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.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

I'm way behind #12: The World's End (Edgar Wright)

I don't know if Edgar Wright will make a film that resonates with me as much as his television show Spaced, but even if he doesn't, I'll be happy as long as he keeps making films as entertaining as Shaun of the Dead and this one. This is a real throwback to the days when mainstream entertainment actually tried to entertain. An apocalyptic sci-fi/action/horror/comedy whose characters are all very specific movie types but also seem like real people, The World's End plays like a British television comedy version of Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers as directed by John Carpenter with a 2013 Hollywood budget. That's what I mean when I say it's a throwback to the days when entertainment entertained.
If you grew up around '70s and '80s science fiction and horror movies, '90s and 2000s cult British comedy, and '80s and '90s British indie rock, you will be very comfortable with the world captured in this movie. I had a fuzzy feeling watching it. We get to know the characters (played by a great mix of comedic and dramatic character actors from the last decade and a half of British cinema), the pacing and framing of shots and editing hark back to the classic model that got thrown out last decade in favor of never-ending climaxes and CGI, and it was fun. This is a real movie made by a guy who likes movies. Stop making movies like I, Frankenstein and make more movies like this, Hollywood jerks.  

I'm way behind #11: The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai)

I'm a massive fan of Wong Kar-Wai's sensuous, sumptuous films about memory, time, love, the end of love, and the ways our memories change and rearrange time. In my view, Kar-Wai has directed four masterpieces (Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Happy Together, and In the Mood for Love), two near-masterpieces (Fallen Angels and 2046), one film I can't quite wrap my head around (Ashes of Time), and one gorgeous, interesting failure (My Blueberry Nights). (I haven't yet seen his first film, As Tears Go By.) Breaking his work into separate entities may be a mistake, though. They're connected, even in ways other strong, highly personal filmmakers' bodies of work aren't. These films talk to each other, and the more of them you see, the more of the conversation you hear.
Kar-Wai generally works without a script, just a rough outline, and he writes the film as he shoots it, getting ideas about where to take his characters and story from his actors' performances and the visual possibilities of the locations. He then spends months editing and re-editing different versions, finding the film's structure in the editing room. It's a lengthy, expensive process that has frustrated and frightened producers and actors, but the results speak for themselves. 
The Grandmaster has a more conventionally structured screenplay than his previous work, but there's no mistaking it for anyone else's movie. Or three movies, to be specific. Kar-Wai made three different versions of the film for Asian, European, and American audiences, and each cut has different scenes, more or less historical information based on cultural common knowledge or the lack thereof, and different narrative structures. The Asian cut played in a few theaters in New York City's Chinatown, but otherwise, the American cut was the version playing on U.S. screens and is the version I'm writing about here.
His last movie, the English-language, American film My Blueberry Nights, was a rare misfire, though not without moments of brilliance, but Kar-Wai is on sturdier footing here in his return to Asia. A Chinese and Hong Kong coproduction in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, The Grandmaster finds Kar-Wai infusing his personal style into a couple of established genres, the biopic and the martial arts action film. Ostensibly the life story of Wing Chun grandmaster and teacher Ip Man (famous in this country for being Bruce Lee's mentor), Kar-Wai plays with the facts by including several elaborately choreographed (by Yuen-Woo Ping) fight sequences and a fictionalized tragic romance that dominates the second half of the film.
Tony Leung is his usual charismatic self as Ip Man, but the film belongs to Zhang Ziyi, despite the title. Kar-Wai barrels through the early-to-middle age years of Ip Man's life, with some thrilling, if occasionally spatially confusing, martial arts sequences, but he slows down and changes focus in the second half. Though this part of the film is invented drama, it carries more emotional resonance. Ip Man becomes a supporting player in his own story, and Kar-Wai turns his attention to Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). A former rival of Ip Man's who hated him for taking the grandmaster title away from her father and who struggled with having to hide her prodigious martial arts skills because of the place of women in Chinese society, she becomes his best friend. The two fall in love but refuse to act on it because of Ip Man's marriage and Gong Er's self-imposed vow of celibacy. The way Kar-Wai depicts this relationship calls to mind some of the best moments from In the Mood for Love, and the film's narrative becomes dreamier and more impressionistic, which is simpatico with my personal taste. The film's greatest fight scene also occurs in this half when Gong Er battles a family enemy next to a moving train.
This is a lush, beautiful movie. I don't think it's one of Kar-Wai's best, but I could change my mind about that. It's very easy to like.

