Sunday, January 31, 2016

MIDNIGHT COWBOY

   The rain is coming down pretty hard here in Phoenix tonight. When it does, the homeless scatter like the shards of a shattered light bulb. Welcome nowhere, they are tolerated at overcrowded shelters where green bologna and flat Kool-Aid are coveted items. Bony fingers that once clutched pipes or syringes or even the neck of a bottle of chilled Moet White Star now strain to clutch into the roar of the warning of the downpour. Flash of lightning, crack of thunder, sizzle of rain cooking into their unholy shoes: it will be a long night and those who already have their beds won't be sharing with those who do not. They gather in the park, although not in the romantic way one reads about when a crisis befalls unconnected individuals who somehow work together to get through the malaise. No, these poor bastards do not resemble an army of ants or a platoon of survivalists. They more suggest escapees from a concentration camp where brutality weighed so heavy and constant that even the wardens went mad. Yelling into something that would be dignified by the word "abyss," they stand there, alone together, with everything they have owned for years bundled into large garbage bags over one shoulder and the little they have been given hanging in a backpack over the other. Not a one of them wants to die, despite the words that croak from their throats. Each one wants a break because if he or she had that break, that person could turn around, could get back together what was once had, could even make amends, could become something useful to someone besides a social worker, unless of course that pipe or syringe or bottle of chilled Moet were to come calling, in which case, redemption might have to wait a little longer. But a nice, simple, merciful break is really all that is necessary and that, as you may have guessed, is part of the problem because that rain is not letting up anytime soon and more people arrive at the park every few minutes and the other part of the problem is just how very big the problem itself has become. It is so big that people who do not know the lives of these people avoid them, step over them, close their windows and doors to them, smile with relief at them, cast them aside and turn up the volume on their big screen televisions because tonight it's Christmas Eve and New Years and Valentine's Day and the Fiftieth Super Bowl and the Phoenix Open and Spring Break and who needs a reason anyway when there's so goddamn much much fun to be had?
   The other night Lisa Ann and I were walking the dogs when we saw a cripple in a wheelchair fall backwards off the sidewalk curb. We live in an historic district that has some very nice homes. One of the city's largest homeless shelters is also nearby. Being downtown, one gets a mix of the artistic, the nouveau, the slick, the old, and the obsolete. We rushed the dogs inside and ran back out to help the fellow. He was already leaning against his wheelchair, straining to not fall, to not lose even more of his dignity. We asked if he was okay, if he was alright, if he needed anything, if he was headed somewhere. He shook his head and said, "Thanks for caring." Lisa Ann went back inside and returned with some money and a can of Vienna sausages. "These dropped out of your pocket when you fell," she said. He knew better than that but admitted he liked Vienna sausages. 
   These people lack visibility. Indeed, for most of us, they lack existence. Every small town, so they say, has a bum or an idiot or a wino, and because it is a small town, that person cannot be invisible. He or she may be shunned, but unless social skills are completely off-putting, that person will often be embraced by some part of the community--or at least tolerated. But put that same unfortunate son or daughter in a bubbling metropolis along with thousands more and the bystander effect kicks in fast. 
   How many dreams of redemption will drown out there tonight? 
   Midnight Cowboy (1969) is all about redemption. The message comes through a story of unlikely friendship. But guilt is at the core and redemption is sought in every scene. The movie's construction blends harsh beauty with cartoonish recollections. Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman embody their characters Joe Buck and Rico Rizzo. Chances are excellent that you have already seen this movie and nothing I could write in a traditional review would much illuminate the film's majesty. So my advice is to go wait near the park the next time it rains. See if you recognize anyone. 


Saturday, January 23, 2016

DELIVERANCE

  When I first watched the movie Deliverance (1972), I found myself uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. I felt the representation of the backwoods people of Georgia carried with it a weighty load of bigotry and that given what the James Dickey novel and the film made out to be the devastation that awaited their primitive community, it was unnecessary to offer those people up as inbred genetic mutations, one of whom happened to be quite handy with a banjo. The whole idea of the movie bugged me and as I went into the next series of director John Boorman's films I was predisposed to dislike them with some intensity. 
   Well, The Exorcist II and Excalibur were pretty dreadful and while my own prejudice against all things Boorman did not improve my opinions of those movies, it would not have mattered much if I had believed JB to be the cousin of the Second Coming. 
   And that's funny because his first two films, Catch Us If You Can and Point Blank were just fine little pictures, the former being sort of a rip off of A Hard Day's Night (featuring the Dave Clark Five) and the latter being more or less about the decay of Alcatraz and the ascendance of hippie. 
   But back to Deliverance, I will admit that the celebration of machismo as an alternative to mechanistic society irritated me during my first viewing. In short, I considered the whole thing to be a sexist load of pig swill. It didn't matter to me that Burt Reynolds gave the performance of a life time and years later admitted that this was his personal favorite of all the movies in which he had appeared. It made no difference that Jon Voight climbed that ragged cliff himself because the producers didn't want to spend the money on stunt doubles, much less on insurance for their stars, so if he had fallen and broken something, it would have been bad news all around; and that does not even get into the magnificence of his measured performance. After all, it is Voight's eyes through which we witness this terrifying and beautiful narrative and so his reactions and expressions had to be more than convincing--they had to exorcise demons, something they certainly did. I did not care that this was the first film appearance of Ned Beatty, a man who would go on to perform in more than one hundred movies, every time out getting so deep into the character that he went beyond mere acting and into some kind of nether world where one metamorphoses into something bigger than the role itself, hell, bigger than the movie, grander than the studio. I did not care much one way or another that Ronny Cox was in the movie and while everything I have heard in the years since then suggests him to have been a very nice fellow, I never could get the image out of my head of him as the patriarch in the TV show "The Appletons." I cared not at all that the James Dickey novel would be listed by dozens of magazines and journals as one of the best books of the twentieth century. Nope, I just did not give one good old fashioned damn about any of that. 
   I can be quite hard headed at times.
   Yet something about Deliverance kept pulling at me. I kept thinking of Lewis (Burt Reynolds) asking Ed (Jon Voight), "Why do you keep going on these adventures with me?"
   "I wonder about that myself sometimes, Lewis."
   Why did I continue to make myself watch a movie such as this every so often, knowing full well that the story itself represented all the things I believed I had outgrown or abandoned?
   Because my opinion of this movie has changed so dramatically, I now believe that it is a very good thing to be able to claim for oneself a degree of flexibility in one's assessment of an example of a major art form, whereas earlier I might have considered such alterations to be waffling or indecision. 
   It turns out, to my delight, that Deliverance transcends whatever wrongheadedness may be its lot in life, or mine, for that matter. It transcends its own internal logic in the sense that this is not specifically, or perhaps merely, a movie about four guys taking a canoe trip down a river and encountering some adversities they must conquer. So the accouterments about incest and rotten teeth don't matter one bit because they could just as easily have been about anacondas taking over the temples of Tibet. The villains in the movie were forces rather than people. They were obstacles placed in the way of the urban suburban golfers on their way through a survivalist paradise. Everything safe and reassuring in their establishment lives gets distorted, then perverted, then banished from their consciousness. Truth, justice, democracy--it's all irrelevant when you are part of an organism that holds its own survival as the paramount creed. 
   The last thing I want is to come off sounding like some sort of militia type. I have nothing whatsoever good to say about tax-dodging secessionists who believe in the government only when its male, white and local. Industry and government may have come down on our heads, blown a waft of cannabis in our faces to fool us into believing we are free while assassinating our few honest inspirations. In short, the bad guys may  indeed have the good guys surrounded and supplies might just be running out, but my idea of utopia has nothing to do with spearing fish, stockpiling dry goods and taking on multiple wives while the fumes of the apocalypse dance by on a rusty merry-go-round. I like what we have come to call civilization, even its jungle aspects. I like a certain amount of hustle and bustle, a certain opposing stagnation, a degree of bureaucracy. I like even the conflict that comes from cooperation and vice versa. I sure as hell do not want to revert to digging with a stick. But I cannot deny the simultaneous appeal of the harshest elements of nature: be it a monstrous tornado, a blizzard, a rocky river, or an old tin shed that contains who knows what kind of abomination. These, for me, are all things to appreciate from a certain safe perspective, such as the comfort of a movie theatre. 
   That brings us to the fact of the raw beauty of this movie. When I say "raw," I mean that by the time the four men get through the first white rapids, you check your own face to see if you got all the water off. The majesty of the scenery, which, we are reminded, will be under water--"drowning a river" is how they put it--in a few weeks, is not only breathtaking, it is heartbreaking. Nature just does not care about the alpha male and his friends. All it cares about is surviving. Nature's very indifference creates an uncredited silent actor. There is never any doubt about who is in charge. 
   So my initial lack of comfort with this movie turns out to have been ill-advised. And while my disapproval of most films by John Boorman remains valid, if all he had ever done was to direct this one movie, he would have earned whatever accolades one might care to bestow. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

