Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) Directed by Clint Eastwood

I like to be contrary. Also, I like to play devil's advocate. I like a good argument, even if I'm not really believing what I'm arguing for. So for quite a few decades now I've been seriously into Clint Eastwood movies. This has pissed off various friends over the years. It's very hard for people to imagine, Mr Eastwood is nowadays very critically approved of, even a genius to some, but at one time, Clint had the critical credibility of say, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Yes, that's right, that bad. Since winning the Best Director Oscar for Unforgiven, Eastwood as a film maker has seen his work, rightly I feel, reappraised. There are the classics (Spaghetti Westerns, Unforgiven, Mystic River etc), the worthy (Bird, Honkytonk Man, Letters From Iwo Jima etc) and the terrible (Firefox, Pink Cadillac, Every Which Way But Loose etc). You could place Midnight  In The Garden Of Good & Evil in the same category as the terrible. This film has a stinker reputation. What was I mentioning about contrary?

It's my second time round with Midnight....and this time I enjoyed the very casual direction, the laid back atmosphere, and unfussy portrait of Savannah's eccentrics. The wit of the script seemed well pitched and not overdone. John Cusack was not so smarmy and annoying as he often is, this time approaching some of the cool he thinks he oozes. Kevin Spacey still sports a ridiculous fake mustache and is the real let down here. He just seems wooden. However,  add a decent Jude Law cameo (pretending to be Jimmy Dean), a strong supporting role from Clint's daughter Alison and the performances are uniformly good. But I forgot to mention the real showstopper : Lady Chablis. The drag queen Lady Chablis plays herself, a comedienne at one of Savannah's club's. Chablis pretty much has all the best lines and steals the picture, it's worth watching Midnight...for Chablis alone.

This true tale of one of Savannah's leading socialites James Williamson, on trial for murdering his gay lover, again, as so often with his cinema, defies Eastwood's usual conservative profile. Yes, the trial section of the film really is rather ponderous, but Eastwood manages to focus on other characters and incidents, which perhaps takes away some of the trial's tension, but does make the film more interesting. So, in the end, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil was not as awful as I expected or even remember. It works, in a lazy-bed-ridden-with-illness kind of way. No masterpiece, and definitely faulty, this is still unusual and out of left-field for most Hollywood fare. I can see its reputation growing over the years.

Kevin Spacey is always an intelligent crook in the 90s movies. John Cusack is usually boring. Jude Law begins his Hollywood career playing the beautiful reckless type. Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil is a compilation of clichés, but it is put together from so many pieces that as a whole it's pretty good entertainment.

There is an old-fashioned dryness in the storytelling. The setting in Savannah is overly romantic, especially as it concentrates mostly on rich people. Lady Chablis steals the show any time she is on screen, although you could ask why is she given so much time when she doesn't really advance the plot? But at least Lady Chablis adds a bit of humor and lightness between the dragging court scenes.

To add to the collection of clichés, there is a witch woman called Minerva walking around Savannah night and day. She provides a layer of magic, the good and evil. I like her. Alison Eastwood, Clint Eastwood's daughter plays the love interest. I don't know who to blame, the dad behind the camera or herself, but she is very uninteresting. Had I not been told, I would have never guessed that this was a Clint Eastwood film.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Brothers Bloom (2008) Directed by Rian Johnson

Car boot sale. I picked up The Brothers Bloom at a sale in someone's back yard. 2e. I've had some bargains over the years (especially some incredibly rare vinyl) and I love the idea of rummaging through people's cast-offs. Unfortunately, other people's cast-offs is an apt description for The Brothers Bloom. It's well made, but we've been here before.

This could be a homage to the cinema of Wes Anderson or even PT Anderson. Yes, The Brothers Bloom looks amazing, everything is stylized (in a 1960's way), costume exquisite, casting great. Script? This is the problem, there is a level of wackiness and smart arsed knowing to The Brothers Bloom that is off putting.  You can drown in the great visual opulence on screen, but It's vacuous too.
All the principles are good, Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi. This film about confidence tricksters actually plays a good one by making you think you're watching something emotionally engaging. You're not.

