Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols 1931-2014

As the wave of tributes to Mike Nichols rolled in on my Facebook feed and the movie blogs I read, I was glad to see several mentions of his early days as one-half of the pioneering improvisational standup comic duo Nichols & May with the great and still massively underrated (and very much alive) Elaine May and a little embarrassed at how much less his movies meant to me than to many of my friends and favorite film writers. It's not my intention to do a hatchet job on a recently deceased man, and anyone whose filmography contained as many good movies as Nichols' does will be missed. I liked a lot of what he did. I didn't love it, though, because I didn't see a strong visual personality that carried over from film to film, but I did see a certain indefinable hesitancy to reveal himself. I never quite knew who he was, even after watching most of his stuff, which was often very good but also safer, more conventional, and more tied to current social trends than the work of his old comic partner Elaine May. (I should also point out that he had a great reputation as a theater director, which is out of my wheelhouse, and was possibly more involved in the stage than he was in filmmaking.) Still, he was very good with actors, sought out interesting material, and collaborated with great screenwriters, and I can easily recommend the following films and cable television productions: 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Catch-22 (1970) (a messy, ambitious, trainwreck, honorable failure, which are some of my favorite movie-watching experiences)
Carnal Knowledge (1971) (pretty much the blueprint for In the Company of Men, with a Jules Feiffer screenplay and memorable performances from Ann-Margaret, Art Garfunkel, Jack Nicholson, and Carol Kane)
Silkwood (1983)
Wolf (1994) (another honorable and interesting failure)
Wit (2001)
Angels in America (2003) (maybe my favorite thing he's done outside of Nichols & May)

I can't recommend Primary Colors despite its Elaine May screenplay or The Day of the Dolphin despite its complete insanity (talking dolphins cared for by George C. Scott are kidnapped by terrorists to blow up the president on his vacation boat -- yes, you read that right -- OK, maybe you should rent that one), and I haven't seen the other ones.

P.S. Please see all four of Elaine May's films. Two of them are masterpieces, and the other two are almost as good. Fuck the Ishtar haters, most of whom haven't even seen the damn thing. One expensive flop killed her movie career, while Nichols was able to direct 21 films even though he had a handful of expensive flops. Hollywood is still a sexist hellhole.

Here's a good overview of Nichols & May with clips.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I'm Way Behind Forever: The Big Cleanup Pt. 2

A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
I kept hearing and reading about this Ben Wheatley character without ever seeing anything he'd made, but he sounded up my alley. Guess what? He is. A Field in England is a gorgeous, funny, creepy, and concise black-and-white psychedelic dark comedy rural British occult horror period piece set in the English Civil War about an alchemist's assistant who makes a break for the peaceful side of a shrubbery-obscured field during a battle and runs into a small group of fellow deserters in search of an ale house. They encounter a creepy fellow who has been accused of stealing some of the alchemist's things, and many strange events ensue. Wheatley's film is occasionally confusing, especially if you lack a working knowledge of mid-17th century British history, and a few scenes seem stalled in wheel-spinning limbo, but on the whole, this is a thoughtfully composed, atmospheric, hypnotic, nutzoid spirit-of-midnight-movie movie that made me happy and pleasantly disturbed. I've since checked out Wheatley's first film, Down Terrace, which has been described as Mike Leigh meets The Sopranos. For once, the you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter descriptor didn't add up to zero, and I'm a full-blown Wheatley fan now.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
My Anderson-hating friends should probably skip this paragraph and take the scenic route to the next one, since this is Wes Anderson at his Wes Anderson-iest, which is mostly alright with me. The Stefan Zweig-inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel combines the doll's house miniature feel of his last two films, Moonrise Kingdom and the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox, with the grand scale backdrop of his largest, most elaborate films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited (my two least favorite Anderson films) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (possibly my favorite). The storybook fable feel is strong here, with a fictional composite old-Europe setting and a reverse Russian doll structure of small story giving way to slightly larger story giving way to larger story giving way to largest story and back again, each one filmed in a different aspect ratio. Almost everyone who has ever been in a Wes Anderson film is here, and each frame is as gorgeous and insanely meticulous as ever (or as fussy, overly perfectionist, and airless as ever, depending on your taste). Making his first appearance in an Anderson film, Ralph Fiennes innately understands the highly specific Anderson tone in his leading role as uber-concierge Gustave H. I can't recall ever seeing Fiennes in a comedic role before, but he's the highlight of a film that includes such favorites of mine as Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, and Bob Balaban. I liked the old children's storybook feel and found most of the jokes funny, especially the bit about the switched paintings, but I was unexpectedly touched by Fiennes' performance. He plays the guy straight, never telegraphing the humor or the pathos, and I felt an empathy, warmth, and sadness for him without feeling like Anderson had manipulated or exploited my emotions. I know I like this film, but I'm still not entirely sure where to place it. Anderson's films usually improve on repeat viewings, but I do miss the elements of lived experience that make his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, outliers in his filmography. Those two movies are about guys stuck in this world who desperately want to live in a Wes Anderson film, and the removal of that tension in the subsequent films is something I miss, though much has also been gained. I'm not entirely sure why I like Anderson's films so much, but I do. His almost claustrophobic perfectionism gives me little to no space to engage with the films actively. Instead, I admire them through a thick pane of glass. I should hate that feeling, and I usually do, but his work generally fills me with happiness. Maybe Anderson is my Steely Dan of film. I love that band in all its distanced, meticulous perfectionism and detached humor even though the bulk of my musical taste tends toward the raw, wild, emotional, and/or spare.
(J. Hoberman tackles another interesting problem about the film I don't feel qualified to spout off about in an essay for Tablet, linked here.)  

