Wednesday, August 5, 2015

new orleans on film

My Forbidden Past: (1951. dir: Robert Stevenson) New Orleans comes to life in lush and gorgeous black and white, back in the heady days of proud Creole families with skeletons jangling in the closets. You'd be hard pressed to find a more sensuous opening scene: Ava Gardner at her loveliest in slow close-up as she smiles up at Robert Mitchum and is drawn into his silent embrace. (The only one I can think of to beat it for opening-scene sensuousness is John Ford's the Long Voyage Home.) It's melodrama, and the plot bogs down by the end, but Melvyn Douglas is sufficiently roguish in his bad-guy charm to keep things interesting, and Gardner is a masterpiece of fire and ice as the woman scorned and on the lookout for payback. Mitchum doesn't have enough to do, but nobody plays the stalwart outsider better: in this case, a yankee boffin at Tulane.

It's possible that New Orleans never looked so beautiful (and that's saying something) as on All Soul's Eve when Gardner visits a City of the Dead to tryst with her ex and light a candle at the crypt of her scandalous grandmother.

Toys in the Attic: (1963. dir: George Roy Hill) I suppose it's the stuck-outside-of-time quality which makes New Orleans so irresistible in black & white. It invokes that same idea you get sometimes when you're there, if you can ever escape the teeming masses long enough, that if you close your eyes then open them very fast you might find yourself suddenly among ladies in crinoline and gentlemen in shirt-sleeves duelling beneath oak trees and plantation overseers driving wagons filled with bags of cotton to mill. Or that if you stand very still near a boneyard at night (everyone will tell you that going inside at night is utter folly and you'll end up never emerging) you might hear the voices of the city's old gods, still alive and practicing danger and mischief after all these centuries. (When I told my friend Sam I always imagined Venice would be a little like New Orleans, he considered it then said, "The difference is that Venice's gods are asleep.")

This is from a late Lillian Hellman play. As a young girl she lived in New Orleans, and in the time-honored tradition of American playwrights, -- O'Neill, Miller, Inge, ad nauseam,-- although societal influences come to bear, the truest, most stifling danger tends to rise up from the bosom of one's familial unit. To hear these folks tell it, the lucky few who escape its suffocation are so bent and twisted by the time they do it's a wonder that any decent living ever gets done at all.

The play, I'm guessing, sports a seven-character cast, and the movie is slightly opened up, but just a little. We get glimpses of the town: the Cafe du Monde, Jackson Square, the Cathedral, the Preservation Hall. The strip joints and sfumato-painted alleyways at night. Mostly we stay in the sprawling but somehow too-close, much-hated family mansion, probably situated somewhere in the Garden District, where Hellman lived. A pair of spinster sisters (Wendy Hiller and Geraldine Page, both spot-on fabulous) have shelved their own dreams to devote their lives and hard-earned savings to supporting their often absent, well-meaning but wastrel brother (Dean Martin, if not at his best, certainly near to it). When he returns with a kittenish bride (Yvette Mimieux) and a mysterious new fortune, jealousies and fear of change rise up into a mass of destructive force. Hellman is great at this kind of thing. To her credit, she brings the one sister's sublimated lust right out into the open where it can take its true, malevolent dragon-shape, whereas most playwrights would have let it seethe, unspoken, and politely hinted at but unaddressed.

The movie both suffers and triumphs from staying close to the original stage play: there are the first, slightly awkward expositionary scenes, well enough written and acted that we can swallow 'em and move on, but when Hellman gets cooking with fire, she's a fearsome thing to behold, and the build-up to the betrayal is stunning and although you want to look away, it's like a trainwreck coming, and you can't turn your head. There's also a lovely subplot with a rich woman (Gene Tierney, wonderfully underplaying) and her "nigra chauffeur" long-time lover (Frank Silvera).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

eye see you: one more sorry dance between a cop and a serial killer

(2002. dir: Jim Gillespie) I've had it up to here with serial killers. Seriously, I'm so done with the whole genre that I haven't watched more than a single ep of "Hannibal", this although I feel a passion for Mads Mikkelsen akin to the heat of a thousand suns.

This particular bad hombre is a cop-killer. He drills into eyeballs and hangs his victims, sometimes in humiliating ways, sometimes just deadly. He drives FBI agent Jake Malloy (Sly Stallone) into breakdown and a suicide attempt, after which Malloy is conveniently transported to a concrete prison facility in Wyoming in the dead of winter with a roomful of other disturbed cops for some detox and rehabilitation. The facility is entirely cut off from the rest of society, at least in the dead of winter.

