Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Brief Encounter (1945) Directed by David Lean.

I once released an album with the Noel Coward quote "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is". It's amazing that Coward's words could still sound relevant in this day and age even when describing a scuzzy lo-fi album.

It's Noel Coward's script that keeps Brief Encounter so vital after all these years. That's not to say that Lean's direction isn't up to scratch, it's excellent.  Celia Johnson plays married, middle-aged Laura, the woman who recounts her chance meeting with a stranger that leads to illicit love. Alec is played by Trevor Howard, the Doctor with whom Laura has an affair with. Both actors have an unbelievable naturalness and charm that sucks us into the story.  A lot of tea is ordered at the refreshment room of the railway station, where a bulk of the action takes place.

Rachmaninov plays on the soundtrack, Lean gives us some powerful screen images, but Brief Encounter expresses sentiments of love, and especially forbidden love that very few pictures have ever touched upon.  Sure, there was a war on still and plenty of British stiff upper lip is on display. Of course, Brief Encounter is regarded as a classic, it is a famous film, perhaps not at the level of Casablanca or Gone With The Wind, but still this is an iconic picture. It perhaps displays more feeling and intelligence than it's more famous counterparts, it's that good. I say give into this, it's as perfect a romance as there has ever been in the cinema.

With lines on their faces and shadows under their eyes they fall for each other. Ordinary Thursdays in town turn into secretive lunches and movie dates, then into drives away from other people, kisses and desperation. The train station is at the center of this film. It is dark and sad, always aware of separation.

A friendship between a man and a woman is suspicious even when it is just about being friendly. Brief Encounter illustrates the internal and external trip from friendship to love, from doubt to knowing. The people in town are watching curiously and need to be lied to. The families at home have no idea of what is going on with these two strangers.

Celia Johnson's character narrates through out the film, to a point of exhaustion. Why does she talk us through gestures such as "he grabbed my arm" when we can see that? Maybe this is a flaw if there is one – at least it is something original in cinema.

There is a hat Johnson wears on most dates with her secret love, it is a mixture between a beret and a cap. She wears at least three other hats in this film, bu this is the one that signifies joy and the possibility for some radical outcome.

In its heart-wrenching emotional realism, this is genius.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thelma & Louise (1991) Directed By Ridley Scott

Without seeing Thelma & Louise for a good many years, it had attained a sort of classic status in my mind. I thought it was entertaining and empowering. I had watched it as a child and then as a teenager and a young adult, always thinking I related somehow. I guess it must have been the friendship between women, the beauty of them (with head scarfs and sunglasses and later with messed-up hair and double denim outfits) and their convertible, the life on the road and the unwillingness to back down that I admired. But were those things really in this film?

What happens to the women is a line of bad events and awful portrayals. Thelma has an abusive unappreciative husband, both women have experienced rape (Thelma on screen, Louise somewhere in Texas as we learn), Louise shoots the rapist, they do not go to the police because they are mistrustful of the system's helpfulness to women. Instead they go on the run and the rest of the men they meet are there to steal their money, rat on them, hurl abuse and so forth. Completely let down by and alienated from the male-dominated society these women have no choice, death is inevitable so they drive into theirs off a cliff in Grand Canyon.

So, women are doing what men have always been doing in road movies and Westerns. Except these ladies are often portrayed as stupid. Can you explain to me why they never think of changing their vehicle to something less shining when they are on the run? Why does Thelma need to be portrayed as stupid and out of control for the rape scene? Don't smart women get raped? And why on earth would they not choose the shortest route to Mexico when they are on the run? Is it really such typical feminine behavior to be illogical and refer to some emotional damage as a reason why you won't drive through Texas when you are wanted by the FBI?

I am offended by the script this movie is based on. I don't mind the ending, though. And after all the disappointment, I still hold a little place in my heart for the idea of Thelma & Louise, the monumental scenery they drive in (good photography and look all around), the internal movement towards feeling alive and free. But this is mostly a fiction, which does not appear in the actual film.

Nick :
It's unbelievable to me that such an average picture as Thelma & Louise  can cause such controversy. This movie has been accused/labeled as feminist, anti-men, genre inventing, groundbreaking, attitude changing, promoting gun use amongst women amongst other things. I have to also point out that European audiences were probably not so up in arms about this film as US audiences were, although I do remember having an argument at a party sometime in the early 90's about this picture.

An Arkansas waitress Louise (Susan Sarandon) and her married friend Thelma (Geena Davis) leave for a weekend in the country. At the first bar they stop at Thelma gets involved with a man who tries to rape her in the bar parking lot. Louise catches the would-be-rapist in the act and unable to control her emotions shoots the man dead. They flee the scene of the crime in Louise's '66 Thunderbird. What follows is the pairs attempt to reach Mexico and start a new life free of the clutches of the police.

In essence, Thelma & Louise is a buddy road movie. Yes it has two women as the main protagonists who shoot a lot of stuff up and act like men normally do in these genre movies, but so what?  The script is so poor in this film that initially you can't believe how dumb these women are, yet later we are suppose to suspend our belief and accept the enlightenment that descends on these characters. We never believe or understand how Thelma & Louise reach the point of no return, how these women suddenly attain depths of thought that have otherwise been absent for most of the film. Unfeasible plot twists and a weird mash-up of serious issues and broad humor add to the mess. Of course this looks great, Ridley Scott at least can still shoot a good looking picture, but does anyone agree that since Alien and Blade Runner, Scott has been disappointing?

