Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Lady From Shanghai (1947) Directed by Orson Welles

Are there really people who conduct their lives as elaborate games? Are there platinum blonds who besides money and beauty, can get every human being to fall in love with them if they want to? And are these femme fatales in fact the murderers in life? I don't know, but it seems like I'm missing the point here.

The Lady From Shanghai looks fabulous and it has brilliant scenes with funny lines for the actors. Unfortunately it also fails to touch me. It is difficult to watch this film from 1947 as anything but a summer style guide. My attempts to fish for some content leave me with the notion that surface is content. Yet, here that's not so satisfying.

I guess there was a time when cinema was truly a reality of its own. The gold, silver, diamonds, champagne, sailing around the Americas on a clipper, the exotic Acapulco – all of it offered the audience an escape. This time around I remain too far-removed. I am only watching as a bored film-buff waiting for the classic mirror scene at the end – it was magic.

New ideas and originality are rarely rewarded. Once those ideas become common place and put into practice, often over a long period of time, acceptance and a general air of looking back in a more positive light is often regarded as the perceived wisdom of hindsight. Orson Welles is a case in point. Citizen Kane broke the rule book for cinema. It took many years after its release to be rightly acknowledged as THE game changer. Meanwhile Orson, so precocious, casually brilliant and increasingly obese, would have the Hollywood toys taken away from him. It is hard to imagine, but after Citizen Kane they should have given him anything he wanted. Instead, Orson often lost control of his films (if he even finished them), and looked elsewhere (Europe) to pursue his goals. A visionary, a liar (or exaggerating storyteller, depending on your view) and the essence of a certain kind of cinema, Orson Welles was punk rock incarnate.

The Lady From Shanghai was one of the last times Orson got to play with the toys. This could have been his commercial breakthrough as director. Rita Hayworth was Welles' real-life wife at the time of shooting, and one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the day to boot. The Lady From Shanghai was shot in 1946, making it one of the first Film Noir pictures. After studio meddling (60 minutes was cut from Welles cut prior to release), it wasn't just Welles' vision that suffered, his marriage to Hayworth was over by the time the picture was finally released. But still, this is an intense ride. Amazingly shot in various locations, this murder mystery is a mess. At the same time, there is enough imagination and never seen that before bravura from Welles that makes The Lady From Shanghai always interesting and on occasion brilliant.

The Lady From Shanghai is dark and heavy with atmosphere. Dialogue (written by Welles) is often confusing and clichéd. It's also autobiography. Welles was too much of an artisan to make this just simple entertainment. However badly this has been cut (and it has been) enough of Welles vision survives. Hayworth (blond here) has never been sexier on screen. Welles has a strange Irish accent as our innocent yet flawed narrating hero. It's double-cross and be damned and take the money and run. The fun house hall of mirrors at the end is nowadays regarded as one of the great movie scenes. Welles can divide opinion. I'm a big fan. The Lady From Shanghai only increases my awe for him.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another Year (2010) & The Romantic Englishwoman (1975)

As I was watching The Romantic Englishwoman on Tuesday evening, I had thoughts of Elizabeth Taylor. The Romantic Englishwoman is a Joseph Losey picture, who made the now revered 1960's pictures The Servant and Accident as well as the fun, supercamp Modesty Blaise. We've featured him here with The Go-Between, but he made a couple of curiosities with Elizabeth Taylor in the late 1960's. Some of the weirdness of the Taylor pictures Boom! and Secret Ceremony could have elevated The Romantic Englishwoman.

                                          Boom! (1968)

Michael Caine and Glenda Jackson heat the film up as the successful author and the bored housewife who's looking for an escape from upper-class domestic hell. She has an implied affair with a drug running poet (a very European Helmet Burger). In reality, it's all faintly ridiculous. Tom Stoppard's script, when dialogue finally arrives, is sharp. A Servant-like ménage à trois scenario is played out, but unlike the previous Losey picture, The Romantic Englishwoman fizzles out. A slow start, strong middle and a whimper. To be honest, this is average Losey.

So, onto Wednesday. As I'm getting ready to pick up the cinema tickets to go see the new Mike Leigh film, Another Year, the internet breaks the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death. It's easy to forget with Taylor, who in later life was more like this ailing patron saint of lost souls and worthy causes, that she was a very fine actress. Yes, people will talk of the glamor and an old-fashioned sense of beauty (Taylor was probably my first on-screen crush), but don't forget the reason we care: some excellent films.

