Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Fathers and sons

One of the difficulties of being a young artist is that, while your technique is growing and developing rapidly, you are short on original subjects to address. Most young artists haven't lived long enough to have remarkable experiences or insight. This is probably one of the main reasons that early works are derivative, whether being pastiches of, mash-ups or commentary on the work of other artists. In a way, that's just what Citizen Kane is, a fantasia on the genre of newspaper movies and biopics with a flavoring of German expressionism and Gregg Toland Wizardry sprinkled on top. The only other route is to focus on one's own experience, circle of friends and family to an extent and with a level of detail far beyond what is commonly done -- to put life under a microscope to see what turns up.

The Duplass brothers have made a style out of no style, first making their mark with this short, reportedly made with materials and time left over from a larger project:

But of course, there is a style at work here. There is close observation of both the use of language and the obsession with presentation of self. These are both on display in the very warm and funny feature The Puffy Chair (2005). Ordinarily discussion of this film is framed by the so-called "mumblecore" movement, which seems to me no more than ultra lowbudget filmmaking, which, given the personnel, materials and equipment available without money, focuses on close personal and family relationships as revealed in naturalistic dialogue sequences. Really, this is no different than the original American independent film movement as pioneered by the Cassavetes generation. Mumblecore's status as a distinct genre is more a testament to film reviewer's ignorance of the history of the medium than to any real innovation.

But not being innovative does not negate the value of the work; rather it clears away the clutter of superficial considerations of style to the actual piece itself. The Puffy Chair discards the cliche jokes of "my-parent-as-controlling-monsters" or "my-parents-as-culturally-clueless-idiots" or "my-parents-as-deranged-narcissists" (so egregiously on display in the horrid Four Christmases). Josh really wants to get his father a nice present, and is willing to uproot his life, taking an ill-advised road trip to secure this gift. Moreover, the gift is not as advertised, and a great deal of effort and machinations will be necessary to realize Josh's dream of bliss for his pop. I'm not spoiling anything important to say that, happily, Josh comes to realize (via the agency of his dissolute brother Rhett) that this was all his own projection, and had nothing to do with really making his father happy.

The Duplasses and their friends are only adequate improvisers -- you will never get any of the brilliant mots of the typical Christopher Guest movie. Their real strength is as editors. Rarely is a scene stretched past its real value, and judging from the cut scenes on the DVD, they are ruthless about discarding material that does not land or does not contribute. One can't help wishing they would develop more craft in creating and performing material so that they would not have to go down so many blind alleys, but whatever the process, the result is balanced and well-judged. Their best effects are scenes played against people or things which do not change, despite the pleas and cajoling. The hysterical scene pictured above has Josh issuing ultimatums to an implacably closed door, without any evidence of a human behind it.

And The Puffy Chair should go down in film history for having the best, most logical, dramatically right, heartbreaking and perfectly played break-up scene ever. Instead of dramatics, screaming and psychobabble, there is the sincere mutual acknowledgment that these two people do not really share a future. And then there is a tearful embrace, a moment of mourning for a relationship that should have been, but which could not be brought back to life despite heroic measures. It is so beautiful and sweet, that you have to like both members of the now-sundered couple.

This scene comes shortly after a very simple and true father-and-son exchange about how one knows whether a woman is "the woman." (I must acknowledge that I have now been on both sides of that conversation, so it touches a tender place with me.) The cliche would have been to go on to a fumbling but sincere engagement scene. Instead, the film goes in the direct opposite direction and makes us love it, in a way that is original and satisfying.

And despite his denials, Bobby Dupea, as played by Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces (1970) is also eager to please his father, but unwilling to alter his own path to do so. I don't like to make these blogs too personal, but this film came out when I was a teenager trying to understand adult culture, including books and films, and I was puzzled by the praise for what seemed to me a flat and meandering film, the most famous scene of which, the famous "chicken salad" scene, was completely irrelevant to the film.

For all the originality in conception, the film never establishes a point of view about its protagonist and his choices. It is hard enough for most of us to relate to a guy working an oil rig, and finding out that his family are all pretentious classical musicians doesn't bring him any closer to us. Bobby seems to have escaped from one distant planet to another, and if the alien question wants to be rude, sleep with his sister-in-law or throw a temper tantrum, who cares?

This film was the beginning of Jack Nicholson's Legend as a Great Actor. This has always been mysterious to me. He's occasionally amusing as an eccentric, and he can do regret as in the very fine film The Promise. But his range his narrow and his style is self-regarding and narcissistic. He is the Barbara Streisand of acting: Every Nicholson Performance is about Nicholson Performing. Fooey.

Long story short, the film isn't any more insightful or dramatic to me than it was in 1970. True, it earns some points for avoiding then-contemporary cliches in dramaturgy, borne of theatrical tradition. It boasts greater realism in acting, and a naturalistic shape to the scenes. (The final sequence, in which Bobby disappears into oblivion, feels particularly right.) But it still doesn't say very much about people who are so odd that it is impossible to either feel for them or connect them to our lives. Reviewers describe it as "moody" "thoughtful" and a "study in inner pain" or "fear of the past." So the film is a detailed study of something no well-adjusted person would care about. About as interesting as a highly detailed description of a turd. There are professionals who study such things, but the rest of us can skip it.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What's the deal with 80s cult films?

I lived through the 1980s. I was trying to start a career and successfully starting a family. I should remember the era as a golden time. It sucked. Disco refused to die, although people with their hearts in the right places tried to stomp it with hobnail boots. Movies for grownups disappeared. The clothes were mostly hideous. The government under Ronnie Ray-Gun found it could act like a bad boyfriend, taking our money and giving us nothing for it, letting us lose our jobs and refusing to help or support us and making up stories so we'd feel better, and co-dependent America ate it up.

It was an era of "bad is good", "tacky is stylish", "lame is cool" and, of course, the era of Gordon Gekko telling us "greed is good." (Any biologist will tell you that self-preservation and self-interest is good. Organisms that take more than they need will die from it.) And if anything demonstrates that "bad is good," it's 80's cult movies.

Maybe I was just too old. But if Point Blank is a cult film representing the 60s, and Red Dawn is a cult film representing the 80s, one must acknowledge a overall degeneration in the amount and quality of gray matter among the populace.

The cult film thing got so big after the success of midnight audience participation showings of Rocky Horror, that film executives apparently began making films in order to become objects of cult, rather than appealing to the general movie-going public. Thus, we have The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension (1984). Incidentally, the filmmakers objected to the distributor adding the last half of that title. Why? Because it destroyed the dignity of their fine work?????

According to John Lithgow's comments made at the L.A. Film Festival in May, the character and mythology of Buckaroo Banzai began as a sort-of running joke between college classmates writer Earl MacRauch and director W.D. Richter. Once Richter had gained a foothold in the business, they decided to unleash their joke adventure into a world primed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones to accept riffs on 30s serial adventures as a respectable film genre. They had worked out a back story and a milieu for Banzai and his Hong Kong Cavaliers, which actually sounds as if it would have been fun if they series of films they planned had actually been made. But the first film crashed in general release (as it deserved to), and this one film represents the entire saga.

The problem is a textbook example of the Springtime for Hitler syndrome. When you're making a silly piece of work, you can't make everything silly or it becomes tedious; most of all, you cannot have ALL your characters be silly, especially the ones who are supposed to be scary, like Hitler. And Buckaroo Banzai, supposed to be a light romp of an adventure turned into a grand Olympian conclave of overactors, led by the Grand Pooh-Bah of OTP, John Lithgow.

