Wednesday, June 15, 2016

the female gaze: proof and good dick

Proof: (1991. dir: Jocelyn Moorhouse) It's a strange movie, and well worth watching. A blind man (Hugo Weaving) deifies truth, photographing his world so others will verify through their eyes what he has experienced through his other senses. He endures a dysfunctional (like, Eugene O'Neill levels of dysfunction) relationship with his housekeeper (Genevieve Picot), who is in love with him and spurned at every show of vulnerability. "I know she wants me," he explains, "and as long as she can't have me, she won't pity me." In punishment, she silently leaves ashtrays and coat-stands where he will trip over them and uses his beloved dog as a pawn in their power-games. Their lives are bounded in circles of longing, fear, and cruelty, until he meets an amiable and ingenuous dishwasher (Russell Crowe), whose friendship catalyzes growth, disruption, and endgame.

If it's the nineties, it barely is. Everything except the digital camera looks like the eighties, including an ill-judged musical montage of photographs and perky music designed to communicate to us the first night our two heroes bond. Mostly, it's an interesting portrait of how spurned love can lead to petty cruelties and power trips, and how impossible it is to learn trust, except to relax into it as a necessary part of existing amongst other humans. Moorhouse communicates beautifully the sensual experience that is the blind man's world, the acting is very good, and Russell Crowe is impossibly young and charismatic.

photo courtesy of Fanzone50 (

Good Dick: (2008. dir: Marianna Palka) This movie reminds me of two things: first, the Ballad of Tam Lin, in which a woman whose lover has fallen under a fair-folk enchantment must cling fast to him as he turns into all manner of creature and thing, and, in succeeding, the enchantment is broken and he is again hers. The second is a dream I had in my twenties, in which the guy I was seeing at the time tried to walk across a room and touch me, and I had to execute a complex series of dance-steps to freeze him. It worked, but each time I did it he'd be frozen for a shorter period, and the dance-steps took just as long, so it was inevitable that soon enough he was going to succeed in his approach. I woke up in a cold sweat before he did.

Palka has written and directed a bold character study in which an unassuming and well-intentioned video-store clerk stalks, lies to, and manipulates a woman who rents porn at his store until he insinuates himself into her life, then loves her in subservience, withstanding her violent torrents of abuse, until she takes charge of fixing her damaged life and in doing so finds the power to love him back. You've got to admire the guts of it: Palka doesn't so much defy the (sometimes, let's be honest, increasingly fascistic) boundaries of Political Correctness, she ignores them completely in her search for emotional truth, crossing over and back without seeming to notice.

It looks and feels exactly like what you think "quirky indie film" should look and feel like: short scenes, indeterminate time passages, indie-rock transitions, pauses and medium-shot to emphasize emotional distance, eccentric conversation between a group of male friends. It's hard to believe this is her first film, and that she directed herself in the lead. She avoids that fall into loss of perspective and vanity to which 99% of novice self-directors succumb. And, somehow, despite the dark subject matter, Palka and her co-star Jason Ritter manage to infuse the piece with a sweetness which prevails in the end.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

exodus gods and kings: a superfluity of crocodiles, and not enough snakes

(2014. dir: Ridley Scott) You know what I miss about Biblical epics? Technicolor. That immersive, saturated, ultra-bright color of the Ten Commandments that made the blues and reds of Pharoah's palace so sumptuous you could feel the silk against your own skin. When the Nile ran red with the blood of the Hebrew God's plague, it was red like fire-trucks, like finger-paints. When the Plague of the Firstborn crept down from the sky in a green haze, it was greener than seaweed, greener than Kermit the Frog, and the thing itself, with its eerie, distant screams, its smears of lamb's-blood, it was the most eldritch night-scene ever.

In Ridley Scott's version, we begin with a mediocre script, filmed largely in earth-tones, and we get bumped along from one mediocre set-piece to the next without ever growing to care about any of the humans involved. There's a long Hollywood tradition, sure, of jumbling American and English accents together (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame Judith Anderson opposite Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price? Seriously? But, in retrospect, how do you not love it?), sticking in one "exotic" actor (Yul Brynner amongst the Wonder Bread), and calling it Egypt. Scott sticks with that (Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Tara Fitzgerald), and hopes that Joel Edgerton manages to look exotic enough to obscure his Aussie origins. (He doesn't. A blue-eyed pharaoh?)

