Friday, February 26, 2010

Whip it good

I have tried to keep this blog intelligent and analytical--I don't even attempt to write reviews of the films I see, but make observations that I hope are a bit unique, since there are millions of other places on the Interwebs to read all sorts of bollocks about movies. But then there's Ellen Page.

How can I put this? William Goldman once wrote that Willie Mays came along to justify all the hours of terrible, boring baseball that had come before: "I was waiting for Willie because in my head there was a notion of the way things ought to happen but never quite do. Not until Willie came along and did his demonstration and I could finally sit there and say to myself, "Oh sure, that's it."

Whip It (2009) began as a novel (which is odd, given the number of sports movies cliche the novelist incorporated in the screenplay), so Ellen Page could not have been in mind. And sure, it's conceivable there would be other young women who could have been very charming and entertaining in the part.

Billy Joel could have made a record of "Glory Days" and it could have been a fun, peppy little thing. Maybe Stephanie Meyer could have written The Shining and maybe Normal Rockwell could have painted Munch's "The Scream." But none of them would be landmarks.

Unfortunately, in her first big vehicle since Juno, the producers have tried to fit Page's energy and wit into a pretty conventional structure. (Plucky girl from stodgy small town bucks Mom's expectations, pursues her passion, finds success and wins her parents over. *Yawn*) Luckily director Drew Barrymore has energy of her own to pump into the project, especially with the help of cast members Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon, the awesome Zoe Bell (Deathproof), Juliette Lewis and Andrew Wilson. But there are those dreary and evidently obligatory parent scenes and even the talents of Marcia Gay Harden and Daniel Stern can't get them to see like much more than a trip to the dentist to be endured until we get to the fun stuff.

Great flourish which should be mandatory in all movies which are not Art--final sequence just before the official credits with full-screen cards and credits for the principal actors--it's like a victory lap for fun movies.

The only thing that makes me sad is that I will probably die before Ellen Page (I am 32 years older than her), and I will never get to see all the brilliant performances she is going to give. Come to think of it, being dead will probably suck generally. Is there something else to watch now?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writers blocks

The central figures of The Answer Man (2008) and World's Greatest Dad (2009) and A Single Man (2009) are all writers who must shed their terrible secrets in order to find freedom and peace. All feature astounding central performances and all are the creation of novice or near-novice writer directors. Together they represent a spectrum of mood from romantic comedy to black comedy t0 sombre drama, each pointing to a more hopeful future. It was striking to have encountered them all within the same week.

Each protagonist's secret is quite different. Jeff Daniels's Arlen Faber once felt a connection to God (he wrote a book of answers to big questions called "Me and God") that he no longer feels, no matter how many different spiritual disciplines he chases after. Robin Williams's Lance Clayton, who yearns to be respected as a writer, only finds that respect by concocting a sensitive journal he attributes to his loutish dead son. (Incidentally, both of these books have genuinely helped other people more than they have helped their own authors.) Williams's grief is merged with and almost subsumed in gayhis new pride and self-respect as a published author, albeit a secret one. And Colin Firth's George Falconer secret is that he is in mourning, that his dead "roommate" was in fact the love of his life, a fact which, in 1962, must be concealed. And the fact of that concealment has nearly become the central fact of George's life; perhaps if only George could openly mourn, he could be simply healed. But that route is cut off for him.

[World's Greatest Dad also has a wonderful corollary theme--how the living distort the memory of the dead according to the needs of the living. Lance refuses to do that, and one of the best scenes in any film released this year involves Robin Williams bursting out in tears at the sight of a rack of disgusting porn magazines, then to be comforted by the peculiar looking newstand manager. I literally--not virtually, literally--fell out of my chair.]

The films have very different physical settings and very different visual approaches. Answer Man makes Philadelphia look as pretty and comfortable as the best parts of Boston. World's Greatest Dad takes place in a bleached and barren Washington State. And A Single Man takes place in tiny slices of Los Angeles carefully selected to project the idea of "1962." [Incidentally, a number of recent films such as (500) Days of Summer and Valentine's Day are making Los Angeles, especially the older downtown area, appear to be quite liveable.] But all manage to isolate the writer-protagonist (alright, in The Single Man he makes his living as a college professor, but he know he is really Christopher Isherwood who was a professor AND a writer).

Because all three writers are lacking in the relationship department, and for all the words they know, are unable to utter the ones that will relieve their loneliness. (That's a paraphrase from something, but I don't know what--let me know if you know.) Which perhaps explains why this very visual medium seems to be exploding with stories about writers (these three films are hardly the only examples--writers have been playing leading roles in movies from Sunset Boulevard to The Shining. Film shouldn't be very good at portraying people who, as writers do, live inside their head. I think the key is that for all of them the pain has overflowed past the point of words, and has achieved palpable visual expression. For Arlen Faber, the pain has clustered in his back, literally paralyzing him; he rids himself of both the physical and spiritual paralysis via the tender ministrations of Lauren Graham. My idea of a great plan, incidentally.

