Thursday, June 14, 2012

Heaven Can Wait (1978) Directed by Warren Beatty & Buck Henry

Astrid:
Ok, yes, there is a Warren Beatty fixation in our house. And a Julie Christie obsession too. Heaven Can Wait is a double-fix for desperate addicts. Compared to the true greatness which these actors are capable of creating, this film isn't strong, but it is heartfelt in a fluffy comforting way.

The 1980's was just around the corner when Heaven Can Wait was made. The hair, the training outfits, cars, and the ways of the nouveau riche all scream with terrible will to consume and celebrate the shades of brown. But I have no interest in American football (it looks like idiots bumping into each other for no reason and throwing a weird ball in frustrated desperation). I have no interest in rich men in polo outfits (they just look like idiots). In fact, I should not be interested in the characters of this film at all. But before the characters there is the thematic content: death.

Death is endlessly interesting in its obvious all-expanding and all-devouring crude manner. In Heaven Can Wait death is broken down into a journey of reason. There is a possibility of  angelic error, of being taken away too soon. Luckily, humans are essentially souls who can therefore be put into someone else's body after they have died. According to this view there is a master plan, there is an expiration date hovering above our heads and, yes, there is heavenly justice. For romantic purposes: the soul shines through the eyes; recognizable even in a different body.

I am not being sarcastic when I say that I want to believe that death really is fair like this. And that we all live for the duration of time that is celestially picked for us. I want to believe in faith because then I do not have to feel so insignificant and helpless. Then my view of the planet would not have to be a perspective on the biggest injustice ever.

Thank you Warren for the moments of simple hopefulness and lightness. I don't even mind it that your vanity compromises the viewer's chance to really experience what it feels like to suddenly be looking at a different person but imagine that it is your soul still inside. Wouldn't we all be rather looking at Warren than some no-name playing the rich guy in his polo suit?

Nick :
The idea that there are guardian angels looking over us has been used in cinema on various occasions. Most notably in Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life and in Powell & Pressburger's A Matter Of Life & Death. Heaven Can Wait is already a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan from 1941. I've watched Heaven Can Wait quite a few times over the years, and I think it's an underrated picture. It always makes me wonder why the angels looking after us don't get involved in day to day life, why only when it's a matter of death? Maybe I need to start believing in god.

Guardian angels don't make our own luck, and whoever was designing costumes and the hairdresser for Julie Christie in Heaven Can Wait, certainly won't be going to heaven. They'll be going to the fashion crimes tribunal. Will there be a guardian angel saving them from extermination? You can also wager that Dyan Cannon & Charles Grodin won't be being saved anytime soon after their over the top, almost slapstick turns here. Is there any guardian angel out there that can deal with Beatty's ego?

As it turn's out Heaven Can Wait is still a top class comedy. There are fine performances from James Mason and Jack Warden,  and some moments of gravitas between the smart ass humor. It's the dying days of New Hollywood, but the aesthetics and attitude of that movement still shine through Heaven Can Wait. The final exchange between Beatty and Christie is full of suspense, mystery and chemistry. It's a wonderful cinema moment. The rest of the film doesn't live up to that feeling, but it's a fun ride getting there none the less.

Quien Sabe? (1966) Directed by Damiano Damiani

Astrid:
It's nice to get presents that reflect the receiver and their state of being. It says plenty of good things about the giver, like that she is in tune with the person getting the gift. I gave Nick a box of rare Spaghetti Westerns for Christmas, because he always cries watching them... and because he asked for the box. OK, sometimes it's annoying how exactly he knows what he would like for a present. He doesn't go for the element of surprise, yet, he always thinks he knows what I want without asking me!

Anyway, I extended my niceness to include sitting through one of the films. Nick chose Quien Sabe? because it was supposedly less violent than the others in the box. The movie, like most of this genre I've seen, looked very good. It was a pleasure to watch just for the detail in costumes and the camera work. The story itself was pretty simple and offered no surprises or really deep thoughts or even great lines. Gian Maria Volonte played the leading Mexican outlaw whom Lou Castel's character came down to exploit in order to kill the leader of the revolution. A kind of loving relationship forms quickly between these two characters – the savage and the noble man – sort of a classic from Italian gay porn.

When Nick watches these films, he is right at home. He even looks a little like the characters onscreen when I gaze at his direction during an extra violent scene. He morphs into the action and his emotions are illustrated by the Morricone (was it really?) soundtrack. That's how much he is a Spaghetti-Western-kind-of-guy. Despite some effort, I'll never be a true fan of this genre. I have developed a respect for some aspects and enough knowledge to contextualize the genre in cinema history, but I have not found the pleasure of submission here.

Nick:
It's always galling when having to tell someone what you would like for a gift. I always come across as some adolescent with Tourette's.  I was hoping for Judge Dredd Complete Case Files no.12, the first volume of the Mega City law enforcer's complete 2000AD adventures in full color. I was also interested in revisiting the Mad Max series in one handy box set. Atlas Sound's latest album on vinyl was a wish. I also had the Cult Spaghetti Westerns DVD box set on my list. Three gems from the genre (Quien Sabe?, Keoma, Django) I remember viewing many years ago when they first aired on BBC 2's  Moviedrome series, introduced by British film Director (and Spaghetti Western nut) Alex Cox. Well, I'm guessing you already realized what I unwrapped.

Quien Sabe? (known in English as A Bullet For the General) is a certain strain of Spaghetti Western from the mid 1960's which has a definite political bent. A few other pictures have delved into this area in the Western genre, Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone with Duck, You Sucker! I think both are far superior to Quien Sabe? in that they have more depth, are better acted and have sharper, less cliched scripts. Still, Quien Sabe? came first and has a visceral energy that the other two pictures never match. Although Leone's influence looms large over Quien Sabe? especially as regards the look, and the sound (the music was supervised by Ennio Morricone). The influence is no more apparent than the casting of the amazing Gian Maria Volonté. Volonté cut his spurs on the first two parts of the Leone Dollars trilogy.

Volonté plays Chucho, a mercenary whose main purpose is to steal arms and sell them to the leader of the Mexican Revolution. On the way his gang (including Klaus Kinski as his overtly religious brother El Santo) recruit American Bill Tate (whom the gang refer to as Nino). Unbeknown to Chucho and his gang is Tate's intention, as paid for by the Mexican government, to assassinate the leader of the  revolutionaries. In some ways, Quien Sabe? is a rite of passage tale of how Chucho becomes a revolutionary and rejects the lure of the capitalist dollar. Along the way, director Damiani displays a serious style in framing, costume and set pieces. Quien Sabe? is one cool looking movie. That it raises political and personal ideals along the way and has such style while doing so, I can only recommend Quien Sabe? Then again, I'm a soft touch when it comes to this kind of movie.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Rollerball (1975) Directed by Norman Jewison


Nick:
Last week saw a couple of events which highlighted how cynical we have become towards Government. The 9th anniversary of 9/11 and the publication of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's autobiography. In his book Blair defends his reasons for committing Britain to the War In Iraq, yet a lot of the British public still think him a war criminal. Of course, the reason for the invasion, a supposed defense against WMD was never substantiated. Likewise, it seems an increasing amount of people are questioning the official version of events on 9/11. The invasion of Iraq has given people enough reason to doubt what they are being told and it has led to a general disenchantment of politics and old political systems. There is an air of conspiracy in these times we live in. We no longer seem to trust authority. 

Rollerball, set in a not too distant future, pictures a cold society that is run and controlled by corporate companies. Imagine if you will Fox News Corporation governing our lives (not too hard to imagine). The corporations in Rollerball supply all the news, control all the information and tell us how to live and think.  Jonathan E (James Caan) is a hero to the people as he is the star athlete of the ultra-violent Corporation controlled sport Rollerball, a cross between American Football, Rally Cross and Basketball.  The Corporation have asked Jonathan E to retire from the sport as they see him as becoming too powerful and of setting too an individualistic example. Jonathan E refuses to retire from the sport leading to direct confrontation with The Corporation.

Rollerball is such a strange picture. Nothing really happens between the scenes where the sport dominates. It has a European art house cinema feel, cold and calculating. Colors are washed out till the games start, then they are super bright. Some amazing set design and exterior landscapes dominate the picture. It's all so subdued, dead pan and dry, there is no urgency, which helps the film and gives extra impact to the sport scenes. Chill factor is enhanced by the classical score of Bach's Toccata.  The game itself disturbs with it's violence. We are reminded of Roman times and the gladiators of Circus Maximus.

