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Three movies: Annie; God’s Little Acre; Creed.

28 Aug

(I’ve neglected the blog. I’ve been busy working on a book. More details to come.)

Annie

Dig the rabbit hole of American pop culture, a remake of a 1980s movie, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, it based on a 1950s radio serial (called Little Orphan Annie), which in turn was adapted from a 1940s comic strip. What we’re dealing with isn’t even a bastardization, but rather a mollusk-type creature that has crystallized into shit. This movie is terrible.

One, of all the participants, only Jamie Foxx can sing. The rest are either augmented by backup singers, auto-tuned, or tinny and weak. They cut some of the original songs and added a few. The new songs are forgettable, lazy ditties that I forgot immediately after the movie ended.

Two, there’s no dancing or choreography, but more on this in a minute.

Just a really, really bad movie.

Just a really, really bad movie. Look at their faces.

Three, it’s a sanitized version of New York City, and a vision of foster care so bleached of hardship it resembles summer camp. The whole point of a story involving an orphan being adopted is to juxtapose the misery with the hard-earned happiness. That . . . doesn’t happen here.

The original isn’t a classic. It has an excellent first fifteen minutes, and then becomes alternatingly facile (smile and the world’s problems will be fixed), bizarre (President Roosevelt orders Daddy Warbucks to sing in harmony), and disturbing (Carol Burnett slides into a dirty bathtub filled with rotgut gin). But John Huston directs the original, and he doesn’t evade any of the toughness of orphan life. Annie rescues the dog Sandy from boy who are planning, in all likelihood, to set the dog on fire. (In the remake, Annie sees the dog on the streets and later adopts her from the pound. What the hell is the point of that? Where’s the blear, the reeking poetry?) Both movies celebrate wealth as a lifestyle, although in the original, Daddy Warbucks is a war profiteer of sorts.

But here’s the rub: the new version refuses to see any of the danger in childhood, and removes any kind of tension or terror. The original has Tim Curry as Rooster, and he’s a hustler turned murderer who, in the final scene, chases Annie up an elevated train trestle, intent on dashing her on the train tracks. Curry is a charming rake and a terrifying monster. The remake has Annie in a car, with her fake parents, being pursued over city roads by Jamie Foxx and company in a helicopter. There’s never any danger at all. The tension is Annie being in a car with strangers for fifteen minutes. Who cares?

Even the story has been simplified. Annie is in foster-care, under the not so watchful eye of Ms. Hannigan, played by Cameron Diaz. Stacks, a cellphone mogul, is running for mayor. He’s faltering in the polls, mainly because he doesn’t like other people. He saves Annie one day, it’s caught on video and uploaded to youtube, and his malevolent aid, played by Bobby Cannavale, urges him to foster Annie during the election. So far, so interesting.

But the movie isn’t about politics, or encroaching technology—there’s a scene where Stacks takes Annie on a helicopter tour of his semi-hidden cellphone towers, and it’s supposed to be beautiful; it’s not, it’s horrifying—it isn’t about anything, other than, I don’t know, how much better it is to be rich. I don’t need to watch a shitty musical to have some sense of that.

The new film spends most of its time celebrating new technologies, in a way that I found disturbing. Annie becomes an online celebrity through a fake twitter account. The windows in her room aren’t windows at all, but rather screens which she can choose the artificial backgrounds. I could go on, but I won’t. Everything is simulated and false. And this is her life getting better!

Fewer songs, no dancing—the onscreen musical might be a lost craft. But what the fuck? Why not start over, rename the orphan, cut the songs, build your own characters? Or spend a few bucks on good songwriters? I’m baffled, and can’t think of another movie that has nothing on its mind other than cash and money. It’s also a huge waste of what should have been a great African American showcase. Case in point: Tracie Thoms, an astonishing singer and actor, plays Annie’s fake mother, and not only does she have no songs at all, she’s only given two or three lines. Why? What the hell is going on? African Americans have contributed so much to music and dancing in American culture, why the hell would anyone make a musical, repurpose it with African American leads, and have no singing or dancing of any note? It’s heinous enough to feel like a white conspiracy.

One of the most cynical and corrupt movies I’ve ever seen.

 

God’s Little Acre

An old Anthony Mann movie from the 1950s, and it’s a strange hybrid of drama, period movie, western, noir and comedy. The movie follows a family led by Ty Ty, played by Robert Ryan, who owns a large piece of perfect farming land. He could be a successful farmer, but instead of growing things he digs for mythical gold his grandfather supposedly buried on the plot. He’s been digging for fifteen years, systematically ruining his land with giant holes, and contributing nothing to nobody. He’s embroiled two of his sons, and one of their wives.

Fascinating mid-fifties movie that has been mostly forgotten.

Fascinating mid-fifties movie that has been mostly forgotten.

Ryan is a marvelous actor, and he combines madness and dreaminess in a way that is believable. He’s driven by an impossible dream, in some ways he’s a precursor to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, attempting to do the inconceivable. Ryan’s career is astonishing; he steals scenes in minor roles, and expands the lead. His great performances include The Naked Spur, where he plays a mouthy, sinister murderer; Crossfire, where he’s a terrifying anti-Semite who bullies everyone around him; Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo, Lonelyhearts, The Professionals, Billy Budd, the list goes on and on. He’s perfect as Thornton in The Wild Bunch, a gunman who admires the men he’s betrayed and despises the band he’s allied with. If you watch him in that movie again, he’s stony and hard, but all as a thin casing against his immense loneliness. Ryan’s last film was Frankenheimer’s screen adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, and he’s an absolute marvel. His rage and anger shine through his haggard face like a radioactive skull. (The movie is astonishing, with Frederic March, Lee Marvin, and Jeff Bridges.) There’s always something serpentine and coiled about Robert Ryan; he’s eternally lethal.

