Monday, January 31, 2011

The Right Stuff (1983) Directed by Philip Kaufman

I wanted to watch this film because of Sam Shepard. I remembered that he rides his horse through the barren land of California to a shed-like bar to drink whiskey in excess and to dance with his cool wife (Barbara Hershey). I also thought that they ride back to their house, make love in khaki sheets, and have long after-sex discussions naked with some body parts showing. But a lot of this was just dreaming, because Sam is hardly in The Right Stuff and when he is, he mostly flies his boring and fast plane or makes some dull remark on the ridiculousness of the American space project. The poetry and sex were entirely a product of my imagination.

In the early 1970s Sam Shepard went under the name Slim Shadow and he was a drummer. I know this because I just finished Just Kids by Patti Smith. He was also a successful (and married) off-Broadway playwright, but Patti did not know that when they first met. What is so attractive about the idea of a drummer-playwright-novelist-actor guy? I guess there is something there that gives license to my imagination. It's certainly a sexier idea than a space man.

In reality The Right Stuff is a long-winded movie about the beginning of the US space project. It does not tackle any interesting questions like what might they find in space? Why do they have to go out there? Or why did so many astronauts turn to god after floating in space? The space is fascinating, this movie isn't. We are given the most boring documentary-like look into how the first seven American astronauts prepare for their expeditions. The men are portrayed as simple meat-and-potatoes guys, so it does not take much effort from Sam Shepard to appear more intelligent as the lonely cowboy test pilot. You know what, they should have given his role to Clint Eastwood. Then I would have not made the mistake of re-watching this film at all, because he was never a drummer or a novelist...

"Those magnificent men in  their flying machines,......"
I was quite surprised when Astrid suggested we re-watch The Right Stuff. But then I remembered she's reading Patti Smith's book Just Kids which features Mr Sam Shepard. Sam, if you didn't know, is a playwright, actor, author, director and all round cool dude. He's even won a Pulitzer prize, though I'm more impressed by his book about Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Tour. So before Patti he lived with Charles Mingus, since Patti he's been with Jessica Lange. You could say that Sam is the thinking woman's heart throb. I think this explains a lot about his appeal in The Right Stuff.

Shephard plays the laconic and illusive Chuck Yeager, whom, when he can be bothered, casually breaks the sound barrier flying some kind of orange rocket. He's a pilot who shows no fear and is admiringly  backed up by his wife Glennis, played by the criminally under-used Barbara Hershey. The fact that Hershey is playing Yaeger's wife already distinguishes him as a different class of pilot. The film then follows a bunch of other pilots as they train to be the first Americans in space: yes, astronauts. The Right Stuff is three hours long, based on real events that span the late 1940's to the mid-1960's. It has a decent cast and is at times witty and sardonic. But the screen only really lights up when Shepard's pilot cowboy moodily hovers.

While watching The Right Stuff other thoughts overtake me. The Space Race showed a rare willingness and excitement about exploration which seems to have died now. No longer does man seek to explore other planets in any meaningful way. The planet Earth is surrounded by all kinds of Space Stations and satellites that seem to be monitoring us, here on earth and not...them in outer space.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Swimmer (1968) Directed by Frank Perry

Perceptions of how I think I am seen by other people is something I don't think about too much. We all want to be thought of in a good light. I don't send around a questionnaire asking "Am I a good egg?" to friends and acquaintances. Maybe I should to get a better understanding of what my friends really think of me. The like button on Facebook is probably the closest we get to some kind of consensus on our musings and popularity amongst our friends. But what if you're like Ned Merrill in The Swimmer? What if you are blighted by something out of your control, the loss of a job, some unsavory episode or misfortune, which means people talk about you without you knowing, and formulate an opinion of yourself that you don't quite see.