[Single Man has a particularly striking visual scheme, with very high grain film evoking an era 50 years in the past--specially obtained for this shoot--and frequent non-narrative interludes which fixate on eyes: not pairs of eyes, mind you, but single eyes. A gaze, so closely examined one cannot tell if it is fixed on an object or staring into emptiness. Or both. The eyes are not only George's--it seems the shots are not meant as character revelation, but seem to be about the act of looking. I can't say I've satisfactorily deciphered the shots upon a single viewing, but I'm surprised I have not found any discussion of these shots on line to help me out.]

Hitchcock didn't like pictures of people talking. But it turns out pictures of people looking, thinking and feeling are pretty cinematic.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


The entertainment industry trade papers routinely refer to the films and television programs with which we, the lumpenproletariat fill our empty hours as "product." This is not meant to be derogatory. Most of the entertainment business is engaged in distribution and in order to distribute, you have to have something to distribute. That is "product."

If you view Valentine's Day (2010) as "product" rather than aesthetic expression, it is far less offensive. Everyone in a committed relationship has to do SOMETHING on February 14, and the benevolent masters of New Line Cinema have engineered a product to meet that need. And given the obligatory nature of the entire exercise, it's not all that egregious.

Yes, it's slick, yes the stories are superficial, yes there are no movie stars, except Julia Roberts, who, in an extremely underwritten part is called upon to do what only a Movie Star can do. But it keeps moving along at a brisk pace (not brisk enough for my wife and I to guess at least two of the story "twists.") Nonetheless, the film does not slavishly adhere to either romcom or sitcom conventions: not every person is happily paired up, and not every single person is miserable. The cast is engaging and hard-working, and it was nice to see director Garry Marshall's good-luck charm, Hector Elizondo in a significant role. One good aspect of the engineering is that while some of the subplots were extremely simplistic, they informed--at times literally--the principal plot strands. And I am going to out on a limb and say that I think Eric Dane is underrated and I would like to see him given some heavy lifting, acting-wise. I think he's up to it.

The only thing that spoiled our experience of the film Valentine's Day was my wife's rash decision to look at that film's template, Love Actually a few days later. The quirkiness and originality of both the stories conclusion and the cast, the greater interpendence of the stories and the stronger sense of the stories moving together to a cohesive conclusion about love in general, not just romantic love (highlighted by the brilliant documentary footage shot in an airline terminal of family and loved ones exchanging heartfelt kisses) threw Valentine's Day deep into the shadow (or better yet, a studio sunlamp) compared to the genuine sunshine of Love, Actually.

But it is still important to recognize Valentine's Day as a good product, especially when seen in stark contrast to poor product, such as All About Steve (2009). It's very possible AAS did not begin as product. It seems as though it has things it wants to say about being an individual, about being unafraid to be oneself, to follow one's passion, to avoid subsuming one's identity in the pursuit of a partner. What resulted is an uneasy merger of romantic comedy and very silly slapstick.

One problem could be that the romantic object is the suddenly popular and utterly uninteresting Bradley Cooper. I must assume that this actor's agent has photos of important film executives in compromising poses with farm animals, for there is no other possible explanation for his consistent employment. He is so bland and generic that I must presume there is UPC code tattooed on the back of his neck.

Give Sandra Bullock credit, both as star and co-producer. I believed she tried to do something different, and has always been unafraid to appear foolish. Moreover, the film deftly avoids the symmetrical yet phony resolution it seems to be heading toward. But it never arrives at the triumphant feeling for its conclusion that it apparently intended.

The Goods (2009), on the other hand is about nothing but product, both on-screen and in the industry. The Will Farrell-Adam McKay franchise has become an assembly line, for which Will Farrell's presence is no longer necessary. The story concerns moving cars off a used car lot that have been sitting there too long and the film itself has an air of having set around too long. There is no sense that this story has to be told now--no sense of innovation or discovery. Everyone is going through the motions. Ultimately, it doesn't even seem to matter if the cars are actually sold, as long as some sort of 90-minute film has been delivered to the distributor. Foolishly, Jeremy Piven is supposed to be a sympathetic character. (This is as welcome as a lovable Kevin Spacey or a cuddly Gary Oldman. Give me a break.)

The Farrell-McKay franchise has never been able to tell the difference between a 10-minute TV sketch premise and a 90-minute film story, and the unevenness of tone and style here crops almost minute to minute. The actors barely seem to have been on speaking terms with each other. Many jokes have nowhere to go and, not surprisingly, pay off, despite the fact that they involve pedophilia, homosexual assault and other bizarre practices. You can make joke about an erection--the inability to get one or to get rid of one. Simply showing a phony "tentpole" does not actually constitute a joke, especially when the pants involved belong to James Brolin. Unlike other used car comedies (including Used Cars--which promised, "Nobody ever died over $50," and Cadillac Man) little of the alleged humor is unique to the selling of cars. They could be moving marital aids as far as the script concerned, since most of the jokes are the kind of sex humor guaranteed to crack up 13-year-olds of all ages.

And what does it mean that the once-revered Vertigo shot, tellingly used in both Jaws and Goodfellas now appears to ineffectually punctuate a comedic con sequence? (I suspect it might be one of the signs of the approaching apocalypse.)

After all, what do you get when you try and sell 211 cars in 3 days? Desperation and exhaustion, which The Goods exhibits in spades.