CAPOTE

  The first time I saw him in a movie was while watching The Scent of a Woman (1992), a movie for which I never developed much fondness. Chris O'Donnell didn't quite break through in the picture, and while Al Pacino gave his all for his art, somehow I never believed a blind man could drive a Ferrari. What I did like about the film was the performance of a young man billed as Philip S. Hoffman. He played a complex character named George Willis Jr., a kind of big mouth EverySlob who wants to do the right thing but has too many options before him, none of them especially pleasant. For most other actors--indeed, for most actors who had yet to establish anything close to a personal style--this role would have represented a banal diversion from summer stock. But Hoffman invested such life in his character that I made a point of wondering if he would use his appearance as a springboard.
   Neither When a Man Loves a Woman nor Twister did much for me other than induce yawns and unintended laughter, respectively. Then I watched Boogie Nights (1997), a movie about which I still cannot decide if I think it was brilliant or despicable. Whatever else it was, it certainly was accurate, not that that is an excuse. The most accurate character in the film was Scotty J., a heavyset, timid boom operator who has a crush on Mark Wahlberg's character. His portrayal was so dead on that it physically hurt. This time out he was billed as Philip Seymour Hoffman. 
   Hoffman went on to appear in The Big Lebowski, Patch Adams, Almost Famous (where he completely stole the show as Lester Bangs), Along Came Polly, and Cold Mountain, among other treats. 
   He was almost there. He had carved out a name for himself, perhaps even earned the title bestowed on him by Jon Stewart as "the greatest actor in America." 
   In 2005 United Artists released Capote and there was no longer any doubt that Stewart had been correct. 
  Roger Ebert wrote at the time that Hoffman "channeled" Capote, rather than imitated him, a crucial distinction. Until his death in 1984, writer Truman Capote had been the butt of many idiotic impressionists who felt fine mimicking someone with far more talent than they themselves ever possessed. Watching Hoffman's Capote explain to a grieving survivor about how he had been ridiculed most of his life for the way he looked and spoke, we get a genuine sense as to how those barbs not only hurt, but were used by their target to ingratiate himself with other wannabe misfits. 
   The movie focuses on the period of time when Capote was working on his "nonfiction novel" In Cold Blood, a book which belongs right up there with other masterpieces of the 1960s, punching its way through the crowd alongside Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Dick, Ursula LeGuin, Philip Roth, William Styron, Saul Bellow and Harper Lee, the latter figuring prominently in this movie. I for one never knew that the author of To Kill a Mockingbird had been tight with Truman Capote, much less that she had based the character Dill on him. 
   From the moment we meet Capote, we get a sense of a man who tries hard to be detached from human feelings, as when he tells the sheriff that he doesn't care one way or another whether they catch the killers of the Clutter family, or when one of the killers asks if it's true that he knows Elizabeth Taylor and he replies "I know a lot of people."
   Yet this is a person who feels. He feels, you should pardon the cliche, too deeply. Every wound he has ever received, every sincere complement in which he has basked, and every lame attempt at flattery he has deflected has implanted itself in his mind and, as he likes to remind us, he has a 94% accuracy rate with recalling conversations. 
  He manipulates the killers, He manipulates the press. He uses people for his art. On some level, all of them recognize this ill-treatment. "What's the name of your book?" one of the murderers keeps asking. If the writer admits the title, the killer will know that he is being used. So Capote lies. And the killer knows he lies.
  While this is Hoffman's movie from the starting gate, he does benefit from a superb support cast, in particular from the always watchable Chris Cooper as the sheriff who is consumed with a need for justice in the case of the four murders, and from Catherine Keener as Harper Lee, the woman who not only acts as Capote's bodyguard but who is the only person we meet who understands the conflux that motivates him. 
   What motivated Philip Hoffman I cannot say. The reports of his death in February 2014 devastated me and, if you have read this far, perhaps they devastated you as well. Dead at forty-six from a mix of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Well, that was certainly a waste. He had been sober twenty-three years, checked into rehab the previous May, then went about his business. No one with that much talent can be said to be haunted only by demons. The angels had their impact too. But sometimes the ugliness we synthesize in order to get through pockets of time in our lives enlarge the human tragedy to the point where the ugliness is all we can sense. Then we take just a little bit more on our way to the big sleep. 
   We miss you, Philip Seymour Hoffman. We wish you could rejoin us. Things have not been the same.


Tuesday, January 12, 2016

THE FIRM

  The truth is out: I would not bother to walk across the street to vomit on Samuel P Huntington. As co-author of The Crisis of Democracies: On the Governability of Democracies, Huntington's report to and from the infamous Trilateral Commission in 1976, Samuel P put forth what he considered the necessity of what the more conspiratorially-minded among us refer to as one world government and what those with a more academic orientation speak of as globalization. The Trilateral Commission was and remains one of those nefarious groups that receives monumental criticism from both the right and the left. Barry Goldwater claimed it was a skillful attempt to consolidate political, monetary, intellectual and religious power. Noam Chomsky said that the Commission was a concerted attempt by the liberal elite to moderate democracy, to induce indoctrination, and to foster passivity.
   Both points of view have some merit.
   One need not be a kind of conspiracy buff to suspect that immigration policies, international trade agreements, the blackmailing techniques of the International Monetary Fund, the extortion by the World Bank and the intellectual rationalizations of the Trilateral Commission, all have "coincidentally" worked to bring about a global merging of brain trusts and finance which thrives spiritually, economically and politically by the creation and development of international tensions among components of the developed world and between that world and those agents who claim to represent emerging states and nations. 
   Let me be clear. I do not believe in the existence of an Illuminati (unless one is referring to a group of the Enlightenment, from which the term got its name, formed in 1776, founded by Adam Weishaupt, a society of sorts that stood opposed to most of the things the fictitious Illuminati is always being accused of promoting, such as religious influence and abuses of power). Likewise, I maintain that Alex Jones and the entirety of the Infowars empire are a bunch of turd-lickers who exploit the power of the fears that they themselves propagate. But if both the narrow-minded and the expansive of intellect can agree on the unwarranted influence of globalization, then the subject certainly deserves some consideration from the likes of the rest of us.
   Mitch McDeere, it is safe to say, never read any reports by the Trilateral Commission. Years of law school, among the top five students in his class, hard working son of a gun, snappy dresser--yet he never took the time to consider the sources of real power in American society. Yet he does not bother to invest thirty seconds of his time into looking into the client base of the Memphis law firm that has just hired him. Had he done his homework, he would have learned that the organization that pays the firm's bills is the Chicago branch of the Mafia. Try to leave The Firm (1993) and the merger of legal minds and organized criminality will see to it that you die. Sure, director Sidney Pollack gives us the typical John Grisham twists, but in this film they come off as contrived. The sad fact is that everyone working on this movie behind the camera only wanted one thing: to impress us all with the talent of star Tom Cruise. And because nothing in the movie except the conclusion does anything to convince us that his character, McDeere, could navigate a pay toilet in a diarrhea ward, the ending feels false and we are left with yet another Grisham adaptation that should have been much better than it was. This lack of translation from the written page to the big screen with John Grisham is not unique. Hemingway's novels and short stories never worked on film, Ray Bradbury never once made the leap, and Stephen King only had occasional luck in this regard. And satisfying as his novels may be, Grisham is no Hemingway, Bradbury or King. 
   Ed Harris, as the frustrated FBI agent, does everything he can to breathe some life into this film. Even Wilford Brimley stands out as a convincing sinister head of security. But otherwise, Pollack's motion picture is a masterful misuse of talent at least on a par with that of Cruise. The character played by Gene Hackman: wasted. Hal Holbrook: wasted. David Strathairn: wasted. Gary Busey: well, you get the idea. This movie was supposed to be the literary vehicle for The Star's career, much as Top Gun served as an ideological co-optation of the entertainment industry by the military industrial complex, unless you think all those MTV videos and Pepsi commercials were "coincidence." And to make sure no one watching missed the point, Pollack changed the ending from the one in the novel so that Cruise's character is a hero instead of a coward. 
   And that was one of the typically staid director's worst decisions because, for my money, the best role Tom Cruise ever played was that of Vincent in Collateral. He played a hit man. A bad guy. A killer. A not very nice dude. He played it against good guy Jamie Foxx and the dynamics between those two powerhouse performances was nothing short of engaging. Engaging is not what The Firm was about. It was about 150 minutes of tedium in the guise of harmless entertainment. It was symptomatic of corporate expectations for the producers and directors in their employ. It was no more convincing than a Samuel P Huntington treatise, although it was every bit as manipulative. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

