Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) Directed by Karel Reisz

I was just about aware around the age of four, it's about as far back as my memory goes, of a lot of the things that appear in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I mean that in a sense of the cars in this film could still be found on the streets of Britain in the early 70's, middle-aged men had quiffs, obviously the overriding influence of Elvis and Jimmy Dean on popular culture still reverberating. Those same middle-aged men were wearing the late 50's tailored suit style as opposed to the Hippy Look. Working in factories. Council houses. My father ticked all these boxes. He was an Italian version of Albert Finney's Arthur Seaton. Certainly that's how I remember him when I was four.

My father wasn't as angry as Seaton is in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Or maybe he was. Working class. Kitchen sink drama. It's this anger that still gives the picture its power. Forget Seaton's womanizing and boozing, that's his only way to crush the boredom and his injustice of being born the wrong side of the tracks. Seaton describes his parents as "They have a TV set and a packet of fags, but they're both dead from the neck up." Seaton's different: "I'm out for a good time - all the rest is propaganda!" or as Morrissey might say "Don't let the bastards grind you down!" Yes, pop culture has loved this film, even The Arctic Monkeys have got in on the act of taking their first album title from Seaton spewing"But if any knowing bastard says that's me I'll tell them I'm a dynamite dealer waiting to blow the factory to kingdom come. Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not because they don't know a bloody thing about me! God knows what I am."

And that's why this is a landmark film and still resonates. We're all comfortable now, middle class, wanting anything we can get in our privileged lives. But the Arthur Seatons of this world still exist, waiting to tear down your dream-houses, pissing on your front door questioning your reason for living. Me? I'm with Seaton.

I had heard talk of the English kitchen sink drama, but never seen one until Saturday Night – Sunday Morning. If some Russians have managed to spy on the American way of suburban life รก la 2000s, I feel like a spy entering the Northern English way of life of the 1960s.

This is the scruffy side of cinema, where glamor appears ridiculous and distant. The narrative and the camera are working towards creating 'reality'. Documenting the present in order to preserve the experience. It just so happens that in 2010 this 'reality' appears aesthetically more coherent and romantic than our own.

Arthur (Finney) is coarse and angry. Yet, he is endearing in his boyish manner. From the beginning of the film we gather that he is rebelling inside of his claustrophobic surroundings. He has an awareness of something bigger, newer and more free. However, during the course of the film his character becomes more and more tangled in the restricting conventions of his village.

Saturday Night – Sunday Morning offers excellent acting especially in the scenes between the main character and his older and married lover and then with his new young girlfriend. It is painful to see the married woman's loneliness as she considers abortion because she is expecting her lover's child. It is fun to witness the awkward exchanges between the beautiful new girlfriend and Arthur, as they develop a kind of love.

Will Arthur break away from the life ahead of him and move to a big city in the southern parts of England? The film doesn't tell. But in a way, many of the Arthurs of 'the real world' did.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Serious Man (2009) Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen

A Serious Man was a very entertaining film for me to watch. I like movies with serious thoughts and events, but with humor in the delivery and perspective. I like a good narrative and I like to be left with unanswered questions. It is better to get questions from cinema than to get a load of clear-cut answers.

I also like to see ordinary life depicted, especially so when the ordinariness is strange or not so familiar to me. A film about a Jewish middle-aged family man is therefore a good choice with me. And I usually enjoy the Coen brothers (except for No Country For Old Men, which I thought was rubbish).

Up until I went to the USA as an exchange-student in 1999, I had practically no understanding of the vast cultural phenomenon that is the Jewish faith. Since then the diversity of religions, faiths, and spiritualities and their huge place in the every day lives of people has dawned on me more. Finland really is the la-la-land of Lutheran Christianity where it has been criminally easy to ignore religion all together and deny its effects on culture.

I am forever interested in asking the questions of what we are doing here and where we are headed in the universe. A Serious Man depicts a man greatly in need of answers to these questions but what do the rabbis of his little town have to say? Nothing helpful really.

The Coen brothers seem to be saying that the old days when stories and narratives told by our social leaders no longer satisfy us in the search for answers. Yet, isn't cinema just another one of those answering machines spewing narrative at us?

It's terrible when you invest your emotional state and well being into something, even if it's important, and that something let's you down. Crushed, other words describe my abject disappointment. I keep asking myself every time if it's worth the involvement, so exhausted and drained I'm left feeling after each event. This terrible feeling has been bought on by Italy's exit from The World Cup. I don't take this lightly, it means so much. Well, I still have England to cheer for...