You know you're in trouble watching a movie when Michael Madsen (Jimmy, Louise's boyfriend) is the only slightly sympathetic male character. The men in this movie all shit on the women at some point, just to emphasize the point that all men are bad. Bradd Pitt probably makes the biggest impression as a con-man cowboy (which again is saying something about the quality on show!) Harvey Keitel  is wasted as the cop who thinks he can help Thelma and Louise. One thing that deserves a special mention is the soundtrack to this film, has there been a worse soundtrack in living memory?

I'd be quite happy never to sit through this one dimensional, cliche ridden film ever again. It was worse than I remember it. Even as basic Hollywood entertainment this felt hollow. And if you want to see some kick ass action movie with ladies and guns, which doesn't attempt to patronize the audience with some obvious quasi feminist angle (actually the kind of thing that gives feminism a bad name), try Les Petroleuses for size.

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) Directed by Richard Brooks

Nick :
Cat On a Hot Tin Roof's  origins are of the stage play variety, so it does not make this film very cinematic, the direction is pretty static. Tennessee Williams' obvious gay text has been toned down to make the film acceptable to 50's audiences. So the fact that Brick (Paul Newman) is obviously a gay man and they work their way around mentioning this in any other way they can without actually using the word gay is a fascinating subtext when watching this film.

One reason Brooks doesn't direct much is he trusts his actors, with Newman and Elizabeth Taylor both outstanding. So, this is a great film, a classic if you like where the performances are worth the admission price alone. Tied to Williams' great lines, this makes for very strong cinema.

Watching this again, I was amazed that the stunning Taylor is often blown off the screen in the good looks department by the totally brooding sexiness of Newman. Has there ever been such an amazing profile in cinema. Paul Newman is so hot in this movie, he is raw sex appeal.  His body language, anger, bitterness, glare are what gives this picture it's edge. Yummy!

It has taken me a long time in life to begin to appreciate the beauty of men. Especially blond blue-eyed men I have passed as boring orange-juice-and-omelette types. As a woman growing up under huge pressures to be beautiful and thin and always so impossibly something that was unattainable, I have had very little time to think of men. Until very recently, I have been watching the women in movies with much more precision. This all said, the aesthetics of masculinity have quite unexpectedly began to unravel in my eyes. So hello Paul Newman.

Newman steals Cat On A Hot Tin Roof from all others, even from Tennessee Williams (who probably purrs happily). He wears pajamas, crutches, sadness, anger and drunkenness as though they were the sexiest things states and feelings. He is implosive, high-strung, potentially dangerous, full of unexpressed emotion. Add to this list that Newman's character is married unhappily to the most perfect womanly woman possibly in the form of Elizabeth Taylor.

The play by Tennessee Williams is full of dazzling lines and dialogue. It's all mean snapping, cruelty and smart put downs. Williams truly knows how to portray the desperation of a marriage where one is hopelessly in love with her partner and the other is...well, clearly gay. But it's 1958 and this is a Hollywood production, so somehow the fact that Maggie (Liz) did not actually have sex with Brick's (Newman) best friend who commited suicide after Newman failed to be there for him (he married a woman you know) makes everything ok in the marriage that was on the rocks. During this film Brick is not only cured from homosexuality, but also his alcoholism vanishes.

It was impossible to make a film openly discussing homosexuality in 1958, although Cat On The Hot Tin Roof is not hiding the subject matter very much. But Paul Newman's Brick is a football-playing all American hunk. His character exudes the kind of rough-around-the-edges masculinity that still today, is not what we first think of when discussing the stereotypical gay man. Maybe it will be, though.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Performance (1970) Directed by Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg

Sometimes it's simply not the right moment to watch something. This was the case with me and Performance. Mick Jagger annoyed me well before he appeared in the film with his spray painting and his wardrobe. And in the end he annoyed me a lot less than what happened before his face turned up. The whole hour-long drag about how this gangster man (James Fox) messes up his affairs was tedious. That's all. So what about the blue collar accents and the truths about English culture in the 1960s? I was bored.

Then we get to the hippie part. I just read a long Rolling Stones interview in the latest Uncut magazine. Anita was with Keith and they had a heroin habit. Who knows if Mick was any different, but he doesn't want to remember that stuff now. I guess he is loosing his memory. Apparently Keith was not so happy about Anita doing Performance (confirmed by Anita in a little making-of doc on the DVD). While watching the movie, I can see just why. The Rolling Stones are a scary machine of upper class rock'n'roll.

Surface is content. Surface is all there is and I love it. But in this second half of Performance I suddenly find myself bothered by this notion. The director injects some high-brow philosophy in there, Anita gets the needle in her bum and then there are the sex scenes and the mushrooms.
Being lost in the plenty. I was not entertained.

The best parts of this film are the naked scenes. Maybe I should have been watching porn instead.

Nick :
This film gained legendary status when I was growing up, mainly due to the fact that no one had ever seen it. Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, graphic violent sex, , drugs and 60's London. It sounds exciting, it was a movie I'd read much about. It wasn't on video and TV (I don't think the film aired on British TV till the 90's). So, the legend grew. Of course, it's counter culture vs the straight guys, where the boundaries blur. Identity is the riddle, who is who, what is happening and WOW! aren't they decadent and kinky.

James Fox (officially the most underrated British actor of the 60's), plays gangster Chas, a heavy, who sorts people out. When he goes a step too far and kills someone he shouldn't, he goes on the run from his organized crime buddies. He ends up renting a room in a run down mansion in Notting Hill which reclusive rock star Turner (Jagger) owns. Turner, suspicious that Chaz isn't the juggler he claims to be but is on the run and looking for refuge, engages in mind games with Chaz to find out who he really is.