Also seen is this clip, is Lithgow's greatest living rival for the title of King of OTP, Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd is under a severe handicap in this film, having his head encased in a lizard thing, but he does what he can (and more than makes up for it in the Back To The Future trilogy and Star Trek III). But I would maintain that Lithgow still deserves the top spot. Whereas Lloyd's characters are loud and overstated because that's what the voices inside their heads tell them to do, Lithgow seems always to be playing for the least affluent theatergoers in the 3rd balcony who seem to live in Lithgow's head. He is, by his own admission, most comfortable in theater and in television with a studio audience, and always looks disappointed in films that his unhinged antics are not met with wild applause and cheering.

Completing this particular Pantheon is Jeff Goldsmith, who is so consummate an overactor, that he can overact while appearing to underact. His character are is quiet almost to the point of appearing sleepy, but prone to reel off a long run of supergeek gobbledegook so potent as to suck the air out of any scene he appears in. (I just regret that nobody thought to bring Christopher Walken into the cast - or that he was perhaps unavailable.) Is it a wonder that nobody can take this film seriously, or even figure out how it wants to be taken? The cardboard cut-out production design, bombastic music and cheesy photography don't help. (The photography isn't the director's fault - the studio fired his choice and hired the guy who shot The Man From Uncle, a cheese-fest if there ever was one.) Worst of all, the film lacks the sincerity and authenticity of, say, a movie like Evil Dead. Even if it's not good, you know that Sam Raimi BELIEVES in it.

Nobody could like this film and nobody did. There were a few people who LOVE it, and they still do, and it is entirely possible you are or may be one of them. If so, I pray to heaven you do not have a job that involves dangerous equipment or small children, lest you cause serious damage.

Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), on the other hand, bears all the marks of a sincerely-intended piece of work, but fated for cult status nonetheless.

First of all, the producers were banking on the popularity of a rock group as the basis of their audience, heedless of the fact that the fan base of the most popular rock or pop stars at any time; let's say, for example Lady Gaga as I write this, constitute less than 5% of the number of people you need to see a moderately-budgeted motion picture just to get your money back, let alone make a profit. Music - even pop - is a poor basis for commercial success. Add to this that the story is not the usual trope of teenage rebellion against stifling adult society that fuels such works as Tommy, Footloose and Rock, Rock, Rock. (The latter is the one about Tuesday Weld raising enough money to buy a prom dress.) Instead, Our Hero in The Wall has ALREADY achieved Rock God status and finds that it Means Nothing. We can all identify with that, can't we, especially when we're 15 years old? Oh dear, I have fame and wealth and power over people and I can have anything and anything I want, but I am numb inside because I don't know who I am or what my life is for. That's a pretty common problem, don't you think?

Add to that, the film's narrative is not only broken up into barely-related fragments without dialogue rather than a linear story with plots, subplots and characters. The style is more like the cinema equivalent of tableaux vivants, as in this perhaps most famous example attacking the ineffectual and sterile nature of education as we know it.

On top of this, the narrative is frequently interrupted by nightmare animation sequences by Gerald Scarfe, which at least has the possible advantage from a parent's point of view of convincing teens to delay sex for years, perhaps even decades:

All snark aside, this is serious work seriously intended and a signal achievement in the relationship of music to imagery. But I sure hope the people who permitted this film to be made were under no illusion that this would be a blockbuster.

The authors of the meta-musical [title of show] write, "I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing/Than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing." That's the definition of cult, a type of product that thrived in a peculiar way 25 years, before the Coming of the Conglomerates.

If I've piqued your interest in The Wall (and it is worth seeing if you're not easily disturbed by movies or music), here's the whole darn thing for you to watch, provided you have a spare 95 minutes:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Appealing to all the senses

Most Americans don't watch enough foreign films. I say that not because I'm a snob or I think you should be one, but if you're a film buff, watching a film in another language opens you up to the purest idioms of film, unencumbered by either the felicities or the clunkiness of language, and the distraction of jokes and flippancy. It's closer to watching silent film, but better, and yes, there's a synchronized music score, but more importantly, even if one doesn't understand each word as it is coming out, one can hear the inflections, the rhythms, the timbre of the speaking voice, coupled with the expressions of the face, the tilt of the head, the roll of a shoulder which convey the speaker's meaning at a deeper and truer level than the words selected.

And I Am Love (2010) isn't about talk very much, anyway. There are sights and sounds, sure, but I can't think of another film that endeavors to evoke smell, taste and touch so thoroughly as this. I Am Love will surely be remembered as the film in which a woman had a virtual orgasm and fell in love upon biting into a prawn. I mean, this was some terrific prawn. And the thing is, this woman did not expect to fall in love. She didn't want to fall in love. She had a husband and a family. A big family. A big rich family (her husband's). There was no good reason to fall in love except for this fantastic prawn.

I Am Love is one of the most sensual movies it is possible to see with your eyeballs. It is a film of textures, of surfaces, of warmth and cold, of brisk mountain air and seaside breezes, of flavors, some dark, some pungent, of the touch of fingers, a massage, a haircut, of lying in the tall grass with warm sun on top and sharp jabs of long grass on the bottom. That feeling is--I presume--intensified by having to rely on subtitles to follow the relatively minimal dialogue. And to complete one's verbal disorientation, Tilda Swinton speaks Italian with a Russian accent, as she is playing an emigre. In one scene it is evident that her character does not understand English! How completely appropriate then, that her character turns away from the seemingly obvious advantages of having married into a wealthy and prestigious Milanese family, to a romance with a humble chef, whose mode of living embodies all those sensual pleasures.

You cannot write about I Am Love without talking about the exciting and surprisingly suitable score from the works of concert composer John Adams. Adams, with Phillip Glass is probably our most influential composer today. He was grouped with Adams as a minimalist, for his accompaniments often rely on simply triadic harmonies, rejecting the harmonic density of mid-20th century music. But Adams has a gift for melody and development of form that Glass has not chosen to explore, and he is our best and most interesting opera composer alive. If you haven't heard his song-cycle/music I Was Looking At The Ceiling and Then I Saw The Sky is a neglected masterpiece. Go seek it out. You won't be sorry.

Adams has never licensed his music for work in film before, and did not write anything especially for the film. Instead the music was culled from his recorded catalog, and sequences were even written, shot and edited with pre-selected music in mind, most notably a sequence in which Swinton's character sort-of stalks her lover-to-be (who is a friend of her son's) through the streets of San Remo, finding herself in a Russian Orthodox Church, where she involuntarily stumbles onto her former self. The music both chugs (like the fabric mills which are the basis of the family fortune) and sings (like the souls of the lovers). If this movie can't make you want to go out and eat gourmet Italian food, it should make you seek out the work of John Adams.

There are a few ways a story of a wealthy middle-aged woman going off with her young lover can go. It can be a super-charged, rediscovering passion story like a Diane Lane movie, it can be a story of regret and despair--separation from her children and hurting her former spouse. And indeed there is tragedy in the story, but it is incidental to the main motion of the narrative, and in a way, releases Swinton's character to embrace her new path. The result is not melodramatic or romance, nor tragedy, but the difficult process of being reborn, of embarking a new life with no promises, no guarantees, but new hope of living one's true nature.

I try to refrain from straight-on reviewing or recommendations, but I Am Love, co-written and directed by Luca Guadagnino, is easily one of the best films of 2010 and I couldn't get to the end of the year without saying so. I am sorry I was not aware of it during its theatrical run and didn't see it on a big screen. If you do seek it out, try to watch it on a large monitor or projected and be sure to run the sound through a decent audio system. This movie goes straight past the intellect and goes straight for the senses like nothing I've seen.

In similar fashion, The Secret In Their Eyes (2009), last year's Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, looks as though it's going to be a movie for the brain, but goes instead for the heart. It begins like an Argentinian version of TV shows like Law and Order or House, both programs that co-writer, director and editor Juan José Camapanella has worked on. A retired investigator is revisiting a case from 20 years before, but what is being revisited is not just a case, but the life lived prosecuting all those cases, and the opportunities lost or disregarded along the way. In particular, he is reflecting on The Girl That Got Away, his superior at work, in social class and in education, who married suitably and had a family. Now they re-meet to discuss his investigation into this old, dead case and discovers things may not be as old and dead as he thought they were.

