Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movies. Show all posts

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

   One of the most intelligent and mature movies of Woody Allen's career, as well as one of his most accessible, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) blows apart the anhedonic nebbish of his best early films and resolves that the meaning of life is life. 
   The movie concerns Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest) and the men who keep messing up their lives as those men try in vain to remain relevant. Hannah is married to a well-off accountant named Elliot (Michael Caine) who is in love with Lee. She is involved in an odd relationship with Frederick (Max von Sydow), a frustrated but gifted artist many years her senior. Holly exploits Hannah's need to be liked by hitting her up for permanent loans as she struggles to find her purpose in life. Holly has even survived a date with Mickey (Woody Allen), who just happens to be Hannah's ex-husband. If this description sounds soap opera-esque, the characterizations run infinitely more deep than that. 
   Part of what makes this movie so special and spectacular is the way plot and characterization become one and the same. Everyone here is searching for something. If you asked each person, she or he would give an answer specific to that character. By the end of the film, however, we recognize that they have all been seeking the age-old question: what is the meaning of life? Just as in real life, not everyone arrives at an answer. Von Sydow's character is perhaps the most sympathetic because as he loses Lee, we ache with the knowledge that she has been his sole (soul) connection with the world outside his home studio. His self-analysis gets projected out at the world--and not in a favorable way--to the point where he watches television just to have something that makes him feel superior. 
   While I will resist giving away more of the story, I will tell you that the story appears to have been extremely important to the director. Gone are the self-conscious camera angles and affinity for black and white cinematography. Nowhere do we find the homage to foreign filmmakers. What we do get are living, breathing people with honest problems that materialize through deception, desperation, exploration and even a bit of procreation. This was a major evolutionary leap in Allen's development. By the mid-1970s, he had already joined the ranks of the world's best filmmakers (Kubrick, Kurasawa, Bergman, Fellini, Vargas, Altman, Godard). With Hannah and Her Sisters, he became a stylist of the tallest order.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NASHVILLE

   I suppose these days everyone has their favorite something: favorite football player, favorite pop singer, favorite pest control expert. My favorite things have always been people--at least, certain people--and that is why, if pressed, I would select Robert Altman as my favorite movie director and Nashville (1975) as my favorite film. Altman populated his motion pictures with so many people that a first-time viewer might assume that some of them were extraneous. But such things rarely exist in his movies, and they certainly do not exist in Nashville. Even a small child resting on his daddy's shoulders in a crowd scene after a country star has been assassinated at a political music festival exudes substance. I have noticed that many people confuse substance with explicit meaning. Naturally, I disagree.
   It is not my purpose here to confuse Altman's style with absurdist works such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, mainly because I have always found Beckett to be obvious and boring. Neither does he come across as some pretentious polecat in the spirit of James Joyce, whose writings always struck me as being in need of a decoder ring. If Altman's directorial style does have a literary equivalent, it might be a blend of Eugene Ionesco and Philip Roth, but even that fanciful thought still misses the mark. The most clear explanation I can offer is that he caught all the minute details of human interaction and adhered them to the old adage that comedy is tragedy plus time. When Keenan Wynn's character, Mr. Green, receives the news that his wife Esther has passed away, Scott Glenn's military character rushes up to him to babble out some wonderful--i.e., meaningless--good news. As Mr. Green strains to absorb the unexpected loss of his wife, the camera stays on the two men, neither of whom is reading the cues of the other, leaving us to struggle with the reverse of the adage. Throughout much of the movie, tragedy is comedy minus time. 
   Most directors--even some good ones--would not have had the imagination to conceive such a scene. But even those who might have found it within their abilities would not have been able to follow it up by having Mr. Green vindictively chase down Shelley Duvall who, as L.A. Joan, was more interested in chatting with men in the local music business than with caring about her dying Aunt. 
   It is no coincidence that we never meet Aunt Esther.
   We also never meet Hal Phillip Walker, the disembodied voice who is campaigning for President of the United States on the Replacement Party ticket. His long-winded witticisms come at us throughout the movie via a sound system atop an old campaign van winding its way through the city. Walker believes the National Anthem is a stupid song, that all the lawyers should be thrown out of Congress, and that churches should lose their tax-exempt status. He also believes that Christmas smells like oranges. In short, his message is one of populism. Released between Watergate and the American Bicentennial, Nashville summed up precisely where our country existed at that time.
   But such a statement fails to do justice to Altman's film, or to Joan Tewkesbury's screenplay, or to the brilliance of the casting and the performances the director allowed to flow from such heavyweights as Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Henry Gibson, Michael Murphy, Shelley Duvall, or any of the twenty-plus other actors prominently featured in this film. In this movie (which Altman called a musical, what with more than one hour of the total running time being devoted to mostly unappealing countrypolitan drivel, much of it written by the actors themselves, with the rest penned by Nashville stalwart Richard Baskin), we encounter people who are so beaten down by the lives they consciously created for themselves that they are largely unaffected by the public execution of the country star for whom they have all clamored, Barbara Jean, played to perfection by Ronnie Blakley. To quell any emotional response the crowd might express, or to seize an opportunistic moment, Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), who has been looking for a break since the festival began, takes the microphone and howls out a Gospel version of the only really human song in the film, Keith Carradine's "It Don't Worry Me." The audience eats it up. After all, they came to be entertained. 
   Five years after this movie came out, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death. Some reporter called Altman and asked if he felt any responsibility for Chapman's actions. Altman, whose actual reaction can only be imagined, told the story that he answered back, "Do you feel any responsibility for not learning the lessons of Nashville?"