Pallenberg plays Pherber who along with Lucy (Michele Breton) live in the house with Turner, his bed buddies and worshipers. Pallenberg's over sexed drug addict seriously pissed off boyfriend Keith Richards at the time, all those semi-naked scenes with Mick probably did the trick. Performance also boasts the greatest Mick Jagger solo song ( A Message From Turner) and the accompanying scene is great fun. Jagger is playing himself , he comes across as aloof and pretty. Roeg would use musicians to good effect in his later films (Man Who Fell To Earth, Bad Timing). Warner Bros. who financed the film were appalled. The film languished for two years without a release.

Performance is littered with fast cuts and secret messages and visual indicators as to what's going on, which only reveal themselves after repeated viewing. Even then it offers no easy explanations or conclusions. Controversial is often used to describe this film. I'm not so sure. It's very strange, nothing in cinema is like it. It looks great, Roeg's eye for detail is amazing. It's an original film, still shocking in it's casual attitude to violence and sex and very watchable. It's two films in one scenario causes confusion and could be off putting. Don't be, Performance is an antidote to all the free love hippy bollocks that was emanating out of America at this time. It's the dark side of the 60's, it' s a bad trip, dangerous and ultimately, the legend is deserved.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Prick Up Your Ears (1987) Directed by Stephen Frears

I remember going to see Prick Up Your Ears in Islington very soon after its initial release. Islington was Joe Orton's neighborhood for many years up until his death. As me and a friend took our seats we noticed that it was a predominately male audience. Once the movie started we realized it was also a predominately gay audience as much whooping and hollering at the sex scenes in the film ensued (this was mixed with much heavy petting one could imagine!)

Even in 1987, Prick Up Your Ears, the bio-pic of Joe Orton, the famed English 60's playwright, caused a stir for it's frank depiction of a gay relationship in trouble. Joe Orton was one of the golden boys of the swinging 60's, who's star shone ever so briefly. He was important in moving British Theater forward and being open with his gay context.

Orton's fondness for picking up Rough Trade in mens urinals is well represented in the film. Being gay could land you in prison in the England of the late 50's, but Frears' film often shows us the thrill of the chase. In Prick Up Your Ears, gay sex is celebrated, not something you hide from everyone or never even talk about to your lover, as in Brokeback Mountain.

Reasons you should watch this excellent film:
Gary Oldman, an uncanny resemblance to the real Orton, heightens the mystery surrounding the playwright. We never really get to know him, yet he dominates the film. He'd already played Sid Vicious, his bio-pic oeuvre would resume with Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK, not long after this. This was a time when Oldman was acting gold.

The great Alan Bennett's script injects a lot of wit into what is in essence a very sad love story. There are many laugh out loud moments.

Vanessa Redgrave
as the agent who discovers Orton adds a classy glamorous sheen to proceedings and likes playing with her very good looking legs.

Alfred Molina
steels the acting honors here. This was his breakthrough picture. We know how good Molina would become, but his portrayal of Kenneth Halliwell, Orton's depressed lover, is perfect. We see the jealousy and depression that drives Halliwell to tragedy, in a thankless role as Orton's moaning long term companion, Molina shines.

Prick Up Your Ears
has one of the greatest movie titles ever, think about it if you don't get it's innuendo. Stephen Frears directs with economy and pace, letting the script and performances do the work.

If you are interested in Orton after seeing this film, John Lahr's biography and Orton's often lewd diaries make great companions.

Today was my turn to have my review straight after the movie poster, but I know Nick has told his story of seeing Prick Up Your Ears in Islington when it first came out and it deserves to go first. So here is my ramble on mixing-up a love relationship and a passion for creative work:

If you stay in a relationship long enough, every internal position and power will have shifted multiple times. Joe Orton was the green, unsophisticated acting student who dated girls, when he first met Kenneth.

Kenneth was an elegant witty creative writer and unafraid of his sexuality as a gay man. He took Joe under his wing and together they loved and wrote for years. Both benefited from these early positions.

In time Joe became an artist of his own right, a successful playwright. He had separated himself from the creative union with Kenneth, who was unable to write alone. Joe had also developed a hunger for sex with other partners, his life turned more and more outward while Kenneth stayed home and worried.

Enter resentment. Obviously Kenneth had helped and formed Joe, supported him and taught him. Clearly, Joe had taken all the help but was then able to write better alone. A new dynamic set in: Kenneth suffering and resenting, Joe guilty and yet excited and adamant to enjoy life.

This comes to a very sad ending. Especially, when I remember that the film is based on real people's lives and diaries. Why is it that gay movies so often have to end with death and misery, asked The Guardian in a blog this week. I am asking why it is that a love between two creative people is also a competition where there will be winners and losers?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Mean Streets (1973) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Nick :
New York has become such a safe city. It's full of wealthy college kids and millionaires. It's somewhere where everyone from Finland can go for a visit and comment "it's so safe, it feels safer than Helsinki". Scorsese's energetic Mean Streets shows a time when New York was buzzing with danger. Small time crooks hustle for the mafia in Little Italy. In some sense this should have been the terrain Coppola covered in Godfather III, this shows how drugs became taking care of business. This is an unglamorous picture of New York and the mafia. People are racist, selfish, honest, real. Streets are dirty, dangerous, 24-hour-crazy and no-go.

Charlie and Michael are mafia hoods on the streets, selling drugs and collecting payola. After a day on the streets they usually convene at their friend Tony's bar where they get drunk and watch strippers. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) has taken interest in Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro). Johnny Boy is a reckless young firecracker who owes everyone money in Little Italy, especially Michael (Richard Romanus). Charlie promises Michael that Johnny Boy will repay him his money, but Johnny Boy constantly misses the repayments, causing tension and violence among the group.