The secret of the film is in its titles. The clues are not bits of carpet fibre and DNA. They are looks between the adoring and the adored, returned or not. There is a beautiful echo early in the film, when the investigator intuits the perpetrator of a violent crime by the look he is giving the victim in an old photograph. Only a few minutes later, we seem the same investigator in another old photo, giving the same look to his unobtainable adored. The picture above is a vivid demonstration of what this film does so well. The investigators have identified the violent offender, Gómez, but he has been released because he is a hired killer useful to the Peron regime (in power at the time). The prosecutors learn they have been bested and get on the elevator. A moment later, Gómez boards the elevator. Not a word is exchanged. Gómez loads and checks his gun. The threat is all the more undeniable for having remained verbally unstated. It is like the thriller film's equivalent to a Lubitsch moment.

One of the pleasures of this film is that everything is of a piece: the "top story", the crime investigation and the "under story", the lost romance or organically intertwined. The low-key, amber-toned cinematography, understated music score and Campanella's own crisp editing all fit together as if conceived all at once in a single burst of creativity. It is a film of discretion, of understatement, of respect for its audience, confident that the audience will put together the pieces of both stories and see the connections without being whacked over the head with them. It is a lean-forward, not a sit-back, film. Lead Roberto Darin reminds me of Joe Mategna, with even more soulful eyes, appropriate for a film about seeing.

The Dragon Tattoo series, Let The Right One In and The Secret In Their Eyes demonstrate (if it needed demonstrating) that a foreign language film can be a high-quality, relatively conventional commercial and accessible film. It need not be either experimental and off-putting or derivative and schlocky. All these films will receive (or have received) American remakes. Don't wait for them. Check out the originals. The week between the holidays is a great time for cocooning with movies. Put some foreign language films on your list. It's true that if your eyelids droop, and you miss a subtitle or two, you might feel lost. But have a sip of coffee and stay with it. Your eyes, and perhaps your other sensory organs, will thank you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Soul sold

Though I've seen it many times, I just re-watched the 1958 film version of the Broadway musical Damn Yankees (I got a very good price on a DVD). The film settles a long-standing argument between Broadway and film aficionados, specifically the claim that the movies change Broadway shows too much and all that is needed is to take the Broadway script and cast and "open it up" a little and you have a good movie. Damn Yankees is proof positive that it ain't so. The film uses the entire original cast, save the exchange of one insignificant juvenile lead for another, one substituted number, another cut and some slight shuffling of the running order.

Yet despite the fidelity to a 1,000-performance Broadway show, the film feels flat. A little film history suggests exactly what went wrong. Production was rushing to beat the deadline of a threatened musicians' strike. The deadline was missed, so the actors lip-synched to the Broadway cast album. Later the film music was recorded in Rome (with the orchestrations almost identical to the originals--an unusual situation for music supervisor Ray Heindorf, who usually put his stamp on the scores he worked for), and the voice tracks recorded to fit (often badly) the lip movements already filmed. The result is that when the singers are performing, they cannot fully concentrate on the performance, but in both the filming and the recording process had technical procedures foremost in mind.

That rush to finish the film may explain why the scenes are often played in long takes and long shots with occasionally badly cut inserts. And of course, the actors are stuck with Abbott's strange text with the inept attempt at aping natural speech and all sorts of non-sequiturs that are meant to sound like breezy chatter. None of this explains why the dialogue scenes proceed at such a leisurely tempo. I suspect the actors were just reading the lines the way they had been for two-and-a-half years, but why couldn't Stanley Donen (who despite the co-directing credit, was the only person on the stage actually directing the film) have gotten the actors to pick up their cues, and even perhaps interrupt or overlap? The word "stilted" doesn't begin to describe the effect. (Walston, who later became a good movie and television actor is the worst offender here. You can almost see his eyes scanning the seats in the back of the orchestra.)

Nonetheless, no one is going to burn the negative, because the film is the best record we have of the great Gwen Verdon at her height. A lot of people feel that she didn't become a star because her performance was stagy. That's nonsense. First of all, as the clip below shows, Gwen is quite subtle and knowing in "A Little Brains, A Little Talent." Some people are upset that the movie powers insisted she omit her hip bumps, but I don't miss them -- they help to bring the tone of the number down to an appropriate level for the movies. "Whatever Lola Wants" is, of course, deliberately stagy, not only because the intent was to record Bob Fosse's original staging and Verdon's performance, but because the song is not meant to be actually arousing and sexy. It is a satire of sex appeal and the sirens who are supposed to have it. The whole sequence is deliberately ridiculous. To have Lola be actually sexy and desirable to Joe would complicate the entire story.

This viewing I really sat up for a number that I barely remembered from previous viewings. Here in, "Two Lost Souls" Fosse seems to be on his way to film directing in a way he hadn't before. Sure, the lighting and camera staging probably had contributions from Stanley Donen and cinematographer Harold Lipstein, but like no Fosse number before, this seems to have been designed for the camera. Not that it's all cuts and close-ups, but it has a fluidity of movement and of changes in scale and focus that recall the best work of Vincent Minelli, Chuck Walters and Donen and Kelly at MGM in the glory days.

But finally the film will be remembered and copies treasured by every dance fan and aspiring dancer for this next clip, which is the only color footage of Verdon and Fosse together in a typically irrelevant Adler & Ross specialty called "Who's Got The Pain?" (The joke, lost to pop culture history, is that the mambo seems to always incorporate strange vocalizations that sound like bird squawks or cries of gastic distress. Get an old Xavier Cugat or Perez Prado mambo record from the mid- to late-50s and you'll see what they mean.) On stage, Verdon had done the number with a company dancer named Eddie Phillips. But this was film and film lasts, so Bob Fosse (who had already appeared on film in Kiss Me Kate and Give A Girl A Break alongside later choreography-director rival Gower Champion) took the stage shoulder to shoulder in one of the most raucous love duets you'll ever see. Because that's what this is -- the love of two performers and artists for each other and their work. They married shortly after this was filmed, and although they didn't live together for the rest of their lives, they never really fell out of love. How could they have?

Life among the obnoxious

Let me say this straight out: the voice of a character is not the voice of the author. Otherwise intelligent people get this confused all the time. They rail against movies, plays or television shows with characters who are violent or homophobic or racist or serial litterbugs. But seriously, how can one write about social progress without addressing its opposite, and creating characters who embody that undesirable behavior? By this theory (which is NOT political correctness--that's something else), Dickens should not have created Ebenezer Scrooge, because he was endorsing stinginess and self-centeredness.

(Have you ever thought that the people who only knew Scrooge after his reformation, who must have far outnumbered the ones who knew him before, Scrooge's name must have been a byword for generosity and charity? In that world, people would say "It's Christmas -- be a Scrooge and give generously!" The Scrooge Foundation would have been known far and wide for building hospitals and orphanages.)

The people of Nancy Holofcener's Please Give (2010) are not stingy, but they are self-centered, which stymies any attempt they make to find meaning and purpose in life. But their myopia is as funny as Mister Magoo's. And rather than take real steps toward finding meaning, Kate (played by Catherine Keener) seeks charitable work, then dissolves in tears over the mere thought of other people having needs. (This is clearly a novel thought to her.)

There is not much too much to Holofcener's cinematic technique here, which seems to be limited to designing some echt-New York apartments and setting Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Ann Morgan-Guilbert loose in them. Morgan-Guilbert, Millie from The Dick Van Dyke Show is insanely funny as a bitter, difficult old woman for whom everyone, including her grand-daughters and the people who have already bought her apartment, is waiting to die. But if the characters are all horrible -- not monsters, but small and lacking perspective -- you can enjoy them the way you can enjoy George Costanza, as an unholy fool.