Still, I can really admire Brody. What a strange looking man, yet beautiful. At the end, where there is the possibility of love, I almost felt a twinge of something. It was nostalgia. I was hoping The Brothers Bloom was some other picture and I could drown in the possibilities. On some other day, in some other mood, this might work. Right now, it feels like a waste.

Last weekend was funny: I suddenly found myself living with two magicians. Both equally bad and both equally enthusiastic about their new and fabulous tricks. I was supposed to play the part of the understanding audience member, who makes the magic work by believing in it. In fact I was the sole target of all this magic and I begged them to leave me alone until they would really learn something...

I'm usually very encouraging, but sometimes you have to be brutally honest to save untalented people from wasting their time on something they will never figure out. Do I really think so? Surely you can learn anything if you put your mind and time to it? The Brothers Bloom has characters that suggest so. It is the story of two con artists. They have made their living through elaborate chains of lies followed by well-timed actions. They are masters at making something look like something that it is not. In the process they have lost themselves. Rachel Weisz plays an eccentric millionaire who passes her time mastering different hobbies all by herself. When she becomes the target of the Bloom brothers, she unravels them in their own game. Love is the antidote to being lost.

The Brothers Bloom
is at times an uncomfortable mixture of fairytale, psychoanalyzing, stylish looks, lazy narrating and great actors breezing through various sets in various countries. A quivering naivety persists with a few joyous results, like when Penelope (Weisz) tells the younger Bloom (Adrian Brody) to live life as if the most fantastic story ever told. Then again, it is a little sad in cinema these days, when something that could easily be done visually (that's why it is cinema, right) is only blurted out in lines.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Revolutionary Road (2008) Directed by Sam Mendes

Oh, pity the poor artist. In 2011 trying to be an artist on any level is a thankless task. There is a growing attitude that one must place one's artistic endeavors to one side: "get a proper job" and keep your artistic ideals at the hobby level. This is regardless of talent. Of course those  who burn with the desire to express themselves will ignore such pious attitudes and push on. The Wheelers in Revolutionary Road, in the much harsher environment of 1950's American suburbia have put their artistic pretensions aside. They have settled down, had some kids, bought a nice house in a Connecticut suburb whilst Frank Wheeler has a job in computing. April, Frank's wife realizes that conforming is killing them.

When I first read Revolutionary Road over 10 years ago, the book impressed me so much I delved into the world of author Richard Yates head first. I would recommend Revolutionary Road to anyone who would listen, I tried to read all his other novels (though many were out of print at the time). Hell, I even named an album after one of his novellas. Despite receiving some coverage due to this film, the patronage of lesser lights like Nick Hornby and seeing all his work re-issued, Yates remains a well kept secret. I believe him to be one of the greatest writers of the last century and Revolutionary Road one of my favorite books, period. So, as objective as I can be, the film adaptation of Yates' debut novel was always going to be hard.

Revolutionary Road is a fine film, but not a great one. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler. This is an actors' movie. My main problem with the film is Winslet, not how she performs, but more the attention her role gets. It feels compromised on the premise that it defines her character  too clearly, therefore spelling out her thoughts and actions. It's a major flaw in the films' telling of Yates novel and betrays the book's essence. Mendes manages to re-create 1950's Connecticut perfectly (surely the look here a major  influence on TV's Mad Men?) But Mendes misses on the flip side to the suburban decadence, the darkness and seedy aspects that so informs Yates' work. There is some over acting in some scenes and the soundtrack seems American Beauty light. DiCaprio is excellent, could this be his best role? One thing Revolutionary Road gets right though is the danger awaiting the Wheelers. It's not an iceberg that's going to finish off Kate and Leo this time. It is that less obvious killer, the white middle class suburban malaise. Watch out, it's gonna get you every time.

I can't remember how, but in the early noughties we came across Richard Yates and ever since we have hunted his books and read them feverishly. They are not so easy to find. It all began with Revolutionary Road, the novel (originally published in 1961). When the film Revolutionary Road was finally made in 2008, it felt to me like a personal secret of mine was being aired without asking for my consent. I was afraid of the novel not being well interpreted and I was scared that any criticism of the film would be devastating to the novel. I was also rejoicing, thinking Richard Yates will finally become a very famous and successful, (dead) writer. I guess he did not. The story was too painful and direct for the masses, even with the Titanic two on screen.