Scorsese gives us The Shirelles, The Ronnetes and The Rolling Stones and much more eclectic music on his best soundtrack use ever. The dialogue is over compressed, it's brash and loud. Catholic guilt, small time gangsters, sharp dressers, slick camera work, all the usual Scorsese attributes are on show in his first breakthrough picture. But still Mean Streets bristles with an excitement that Scorsese has lost over the years.

The camera work and editing have an edge that Scorsese over time has smoothed out and replaced with technical expertise. The friendship between De Niro and Keitel is natural, the affair that Keitel has with secret lover Teresa (Amy Robinson) is tender and touching. These are real people and the emotional involvement for the viewer is deep. Scorsese has misplaced this aspect from his film making, we can marvel nowadays at the bravura of his movies but we are rarely moved by them anymore.

But the reason you should watch this amazing film is Robert De Niro. Not only does he look like the coolest mod rock star throughout, this is one of the most exciting acting displays you'll ever see. He is mad and dangerous, funny, unpredictable – the legend starts here. Johnny Boy embodies the film's attitude and prevailing despair, the essence of the times when he says: "I fuck you right where you breathe, because I don't give two shits about you or anybody else."
If this has passed you by, if Mean Streets has not featured in your life, you're missing out. It's still essential, groundbreaking cinema.

This is a film about Italian-American criminal culture without the usual glamorizing. Maybe it is more about being lost as a young adult and Little Italy is just a backdrop.

Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) looks super cool in his hat and his various jackets, but he is volatile and placeless. He is pure energy with no respect for social convention, no direction and hardly any brain. He relies on other people's kindness and has nothing to offer in return.

Charlie (Harvey Keitel) knows how to behave in his immediate surroundings, he plays by the rules and is thus advancing quickly in the Family. Within his bad-boy crust he is a life-pondering, god-fearing nerd. A lot of his time goes on sorting out Johnny Boy's messes and the rest on having an affair with another cousin of his, the beautiful epileptic Teresa.

Mean Streets describes the mafia as a bunch of average guys with a violent streak and not much savvy for business either. There are no fast routes to richness here. Ignorance prevails, for example epilepsy is thought to be a mental defect and everyone is very racist.

Young people are directionless and lost, this comes with the intense feeling of potential. Some die that way. To others this lostness slowly becomes a facet of who they once were. Something to look back on. This could be my favorite movie situated in the genre of mafia films. It looks effortlessly good and portrays New York as the cruel and narrow machine that it sometimes feels like.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Go-Between (1970) Directed by Joseph Losey

Our English cinema fest continues here with another 1970s piece. Strangely, The Go-Between is also about a child's experience in the middle of an adult game. (See our review of The Singing Detective for more on childhood experience)

Set in the early-2oth-century upper class mansion, The Go-Between is a visual feast of stylishness and opulence. Julie Christie is the family's daughter soon to be married to a nice rich Lord. But underneath the white dresses and beneath the parasol, there is a woman secretly in love with a neighboring lonely farmer guy. Or maybe it is just sex.

Here is where a child's innocence can be exploited. Enter Leo, 12, a summer guest from a notably poorer background. He is eager to please, to feel a part in the extended family of his school friend's. He roams around the wonderful nature and gardens, he knows the backyard secrets.
He becomes a messenger between Marian (Julie Christie) and Ted (Alan Bates). You can probably guess what happens.

It is significant that the adults believe they can trust a child to hold their secret. They rely on his not understanding what sort of messages he is taking back and forth. Why is Leo up for this postman's role? He is very infatuated with the beautiful Marian who has deliberately been kind to him. For Leo it is fulfilling to have this special secret relationship with her and she exploits his childish love.

Again, sexuality becomes something mysterious and dangerous. Leo knows there is more to love then kissing, but no one is willing to tell him anything. He needs hard and fast facts, but the adults around him have branded sex a sin. As a result Marian is unhappy, Ted dies and Leo is still being exploited as an old man.

I got interested in this film back in the day because I'd heard that my favorite band of the time (The Go-Betweens) had named themselves after it. I actually read the book by Hartley as well, which was a low rent, cheaper version of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Oh, fandom, it leads you down many stray paths.

Then, after I saw The Servant, I became obsessed by Losey and had to track down all his films and was surprised that this was one of them (not paying so much attention when I first saw it). Some basic themes from Losey's previous work are here. The difference between the Classes, forbidden love, a Harold Pinter script. It looks wonderful. It has a busy Michel Legrand piano signature that features one great chord progression. I'm sure this has influenced many an English costume drama. This is a picture of great scenes that doesn't quite stand up as a whole.

It's 1900, and 13 year old Leo (Dominic Guard) goes to spend the summer with his wealthy classmate Marcus in the Norfolk Countryside. He inadvertently becomes messenger for his friends' older sister Marian (Julie Christie) and her secret lover, local farmer Ted (Alan Bates, excellent). It's a coming of age yarn of how Leo loses his innocence as he witnesses the forbidden love between the classes. Stand out scenes include a cricket match (it's always great to see the great game up on the big screen!), Bates singing with Christie on the Piano during a village get together, and the only real evidence this is a Pinter script, Bates' farmer trying to explain what lovemaking is to the young boy.

It's slow and Losey's decision to cut to the future to a grown up Leo for abstract shots of Norwich seems pointless. Another mistake is viewing events from the boys perspective. We only get a couple of scenes of Bates and Christie together during the whole film and perhaps because of this the sexual tension is heightened, but the film lacks that presence overall. Julie Christie always seems to get the slutty woman roles. Subconsciously, that might be her real appeal to a lot of men, despite her being a fine actress.