The Swimmer is one of those films where you wonder how this picture got green-lit, so strange is the topic. After being away for awhile (we don't really know where), Ned appears at some old friends poolside. After realizing that there are swimming pools in every home across the rich Connecticut suburb valley where he lives, Ned decides to swim home. Along the way, pool by pool, he meets old friends, neighbors, lovers and enemies, who are all initially pleased if a little wary to see him. But as Ned's journey progresses, some uncomfortable truth about himself comes to pass.

Burt Lancaster plays Ned. Burt spends the whole movie in his swimming trunks. What a body for a then 55 year old Lancaster. I always think Burt has the most incredibly wide shoulders (he started his career as an acrobat in the circus). It's easy to think of Burt as this ├╝ber-macho leading man of the 1950's and 1960's cinema. But then think of the quality pictures Lancaster made: From Here To Eternity, The Birdman Of Alcatraz, The Sweet Smell of Success, Seven Days In May, The Leopard and Atlantic City amongst many others. You realize that Lancaster was one of the great screen actors, even though there is no fuss surrounding him like Brando or Nicholson. The Swimmer is a cult favorite nowadays hiding one of Lancaster's best roles. Watching his journey unravel is fascinating.

Some part of me is always missing The Strand book store on the corner of 12th street and Broadway (Manhattan). In a dream life, I would live only a walking distance from there. Physically, the distance to that scenario is huge at this moment. Right now I am reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and it makes me long for a past I never had. What is disturbing to realize in life, is how the same ingredients can lead to such different results. This is true in cooking but it is also true with people. Is it a question of luck, magic, timing, location, destiny or something even more flimsy and undefinable?

The Swimmer portrays a lost man in the middle of his disconnection from what used to define him. I have not seen many films so fully dedicated to an episode like this without the need to explain how he got there or where he will end up. It is disturbing to see the man's nakedness and vulnerability in front of his old neighbors who do not understand why he is back – their reactions range between pretending everything is normal to baffled expressions of anger. His idea 'to swim home' through all the pools in the neighboring houses appears peculiar but inventive at first, but slowly the audience begins to see the madness of the effort. At the present the swimmer does not remember, or he has repressed, the traumatic events in his resent past which have changed the course of his life.

I guess what I am trying to say with the help of The Swimmer and Patti Smith is that me ending up as a regular customer of The Strand is as likely as it is unlikely. The future will be a chain of events somewhat influenced by my aspirations but also defined by circumstance – most likely I will be both the swimmer and some woman in the sun chair by the pool with a drink in her hand. This sense of not knowing while constantly intrigued is crucial for life.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Stay Hungry (1976) Directed by Bob Rafelson

I am compelled to admit that this New Hollywood piece from the mid-1970s did not touch and inspire me as much as I hoped – or as much as it should considering that I am turning into a serious 1970s movie nerd. Was it my own mind wandering or did they really mumble so much in Stay Hungry that 24 hours later I cannot bring myself to focus on the experience?

Anyway, here's what I think: in the 1970s Hollywood regularly churned out quality movies, which concentrated on telling a great story. Yes, they had wonderful actors, fabulous new directors bursting with enthusiasm, they had brave cinematographers, crazy producers and all the mind-altering substances imaginable, but at the center of it all was the narrative. Something needed to be expressed. My claim being that the New Hollywood films were not selling anything to the audience.

Fastforward a couple of decades to the present. Here I am feeling uncomfortable as this thought turns into text, but I feel that now even the smallest of indie films are selling something. If nothing else, they are selling us a great indie soundtrack, a way of life, a car, a PC perspective on something controversial, and obviously, an actress or an actor of the star cult. Is it just my inability to distance myself from the present making me uneasy in my seat at the local multiplex? Is it my own paranoia? Or am I right in feeling that watching a film is about conscious and unconscious processes of decoding messages of what I should purchase?

