Tuesday, December 6, 2011

White Palace (1990) Directed by Luis Mandoki


Nick:
Hey, wake up! It's been a bit sleepy here I know, but work commitments for me (i.e. mixing an album) usually mean I'm not home watching movies. I must add at this point that having been in a virtually sealed audio environment for a number of days in a row plays havoc with your social activities, even your nearest and dearest may suffer. It takes a few days to acclimatize back to a different version of relative normality. So, the day after a per-usual, intense studio session, me and Astrid arrive in downtown Helsinki. We couldn't find anything interesting enough on at the local picture palace, so a hastily chosen DVD will suffice. I remember being fond of White Palace at the time of release. Well acted, smart and little bit rougher round the edges than your usual romantic movie.

After some 20 years since I last saw White Palace, time has bought mixed feelings from me towards the film. Yes, Susan Sarandon is still excellent here. This was a time when Sarandon would willingly disrobe in any old art house movie (The Hunger, Atlantic City) and as well as the acting chops, she still has it here in other ways too. Yes, she's very sexy. James Spader, hot young thing that he is at this time, has not quite reached his height of robotic conformity that he would later go onto display in other movies (with chilling effect in Crash). He has empathy here, and the chemistry between Sarandon's older waitress and Spader's younger, wizard copy-writer still resonates. So, the romance and unlikelihood of it, still works for White Palace.

It's when the picture tries to discuss class values and differences in social background that it falls down. Cliché after cliché is wheeled out about Spaders possible embarrassment at being seen with an older and poorer woman. What becomes quickly apparent at a party scene in the picture where Spader takes Sarandon along, is that Sarandon oozes a sex appeal that many men would fall for, weather he be a rich frat boy or Hollywood superstar. The other women vying for Spader's attention don't stand a chance. It takes some of the gloss away from an otherwise intense romance which occasionally and skillfully deals with  the loss of loved ones. White Palace (named after the Burger joint Sarandon works at) remains still, just about open for business.

Astrid:
Choosing an anniversary movie to watch is a big deal if you think that the choice somehow reflects the state of affairs in the relationship. We had our anniversary yesterday. At first, we were going to see a movie in town, but a few facts worked against us: Mainly, there was nothing suitable on in the theaters in Helsinki. The couple of films we could have seen (Midnight In Paris and Tree of Life) started at nine in the evening and I was not up for waiting that many hours after dinner. Also, at this stage of pregnancy we need to practically always remain within a few feet from a toilet, so a cinema might have been impossible anyway. Not a surprise then that our anniversary date started with picking a DVD for later.

For some reason it seemed we were both on the look-out for a romantic film, or at least one about a relationship. I was very keen on Blue Valentine, although I remember reading that it's quite sad while romantic. I was told it was too expensive right now and we would have to wait for the price to come down. Nick then suggested numerous old classics with beautiful stylish old-fashioned movie posters on their covers. He also attempted to get me to go for My Beautiful Laundrette, but although I love Daniel Day-Lewis, I was not ready to identify myself as him that evening. I much rather identified with Susan Sarandon.

So we ended up going home with White Palace. Simple enough, I was Susan and Nick was James Spader. They fall in love against all obstacles, not everybody approves, but they have fun and then they really get serious – easy enough to identify with in our circumstance. An added aspect of comparison was that the couple in the film had a pretty big age gap between them, although in their version the woman was the older one. White Palace was really an entertaining film wrapped up in the tangles of this one chance encounter turned into a love story. It had an awful soundtrack, a dated look and it wasn't really anything that special as a film. Yet, I'm sure it was a perfect choice for the occasion. At this point in our relationship, I am sure we too have that dated look from time to time. But the soundtrack is always excellent in this relationship.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ghost World (2001) Directed by Terry Zwigoff.


Nick:
Last weeks news of famous comics scribe Frank Miller, spewing right-wing dogma against the Occupy movement wasn't so surprising. His seminal and groundbreaking The Dark Knight, Daredevil and Sin City graphic novels re-imagined noir for a new generation with some added, subtly fascist undertones. Unfortunately, recent works have shown a drop in standards, followed by a drop in popularity. Controversial seems a surefire way to get attention, and maybe Miller can try to hide the fact that he had anything to do with directing The Spirit by spouting off some outrageous comments. It's fair to say that Miller is responsible (along with  a handful of other writers) for breathing life back into some legendary superhero franchises some 20 odd years ago with the graphic novels boom. Around this time another kind of writer emerged within the comics culture. Daniel Clowes, creator of Ghost World, ushered in a more literary approach to comics. As opposed to dealing with the superhero variety, Clowes creates worlds that are slightly twisted and surreal. Grotesques, 1960's pop-culture and the suburban slacker malaise feature in Clowes distinctive visions.

Zwigoff, working from a Clowes script, captures the essence of the comics whilst fashioning some great performances along the way. Not only this, Ghost World works as a slightly surreal love story. Thora Birch (who I'd completely forgotten about after American Beauty) and Scarlett Johansson star as the two high school outsiders (Enid and Rebecca) who decide to move in together after graduating. In many ways, Ghost World does work as a rites of passage movie between two close friends as they make their way into the real world. But that does make the picture sound too simplistic, when what's on offer is never obvious.

Steve Buscemi playing the loser-in-love Seymour who is the subject of a practical joke from Enid and Rebecca ignites Ghost World. The endless walking the streets and checking the freaks turns (at least for Enid) into forbidden love. After the practical joke, Enid falls for Seymour, probably because there's nothing better to do. Twigoff (well know for some ace documentaries such as Crumb) strikes the right chord with Ghost World. Not only does he make you laugh, but he creates something original with the film, without cheapening Clowes initial inception. Birch is really good here (although the yet-to-be-star Johansson will probably be the reason why people find this now). Ghost World is for once a great graphic novel adaptation.


Astrid:
I watched  Ghost World with curiosity and dread. I wished the two young women would not be too hurt by what life had in store for them. At the same time, I was tickled by their daring and a little bit over-the-top manners, their sense of superiority in relation to their peers and their parents, their outfits full of expression and their growing difference in how they experienced life as well as what they expected from it.

I have been one of those girls. Maybe not just Enid or Rebecca, but a mixture of both. I have also been one half of a such close union of two girlfriends. Watching Ghost World reminded me of a time that was simultaneously very uncomfortable and very potent with a sense of becoming. Life was pure potential, all doors seemed open and I had complete trust in the world, even if I could make sarcastic remarks on its inevitable doom. This time was spent with great girlfriends, talking big dreams, planning to live together, borrowing each other's clothes and talking about men, the future, sex, the futility of education and a lot of important matters that completely escape my mind now.

Ghost World is not a very happy and funny movie. Yet, it is a kind of comedy and though it’s pretty realistic, there is something fairytale like in the movie. The film has a touching and serious side to it. Thankfully, it treats the two young women with respect instead of saying ’look at them they are freaks’. I’m amazed I haven’t seen this before. I would recommend this to a teenager, although am not sure how I would have responded to it at the ripe age of 16 or 17. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

ER: Season 1 (1994)


Nick:
So, this week: the environment is well and truly shafted, the Eurozone is well and truly shafted, the white & black rhinos are well and truly shafted and Republican candidate Rick Perry is well and truly shafted, but he probably doesn't remember why. It's not as if any of these things have impacted on my life – yet. As the days get stupidly short in Finland it feels like the news grows equally darker and more depressing. On top of this, we've been rattling through the first season of ER. Somehow I have managed to miss ER. I've caught a few episodes over the years, but Michael Crichton's celebrated Emergency Ward series is a mystery to me, especially these early one's with George Clooney.

ER is famous for taking the hospital drama into a more realistic direction than home audiences were used to (although M*A*S*H certainly didn't spare the blood or the political/social commentary in the 1970's). ER is mostly focused on the emergency ward of a Chicago County General Hospital and with the young resident surgeons and doctors who treat patients under the most trying circumstances and in never ending shifts. Scenes are gritty and technical yet over the course of Season 1 we get to know the key characters intimately. The main cast of Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Sherry Springfield and Eriq La Salle are all excellent. As the season moves on we get more personal with each central character and their lives away from the ER, but it's the hospital where ER excites and, at times, traumatizes.