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
One of the perks of being a movie fanatic in Austin, Texas is Richard Linklater's support of the local film scene in all its iterations. He co-founded the Austin Film Society in the 1980s, but due to his busy career as a film director, his contributions in recent years have been largely financial, though I've seen him in the audience at the occasional screening. Fortunately, he found the time recently to program, introduce, and conduct Q&As afterward for a lengthy series of his favorite 1980s films. The lineup was so great, I'll just list it all here:
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)
White Dog (Sam Fuller)
Reds (Warren Beatty)
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
Star 80 (Bob Fosse)
Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen)
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer)
Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)
Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper)
Godard is one of the hardest filmmakers to write about because his films are so uniquely personal, difficult to describe, densely packed with images, sounds, words, and ideas, open to misreading, and resistant to categorization that an honest reckoning with any of them involves much flailing, inelegance, and the literary equivalent of falling backwards onto one's ass. His name has also become a contradictory Tower of Babel brand and symbol for various critics' ideas of film, and too many people write about Godard films with preconceived philosophies and closed-minded axes to grind or deity worship rubber-stamping. His post-1968 films, in particular, often enrage lazy viewers and critics who fell in love with the vibrant surfaces of the hipper, youthful, more stylish 1960s films and feel betrayed by Godard's insistence on moving forward, even as they ignore the formal similarities and shared humor and structure of the flashier, pop-culture-obsessed early stuff they like and the later work that drives them nuts. Godard's films are closer to the experience of thinking, seeing, and listening in real time than any others I can recall, rough drafts constantly in revision, non-linear narratives that aren't fragmented shards but wholly intact separate cells in the organism of the film. See? I'm getting a little silly trying to describe what he's doing. It's hard.  
Every Man for Himself was Godard's 1980 return to 35mm film after a long period of shooting on videotape (1975's Numero deux is my favorite of this period) and his first film to get decent distribution since the commercial suicide of his membership in the Maoist filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group (complete with the renunciation of his previous films) in 1968. The group dissolved in 1972, and Godard made a few films with Anne-Marie Mieville that were critical of his own involvement in the group and the work he made while he was a member. In Every Man for Himself, Godard continues that self-critique, this time sending up and confronting the misogyny in his earlier films, particularly the fantasized glamorization of prostitution, and connecting that relatively benign youthful ignorance with its darker institutionalized manifestations in television and filmmaking, business, French society, the couple, and the family. Every Man for Himself does this while managing to be very funny, compositionally arresting (Godard never shoots something just to move the narrative along, every shot has a visual reason to exist), innovative in structure and sound design, digressive and abstract, and about lots of other things besides. The lead male character, a documentary filmmaker for public television (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), is interestingly named after Godard's father, but his primary function in the film is to provide the connective tissue between the women who carry each half of the film, played by two of the best actresses in France, or anywhere else (Nathalie Baye and Isabelle Huppert). Baye plays an editor working on Dutronc's television shows who has an on-again, off-again relationship with him, while Huppert is a prostitute with a wealthy clientele. They're pretty close to perfect here. Godard is surprisingly well-represented on DVD and video in the U.S., but this film isn't. If you feel about Godard the way I do and ever get a chance to see this one, do it.

Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
Lars Von Trier's latest was broken into two parts and released separately, but I tend to agree with the aforementioned J. Hoberman that the halves belong together and that the separation was a commercial decision that doesn't serve the film very well. At least I saw both halves just days apart, though I'm still debating myself on my opinion, months later. Before I get on with it, I see that the old "Von Trier is a misogynist" routine is being trotted out again. I continue to be baffled by that allegation, even though lots of distinctive male filmmakers who regularly feature women in central roles are accused of being misogynists, including, bizarrely, John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There's something suspicious about these accusations. Why are the men who regularly write and cast multifaceted, meaty, demanding roles for women singled out as woman-haters or guys with creepy issues while the parade of directors and screenwriters who write and cast women only as supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead or nagging, non-supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead never get called out on their flagrant, repetitive misogyny? I wish all the people who call Von Trier a misogynist would go after Oliver Stone instead. Critics accuse Von Trier of torturing his female leads. Have you seen any comedy or drama in your lives? Terrible things almost always happen to the leads, who usually happen to be men. Most stories are about things going drastically wrong for the main character. There's a paternalistic women-must-be-protected vibe to the criticism that bugs me. But maybe there's something I'm not seeing. I am a man with a lot of invisible privilege. Maybe it's there and I'm missing it. On the other hand, my wife and my mother and many women film writers love Von Trier's movies. Maybe too many people can't tell the difference between the characters and the author.
I suspect the real source of discomfort with Von Trier is his pessimistic worldview, one he shares with major influence Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Von Trier is a depressed man who identifies most strongly with his female characters and who sees the world as a cruel, abusive hole where most interactions are sadistic power struggles or empty gestures required by inherited social rules. The most uplifting moment in his previous film was the destruction of the entire world. (Oh crap. Why do I relate so much to both men's films?) Again like Fassbinder, he expresses this view in tragic dramas, comedic farces, and odd combinations of the two, not to mention his antagonistic prankster relationship with the press. After the stylistic exercises and formal experiments of his earliest work, Von Trier's protagonists starting with Breaking the Waves were goodhearted people hanging onto their faith and optimism in the face of almost total darkness and sacrificing everything for a loved one. Dogville ushered in a phase of films where the openhearted protagonist became hard and cruel after suffering cruelty from others, while his self-described depression trilogy of Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac sees his lead characters already dispossessed of their optimism and faith before the events in the stories begin. (I may revisit this opinion later. I'm worried it may be a little half-baked and ignores some of the stranger outliers.)
Nymphomaniac is Von Trier's most self-referential work, structured as a conversation between strangers. Those strangers are Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman is an autodidact intellectual who finds Joe beaten and unconscious in the alley on his way home from shopping. He helps her up, acquiesces to her request not to inform the police or call an ambulance, and takes her back to his small apartment to nurse her back to health. He asks her some questions about herself, and she tells him her life story. The film is broken into chapters, each one with a different tone and style that calls to mind the styles of his previous films, with each chapter bookended by more of Joe and Seligman's contentious but polite conversation. Seligman regularly interrupts to offer his take on Joe's experiences, while she just as often critiques and disagrees with his interpretations. I couldn't help but read the film as Von Trier's defense/critique of his own work with Gainsbourg as his surrogate and Skarsgard as his critics and the press. The deliberately artificial structure fits the schematic narrative well, and Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are two of Von Trier's most gifted interpreters. Stacey Martin (in her first role), Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, and Udo Kier also do a tremendous job, though Christian Slater's English accent is unconvincing and Shia LaBeouf wears out his welcome. The film is honest and sharp about addiction, funny at times, compelling, frustrating, exciting, and uncomfortable. I haven't decided whether the ending is inevitable or a childish prank, and I'm not yet entirely sure how I feel about the film as a whole, though I'm waiting for the November DVD that restores the 90 minutes Von Trier's distributors made him cut to decide. One thing I am sure about is that Charlotte Gainsbourg has an incredible screen presence that is both intense and weightless, and her and Von Trier have a good thing going.

Joe (David Gordon Green)
Larry Brown was a great Southern writer who died way too early in 2004 at the age of 53. He was a great writer, period, but I mention "Southern" because he was a Southerner who wrote beautifully about the South. I wish he could have seen David Gordon Green's lyrical adaptation of his novel Joe, my favorite Brown book. I also wish homeless Austin man Gary Poulter, who played Wade, had lived long enough to see his sole acting role on the big screen. Poulter drowned in Lady Bird Lake after the filming of Joe, but before its release, and he put something scary and true on film that couldn't have come from an actor. You're looking at life up there. Joe is a return to the dark, offbeat Southern dramas David Gordon Green made before his recent stretch directing comedies, and it's his best in a long time, though I'll stick up for those comedies, too. Joe also sees a rare layered, subtle performance from Nicolas Cage, who's spent most of the last several years operating in just two modes: 1) catatonic emotionlessness, and 2) mother of all freakouts. I absolutely enjoy a crazy, yelling Nicolas Cage, but that would not have been suitable here. If you were to tell me when I was reading Joe that Nicolas Cage would be playing the title character in the movie, I would have said, "Oh, hell, no. That is a bad idea." It's nice to be wrong. Cage is really good here, and not enough people are checking it out.
Green accomplishes the rare feat of capturing Brown's voice and staying relatively true to the novel while also reflecting his own oddball sensibility and style. A Southerner himself, Green gets the strangeness and menace and humor while avoiding the condescension, grotesquerie, heavy-handed Southern Gothic tropes, and romanticization of Hollywood and East Coast interpretations of the South, even with the outskirts of Austin, Texas having to stand in for rural Mississippi. Green populates the film with professional Hollywood actors, local actors, nonprofessionals from other fields, and homeless men, creating a unique texture where craft and experience rub up against instinct and newness. This film is so rich with character, atmosphere, detail, and dialogue. And cinematographer Tim Orr, who's shot every one of Green's films, is a wizard-poet when it comes to capturing sunlight onscreen. A gorgeous, tough, strange, moving, dark, exciting film.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'm Way Behind Forever: The Big Cleanup Pt. 1