COOL HAND LUKE

    The famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to Sinclair Lewis (who said something similar), goes like this: "If Fascism ever comes to America, it will come wrapped in an American flag."
   Some people hold that the speaker of those words, Huey Long, was himself an American bully. Personally, I think of famous bullies as being on a list that would include Spiro Agnew, George Wallace, Paul LePage, and Donald Trump, among many others too pompous to name. Famous bullies. Now there's an annoying concept for you. Their fans submit that these men are straight shooters who eschew stuffy political correctness for the joys of honest talk, guys who know what's really going on and who want to fix the screwed up nature of society through their own presumed personal charisma. On the other hand, some people believe it would serve the commonweal if men of this ilk were torn apart by fire-winged ravens. It doesn't matter to me whether I happen to disagree with the bully in question. Lording his own uninformed opinions over the rest of us like low clouds of dinosaur feces and calling the stench sweet is all it takes to qualify for inclusion in the bully hall of fame. 
   Sometimes a bully may not even be a person. Occasionally a bully can be a collective impulse to behave in a certain manner. Toe that line, load that barge, puncture that widget, wave that flag. It bores the mind and gives comfort to some. Those who take ease in blind conformity are particularly inclined to suck up to the purveyors of such a system of beliefs. I almost feel stupid saying something that feels so obvious to me, considering the social and political events that formed my own twisted kind of awareness. But while the common law concept of res ipsa loquitor may apply in negligence suits, it has no place in what is after all a review of a major motion picture released just short of fifty years ago. 
   I like to think that Lucas Jackson would agree with that sentiment. When Cool Hand Luke (1967) begins, he is in the process of chopping off the heads of parking meters lined up and down a night time street. For this apparent abomination, he is sentenced to two years on a work farm. As everyone beyond puberty should know, Luke is played by Paul Newman and the movie featured a cast of support actors who would go on to make their own mark on television and motion pictures, including Strother Martin as the Captain, Luke Askew as one of the Bosses (and certainly a contender if not the all-time champion of character actors who embodied the role of Stoic Yet Horribly Wicked Bad Guy), Jo Van Fleet as Luke's dying mother, George Kennedy as suck-up Dragline, plus Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite (Papa Walton), the amazing Anthony Zerbe, a young Joe Don Baker (later of Walking Tall fame), Morgan Woodward as the man with no eyes, and about half of Hollywood. 
   Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, this movie features director Stuart Rosenberg who allows Newman's incomparable talent to set the pace as he attempts three escapes from the work crew. That's essentially the plot right there. But this movie is not about plot or car chases or the simplicity of rural living. It is about atheists in foxholes, guys who can eat fifty eggs in one hour, how some people in captivity kiss up to the authorities even when doing so works against their own self interests, and the existentialist commandment to fight only those battles one is assured of losing. While one of the popular quotes from this film remains "What we got here is failure to communicate," I have always favored Luke's line shortly after the third escape: "I never planned a thing in my life." 
   Being a natural born world-shaker invites persecution, betrayal, and the heartbreak of a million faces turning away. I can make no better case for Luke's martyrdom. Shaking up the world is, for some of us, the only reason we are here. Take that away and we will kill to get it back. When Luke takes severe body and head blows from Dragline, the men around him call for him to stay down. Drag himself yells for him to stay in the dirt. But he won't. "You're gonna hafta kill me." And we smile, just as Luke smiles back at us.
   Maybe Edward Yashinsky said it best:
Fear not your enemies, for they can only kill you.
Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you.
Fear only the indifferent, who permit the killers and betrayers to walk safely on the earth.

A SCANNER DARKLY

   Philip K Dick did drugs better than any other writer. If one simply must get messed up for the expressed purpose of using one's personal experiences as a synthesis of process and reaction, then one must be prepared to compete with the masters of the form. I am not necessarily referring to people such as Hunter S Thompson or even F Scott Fitzgerald. What I do mean is that body of writers who, let us say, had a series of prolonged personalized encounters with the darker hues of psychological manifestations emerging from dangerous levels of hazardous chemicals ingested primarily for purposes of expanding one's consciousness, rather than, say, getting off for its own sake. Dick's 1977 novel, A Scanner Darkly, hits all the highs and lows with a practitioner's expertise. It's also quite disturbing and simultaneously funny as hell.
   That statement applies to Richard Linklater's rotoscopic animation feature of the same name (2006). Staying close to the novel's storyline, director Linklater introduces us to a new world (same as the old world?) where the police state hires out Keany Reeves to infiltrate a group of hardcore druggies inhabited by Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and Wynona Ryder. The group favors an instantly addictive intoxicant called Substance D. We don't get much of a sense as to the drug's pleasant effects (unless untrammeled paranoia is pleasant, which, in that world, it might just be), but we certainly get our eyes full of the heightened suspicion, the inducement to idiotic violence, the impulsiveness of consumerism, and the devastation of withdrawal. 
   Reeves plays an undercover cop whose interactions with the public require him to wear a special suit that alters his appearance every second or so (one of which appearances is Philip K Dick himself). Ryder plays Donna, the connection Reeves hopes will take him to the next level so he can bust the guy from whom she gets her supplies. Harrelson plays a variation of the characters for which he is best known--quiet, loud, morose, funny, righteous, evil. And Downey runs a manic streak so unsettling that I wanted to shout "Shut up!" at the screen at least three times. 
   If you have not experienced rotoscope technology in your movie-going delights, then you never saw the dance scenes in the Betty Boop cartoons, or watched The Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, or Linklater's own Waking Life (2001). Possibly you never saw Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, although a subtle reference to Walt appears in the refrigerator scene of A Scanner Darkly. (A lot of subtle references pop up here, including a strange fascination with bear imagery. Hey, getting the jokes is half the fun.) What the process ultimately involves is shooting the movie, which Linklater did in just twenty-three days, and then having the animators trace over it, which took over a year, giving the finished product the magnificent sense of being a graphic novel brought to life. 
   I can think of no better way to summarize the experience of this movie that to recall the oft-quoted observation that "even paranoids have enemies." In the near future of this film, we are the paranoiacs and the enemies have us. In other words, if you have any sense of humor at all or have ever known anyone who did, or if you have ever had an enemy but didn't quite know who it was, you will enjoy this motion picture. The fantastic becomes real.
  