Rollerball belongs with those other great conspiracy thrillers of the 70's All The President's Men and the Parallax View.  These pictures share very similar  moods and shared political attitudes. "Don't trust what the State is telling you" they scream. Reading more into this film than you should, you could take Rollerball as a warning for what could happen in the future. Or we could already be living that future.

Less Than Zero (1987) Directed by Marek Kanievska


Nick:
As I get older I've found myself on a mission to take my own path and be less influenced by the thoughts of others. I don't mean this in a 'taking advice' sense, but more in what people recommend me. In this respect, I'm stubborn and choosy. The word has always been that Less Than Zero the movie is a travesty, that this take on Brett Easton Ellis' debut novel is worth avoiding at whatever cost.  Even Ellis has in the past disowned the picture and has stated that the film has very little do with his novel. So, 23 years later, against better judgment, and with the constant nagging that I'm a fan of Ellis' work so how bad could the movie be,  I visit this film for the first time. People, trust your instincts!

It's hard to write about this movie in anyway, I felt  so uninspired after watching it. Kanievska creates no atmosphere on screen, this is a flat picture, like champagne that's lost the fizz. Kanievska is let down badly by his musical director Rick Rubin. Through a selection of woeful tracks Rubin somehow means to tell us that coke snorting yuppies from LA listened to poodle- rock at their swanky parties. Movie soundtracks hit a new low with this.  I'm pretty sure (although it's been years since I read it), the book is much more New Wave centered in it's musical tastes (hence the title), which certainly would accompany the look of the films characters. Production design, script, acting (Robert Downey Jr !!??),  all suffer from a similar air of carelessness.

Serious liberties (in every respect actually) have been taken with the book and especially the character of Clay (played by a lost Andrew McCarthy). This is a very hetero view of vapid Hollywood youth. Kanievska makes the mistake of trying to make us sympathize with these characters which is impossible. It's the lack of morality that these upwardly mobile LA creatures display that creates our interest in Ellis' book. We don't want to see their virtues.

Ellis' books have all been adapted poorly for the big screen, but Less Than Zero is the worst of these. I read recently that Ellis had changed his opinion on the film and quite liked it nowadays. Hey, Brett!  Trust your original instinct. No revisionism needed here.

Astrid:
It's LA youth again. Because we watched this film so close to Rebel Without A Cause I feel it is an update on the situation. So my difficulty with relating to the pain of rich late-teenage rebels continues.

The 1980s appears like a cold and vacuous time in LA. Young people are cynical, lonely and wear awful clothes and bad hair. I know that Bret Easton Ellis can describe emptiness and disconnection in an engaging and dangerous way, but Less Than Zero the film fails to be anything more than a vacuumed-out space wasting my time. It doesn't even make me angry enough to be something.

Clay, the good son who has left his hometown for an ivy league college, returns to find his girlfriend and best friend are having an affair. And of course, they are doing a lot of drugs. Clay is an incredibly one sided stone-faced boy according to the movie. He's 20 going on 50 and I don't understand what he would be doing with a couple of drug vacuums in the first place. No one would write a main character in their novel like this, without any faults or contradicting characteristics.

The most offensive claim made by the film is that sex between men is something a character will find himself practicing when he is in serious trouble with drugs – not when he likes it. Homosexuality is a side product of drug use according to this film. At least in Rebel Without A Cause (made some 30 years before) erotic tension between Dean and his young boy friend was there to be felt and interpreted without in-your-face judgment.

When Harry Met Sally... (1989) Directed by Rob Reiner


Nick:
Woody Allen's post-Mia Farrow reputation as filmmaker has undoubtedly suffered from the 'scandal' induced by Woody shacking up with Mia's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Each new Woody picture is greeted with accusations of "not as good as his earlier films" and with the added comment that Woody is obsessed with younger women. It's a constant slur carried out by the critical community and the public alike. I think Allen's pictures have remained pretty consistent in reality. Ironically, a director such as Roman Polanski has managed to avoid such a critical backlash despite being on the run since 1974 after being convicted of having non-consenting sex with a minor. Why the double standards? One could argue that Polanski's last great movie was Chinatown. I only mention this because When Harry Met Sally... is undoubtedly a homage to the kind of romantic comedy that Allen made his name with. It comes from a time when it was OK to make an Allen type picture.

But Reiner's film, although following a Annie Hall type of structure, sweetens the pill considerably. And of course, as is not so often the case, the Allen character in this movie (Billy Chrystal's Harry) gets the girl. When Harry Met Sally... has entered the annals of classic nowadays. It's a picture that has its not so subtle laughs for sure, but there is no edge here, no real examination of the difference between the sexes, which is the flimsy premise of the picture. Plot lines are predictable and the obvious denouement is soaked in sentimentality.

Performances are adequate, with Meg Ryan cementing her reputation of the cute but dim American girl next door in her role of Sally. Crystal is the typical wisecracking smart arse I've grown despise. There's not so much more to say about this film. Reiner's direction and shooting style is that of the undoubted journeyman director he has become. When Harry Met Sally...  is the kind of film I'll watch on those rare moments when I want my cinema to place no demands on my imagination. If I'm feeling sickly sentimental, I know what to stick on and wallow in the shallow, smart arse, insufferable romance of this pleased with itself picture. If there is a reason to castigate Allen, perhaps it's for inspiring such woeful cinema.

Astrid:
For me When Harry Met Sally is like a super violent action film for Nick. It is necessary sometimes, once a year or so. I am not going to make claims for the artistic greatness, mastery of cinematic devices, the look or acting even. I know, it's not a fantastic movie, but I'll give you my three reasons for the necessity of repetition.

1. Belief in romantic love. While pretending to criticize and question the necessity and logic of heterosexual romantic love (as known since the 19th Century) the movie subscribes to the notion. And so do we, although we are usually too scared and cynical to admit to it (or else already married). While I am offended by the film's insistence that hetero men and women cannot be friends together (because of sexual attraction), I am as happy as everybody else when Sally and Harry finally become an item.


2. A lot of talking. I like films with dense talk-filled scripts where two people are just talking to each other all the time. I like cerebral romance, living in my head and endlessly procrastinating over possibilities. That's when I can relax and pull the blanket over me. This is not Woody Allen writing though. I know it is trying to be but doesn't quite reach his level. Yet, there is a Meg Ryan variety of the dry 1990s romance and I grew up on it, I kind of thought that's life!

3. Underachievement. Experiencing and living life a little below the bar some of the time is good for me. It makes good better. Watching films can get tiring if they are always critically highly rated and excellently realized in every aspect. When Harry Met Sally offers me a safe moment of underachievement and that can be inspiring in a reversed manner.

The Departed (2006) Directed by Martin Scorsese

Nick:
Nostalgia increasingly plays a large part in our perspective responses to what we think is good or bad. I don't just mean this on a critical level. It could be in any respect. I might still persist with Head & Shoulders shampoo purely for the reason that when I was a kid it was drilled into me that it was the best for dandruff. So, even in adult life, my instinct is to stick with the Head & Shoulders. I haven't really analyzed that too much (mainly because that would make me appear insane!) However, Martin Scorsese, if he were a shampoo,  is a sure sign of quality, in that every scalp he comes across is spot free, right?

Well, The Departed sure is one messy film. One gets the feeling that Scorsese could knock this kind of movie off in his sleep. Yes, we've seen this kind of picture from him before, but watching this a second time, I'd forgotten how confusing this movies was. Scorsese has modeled his remake of the Hong Kong movie Internal Affairs (2002), on his own film exploits. I'm referring here to films like Goodfellas & Casino specifically, where a series of interchanging flowing scenes tell the story. So from the off, The Departed feels like something we have come across before, but tellingly, minus the narrator of those previous pictures. So what The Departed mostly resembles, is the sound of Martin Scorsese's voice blasting at you at a million miles an hour. Yes, when you hear Marty talk, you're entertained, it's informative but sometimes you miss the odd line. That's The Departed.

Of course, this doesn't preclude you from having some violent fun. Jack Nicholson, Ray Winstone, Leonardo DiCaprio all give first rate turns. Mark Wahlberg has the best lines and role as a foul mouthed cop. Their are lots of twists in the plot and dodgy Irish accents. It's refreshing to have a film made in Boston. But DiCaprio violently attacking some mob guys in a convenience store is Scorsese referencing his own pictures, De Niro in this case in Taxi Driver. But the nonchalance of such violence is now redundant, as we've seen it before, it doesn't carry the same shock or danger. It just is. Scorsese increasingly makes exercises in genre pictures, yes, sometimes based on his own genres. Scorsese has passed into that cultural realm where every picture is beyond criticism. He's the Bob Dylan of the movies. But where's the soul. I long for the quirk Marty. Again, I'm longing for nostalgia.