I'm seven months behind on this blog, pushing eight, and the movies keep stacking up. I haven't felt like writing for several months now, and only my horror film blog (Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath) and my Twitter feed have been updated with any regularity. I'm a melancholy bastard on my best days, a depressed guy on my worst, with most days swinging in the middle. In recent months, my depression has been very mild and intermittent, but it often makes me feel like an emotionless alien who can't relate to or understand other human beings. When I get like that, I don't write as much, and that's what happened here. Now, I've got eight months of movies to write about, so I'm going to try to be more concise and knock out at least a handful in each future post. Once I finish this albatross of my own making, maybe I can get back to writing more regularly on all three blogs and work on other personal stuff. Here we go.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Though I find moments to admire in each of his films, Martin Scorsese's 2000s work has seemed less vital, less strange, less energetic, too big, and too polished, with a wax-museum respectability, a taxidermied Hollywood royalty feel that keeps me at a distance, an odd sensation considering how much I love the thirty years of work preceding it. I'm also not much of a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio's acting, and he's been in every Scorsese film of the 2000s except Hugo, probably not coincidentally my favorite Scorsese film since the unfairly maligned Bringing out the Dead. DiCaprio seems like a guy with tremendous dedication to the craft, someone who lives and breathes acting. He means it. He means it so much. Unfortunately, he's been a professional actor since he was a small child and a huge celebrity since he was 12 or 13, so he has no fucking idea how people from any non-celebrity walk of life actually live. This was especially apparent in that gargantuan piece of shit Revolutionary Road. He always looks like he's acting instead of being, and that blows it for me in any film where realism, or at least movie realism, is required. Until now, the only DiCaprio performance I enjoyed was his cartoonish Mephistophelean Southern dandy slave master in Django Unchained.
The Wolf of Wall Street is different. For the first time, I'm convinced DiCaprio is the guy he's playing, as much as anyone can be convinced by a bona fide movie star. For once, that oily big shot charm and trying-too-hard intensity perfectly fit the guy he's playing. Scorsese attacks the material with a ferocity, energy, and humor I haven't seen in him since the 1990s, and though he's consciously echoing Goodfellas and Casino here (with some After Hours black comedy and screwball drug paranoia) in narrative structure, formal technique, use of voice over, epic length, and main character who is both an unreliable narrator and a criminal, this is not a derivative retread of past glories. There's an unsettling, foreboding strangeness that suits the current era (I'm not really sure how to explain what I mean here), a pinprick sharp leanness (odd for a three-hour movie, his longest), and one of the great virtuosic, desperate, darkly comic Scorsese scenes (the Quaalude overdose scene). He's got the juice back.
A quick word here about the supporting cast. If a DiCaprio lead in a recent Scorsese film is all too expected, the supporting characters are typically atypical. Scorsese's always had a nice eye for offbeat, colorful supporting cast choices, and there's a lot of great, unusual work here from Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Rob Reiner (who answers the phone in an English accent and becomes enraged if anyone interrupts him while he's watching The Equalizer), Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, and even Jonah Hill. I was surprised how much I liked this movie.

Her (Spike Jonze)
Speaking of Jonze, his science fiction romance about a lonely man's relationship with his operating system in a near-but-not-that-near-future Los Angeles (a composite of filming locations Shanghai and L.A.) is gorgeous, disturbing, sad, funny, a little annoying, and possibly a fuck-you letter and/or public working out of emotions from a divorced man to his ex-wife, if the parodic nods to, critiques of, and quoted shots from Jonze's ex Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation are anything to go by. I like the muted haze of colors and the way cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema caught the light, and Jonze's script is smart about loneliness and the way the everyday nuts and bolts of human communication is headed. Not a big fan of Arcade Fire's score, but I like most everything else, save for some minor nitpicky objections. Real good stuff here from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and the voice of Scarlett Johansson.

The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
I caught a pair of features from writer/director Zvyagintsev at a recent Austin Film Society Russian film series. Zvyagintsev often gets compared to Tarkovsky in the American press, but this probably has more to do with American film critics not knowing many other Russian directors rather than any aesthetic similarity between the two men. Other than leaving plenty of space for thought and building narrative in a slow, detailed, visually distinctive way, I don't see much commonality. I liked both films a great deal. The Return, about two young boys and their long-absent father who mysteriously returns to take them on a trip of equally mysterious purpose, is a tense, slow-burning thriller, full of dread and regret. Elena is a character drama about a late-middle-aged woman from a working-class background whose second marriage to a wealthy older man (also on his second marriage) hits trouble when her son's family experiences a crisis. Like The Return, Elena proceeds by the slow accumulation of details, facial expressions, and some startlingly visual shots, and is about estranged family members, but both films find their own curious worlds to inhabit. Zvyagintsev is as astute an observer of young men, the natural world, and the working class as he is of middle-aged women, indoor living in large cities, and the wealthy, and that makes me excited about what he has yet to  accomplish.

