I suspect filmgoers might feel duped if they go see The American based on the action-packed trailer that has been playing the past few weeks. It's not the kind of film that its marketing strategy is making it appear and this is a very good thing. There's plenty of summer releases based around shoot-outs, dumbed-down destruction, chase scenes and mindless mayhem. Instead, The American is a languidly paced, overtly artistic, European flavored suspense drama that exudes class, atmosphere and tension. All great attributes in my book.
George Clooney plays Jack (or Edward), a man of few words who establishes in the first minute of the film that he's a cold-blooded, highly-trained killer. To escape from Swedish nasties he's sent off to an isolated mountainous region and a pretty hillside village. He's told to not make friends, any friends. Early in the story he mostly stays in his room, working on high-caliber weapons and manufacturing lethal bullets, but he begins to spend time with the local priest and a fetching prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido) that causes Jack/Edward to do some soul searching.
The American is Dutch director Anton Corbijn's second feature after 2007's stellar effort Control. Corbijn has been an influential photographer and video director dating back to the 1980s (check out his work for Depeche Mode and U2) and The American has his visual style trademarks all over it. Corbijn has a flair for beautiful images and the entire film is a collection of striking frames. Corbijn fills the movie with atmospheric tones that involve grainy, high contrast, saturated colors and the look of the film jumps off the screen.
The weakest aspect of the movie is the dialogue. The screenplay is by Rowan Joffe and based on a novel by Martin Booth. At times, all the effort seems to be going to the look of the story than the words between characters. There's a dearth of dialogue in The American to begin with, especially in the first 30-45 minutes, so if there is not much being said, it makes it more important to nail what we do hear. I could have done without the scenes with the older priest and missed absolutely nothing.
Luckily, I was completely entranced by the quiet somberness merged with the assured artistry of Corbijn. When the images are this sensual and alluring, it's hard not to fall under its spell. There are countless memorable and dazzling moments from The American that will leave an impression. Whether its the tense walks on winding cobblestone streets, softly lit romantic scenes between Jack and Clara or the mysterious moments when Jack is all alone, unsure of what unknown force might come that will do harm -- a great deal of care and thought went into the craft of The American.
Shoot-outs and high-adrenaline action scenes -- who needs them? I know I don't when compared to films such as The American. While some multiplexers might be ticked off as The American slowly unfolds and they aren't getting the film they expected, I'll take a sophisticated, extremely artistic work from a director with a viewpoint and vision.
The American has style to burn but there is substance to be found in Clooney's understated, melancholic performance anchoring the story. I can hardly wait to see what Anton Corbijn will do next.
A Radiant Person
The first couple of minutes of Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child tell you what kind of biopic this documentary from director Tamra Davis is going to be. With jazzy music humming, the screen is a tangle of paintings from Basquiat, images of Basquiat, quotes from friends -- some more prominent and famous than others -- all commenting and fawning over his work or personality as a human being. The tone is set: The Radiant Child will be a glowing tribute to a dear friend of the director and misunderstood genius in the art world.
That's okay. While a more objective viewpoint from Davis might have made a film with more depth, on a purely superficial level, Basquiat's brief career as an artist is a fascinating, riveting story. In less than 10 years, he went from wandering the streets doing street graffiti to celebrated (and often attacked) and extremely wealthy. Davis has an intimacy with her subject due to her long-time friendship (A Conversation with Basquiat was a previous Davis release from 2006) that might have been lost had someone with more distance attempted to tell about Basuiat's life. So, it's an acceptable trade-off.
The film has a down and dirty look and feel to it that worked with the subject and its related time period. Relying on technology and images from VHS tape, scratchy archive footage, cable access scenes gives the documentary a raw, cheap aesthetic. Anything too glossy or pristine from this era wouldn't have felt authentic. The downtown New York City art/music scene in the late 1970s/early 1980s was a vibrant period of creativity and The Radiant Child wonderfully taps into what it looked like to be an artist when Basquiat was being discovered.
The movie digs into all the influences of Basquiat and the gallerists/dealers/fellow artists/friends/lovers who helped give him a shove into the world of painting from being a graffiti artist. We see the evolution from his postcard images he sold on the street to the large, expensive paintings that made him rich. There is a bombardment of his visual muses that included historical figures, writers, artists, athletes and popular culture figures that Basquiat memorialized on canvas. So many paintings fly by that it's like attending an exhibit of Basquiat's work.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child fits firmly into the "artist as genius among us normal people" field. Basquiat (along with friends and supporters) often complain how he was lionized as an artist rather than given the equal treatment his peers got. Tamra Davis' documentary is so positive, lacking introspection and in Basquiat's corner that it won't change that perception of his work and life two decades after he died of a heroin overdose at 27. That doesn't mean it's not enjoyable or likable; it just doesn't go below the surface to discover anything new about such an intriguing figure in recent art history.
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