I was consumed with Taylor entering the cinema, but Another Year wiped away such thoughts. Mike Leigh just gets better. Losey and Leigh both deal with class and its effects on others, often from different perspectives. Another Year's themes on mortality, on the passing of time, loneliness and mental illness sound heavy, and at times Another Year has a graceful solemnity. But this is a film  about the closeness of family too. The class divide within a family is dealt with, but nothing here is cliché. Leigh's script and direction brings the most mundane aspects of life into sharp focus, at the same time portraying a poignancy that stays with you. Another Year is a film that ruminates on themes that truly matter to us. Go see Another Year, it's what we need from cinema to understand a little more about ourselves.

Through a combination of co-incidence and preference we ended up spending the last two evenings watching English cinema. Both Another Year and The Romantic Englishwoman have a long-term relationship at the center of events. Similarly, they both discuss a woman's unhappiness: one from the perspective of a bored feminist wife of the mid-1970s, the other in relation to her failed relationships and her current loneliness.

The loss of a loved one makes romantic cinema – tolerating their idiosyncrasies years on end does not.
Usually, long relationships do not make such interesting films. They cannot be romantic comedies, because, tragically, long-term love is not considered romantic (or comic for that matter). The longer my personal relationship is lasting, the more tired and one-sided traditional romantic films seem – they end at the beginning. I am interested in depictions of the difficulties, the companionship, the changes, the infatuations, infidelities, friends outside the couple and so on. I found myself delighted that Another Year and The Romantic Englishwoman had reading-in-bed scenes. That to me is a depiction of reality (and it is also quite romantic).

The Romantic Englishwoman is an even better idea than its realization. The wife of a rich writer is frustrated not so much by her real life, but by the freedom she discovers she should be pursuing. There's a social question: How to liberate a wife in 1975? Let her have an affair with a French crook – she'll run back to the husband in the end. But there are murkier tones here: the husband is jealous to begin with, the wife suspects an affair with their au-pair, the husband urges his wife to be unfaithful so that he can write about it...I have a sneaky feeling that some level of understanding was lacking from the makers of the film towards the wife.

In Another Year such lack of empathy is nowhere to be found. At the end the camera draws the audience out in the middle of a dinner by focusing on the confused and disappointed face of Mary (Lesley Manville). The sound disappears, there is no music to tune our emotions to. Yet, it is not a cruel and cold drawing out. Mike Leigh has always depicted the life of the lower classes and the middle class. That must be the reason why I feel he is dealing with reality – I relate. Hollywood films rarely bother with anyone poor or average unless they want to contextualize. Like long-term relationships, getting by with very little is not sexy. Lets just say that although sexy is fun, a range of other feelings and experiences are important too. That's what I've learned.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reds (1981) Directed by Warren Beatty

Political ideologies come and go. It's amazing how evil some politicians turn out to be that it can make even the most despicable political views seem appealing. We saw it at the start of the Iraq War with Blair avoiding mass protests and a nation abandon left-leaning politics to embrace the right (moderately and to extremes). When I was just getting interested in politics, during Thatcher's first years, socialism and even communism (who claims to be communist nowadays?) were seen as preferable political choices. Not a hard decision for one to make, I've been left-leaning all my life. Cast your mind back to 1981, and the USA's own right-wing monster can be found with Ronald Reagan in the White House. In  this climate, Warren Beatty (himself known to dabble in thoughts of entering politics) makes his movie Reds based on America's most celebrated communist. Hello John Reed, the journalist who captured the Bloshevik Revolution in 1917 better than anyone with his book Ten Days That Shook The World. Reed is the only American buried at The Kremlin.

We seem to have a public perception problem with Beatty. Is it all those stories of him being a playboy with a compulsive sex disorder? Was it the relationship with Madonna? Beatty has always appeared vain and been viewed with suspicion by the public, but no one can ignore his influence on modern cinema. Whilst most people credit Dennis Hopper and Easy Rider ushering a new kind of American film, the real deal was Beatty producing and starring in Bonnie & Clyde, which could be the most influential American film of the last 40 plus years. So Reds was the movie where Beatty got the credit, not only directing but starring, co-writing and producing. It's our perceptions of Beatty perhaps that means a movie as good as Reds continues to be undervalued even as it endures 30 years on. Reds attempts to go deep into America's left-wing radicalism in the pre-WWI years and also covers the first Russian Revolution, whilst in-between chronicling Reed's on off relationship with his wife Louise Bryant. Who said ambition was dead?

Beatty got a great team together for Reds. English political playwright Trevor Griffiths co-wrote.  Original music by Stephen Sondheim. Cinematography by Vittorio Storaro (has anyone filmed Finland, used here in place of Russia so beautifully?) Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill is perfect, with great support from Maureen Stapleton among a strong supporting cast. Diane Keaton as Bryant is essential here, whilst Beatty as Reed is very good too. The real life talking heads, referred to here as The Witnesses, who knew Reed and Bryant fill in the story's gaps in often witty ways. Reds is not perfect, its political narratives sometimes come across as preachy. But Beatty and Keaton's romance is given enough scope and realism to engage and emote. The picture about the American communist most people have forgotten about looks and feels better than ever in 2011. Reds is interesting, provocative cinema.

