Thursday, April 29, 2010

Mayday Movie Recommendations


                                Le M├ępri (Contempt) (1963)
                                directed by Jean-Luc Godard

                                 Reds (1981)
                                 directed by Warren Beatty

                                 Some Like It Hot (1959)
                                 directed by Billy Wilder

                                Annie Hall (1977)
                                directed by Woody Allen

                               Pierrot Le Fou (Crazy Pete) (1965)
                               directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Nick :

                                 El Topo (1970)
                                 Directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky
                                Electra Glide In Blue (1973)
                                Directed by James William Guercio

                                 Il Conformista (1970)
                                 Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

                                 O Lucky Man! (1973)
                                 Directed by Lindsay Anderson

                                Bring Me The Head Of Alfred Garcia (1974)
                                Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Field Of Dreams (1989) Directed by Phil Alden Robinson

I have a tendency to cry my eyes out at overly sentimental films. I even cried once during the 70's remake of King Kong. And don't mention The Bridges Of Madison County. Field Of Dreams is a  classic weepie, it leaves a sickly sentimental taste and is all the better for it.

It also stars Kevin Costner. What can one say. That he is a movie star called Kevin should get your suspicions up. He's the all-American boy who made terrible movie choices after a bright start. Field Of Dreams was part of that early promise. Man hears voices on farm, destroys his crop, builds his own baseball field. Ghosts of great baseball players start showing up on the field. Bankruptcy looms, what can all this mean? And why did the voice tell Ray (Costner) "Build it and he will come". Who will come? These mysteries are all solved.

What makes Field Of Dreams interesting is it's mainstream sheen. This is all-American Pie. It's good old democracy and decency and a reminder of a time when American was good.  Field Of Dreams has more than a nod to the good feeling of the films of Frank Capra (although it never approaches the darkness Capra was capable of).

Fine performances from James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster & Ray Liotta back Costner up. They lay it on thick at the end as it get's overly sentimental. This is as good as Hollywood gets with this stuff. But Field Of Dreams  still has an original plot line, it creates a weird tension for such popular fare.  And it sends out a positive yet simple message:  hold onto your dreams, you never know when they may come and find you.

Just that day prior to watching Field of Dreams I had voiced major realizations in my life, for example that I have been afraid to dream. Or at least, if I have dreamed, those dreams have not been revealed to anyone. If someone asks to know my dreams, I give them my goals. Honestly, I have only now (this week) realized the difference.

Dreaming has been dangerous in my life, because of the lack of trust I harbor towards people and nature. But to dream of only things you know you can have or achieve is not dreaming.

This all said, I was amazed to be watching a movie about the miraculous effects of daring to dream.
The subject matter here is endlessly fascinating, but I am baffled by the lack of aesthetics. In a cinematic sense, there is nothing there. The imagination required for dreaming was not illuminating the photographer, set designers, costume designers, casting or even the director. Meat and potatoes.
Did they make this film for children or for some farming community? (I don't want to disrespect either parties, but a strong sense of undermining the target audience is present here – Hollywood at its least artistic)

Then there is baseball. Nick had to repeatedly remind me that this film is not about baseball. But I am just immediately bored when I realize that someone's dream involves a baseball bat. No, I am not American and I am not a man and I do not get sentimental about catching a ball. I begin to fall asleep.
I feel sad that a movie about dreaming is getting such a cynic's response from me. There's something wrong with me, I guess.

Still, I must mention Kevin Costner, because secretly I think he was sleepwalking through the film with me – the voice from the fields made him robotic. Don't get me wrong: I have secret dreams and I love movies about dreaming – just not this one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Un Flic (1972) Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Un Flic is slow, stylish, vacuous, dangerous and a little bit dull. It makes me want to compare it to all the fantastic French movies I have seen and conclude that it is just not that great in the context.

Maybe this is genius and I'm the idiot here, but I am bored by straightforward bank robbery flicks.
There are no surprising twists here and Catherine Deneuve is hardly in the film. It's just oldish men in trench coats driving around in rain.

Alain Delon is cool and the best thing about the film. He has a phone in his cop car. The phone may actually be the star of the film. How did they do portable phones in the 1960s? The phone receiver is like a regular land line phone. And they are sexy.

Every time I'm in a hotel room with a land line phone I have to make long calls to the room next door (or where ever there is someone I know) and stare at myself in the mirror.

Melville is inspiring even when he is boring. There is scope for imagination here.