   

Sunday, December 13, 2015

OLIVER STONE

   While making a point of not watching the news the other evening, I passed by the TV set and double-took the screen image of Oliver Stone speaking with some entertainment reporter. I grabbed the remote control and un-muted the sound just in time to hear the filmmaker offer the beginnings of a remark wherein he referenced the past. He said, "At the time, I was a hotshot director. . . " That was all I heard of what he said because the impact of those few words temporarily buried me. "At the time"? Granted, the nature of Stone's movies changed a bit after 1999's Any Given Sunday. For many people in the movie business. teaming Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx and Dennis Quaid in what is arguably the most authentic football movie every made would have been a career in and of itself. Granted, in the previous twenty-one years, Oliver Stone had written the screenplays for the Turkish prison film Midnight Express, the action thriller Conan the Barbarian, and the gangster epic Scarface. He directed the political experiences Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Nixon, and Natural Born Killers. He exploded the Sixties with Born on the Fourth of July and The Doors. In case you may not have been copied on the memo, he also produced The People versus Larry Flynt, The Joy Luck Club and Heaven and Earth. Men with similarly impressive resumes (few as they may be) never refer to their successes in the past tense, even though the quality of their recent work would make such self-deprecation more than merely appropriate. DePalma, Spielberg, Scorsese, Burton, Coppola, Lucas--only one of whom might be considered among the most artistically viable directors of the last fifty years--and neither he nor the other five would, on penalty of death or public humiliation, whisper the suggestion that his best days just might possibly be in the past. True, Stone's demand at the box office was not served well with Alexander, W., or by his movies about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, although I personally enjoyed these movies almost as much as I did the earlier classics. And with a new movie called Snowden being released in 2016, he is the furthest thing from being washed up. 
   One of the sources of conflict in Any Given Sunday (which my girlfriend Lisa Ann insists is her favorite Oliver Stone movie) is the strain between experienced age (in the form of Pacino) and inexperienced youth (Jamie Foxx). I could not help but think of Stone himself while watching Pacino in the role of coach Tony D'Amato, trying the explain to his third-string quarterback about the value of the game itself rather than the glorification of one sole player. The young player feels he is being condescended to, that Pacino's days of glory are over, that the game itself has changed to passes and high scores over strategies and teamwork. And because mocking the phoniness of cheap pop culture is one of the subtleties of the director's work, we suspect early on that Pacino will find a way to win out over the corporate hustlers who have corrupted the surface--rather than the essence--of the game of football. 
    Stone is our great cinematic mythologist. Like any artist, he knows his version of history may not be the same as that of those who traditionally inform the masses. But he understands the power of myth, the way stories get relayed over generations, how truth can become corrupted, of the essential nature of the counter-myth. 
  In Scarface, the counter-myth comes right out the chute when the criminals Fidel Castro kicked out of Cuba come drifting to the United States, specifically to the Miami area, celebrating their new freedom to struggle to the top of a criminal empire. The older brothers and sisters of those same Cubans worked their black magic in Stone's telling of the destruction of John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. A jagged though sturdy set of lines connect the hidden lies at the heart of America and the anti-Castro Cuban exiles form those lines, from the muscle boys who worked the mob's casinos when Cuba belonged to the United States (courtesy of the dictator Batista) through the mechanics who murdered JFK under the auspices of the CIA, right on through the burglars who violated the offices of Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist, the Watergate hotel, the Brookings Institute, to those who guided the training of the Contras in Nicaragua. These unnumbered dots form invisible links bounding and bonding our collective consciousness, our Spiritus Mundi, as Yeats called it in "The Second Coming." 
   Martin Scorsese may have the market on the subjects of guilt and redemption, just as Francis Coppola may be the master of the Great Journey. Spielberg may do more with the Establishment message than many outside the Establishment have dreamed. While Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now and perhaps Schindler's List will forever serve to redefine our understanding of just how much can be done with the medium of cinema, so do movies such as JFK and Nixon redefine our understanding of how we got here as a people. The late Robert Altman did the same thing with MASH, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women and The Player. Altman and Stone have been the great counter-mythologists of our time. These filmmakers and a few others I could mention (mostly from outside the United States) have reconstructed the nature of making movies in the same way that Method Acting and Stella Adler changed performance. That is to say, contemporary movies are unthinkable without them. 
   I have heard Stone refer to his stylistic efforts as a kind of Cubism, in the Picasso sense of the term. Quick shots interspersing present and past, color and B&W, clarity and graininess, fact and theory create the emotional rhythm of movies such as JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. And if Cubism dictates the geometric conflux of a piece of art, such as a movie, then it relies on the emotional wallop for its initial success. The actor Tommy Lee Jones has referred to NBK as Art on a par with Guernica. From the point of view of substance, that's ridiculous. The former is satire, the latter expose. But from the POV of style, Jones hit the target square in the lens with his observation.
   Oliver Stone has no need for me to come to his defense. He might even resent the effort. But after the System--the Beast--launched its attack against him for his stories of Kennedy and Nixon and contemporary culture, he likely grew weary from the fight. Reading and watching interviews he granted from 1992 through 1996, you can observe how well-informed and attuned to specificity his thinking had become. This was a man who, in his youth, could have followed an easy path toward becoming an effete snob. Instead, he went to Vietnam. He could have continued scripting action adventure thrillers. He could have used his education and experiences to manufacture product that would deteriorate the gray matter of the movie-going audiences. Instead, he pounded his chest, let out a roar, and invited us to question all the lies that are our lives. Sometimes, as with The Doors, this teeters on the razor's edge between the boredom of overkill and the fascination of excess. Most of the time, however, his thumping, roaring and invitations make us obsessed with our own discomfort. 
   History is a series of overlapping stories about the uses to which great power is put. Myths are explanations for how this is possible. Cinema is the self-gazing set of eyes that merge history with mythology. How do we see ourselves up on that colossal screen? Are we some freak of nature superhero whose motivations are interesting yet murky? Or are we Barry in Talk Radio, trying to figure out why people need him and need to destroy him? Are we Jim Garrison in JFK, aware that "Something is happening but you don't know what it is"? Are we Pat Nixon, playing both wife and surrogate mother to the President of the United States? And is there not some sense of liberation in that identification with those characters? When these characters agonize from their fall from grace, our identification is called catharsis. I don't know how to get catharsis from Spider-Man (although not from lack of trying). But I feel it in the best movies by Oliver Stone. I feel it with repeated viewings. 
   Here's hoping you are the same.


Monday, November 30, 2015

COPPOLA

   Frequent visitors to this site will have observed that the writer has what might be charitably called a fondness for New Hollywood movies, which is to say films released between 1967 and 1982 which do not hone their narrative style to a traditional storytelling approach, which borrow cinematic techniques and applications from the French New Wave, and which are often dedicated to non-resolution of various plot elements. It should be noted that I am neither a film school graduate nor a film school drop-out. I do not sleep on a bed of back issues of Cahiers du Cinema or even Cineaste. I do, however, watch a sizable quantity of motion pictures, many of which have informed my opinions of the industry, the art, and the processes of great, awful, and mediocre movies. In my pursuit of pleasurable cinema, I eschew movies which depend for their appeal on highly technical special effects at the expense of character development. To that end I try to avoid what I have long considered to be what was the death-knell for New Hollywood: the blockbuster. What was wrong with The Exorcist, the first Star Trek movie, Star Wars or most of the superhero films of the last twenty years? None of them had any human characters who displayed any reason whatsoever for the audience to care one way or another about whether they lived or died. (Note that the only characters with personality in Star Wars were robots.) 
   Some of the movies which exemplify the New Hollywood motif which may be familiar to you include progenitors such as The Graduate (which I hated) and Bonnie and Clyde (which I loved), as well as inheritors such as Rosemary's Baby, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, MASH, The Landlord, Brewster McCloud, Joe, Two-Lane Blacktop, Deliverance, American Graffiti, Dog Day Afternoon, 3 Women, Mean Streets, Annie Hall, two of the three Godfather movies and Apocalypse Now. And certainly a few post-New Hollywood directors have carried on the efforts of their elder brethren, people such as Oliver Stone, Milos Forman and Brian DePalma have all added their own sensibilities to what they learned from some of the older filmmakers. 
   For me personally, the most difficult director-writer to embrace has always been Francis Coppola. While I liked The Rain People, I loathed Patton, never for one minute accepting what was then the conventional wisdom that it had been carefully made to appeal to both anti-establishment types and conservatives. The Great Gatsby was a pile of nonsense (as have been all attempts at making the Fitzgerald book into a film). The Conversation was a mixed bag. One From The Heart, The Outsiders and Rumble Fish didn't come close to Coppola's magic, while The Rain Maker and Tucker were touching yet obvious. 
   Pardon? What's that sound? Oh, I begin to make out the words. Some of you are braying: "Hey, dick head! When are ya gonna talk about his three major classics, fuck wad?" 
   Many cliched superlatives stagger to mind: Greatest films of the century, Best movies ever made, Heir to D. W. Griffith, etc. Yet I have no idea what "best," "greatest" and "heir" mean in this context. I do know that The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now, while telling their stories in compelling and unique ways and while being easy to watch repeatedly for the sake of pure enjoyment, remain extraordinarily safe motion pictures. None of these three movies make a conscientious effort to manipulate the audience, to challenge our preconceptions, to force us to perceive the world in new ways.
   I will grant that Coppola takes us places we have never been and takes us there without mercy. We may identify with hot-headed Sonny or calculating and confused Captain Willard. We may even reel from the exposure to these and other characters' experiences. And even though the filmmaker adheres to the rule of suspense that says that anyone in the movie can die at any time, that rule does not apply to those of us in the audience because we are too busy, in one case, being wowed by the sepia tones and Italian music, and in the other because of the horror of moving up the river as we meet people with about as much verisimilitude to our daily lives as a three-headed bug-eyed monster. 
   To prevent the reader from misunderstanding my point of view, please accept my word when I say that these are three of my all-time favorite movies, despite the fact that they treat women as accessories, despite the willful disregard for contrasting the filmed version of the world with the one in which the rest of us live and thereby at least hinting at possible similarities between us and them, and despite the overwhelming public acknowledgement of these movies as "classics," even though my experience has been that most movies everyone likes are not uncommonly the cinematic equivalent of salamander feces. 
   The significance of these three movies connects with the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year's, many TV networks and cable outlets will be replaying these three movies ad infinitum, and you may find yourself adhered to your favorite chair, gulping in the 24 frames per second magnificence of these motion pictures without bothering to inquire precisely why these are such hot properties. Maybe the entertainment factor will be enough, but if so, then you might as well watch The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz. But if you are looking for the impact of irresolution, the majesty of applying traditional stories to a madcap methodology, or subordination of narrative style to stylistic innovations that have never been surpassed, you will not be disappointed. You might even want to take a few minutes to think about why. 