The night scenes are teal and orange. The most interesting one involves the burning bush, which is all very blue, very LED, and Moses himself is buried in mud with only his face emerging, a fascinating idea, but then Scott brings God out in the figure of a little boy, and again we're lost. In the old days, they knew when to respect the source material. Yeah, MGM gave God a cheesy, pretentious voice, but they stuck with His original lines, which a lot of folks know by heart because they read the Book. And when you're writing lines for God, you better by gum have a vast talent, my friend. This God-Child just sounds like a Hollywood hack scribbled some things down on a napkin.

My own biggest disappointment in this failure involves the dearth of snake-life. Where are the serpents? That's one of my favorite things in the Bible, when Moses turns a staff into a serpent then Pharoah's thaumaturges replicate the "trick". I always thought it said something particular that was never again so particularly addressed, something about the ascension of man's cleverness obscuring the world's numinous nature. Scott just leaves it out. And, in this version, the Nile turns red because crocodiles run mad and kill everything? Well, alright, but isn't the point kind of that God turns it red because He can turn it red? In other words, shouldn't we be addressing questions of Faith?

Walter Chaw has written such a brilliant review of Hail, Caesar! over at Film Freak Central that it may be the last word on its subject, and it's relevant here in that he points to it being a movie about Faith. How is it that the Coen Brothers manage to explore the issue of Faith more compellingly in a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood than anyone else can with an actual Biblical epic? It may have something to do with our current problems with zealotry and terrorism, or there may be another factor at play. Michael Gebert addresses the idea in his Encyclopedia of Movie Awards while speaking of Hammer Films: "There's a nice Ph.D. thesis to be written on the subject of why horror films hint more effectively at the mystery of faith than Hollywood's lumbering Bible soaps... Why Peter Cushing's faith is so much more convincing than Charlton Heston's."

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

stephen mchattie double feature from another era

the People Next Door: (1970. dir: David Greene) This was originally a "CBS Playhouse" production, refilmed as a television movie two years later with the same director and a few people from the cast. It's an examination of a generational war, with its focus on drug use (mom and dad deplore acid and pot while partaking thoughtlessly of sleeping pills, diet pills, cigarettes, alcohol). McHattie is the hippie son who plays in a groovy rock band. Hal Holbrook and Chloris Leachman (as the couple next door whose clean-cut son turns out to be the dastardly pusher-man) give such lovely, nuanced performances that they make leads Eli Wallach and Julie Harris look clumsy and hamfisted. McHattie, of course, already feels practised and relaxed in his charismatic intensity.

It's a morality tale from an era that feels far more distant than it is, and it's interesting from an anthropological view.

Search for the Gods: (1975. dir: Jud Taylor) Seventies teledramas have an unmistakable flavor all their own. The production values are uniformly awful, the scripts are generally as bad (this was the era in which M*A*S*H was considered great TV. Try and watch it now, I dare you), and in those days actors were either in the movies or on television: you didn't do both. You chose, or you got stuck, and switching was rare. That changed in the eighties when Hollywood started mining the soaps and sitcoms for its next generation of stars (Meg Ryan, Julianne Moore, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Demi Moore), but this was before that particular flood.

This is a pilot that never found a home, and it gives Kurt Russell top billing because he was at that awkward stage between the Disney Wunderkind of the '60s and his beloved reinvention as Snake Plisskin. It's McHattie who plays the true lead, though, in this pre-Shirley-MacLaine delving into what would ten years later be called New Age spirituality in New Mexico. Castaneda is the Great Father whose shadow hangs benignly over the proceedings; Journey to Ixtlan is lovingly brandished in more than one scene. There is hushed talk of visits from ancient astronauts. A rich-guy villain sits in London, forever obscured in shadow, trying to track down and procure "by any means" the nine sections of an ancient, broken amulet ("medallion", I think they keep calling it). Willie Longfellow (McHattie) is a young spiritual searcher, escaping the expectations of his wealthy upbringing amongst the Boston Brahmins, who stumbles into a piece of the puzzle by jumping into the fray when an old Indian is attacked. Ralph Bellamy is the congenial artificates-expert who digs up the information McHattie needs to decipher his puzzle-piece. There is, wonderfully, a ten-minute peyote trip, in which Longfellow proves himself worthy (to a god called "Willow Lane", the "Night-Spirit, the Power of the Smoke").