Nut house

Road House (1948--not the Patrick Swayze movie) is being bandied about for entry into the film noir canon. There are three probably causes for this. Ida Lupino plays the toughest tough broad you ever saw, and croaks some nifty tunes in a cigarette-stained voice in a smoke-filled bar. This bar is immediately adjacent to a bowling alley, the kind with human pin-setters, and Ida Lupino wears a stretch top to the bowling alley that seems to have been borrowed (by a time travelling wardrobe mistress) from a Roger Corman white trash epic of the mid-70's. And finally, Richard Widmark is in it, is a little crazy, and giggles quite a bit, especially in the last two reels of the movie until he drives Ida so crazy with the giggling that she shoots him, much to the relief of the audience.

That is the only violent crime in the movie, unless you count a pretty good bar fight about halfway through. There is no strange murder to start with, no failed payroll robbery, no double-crossing dame who gets her boyfriend to kill her husband, almost no shady activity at all, which is pretty disappointing for a road house. Heck, I don't think they even have gambling in this place. The second leads are Cornell Wilde and Celeste Holm and they look way too healthy, like they'd been outdoors in the daylight or something. I think us film noir fans have to fight to maintain standards of law-breaking and sleaze and keep this half-hearted entry out. Give me rain, smoke, self-loathing and betrayal any time!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Based on a true story

The historical epic is an established film genre, although scarcely a popular one in its own right. (I'm not talking about things like Dr. Zhivago or Gone With The Wind which use historic events merely as a backdrop for cheesy romantic melodrama. I mean films which attempt to actually explain and interpret history, like the million-megaton bomb Reds.) Film is not built to do history very well. Significant historical events incorporate so many diverse elements, politics, economics, social conditions, cultures, geography, etc., etc., that film, with its natural drive for narrative, and especially visual narrative, rarely helps anyone understand the causes and meanings of history.

(Similarly, epic biographies rarely work on film, because truly significant lives are not stories or novels, but anthologies of stories. Too many films, like Chaplin or The Aviator, are too eager to get too many stories in, rather than deciding on a simple, telling story. It's the difference between the compelling Motorcycle Diaries, an adventure of Ernesto Guavera before he became the famous "Che" and the overblown Che by Steven Soderbergh, a 5-hour epic that tries to tell Everything You Need To Know About Che.)

I must have seen at least a dozen films about armed conflict in Ireland, including Michael Collins, The Crying Game, The Rising of the Moon, The Informer, The Plough and the Stars, Hidden Agenda, Shake Hands With The Devil...the list goes on. So I began watching The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) with a little trepidation about sitting through some more historical medicine that would be good for me, but not taste very good.

It was a pleasure to be so wrong. Not only was the film clear (a huge accomplishment in any film about Irish politics) and even-handed (no straight-up heroes or villains, just people caught on different sides of a regrettable conflict), but beautiful to look at. The visuals seem to be more "caught" than composed, yet they are balanced and telling. Evidently director Ken Loach does not storyboard or use focus marks, but eschews faux-documentary shaky-cam. His operators just have a knack for identifying where the heart of the scene is taking place.

You can read attacks on the film's historical accuracy. But that would be like complaining about the historical details in Henry IV, Part 2. Because Loach and screenwriter Laverty have done just what Shakespeare did, and personified an historical divide into believable individual characters. At the beginning, when the Irish are involved in a revolution against England, activist brother pulls doctor brother into the conflict. Then, when the English craftily transform the war from a revolution against them into a civil war among the Irish, the activist brother becomes defender of the new status quo, while the doctor maintains his revolutionary stance. In the end, one must kill the other. Shakespearean, like I said. And like Shakespeare, there is a marvelous foretaste as one of the brothers must execute a traitor within their midst whom he has known since childhood. No propaganda, no mounds of background historical exposition and explanation--just a tale of brothers caught in history's jaws.

So, in a lighthearted vain, does the principal character in Taking Woodstock (2009) find himself amid history, albeit pop culture history, and albeit an event he helped set in motion. And again, the real story is not Woodstock, to which destination the principal character never actually arrives, although he invited the festival to his town. It is a story of a young man separating from his parents and being accepted by them for his individual abilities and accomplishment. Being a gentle character, unable to abandon his difficult and unhappy parents, as his siblings have apparently done, the film shares his gentle character and humor; it goes most off course when it engages in the kind of vaudeville that found a home in the nearby Catskills.

Without the family story, there really is not much else other than a loving recreation of the spirit and ethos of the event, at least as it has been reported by the participants. There is no other conflict or drama, although in actuality, the production of the Woodstock Festival with riddled with dramatic and difficult events. Again, the filmmakers recognized that the subject was too large for any film, much less a low-budget film to get its arms around, and focused on a simple coming-of-age tale. This is the Woodstock movie you can show your grandma if she doesn't mind a bare bosom or schpeckel or two.

And you haven't lived until you see Liev Schreiber in drag.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The truth hurts

The concept is much bigger than the advent of lying. In the universe posited by The Invention of Lying (2009), everyone volunteers the absolute palpable truth. Not only is there no lying, there is no concealment whatsoever. Moreover, there is no metaphysics or spirituality, since none of those ideas can be stated as physical facts.