So, an average Losey film. But that means, compared to other filmmakers, it's still interesting and worth a peek.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Singing Detective (1986) Directed by Jon Amiel

Illness has been prelevant in the household this week. Stomach Flu for me, severe fever, coughing, more of the same for Astrid. To feel empathy or possibly not to feel as ill as the people on-screen, Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective has been keeping our concentration levels up. This isn't the awful Hollywood remake from a few years back (Hollywood always pisses on Potter) but the original 6 part TV series made for the BBC. In the Holy Grail of TV shows this is up there with Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Sopranos. Am I right, or am i right?

Philip Marlow (the brilliant Michael Gambon) is in a NHS Hospital ward suffering from a severe skin disorder (psoriasis) which renders him virtually paralyzed. He's a detective novel writer who relives his first novel whilst lying in bed, medication creating hallucinations and wild imaginations, mixing fictional events with his real childhood years. As the action in his mind shifts from the film noir world of his 40's spy novel (Marlow being the Singing Detective of the title) to the Forest Of Dean of his childhood, Marlow works out key incidents of his life in his head with a view to curing his illness and his own psychological hang-ups. All the characters burst into song at unexpected times, in various scenarios, typical of Potter's previous Pennies From Heaven and the earlier Blue Remembered Hills. You never know what's really happening, happened, or going to happen, or what's real or fiction. The influence of Raymond Chandler is never far, especially with the various deathly, dangerous women and twisting plot lines.

This is Potter in semi-autobiographical mode, raging at the world. He ruminates with rage on sex/death, the NHS, Guardian reading liberals, Thatcher, racism, Murdoch, alter ego's, politics, well everything actually. Marlow is an unpleasant, ranting, misogynist, yet our hero. Very great support comes from Alison Steadman as his mother, Joanne Whalley as the nurse and Patrick Malahide as arch nemesis Mark Binney.

I haven't seen this for over 20 years, so you're never sure how this would hold up. But Dennis Potter was always controversial, always writing for British TV, so therefore part of the culture of my growing up. He was a voice you listened to, with an opinion worth hearing, his work was intelligent. This is wildly original material for any medium, be it cinema or TV. The Singing Detective was his peak, and is still essential viewing, as potent today as ever. When I grow up, I'm going to be a Detective, I am, I bloody well am!

There has been a growing sense in me that what a child figures out and understands about the world by the time she is ten years old, is fundamental to her personality forever. This is a scary thought, because what it really means is that the misunderstanding and bafflement of experience had as a child forms us. The Singing Detective is a study of this claim. It is almost seven hours of
looking into the sediments of one man's mind as he heals from crippling psoriasis.

The mind moves in layers of past, present and future. Or it just moves in undefinable territory. This series depicts a writer, whose one layer is the creative, continually evolving imagined reality. I have never seen as good a visualization of how these element blend and become indistinguishable as this TV series. Philip Marlow's imagination is his tool, his curse and finally what sets him free (or is it the other way in the end?).

But there is a serious core here. Something very alarming. It relates to experiencing life through feeling, which is probably the only way to experience, thus to live.
The misunderstood or the mysterious can make us so unbalanced and distort our experiences so much that it makes living a hell. In the Singing Detective this is illustrated in Philip's relationship to his mother and later to any women in his life. Unfortunately, it seems that sexuality often becomes the corner of experience where this early bafflement manifests itself. The fact that parents forbid and deny it, and yet it exists like water and air between us.

This is a gem. The musical numbers are genius.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Blow-Up (1966) Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

For someone who's lived for so many years with someone who mentions Blow-up at least once a year and for someone who's watched so many 1970s New Hollywood films, it was high time to see the inspiration and instigator itself. I like long sentences, sorry.

I must say this was a lot more like reading Vogue than I expected. I could admire the swinging London of 1966, the promiscuous, beautiful girls – or should I say the liberated models. The latest fashion was there, and the beginnings of an exploitative youth culture. Everything is for sale, but we all know it and the transparency creates cynicism.

Blow-Up is about the man with the camera. It just so happens that today I watched an interview with David Bailey. Bailey said: 'you don't take pictures, you make them'. To some extent Blow-Up makes this claim too. The central (yet, somehow a bit boring) part about the film was that Thomas (David Hemmings) discovers he has accidentally captured a murder in his pictures.
I like the idea that while the photographer thinks he is being objective and in control, he is actually visualizing something outside of his consciousness. Why it has to be murder, I don't know.

The reason why Antonioni's film had such an impact on the young American directors of the 1970s must be that Blow-Up describes the world as it is at the time of the film's making. It refers to now. It indulges in moments, is not led by strict narrative, is daring and therefore breaks the mold. There are no conclusions. Importantly, its protagonist is a photographer, someone who watches and sees, and who thinks he is therefore in control. Seeing Blow-Up was like finishing my oatmeal in the world of movies. Now I can move onto lunch.

Nick :
The first time I watched Blow-Up many moons ago it was a massive disappointment. I'm not sure what I expected, but this? Every viewing since has left me with the feeling that not only was this groundbreaking cinema, but Antonioni was really playing with what we don't see, what's under the surface.

Yes, it's London in the swinging 60's and everyone does look like a hipster mod. Antonioni captures the change happening within the capital, from the swanky night club hang outs to the doss houses, colorful streets and the inner city reconstruction of modern architecture that was happening in London at this time. The camera is the star. I don't just mean that in the sense that David Hemmings photographer and obsession with picture taking is in some ways the focus of the film, but the cinematography is the thing to admire here. Blow Up is simply one of the best looking films ever made.

There is no real narrative in this film but through image Antonioni builds some kind of murder mystery. It's vacuous, no more so than Hemmings central character, you never warm to him. He does wear cool jeans and boots however. Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles have quite modest roles with some pretentious dialogue. There are some amazing looking women in this film and lots of naked frolicking and dope smoking. Yes, it's very 60's in that respect, but there is more underneath. I don't think Antonioni cared much for London in the swinging 60's, so detached is what's on screen. He is a voyeur.