There's also a lot of rappelling, verbal sparring over the fair Indian maiden, soaking in natural hot-springs while contemplating Native American genesis stories, dynamiting heedlessly into ancient tombs and, of course, killing the bad guys, sometimes after protracted and sadly dated car chases through the desert. And, yet, who can resist it? I wish they'd made a whole season.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

the female gaze: a triple feature

Strange Days: (1995. dir: Kathryn Bigelow) Bigelow worked her way up in a boy's medium by making boy movies. I love Point Break because it's shameless and exhilarating and because Lori Petty plays the love interest, no conventional beauty, but slim and athletic, like she might really be a great surfer. Near Dark arrived pre-Buffy, pre-Twilight, when vampire films were still boy territory, but this one had a muscular, unsentimental vision, including Jenette Goldstein as a sexual but completely unkittenish badassed vampire-matriarch.

Strange Days is a now-outdated take on virtual reality, and so incorporates the whole gamut of boy-gamer buttons: girl on girl porn, rape snuff, anarchist revolution, violent crime. It's misogynist in that way that Spike Lee films often are: the chicks are all about getting naked and dressing for men, but there are also very strong women to leaven the effect. Angela Bassett gets to play one of those, although she still has to don the obligatory sex-kitten drag for the climactic scenes. (You know that bumper sticker that reads, "Ginger did everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels"? Nowadays femme-heroes have to do everything Jason Statham does, except in five-inch stilettos and body-clenching micro-minis.) Juliette Lewis, on the other hand, plays an entirely thankless role as a heartless sexbot who only comes to life when she's onstage singing (and I assume Lewis took the role for that, as she obviously has a talent for it).

So that seems to be the way to be the first woman to win a directing Oscar: make your films all aggressively androcentric.

Ask Me Anything: (2014. dir: Allison Burnett) In the first hour you think it’s a vapid, snarky tribute to heartless, mindless, teenaged narcissism, with Britt Robertson spending a lot of time running around in her underwear. In the middle, it begins to morph, and, as it does, you realize it has been heading that way all along. The self-obsessed, sexually addicted girl at its center at last begins to examine her own motives. The ending is both inconclusive and interesting, but all questions, across the board, are left unanswered. Robert Patrick has a talent for making unpleasant characters more palatable, and he does so here as the paternal slob who talks dirty, never moves from the couch, disses wives both present and past, and may or may not hold responsibility for his daughter’s fucked-up-ness. It's a troubling thing that not one of the male characters seems to act with the girl’s best interests in mind. Even the saintly bookseller has a Christian agenda to peddle. In the end, the most obviously self-interested of the men, her professor-lover, comes off best because he's the least hypocritical.

This seems to have been marketed as a sort of teen comedy, which it absolutely is not. By the final frames, it's hard to say what it is. Our unstable heroine has seemed to fade at the edges, slowly, until she vanishes entirely.

Aloft : (2015. dir: Claudia Llosa) Strange and ethereal picture about faith-healing and a parent/child rift of cataclysmic proportion. Because it approaches its strange subjects from odd angles, it is worth watching, and Cillian Murphy as usual never puts a foot wrong. The feel of it is improvisational and handheld, but Jennifer Connolly, in a dream role, seems to equate serious acting with avoiding everyone's eyes, including ours, the camera. In fact, Melanie Laurent (as the journalist who searches out the grown son to reunite him with his estranged mater) does some of the same, so I'm wondering if this director takes a sidelong approach to realism which results in a tamping-down of vitality in her actors.

The best moment, my favorite moment, is at the end, when Connolly makes the bold choice Not To Cry. It's perfect, and indicative of a wonderful strength.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

the female gaze: a pair of aussie road movies

Cactus: (2008. dir: Jasmine Yuen Carrucan) Kathryn-Bigelow-style, Carrucan makes her debut in the director's chair helming an all-out boy-movie, one she wrote herself, and doing it well. She launches us straight into the action: we're in an alley, close behind a half-naked man being forced at gunpoint, panting and wordless, into a car. The car is great, an old red Torino, probably from the '70s, and we spend the bulk of the film inside it as kidnapper drives hostage across Australia to a vague delivery point. Carrucan started behind the camera (Kill Bill, the Last Samurai) and you can see it. This camera has a great way of dollying up behind the car in the beginning, then, toward the end, as the action fades into denouement, we dolly back out from the two men, one broken, the other perhaps reborn. It leaves a wonderful sense of having been allowed a short glimpse, by unseen gods, possibly as a moral fable.