Astrid:
I like the idea of a good cop. When a police car passes me by or a couple of officers stroll around a festival site in their blue overalls, others feel hateful and suspicious but I feel safe. I still hold on to the (childish?) notion that there are common rules for everyone which are based on morality and therefore should be obeyed. And the cops can help you if someone strays to the wrong side.

OK, to be totally honest I am also aware of the ignorance and racism ingrained in the profession – when my brown-eyed boyfriend is stopped for his ID in the middle of Punavuori for no other reason than some global war on terrorism or something, I'm not totally trusting these guys and the purity of their judgment.

Internal and symmetrical contradictions. That is what The Departed presents. Leonardo DeCaprio plays the cop who knows internally what is right but is willing to go to extreme measures to get the bad guys. He infiltrates the Irish mob in Boston and loses his police status and then his life in the quest for some kind of truth and revelation of the bad and evil intent. Matt Damon plays the mob head's adopted son who becomes a police man because the mob needs their own guy inside the organization. He rises fast into high positions using his place only for the good of his true boss, Jack Nicholson.

The mirroring of these two positions could be very fruitful in the film, but unfortunately Scorsese builds up promisingly and then just descends into killing everybody. So the opposition between good and bad is rendered futile, as I guess everything is here in life if we assume that death is emptiness.

I cannot believe that Scorsese won an Oscar for this one and failed to win for Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore or New York, New York.

In The Mood For Love (2000) directed by Wong Kar-Wai


Nick:
Butterflies, the stomach variety. It's conceivable that you have felt this feeling if you have ever had a serious infatuation with someone and merely being in their presence can bring on that anxious stomach ache. It's a prequel to longing and wanting and not having. It's a feeling of desire. Many people have argued that once that feeling goes, so has the romance. Watching In The Mood For Love brought that feeling back. Butterflies.

There is so much that is good in Wong Kar-Wai's picture. He respects the audience enough not to have to spell everything out. You can use your imagination here. You can dream. This feeling is helped by Christopher Doyle's amazing cinematography. The principle characters are lithe creatures, the way they slink across the screen in slow motion. Maggie Cheung wears the tightest, coolest dresses, enhancing Mr Chow's sense of can't-have-sexuality. Tony Leung wears a white shirt like no other. His smoking rivals Belomondo's. Not since early Godard has the screen been lit up by such a cool couple.

But unlike Godard there is no need for pretension or theory. There is a sense of unrequited love in In The Mood For Love which is against the prevailing sexual freedom that seems to exist in 1960's Hong Kong.  Even the closest loved ones of the main protagonists have "got it on". Mrs Chan and Mr Chow just can't bring themselves to cross that barrier, the moral high ground is theirs. The longing goes on, and the real deal of romance is realized.

Astrid:
In The Mood For Love was a film I missed out on when it came out. Everybody talked about it and I could see it had caught the imagination of my young friends. There were posters and imitation dresses and I could see the beauty of these things, but I missed the narrative that had sparked this adoration. Last night the film unraveled in our living room. It seemed otherworldly with its saturated colors and its reserved passion. It had all the characteristics that would have made me a fanatic ten year ago.

My immediate afterthought is that In The Mood For Love has expressed something important of the nature of a fleeting individual life. It depicts what I have come to think recently: that personally and emotionally crucial events in an individual's life/life story rarely end up being the visible facts of her life. They do not end up in the biography afterwards or in the grand children's memory. As far as the the outside world is concerned,  Li-zhen has no connection to Mr. Chow, yet for the rest of their lives their encounter marks them.

Another astonishing life-likeness appears at the very end of the film. Mr. Chow is in Cambodia and it is four years since the time he spent with Li-zhen. I have no idea what he is doing in that country. The camera follows him to a temple, then it stays there seeing the ruins, contrasting light, letting the character of the story slip away. Events and locations seem arbitrary in life. They can be lined together and connected through narrative, but often its thread is broken. Is that tragic or is it precisely the beauty of it?

The Passenger (1975) Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni


Astrid:
The Passenger is often silent, forcing the viewer to watch a narrative unfold visually. It is aesthetically pleasing, a little too slow and consistently distant as hell. The Passenger could be a description of dissociative amnesia. A man needs to bury traumatic experiences outside of his consciousness by changing identity completely, and by wandering around the world.

If it is not fair to see a whole film through a psychological diagnosis, maybe I should talk of deconstruction of the self. That's probably more appropriate for Antonioni. But deconstruction is also a little bit boring and hollow. As if art is there to be translated into analytical language; to be tamed and controlled.

The urge to wander comes from within. It rises up with emotion, but becomes so strong it demands action. Jack Nicholson has a true gift for portraying the wandering, disconnected type. The most inspiring way for me to settle into watching The Passenger is to see it as the second part to Five Easy Pieces (1970). What happened to Jack's character at the end of that film when he suddenly (and without a word) abandoned his girlfriend at a gas station and jumped on a truck headed for Canada? – Well, he just moved on to other countries, lovers, jobs, identities, movies and stories...

But did he ever get away?

Nick:
Do you dream of how to disappear completely? If you were presented with the opportunity to swap identities, lead another life, whilst most people would understand that the real you had passed away, would you grab it? Depends on your disposition I suppose. But imagine picking up on someone else's life midway through. You become this other person. It would also be worth noting whose identity and life you were taking over from. It's a dangerous game, and one that war reporter David Locke does not consider enough when taking up the identity of dead arms dealer David Robertson.

That sounds way conventional as a description for The Passenger. In reality, as with other Antonioni films (especially Blow-Up), dialogue is spared, image and atmosphere are strong. Jack Nicholson as Locke/Robertson gives to this role the required recklessness in a way that only Jack can. The recently deceased Maria Schneider comes into The Passenger at the half way point as the girl Robertson takes along for his nation hopping journey into darkness. She kicks in with the narrative and drags the film momentarily into being a more conventional road movie.

But The Passenger is a film about alienation. About the Outsider. There is no comfort zone watching this. It keeps you at arms length. It's a welcome study of willing exile. I found out the last scene of the film, an ingenious seven minute one take shot, has gained legendary status. This finale only emphasizes  Locke/Robertson's wish to disappear and be erased. It's fair to say cinema does not trust the audience as much as it used to, nothing is obvious here. It's a European perspective of the power of the medium of film to discuss noncommercial themes. Antonioni taps into a rich vein here. Nicolas Roeg was walking similar paths at this time with The Man Who Fell To Earth and Bad Timing. The Passenger is close to brilliant.

Mystery Train (1989) Directed by Jim Jarmusch

Astrid:
I know I am someone who is supposed to have watched the Jim Jarmusch catalogue of movies a long time ago, but this was my third ever Jarmusch film. Mystery Train speaks in a visual and narrative language I find easy and inspiring to relate to. It finds outsider perspectives to the insider identity. The story breaths letting the viewer feel, interpret and analyze however much or little they want. The most powerful cinematic tool, the visual images are telling most of the story. That's rare in 1989 and it's rare today.

There is a lightness and a kind of nonchalant rock'n'roll attitude to the Jarmusch films I have so far experienced – Mystery Train definitely has it too. Even though bad things happen in life, you can always take off, change the scenery, still wear the red lipstick and keep your dignitity. Or if you can't hold on to dignity, maybe your life is enough. Maybe that's the message.

I've never been to Memphis or that southern part of the USA, but I'll be satisfied in seeing it in pictures and through the eyes of others. I'm afraid the reality would be somewhat different to the Jarmusch version. The Memphis pilgrimage time has passed me by. I hate finding myself in tourist crowds and I have already tasted pancakes with syrup and blueberries and banana and cream. Now I'm going to fix myself a bowl of ice-cream with canned peaches and I'll give some to my panicked boyfriend too.

Nick :
I write this review under duress. My football team (Spurs) play in the Champions League this evening. It could be our biggest moment yet in the modern football era. On top of this, we just finished watching the whole of Deadwood. Yes all three seasons. A big hole has now appeared in our lives from today onwards. How will we cope with the withdrawal symptoms? I just have to convince Astrid that The Prisoner box set sitting on the shelf is of equal quality (it certainly is) and hopefully we can get our TV series fix back under way. Music creativity is afoot in our house too, on multiple fronts. It makes sense to visit a film that pays homage in some way to the origins of popular music.