But still, that's not the point, or maybe it is. The scene where Hemmings develops his pictures to reveal he unsuspectingly witnessed a murder is genius. But as a film that evolves with every viewing, as a comment on technique and really watching, in essence what cinema is all about, this is a masterpiece.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Philadelphia Story (1940) Directed by George Cukor

Nick :
Good Romantic Comedies are in short supply. I actually can't remember the last one I saw that really made me laugh. Woody Allen hasn't made anything of note in recent years and the deluge of Jennifer Aniston/ Sandra Bullock drivel is enough to make you cry not laugh. That's why for me The Philadelphia Story is a must, almost a textbook exercise in the genre. So Richard Curtis, take note. This 70 year old picture is still razor sharp. It almost bites with it's cynicism, wit and intelligence.

A rich woman, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is to marry again, this time into new money. Her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) gatecrashes on the eve of the wedding with two gossip journalists from Spy magazine in tow. Haven uses the ruse of journalistic blackmail to try to win back his former wife. One of the journalists, poor author Macaulay Connor (James Stewart), once over his upper class prejudice, falls for Tracy on the eve of her wedding. They frolic, dance and swim after one too many drinks. Was there an indiscretion? How will Tracy's husband to be, working class business man George (John Howard) take it? How will Connor's journalist sidekick and girlfireind Liz (Ruth Hussey) react? As for Tracy's over rich family, what will they make of the stew? And will C.K. Dexter Haven win his ex back?

I've watched this many times in wonder at the richness of the dialogue, Cukor's pacey direction and the wonderful performances. This saved Hepburn's career (friend Howard Hughes bought her the script rights). It confirmed Grant as the distinguished leading man he was to become and James Stewart is just his usual brilliant self. Every other character is significant and completes the feeling of a great ensemble piece. They even manage to throw in discussions on the American class system. A timeless film that is still funny and romantic after all these years. Hollywood heaven.

The Philadelphia Story moves in the same classic genre of great entertainment as any Allen film for me. We watched it yesterday because we wanted to be certain of what we got. Super witty and straight-up acting and script from 1940. How come they talked so much more openly then about alcoholism and hangovers for example?

I relate to Katharine Hepburn. The Redhead. And she must have related to her role as Tracy Lord. It is ridiculous of course, to strongly identify with characters in a film, but if I cannot find anyone in a movie to identify with, it's not great for me. I want to personalize the magic. I like to think that somehow the film is a little bit about me as well.

Tracy Lord has set such high moral expectation towards herself and others that she and people close to her struggle to meet them. Therefore she is on a mission to cover up her failure (and her father's) by marriage because admitting weakness just won't do. Drinking and having extra marital affairs count as failures in this movie. To add to this psychological condition, other people see Tracy as a statue-like goddess of perfection. The expectation from all direction is to be something inhumanly beautiful.

Oh, the struggle to be a perfect woman, daughter and a wife. And to be in control and make once own choices. I cannot believe that someone wrote such a portrait of a woman in 1939. All the actors look astonishing in this film, their suits and dresses hang perfectly and in bright color (I'm certain even though it's in black and white). The only strange outfit is Tracy's wedding dress with a strange square of fabric fastened over her lungs and breast. Is it saying that a marriage is a lung-crusher? At least Katharine never got married in real life.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Comes A Horseman (1978) Directed by Alan J. Pakula

It seems our fascination with American 70's cinema continues on this blog. I'm sure we'll move onto some English 70's cinema very soon. Or some Asian cinema. French New Wave. Westerns. So, the real American Film Genre. Comes A Horseman is so slight a film. It's almost as if it isn't there. Yet if you immerse yourself the rewards are good.

Jane Fonda plays Ella Connors who along with Old Cowboy Dodger (a brilliant Richard Farnsworth) is hoping to raise enough cattle to keep her farm for another year. Jason Robards plays the evil land owner Ewing who is trying to force Connors to sell her land so he can dig for oil. Her neighbour is Frank 'Buck' Athearn (an understated James Caan) wh0 joins as Connors business partner and eventually becomes her lover.

As well as the casting of Caan, The Godfather connection continues with the true star of this Modern Western once again being Gordon Willis whose cinematography is the best thing to admire. Pakula let's the drama unfold at a snails pace yet something resembling action does sneak up on you every now and again. It takes awhile to realize the film is actually set in the 1940's, though it's not in any way obvious.

Fonda is simply brilliant in this film. Her Ella Connors is an intense performance, often a gesture saying more than any line. A tomboy, a cowboy, the masculine occupation still can't hide the fact that Fonda is very beautiful. This gives credence to the latter romance with Caan.
Pakula has made two of my favorite conspiracy films in All The President's Men and The Parallax View. This is something different, a film to file beside his other picture with Fonda, Klute. It at least feels better than the manipulating Sophie's Choice.

This realist western often has the feeling of Brokeback Mountain mixed with the sugar of the Horse Whisperer. It's certainly much better than the latter and surpasses the visual aesthetics of Brokeback. At times I was moved and always engrossed by this small, beautiful looking film. Once again I'm in awe of how once upon a time, mainstream cinema was so understated.

Usually going to Anttila to look at DVDs is a real pain. This time it went like a dream: I find Nick, grab the first Western looking thing with Jane Fonda and other familiar faces. It says made in 1978. It must be good. The shocking news (and please appreciate how rare this is) was that Nick had NEVER seen this film before.

So, Comes A Horseman: This film is about creating atmosphere with good photography. The landscapes of huge mountains, plains, the endless sky with storms, rain and sun are more than scenery here. The cows and horses, the livelihood of these people, also get their screen time. And this is how they used to set the mood in movies. Trusting the audience.