God’s Little Acre has a number of surprises: Michael Landon plays an albino. He’s handsome and intriguing onscreen; you can see how he became such a big TV star. Buddy Hackett plays the dumb, smarmy, Pluto Swint, who is obsessed with Ty Ty’s youngest daughter, Darlin’ Jill. Rex Ingram, one of the great black actors of the classic Hollywood era—known for his role of the Djinn in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad—plays Uncle Felix, and has a great calm performance that is funny and sad at the same time. Near the middle he points a shotgun at Michael Landon. “You’re not going to shoot me,” Landon says. “No,” Ingram says, “I’m not going to shoot you.” Pause. “But this shotgun will.”

Finally, the women. Fay Spain, Tina Louise and Helen Westcott play Darlin’ Jill, Griselda and Rosamund, the wives of the various men in the movie. They each bring a rich complexity to what are often one-dimensional roles. Clever, adaptable survivors. Sexy as hell, too.

The movie juggles all the characters with taut and lean directing. Ryan is surprisingly funny. At one point, he apologizes to one of the female characters, saying, “Our family . . . ain’t known for its politeness to women.”

The movie hints at rampant adultery, and plenty of backwoods intercourse, but also has a subplot involving unions and workers’ rights. It’s an ambitious movie, juggling the comedy and tragedy with a large cast of characters, but little plot.

The atmosphere feels noirish, with the black and white photography and the hints at danger and derangement, as well as looming doom. Mann paints God’s Little Acre in chioaroscuro tones. There’s a touch of Deep South mysticism. It all adds up to something, I’m just not sure what. It isn’t great movie, but worth seeing, a fascinating and enthralling little movie.

 

Creed

This is how you make a white franchise into a black movie; I loved this. Ryan Coogler followed up his excellent, heart-breaking docudrama, Fruitvale Station, of a young black man murdered by police with the next installment of the Rocky franchise, moving the action to Apollo Creed’s bastard son, Adonis. Creed died—killed in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV—before Adonis was born, and his mother died soon after. He is dumped into groups homes and foster care, and spends his childhood fighting.

Hell to the yes.

Hell to the yes.

The movie begins with Creed’s wife, played by Phylicia Rashad, adopting him out of juvie. Michael B. Jordan plays Creed, and he’s a fabulous actor. It’s hard to see him through his absurd physique, a musculature rivaled only by Carl Weathers in Rocky III, but his performance is excellent, nuanced and strong. He has an astonishing face for movies; he’s handsome, but with hard, angular features. He carries the movie.

Adonis leaves his home in Los Angeles, quits his high-paying job, and moves to Philadelphia, where he seeks out Rocky Balboa, aging, at the end of things, a lonely owner of a restaurant. Adrian and Paulie are dead. Rocky is resistant to Adonis, who asks for guidance and training. Rocky doesn’t want to contribute to another boxing life. But Adonis persists, and soon the movie is perfectly in the trajectory of the other films. Training, hardship, psychological toughness, and the vanquishing of inner and outer foes.

The boxing movie is alive and well—Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter were both excellent, and The Wrestler might as well be about boxing, and is probably the biggest visual influence on this movie—and here Coogler has an astonishing sequence in Creed’s first professional fight, a single take, lasting close to four minutes, with the boxers slugging, jabbing, feinting and dancing in and out of frame. Creed is notable for lots of things, the first boxing movie with a black protagonist since The Great White Hope, for one, and the performance by Stallone that is calm, unglamorous, and steady. I wish the film had allowed Adonis and Rocky to knock around a bit more, develop a relationship as opposed to allow the audience to assume their affections, but it’s a very fine piece of that sub-genre of sports movie, the boxing film.

The final fight has our black hero fighting a white champion in an all-white crowd, in England. Filmed with supreme technique, and filled with the terror of violence, the finale plays out without irony or sentimentality.

Somehow, Coogler has repurposed the boxing movie, scoring his points but also maintaining the integrity of the film, turning a burned out franchise into a genre masterpiece. I goddamn loved it.

Interlude 4: Three movies, two nights.

20 Nov

(And why the hell not?)

The Guest

Brisk, tight, suburban—this horror-thriller hybrid feels like half a dozen other films, but manages to end up with an identity all its own. Daniel Collins is an American veteran returned home from the wars. He appears on the doorstep of the Peterson family, who have lost their son in Afghanistan. Collins brings a message from their departed, as he was present at the final moments. He’s invited to stay with them, for a while, unsettling 20-year-old Anna and 15-year-old Luke. Dan Stevens—well known as the lumpy Crowley in Downton Abbey—conveys a range of sinister emotions with odd fish eyes and a thousand yard stare. His face turns stony at odd moments, and his performance, the kind that always goes unnoticed—an intriguing turn in a b-movie—is a marvel. Collins begins reshaping the lives of his adopted family, only in the most macabre way possible, through murder and deceit and incarceration. (For the first forty minutes, the movie is a very close analogue to the French film, A Friend Like Harry.)

But Anna’s suspicions lead her to make a single phone call, which alerts a shadowy, private military organization into action. Led by Lance Reddick, a team of shooters converges on the small southern town, and all pandemonium breaks loose. The movie is an astonishing visual spectacle, conveying almost all of its drama and most of its information through images. And excellent synth music.

It has the flow and feel of Halloween—in fact, I kept thinking, this is the movie John Carpenter should have made after They Live!—as well as other movies, like Universal Soldier, The TerminatorDrive. Imagine short stories conceived by Ray Bradbury but rewritten by Denis Johnson, and then adapted to screen by Wes Craven, before being filmed by Nicholas Refn. It’s a glorious, ridiculous pastiche. And when the climax takes place in a high school gymnasium repurposed for a Halloween dance—with a makeshift labyrinth, driving synth-pop score, and intentionally cheesy scares, reminiscent of The Shining and Halloween II—you know you’ve seen something. But. The movie has a political subtext too. The sillier elements underscore the movie’s political point of view, conveying the reality of U.S. military atrocities, intrigue, and outright lies.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

The Faults

Three of the actors from The Guest star in The Faults, and there are only five characters. There are other similarities, especially in the excellent visual scheme. Leland Orser, a very fine b-movie actor whose heyday was the cheap scuzzy crime movies of the 1990s, absolutely kills as the lead, a disturbed cult de-programmer and former celebrity named Ansel. He ekes out a living giving small-town speaking engagements while fending off his former manager, who is extorting money from him. The manager’s weapon of choice is Lance Reddick, who has one of the great lines of recent b-movie history: “See, I don’t have a gun? It’s because I don’t need one.” Ansel is hired to deprogram a lost 28-year-old woman by her creepy parents.

