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Showing posts with label movie reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movie reviews. Show all posts

Thursday, March 23, 2017

EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS

   Through a series of odd events, I was in attendance at a Christmas party in the Hollywood Hills stretch of the Santa Monica Mountains in the year 2000. Knowing full well I was making a mistake by doing so, I couldn't resist the opportunity to theoretically schmooze with writers, directors, actors, composers and possibly a gaggle of moguls. The woman who invited me earned her living repping a variety of hotshot musicians who provided smarmy soundtracks to medium budget romantic comedies. She had encountered me winning a game of eight ball at a star bar on Vine and thought my impression of Fred C. Dobbs was hilarious. (Note: Fred C. Dobbs was a character played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) The young man I was slaughtering at pool did not share her admiration and she thought it best that we get away before he carried out his threat to do to me what the bandits did to Dobbs in the movie.
   The valet took the keys to her Lexus and together we strolled by the lush garden up the wine-colored walkway to what I suppose was the front door. She pressed the intercom button and the door tilted open, revealing a room bathed in dark orange. It looked like a magnificent dark room where photographers might work, but it was actually just the entryway to the rest of the house, possibly the largest house ever to permit my humble entrance. Once we felt our way through this room, another door swung open and the brightness off the outdoor pool glared through the glass walls and I found myself temporarily separated from the agent. In such a situation--not that I have been in that many such situations--I did what I always do: I adopted a false persona. 
   I pretended to be the Warren Beatty character in the movie Mickey One. Please understand that I am no Warren Beatty. But I had seen the movie for the second time recently and it was weighing on my mind and the suit I had fallen into resembled the one Mickey wore, so that was what I did. And so no sooner did a horde of unemployed actors swoop up the agent woman than a couple young guys positioned themselves on either side of me and continued their conversation as if I was not standing between them. You know the type. Right. I introduced myself to the one on my left. "I'm Mickey," I said. "I'm the king of the silent pictures. I'm hiding out until the talkies blow over. Will you leave me alone?"
   The two bozos exchanged a nervous glance and wandered away. 
   The agent returned immediately with an older woman on her arm. "Gladys, my deah," she said. "I'd like you to meet--My goodness, I never did get your name?"
   Sticking with the Warren Beatty concept, I switched movies. "Clyde Barrow. This here's Bonnie Parker. We rob banks. Now you might as well know, I ain't much of a lover boy." 
   Gladys didn't seem to know quite what was going on, but to her credit the agent picked right up on it and asked Gladys if she had a cigar, which, strangely, she did not.
   It should be noted at this point that my memory is somewhat selective. Half the time I could not tell you my own middle name, but I can remember the words to any song I've ever heard and most of the lines in any movie I've ever seen. It's a curse. The curse, for me, is that the rest of the known universe does not possess this ability and so I often recede into my own social hole, which is fine by me, at least most of the time. In this case, however, I should have been projecting my own personality. Being vastly out of my element, I pulled the chicken switch instead and remained in various characters throughout most of the evening, much to the dismay of the people who were trying harder than they should have to be nice to me. 
   Word got around and I found myself standing at the poolside bar trying to teach my gin and tonic to stay cold. After a few minutes of watching the ice swirl in the glass, I realized a man standing next to me was looking at me as if I might be a science experiment. 
   I spun to face him. He smiled. "You like the women here?" he asked.
  I wasn't about to let the Beatty fixation get away just yet. "You ever listen to women talk, man? Do you? Because I do, till it's running outta my ears! I mean I'm on my feet all day long listening to women talk and they only talk about one thing: how some guy fucked 'em over, that's all that's on their minds, that's all I ever hear about! Don't you know that?"
   The man took me by the hands and said, "I'm Arthur Penn. There's someone I'd like you to meet."
   If the name means nothing to you, I will explain. Arthur Penn was an amazing movie director. His credits happened to include Mickey One, Bonnie and Clyde, and--inexplicably--Penn & Teller Get Killed
  For a moment I thought that maybe this person holding onto me was as much a loon as myself and perhaps had deluded himself, or, on second thought, that he was some aging hipster who was playing the same kind of game I was. I studied his face a few moments longer and realized that I was in the hands of greatness and therefore allowed him to spin me around where I stood face to face with the man whose characters I had been embalming all evening.
   He did not introduce himself, for there was no need. He just said, "I was listening to you earlier. You're good. I mean, I think you're good. He is good, isn't he, Arthur?"
   Let me say this: Warren Beatty is and was one fine looking fellow. He looks just like he does in the movies. And he really has perfect hair. He is so good looking that even men want to sleep with him. I can't imagine what women feel.
   Before Arthur had a chance to confirm or deny my goodness, I jumped into my own personality and revealed for all to see just why it is often more wise to pretend to be someone else. What I said to Warren Beatty--Warren Fucking Beatty!!!--was: "It all started with you and Arthur Penn. You guys completely changed the way people understand motion pictures. Without you guys, sure, I know, Godard, Truffaut, all that French New Wave stuff, yes, but they were just giving us back movies from the Forties. You guys took what they were doing and Americanized it and made movies real in ways they never had been before, at least before fucking Spielberg and Lucas ruined it for everyone with goddamned blockbusters."
   Beatty smiled at me. He smiled the gracious smile one delivers to an orphan on Christmas. He said, "Arthur, do you have that phone number for me?"
   And with that they were gone. I never did reconnect with the agent woman. I had the valet call a taxi for me. 
  Why the hell is he telling us this?
  I am telling you this true story because I want you to watch the documentary film Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003). The lovely and irreplaceable Lisa Ann bought a copy for me a few Christmases ago. This is not quite as good as A Decade Under the Influence, which came out the same year. But Lisa Ann bought me the former and not the latter and now that she has passed away, I may very well watch that movie at least once a month and so should you, at least until you come to believe that Warren Beatty, Arthur Penn, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Robert Altman, Paul Schrader and others between 1967 and 1980 made the best movies ever made. You may even get a sense as to how the blockbuster crippled Hollywood. 
   And if you ever run into the agent woman, tell her she owes me cab fare.
  P.S.: I love you, Lisa Ann, with all the love in the world.