There's not much to enjoy about Michael Douglas's Ben Kalmen in Solitary Man (2010). His portrayal of a dying and failing auto salesman doesn't differ much from the jerks he's played in Wall Street, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt or countless other "love me, I'm an arrogant jerk" movies. The discovery that Douglas might himself be dying, made after the release of this film, doesn't improve it. In fact, it increases one's desire to remember Douglas playing a decent guy trying to improve things, as in Traffic and The American President.

Moreover, although the film takes the form of the "lost weekend" it rambles and meanders through a series of disjointed encounters, mostly with college students who seem to be impressed with this jackass. Jesse Eisenberg is out of his element playing someone easily fooled, he exudes too much intelligence. And the college women the 60-something Douglas pursues make him look like a pedophile. (There is a charming encounter with real-life Douglas friend Danny DeVito, but that doesn't appear to have anything to do with the rest of the movie.)

Still, as I said, portraying a jerk doesn't make the author a jerk. But writer co-director Brian Koppelman has nothing to say about this man that we haven't already thought. If you make bad choices, use people and throw them away, you will have no friends or loved ones and you will be unhappy. There's no twist, no irony, no redeeming perversity. It's a classic case of "why are you telling me this?"

Which could also apply to Color Me Kubrick based on some true anecdotes, in which John Malkovich plays a man who, though he looked nothing like him and had no discernible talent or taste, told strangers he was filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and cadged meals and drinks off them. I have now recited not only the premise, but the entire plot of the film. A con movie should have the ability to deceive the audience, have some concealed twists and turns and a build-up to a grand deception. Instead, over and over, people think this man called Alan Conway is Kubrick, find out he's not and dump him. Sometimes it's not even that. Martin Freeman starts chatting Conway up, listing his favorite Kubrick films and throwing in a film by Stanely Kramer, which Conway cheerfully takes credit for. Freeman points out the mistake and suggests Conway study his subject harder.

I did enjoy the story of the real-life former theater critic of the New York Times, Frank Rich being taken in, as Rich is a fatuous blowhard who could use some knocking down, but the makers of Color Me Kubrick should have had the courage to stray farther from the facts. Couldn't their character have raised the money to get a small film started, then arrived on the stage and tried to direct without the knowledge or the talent? That would have been amusing. Because ultimately this is a film about a person who wants praise and adoration without having earned it. It could have been a general critique on celebrity culture, but given that most of Conway's victims are buffoons themselves, there is no room for satire to have grown and developed. An idiot tricks other idiots. Is that a story?

Separate Lies (2005), on the other hand is all story and no characters. Written and directed by Julian Fellows, screenwriter of Gosford Park it shares that English weekend-country-place feeling, right down to the rather genteel killing that starts the film. Like City Island, all the characters are lying to each other, but lies that seem to be covering up a crime are only actually covering up an affair. The only complication is that, being English, the truth about sexual fidelity must be kept a far deeper darker secret than that of homicide. Embarrassment is far worse than incarceration.

As they will, lies engender more lies and the complications heap up until there is no way to turn back, no way of going back to the way things used to be. Which is sort of the point, I guess. The problem is that rather than creating characters for whom this journey would be of interest, Fellows has cast Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett, capital actors all, providing of course that they have something to act. So, for example, once Wilkinson establishes that he is all polish over ruthlessness and acquisitiveness, he is more or less done, reduced to quiet wimpering once all is lost. Emily Watson is interesting, but never believable as Wilkinson's long-time wife. And it is never explained why the bland and amoral Everett would be preferable to Wilkinson. All rather a bad lot, and get lesser punishments than they deserve. Only the low-key lighting of Tony Pierce-Roberts seems completely admirable.

And, since I brought up Scrooge before, let's dispose of last year's Robert Zemeckis motion-capture atrocity, Disney's Christmas Carol (2009). Something has to be done about these films, perhaps federal legislation. So far we've had The Polar Express, Beowulf and now this. I think there is comprehensive proof that this is not a valuable or expressive form that adds anything valuable to the vocabulary of film. They're not unwatchable films (except maybe Polar Express, which is kind of ghastly), but there's nothing indispensable about the motion-capture format. Taking Christmas Carol to be the technological highpoint so far, the characters are still unable to focus their eyes, and their heads still look as though they were either carved from foam or slightly over-inflated balloons. Look at this illustration. Who are the characters looking at? Clearly not each other. Nor is the motion produced much more graceful or expressive than that of any stop-motion animated film. Put this film next to the work of Pixar, and you will see what real animation by real animators can accomplish. (It is appalling to have this stuff released under the Disney banner.) And then someone decided that since this was animation that the film had to be aimed at children, and that there's nothing kids like than aimless, pointless cruel and illogical slapstick added to a tale of Victorian moral reclamation. Does anyone have any idea why Scrooge had to be shrunk and slung around the icy landscape in a wacky chase sequence? What story did that tell? If you make bad choices, you will shrink and slide on ice?

There are good things. Carrey's voice work as Scrooge is first rate, especially since it sounds nothing like Jim Carrey. (His work for the first two ghosts is not so strong, with weak Irish and Scots accents respectively, and diluting the strength of his work as Scrooge.) The face of the Scrooge character is rendered with a detail and expressivity lacking in most of the other characters. (Nephew Fred fits Colin Firth's voicework probably because they decided to make Fred resemble Firth, the only character that bears such a correspondence to the voice actor.) Gary Oldman's work is rather good, and the screenplay is among the most faithful to Dickens, even eschewing some of the favorite later additions to the Scrooge saga (especially those of screenwriter Noel Langley for the beloved Alistair Sim version).

But here's an example of things gone wrong. This is a little-noted incident during the Ghost of Christmas Present chapter, just before we enter the Cratchit household, when Scrooge and the Ghost observe that people like the Cratchits, who do not own an oven, use nearby bakers' ovens to heat their food, but that given England's blue laws, they could not do so on Sunday when all the shops are required to be closed. Scrooge remarks that this has been done in the name of the spirit, or his family. In Dickens, the Spirit replies, "There are some upon this earth of yours who lay claim to know us and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred , envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name." And here Zemeckis inserts: "These men of the cloth." Thus he creates an equivalency between bigotry and oppression and the clergy which Dickens did not write, and we have no reason to believe he felt. After all, you don't have to be a professional to use the Bible as a cudgel to hurt other people. So while I was delighted to see this arcane and interesting bit restored to a dramatization of Dickens, I deplore that it was felt necessary to distort it to engage in an attack on the clergy.

But finally the sum is less than its parts. This Christmas Carol has lots and lots of parts, and incorporates as much beloved Dickens dialogue as might be possible in a film of reasonable length. And yet for all the ghosts, it is without spirit. Everything feels like a dutiful recitation, without real despair or real exhilaration. Dickens can survive all sorts of misguided tributes and adaptations, but he can't survive sterility.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Team, as in horses

Like most film buffs, I get asked about my favorite film, but that's an embarrassing question, because many of my really and truly favorite films are not really good films at all, but comprise those occasions when somebody pointed a camera at a great comedian. Or even two or three great comedians.

I love film comedy teams, and I worship Laurel & Hardy, the greatest of them all. But I am also rather indiscriminate when it comes to comedy. Laughter can neither be counterfeited (well) nor (truly) suppressed. It is a natural act that reveals the true mind of the actor, and therefore out of the control of either snobbery or good taste and I can savor Oscar Wilde and Benny Hill with equal gusto.