Ricky Gervais first became known first as a creator (of The Office and Extras) and then as a performer whose bumbling persona was as useful to other filmmakers (Ghost Town, A Night at the Museum, For Your Consideration) as it has been for his own material. So it is gratifying to see him finally step out as a writer-director of a feature, and one with such a good, strong, rich idea, that the moment I heard the concept of the film, I began whacking myself in the head with a 2 x 4 for not having thought of it myself.

In fact, the only criticism I have to make of this laugh-out-loud film is that the idea is so enormous, it really should be the basis of a series of films or a miniseries. In this case, the use of lying is limited to personal relationships and the invention of religious belief. But really, would capitalism be possible without an unequal access to true information? Or politics, diplomacy, or even the very existence of separate nations? Can one imagine an arms negotiator arriving for a conference obliged to speak complete truth at all times--the whole concept of nations dealing with each other falls apart on contact when only truth is permitted.

I suppose the film is controversial to some because the occasion for the first lie engenders a notion of the afterlife heretofore unknown in the non-lying universe. But to me the film does not attack religion so much as the superficial reasons SOME people cling to it--namely a magical wish for immortality or for a fairy-tale afterlife. Even Christians who are honest about what the Bible truly says must admit that the actual nature of the afterlife is left unstated and that we have to be uncertain--the only thing promised believers is to live with God, and that others must remain separated from him. The meetings with relatives and sunshine and lollipops has nothing to do with Bible religion and everything to do with most people's paralyzing fear of the unknown. (St. Paul even denies that married couples are reunited after death--so there.)

The other absurdity is that in this world of mere fact--no legend, no myth, no super-truths--Gervais's character, who sees to be inventing the very notion of morality, is required to come up with hard and fast rules for behavior and for the earning of eternal life. He suggests everyone is entitled to two bad acts before they are condemned and immediately comes up against the problem of defining a bad act--where does one draw the line? And Ricky Gervais has just the right persona to wrestle with this (although I could also imagine Bob Newhart having trouble working this out). The big question which is merely implicated is that if you can't figure out what's bad and decide to be good for its own sake, without regard to reward or punishment in the afterlife, then morality is just a child's code of behavior.

Other reason to see this film is the ridiculous number of funny and/or prominent people in it--besides Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis CK and Rob Lowe, there's Jonah Hill, Christopher Guest, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tina Fey, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, Stephen Merchant, John Hodgman, Edward Norton...well, it just gets ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the film was required to cut short its most complex possibilities in order to resolve the romantic comedy, which is what most people plonk their money down for. Hell, they could do an entire feature set in either DC or Hollywood, where lying is the principal industry!

Speaking of lies, you couldn't build an efficient and entertaining little potboiler like A Perfect Getaway (2009) in a universe without lies. It breaks no new cinematic ground and it has a single plot twist which I guessed about 20 minutes in, because the story had left no room for any other twists. But if you are going to do a four-character suspense piece, you better cast it well, and it is always a pleasure to watch Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich do their stuff. But the film's secret weapon is the continually versatile and surprising Timothy Olyphant. It can only be a few more months before this man is not ordained a True Movie Star. (If you doubt me, check out Deadwood.)

Monday, February 15, 2010

Western Poetry

I grew up in the era when Westerns dominated television. In 1960, virtually half of the primetime programs were some type of Western. And they were trite, repetitive, lacking in action and often in purpose. The economics of television at the time made actual action scenes difficult and rare--Westerns were distinguished by people in big hats and boots and every once in a while they went outside and got on a horse that was tied up out front. Few of them bore the elements that make the Western the great form that film writers and cineastes are able to analyze and celebrate over and over.

So having suffered many pale carbons of the Western form, I had to learn to love Westerns. Luckily for me, a college classmate insisted I come with him to sit in on a professor who was showing The Searchers, stopping it over and over to pick it apart and illuminate its greatness. I had never even heard of the film. In those days, John Ford was considered a great director because of The Informer, The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, those mainstream Academy-bait pictures. True, my dad loved to watch the cavalry pictures on a Sunday afternoon, especially when they all got on their horses and began singing. (Real men were unafraid of singing back in those days.) So this screening of The Searchers was a real eye-opener. I began to appreciate and understand both the visual poetry and the narrative tropes of the Western.

Today a lot of the ideas that sustained Westerns have been completely absorbed into sci-fi. Avatar is the best example of this, being a flat-out reworking of the white-man-who-becomes-a-better-Indian-than-the-Indians trope one finds in A Man Called Horse, Dances With Wolves and the like. But I still love the look of the Western, and the taciturnity of the best ones.

Still, I have never "gotten" the Peckinpah cult. His first Western, Ride The High Country is one of my favorites and an all-time great, an example of the end-of-the-West genre. Peckinpah continued to work this vein, but decided that instead of quick, bloodless death, which deny the consequences of the violence of the genre, he would have long, drawn-out, slow-motion and very bloody death. When films such as The Wild Bunch appeared, critics wrote verbal rhapsodies about Peckinpah's "poetry of violence."

