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.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

swerve: australian desert noir

(2011. dir: Craig Lahiff) Swerve opens with a static, aerial shot of a three-tined, forked road, announcing its theme: one's Ineluctable Destiny. Why destiny, and not, say, the vagaries of fortune, which a three-tined road might easily connote? Something in the unblinking, unflinching way the camera stays put upon the image, and the unthinking, reckless way the tiny, dark car speeds forward along it, not toward the forks, but to the convergence.

We spend the next several minutes wordlessly with three separate drivers, all mad to reach some unknown destination, all headed straight for one another. Colin (David Lyons) we meet nursing his broken car at the roadside next to a sign gleefully advertising "the Neverest Hotel". The first words we hear are his: "give me a break," he mutters as he futzes with the radio, and that could be written on his tombstone. He's our hapless hero, not passive or weak, but a man absurdly, wonderfully honest in a dark, Faustian world. The second driver is speeding away from a violent drug deal with a suitcase full of colorful Australian money, and the third is Gina (Emma Booth), our femme fatale, going someplace fast, a place which never gets any more specific than "away from here".

One of the best things about this movie is that we never do settle just how fatale our femme is. Certainly she's out for herself, clever to a point of deviousness, used to bartering her sexuality for survival, battered to a point from which she can slip easily into a cold, near-sociopath state when forced into a corner. She's obviously not always telling the truth, but you can see she is when she looks sidelong at one of Colin's accusatory questions and says, "You won't believe me no matter what I say." Maybe this is what defines a femme fatale: a woman who trusts money over love and divorces her heart from her sexuality, using her charms as currency. Ultimately, perhaps, a woman who cannot trust a man, even our hero, whom we, from our privileged catbird seats, know without doubt is worth the extra effort. In the usual, noirish tradition, she's got a problematic husband (Jason Clarke as a corrupt cop and a wife-beater) and, once the instigating car-crash is done, there's that noir-necessary suitcase full of money to be chased and recovered and batted about, followed with shark-like tenacity by a cold-blooded assassin.

The most wonderful thing, and it is marvellous, is how Lahiff so often gives us unvoiced images to tell the story: a bathing suit abandoned at the bottom of a pool, a banknote used as a coaster and soaked with beer. It all ends with a return to the Neverest Hotel bar, and the barman telling that old tale about the Ineluctablity of Fate: the one about the guy who meets Death in Baghdad and runs away to Samara to avoid her. (Spoiler: it doesn't work.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

the female gaze: a sofia coppola double feature

the Virgin Suicides: (1999) *SPOILER ALERT* Right out of the gate, Coppola gives us a film so perfect, so gorgeous and hypnotic, so evocative of difficult truths about the darkness of adolescence, that if she were Harper Lee, everyone would say that Truman Capote wrote it. It's like Huston with the Maltese Falcon: the skills and mastery, and, more dumbfoundingly, the self-assurance, are already there on the maiden voyage.

In fact, this may be her best film to date. In subsequent ventures, she keeps hold of the skills, the imaginative and varying use of technique, the great framing, the inspired casting, a flair for period detail, the flawless choice of music, but she loses the strong backbone found in a great story. This is the only one sprung from a strong novel (by Jeffrey Eugenides), and she's translated it brilliantly into her own vernacular. In her following ventures, the stories will be more fluid, drawn from biography (Marie Antoinette) or from current events (the Bling Ring). Even Lost in Translation, so beloved by many, sees any greatness emerge not from strength of story but from the chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray, between Johansson and Coppola, and between Coppola and Tokyo.

The Virgin Suicides brings to life a sleepy suburb in a late '70s summer, the lazy, mesmeric soundtrack slapping up against an impending sense of doom symbolized by the sickness of the trees in every yard, and the felling notices posted to them. The mystery at the film's heart, the crippling malaise which pulls the girls to their deaths, is never addressed outright, as the boys who grew up obsessing over it never figured it out themselves. Coppola gives us glimpses enough, though: the oldest sister tossing off a comment about being "raffled off" among the football players as Homecoming dates, the youngest sister counting the number of species declared extinct in the year. After the "stone fox" Lux (Kirsten Dunst) is courted, seduced, and abandoned by the school's heartthrob-stoner Trip (Josh Hartnett), she becomes addicted to rousing male desire. The boys who idolize these girls, including Trip, interviewed as an adult in rehab (Michael Pare), use the memory of them to keep alive a dream of romance, whereas the girls themselves have discovered the rot of impossibility at its core.

Marie Antoinette: (2006) Coppola has a strong vision, along with the confidence and technical prowess to display it rather wonderfully before us. That vision, as communicated here, seems to be about how much fun it is shopping, partying, giggling and gossiping with one's girlfriends, and gleaning affection from ugly little lap-dogs when it can't be found from one's husband or in one's surroundings.

As the movie continues, at its own, assured pace, the question seems to become a phenomenological one: what really is worth one's effort? All the agony Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst again) undergoes to master the absurd niceties of the French court and to bear the requisite children, and yet we are in the privileged position of knowing that all her successes will come to nothing. What, then, is worthwhile? She eventually achieves the affection and sex she wants from her husband, finds sexual passion with a Swedish soldier, and some simple contentment in amateur theatricals and on her own miniature farm. Her passion results in nothing but memory, her girl-friendships come across as ultimately shallow and worth very little, and even her final, noble gestures, like standing by her husband when she might still bolt for safety, or bowing before the slavering mob, they both seem, in the end, without much merit beyond the symbolic.

So Coppola isn't giving us a clear answer, unless it's that the journey is the point, and the destination always death, one way or another. Truth be told, she seems to lavish the most attention on the buying of shoes and wearing of fineries, as if that is where her heart really lies.

She has such magnificent abilities, in other words, and apparently no story worth telling.