Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Henry Fool (1997) Directed by Hal Hartley

This is a genius film. It tells a very followable story about a family in Queens and how everything changes for them when one stranger enters their lives. Simplistic enough. But while I am watching the plot unfold, Henry Fool asks many important questions and takes a stand for creativity.

There is nothing wrong with being a garbage man, but if you are a garbage man with poetry inside then you can count yourself lucky that a certain Henry Fool straight from prison is going to get you writing.
And as happens in this movie, finding a creative outlet can be a question of life and death. It can change everything.

But once you have found your outlet, it does not mean that you are good at writing, or playing the piano for that matter. The question of quality, standards for art and the relationship one's creative product has with the existing cultural structure all become real and threatening to those who dare to try expressing themselves. It can be so dangerous and damaging to be criticized that we never recover from it, as the mother in Henry Fool shows.

Yet, there is something very powerful and all-conquering about finding creativity within oneself. What happens to Simon in this film is that through finding his creative outlet he also finds ways of being kind to others, and ways of communicating his true feelings in any given situation. It is as if people around him only really get to know him once he becomes a poet.

Finally, this movie is named after Henry Fool so it must matter who he turns out to be. People who have done bad things can also do good. That is the message.

I might give this as a Christmas present to all my friends.

Here's some questions for you to consider:
What is the value of creativity to us as a society?  Should artists earn revenue from other sources other than their art? Could rich patrons be a way for artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians to survive in increasingly frugal times? Or should we support the arts and put our money in our pockets? Do we expect people to write a novelistic masterpiece while holding down a day job in McDonald's? Can they, or should we ask ourselves will they be able to do that? Would artists believe more in the value of what they were doing if the public supported their art through financial means?  It's obvious the arts play an increasingly essential role in our lives, so why are we so unwilling to support this? Why do we want a free ride from our music and increasingly our movies and books? Would we support a director as great as Hal Hartley to keep making pictures? What value is there to artistic control? Let me know the answers please, I want to know.

Henry Fool touches on some of these issues as regards creativity. Where it comes from, what we need to do to harness that talent and so on. Henry Fool also looks at how magic and inspiration can come out of the mundane and that expression and honesty can always hit a raw nerve with all kinds of people. It's also a film about support and loyalty and doing the right thing by your friends. Henry Fool  deals in varying degrees with mental illness, pedophilia, literary frauds and poetic geniuses,  suicide, mass media communication through the internet, commerciality and domestic violence.  It's a movie about love. It's also sardonically and blackly funny.

I so miss the cinema of Hal Hartley. Amateur, Simple Men, Trust & The Unbelievable Truth were all startling and original films.  Henry Fool has a sequel in Fay Grim, I'd love to see it. Hartley's movies don't come to Europe anymore.

Henry Fool is a movie about ideas, from a master movie maker that we don't hear enough from nowadays. Hal Hartley come back.  Henry Fool is a very convoluted picture. Over the years it may have become Hartley's masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Get Carter (1971) Directed by Mike Hodges


 "You know, I'd almost forgotten what your eyes looked like. Still the same. Pissholes in the snow"- Jack Carter.

Real life gangsters, I've seen a few.  They say there is something exciting about being in the same room as a gangster. Not true, it just breeds fear. Glamor will always seem attractive to those who don't have it or never see it. Michael Caine plays Carter, a stylish, Burberry wearing, pill popping gangster assassin out to revenge the murder of his brother. He kills with a nonchalance that is disturbing.

Throw in this mix a hyper sexy Britt Ekland, Roy Budd's ultra cool soundtrack, Hodges realist direction and you have an iconic film. Hodges also manages to capture the spirit of Northern Britain in the early 1970's. Newcastle looks barren, not a place you'd like to visit, this dead end seems like a big empty wasteland. 

Get Carter shows the sordid details, this ain't no Hollywood. Two fat ladies cat fight in a working men's club. Over-the-hill landladies flirting with the customers. Dodgy council men involved in porn and  extortion. It's grim up North! Get Carter has much in common with that other groundbreaking British gangster picture Performance. Both films share a seediness and sexual tension you don't normally associate with the gangster genre. Get Carter has the Northern grit as a bonus. This film is no nonsense.