Except that Peckinpah's so-called poetry was just as phony as the fall-down-you're-dead fake violence that had preceded it. Blood does not fly out of bodies the way it does out of stage-blood packs and stuntmen do not look graceful flying around in slow motion. I'm reminded of the egregious slow-motion sequence in Easter Parade which reveals that Fred Astaire, so effortlessly graceful in standard speed, looks clumsy and ungainly slowed down--that his "grace" is an illusion as convincing as a fine stage magician's (which is what Astaire was). Real violence is usually sudden and all the more brutal because of that. A soul has departed the earth before anyone, including the victim, had even a moment to contemplate what that meant.

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973) was meant to be a contemporary interpretation of the old legend of the lawman who must kill his former friend. With fine actors, especially ones who had been friends, such as Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart for instance, you might have had a fine movie. But neither James Coburn or Kris Kristofferson bother to do anything than pronounce the rather pedestrian lines in the script, and the story is utterly without resonance or significance. If you go by this film, people in the Old West would shoot each other just to cover an awkward pause in the conversation. As in most Peckinpah films, it is phony from beginning to end.

I should clarify "phony." I don't mean artificial. All art employs artifice. Ford, Hawks, all the greats rework myth and engage in artifice. We are not talking documentary. By "phony" I mean behaviors and story beats that do not resemble recognizable human behavior. Usually they are simply tropes repeated from other stories--art twice removed from life--meta-art that is about nothing but the creation of art. In other words, pretension squared.

There is one moment of exquisite poetry in Pat Garrett, and it is one place in which I wish the long-winded Peckinpah had lingered even longer. The beloved Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado appear as a bounty-hunting couple and it is a delight to see their now-weathered but familiar faces. (The film is filled with wonderful traditional Western actors who were probably surprised to learn what a dull film they had become part of.) Minutes within their arrival in the film, Pickens is fatally shot in the gut (see the illustration above). To the mesmerizing "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" by Bob Dylan (written for this film), Jurado and Pickens exchange farewell glances that speak volumes about their long life together, their abiding affection and the pain of this terrible parting. (Check out this clip.)

For once, Peckinpah admitted actual humans into the film and it almost rips its synthetic texture apart. Now that's poetry.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Spy-spy love

The title reads, "Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious" (1946) and so he is. Perhaps most notably for his numerous kinks and obsessions which remained obscure to his original audiences, but which leap out in plain sight to us today. I'm not just talking about the old chestnut about the chilly blonde being sexier than the Marilyn Monroe type--Hitchcock 'fessed up to that one himself. Nor the fear of authority, which is central to the suspense genre as a whole. (Pro-authority action flicks, like the Bond movies, have to have a streak of silliness to keep themselves from being proto-fascist, like for instance, anything by the neo-Brown Shirt John Milius.)

I'm interested in deeper twists, such as his fear of women, his belief that he is unworthy of him, his obsession with work, until personal identity is subsumed into the work. These ideas inform Notorious (1946), a film I find endlessly fascinating. It is one of the most adult films of its era, and for that reason I have avoided using it in my high school Film Studies class. No, nobody takes their clothes off or curses or uses drugs. But the concerns of the characters are adult concerns--love, sexual fidelity, duty, self-denial in service to that duty. It is an incredibly sexy movie--if you know how to read films of the 1940's. Between censorship and the culturally enforced reticence of the time, matters were not stated, but they were very clear to their audiences. (In fact, audiences came to understand that fade-outs after a kissing scene meant that sex followed, that the Production Code office began to bar all such fade-outs because they were too suggestive. Let me clarify--fading to black was too dirty for American audiences.)

If you watch Notorious carefully, you see that Cary Grant's character has fallen in love with the Bergman character almost as soon as she has fallen. But as soon as he learns that he must push her into another man's bed for the sake of the nation, he allows her to see him as cold, indifferent, detached. Apologetic, to be sure, because everyone recognizes there is something inherently indecent about the entire mission. But Grant acts as though he were not personally affected. And of course, we learn at the end that he is completely torn up.

As is Claude Rains's character, who is the most tragic of all. He gave his love wholeheartedly and sincerely and he is the one most truly betrayed, not Bergman and certainly not Grant. But Hitchcock and screenwriter Ben Hecht cut off sympathy in two ways. One is easy--he's a Nazi who wants to make a bomb; the other is subtler: his pathetic cry for help at the end, for Grant to shelter him from the wrath of his Nazi associates. We know that Grant, put in the same position, would accept his fate uncomplainingly, just as he accepted the necessity to pimp the woman he loves for his country.

And this is where this quintessential Hitchcock film makes tangential contact with the director we will be addressing next in Film Studies: Howard Hawks. For Hawks, duty and loyalty come first. Not honor, in the Asian or Germanic sense, like defending a family or a country. It's more like honoring one's own promises, one's own commitments. Maybe even if you don't quite believe in them anymore. As Sam Spade says in The Maltese Falcon (both novel and film) "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." There is beautiful stoicism in Notorious that we don't find in the neurotic Vertigo, The Birds or Marnie in which Hitchcock let his neuroses have full rein. Because it is only when Grant's character wonder what kind of man he could be to do what he is doing, that he is really and truly a man.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Charmless Charm

Elsewhere in this blog, I've referred to a great old blues song by W.C. Handy, "Loveless Love." (500) Days of Summer (2009) seems to be an attempt to make a charming movie without charm. Or a relationship movie that's about a bad relationship. I suppose the filmmakers should be congratulated for the ground-breaking courage, but it makes for a grim 90 minutes that is apparently meant to be fun. This is akin to making a delightful comedy about getting rid of a skin condition.