   

Sunday, January 29, 2017

THE LATE SHOW

   When I checked out the guide and saw that The Late Show (1977) was coming on in half an hour, I skipped across the room with my arms in the air and my feet a-sailing. I had not seen this wonderful Robert Benton-directed Robert Altman-produced movie since the day it hit the theater in Huntington, West Virginia. I left the movies that day feeling I had just watched a terrific movie, a movie that captured the strange spirit of odd friendships. It was also the first time I can remember thinking that a movie's casting has more power than its plot.
    So there it was on TV tonight. Lisa Ann heated the cheese and I pulled out the chips and I loved every minute of it. Lisa Ann turned to me when the closing credits were rolling and said, "That was sort of a Phil Mershon movie, wasn't it?"
   I didn't say anything for a few seconds. I recognized that I had not been insulted. But I wasn't clear on exactly what she meant.
   She said, "It was cute."
   "Cute" is one of those words people use when they try to make you feel better about the fact that they do not want to sleep with you. "Oh, you are so cute. But, no, it just wouldn't feel right."
   "It's your kind of humor," she clarified. "I can see why you like it."
   Well, hell. She nailed me. It is my kind of movie. If I made a list of my one hundred favorite films, I would expect that at least ninety of them would have friendship as a theme. If you are honest with yourself, the same is true for you.
   The Late Show would be on my version of that list.
   Citizen Kane is not just a movie about Patty Hearts' grandfather; it is about friendship, or the horror of its absence. Casablanca is more than a love story and Nazis; it's also about the grudging admiration Rick has for Victor Laslo. MASH is very much about friendships that would never have happened had the participants not been dragged into an idiotic war. Goodfellas is less a movie about gangsters than it is a movie about friendships betrayed. Name any movie that has stuck with you over the decades and I will bet that some type of strange friendship is at that movie's heart. 
   Strange friendships are right up director Robert Benton's alley. The first movie he wrote was 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, the two main characters of which, it will be recalled, weren't all that much in the lover department, but her desire to reinvent herself was the impetus for the friendship between the two. Five years later, Benton was back with Bad Company, a civil war era film about draft resisters who team up for an unlikely life of armed robbery. But with the script for The Late Show, bolstered by Altman's genius in casting Lily Tomlin and Art Carney in the leads, Benton has earned his way into heaven. As Margo, Lily Tomlin is a little bit goofy, a little bit astrological, and very edgy. As Ira, Art Carney is cagey, weather-worn, and lonely as an abandoned hound dog. Even within the realm of the 1940s detective noir to which this movie pays considerable homage, we recognize right away that their relationship will be an unusual one. 
    Someone has kidnapped Margo's cat. In fact, the cat is being held for ransom by someone to whom Margo owes money. She is introduced to Ira at a cemetery where he is sending off one of his best friends, another private detective named Harry. Margo wants Ira to find her cat. Ira is offended at the suggestion. He may be old, he may be living in a modest home, he may be lonely, but he has not degenerated to the point where he tracks down missing felines. 
   Ira discovers that the recently departed Harry was murdered while trying to do that very thing.
   The rest of the plot runs amok. And that is not a criticism. The story has a kind of logic--just one that's nearly impossible to follow. Besides, the plot doesn't matter.
   What matters is the way Margo and Ira come to care about one another. Being young and feisty, she gets on Ira's nerves. For instance, when she mentions to him that she had to sell some marijuana to pay his fee, he asks, "How long have you been a pusher?"
   When Ira has to go into a room that will probably reveal something they don't want to see, Margo, who has actress among many other jobs on her resume, panics. Ira says, "You're an actress, right? Well, act calm."
   This is not The Bickersons. These two people are together in a somewhat contrived series of situations and just try to make the most of it. Margo does not want to fence stolen merchandise or sell pot to make ends meet, but she can't pay her bills on the money she makes as an actor, an agent, a talent manager, or any of the other careers she admittedly does not have the self-discipline to do well. When she suggests to Ira that he take the vacant apartment next door to her because they work so well together, we recognize that both of them have an emptiness they would love the other to fill and when he turns her down because he has grown so accustomed to his life of quiet desperation, we actually ache for the both of them. 
   Look, there was a time in my life, somewhere around the time when I first saw this movie, that I harbored a secret wish that by the time I reached Carney's age, I would be just like his character in this movie. So, yes, as usual, Lisa Ann was correct. It is a Phil Mershon kind of film, at least to the extent that nuggets remain of the person I was then. As the Black Panthers used to say, "The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same."
   If you have read this far, then just maybe you have some of that Art Carney or Lily Tomlin in you as well. Hey, different generations have different heroes. But just as the great actors of my parents' generation transcended typecasting--it's a straight line between, say, Humphrey Bogart and Orson Welles to George C Scott and Peter Sellers--so do two actors most celebrated for their comedic skills make those legends irrelevant in this movie. Tomlin worked the camera as well as anyone who ever stood in front of one and not once yielded to any impulses to become too endearing or sympathetic. The same with Carney: every time our feelings shift from empathy to sympathy, he comes out with guns a-blazing and makes us reevaluate what we think we know. 
  My advice? Watch this movie with someone who will tell you afterwards that this is your kind of movie. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