Monday, March 6, 2017

LOLITA

   The writer hereby speculates that we were not necessarily intended to like the movie Lolita (1962). That is not to say that director Stanley Kubrick (who only used twenty percent of novelist Vladimir Nabokov's adapted screenplay and wrote the rest himself) did not want us to enjoy the movie. I mean that he did not intend for us to approve of it. The only people Kubrick hoped would approve of it were the Catholic Legion of Decency and the souls behind the Hayes Code. It is fair to say that neither group had the director on their Christmas list, but the movie was released with the consent of the Production Code of America, in large part because producer James Harris and Kubrick worked with the director of the PCA, Geoffrey Shurlock. Kubrick tried his damnedest to convince Shurlock that this movie about pedophilia was no such thing. It was actually a dark and smart comedy that poked fun at a middle-aged professor's fascination with a young girl. 
   Shurlock was not immediately convinced. 
   Kubrick upped the young girl from twelve to fourteen and made sure his casting director, James Liggat, gave the title role to a relative unknown, in this case a seventeen-year-old named Sue Lyon. He also made certain that the role of the curious professor, Humbert Humbert, went to an actor whose career was in decline, in this case, to James Mason. (Granted, the other actors Kubrick wanted all turned him down--David Niven, Rex Harrison and Noel Coward among them). Casting Peter Sellers in the role of Clare Quilty was expected to take the edge off as well.
   But what really got the film into the theaters was the tone of the movie. Instead of Humbert and Lolita doing the nasty under the sheets, the sexuality was rather more implied and that is one of the reasons why, despite not approving of the movie--even after fifty-five years--we can at least like it. In fact, that is one of the reasons the genius of Lolita endures. 
   When we meet the young Dolores (Lolita), she is tanning in the backyard in a bikini. Humbert rents a room from the girl's mother, Charlotte (Shelley Winters). To be close to Lolita, Humbert pretends to care for Charlotte. But being the academic type, he cannot help but write the truth of his feelings in his diary. When Charlotte discovers how Humbert actually feels, she runs out into the street where she meets with a prompt demise. 
   The closer Humbert gets to Lolita--and her attempts at flirtation early on suggest that she has been to the movies a few times herself--the more she is compelled to manipulate him without giving him precisely what she believes he wants. He has custody of the child and when she behaves as a girl of her temptations reasonably might, Humbert writhes with visible and expressed jealousy. 
   Depending upon one's own personal chemistry, one might find Lolita's rebuffing to be exactly what the oldster has coming. One might also feel a bit of pity for the professor. It is unlikely one would feel both, at least simultaneously. 
   It is only once we recognize the danger that the long-lingering playwright Quilty presents to Lolita that we begin to reluctantly join motivation with Humbert. But even then we risk being taken in by the charm that Sellers brings to his character. When Humbert arrives at Quilty's house with the intent of murdering him, Humbert demands to know for certain if this strange fellow is in fact Quilty. Sellers replies, "No, I'm Spartacus. You come to free the slaves?" (Two years earlier Kubrick had directed the film Spartacus.)
   Our allegiances are never solid. They cannot be because the story keeps shifting us until we begin to sense that this is not a comedy--dark or otherwise. This is a classic tragedy lacking only a hero to provide catharsis. 
   Although Lolita was technically Kubrick's fifth feature-length film (preceded by Killer's Kiss, The Killing, Paths of Glory and Spartacus), this was the first time the director used his tremendous talents to affect what I have referred to elsewhere as a Stanley Milgram type of audience manipulation. By dazzling us with directorial expertise, he establishes his authority just as Milgram's instructors established theirs with white lab coats. Instead of telling us "The experiment must continue," Kubrick tells us, "You must see what happens next."
   Just as with Milgram's subjects, once we become slowly aware that this was an experiment--only a movie--we feel even more wrecked than we did when we allowed ourselves to believe it was happening. When Milgram's "teachers" believed they were shocking the "learners" with high voltage electricity, they did so because following orders gave them more comfort than refusing to do so would have. When we see that what Humbert feels for Lolita is more love than lust, we gain an insight that is every bit as disturbing as Milgram's revelations.