I suppose they play fair--Leslie Nielsen tells us in voice-over (and how much more wonderful would the film have been if they had put Mr. Nielsen on-screen): "You should know up front this is not a love story." All right, but it was reasonable to expect a should-have-been love story. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a marvelous actor who deserves to star in a marvelous vehicle. (He's already done so, in the brilliant film Brick, but not enough people know about that one.)

Problem is that Zooey Deschanel, who has been on the cusp for a number of years, remains on the cusp here. It's still possible she will break through and become an actual phenomenon, but she has been hovering there for about 11 years without happening. And something about the girl in this story has to be tantalizing enough for Our Hero to delude himself into believing that there is a reason to keep trying. (The narration tells us that the heroine does not believe in love, there's no reason to believe that's true. Unlike the similarly-themed Paper Heart, nothing the girl does or says convinces us that she doesn't believe love could be just around the corner. Just not with Joseph Gordon-Levitt.) For whatever reason, Deschanel--in this film, anyway--is not That Girl. And the film falls apart beyond repair by that flaw of casting.

A couple of observations for the filmmakers and cineastes--this film did not invent the non-sequential failed romance. You would have to go back at least to Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) which might not go over with the audience today because the man is much older than the woman. But its non-sequentiality is far more disorienting than in (500) Days. In the latter, each day comes carefully labeled. I know there were people who were confused by the film nonetheless, but there are people who are confused when green traffic lights turn amber, so we can't worry about those people. One sequence that did feel inventive (I am ready for someone to point out its antecedent) had two screens side-by-side showing "Expectation" and "Reality." Not only was it a clever story-based narrative device, it also contained the final resolution of the story. (But for two very well-done codas, one of which may have been imaginary.)

A talented film, if not an accomplished one.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The People's Choice

The old joke goes, "I saw the play under adverse circumstances. The curtain was up." I saw The Hangover (2009) in adverse circumstances, at home with just my wife and myself. It is clearly an audience film. It certainly does not boast an original or striking premise, nor does it introduce interesting new performers, at least not to anyone who follows comedy in the US today. In fact, I was disappointed at how Zack Galifiankis's creative brilliance was utterly and completely stifled in the monochromatic character he was given to play. The "bad bachelor party", "wild weekend" and "crazy time in Vegas" genre is surely close to being mined out.

What should make a film based on a tired idea like this one work is either the originality of its expression (not here) or the charm of the participants. I am told by people who know that Bradley Cooper (who functions as the lead in this film--at least he is the instigator of most of the complications of the story) is a famous person who is liked by audiences. I found him to have the warmth and charisma of a cyborg. An especially dull, anonymous cyborg. He is the Bill Paxton of comedy--that is, an actor so lacking in any unique quality, that you can't remember what he looks or sounds like--WHILE YOU ARE WATCHING HIM. He has no fuzzy or crinkly edges to stick to your brain. I kept thinking he was the stupid younger brother of the Fiennes, who had been locked in a closet in America at a young age while Raif and Joe were going to acting school.

Of the leads, only Ed Helms's character's story was of interest--again, not original, but had some recognizable human sentiment. At the end of the story, this man has shed an unsuitable life (always an enjoyable story trope) and has decided to woo and court his wife, played by Heather Graham, always so brilliant at making people with low morals and low brain capacity sweet and adorable.

People really liked this movie--even talked it up for the 10th Best Picture nomination, but I got no more than sporadic laughs from it. Not my fault, not the film's--but it will be interesting to see, as the world of home video continues to develop--how long audience films like this retain their lustre, compared to the quieter pleasures of, say, the long-underrated, now cult object Office Space.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Acquired Intimacy Syndrome

Steven Soderbergh has been shooting many, if not most of his films on video for a number of years. Among the qualities video provides is an absence of film grain, especially if one is viewing the final result on digital video. This gives each image a stillness, a placidity, which is impossible in film, with its grains, flecks, scratches and even at times splices.

That stillness feels appropriate for The Girlfriend Experience (2009), a film about stasis which is not boring or static, as I feared at the outset of the film. [I love Soderbergh, but he has perpetrated some real stiffs - Solaris and Full Frontal each made me want to tear my own eyes out.] The protagonist, a female escort who simulates actual personal relationships with her clients, making her more valuable than a mere sex partner, is still, poised, seeking to expand her business, but not repudiating it or dismissing it. This is not about a fallen woman seeking a way out of her sordid life. She sees life in a capitalistic society in terms of transactions, and she simply wants a better grade of transactions.

In fact, the only mistake she makes is falling into the same trap as her clients--mistaking a simulated relationship with a real one. But the realization does not destroy her. It is a bump in the road, and she resumes her established course. Another of the film's virtues is its 78-minute running time, so that it does not overstay is welcome and is not tempted to expand itself into something the material does not justify.