Yes, ER can be a massive downer. It can also be sentimental and George Clooney can be the smarmiest arse. But this is minor. ER is top TV series fodder. It has been incredibly popular and holds all sorts of records. I've heard the standards of the first season were maintained throughout it's 15 (!!!) seasons. If so, it's deserved its success. I cant wait to tuck into Season 2.

Astrid:

When I was an exchange-student in Michigan in 1999, my mother based her idea of what my surroundings were like on ER. Sure, I went to Chicago once with a symphony orchestra of teenagers to play a show at a Hilton hotel downtown, but other than that my life was nothing like the characters' in ER and Chicago remained a stranger to me. I came to ER later, possibly when I returned back to Finland in 2000 and my mother was still watching the series because it was so good. I remember being surprised that my mother liked a show about a hospital emergency room with doctors and nurses as the main characters and with a lot of fast paced technical talk and blood.

ER ran on Thursdays in Finland. It went on for years and so when I had moved out from my parents' to live with Nick, I continued to watch it. Or actually that's when I began to really follow it. The characters became people I really cared for – I cried every Thursday on my own while watching ER, because Mark was dying and Carter was going to Africa and patients died and the women were often so unlucky in love...The important point is: I was always home alone on Thursdays when ER was on.

During the resent months my taste in entertainment has narrowed to accommodate the pregnant brain and emotional state. Yet, I was surprised to find myself needing to watch ER again. Surely it would be too gory and heavy...people dying and being born all the time...But I wanted to start from the beginning and share ER with Nick, who was always working on Thursdays back when we still had a TV.
ER: Season 1 did not disappoint. Even when the series is nearing its 20th birthday, it doesn't seem dated. I guess that's because it deals with such fundamental issues and everyone's wearing a white, green or pink doctor's coat, which don't seem to change in look ever. One of ER's best features is that it is easy to insert oneself into the series and therefore reflect on my own life. There's always something familiar there: some experience, fear, situation or a character to empathize or identify with. Still makes me tearful and wanting more.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Mighty Heart (2007) Directed by Michael Winterbottom


Nick:
The war in Iraq seems an age away now. 10 years is a long time. So much pain and loss on all sides.  It's war based on a brazen lie from supposed civilized nations. Coupled with the arrogance that we are dealing with supposedly inferior people living in different cultures we dare not understand, our trail of destruction raises all kinds of moral questions. But we can afford to ignore our own moral dilemmas as our lives are enveloped in materialistic temptations and those troubles in far off continents just seem like something happening over there. Winterbottom has repeatedly tried to draw us back into messes our governments have often shirked, giving us real events dramatized in his dry/semi-documentary style if not an actual documentary. The Shock Doctrine (2009) The Road To Guantanamo(2006) Welcome To Sarajevo(1997) and A Mighty Heart all deal with war in modern times and its various repercussions. Winterbottom has form and doesn't shirk from showing the uncomfortable.

A Mighty Heart is another movie where Winterbottom manages to work with top-draw Hollywood talent on a low budget. So, amongst Winterbottom's often difficult and challenging oeuvre you'll find the likes of Jessica Alba, Colin Firth, Steve Coogan, Kate Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson slumming it in often political, generally top quality, yet weird films. This time, it's Angelina Jolie, taking a trip out of her comfort zone and messing with the rough trade to show she's got the chops to be taken seriously. And she's good in A Mighty Heart. Winterbottom rein-acts the real life kidnapping and ultimate murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan with his usual no thrills. The focus is on how Pearl's pregnant wife Mariane (Jolie) deals with the often confusing search for her husband.

Winterbottom bravely shows possible logical reasons as to Pearl's murder by Islamic fundamentalists he was supposed to interview before he and his wife were due to leave Pakistan. Was it because of Guantanamo? Because Pearl was Jewish? Repercussions for American involvement in Iraq? Supposed Wall Street Journal coercion with the CIA? Or because the Pearls housed an Indian helper who was possibly looking to discredit Pakistan? Winterbottom considers all options to the kidnapping/murder that nowadays is simply put down to an al-Qaeda killing.  A Mighty Heart despite this, still works as drama. That Mariane Pearl, a journalist herself, emerges from A Mighty Heart as a human being with great compassion and willingness to understand difference in the most trying and horrific circumstances, is something we could all learn from. Up to his usual high standards, Winterbottom's picture is a powerful reminder and lesson in tolerance.

Astrid:
In 2007 there was still a sense of urgency about understanding what was really going on with the USA in Iraq, Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. I had that need too and wanted to see A Mighty Heart immediately when it came out. I did not see it, for some reason. Now, at the end of 2011 there is a deflated helplessness and resignation to all things evil – I mean that the general feeling, the media and individual people seem to be much less attuned to asking what is still going on. I'm talking about a perspective that's strictly Scandinavian, far-removed from the streets of Pakistan for example. (I imagine it impossible to not ask those questions there every day.)

In this climate watching A Mighty Heart seemed out of place. It did not feel right to view it as pure cinema, because of its depiction of real events and people. It did not seem right to view it as a superstar vehicle for Angelina Jolie either. As a movie or a series of acting performances there was nothing that impressive about the film. Yet, time had passed and the film had lost some of its political urgency, which I can imagine was shocking still in 2007.

Then again, as the end credits roll and remind you that Mariane Pearl is now living with her son in Paris, the realness of it all hits me. Despite the movie's end or the Western world's gradual disinterest in their own hateful mess, the husband and father Pearl is never coming home to his family.
This simple point should end all conflict and prove futile the logic of hatred and warfare. It seems that the Pearl family knew this and know it still, after their personal loss. It is still important to make films about what is really happening around the world – sometimes cinematic values become secondary to the need to tell the truth. Injustice will not end through ignorance.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Terms of Endearment (1983) Directed by James L. Brooks


Nick:
I get it sometimes when extremely tired, also when mentally and emotionally hurt. If I bang my little toe on the sideboard, I get it too. What is it I get? I get a handful of hankies/tissue papers and ultimately a flood of tears. Yes, I get tearful. I cry watching movies (I'm sure I've mentioned this here before?) King Kong does it for me every time (strangely the 1970's remake!?) And some other pictures like say, Casablanca or the Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep definition of the modern weepie, The Bridges Of Madison County. Terms Of Endearment is a terrible film. There is no way for me to avoid making that statement. It's smug and self-satisfied and has the worst chirpy-fucking-chirp soundtrack. Add this to shallow characterization in a film that thinks it's dealing with real issues. Yet, this film makes me blub like a baby every time. Why?

Hateful mum (Shirley MaClaine, sister of Warren) resents getting old, treats grown-up daughter (Debra Winger) terribly. Mother does not agree with her daughter's pending wedding to Stephen Malkmus clone Flap (Jeff Daniels). After the marriage a few years whiz by. Daughter has children all the time whilst husband moves family around America, accepting teaching jobs and having affairs with students. Daughter has affair with ugly bank manager and is diagnosed with cancer. Lots of guilt ensues. Daughter dies. Crying starts. This is basically the plot of Terms Of Endearment. I forgot to mention that MacLaine is excellent and that Jack Nicholson as a boozy womanizing astronaut steals the film. In fact the hateful mother and the crazy astronaut scenes elevate Terms Of Endearment momentarily to greatness. Unfortunately, the movie focuses too much on the duller-than-life daughter's story.

Despite my boredom with this twee Americana and the essentially slavish mentality of the do-gooding Winger character, once she's on her death bed, being so brave and the big C is coming to get her and she says goodbye to her kids and her husbands a shit, the hateful mum keeps the children once she's gone, all this emotion just does me in, it's too much for me ...boo hoo hoo.......  So, I say it again. Terms Of Endearment is a terrible film. One that brings the tears out in me and I don't know why (or maybe I'm being coy?).

Astrid:

Terms of Endearment is a film I cannot discuss without acknowledging that I took it very personally indeed. I (along with a surprisingly big number of my close friends) am currently expecting a baby. Needless to say, at this point this fact influences my perspective on almost anything I experience. Yet,  because Terms of Endearment is largely about a mother-daughter relationship once the daughter has started her own family, I watched it especially closely with mother-to-be spectacles on.