Sunday, March 5, 2017

A LITTLE COURAGE IS ALL WE LACK: ANOTHER REVIEW OF BONNIE AND CLYDE

A little bit of courage is all we lack
So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back

   --Carole King, "Goin' Back"

   First there was then. Now there is now.
   As usual, we begin with now.
   More than one million Americans marched on Washington D.C. on January 21, 2017, in response to the ascension of the illegitimate existence of Vladimir Trump. Those people could have spent their Saturday out watching horrible movies or listening to mindless pop music. Instead they properly allowed their outrage to channel into action and made their way to the city of lies to somewhat politely thumb their noses at the administration of insanity. A similar number, albeit, in smaller groups, marched on their cities and state houses to let the rulers know that the presumed popularity of extremism in this country is not so popular after all and that we are not going to put up with it.
   These ongoing protests have had their value: Vladimir Trump goes crazier every day, a condition which does not necessarily make the world safer but which at least tells our friends that they should not judge us by the actions of a handful of lunatics who may have voted for the "scumbag," as the beautiful Maxine Waters calls him.
   Only one thing would have made me happier. I would have been delighted if all those millions of pissed off people had taken one extra step forward and marched right into the White House, dragged that crazy bastard out of the Oval Office and done to him what the Italians did to Mussolini. 
   Do you have any idea how easy that would have been to accomplish--even metaphorically? The people were already there. All that was necessary was to move their feet one step closer. The Secret Service, the National Guard, the Armed Forces of the United States could not--and probably would not--have harmed anyone, much less everyone. I don't know how many people can fit into the Oval Office, but I imagine the room is durable for up to one or two hundred. Just walk in--don't even knock--find Il Duce hiding beneath his desk with his unsecured cell phone and his hyperactive thumbs plumbing out some moronic tweet, call the loser up top and explain that it is time for him to leave voluntarily. "Vlad, man, the joke is over. You proved to our satisfaction that a foreign power can indeed do a coup d'etat on us, and we thank you for that lesson. But now you have to go. Go back to south Florida where the idiots still love you. Go copulate with that dimwit Rick Perry and vacation in El Paso, if you like. Go do a golden shower on Stalin's tomb. But you have to leave. There are millions of us outside. Your money can't save you from an ass-whooping, if that's the way you want it. But you are going out that door, one way or another. We don't want to have to get mean."
   That is what they do in real countries. In 1968 the communist party of Czechoslovakia replaced the USSR's puppet with Alexander Dubcek. Dubcek pushed practical reforms, which would, as he put it, place “a human face” on socialism. He established “a humanistic socialist democracy which would guarantee, among other things, freedom of religion, press, assembly, speech, and travel.” Granted, the stinking Soviets crushed the rebellion, but that did not come as a surprise to the Czechs. Yet they fought anyway. They had courage.
   In 1989 Chinese students marched on Tienanmen Square in Beijing, knowing full well they would be destroyed. They did it anyway. They did it because they did not want to die as cowards. 
   But Americans, militarily, are a bunch of pathetic cowards and always have been. 
   Watching the march on Washington, I was hoping we might have evolved from the days of dropping bombs on unarmed civilians and actually mutate into passionate and reasonable humanoids. Committing genocide against indigenous natives, dragging across the ocean slaves from whom we built our economy, dropping nuclear weapons on a country that had already surrendered, massacring people in Indochina, Latin America, the Middle East--we are the punks of the world, a pack of gangland hoodlums taking over neighborhoods owned and operated by crippled old ladies. 
   So it should not have surprised me much that we didn't have the courage to throw that rancid real estate king back out into the vomit-encrusted gutter where his parents no doubt conceived him. 
   Please do not take it that I am calling for the violent overthrown of the United States Government. Such a call to action would be highly illegal. I would never suggest such a thing and neither should you. 
   I am, however, very much suggesting that people are a lot more powerful than they may believe. The realization of that real power scares us sometimes, especially when we learn how incredibly easy it is to cultivate it. When we grow disgusted by the leadership of the major political parties in this country pretending to look after our interests, it may occur to us that we are the only real caretakers of our own interests. Expecting billionaires to care about the sick and the poor is ridiculous. They don't even care about one another. Why would they care about you and me? 
   But don't take my word for it. Just think back on those fiery words of days gone by:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