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

V FOR VENDETTA

   This movie proves beyond any doubt that it is both possible and desirable to transform a graphic novel into a motion picture while maintaining the integrity of both forms without turning the movie into little more than a mobius strip of special effects. V For Vendetta (2006) is that rare experience where the comic book ethics of the heroes are not compromised, yet the depth of their complex personalities are not subjugated to the glory of cows flying across the screen in the midst of a tornado. This movie has something to say, says it, then tells you what it said--all amidst some of the best acting in any film so far this century.
   When the film first appeared, everyone I knew who had seen the movie made a point of assuring me how much I would like it. Some even went so far as to insist that the movie had been specifically made "for people like" me. As a result, I resisted seeing it until just the other day. (The surest way to get me to avoid a movie is to tell me that I am somehow the exact person at which the movie was aimed.) It may be good that I waited. Had I watched this during the reign of the Bush Jr Administration, I might have been inclined to go all Guy Fawkes on the White House and therefore would not enjoy the privilege of writing these tender words of admiration. 
   At the risk of getting too autobiographical here, I should tell you that most of my contemporary values and all of my world views come from a childhood immersed in comic book lore. In particular I favored the superhero comics (although there was a short-lived run called "Pep," which came across as a hip version of Archie Andrews and crew; even the name struck me as vaguely illicit and I shuddered when it turned into a Saturday kids show called "Josie and the Pussycats"), such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, the Submariner (all from DC), as well as Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange and The Incredible Hulk, all courtesy of Marvel. My secret treasure trove even had some old copies of gems from EC, such as "Tales From the Crypt," "Moon Girl," "Weird Science" and "Panic." Along with the jazz excursions of saxophonist Albert Ayler and bassist Charles Mingus, these stories and their musical soundtracks twisted my brain into its present triple-helix condition and no voltage of electro-convulsive therapy is likely to undo the transformation. As a pre-fallen Catholic, I was--even in my single-digit years--fascinated by the complexities and occasional paradoxes of written stories. The Bible in particular I found riddled with mysteries aplenty. For instance, the transition from the Old Testament to the New confounded my developing mind to the edges of my cranium and beyond. I remember well reading about Jesus declaring that one should forgive one's enemies and indeed go so far as to forget their transgressions insomuch as one could not truly forgive lest he forget. For a child of conscience, such as I considered myself way back then, that was a mighty tall order. 
    For instance, in one of his "The Brave and the Bold" comics, Batman tracks down a bad guy who has escaped from prison. But the bad guy is not merely some wild-eyed psychopath looking to blow banks and snort lines of soda. This bad guy had a social conscience. When we meet him, he is languishing in prison, bemoaning the injustices of solitary confinement, lousy nutrition, and brutal corrections officers. By the time he makes his escape, the reader is apt to be pulling for him. "Wait, Batman! Don't hurt him too badly! He's simply misunderstood!" Evidently Batman had not spent as much time as had I in reading Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. 
   That kind of three-dimensionality made some villains semi-heroic.
   "V," the lead character in V for Vendetta, is determined to blow up Parliament because the building represents the hodgepodge of venal corruption and all-out fascism that has overtaken Britain and much of the formerly free world. When we first meet him, he is saving Evey (Natalie Portman) from disaster at the hands of the local police. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and Evey--who is well-educated--inquires of him his name. V is dismayed. Evey wonders why. He replies: "I'm not questioning your powers of observation; I'm merely remarking upon the paradox of asking a masked man who he is." 
   That level of great writing runs two risks. First, it may be too smart for the audience. Second, it may call too much attention to its own cleverness. Hell's bells, says me. In these days when the most common line in movies is "We gotta get outta here," having something approximating Shakespearean wit is downright refreshing, as is V's next rejoinder: "VoilĂ ! In view, a humble vaudevillian veteran, cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of Fate. This visage, no mere veneer of vanity, is a vestige of the vox populi, now vacant, vanished. However, this valorous visitation of a by-gone vexation, stands vivified and has vowed to vanquish these venal and virulent vermin vanguarding vice and vouchsafing the violently vicious and voracious violation of volition." And he is just warming up with the single-consonant alliteration. 
   We like him immediately.
   What we do not like, I trust, is the fascist state in which England has found itself as a result of a manufactured disease created by the brain trust that presently rules the Kingdom, a group of men who also developed the cure for the St. Mary's virus. V himself is a bio-metric consequence of this cure and his need for setting things right has turned him into a person who will sacrifice himself in the interests of exposing the fraud perpetrated upon the people and the execution of those wicked perpetrators. 
   The hegemonic fear-mongering and media complicity ring loud and true in this movie, as does the acting of Portman, Hugo Weaving as V, and especially Stephen Rea as Inspector Finch, the latter a sort of Everyman determined to figure out what it is that's wrong with the world. 
   Every element of this movie--acting, writing, direction, editing, music, lighting, costumes--works together to make a comic book story more believable than any conventional drama. In the process, you will smile, sob, sink in your chair, stand on your feet and shout in sympathy with V. Or else you have stumbled onto the wrong website by mistake.


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

THE CONTENDER

   A strange sense of joy pervades the spirit of The Contender (2000), which I suspect comes from the knowledge--shared by the viewer--that the flawed good guys will gain victory over the perverse bad guys. Jeff Bridges plays the President. His Vice-President has somehow passed away and needs to be replaced, a fact which requires the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate. Most of his advisers want Jack Hathaway (William Peterson) for the job, but the Prez wants a woman in the position, specifically Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Complicating the situation is Congressman Shelly Runyon (Gary Oldham), who objects to Hanson because she is a woman, because she is a liberal, and because he himself is a member of the opposition party. 
   The fact that this movie was made and released prior to the 2000 Presidential election hits the viewer as somewhat amazing considering how the GOP has tried to obstruct the current administration. You could easily believe that the Republican party used the foiled plot of this film as a template for their actions against Clinton and Obama. 
   I had the resolution of this movie figured out within the first five minutes and you probably will too. But that fact does not take away from the joy I mentioned earlier. Jeff Bridges clearly loves being President almost as much as his character enjoys ordering food before every conversation. Joan Allen experiences a nearly rapturous happiness at taking on the accusatory opposition side. Sam Elliott, as the President's Chief of Staff, shows himself to be precisely the person you would want watching your back, no matter what job you have. I don't know what the hell Christian Slater is doing in this film, although he smiles nice for the camera. But the truest of joys emanates from bad guy Gary Oldham. Oldham's character is a deranged, perverse, self-assured, sociopathic, hypocritical and mild-tempered adversary who is mean for the sake of cruelty. And he loves every minute of the battle, right up to the point where he gets his comeuppance. 
   Nothing in The Contender will change your view of American politics. If you're on the left, you'll claim that everything should turn out exactly this way. If you're on the right, you'll see the movie as another example of the liberal media running the world. If you're in the center, you'll lust after the presence Joan Allen brings to her role and wonder if Sam Elliott is really as tough as he seems. What I took away from the experience was a sense of just how sophisticated the clumsiness of contemporary electioneering can be. On some days, it can even be joyous. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