Rock'n' Roll iconography doesn't get any bigger than Elvis Presley. Mystery Train is drenched in Elvis (and named after an Elvis song). Elvis is in the hotel rooms, the street corners of Memphis, the smalltalk and the background noise that fills Mystery Train. Three stories, which occur simultaneously, often in the same seedy Memphis hotel makes up the premise of Mystery Train: The Japanese couple who visit Memphis to see the historical landmarks (Sun Studio, Graceland). Then there is an Italian woman transporting her husband's coffin back to Rome and who is visited by Elvis' ghost. And finally the crazed, gun-popping Englishman everyone knows as Elvis (a lean and mean Joe Strummer). Their lives are entwined in the slow everyday grind of Memphis real life and folklore.

Mystery Train deals with the Other, especially the foreigner in America (one theme that unites all three stories). Cultural differences amid the frank squalor in which Jarmusch depicts Memphis are the order of the day. Jarmusch's film reminds me of a time when American independent cinema was a unique voice and you never quite knew what you were getting. Jarmusch was at the forefront of a new breed of like minded film makers, what happened? Mystery Train still breathes a healthy sigh. All aboard...

Erin Brockovich (2000) Directed by Steven Soderbergh


Nick:
Let's leave the sentimentality at the door. It's a trait that can effect the best artistic endeavors. Lets not confuse sentimental feelings for real emotion. What's impressive about Erin Brockovich is it never brings sentimentality to the table. Erin Brockovich could be one of the last great American mainstream films.

This film deals with class, sexism in the work place, human rights, big corporate corruption and anything else you want to throw into the kitchen sink. Yes, it's a political beast with a David & Goliath bent. But what make Erin Brockovich work is that Soderbergh never forgets to entertain. The script is sharp and foul mouthed. Erin as portrayed by Julia Roberts is an old-school New Hollywood turn. Roberts is an actress I've not particularly enjoyed on screen (although she seems to save her best work for Soderbergh), but this is one of the least self-conscious turns by a mainstream actor I've seen. Yes, she carries the film.   

Albert Finney is perfect as the head of the law firm that employs Erin. Finney has rarely been so well used in recent years. All the bit parts are well cast and as is typical with Soderbergh there is a lightness of touch which seems effortless. He's a director when on form, as he is here, never feels like he intrudes on the storytelling. You don't feel there is heavy moralising going on. The fact that this is a true story only confirms the injustice we already know exists amongst the world of big coprporate business. If you've shied away from this picture in the past, thinking of it as just more maintream fluff, leave your prejudice at the door and check it out. Smart and vital cinema such as this is rare these days.

Astrid:
I wonder if the True Finns (Perussuomalaiset) party who just marched in force into the next government of Finland see themselves as a kind of Erin Brockovich phenomenon? Mr. and Mrs. Avarage saving the world from the evils of corporate power? Who knows what they plan at this point...

Although I have long since missed out on becoming the next Erin B – I am over-educated, fearful and I don't have Julia Roberts' looks – Erin Brockovich is still an entertaining and strangely empowering movie. I love its claim on reality, because Erin really does exist and has won her fight against an evil corporation. Once in a while it is nice to know that the stories of cinema have a connection to our non-movie-like realities. And sometimes something positive happens in life, not only in movies.

Erin Brockovich says: you can have prominent boobs, know it and still be able to think, fight and argue for yourself. I guess something in that statement continues to be revolutionary to some of us.
 The film also shows that even though a woman has three children, it can be crucial to her to build an identity through her work, be recognized for her influence in society. Also, this movie does not claim that Erin would be happiest if she listened to her motorcycling boyfriend/neighbor and quit her job to play house with him. He fades away because her priority is her work.

Erin Brockovich is a call for common sense. I'm worried though that sometimes common sense can be hijacked by hillibillies and then it becomes oversimplification.

Coming Home (1978) Directed by Hal Ashby


Nick:
Hal Ashby is often regarded as the good guy from the New Hollywood era. Much loved by actors, his modest hippie temperament ultimately turning to drug dependency; he is one of the casualties of  New Hollywood. Bruce Dern, who stars in Coming Home, said: "What happened to Hal Ashby, both what he did to himself and what they did to him, was as repulsive as anything I've seen in my forty years of the industry." Coming Home could be the last big hit from New Hollywood, its many problems as a film, a great example why the director-led New Hollywood era came to an end.

Coming Home feels like a rotting corpse. It's smug, indulgent, self-satisfied. By 1978 punk was happening and the 1960's reverence on show in Coming Home must have seemed like arch sentimentality. It really feels like that now. Sure, Coming Home is really well acted. Yes, it makes a comment on the wastefulness of the Vietnam War. But by this time, Hollywood and America itself had really discussed and considered the Vietnam War. As similar rallying calls and comment on this war, both the later Apocalypse Now! and the same year The Deer Hunter would show more ambition and edge. Offering no new perspective or insight, all Coming Home leaves us with is the romance. Jane Fonda and John Voight have chemistry for sure. But you never find it believable why Fonda's liberated nurse would stay with her Vietnam returning husband (an ever reliable Dern). It's also inconceivable that Voight's character would change so conveniently from bitter paralyzed war veteran to all round good guy and the sensitive spurned lover.

Coming Home has its great moments. Unfortunately, Ashby reduces the tension on screen with a soundtrack of great hits of the era (Stones, Beatles) constantly playing in the background like muzak, often unrelated to the scene. I'll remember Ashby for The Last Detail and Shampoo. Give me Jaws and Star Wars over this any day. Coming Home is well-meaning, but ultimately fails with its simplified and sentimental portrait of why America didn't deal with its war casualties with more empathy.

Astrid:
Coming Home is a film I wanted to see because it is a 70s movie, and it has Jane Fonda in it. The Director Hal Ashby is also interesting. I had forgotten that New Hollywood is not always a synonym for subversive or great. Coming Home turned out to be strangely conservative and coy. At times it reminded me of Forrest Gump (1994), which was my first cinematic encounter with the Vietnam War.

Yet, on entertainment level, I was quite content. I was well entertained actually: The angry and dangerous war veteran (John Voight) turns into an adorable lover and a campaigner for peace. The stifled and overly sweet Sally (Jane Fonda) is liberated from the constraints of a boring marriage. Sally's husband (Bruce Dern), returns from Vietnam the same arrogant and ignorant person he was when he went there, although now he is traumatized. When he finds out Sally has been seeing one of the veterans from the recovery hospital (where she had gone to volunteer), the husband threatens to murder someone or himself. A little tense, yes, but not really, because Hal Ashby has added a pop soundtrack on every scene of the film. Even while intimate dialogue is happening, there is always a Rolling Stones song or a Beatles tune playing in the background at a disturbing volume.

Jane Fonda had been vocally against the Vietnam War from the early 1970s onwards. After her visit to Vietnam in 1972 she was dubbed Hanoi Jane and deemed unpatriotic by the US press. In light of her activist past it is not surprising that she said yes to Coming Home, but it is baffling that the film handled the issue so lightly.

Bulworth (1998) Directed by Warren Beatty


Astrid:
In 1966 Bob Dylan was on acid, tired and forever touring. He gave an interview to Robert Shelton and spouted adorably arrogant and poignant "truths" about everything and nothing. It's entertaining stuff. Luckily, Uncut magazine published the interview in their latest issue to honor Bob's 70th birthday. In 1966 Bob Dylan had lost the need to please someone or to care for what others thought of him – or so he said. Not caring what others think of you is one of the most dangerous social weapons we have, because usually that feeling is accompanied by a need to get one's own perspectives out there. A rambling follows.

In Bulworth an aging democratic senator begins to tell the truth about his own ineffectiveness as a politician. He talks these truths on TV and rallies where he is supposed to campaign for re-election. He breaks the facades carefully constructed by his aids and financial supporters. He begins to see the extent in which racism persists on every aspect of American society. He adopts a new way of dressing, he begins to rap his political speeches, he falls in love with Halle Berry... Bulworth is entertaining. It is also infuriatingly simplistic, while at the same time a little too cynical. Warren Beatty is preaching his politics, the stuff he thought would be too radical if he actually did involve himself in real-life US politics. So, Beatty stayed where he has power, in Hollywood, and commented with this film in an overly ironic way. At times I feel embarrassed watching his "mad white politician".

Much earlier in 1966, Bob Dylan said to Shelton: "Why, I don't even want to talk about college. It's just an extension of time. I hung around college, but it's a cop-out, you know, from life, from experience. A lot of people started out to be lawyers, but I venture to say that 100 per cent of the really groovy lawyers haven't gotten through school the way they ought to. They've always been freaks in their school, and have always had a hard time making it; So many lawyers just take people for what they are worth." Thanks Bob. The enigmatic silences that followed are a much more effective way to handle a public image. Warren knows this too.