It took me a while to be in the mood for Get Carter. I am bored by the idea of a gangster movie because they normally seem so far from my sense of reality. Then again, some days it is a best choice to opt for something far removed and emotionally outrageous. So the evening finally came when I was willing to see why Carter has to be found, had, and killed.

England looks great in the early 1970s, and this film describes the claustrophobic combination of the rural way of life with the grit of city living. It passes the subject of South versus North, poor against the rich, and shows how the new corrupts the old. The soundtrack is unbelievably modern and goes with the main characters' outfits (notice the impeccable black trench). In fact most of the gangsters in Get Carter look like indie rockers of today (although some of them are too old to rock).

What usually disappoints me with this genre of film is the lack of believable justification for action. Here again, Carter's motivation for a killing spree is not so much the murder of his brother, but the fact that his niece has appeared in a porn film made by the local gangsters. For the swinging London gangster, this is supposedly too much. Yet, in his own life he is happy to go to bed with any woman half willing and available...

I am interested to go and see The American, because from what I have read it belongs to this genre of film. And, yes, some revengeful gangsta action isn't that bad from time to time when mixed with style, slow tempo and European landscapes.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Love Actually (2003) Directed by Richard Curtis

I will always have a deep love of the films of Jodorowsky, Godard, Leone, Penn, Hartley, Scorsese, Welles, Hitchcock and many other so called critics' favorites. I can revisit films like El Topo or Once Upon A Time In The West many times, and a rewarding feeling comes over me. New details open up with every new viewing and I feel culturally enlivened and inspired. But the need to re-watch Hitchcock's Vertigo or any other classic movie is often tempered by once's feeling of having to be able to concentrate fully. It's about timing when watching one's favorite films.  This opens up avenues for pictures that I can put on at any time and just enjoy whatever the situation.

So, in that respect Love Actually is in my consideration a masterpiece. Yes, it's episodic, sentimental, trashy, almost complete rubbish. But it makes me laugh out loud. I mean real laughing. Not some closet intellectual 'oh aren't they clever and subtle and witty' laughing. I mean belly laughing. So, put your snobbish cinema aesthetics aside. There is much wrong here, if you care to analyze. But I will instinctively reach for this off the shelf on more occasions than The Manchurian Candidate, which is such a favorite picture of mine.

Of course, The Manchurian Candidate does not have a middle-aged/class consideration on pop music, embarrassing story lines, infantile treatise on juvenile romance or many a "past their sell by date" British thespian on board. It's also lacking Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sister's Jump. A genius moment. Hugh Grant is comedy gold with the right script, and this is one of those great roles for him.

Love Actually is something you don't want to admit to liking. I won't admit that. I'll just report that I love this movie, for all the right reasons.

I found this article on a cool blog (You Are Not So Smart) the other day on procrastination. The way we choose what films to watch and why we go usually for the unintellectual, emotionally comforting is somewhat explained there through the concept of present-me versus future-me. Those two are usually locked in a conflict inside us. Read the blog.

Anyway, we watched Love Actually for the millionth time. Just like we have watched Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, You Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and countless other cinematically poor but emotionally comforting films many many times. They make me feel good.

Love Actually is made out of so many strands of stories that I forget how they relate to each other. It is attempting to cater a romantic, tear-jerking plot for everyone to identify with. Being eight years old now, the movie is beginning to glow with my nostalgia for the early Noughties, when I had the guts to wear red, pink and green in the same outfit. Even the then-hit-songs by Sugar Babes and Justin Timberlake (help!) are starting to sound classic to my ears...puke.

I cannot defend Love Actually. The more I think of it the more appalling it appears in hindsight.
But in the end it just comes down to needing unchallenging entertainment with the sloppiest most optimistic message: love is everywhere, humans are capable of love after all.

Come Christmas time, we can only hope that this year's Holiday pic is something as good as this once was.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Other Blogs and The Young Lions (1958)

Nick: We dug into a movie last night that had been sitting on the shelf for awhile.

Astrid: Yes, on the DVD sleeve The Young Lions looks like it's going to be a classic. Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, 1958 – usually this recipe is certified entertainment.