   Such a plea to return to the days of Jeffersonian democracy sounds quaint, no doubt--sincere, perhaps, yet quaint. I should know. I am the king of quaint.
   As such, I am also here to convince you to watch the movie Bonnie and Clyde (1967). 
   As this review is written, the United States is only one of several global entities hellbent on blurring the distinctions between global criminality and business as usual. Today federal and international laws exist to further that blurring so that no one is accountable for the subjugation of the poor except--legally--the poor themselves. Keep the masses doped on heroin, Scientology and the latest technology and they won't have the presence of mind to deviate. They will go along with the same tired line of nonsense that declares "Every man a king."  Horatio Alger's potential lies within us all? Well, at any rate, it certainly lies.
   Such was not always the case. 
   Bonnie Parker's mother was a seamstress. Her father was a bricklayer. Clyde Barrow's parents were sharecroppers. By the time the Great Depression officially hit in 1929, neither had the slightest prospects for survival.
   In director Arthur Penn's version of the lives of these two (using a script by David Newman and Robert Benton, doctored by Robert Towne), there is an early scene where Clyde is downing a cola with Bonnie. He tries to impress her with his toughness by admitting that he has been in the State Penitentiary for armed robbery.
   "What's it like?" she asks.
   "What? The penitentiary?"
   "No. Armed robbery."
   At this point the audience has been quite properly assured that Bonnie and Clyde is a different kind of film. Bonnie's face flashes the delight of hybristophilia. 
   When the movie was first released, audiences expressed confusion. Was it a comedy? Was it a celebration of the counterculture? Was it seditious?
   The movie had those elements. But this film shot across the seats of the cinema theater and the echo of its ricochet still resonates. The fate of these two young people (the movie legend was "They're young. They're in love. The kill people.") came ordained from the instant they met. This was not some (comparatively) silly James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson picture with an artificial morality attached to appease the public. This was real life through a camera lens and nobody gave much of a damn whether the public approved of it or not. This was a successful attempt at art. The public be damned.
   I think of Bonnie and Clyde as the movie Parker and Barrow would have made of themselves. As such it is a third person narrative where the "warts and all" attitude uses the skin flaws to show the beauty beneath. During one scene where the Barrow Gang have pulled off the side of the road for a family argument with the police in pursuit, Bonnie insults Clyde about his sexual impotence. No sooner do the words leave her mouth than she knows she has gone too far, that she has wounded him unfairly. As Bonnie, Faye Dunaway's instant facial expression conveys that realization with as much honesty as Clyde's (Warren Beatty) ultimate reaction: he just stands there, immobilized not by the truth of the statement but by the fact that his partner would actually say it. The violence to which some people took exception was simply sprinkled around such life details the director, writers and Beatty himself gently crammed into this film. 
    Bonnie and Clyde, unlike various global industrial concerns, do not claim that their crimes are on the whole good for society. These two were not the couple version of Pretty Boy Floyd, who actually was something of a Depression-era Robin Hood. They committed their crimes for the excitement, the bonding, the spoils. And if their limited class consciousness reminds them that they are "just folks" (as they assure the Gene Wilder character in the process of stealing his automobile) like everybody else, they are long in ambition and just smart enough to know that they have no other way out of the West Dallas slums that spawned them. 
   Some talk was popular at the time of this movie's release that the writers played loose with the facts. The C. W. Moss character, for instance, did not exist. He was a composite of several gang sidekicks, most notably one named Deacon Jones, who traveled with the gang for less than a year. Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was real, the only falsities in his presentation being that he was a sexist who retired from the Texas Rangers rather than work for a woman. 
   In the shooting version of the script, Clyde is impotent, although, in the only truly corny scene in the movie, he manages to pull through to fulfill his obligations and finds that he did just fine. The reality is that the original script had Clyde as inviting the C. W. Moss character to a menage with Bonnie and himself. The real world reality was that while in the state pen, Barrow was repeatedly raped by another convict. Clyde killed that man rather than suffer continued abuse. 
   But worrying over such details is as silly as arguing over which CIA operatives murdered John Kennedy or whether the real Richard III was very much like the one Shakespeare wrote about. Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, has its bona fides in place and needs to offer no apologies for inaccuracies. It is indeed the story the way the two of them would have wanted it told. That, of course, is exactly why the movie, to this day, can make us uncomfortable. 
   Unease after fifty years is remarkable. What else is remarkable is that all the people involved in the movie--except possibly Morgan Fairchild, the body double for Dunaway--came together with such integral perfection. The writers wanted Truffaut to direct. He turned them down, as did Jean-Luc Godard. Even Arthur Penn himself tried to bail out, having worked earlier with Warren on the under-appreciated Mickey One. Even the studio, Warner Bros., lacked faith in the film, possibly due to some early critical pans. Beatty threatened to sue the studio and rather than be sued, head Jack Warner demanded the movie receive a proper release. Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy and brilliant review of the movie. The film is now more of a legend than the people who made it happen.
   The artistic and commercial success of the movie is one of those rare things, like the discovery of radium or the development of the internet. It seems so obvious now that we have it.