Accordingly, thanks to the ministrations of Turner Classic Movies and Warner Archives, I am able to enjoy the antics of the antique comedy of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, who pranced madly for RKO from 1929 to 1938, when Woolsey died. And they are a proper subject for discussion in film, because they were, Laurel and Hardy, almost entirely a film-only team.

Teamwork is not easy and takes years to develop. Most film comedy teams have live performance origins, in vaudeville, burlesque or legitimate. The Marx Brothers, Three Stooges and the Ritz Brothers were family-based acts and the Marxes began together in childhood. Clark & McCullough ran away to the circus together as boys and Abbott & Costello put in a decade in burlesque breaking out on radio, while Martin & Lewis and Rowan & Martin were the product of nightclubs.

The teams that reach us deeply do so not because of jokes, but, I believe, from the way they reflect or ridicule important relationships. Laurel and Hardy were brothers united against the world, Abbott and Costello were brothers who are rivals, with the older brother (Bud) taking advantage of the younger; Martin and Lewis were similar, but Dean did not exploit Jerry and even tried to help him. The Stooges are a dysfunctional family, with Moe the impossible-to-please father. Burns and Allen were an actual married couple. This may sound odd, but Paul McCullough seems like a doting and enabling mother to the obnoxious Bobby Clark, and the Ritz Brothers are those three loud boys who live next door and break up the party.

Two exceptions remain. The Marx Brothers, who were actual brothers, function as three parallel comedy acts with only the flimsiest relationship, which is what makes it so endearing when Groucho decides to chuck being a respectable physician, college president or even president of a country in order to hang out with two insane hobos, Chico and Harpo. Groucho, when appearing with his brothers, represents a deep wish fulfillment for all us decent middle-class people--the wish to tell all the people in charge to go to hell and hang out with the friends our parents told us to stay away from.

Wheeler & Woolsey are the only major film comedy team to follow in the Marx mode and operate as parallel comics, although W&W do have more verbal byplay together, especially in the last third of their films. It makes sense, because W&W might be described as an artificial team. They were two journeyman comics who had been paired up by no less than Florenz Ziegfeld for a big musical called Rio Rita. When Joseph Kennedy and David Sarnoff of RCA had engineered the complex series of acquisitions and mergers that resulted in RKO Radio Pictures in 1928, a company dedicated to making only synch sound films, they wanted the first production to be big and hard to miss. They decided on Ziegfeld's show, and Rio Rita (1929) was a big picture the year of its release, starring longtime silent star Bebe Daniels (she had been Harold Lloyd's leading lady a decade earlier). While RKO jettisoned much of the plot, songs and cast, they did bring Wheeler & Woolsey out to repeat their roles, especially the celebrated slapping routine, seen at the end of this two-color clip:

Most people are a little startled at the final kiss. Wheeler & Woolsey's reputation has improved in recent years because of their bawdy streak, which was still on display until 1934, when the Production Code began to be enforced. Before then the double entendres and innuendos were on full display and that incorporated a lot of drag and sissy humor. I wouldn't go as far as some commentators have, to claim for them a gay sensibility, but there is an uninhibited attitude toward sex that makes them, for all their corny puns and stale wordplay, just a bit contemporary.

The racy humor also contrives to give them a team identity, since they didn't develop as performers together and don't have the close simpatico exhibited by other teams. Instead, after the success of the film version of Rio Rita, they were, somewhat to their surprise, cast together in another comedy and then another. Only after a few films do they formalize their status as a comedy and form a legal partnership. No endless years on the road together for them, our routines reaching back into their distant past together. Instead, Bob and Bert relate to each other with the camaraderie of fellow professionals, who appreciate and enjoy each others' skills and the traditions they come from. Woolsey is a road-company Groucho, leering and puffing on his cigar and delivering straight-up jokes with set-ups and punchlines. Wheeler is a caricature of a Broadway juvenile, with a high piping-voice and an air of mock innocence. Wheeler also boasts a good singing voice and first rate skills as a hoofer, so part of the W&W tradition would be Wheeler's flirtation with a sweet young thing, played more often than not by a girl named Dorothy Lee (who appeared in almost no other films), which led into a song and dance routine.

Here's a more-or-less typical Bert-and-Dorothy routine from Peach O Reno (1931) a very saucy comedy in which W&W run a divorce-mill law firm which becomes a casino every night.

Wheeler & Woolsey were so important to RKO in those early years, keeping them afloat financially, that they four films in 1930 and four in 1931. RKO even tried splitting the golden goose, giving each of them a solo film in 1931, but they made no impact, and the team was reunited. So perhaps, to the public, they were appreciated as a team. Like the Marx Brothers, the existence of the team relieves monotony, as each comic could engender his own mayhem. And this sort of alternation made a "straight plot" with young lovers who need to be reunited or otherwise overcome some sort of obstacle was completely unnecessary and eschewed, another factor which makes the W&W films feel less dated than they might have been.

RKO looked back at the blockbusting success of Rio Rita and attempted to lure lightning again with an adaptation of the Gershwin show Girl Crazy (1932). Again most of the plot, characters and score were tossed aside, with only "Biding My Time", "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not For Me" surviving the transition, and only the middle tune given its full weight. ("But Not For Me" is bizarrely staged as a lover's quarrel, although the lyrics are that of a torch song.) To the credit of the new songwriters, the new song for Bert and Dorothy, "You've Got What Gets Me" is a catchy little ditty that holds its own in this fast company.

This composite clip (which unavoidably begins with a commercial -- sorry) includes a bit of the opening credits, Bob & Bert's meeting scene, the strange staging of "I Got Rhythm," the aforementioned "But Not For Me" and the appalling impressions of long-forgotten celebrities by a strange child named Mitzi Green, later famous in theater history for playing a former child performer in the musical Babes In Arms.

The end of Ms. Green's career as an impressionist was not hard to predict. (Incidentally, she turned up in 1952 in an Abbott & Costello film called Lost In Alaska, in which she is a rather snappy chantoozie, and almost the only entertaining thing in the film. So even child performers can change.) As this clip reflects, W&W almost became guest stars in the seven-layer cake that comprised the 75 minutes of Girl Crazy.

These are the only three of their 18 films which are officially released. Dixiana, another super-production follow-up to Rio Rita, Half Shot at Sunrise and Hook, Line & Sinker have gone into the public domain and are widely available. In fact, you can watch them now in their entirety by clicking on the links in the previous sentence. None of these six films are considered their peak works, which include So This Is Africa, Cockeyed Cavaliers, Hips Hips Hooray and Kentucky Kernels (co-starring Spanky MacFarland). I hope to have the opportunity to write about those when they receive legitimate releases.

Until then, let's leave them gamboling about the green, which is what Wheeler & Woolsey do best, in this somewhat lunatic musical number from Half Shot at Sunrise, with the ever-game, ever-plucky Dorothy Lee:

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I take my heroes quiet

To begin with, I know you are probably trying to figure out which Western to watch for Christmas, but the answer is obvious: Three Godfathers (1949) directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne. In case you're wondering, there are no gangsters, but three saddle tramps who are analogues to the Wise Men of the Christmas story. Yes, it's heavy-handed and sentimental, but isn't that just what a Christmas movie should be?

Now that you mentioned Westerns -- you did mention Westerns, didn't you? Don't get me started; I can talk about them all day. Anyway, I finally got around to the first Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher collaboration, Seven Men From Now (1956), and I don't think there is a better lesson in narrative economy than this film. What would take three hours today in terms of story and emotion is packed into about an hour-and-a-quarter.*

Look at the beginning of this film. (Sorry, I couldn't find the clip online.) A man dismounts in a punishing rain. He stalks-staggers toward a crevice in a large rock where two other men are huddled over a fire. We see that it is Randolph Scott, who forces an invitation by the fireside. He and the two exchange perhaps 7 or 8 lines about seven men who robbed a gold shipment from a nearby Wells Fargo Station. "Did they find the fellows?" asks one of the strangers. "I found two of them," says Randolph Scott and a moment later they are dead. This is a master class in starting a film. (Screenplay by first-timer Burt Kennedy, beloved director of Support Your Local Sheriff.)