Still, there is something that connects the latest Coen brothers' picture and Italy's World Cup exit. There has been much talk of Italy being cheats, boring, negative and thank god they're going home and so on. Stereotypical observations on Italian football and culture. Of course The World Cup will be less interesting without them. The current Holland team, unlike Dutch teams of the past, really don't have any sexy football spark in their body. Dirk Kyt? The antithesis of sexy football (or football in general for that matter). Really, you'd have nightmares about the thought of Dirk going down on you, Cannavaro on the other can only dream!

So, back to A Serious Man, this film concerns a certain Jewish family in some mid-western town in 1967. It questions our notions of Jewishness to some degree. Leave your Jewish stereotypes at the door. Professor Larry Gopnik (the excellent Michael Stuhlbarg) over the course of the film, watches his life fall apart. Seeking some answers from his Jewish faith, Larry hits a brick wall where there should be wise perspectives on his problems. Things continue to deteriorate to the point of fatality. Or do they?

As the nudges to Krautrock littered The Big Lebowski and Simon & Garfunkel were knowingly referenced in Intolerable Cruelty, for A Serious Man, Jefferson Airplane are the musical touch stone. In this world, the Airplane hold all the answers to meaning. The mostly unknown cast excel here, a brave move from the Coens' not to rely on 'stars'. There are some stand-out trippy scenes, where the Coens' usual inventiveness come to the fore, but the strength of this film is in the storytelling. From the unrelated fable that starts the picture to the unfolding small town drama, the Coens have made their most personal film to date. One of the best new films I've seen in a long while, the Coen brothers haven't reached these heights since Barton Fink or Miller's Crossing all those years ago. So, in one word, A Serious Man is essential.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

King of Comedy (1982) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Nick :
It's been a bit quiet here the last week. Various reasons, work, work, songwriting, not being home, but utmost, THE WORLD CUP! So,watching football has been, when home, the evening's entertainment.

Just before the kick off a week ago, we managed to find time to revisit Scorsese's King Of Comedy. Could this be Scorsese's ultimate moment (and De Niro's while we're at it)? Prior to the sublime Larry Sanders Show and more recently The Office, King Of Comedy captures on celluloid a certain embarrassment and uncomfortable feeling that you often feel for people who are a little sad, think they know everything and are actually mentally ill. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is often excruciatingly annoying in his self indulgent fantasizing. He's the  flip side to Travis Bickle, aggressive in his assertion that he deserves a break. They have similar career trajectories. This film is so dry in it's depiction of fan worship and lonely people.

It raised a few questions in my mind. Although famed for his gangster pictures, it's just possible that Scorsese is at his best when he does quirky. Think After Hours, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the incredible New York, New York I also wonder why Sandra Bernhard hasn't had a serious acting career after her role here? However good De Niro and Bernhard are, the movie belongs to comic icon Jerry Lewis, whose on-screen Jerry Langford comes over as shallow, lost and disinterested with his lonely celebrity life. His kidnapping is probably a boredom shattering highlight. I wonder if Langford can play drums as well as Lewis?

Again, New York is the back drop to the film, street life evolving around the actors. There's even a blink and you'll miss it scene with The Clash. Embarrassing and cruel, yet very funny, I'd love to see Marty re-discover his quirk like this.

I have been the warm-up act to Sandra Bernhard's comedy show. Yes, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
For two nights (or was it three?). There we were misplaced the both of us more or less. I certainly did not know how to rise or lower or somehow to adjust to the situation: very privileged Americans sitting down at their round tables, eating their 100 dollar lobsters. Think of the sound of lobster cracking and clicking against forks and knifes. And there on the stage behind a very nice grand piano, me with no jokes to tell at all.

But Sandra was angry and she made the audience know that she was being funny and entertaining, yet at the same time she hated the people at their round tables. Blue and white table cloths and very dim lights. She was scary and unpredictable and never at a loss for words.

She was a star. She had made it. She was wearing a Prada dress and Manolo heels and she admitted to seeing the irony right there. But nevertheless she had come a long way from being the unknown young woman ranting and raging in The King Of Comedy. She had benefited from the fame machine and on some scale what happened to Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) at the end of the film happened to her.

Success. Fame. TV, film, book, magazine. I, on the other side of the world, may still be trying. And I definitely need to rant more and learn to tell jokes.