The film is also notable for being a scripted film which successfully pulls off the illusion of being improvised. This perhaps explains the casting of adult film actress Sasha Gray, who presumably is used to working with minimal scripting. [Incidentally, although the distributors would like you to think the presence of an adult film star promises something racy, she does not do anything in the film that a mainstream female star might not do, such as wear lacy lingerie or say an impolite word.] Gray brings a poise and a self-possession to the character, never betraying an ounce of the yearning or neediness that a conventionally-trained actress might demand from a director. ("Where's her vulnerability? I have to show her vulnerability," they would say.) Though the film is premised on a life of pre-arranged and mutually agreed deception, both audience and characters are nonetheless fooled.

A metaphor for film itself?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cinema of secrets

Uncle Charlie has a secret. And soon his niece Charlie will have her own secret--that she knows Uncle Charlie's secret.

Alfred Hitchcock's films are riddled with concealment, doubt, shame and regret. The reason: everyone has a secret. Think of the quintessential Hitchcock scene. The protagonist is looking for evidence against the villain (think Rear Window, Psycho). They begin searching the room or house. Now the villain comes back unexpectedly, only the hero doesn't know it yet but we do. Now the hero has a secret--that he is looking for the villain's secrets. And all the time we, the helpless spectators are saying, "Hurry up! Get out of there! You'll get caught" naturally siding on the side of sneaking around and being suspicious, instead of honestly confronting someone.

It's strange that the suspense of Shadow of a Doubt (1943) works as well as it does. There are only a few minutes when we suspect young Charlie is in danger for her life. But the undefined menace of Uncle Charlie pervades the entire film, despite (or perhaps because of the blandness) of Joseph Cotten's manner. And at no time during the film do Charlie's parents or the community at large ever understand what truly took place.

The film has a strange resonance with An Education (2009) which I had the complete and absolute pleasure of seeing this weekend. I would like this blog to be as detached and analytic as I can make it, but in this case I really don't care. I really enjoyed this film in a way I haven't enjoyed a film in months.

The title reminds one of the old adage by humorist George Ade, "There are at least two kinds of education," a proposition which this film sets out to illustrate--and does so brilliantly. I don't want to explicate the plot or the moral or even the wonderful production design or the marvelous performances of Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard (a longtime favorite). All I can say is that director Lone Sherfig has placed and held everything in a marvelous sort of balance--playing fair with us but setting us up for heartbreak nonetheless.

Again, Topic A is secrets, only we don't know it for most of An Education. In both cases, young women, bored with their life and their surroundings experience the intervention of an older, more experienced, apparently more sophisticated man; one who likes them for who they are and wants to cultivate their intelligence and taste. What's the implied message here? Watch out for cultivated people--only trust loutish boyfriends? Not sure, but that normal adolescent desire for escape and for growth and yearning for that person who will help one become who one is supposed to become leads to terrible mistakes in judgment. Understandable, but terrible. Sadly, there is a sparkle to the bad side that the good side lacks. As Jean Kerr's daughter complained about playing Eve in a Garden of Eden play, the snake has all the lines.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Kids Are Alright

I was not prepared to discover how closely the recent Everybody's Fine tracked its source, Stanno tutti bene (1990), starring Marcello Mastroianni. Being the source material, and being Italian, the expressionist and surrealist tendencies (which are highlighted by the poster art seen here) feel more natural. Italy is naturally a place of abundance, where images tumbling upon each other simply reflects the landscape. The America DeNiro's character traveled through was spare, ascetic, almost barren. Both characters have absurd dreams, but Mastroianni's are more at home in the Italian landscape.

Moreover, DeNiro, even at his most gentle is a coiled spring. He could strike, and if he did, you would get hurt. Mastroianni may have looked like a leading man, but he projected the poetry of loss from his lonely, injured eyes. When DeNiro looks like he should given his kids a knock on the head, Mastroianni looks like he's wondering how they got that knock on the head.

The downside of that is that we never feel that Mastroianni achieves peace and equilibrium. His children's lies are a hurt from which he does not recover. DeNiro is hurt as well, but he seems to understand how and why it happened, and that he shares responsibility. Both films have their virtues, and if you like one of them, the other will probably interest you. Their respective virtues and shortcomings balance out--they are roughly equal accomplishments.

The Italian film does have music by Morricone--an unfair advantage, that.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Rooting for Oscar nominees

Update: Fixed broken link for "Granny O'Grimm"

One of the most boring segments of the generally boring Oscar telecast are the awards for categories about which you know nothing. The last few years, a lot of the interesting technical categories have been shoved into a separate ceremony on another day, usually hosted by a pretty girl, the proximity of which is no doubt a unique experience for many of the tech nerds who are nominated.

But the documentaries and shorts are still part of the principal broadcast. So that you can have a rooting interest in the category for Best Animated Short, you can see all the nominees here before the Awards. (I would have embedded video for all of them, but had to settle for links for the first three.)

French Roast

Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty

The Lady and the Reaper


and perhaps with an unfair advantage, Wallace and Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death:

Wallace And Gromit - A Matter Of Loaf And Death

DANMAN MySpace Video

Nurse raises temperatures

Growing up as I did in the age of Roger Corman, a title like Night Nurse suggests one kind of movie. But the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Night Nurse (1931) is both more and less racy than a Corman product would have been. There is an exploitative angle, for sure--there are two or three scenes of Stanwyck and Joan Blondell standing around in their lingerie--I was going to say for no good reason, but seeing these ladies in their scanties is reason enough in itself.