The movie portrays a mother (MacLaine) who has difficulty letting go of her daughter and accepting and supporting her in her independent choices. In fact, the mother has obviously always been using the daughter for her emotional needs rather than offering her own shoulder of support for her growing child. That becomes clear from the beginning of the film. The mother does not approve of the daughter's (Winger) hair, girlfriend, husband, or any choices for that matter. The film offers no explanation as to why these people have turned out the way they are. The mother is rich and the daughter ends up poor and uneducated with three children and a philandering looser husband. The mother finally breaks her years of loneliness by starting an affair with her neighbor, an alcoholic astronaut (Nicholson). All the while the mother keeps herself suffocatingly close to the daughter by phoning her up everyday, all day long. I'm not sure if the film is aware of its portrayal of co-dependency, but that's what it certainly depicts.

Terms of Endearment is infuriatingly flawed. It creates very flawed characters and leaves the viewer wondering if this is entirely intentional or not. Maybe it's a good thing that I never know what the film wants me to feel about anything – there is a callousness of the characters which remains in complete juxtaposition with the sentimental and therefore intrusive music. Finally, the ending of the film is entirely unsatisfactory. Despite all these things, in my current state of metamorphosis and becoming, I enjoyed the movie because it allowed me to reflect on my own dreams of mothering and my own experiences as somebody's child. Terms of Endearment was made in 1983. Unfortunately, I'm afraid there is nothing out there being made now that could speak even this honestly of such flawed parenting. Nowadays Hollywood seems to concentrate on sneakily making films about how to be a better consumer-mother-workaholic-genius-breeder. No pressure – just entertainment.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

That Touch Of Mink (1962) Directed by Delbert Mann


Nick:
I could laugh at the old-fashioned attitudes towards women and homosexuality that pervade That Touch Of Mink. I could point at the fact that the picture's main obsession is sex and how to get it and how naive that seems now. But then I could tell you about what I read was happening today: the pop star Rihanna taking her clothes off in a field for her new video and how interested we are in that. Or how I read a Tweet today by RuPaul that declared "Homosexuality is found in over 450 species. Homophobia is found in only one". Or could I point out to you that as I write this, American Amanda Knox is being tried for murder in Italy and during the trial has been compared to a witch (you know, the medieval variety) with multiple personalities. So in 2011, I can attest that we have really moved on from the old fashioned sentiments of That Touch Of Mink and will view That Touch Of Mink's mild homophobia and sexism is so beneath us as to be disdainful.

In reality, the kind of film that That Touch Of Mink represents is being made regularly in 2011(with he same attitudes) and will appear at a cine-plex  near you very soon. The modern version will invariably star Jennifer Aniston as an approaching-middle-aged-woman, unmarried and looking for the incredibly wealthy and suave Mr Right (erm, Ralph Fiennes perhaps?) Sounds like a regular idea for a movie, yes? It's just that That Touch Of Mink stars Cary Grant and Doris Day, and is a star vehicle for actors who are effortless. No complications or depth in analysis needed here.

Grant retired a few years after That Touch Of Mink and Day didn't make so many more films after this either.  They are easy on the eye and ear. Professional. Mann directs like the TV journeyman he really was. This film is in many ways pointless but I still laughed out loud at a couple of gags. Doris Day really is the Queen of soft focus and Cary Grant still is the best looking man to grace a cinema screen. Light nonsense with a touch of class.

Astrid:
It's all about sex. Unbelievably so, the whole point of That Touch of Mink is the yearning to have sex and the social obstacles on the path to the bunk. Isn't it annoying when the woman wants to be married first? Isn't it funny that men get nervous too, about the first time (even Cary Grant it appears). I guess it might have been back in 1962. Now it's just silly. What could be a film about class and about the power that money brings, a satire of sorts, is finally only a comedy about the extent to which these people have to go to get some. Sex.

From the perspective of Wednesday, the 28th of September 2011 it is refreshing to remember that obsession with getting laid is not something new, something rotten poisoning the minds of us internet-housed cyborgs. We have been sex-crazy forever. At least for the last 150-something years, if Foucault is to be consulted.

That Touch of Mink is a little sinister still. It suggests that rather than being about love, hetero relationships are a transaction – money-for-your-eggs kind of thing. The most terrifying thing of all is that when the film ends with a little baby being pushed in a pram – the happy result of Doris and Cary finally making it to bed – I smile contently. Yuck.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Lust for Life (1956) Directed by Vincente Minnelli

Astrid:
Lust For Life is a 1950s movie about an artist, or a genius, as they would have definitely branded Vincent van Gogh then. In 1956 Western culture was at a crossroads: youth culture was rearing its unreliable head threatening with rock and roll, questioning the old ways on all levels of society, yet, the portrayal of an artist was still drenched in the masculine cult of the genius (with a long romantic history to back it up). Lust For Life portrayed a rebel of his own time, but the portrayal was not drawing similarities between now and then – the plight of the social misfits – it saw van Gogh almost as if through the eyes of a child.

Also, the film treated its subject, van Gogh, as a child-like innocent creature. As if the artist was never quite aware of his talent, his persona, or anything much around him (except of course when he painted). Life just happened as a chain of events, and their arbitrary connections seemed to throw van Gogh further into insanity. It is too bad that the film's emphasis on events of his life overshadow any imagining of what the artist might have been feeling or going through in his mind. A distance between the main character and the audience thus never goes away, which is always disappointing in movies.

I have rushed excitedly to a few big museums in the world just to catch a glimpse of a "genuine van Gogh" – I love his vision, yet I know very little about the man. Of course I heard about the ear cutting and the mental illness, and the interesting fact that he was never successful and now there's nothing we cannot buy with his painting printed on it. I remember the first time I had a chance in Chicago in 1999 to go see a van Gogh and how sophisticated I thought I was – the others were going to Sealife while I went to see art. Mostly though, my love for van Gogh comes from post cards and the stuff that was written on the other side of the pictures. There's never enough time to stare at a painting in a museum.

Nick:
Twenty years since the release of Nevermind, Nirvana's mainstream grunge breakthrough album, the tortured, anguished short life of band leader Kurt Cobain comes back into focus. The consummate, non-commercial artist as young man, bringing cultured sounds to the masses. Of course, ultimately Cobain could have done without the attention and the success. He paid the heaviest price for being at the center of a media shit storm. As article after article about the Grunge explosion starts to celebrate 20 years of the quiet/loud dynamic and the rehabilitation of the plaid shirt, am I the only one having a nightmares at the prospect of a Cameron Crowe documentary celebrating 20 years of Pearl Jam? That's a bottom barrel team up if  ever I heard of one. Artist Vincent van Gogh wasn't afforded any real attention or fame during his short lifetime. Van Gogh is possibly the quintessential tortured artist, a front runner for Cobain. Eddie Vedder's got a lot to learn before being 4REAL.

There is a stiffness and quaintness to Minnelli's van Gogh bio-pic which is redolent of the times. This is its major flaw. Otherwise, Lust For Life is top quality and a genuinely strange picture posing as a Hollywood star vehicle. There is no real attempt in the film to come to terms with van Gogh's mental problems, which eventually cost him his life. Instead, we get lots of shots of Kirk Douglas (as van Gogh) looking anguished, lost and in pain. This is truly strange cinema. It's as if Minnelli gave Douglas a simple instruction: "Emote!" and left Douglas to get on with it. But the opulence of the direction (everything is in, ahem, broad strokes), the use of color, the sets and production values, all suggest money. Anthony Quinn brings energy to the picture with his portrayal of rebellious painter Gauguin.

Still, despite its shallowness and almost embarrassment with its subjects mental condition, Lust For Life is top draw. Douglas is brilliant, overacting at every turn, it's fun to watch. Minnelli knows how to use color and design: many of the shots do correlate with van Gogh's paintings. Minnelli is a master director, responsible for some of the all time greats movies, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bad And The Beautiful, An American In Paris (in fact, a Martin Scorsese wet dream?) Lust For Life finds all participants on top form and is a classy picture, which deserves rehabilitation.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Funny Lady (1975) Directed by Herbert Ross


Astrid:
New York New York (by Scorsese) is one of my favorite movies because it tells the story of a creative couple in the period setting of musicals, big bands and elaborate hair-dos. I got a little excited then, in the first five minutes of watching Funny Lady, realizing that it might be a related film about similar subject matter. Unfortunately, despite being a 1970's film, it turned out to be a rather conservative and cheesy effort. It dealt out some promising strands of plot and lines, then taking things to nowhere interesting.