Stay Hungry gives us Arnold Schwarzenegger's first Hollywood role. To me he represents almost everything that has gone wrong between the 1970s and the present moment. I'm sure that does not come as a surprise. What surprises me is that in this film (the director Rafelson earlier made the must-see Five Easy Pieces) Arnie is not a joke. His physical appearance and his role actually conjoin to claim that Arnie did not necessarily go to Hollywood to become a robotic killer or a mayor. Maybe he was just a guy who wanted to be an actor. Maybe he was a young man with low self-esteem. Something changed, or even died in the stories and in the expressions of Hollywood – but I cannot blame Arnie for that. Not anymore.
I never went in for the whole body building thing. It seemed to be something that rose to prominence during my adolescence. Pumping Iron. From a very early age, much like my mother, I was dealt the thin look. No muscles on me. I had a metabolism that seemed to keep me thin. I say had, because as I've crawled into middle age, a widening of girth has accelerated. Nowadays I have an increasing waistline (the area where my body seems ripe for expansion). Of course, exercise is something I rarely partake in. To look at Arnold Schwarzenegger debuting in Stay Hungry you realize the level of dedication it takes to look like some kind of unnatural freak. Hey, no six pack on me thanks.

Watching Stay Hungry again after many years I realize that Arnold could have had an interesting career in art house movies, playing the gentle muscled giant. But Hollywood came calling, saw the muscles and little else and so Schwarzenegger became The Terminator or Conan or some other killing machine. An opportunity missed because Stay Hungry shows another use for Arnie. The former mayor of California could do worse than revisit Stay Hungry to get an idea as to what kind of vehicle to  restart his movie career with.

Stay Hungry is a soft, entertaining picture, with intricate, comedy relationship webs set against a back drop of syndicate property expansion. Man of the moment Jeff Bridges turns in another stellar turn as the rich boy who befriends the freaks at the gym, falls in love and decides to do the right thing. A great supporting cast of R.G Armstrong, Sally Field, Robert Englund and Schwarzenegger gives ensemble credence. Bob Rafelson was on something of a roll following on from Five Easy Pieces and The King Of Marvin Gardens. He'd never top that three-in-a-row run, but then who would? Stay Hungry is almost forgotten nowadays. It deserves to be found like it's predecessors. A small wonder.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Front (1976) & Tin Men (1987)

So the award season is here. I must admit that on the morning after the Golden Globes I steered immediately to view the red carpet pictures and ignored any information on who and what films won.
It is strange to find myself so unconsciously and strongly pulled by the star myth. Luckily, I later watched a clip of Ricky Gervais' opening speech as the presenter of the gala. He reminded me that cinema is much more sinister and complex a phenomenon than the glamor and plasticity of the red carpet conveys.

There have been much more serious times for cinema of course. The Front is a great reminder that not so very long ago, American actors, writers, directors and the rest of the professionals in cinema could find themselves on a black list – unemployed and politically victimized. I am especially fascinated by this historic example because it reveals how art has been considered a dangerously influential form of expression. Creativity has threatening explosive potential. Things can change.

Tin Men relates to The Front through their depiction of the times, the middle of the 20th Century. Where The Front discusses how artistic creativity was to be controlled in fear of change or even revolution, Tin Men shows that even the working classes did not survive without being surveiled and tried. There was a general suspicion from the men in power towards everyone else. What was it with this paranoia, is it still in the air? Both films seem to be saying that actually artists as well as the everyman were only consumed by the mundane: love affairs, who has a bigger car, how to pay the bills or keep the tax man at bay.

What about women? Well, these films did not discuss women as artists or as everywomen. Barbara Hershey is one of my favorite actors, but in Tin Men she was just a canvas or a prop.


It's a spineless gutless world and we're all going to hell. I could say this is how I've been waking up every morning, covered in guilt. But I'm not. However harsh the realities of life are for myself, they are obviously a lot harder for other people. Where is my voice of protest through these dark ages? Why am I not making a stand for the things I believe in? Most probably because I'm selfish, and the 'right' cause hasn't come along for me to support, I won't be supporting anything. I'll just be cynically commenting on how everything should be better.