Don't get me wrong. This movie has a great cast. Polly Walker is the resident medic, Stephen Lang has cultivated a truly creepy look to pull off the red-herring role, Charles Dutton is the steadfast buddy, Robert Prosky gets a decent turn around the dance-floor, and Sean Patrick Flanery has a nice moment as a broken young cop. Jeffrey Wright is, as always, amazing. In an era of movie stars winning Oscars for not doing very much at all (I'm looking at you, aging Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Christoph Waltz on your second trip to the podium), Jeffrey Wright transforms himself for every role. Could this damaged punk be the same cat who turned himself into Muddy Waters in front of my eyes in Cadillac Records, and pulled off the only truly effective moment in W., when an increasingly anxious Colin Powell asks a War Room full of asswipes and clowns what the Iraq exit strategy will be and is met with creepy silence and knowing smiles?

So I'm not saying don't watch it. It's an Old Dark House film: you've got a group of humans, most of them pretty messed up, locked away from the world in a place with no escape and a killer in their midst. The cast is full enough of stars and good character actors that the killer could be anyone. The trouble with using a snowstorm as your barrier is that climactic (or, in this case, semi-climactic) scenes shot in blizzards are unsatisfying. It's hard to tell what's going on, everyone looks like the same person in a shapeless, furry parka, and nobody can move very fast or effectively.

And Robert Patrick is great! He gets to play the hardened tough guy (the tough guy! in a Stallone film!), but then we get to watch him melt around the edges until by the end he's weeping like a child, and Patrick is the rare actor who can pull that transition off beautifully.

I give it two stars. The stars are for the acting. The story is pretty hackneyed, and, I swear to God, somebody needs to think of something to write about other than a damn serial killer playing cat-and-mouse with his investigating detective, or I'm going to lose it and start breaking some screenwriter kneecaps. Y'all stand warned.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

valentino: shiny, but no insight

(1977. dir: Ken Russell) You know what you're getting into with a Ken Russell biopic: not literal truth, but stabs, some of them quite playful, at metaphorical truths. Nureyev is, in retrospect, a brilliant choice to embody Valentino. Both men are primarily dancers, own powerfully androgynous sex appeals, and are palpably "other", sporting the thick accents of those just off the boat from distant lands.

Although it is one of Russell's tamer ventures, without the extreme oddity of, say, Lisztomania or Gothic, it bears the Russell hallmarks. The grotesquerie of the jail scene brings to mind Tchaikovsky's wedding night on the train in the Music Lovers, or Sister Jeanne's twisted visions from the Devils. The pace is good, and the costumes and sets are suitably gorgeous and baroque. What we don't come away with, and what we want most from a biopic, is psychological insight. Even just one "oh, I get it" moment would suffice, and Russell never gives us one.

A framing device involving the various women in his life coming forward, one by one, at his funeral to tell a piece of his story, is dangerously pat but Russell has the skills to pull it off, just barely. All the women come off badly, not only Nazimova (Leslie Caron) played up to full tilt diva, but Rambova (Michelle Phillips) portrayed as a talentless, heartless user, a representation which is unfair at least inasmuchas she did obviously own enormous talent in her own right. Even June Mathis (Felicity Kendal), the powerfully successful screenwriter who launched Valentino's career and stood staunchly by him until the end (and beyond, burying him in her own family vault and following him within a year), becomes, within Russell's purview, ineffective and merely lovesick.

This got horribly panned when it came out, but it's a great wonder that any of Russell's strange, visionary films ever avoided that fate. This is not his best, but certainly not his worst. One of the problems is the controversy over Valentino himself, which I think still rumbles: he is now accepted as gay, but how gay was his lifestyle? He obviously genuinely loved women. Did he have a sex life with women? Was it successful? Did he and Rambova enjoy a thriving dom/sub relationship, as suggested by the "slave bracelet"? How much sex did he have with men? What was his attitude towards it? I think that Valentino himself would approve of Russell's perspective, focusing on the women in his life, because that's where he himself placed the emphasis. If you'd asked him what the lynchpin of his story was, he'd have been the first to say it was Rambova.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

robert patrick in minor roles: a tepid double feature

Mexico City: (2000. dir: Richard Shepard) Not much of a role here for Patrick, although he gets to wear some more excellent suits. He works at the U.S. embassy in the titular city, and looks first like a bad guy, then like a good guy, and finally like a dead guy, without much of anything interesting to do.