MILK

   Homophobia may be one of the more pathetic symptoms of creeping bigotry exploited by politicians here and abroad. Whether the source comes from propagandists such as Michael Douglas or from presidential candidates such as Ben Carson (with his "orientation is a choice" remarks), the fear of same-sex togetherness has been unfairly linked with everything from animal husbandry to child abuse. That Dan White could walk into the Mayor's office and blow away George Moscone and then stroll down the hall and do the same thing to Harvey Milk, and receive for his offenses a seven year sentence--and serve less than that--in, of all places, San Francisco, says something about how far we have not come in meting out equitable degrees of justice in our society. 
   Harvey Milk understood political power, which is why he tried to recruit everyone he met. 
   It takes guts to address injustice. If it didn't take guts, then the problem would not be injustice. The issue, comedian Mort Sahl once said, is always fascism. I have always translated that word to mean the exploitation of those without power by those with it. That condition leaves the victims of prejudice with few choices. A person being suffocated will tend to resist. A person with attitude being suffocated always resists. 
   Sean Penn (Milk) and Josh Brolin (White) are so authentic in Milk (2008) that knowing the storyline in advance can be somewhat terrifying to relive. 
   This movie has nothing to do with entertainment, nor should it. Milk is about getting an education. I was in college when the story broke about Mr. Dan Law and Order White gunning down Milk and Moscone when neither man would endorse the ex-cop's efforts to be reinstated to his position in city government. My first thought was "I'll bet Dan White is secretly gay and that's what set him off." You know, the old Shakespeare line, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" comes to mind. Apparently the same idea came to the director Gus van Sant and writer Dustin Lance Black because the implication of that theory pervades Brolin's characterization. 
   Harvey Milk, we are shown, is a maze of complexities, a lonely man with a heart as big as the sky, full of needs and desires, with imperfections, a man exploding with a need to unite the community he helped build. This movie is as good a presentation of that man as anyone is likely to create. 


Monday, October 26, 2015

URBAN COWBOY

    If one cogitates on the most obnoxious elements of the late 1970s, some of the images that slither across the mind will include the assimilation of all the most reactive responses to the women's movement, a fixation with the insolent parts of Elvis Presley's persona, a division of labor between men and women, extremely bad popular music, singles bars, pick-up trucks, mechanical bulls, constant drunkenness, and the state of Texas becoming its own sovereign nation. Could any one motion picture possibly encapsulate all of these components without putting its audience into a condition of extreme catatonia?
   Of course not. That is why it was presumably necessary for Irving Azoff to finance the making of Urban Cowboy (1980). After all, if the public would swallow the scam of disco, surely Azoff could convince a similar sty of idiots that ultra-slick country music (without the western) was worth working oil rigs to raise the money to buy. So he gave us John Travolta in tight cowboy clothes, Debra Winger as a tomboy turned tart, and a soundtrack of some of the most horrible ear-swill ever foisted onto the tape decks of the American public. While Bud Davis (Travolta) holds his long neck beer bottle like the phallic symbol it is, we get to suffer through the most bathetic songs ever to infect the human ear tubes: Jimmy Buffett--"Hello Texas," Dan Fogelberg--"Times Like These," Bob Seger--"Nine Tonight," Mickey Gilley--"Stand By Me," and Johnny Lee--"Lookin for Love" all resonate with an agonizing twitch that neither years nor whiskey can erase. 
   Few movies have been so instantly offensive as Urban Cowboy. None outside the horror genre have ever led to as much in-theatre regurgitation. Once we come to accept the film as nothing more than a 132-minute commercial for Gilley's nightclub (you may remember Mickey Gilley as the least talented of the cousin-hood of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart), we then settle in for a bull ride competition between Bud and Wes, the latter being an ex-con who enjoys beating women even more than does Bud. 
   Wes is played by Scott Glenn and it must be admitted that Glenn actually does something with the role. While Travolta sulks and Winger struts, Glenn at least affects some type of personality. When Bud inadvertently whacks him in the back of the head with a hamburger, we know that Wes is going to seriously mess him up. In fact, that would have made a decent movie in and of itself: two hours of Scott Glenn beating snot and mucus out of Travolta, screaming "There's more to acting, boy, than curling your upper lip!" 
   Travolta went on to better roles which revealed that he actually had tremendous skill. But after this dreck and Saturday Night Fever, he came close to presenting himself as a parody of fake style. 
   Addendum: God help us all. The Fox network is releasing a pilot for television of a remake of this movie, which means that with Jim Belushi's help, a whole nation of young whelps are liable to be convinced that large numbers of people actually behaved like these morons. And Azoff will laugh all the way to the laundromat.


Sunday, October 25, 2015

THE NATURAL

   "You got a gift, Roy. But that's not enough. It takes confidence and concentration."
   There's this old story told by Jack Kerouac. This young guy goes searching for the meaning of life. He looks high, low, in between. Finally he finds this mountain on the top of which stands a house that serves as home for the Great Wise Man. The young guy crawls up the side of the mountain, the rains come and batter against him, but his question about the meaning of life is a big question and so the young guy simply will not be deterred. He falls against the front door. The Great Wise Man uncrosses his legs and hobbles over to let the young guy in. They chat for a while about this and that and at last the young guy asks the Great Wise Man, "What's it all about, dude, this thing called life?"
   The Great Wise Man walks over to the window and stares out at the rain, pondering the moment because, after all, this is a heavy question. At long last, the Great Wise Man turns, smiles and says to the young guy, "You know, there sure are a lot of bastards out there."
   Which brings us to The Natural (1984) and the Robert Redford character of Roy Hobbs. Roy has the gift of potentially being the greatest baseball player who ever lived. Unfortunately, there sure are a lot of bastards out there. 
    Roy comes up against a Babe Ruth slab of an oaf on a train ride to Chicago. During a break on the ride, Joe Don Baker, the oaf in question, accepts a challenge from Roy's manager. The bet? My boy can strike out the Babe with three pitches. He does. The onlooking female (Barbara Hershey) has found her man and in short order shoots him in the stomach with a silver bullet. If you're a star athlete on the way up and you want to get sidetracked for more than a decade, this woman will shoot you with a silver bullet. It's what she does. 
   Sixteen years later, Roy returns to the game. He's signed a contract with the Judge, a corrupt pseudo-intellectual who just wants to stay out of working night court and who cares nothing for the game. He's betting on Hobbs to be a loser. The Eye Man Bookie (Darren McGavin) tells Hobbs he's a loser and to insure it, he employs Kim Basinger to seduce him into losing his concentration. Roy Hobbs is twice the age of most of the guys playing and more than one of his teammates calls him "Grandpa." When Basinger feeds Roy a poisoned eclair, his stomach lining ruptures and the doctors finally remove the remains of the silver bullet. The doctor tells Roy he will never play baseball again. That news comes at a bad time because his team, The New York Knights, are in the playoffs and they need one more game to clinch it. Wilford Brimley, the manager, would very much like to win the pennant. About the World Series, he could give a shit. But the pennant is something he would truly enjoy winning. If he does, he gets to keep his interest in the team, sell it to some Wrigley Field line painter, and retire to the quiet life of a modern day farmer. We also have to contend with the Glenn Close character, Iris, a true angel if such things exist. She used to be Roy's girl before he left home and found out, to his temporary display, that there sure are a lot of bastards out there. So Roy gets out of his hospital bed in the maternity ward and plays what will be his final game. 
   You may be tempted to resist the instant charm of this movie because the plot, as I have described it, may feel a bit predictable. If so, I have no sympathy for you. People watch movies they have seen dozens of times over and over again, even though they clearly know how things will work out far in advance, which is one definition of corniness, and yet if those movies were directed by Jean-Luc Godard or Stanley Kubrick, people would insist they were watching them because of the art and skill of the director. But just let poor old Barry Levinson take a shot at art and because the movie is one in which much of what happens can be anticipated, we're supposed to reject it? That, my friends, is a lot of crap. The Natural is not only Levinson's best movie by several light years, it also stands head and shoulders above most other baseball films because the basic plot has almost nothing to do with the excellence of the experience.
   One thing that makes it work with the magic of a grand slam on opening day is the beauty of Redford's acting--nobody, certainly not even Kevin Costner, could have embodied the role with more relaxed panache. The other thing is the first rate script by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry, based on the novel by Barnard Malamud. The theatrically released version of the film has not one wasted frame. You have to catch each instant of the movement because this movie is all about concentration, confidence and talent and if you blink you will miss something that comes back later. Background dialog--noise on the initial train ride--holds meaning here. That combination of perfect acting and complex writing--makes The Natural--superficially as pastoral as the game it celebrates--that most unlikely of genre films: the suspense/thriller. 
   On a personal level, I happen to agree with the unspoken theme this movie evokes: there certainly are a lot of bastards out there. Most of the time, those villains have some kind of backstory that encourages us to care a bit about them. The Basinger character hints at some of this, but Kim's acting here is so horribly stilted and unerringly manikin-like that we could not possibly care. All but one of the other villains are rotten to the core, their only motivations being their inherent avarice and general contempt for anything decent. 
   The Barbara Hershey character--the woman who shoots Hobbs early on--is the sole exception. Why has she been gunning down these aspiring stars? Why does she use a silver bullet, an instrument usually reserved for destroying werewolves and vampires? How does the end to which she comes actually transpire? Who the hell is she? Is she pure evil or has she been warped by a succession of abusive relationships? What exactly is her story?
   I believe the silver bullet woman represents the great counter-balance to the banality of the main villains. On the one side, we have Eichmann, Goebbels, Himmler and the others. On the other side, we have--what? The collaborators? The isolationists? The profiteers? Perhaps the saboteurs come closest to nailing the comparison. 
    The mere fact that a movie about baseball could lead to such a question is itself a fine recommendation. Combine that with Redford and the script and you'll be on your feet, screaming for some hot roasted peanuts. 

