their friendship redevelop allow viewers to identify with them. Their renewed friendship becomes a theme that is just as important as solving the mystery. It makes the story and the ending satisfying and rewarding.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Border Incident (1949)

October 28, 1949, release date
Directed by Anthony Mann
Screenplay by John C. Higgins
Based on a story by George Zuckerman
Music by André Previn
Edited by Conrad A. Nervig
Cinematography by John Alton

Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriguez
George Murphy as Jack Bearnes
Howard Da Silva as Owen Parkson
James Mitchell as Juan Garcia
Arnold Moss as Zopilote
Alfonso Bedoya as Cuchillo
Teresa Celli as Maria Garcia
Charles McGraw as Jeff Amboy
José Torvay as Pocoloco
John Ridgely as Mr. Neley
Arthur Hunnicutt as Clayton Nordell
Sig Ruman as Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich
Jack Lambert as Chuck
Otto Waldis as Fritz

Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

I saw clips from Border Incident when I took a class about film noir almost two years. I decided to see the whole film because of the current political climate. I wondered how the 1949 film would compare, for example, to the current debate about the usefulness of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. I discovered that the details and the narratives may have changed, but not much else has when it comes to immigration between the United States and Mexico.

The DVD version of Border Incident begins with the following announcement: “A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Silver Anniversary Picture,” which is written on what looks like a formal invitation on a silver platter. This announcement, combined with the upbeat music, made me think that maybe I had the wrong DVD. But no: The music and the tone change once the film starts, and I had no doubt that I was about to watch a film noir.

After the announcement and the MGM opening logo are the opening credits shown over shots of the desert and the landscape on the U.S.-Mexican border. The film cuts to an overhead shot of the All-American Canal, with following voice-over:
Here is the All-American Canal. It runs through the desert for miles along the California-Mexico border. A monument to the vision of man, the canal is the life-giving artery of water that feeds the vast farm empire of the Imperial Valley of Southern California. . . .
The film sounds like a documentary or a travelogue, and I had already learned that it uses the semidocumentary style. When the film cuts finally to Mexican agricultural workers (braceros) hoping for employment, viewers see them behind a double chain-link fence topped by razor wire. With the rather paternalistic tone of the voice-over, one could assume that in 1949, viewers were going to learn something about Mexican braceros. In fact, the narrator assures viewers that the fictional account that they are about to see is based on several real-life incidents.

Both U.S. and Mexican agents are assigned to solve a series of murders of illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexican border. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments plan to cooperate in solving the case. The rest of the film follows the agents’ undercover work as they infiltrate the world of human trafficking on the southern U.S. border. The two lead agents are Pablo Rodriguez, who works for the Mexican police force, and Jack Bearnes, who is the U.S. federal agent assigned to work with him.

(This blog post about Border Incident contains spoilers.)

So much about this film is noir, but the bleakness of the agents’ work solving the murders on the border really struck me. The investigation reveals that both Mexican and Americans are parties to the smuggling and to the murders, which was a bit of a surprise to me considering the tone of the voice-over narration that introduces the film. Americans on the U.S. side are responsible for Bearnes’s murder, one of the stars of the film and Pablo Rodriguez’s partner in the investigation.

I thought the suspense built up by the narrative and the camera work would mean that Bearnes would be saved; I even began to feel that the sequence was drawn out past its useful point in the narrative. His status as an undercover officer is discovered by one of the smugglers, who orders his execution. The suspense mounts as he’s escorted by two smugglers to a field at night by two smugglers assigned to kill him. Once in the field, Bearnes tries to escape by running away but is shot and rifle-butted. Then one of the smugglers gets on a tractor-drawn tiller because the plan is to make Bearnes’s murder look like “an accident” by driving over the body. But Bearnes is still alive and can see the tractor approaching. At this point especially, I thought cutting back and forth between the approaching tractor and Bearnes on the ground was overly long. But I was taken completely by surprise when he dies while Pablo Rodriguez and another bracero look on (they are trying to hide in an open agricultural field and cannot do anything about the murder because two smugglers are armed and ready to shoot).

The narrator returns at the end of the film to tell viewers that the government agents finally prevail and are rewarded for their work and their sacrifice. The return of the narrator is also a return to paternalism. The border is again made safe for the rich agricultural producers in California. The ending is self-serving: Migrant workers are still exploited in 1949 but now their exploitation is legal. Now they don’t have to compete with the “vultures,” as the smugglers are called by the narrator in the film. In the twenty-first century, we can still read news reports of slave labor and indentured servitude in many industries, including agriculture, so in that sense not much has changed.