Friday, January 03, 2014

My favorites of 2013

No pronouncements on the state of the industry or the inside of my head this year. Let's just get to my 10 favorites, the runners-up, the interesting failures, and the other shit. The rules: These are my highly subjective favorites, based on my aesthetics, personality, and irritability. I'm a form and structure guy and a performance and character guy and a framing and lighting guy, not a plot guy. The movies that speak to me are a marriage of painting, photography, music, and personality/point of view, not just a vehicle for storytelling or plot (though I do enjoy a good story). To be eligible for my list, the film had to open in my city of Austin, Texas between January 1 and December 31 of 2013, and I had to see it, which eliminates Smurfs 2 from contention. I wrote about some of these movies already, and I will (slowly, eventually) get around to writing about the rest. I'm not ranking them in order of preference, because that changes daily. About half of my picks got the royal screwjob from distributors and the media and were unfairly ignored, hidden, or marginalized because expensive corporate product needed all that airtime and theater space, but that's a tiny speck of an injustice in the much larger screwjob we receive every single day from the corrupt, monstrous power structures that run this planet. Happy New Year! (Don't let anyone tell you I'm not full of good cheer.)

My 10 Favorite Films of the Year (ranked in the order I saw them)
Not Fade Away (David Chase)
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
The We & the I (Michel Gondry)
Mud (Jeff Nichols)
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
Nebraska (Alexander Payne)
Bastards (Claire Denis)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Close Runners-Up, or movies that would be in the top 10 if it was a different day and I was in a different mood
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Olivia Mori & Drew DeNicola)
Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)
Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine)
Amour (Michael Haneke)

The B-Team, or movies I can easily support and recommend that nevertheless have some minor annoyances or fall short of excellence
Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Dmitry Vasyukov & Werner Herzog)
Stoker (Park Chan-Wook)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)
Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro)
The World's End (Edgar Wright)

I Love You, I Hate You, I Love You, or movies full of transcendent visual splendor, breathtaking beauty, and irritating narrative elements that hit my pet peeve button
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
Please, no more childlike women twirling their skirts, jumping on beds, making snow angels, or rubbing their faces on vegetation to a voice-over soundtrack of vague Christian mysticism. Yes to everything else.
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Please, no sentimental backstory for Sandra Bullock. You didn't need it and it stopped the movie dead every time it came up. I would have been more emotionally engaged if the actors spoke less and I didn't know anything about their lives on Earth. Yes to everything else, though. This was a gorgeous movie to see on a big screen. Finally, a blockbuster that's not visually cluttered, spatially incoherent, or assaultive.

Wafer-thin, but likable 
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
Glenn Kenny already covered this on his excellent blog, but all the critics who have been holding this up as a better Scorsese film than The Wolf of Wall Street are delusional. I liked it, especially the performances by Louis C.K., Christian Bale, and Amy Adams, but this is surface flash, a dessert instead of a meal. Entertaining as hell, but it didn't stick with me very long after I finished it.
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant)

Most misunderstood movie
Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow)
Most of the puffed-up controversy was in 2012, but it didn't open in Austin until 2013. I was tired of the argument almost before it started, but I didn't see either the pro-torture propaganda film condemned by lefties or the love letter to Obama some right-wing pundits managed to find here. Bigelow's unsatisfying defenses in the press did her no favors with the Glenn Greenwalds of the world, but I saw a very different film than most political journalists and opinion columnists on either side of the spectrum. I wrote about it here.

Biggest disappointment
At Any Price (Ramin Bahrani)
I liked Bahrani's first two films, and I loved his third, but this one was ill-conceived and poorly handled.

Favorite revival and film society screenings
A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes)
Husbands (John Cassavetes)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)
A New Leaf (Elaine May)
Taking Off (Milos Forman)
The Connection (Shirley Clarke)
The World's Greatest Sinner (Timothy Carey)
I didn't enjoy Pretty Poison (Noel Black) as much as I did the first time I saw it, though I still love Anthony Perkins' and Tuesday Weld's performances in it. My memories of the screening may have been marred by the minor fender bender I was in with a crazy man and his expensive car after the movie. He threatened to break my jaw and shoot me, which puts a damper on your night. Fortunately, he didn't do either of those things and blamed his behavior on a migraine. A movie would have to be a masterpiece to overcome that kind of evening, though, and Pretty Poison is too inconsistent to be a masterpiece, despite its fantastic leads.

Worst thing to happen to film this year
The death of James Gandolfini.

R.I.P.  Roger Ebert, Bigas Luna, Les Blank, Karen Black, Dennis Farina, Ed Lauter, Taylor Mead, Mario Montez, Antonia Bird, Joan Fontaine, Peter O'Toole, Julie Harris, Bernadette Lafont, Ray Harryhausen, Richard Griffiths, Kumar Pallana, Haji, Otto Sander, and Nagisa Oshima. And I'm probably forgetting some others.

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