Nick
:
It's tempting to offer a view that Bulworth has been dated inexplicably by the course of history. US politics and its treatment of racial minorities (or nowadays majorities) has been well documented outside of cinema and partially within. Now we have an African-American in the White House, is the message of Bulworth relevant? Does mainstream US politics still serve a sweet line of bullshit to gain votes from the racial underclass and then fail to deliver? Obviously yes, despite some of us all wanting Obama to succeed, it's obvious the call of big corporations still carries the loudest. And even a man like Barack Obama is unable to counter corporate dominance of American policy. These things take time I guess.

It's not the rather cliched political message that Bulworth carries, that politicians lie and corruption is rife in mainstream politics, why this film works. What's impressive is watching a former A-lister make a movie where he lets it all hang out so honestly. The usual accusations of vanity are wasted on Beatty with Bulworth. As liberal LA Senator Bulworth, Beatty orders his own assassination on the eve of his re-election campaign. After a visit to an impoverished black area on his campaign trail, Bulworth decides to adopt a bluntly honest tone and tell it like it is. Not only this, he decides to do so using hip-hop rhymes and black culture to get his no BS message across. So yes, Beatty raps. Not only this, it's embarrassing and ridiculous.

And that's the point. It's to highlight the whole stupidity of the political process that we buy into and we allow to shape our lives. As a film, Bullworth is a mess, full of racial stereotypes and clichés. But it gets away with its message because its heart is in the right place and it is a genuinely original and  bizarre film. Bulworth is similar in many ways to Beatty's hippy sexual comedy Shampoo.  Like Shampoo, Bulworth feels like it's all over the place, while slyly making political points and being cohesive at its core. I'm not sure if it's a very good film, but Bulworth is brave and at times a funny curiosity which takes risks with conventionality.

The Usual Suspects (1995) Directed by Bryan Singer


Astrid:
Kevin Spacey is so dubious and emotionally expressive in his role in The Usual Suspects that it takes me less than one minute to remember who is the villain in the film. Anyway, his acting is good and worth watching despite the spoiler. Kevin is great as the loon – in fact he seems to have played the same character in K-PAX (2001) and to some extend in Shipping News (2001) too. Or is it just me thinking of him as the arcetypal psycho (even in American Beauty 1999)? For a decade Spacey seems to have been cast into a strict role in Hollywood, just like Jack Nicholson was before him.

The Usual Suspects was released in 1995. It makes me want to take back what I said in our last post about early 1990s cinema turning into vintage goods. This film has no cinematic value. It is just recounting a plot with an underused cast and no emotional connection. Not having experience in film-making, I can only imagine that the emptiness of The Usual Suspects comes from a failed connection between the script-writer, director, photographer and producer. Somewhere the chain and co-operation must have run out of inspiration.

It is an uncomfortable feeling watching a film that thinks it is very clever and figuring it out as dull and unintelligent. 1995 was also the year of Seven. If my memory serves me right, it is a much better twisted narrative with a more cinematic look to it too.

Nick:
Reputation and standing.  Game changer. The new rules. The original. We would all like to be part of something or be the instigator of a new movement, the zeitgeist. You could dine out on this forever. I remember going to see The Usual Suspects on release and being really impressed. It seemed to invigorate the hard men on a mission movie, and of course it had the twist at the end that seemed so ingenious all those years ago. But reflecting on movies made in the mid 1990's, and one as celebrated as The Usual Suspects is tricky nowadays. One cannot dodge the greatest movie of all time lists without finding The Usual Suspects contained somewhere amongst the other er,  usual suspects (hello Empire magazine!) Most aspects of this film disappointed me this time round. It's all about timing and what we know now.

Director Bryan Singer, seemingly hot when this picture came out has turned into a Christopher Nolan-lite superhero movie director and a pretty poor one. Writer Christopher McQuarrie, so smart and on the cusp of greatness and never ending promise, followed Singer into X-Men spin-off hell. The Usual Suspects looks so poor nowadays, like a made-for-TV-movie. Who did the lighting on this? But what about the acting, surely this stands up? Career making turns for Kevin Spacey and Benicio Del Toro must still work? Both ham this up, and in Spacey's case he really is acting, unfortunately without any naturalness. The late, great Pete Postlethwaite acts everyone off the screen here, whilst Gabriel Byrne is his usual solid self.

But it is that timing thing. The Usual Suspects seems contrived in 2011. It's "unusual" flashback narrative feels over done, the plot twist obvious. I have to leave this picture for many years. Give it 15 years or so, and if I have the inclination to re-visit, The Usual Suspects may find it's freshness for me again. For Singer, The Usual Suspects means that the movie that cost 6 million and made over 1 billion will buy him lunch in Hollywood for a long time.

Bugsy (1991) Directed by Barry Levinson


Astrid:

Warrenology is a term nicely coined by Peter Biskind for the official and unofficial research on the topic of Warren Beatty. I have sneakily become a kind of Warrenologist over the past two years, greatly due to his amazing film Reds (1981) (which we are yet to review here). Warren has a few annoying traits; he's a babe magnet (you name her, he's had her), he's handsome, intelligent, opinionated, controlling, and he has been an influential revolutionary in Hollywood. In my opinion Warren Beatty epitomizes the idea of success, as it has been polished over the last 50 years.

I was happy to watch Bugsy, as I am reading Biskind's Star: The Life & Wild Times of Warren Beatty (2010). Having never see it before, I only knew that this was the film on which Warren met his wife Annette Bening. It is eternally fascinating to imagine what happened in 1991 on the Bugsy set. What changed for the world-known lover-of-all-women, when he decided to devote himself to Annette and only Annette? I guess that's not going to be known, but there is a romantic idea of the power of love and the possibility of change in the story of Warren B. I'm also wondering why it upset everybody so much to know that Warren was having a good time with many lovers? Were we worried for his possible loneliness, or mental health, or were we just jealous?

Anyhow, Bugsy is not a smooth film. Annette Bening is excellent, but Beatty appears to be sleepwalking and when he wakes up he is playing himself. The film is long and split into two sections somehow: a satirical beginning and a sad ending. Although the film is based on a true story, it is so stylized that it is difficult to relate to emotionally. I urge you to watch Shampoo and Reds, and leave Bugsy on the shelf.

Nick
:
I have imagined that my friends and peers have a term they use to refer to me when I'm not in their presence, other than my common name Nick or Triani. I have a good friend that calls me Tree and others refer to me as Traina (my family name). My close family call me Nicky. But is there a name they use behind my back? A name that does not flatter, but is a slur, as is the case of Ben Siegel, who was more commonly known as Bugsy (aligning him to  an insect).

Siegel started Las Vegas as we know it today and hated his pet name Bugsy. This film traces the gangster Siegel's vision of building a casino empire in the desert with mob money, and how the initial failure of the venture led to his demise. Warren Beatty plays Bugsy, in what seems one of the most vain screen turns in history. Yes, the womanizing, short tempered and charming gangster could be Beatty's alter-ego and must be the one reason why Beatty took on the picture. But this film is a mess. It's a parody (though I think not intentionally) of every gangster and noir movie you've ever seen. It wastes actors like Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna and Harvey Keitel in poorly scripted roles. This picture is all about Beatty, the actor and the man.

Levinson makes things look pretty, but his flat pacing combined with cliched, jumbled noir concepts only adds to the general sense of disaster. Warren scored a whammy by ending up married to leading lady Annette Bening. Bening still shows her class amongst the drivel, she's that good. But we don't feel much for Beatty as Bugsy, the only emotional tug comes from Ennio Morricone's excellent recurring theme. Beatty pulls out all the acting stops, from emotional ticks to over the top expressions of anger. But this is shallow, the picture dies under it's own portentous ambitions. After watching Bugsy, one is left with the impression of an aging icon raging at his own shadow. As compensation, at least Warren got the girl in the end.

True Grit (2010) Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen


Nick:
Prefab Sprout's "The Gunmen & Other Stories" is my least favorite album by the band. Paddy dipping his toes into Country & Western music was always going to be a bad idea. Even though the album contained a couple of gems, the Prefab's never convinced as Cowboys. When I found out the Coen Brothers were making a real Western, for a brief moment I thought: would they fall into a Prefab- sized trap and get lost on the prairie trail? Well not actually. One has only to look at the Coen Brothers filmography to realize they've been making Westerns all the time. Blood Simple, Raizing Arizona, Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country For Old Men could have all been played out as Westerns.