Dana Polan provides the commentary on the DVD, and he makes several points about Border Incident being firmly rooted in the post–World War II period and in the beginning of the Cold war:
Polan asks the questions that he thinks the film addresses: “What does it mean to be responsible for a crime?” “Even if you didn’t pull the trigger, are you still guilty if you ordered the killing?” The film raises issues of guilt and responsibility at a time when the Nuremberg trials had finished fairly recently: on October 1, 1946.
Hugo Wolfgang Ulrich works on the Mexican side. He is played by a German actor. After World War II, many Nazis escaped and relocated to South America with new identities. Hugo’s place in Mexico is unexplained.
It is implied that the criminals are organized, like an army. They’re even more evil because they use technology and techniques they could have learned in the war: communicating by radio, driving trucks, using firearms.
The film also shows what people are capable of doing to each other, which is a reflection of postwar sensibilities. The postwar world involves torture (of Bearnes by the Mexican smugglers, with Hugo overseeing), criminality, murder, labor exploitation. War experiences showed Americans how cheap life could be, how quickly death could come.
All the clichés and film traditions lead viewers to believe Bearnes will be saved because he is a character that viewers learn to care about. Bearnes is even wearing a leather jacket that is reminiscent of flyboys, heroes of the war. Polan tells viewers, “The old dream factory [MGM] is now giving us nightmares.”
An implicit subtopic of Border Incident is that people must take on social responsibility to fight criminality and corruption, of course, with the guidance of government agents. Pablo Rodriguez is a bit paternalistic, but he has to call on another bracero, Juan Garcia, for help to save his life at the end of the film. The braceros (ordinary citizens) come together to take action; they become a collective force as the movie progresses. Bit by bit, they come to understand their exploitation.
The filmmakers were wary of emphasizing socialist themes because Congress was investigating communism in the United States, and the film industry had already been a target.

Polan’s commentary is in many ways a history lesson, one that I enjoyed and that made me appreciate the film all the more. He doesn’t believe that Border Incident is a true film noir; he thinks of it as a police procedural. But I disagree partially with his assessment: I don’t see why the film can’t be both film noir and police procedural.

The world portrayed in Border Incident is extremely bleak: a war on crime in every sense of the word war. It’s a great story and well worth seeing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

In Bruges (2008)

January 17, 2008 (Sundance Film Festival), February 8, 2008 (United States), release dates
Directed by Martin McDonagh
Screenplay by Martin McDonagh
Music by Carter Burwell
Edited by Jon Gregory
Cinematography by Eigil Bryld

Colin Farrell as Ray
Brendan Gleeson as Ken Daley
Ralph Fiennes as Harry Waters
Matt Smith as young Harry (in deleted scenes that are available on the DVD)
Clémence Poésy as Chloë Villette
Jordan Prentice as Jimmy
Thekla Reuten as Marie
Jérémie Renier as Eirik
Željko Ivanek as a Canadian man Ray hits for offending Chloë
Anna Madeley as Denise, a Dutch prostitute picked up by Jimmy
Elizabeth Berrington as Natalie Waters, Harry’s wife
Eric Godon as Yuri, Harry’s Belgian contact who sells illegal weaponry
Ciaran Hinds as the priest (uncredited)

Produced by Blueprint Pictures, Film4 Productions, Focus Features, Scion Films
Distributed by Universal Studios, Focus Features

In Bruges opens with shots of architecture in (where else?) Bruges. Ray, in voice-over, tells viewers he just killed some people and has to wait for instructions, presumably from his boss. When the instructions come through, he is told to go to Bruges, which he does with his partner Ken. They are forced to stay in one double room because everything is booked: It’s Christmastime. Ken likes Bruges; he thinks it’s a fairyland. Ray thinks Bruges is a s---hole. The beautiful cinematography helps viewers side with Ken on this particular point.

(This blog post about In Bruges contains spoilers.)