The film's structure resembles Ride Lonesome. Scott is on a journey with an undesired companion, in this case Lee Marvin. The journey is not only to catch the robbers but to avenge the death of his wife, who was the station master. Although Marvin is a villain, he is not one of the killers, and he is happy to help Scott track them down and kill them, because he wants to steal the gold himself. Life, these films seem to imply, is full of these uncomfortable alliances. Marvin threatens to steal not only the gold, but the entire movie, given that he is garrulous and charming and not as embarrassed about his attraction to the married woman they are traveling with as the gentlemanly Scott. In perhaps, the most celebrated scene, using a trope favored by scriptwriter Burt Kennedy, Marvin pretends to tell a story in order to nettle the people he is talking to. Notice how Boetticher uses the relative positions and sizes of the heads in the shots to indicate the relationships among them. This is not a straight shot-reverse shot sequence. And, as usual, Scott does as much or more with a few words than other actors do with many.

Anyone who thinks a Western is nothing but horses and guns ought to see this scene.

Of course, ultimately a great Western is about visual action set against the landscape, which describes the finale of Seven Men From Now, almost a coda to the main action of the film. Marvin and Scott have killed the malefactors. Now Scott must redeem himself from disgrace by retrieving and returning the strongbox of gold. Marvin, naturally wants it. Here they are:

"A man can do that." Again, aspiring screenwriters should be required to copy this dialogue down and study it.

Incidentally, if you haven't seen the Boetticher-Scott (and mostly Burt Kennedy) cycle and you want to, I recommend you start with this film. It's one of the best of the series and it introduces so many of the tropes and themes that will continue to be worked and reworked throughout the seven films.

I hadn't realized until this film how much Randolph Scott resembles Mark Harmon, who really should do some westerns, and the great progenitor of the serious adult western, William S. Hart. Hart's films aren't as available as they ought to be, and until recently I had only seen Hell's Hinges (1917) which is from that wonderful period in American film history just before all the rules were set and the cliches fixed in stone. The Western town looks like a real Western town, not like the movie town we're used to and Hart begins the film as the villain and becomes the hero, without ever becoming a law-abiding "regular citizen."

Tumbleweeds (1925) was his last film, made when he was about the same age Scott was when he made the Boetticher films. Both actors look as if they were carved from a very weathered piece of wood, with a long, somewhat immobile upper lip. Both played characters uncomfortable with emotion-- actually pretty uncomfortable indoors or around other people, other than a single beloved woman. Tumbleweeds is almost plotless, revolving around a cowpoke who realizes he has become too old for the life. There is a lot of atmosphere around the cowboy life and rituals that dominate the first half of the film, and I would have posted clips if the ones I could find weren't so fuzzy and awful-looking, being poorly lifted from a talkie-era reissue of the film. Silent film can look so good that there is no excuse for disseminating some of the awful looking copies around.

Of course, it is impossible to talk of Tumbleweeds without mentioning its most famous sequence, the Cherokee Land Strip Rush. It is purported to be highly authentic, but whether or not it's true, its epic and spectacular in a way that silents often do better than sound. Perhaps because silent films are unhampered by trying to maintain a coherent sound environment that they can cut in such an uninhibited way from one story thread or situation to another. Incidentally, while Hart did not do the pole vaulting stunt (check out the invisible cut there), all the riding is his, on his own horse, Fritz.

It was Hart, the Shakespearean actor who realized that Westerns didn't have to be just for idiot children, and while John Ford was making golly-gee Saturday afternoonkiddy fodder with Harry Carey, Hart was blazing the trail for the Western as a genre and form that could contain real human stories, ideas and emotions.
* This movie is listed in Leonard Maltin's "150 Best Movies You've Never Seen"

Monday, December 13, 2010

The romance of work

The workplace romance has become an established sub-genre of romantic comedy, so established that Morning Glory (2010) jettisons the usual question of will-the-guy-like-me-if-I'm-too-obsessed-with-work which dominated forerunners like Broadcast News. It takes place in a realistic world in which the men and women all accept that you have to be obsessed and work like a demon just to hold onto jobs in television network news. The romance is deeper and more complex in this case -- it's partly the romance of getting and keeping the job (as in the same writer's The Devil Wears Prada), but it is also the romance of obtaining the approval, and ultimately the love of a withholding and difficult substitute father-slash-mentor who has helped this woman define herself. Yes, the movie is light and funny, even laugh-out-loud funny, but the platonic romance between Rachel McAdams's young producer and Harrison Ford's disapproving anachronistic journalist sends the movie in a much more interesting journey than the usual snare-the-cute-guy chick flick.

There's a lot to like about the film. Having briefly sojourned in this field a few times I liked seeing how small, shabby and in need of paint most broadcast facilities are, how exciting walking around midtown New York can be, how obsessively people can stare at charts of numbers that are alleged to tell them important things about their jobs (this can apply to almost every field of work). I liked the mistakes they didn't make -- the heroine's boyfriend has no problem with the fact that she works hard. He's part of the same world. And they skipped having her boss (Jeff Goldblum) or Harrison Ford hit on her. Hurrah. They skipped making a fool out of Diane Keaton, the long-suffering co-anchor of the troubled broadcast. I can only recall one montage -- the obligatory show-is-becoming-a-success sequence, so that device was not overdone. Nor was there an attempt to shoehorn a song in over a falling-in-love sequence.

Two minor stumbles -- the "entertainment vs. news" argument is repeated a few too many times, especially since, as Rachel McAdams's character points out, the war is over and entertainment won. And the solution to the central problem of the story, bridging the gap between McAdams's and Ford's characters and their attitudes toward broadcasting is blindingly obvious, but nonetheless takes weeks of elapsed time and almost an hour of movie time to arrive out. On the other hand, the ultimate pay-off, the manner in which Ford reaches out to McAdams, the skill and warmth with which it is delivered and edited on film, is terrifically satisfying, and makes a possibly implausible ending plausible.

Most enjoyable of all -- the real-life director of Saturday Night Live, Don Roy King, appears as the director of Daybreak, literally conducting the broadcast like Stokowski, with a grace and graciousness that makes one appreciate how miraculous daily live television is.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Let Lisbeth Be Lisbeth

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest (2009) provides a good argument for the American industrial method of film development and production. No American filmmaker (and we will see the proof of this as the American re-makes start to come out next year) would tolerate a film with so many foregone conclusions and so little suspense, even given one's natural expectations in a melodramatic mystery series.

Moreover, the Swedes have a touching faith in a government's goodwill and competence in the investigation of a rogue intelligence squad. (And I'm a progressive.) Sure, there are some bad guys hiding the crimes of the Soviet defector the recruited 40 years ago, but there is a whole gang of young, vigorous well-financed government investigators ready to take them down. If there was an American film (as it will be soon), the next thing would be the call from the shadowy senator or captain of industry speaking to an unseen official, telling them to shut that investigation down. Then the idealistic crimefighters would have to go rogue, pursuing the bad guys outside of the blessing of the law. But remember, this is Sweden, so ***SPOILER*** the good guys win without any opposition.

Then there's Lisbeth's trial and hearing. The bad guys have accusations and false dignity. Lisbeth and her lawyer have mountains of incriminating evidence against the bad guy so -- surprise -- they win.