The bulk of the film occurs in adjoining hotel rooms, a physical and metaphorical space that turns fuzzy and ontological as the talk sessions reveal psycho-sexual fissures in Ansel’s brain.

We’re in that crepuscular dreamspace where the American drive for success and meaning turns into a nightmare. The parents grow stranger and stranger as the movie progresses, staring off into space or exploding in anger. The victim regresses into a childlike state and then back. Locked doors open. Impossible imaged flicker across the television screen. And it all feels like the unraveling of Ansel’s mind, but it might actually be happening. One of the strongest indie/small movies I’ve seen in some time.

The Faults is ultimately about power, who has it, how to use and how to abuse it. Power isn’t about appearances, or isn’t just about appearances; power is about superior understanding and insight. Weakness is ultimately in the mind. The Guest traffics in similar ideas. Collins is immensely powerful in the physical world, but trapped in an internal sequence that forces him to do things he doesn’t want to do. In the movie it’s a clear metaphor for military training, but just as easily stands in for any ideology. (Hail Stefan Zizek, eh?)

So ideology is easily hidden, but not easily escaped. I love when movies with nothing in common traverse similar internal ground.

FAULTS

You can’t deprogram loneliness or depravity. 

Copland

And why not? It’s written and directed by James Mangold, the skilled, if just a touch square, filmmaker who made the very fine The Immigrant two years ago. The movie follows a large group of characters in a tiny town outside New York City, where the bulk of the residents are city cops. The city is run by a high-ranking police, played by Harvey Keitel, who runs some type of criminal enterprise while wearing a badge. The sheriff is a half-deaf, seemingly simple Sylvester Stallone, who gives a pretty good performance. There’s a crime, a cover-up, and Internal Affairs begins to investigate. It’s a solid crime drama, terse, fun to watch, with some intriguing performances. Ray Liotta is pretty damn good in it, and it’s one of the last movies where Robert De Niro really cuts loose. (He has this great scene where he’s chewing out Stallone in-between taking bites of a sandwich he’s not enjoying; it’s wonderful.) The movie doesn’t turn away from the urban tensions of race/crime/police/money, and there’s plenty of subtext in the casting. Flawed, yes, a bit hokey in the last five minutes, sure, but better than you remember.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.

 

interlude 2: True Detective and Sinister Forces.