Melville and Alain Delon, the director/actor team from one my favorite ever pictures,  Le Samourai. Un Flic (A Cop) doesn't disappoint, this is the final film by Melville and it's quite majestic.

You can contemplate that directors like Jarmusch dream of the opening shot of a car driving along the kerb of a rain and windswept ocean front. The two robberies in the film, one in a bank and one on a train, both long scenes without dialogue, must have impressed Tarantino with their lack of showiness, oh to teach him restraint. The look of this film must have been studied by Scorsese, it's so precise. Yes, Melville is a master of the gangster movie genre, mixing villains with existentialism.

Alain Delon plays the cop of the title cleaning the streets of Paris of crime. He's a rather clumsy cop, not perfect and almost bored by the job. Catherine Deneuve plays the femme fatal that Delon has an  affair with. Richard Crenna plays her partner who heads the crime team making the robberies. There is little plot, as mentioned the dialogue is sparse, but Melville still turns up the tension and weaves heavy atmosphere with a series of magnificent shots and scenes. Deneuve has never looked so good on film. Delon matches her with an extra dose of weariness, though he's not quite the dish from Le Samourai.

Delon is cop at the piano in the bar, playing Michel Colombier's wonderful music. Deneuve dressed as a nurse administering murder through a needle. The transvestite informant has a special relationship with the cop. The suicide with a pistol to the head we think we see. The final long shot of the cop and his sidekick in a car, glum and destroyed by the routine of being policemen and how the case has turned out,  is funny yet sad. There is so much to enjoy in this picture. An absorbing masterpiece, track down Un Flic, it's worth it.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008) Directed by Guillermo del Toro

In the last year or so I've got back into reading comics. From the age of seven I started reading the famously banned Action comic which was the precursor to seminal Si-Fi comic 2000AD. By the age of fifteen I was collecting up to 7 titles a week, from English to USA Marvel. When I left the UK to live in Finland I stopped reading any comic titles. But, it's fair to say, I'm a bit of a comic nut.

Mike Mignola's Hellboy I've only read a little.  Guillermo del Toro really is the right director for this franchise,  certainly from the visual aspect, he's probably the best adapter of comic book worlds I've ever watched. But he really shouldn't write the screenplays to these films. The script to Hellboy II can be described as obvious, patronizing and so on. del Toro constantly alludes to the fact that the audience won't believe that comic book characters could discuss adult themes, so simplistic cliches are proffered from Hellboy and his chums on the topics of romance, fatherhood and domesticity.

The dry humor from the first Hellboy picture is still here, as often displayed by Ron Perlman as Hellboy himself, but this time round it's a little overcooked. The actions scenes are impressive initially but often outstay there welcome. del Toro makes the claim that little CGI is used in his movies, but this seems to be a CGI festival at times, it really is like watching PlayStation. It get's a little messy, and the action is not so clear at times.

Despite all these faults, there is a lot of good stuff going on. Yes, as mentioned, some of this film looks amazing, the underworld lairs that del Toro creates are stunning. He can bring fairytale worlds to life and does so here. All the performances are top notch and the characters are a little more relaxed this time round. The Johan Krauss figure is a great addition to the team of Hellboy, Liz & Abe. It also prominently features a Barry Manilow song.

As comic book to movie adaptations go, the Hellboy films are among the best. There is no real tension here or over-bearing angst like the recent Batman films. Maybe that's a good thing. Overall this is very entertaining, it's trash on a  Sunday afternoon, and sometimes that's enough.

I have to admit I had been oddly entertained by Hellboy and therefore was curious about Hellboy II.
But oh, did it disappoint. They had (accidentally?) injected Lord of The Rings into a comic adaptation that supposedly takes place in New York of the 2000s. I cannot take anything lordoftherings -like anymore. I wasted nine hours on the trilogy during the last decade. Mixing the comic book Manhattan with Tolkien just won't do.

I cannot go into details about plot or anything much soon as this was simply repetition of what we saw in Hellboy already and then there was the adventure in the land of goblins... The film presents emotions with the kind of depth worryingly shallow even for an 11-year-old. But that is the point – I must be too old.

The very end of the film offers a treasure: Liz is expecting twins instead of just one baby.
What do we learn? Well, that it all leads to procreation. Still.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bringing Out The Dead (1999) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Marty Scorsese back on the mother fucking streets! Paul Schrader by his side! The Clash, Martha &The Vandellas, REM, Van Morrison on the soundtrack! Marty Scorsese/New York City! This time saving the scum on the streets! Wow! Ouch! Wow! Is this movie heaven?  But Wait! (crescendo)...there is something missing.