The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
An unfortunately mediocre waste of a good cast, Clooney's film about the units tasked with saving European artworks from the Germans plays like an anthology of World War II movie cliches. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin have a nice chemistry in their scenes together, but the film is slackly written, directed, and edited, with lots of big speeches, forced sentiment, and a disconnected structure that doesn't move. This is a fascinating subject that deserves a better film.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I'm way behind #21: American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Who the hell is David O. Russell? I'm confused. Does he have an identity crisis as a director or is it my problem? I can't find much stylistic or thematic connective tissue between his various films, and though I tend to be entertained by his work, I'm skeptical of the praise he gets. He's a fairly good mimic, has a nice touch with actors (when he's not screaming obscenities at them, throwing tantrums, and getting punched by them), and is a natural entertainer, but is there a strong point of view and personality there?
Just look at the body of work. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a dark comedy/drama about a college kid home for the summer who has an incestuous relationship with his mother. If my hazy memory is correct, the movie fits pretty comfortably in the '90s indie youth movie template with its pop culture dialogue, teen angst, and forced transgressive subject matter. He followed it with Flirting with Disaster, a screwball comedy heavily indebted to Woody Allen; Three Kings, an action-adventure/political satire hybrid that was much more visually stylized than his previous work; I Heart Huckabees, a derivatively ambitious but ill-fated attempt to make a Charlie Kaufman movie without Charlie Kaufman; The Fighter, a gritty '70s-style drama/biopic about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his large, screwed-up family; Silver Linings Playbook, an overly sentimental but cute clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet street drama and Frank Capra meets Howard Hawks romantic comedy; and American Hustle, his watered-down, easy on the blood version of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, my question. Who the hell is this guy?
I was entertained by American Hustle without being moved, and it barely lingered in my memory afterward. Before I get into why that might be, I've got a few other bones to pick. The first is not Russell's fault, so maybe I should let it slide, but this is my blog and I feel like complaining about it. Mainstream critical consensus about this film was pretty favorable, with many newspaper and television critics calling it one of the best of the year. I disagree, but they're entitled to their boring, predictable groupthink. (I love everybody.) What stuck in my craw was the way so many critics used this film as a cudgel to beat Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. More than one critic actually wrote that Russell "out-Scorseses Scorsese." I'm speculating, but I think too many newspaper and TV critics are lazy viewers dazzled by wigs and hit songs, and they like films that pretend to grapple with a serious subject while actually offering easily digestible flash and candy. The flash and candy films make you think you've thought about something or had some kind of intimate experience without all that troubling self-examination and conscience rustling.
Let me get down from that soapbox and step on another one. There's a real arrogance to calling a film "American _____," but that hasn't stopped a boatload of middlebrow filmmakers from doing it. Intentionally or not, if you call your movie "American Blank," you're making a claim that your film has captured something vital about a feeling, attitude, behavior, fantasy, dream, etc., of an entire country, when usually, you've just captured something obvious about upper middle class white suburban families or sexy white teens or attractive crime film cliches (American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Gangster). (Notable exception: American Ninja really captures the U.S. ninja experience, in all its multiplicity.) Or maybe you feel you're approaching your film's subject in a particularly American way when you're just offering more Hollywood provincialism. Sometimes, it's warranted (American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's comic of the same name, Chris Smith's double whammy of American Job and American Movie), but most often, it comes across as hubris.
Playing devil's advocate with myself (that sounds dirty), though, I can see American Hustle capturing at least a partial tenor of the times. What with all this Throwback Thursday business and popular music and fashion and advertising constantly repurposing '70s and '80s and '90s culture, the film's overbaked period '70s setting and its exaggerated wigs and clothes and wall-to-wall '70s radio hit jukebox clowncar soundtrack exemplify this country's cultural obsession with nostalgia. And Russell's attempt at a '90s Scorsese/P.T. Anderson gliding-camera, music-packed, stable-of-favored-actors ensemble sprawl is a classic American move, an I-like-that-successful-thing-I-will-make-my-own-cheap-knockoff party.
It's such a thin film compared to the work of Scorsese or Anderson, but it's fun. While those guys use carefully chosen music as point, counterpoint, and commentary about the characters and events in their films, Russell inelegantly throws a nonstop barrage of big hits from the period at the screen as an easy way to churn up emotion, nostalgia, pep, and entertainment. It's fun. The cameo from Robert De Niro is way too on the nose, but it's fun. I'm still not sure what I think of Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, for all the praise she got for this part, is pretty wasted here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Louis C.K. in their roles. This movie, it's fun. That's all it is, though, with plenty of self-importance and peacock-feather pomp sitting on top like donut sprinkles. It's candy pretending to be a meal.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I'm way behind #20: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Ever since I was a small child, I've had a penchant for melancholy. Melancholy is where the compass points when I'm at ease, it's the homeroom of the junior high in my brain, the homepage of my emotional Internet. In addition to my terminal case of melancholia, I'm self-involved, I'm creative but I lack ambition, and I'm generally unsuccessful in most personal and professional endeavors. I eat a lot of shit in this life. Some of it's my own fault, some of it's not. And that's who I am, boiled down to a thin generalized colorless broth. Maybe this explains my strong connection and attraction to the point of view and tone of the most recent Coen Brothers film, and maybe that's why I was so taken aback by friends and acquaintances who called Inside Llewyn Davis depressing and by critics who characterized the title character as an unlikable jerk.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a first-impression culture, and the film is hardly sunshine and lollipops, but I just can't relate to these reactions. Yes, the film is melancholy, with a mournful, autumnal quality to the cinematography, and many of the characters carry sadness, bitterness, and anger with them like a security blanket. And, yes, Llewyn Davis eats a lot of shit, which is sometimes his fault and sometimes not, and he can be selfish, self-absorbed, and cranky, but he's got plenty of good qualities, not least of which is his stoic acceptance of all that shit-eating while he carries on doing what he does. In this determination to continue, Llewyn Davis is an unconventionally optimistic figure, and the Coens are unconventionally optimistic filmmakers. They know the odds are not generally in our favor, they know the world is an uncaring place, they know that bad stuff is going to happen and happen often, and they know that even the best of us are fools, but surrounding that pessimistic landscape is an optimistic frame of great humor, determination, and a what-the-hell-else-are-we-going-to-do acceptance. Their films remind me of my grandfather's dog Jake (he should have acted in one of their movies), a grouchy, ill-tempered, heart-of-gold mutt with an overbite and fur that looked and felt exactly like steel wool. Jake refused to die on multiple occasions out of stubborn determination. Every glance at Jake was accompanied by a complicated swirl of emotions and opinions, a casserole of fear, affection, admiration, trepidation, pity, and humor. He was ridiculous and funny to look at and to think about, but he was often in on the joke. (The films are quite a bit more visually elegant than that dog, but you get the idea.)
The Coens are often accused by detractors of looking down on their characters and whipping up a smug superiority in their audiences by encouraging them to laugh at the buffoons up on the screen. In a few of their weaker films, this is uncomfortably close to being true, but I generally tend to disagree with this criticism. They've populated their films with a complex variety of characters and encouraged a diverse range of responses, reserving their largest stores of warmth and affection for the most buffoonish. When we laugh at a Coen character, we're laughing at parts of ourselves, and though there is a distance between their characters and the audience, it's not a distance that separates them from their humanness. The Coens aren't particularly emotional filmmakers, and there's a control-freak aspect to their formal style (especially in the early films), but they're not cold, either. They clearly love their actors, and there's always an element of real human emotion and experience in every character, even the most exaggerated and cartoonish. (Anton Chigurh is a big exception in No Country for Old Men, though his narrative function is to draw all-too-human reactions from everyone else). Inside Llewyn Davis feels like one of their most human, direct films, without the cartoon exaggerations or genre-exercise layers of protection they often put between themselves and their audience.
Set in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured (and sometimes hindered) Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio, et al., Inside Llewyn Davis takes its overcast autumn cinematography from Dylan's Freewheelin' cover and several of Llewyn's experiences from Van Ronk's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Music is integral to the film, but it's not an inside-baseball, record-collector's movie. I think it's a film about how to manage the day-to-day minutiae of living while dealing with grief and about how much indignity and shit-eating you have to endure if you want to pursue a career in music (or any of the arts) and you're not a huge success. This may sound like a drag to watch, but it isn't. The film is very funny, full of good music, tightly constructed, and sensitively and entertainingly performed.
Oscar Isaac, an actor I'm not very familiar with, is particularly sensitive and entertaining as Llewyn. He's an atypical main character for the Coens upon first impression, lacking the gregariousness, loquaciousness, goofiness, menace, ulterior motives, charismatic likability, and/or delusional charm of most of their leads, but, in subtle ways, he fits comfortably into the brothers' gallery of creations. He shares some of the put-upon stoicism and quiet exasperation of Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, and Jeff Bridges in True Grit. He also shares character traits, circumstances, and challenges with the title characters of the Coens' two other most pronouncedly culturally Jewish films (of which Inside Llewyn Davis is the third), Barton Fink and A Serious Man.
In those films, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik contend with setbacks in their careers, bad luck and misfortune thrown at them by a dark and uncaring world, and struggles and clashes with fellow members of their cultural and Jewish communities. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist trying to succeed creatively who butts heads with the commerce- and entertainment-minded people who run the business side of things, and his prickly disposition makes him few friends. Like Larry, Llewyn is a sharp guy who's in over his head when life pummels him with random acts of misfortune and indignity. There are some sharp differences, though. Barton is a bit of a fraud, a pompous, pretentious pseudo-intellectual who condescends to and barely understands the working classes he considers it his leftist duty to write about while Llewyn is a genuine talent with a deep love of the music he plays. Barton compromises his ethics by writing a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery while Llewyn suffers many indignities by choosing to go his own way. Larry Gopnik, meanwhile, is a far more frenetic and neurotic character than Llewyn, desperately wanting to know why he's being tested while Llewyn sighs, groans, and accepts it.  It's also important to note that Llewyn is a solo artist because his former singing partner has recently committed suicide. Llewyn's grief is never overt, but it informs and haunts the entire film. He's carrying a burden that Barton and Larry don't have yet.
Tonally, as well, Inside Llewyn Davis is a far different film than Barton Fink and A Serious Man. While all three films play as fables, the earlier two are comedies so black they approach horror. They come across as nightmares, and they share a kinship with the early films of Roman Polanski. Inside Llewyn Davis is more naturalistic, more pragmatic, with characters that have stopped asking "why me?" and just continued on, but it's also dreamier, floatier, emotion and atmosphere turned into narrative structure. The film's cyclical narrative can be read as a pessimistic loop Llewyn is forever trapped in, as a flashback explaining what happened in the opening scene, or as a message finally making itself known to Llewyn, a message that could propel him out of the rut he's stuck in, an agent of change masquerading as avenging husband kicking Llewyn's ass for mocking his folk singer wife in a misdirected moment of drunken anger while Bob Dylan takes the stage for his debut. Your own disposition will make that choice for you.
The Coens have been on an incredible roll lately, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites of both this phase of their careers and the whole filmography. I talked about Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, but the whole supporting cast delivers here, with special kudos to Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Llewyn's patrons, and the welcome return of John Goodman to a Coen Brothers film, as a sour-tempered heroin-addicted jazz musician who shares a fraught road trip to Chicago with Llewyn. As a cat lover, I also need to mention the enjoyable presence of a very expressive cat (maybe two cats). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures a look, mood, and feel that nails the tricky tone of period accuracy, drama and comedy, pragmatic reality and dreamlike reverie. I love this movie. It's not depressing and Llewyn Davis is not a jerk. Well, not entirely a jerk. He has his moments.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942-2014