True Grit has been greeted with the fanfare that greets any Western nowadays, so rare they are. It's a remake of a John Wayne picture from the late 1960's that is pretty decent itself if memory serves. The Coen Brothers claim not to have paid attention to the Wayne version from 1969, instead basing their film on the original novel written by Charles Portis in 1968. Several scenes in their remake really echo the earlier film, such as the grizzly US Marshall Rooster Cogburn all guns blazing on horse back in a one against four scenario.

The original scene is pretty iconic stuff, Clint Eastwood stole it for The Outlaw Josey Wales, and here it appears again. The Coens being such film geeks seem unable to resist a little nod to Wayne  the Icon. When Jeff Bridges (playing Cogburn) appears at the opening of a mine shaft, all silhouette, it's  a homage to Wayne in The Searchers and one of the most iconic shots in Cinema history.

But is True Grit  2010 any good? Yes, it's excellent. The film is not quite up there with Eastwood's Unforgiven as a postmodern Western (few films in any genre are), but it holds its own against pictures like Open Range, Deadwood the TV Series, and the movie it most feels like, Jim Jarmusch's wonky, revisionist Dead Man. There are a few typically eccentric Coen scenes, but mostly True Grit plays it straight, with a tight script and excellent cinematography. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and especially Hailee Steinfeild carry the film with solid performances. My only real grumble is the ending, which seems unnecessary (no spoiler here), when there seemed to be so much more story to tell. True Grit is the best Coen Brothers movie in a long while. I'm glad to have a new Western picture too. I'll be revisiting it again, I know.

Astrid:
They forgot to put Heilee Steinfeld's name on that poster. She is Mattie Ross, a daughter who wants to get revenge for her father's death. She is on screen more than anybody else in this film. If anyone has true grit here, it is her character.

It is too bad that the Coen brothers made their True Grit so explicitly violent, because now young girls cannot watch it. Without the violence, it would be a great story of empowerment for preteens and teenage girls. I know a nine-year-old who loves Calamity Jane and who would love Mattie Ross' narrative even more.

I congratulate the Coens for their portrayal of Mattie Ross. Forget the young girls I was talking about – I felt empowered by her story. In Mattie the Luise M. Alcott -style girl characters get put into the genre of the Western. And discounting a little spanking, Mattie gets through the two hours without the usual rape and other sexual violence scenes so mandatory with any women characters presented in the Westerns.

Of course the Coens have been very interested in what Mattie unleashes and reveals about the men in True Grit. Is the Dude just a nasty dude or a dude with heart? Is Matt Damon generally a little repulsive or is he actually a good actor?

And by the way, Heilee Steinfeld and Annette Bening should be up for the Best Actor Oscar. That's an opinion I hold. – yes, I know they are women.

Atonement (2007) Directed by Joe Wright


 Astrid:We watched Atonement one Christmas Eve some years ago and were left with a hesitation about whether the film was any good. It took us until last night to feel like reviewing the movie. This time around, I was quite convinced by it. Atonement fulfilled similar cinema needs as The English Patient used to – until I watched it one too many times. There is the romance that is all the more romantic because the lovers are doomed to never make it to the boring repetitive everyday life together. There is the period setting, the first half of the 20th century, which is a much more aesthetic time than the present. There is the epic scale of the picture, and actually and surprisingly, a good and complex enough story line to carry us through.

I'm still not a huge fan of Keira Knightly – like I don't get Audry Hepburn, I just don't get the anorexic gazelle look – and I find it difficult to peer through her looks into the acting. But hey, at least this time I sympathized with her hopeless love story and believed her passion. I got passed the superstar into the narrative.

Atonement is of course a very popular novel by Ian McEwan and I must credit most of the film's success with me to the writer of the original fiction. The juiciest and most thought-provoking aspect of the story is not the cross-class-border romance, it is the story of the writer woman, who as a young girl of ten destroys the love, and eventually the lives, of her sister and the sister's lover by accusing him wrongly of rape. Then she grows into a well-read fiction writer and she exploits the two lost people even more by writing their (and her) story. The tragedy is that the whole misunderstanding and loss could have been avoided by providing sex education to young children and by getting rid of the rigid class system.

Nick:

Toff. At one point in Atonement, Robbie (as played with Trevor Howard like intensity by James McAvoy) insists he is not a toff. Although his character, through association, aspires to move up the classes class distinction ultimately destroys his ambitions. So why does Atonement deserve to stand out from the overcrowded British upper class dwelling period drama? Do we need films with such plummy accented characters? I gave up reading Ian McEwan's celebrated book, bored by it. It's my second time watching Atonement and something struck me in a good way on the second viewing.

The faults of the picture are seemingly enough to give up on the whole exercise. Keira Knightley has yet to deliver in any significant way in any movie I've watched her in. Here she's on auto-pilot. McAvoy on the other hand, is bright. Unfortunately for me, he reminds me of a young David Cameron, so it's really difficult to initially feel any sympathy towards his character. The opening half an hour of the film flirts with tension and ultimately delivers us a sermon on coming-of-age sexual awakening mixed with tragedy, and the aforementioned class role playing. Director Wright's time framing of the film has a little of the art school project about it and can feel intrusive.

On the other hand, Wright's bravura French sea shore, one shot scene, which seems never ending, depicting the madness and sheer lunacy of the Second World War, is masterful. It lifts Atonement to a different level, that one piece of inspired film making.  It's still not enough to save Atonement from being pretentious. What improved the film so much this second viewing was my own mood. I was feeling sentimental, so I wanted to believe in the central love story between the McAvoy and Knightley characters. I survived Atonement this time, even it's twisted ending that seems zoomed in from a different picture. Yes, one has to admit, there are moments of brilliance here.

Forthcoming Attractions

Nick:


The Tree Of Life (released this week in Finland), directed by Hollywood's reclusive Terrence Malick interests me purely as it utilities the great Douglas Trumbull (of 2001 fame) in a tale that seems worryingly deeply religious. Brad Pitt stars which is enough to turn me off, but I'm interested in the creation of earth and the dinosaurs.


Dredd is due to open in 2012. It looks like this time round Judge Dredd will be treated with the respect that Danny Cannon's 1995 Sylvester Stallone starring vehicle obviously lacked. One of my all time favorite characters, I hope they get it right this time.


George Harrison: Living In The Material World sees Martin Scorsese back in documentary mode. Nowadays, it fair to say that this excites me more than his movies. After his Dylan masterclass, I wonder if Scorsese can shed any light on one of the most written about people ever? Out on DVD in October 2011.


Astrid:

Midnight In Paris continues Woody Allen's travels in Europe. I have been somewhat disappointed with the last couple of Allen films, almost getting tired of the things I used to love in his movies. Yet, this trailer has given me hope that Woody in Paris means Woody back in romantic and truly witty form. I'll report on this later.



Le Havre has fascinated me ever since I saw Aki Kaurismäki's interview in Cannes earlier this year. He spouts out in an unfashionable manner. He has the courage to do something ethically involved as well as light-hearted while dealing with a serious topic such as immigration and the EU's closed borders. At least that's how it seems, but I have not seen the film yet.



Larry Crowne is this summer's Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts movie. Despite not really enjoying Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love last year, I feel strangely ready for Julia with Hank. I guess I'm hoping it'll be something like Sleepless in Seattle...why? Well, every now and again I need my movies predicable, stereotypical, Hollywood-faced and safe in an almost boring manner. Larry Crowne seems to promise to be all those things.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Heiress (1949) Directed by William Wyler

Nick:
Money as the root of all evil is a counter philosophy which we actually live through while adhering to monetary systems. In our Western culture and subsequently through other cultures, we live by the dollar, pound, euro, yen, mark or whatever your preferred currency is. I've often wondered what would happen if we all threw our hands up in the air and said to hell with living our lives through this capitalistic nightmare, I just want to do what I want to do and forget this rigid convention. Could the Man stop us? Will society allow me to survive? Eric Cantona suggested something similar last week in telling people to withdraw their money from banks. Why not? What the hell has the bank ever done for me? Oh yeah, charged me interest on using my own money.

Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is very poor, having used his small inheritance to travel Europe and educate himself. On returning to the US he courts and convinces wealthy but dowdy heiress Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) to marry him. Catherine's emotionally cruel father (Ralph Richardson) thinks Morris a fortune hunter and can't believe such a handsome man would fall for his socially stunted yet wealthy daughter. Of course the premise of The Heiress is the class system, the have and have nots.