But this is exactly the kind of nurse movie you would expect from a guy who was about to direct one of the toughest gangster pictures ever, The Public Enemy. It's fast, it's direct. (The dipsomaniac literally says, "I'm a dipsomaniac and proud of it," in case you hadn't worked that out yourself.) Clark Gable glowers and snarls in order to promote his plan to kill two little heirs so he and his girlfriend can get their money. (I know, it doesn't make any sense to me, either.) But the problem is "fixed" by having Stanwyck's gangster boyfriend kill Gable off, which he does offscreen and without any comment or moral resolution. Maybe that's why Gable decided to be a gangster himself later that year in A Free Soul.

There's a lot of slapping and heaving crockery around in this movie and the odd notion that a starving child can be treated by soaking it in milk. I should have thought opening the kid's trap and putting food in it would be effective. And Stanwyck is sort of a good girl in this one, in contrast to Baby Face (see Sept. 12) and The Miracle Woman, albeit a pretty tough good girl. I suppose that's Joan Blondell's influence. Hotcha!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ask me in about five years

I am a big fan of comedy that eschews "vaudeville." By vaudeville, I mean the style of comedy which advertises the punch lines well in advance--so well, in fact, that good vaudeville can elicit laughs from things which are shaped like jokes but which are not actually jokes. Among the anti-vaudeville performers I would list Bob & Ray, Ernie Kovacs, who was unafraid to let a bit run on and on without a joke in sight, and the troupe assembled by Christopher Guest to make films such as Best In Show and A Mighty Wind, which, since their intent is to ape human behavior, feature characters who have no idea that they are funny, and therefore do nothing to signal the audience as to where the funny bits are.

Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill, both of which I find profoundly dull and irritating, is also responsible for Office Space and Idiocracy, which I enjoy quite a bit. In the case of Office Space, I don't think I laughed out loud once during my first viewing. Now my wife and I have favorite bits that we go back to over and over and giggle about. I assume nearly everyone reading this at least knows about the red Swingline stapler and the married squirrels.

Extract (2009) examines the world of pointless work from the bosses' perspective, and their lives are not much better than their workers. Oddly enough, however, the central crux of the story has little or nothing to do with work, which renders this film, for all its deadpan humor, weaker and more diffuse than its famous predecessor. It consists of an odd little doodle--not a real humorous examination--on the subject of infidelity. And the deadpan style, the complete lack of reaction to almost any stimulus robs the brilliant Kristen Wiig of any opportunity for brilliance. In fact, nothing is connected to anything else. The product made--artificially created flavors--suggests ripe territory for satire of American life and tastes, but there is no follow-through there, either. One admires how Judge sidesteps potential cliches, but he does not replace them with any LOL ideas.

Is it funny? Yes. Is it as funny as it could be? What is? I'm afraid I won't know how funny Extract is for a while yet--and we'll have to see if we're still looking at it, or if we've moved onto something else. We do know this. Ben Affleck is much funnier as a minor supporting character than he is as a lead. At least, funnier on purpose.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Swapping vices

Of all the perishable items in the refrigerator of film history, the most perishable has to be the Important Drama. We all know that genre films, such as westerns and gangster films, dismissed as throwaway entertainment in their day bring enduring pleasures to the patient student or buff. Action films and comedies are variable--some hold up, some don't. But the ones that do hold up, such as Gunga Din on the action side or Duck Soup on the comedy side, become more indispensable with each passing day.

Important Drama seems to have the quickest "sell by" date. In many cases, that's because the Drama focuses around an Important Issue of Our Time, an issue which may have grown as stale as yesterday's newspaper. The Best Years Of Our Lives, a drama of re-integration of American men into post WWII society was the most highly-honored film of its time; whatever interest it has today is probably limited to historians and antiquarians. Gentlemen's Agreement was the Best Picture winner which taught that you shouldn't discriminate against Jews, because they might really be Gregory Peck. And in our own time, does anybody still get excited about dreary bores like The English Patient, Cold Mountain and Brokeback Mountain? You have to see them at the time because everybody is talking about them, but after a few years have passed, you'd just as soon watch Jackie Chan and have a good time.

A Free Soul (1931) was clearly one of those coffee-table-book-movies in its own day. There is a sort-of intriguing notion at its center, namely, adult daughter promises she will not sleep with her gangster boyfriend if her alcoholic father will stay on the wagon. This is all developed and repeated in an extremely tedious bouts of fustian. Then Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) gets so frustrated about not having sex with Norma Shearer that he strangles Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). (And I swear, they are giving exactly the same performances as they would eight years later.) Norma Shearer is arrested for this crime, and father-lawyer's defense is that it's not her fault that Rhett strangled Ashley (as if we all hadn't wanted to do that at some time), because he, Lionel Barrymore, was a bad father. Then he has an attack and falls down and the film ends. Subsequently Barrymore was given an Academy Award for running his hand through his thinning hair and falling down unassisted. Later, he developed crippling arthritis and was confined to a wheelchair, which left both hands free to run through his hair.

I wonder what this picture would have been like with Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep instead?