BTW: I take this film very personally.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Godfather: Part II (1974) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

I lost my broken reading glasses just as I was about to write this. A serious hunt has left me glasses empty. I actually ordered a new pair last week, but they are late. So, my lack of specs informs my view.

Sequels never live up to expectations. The Godfather was a special film. Part II hones and improves the formula. It looks better (which is some achievement considering the first film), it provides us valuable back story with the early life of Vito Corleone in 1920's New York. It also gives us the most sullen, stressed, lonely and unhappy anti-hero in modern cinema with the character of Michael Corleone. Pacino is a moody sod in this picture.

De Niro is dancing as the young Vito in sharp contrast. The family is the thing. You also realize watching The Godfather: Part II  that by dispensing with Robert Duvall from the disappointing Part III (due to not offering Duvall enough money to reprise the Tom Hagen role), Coppola removed any sense of moral perspective from the last film. My only criticism of this near perfect picture is not enough Diane Keaton. She brings the quirk.

My father was from Sicily, so I heard the dialect much of my young life. De Niro's Sicilian accent is marvelous. What method. The final shot of Michael is one of the greatest shots of any movie I've ever seen. Even more special.

Admitting that I like Godfather II makes me feel guilty – it's like pizza and smoking and tight abs. They contradict my vision of myself. At least, I can happily report I was a little bored by Michael (Al Pacino) with his permanent frown by then end of the film.

But I was never bored with Robert De Niro as the young Godfather. I loved Diane Keaton's absolute misery. I cannot get enough of the Italian and Sicilian spoken by the actors, the close-knit family, and the insane measures taken by men to protect it. In fact, it's not just the successful cinematic storytelling and the look of the film, I cannot get enough of the monstrous politics of the mafia.

Some idiot in me feels safe on the couch when there is a strong leader of the family giving orders to assassin, when sons follow fathers into his line of shady work just because the honor of the family goes above individual needs. The idea that as long as my pups are safely in the same boat, the outside world does not matter can quickly turn to mean: we have to kill the outside world to keep the pups safe. And then: we have to kill the bad pup on the boat to keep the family safe...And I am still snug on the sofa.

Emotions do not matter, individual needs do not have a place, women and children are simply commodities (unless they are sons). Yet, revenge is sweet and always personal.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Paper Moon (1973) Directed by Peter Bogdanovich

We watched Paper Moon with an 8-year-old whose initial scepticism was soon wiped out by the little girl in the film. She is just nine, her mother dies and she is left with nothing except her wits and a hustling man who turns up at the funeral and is lumbered with the child. They become a version of Bonnie and Clyde.

I realize now that I was actually concentrated on how the child would take the film rather than anything else. She went from thinking the girl was a boy to thinking she's very pretty as a girl. She admired the girl for smoking in bed (!) and for yelling at her companion in public. The undercurrent here is the question: is he her dad or not?

Paper Moon is rated suitable for 7 and above in Finland. Some of its content seems a little heavy-handed for small children, but then again, life's an adventure and Paper Moon certainly shows a good time to little people. During the movie there is heavy hinting that the girl's mother was a prostitute. The sexual availability of some women is central to the plot in other ways as well. There are no endearing little home-maker women in this piece. Then there is the dishonest way of making a living through conning people, the smoking in bed and the general shady side of life...

That's why the 8-year-old had tears in her eyes in the end, and so did her dad.

Bogdanovich has had a recent revival. First came his cameo appearances in The Sopranos as Dr Elliott  Kupferberg. He then directed the excellent Tom Petty documentary Runnin' Down a Dream (2007). But Bogdanovich has really been in demand as a film historian. Countless DVDs have his commentary, many books have his introduction, he's the man to go to. Of course, this is how he started his career, interviewing and writing about cinema legends John Ford, Howard Hawks and Orson Welles, amongst others in the mid-60's. He was also along with Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, Scorsese, Coppola and others one of the leading directors of the "New Hollywood" movement of the late 60's and early 70's.

Paper Moon follows the Oscar winning success of the Last Picture Show and the Hawksian What's Up, Doc? Its a depression era-comedy starring real life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O'Neal. 10 year old Tatum wooed me as the kid (and the Oscar Academy) her performance is the thing. Ryan does OK as the Errol Flynn type on the take, and the father and daughter have great chemistry.  Lazlo Kovacs B and W cinematography is elegant yet crisp. The script is sharp and the homage to 30's and 40's Hollywood is nicely pulled off.