Still, true to the feeling of those old gearhead existentialist films from the turn of the '70s, although we come to know something about both men, we never get a strong hold on details, as that would be superfluous in an absurd, Camusian universe. We never really meet the wife and daughter of the kidnapper, although we see them in his haunted visions. Although both men are driven toward simple, opposing goals (one to make the delivery, the other to escape it), there is a feeling of Godot in the proceedings, as if the endless stretch of road were wound in a tight circle and the notion of progress was a trick from the subconscious, like God is, or mercy.

And just as the two men, these two opposites, are finally about to meet in understanding, Nemesis, not Fate, steps in to make the clinching decision.

the Rover: (2014. dir: David Michod) On the other hand, the universe of the Rover makes cold, logical, ruthless sense. In this mesmeric, post-apocalyptic dream, the choices you make have consequences; the consequences just don't always come from the outside. A man in this world might easily be his own worst enemy, his inner conflict bringing a plague down on the heads of all around him until he clears himself with his own, internal gods.

It's not directed by a woman, but the DP is the Argentine Natasha Braier (cinematographer for 2007's extraordinary In the City of Sylvia), and it's largely due to her that this one is great as it is. It makes the whole of Australia look like the scrubbiest part of the Mojave, the part you fly past on the Bakersfield-Barstow Highway, but there's beauty in the way the camera looks at it. This "post-collapse" world has a cohesion to it. Things are crumbling uniformly, guns are more plentiful than food, and you pay for everything with American dollars. Shelters are jerry-rigged and fortified, women are scarce, men are losing their souls. Braier's camera is both steady and unobtrusive, and the way it lingers, unwavering, allows for brilliance from these actors. You knew Guy Pearce was going to be brilliant, right? and he is; the revelation is Robert Pattinson, utterly heartbreaking as the twitchy, watchful man-child, Rey.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

spotlight: sometimes oscar goes home with nobody's favorite

(2015. dir: Tom McCarthy) We've made a tramp of him over the years, Oscar. Instead of mounting the mantelpiece of the year's best movie, the one that will be the classic, remembered and treasured down through the ages, he goes home with the safe guy (Crash), or the guy who made the most clamorous din (James Freakin' Cameron, anyone?) or the guy who took a stab at something that nobody wants to look at too closely, and so everyone pats him on the back and murmurs, "nicely done, take Oscar," while looking, embarrassed, away.

So remind me: why did this win? Because journalist-as-workingman's-hero movies have a long and beloved tradition? Because pedophilia tolerated from the seat of centuries-old power is, let's face it, nobody's idea of a good thing? Maybe I'd allow it in a year of fair-to-middlin' offerings, but there are at least five movies from 2015 I'd have Oscar-ified before this one. Hell, I'd have sent the statue home with JJ Abrams' Star Wars first.

If you're going in looking for All the President's Men (and yes, yes, I confess it, I was), you're going to suffer mad disappointment. It's got none of the dynamic chemistry between leads, none of the suspense, none of that lovely, dark paranoia which takes over the last half hour. None of the powerhouse performances, no Hoffman, Redford, Robards. Remember how in that old beauty even the tiny roles were filled by wonderful actors? Jane Alexander, Lindsay Crouse, Ned Beatty, Valerie Curtin, Robert Walden, Martin Balsam, Allyn McLerie, Hal Holbrook.

Alright, enough nostalgia for beautiful things past. And nothing against the actors here. It is, very consciously, an ensemble piece, in which no single human shines particularly brightly. The fact that Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars reflects how little imagination the Academy has, how ready it is to fill in the blanks on the ballot with decent but unexceptional performances. (Although I do respect the way Ruffalo makes small but true changes in his manner and physique and presentation for each new role. And if I hadn't known that was Liev Schreiber, I think I wouldn't have guessed it was Liev Schreiber. And I do love Stanley Tucci, and how wonderful was it to see Billy Crudup again? As he ages, and his ridiculous level of prettiness morphs into something more interesting, that weird energy, which was always there but obscured by pulchritude, shines through more fully. No wonder he never plays leads anymore. He's so fascinating to watch, it might be exhausting if he were the center of a film.)