Monday, February 27, 2017

THE BIG CHILL

   "May you live in interesting times" is said to be a seminal Chinese curse. The time--though not the curse--has eluded us of late. I would place the demise to be May 1985, but whatever the specifics, more erudite minds than mine have pegged the end of our enlightened era at the mid-1980s. Two movies that featured actor Tom Cruise hammered in the nails. Top Gun was a Pepsi commercial intended as overt propaganda in support of a President looking for a war and The Color of Money, which was intended to be nearly everything it turned out not to be, was a cooptation and slap in the mouth of Hollywood talent of years gone by, as well as of the radical dreams they inspired.
    But if directors Tony Scott and (inadvertently, one assumes) Martin Scorsese pounded the nails, it was the unfortunate Lawrence Kasdan who shot movies in the frontal lobe with the abysmal film blanc The Big Chill (1983).  
   Former idealistic teenagers from the late 1960s get together in contemporary settings to mourn the loss of their best and brightest friend Alex. The friend had the most promise and consequently didn't amount to much, whereas all the others did quite well by themselves and spend the rest of the movie (the song "You Can't Always Get What You Want" plays at the funeral) bemoaning how they are having a hard time getting over being the sell-outs they happily became. Think of it as The Breakfast Club for thirtysomethings. 
   The cast cannot be faulted for the pathetic choice of subject matter. Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline and JoBeth Williams offer more than is expected of them by the Carson Company (as in Johnny Carson, who, whatever his skills at delighting late night TV viewers, was as square as a peg. Indeed, the entire film reeks of being exactly what the squares thought the people of the 1960s were all about). 
   Kasdan was completely in his element here. Before embalming the cast of this film, he had amassed a strong reputation among studios that loved blockbusters with his screenwriting of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, and Continental Divide (the latter his apparent attempt to embalm John Belushi pre-mortem). Kasdan went on to exploit all he could get out of his Star Wars tie-ins despite having worked on both Silverado and I Love You to Death, two movies even more lacking in soul than The Big Chill. 
   Kasdan is all about the shine. When we glimpse a coffin, we are supposed to imbue the inhabitant with unearned grace because of the number of people who attend the funeral. When Scott Glenn saddles up, we are intended to admire him because of the revolver he polishes. When Han Solo remarks something glib, we are supposed to swoon in anticipation of the shared looks of the supporting actors. It's all shine and it adds nothing to the value of movies. It does save a writer from having to do the hard work of thinking up something original, or something to which the audience can feel by way of empathy or confusion, or something that has not been accomplished in quite the same way before. 
   The Big Chill is a cynical sellout to a Reagan-era pack of salivating sheep ready to slurp up any swill the master would sling together. For those of us who spent much of our formative years in movie houses with our eyes wide in wonder of the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde, of Billy and Wyatt, of Alvy and Annie, Kasdan's movie was a below-the-belt blow that I for one still reel from thirty-four years later. 
   Thirty-four years? Seriously? 
   I watched Warren Beatty on the Oscars thing last night. Here is a man who has been more things to more people than almost anyone else in Hollywood history: actor, director, producer, stud, philosopher, historian, heartthrob and genuine talent. And yet some schmuck hands him the wrong envelope and he gets treated like garbage by a pack of ignorant loudmouths who have never seen a great movie in their rancid little lives, or if they had seen one, they wouldn't know what was so great about it. The whole idiotic affair completely overshadowed his onstage partner Faye Dunaway, who for her work in Network alone deserves to be not only worshiped but studied. Host Jimmy Kimmel (who otherwise did a fantastic job of making the four hour presentation about the show rather than himself--hint to Ellen DeGeneres) blew all the great work he had done by going for a cheap laugh at Beatty when what he should have done was to just shut up and let the actors work it out, which is what happened anyway. 
   So, yeah, thirty-four years and I'm still nursing the wounds to my presumably sturdy sensibilities. 
   What we watched last night on the Academy Awards was revelation unspoken. We saw, for one thing, people defying the present political administration in the most poetic of ways, rather than in the exploitative manner he reserves for his own enemies. We also saw black people getting nominated for their roles in contemporary films. Maybe films such as Moonlight, Fences, and Hidden Figures will inspire a much-needed renaissance in the film industry. The edginess of the subject matter won't do it, just as the superior talent of the acting won't do it, just as the excellent scripts won't do it--though all three issues helped make these three movies the deserving successes that they are. What it will take is a sensibility among directors who are able to convince decision makers at studios that movies are more than merely mirrors of the times in which we live. Sometimes, when the right combination of elements coalesce, a movie can change the way we experience those interesting times in which we live. And that is not a curse at all.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

   Defining certain philosophical terms is akin to dancing between raindrops during a hurricane while struggling to remain dry. Once the proper beat presents itself, the band changes time signatures and the conductor sneers.
  So it is with one of the primary concepts never mentioned directly but consistently implied in the 1993 movie Six Degrees of Separation. The term theosophy is a type of Gnostic stew, holding that the only true religion is Truth, something which can only be divined, as it were, by active use of imagination.  In the late nineteenth century, Helena Blavatsky, one of the founders of New York City's Theosophical Society, wrote that the subject matter had three objectives: humanity itself constituted a universal brotherhood without considerations of race or gender; humanity should study religion, philosophy and science; and it was paramount to understand the undeveloped powers within human beings, something which could only be grasped by willful use of the imagination.
   The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, among the greatest expressionists, was a fan of Blavatsky's thinking and incorporated a ferocious sense of childlike wonder into most of his paintings. However, he never did create a two-sided painting as is claimed for him in Six Degrees. Facts and truths are not necessarily the same thing, of course. 
   Flan Kittredge (Donald Sutherland) is a high class art dealer who, with his wife Ouisa (Stockard Channing), is looking for one big score so they can maintain the east side Manhattan lifestyle to which they have grown dependent. To facilitate this, they hope to sell Geoffrey Miller (Ian McKellen) a painting by Paul Cezanne, one which he in turn will be able to resell to the Japanese. It should be noted that neither Kittredge cares much one way or the other about Cezanne. What they like is Kandinsky, and in particular, two paintings of his on either side of a canvas, one of which emphasizes control and the other chaos. They do not know why this appeals to them so much.
   Miller isn't too hip on buying the Cezanne until Paul (Will Smith) staggers in, as all strangers must, with a knife wound to the abdomen. 
   Miller is immediately dazzled, as is Ouisa. Flan just does what is expected of him until he sees that Miller is hooked on the situation and has become so amazed by the story Paul acts out that he would buy the Brooklyn Bridge if someone offered to wrap it up for him. 
   The movie (based on the John Guare play) unwinds from there amidst a series of crafty flashbacks and visits to the police department. All the while, Ouisa draws ever closer to having the first actual human feelings she has experienced in decades. She becomes the beginning, the original cause, the Alpha, and thereby brings the whole experience of this marvelous film into focus. One of the other aspects of theosophy is that creation began with a single point and grew geometrically outward, therefore being traceable back to that original point. Hence, six degrees (or six people) are all that separate any one person from any other person. 
   The movie does not beat us over the head with philosophy. On the contrary, it just tells a fascinating story and uses Theosophy as one of the abstract themes. Because Six Degrees was not a genre film, its amazing cast was not enough to have it break even. It must be said, however, that Will Smith has never been better and Stockard Channing robs every scene in which Smith is not featured. 
    Any film which opens the mind to Kandinsky, Cezanne, Salinger, Sidney Poitier and perfect pasta cannot disappoint. 