This should be the natural follow up to Taxi Driver, hell it even has some of the same slow motion shots with steamy hydrants, the laconic detached voice-over, Scorsese referencing Scorsese. Bringing Out The Dead is based on Joe Connelly's non-fiction account of a paramedic working the graveyard shift in Hell's Kitchen in the early 1990s. Nicolas Cage plays the paramedic  Frank Pierce who can't sleep, drinks too much and is losing his mind by the demands of his job, while he is haunted by the dead people he has been unable to save whilst on the job.

The good news is the Cage that turns up on Bringing Out the Dead is the good one. You know, the one from Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Birdy, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona and Face/Off. You often feel that Cage has made a lot of dross because when he does find a good script, he puts his all into it, so maybe he just saves the effort for the good ones and picks up the paycheck for the crap ones. Yes, he's good in this and the reason Bringing Out The Dead works is his commitment to the film. We believe Cage as Frank. He looks terrible, the thousand yard stare down pat, this is by no means an A-list star slumming it. Cage goes out there in an honest performance.

My main problem with Bringing Out The Dead is Scorsese himself. I'm not sure he quite believes in this film. He's covering old ground and is struggling to bring a new twist to it. He doesn't trust Schrader's excellent script. He should, there are many great lines here. The camera work is restless, Scorsese feels he can create the chaos of Hell's Kitchen just by fast-cuts and some loud rock n roll. Yes, again, the technical aspects of Bringing Out The Dead are superb. The energy at times is effortless. There is humor and it's the darkest black. Don't get me wrong, this may be the last great Scorsese picture. I think in 20 years people will reclaim this film. Nothing bar his Bob Dylan documentary comes close to this in recent times. So, what am I missing?  Maybe the passage of time to put Bringing Out The Dead in it's proper context. I think I will enjoy this film more in a few years time.

Finally, this is a grim New York Scorsese shows us. Hope is really not in the air. People are tired and worn down by the city. It's this heavy heart Scorsese brings to the picture that maybe brings it down. It hurts him to show New York this way. There is no light here, just darkness and a weary sigh.

Nicholas Cage is Sailor in Wild At Heart and that's how I like to think of him. He's good at over-dramatic melancholy and directionless unpredictability. If I forget about Sailor, then Cage threatens to be code for boring. I have seen one of his ex-homes in LA, a princess castle of sorts.
Strange choice if you could have anything in the world.

In Bringing Out The Dead Cage is good in that melancholy-to-the-maximum way. It is a thankful role for him to be the messed-up ambulance man with noble intentions.

But this is a Scorsese film. My expectations are always high with him. The aesthetic is there. The editing and the way Manhattan is portrayed is stylish, hectic and theatrical. Yet, somehow I cannot help but feel that I am watching an extended episode of ER. The material lacks a layer of contemplation. We are dealing with death and the unfair jungle laws of a big city, but the film does not offer much space for reflection.

In the little making-of featurette Scorsese offers his motivation for doing this film: he grew up in this city of contradiction. The nice families were in their homes among the underprivileged who were always dying in the streets. Scorsese mentions empathy and the difficulty of knowing what to do with the feeling when these people are at the same time disgusting. The abject. I understand what drew Scorsese to the script, but wish he had been able to put more of this contradiction in his movie.

Bringing Out The Dead is a well made movie from the 1990s. But it suffers from the general apathy, lethargy and lazy approach to any statements, opinions or feelings. I'm starting to think that this was a disease of the era; end-of-the-century freeze. Even ghosts are a little ineffective in inducing fear or any kind of wonder here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Rear Window (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window is about two things.  The first theme is seeing, watching and interpreting. Here the film can deliciously refer to events within its story and to the process of being the viewer of the movie. It would be too simplistic to call it voyerism and leave it at that.

The other layer of Rear Window is the comment it is making on the conventions of a heterosexual relationship. This is mostly discussed through the characters of Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Jeff (James Steward).

What Jeff is watching while he sits in his wheelchair at home are the variations and phases in lives of heterosexual men and women. Miss Torso is the admired and wanted feminine sexuality. Miss Lonely Heart is punished for not conforming. The murdering husband is the worst case scenario of a heterosexual marriage, whereas the couple sleeping on the balcony is a somewhat more optimistic description. The piano-playing drunk is an ambiguous character – possibly an example of choosing the life of a bachelor, or is it the loneliness of a gay man in the 1950s?