Zooming closer to the actors: the costumes are impeccable and inspiring. Levi's and boots, endless variations on plaid shirts. But no, these shirts are nothing like the ones fashionable right now (too much contrast between the colors in this new fashion). Also, Jane Fonda's hair in a long tussled plait is worthy of a mention. Plaited hair is potential, that's where its sexiness lies.
And sure enough, the hair comes undone and her reserve melts.

A film about a woman cowboy getting by on her own and fighting oil companies who want her land – this is 1970s feminism reaching Hollywood via Hanoi Jane.
Now we've had Brokeback Mountain, but everyone's forgotten about this one, I guess. I bet Ang Lee knows this one though.

Do I have to mention the nice man? James Caan. Ok, some men can be really great and good, honest, patient and fair (and good at horse riding and lassoing).

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Godfather (1972) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

It is very fascinating to learn that when Godfather was being made the studio and Coppola did not actually think they were making such a classic. In fact Coppola considered making this first film as a compromise on his road to better and more artful films. Also, Al Pacino and Brando almost didn't make it into the cast. The studio found Marlon to be hazardous to the film and Pacino they thought was a too short nobody from New York. I've been reading on this in Biskin's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Watching Godfather is so easy. It has the perfect look and you don't notice that it takes three hours. What should I say about the subject matter then? That somehow it follows logically for Michael to take on the family business. There goes my unwillingness to understand the family values and the murdering. I'm nodding my head.

But my favorite part of Godfather I is the 15 minutes of Michael's life in Sicily. The thick Sicilian accent and the scenery somehow justify everything...The beautiful first wife (who used to make me really jealous somehow) is amazing. There is something so fragile and out of place about her.
Yet, she is very real and I wish there was an alternative version of the film available where Michael just stays in the barren hot country side with her and has many babies. Forget the honor and the Family and eat some more spaghetti with your red wine.

Oh, well. Luckily there is Diane Keaton in America. But what is wrong with her hair in this film?

Nick :
As my father came from Sicily anything Mafia related held a fascination ever since I was in my early teens. I have seen this film at least 30 times. At various times in the past I've just paid extra attention to Marlon Brando's performance. His various twitches and mannerisms round off his warm performance which draws us in. On one occasion I paid extra lip service to the chemistry between the brothers, played by a never better Al Pacino, James Cann, Robert Duvall and the late great John Cazale. How perfectly cast they were. Sometimes I'll just watch the amazing cinematography by Gordon Willis, who actually won a life time achievement award at the dreadful Oscars this year but amazingly was not nominated at the time of the Godfather's release. The brutal assassination has never looked so beautiful. Even when I watch this film and try to focus on a certain aspect, it still completely involves me, the storytelling is so rich.
The Godfather is arguably the point when the Mafia became mainstream. It made Puzo's book more popular, it gave Scorsese a reason to live. This film invented Robert De Niro (at least the sequel confirmed him). This film inspired the greatest ever TV series in The Sopranos. It's infiltrated our Western society unlike any film in recent history has. It's also an adult's film. Coppola used the Family as a conduit to tap into our basic emotions.

Watching The Godfather in 2010 it surprised me how well the film stood up. I know these scenes inside out, yet they seem so fresh. What I noticed this time was how this film has made us want to like pure evil. It has made the audience relate to mass crime and murder. We can muster sympathy for a cold monster like Michael Corleone. These bad men fuck, drink, cook pasta, have affairs, wear the coolest clothes, drive the best looking cars, are affluent, go to church, play with their grandchildren. Marlon Brando's Don Vito Corleone is a cuddly teddy bear by the end. This humanizes the bad guys. They are just like us. This film is glamor. I aspire to have hair like Al Pacino's in this movie. And this amazing film is still getting better.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Logan's Run (1976) Directed by Michael Anderson

Nick :
Aah, Jenny Agutter. I said hello to Jenny Agutter once. It was in a dining room of a Liverpool Hotel. She looked the same as always. That might not mean much to you but since my adolescence Jenny (we're on first name terms) has been the object of much pent up desire. Going further back then Liverpool in the mid-90's I always remember being at school and the word went out amongst school friends that we should watch Walkabout (Roeg's film about 2 school kids lost in the Australian bush). My father and me at age 13 watched Jenny frolicking naked in the outback! It must be an English thing, but Jenny was a genuine British sex symbol. From the innocence of the Railway Children to the shower scene in An American Werewolf in London Jenny has usually been more interesting than the films she stars in. Safe to say the director of Logun's Run has Jenny near naked on a couple of occasions. It must have been written in all her contracts : remove clothes.
Logun's Run is Sci-Fi 70's style. It's the 23rd Century and the ideology of society is based on pleasure. Everyone lives in a Dome City till the age of 30, then face renewal (which really means death but no one realizes). Logan is a Sandman, who kills runners (runners being people who reach 3o but refuse renewal so they run). One day Logan goes for a briefing with a computer and finds out that renewal does not happen, people just die and it's all been a big con. He is given a mission to go outside the dome to find Sanctuary (a mythical name for outside) and destroy it. He loses four years of his time left and becomes a runner. Logan is played by Michael York who resembles a public school Nazi. Agutter plays Jessica 6 who is in touch with the underground and helps Logan escape the Dome City to the outside. They are both chased by Logan's fellow Sandman and best friend Francis (played by a good Richard Jordan).
All one can really say about this film is it's terrible. It's a great idea, with a condescending script that has to spell everything out in case we don't understand the most basic language.
The effects are bad, the sets move, Anderson directs with the pace of a snail. Peter Ustinov plays the only old man left and even he hams it up. Of course the future is depicted with the fashion sense of Studio 54. Jerry Goldsmith's score is analogue synth heaven. Yet, despite all these problems, this is enjoyable fun. Someone should re-make this with some edge. But still, we'll always have Jenny.....aah.