But is Morris really a fortune hunter, and if so, if Catherine feels his love and is happy, so what? At the least, Morris' attention to Catherine has finally liberated her from her father's unrealistic expectation.  Through their relationship Catherine finally finds her own unconventional voice and level of independence. Morris is not conventional, he would rather be poor and have his freedom to do as he pleases, much against the convention of any day. Can you achieve happiness in a  relationship if for one side that happiness is based purely on financial security rather than love? It's this quandary that creates the drama of The Heiress.

The acting is superb, all three principles convey deep character understanding. There is intense and satisfying drama in this excellent film. Although an old picture, the themes of The Heiress (based on a Henry James novel) still ring true today. Freedom of creativity and expression is suppressed to tow the conventional line of having a position and bringing in the bacon. How long can we go on with these dated institutions of decency and what one is supposed to do with one's life? Time for change is coming.

Astrid:
Suddenly, in the course of one day a life that seems to be looking at an empty freezing plateau of nothing, is filled with something exhilarating and new. Something that seems so right, even if at this point it is only a vision without much reality. The important thing is that a person's sense of the future, of the unknown, can in a very short moment change radically.

Change and realization come to us in what appears to be a very short period of time. It is as if ideas and emotions can materialize in us without ever existing before. They land. In The Heiress, Catherine
spends a good many years trying to live life so that it will please her father, until one fine day she realizes that he does not appreciate her but is always cruel and patronizing. The same swiftness of change manifests in her life when she falls in love with Morris – in this case her change is without much immediate benefit for herself.

When she eventually is able to pay back to Morris the pain he has caused her, she has grown out of needing to please others and to fit in. Catherine lives alone with her money, her hobbies and her circle of friends. She is liberated. She closes the curtains, finishes her embroidery, takes an oil lamp and ascends up the stairs with stark shadows cast around her and the sound of Morris pounding on the door. I admire her loyalty to her own dignity, an emotional honesty is her priority now. For 1949 this is a rare portrayal of woman who gains control of her life without being punished for living alone.

Or is it really? Am I interpreting the shadows all wrong? Why the strange ghostly shadows and darkness as Catherine rises up the stairs? What are the film makers suggesting with the ending? Is there a deliberate hint towards all the historical mad women locked in the attic? Is that where she is moving towards with her choices in life; madness, loneliness, isolation with the Brontë sisters or the abyss of the Wide Sargasso Sea?

In the end I am not so sure, but I take solace in the vision of my own future.

Capote (2005) Directed by Bennett Miller


Astrid:
For artists life is material. Life is the source from where to steal for art. The dilemma is to decide where to draw the line. Do we have to plow deep in our personal lives to create material, or should we observe other people's stories and use them? Should we befriend and care for people if they seem like good material? Do we become responsible for their well-being or can we just follow their path and report elsewhere?

Truman Capote wrote a novel about real people and I watched a movie about Capote writing that book. Each act fictionalizes reality. The onion is peeled and each layer that's taken off becomes narrative. In the end, here I am feeling all kinds of feelings about the living artist, Truman, and his choices. As if what I just said about fictionalization went over my own head.

Capote's In Cold Blood became a best-seller once it was released in 1966. He needed to see the two killers of his 'story' hanged for him to be able to write the ending. If Capote, the film, is to be believed Truman was very calculated in his approach to the murderers. He helped them when it helped him and left them alone when he got tired of waiting to be able to write his ending. Capote pictures its protagonist as an unlikable self-obsessed man, who has an almost psychopathic ability to deal with the murderers and his own friends (Harper Lee and his boyfriend) without real emotional involvement. I wonder if it is Hollywood simplifying the character so as not to confuse the audience. How ethical is that then?

Nick :
I first came across Truman Capote from a record sleeve. Yes, he adorned the front cover of The Smiths single "The Boy With The Thorne In His Side" It sparked some interest in Capote. I read In Cold Blood. After Capote died I read his trashy unfinished book Answered Prayers (where he lays into his various literary friends). Yes, Capote was neither likeable nor reliable. That such a figure could become a literary giant in the ultra conservative 1950's is astonishing. Morrissey could have been referring to Capote directly with the title of the single Capote adorned. The real life killers of In Cold Blood would not die, and Capote could not finish his masterpiece. So, the killers Smith and Hickock became the thorns in his side.

Capote deals with how Truman wrote In Cold Blood, the story of two young men who murder a family of four in a small Kansas community in 1959.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Capote, it's an impersonation performance and it's immaculate (Hoffman won an Oscar for his efforts). We watch Truman befriend everyone in the Kansas town where the murders happened, the police chief and his wife, the local farmers and especially one of the two killers, Perry Smith. Dutifully accompanied by Harper Lee (an excellent Catherine Keener), Capote patches together a non-fiction novel of the grizzly events. It takes him years. Great claims are made for In Cold Blood as changing the face of the American novel whilst Truman is portrayed as a user of people to further his career.

And there lies the rub with Capote the film. Excellently acted, well written and directed, Capote engages. But at it's heart, it can't decide weather it's trying to salvage Capote's reputation as the great American author, or reveal his true nature as a bit of a shit. Even with his close-relationship to the killer Perry Smith, there is an overbearing sense of manipulation in Truman's actions, we don't really feel his sadness towrds Perry's death.  I re-read In Cold Blood some 10 years ago, it's a good book, nothing more. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (constantly mocked throughout the fim) feels more induring to me. Even Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's novella is nowadays more affectionately known as Audrey Hepburn's iconic moment. As we see in various scenes, Truman Capote's sharp toungue and cruel ridicule of the New York literary glitterati has caught up with his reputation. Could it be that Truman just pissed too many people off?

Wonder Boys (2000) Directed by Curtis Hanson



Astrid:
I felt uncomfortably at home with this movie – so entertained and snug, yet reluctant to admit it. The more I think about it now, the sicker it makes me feel... or at least it makes me a little nauseous. To scratch my own surface and to see where I fit in is not so comfortable. Wonder Boys is a white, American and middle class take on being a writer, being a bohemian and being in the college world – or should I say being an intellectual? It is also a masculine take on all the above (the women in the film are stereotypes of their own, thus their screen time need not be more than mere minutes).

Michael Douglas is the loser-type weed-smoking, underachieving genius writer/professor. He's also a fictional character. It is unnerving to realize I am in the target audience. I am a white Scandinavian, poor artist who is highly educated and currently taking care of her baby at home. I am therefore privileged many-fold and for all my theory on difference, queering, acceptance and feminist politics I cannot claim to have a perspective much more than this narrow scope combined with inexperience and timidity. So here I swing with my Gilmore Girls and now Wonder Boys. (who are all white, smoke weed and encounter transgendered people from time to time...)

There are many nice realizations in Wonder Boys, while at the same time the film appears to not want to solve and package the obviously untidy mess that life generally becomes when lived. I guess, this too is due to the script writer's superb calculation on what the target group needs to see. Still, the ending is syrup and it involves a woman getting out of a car with a baby. I was moved, I have to admit, and angry for falling for the sentiment. Also, disability, being gay, transgendered, black or a woman even are all sort of issues in the film but they appear to be identities that can be made acceptable through publishing deals, being an artist and/or having a baby.


Nick:
It seems impossible to understand where do all the good people go? Where does the voice of protest, consideration, rationale go? Everywhere I look it's just some capitalist shithead espousing his unreasonable right to become richer and just screw everyone else. In the cheap seats the increasing chorus of have nots applaud. They can dream of affluence like the rest of us. More than ever, money in 2012 has become a privilege, a dividing line, the reckoning of where we will end up. It's like those idiots who criticize the Occupy movement because "those guys just made me late for work". Fucking eh. This week the coalition in the UK got shafted by the 'real' people at the local elections. The British public are obviously slow learners, but the evil of the Cameron/Clegg alliance is sinking in. They'll be back to cling onto power because Cameron, like all evil bastards, will twist and lie his way through any situation to cling to that power.



I'm writing this at a time where I feel aggrieved. Wonder Boys reminds me of how pretentious artists/creative types can be. It's the white, middle class who have the time to indulge their various muses. There is no rush to get anything out, just the time to make your contrived, poured over statements of intent. It's so bloody considered. As is Wonder Boys in its sometimes clichéd look at creativity. It's a privileged look at the rich pigs need to express themselves. Wonderfully acted one asks oneself of  Wonder Boys:  is this not the view of culture and history we are always presented with? White, bloated, self important/indulgent and comfortable. Is this film necessary? Yes Michael Douglas is good, but so what? His writer has no real need to tell us anything because he is so comfortable in his self-inflicted chaos and pain. He can afford to self inflict. Any poor people depicted in this picture are patronized and looked upon as freaks.