There remains a big pile of Hoskins performances I still need to watch (including his work in British television, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, the latter seemingly permanently trapped in distribution limbo in this country), but I can recommend his work in the following movies (he's pretty good in Nixon, too, but I have an intense dislike of Oliver Stone, so I can't recommend it):

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Pink Floyd The Wall (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Brazil (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)


Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm way behind #19: Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)

I stopped mentioning my admiration of Abel Ferrara's films in the company of friends and acquaintances years ago. Too often, the simple mention of his name elicited groans, while my favorite Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant, was dismissed with a single phrase ("Ugh! Harvey Keitel's penis!"), and I took it personally. (I always take it personally. My shit list is longer than twelve Bibles.) I can understand some of the resistance. Ferrara is not afraid to be uneven, messy, embarrassing, indulgent, pretentious, filthy, naive, silly, and, on rare occasions, boring. Even my favorite Ferrara films have awkward scenes, cringe-inducing moments. But just as often, Ferrara's films are full of memorable images, wildness, freedom, beauty, committed performance, intensity, transcendent strangeness, faith, humor, energy, thoughtfulness, and a fragile stillness. Ferrara's strengths and weaknesses share internal organs and blood. You can't separate them from each other, and the embarrassment you'll sometimes feel is just the fee required to take the ride. These are honest films, made by a guy who doesn't lie about himself. He may exaggerate, he may digress, he may go down some dead ends sometimes, but he doesn't lie, and he doesn't condescend. He's right there with his characters and locations, not above them, not below them, not laughing at them, not talking down to them, not using them to make arguments about how we should or shouldn't live our lives. He gets his hands dirty.
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
Like another volatile New York cocktail of art and exploitation, Taxi Driver, Ms. 45 is a marriage of sensibilities between four strong personalities: a director, a screenwriter, an actor, and a composer. In Taxi Driver's case, it's Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann (who died the day he finished the score). In Ms. 45, Ferrara's compadres are Nicholas St. John, screenwriter on almost every Ferrara film between the years 1971 and 1996 (the year he left movies behind to purposefully disappear into anonymity -- Internet rumors find him as either a Catholic monk or an eighth grade teacher in the New York City public school system), Zoe Tamerlis/Lund in the leading role (her first), and Joe Delia, supplying the tense, punky, saxophone-heavy score.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
After her attacker flees, Thana slowly regains her composure and walks home. She surprises a thief who has broken into her apartment while she was at work. The thief, unaware of what just happened to her, takes advantage of the situation and attempts to rape Thana. Facing her second sexual assault in a matter of minutes, Thana gains control of the situation, murdering her assailant when he lets his guard down. Thana cuts up her attacker's body in the bathtub, placing the parts in garbage bags she stores in her refrigerator, and keeping his .45. Though suffering from nightmares and hallucinations about her first attacker, Thana takes the gun and hits the streets, murdering lechers, catcallers, sexist creeps, and potential rapists. These scenes have a darkly comic edge, with Ferrara and St. John populating New York with only terrible men, no good ones, and Tamerlis/Lund gender-reversing the Charles Bronson role in meting out justice to as many of them as she can. Tamerlis/Lund's expressive face, gestures, and movements fill the screen, her charismatic, dialogue-free performance creating a fuller, more complex character than most movies where the leads never shut up.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm way behind #18: Bastards (Claire Denis)