Nick: My reasons for getting a copy of The Young Lions was my mid-80's crush on Monty Clift. I had seen the movie at that time, and probably combined with copious amounts of marijuana, I had felt the picture was great.

Astrid: Already 36 minutes into the 3-hour film, I was yawning and giving Nick meaningful stares.

Nick: It must have been strong weed back in the day, because in the cold light of 2010 this was dreary and sleep inducing like cyanide.

Astrid: So in fact, at exactly 1 hour we agreed to give up watching the movie. For a war epic, there was a spectacular amount of time spent on developing one-on-one hetero relationships which appeared as stiff as wood. To digress into the one-on-one relationship between N&A: I never buy the DVDs that we review on this blog.

Nick: Yes, the holes are in my pockets! We didn't finish the film, but I will one day. Monty was really wired in this picture, which is good enough reason to revisit. We did discuss at some point last night other blogs we read.

Astrid: Yes, and although a sort of power position is constructed by my not committing to the purchasing of these DVDs I am seriously interested in interaction I imagine possible online through our blog.

Nick: I revealed to you that I read other Finnish blogs (Google Translate is a big help here!), mainly music ones such as 1000 Sparks, Slow Show, Ääniä, Katosblog, Echoes and one that covers music and movies No You Girls Never Know.

Astrid:  One of my favorites from the States is Penelope Trunk's Brazen Careerist, which manages to make business talk, farming and blogging advice personal and inspiring. It is the freedom to engage in serious and often boring topics with thriving subjective perspectives that makes blogging potentially radical.

Nick: I sometimes struggle to find a personal context to put my film reviews in. Being a film geek means I could tell you about many boring facts and related trivia of the pictures we review. For example, Hope Lange from The Young Lions also plays Laura Dern's mum in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

Astrid: Can you tell me how this 'boring fact' becomes interesting to you?

Nick: In a scene from the movie, when Lange is chatting with Dern's character, a Monty Clift photo is hanging in the background. To me, this is Lynch giving credit to Hope Lange's appearance in a Monty Clift potboiler from 1958. It's David's little nod of respect to Hope. But maybe my personal input comes from movies I buy to review on this blog.

Astrid: Interestingly, I think that your insight is specifically that kind of random connection making, which David Lynch is a master at in cinema, and us bloggers should feel free to develop more and more.

NB: We will be shortly updating our blog roll call on the side of the page.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Adam's Rib (1949) & Whatever Works (2009)

We surprised ourselves in double-billing a genius 1940's romantic comedy and Woody Allen again. Are we becoming predictable yet? To defend the repetition, we just happened to watch these two close to each other without any intellectual choice. What film suits which evening is a question of comfort zones.

Choosing what we watch in this house is a balancing act. There is my mood and there is Nick's. When I am feeling unsafe and in need of comfort, I want to watch real-life-like drama or comedies or very romantic films. In fact, to watch anything else I need to feel either completely bored or so vivacious and daring that I can handle a bit of action, cinematic violence, being afraid or floating in space. Movies about cowboys are entering a new territory on my map – as you may have noticed – they are beginning to comfort me more and anger me less. I'll tell you about my relationship to epics some other time.

Adam's Rib and Whatever Works are both essentially great scripts where what the characters say actually makes one think and feel. Both films are also ambitions, they want to comment on the big life questions. We can be entertained while thinking about dying or pondering on women's rights. Woody Allen may be one of the only directors left these days who still trusts in this old-fashioned cinematic storytelling. In fact, I don't really understand how in 1949 a film could be so daring, full of content and still entertaining, while in 2010 cinema is mostly saying nothing daring, upsetting, questioning or new.

If I continue this way, I have to admit that Whatever Works is mostly good because of my personal nostalgia. I miss and continue to love the 1940's Hollywood comedy and I miss and love the 1970's Woody Allen films. Whatever Works is like a faded memory scratched to shine in color for a short while.

What has made us so culturally dummed-down and bored? Where is the next artistic platform where we dare to explore and be radical for the sake of change? Tell me someone. 