Barbra Streisand plays a successful musical star and a recording artist in the 1930's New York. She just has bad luck with men, who appear to only be interested in (her) money. Left by one of these gold diggers (Omar Sharif), she forms a working relationship with another (James Caan) and eventually, the relationship becomes more than a working one – it becomes a dysfunctional marriage. I have no clue why though, as there is obviously never infatuation, love, sex or any kind of chemistry between the two. The guy needs the rich lady to further his career. That's all.

The mid-1970s was a time of active feminist voices everywhere. It was a time when Hollywood produced some subversive cinema, even questioning the portrayal of women only as props and property. Erica Jong had a hit with her novel Fear of Flying already in 1973. In this context, Funny Lady is a poor and stuck-up movie offering a rusty vehicle to its superstar Streisand. Seeing her in almost anything else would have been more interesting than this.

Nick:
Herbert Ross is somehow related to the naming of our blog. He directed Play It Again Sam, the Woody Allen movie that quotes from the Bogart/Bacall picture The Big Sleep where we picked our blog name. Unfortunately, Ross would have a rather unremarkable career post PIAS. Funny Lady shows the director as  a yes-man to the stars, a safe pair of hands to guide the superstar vehicle: in this case, the whims and ego of Barbra Streisand. Streisand really was/is the last actress (save Lisa Minelli?) who could pull off the old-style Hollywood musical.

Funny Lady starts with promise. Although Astrid really didn't pick up on the period detail, it's one of Funny Lady's pluses for me and the movie evokes the 1930's depression era with fervor. There is also a chance that the movie will develop along the lines of Scorsese's amazing old-style musical homage New York, New York and inhabit the landscape of songwriter (James Caan) and muse (Streisand). It's sad to report that Funny Lady shies away from this at every opportunity. Instead it treads musical convention in every way with a series of uninspiring musical numbers that relate neither to plot nor charachter. It becomes very clear that this is all about Streisand and that amazing voice of hers.

Funny Lady is the sequel to Funny Girl (which I recall from my misspent youth) and does tell the real- life story of Fanny Brice (original Ziegfeld Follies girl). The first film has a certain zest, this sequel is a mess. But still, there are moments when Streisand's voice and presence carry the film and you'd hope that some substance would be given to her relationship with Caan (playing songwriter and producer Billy Rose). Caan seems to be reprising his role of Sonny in The Godfather, which considering Funny Lady is a lighthearted musical comedy, suggests he was slightly miscast. Streisand is good here but is let down by poor direction, a patchy script, flat directing and – worst for a musical – unmemorable songs. Lightweight in every sense.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Limits of Control (2009) Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Astrid:
Our household has a lot less time to watch movies these days and unfortunately, there will not be any change in the situation any time soon. Therefore it was especially annoying that when we finally had time and space to share a film together, we picked something like The Limits of Control. Our intention was to watch something entertaining and good. In the shop Jim Jarmusch seemed like a quite safe bet for the both of us – and the guitar case a suited man is holding on the cover of the DVD, seemed like a promise to me.

The Limits of Control is extremely slow. It is also abstract, only occasionally attached to plot development, certain time and space. After half an hour we are ready to fall asleep. Aesthetically things are pleasing, but I cannot be cheated into thinking that I could figure something out here. Everything just IS. But we persist because we cannot begin a new habit of starting films and then never finishing them (this has happened a little recently and it's not good for blogging).

Half way through the film we have started to argue about where in Spain the film is located after each train ride. It's become more interesting to look for location clues and talk over the film than to concentrate on the protagonist's repetition of routines. I have never been to Spain and Nick has only visited Valencia some 20 years ago, so this made for a passionately ignorant argument. In the end I felt I had witnessed something that passed me by because the timing of the film and my personal timing was totally off. I don't want to say the film was bad, although I cannot recommend it either. Hopefully next time, Jarmusch will revisit his sense of humor.

Nick:
We all want more from our culture. We want it to move us, make us think, transport us to new areas mentally and even physically. The need to experiment is essential in creating new experiences. But what happens when someone you admire, who's known for pushing the boundaries ends up losing the plot? Jim Jarmusch has taken risks before and come out on top or, at the very least, engaged us. The Limits Of Control however tests one's patience.

Where to start? Repetition when used to create a riff of images can be startling. In The Limits Of Control the repetitive use of image following the main protagonist, Lone Man ( Isaach De Bankolé) easily drifts into tedium. Sitting at a cafe drinking his espresso in two cups, the use of the matchbox with a secret message, his continual Tai Chi exercising in hotel rooms or the Lone Man's visit to the art gallery begin to grate when viewed with no context or meaning. Jarmusch would like to think he's deconstructing the gangster film, a post-modern hit movie with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville. Unfortunately, the script brings a new level of pretension. When anyone does speak, it's Jarmusch's own thoughts rapping on movies or art or lame humor, usually delivered by the starry extras, who include Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Bill Murray.

What almost saves the day is the look of the film (shot by the ever reliable Christopher Doyle), coupled with the musical atmospherics of Japanese band Boris. This, sadly is not enough to salvage The Limits of Control from being terrible. The Limits Of Control could easily have been the existential thriller Jarmusch obviously thought he was making. But you need to create on-screen tension, character, context and meaning for that to work. The Limits Of Control tested my limits to stay awake all the way through.




Monday, August 8, 2011

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Directed by George Roy Hill


Nick:
The concept of celebrity has been with us a long time. It may take different forms or shapes, some celebrities may be real or imagined. Celebrity goes hand in hand with myth making. Despite constant changes in fashion and thinking, celebrity still obsesses us. In Forbes' recent list of top earning film actors, the list displays that it's your fame/connection with the public that puts bums on seats more than your acting talent. But in many ways, it has always been like this. Hollywood has always worked on this type of demand quota. It's amazing that in 2011 we still buy into this shallow process. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid then, is a star vehicle from the old days. If they had cast the movie today (or remake it, though an improbable sequel is being made!), it would be Leonardo DiCaprio teaming up with the slightly older Johnny Depp, the love interest being supplied by Anne Hathaway (if she's not too tall for those guys!)

But then, similarities would cease. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was made in the climate of New Hollywood, so even in a commercial fair like this (despite being a Western), some risk taking has happened. The hazy, hippy photography of Conrad Hall, the wit and counter culture nodding of William Goldman's script (a Ménage à trois is heavily suggested throughout). Lets not forget the greatest thing about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Burt Bacharach soundtrack. Bacharach's soundtrack adds a depth and pathos to certain sections of the film that is often lacking. But what Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lacks in grit and substance, it makes up for in chemistry. The superstar variety.

This brings us back to celebrity. The reason we entertain a picture like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the first place is the pairing of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. The chemistry and play between the two 'sexy' superstars (this was a fledgling pairing of superstars for Hollywood) is so easy on the eye, so effortless, so witty yet honest, it's pure entertainment. It saves this endeavor and makes you want to return again and again to the film (as I have done over the years). Actually, in many ways I love this film, even though I'm also secretly repulsed by it. Far greater than the very contrite and contrived pairing of Newman and Redford in The StingButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is some kind of classic. Yet the picture itself has a moralistic view towards robbery and outlaws, that ultimately, the picture is against its own heroes. This is a republican Western in many ways. One that lulls you in. It fooled its left-leaning stars of the day too.

Astrid:
As you may have guessed already, Paul Newman and Robert Redford are eye-candy for me. That's why I suggested we revisit this film. I like their suits and hats. 1969 was still a good year for suits and hats. Then there's the silly and quite unnecessary scene with Newman and Katherine Ross on a bicycle together, which was the other reason I wanted to see the film again. Somehow the innocent and ridiculous morning ride (accompanied by Bacharach's jolly song) had become very meaningful in my memory. On a second look the scene was so unrelated to the rest of the film that it was hardly the right reason to watch it again.

The rest of the film then: Well, there is a lot of horseback riding, getting away from the chasing parties and then running away some more. Oh yes, and robbing trains and banks (in a Hollywood way where everything is too easy and showman-like). Everything takes place in a great scenery and varying degrees of natural light and is filmed with gritty and often unfocused lens, which is refreshing after watching today's super clarity and CGI. The plot is just a bit boring for my hunger for intelligence, psychological complexity, or something else to throw me out of being sure of what's going to happen next.