STARDUST MEMORIES

     Whether by character or by sensibility, there are those for whom filmmaker Woody Allen holds little or no interest. I recommend that those people--whom I'm sure are very nice--may want to skip what follows. 
    You're going to read it anyway, huh? Suit yourself. But you probably will not be able to get beyond the predisposition that there is something a little creepy, a little unsettling, unpleasant and maybe not even funny about the man, in spite of all the fine things you are possibly about to read.
   Woody Allen is the perfect link between not only classic movie-making from the 1930s and 1940s (Marx Brothers, Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz) and today; he is also the same kind of link between art film directors (Fellini, Bergman, Godard,) and contemporary romantic comedies. His use of absurdities to amplify genuine human feelings runs consistent through the bulk of his work. Because many of his early movies had Allen playing characters who might be described as a passive-aggressive nebbish, as someone who is himself intelligent yet wary of intellectuals, as indefatigable in his willingness to let his indecisiveness screw up his plans--there has, over the years, been a tendency to assume that those fictional characters were to a great extent reflections of the man's overall perception of himself, and that, given such consistency, he was therefore a narcissist.  
   For all the people who did indeed take him to be a nebbish, a man suspicious of cant, a narcissist, Woody Allen made a movie to debunk all of that rubbish. He called it Stardust Memories (1980). Coming as it did after four successful directorial knock-outs (Love and Death, Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan), Stardust Memories left more than a few people dampened in their reactions. The protagonist, Sandy Bates, played by Allen, was clearly mocking his fans and their adoration of him, or so many people editorialized. His use of a wide-angle lens in close-ups of the exuberant crowds that gaggled around him at a retrospective of his films made the people look paralyzed with their own ill-fitted self-importance. 
    This kind of reaction--and it was widespread upon the movie's initial release--was simply wrong. It was wrong to the extent that it was (a) irrelevant, and (b) ignorant of movie history. 
   The point of whatever hostility Woody Allen may have felt against his fans and supporters, especially in light of the disappointment many felt with his attempts at seriousness with Interiors, did get some support from the director himself, what with the most often-repeated line in the movie being to the effect that people wanted him to go back to making funny pictures again, like he used to do. A lot of people did say that at the time. So I will concede that he was drawing from his own personal experiences there. But none of that makes a bit of difference because in this movie the audience is viewing those fans from the camera point of view of the protagonist, the character with whom, to some extent, we are expected to identify. 
   Anyone still not as yet convinced should take a gander at the film upon which Stardust Memories pays homage: 8 1/2 by Frederico Fellini. When I say that Woody pays homage to Fellini, I do not mean in the same sense that Brian De Palma often paid homage to Alfred Hitchcock. In other words, Allen did not steal from Fellini. He created a conscious and deliberate parallel of the Marcello Mastroianni character in Fellini's film, a parallel which utilized elements of the nebbish character Allen had been using for years. And the stylistic similarities with not only 8 1/2 but also with Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt are as deliberate as they are honest. 
   But all this explication ignores something I believe is far more important: this is a genuinely enjoyable movie, one crammed with some of the best screenwriting Allen has ever done, with lines that bite like sabers, one of the best of which takes place in a large field where UFO believers are apparently awaiting the landing of aliens and one of the men looks right into the camera, declaring that the Soviets are beaming satellite transmissions from the Empire State Building to cloud our minds, and finishes by saying, "And I'm the only one who knows."
  Stardust Memories also introduces a specifically American audience to visuals for which that audience was, to put it mildly, unprepared. The presentation of the troubled ex-girlfriend Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling) implied rather than showed the depth of her struggles. There are otherwise empty shots of her enigmatic beauty, yet, near the end, we see her in rapid still shots as she babbles helplessly in a mental institution. 
   In Sandy's apartment, as he is being berated by studio people who want him to go back to making funny movies again, we cannot help but see that behind him, on the large wall, is an enormous photograph of the famous image from the Tet Offensive where a Viet Cong prisoner is about to be shot in the head by a South Vietnamese General. A few minutes later the picture has been replaced by a radiant Groucho Marx. 
   I realize that I have not said anything about the plot of this movie and that is because plot in this movie is nothing more than a device through which the writer-director is able to express the idea that personal and social responsibility can be tough in a world where most people only like you because it makes them feel important to do so. A small but vocal number of those wounded people may even try to kill you.
   At the end of the scene in the field with the expectant UFO-seekers, Sandy Bates is confronted by a fan who points a gun at him and fires. A little more than three months following this movie's release, Mark David Chapman shot and killed John Lennon. 
   So for those of you--nice people, one and all--who resist enjoying Woody Allen because you find him a bit creepy or because you don't find his ideal characterization of himself to be something with which you can relate, I nevertheless urge you to reconsider your position by seeing this movie. Listen, even if all this art work and cinematic stylism eludes you, even if the struggle for morality in this film leaves you unsettled, even if you just don't want to watch it no matter what I say, you can tell yourself that it's a great way to people watch. You'll see a very young Sharon Stone, plus all sorts of other cool New York people, such as Judith Crist, Laraine Newman, Louise Lasser, Tony Roberts, and Anne DeSalvo, among others. If you look even closer, who knows? You might even see yourself.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

WATERSHIP DOWN

    We have come a ways from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first animated movie I ever saw in a cinema. That was in the summer of 1967, thirty years after its original release. The studios heralded Snow White as a Walt Disney story, but of course that was a lie, as anyone familiar with the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm will attest. The true origins of the story actually go back beyond the Brothers Grimm to sixteenth century Germany where Philip IV fathered Margarete von Waldeck who, upon her maturity, fell in love with a prince who would go on to become Phillip II of Spain. Margarete's parents disapproved of the relationship and either banished her or poisoned her, much to the horror of the children (dwarfs) the family held as slave laborers. Kind of puts a different spin on the old "Whistle While You Work" motif, doesn't it?
   The Wicked Queen in that movie proved to be the image of nightmares for a few weeks, somewhat on a par with the Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz. The first time I watched those flying monkeys tear apart the Scarecrow, I thought I was going to faint.
   Both of those films are thought to be kid movies which are commonly enjoyed by adults as well, although the pleasure grown-ups get from such things may have something to do with nostalgia for their own presumed innocent days of youth.
   The 1978 animated movie Watership Down maintains its appeal to this very day and that appeal has nothing much to do with nostalgia since I only saw it for the first time earlier this evening and must confess to having been quite engrossed. 
   Whenever I watch a so-called feature-length cartoon, I take a moment to consider if I would have enjoyed the movie as a child. I believe that I would. I am certain that I liked it as a more or less grown person. And even though a few scenes display some violence and horror, the very nature of the construct of that horror is not in the least gratuitous and I believe would not much disturb any child who ever lost a goldfish to the perils of the toilet bowl.
   The story is about a warren of rabbits who escape from the progress of mankind. In the Martin Rosen film, as in the Richard Adams book, the rabbits talk. But these rabbits are not much like Bugs Bunny. Mankind, for that matter, is not much like Elmer Fudd. The thoroughly naturalistic animation catches details that any child would recognize, such as the way a rabbit's soul appears to be conveyed by its eyes, the way a rabbit sniffs and chews, the movements as they scurry hither and yon. All the details are perfect and not a bit boastful. Mankind's encroachment is only the beginning of the problems for our rabbits, however. It seems their social systems have a few authoritarian elements as well as a share of cosmic-inclined characters who can foresee disaster. 
   The real menace for our adventure-seeking harmony-loving rabbits is a big old bastard of a rabbit named General Woundwort who rules by inflicting scars on his people. His brutality is complete and as irrational as that of any Wicked Queen. Woundwort is also the ultimate foil and without his cruelty there would be much less of a story to tell. The movie also delivers a sinister pussy cat who is just as evil, though not as sophisticated, as Woundwort. Both are sufficiently frightening.
   Even if a person were to murmur some objections to the rotten behavior of the bad actors in this movie, I would counter that the splendor of the film's resolution is enhanced by all that comes before it and that without the violence, that resolution would be fey and dismissed by any kid in attendance, much less by his or her parental guardian. 
   This issue of violence strikes me as important because it seems that the BBC and Netflix are about to release a four-part mini-series remake of the original for sometime this year, but have decided to tame down the tension for fear of scarring the children who might watch it. 
   We are not talking about some sick, twisted garbage movie here. This is not I Spit on Your Grave or Friday 13th or even Caligula. This is an actual movie with believable characters about whom we come to care a great deal in a brief period of time and when something bad happens to one of them, we feel it, just as we do in real life, despite the efforts of sensationalists to desensitize us. Watership Down is a movie that aims to sensitize us to our place in this mad universe, to connect us with our fellows, to breathe life into each precious moment and in order to do that in a way that is honest and sincere, a few rabbits do indeed get hurt. But as Frith the Creator tells us, "There is not a day or night that a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla, his life for his chief. But there is no bargain: what is, is what must be." Frith has a lot of interesting things to say, including, "All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed." 
    I'm sure it is too late to get the BBC and Netflix to reconsider their "sanitizing" of the story. I have not seen previews of the work, but I suspect they may stray from the naturalist appearance of the original and go for a "real" look instead, the difference between natural and real being, say, the difference between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. Real is seldom an improvement. 