April and Frank Wheeler (Kate and Leo) are at the point in their life together, where the early courtship has ended and has been replaced by a new reality: a suburban marriage with two kids. The dreams they had, the sense of being different and special, their artistic aspiration have all been washed out of their routine lives in the 1950s American suburbia. This story begins where romantic comedies can never venture. It peeks behind the veil called 'happily ever after'. Generally, nobody wants to go there in fiction because they live there every day.

I still take this film personally, maybe more than ever. Now I am the same age with the main characters. I know what it means to argue over how possible 'another life in Paris' is. I look at my life and my friends and I refuse to see April Wheeler around. Yet I know the more I refuse the more likely she is going to rear her 1950s-dead-housewive's head and whisper something venomous in my ear. I will tell her: "April, if you lived now you could keep acting and realizing your dreams, you could get a job of some kind, you could matter outside of your house, you could divorce and have a legal abortion, you could really see the shrink too and not just talk about it."

Even still, Richard Yates punctures through the seeming changes for the better. If he was alive, he would smirk at my delusion while lighting yet another cigarette. Is life really a horrible trek through endless disappointments where happiness is only a moment, never a state? Has life been sold to us with false promises? Are people in the advertisement business the most evil of us all, because they sell us happiness and false hope? I cannot help but to think of Bill Hicks here: Hicks thought the messenger of the uncomfortable truth in America always gets whacked somehow. It certainly happened to Richard Yates, when nobody wanted to keep his books in press or buy them if they were available. Why is the truth always so quiet and undemanding?

Friday, May 6, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958) Directed by Orson Welles

The genre of film-noir is something that I fail to grasp. I know I should appreciate it more, but there are problems between me and the 1940s and 1950s noir pieces. It's almost as if there is an explanation I am owed. A connecting thought is missing. But who would give me the missing links, when Nick for example, is so in love with good old film-noir he could probably just get by watching Touch of Evil every evening. It's like we're watching a different film sometimes.

Ok, so there is always the criminal side; the bad guys, the bad cops and the dubious women. Then there is the law-biding rookie or something to that effect, in Touch of Evil it is the Mexican cop played by Charlton Heston. Then there are the beautiful but treacherous women, the blonds and the brunettes and the red heads (although it is hard to tell which ones are red in black and white). The two important aspects of noir (my analysis) are wrongful deeds and sex. And then there is  suspense (and how it was maintained back in the early days), it is crucial and it can be excruciating if it manifests in slowness.

Yes, Touch of Evil is pretty good. It brings drugs and rock music into the equation. It looks breath-taking. Orson Welles is genuinely repulsive. Marlene Dietrich is genuinely deep and mysterious as a Mexican fortune teller. She still has a hint of the sexy German accent – sehr gut.

Do we have any idea of the tiresome nature of Orson Welles' art? I'm referring to his constant battles with studios about the control over his work (or lack of). Artistic license. It's occurred to me that hindsight proves to be the prevailing insight in these matters. But in reality you should trust the people you work with. The original spark that gets us all excited should be the yardstick by which we measure other people's visionary zeal. So, going back to poor old Orson, is it possible to watch any of his films (bar Citizen Kane) without reading a disclaimer at the beginning that this is as close to his original vision that remains? That obligatory disclaimer pertaining to Welles cut of Touch Of Evil starts the DVD.

I last watched Touch of Evil on the big screen at the start of this century. I confess now, even in its hacked state, it's a favorite of mine. There's the famous one-shot opening, that establishes the crime and introduces Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as the newlyweds crossing the Mexican border. They enter a world of drugs, wild flat-top Mexican youth, corruption, extortion, darkness and ultimately the evil of the title. Welles' bloated, hideous cop Quinlan, a man out of time, using old methods to crack cases, up against Heston's future-looking Mexican narcotics cop. Their conflicting methods sets the stage. Welles as director and writer cracks taboo after taboo, from drug referencing (mary jane, heroin, mainline) to a dark sexual suggestiveness not seen on the screen before. David Lynch, for example, tapped into this aspect of Touch Of Evil heavily for his own Wild At Heart.