   
   

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON

  There is an extended moment in Jason Miller's cinematic version of his own Broadway play, That Championship Season (1982), where Phil Romano (Paul Sorvino) begs the forgiveness of George Sitkowski (Bruce Dern). This scene breaks the movie wide open and its heart pours out over the audience. It is one of the most wrenching scenes I have witnessed in a movie. 
   But this film does not deliver weak punches. For a movie superficially about the twenty-fourth reunion of four out of five players with their basketball coach, That Championship Season eschews cheap sentiment just as it does cookie-cutter characterizations. These five men do more than reveal their personal flaws--as one-time friends, they inhabit their flaws. Romano has become a corrupt and wealthy thrill-seeker, wallowing in cocaine, fast cars and a succession of women who use him. Mayor Sitkowski reveals himself to be a vaguely inept town politico (the same week he buys an elephant as a gift for his town, the pachyderm dies) who is running for reelection with the help of Romano's money and his campaign manager James Daley (Stacy Keach). James' brother Tommy (Martin Sheen) has come back to Scranton for the reunion and he has brought his drinking problem with him. When James isn't managing the mayoral campaign, he acts as an unpopular principal at a junior high school. We never find out what, if anything, Tommy has been doing, except that he has traveled. But each man has earned himself a history and that history is what brings them all together around Coach Delaney.
   The Coach (Robert Mitchum) is some piece of work. He expresses sorrow that the fifth player, Macken, has never made it back to any of the annuals. Tommy understands why this is and he finally unloads this bit of information during one of the frequent tantrums throughout the movie. The Coach has a slogan for everything. Teeth problems? Take vitamin C. Your opponent trying to beat you? Drop the hammer on him. You want success? Never give up. "These aren't just slogans," he tells his boys. "This is philosophy. Just like the Greeks."
   "The Greeks were homosexuals."
   "Naw, that's liberal bullshit. Maybe the Romans."
   When we're seventeen, we are often physically amazing. We may not know where we left the Shineola, but we still believe we just might be living out our dreams. For most of us, the rust, the corruption, the loss of soul has not quite set in yet. But just like a fast car left out in the sun over too many summers, the wear begins to be felt, then it begins to show and no matter how much we rail against it, we struggle like hell to regain our relevance. In the Coach's universe, that relevance has never faltered, despite his stomach operation. God, the man tries so hard to make sure his guys don't forget who and what they used to be because dammit that's who they still are--never forget that, boys. 
   One of the great mysteries of the Old Testament is why did God allow sin to enter the Garden? Being omniscient, He had to know this would foul things up. 
   The Coach is a godlike character in that he called the shots, he formed the boys out of whatever raw material they possessed, but it was still their own drive and talent that made their team the state champions in 1957. In this case, the sin that entered the garden turns out to have been racism. Such a small and seemingly insignificant detail at the time. Just a smidgen of race hate--what harm could it do? If memory serves, sin got Adam and Eve searching for a new residence. Sin got Cain cast out to the land of Nod. In the case of That Championship Season, that inbred sin of racism led to all the neuroses and character flaws that have haunted these four men ever since they won the big game. 
  The acting shines without drawing attention to itself. The merging of the old guard with what were then four actors very much at the top of their own games is nothing short of inspired. And as the city of their childhood dreams has deteriorated in the ensuing years, so has the degeneration infected their once-famous residents.