Romance? Laughter? Is life's eternal quest for satisfaction and gratification simply down to these two factors? Is there more? Death plays a big part in the narration of most Woody Allen films. Our ultimate destiny perhaps. Sharing deep friendship with someone is not to be confused with love or the thrill of the chase. Companionship for me comes from somewhere else.

Here are two films that share a focus on relationships and the needs those relationships demand. In Adam's Rib, it's a taking for granted of one partners intelligence. It is also expecting sympathy and understanding to ideals the other half possibly does not understand or agree with. In Adam's Rib, these ideals work both ways.

Whatever Works finds Woody Allen in sharp cynical form, a return to New York no less. Larry David is perfectly cast as the know-it-all grump who educates Southern bimbo Melody (Evan Rachel Wood) on the depressing nature of human existence. Although the picture ultimately deals with cliché and unfeasible plot twists, the presence of David insures that the laughs are subtle and the quality high. It's worth noting that Allen actually says something through David in this picture, philosophizing on various issues during his straight to camera addresses.

Adam's Rib is a lesson in onscreen chemistry, Hepburn and Tracy's very public battle of the sexes, given credence by the couple's genuine affection for each other. It's almost embarrassing to watch the intimacy on camera, but it convinces all the same.

I don't know if  I laughed much during either film, or felt pangs of romantic feeling overwhelm me (actually I  know I didn't). But both films left me thinking in different ways, at their core they carried different views on how this relationship business works. The ultimate message? Keep trying.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Open Range (2003) Directed by Kevin Costner

I'm a pushover for a good Western. The Western represents for me a true picture of American attitudes and values that are still relevant to American life and culture. Of course it's often from a male perspective, but once a female character is introduced, it always adds extra depth to the vision . Once Upon A Time In The West and Red River being good examples of this.

Open Range brings nothing new to this genre, in fact it owes a big debt to the Clint Eastwood western, especially Eastwood's autumn years classic Unforgiven. Despite the familiarity and casual cliche, Open Rage works due to a great script, smart pacing and terrific performance from the central cast. Robert Duvall is masterful as the wise cattle crew leader Boss, dispensing orders with gruff realism. Costner directs with a lazy efficiency (again in an Eastwood style), letting the story open up gradually. It draws you in. Tension builds, and if the shoot out at the end is overly long, its visceral impact is still effective.

What impresses here are the small details. The sense of men spending years together in open plains, living a fairly boring existence. Male bonding through little knowledge, but doing the right thing for each other is never questioned. It's an old fashioned picture of male friendship for sure,  however a sense of homoerotic knowing still sneaks in. But Costner's trump card here is the introduction of the sublime Annette Bening.
She almost spits her lines with disdain, so patronizing is her role of the unmarried middle aged nurse. You know she doesn't believe the bullshit of what her part is defined as, so she adds some modern perspective as to what she requires from her killer lover prospect (Costner's Charley Waite). Costner and Bening's romance is unbelievable in so many ways, yet you want it to happen and this adds extra tension to the story.

Open Range is a worthy late western, great storytelling compensates some of the films obvious flaws. Watching Bening here, you realize that Warren's luck has never really run out.

Cowboys in the Western film genre signify the outsiders. They question forming and existing social structures and their stability both internally and externally. Open Range so purely sets its drama around this outsider/insider issue that there is almost nowhere left to go from there.

Yet, I have to admit, Open Range was a thoroughly enjoyable film. And because it was not a Clint Eastwood picture, women did not need to get raped and nearly killed for the leading man (actually there were two) to get a justification for his violence. There is a simplistic grace here of not needing to go too far in depicting the cruelty of the fight.

But there is a fight. The town's rangers do not like free grazers passing through their land. Why? Because they move their heard onwards, they are always moving on for more grass, better weather, finer landscapes and so on. These cowboys remind the town that their stability and location is actually fluid and their borders are penetrable and changeable.

I have noticed that a band on tour has this same effect. We are only passing through your town, we upset the existing order by creating a small corner with our performance and our funny clothes. There is always someone who would like to come with us. There is always someone who feels aggressive towards us. And all the while the true battle is the internal one within each band member about missing a home and loving the road at the same time.

Being a cowboy is a question of degree. In my opinion, Kevin could never have Annette because she has Warren.