   

Saturday, January 7, 2017

ORNETTE: MADE IN AMERICA

   "If we could start with universe, we would automatically avoid leaving out any strategically critical variables."
  --Buckminster Fuller

   No one since Charlie Parker has built on what already existed and totally transformed that music as powerfully as Ornette Coleman. The Ft Worth, Texas, native summed up his revolutionary philosophy thus: "If I'm going to follow a preset chord sequence, I might as well write out my solo." Because his compositions do not have chord changes, variable pitch, or asymmetrical phrases, they are free to transfer the listener's attention from a dominant soloist to collective improvisation. Because his groups based their solos on melody rather than on chord changes, Coleman referred to this blend of harmony, melody and motion as "harmolodics." It was in 1959 that Coleman assembled a double quartet that included Don Cherry on trumpet, Ed Blackwell on drums and Charlie Haden on bass. The result was a thirty-six minute album on Atlantic called Free Jazz. The album was more liberated from musical convention than anything ever recorded to that point. As Len Lyons and Don Perlo describe it, "The music is based on a given tonal center, around which collective playing alternates with solo performances." Another way to describe it is divinely sublime noise. 
   Almost everything Coleman did for Atlantic is stunning, changing the way the world understood music. In addition to Free Jazz, his 1959-1961 period also created Change of the Century, The Shape of Jazz to Come, and This is Our Music.

   Revolutionary director Shirley Clarke spends little time on Coleman's classic period and instead intersperses his childhood in Ft Worth with a wild presentation of the saxophonist's symphonic hook up in The Skies of America. Risks abound when pairing a wild talent documentarian such as Clarke with a massive creative force such as Coleman. Shirley is relatively careful in not letting the movie be about the making of the movie rather than about the subject matter, although the rhythmic jump cuts and deliberate scene duplications don't necessarily add much value to the process. What makes the Ornette: Made in America (1985) work so well as a vehicle to tell the story is her use of interviews. Denardo Coleman, son of the master, proves himself to be more than just another brilliant rhythm man. He tells stories of his father well, stories that matter, stories that reinforce the mutual respect we see between the two men. 
   One of my personal favorite segments of the film occurs when a Coleman critic-advocates talks about watching Ornette play just like Charlie Parker, almost as if to prove that he actually could make music with structure and finesse when he chose to do so. 
   We also meet poet Jayne Cortez, ex-wife of Ornette, as well as writer William Burroughs and composer George Russell. But it is Coleman himself who we came to see and it is Coleman who tells the best stories of all, whether remembering how when another Ft Worth sax man, King Curtis, hit the big time, the two of them took a ride in the latter's limo, or what it was like being a child in a house just a few feet from the heavily-trafficked railroad tracks. 
   This is a good movie and a very accessible introduction to the life and work of a complicated genius.

   
   