   

Sunday, October 4, 2015

BOB ROBERTS

   In the interest of not only full disclosure but also as a means of boasting my own good taste, I admit that I would spend money to watch actor Tim Robbins breathe hard. As far back as 1984 when I first saw him appear as Officer Swann in the television program "Hill Street Blues," I knew Robbins was a man with a future in the dramatic arts. His character in the episode in question suffered from a stutter, as well as a predisposition toward clean living. He played a rookie who gets raped by a prostitute at a party in the back room of a bar. Unable to live with the shame, he commits suicide. Surrounded by tremendous talent both in front of the camera and behind it, Robbins had a shine that dwarfed everyone else involved in the episode.
   His cinematic accomplishments since then have been inspiring, whether as Nuke in Bull Durham, as Griffin in Robert Altman's The Player, as Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, or as Dave in Mystic River. Tim Robbins grew from strength to strength while evoking a curious sense that he knew just exactly how good he really was. Nothing wrong with that. Ego is the essential juice that flows in and out of the vitals of any artist worth his or her screen time. If on occasion he came perilously close to giving away the fact that he believed himself as talented as we suspected him to be, well, that was just part of his charm. 
   Robbins' father Gilbert had been a singer with the folk group The Highwaymen. The senior Robbins had even managed the folk mecca venue The Gaslight in the village. With those kinds of influences, it felt like not that much of a stretch for Tim to dip his own toe in the musical waters for the Bob Roberts character he introduced on "Saturday Night Live." 
   That last bit of trivia strikes me as ironic because (a) I love the film Bob Roberts (1992) while loathing "Saturday Night Live," and (b) the movie goes out of its way to ridicule the program where the lead character made his name. 
   We could, I suppose, address the inventive way Tim Robbins (and his brother David) utilize elements of the Bob Dylan biopic Don't Look Back, with its cinema verite. We could, beyond doubt, salute the actor-writer-director for the brilliant plot twists within the documentary style. We could, I am certain, stand up and cheer for the way Robbins bites the ass of the news media for its callous approach to leading with what bleeds. We could talk about all those things and others and sway you with wit and erudition. But it will be more enjoyable to convince you that "SNL" is a batch of counter-revolutionary pig swill and that Robbins nails those cretins who slave beneath producer Lorne Michaels and the NBC network.
   In a clear parody of the aforementioned TV program, "The Cutting Edge" gives Bob Roberts a stint as the musical entertainment for the week's show. John Cusack plays the guest host. Here is what the host says:
In the beginning, our great company provided appliances for the neighborhood. We heated your home, we refrigerated your food, and improved the quality of your life. We prospered, and you loved us. And we grew into a large multinational corporation. In fact, we own this very network. Our chief source of income, however, is... the arms industry! Yes, we rely heavily on those fat government contracts, to make these useless weapons of mass destruction. And even though we have been indicted and convicted for fraud several times, you don't hear too much about our bad side, because, well, we own our own news division. Chances are pretty slim that you'll hear reports of our environmental mishaps, or the way we bust those unions. We even have a highly-rated Saturday night show that the public buys as entertainment with a leftist slant.

   Most of the other cast members object that the monologue isn't funny. Well, satire isn't necessarily funny, in the gut-busting sense of the word. Sometimes we smile on the inside. Sometimes we cry. 
    And pathos makes its presence known in this movie. While we may smile at the idea of a Bob Dylan style character becoming a right wing Senatorial candidate, the references to the bard of Greenwich Village do not lead to fits of laughter. At the same time, Robbins gives away his influences--This is Spinal Tap, Don't Look Back, Mad Magazine, the early days of National Lampoon and The Firesign Theater--which were, for want of a better word, occasionally obvious, often insane, and not without some challenging wit and hilarity. 
   The few people who have dealt harsh blows to this film have objected that its subject matter feels dated. After all, the first war against Iraq was such a long time ago and was, they say, a topical matter. What those critics choose to ignore is that we're still dealing with the issues from that time. And besides, folk music is often topical, which does not mean it cannot transcend the time in which it is germinated. Far more to the point, the mechanisms that induced people into falling for the lies of our time are still effective. Be it the oligarchical nature of the global news media with its vested interests in brainwashing the masses, be it the insatiable appetite for sub-sentient entertainment on the part of those among the great unwashed, be it the domination of the education system's a-historical approach to programming young people in the name of "core" principles, or be it the rationalizations of so-called prosperity churches to grab as much gold as you can get--these devices still affect the day to day lives of all the people on this fragile planet. Bob Roberts drops a slippery banana peel in the path of each of these trudging drones. 
   It must also be said that Robbins brought together a formidable cast, most of whom had what amounted to little more than cameo appearances, yet who collectively breathed life into every second they were on screen. Giancarlo Esposito as the "paranoid but correct" reporter Bugs Raplin, Gore Vidal improvising most of his lines as Senator Paiste, James Spader as a local news reporter, Fred Ward and Susan Sarandon as a team of disconnected media stooges, and most especially David Strathairn as the ex-CIA campaign manager who at one point excuses himself from reporters so that he can go pray--these players and the thousands of others overlap one another with such dexterity that the movie literally requires repeated viewings to catch all the dialogue and deeper meanings.
   A great film, well executed. 