Sundance Kid (Redford) has a girlfriend (Ross), but the relationship between the girlfriend and Butch Cassidy (Newman) seems almost hotter in the film. There is a feeling all along that she is being shared by both of them – just like the two buddies share everything else... I would have been interested in seeing a bit more than a suggestion to this direction. In fact there is a part in the middle of the film that describes the threesome's travels from the Wild West via New York to Bolivia and from the pretended home camera footage they could have made a whole different movie about the three-way love Butch, Sundance and the woman (whose name was not repeated enough for me to remember it) had. But somehow the director was more interested in gun fighting scenes and endless horse riding. That's where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lost me.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

L'Avventura (1960) Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni


Astrid:
At first L'Avventura was an intriguing poster in our Italian movie poster calender, then it was a 'forgotten masterpiece' that kept popping up in film magazines. It didn't take long to persuade me to feel I should see the movie, but it took some time to find it. We finally did find a copy of the film in London and yesterday we decided to treat ourselves to some intelligent, stylish Italian cinema from the 1960s.

What a disappointment. Nick kept staring into a distance in the periphery of the movie screen. He kept changing positions and he even fell asleep forcing us to take a break from the film. By the last 30 minutes he was openly making loud remarks on how boring and vacuous the movie was. Unfortunately, I cannot disagree with him, although I think I did try a bit harder with L'Avventura. I wanted to give it a chance even after half the film was gone and I still could never be sure if there was one or two leading males and if there was any credibility left for the meandering script.

The film moves from places and scenes wandering slowly. It is clear that not everything is imbued with meaning here, but by the end I feel cheated. It is as if even the things that usually signify something were utterly empty. Death and loss, love and desire all pour out and in. Visual details look like something with intention, but in the end, why should I read anything more into them? Monica Vitti looks divine, but she remains unattached as if suffering from sunstroke or the sheer lack of direction.
I still love the poster though.

Nick
:
I've been waiting to watch something substantial. Over the last week or so we've watched the truly dreadful (500) Days Of Summer and the unnecessarily violent and average Guy Richie handling of Sherlock Holmes. It's fair to say some of the pictures we've reviewed on the blog recently have been disappointing for me. I've never seen  L'Avventura. I'm a fan of Antonioni's later films, so a sense of excitement and above average expectation accompanied this viewing. Cinema still holds that thrill.  L'Avventura is heralded as one of the greatest films ever. Sight & Sound tells me it's the only serious rival to Citizen Kane that could be afforded such distinction.

Monica Vitti is an Italian actress I really adore. Stylish and unusual looking for the typical Italian actress of this period, she retains for me a certain personification of cool. L'Avventura made her an international star and was the first of three collaborations with Antonioni (the film also putting him on the map). She looks amazing here. Her presence is enough to carry this film. Visually there is much to stimulate the senses, and nothing more so than Vitti's blond main and face. L'Avventura is noted for inventing a new narrative for cinema, a visual narrative that at the time caused controversy as well as influencing a whole host of art-house film makers. L'Avventura also shows sex as something essentially casual amongst the characters, a depiction rarely seen in cinema up to this point. It's such a shame that after all these elements being in the right place, L'Avventura bored the death out of me. I have to confess here that my mind could not concentrate on the film. It kept wandering.

Any tension Antonioni tries to bring to proceedings, due to one of the main character's sudden disappearance, dissipates through a confused narrative and a series of unending shots of figures lost in rocky terrain. Unlike Blow Up or even the slow moving The Passenger, the mystery in  L'Avventura  soon gives way to an inconceivable romance which so much of the film hinges on (especially the ending). It's a jumbled, non-credible, slow moving mess. I know I could come back to this, at another time and in another year and with the right frame of mind and really love it.  I'll certainly give it another go, but in 2011 L'Avventura was a bore.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crazy Heart (2009) Directed by Scott Cooper


Nick :
If you will permit me to go back to 2007 and the SXSW music festival. Amy Winehouse has just broken big in the USA. She is playing at least one show everyday of the festival and on some days  two or three. It was my last time in Austin, and I have to say, it was nigh on impossible to catch Amy during the festival. She was either late for her shows, canceling shows, or, as we heard from one doorman, throwing up mid-song on stage.  It was the first time I realized there was something seriously wrong with Winehouse after her meteoric rise to fame. Winehouse's death this weekend was predictable but no less tragic. Yes, fame can be a monster to deal with I'm sure, but am I alone in finding it so cliché to succumb to such a predictable death? That record definitely is broken, move on, nothing to see here.

Crazy Heart suffers from the same dealing in cliché. It's a very sensitively made film, well acted and well written. It looks good, its striving for authenticity is most welcome in a music-related film, even if at times the film has a made-for-TV vibe. There's just the sense that this is second hand goods.  If we want to get specific, way back in 1983, Duvall starred in the excellent Tender Mercies, the story of a middle-aged country singer, who enters a new relationship and tries to reconnect with his long lost daughter and put his troubled life back together.  Replace the daughter with a son and I've just described the main thrust of Crazy Heart for you. Duvall, like Jeff Bridges does in Crazy Heart, performs the songs on screen very well (Duvall also performed his own songs for TM). Also, like Bridges did, Duvall won a best actor Oscar for playing an alcoholic country singer.

Duvall was one of the producers on Crazy Heart and he must have seen some worth in resurrecting this tale. My problem with a film that really is fine, is its dealing in that old rock n roll cliché of past it singers and life on the road. If we look at Winehouse's case, I guess those clichés still define a troubled artist's life. Bridges is great and offered good support from Gyllenhaal, who has  pretty much defined this role in her other movies. But ultimately Crazy Heart is entertaining lite fluff.  It offers no real insight into the reason why musicians get so led astray. Nothing deep here, so don't go looking for meaning. That could also be the reason, despite its many faults, why Crazy Heart ultimately works.

Astrid:
On the day that we heard Amy Winehouse had died, we ended up watching Crazy Heart – a film about an alcoholic musician – strangely timely. Amy's life story is a much sadder and more hopeless one, than the destiny of Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) in the movie. Kind of unfashionably in these cynical times, in Crazy Heart a man is able to get help for his addiction, he turns his life around and there is hope in the end.

Musicians are very often portrayed as alcoholics in cinema, but I must admit from the many I know personally too many fit the description. I can too easily imagine the young ones 20 years down the line struggling just like Bad Blake. In the film the motivation for change comes from falling in love. I wonder why it is so often the case that it is easier to care for one self if it can be wrapped up as caring for another? Exceptionally, in Crazy Heart the love interest (Maggie Gyllenhaal) draws the line and leaves the man, when Blake loses her 4-year-old son in downtown Houston. It is still rare to find movies about addiction that do not end up promoting codependency as a byproduct.

Crazy Heart is a gentle movie about a serious subject. Jeff Bridges is great as a little but Dude-like Bad, who even at his worst still seems to enjoy the odd laugh in his life. The subject of his estranged son is thankfully left after the son says he does not want to see his father. This plot line and the general theme of the film resonated strongly with The Wrestler, but where that film was hopeless this one holds on to its optimism – people can change.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) Directed by David Fincher

Astrid:
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is really not curious at all. Predictable and condescending are words I would use to describe it. I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was disappointed. When I saw the trailer for this film years ago, it reminded me of Forrest Gump. Seeing the whole film now confirmed to me that this was supposed to be a new version of the 1990s sentimental classic. Benjamin Button just failed to be a touching character, like Forrest once was (I can still sing the opening melody and see the feather fall from the sky).

It was surprising actually, how The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button could tackle so many touching human issues (death, birth, deformity, lost love, romance, war, hurricane Katrina), but remain distant and unfeeling. In its long run the film also employed many narrative devices, but here their multiplicity seemed glued-on rather than being an enriching factor in telling a story. I'm afraid there lies the weakness: the story is not very interesting and engaging. The bottom line is: being born a baby and then growing old and dying is pretty tragic, isn't it? Is it any different if you go from old to young and end up dead? I sometimes have script ideas for films and maybe I should write them out next time, because I think they are better than this one.

Brad Pitt is still not a great actor by any means. I did write a song inspired by him once, but it was from a nasty angle rather than an admiring one. Luckily he won't care what I think of his acting or anything because he has made a lot of money from his kind of acting and he is married to Angelina.
I like Cate Blanchett generally, but even she appears miscast here. Her ballerina scenes make me feel embarrassed and her old dying mother scenes are impossible to understand without putting on the hard-for-hearing subtitles. Of course the successful conventional romance takes place when Brad and Cate look like their movie star selves. I did not like The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button much, yet one evening we'll probably revisit it. It's that kind of bland stuff that is sometimes all we can take.