Thursday, January 5, 2017

THE LONG GOODBYE

   I can be bought. Let there be no doubt. But my price for saying nice things about you in print comes at a very high cost. What it would take to get me to say something favorable about someone in the book publishing industry or elsewhere would be to receive a book called Black Amazon of Mars: and Other Tales From the Pulps, an anthology of writings by one of the greatest writers whose words I have had the pleasure to digest: Leigh Brackett.
   Those words first came to me in a college course, of all the unlikely places. It was in Dr. Robert Gerke's Science Fiction class back at my beloved Marshall University in the late 1970s that I read "The Jewel of Bas" and from whence forever my opinion of all those science fiction nerds did change. Bob Gerke and I had a custom of amusing one another by smoking Camels in his office while belaboring pointless subjects such as whether Anthony Burgess could be thought of as an sf writer, would it be fun to actually have dinner with Kurt Vonnegut, and the suggestion that just possibly George Orwell had known and written about everything that needed to be known, so why the hell even bother with anything else? One day I punctuated one of my pathetic smoke rings with the question, "Who is this Leigh Brackett, anyway? Why isn't she on the cover of Time magazine? These stories of hers are incredible!"
    "Do you know your Raymond Chandler?" he asked.
    That was such a cool way to ask the question, I thought. It was the way a practicing southern attorney might have asked the jurors in a murder trial, "Do ya know your Bible?"
   "Yeah, I know Chandler. Detective fiction. Philip Marlowe."
   Bob shook his head and ground out a Camel. "The Shakespeare of the modern detective story. He wrote The Big Sleep. Hollywood made it a film. Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay with a little help from William Faulkner. Leigh Brackett is one of the best. That was back in the forties. You ever hear of a little thing called The Empire Strikes Back?"
   "I don't watch Stars Wars movies."
   "Why not? Don't be a snob, Mersh. The trash aesthetic has elevated more people than Milton, I assure you."
   This from the man who taught Chaucer in Middle English.
   "Well, Leigh Brackett wrote The Empire Strikes Back. In the old days she turned out horror films, westerns such as Rio Bravo, all kinds of movies, while still writing her stories. They called her the queen of the space opera, but as we have seen, she was far more than that. What you really should do, if you want to have a good time, is take some young lady to go see The Long Goodbye. The people who put together the movie schedule here are going to run it later this month. Robert Altman is the director. Elliott Gould plays Marlowe, or The Marlboro Man, as one of the characters calls him. It's brilliant."
    Young ladies were not exactly lining up to accompany me to the movies in those days, so I went stag and had to agree with Bob Gerke: it was brilliant.
   The actual movie added and subtracted a few items from the Leigh Brackett script, but you can read the original here and decide for yourself: Leigh Brackett Screenplay for The Long Goodbye. You will learn a lot from reading this.
   One of the things you will not necessarily learn from either the screenplay or the movie that eventually appeared, is how the $350,000 made it's way back to gangster Marty Augustine, but what you will discover for certain is that Raymond Chandler, Leigh Backett and Robert Altman cared very much about friendship. 
   They knew how to express that concern.
   The opening scene of the movie has detective Marlowe waking up at 3AM because his cat is hungry. The cat nudges him and he crawls out of bed with some reluctance but with a manner that convinces us he has been in this situation before tonight. Seeing that he is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, Marlowe fries some scrambled eggs and serves them to the cat. The feline is not impressed. Undeterred, Marlowe leaves his apartment to go to the all-night grocery to fetch some cat food. As he leaves, one of his neighbors, who likes to do yoga sans clothing while inhaling various mind-altering substances with her like-minded girlfriends, asks him if he will pick her up two boxes of brownie mix. He says he will. And he does. But the store is out of Coury Brand Cat Food, so he settles for a different brand. Knowing the cat is nobody's fool, Marlowe sneaks into the kitchen, fishes an old empty Coury can out of the trash, and shoves the faux cat food into the can. He lets tabby into the kitchen and makes a big production about how this is the real stuff, see, I'm taking it out of the can and placing it in your dish--and the cat is not fooled. From that one scene we learn that the cat kows things about people that Marlowe has yet to understand.
   Both Elliott Gould and the cat deserved major award recognition for their performances together. If acting is at least in part about reacting, these two characters reacting to one another is one of the finest extended moments in motion picture history.
   Elliott Gould, despite having been one of the most in-demand actors of the very early 1970s, had perhaps suffered from some overexposure by 1973, when this picture was released, and from interviews I've read, it appears he was relieved to get the job. He had already set the world on fire by playing Trapper John in Altman's MASH. After turning down a star role in the same director's McCabe and Mrs Miller, Gould accepted roles he wanted in critical faves and commercial busts such as Little Murders and Getting Straight. Even though he would go on to have parts in three more Altman films and was never out of work for long, The Long Goodbye was his last major role on the big screen. 
   With Brackett's words, Altman's direction and his own brilliance in front of the camera, Elliott Gould shines darkly in one of the most under-celebrated movies of the ages. 
   If by any chance my saying that Gould is magnificent is in and of itself insufficient to get you to watch this classic movie, then I will add that the support cast includes Sterling Hayden as a self-destructive writer type, probably based to an extent on Hemmingway, Henry Gibson as the notorious Dr. Verringer (the Hollywood equivalent of a Doctor Feelgood), David "Kung-Fu" Carradine as a long-winded storytelling convict, and, even though he is uncredited, I have it on reasonable authority that one of the gangster's henchmen is Arnold Schwarzenegger. 
   No one will tell me who played the cat.
   It has been written elsewhere that in this movie, private eye Philip Marlowe goes to sleep a 1953 detective and wakes up in a 1973 world, with all the shallow narcissism that concept implies. Perhaps that is the reason for one of the most substantial differences between the original Chandler novel and the finished movie. In the former, Terry Lennox, a friend of Marlowe's, is a real friend: fascinating, sympathetic and symbiotic. In the movie, he is a fake friend: boring, pompous and parasitic--although Marlowe does not accept this until deep into the story. 
   And so this movie is about the nature of the longing for friendship. It is about the nature of the longing for friendship in Los Angeles, specifically Hollywood. It's some Nathanael West (The Day of the Locust), a little Warren Zevon, a bit of the audience from "Let's Make a Deal." But mostly it is the invincible threesome of Brackett, Altman and Gould. And while the director made sure the soundtrack included as many different versions of the title song as possible, it was the closing credits tune that actually tells the story: "Hooray for Hollywood," by Johnny Mercer and Richard Whiting:

Hooray for Hollywood That screwy ballyhooey Hollywood Where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic With just a good looking pan And any barmaid can be a star maid If she dances with or without a fan Hooray for Hollywood, Where you're terrific if you're even good Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple Is equally understood Go out and try your luck, you might be Donald Duck Hooray for Hollywood Hooray for Hollywood That phoney super-Coney Hollywood They come from Chillicothes and Paducas with their bazookas To get their names up in lights All armed with photos from local rotos With their hair in ribbon and legs in tights Hooray for Hollywood You may be homely in your neighbourhood But if you think that you can be an actor, see Mr. Factor He'll make a monkey look good Within a half an hour you'll look like Tyrone Power Hooray for Hollywood



   