But Welles use of the camera, the stark black and white photography still stuns with its invention. You can just marvel at scene after scene. Yes, this is the deepest, most intense, twisted noir you're likely to see. All the supporting group of actors (Welles regulars) bring much to the film, including an uncredited Joseph Cotton. But Welles use of Marlene Dietrich tips the film into magical. Dietrich has some 10 lines in Touch Of Evil but she owns this film. What presence, what a face, what a woman. You could argue no actor has had this much impact on a film with so little screen time. Dietrich's Tanya could be talking of Welles when she finally states "He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?" Dietrich's scenes burn in the memory, the essence of cinema.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Notting Hill (1999) Directed by Roger Michell

As we finished watching Notting Hill on Sunday night, the news was about to break of the death of Osama bin Laden. What a weird world we live in. It's hard not to feel cynical about bin Laden's death. An eye for an eye and all that. The quick disposing of the body (fuel for conspiracy theorists), no trial for bin Laden to face, a USA election campaign around the corner, Pakistan now taking the flack – martyrdom is waiting for bin Laden.  I'm half expecting a new video tape to appear with bin Laden declaring he's alive after all. In a world where imagined WMD are a cause for invasion, forgive me for asking if bin Laden really existed. His death was as ghostly as his life. I could try to think of a witty way to link this to Notting Hill, unfortunately, there isn't a way. Just musing.

I've seen this film at least a dozen times. It's the kind of movie you want when your mind can't deal with anything demanding. But recently I've realized I always expect a certain level of demanding, even in the trash I watch. Richard Curtis hit comedy gold as the writer for the excellent Blackadder, the OK but dated Four Weddings and a Funeral and finally achieving genius with Love Actually (which he also directed). Notting Hill sits somewhere in the middle of Four Weddings...and Love Actually.  It has some genuinely funny scenes, a decent Hugh Grant performance and the imperious Rhys Ifans who totally steals the film. A big minus point is Julia Roberts. Yes, she's OK pretty much playing herself, but her character is so unsympathetic. She's a classier version of the character played by Andie Macdowell in Four Weddings...but you do wonder what Grant's foppish sensitive soul sees in her. Not credible.

This is also Notting Hill from the pre-1950's Britain. Multiculturalism has not arrived in this version of Notting Hill. It's so fucking white. Director Michell also delves in the shadowy depths of sentimentality that so often afflicts this kind of rom-com. Throw in some choice Ronan Keating on the soundtrack and it's time to reach for the sick bucket. Admittedly, the use of Al Green and Bill Withers on the other hand are inspired. This is so close to comedy gold at times, and I'm sure my view of Notting Hill is stretched this time round by over familiarity. I'm sure the next time I'm feeling completely vacuous, I'll dig it out again.

Films from the year 1999 are special for me because that's the year I traveled alone to the USA for the first time with my pink-covered first solo demos in the suitcase. I was going to be an exchange student in Michigan. I would be one of those exchange students who had to endure high school while in their head they were an artist waiting to be discovered like Cinderella. The point is, I was convinced I was special. Kind of like Julia Roberts playing Anna Scott, while really being Julia Roberts. I felt like somebody who was Someone, although currently hiding in the local Waldorf high school.

In Notting Hill Anna Scott went hiding in a travel book store owner's home. And Julia Roberts went hiding in the role of Anna Scott, although it must have felt a little confusing and too revealing at times. Her whole role is based on the audience leaking into viewing her as Julia, the Pretty Woman. What's shocking this time around is that Anna's style, shades, bags, leather jacket, everything looks so awfully dated. Was 1999 really still that 90s-like stylistically? Was this still a time before Sex and The City (the TV series, not the damned movies) inflicted a fashion and style requirement (like a straitjacket) on every actress in every film produced?  The Julia Roberts of Eat, Pray Love (2010) looks much more polished and controlled than here. It is as if in the years between then and now she has honed herself into a product.

Anna Scott in Notting Hill is not a reliable and nice person. She's a spoiled selfish famous person who is used to evaluating others by how much they can help her to remain invisible and hidden from the media. The film gives no justification for William Thacker's unconditional love for her. Other than that he is simply star-struck. Why am I almost weeping at the end when Anna lies on a park bench and her hippie dress reveals a 6-month bump? I guess these times are hard and to naively believe in love and transformation for a couple of hours a day is necessary. I have learned that happiness comes from being less analytical sometimes.