Thursday, March 10, 2016

SPELLBOUND

   Many different themes obsessed director Alfred Hitchcock. A person could make a paltry living just compiling them all. Hitchcock movies with train sequences, Hitchcock movies with a MacGuffin, Hitchcock movies with famous monuments, Hitchcock movies where the musical score makes sly commentary on the story, Hitchcock movies involving mistaken identity and espionage, dream sequences, or Hitchcock movies where the director makes a cameo appearance (which, while not technically a theme, probably suggests something thematic)--all of these must take a step backwards and bow to the theme of mental illness. Perhaps the most famous is Psycho, followed closely by Vertigo and the underrated Marnie. A degree of incarceration is inherent in mental illness, whether it be the slavery of addiction, the inability to resolve complex issues, the struggle with identity, a stifling of creativity, or the ability to recall traumatic events. To that end, there is only a superficial difference between the captivity we witness in a movie such as Lifeboat and the psychological imprisonment of Spellbound (1945). 
   This movie conjoins most of Hitchcock's favorite ideas. From the opening Shakespearean quotation ("The Fault is not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves") to the conclusion with a gun firing into the camera, the director grabs our shoulders and shakes us, practically screaming about how important this movie is. That, of course, is the fatal flaw of the film.
   Written by Ben Hecht and starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman, based on everything the director thought movies should be about, one would think the bloody thing could hardly miss. 
   Well, it missed, despite its popularity in the film-maker's England. 
   The biggest problem with the movie is also its most visually intriguing element: the Salvador Dali animated dream. Running two minutes, the uncut sequence ran to nearly twenty before the producer sliced it. The importance of free association is paramount to the success of psychoanalysis, a science from which the movie borrows liberally. The segment is indulgent, convoluted, and irrelevant, despite being somewhat beautiful.
   The second element that lets down the viewer is psychoanalysis itself. In spite of getting most of the details correct and implementing their discussion with considerable confidence, Hitchcock simply allows the science to overwhelm the story without having developed the characters enough for the audience to care enough to overlook the extended digressions. 
   In most Hitchcock movies, even minor characters permit the audience to project themselves into the drama. Spellbound plays so hard to the nonexistent sexual tension between Peck and Bergman that by the end of the film we hope the bullet will put us out of our misery. This motion picture would not even qualify for a footnote if it were not for the names attached to it. Ben Hecht was certainly not well represented by this. Other than for Hitchcock fanatics, this is one spell best left to the witches. 
   

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

DOUBLE INDEMNITY

  You have to willingly suspend a bit more than your disbelief to enjoy this movie, but if you are ready to do so, you are in for one of the best rides of your life.
  First, you must forget that you remember Fred MacMurry from the TV show "My Three Sons."
  Second, you must forget that you have never found Barbara Stanwyck attractive.
  Third, you must forget that you tend to think of Edward G. Robinson as always playing a bad guy.
   Finally, you should try to put the anachronistic voice-over narration out of your mind altogether and just focus on the dialogue.
  If you can handle all of that, you will certainly love this motion picture.
   Fred plays an insurance man named Neff, which fits, since screenwriter Raymond Chandler (the Shakespeare of detective fiction) was once in the insurance racket. (The original novel, of course, was written by James M. Cain.) All he cares about are sales. Sign them up on the line that is dotted and you'll keep the bosses off your jacket and out of your late model car. Unfortunately for him, he runs into Babs, who plays Phyllis Dietrichson, a spoiled wife of a cynical businessman who just doesn't appreciate all the perks of being wealthy. Phyllis would like to have the old boy murdered and lures Neff into a scheme to off the crotchety coot. If the police can be convinced that the death was by suicide, then the price goes up to $100,000 and Fred and Barbara can retire down Mexico way, playing the banjo and slugging back gin fizzes all the live long day. A pretty sweet deal, figures Neff, even though he doesn't actually cotton to a cold blooded murder. But what the hey? A toasty broad like Phyllis doesn't come down the tracks every day, although the midnight train to Croakville just might and the two schemers carrying out their plan with some sophistication.
  Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), as with most everything else written by Chandler, relies less on plot than character ambiance. This is not merely film noir; this is insurance noir, or California noir, or even locust noir. California is, you will see, just a hotbed of soulless souls trying to find their way home beneath the desperadoes under the eaves, many of whom look like crucified thieves (and pardon the lift, Warren). A body grows numb from the palm trees, sunshine and baked freeways. A mind grows blind from the easy living. The heart turns hard and the money looks as fresh as Ellie Mae Clampett sunning herself down by the cement pond. Shadows box with the moonlight while bloodless humans take the elevator to the penthouse to confess their sins on the way out the window. 
   Edward G. Robinson takes the movie and runs with it, leaving the viewer wishing for more. He's brought in to ravel a series of plot twists that never go anywhere and it does not matter one bit because just watching that man stand there waiting for a telephone conversation to wrap up is more exciting than real life outside southern California could ever be. Here he is, as Barton Keyes, lecturing his idiot boss on the facts of life and death in the insurance business:
Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why, they've got ten volumes on suicide alone. Suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by *types* of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from *steamboats*. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.

   That bit of monologue should tell you all you need to hook you through the lip with this movie. Then go sit down and read the collected works of Raymond Chandler and Nathaniel West. You'll want to move to Los Angeles immediately just to see if it's all true, which it is. Frank Zappa's house can be yours for nine million.