Monday, January 2, 2017

CLERKS

  On the one hand, I come away from director Kevin Smith's Clerks (1994) with a strong sense of "who cares," without the question mark. But movies without conventional plots, shot in black and white, with vaguely existentialist themes sprinkled throughout do on occasion have their value and seeing as how the film had the decency to lack special effects, the least I can do is offer up a cursory review without damning it with too much severity.
   The best thing to be said for this movie is that it might be used at success coach seminars by people who have an abundance of slackers in their audience. Even slackers prefer to believe they are worthy of being elevated by the lectures they receive, so the Wayne Dyer pull-your-own-strings attitude gets mixed with some verbal self-reflection, as when Randall, the video store clerk, bluntly tells Dante, the convenience store clerk, that all the latter's bitching is pointless because he is doing exactly what he wants to do in both his personal and professional life--well, you may get the idea that you have not stumbled into a prequel for Avatar, not that such a thing would be any more enlightening.
   Probably the most depressing aspect of this admittedly amusing film is that none of the people to whom the wit is directed actually rise to the level of the movie itself. When the director cuts away to illustrate some of the stupid people with whom Dante must interact, he's actually talking about other under-achieving gen-xers, even though he doesn't know it. Out of every ten people who watched this when they were in their early twenties, maybe three caught the reference  implicit in the main character's name and of those three, one might have read somewhere that the film is divided into nine segments, corresponding to the circles of The Divine Comedy
   Of course, I don't actually believe any of that. I never did believe there ever was such a thing as Generation X, unless you are referring to the Chelsea group that spawned Billy Idol. Was there ever a specific post-boomer age of disaffection and directionlessness? That sort of widespread apathy would require a level of social engineering far beyond the abilities of any governmental or corporate officials I've ever had the displeasure of meeting. 
   Now if you want to argue that music and movies went to the turd factory by the late-1980s, I will shake your hand and stroke your brow. But that has been a symptom of the crass behavior of the people in the entertainment industry rather than the disaffection of youth, per se. If you want to persuade me that the acceptance of narcotics use has become so widespread that we as a whole--and especially the young--have collectively dropped our brains into a cesspool of stupidity, I assure you that I come pre-persuaded. I am likewise convinced that dwelling on it is counterproductive. Sophomores--sophisticated morons--have always walked amidst the rest of us. Being reminded that even sophomores are smarter than some other people is a drag. 
   Pardon me? What happened to me saying something nice about the movie? The director plays Silent Bob, friend to a drug dealer, and a cooler-looking person in a black and white movie I have never seen. The acting is spectacular, especially given the rapid-fire pace with which the lines are delivered. And without onscreen nudity of any sort, the movie manages to be so verbally profane that you will either laugh yourself to tears or commit suicide. The choice, you will understand, is all yours.


   

Saturday, November 12, 2016

THE CRITIC'S CHOICES

  It may be impossible to watch Citizen Kane (1941) without recoiling from some stark similarities with a certain Orange Menace currently in vogue. While often cited as the greatest movie of all time, those words are misleading because, while likely accurate, they project a kind of elitism that dampens the visual delights of this movie. Mystery, biopic, suspense drama, documentary, art film, even black comedy: Orson Welles made such categorizations irrelevant as he blended flashback vignettes from the lives of William Hearst, Sam Insull, Harold McCormick and possibly his own bad self with the hegemonic artistic license of a brilliant child with too much money and no one to contradict him. Everyone should have one opportunity to make such a film, as long as those who succeed can withstand the agony of having all the rest that they do compared with it unfavorably. 
   
  Welles was an auteur, a seer whose vision guided all aspects of a movie's creation. One could tell an Orson Welles film from some distance: floor-level shots, images drawn with negative space, misleading and beautiful visual metaphors, a recurring cast of actors and a story-line that implied as much as it spoke. Few director writers have been able to hold the often pejorative auteur moniker, but Welles took it to heart, as was his due. 
   Someone I have often believed to be the natural descendant of Orson is Robert Altman. He too preferred to operate outside the studio systems and he too took pride in the contemporary euphemism for auteur: outlaw. After years in relative obscurity, Altman's explosion blew cosmic debris throughout the cinematic landscape with critical successes and his lovely commercial failures. In the 1970s, there were no better movies than Brewster McCloudNashville and 3 Women.  Yet when Robert's attempts to build a community that would enable him to create did not properly gel, his movies embarrassed even his most ardent fans, as anyone who has ever endured Popeye or O.C. & Stiggs can attest. 
  The Player (1992) stands as Altman's greatest story ever told. While the director himself seems to have considered the movie as an inoffensive little satire, in fact The Player takes pains to offend people who might in kindness be called ignorant through no fault of their own. The nearly eight-minute tracking shot opening scene actually references Welles film Touch of Evil and no less a personage than the late Roger Ebert has claimed that the Griffin Mill lead character (as played by Tim Robbins) bears a purposeful resemblance to the young Charles Foster Kane. He certainly has Kane's early morality, especially when he shuts down new kid Larry Levy when the latter is musing over the prospects of ridding the system of writers. Griffin's comeback is pure Wellesian brilliance: "I was thinking what an interesting concept it is... to eliminate the writer from the artistic process. If we can get rid of the actors and directors, maybe we've got something."


   

