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
State and Main
Almost Famous
Punch-Drunk Love
25th Hour
Owning Mahowny
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Synecdoche, New York
The Master

Enough said. 

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