I'm being cruel here. Wonder Boys is alright. But I enjoyed the gratuitous violence/sexism/awfulness of The Expendables so much more (a film I watched the other night). The Expendables has no claim to high art. It knows it is shit and is honest with that. This makes The Expendables a better film than Wonder Boys. I've only come to this conclusion recently as I felt kinder to Wonder Boys straight after we watched it. My mood has been affected by news that Adam Yauch (MCA) of the Beastie Boys died last night and I guess I'm too angry about it. He was one of those good people. He took his privileged position and tried to enlighten. He was a hero of the modern age, so much more so than say the over-exalted Steve Jobs. More than ever we have to fight for the right to party. I'll miss Yauch's right to care about the human condition and a lot more besides. RIP MCA.

Ghost (1990) Directed by Jerry Zucker



Nick:
What can one say? Sometimes the choices we make we have to pay for somewhere down the road. So, I'm fully expecting a bolt of lightning to strike me down for having to make Astrid sit through Ghost. It's deserved. What did anyone see in Patrik Swayze? I dont mean to talk ill of the dead, but shit, what a poor film repertoire this guy has. He was the hunk with not much going on upstairs. We need a piece of American Pie – let's cast Patrik! There were moments of course. He was in The Outsiders and the ludicrously enjoyable Point Break. The sleaze merchant in Donnie Darko shows a talent wasted. But then, his big ones, Ghost and Dirty Dancing. Lowest common denominator stuff, although people have loved these films.

1990 could be a watershed year for when American mainstream cinema really lost it. Only Home Alone was bigger than Ghost. The roll call of top grossing pictures that year is incredible (for all the wrong reasons): Pretty Woman, Kindergarten Cop, Days Of Thunder, 3 Men & A Little Lady, Look Who's Talking Too, Problem Child and so on. You could also have caught the OK Dances With Wolves and the brilliant Goodfellas and Edward Scissorhands, but these were exceptions. I had successfully erased Ghost  from my memory, now I have to start again – it may take years...

Lets suspend our imaginations for a moment (it's obvious the film makers did!). The main premise of Ghost that Swayze's murdered executive banker Sam, has to stay on earth as a ghost and not follow the light so he can show his undying love for his partner (Demi Moore's arty type Molly) does not bear scrutiny. There is no chemistry between these supposed love birds.Throw in the most predictable plot, cliched script, some made for TV direction and acting, some quasi-Christian moralizing, casual racist/sexist sentiment, the worst special effects ever...and what are we left with? Some would say all round family entertainment. Ghost in 2012 veers towards the offensive in how it patronizes the audience. Even the one genuine interesting moment of this feeble film (it could have been a queer-core classic scene) when medium Whoopi Goldberg's body is being used as a conduit by Sam to make love to his lover one last time, is denied us. Once the moment arrives we only see Sam's ghost body canoodling with Molly. This is all round pathetic cinema.

Astrid:
Ghost is right up there with the worst movies I've ever seen. It's a film that insults and undermines its audience on many levels. It's homophobic, racist, boring, has bad CGI (if it even is that), bad writing, it shoves in your face Christian views on afterlife (heaven/hell split) and also represents the end of the 1980s at its worst. I thought I had never seen the film at all, but upon watching remembered that I once stayed in a  dubious and weed smelling hotel in Minneapolis where one morning I caught ten minutes of this classic.

Yes, apparently Ghost was a smash hit romantic and exciting film when it came out in 1990! But then, so was The Bodyguard (which was a favorite of mine when I was less than 10). I used to win dance competitions while Whitney Houston played in the background as a second grader, so I would have probably loved Ghost had I seen it at the time. Now was definitely too late. I almost never get to watch anything, so when I finally get around to a movie, it is disappointing to waste my time on something so pathetic.

Whoopi Goldberg is funny and beautiful. She definitely represents something important to me as she was always in the films I saw in the 1990s (hah!) At some point of my not-so-well-informed-youth I also learned that Whoopi was lesbian (and that Tracy Chapman was not a man). Therefore I really thought Demi and Whoopi should have ended up together in this boring story. What's more, they kind of had something going because the ghost guy borrowed Whoopi's body and caressed Demi with her (Whoopi's) hands (while they waited for the murderer to arrive). This was going to be the most explosive insight in this film, but then it turned out to be the biggest insult: Whoopi was replaced by the ghost-actor guy for us hetero normative audiences. So wrong. I'm not going to bother to find out who played the ghost, because he was so lame and so average. I'm sure everyone else knows who I'm talking about.
One last complaint: why would a sculptor hipster fall in love with a boring banker, who says 'ditto' instead of 'I love you'?

The Way We Were (1973) Directed by Sydney Pollack



Nick:
Over the last few weeks we've had a Sex & The City marathon, re-watching the whole series. We're currently on the 5th season, where quality and meaning have been reduced to product placement. In an earlier season, the girls raptured about Hubbell in The Way We Were, and the episode even riffed on the last scene of the movie. In some ways, The Way We Were has a reputation as the quality romantic weepy, especially with mainstream audiences. I'm sure a lot of women of a certain age regard this film as a classic. The reality after watching The Way We Were again is what a confused mess of a picture this is. The Way We Were tries to mix political incentive (specifically the clumsy portrayal of McCarthyism) with liberal ideas on femininity in stark contrast to Hubbell's stoic (outdated!) machismo, all the while trying to impose a romance where opposites attract. Phew...did I say it was only a weepy?

But lets clear another thing up, the direction here is terrible. Pollack has always been well liked as an all around good guy rather than a great director. Personally, I always liked him more as an actor and have found his direction certainly workman-like. Pollack has also had a thing for Robert Redford (Hubbell), The Way We Were being one of six films Pollack has directed Redford in. And here lies a big problem with The Way We Were.  Pollock indulges Redford here. Redford does nothing but look good and act cool offering nothing of the emotive variety. Opposite Redford is Barbara Streisand as the politically aware Katie, who by being so good here, merely shows Redford's capacity for imitating cardboard. We're with Streisand all the way here, in every cause she stands for, while her dream-man often feels embarrassed for her. This lack of empathy from Redford towards Streisand ruins any will we might have for Barbara getting her man. Oh well, you're better off without him Babs, one might opine. On top of this, Streisand, one of the great voices of cinema trumps Redford again by singing the excellent theme song.

Watching The Way We Were again, it does remind  me of where the appeal lies with Redford. Robert Forster, The Go-Betweens tunesmith once opined that Redford had perfect hair, and it's a view one can't help but agree with. As Redford has spent most of his 1970's cinema trying to be a Fitzgerald character on screen, until he actually got to play Gatsby in the end, his hair in the meantime has been exquisite. The best scene for Redford in The Way We Were? Redford behind the wheel of a vintage Mercedes sports car, blonde locks blowing in the wind. If his hair could act, Redford would be the perfect actor.

Astrid:
We have been working our way through Sex and the City - the boxset with all seasons. At some point the women had a moment where they remembered The Way We Were and even sang Memories all together...it made us eager to watch the film again. I remembered The Way We Were as a really flawed film, which had nevertheless made me cry. On my second viewing I liked the movie less than before. Barbabra Streisand was pretty convincing and passionate in her role, but Robert Redford seemed to be sleepwalking through the role of an idiot hunk. He was so meat-and-potatoes and so full of himself as a movie star, it was impossible for me to believe Streisand's character in love with him.

As the film happened, it unraveled as a cinematic example piece on co-dependency. At first the movie managed to portray a woman's lust and passion for a man in a way that's quite rare – Redford occupied the sex object position usually given to the leading ladies. Quite quickly though, it became clear that Hubbell was not much of a man for the thinking woman Katie. Yet, she kept insisting on needing him and loving him. That's where instead of romantic, the film seems to me sad. Surely there would be someone more stimulating and loving for Katie, if she would let go of the blond pin-up sailor boy.

For once watching the making-of-documentary offered a crucial perspective to the film. In the documentary it came out that the movie was brutally edited after a few test audiences saw it. Barbara Streisand thinks the edits ruined a great movie. Many important scenes were cut out in which the politics of the film and her character Katie were developed. These scenes gave depth to Katie's and Hubbell's separation and difficulty as a couple and they justified the whole political aspect of the film. In the version that came out and became a hit, the politics seems to serve no purpose other than being a futile prop offering something for Katie to feel passionate about. Had the politics stayed in the film, it could have been a much more fulfilling a film á la Reds or Doctor Zhivago. Now it is a rather mixed-up story of a relationship with some great acting and some confused directing.