Monday, July 27, 2015

RAGING BULL

   One may as well attempt a reasoned argument with an Armageddonist Christian about the propriety of a nuclear-free Iran as to take issue with most people when the subject matter involves cinematic violence. When artiste auteur darling directors tow their gratuitous violence through Styx and into the darker sphere of adult realism, claiming that the only way the audience can internalize the tragedy befalling a hero or his victims is with red-lens filters, slow motion shooting, and stop action precision, often as not those directors reap the celebratory accolades of their filmmaking brethren and of the critical community at large, all of which speaks not well for the movie directors but ill for the community that idolizes them. If, as I believe, one of the purposes of a movie that seeks to do more than merely entertain is to fill the audience's lungs with a new chemical that stirs dormant sensations and primordial recollections akin to remembering that sometimes for convenience we forget what it means to be alive, then the presumably cheap and tawdry efforts of directors such as Tobe Hooper (Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) fulfill this supreme mission far better than more "great cinema art" aficionados such as Martin Scorsese. 
   When Raging Bull was first released in 1980, I resisted seeing it for a couple weeks, mainly because a friend of mine kept insisting that I simply had to watch it, that Robert DeNiro proved himself to be truly beautiful and the natural precursor of all the great method actors who had preceded him, and that the director, this Scorsese fellow, had evolved from the city realism of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to the venue of great tragedians such as Aeschylus and Sophocles. Statements of that sort infuriated me because (a) I didn't believe them, (b) I sensed a profound misogyny in Scorsese's work (give or take Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore), and (c) whenever I hear that so-and-so is the greatest anything, I tend to disbelieve it, especially when it comes to movies. So I sat back and read the reviews and listened to the talk about Raging Bull to the point where I felt I had already watched it several times. Despite more than a few invitations from people who had already seen it to join them for an encore presentation, for two full weeks I proudly and steadfastly refused to budge. 
   Then one Wednesday afternoon, instead of going to Geology class, I walked down to the one and only movie house in town, gave the ticket-taker a couple bucks for the matinee and muttered out the name of the movie. 
   I liked it. I did not love it, not by any means. But I liked it. I thought DeNiro radiated all the beauty that had been claimed for him. I recognized the classical tragedian structure of the story. I agreed that Joe Pesci would likely become the perennial sidekick in Scorsese pictures. Best of all, I was able to say to people whose lives appeared to revolve around little else that I had at long last watched this movie and now could people kindly leave me alone?
   Flash forward to a couple weekends ago. A friend agreed to watch the movie with me on DVD. She made no bones that she wasn't too happy with the idea, but once in a while I have introduced her to a motion picture that she likes a lot and there was always the chance that this might happen again. So she put on a brave face. She leaned forward in her chair. She smiled in anticipation. 
   The smile did not remain for long.
   "I liked Joe Pesci in it, " she said. "I didn't like the way it depicted the way men treated women. I thought it was way too bloody, even in black and white. I turned my head away." 
  My friend is not a child repulsed by the reality of a cruel world. Likewise she is not a blue-haired prude, leaping in terror at every falling branch. My friend is a decent, brave, respectable human being with strong feelings and love for her family. Why she wants to spend her time watching movies with the likes of me is anyone's guess. But she does. And when she ventures an opinion or reaction to a movie, I shut up, listen, and think about it.
   For a movie that supposedly bookended an era in movie-making that merged reality with art (the other end of the shelf being the far superior Bonnie and Clyde), Raging Bull has aged less than well. One reason for the lingering stench lies in the efforts at making the boxing matches so authentic. What could be done in 1980 by masterful craftsmen can today be done by clever twelve-year-olds. So the violence becomes obsolescent. But the bigger reason for the movie's disappointment can be summed in an appropriately adolescent shrug: So what? Why should the audience--today's audience, or the audience of 1980--give a damn about Jake LaMotta? Was he the 1940s version of Macbeth, a single-minded individual who forced his closest allies to betray him while thumbing his nose at his closest enemies? No, he was a tremendous fighter who was possessed of a blind drive for violence, the source of which is never identified but which we are led to surmise has something to do with him being Italian. Since LaMotta is portrayed as a wife-beating, paranoid, belligerent thug, it's hard to give much compassion to him when he begins to slide somewhere along Act Three.  
   "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man." So said Dr. Sammy Johnson. Dr. Johnson, among other things, was an erudite snob reactionary prone to being long-winded and rude. He also contributed to eighteenth-century English literature in ways that few others did. Jake LaMotta used to beat people up very effectively. That may have made him some kind of an artist. Telling his story with realism does not do the same for the director.
Scorsese and DeNiro


Sunday, July 12, 2015

KISS ME DEADLY

   As Pauline Kael supposedly said of Dirty Harry, so do I say of Kiss Me Deadly (1955): "A fascist masterpiece." Seldom does a movie sixty years of age continue to offend on so many levels while providing a disturbing degree of engagement. What claws at the conscience has less to do with the apocalyptic conclusion or the general sense of embraced brutality, but the amazing cinematography of Ernest Laszlo and the taut tone of director Robert Aldrich. In short, the damn thing persuades the viewer that things are not only the way they appear in this movie, but that they are almost supposed to be this way.
   What way is that? Well, that a quite young Cloris Leachman (as Christina Bailey) should be running down a roadway in the middle of the night as an escapee from the laughing academy; that Ralph Meeker (Mike Hammer) should be driving a Jaguar he cares more about than he does his own mother; that all of the women in this movie radiate a blurry weirdness that leads us to recall the "Bogart" line from Play It Again, Sam: "I never yet met a dame who didn't understand a good slap in the mouth or a slug from a .45"; or that a hydrogen bomb could somehow be contained inside a lead crate and opened and closed at will. This manifestly misogynist movie succeeds on the stilts of its own callous stupidity and not because Meeker's acting is especially persuasive or because the story makes any sense at all or even because we give a hoot about what happens to any of the characters. We are more impressed by the fact that Hammer has an in-home answering machine in his wall in 1955 than we are with the story itself. What makes this ridiculous film cling to our jacket pockets after all this time resides in the film work, as I mentioned (especially the overhead shots of Hammer on the sofa pulling the plot together in his brain, as well as the recently restored ending with the couple on the beach), and the decidedly refreshing interaction between the reptilian Hammer and his nervous yet fun-loving mechanic Nick Va Va Voom. The only time Hammer exudes anything resembling humanity happens when he and Nick are working together, helping one another out, sharing a hearty laugh as the brothers in struggle that they are. Hammer's not-well-disguised hatred of society screeches to a halt when it comes to his relations with working men, be it the gas jockey, the bartender, or the mechanic. Hammer may need women for sex, but he clearly grooves on the company of his gender mates. 
   It doesn't hurt that we get to see a fight that includes a young googly-eyed Jack Elam and a short sequence with an even younger Strother Martin (who we keep expecting to lament "What we have here is a failure to communicate"). These two, and Leachman, join a support cast that's actually too good for the movie they're in, which simply adds to the frustration of trying to stomach the unending callousness, as when Hammer instructs a man whose house he wishes to search to tell his wife to shut up and the man shrugs and tells her, "Shut up." 
   Mickey Spillane wrote the novel, reportedly hated the movie, and was probably responsible for the incongruous literary references sprinkled throughout the film. Recommended to those who prefer their sadism to be artful.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