Four years ago I came home from a long trip in the USA and the first movie we (Nick&I) watched at home together was Reds. Personally, it was a time of questioning how I can live a life of a traveling artist and have a happy relationship at the same time. Reds addressed this issue and thus immediately became one of my favorite movies ever. I think it also jump-started me as a Warrenologist and fueled my Annie Hall -based love for Diane Keaton.

Reds is a political epic, but its depth comes from the more fictionalized content: the relationship between the journalists Jack Reed and Louise Bryant. If you loved English Patient (1996) or the more recent The Constant Gardener (2005), you should absolutely dig out Reds. I must have watched Reds at least five times by now, because I remember scenes line by line. Diane Keaton's Louise is a wonderful portrayal of a woman in the early 20th century struggling to define herself and her actions against what is socially acceptable for women.

I love what Reds does to 'reality'. The films interjects talking heads telling about what they can remember about the communist movement in the USA and about Jack and Louise, but the old men and women reveal that their memories could be mistaken and that they cannot be sure if what they remember is factual. It also takes historical people in historical events, but imagines their intimate life in detail conjuring up emotional connections to issues, which could otherwise remain distant and difficult to relate to.

The scenes in Reds, which take place in Russia, were actually filmed in Finland in 1979. Helsinki is a stand-in for St. Petersburg. I have to admit that over time I have come to take this fact personally. I wish I could say my mother or one of my aunts has been an extra in the crowd. I wish I could say they bumped into Diane and Warren on some downtown street and they were both warm and down-to -earth, yet glimmering with stardom. Sadly no, I have not heard of any such stories. I guess my family was a bunch of young lefties roaming around Helsinki. They probably saw Warren and Diane
as representatives of all things too American. Go figure – but I can still walk on one of the movie sets, the Senate Square in Helsinki and sit on the steps of the University Main Building thinking of Diane and thinking of Warren.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989) Directed by Steve Kloves

Oh to be a musician in 2011. As economics dictate the pursuit of artistic endeavors, weather on a professional or amateur basis, the ability to dream and to create something that transcends becomes increasingly fraught. In 2011 musicians generally have to balance many artistic urges with the mundane reality that they have to earn a living to be able to fulfill any such longing. It hasn't always been like this, but finding an escape route to realize your own creativity is harder to sustain. Times change. In a dumbing-down of popular culture so do people's expectations. In a different way changing attitudes dictate that the Baker brothers move on from their schmaltzy two piano easy listening shtick and bring on the sex. Cue lead singer Michelle Pfeiffer in some very skimpy dresses.

The Fabulous Baker Boys has a romance lodged in its plot lines, it offers some sentimental resistance. But the film works best as a cynical look at the dynamics between performing musicians (in this case sibling piano players), art against commercialism and the lonely life of a jobbing musician. It's weird that a picture that on the face of it is promoted as a love story (between Pfeiffer and Jeff Bridges laconic piano genius) actually shows some well considered realities that a thousand music bio-pics tend to brush over.

Yes, there are some cliches here, but the Bridges brothers (Beau and Jeff) are perfectly cast and Pfeiffer delivers her best turn. She sings her own songs as Susie Diamond. Not the greatest voice ever, but combined with her personality and attitude, it's not hard to imagine Pfeiffer could have had an alternative career fronting a post-punk pop band. Astrid commented that the music in the picture by Dave Grusin probably sounded dated a while ago and now sounds fresh (the new Destroyer album has echoes). The same could be said of Pfeiffers outfits. A perfect example of the prescience of the picture is when Diamond leaves the band to pursue a career singing advertising jingles about vegetables. Classy.


The late 1980s and early 1990s are rapidly becoming a vintage era for film. A cheesy soundtrack with soprano saxophone and early digital synthesizers suddenly supplies honest emotion, when for many years this kind of film scoring just appeared to be a sign of our tacky past. Also, Michelle Pfeiffer's clashing bright colored outfits, lots of gold and silver, huge earrings and messy hair all appear surprisingly inspiring, instead of the memory I had of them as offensive. There is an element of unpolished reality and disorder in The Fabulous Baker Boys, which rarely makes it to the screen these days. The stars even smoke – how unhealthy of them.

Of course, what really draws me into the film is the subject matter. Two jobbing musicians (brothers even) decide they need a singer to liven up their out-of-date piano duo. They end up with Susie Diamond, a rough-edged but gorgeous escort who quickly changes the dynamic of how they work – and live, as for musicians living and working tends to be the same thing.