In any case, we are watching these people through the eyes of Jeff. He is a traveling photographer who takes great risks in his job (that's where he broke his leg) and views the prospect of marriage to Lisa as a scary and boring thought. While he is bound to his chair, Lisa appears every evening looking like a movie star, bringing him meals and wooing him to marry her. It really is almost like a cartoon character of 1950s feminine perfection appears in the depressing apartment. The contrast is intentional.

Initially, Jeff finds it difficult to relate to her world, which he clearly judges as superficial. To his visiting nurse he tells that Lisa is too perfect. Lisa says she is willing to conform to his world, even to travel with just one small suitcase to the end of the world. But it is once she begins to look at the neighboring windows through the eyes of Jeff and helping him with the investigation of a possible murder that Jeff seems to accept her.

The film ends in an ambiguous shot at Jeff's apartment after the murder case has been solved by him and Lisa. Now instead of one leg, both of Jeff's legs are cast and obviously he'll be staying in his wheelchair a while longer. Slowly the camera moves to showing Lisa, who lies on her side in Jeff's single bed reading Bazaar magazine. Trapped for good. Is that the message Hitch?

I bought this huge Alfred Hitchcock box-set at Christmas, some 15 films, all with bonus material. We've been intermittently dipping in and out of the box, for example,  I was blown away by The Birds last weekend. So, this weekend, Rear Window. This is rated as the one of the high-points of Hitchcock's repertoire, and rightly so.

There is much to admire here. A great performance by one of my favorite actors James Stewart (Jeff), when is he ever bad?  Grace Kelly playing Stewart's girlfriend Lisa, looking so wonderful in the Edith Head designs. The much under-valued Thelma Ritter keeps it real as Jeff's masseur. The incredible set on a studio back-lot of the back yard where Jeff views the daily lives of his neighbors is almost a star in its own right. The neighbors Jeff's obsessive gaze introduces us to are Miss Lonelyhearts, Songwriter, Miss Torso and the sinister Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). The action mainly takes place in Jeff's living room, this being not only the main protagonists, but the audience's window to the world and characters of Rear Window.

The everyday lives put under a microscope reveal lots of blatant sexuality, loneliness, alcoholism, weary relationships and ultimately murder, subjects most of your average mid-50's studio pictures wouldn't go near. That Rear Window can do this from such a non-linear plot-driven premise, amazes me. Most of this is seen from Stewart's wheelchair-bound hero's perspective, voyeuristic in the extreme. Hitchcock even questions the immoral motives of Stewart's character spying on his neighbors.  In reality, it's through nothing other than boredom.

Not much objectivity from me on Rear Window, but for me this picture is pure joy. It is a cinematic exercise in perspective and imagination. It's also Hitchcock, so behind all the theory and psychology this picture is suspenseful and entertaining. A master class.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Player (1992) Directed by Robert Altman

Nick :
Altman back on form? The Player felt so fresh when first released, it's been a while since I've seen it.
Yes, this is a cynical take on the Hollywood film industry,  but it's also very slow,  the laughs are slight and the film falls into spot-the-famous-actor -mode to compensate for the lack of interest on screen.

Movie exec Griffin Mill (a very good Tim Robbins) receives threatening postcards from an anonymous source. Amid increasing paranoia (systematic of Hollywood), Mill tracks down the rejected screenwriter, David (Vincent D'Onofrio), who he thinks is responsible for the postcards. The meeting turns to disaster when Mill inadvertently murders David. Mill then falls for David's widow June (Greta Scacchi) amid increasing speculation that Mill killed the writer. Of course the poison postcards don't stop. Will Mill find out who his tormentor is? Will he go down for David's murder?

In many ways Altman's black comedy is about power, position and the compromise needed to gain the power.  It also sends out the message that in Hollywood you can get away with anything. There are great supporting roles for Lyle Lovett as a suspicious cop, with Whoopi Goldberg also strong as the detective leading the murder investigation.

All the boxes are ironically ticked for the ingredients needed to have a box office smash: sex, violence, more sex and violence, big movie stars and a happy ending. But Altman's film within a film scenario (and a dry run for Short Cuts), nowadays feels flat and falls short from Altman's own 70's high standards. But still, it's Altman, and the seediness on screen, you realize, Altman has prized from personal experience.