30 Aug
  1. I set out to write an entry on True Detective, season 2.
  2. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, I can’t. The show was/is too frustrating, but in a banal, insipid way.
  3. I made it this far in my little draft-critique: “Self-awareness isn’t satire. Self-awareness isn’t even clever, anymore. Self-awareness is just self-awareness. Nothing more.”
  4. That could have been the tag line for the season: nothing more.
  5. I dug the masks, the totem animals. Pizzolato has a thing for them. Animal masks cover the faces of the killers in the first season, and they cover the killer here. (They also adorn walls, etc.) It’s interesting; Grant Morrison has a pig-faced man reverberating through most of his comics. I’m betting—and I said this before—that Pizzolatto is a comics fan. Did he borrow again?
  6. One of the major influences on this season is David Lynch.
  7. Lynch is a very difficult filmmaker to copy, and no one should try. He works with an idiosyncratic intuition that is unnerving; he pulls his stories from dreams, raging caffeine highs, and an underlying sensibility that is dapper and decent, right out of the 1950s. He combines the nightmarish images with moments of sweet innocence. He is, as Mel Brooks described him, “like Jimmy Stewart, from Mars.”
  8. Pizzolato is not like Jimmy Stewart from Mars. This season has no balance. There’s no humor, no pathos. No horror or scares, either. Just grim and dour people making long speeches punctuated by pregnant pauses. Ugh.
  9. Here I am doing the thing I said I couldn’t do. Writing about True Detective. It’s like gummy bears. Or quicksand. Once you start . . .
  10. There’s one thing a crime show cannot be and that is boring. And let me tell you, True Detective was a slog.
  11. So I’ve been reading Peter Levenda’s Sinister Forces. It is a revisiting, retelling, rehashing, revising of American history, with occult patterns and forces at the fore.
  12. Don’t roll your eyes. (And bear with me.)
  13. Levenda is a very fine writer and a very fine researcher. I’ve read way too much in the conspiracy/underground/counterfactual genre, and Levenda is hands-down the best writer I’ve come across. Too good, really, for what he is doing. He’s seductive. He’s alluring. He’s tempting.
  14. His central thesis revolves around American religious belief, which he sees as a mash-up of the European alchemist tradition (itself a line of magical thinking dating back to ancient Egypt), Gnostic Christianity, mainstream Christianity, and Celtic pantheism. Many of our most important thinkers, writers, scientists and politicians were believers of one kind or another, often of off-shoots of mainstream religion.
  15. These politicians made decisions, many of them profoundly impacting the lives of Americans today. And they based these decisions, often in large part, on their beliefs.
  16. So our country, he argues, has one foot in the occult tradition. And that occult tradition has had a profound, if often misunderstood impact on our political history. (True Detective, season 1?)
  17. Levenda is working in both vertical history (the cause and effect, look at this and then look at what it caused, mostly interviews and primary documents) and horizontal history (everything is an interconnected web of near-invisible tendrils, impacting everything else, a kind of synchronicity writ large, encompassing literature and pop culture and folklore and yes, the occult). The problem with the former method, favored by most historians, is it often presents history as a fixed thing. Which it wasn’t, not when it was happening. The problem with the latter is that it often substitutes coincidental accidents as intentional events. Which, of course, isn’t how the real world works at all.
  18. Put another way: both approaches suffer from the invasion of novelistic techniques. (Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, you were right!) But Levenda addresses this very problem in his book. “You can’t tell stories without . . . telling stories.”
  19. Everything is true. All is permitted. Truth is fiction.
  20. Both approaches also apply to crime fiction. Crime novels—and movies and shows—tend to follow one of these two techniques. Breaking Bad is mostly vertical. Characters make decisions, people die; this type of crime fiction is looking to make sinners find penance and criminals redemption. Or death. True Detective, however, was mostly horizontal; it (attempted) to offer a delicate web of interconnectivity.
  21. Sort of, anyway. My biggest problem with the show was its inability to show the events that actually mattered. The entire story rested on a break-in and double murder that you never see and only hear second-hand.
  22. Anyway, in history, the horizontal approach—these are my terms, I’m sure they aren’t the preferred ones—is refreshing. Levenda pulls from all over the map, movies and literature and historical events, focusing on ancient Amerindian burial mounds in one chapter and serial killers, many of whom come from West Virginia, which is just bizarre, in another.
  23. Levenda does a fabulous job of connecting the dots between the crazy theories (there’s one that Charles Manson was killing people for the government, and then hiding their true purpose inside the massacres; think on that one for a moment), and the documented facts. (Operation Paperclip. Wilder than most fiction. Look it up.)
  24. But he suffers from the same problem of every conspiracy theorist. Or rather, the same two problems. A. There are no accidents. (Of course, there are.) And, B. there’s a key—if you dig enough, and make enough connections, and uncover enough hidden information—to unlocking what appears to be vast, interlocking, inter-dependent (yet somehow co-dependent) events. (There isn’t.)
  25. The problem here is that Levenda is a very fine writer and stylist. I’ve only read one other book in this spectrum that was as well-written. (John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies; read it like a novel and it will stick with you for months. It’s dynamite.)
  26. Levenda builds his scaffolding carefully. Multiple times I felt my subconscious mind beginning to agree with him. I had to assert my rational side. (And part of me regrets it. But that’s a story for another post.)
  27. One of his major themes is that there are historical figures in America’s history that are loci of events: Jack Parsons, Ray Palmer, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles Manson, Marilyn Monroe, E. Howard Hunt and half a dozen other post-war OSS to C.I.A. dudes. These figures, among others, form an subterranean layer. Levenda calls it “the darker mechanism of history.”
  28. I love this kind of approach. For years I’ve argued that there are semi-hidden novels—some near forgotten—that are hugely influential in American literature. Fat City, Little Big Man, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle among them. (I have a list of these somewhere.)
  29. Ditto for movies: The Trial and Touch of Evil, Thieves’ Highway and My Darling Clementine, The Hit and After Hours, movies that aren’t forgotten exactly, but seem to reverberate through other films to a larger degree than anyone seems to notice.
  30. Levenda has others, including Cotton Mather and Joseph Smith, who bop in and out of the narrative he’s telling. But he keeps hammering home the weird connecting points between the Nazi scientists, UFO sightings, serial killers, ancient burial mounds, and the assassinations of the 1960s. He loves uncovering relationships, oddball coincidences.
  31. Here’s a wild one: J. D. Salinger worked for the U.S. counter-intelligence during World War II. Later, his novel The Catcher in the Rye was associated with a number of assassins, and Mark David Chapman had it on him when he killed John Lennon. Salinger’s novel was, in at least two movies I’ve seen, used as a mechanism by counter-intelligence agents to train assassins.
  32. Life imitating art imitating life imitating what? A vague notion? A coincidence?
  33. That’s weird, right?
  34. And yet it probably means nothing.
  35. Which brings me back to True Detective, Season 2. Weird, and it probably means nothing.
  36. And yet, the show still has something intriguing inside of it, some piece that kept me watching. I think it has to do with its pagan roots. Like the Green Man in the first season, here it’s the snaking highways and the industrial settings, the psycho-sexual overlay of the land on top of the characters and their disturbed desires, the totems. There seems to be a sub-strata, hidden components, that if I looked at it long enough, would reveal themselves to me.
  37. But, just like Levenda argues about American history, the show doesn’t seem to know where its residual power lies. Pizzolatto is very bad at the Chinatown/James Ellroy/Raymond Chandler plotting. He can’t hack it. He is excellent at the almost supernatural, the high occult weirdness.
  38. Which is one of the many, many things season 2 was missing.
  39. He should have set the show in the early 1960s, during the time of the sci-fi and horror television shows. Rod Serling! Joseph Stefano! Harlan Ellison! Gene Roddenberry! You can see his detectives wandering through cheap-o television sets, interviewing zonked out actors with the end of the humanity by nuclear winter is corroding everyone’s thinking and the Zodiac Killer and other west coast weirdoes hover at the edge of the story.
  40. Including Charles Manson.
  41. With Ronald Reagan as the governor.
  42. Peter Levenda, you rascal. Darkening my thoughts.

Interlude 1: Hal’s response to my thoughts on Hard To Be a God.

13 Aug

(My pal Hal has responded to my thoughts on Hard To Be a God with great aplomb. I’ve posted them here, unexpurgated and uncommented on by me. I expected he would be irritated with my interpretation, and in fairness to him, I haven’t made up my mind about the movie myself. There’s something so haunting and unsettling about the film—it works is what I’m saying, even if it doesn’t. It’s reverberating in the nether twilight of my brain.)

Begin Hal’s thoughts now:

Here’s my basic critique of your HTBAG reading. I agree, or agree to disagree, with most all of it. But the line about the film being utterly false—I’m not exactly sure what you’re demanding of German here. You start the review by laying out the film’s terrain as science fiction, and then go on to level your harshest critique of it being out of line with the Historical Middle Ages. I mean, the overture literally lays out the delineation between Arkanar and Earth: the Renaissance never happened there. Different place, different reality. Also, if we actually want to go down the road of comparing it to the Historical Middle Ages (and I’ll be clear that I think any comparison should be aesthetic rather than historical, but here goes), the black death killed 1/3 of Europe. No anesthesia. No plumbing. Purges of the intelligentsia. Whole Gamut. But seriously, 1/3 of the continent dead. No Divine Comedy or Decameron crowns that affair, no matter how perfect. German’s film is a reaction to Putin’s Russia. The Historical Middle Ages was a reaction to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Tarkovsky believes in the power of art and the artist, and his style is pure. German believes in nothing, and I think it’s just as pure. It’s like Bernhard versus Krazsnahorkai. The shear relentlessness and force and audacity and absurdity of German’s vision is the relic, is the arc. You don’t need poetry in a film for it to be a piece of poetry, though there are plenty of lines of Pushkin scattered throughout.