While skimming a few recent interviews with Claire Denis on the Internet, I was probably more shocked than I should have been to read that the writer/director was 67 years old. I knew her career trajectory. I knew that Denis didn't direct her first film until she was in her early forties, in the late 1980s, and I knew she'd been an assistant director and occasional casting director for 15 years before making her own films. (She was the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and worked as an assistant director for Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Clive Donner, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, among others.) Her age shouldn't have jumped up and bit me so fiercely, but there are a few reasons why it did. Generally, her films have so much energy, creativity, curiosity, and openness to experience they feel like the work of someone much younger (minus the naivete). More personally and selfishly, her age made me realize there will be a finite number of Claire Denis films, and a finite Claire Denis. She is at or near the top of my list of favorite living filmmakers, and I want her to keep making films forever, or at least as long as I'm still breathing.
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
Which brings me to Bastards. This may be the toughest Denis film to love, because what it shows us is so painful and dark, and because it denies us any light. Denis has called this film a response to the parade of films in which characters commit terrible acts of violence, abuse, and atrocity but find redemption in the end. Denis says redemption is an invention of the movies, and she wanted to make a film that challenged that trope. Oh man, is Bastards that film.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest. 
Lindon plays Marco, a sailor called back to Paris for a family crisis. His younger sister's family is falling apart. His brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenage niece is in the hospital after suffering a sexual assault that saw her drugged and wandering nude in the street. His sister tells him the family business has fallen apart, thanks to unscrupulous behavior by an investor and partner named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman with political connections. Marco has vague plans for revenge and moves into the same apartment complex as Laporte's mistress and illegitimate son. He begins a relationship with the mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and does some digging to find out what happened to his niece, his brother-in-law, and the family business. What he discovers is dark, terrible, and close to home.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.

I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Alain Resnais 1922-2014

Alain Resnais, one of the youngest 91-year-olds ever, is gone, leaving just Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Rivette standing as the last of the French New Wave filmmakers still making vital art (if I'm forgetting anyone, please correct me). Like a lot of my favorite filmmakers, Resnais' work was difficult for me to enter into upon first contact, and I found his two most famous films, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, easier to admire than enjoy. Exposure to more of his films turned that admiration to full-blown love, and once again I have to get used to a world where all my heroes are dying and being replaced by superficial, materialist careerists afraid of imagination, ideas, and emotion. (I've renewed my love affair with pessimism in recent weeks. Talk to me several months from now, and I may retract the previous sentence, or at least qualify it.)

Recommended:
Night and Fog (1955)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Muriel (1963)
Stavisky... (1974)
Providence (1977)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)
Same Old Song (1997)
Wild Grass (2009)

Any omissions above are absent only because I haven't seen them yet.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I'm way behind #17: Nebraska (Alexander Payne)

Nebraska is Alexander Payne's best and most satisfying film since 1999's Election, and his most visually expressive. I've enjoyed his other four features (Citizen Ruth, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants), with reservations both minor and major depending on the project, but Nebraska, like Election, strikes me as an almost wholly successful marriage of content and form, character and story, and personal point of view and its visual expression.
While Nebraska sees Payne return to the familiar territory of his home state (and mine), in most other ways the film is a step away from his comfort zone. It's his first film in black and white, his first to be shot digitally, his first film not based on a novel since his debut (Citizen Ruth) in 1996, and, perhaps most importantly, his first film without a credit as one of the screenwriters. (His first four films were written with Jim Taylor, and his last with the team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.) Though it may seem an odd statement coming from a guy who prefers directors who also write their films, I sometimes think filmmakers can benefit from taking a step away from the writing process once in a while as a way to change stale patterns, take on new challenges, and devote more time to the visual, structural, and performance aspects of their work. Payne made huge strides as a visual stylist with The Descendants, but the screenplay was mushy. Here, working from an original screenplay by fellow Nebraskan Bob Nelson, Payne reconnects with the foundational aspects of his body of work and its subjects and obsessions.
A father/son road trip movie that takes its two leads from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska but spends most of its time in the fictional rural town of Hawthorne (several small towns near Lincoln provide locations), Nebraska is either a comedy made from the parts of drama, with the humor coming from nearly every character playing the straight man, or a drama carved out of the inherent comedy of human wants, needs, and behavior. Payne's actors nail the tone, and they actually look and sound like people from the Great Plains chunk of the Midwest (well, some of them really are). Payne was pressured by the studio to put big movie stars in the film and make it in color, which would have turned it into a cartoon. He stuck to his plan, though a color print was also struck to keep the studio off his back. (Payne says he hopes that version never sees the light of day.) Instead of bright, shiny movie stars and their gigantic personality machines, Payne's leads are veteran character actors Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach, given deservedly meatier parts than they've had in years, and comedic actors Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in straightforward, serious performances where the laughs mostly come from their practical responses to ridiculous situations. Payne also brings back June Squibb (About Schmidt), a stage actress whose film career primarily consists of bit parts, as Dern's foulmouthed wife. A mix of character actors and nonprofessional locals make up the smaller parts.
The fictional town of Hawthorne, in size, demographics, and conversational preoccupation, is very much like the rural Nebraska town where I spent the first 18 years of my life and very much like the nearby town where my father currently lives. So much of what I see, and never see in movies, when I go back home is depicted accurately in this film. A scarcity of young people, a handful of businesses, distrust of foreign cars, conversations about how long it takes to drive to different places and quibbles over mundane details about fellow townspeople past and present in front of television sets, newspapers run by elderly couples, bars full of people in their forties, fifties, and sixties, the simple pleasure of sitting in the front yard watching cars go by, the inflated value placed on exaggerated hypermasculinity by the young men who stay in the town, restaurants with no decor, the cordially friendly distrust and mutual suspicion between Catholics and Protestants, the ghosts of prosperity and the small-farm era, the uneasy balance between gossip-fueled judgment and kindhearted neighborly community, the unadorned beauty of the country.
I've read critics from large cities and both coasts who think Payne is laughing at the expense of his characters, and I can understand that misconception. As someone intimately familiar with what Payne (from Omaha, but interested in the entire state) and screenwriter Nelson (from South Dakota, but raised in rural Nebraska) are showing in this film, I don't see that condescension or elitism. There is a sadness, an unintentional humor, a dignity, a pettiness, and a ridiculousness all sharing space in the lives of any human being, but small, rural towns have their own highly specific version of this combination. Payne nails it visually, and Nelson writes it as only a native could. It's almost never captured on screen, and the fact that it has been captured here is valuable to me, and I hope to others who share my background. Small towns in films are usually depicted as havens of cornball virtue, backwoods horror shows full of inbred cretins, or conventionally strange suburban-sanitary fantasylands populated by harmlessly "quirky," nonthreatening eccentrics. This one rings true.
If the film were just an accurate portrayal of a segment of small-town life, I wouldn't be praising it quite so highly, but it's equally impressive in its visuals and narrative structure. Payne here has captured some of the feel of a black and white John Ford film in a modern context, as well as Peter Bogdanovich's Ford-influenced black and white 1970s films, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon. (Before any cinephiles jump all over me, I'm not suggesting an equivalency. John Ford is a master and Payne is simply a really good director, but if the reputation of William Shakespeare can survive all the comparisons to Oliver Stone (gag, vomit) when Nixon was released, the reputation of Ford can handle a comparison to Payne's film.) Ford's films often portrayed uncertain journeys undertaken by stoic men of few words, with deceptively simple shots and camera movements that contained great thematic weight and visual expressiveness. In Payne's 2013 update, the journey is uncertain, the men only say what they have to say, and the camera is deceptively simple yet expressive and tied to the narrative, but Ford's wagon trains, army camps, shanty towns, Monument Valley rock formations, teepees, rivers, and Western towns have been replaced by cheap apartments, small Midwestern houses, a speaker store in a strip mall, bars, pickup trucks, and nondescript restaurants and karaoke bars, and his outdoor vistas and horizons have been replaced by the faces of Dern, Forte, and Keach. And in using Dern and Keach and echoing Bogdanovich's echo of Ford, Payne also reminds us of how influential the key American films of the 1970s have been on his own work, and how that influence haunts the current cinema's CGI/teenage boy fixation like this film's setting and characters are haunted by their pasts. Dern and Keach never went away, and always do great work when they get the chance, but they got their best opportunities in the last decade when mainstream American films took chances and went after adult audiences: the '70s. (Since The Sopranos, television has since picked up the slack.) That history is all over their faces, and it adds a layer of authenticity, lived experience, thematic weight, and authority to what was already a very fine film.
 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harold Ramis 1944-2014