Logan's Run is another one of those movies that Nick insists on watching by using the punch line: -You'll like this one! Usually it is a lame attempt to convince me to watch something that I most certainly won't care for, but Nick has a history with. Yeah, in this case it was Jenny Agutter, who does absolutely nothing for me.

Although Logan's Run is a pathetic movie as far as acting, script and dramatic tension goes, it looks great. the 1970's vision of the future is groovy and colorful. Also, the novel behind the movie script is probably full of fascinating propositions. The idea of a future community without any manual labor left to do, just hedonism and death at 30 (to cut down over-population) sounds inspiring to begin with. The question of bringing up children without any biological parent contact is another interesting thought, but for this film it is simply something awful to frown upon. Killing other people, such as Runners who attempt to continue life after 30, has been made to look like renewal and/or is done by robots. This removal of human empathy in a society must be a central theme in the novel. In the film such crucial visions of the future play only a small part as the thematic backdrop for Jessica's and Logan's boring escape into the real planet earth outside the dome.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Grifters (1990) Directed by Stephen Frears

Nick :
The memory is deceptive. Mine certainly is. I'm constantly re-watching films that at sometime I thought were really good but now disappoint. It's almost the same with the Grifters.
Based on Jim Thompson's novel, The Grifters is a modern Noir, a Grifter being a con man. John Cusack plays a conman who is torn between his rarely seen mother (working for the mob placing bets on horse races) and his latest girlfriend (a former big time con artist, who pays bills with sexual favors and is looking for a new con man partner).
Frears shoots this film with a slow pace, only the last act does the picture start to grip. It also looks very early 90's, which is to say it looks like a made for TV movie . Cusack is a little too frat boy and stiff to convince as the con man Roy Dillon. But what makes The Grifters almost classic are the two women who lead this film.

The Grifters was a calling card for both Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening. Bening is very sexy, naked (I have her breasts implanted in my memory you see them so often in this picture) and playful as the crooked girlfriend Myra Langtry. She spews some great lines like "he was so crooked he ate his soup with a corkscrew" and her performance adds the energy the film lacks because of Frears direction. A career defining turn.

But Huston is the one to watch. Lurid outfits, bleached blonde hair, her personality and quirky character engulf this film. The heavy suggestion of insest between Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly only convinces because of Huston's seedy sexuality. So long in the shadow of father John and Boyfriend Jack (Nicholson) this is where Anjelica shows us what we've been missing.Don't fuck with Anjelica, she'll rip your balls off. Her acting in the tragic final act is humane and believable. In that scene we get the heart of this film.

Ultimately, one can only wonder what the film's producer, Martin Scorsese would have made with such strong material. And why has Anjelica Huston not had more roles like this. Ice Baby Ice.

The idea of Grifters is better than the movie itself. Somehow it did not manage to involve me emotionally, so I didn't really care for the mother who ends up killing her own son even.
John Cusack is completely wrong for this film. He is supposed to be the son of a mafia bet maker who had him at 14. So, he should be on the edge and wired. He's supposed to be involved in 'big con', a good bluffer, but who would believe that Cusack is even acting. (Looks like he's asleep here.)

On to Annette Bening: Dressed in figure hugging 80's outfits (usually in mustard) Bening plays a sexy trickster who's willing to go to any length for wads of dollars. (This is Annette before she married Warren Beatty.) I can see that this was a fun role to play and that as an actress she was willing to do anything for the best of the movie (run around naked).

There is a kind of ragged charm to this film and the women steal the show from the get go. Also, the early 90's film noir-look is reaching coolness.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Towering Inferno (1974) Directed by John Guillermin & Irwin Allen

This film is so long. I went to see this on release when I was 8 years old and I always remember the interval. It was at the most exciting part of the film where a stairwell explodes and Paul Newman is left hanging from some mangled metal. That's as good as it gets. I'm a sucker for disaster movies, I love them and it's possible this is the king of the genre. Observations on this film : it's terrible, slow, script is rubbish, it even manages to look bad which is nigh on impossible for a picture made in 1974. The first hour is water torture. Then the fire starts and you can try and watch which famous 70's actor make it through the smoke and ruble.
It's the tallest building in the world and it's the opening party. William Holden built it, but not before he cut costs and ignored architect Paul Newman's specific safety mandate, the result: FIRE.
The party to celebrate the building is on the top floor so the race is on to save the party goers from being burnt to death. There really is no way out! Aren't you tense?
Steve McQueen plays the fire chief who is practical. You somehow realize that McQueen must have been really stoned when he made this one, it's in those glazed blue eyes. It's macho testosterone time as the biggest movie stars of the era trade heroics. Newman does a lot of action in this while McQueen organizes a lot and talks on the phone.
Faye Dunaway is the sexy journalist who can't decide to stay with Newman, almost reprising her Network role. Selznick's old squeeze Jennifer Jones has a date with con man Fred Astaire (he has a geriatric dance in one scene). OJ Simpson saves a cat from fire. It's a soap baby.
Could The Towering Inferno be the ultimate 9/11 movie? It's certainly better than Stone's World Trade Center and Greengrass's fictional United 93. It's hard not to make the comparison even though this is pre 9/11.
So, this film is bad, bad bad, yet.....nostalgia for my youth wipes out my critical faculties. It's Sunday afternoon, it's raining/hurricane is raging outside guff, I've watched every other film going, kind of fare. "Watch Out! This movie blows!!"