Also, the main character looks like Louie CK, so thinking it was just a long episode got me through the doldrums.

Interlude 1. Whiplash. Hard To Be a God. BirdMan. The Drop.

31 Jul

I’ve seen a number of very fine movies recently, all made with supreme skill and confidence. But the technique in three of the four movies cuts into any type of moral or message, overwhelming the movie’s ideas. It’s a weird trend, the directing acumen outshining the writing, but here we have three excellent movies that are, on close inspection, missing something essential. Or at least, they seem to be.

Whiplash—The film follows a music student at a top New York music school. He falls under the tutelage of a verbally abusive teacher, and the two wage a psychological war.  The music is excellent, and the director knows how to pace a film; there isn’t an inch of fat. Whiplash offers three dynamite performances—Miles Teller and J.K Simmons, of course, but also a very fine minor role for Paul Reiser. I didn’t just like it, I loved it, I had a great time watching it, and the tension is close to unbearable. The movie feels alive in a way that many movies don’t. But the teacher, played by J.K. Simmons is tyrannical, insulting, dismissive, punishing and utterly unredeemable. Okay, fine, yet the movie seems to side with him near the end. It’s a disconcerting and discomfiting movie, for the message seems to be arguing for the asshole school of artistry—an artist has to be driven, talented, and lucky as well as selfish and cruel to have any chance at greatness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Assured ambience and atmosphere, stunning lighting and acting, unforgettable set pieces—the film is festooning with technique—but what is the movie saying? Is art bad?

Excellent and vibrant and alive. But what is it saying?

Excellent and vibrant and alive. But what is it saying?

Hard To Be a God—is dripping and oozing film technique of a different kind, a hybrid of Bergman and Tarkovsky and Cassavetes and Burroughs and some Euro-trash fantasy knockoff from the 1980s. And more than a little of Orson Welles’s The Trial. So, before I say anything else, let’s be clear: Hard To Be a God is tasteless, crass, revolting, repugnant, often nonsensical, hinting at profundity but never achieving it. It’s also utterly compelling, stunningly executed, and beautifully photographed. The director seems to be rehashing the same territory as The Man Who Fell To Earth (itself quite a an overrated clunker), that people lose track of their self-purpose through hedonism. Life is cheap. Man is a runty animal. And, I don’t know, without modern sewage removal our dwellings would smell bad.

The conceit is astonishing: scientists in the future discover a planet just like ours, on the cusp of the Enlightenment. The scientists ingratiate themselves in the local populace to study and record the coming advances, only the enlightenment never happens. It’s just the grindhouse of the middle ages, religious persecutions, plagues, riots, holy wars, purges and horrid sanitation.

Welcome to the sludgy wasteland. Now die.

Welcome to the sludgy wasteland. Now die.

Hard To Be a God offers little exposition outside the first few minutes. I think the scientists have installed themselves as the ruling class, including Rumata, who has set himself up as the son of a god. Rumata’s quest is to drag the humanoid alien race into modernity without interfering too much. He tries, in vain, to save poets and scientists and interesting people from the various pitfalls but the world is such disarray around him he spends much of the movie wandering in a drunken daze. Another human, Reba, has set himself up as a kind of Colonel Kurtz for the entire world. Rumata projects violence, always claiming to cut off ears for fun, but when he’s attacked he works hard not to hurt anyone. But the crumbling society he is trapped in has such cheap notions of life that his ideals aren’t just tested, they’re proven completely and utterly false. He sees disemboweling, defenestration. He witnesses people being scalped, beheaded, raped, hung, burned at the stake, ripped apart by medieval devices. But he spends most of the movie sniffing various garments.

The movie unfolds with long, uninterrupted tracking shots. The sets and the art design are unfathomable; the movie feels like you are wandering lost in some god-forsaken outpost of a dying world. The sound and the actor’s blocking are unparalleled. But much of the movie is crowded with excess, with clunky backgrounds stuffed with hanging innards, quivering buttocks, pig heads and blunt spears and all manner of rusting metal. It’s beautiful to look at, yet unflaggingly ugly. A neat trick in and of itself, I suppose. But the movie is three hours long.

I’m glad I watched this movie, but it’s a far cry from the great films of Bergman (Wild Strawberries) or Goddard (Alphaville!) or Tarkovsky (I would watch Andre Rubilev five more times before I watched this again) or Fellini (La Dolce Vita forever!) or any of the other great directors. It’s exquisite filmmaking in service to a boorish and abhorrent worldview. That. Is. Utterly. False. People are always striving to build things. Our own middle ages produced Milton, Boccaccio, Dante, the Celestina and so many other grand cathedrals and works of art. Here, the human animal has never been so goddamn repellant.

 

Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—Yet a third astonishing, bravura technical accomplishment, the entire film appearing to be one extended take (a la Russian Ark, which actually was one take), the passage of time and the warp of physical space more elaborate than the fabled early stage performances of “The Alchemist.” Stunning tracking shots and a delirious lead performance from Michael Keaton—you can’t take your eyes off of him—combine with a weird mashup of Raymond Carver and magical realism and Hollywood blockbuster and 1930s screwball comedy. And it all works. Mostly.

But, again, what is the movie saying? There’s an angry critic and an existential teenager and a pretentious method actor and the backstage machinery of a play. It’s funny and thrilling and anxiety-inducing. It’s a thunderous experience—I loved watching it, I could hardly breathe with anticipation—but the reverberating echoes make less sense as I gain distance. One critic called it a faux art film. This seems harsh and weirdly unfair. But, the movie’s cynicism near the end cuts into much of what I was watching. (I won’t give it away, in case you haven’t seen it, but the narrative breaks down in a tremendous manner.) It’s the third movie that overpowers you with a brash and awesome spectacle of cinema. But it feels disconnected and divorced from the reality it’s supposed to be mirroring. Work hard and you can be sort of rich? Acting is a punishing and often facile profession? Hollywood is vacuous, money-driven place?