The odd ethics of the hit man’s profession, at least as portrayed in In Bruges, means that Ray has to pay for his mistake with his own life. In a way, this code of ethics plays the role of fate: Ray has killed a boy in error, and he has to pay the consequences. This part of the story is told in flashback at the beginning of the film. It is an event that happened before the film even starts; thus, Ray’s fate in the story is already determined when viewers meet him. This predetermined fate is a noir characteristic with a slight variation in In Bruges: Ray isn’t willing simply to give in and accept the code of ethics as defined by his boss.

The amazing thing about In Bruges is the relationship between the two main characters, Ken and Ray. The film manages to get viewers to identify with them, with two professional hit men. I, for one, was rooting for both Ken and Ray. The two of them argue and fuss like a couple on vacation. From the vantage point of viewers, their interactions are sometimes hilarious. Here’s an example:
Ken: “Did we or did we not agree that if I let you go on your date tonight [with Chloë], we’d do the things I wanted to do today?”
Ray: “We are doing the things that you wanted to do today.”
Ken: “And that we’d do them without you throwing a f--king moody, like some five-year-old who’s dropped all his sweets?”
Ray: “I didn’t agree to that.”

Ray and Ken, at Ken’s insistence, see some of the medieval sights, which include lots of religious architecture and art, in the city. Some of the religious art depicts torture and agony. One in particular depicts Judgment Day, and it prompts Ray and Ken to discuss religion and the implications of their occupation for their own salvation. Ray is despondent about the mistake he made on his first hit, and the two of them have a long conversation that brings them back to Ray’s mistake. In fact, their conversation is humorous and might be more so but for the gruesome nature of their work:
Ken: “At the same time as trying to lead a good life, I have to reconcile myself with the fact that, yes, I have killed people. Not many people. Most of them were not very nice people. Apart from one person.”
Ray: “Who’s that?”
Ken: “This fellow, Danny Aliband’s brother. He was just trying to protect his brother. Like you or I would. He was just a lollipop man. He came at me with a bottle. What are you gonna do? I shot him down.”
Ray: “Hmm. In my book, though, sorry, someone comes at you with a bottle, that is a deadly weapon, he’s got to take the consequences.”
Ken: “I know that in my heart. I also know that he was just trying to protect his brother, you know?”
Ray: “I know. But a bottle. That can kill you. It’s a case of it’s you or him. If he’d come at you with his bare hands, that’s be different. That wouldn’t have been fair.”
Ken: “Well, technically, your bare hands can kill somebody, too. They can be deadly weapons, too. I mean, what if he knew karate, say?”
Ray: “You said he was a lollipop man.”
Ken: “He was a lollipop man.”
Ray: “What’s a lollipop man doing knowing f--king karate?”
Ken: “I’m just saying.”
Ray: “How old was he?”
Ken: “About fifty.”
Ray: “What’s a fifty-year-old lollipop man doing knowing f--king karate? What was he, a Chinese lollipop man? Jesus, Ken, I’m trying to talk about . . . .”
Ken: “I know what you’re trying to talk about.”
Ray: “I killed a little boy. You keep bringing up f--king lollipop men!”
Ken: “You didn’t mean to kill a little boy.”
This conversation shows quite well the double nature of In Bruges. On one hand, it is a film about violence and murder; on the other, viewers come to know two characters who are taking stock of their lives and realizing that they have to reconcile themselves to the crimes they have committed.

In spite of his angst about what he has done, Ray falls in love while he is in Bruges. His anxiety about his first date with Chloë, the woman (and drug dealer) he met on the street, also makes him likable and easy for viewers to relate to. But Ray’s mistake haunts him throughout the film, and it’s the reason that his boss, Harry Waters, wants to find him and kill him. It provides the tension and suspense, and it explains the ever-present threat of violence that viewers understand is everyday life for a hit man.

In Bruges is a hard film to watch. The humor and the romance soften the story a bit, but not too much. In fact, as time passes since I saw it more than once on DVD, I find the film more and more unsettling. It doesn’t offer any easy answers for the characters or the viewers. The ending is ambiguous: Viewers aren’t completely sure what will become of Ray. But this ambiguity and ambivalence are features of noir, and the fact that the viewers share in both the angst and the humor is an achievement, a plus for the film.

All the main characters are involved in criminal activities that would ordinarily make them hard to like for most viewers. But I was surprised by how much I grew to like the characters, and the ability of the film to get viewers to identify with them is one of its strongest points. The characters’ relationships are just like anyone else’s in many ways; humanizing them through those relationships—and through humor, too—makes In Bruges worth watching.