The Front is as close as you can get to a Woody Allen picture without actually being one. It stars Allen, is produced by Allen's regular producers (Rollins & Joffe), co-stars Allen actor (Michael Murphy) and has the pace and the feel of a an Allen picture. Unlike typical Allen, it's political. Allen plays The Front of the title role, a cashier worker who ends up fronting scripts for blacklisted writers during the communist witch hunt of the 1950's. McCarthyism is something Howard Prince (Allen) thinks he can beat as he becomes accustomed to the fake life of a successful scriptwriter. The Front squeezes a great performance out of Allen and has one of the sweetest pay-off lines. It also comes across at times like a public health warning about the consequences of McCarthyism. Despite this it's an enjoyable picture. Martin Ritt directs, from a script by Walter Bernstein. These two, along with many other supporting cast and crew members truly suffered from the black list back in the day.

Tin Men is another period piece (this time the 60's) from the steady hand of Barry Levinson. Levinson directs Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito who play two aluminum-siding sellers who start a running feud after theirs cars collide. Tin Men is witty, well acted and super cruel. It also has the bonus of the love interest being supplied by the underrated Barbara Hershey. Eventually a love story ensues between Hershey and Dreyfuss (hello chemistry) before both men have their selling licenses revoked in court with scenes reminiscent of the McCarthy witch hunts. Tin Men still stands up as a slick, funny film about real people trying to make a living in the USA. Along with The Front, it highlights how America has often persecuted its own. Will I be making a stand soon?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Mississippi Burning (1988) Directed by Alan Parker

Racism is something that has crossed my path on a regular basis throughout my life. Name calling based on my skin color (in my case: olive) and dark looks have followed me everywhere. At times in my life, as I'm being called this and that, I've often questioned the correct way to respond to racial abuse. Ignore it and try to understand it? Or confront it head on? What is our collective response to racism? I'm often appalled nowadays when on a regular basis right-wing parties win lots of votes. In times of hardship, anti-foreigner/immigration feeling spreads across the world. This is in some sense a modern front line. We should redouble efforts to stop these attitudes. Are we doing enough? Are you making a stand? Do we fight fire with fire?

Mississippi Burning tackles this perspective in a dramatized version of true events that involve the disappearance and ultimately murder of three civil rights activists (one of whom is black) in Mississippi in 1963. The film portrays very obvious racial and class divides in the Mississippi of this era, yet only from a white perspective. The main characters in this picture are white people, the victimized blacks often portrayed as silent spirited victims. This is an obvious fault. Yet, despite this, Mississippi Burning also tackles the ethics on how to deal with violent racial ideology. Willem Dafoe plays idealistic left leaning FBI Agent Ward, going by the book to crack the case. He's partnered by experienced, former Deep South living Agent Anderson (Gene Hackman), who would rather use more unorthodox approaches to solve the case. It's their contrast of styles and ideologies that the film focuses on, whilst racist action around them forms a violent and compelling backdrop.

Alan Parker directs well, pulling great performances from the cast. Mississippi Burning has a power that is undeniable, and it excuses its descent into violence as a way to deal with a greater problem by giving the viewer enough reason to feel the violence used is justifiable. Yes, it's a revenge movie. And yes, it made me feel good. Confrontation, retaliation, fighting prejudice and ignorance. Yes, we reached that level a long time ago. There is only one way. This struggle continues.

Mississippi Burning makes me incredibly angry for its content. It portrays a way of thinking and acting without logic, through hatred. My anger is mixed with bafflement as I realize that although this film is old by now, organized racism is alive and kicking.

Yet, this is a film about the oppressor and his consciousness. It's a white movie about what happens when some individuals in the privileged group get a consciousness and begin to fight 'internally'.
It's a Hollywood film with big white stars Defoe and Hackman visualizing the conflict that arises when
the oppressor needs to change.