Stunning. And maybe pointless.

Stunning. And maybe pointless.

The Drop—Which brings me to my favorite of the bunch, the least conspicuously artful, yet the most measured, the most patient and probably the best of this esteemed little list. (An opinion that will certainly rankle my fellow cinephiles.) The Drop is a little crime movie following two cousins, James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy, who run a little dive bar that holds money for the mob. They are robbed, there’s twists and turns and some dead bodies, but I won’t give any of the plot mechanics away. The Drop has courage, however, to attempt real human emotion against a noir caper plot; you care about the characters and you understand them. The acting is superb; Tom Hardy gives a nuanced, subtle and heart-breaking turn as the not-too-capable bagman in a lonely, violent world. The lighting is top-notch. And the movie has intimations of a sinister creepiness, the twilight zone invading a semi-normal life. Only, here, it’s believable. These are people living with one foot in a netherworld and violence is stalking them. The film’s argument—in this world, you can be decent, you just cannot be weak—is laid out in a clear, unnerving manner, and the surprise ending reveals itself to have been the inevitable conclusion of the story, you just didn’t see it coming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Excellent, elevated filmmaking that seems simple, but isn't.

Excellent, elevated filmmaking that seems simple, but isn’t.

 

Interlude 1: Los Angeles Plays Itself/Among the Thugs.

30 Mar

1.

Los Angeles Plays Itself is pure dynamite.

Director Thom Anderson lays out an odd, compelling thesis: Los Angeles is a real city turned into a symbolic space, through the alchemy of Hollywood and movies. The city has, over the years, absorbed some of its cinematic reflection, and then been transmogrified into metaphor again.

With brilliant voice-over narration, and film clips from sixty or so movies, Anderson creates one of the best—and most important—documentaries in recent memory.

Quotable, thrilling, investigative, meditative, insightful—this documentary wanders through dozens of great films (and not so great ones), including Blade Runner, Chinatown, Sunset Blvd, Kiss Me Deadly, Falling Down, Outside Man, Zabriskie Point, Rising Son, American Me, and Marlowe. And if some of these are bad films, all of them become more intriguing viewed through Anderson’s prism of history, aesthetics, anthropology, art design and personal history.

I’ve always loved movies about movies—Scorsese’s Conversations with Marty is one of my first real journeys into the back alleys of cinema, and Odyssey: The Story of Film should be required viewing for all movie fans—but this is also a kind of not-so-secret, but forgotten, history of over 100 years of one of the U.S.’s greatest, and weirdest, cities.

I cannot believe how much I loved this movie.

I cannot believe how much I loved this movie.

He dissects half a dozen movies through the prism of transportation. “Loss of a car is a symbolic castration,” he says, and then lays out his evidence. This idea, of car equals masculinity (to white, wealthy Hollywood insiders) in Los Angeles, and without your car you are no longer man, appears again and again in dozens of films. And he reveals Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as an argument for good public transportation. (By the end of this segment, I agreed.)

He reinterprets—and for me, reinvigorates—bad action movies, Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2, among them, as metaphorical attacks on Los Angeles architecture. Sounds bizarre? Well, it works.

Anderson is also opinionated. He has a miserly view of Woody Allen, for instance, who visits L.A. in Annie Hall. But he’s a canny critic of films with a great eye, and he offers a great study of film noir, as well as independent films about underrepresented ethnic groups.

He’s tightly focused but also conversational, with fascinating little asides and observations. By turns doomy and apocalyptic, acerbic and funny, insightful and even moving, I adored every exquisite minute of it.

The best thing Anderson does, though, is challenge the way I view movies. I’ve been too complacent about the connective tissue between films, relying on the auteur theory when this type of aggregate interpretation of a place is so much more meaningful.

 

2.

Among the Thugs is a horrifying, ghastly first-person exploration of English soccer hooliganism, and its connection to racist neo-Nazi organizations, organized crime and something askew and semi-hidden in English culture.

Buford was an American living in England, when he witnessed a trainload of Liverpool fans running amok after a victory. He was aghast, but noticed that native Brits didn’t make much of it. So he investigated. He embedded. And what he discovered is a type of Heart of Darkness for sports fans.

Buford is a very fine reporter, a trained observer and an elegant stylist. He’s grappling not only with crowd theory and social violence but also youth culture, sports fandom, and deeper, darker strands of ingrained violence and nationalistic, nativist fervor.

One writer compared it to a real-life A Clockwork Orange, and this is apt. There’s a dystopian flavor to Buford’s experiences, cities abandoned to atavistic tribes. And the violence is obscene, almost pornographic—gouging, headbutts, knees to the groin, stomping faces onto sidewalks—pointless and absurd. For the hooligans are often people with regular jobs during the week, even families, who are addicted to breaking social norms through weekly drunken ultra-violence. And here’s the kicker: for a time, Buford enjoys it too. He likes the restless feeling before a crowd turns violent. And he argues that this crowd violence for a purpose provides the thugs with a surging adrenaline and identity heightened by taboo.

Absolutely and stunningly grotesque.

Absolutely and stunningly grotesque.

Buford negates narrative. Violence is random, ghastly and unconnected. It’s often one stranger smashing another. The English supporters are the worst in other countries, destroying cars and shops and bystanders and sometimes murdering people, a collision of cultures literally, as the English punch, kick, trudgeon, slap, choke, stab and slice their way through continental pedestrians, police, even a father who had the misfortune to be taking his baby for a stroll during an upcoming World Cup match. It is a torrent of brutality.

Jon Ronson’s Them and The Pyschopath Test are both modeled on Thugs, a big idea encapsulated in a variety of oddball characters and comic (or vicious or both) vignettes.