Susie turns out to be much more popular than the piano boys, but she is also opinionated, erratic and a woman. Apparently, being a woman in music means that work and romance must be mixed. Being a woman in music also means that you will always stick out no matter what. I have tried to feebly argue against this claim in life, but know I am not a great example for the opposition. So, being a woman and a singer means that the more time she spends with the single and fabulous Baker Boy (Jeff Bridges) the more likely he will have to fall in love with her. There you have a romantic movie.

It is no co-incidence that the film represents Susie as a kind of whore and likens the job of a musician to selling oneself. There is something culturally disturbing still in the figure of a woman as a musician. Luckily, the love of a male musician can legitimize her...Thankfully, The Fabulous Baker Boys portrays the less successful and average career players, who do not mix with glamor and excess. To go on and to not lose the dream – there's the challenge.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Deadwood : Season 1 (2004) Created by David Milch

We don't have a TV. Not for a few years now. I think the rise of the home computer in recent history has fulfilled any of those TV needs in my mind. It generally means I pick up any TV series I'm interested in after it has aired, or revisit some past small screen glory. We've dipped our toes into Twin Peaks (about half way through watching the complete series), I have 1960's classic The Prisoner sitting unwatched on our shelves (future addiction to come). The first series I bought on DVD was the very much missed NYPD Blue. One of the last things we followed before the TV got the boot was NYPD Blue creator David Milch's Western series Deadwood. It's fair to say the lack of film reviews on this site the last few weeks has been down to our rapid, often feverish following of the developments in Deadwood.

It's hard for me to understand why Deadwood didn't meet with a larger audience when originally aired. Was it too violent, was the language too difficult? Was it too much for people to follow? Milch has created a world with many parallels with modern life in his story of the new gold mining town set up outside of any jurisdiction in the South Dakota of the late 1800's. It's possible that no TV series has featured the use of the word cocksucker more thoroughly. Yes the language is often course, but also poetic. I don't recall a TV series being this well scripted. It's in the details, but Deadwood really outshines most cinema for sheer quality in all aspects.

From Episode One in the first Season, Deadwood unleashes a series of intense stand-offs, be they of violent disposition or merely two talking heads trading transgressions. Humor is rich, characterization strong, setting and authentic feel for time and place spot-on and believable. This is a world to get lost in. Ian McShane heads a cast where there are no weak performances. McShane's Al Swearengen, saloon owner and general man to go to in Deadwood, is rich in put-downs, his filthy mutterings shocking and funny in turns. Swearengen is one of the great screen villains, the type that you somehow end up rooting for (though you know you shouldn't). For McShane, it's a long, long way from Lovejoy. If you missed Deadwood first time round, catch up now. You are missing out.

Deadwood is an incredible TV series. I remember watching it when we still had a TV set (before the days of digiboxes and ten million channels) and being impressed, but I must add I think I love it even more this time around. Like other HBO productions from the late 1990s onwards, Deadwood is raw, violent, unbearably (and infectiously) foul-mouthed, has lots of full-frontal nudity, sex, drugs and crime. Sounds like The Sopranos, but incidentally, Deadwood takes place in the late 19th century, a time when the USA was still under constant change, expansion and internal formation. In fact, Deadwood is a camp without law or recognition from the government. Describing this place and its daily life is a reminder of how new and fragile the Western concept of democracy really is.

The first season of Deadwood is an excellent social study. Especially with films, directors often get the credit for good cinema, but with Deadwood I want to stress how important good scripts are. Although the characters deliver any sentence with the maximum amount of the most abusive curse words, the beauty of the language they speak is not lost. I am glad to note that there is an effort to reflect the different accents and dialects of the characters depending on how long ago and from where they came to Deadwood and to America. Language matters greatly in the experience of belonging to a group or remaining outside. Funnily enough, curse words often act as the bridge between two people who do not share a common language otherwise. Language and the way we use it is crucial in the making of an identity.

I see acting as the main device through which the audience relates to a narrative in a TV series or a film. There are many juicy characters to play in the first season of Deadwood. The acting is on a high level throughout. Robin Weigert's butch Calamity Jane is a lovely and believable outlaw gunman and a drunk. Calamity Jane rebels and is increasingly lost and alone in her life, yet, she can do good to others. Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) has started the camp and gained an enormous amount of power and responsibility by scaring people with his murdering, drug-dealing, controlling and whatever else. Although the role is that of a maniac, Ian McShane manages to convey Al's hidden rightful and emotional side too, making it not so easy to just dismiss him as an awful tyrant. This is the genius of most of the characters here; good isn't only good and bad is not simply bad. Deadwood is good old-fashioned storytelling – it has the power to change the way you think.