Nick:
How preconditioned have we become? Last night as the day was ending, horrific attacks were being carried out in Norway. First, bombs in Oslo then shootings on the small Island of Utøya. At first we were told through various news agencies this was a terrorist attack, perpetrated by some Norwegian Muslim group. I wake up this morning to find out it was a lone Norwegian, a possible Neo-Nazi supporting individual who was responsible for both tragedies. Was the media pandering to our preconditioned expectations? One thing for sure it demonstrated a still fond need to blame the outsider before admitting it could be one of our own responsible for such atrocious actions. I've just returned from England where the media furor surrounding News International's phone hacking had reached fever pitch. The media reacts in indignation at underhand reporting amongst its own fraternity, sensationalist analysis about how Rupert Murdoch handled his questioning by British MP's. Ladies and gentlemen, a rare insight into the kind of idiots who trawl the wings of high power which effects so much of our lives. Oh, and isn't Murdoch's wife feisty and ever so young, guffaws the media!

So, amongst all this real drama, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems so gentile. This film patronizes us in the same way that Forrest Gump left some of us so astounded all those years ago. You expect more from Fincher, whose pictures usually display a slight hint of disdain for all that Hollywood bullshit. Here he dives right into that pile. Cate Blanchett seems destined to become the one great impersonator of modern Hollywood. Amongst the CGI, she's a passable dancer who wants to ultimately wait for the ugly duckling of Benjamin to grow younger and become the shag-fest prince that is, wait for it... Brad Pitt. Fincher is the one director to have used Pitt intelligently in the past, but here he indulges in the worst aspects of the Pitt mythology. Pitt oozes the class of a hick from a Marlboro Man clothing catalog. Perhaps the adage of 'run Benjamin run' doesn't quite have the same ring about it.

Amongst the CGI trickery of making actors who are glamorous look younger or older than they really are, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button manages to seriously bore me. The emotional depth this film aims for never hits home, the characters on screen seem so unreal in constantly unreal settings. This film supposedly heralded Pitt as a serious actor. I mean, seriously? Vacuous and preposterous, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button panders to the worst aspects of Hollywood excess. Just stick some good looking superstars playing themselves on the screen and some serious special effects and that should be enough to pacify the masses. It's unfair to the The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to be wrapped up in my most negative state of mind. On a day when I despair for human intelligence and compassion,  I just think we need more than this.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Wrestler (2008) Directed by Darren Aronofsky


Nick :
My body has been changing shape in a manner I've still not come to terms with.  It really happened when I turned 40. I've always been very slim and it used to be the case that whatever I eat doesn't effect my weight. Not any more. I was first diagnosed as lactose intolerant, which meant if I drank fully pasteurized milk, I would initially pass out, fart and then my stomach would bloat out to double the size. I gained weight on my stomach. It's the spot where all the fat gathers. I have something approaching a pot belly. I'm fighting it, but feel I'm losing. Should it matter? I don't feel so unhealthy. Is my vanity about my public perception effecting me and actually stopping me being relaxed about my looks? I would have thought Mickey Rourke gave up caring what people thought of the way he looked a long time ago. For me, his plastic surgery face, long lion's mane of hair and hulking body make him look better now. It's a face that's lived.

The Wrestler is a Rourke tour de force.  Apart from a very good supporting turn from Marisa Tomei, the only reason to watch this is for Rourke as fading wrestling legend Randy 'The Ram' Robinson.  I'm sure Aronofsky would claim it tries to expose the truth behind pro-wrestling (the drugs, the fakery etc), but it really does not go far enough if it's trying to be an expose. No, Rourke gives us  a masterclass in playing himself and it's fascinating. This could be one of the greatest performances I've seen. Unfortunately, Aronofsky, after an assured beginning, throws in cliché after cliché to the story, that even Rourke struggles to deal with these possible knock out blows (ahem!) The family sub plot, chasing the stripper dream and The Ram's redemptive final actions could all have come from a Rocky movie.  It might be time for Aronofsky to tackle that comic book adaptation franchise, and leave the apparently serious film making to someone else.

 As for Rourke, when has he even come close to this? He was cute in Diner, more presence than anything else in Rumble Fish, OK in Angle Heart and do we even consider 9 ½ Weeks? Yes, it was his looks, not his acting that attracted us to start with, it's why we were bothered. When his looks changed, the public lost interest (as did Hollywood it seems).  That's the key to The Wrestler, Aronofsky delays showing us Rourke's face at the beginning, he's banking on our shock at his appearance as an audience. It's not enough to carry the film, but Rourke is magical here.

Astrid:
I'm beginning to dislike Darren Aronofsky's melodramatic directorial perspective. I fear I would not enjoy his latest film about the tormenting horror of the ballet world. Don't worry, I haven't made it there yet, as it's taken us three years to get to The Wrestler. It is not such as dramatic and over-stated film as it could be in the circumstances, yet it portrays Aronofsky's bleak outlook on life: people end up lonely, addicted and hopeless in life – change is a momentary illusion.

The Wrestler is a stage for Mickey Rourke. There are hardly any other characters with a story here. It would have been an interesting experience to watch Rourke play the washed-up wrestler Randy with even less contact with other meaningful characters. They could have chucked out the angry daughter and the girlfriend-to-be stripper without losing anything of the core drama.

Randy admires and aspires to a body aesthetic, which is very artificial and to my eyes very 1980s. It requires a lot of work. His body and image is what he finds most important in life. He is willing to risk his health with steroids and the sun bed, and of course extensive bodybuilding exercises and the wrestling fights. In fact, the film suggests that it is this obsession that has driven him to his loneliness.

In The Wrestler there is a sense that the relationship body builders and wrestlers have to their material bodies would be considered too feminine in other male contexts. Randy is at an intersection of macho masculinity and femininity. That's the interesting part of a film that's otherwise pretty forgettable.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Directed by Robert Benton

Astrid:
Kramer vs. Kramer is full of questions about family, which became political in the atmosphere of the 1970s second wave feminism. The film takes sides, judges and argues for the father, while showing that the mother is not always the best and most natural parent just because she is the biological mother.
A lot of the content, or the way it is presented, looks pretty black&white from today's perspective, while at the same time I feel that at times of dispute we have not moved very far from the 1970s way of thinking.

The mother, played by Meryl Streep, leaves her son and husband after what she describes as years of not being heard or seen. She leaves her son behind because at that point she feels she is unfit to be a parent. She then remains away for 15 months, after which time she returns to claim sole custody of her son. What disturbs me, is that Meryl Streep tells on her making-of-interview that she considered her character to be mentally ill. Apparently that was the only explanation for her behavior she could think of, which would allow her to feel empathy for the absent mother...

Most of the film concentrates on the remaining father and son (Dustin Hoffman and the child actor Justin Henry). They go from a bad insensitive relationship to a very loving and trusting one. The father has to sacrifice his career, but he is glad to do it because of the bond he has established with his own child. The film is kind of saying to the 1970s and 1980s workaholic dads that they could find rewards if they took the time with their children. Still, Kramer vs. Kramer paints a very heroic and noble picture of the sacrificing father thus depicting him as an exception (created by an unfit mother).
These days we are closer to a time when a part-taking stay-at-home dad is becoming a true option and a necessity. You will not get special points from the society for much longer, but more and more men want to be there anyway. And the women? They still attract all the criticism of the world.

Nick:
Kramer vs. Kramer deals with the practicalities of parenthood when one parent, the most present  (mother) leaves the roost to find herself, whilst leaving the breadwinner parent (father) compromised. The offshoot, in a trite Hollywood movie that just scratches the real issues involved, is that father, who's never been home to watch his son grow up because of work commitments, realizes his 7-year- old son is the greatest thing ever. When mother, after an 18 month absence comes barging back into the father/son bliss claiming custody of the son, a tense court case ensues.

Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play the parents, the very cute Justin Henry plays the son. Hoffman and Streep can walk through these roles, they are so good in front of camera. Reality, which the film strives for, is immediately dispelled of with such a perfect looking family. Benton, who directed the excellent Bad Company as well as writing Bonnie & Clyde and a host of other New Hollywood pictures could be a safe pair of hands as director and writer. Although sentimentality on the whole is avoided (despite the seriously cute kid), smugness is constant. This film was made with the Oscar academy in mind. The real issue the film tries to grapple with is a father's rites. Even though Streep abandons her child at the beginning of the movie to find herself in LA, and Hoffman was more than a neglectful father pre-split, you never feel any real venom or judgement aimed towards either parent.  To preserve the moral code, the mother makes up for her abandonment at the films end, the father seemingly still in love with his former wife to forgive her anything. One wonders what the kid thinks of all this back and forth.

So, Kramer vs. Kramer ends in some kind of happy, why-did-we-bother flux. Having been divorced twice, I can tell you it's never this easy. The incessant gossip from strangers and half-acquaintances, the morality that people amazingly find and throw in your face, the heartbreak, the financial hardship, the compromise and so forth. Yes, happy endings occur, I know, I've experienced it. In a film trying to deal with realities in the portrayal of family breakdown, the self-satisfied yuppies in Kramer vs. Kramer don't know the half of it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The King's Speech (2010) Directed by Tom Hooper


Nick :
What hold does the Royal Family have over the Oscar Academy? It's worth asking as any picture which seems to be based on any Royal family members, current or past, seems to clean up big time at the Oscars – regardless of weather the film in question is any good. Royal movies are Oscar gold dust and even the most calculating amongst us have cottoned on. It must be the same hold that the Royals have on their huge number of fans the world over. The recent Royal wedding spread a far-reaching fever, even in Helsinki people were huddled over their computers in offices watching the latest act from one of the most dysfunctional families. So, now the latest Royal cinematic masterpiece, which, excuse the pun, everyone was talking about at this years Oscars.

As entertainment or even good cinema I struggled with large parts of The King's Speech. It gave me that Merchant/Ivory sickly feeling, you know the kind: show us how the other decadent half live, whilst trying to portray sympathetically how said decadent bourgeois inbred tries to mingle with the common man. The usual role call of British luvvy inhabit The King's Speech (hello Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Anthony Andrews & Timothy Spall). Mixed in with some Australian talent (the both excellent Guy Pearce and Geoffrey Rush) and of course the very hot Colin Firth as the stuttering future King. Yes, it's well acted, tasteful, full of reverence to the former King, and maybe even shows how the head of the British Empire used to mean something more then mere tourist trade and scandal sheet. But The King's Speech takes an earth to unravel and leaves me ultimately asking why should I give a shit?  The privilege afforded King George VI his whole life should have given him the confidence to perform his duties.

I miss the urgency and edge that Hooper bought to The Damned United. This feels rather stately and stagy and made with complete approval from The House of Windsor. A bunch of real-life toffs faffing around. The King's Speech, maybe intentionally reveals a man out of touch with "his people" who was vain and was tormented about how he came across. The PR industry has been in full swing forever and probably started with the Royals. Politically, I find this kind of film objectionable for many reasons. We can argue another day as to the worth of the Royal family, then and now. As cinema, The King's Speech is of the distinctly average variety.

Astrid:

I know The King's Speech won a lot of Oscars this year and it was very popular, as well as being a relatively cheaply made film. I just couldn't get interested in the film when it came out. This week Nick came home with the film one day because he had found it cheap somewhere. I was actually curious to see it, because I had just watched a documentary on Wallis Simpson. I had also watched Kate and William get married earlier this summer, and just today I fastforwarded (it was so boring) through Prince Albert's and Charlene's wedding in Monaco (she seemed awfully sad)... So I was kind of ripe for another film about the Royal family.

The King's Speech looks very gray and feels slow. At first I was downright bored by the film. The stuttering king-to-be, David (Colin Firth), failed to make me care for his troubles. He was so cold and so privileged. Little by little and with a lot of help from the speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), the film got more emotionally involving. It turned into a film about empowerment and friendship. It's kind of too bad that the setting had to be the Royal Family, because the stiffness and grayness remained.

The past and present of the English Royal family seems to be an endless source of fascination, and not so only in the UK. Why do we want to see kings and queens as ordinary flawed people, when at the same time, their higher value is stated and restated by our admiration/hatred? David/George VI as played by Firth, asks what's the point of being king when he doesn't even have any real political decision making power. That's a good question. And was it really that important to the English masses during WWII that the king managed to deliver his speeches without stuttering in the end?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Doors (1991) Directed by Oliver Stone

Astrid:
The Doors is one of those films I watched as a preteen with my very good girlfriend on one of the many over-night-stays at her house. She always knew the best movies with sex, drugs and rock'n'roll...Back then we loved Meg Ryan and we learned to love Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. Later we actually loved Jim Morrison, or at least she did for a while. I was always a little uncomfortable with Jim's imbalanced ways.

This is my second time watching The Doors as an adult. It has lost all its allure, if the confusion I experienced as a kid can be interpreted as infatuation and enjoyment. This film makes me physically sick and mentally frustrated. I'm not an Oliver Stone fan in general, but I must say this movie is a low point even for him. It would be insulting to young people to claim that this film is juvenile in the most predictable and uncool manner. But it is. It looks down on young people, it simplifies everything from the 1960s counter culture to The Doors as a band. I know some people highly rate over-simplification, but I have to remind you Oliver Stone, usually it's just a result of being lazy and unwilling to see more than one side to a narrative (or to life). Simplifying narrative or a perspective is not the same as paraphrasing. I want to stress that point.

Sometimes it happens that time makes something kind of rubbish turn into a decent depiction of at least the time it was made in. It's not going to happen with The Doors. The film is now 20 years old and the wig-like hair on everyone still looks ridiculously 90s. Meg Ryan looks like Stevie Nicks in the early 1980s, and Nico from the Velvet Underground looks like a hooker from 1991. And for a so-called biopic I learn very little about the story of The Doors or about Jim Morrison. What's the point?
This is not a brilliant movie, don't believe the poster.

Nick :
Confession time: I went through a period in the late 1980's early 1990's where I wore black leather pants. Cowboy boots too, flowery shirts and I grew my hair pretty long. I could easily have been a roadie for early Primal Scream. Around this time I really got into The Doors. Jim Morrison and his cohorts received a serious re-appraisal in the music press. A reprint of  Hopkins' and Sugarman's insightful Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive (The Doors is based on this) reignited the mythology. I bought into it, it lasted a couple of years then my punk/indie roots resurfaced. I still like most of The Doors music, but the idea of Morrison as some shamanistic, Dionysian God is something that Oliver Stone really buys into with The Doors.

It's hard to know where to start with this mess of a movie. I could mention Stone's terrible sequence of acid trip scenes that seem to dominate the film. His cliched look at the 1960's counter culture.  His determination to show women as creatures who are here on Earth expressly to lose their clothes. Val Kilmer as Morrison smugly believes he's God's gift. Even more baffling is the casting of Meg Ryan as Morrison's beleaguered girlfriend Pam, it's like watching Martha Stewart on drugs. The costume/set departments give everything in The Doors a 1990's take on the 1960's. I've never seen a film with so many bad looking fake beards or wigs. Let's not even touch on the subject of Nico's portrayal here as some cheap looking porn model.

More importantly, being in the band The Doors is portrayed as being no fun whatsoever. This is a movie where Kilmer utters the line, "I'm the poet and you're my muse" whilst keeping a straight face.You know you're in trouble when Billy Idol shines in a cameo! The Doors reaches a nonsensical nadir when Stone, already killing us with his attempts at aligning Morrison with Shaman and Red Indian chiefs only Morrison can see, mixes his own version of the 1960's key events during a scene where Morrison faces meltdown. It has no relevance and is so laughable. When you consider the source material, Stone really lost the plot here. The Doors fails because it doesn't make you want to go back to the music. At the height of my The Doors fandom, I enjoyed this in 1991. In the cold light of 2011, The Doors is no fun and just plain embarrassing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) Directed by Robert Mulligan

Nick :
Whilst summer gets to be of the schizo variety here in Finland, ultra hot some days, rain and autumnal the rest, workloads in our household seemed to have had a detrimental effect on My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer. We're watching as many films as usual, but the time to write about what we watch is lacking. It probably means in the future there won't always be the standard eight posts a month we try to reach.