This movie is good for one thing: showing you Mexico City. Someone who cares about the place and its history and legacy photographed this, and did it with beauty and grace.

The plot is interesting only because the heroine isn't forced to find a love interest. Her comrade-at-arms in the search to find her desaparecido brother is a friendly cab-driver, married with five kids, and they develop a nice friendship but nothing more. (The only other kind of nice thing is that the priest is a good guy, which would never have happened had it been made in Hollywood with the focus north of the border.)

The script is fatuous and predictable, the exposition hamfisted, the acting decent, the story just interesting enough that you keep watching for the lovely visuals. But just barely.

Firewall: (2006. dir: Richard Loncraine) One of those "cyber-heist" thrillers which are becoming so ridiculously popular these days. This one is actually not terrible. You've got Harrison Ford, Virginia Madsen (as the wife who is an accomplished architect, and yet her career is so laissez-faire that when she and her family are taken hostage for several days, nobody notices. Why? Because she's not really an architect, she's just a wife and mother, apparently with no friends or relations outside her nuclear family. They just wrote the architect thing into the script, I guess to justify the truly gorgeous house right on the Sound in Seattle). There's also Chloe from "24" (who's the best part of that show, am I right?), and Paul Bettany, keeping his usual cool as the Big Bad Pale Brit (and he has a great death moment. Not because it's set up particularly well, totally because of what he does with his face and body. He MAKES that moment out of whole cloth. Well done, sir).

Off to the sides and in the background you have Alan Arkin, Robert Patrick and Robert Forster. Ford's character works as a computer security guy for a bank, and these other fellows are all co-workers, bosses, etc. There's an interesting dynamic in play simply because, when Forster showed up onscreen as Ford's friend and peer, I subconsciously assumed that he would play a role in fixing the bad and creating the inevitable happy ending, just because he's Robert Forster, and it was a kind of shock when he didn't.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

robert patrick badassed action double feature

Zero Tolerance: (1994. dir: Joseph Merhi) Evil drug traffickers (including Mick Fleetwood and aging Tarzan Miles O'Keeffe) wipe out an FBI agent's family, but they are harshing entirely the wrong dude's mellow. It's vigilante time, compadres, and due process be damned. So Robert Patrick goes after these five drug-lords, one after another, but is he in danger of losing his own soul in the process?

Who cares? Because back then they knew how to shoot an action flick. No CGI. No shaky cam. The gunfights don't go on too long, they incorporate dynamic shifts, and the collateral damage stays minimal. They keep us engrossed through interesting shots and moves and choices, all filmed and edited with old-fashioned clarity. One Destructo Set-Piece that was particularly satisfying was the decimation of a warehouse on Algiers, along with its evil-drug-trafficking inhabitants. Another, beautifully lit, has Patrick taking down a German drug-lord's crystalline fortress on an island off Seattle. In another, he steals a cop car and drives it straight through a helicopter, leaving a mass of fiery wake behind him.

In between, he spends some time looking all beatific in his sorrow, like a medieval painting of a saint. He parries the arguments of the woman trying to save his humanity and goes about his Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood business, figuring he can worry about his soul when the business is done.

Because this is an action film, not some damn tree-hugging wuss-fest.

the Marine: (2006. dir: John Bonito) Patrick has a good time playing a sociopath with a sense of humor in this awkward John Cena hagiology. (If, like me, you've never heard of him, Wikipedia calls Cena a "professional wrestler, rapper and actor," the reigning pro wrestling superstud champion of the known universe, I'm paraphrasing here, and "the public face of WWE since 2005." Personally, I was expecting Michael Cera and thought what interesting casting that was.)

The movie, as you might guess, is a mush of Ted Nugent patriotism (as in "I love my country because I can own my own rocket-launcher, but I hate my government because I get violent when folks tell me what to do"), throwback sentimentalism (a wistful nostalgia for a lost era that never really was, and family values, as long as you've got a really hot wife), and a Robert E. Howard-esque uber-romanticization of masculine musculature and bellicosity to the point that it epitomizes godhood.