I think I like Robert Altman and his films. But actually what I've read about him and even some aloof quality in many of his films is distancing. Maybe he is not a nice guy. The Player certainly is saying that Hollywood is not a nice place. And people there are not sympathetic either.

Altman always juggles a huge cast. This time there are not many main characters, but the amount of cameos is overwhelming. It takes away from the story by inviting the audience to pay attention to every passing back on the lot because they are some well known actor. Altman is sneering at Hollywood while exploiting the star myth.

Tim Robbins is good as the producer who accidentally murders a script writer and gets away with it. Robbins is a pretty sympathetic actor in general and by casting him Altman adds some human warmness into the cold cold heart of Hollywood. Only very little, but it's harder to dismiss the whole film because of Robbins.

Griffin Mill, the producer (Robbins) not only murders the script writer, but falls for his wife and begins dating her immediately after the funeral. The wife is a strange emotionless blue painter. It remains unclear throughout why she is so expressionless and so ready to love the stranger who appears in her life on the evening of her husband's murder. This is where Altman's distance to his characters seems not to serve the film.

Whoopi Goldberg is funny (and light fun is rare here) as the detective who investigates the murder. If I ever end up at a police station, I hope she's there conducting my interview.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

An American Werewolf in London (1981) Directed by John Landis

yesterday was a day before I went to the doctor's again and found out that I have pneumonia. So I was feeling very tired and disoriented and decided to watch a movie in the middle of the day. I watched Arizona Dream (1993) and let me warn you, it was bad. It was painful and induced disorientation. A flying fish, a lost Johnny Depp and some unjustified glorification of being mentally unbalanced. I should have been at least 15 years younger...

To top of the bad movie day, Nick's latest DVD arrivals included An American Werewolf in London and he was just in the mood to re-experience the horror. I did not argue – how could I when his favorite woman Jenny Agutter plays a nurse?

I am generally so scared by horror films that they are banned from our house. Even seeing the spine of The Exorcist gives me trouble sleeping. But this one is just laughable. The growl of the werewolf is scary when heard for the first time, but the actual visuals of the beast are ridiculous. The more you see of it, the less it creates anything but pity. Is this really all they could come up with in 1981?

Then there is the acting. I don't know what these two American dudes are called, but I doubt they had much of a career in movies after this one. They are delivering lines with the enthusiasm of reciting a shopping list from mom. I'm glad one of them turns into a undead dead early on, but unfortunately the other one turns into the main character, the werewolf.

The idea of a werewolf is sexy and dangerous. The line between human and animal can be thin, right? I recall seeing one version of the theme where the love interest is in on the secret and has a bit of fun with the animal every once in a full moon (or is this my imagination?). Here Jenny Agutter and the American guy are paired in a way that makes me think the script writer was not 17 when he wrote this, but in fact five. Yes, we see Agutter's right nipple, but it does not save the planet.

Oh dear this was torture. It made me want to be properly scared. But I'm going to watch some certified classic this afternoon – the pneumonia forces me to, really. (Goddard or Allen, haven't decided yet.)

Nick :
Two young American tourists are in Northern England, shunned by the locals, and warned to stay off the moors, they are attacked by a wild beast.  Jack dies but David survives as the locals kill the beast. David is taken to a London hospital to recover. He is looked after by Nurse Alex Price (yes, Jenny Agutter) who falls for David. David has bad dreams and is visited by his dead friend Jack (a very dry Griffin Dunne) who says he is walking in limbo and will not be set free till David dies. He warns David that they were attacked by a werewolf and that David will turn into a werewolf when the next full moon arrives. A few days later, discharged from hospital and staying with Nurse Price, David's painful transformation arrives and he wreaks havoc on the streets of London.

The dream sequences that David has in Hospital are well made, often bizarre and chilling.The use of music, Bad Moon Rising, Blue Moon and the best use of Van Morrisson's Moondance ever (Naughton and Agutter in a long love making scene), the music brings much of the humor. Jack's re-appearing rotting corpse and David's initial transformation into a werewolf also keep the attention.
But much of the intensity leaves the film once the beast starts slaughtering people we don't know or care about.

Agutter is good as the girl-next-door nurse, and John Woodvine as the Doctor who treats David and believes his Werewolf instincts, adds sanity to the proceedings. But maybe the problem with this film is Landis mixing the gags with the gore, once the initial novelty has worn off, the picture has nowhere to go but repetition.