Harper Lee's book To Kill A Mockingbird is one I read approaching my teen years, it passed on some valuable lessons on tolerance and understanding as well as appreciation of an innocent perspective. I still value Lee's book, and the movie adaptation has the same feeling, yet with the added bonus of Gregory Peck's dignified turn as Atticus Finch. You get the feeling Peck's pretty much playing himself here, that easy liberal wisdom that seems to have characterized him as a human being as well as, lets not forget, Hollywood superstar.

It's interesting that To Kill A Mocking Bird was produced by Alan Pakula and has Robert Duvall's first screen performance. To Kill  A Mockingbird also gives us further clues with its camera work and general feeling as to the new American Cinema that was to explode by the end of the 1960's. It never feels sentimental, the children's perspective that the movie views events from are handled with grit and humor. The racial issues discussed in To Kill A Mockingbird convey power, if not a somewhat depressing perspective on the outcome of such racist attitudes. Watching after many years, I still felt moved at times and enjoyed the film's overall innocence. One of the better book adaptations I've seen.

Astrid:
This should be an ode to Gregory Peck. He is so noble and simply good without any arrogance what so ever. Before we watched To Kill A Mockingbird, we watched a documentary on Peck. I had seen it before, but it was just as touching second time around. He tends to his orchids, he always has time for his daughter, and he adores and adores his wife. And all this sugary love and caring seems more than sincere.

To Kill A Mockingbird is an amazing film. It creates the world and perspective of children with rare accuracy, without any patronizing or looking down. And from their perspective the movie looks at many serious social and cultural issues of the last century. I cannot believe I have never seen this film before. It seems so essential, so important for its content. I am also embarrassed to admit that I have not read Harper Lee's book (on which the film is based) even though English used to be my major with America literature as my focus.

Atticus Finch is such an admirable single father and a lawyer. He is just so up-right in a way that doesn't seem boring, but daring. There's the thing: people in their thick-framed glasses fulfilling their duties are not necessarily boring or nerdy – they are dangerous because they can change the world. No wonder Gregory admired and loved Atticus the most.

Monday, June 20, 2011

North By Northwest (1959) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Astrid:
The title North By Northwest makes me think of the Austin festival South by Southwest every time. There is really no comparison between the film and the festival. The festival is all about bumping into your biggest musical hero at breakfast, playing your own show in tiny clubs or make-shift venues, watching way too many amazing bands play in a few days, too many parties, too many margaritas and never enough Austin food or good old sleep. North By Northwest is a classic piece of über-stylish cinema with well-fitting gray suits, figure-hugging dresses, cocktail hours, rich villains and Hitchcock's realization that romance is more important than telling a believable story about crooks.

I've seen North By Northwest before and come away a little disappointed. Perhaps I felt it was all surface and nothing underneath. This time around I had no such concerns, but could enjoy the suspense and the developing love story fully. Most of all the film is lovable for its perfected aesthetics. This is one of those films that makes smoking look way too classic, and drinking too – especially on trains.

Cary Grant is great in his role as the baffled but very clever advertising man, who becomes the target of the villains and a means to an end to the FBI. Sometimes Grant can just walk through a film looking good, but here his character is developed more and it makes the actor more interesting too. Eva Marie Saint is the usual (or should I say compulsory?) Hitchcock blond, but her open need to bed Thornhill (Grant) immediately and then later her Scandinavian-like stern love for him are nicely dished out by her. I'll watch it again sometime.

Nick:
The pain of being blamed for something, or some action being attributed to myself, an action which one is completely innocent of, is trying. This applies to things you might say.  Only this week, a quote of mine, passed on by someone to someone else, the someone else then claiming to be the receiver of said quote, passed the quote on to someone else (2), who passed on the quote to someone else (3). By the time someone else 3 passed the quote back to me, context and meaning had completely altered. So, I had to then spend time correcting the misquote and relieving myself of any unjust cause of discontent my misquote may have caused. You see how easily things get twisted?

However much annoyance this may have caused me, it's nothing compared to the level of blame attributed to Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant)  in North By Northwest. First, he's mistaken for someone else which leads him to being kidnapped, then he is force-fed copious amounts of alcohol and then almost murdered. Then he's wanted for a very public murder of which he's innocent, so he has to go on the run. Next Thornhill falls in love with the very forward Eve Kendall (Eve Marie Saint) who turns out to be the squeeze for the very dodgy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) who was the guy who got Thornhill into this mess to start with. Confused? Just imagine how Roger feels, even though he is the most impeccably dressed advertising executive in the history of the movies.

So North By Northwest, on this 20th or so viewing for me, just keeps getting better. Here Hitchcock presents us the essence of his style of film making. Hitchcock's imagination has never been so well visualized on the screen, the numerous iconic set peaces including the Mount Rushmore finale and the crop duster plane pursuing Grant. Still, Hitchcock finds enough space here to include weird shot after weird shot, without disrupting the flow. The black humor (Earnest Lehman supplies Hitchcock with one of his best scripts) is always on the money, the dialogue sharp. A great Bernhard Hermann score keeps the action moving. At the center of all this is Grant, the perfect leading man who knows how to wear a suit. North By Northwest sets the standard for all action/suspense thrillers to follow, it's still king. This is pure cinema entertainment, if you've somehow missed this, do yourself a favor.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Magnolia (1999) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


Nick:
It comes in waves. Building relentlessly. I try to resist, but the waves just keep building.
Will it drag me under? I don't know. But the level of heavy content that never lets up is in danger of suffocating my senses. Not only that, but it still keeps coming at you, like a Great White Shark, it never stops. As a matter of fact, it goes on forever. Actually, I could still be watching Magnolia as I'm writing this. I had completely forgotten how intense and depressing Magnolia is. It's a struggle for sure. But does the weight of the subject matter hide a shallow heart?

I remember at the time that Magnolia was compared to a Robert Altman -style of cinema. Multi-layered stories interchange and characters that are closely related by coincidence or the proximity of The Valley. Magnolia however is far too stiff and calculated in its execution to remind me of Altman. It's also missing Altman's light touch. Magnolia is also missing the humor that made Boogie Nights so endearing. One can be bowled over by the sheer ambition of Anderson's film. The script is well considered, the cinematography excellent, music overwhelming and finally, brilliant acting performances. You can take your pick here who stands out. Tom Cruise steals the film for me and has never approached this level since. William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Melora Walters are all stand-outs for me. One scene where the principle characters sing along to Aimee Mann's Wise Up is cinema gold, the emotional quality this brings is never matched by the rest of the film. But still, what a moment.

But watching Magnolia again reminds me of how weird the late 1990's feel right now in 2011. There is disconnect. This seemed so cutting-edge and important at the time. Now Anderson's film seems ponderous and at times pretentious. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a good film. But right now it feels like an act of self-indulgence on Anderson's part. I feel he's improved so much from Magnolia with Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Magnolia could just be part of his growing pains. I'd like to think of Anderson's bleak look at life's travails as being his springboard to greatness.

Astrid:
I remember seeing Magnolia for the first time in 1999 or 2000. It was a religious experience for me, I was converted – to Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Julianne Moore, PT Anderson, the likelihood of frogs falling from the sky and the bleak bleak vision of life as a battle between co-incidence and reason. Watching the film this time around, I find Magnolia unbelievably heavy, dark and continuously depressed. I wonder if it was just me who felt comfortable in such disturbing levels of depression in the 1990s, or was it common culture that the most valued pieces of art were always the heaviest? (Maybe it was, as other very popular 90s movies in addition to Magnolia were Blue by Kieslowski and Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick – sad and dark).

What did I do for the early 2000s then? I read Vogue and I watched Sex And The City on TV and allowed the series to heal me with its light and reckless consumerist philosophy on life. I went from 'life is suffering' to 'which self-tanning lotion dries fastest and is the least orange'. I never had an It-Bag, but I was very glued to knowing which bag was It right then. But now Carrie has also become more of a past-curiosity and an uncomfortable reminder of how selfish and unethical the early-2000s ideal woman was.

Magnolia is still a touching film. It has a couple of moments of cinematic beauty, where music, acting, plot and emotion all join together forming something unforgettable. In 2011 I don't relate to its perspective on life as tragedy, instead I watch it as a sympathetic outsider and feel a little worried for PT Anderson's well-being. I'm so glad it's not 1999 anymore.