It's also a jewel heist, masterminded by Rome (Patrick). The getaway goes badly awry (partly thanks to our Herculean hero), and the nattily-dressed bank-robbers are forced to walk several miles through treacherous swampland in entirely inappropriate footwear, carping at each other all the way, with the hero's hot wife in tow. (Since one of the robbers is also a hot babe, you can see the hot catfight coming from a mile away, right?) Our Hero the ex-Marine (he was too good, too perfect, and altogether too tough for the Marine Corps, since that bunch of pusses actually follow rules) manages to separate the bad guys and pick them off, one by one. They had a good time with explosives in this movie. Not one, but two buildings are double-exploded. As in, the biggest explosion you've ever seen destroys the back half of the place, then somehow there's enough ridiculously combustible material in the front half (which was unaccountably untouched by the original explosion) that when it goes (always, always, with Cena's stunt-double leaping to safety just in the nick) it is THE EVEN BIGGER BIGGEST explosion you've ever seen.

Alright. The kids have fun with their bombs and stuff. The bad guys (and girl) get theirs, the MacGuffin-diamonds are (ironically! get it?) lost in the violence they've inspired, and Our Hero rescues his hot wife after she's been trapped and unconscious in a car underwater for at least ten minutes. Does he miraculously revive her with the Prince Charming kiss of life? How can you ask me that? I wouldn't dream of spoiling the end of the movie for you.

The main point is that Robert Patrick has fun, and when he has fun with a character, it's always worth watching. I wouldn't spend actual money on it, though.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

robert patrick triple feature in which he sees maybe ten minutes of screen time, all told

All the Pretty Horses: (2000. dir: Billy Bob Thornton) The rule is: you don't make great movies out of great books. The art forms are weirdly incompatible, refusing to transition smoothly except in the hands of a genius. You make great movies out of schlock potboilers: M*A*S*H, Jaws, the Godfather, the Exorcist. The reasons for it are probably more complicated than I'm allowing, but my best guess is that it's because schlock potboilers are heavy on story and sensation and devoid of all things more delicately ineffable and high-falutin', whereas great books are usually great not primarily because of story but because they're beautifully written. And All the Pretty Horses is one of those.

That said, I read the book so long ago and so quickly (the only thing I remember clearly is "Scared money can't win, and a worried man can't love") that watching the movie was almost like going in fresh. I recall a Matt Damon interview talking about meeting Paul Newman when he was just cast as John Grady Cole; Newman looked at him intently and said, "That's a big responsibility, you know," or something daunting like that. No pressure, right? As it is, both Damon and Henry Thomas as Lacey comport themselves very well, as does a young Lucas Black as the star-crossed outlaw boy Blevins.

Thornton brings a whimsical sensibility and a relaxed timing to the piece, both of which are necessary to conjure up some of the book's magic. There's a moment late on when Cole is making a desperate, last-ditch phone call to the woman he loves, a woman he may easily never see again, and when she relents, the cowpoke waiting in line to use the phone grins a silly grin and does a little jig, bringing to mind the dancing soul in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant, or possibly something out of David Lynch's playbook.

Alas, the story is shaped wrong for a movie. It trails off toward the end, although its meanderings are certainly engaging, and convincing love stories, tragic or not, are hard as hell to communicate on film. What we get are the trappings, without the numinosity, without the awkward radiance.

Robert Patrick plays Cole's dad in a single scene (everyone wanted to be in this: Sam Shepard and Bruce Dern also have single scene roles, lending an air of gravitas to this 20th-century, fading, "Old" West), and, between the makeup and the mastery of the actor, this is one of those wasting, etiolated characters who, when he pulls on the cigarette, looks alarmingly like the cigarette is pulling on him.

Balls of Fury: (2007. dir: Robert Ben Garant) Irreverent, madcap zany-fest about a washed-up ping pong prodigy hired by the FBI to infiltrate the inner circle of a criminal mastermind (Christopher Walken, donning the Yellow Peril drag).

Robert Patrick's character is dead within the first five minutes. Did I watch the rest of the movie? are you crazy, asking me a thing like that? I fast-forwarded to Christopher Walken, pausing for anything else I thought might be vaguely entertaining, and was generally disappointed in the hope.

We Are Marshall: (2006. dir: McG) This is Sentimental Hogwash, no question, unabashedly so, but well-meaning, and remarkably well-handled hogwash. In a nutshell: a West Virginia college's entire football team dies in a plane wreck, and both school and town have to find a way to recover from the devastating blow. A bumbling but good-hearted school president, an enthusiastic new coach, and a player who stayed behind due to injury join forces to create a miracle.