But Buford elides cause and effect. He avoids bullshit analysis. The hoodlums aren’t amoral, they’re viciously and proudly immoral. They enjoy the carnage. They enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Here’s a sample, of a supporter, assaulting a number of men for no apparent reason:

“Harry knew the landlord and asked if he would wait where was for a minute or two—he had something for him—and went off to retrieve it. Harry walked to his van parked across the street and returned with a spade. He used it to hit the landlord—twice, a full swing, crack, against the side of his head. Then he hit both doormen. He then picked up a park bench, lifted it over his shoulders and threw it through the window. Shattered glass was everywhere. The pub was packed, and the people inside started screaming and ran for the door. In the crush, there were several injuries. Harry waited until the pub was empty, entered it, picked up a stool and used it to smash the bottles of spirits and beer, the glass doors of the refrigerators and the wine bottles inside. Then he threw the stool into the mirror behind the bar. . . . And then he walked home and went to bed.”

A curative for “first” world arrogance, there’s pages and pages of this stuff.

Supremely unnerving, and worthy of its sterling reputation.

 

 

Interlude 3: The Counselor, Anonymous, Her, Magic Mike and Jesse James.

3 Jul

(Still writing and rewriting, tweaking, in the guts of a manuscript, pouring as much gasoline as I can into the sentences, always looking for electricity. And, to be honest, I’ve been struggling with the first absolute of writing, “Apply ass to chair.”)

1.

The Counselor isn’t a film. It isn’t a Cormac McCarthy[1] novel either. It’s a fatalistic information system, with little context, bad music, and an invisible plot.

Ridley Scott is too reverent of McCarthy’s script. I’m certain—I read some of the treatment when it was published in the New Yorker—that the screenplay is a good read. But on screen it’s both too slow and yet too short, and in the end, incoherent and stupid.

The script is too tidy. Anything mentioned in the first half becomes manifest in the second. There’s lots of sermonizing. Ominous portents. Silly warnings. Little speeches. But they don’t feel connected to anything. Some scenes go on too long. Others are cut short. Still others are in the film for no real reason, while important scenes that would have established the characters and mood are missing. As it is, the movie feels like an indie art film gone horribly wrong. Or a big budget movie where the producers ran out of cash midway through production and said, what the hell, let’s just slap what we have onto the screen. Fuck it.

Michael Fassbinder, a fabulous actor, looks lost. Cameron Diaz is horrid. Penelope Cruz tries hard but has a thin role. And Javier Bardem isn’t sure what kind of character he’s playing, a wolf, a dangerous man, a good friend, a worried lover, a hustler, so his performance stumbles out like a hot mess. Brad Pitt does fine, but his character is ill-defined, too. Rosie Perez is great, but why is she in the movie?

It looks good, but it isn't. So very, very bad.

It looks good, but it isn’t. So very, very bad.

They all stumble their way through the film, interspersed with shots of a sewage truck carrying twenty million dollars worth of dope. The pieces seem to fit together, but under the barest scrutiny the movie falls apart. It makes no sense. Large chunks of story are absent. The catalyst for the action is invisible. People talk, and then people start dying. The scenes are lacking basic dramatic tension, as well as humor. (Which fans of McCarthy, like me, will find shocking.)

And the cheetahs. Lots of shots of two goddamn cheetahs. We get it: man is another predator; it’s a kill or be killed world; blah blah blah. Cameron Diaz, to further drive the point home, has a gold incisor, cheetah paws tattooed on her back, and wears a variety of predator patterns on her skin-tight dresses and bikinis. Her last lines are, and I’m not making this up, “I’m famished.”

I could denigrate the movie for days. The plot is thin. Fassbinder plays a lawyer in Texas who decides to buy into a drug deal. The deal goes wrong. And the hammer falls. On everyone. Brad Pitt gets his head cut off. There, I just saved you two hours.

2.

Anonymous is a horrid film too, and predictably so. The movie begins with the premise that Edward de Vere secretly wrote all the plays of Shakespeare—the movie posits that he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a child of twelve!—but couldn’t tell the world because, well, it involves Queen Elizabeth not having an heir. Among other intrigues.

I don’t have to defend Shakespeare, there are dozens of better-equipped people than me doing so, but the movie with this kind of ridiculous conceit should be fun. Loads of fun. Oodles and oodles of guilty pleasure kind of fun.

It isn’t. The scenes are muddled. The acting is, on the whole, horrible. Which feels ironic somehow—actors playing actors playing characters, something in there should be watchable—but it isn’t really played for anything. The whole movie operates as an argument against Shakespeare (they make him a drunken fool, a craven knave, and a coward to boot) being a writer, and for de Vere being well, the world’s greatest human. Suffering for his art.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Ben Jonson is in it. So are Thomas Dekker and Christopher Marlowe. But unlike Shakespeare in Love —which is fabulous and witty, playing with the historical figures while sneaking in anachronistic wordplay—this movie has them in the film to be beaten, knifed, chased, and then deliver the occasional pithy line. It’s the rare movie I didn’t finish and didn’t want or need to.

In the final tally, the movie exists as a (falsified) jumping off point for snobs who believe Shakespeare couldn’t be the actual author of the plays because he wasn’t rich. If middle-brow, faux snobbery is your thing, go forth and enjoy.

Rubbish.

3.

Her is two films, one of them fantastic, one of them wretched. It all depends on what baggage you bring to it.

The movie isn’t complex; the story is the plot is the movie. A lonely, damaged man falls in love with a disembodied artificial intelligence. Joaquin Phoenix plays the man, and it is a fascinating performance, humbled, wounded, and bare, a fascinating counterpoint to his superb turn in The Master. (See here) Similarly raw, but decent and kind and introverted. Scarlet Johansen plays the artificial intelligence, and she conveys a vast range of emotions through her voice. It, too, is a marvel.

The movie has a fantastic look, vaguely futuristic, with a sharp costume design. And to lovers of twee aesthetics and minimalist mid-century furniture, the movie is a wonder.