Worst of all, Lisbeth is reduced to a passive object for most of the movie, and only gets decked out in full Salander-goth rig about 1-1/2 hours into a 2-1/2 hour movie. And she gets into her full leather-and-razor-blades gear in order to...go to court. It makes no sense -- in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she proved herself an excellent and dogged investigator. How come she's not put to work to investigate her own case? Worst of all, the key to the whole case is discovered by a minor character called Plague, who is completely unnecessary and redundant in the narrative. There's nothing Plague does that could not have plausibly done by Lisbeth. (I hope the American remake writer reads this!) Overall, the hard-won improvements of the second installment over the first, especially in making Lisbeth the center of the action, and the person who can resolve her own problems and questions, has been dealt away by a rather flabby and inefficient approach to suspense.

There is an action sequence, which comes in the oddest place, at the end of the movie after most of the story is over. It's somewhat satisfying, but we've already seen Lisbeth vindicated, so it is really no more than an amusing coda.

I presume most of this narrative lumpiness comes from the source novels. Larsson has the strangest procedure as a writer of suspense and action. Usually the protagonist makes a clear plan toward his goals, then turns a corner and complications and problems stretch out into a seeming abyss before them. But Larsson reverses that. When you can see a long and difficult path of difficult complications and obstacles on the way to the goal, Larsson suddenly shuts that down. How will Lisbeth escape the clutches of her homicidal father, who is only a few doors down in the same hospital? One envisions a complex sequence of cat-and-mouse as father evades the rather thin defenses of the Swedish security forces. But no, some guy we've never met before comes and shoots the old man in the head, then shoots himself and we're left saying --wait...is this story over now? Nope, because Larsson has a deep sack of stuff from out of nowhere that he continues to reach into.

Clearly Larsson never took an American playwrighting or screenwriting course, in which 3rd act threats must be made evident in the 1st act, and every little character detail pays off, e.g., the hero's hobby of whittling, as we saw in the second scene of the movie, means that he will whittle a way out of his predicament in the second-to-the-last scene. Americans write movies the way Indians live off the bison -- every little scrap is used. This is why, although Europeans are producing more and more commercial blockbusters, at least on their own continent, those hits have to be rewritten and remade here. (The exception here is Jean-Luc Besson, who clearly has studied mainstream American filmmaking with passion and insight.) It's not just the language of the words, it's the entire language of narrative which must be adjusted for American expectations.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What we talk about when we talk about vampires

I think it was Frank Langella's fault. Vampires had been minding their own business, in sort of semi-retirement in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when Bela Lugosi was a campy joke. Then along comes Frank Langella in a Broadway revival of the play version of Dracula in the fall of 1977 and instead of foreign and creepy, he's tall, handsome and seductive. (Don't consult the film version of that production--it's an unfocused mess.)

Soon everybody goes wacky for vampires, especially Anne Rice, who starts making up new rules for vampires and even starts changing the rules. Well, then it was Katy-bar-the-door, anything goes and now we have got vampires walking around in broad daylight being sparkly. Bleeachh! The word vampire has lost any fixed meaning anymore, which might be why people interested in real thrills have migrated over to zombies and werewolves.

In fact the family of mutant redneck vampires in Near Dark (1987). To its credit, its only meant to be fast, cheap fun-genre flick, so there are only three or four things you need to know about Near Dark. First, it's directed by Kathryn Bigelow of Hurt Locker fame, who specializes in stories about people who bond due to their isolation and even ostracism. She can be fearless this way, even daring to make a film about the most disgusting and repellent outcasts in our society, surfers. Second, Near Dark is a festival for those people of the age group to be nostalgic about 80s films. It has the bad hair, bad clothes and bad music that were endemic to the era. There are people who enjoy such things. There are also people who set fire to their pets.

Third, it's one of the earliest films I can remember that suggests that a vampire might be your cool boyfriend. Dracula was never going to be your boyfriend. A hot one-night stand, sure, but never your steady, who lives in the house over the next block. I wonder if Stephanie Meyer, who was 14 when this film came out, wasn't permanently warped by it. Fourth, it is the only vampire movie I know of where somebody got un-vampired. Sure, Mina in Dracula got part-vampired, but they saved her before she went all the way. Adrian Pasdar gets all better, which suggests that vampirism might just be an adolescent phase, curable with a full blood transfusion. (I wonder what other adolescent phases could be cured that way.)

Fifth (did I say there were three or four things?), this is the only film I know of in which Bill Pullman ever does anything interesting in front of a camera. Up until now, I thought he possessed some version of Harry Potter's invisibility cloak, since he always seemed to disappear into the scenery behind him with his sheer mind-numbing boringness. But in Near Dark, Pullman is the mean psycho redneck in the family of rednecks, and I must admit it, he chews a pretty impressive serving of scenery. If someone makes a compilation of crazy-guy-wastes-an-entire-bar sequences, they have to include the one from this picture.

The one thing Near Dark is uninterested in is using vampires as a metaphor. They are just straight-on badasses out for a bad time, and willing to share it. Let The Right One In (2008) leans a bit more onto the metaphoric side, but wears it lightly. Where Near Dark is a romp, Let The Right One In is genuinely creepy, and unafraid to deliver one of the best horror-film come-uppances to one of the bully-villains in the history of film. (To those of you who've seen it, I'm talking about the scene in the swimming pool toward the end of the film.)

But there is, admittedly, something more on this film's mind than good clean scares. The characters are adolescent, in the very earliest stages of puberty, and all vampire stories are, to some extent, about fear of sex, and of the surrender that sex seems to require. Here we are as 12-year-olds, finally figuring out just who we are and defining our identity in contrast with the rest of the world, and now we are expected to learn how to merge our self and even our soul into that of our partner. It's not fair!

Also addressed in this film is bullying, parental neglect, wandering gender identity, being a misfit, and just how bleak and awful winter in Sweden is, especially when you live in nasty, cheaply-built, Soviet-bloc style apartments. If it were me, it would be either suicide or vampirism. It's hard to say which would be worse -- being hung upside down from a tree until all your blood runs into a jug or trying to survive the winter. A vampire attack could be sweet relief. Or at least a novelty, something to talk about until April.

It may hearten some people to know in this tough economy that there seems to be a steady position of vampire helper. Some of the story of Let The Right One In has to do with transitioning from one helper to another. A word to the wise -- you might not be gaining a new girlfriend or boyfriend -- they may just be sizing you up to become their new vampire helper. Still, for the boy in the story, it's better than being a Swedish middle schooler. (In once scene a teacher reads aloud to a class of eighth-graders from a book. When she is done, she dismisses them and they leave in a quiet and orderly fashion. There was no bell, the students were all awake and there was no backchatter from them. From this we can conclude that this is not a horror film at all but some kind of fairy-tale fantasy movie from someone's wild imagination.)

I'm kidding a lot, but the film really does cast a wonderful spell and cleverly mingles horror and sexual panic. Special effects are used sparingly but utterly convincingly, especially as we see the effects of a horrific accident with fire and the death of the vampire's first helper. Keep your eyes open during the hospital sequence. The nurse-receptionist walks outside into the winter night and we see her in the foreground and the shadowy face of the hospital in the background. Watch the background, not the foreground, and see one of the niftiest effects in the history of the genre. I stopped the disc and ran it over a few times to enjoy it.

At the end of the film, the principal characters have agreed to go on together, notwithstanding the horrors yet to come. This confirms my feeling that while Peter Pan ends as a horror story, the victim trapped perpetually as an adolescent (although this would not prevent him from running a Fortune 500 company or starting a war in a Middle Eastern country), vampire stories are (or should be) rich and truthful children's tales.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hard boiled in the cold mountains

Someone call Gaborey Sidibe and tell her that her year's over. This year it is Jennifer Lawrence, and once again a young actress demonstrates tremendous control of her instrument as an artist and performs a thoroughly convincing transformation. The film in question is the starkly poetic Winter's Bone. A mystery of unseen violence and unspoken threat, that despite its settings in the hills of Missouri is as hard-boiled as any tale of the city's mean streets.