An American Werewolf in London was within the horror picture genre, quite a breakthrough. Rick Baker's effects were groundbreaking at the time (although look dated now) and Landis mixing humor with blood splattering horror was something no one had seen before.  It's interesting that Landis uses unknown actors for the principles. Initially, David Naughton does well as David, but he is lacking something to carry the whole film (and does resemble the Vampire Weekend singer at times!)
Also, much like Woody Allen's London films, this is an American tourist's view of England, with generalizations about Northern Types, English "Bobbies" and a "aren't they charming but backward" mentality. This is an influential horror picture that runs out of ideas half way through. For Landis, it was the landmark Thriller video that followed and then semi- obscurity.

 Sadly, a film I remembered fondly from adolescence was a real disappointment this time round.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

All The President's Men (1976) Alan J. Pakula

Nick :
I remember the Nixon resignation. It was big news in England. As I got older it was just one part of a realization for me that whatever happens in America will always be front page news all over the world.

Pakula has serious form in conspiracy pictures with his The Parallax View being one of the best ever.  All the President's Men was the first time Pakula did non-fiction. Watergate and Nixon's subsequent resignation was still so fresh in the hearts and minds of the American public, I think after all these years it is hard to realize what impact All the President's Men had when originally released.

The casting of such box-office heavyweights Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Washington Post journalists Woodward and Bernstein, who uncover corruption in the Republican Party that leads all the way to the President, of course merely broadened the appeal of the picture to mainstream audiences. Redford is A Typical, Hoffman is far more sympathetic than he usually is, although his character is far seedier than Redford's republican voting Woodward.

These two drive the film but are well supported by Jason Robards,  the always excellent Jack Warden and a very intense Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, the secret insider informant who helps Woodward at key times in unraveling the story. Pakula ups the tension in the underground car park scenes between them, but always keeps it subtle.

Hollywood  has delved into this type of picture recently with David Fincher's Zodiac and State Of Play, but neither picture captures the buzz of the office quite like All the President's Men. We somehow feel a purity towards Woodward and Bernstein, this was a golden age of newspaper reporting we are watching. Our sense of nostalgia for seemingly worthier times gives their journalistic efforts an extra glow.

This is landmark political cinema dressed up as populist lamb and it's all the better for it.

I used to think All The President's Men is slow, dry and good to sleep through. Now, through some strange shift in me, I suggested we watch it. It is still interestingly passionless and level-headed, but Nick provides the passion from the sofa. Who knows how many times he has seen this one, and still he announces during the end credits: 'can you believe these two journalist uncovered it all...'

Yes, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman uncovered the rottenness in the White House. They were the hungry young reporters. But actually they appear to be floating through the film with the self-awareness of movie stars. I'm not complaining. This is one of those rare times where Hoffman's character is not looking to be liked for his handicap, I don't mind him. I definitely do not mind Redford with his blond hair. I always think of him as a red head, but he is blond here.

There is an extreme dryness in this movie. It's desert-like. As the conspiracy gets deeper and more serious involving the president and the intelligence agencies, you might expect some thrilling chases and murder attempts on the two journalists, but there is none of that. I take it as a sign of respect for the audience. I have (finally?) grown up to appreciate this slow dry brand of cinema.

I want to mention the interior of the Washington Post offices. It is a vast open white space supported by white round pillars here and there. The office tables and chairs are arranged in blocks of primary colors. Must be that hip Scandinavian influence of the 1970s. Also: typing is sexy.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Meantime (1984) Directed by Mike Leigh

Meantime was a reminder to me of a time in my life: the futility of being young, when there really was "no future", prospects were zero and the only way to get a life was to get out. Welcome to Thatcher's Britain, 1984. I came from this side of the skids and was 18 when this film was made. I knew people like the characters out of Meantime. If I hadn't of been so lucky, I could of been living a life like Mark, played by an excellent Phil Daniels.

What a cast Mike Leigh assembled for Meantime. Daniels, Tim Roth (Graham Coxon from Blur has obviously based his whole persona on Roth's Colin), Gary Oldman, Alfred Molina and Pam Ferris. It's a very run down council estate in London, unemployed Colin and Mark live with there parents, nothing to do all day other than hang in the streets. When Colin gets offered a temporary job by his aunt, Mark's jealousy sways his brother from taking the job.