Critics loved it. Most responded to its whimsical tone, its beauty, it’s patient storytelling. Her has been compared to 2001, which is both absurd and somehow just right.

Good performances. Check. Good visuals. Check. Intriguing premise. Check. Great music. Check. What isn’t to like?

 

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

Oodles. The movie is thin, mealy-mouthed, overly optimistic, confined by its absurd premise, philosophical in a sophomore in college sort of way, and kind of, well, offensive. There’s no real action, and very little conflict, so the movie trusses up the proceedings with beautiful exteriors. People walking. The movie reduces human experience to sex and love, and to me seemed a champion of mediocrity. (Phoenix’s job is writing love notes for other people. The other characters repeatedly comment on his writing talents.) There’s something artificial and stuffy about the movie’s ending.

A generous reviewer would call it touching and gentle. A tougher viewer would see it as torpid and slow. Hopeful humanism or spineless psycho-babble?

During the movie, I leant to the former. I gave Jones the benefit of the doubt. But as the movie trudged on, with no real twists or electricity, I grew weary. And with fifteen minutes to go, Beth brought it into stark relief, saying, “This is the worst, most self-indulgent movie I’ve ever seen. I would rather watch The Wolf of Wall Street again.”

Then, “Last year was a terrible year for movies.”

I can’t disagree. Feeling torn over this one, for sure, but I don’t ever want to watch it again.

4.

Steven Soderbergh is an immeasurably talented director with an immense bag of tricks. But his emphasis on lighting, angles, lenses, and so on has left him with an uneven career; for all his cinematographic wizardry, he often loses the story in his movies. Thus, he’s made some very fine films, including Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich (I know, some people hate it) and the two-part Che. But he also made the remake of Solaris[2], the absolute stinker The Informant!, plus the oddly lifeless movies The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience and Behind the Candelabra. He has great films in him, but he hasn’t really made many. But even his bad movies have little moments of electricity, bright spots of spontaneity or life. Which always leaves me hoping he’ll fulfill on his early promise.

Magic Mike might be his best movie, a summation of his strongest qualities, a fascinating film that is equal parts Boogie Nights and Dazed and Confused. The lighting is astonishing, bathing all the actors in alternating bronze gauzy sunlight and fuzzy, tawdry halogen. The script is meandering, pleasant, funny. Matthew McConaughey delivers another superior performance, rounding out his great turns in Mud and True Detective, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

 

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

The film follows a group of male strippers in Tampa, focusing on Channing Tatum, who plays an ambitious furniture maker who can’t get a leg up. He has cash, he has talent, he has sex appeal, he’s smart and capable, but he can’t quite put a life together. He’s hemmed in by the expectations of others and the often, unseen barriers in our society. He’s drifting, only he doesn’t realize it. McConaughey plays the charming but unscrupulous club owner, who plays the father-figure to his band of dancers but only so far as they benefit him. He’s a smiling rake, with plenty of panache, but at a crucial moment in the movie he lets Tatum see beneath the façade, and it’s a dark, brutal place indeed.

 

The movie straddles the fence between bump and grind fun times and the darker, druggier aspects of the nocturnal life. It ends with a simple, elegant maxim: pursuing pleasure isn’t bad, it’s just unsustainable.

A very good film, soured only a touch by a late little spurt of moralizing. One I’d watch again.

5.

But the best movie I’ve seen recently—including Jersey Boys (I liked it), Trumbo (inexplicably moving), Klown (hysterical), Upstream Color (hard to forget), Star Trek Into Darkness (boo), World War Z (better than I expected), Il Futuro (quite good, if difficult to describe), Simon Killer (sexy and disturbing), Three Outlaw Samurai (yes, pretty good), Friends with Money (excellent and diamond-hard), The Horseman (engaging but thin), Prisoners (smashing), and the television mini-series Top of the Lake (fantastic), all of which seems random, when I look at it, and more American-centric than my usual habits—was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Wintry, chilling, beautiful, haunting, challenging, bleak, thrilling—this noirish western follows the last days of Jesse James (played to the hilt by Brad Pitt) as he stalks his former gang, sliding ever deeper in paranoia and depression. Pitt plays James as a murderous, untrusting bully, unsure of his way in a changing world. In his bank-robber perambulations, James comes across Bob Ford (played by Casey Affleck), an amoral kid who has adored James since he can remember. Ford’s older brother, Charlie (played by Sam Rockwell), falls under James’s sway, too. Jeremy Renner and Garrett Dillahunt play low-rent outlaws, and Paul Schneider delivers a bravura performance as a lusty, high-falutin’ cut-throat. Rounding out the cast is Sam Shepard, who plays Frank James as a terse, all-business gunfighter.

 

An astonishing film.

An astonishing film that will haunt you, if you can sit through it.

The various characters pursue, flee, lie in wait for each other; Jesse James is an information system, too, closed off and insular, off-kilter, astral. As the film progresses, Bob Ford turning colder, meaner, steelier, while James grows increasingly paranoid and erratic. And yet, in a very moving performance, Affleck’s Ford simultaneously becomes more anxious, vulnerable and exposed. He wants to kill James, but he isn’t sure why. For prosperity? For money? To save his own life? He can’t decide if James is his hero, his friend, or his enemy, and the movie sustains a vicious tension for much of its running time. James suspects Ford wants to kill him. Or does he? It’s an astonishing display of terse unease for the better part of an hour.

The scenery is breathtaking, each shot is framed with a painterly beauty, and the script is excellent. The movie would have been a fine western, but it has a peculiar third act, following Bob Ford as an actor, re-enacting his murder of Jesse James for huge crowds. Charlie plays James on the stage, and the haunting, elegiac tone of this last little bit pushes the movie into weirder, richer territory. Past the edges of the genre. Past the expectations of the viewer. Into something stony and vivid, like stepping into a cave painting.

Some critics argued that the movie was a cautionary tale about fame. This is an absurd interpretation. The movie is about real people, living wild, violent lives, and the surreal horror of inhabiting the memories of your own life, like a ghost draping over your own skin.

One for the ages.

 

[1] Whom I love and admire.

[2] Just really, really bad.