Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Doors (1991) Directed by Oliver Stone

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.

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

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 ├╝ber-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.

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

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.

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.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

I'm Not There (2007) Director Todd Haynes

As Bob Dylan's recent 70th birthday has shown us, Dylan's cultural worth is as high as any living artist's. It's hard to fathom the reason why this is. Don't get me wrong, I'm a Dylan nut. I've read various books, seen all the documentaries. I crucially own most of the records and have seen him live a few times. Could Dylan represent our last view of the genuine Outlaw? As affluent society becomes blander, does Dylan represent our last real comment on the way things are/were? This hero status, cultural value and sense of political belonging are just some of the themes that Haynes tries to tackle in his picture of Dylan's many lives in I'm Not There.

Various actors play Dylan at various stages of his life, under various pseudonyms (mainly of Dylan's own name or Dylan song characters). Most people just offer direct impersonations (Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw), while the other Dylans offer a more dramatic and speculative retelling of chapters of Dylan's life (Heath Ledger, Marcus Carl Franklin and Richard Gere). As a side note, Bale and Ledger add a surreal sense of viewing a rock'n'roll Batman movie, so fresh is the memory of their The Dark Knight. Unlike his previous, confused Glam Rock film Velvet Goldmine, Haynes doesn't use a Citizen Kane type investigative frame for his picture, which does benefit I'm Not There. What he does use to reveal his view of Dylan is found material. Whether it's from the two D.A. Pennebaker documentaries on Dylan, Don't Look Back and Eat The Document or Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home, I'm Not There basically has the actors re-creating scenes from these documentaries with some added Dylan lyric as dialogue. And this is my main problem with the film. The real events of I'm Not There are so well documented and viewed, I've no need actually to see Blanchett as the Electric Dylan, however well Haynes recreates Dylan's mid-1960's period.

The other major flaw for me is that so much documentation of Dylan is hearsay, which Haynes buys into. We really don't know for sure if Dylan had a motorcycle accident which forced his mid-1960's retreat or even if he had a poisonous affair with Edie Sedgwick. We only know any intimacies of Dylan's marriage breakdown with Sara Lownds through his Blood On The Tracks album. And that's the real fascination with Dylan. After all the books, movies, records and documentation on his life, we're no closer to knowing who he really is or what informs the man's art. It's that mystery that keeps us interested and wanting to know more. And this is where I'm Not There, for all its faults as a bio-pic, works – it  features the man's music. Cover versions or Dylan's originals, the secret to who Dylan is, lies in his music. I'm Not There creates a potent visual setting for the songs, and makes you want to go back to the records. I enjoyed this movie still, being such a Dylan follower. A more apt title for Haynes' picture might have been : I'm Not Here, Maybe, Positively, Who Knows, You Work It Out.

I'm Not There is a great idea. I prefer the thoughts it provokes to the film it becomes. It takes the Bob Dylan imagery and mythology and jumbles everything up to question cohesive identity or linear narrative. I'm Not There might be a theory, or an attempt to apply a theory over a piece of art. There is something so cerebral about the film, it is as if the thinking is there to hide the fan-boyish basis for making the movie.

It's impossible not to be a Bob Dylan fan. Not appreciating Bob Dylan comes across as ignorance these days. Hating Bob is a futile attack on the cultural history of the 20th century. Bob won't go anywhere as a result. So, choosing a perspective is a preferable alternative: which period is your favorite? Which look, which album, which girlfriend rumor, which religion, which style of singing? Like I'm Not There points out, Bob can represent almost any cause or identity – it's all in the interpretation.

Despite my love for the deconstruction of a coherent self, my favorite storyline in I'm Not There is the most conventional relationship tale: Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger as a sort of version of Bob with Sara. There the film becomes more than a parody of previously seen scenes of interviews, or other iconic images. There you can forget for a while about Bob and just enjoy the acting, the great sets and style, and feel something. In the end, the best introduction to Bob Dylan this movie offers, are the scenes where his original music is performed by himself.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Cool Hand Luke (1967) Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

As the poster announces, this film is essentially a vehicle for Paul Newman. Whatever else he represents in the story of Cool Hand Luke, he is always recognizable as The Film Star, as a very beautiful and calm presence always there for our feasting. I thought I could sum up my review in a melodious sing-along one-liner: Paul Newman without his shirt/ Paul Newman without his shirt (then some nice whistling). But maybe I could sort of scratch my brain for something more on the subject of his divinity.

Like that I bought Paul Newman Salsa for New Year's Eve 2010, mainly because the jar had a funny drawing of him on it. The salsa was bland and remained pretty much untouched until it molded in the fridge. I kept the jar. Then a bass player who used to live up north with a basement filled with copies of one particular Paul Newman poster, decided to give me one of those precious pictures. Paul Newman is now in our hallway (a little too large not to feel intimidated by him every time I walk by).

Cool Hand Luke is a pretty serious and painful film at times. It's more than a vehicle for one actor really. I have to take back what the poster prompted me to say. I feel claustrophobic when I watch films about prison life. Especially ones with escape scenes. Add to the discomfort a scene where Paul Newman eats 50 eggs in an hour and you can be certain that I could not sit through it whistling to my new tune about Paul Newman without his shirt on.

We all have our favorites. I'm a serious fan of various musicians and authors and actors – well mainly creative types. Paul Newman is definitely a favorite for me. Yes, he came out of the Actors Studio, enthralled by Brando & Clift. But throughout his career he had a certain dignity, even though he was massively popular. He's always watchable in whatever movies he's in, but in a handful of films Newman is exceptional, the brooding outsider. Cool Hand Luke is one of those pictures and one of his most iconic roles.

It's been a few years since I've seen this. I picked up the movie the other day cheap, seemingly remembering the film as light-hearted social comment. Actually, most of Cool Hand Luke is grim viewing. The comment the film makes concerns the crushing of the individual spirit by the State. The  non-conforming behavior of Newman's Luke Jackson is initially celebrated by his fellow prisoners from the Southern State prison they inhabit. But as the prison authorities attempt to crush Luke's rebellious actions towards his own life's futility, his situation descends into that of the eternal loner.

The famous egg consuming scene offers light respite from the prison guards' brutality, with Cool Hand Luke still packing today a weighty social punch. Joining Newman is an excellent, then mostly unknown supporting cast, including George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite and Strother Martin. Lalo Schifrin supplies a great score (Flaming Lips later covering Plastic Jesus). Cinematography is excellent and Rosenberg keeps sentimentality at bay. We've later seen similar scenarios played out on film, most notably with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. But Cool Hand Luke is all about Newman. His Luke is as great a rebel sticking it to the man as I've seen on screen. To quote the picture, "Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin''" If you're a fan of Newman, this is essential.