Frances McDormand plays the wife of the town's sheriff. He is an important member of the Ku Klux Klan. She is elemental in the FBI getting information about the actions of the Klan. This adds another level of internal battle into the film, a portrayal of a marriage as another sight of oppression.

I find it difficult to write about my anger. That is why this review has been dragging for a week now and a load of other films will go unreviewed. Let me just finish by saying that Mississippi Burning is a little bit like a 1970s New Hollywood film and for that it is enjoyable.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) & Walk The Line (2005)

Today Natalie Portman is getting criticism on The Guardian from professional ballerinas for her latest role in the movie Black Swan. The problem: you cannot learn to be a professional ballet dancer in one year, yet, the film uses an actress instead of a ballerina for the role. I have watched Walk The Line multiple times thinking it is a film about the artist Johnny Cash and his journey from childhood to finding his creativity and then success. This time around I noticed that the actor Joaquin Phoenix, who does his own singing here, is not a good singer. His vocals are continually autotuned (a corrective effect added after a vocal take to pitch any out-of-tune notes) and his delivery is nothing magical or touching. The truth is: Johnny Cash had an exceptional presence, which is what made him special, and it is insulting to claim that a little method acting could lead Phoenix to the same results.

Therefore, the problem with Walk The Line is that the musical content is not convincing enough for the story to be centered around Cash's creativity and talent. The film thus becomes a relationship movie about Johnny and June.

Coal Miner's Daughter is a 1980's version of the same kind of musical bio pic. Although the film appears stronger as a piece of cinema with a look and a mood of its own, it also emphasizes childhood trauma and hetero relationships. What is taken for granted or dismissed is the very interesting personal development of the artist's passion for expression through singing. How does the character (Loretta Lynn) nurse and maintain that need for this expression in her surrounding? The subtle internal movement towards realizing her vocation remains without any visualization in Coal Miner's Daughter.

Of course, it would be difficult to picture the creative processes of individual artists in film. It would be challenging to get into detail without looking boring, unmoving and slow. Picturing human internal processes of emotions and ideas may even not be the purpose of cinema, which usually shows us the immediate results rather than the getting there. Further more, Coal Miner's Daughter and Walk The Line do not fulfill the need in me to question and inspect the career development of these artists. How does it feel to be successful? What about criticism? What about failures? And the relationships to co-workers, other performers, musicians, the band and so forth? What is interesting to me as an artist myself is not so much the family story or the love story (everyone produces those), but the narrative of a specific form of expression.

The glamorous easy lives of Rock n Roll stars.  I live with a full-time musician, and am also a songwriter and record producer myself. So amongst the myth making, we never hear about: the song writing struggles, the band forming woes, the rehearsal room focus, the endless hours in the studio or at home refining, the tours without audience, the blatant sexism, the no money, the uncertainty, the critical backlash, the lack of recognition, the no future for you here, the constant self doubt, the 'am I throwing my life away' moments, the sacrifice of every normal aspect of your life. In fact, would I become an active musician in 2011, starting from scratch? No thanks.

Me and my partner are two of the most hard working people I know. Still friends ask Astrid what she's been up to, her reply 'working' usually met with that look that suggests that's not real work. Of course, there's the good points. The acknowledged greatness, the special talent tag, the otherness. The wanting to get to know. The possible financial gains. Traveling to different climbs and, in some cases, the promise of a better life. For some, and I include myself here, it's enough to have a life of creativity. For others, it's the wealth and, yes, the glamor.

So, film and music bio-pics. It's a long tale of missed opportunities clogging up any real perspective. When James Mangold directed Walk The Line, did he really intend to take most of the danger out of Johnny Cash? I mean, this is the Man In Black we're talking about? This is the raised-finger Johnny Cash, surely. What we get in Mangold's film is Joaquin Phoenix (too short!) mumbling away, Reese Witherspoon supposedly good as June (we only have the awful Legally Blonde to compare). Walk The Line is a sanitized mainstream film with no danger. It's Johnny Cash! How can you do it Hollywood!? And please, what's the auto-tune to death on Phoenix's voice doing (Arghhhhhh!). Still, tasteful and entertaining all the same. Is that good?