Caddyshack and Groundhog Day are very different comedies. One is anarchic and silly, the other tightly constructed and emotionally serious. Both always make me feel better, and both never lose their rewatchability. Harold Ramis wrote and directed both of them. He also had a hand in Ghostbusters, National Lampoon's Vacation, National Lampoon's Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes, Back to School, and SCTV as writer, director, actor, and/or producer. He somehow figured out how to make popular, mainstream films that appealed to huge audiences without betraying his empathetic, original, and personal point of view, and Hollywood is much poorer for his loss.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I'm way behind #16: Pretty Poison (Noel Black)

A difficult film to see until its recent DVD release, 1968's Pretty Poison is a cult dark comedy that lacks a strong visual point of view but is fortunate to have a clever Lorenzo Semple Jr. screenplay and two immensely likable leads in Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie when I first watched it on bootleg VHS a decade ago, but a second viewing on the big screen dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.
Pretty Poison is an odd duck in director Noel Black's filmography. Primarily a director-for-hire of some of the most conventional, mainstream television series and TV movies of the last 40 years, Black is the film's weak link. His shot compositions and visual approach to the narrative structure are pedestrian, more suitable for generic, family-friendly network TV fare than the oddball humor and darkness here. The story and cast are distinctive and unusual and would have benefited from a director with a personal, visual style and point of view.
The director may be lacking, but the casting director deserves an award. Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld carry the film, providing its momentum, charm, humor, heartbeat, and indefinable cinematic essence. Perkins plays a mentally disturbed but friendly young man who has just been released from an institution, where he was being held for his propensity for arson. He's a compulsive but hilarious liar who works unhappily in an oppressive factory assembly-line job, but his life becomes much more interesting when he meets a teenage girl played by Tuesday Weld. He tells this seemingly naive girl-next-door type outrageous stories of his life as a secret agent, and she pretends to believe him, for dark purposes of her own. They begin a strange romantic relationship in which each person thinks he/she is manipulating the other. Both are seeking relief from the intense boredom and lack of freedom in their daily lives, Perkins from his soul-deadening factory job and the social worker checking up on his every move and Weld from the daily indignities and monotony of high school and a controlling mother jealous of her daughter's vivaciousness. Both are play-acting characters they will into being, characters that take over their own personalities, and things get really dark. The screenplay is strong but lets the characters down in the final third when Weld is turned into a more conventional femme fatale, but Weld and Perkins give great performances throughout. Worth seeing if you're as big a fan of the two leads as I am.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

I'm way behind #15: Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)

The marketing hook for this film is that you haven't really seen it unless you've seen it in IMAX 3D, or at least regular old 3D, so I may have missed some of the full impact, having chosen to see it in 2D on a conventionally sized theater screen. It certainly looks like a film where 3D was an aesthetic choice and not just a marketing gimmick and a way to bump up the ticket price, but I wear glasses and hate putting 3D glasses on top of them, and 3D gives me a blazing headache within a half hour of the film's starting time, so I rarely see a film in 3D. Life is in 3D, and I appreciate film as a 2D medium.
That caveat aside, my opinion of Gravity is largely positive, with some major reservations. This is a film that uses its large Hollywood budget and FX-driven story for good instead of annoyance. I find major, effects-driven Hollywood films almost unwatchable since CGI largely took the place of handmade effects and stuntmen. I've made my complaints known multiple times before on this site, but CGI has led to a uniformity in style, a disconnect between the camera-filmed and computer-generated parts of a film, and a narrative structure that is spatially incoherent and exhausting. Mainstream big-budget genre films are now just one noisy climax after another with a cluttered frame and an ignorance of the preceding century of fundamentals.
Gravity is refreshingly different. Here is a film that dramatically unclutters the frame and uses it for composition, space, and movement, not the jarring, crowded clusterfuck of bombardment we're mostly getting from recent box-office hits. Cuaron's compositions are gorgeous, quiet, meditative, and, in scenes of high action, coherent and thrilling. The setting no doubt helps. Turns out, space has lots of space, which is why we call it space, so cluttering it up with a bunch of nonsense was not really an option. Cuaron, though, has proven he can handle very different canvases masterfully, exploring the space between the frames with expertise in this and his previous three films (Children of Men, his Harry Potter movie, and Y tu mama tambien). Whatever the merits and weaknesses of his varied work, the shot compositions and expressive movements of the camera are always positives.
My problems with the film are mostly related to its screenplay. Though both big stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) acquit themselves nicely, any time the conversation gets away from the specifics of their job and toward their personal lives, the dialogue is cringingly sentimental, forced, and full of Hollywood cliche. It gets even worse when Bullock cranks out a couple of monologues and tries to communicate with a space station. This pulled me out of the nice meditative thing I had going for the bulk of the movie.
I know it's bad form to criticize the movie I wanted to exist rather than the one we have, but I'm going to get unfair and talk about my fantasy version of the movie. I would replace Clooney and Bullock with unknowns. I didn't have a problem with their performances,but I'd prefer two actors who are less sparkly, less People cover, more mysterious, and more anonymous to match the film's setting. I'd remove almost all of the dialogue, including everything personal, and a lot of the score, focusing on silence and the sound of machines and tools. I'd keep everything else. Of course, I'd ruin the film's commercial potential, and what studio would want to distribute my version?
Despite my qualms, I encourage Hollywood to make more films in this vein, to get back to classic Hollywood fundamentals, to use the vastness of the frame in ways other than trying to cram as much shit in it as is humanly possible, to bring back wonder and eliminate bombardment.   