But back to the frustrations. The script is nowhere. At no time does anyone say anything extraordinary. It's all, front to back, exposition, with a scattered aside or two when the journalists voice their creeped-out opinions about the bad guys, but even those are uninspired in wording. And there is no dynamic tension. The thing is edited, it seems quite consciously, to move forward at an unchangingly steady clip, avoiding both emotional highs and lows. This may have been done to represent the constancy of a reporter's plodding but thorough work-pace, but it does nothing to promote gripping drama. The camera, my boyfriend pointed out, has a tendency to pull back away from the group as they're recognizing a breakthrough, instead of encroaching. It's a subconscious thing, right? You pull the camera in, the brain says, "This is important; I should watch closely." You pull out, it says, "The crucial part is done. Oh, look at those pretty windows." It's as if director, screenwriter, cameraman, and editor conspired to keep us from investing too emotionally in the story. And, congratulations, guys, it sure worked with me.

The one good thing I can say about the telling of this story, and this is fairly huge, I admit: it never descended entirely into Good vs Evil. It somehow resisted that usual Hollywood, Easy-Street route of giving All Catholics the black hats or even All Reporters big, shiny, white stetsons. Maybe that's why it got its Oscar, for toeing a delicate line with a touch of grace and care and bonhomie.

All the same, I'll lay odds it'll never get a second viewing in my living room. And Star Wars I may watch a good fifty times or so, if I have the leisure.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

jane got a gun: it ought to have been a woman's movie


(2015. dir: Gavin O'Connor) The question you ask yourself almost constantly during this uninspired oater is in how many crucial ways it might have differed had Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin, Morvern Callar) directed it, as was originally planned. The visuals would have been less traditionally pretty, there might have been longer pauses and silences, and we hopefully would have got inside the head of Jane (Natalie Portman) instead of viewing her story in a general way through the eyes of her men. (Portman's best moment, when she reacts to the news that her daughter has been murdered, is devastatingly good, but we watch it at a double remove: in flashback, and through the eyes of her future husband.) The bad guys might have owned some heft, instead of being villainous cardboard cut-outs painted in broad streaks of jet black-heartedness.

Starting with a lame-assed title, the script feels like a draft-horse compiled piecemeal by committee, sometimes plodding gamely, often barely limping so that you cringe at its agonizing hobbledness, never reaching a full canter. Everything is a revelation to everyone, like in a soap opera. Although her old fiance has lived for at least two years in the same swath of prairie, it is news to her that he tracked her halfway across the country after his release from Andersonville, as if she'd assumed they ended up so close by accident.

Swelly strings poison the score and Jane becomes the usual, ass-kicking bad girl we so often see today, but only when her traditional role is evoked: she fills her bad guy full of lead when he dares to keep her child's whereabouts from her. As in many mediocre Westerns, gunshot injuries taken by good guys tend to heal rapidly and without ill effect (she's gut-shot, a terrible wound to take, but in the next scene there's no sign of repercussion). The small details are wrong (when Joel Edgerton's Dan is shaming her over her lack of prowess firing a pistol, she proves her worth with a hunting rifle by destroying the handle of the firewood-chopping ax. In real life, that ax is worth something, and you don't use it for target practice when you can use a hunk of firewood just as easily). The ending is awful and one assumes Ramsay would have kept no truck with it: Jane and her long-estranged true love, now reconciled, head off into that Manifest Destiny called California with their pair of sweet-faced daughters (one of whom has been raised in a whorehouse but is seemingly still virgin and undamaged), a ready-made nuclear family, rich with bags of gold from bounties on the heads of the cretinous dogs they overcame in their own private war, and now ready to live the American Dream.

I do like that Edgerton is so homely. It's nice that homely men get to play romantic leads. I have a dream that one day homely women will be able to play leads, too, like they do sometimes in English movies. When they need a homely woman in Hollywood, they cast Hilary Swank and stick a pair of spectacles on her perfectly-chiselled face.