Michael Apted directs the Loretta Lynn story Coal Miner's Daughter as if a made for TV movie. Great turns from Sissy Spacek, Tommy Lee Jones and The Band's Levon Helm can't save this from being underwhelming. It touches on the mundane realities of touring but ignores any real portrayal of creativity and what makes Loretta so special. Still, it's worth a look. But what both these films do is sacrifice any real perspective on what got us interested in these people in the first place. Yes, The music. Ain't got no soul.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Social Network (2010) Directed by David Fincher

Hello 2011. It's been a year since we started My Lawyer Will Call Your Lawyer. And in that year we posted 134 times. That sounds like a lot. Thanks to the people who have been reading regularly, or occasionally drop by. 2010 has been such a topsy-turvey year personally that I'm quite glad to see the back of it. Work issues, health issues and other issues have meant it's been quite a hellish year for me. This blog has offered light relief. The other constant has been Facebook.

I'm a big fan of Fincher (Seven, Fight Club & especially Zodiac) and of Aaron Sorkin (I had a serious love-in with West Wing). So, with direction and script duties in such good hands, it's safe to say there is quality involved with The Social Network. My initial reaction after watching the film: this is a picture about young people made by middle aged people. NIN's Reznor making the soundtrack, The Beatles supplying the end song. Wrong generation. I still can't shake that. But more shocking for me was the skill involved in bringing Mark Zuckerberg's 'success' story about the creation of Facebook to the screen and how it drew me in as a viewer, despite me being repulsed. A case in point being Justin Timberlake, inspired casting as slimey Napster creator Sean Parker.

These people start out as rich, privileged people. So, are we to applaud their ability to make even more money from great ideas as the movie suggests? And yes, we're still making them richer, to satisfy our own needs for connection. The irony of The Social Network is that in portraying Zuckerberg as social outcast, we get some picture of an individual unable to connect in real life situations. Fincher and Sorkin show us this exclusive world of repressed nerds in a non-judgmental way. I don't personally care for these spoilt rich kids.  I'm not impressed that Zuckerberg became a billionaire by 25. The film constantly tells us he doesn't care for money, even though most of the picture he's protecting his vast wealth. My punk instincts damages my view of this picture but also shows up my own inadequacy. I logged onto Facebook as soon as I got in from the cinema. I promote various opinions and even this blog through Facebook. So Zuckerberg has me in thrall. He's won, for now. The class war still rages. The Social Network is brilliant yet cold, a film for our times.

The Social Network is a movie reflecting the current state of the world. It was the movie of 2010 according to many end-of-the-year polls. It has potential to become significant and not least because it describes events that took place only seven years previously – we like to move fast now. It is definitely a piece of cinema with a distinct Fincher look, and yet I cannot help to be left with the feeling that instead of a film I am watching layers of recent history mixed with the celebrity cult on fast forward.

Where the money goes, that's where our heads turn. Just this morning I read in the news that Facebook is now worth 50billion dollars. While I embrace the invention, watching The Social Network makes me
painfully aware that I am not using Facebook, it is using me. It did not take long for the invention to go from connectivity and curiosity to a commercial trap. The sad news is: that's the story of our lives these days, what ever we do, invent or create.

I am struggling to express how layered in socially important meaning this film is. I lack the perspective of time, I don't have distance. As I sat in the audience I was irked by the kinds of people The Social Network described. I feel uncomfortable realizing that power is still distributed to those sons who were born to money, those boys who made it to Harvard, and those generally who are skilled enough to lie believably and who socially pass.

Hacking. I'm beginning to use the word a lot. My prediction: so will you in the year 2011.