Bogdanovich manages to keep sentimentality to a limit, and this original conceit of a road movie is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  Bogdanovich has had at times a controversial and very up and down career. He could always retort, "I was with the young Cybil Shepherd" His movie smarts inform his films, but don't let that put you off. This is a small, almost forgotten gem.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Pale Rider (1985) Directed by Clint Eastwood

Nick :
Capitalist greed is probably at the heart of most evils we come across or face. Clint the Republican once again makes a movie about the little people and that struggle. At this stage in Clint's career, his only response to that greed is violence. Yes, more contradictions.

Pale Rider is the least talked about of Clint's post-Leone Westerns. This is the middle film that forms a loose trilogy along with High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven. As in the earlier High Plains Drifter, Clint plays a man with no name out for revenge. This time he's seemingly a man of God, which the prospector villagers he comes to represent refer to as Preacher. Preacher is one of the coldest characters Clint has played, displaying little emotion, just a cool head.  He single-handedly takes the fight to the mining company trying to destroy the prospectors.

An obvious score from Lennie Neihaus feels intrusive. Some poor performances from some of the villagers. Otherwise you can admire Bruce Surtees natural light and autumnal cinematography (how radical this must have seemed in the mid 80's), and the way Clint focuses on essential parts of his iconography. The close-ups of his face, bony fingers loading the guns, the coat. Clint always looks the coolest cowboy in town. Pale Rider also references Clint's own Western career, from the Leone Man With No Name, to The Outlaw Josey Wales, even Joe Kidd. But the nods to Ford and especially Stevens Shane at the end are obvious.

Although the spooky intensity of High Plains Drifter is not so much here, the mystery is cranked as high. As is the Gothic, religious imagery, especially when the Preacher has to face down the 7 Marshals. Apocalypse is a theme. Clint the lean biblical harbinger of death. After this violence it was left to William "Bill" Munny and Unforgiven's about face and the futility of the gun, a theme Clint has explored ever since. Pale Rider prints the legend, it's interesting, stands up, and is worth a look.

This is how you make compromises in relationships: you ask to watch a Woody Allen, and therefore you agree to go for a Western the next night. The funny thing is that I'm beginning to feel like a winner on both nights.

Seeing Pale Rider is much more pleasurable than watching Clint Eastwood in his more contemporary revenge scenarios (I know that Pale Rider is from the mid-1980s but it belongs to the original Clint genre). The aesthetic completeness of this film confirms that the Western is the genre Clint excels at; it is where he comes from and what creates the iconography. Here the revenge and the unavoidable rape threat towards a beautiful young woman/girl (themes which continue to haunt all Clint films) are somewhat justified for the development of the plot.

I think that Clint Eastwood is seen through the Western imagery, as this same nameless character in all other kinds of films he has made and that is why he appears so all-powerful to the devoted viewers. When he fails in Grand Torino for example, or in Bronco Billy, it is against his unkillable character of the Westerns that people see it is as great and daring positioning of himself. To admit to weakness is the ultimate turn-on, right?

Only the special ones ride on polka-dot horses: Clint and Pippi Longstocking. And both of them fight for justice and have incredible powers.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Stardust Memories (1980) Directed by Woody Allen

The relationship between reality and fantasy or imagination is what Woody Allen has studied film after film. He has a problem with reality, and so have many others around him, because reality rarely matches the stylishness and magical aspect of movies.

I have a problem with reality. That's why I love Woody. In Stardust Memories he introduces memories, the act of remembering as an important aspect of the real vs. unreal. Remembering could be the watershed, the invisible line between the two.

The portrayal of Dory (Charlotte Rampling), how she fills the whole screen and the view from the camera every time Sandy (Woody Allen) drifts into a memory, is obviously an idealization of the past.
Other people remind Sandy that she was mentally ill and only fun to be around with two days out of a month, but for Sandy she represents a loss of meaning, beauty and love.

To dabble with questions of the real and unreal is probably an integral part of working as a creative artist. I seem to constantly write new songs which negotiate somewhere between the imagined and experience in a reality. These states borrow from each other and end up with something new. Possibly with new form or a new perspective.

Often I have understood that others see my living as unrealistic and out of touch because I play with imagination. Sometimes I myself find it difficult to justify songwriting as a profession because 'the real' routine world can drift so far apart.