The editing is dynamic enough, the music well enough chosen, and the acting good enough that this is better than most entries into the Sentimental Hogwash genre. Also, there's more actual "sportsing" in it than in most "sports films", always a great frustration to me in my search for the perfect football movie (football in the true sense of the word). This one is about American Tackleball, and it doesn't shy away from the ugliness of the game, but the footage itself is well filmed and edited.

It's also filmed using the Teal-and-Orange palette, but it's a boldly warm version which evokes memories of Super 8, which in turn evokes the '70s.

Robert Patrick plays the tough old coach, and, again, is dead by five minutes in.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

robert patrick double feature: bridge to terabithia and black waters of echo's pond

Bridge to Terabithia: (2007. dir: Gabor Csupo) Let's take a new look at the Disney Dad. Not the absent father who overcompensates with material generosity during his brief stints with the kids, and not the Dean Jones/Fred MacMurray characters, who are honestly more overgrown kids than adults.

This is the dad who is honest and hard-working, fairly successful in his field, well-meaning and genial, whose paternal flaws are generally momentary and rise from existing under the pressure of providing for a family, a responsibility the Disney Dad takes very seriously in his amiable way. His mistake will come in siding with a malicious teacher or authority figure against his son out of temporary blindness, or in discouraging the kid from following his dreams out of the old fear the kid will lose his grip on reality and never be able to hold a decent job. His flaw is superficial, or passing, and, by the end, we see that he really is a stand-up guy, proved by his willingness and ability to learn from his own children.

Disney Dads exist solely to buffer and guide the stories of the kids. That is, they exist exclusively in relation to their own children, and there is a chilling argument to be made that the modern American exaltation of youth may have risen partly from the Disney Dad and his perfect, housekeeping mate existing so centrally in the subconscious of these several generations.

All that is preface to say that Robert Patrick is now my favorite Disney Dad. This movie is flawed; the fantasy part of the story, I think, is not carried off, but it finds success in examining unusual areas of growing up, and so is worthwhile. The paternal scene near the end in which Patrick's dad arrives in the nick of time, not to save his son, but to provide the needed comfort and wisdom, is a lovely one.

I love Patrick in this. His subtlety of expression and what I'm calling his "communicative stoicism" have reached an acme of perfection here.

Black Waters of Echo's Pond: (2009. dir: Gabriel Bologna) In the olden days, actors used to learn their chops on soap operas. Nowadays, and probably following a tradition inspired by the unique and beguiling Roger Corman (who, by the way, gave Robert Patrick his start in the business), the kids learn to act by taking part in this kind of horror film: the kind where there's an intent to party in a secluded place, the outward supernatural plays on the inward human weakness, and various stripes of mayhem ensue.

This is a bad movie, but certainly not the worst of its kind, because about half of the kids are decent actors, and some care went into things like the dark, velvety color scheme. The violence gets pretty gross, and the plot is ridiculous. We start with the opening of a Turkish tomb in the 1920s, -- I guess it's supposed to be reminiscent of Howard Carter and the folks who originally looked in on King Tut. This bunch, though, are hoity-toity English idiots who find an ancient "map" with instructions to build a board-game (you heard me) through which Pandaemonium, the Realm of Pan, will manifest. These are fully grown adults, you understand; probably archeologists, considering the context. Let's build the game! they cry. We must build it! and, by the time the Lord Carnarvon figure, who financed the whole shebang, enters onto the scene (somehow it's all transported to a private island off Maine now), everyone is murdered, but the "game" has been hidden, so that NO ONE WILL EVER FIND IT!

You know what that means. Anyway, the kids play the game, la la la, it summons the devil not through possession but by poking into annoyed wakefulness the personal devils carried within each of them. Bloodshed, mayhem, carnal lusts. When they're really lost, the eyes turn big and black. When did that become the accepted norm in horror films? I think it was in From Hell that I first saw it, but maybe it started earlier than that.

In any case, as usual, Robert Patrick is the great thing about this movie. He is the curmudgeonly caretaker who totes a shotgun and spends his time killing deer and dragging lobsters up out of the sea. He swills his vodka straight from the bottle and has a twinkle in his eye while he tells sanguinary histories of the island to creep the kids out.

And, like so many Robert Patrick movies, the only compelling reason to watch this is if you're looking to experience his entire oeuvre.