These are real lives. It's post punk Britain on the doll.  This is the Specials' Ghost Town in celluloid form. Alan Bleasdale's brilliant TV series Boys From The Blackstuff  dealt with the effects of unemployment of Thatcher's Britain better, but Meantime addresses the dis-effected youth with greater intensity. Who makes films like Meantime anymore? These problems still exist. In our pampered, privileged lives, can we even contemplate that people in our own neighborhoods still live in these conditions? They do you know and we are all one step away from this.

Mike Leigh's brilliant film paints a world outside our windows of inner-city decay and despondency. Amongst all this,  Leigh's characters still laugh, still have friendships and their pride. It's all about economics, to echo a character from Meantime. Yes it is, and these are the effects.

I appreciate Mike Leigh's ability to compose emotion within his portrayals of the English lower classes. He does not sentimentalize, he isn't angry, but empathy towards his characters is always there.
The empathy is what makes films such as Meantime watchable. Without it, this would be too depressing and draining an experience.

Meantime makes me cough more. The rooms are so moldy, drafty and cold, and the family is so disappointed amongst it all. Mother, father and two adult sons smoke in all rooms. All three men are unemployed. There appear to be no dreams, aspirations, direction or even a faint promise of something better for these people.

The photography from London in the early 1980s reveals an equally grim and poor exterior. Big Ben is surrounded by scaffolding and the suburbs look like they were bombed.

This is a world where mental disabilities or even shyness get no sympathy, they just make you more vulnerable. It is a city jungle where baked beans are dinner and cigarettes are pleasure, beds creak and windows will fall off if opened. Life is about basic survival. Mike Leigh knows that poverty is not sexy and glamorous. It is desperate and it can ruin people.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easy Rider (1969) Directed by Dennis Hopper

I was under the impression that I had not watched Easy Rider ever before. I wanted to see it now, because it has a somewhat important place in the story of how the New Hollywood era came about, and it represents one side of the rebellion within the industry.

Quickly I realized that I had in fact seen the film before, and that I had found it extremely boring then.
This is yet another buddies-on-the-road flick (see our recent reviews of Thelma & Louise and Rain Man). This time the men are rather macho, although the mainstream America of the time finds them threateningly feminine in their long hair and hippie manners. Instead of a car these dudes ride motor bikes. The photography of landscapes is enjoyable and was done by Laszlo Kovacs, but the editing is annoying and pretentious.

The editing and it's annoyingly patronizing manner is a continuation from other huge faults in this movie: the script is a big void, but not in the stylish European 1960s way, which it is of course trying to channel. I'm sorry but I think that Hopper and Fonda just were too high and too simplistic to begin with. Meat and potatoes. There is an earnestness about the drug taking, dealing, the little games on the bikes, the whore house and the rest. Where is the tension? By the year 2010 this all doesn't come across as frank portrayal of where American youth culture was at in relation to the rest of the land, it isn't radical, it's not even sexy.

The patronizing tone of this historically interesting piece is aimed to two directions. Its message to the Hollywood studio system is that it is out of step with its young audience. Its tune to the audience is equally as educational: a hardly cooked notion of freedom tied to drugs and travel. There might be a very confusing mishmash of maleness on offer here, which could be something for further investigation. It crossed my mind that Fonda's character could be interpreted as gay (no interest in women on offer, mourns the death of a short-time male friend on the road, the look, the reason to get away in the first place).

The highlight of Easy Rider is Jack Nicholson and his portrayal of an alcoholic small-town lawyer. The receding hairline and the lumps of hair turning to all directions have become an important asset in his acting. Here in his break-through role the hair already plays a part. Nicholson is the only one with a meaty role, and the only one who can give it some in this generally boring movie.

Nick :
Ripe for the slaying, sacred cows come no bigger than this picture. Influential in many respects, this movie showed the New Hollywood of the late 60's that there could be money made from the Youth Market and also that independent productions from the studio systems could earn success. It wasn't such a long road to Star Wars.

Two biker hippies make a drug deal with the man (a yellow sunglasses Phil Spector) and then bike from LA to New Orleans to find themselves. Hopper as well as directing plays one of the bikers Billy, a constantly annoying stoned wreck who says "man" a lot. The other lead is played by Peter Fonda, whose Wyatt is a cool leather-clad silent type. On their bike ride they come across hippie communes, dope smoking,  racists, more hippies and dope smoking.