But in Stardust Memories Sandy gets an incentive to continue making films as some extraterrestrials tell him: we like your films, especially the early funny ones! Oh yes, then there is the question of who is Sandy and how much he shares with Woody Allen? And what I am saying is: that is nearly impossibly to answer – it's the wrong question.


A friend of mine has started a campaign to stop Mick Hucknall joining the re-formed Faces as a replacement for original singer Rod Stewart. Too right to. Hucknall is rubbish, Rod the Mod is a God. I only mention this (rather tentatively) as Allen's Stardust Memories is for me the movie that contains the most close -up shots of faces I can ever remember seeing in a film. And not just any old faces, this is a gallery of misfits, rogues, freaks and the stunning beauty of Charlotte Rampling.

Allen's picture is part homage to Fellini's Eight & A Half and part auto-biography. Although this picture lands nowhere near the midway point in Allen's career, I've always felt it was. It could just be that it's post-Keaton and pre-Farrow, which adds extra interest. Allen plays a movie director Sandy Bates, who visits a film festival in his honor. While at the festival, he ruminates on mortality, his past and current love life and the fact that he doesn't make funny films anymore.

Obviously Allen was reacting to recent criticism of his movies Interiors and Manhattan which were seen as not being as funny as his earlier films. As we know, Allen has kept the laughs coming (mostly) and Stardust Memories is a very funny picture. It's also his most personal. As a rumination on celebrity, mostly Allen's own, Stardust Memories is a far more successful take on the subject than his later, patchy Celebrity.

But what really distinguishes Stardust Memories is the look of the film.  Shot in black & white by the wonderful Gordon Willis, Stardust Memories is simply one of the best looking films I've ever seen. Yes the look is European (Truffaut, Fellini, Bergman) but Allen's cinema has never had such an array of interesting shots or dreamy, surreal sequences in one picture. This is Allen raging at the world and its inadequacies. It's also his most interesting film. Often overlooked, Stardust Memories is the most succinct place to find Allen's regular themes and outlooks. A funny, beautiful picture and probably my favorite Woody Allen film.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Hurt Locker (2008) Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

I have discovered tense and threatening films as a way of anti-stress treatment: if feeling stressed, watch something more stressful and your own worries seem smaller. Or do they?

Unlike many films about war, The Hurt Locker is not focused on telling the narrative from a perspective of opposite forces. The core of the story is the daily work and routines that one deactivation unit in Baghdad go through. The premise is interesting and aims at not making judgments or political claims. I think the film manages to steer clear of these until the very end, but then it does deflate some of its own goals.

While it is an interesting attempt as such to make a war film situated in such a current and devastating scenery as Iraq, the obliqueness of an American director is simultaneously dubious. But at least seeing the movie and also its status as the first Oscar winner for a woman director, forces me (and others) to reconsider and remember Iraq. It is so easy to forget here in Finland and that I am ashamed of.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if an action film like this will work as anything more than a two-hour break from reality for most people. Unlike me, not everybody gets so worried about war when they watch a movie without politics.

After all the fuss about ex-husband and wife dueling for Oscars earlier this year, Bigelow beat James Cameron. Many claimed it was great that the major Oscars went to the the intellectually superior The Hurt Locker and to a woman director for the first time in Oscar history. Agree on the director bit, but regarding the intelligence of this picture,  I just don't see the great depth here. I was expecting so much more. The Hurt Locker is shallow.

Bigelow is a great action picture director. From Vampire pic Near Dark, to woman cop on the beat Blue Steel, Point Break was the first film that really resonated with the public. There have been disasters too, like Strange DaysK-19The Hurt Locker hits the ground running. You are sucked into the most intense sequence after sequence following an elite bomb disposal squad in Iraq. This is the power of the film.

Jeremy Renner plays Sergeant James, who against his squad's wishes takes actions to the limit. The adrenalin rush of dismantling bombs is the thing that keeps James going. These are empty lives on the screen. At one point  Bigelow tries to give James some conscience, but this goes against the grain of the character and lacks credibility. The facade of realism the film tries to achieve is broken by some Hollywood plotting. One worrying aspect of this picture is the non-portrayal of Iraqi people. They are a silent witness or compliant terrorist but rarely human in The Hurt Locker.

I think we've been here before.  Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, Platoon and so on have dealt more powerful yet balanced pictures of modern warfare. There is nothing groundbreaking going on here. After watching this picture I got the feeling I'd just watched a very long recruitment add for the US of A army. It matters not weather Bigelow is a woman or a man, The Hurt Locker borders on offensive.