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

I'm way behind #14: A New Leaf (Elaine May)

It's not a tragedy in the way the deaths of James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman (my two favorite living American male actors as of nine months ago) were tragedies, but it's at least a terrible injustice that Elaine May hasn't directed more films. I always hold out hope we'll get one more, but since she is 81 years old, semi-retired, and unloved by Hollywood executives, I should probably content myself with the four that exist.
May has a reputation for being difficult, because any woman who stands up for her work against corporate numbskulls gets a reputation for being difficult. She should have a reputation as one of the greatest American filmmakers of the second half of the twentieth century, which she does at my home and the homes of any sensible, unruly film aesthete. After the dissolution of her improvisational comedy duo with Mike Nichols in the early 1960s, May wrote several plays before following her old partner into filmmaking. She only got to direct four films, but three of them are near-perfect and one is merely very good. It's the very good one that ruined her directorial career, 1987's Ishtar. A troubled shoot that went dramatically over budget, a box office bomb, and a critical dart board the year it was released, Ishtar once had the reputation of being one of the worst films ever made, mostly by people who hadn't seen it, and its name is trotted out and besmirched whenever an expensive Hollywood film flops big, mostly by journalists who haven't seen it. If you have seen it and aren't an idiot, you know that its reputation as bloated garbage is complete and utter nonsense, and you also know that it's a very funny comedy with purposely terrible/wonderful lounge songs by Paul Williams and a prescient Magic 8 Ball predictor of our country's bungled foreign policies. It drags a bit in the second half, sure, but how an otherwise wonderful film got saddled with the reputation of being one of the worst would make a fascinating book.
Though Ishtar's commercial failure prevented May from directing more films, she wasn't even given proper credit as the creative force behind it. In an all-too familiar pattern of Hollywood sexism, critics, marketers, and studios marginalized May from all four of her own films, assigning their virtues and authorial signature to others. Co-lead and producer Warren Beatty got the credit and blame for Ishtar. Mikey & Nicky was written about as a John Cassavetes film because it starred Cassavetes and Peter Falk and covered superficially similar emotional terrain. Neil Simon got the credit for The Heartbreak Kid because he wrote the script (May wrote the screenplay for her other three films), even though its pace, beats, visual style, and performances were all May. The success of her first film, A New Leaf, was attributed to the studio for putting a talented but uncooperative woman in her place by cutting her edit down from three hours to two. Despite this conflict with the studio, A New Leaf is a great debut and one of the strongest comedies of the 1970s.
May writes, directs, and stars in A New Leaf alongside Walter Matthau, who is cast against type as wealthy playboy Henry Graham (albeit an asexual playboy who is both repulsed by and completely uninterested in romantic and/or sexual feelings) who has never worked a day in his life and has just burned through the last of his inheritance. Due to a disastrous bet with a contemptuous uncle (James Coco), Henry has to marry a wealthy woman in six weeks to maintain his lifestyle or he'll be forced to turn over his estate and all his possessions to the uncle, probably including his devoted servant. He has poor luck until he meets Henrietta Lowell (Elaine May), an awkward, clumsy, unsophisticated botany professor with a massive family fortune. Irritated and disgusted by her at first, Henry plans to bump her off at the earliest convenience and inherit the whole shebang without having to deal with the messiness of a lifelong romantic relationship. You may think you know what's coming, and you may be right, but how and when the rest of the story happens is not so obvious.
May's film is constantly funny (Matthau's delivery of a line about carpet is maybe my favorite sentence in comedy), but also very honest about and empathetic toward its lonely, flawed, partially damaged characters. (Well, most of them.) The actors and May as filmmaker have to occupy a fragile, delicate space where exaggerated comedy, subtle gesture, and real, honest emotion share the room. The film manages a happy ending, of sorts, without betraying its characters' personalities or the film's beautifully strange tone, which sometimes comes across as a Jerry Lewis film directed by Jean Renoir, which is more than alright with me. It's a film that's both compassionate and tough, warm and bitter. May should have been able to make 30 more.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman 1967-2014

Joey Breaker
Hard Eight
Boogie Nights
The Big Lebowski
Happiness
Magnolia
State and Main
Almost Famous
Punch-Drunk Love
25th Hour
Owning Mahowny
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Synecdoche, New York
Doubt
The Master

Enough said. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

I'm way behind #13: Taking Off (Milos Forman)

The Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin recently programmed a short, four-film series of overlooked dark comedies from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The series, called "Mixed Nuts," included Milos Forman's American debut, Taking Off; Elaine May's first film as director, A New Leaf; hack television director Noel Black's atypical oddity Pretty Poison; and the film adaptation of Jules Feiffer's play Little Murders, directed by the actor Alan Arkin. I'll write about the rest of them later, with the exception of Little Murders (I skipped that screening because I'd watched the film on DVD just a few weeks prior.)

Even though Milos Forman's American work includes such well-known films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Hair, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt, his first American movie after leaving the former Czechoslovakia, 1971's Taking Off, suffers from neglect and obscurity. Taking Off's lack of availability is the primary reason for this neglect, and to this day, the film has never been released on VHS, DVD, or Blu-Ray in this country. (I first saw it 12 years ago on a bootleg VHS.) Taking Off is closer in structure and spirit to Forman's Czech films like Black Peter and The Firemen's Ball than the accomplished but more conventional American films that followed. Like its darkly comic predecessors, Taking Off has a deceptively loose narrative that only seems undisciplined and chaotic until you relax into its pace. It's then that the careful structure and discipline subtly and slowly reveal themselves. There's a controlled anarchy and inspired common-sense lunacy here that Forman left behind on his subsequent projects. As much as I've enjoyed the later films, especially Amadeus, I feel more personally connected to the early work. I prefer the tiny, infinite playgrounds of the small, personal, loose, and weird to the narrow vastness of the big canvas, the prestige picture, the postcard lighting, and the based-on-a-true-story.
Taking Off is a film that takes its pessimistic message (parents will never understand their children, especially if they try to understand them) and turns it into a party. Suburban New York parents Lynn and Larry Tyne (Lynn Carlin and Buck Henry) are worried because their teenage daughter Jeannie (Linnea Hancock, in her only film role) hasn't come home. They don't know that she wandered off to the city, got a little high, and impulsively signed up for an open audition casting call for a musical, even though she's not much of a singer. The film spends the bulk of its first third alternating between Carlin and Henry as the parents debating what they should do and scenes of various young women auditioning for the role in the musical, including before-they-were-famous Carly Simon, Jessica Harper, and Kathy Bates, who was then trying to make it as a folk singer under the name Bobo Bates, which is how she's billed here.
The Tynes soon begin a countercultural post-hippie burnout-culture New York and New Jersey odyssey attempting to find their daughter and understand her once they've found her, which enters multiple phases when the girl returns home and wanders off again twice more. The odyssey will encompass bars, jails, diners, a hotel/casino where Ike & Tina Turner are performing and a swinger played by Allen Garfield hits on Lynn, a meeting of a society of parents of runaway children where a representative of the freak scene (Vincent Schiavelli) is invited to turn the martini-and-cigarette generation on to the wonders of marijuana so they can try to understand their stoned teenagers, and a return to the Tynes' apartment with the now-stoned parents of another missing teenager (Paul Benedict and Audra Lindley) for an epic game of strip poker. All of this is very funny, with a quiet thrum of panic and hysteria vibrating in every joke. No one is any closer to understanding each other by the film's end, but Forman and his screenwriting partners Jean-Claude Carriere (a collaborator of Bunuel's), John Guare, and John Klein see this as comedy, not tragedy. If you get a chance to see this one, do it.

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