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT

  Hemingway has never translated well to the screen, so it is just as well that scenarist Jules Furthman, co-writer William Faulkner and director Howard Hawks decided to pay little attention to the inspiration for To Have and Have Not (1944) and instead simply focused on telling a great story well. 
   It would be reasonable for people my own age and younger to do a polite roll of the eyes about the nostalgia component that has been attached to this movie for decades. This was the motion picture that brought Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall together for the first time, both on film and in real life. Bacall was all of nineteen and Bogart was, well, not nineteen. The original story took place in Cuba, but Hawks caved into to the FDR administration and moved the plot to Martinique, in what was then German-controlled Vichy France. It's quaint that Harry calls Marie "Slim" and that Slim calls Harry "Steve." Then, of course, we have the hipster dialogue, as when Slim says, "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."
   People do not talk that way much nowadays and if memory serves they never have. Nothing about that matters at all. No one has asked me if I've ever been stung by a dead bee, either, but it works great when Walter Brennan asks it repeatedly in this movie. 
   So the tendency is to roll the eyes politely. But once that impulse has been placated, the viewer is in store for the treat of a lifetime. Oh, the movie may lack the intensity of Casablanca, with which it is often compared. The ending may feel a bit unresolved, especially since the real wrap up ended up in another Bogart and Bacall spectacle called Key Largo. None of that will matter much if at all to a contemporary watcher because the damned majesty of the two leads together (and the remarkable sexual tension) as well as the commaraderie between Bogart and Brennan, and the sweetness between Brennan and Bacall, snaps your eyes forward and leaves your mouth agape. 
   It should also be pointed out that, give or take the propaganda impact of an anti-Nazi movie during World War Two, we were after all fighting fascism and this movie makes it clear that Harry Morgan (Bogart) has nothing but contempt for the Fascist regimes. We don't make all that many great films with that subject matter these days, probably because the war has been over a while and there's a tendency to assume that it cannot happen here despite the fact that is has happened here. It is not a gun or a bullet or a grenade that forces innocents into a gas chamber. It is a hard heart that kills. And we as a nation have been slipping into that hard-hearted stance for a long time now, ossifying just a little more with every real or imagined injustice. Whether it's a bum crawling across an alley on his way to the dumpster or an immigrant crawling across Sonora looking for a community, some of us yield to the temptation to perceive these folks as aggressors. All it takes is some small band of psychopaths in foreign garb blowing up buildings in the name of their own private deity and the fear of the unknown, a xenophobia of genesis, sets in. I can't speak for everyone, but I've felt that temptation myself. I have even given into it on occasion, and I should know better. To get myself back in shape, I reminisce with old movies such as this one, and I strain to regain the insight that once came so effortlessly. 
   I confer the same blessings onto you.


Monday, March 7, 2016

SHADOW OF A DOUBT

  Imagine Alfred Hitchcock pitching this movie to some executive at Universal. The exec says, "Give it to me, Hitch, baby, in twenty-five words or less."
  The grand man leans forward, oozing contempt for this schmuck, and says, "A young girl finds that her Uncle Charlie, her namesake, is not the man she believes him to be."
   Taglines for movies have a history of being somewhat lame. Casablanca is a war time love story. The Godfather is about a family having trouble with the law. Citizen Kane is a tale of yellow journalism. Sure. And tonight's movie, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), is about a young girl who discovers.. . 
  Thornton Wilder wrote the script with a little help from Mrs. Hitchcock. You may know Wilder. He also wrote Our Town, By The Skin of Our Teeth, and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, among other gems. The theme, somewhat predictable in hindsight, is the facade of the suburbs as an idyllic place where white people can hide from urban confusion, but a place that has its own ugly secrets bubbling like the brew of the three weird sisters, a place where fate is predetermined and gruesome, a place where nothing is quite what it seems.
   I am one of the few people I have ever met who will admit with some cheer that he loves the suburbs. To me they symbolize garage bands sweating in the summertime, bicycles racing through dangerous construction zones, stalled trains begging to be investigated by tiny hands, and, yes, places from which escape often feels insurmountable. Wilder, for what it may be worth, grew up in a literary family and may well have longed to escape the humiliation of being smart around classmates he feared were idiots. The connection between this and the suburbs seems obvious. Growing up in the 1970s, I dare say that everyone I knew who was even vaguely interesting yearned to be anywhere except where he was and felt the need to be anyone other than who he was. As much as I loved my little town (as Paul Simon, in a rare moment of lucidity, said it, "After it rains there's a rainbow and all of the colors are black; it's not that the colors aren't there--it's just imagination they lack"), I couldn't wait to get out of there. Where did not matter. Where I went does not matter either. 
   Young Charlie (Teresa Wright) worships the Uncle about whom she has heard so much. Yet no sooner does Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton) arrive than little clues of oddness materialize: items are clipped from the newspaper, the name of a certain familiar song cannot be spoken, and the like. 
   Part of the genius of this film lies in the realization that until the very end we cannot be certain if Uncle Charlie is as bad as we suspect him to be. It is as if in memory we have decided that our own childhood--especially the teenage years--were actually worthy of repeated reliving rather than being banished down the cesspool from whence they no doubt originated. If you really want to see evil, mediocrity, passive hostility, desecration of the scared and downright meanness, just revisit the years of your life from twelve to eighteen. It is like reading a history book of your own country only to discover that you were the Indian and everyone you knew was a settler. You may have had to resolve some cognitive dissonance to survive those putrid years, but there is no need for the delusion to continue into adulthood. 
   Shadow of a Doubt has no split screen window treatments, no Salvador Dali nonsense sequences, no elucidations on the repressed sexual desires of transsexuals. The pace is reasoned and reasonable, the acting chilling in its commonplace attitude. The only riddle that is not overtly answered is the name of the song no one quite can remember ("The Merry Widow"). And yet I will bet that once you see this movie you will list it on your paper under the Gideon as one of your favorite Hitchcock films. Once you've seen Psycho or The Birds, you really have no need to see them again. You'll gain no new insight into anything there. But I double dog dare you to watch Shadow of a Doubt only once. 
  I'll expect to see the For Sale sign in your yard the next day.


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.