It spouts a symbolic/condescending message about old attitudes and the new counter culture. If you watch Easy Rider you may come under the belief that white middle class hippies had a much harder time in the deep south than say, being a black person. The drug taking scenes in this movie tend to be of the "look at me I'm smoking a spliff on screen" variety, with drug taking cliches espoused by the central characters. The less said about the pretentious acid taking scene in New Orleans the better.

Easy Rider does have a few good things going for it. A great soundtrack  featuring the Byrds, Hendrix and The Band amongst others. Jack Nicholson's all to brief straight Southern lawyer cameo energizes the film. The great Laszlo Kovacs photography is a joy to behold, the best scenes just being endless shots of America from the road.

At times embarrassing in it's efforts to be cool, this is generally just a boring film. Easy Rider is a poor picture on 60's counter culture in comparison to landmark films such as Performance, Blow-Up or producer Rafelson's own Five Easy Pieces. Those pictures had a clearer perspective on the changes that happened in Youth Culture in the 60's. The simplistic depiction of Red Necks coupled with the self importance and  white middle class indulgunce of the Hippies, Easy Rider's a great argument for the whole Punk Rock movement that would follow. The saying "Never Trust A Hippie" might just have been coined for this over rated piece of pop culture.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rain Man (1988) Directed by Barry Levinson

Nick :
This was my first time with Rain Man. I had seen some scenes before but not the whole thing, despite Astrid's insistence that we had watched it together. Turns out that was a former boyfriend!

Tom Cruise plays Charlie Babbitt who's car business is going down the pan. On hearing of his estranged father's death, Babbitt heads to Cincinnati for the funeral. Babbitt's  father was rich, but instead of leaving his fortune to his son,  he left it to a trust fund. All Charlie got was his father's old Buick and some pruned roses. Even more shocking to Charlie, he discovers he has an older brother, Raymond (Oscar-winner-for-this-portrayal Dustin Hoffman), and the 3 million dollar inheritance has been left to him. Problem is, Raymond has no concept of money as he's autistic. Charlie kidnaps his brother from his special care home, using his brother as collateral to get half the inheritance money.  So, they drive from Cincinnati to LA in the Buick.

Rain Man is a road movie. It's also trying to make some point about autism (are all autistic people geniuses and we just don't understand them?) Hoffman initially comes off as good but as the film wares on you realize it's a very calculated performance, and that is true of the film as a whole. It has some great scenes but it's pretty poor Hollywood fare.

Cruise has some intermittent love interest in the OK Valeria Golino.  It's interesting to me, but has there ever been an A-list star such as Cruise who has played so many odious characters in mainstream cinema, yet remained so popular? He's good in this film and the reason to watch it.

Levinson has made some good movies (I really like his Diner and Tin Men pictures). Here he seems to have forgotten what economy and pace is with endless shots of the Buick on highways. He's also a little in awe of his actors, especially Hoffman, who he over-indulges. Special mention has to go to Hans Zimmer,  who once again supplies one of the worst scores I've ever heard. It's as if he is insensitive to what's on screen.

So Rain Man, typical Hollywood guff. Pass.

Rain Man was in a double package with Thelma & Louise, so we had to watch this too. I guess it is some kind of a buddies-on-the-road package, Rain Man being the masculine version of the coin (I'm interpreting the DVD distributor's logic here).

Tom Cruise is not my favorite actor. Neither is Dustin Hoffman for that matter. They both smack of over-acting and self-awareness beyond pleasant. Cruise specializes on young ingrown rage, Hoffman on sympathetic handicaps and victims (think of Midnight Cowboys from 1969). This is the stuff that wins Oscars though.

I watched Rain Man prepared for the worst. I had seen it before a long while ago and remembered it as cheaply sentimental.  Yet, there is a hollow harshness about the film from the get go; the look, the music and characters remain in distance. It is as if some mildly autistic inability to portray emotion landed on the whole project.

With everything that I have against this movie, in a reluctant way, I was entertained and touched.
Hoffman is (indeed) endearing as the autistic and long-lost brother of the angry Cruise. I have understood that some of the portrayal of autism is in fact a little unrealistic. It is very Hollywood-like and obviously aspires to normalize the person – what is the obsession to get the autistic person to touch others, go on dates and dance if he has no desire, no emotional interest in those things?

Autism is about communication, about a different kind of existence in the body and expressing towards others. Fascinating. This film it appears, is not so fascinated though, it is more content in asking the simple question: could an asshole learn to love a cute kitten?