This is as tough as film as you'll ever see, and at the center of it a pretty blond girl who could intimidate Lee Ermey with a glance. No, I'm not talking about the sexual intimidation of the attractive woman, but a person who catches and field-dresses her own food, ask any question and stare down a drug kingpin and a bounty hunter with equal, cold quiet ferocity.

That cold quiet is key, too. Because this is not a nostril-flaring, bark-chewing performance. This is a film of reticence, of the unsaid, and Lawrence is nothing if not a master of subtext. The film has been adapted from a book and the writers bemoaned the loss of the heroine's inner voice, which is a literary device. Instead, we have the film analog, the space between the words, a space fraught with tension and meaning for all the effort that has gone in speaking the words and in not speaking others. Michael Caine tells of the time early in his career, when an acting coach asked him what he was doing in a scene in which he had no lines. "Nothing," said the young drama student. "No," said the teacher, "You are thinking of dozens and dozens of brilliant and fascinating things to say, and then...choosing not to say them."

Only here what Ree doesn't say could get her killed. Even then, she won't stop asking questions, questions about her father, the meth lab cook who has disappeared and put the family in jeopardy of losing their home to the bail bondsmen. Like Phillip Marlowe, Ree will not stop asking questions, even if she gets beat up for it. The beating seems like a minor annoyance, no greater an annoyance than getting her beaten face cleaned up.

And as in Chandler (creator of Marlowe), some of the dialogue is terse modern poetry: "Never ask for what ought to be offered." To a threatening policeman, with whom the speaker has a history: "Is this going to be our time?" "I done told you to shut up once with my mouth." “I couldn’t live without the weight of the both of you on my back”

And there is the more vivid poetry of the music. There is an underscore, and it is understated, considering some of the gothic horrors at hand. But more memorable is the foreground old-timey music, much of it performed onscreen. And I have to admit, I am always a sucker for the old tune, "Tiny Sparrow." Best old-timey music since Brother Where Art Thou. Best of all, it's not pushed on us, nor forced to comment on the story or point up tortured ironies. It just sidles up and gives a context as thoroughly as the hand-made porch the family sits on in the final, satisfying scene.

There is a lot of hooey in the internet about how authentic the film may or may not be. Suffice it to say that the novelist is happy with the film, so everyone else can shut up. Besides, it's not about how accurately the Ozarks are depicted. It's not a documentary on crystal meth or country life or anything else. The setting is rather abstracted, frankly, and that's as it should be, because the narrative has been boiled down to absolute essentials, and the details are for anthropologists. The story is almost Shakespearean -- the forsaken child seeking to reclaim a legacy and take responsibility for the continuation of the line. If Jessup was a wayward king who'd died in battle without a plan of succession, rather than a criminal trying to save his own butt, the conclusion of the story wouldn't be much different. (Yes, obviously the atmosphere is different, but that's just for variety.) If anything, the story feels like a dark fairy-tale, a feeling only intensified by the talisman which is dredged up from a near-frozen pond, a talisman which, having been retrieved by passing through great trials and hardships, solves the heroine's problems and gives her some measure of peace.

Besides Lawrence, John Hawkes and Dale Dickey are going to be cited for acting honors. (Dickey is playing the obverse side of the comic toothless hick she plays on shows like My Name is Earl, and without a trace of detachment or condescension.) The film is nominated for 7 Independent Spirit Awards as I write this, and I am willing to bet that Lawrence and the screenwriters will be remembered in the Oscar nominations. But that is all extrinsic to the movie, which does what movies do so well, putting together pictures of people-- by themselves and against a landscape -- people talking to, listening to and looking at each other and turning that into an absorbing and compelling story.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Have you bought your tree yet?

If not, beware of these salesman!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Taking command

The film adaptations of the Millenium series which began with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo switched directors for the second installment, The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009), with great success. What is impressive this time is often what is omitted.

Case in point: The film does not end with the usual order-is-restored conclusion typical of the mystery-thriller genre. In fact, the clean-up of the climatic violent sequence has not even begun when the film fades out. Also missing is the scene where everyone sits down and figures out the difference pieces of the story they know fit together and thus explain it all for the audience. If you're not going to take the trouble to keep up, this movie won't help you. Like Lisbeth, you better just go look it up on the Internet.

All of which demonstrates greater trust in the audience than demonstrated in the first installment. Played With Fire has two other elements not found in its predecessor: colors other than gray, including flesh tones, and the dominating presence of Lisbeth as played by Noomi Rapace, who seemed like a guest star in the first film, but here takes command as she should do, given both the strength of the character and Rapace's own strong presence.

Paradoxically, this second film serves as a kind of origin story, although it is chronologically after the events of the first film. I'll spare the details, as this one of those films in which the revelation of information is the principal activity of the plot, interspersed with bouts of violence. None of the violence is as explicit and repellent as in the first film -- but is that a good thing? Shouldn't violence, especially violence against women be repellent? Nonetheless, this time there's a sprinkling of martial arts and gun fu that edges toward more conventional "movie-movie" violence. That "movie" feeling is heightened by the principal thug's resemblance to "Jaws" played by Richard Kiel in the Bond movies.

But the greater professionalism of this entry also binds the top story (the crime to be unraveled) and the underlying story (who and what is Lisbeth and how did she get this way) into a more cohesive fabric than the first film, which seemed at times like two unrelated films. In Dragon Tattoo, the mystery of the missing girl in the Northern village seemed to have little to do with the Lisbeth's disturbing story, and she solves the mystery because it is an interesting job. Here the murders are inextricably bound up in someone's animosity to Lisbeth, and she has a moral duty to find and punish the killer. (Oddly enough, the evidence against Lisbeth's own persecutor, which is set up in this film as though it where something that might be lost or destroyed becomes irrelevant in rather short order. In fact, the entire threat to her shifts in this film, and one wonders if it will survive to Part 3.)

Director Alfredson has a smoother camera style and there is witty and perky cutting by Mattias Morheden. The music, like the earlier installment, is still overstatedly ominous in the Hollywood mode. Over the years I have observed that the use of music -- when and how it is used as well as the actual style of the music -- does more to date a film than any other single element, including the women's hairstyles. Most audiences can look past matters of passing fashion, but a crashing, thumping music score can seriously interfere with the audience's engagement. It is hard to think of a film which suffered badly from having too few or too subtle music cues.

The damaged Lisbeth put me in mind of the neglected girl at the center of The Curse of the Cat People (1944) a strange death-obsessed fantasy film which RKO had ordered up, hoping to get a sequel to the straight-on horror of Cat People.

Young Amy has forged a relationship with his father's deceased former wife, who gives her the loving attention she is missing from her own parents. Naturally, the adults around her treat Irina's appearance as that of an imaginary friend. But she finds another adult, Julia Farren, who encourages Amy's belief in magic and in making connections with the unseen world. Unlike Amy, who sees the dead who are not here, Julia cannot see her own daughter, whom she insists has died and been replaced by an impostor.

There is an enchanting scene with Irena on Christmas Eve, which would be season-appropriate, but finally Amy's father, whom Amy cannot reach emotionally, orders her to stop seeing Irena, and in a haunting scene that I can't embed, but I can link to here, they say farewell. The full palette of the tricks of studio filmmaking are on display here, in all their artificial splendor.

Amy goes to look for her friend one more time and stumbles into the home of Julia and her daughter, and inadvertently heals that family -- but through death, in a scene which could be called by horrific and cathartic. Producer Val Lewton is definitely toying with the boundaries of the horror genre. Amy learns she must make her own path through life and not rely on those who have gone before, and that she must live in the here and now and with her own parents and friends. She begins to take command of her own life by passing through fantasy, just as Lisabeth had to pass through violence.