   
    

Saturday, October 3, 2015

THE DEPARTED

  I wonder why it is that every time I watch a Martin Scorsese film I am filled with such an overabundance of testosterone that by the time the movie is over I have grown a full beard. When I say "beard," I mean more than gray stubble. I mean a yank of steel wool that reaches to the floor. I mean facial hair laced with cross bones, onyx rings and virgin blood; hair growing from my baby face, curling like a Chinaman's heart valves, lacerated with battle scars and the tint of revenge. Perhaps the reason is the running time, something that with a Scorsese film borders on a full evening, which is fine. I like getting my money's worth. But I suspect that's not the reason for my hormonal surge. The real reason probably lies with the presence, the omnipresence, of machismo surrogates, men such as Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Joe Don Baker--guys who can melt women such as Juliette Lewis with a mere shrug of their hips, leaving those dames in the twitching throes of pre-orgasmic depression. Yeah. Yeah! That's it.
   The other reason--the honest to God reason--is because of guilt. Ah, guilt: that five-letter curse word known to fallen Jesuits and Bible students everywhere. Guilt remains the earthly consequence of sin. And all men have sinned and thus have come short of the grace and the glory of God. Men can come lock you away, deprive you of the company of friends and family, whip you until your flesh wilts and dies. But none of that can break you with the same smiling vengeance as guilt. Guilt will bury you up to your nose and eyeballs, drop a bucket over your head and bang you with a club.
   From what I've read, Scorsese grew up watching gangsters. Doubtless he learned a bit from their presumed style. How does one go about justifying an admiration for their self-possessed glow? I suppose a person with prodigious talent might make movies that deal with guilt while at the same time glamorizing the power those gangsters demonstrate. The director's most ardent fans would likely bray that I am oversimplifying this, or that by engaging in amateurish psychoanalysis, I am diminishing gifts greater than my own. To that I can only reply, "You bet I am, sweetie."
   Having had the insides kicked out of me from time to time, I am in the happy position to assure you that those beatings we have come to expect in movies actually hurt. In my case, they didn't build character or teach me a lesson or toughen me up. They simply hurt. 
   I remember one time, decades ago, I got into a verbal altercation with some mountain of a man inside a bowling alley, said argument culminating in my suggestion that he might enjoy doing something inappropriate with a close relative and so should give it a try since everyone else with the means (and a few without) had done so. To this very day I can still recall how slowly time moved as he lifted me by my neck, high up from the thin carpet where moments earlier my feet had been safely perched, his right hand curling into a tentacled fist, his broken teeth pulling back against his gums as he fired off the cannon at the end of his wrist and knocked me across the room where a friend of his was nice enough to pick me up and then punched me in the chest with an unbroken soda bottle.
   So, yes, beatings hurt. I suspect it hurt when the Martin Sheen character in The Departed (2006) was lifted up by Nicholson's goon squad and hurled off the roof of the building where he broke into pieces on the pavement. Probably it hurt when Leonardo DiCaprio smashed a wiseguy in the head with a beer glass. It appeared to hurt when Mr. French shot a deadbeat in the head and then set his house on fire. 
   Lot of pain. 
   Because pain is notorious for hurting, we have developed a tendency in this country to identify with those who dole out the pain rather than with those who receive it. The cost for the reward of that identification is supposed to be guilt. When we say to ourselves, "Better him than me," we are expected to kick ourselves for such sociopathy. But that is not the way one typically approaches a Martin Scorsese movie. We approach movies such as The Departed, Goodfellas, Casino, and some others, with the expectation--and because the director is an artist, that expectation is reasonable--of feeling as if we are right there in the midst of the action, hanging out with killers, coke heads, arsonists, mutilators, and wise guys. If you find that morally reprehensible, you are not alone.
   So it pains me like a beating in a bowling alley that I must confess that The Departed is brilliant. 
   "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints" could be the theme. The fog, blur, translucent overlay of motives of the characters here function as an ode to street confusion. This is not the world where some urban hood breaks into your house because he needs money to feed his habit. This is Boston, baby, and Boston, we are led to believe, ain't for small timers. This world is about power. This is the world where the Local Gun steals micro processors that can launch nuclear warheads and sells them to the Chinese. This crime lord has brains and balls and can smell a cheese-eater a mile away. We have DiCaprio playing a cop who infiltrates the mob and Matt Damon playing a criminal who infiltrates the police. Neither man is what he appears to be, just as neither is necessarily what he wants to be. When DiCaprio screams, "All I want is my identity back!" he means it. 
   None of that should be taken to mean that the director understands women any better than he ever did. We have here the usual assortment of whores and waitresses. Somewhat predictably, Scorsese gives us a female police shrink who exists to (a) create an anticipation for the cop and criminal to unexpectedly discover one another, and (b) to take the offense off the constant menstruation jokes. 
   The Departed is more than merely being there with your wazoo hanging out amidst the fray and fracas. Nicholson has never been more complex, Mark Wahlberg more convincing, Martin Sheen more expendable, DiCaprio more sympathetic, Damon more reprehensible. In short, the acting itself slams you like a slug from a .44. And this is important because these key players' characters all have the intellect and even charisma to make different choices. But their version of morality denies them those choices. To that end, this film comes close to being as cathartic as a Greek tragedy. 


Saturday, September 19, 2015

BLACKBOARD JUNGLE

   Ah, to be uncool now that Death stands outside the bedroom window rattling his chains, a disappointed grin glowing yellow beneath the self-created smog.
   A plot-line can be dependent on conflict between us and them. That approach legitimizes any number of trashy squirm flicks, most of such dribble indicating a lot less imagination and guts than Blackboard Jungle. Glenn Ford plays the prototypical square, the war vet with wounded pride, yet the whore with a heart of gold. Because his wife Ann (Anne Francis) suffered a miscarriage before the story began, ole Glenn wants to reach the souls and minds of troubled high school kids who might otherwise be denied the divinity of his presence. (If that sounds a bit far-fetched, I guarantee you it plays out with more honesty here than the sniveling cynics who have populated the majority of teen movies by the likes of, say, John Hughes, a hack if ever such existed and whose ability to retain fame after death mystifies me more than the properties of enhanced uranium.) The juvenile delinquents--as the written warning at the top of the movie terms them--have other ideas, as befits the members of a crowded urban data factory where the institutional goal appears to be to warehouse the young folks until (and if) they reach the age of maturity. These kids do not obsess over Halloween, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Graduation Day, or any other conventional celebration. What they care about is using rebellion as a means. What Glenn Ford, as Richard Dadier (Daddy-o), cares about is proving to himself that he possesses what it takes to motivate the students' interest in getting an education. It will not surprise you to learn that he teaches English. 
   What sets this movie apart from a hundred other films about what a bunch of little monsters the kids are and how impotent the educational system is to combat them lies in its inspirational yearning to connect sympathy from even the worst of the kids without vomiting up phony sentiment. Daddy-o may be ex-military, but he isn't a Michelle Pfeiffer or a Jim Belushi looking to beat sense into these kids. On the contrary, Ford takes several unwarranted beatings with better grace than any "cool" teacher could muster. 
   The worst of the kids, Artie West (Vic Morrow), comes across with complete believability, so much so that when he tries to con Ford into believing his innocent act, we cringe a bit when the teacher sees through his malarkey. A very young Sidney Poitier earns every good word ever written about him as a complex student named Miller, part antagonist, part future Temptations singer, part leader, part friend. 
   The one thing that unites every character here is that none of them give a warm glass of spit about being cool. These folks struggle to survive, usually in spite of one another. Cool doesn't enter into it. Naturally enough, that lack of concern and effort paradoxically makes even the worst of them hip, which is always better than cool. Hip waltzes with passion, while cool skips to a superficial dance. Hip implies an unspoken knowledge, an awareness of how the game is rigged. Cool comes from the asshole who rigged the game in the first place. Hip can be tasted. Cool can be worn. 
   Glenn Ford, for all his infernal squareness, develops a type of hipness. It comes to him when he shows the class a cartoon movie of "Jack and the Beanstalk," a device he uses to get the kids to identify with various fictional characters. Vic Morrow, for all his murderous inclinations, spells hipness out to Daddy-o that a stint in reform school or prison will be a swell way to beat the draft. Poitier is hip to what his future probably holds, but he refuses to knuckle beneath the artificial pressures of ghetto life, so he has taught himself both piano and auto repair. He also exudes a smart kind of fearlessness that falls just short of bravado. We know from the second we meet him smoking in the boys room that he is the one kid on school who can back up the bullshit. 
   The tension that director and screenwriter Richard Brooks works out of Ford and Poitier together threatens to snap at any moment, so watching those two relatively young men at what may have been their respective primes shakes the viewer out of any somnambulance he or she may be stifling. At the outset, Ford tries to play Poitier by enlisting him as a type of narc. Poitier does not care to be anyone's Mod Squad stooge, yet he feels antagonized by the racial tension coming from the Irish students against the Latinos and the Blacks. Meanwhile, Ford has to put up with the misguided efforts of his fellow faculty member caricatures (cynic, lush, debutante, etc) while hoping that his wife doesn't blame herself if the child they are expecting does not come to term. 
   In short, the movie that no less than John Lennon claimed as an inspiration to him when he saw it way back in 1955 holds up better today than craven crapola such as Dangerous Minds or The Principal. It may not be cool, but it sure do be hip, satchmo.