   For anyone needing evidence that nothing new has happened in American cinema in more than a while, we offer a recent remark by actor Dustin Hoffman to the UK Independent: “I think right now television is the best that it’s ever been and I think that it’s the worst that film has ever been – in the 50 years that I’ve been doing it, it’s the worst.”
   The first half of Hoffman's statement is spurious--television does not exist, at least not in the sense of historical interpretation implied by the observation. "Television" today harnesses youth-oriented technology in its drive to maintain an ahistorical experience for the viewer. High Definition, Netflix, satellite transmissions, internet access: we are a long way from a box with rabbit ears, at least in terms of science. In terms of art or whatever "best" may mean, the comparison breaks apart because on one side we have an emphasis on story and on the other the thrust is technique. 
   But the knife in Hoffman's words mostly applies to movies. And that is one experience that is kicking to hang on to the tradition of its presentations while making concessions to the mode of communication. Despite the near death of the drive-in theater, the omnipresence of the multiplex, the alleged convenience of online streaming, nothing yet has been able to wipe out the magnificence of sitting in a darkened cinema with cold popcorn, overpriced soda splashing into your lap, sticky concrete beneath your feet, an idiot child kicking the back of your seat, a fat man wearing a plumed hat taking the spot directly in front of you, and a date with a cell phone obsession parked clingingly next to you, all juxtaposed against your own internal anticipation that the motion picture about to appear on the giant screen in front of you will reveal itself to be the most marvelous example of cinematic pulchritude ever imagined by mankind. That you have inadvertently wandered into a screening of something like Fast and Furious 7 is beside the point. 
   The technological progression in movies that birthed the "blockbuster" has reduced shooting times from one hundred days to closer to twenty. We've also seen a profusion of reboots, franchises, specialized documentaries, mass produced romantic comedies and a bane of animated features, all of which seem to lack a certain "organic" nature that film-goers once took for granted. Of course, some people used to complain that "talkies" would be the death of the art form, too, just as my great-grandparents fretted that television would kill off the movie theater in the same way it did radio. But the introduction of audible dialogue into motion pictures furthered the expansion of the story (after the initial novelty wore off), whereas special effects do not inherently expand anything beyond superficiality. 
   In 2004 I sat in just such a movie theater waiting for Fahrenheit 9/11 to play. The Coming Attractions started up first, of course, and I sat with a somewhat horrified gape pressed onto my mouth as the "new and improved" version of The Manchurian Candidate was splashed in pieces upon the screen. I felt my fists getting tight and I might have thrown something at the projectionist had it not been for the fact that the other people I was there with--all of whom were half my age--groaned in unison, one of them muttering something about the lack of originality in Hollywood. It feels good to know you are not the only Luddite in the room.
   A few movies have had such an impact on the public that the idea of remaking them--even with an eye towards making them more contemporary--revolts the informed cinema fanatic. Would you remake Casablanca, Raging Bull, Patton, M*A*S*H? These films are specific to either historical events or people and updating them would somehow cheapen the original impact. Contemporizing the films would, I suspect, dumb down the audience. It would unquestionably infuriate most lovers of the originals. But most of all, these movies have no need to be rebooted because they translate to any time period inhabited by sentient beings. The same is true of some movies without the constrictions of history. Jules and Jim, Goodfellas, The Bicycle Thief, Jaws: new technology would do nothing to improve the experience of enjoying these movies. One of the funnier segments of Robert Altman's The Player occurs when Buck Henry pitches the idea of a new movie to the producer: The Graduate II
   So even though Hoffman speaks in absolutes regrettably reminiscent of a Donald Trump speech, he makes his point at a time in our presumed evolution when a lot of people have sort of shrugged their shoulders and decided that the real fun is to be found on TCM or on the DVD shelves of the local Zia Records Store. 
   The original (1962) Manchurian Candidate (and how I loathe the need for that adjective) stars Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey as returning Korean War veterans who, along with several of their co-soldiers, have been brainwashed by the communists. Harvey, being the most susceptible to the programming, has been selected as a future assassin. His character is decidedly unlikable, except when he is in the company of his mother, played by Angela Lansbury. She oozes such glowing yellow evil that Harvey actually comes to life when she is in the room. 
   We do not understand The Manchurian Candidate too quickly. We see something bad happening, we recognize its implications, we ache for the nightmares the brainwashing creates, but it takes a while for the viewer to fathom what is happening. The various flashback scene devices director John Frankenheimer developed add to the challenge of getting things straight in our minds--and that is just as it should be because it aids the telling of the story for us to go through a state of confusion similar to that of the characters onscreen. 
   I do not want to give away too many details of the film here, but I do want to encourage you to watch the movie. As pure propaganda, nothing beats it. If one were looking to start a new Cold War, this film could launch such a thing all by itself. It also works as satire, as when James Gregory's character, a stooge U.S. Senator, claims to have the names of 207 members of the communist party who have infiltrated the U.S. Defense Department. If Sinatra's acting falls a bit short of his singing abilities, he's still better here than he was in From Here to Eternity, where he was far from a failure. Lansbury's performance devastates, Leslie Parrish is likeable, and the Chinese psychiatrist will keep you up nights wondering how you know what you think you know. 
   Epistemology is really what the movie is about and that remains one of the best reasons to go out of your way to see The Manchurian Candidate. You will be able to ignore the fact that Sinatra's girlfriend, played by Janet Leigh, comes across in her opening moments as if she is a spy for the KGB and exits having contributed next to nothing.

Leigh
Maryland is a beautiful state.

Sinatra
This is Delaware.

Leigh
I know. I was one of the Original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this straight. Nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state. So is Ohio, for that matter.

Sinatra
I guess so. Columbus is a tremendous football town.


  What you will not ignore is how fast you attach your own emotions to these otherwise engaging characters and how engrossed you become in yearning for their salvation. 
  Once you have seen this movie, you will never have seen anything quite like it. 
   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

THE RAINMAKER

   Sometimes I like having a movie this obvious and contrived making its points right in my face. The Rainmaker (1997) posits director Francis Coppola [1], [2], [3] alongside a sharp cast and a script inspired by novelist John Grisham. What would be diseased proselytizing in the hands of almost anyone else comes across as something more than mere entertainment. The Rainmaker is that rare film that gets you feeling good by presenting you with the dignity of hard realities.
   An insurance company operating in poor sections of Memphis and elsewhere routinely denies all claims made for medical procedures. Donny Ray needs a bone marrow transplant to save him from leukemia. The insurance company says no on eight separate occasions. Donny Ray dies. 
   Fresh out of law school, Rudy Baylor (Matt Damon) itches to kick some corporate ass, so he links up with a law firm owner named Bruiser (Mickey Rourke) who hooks him up with an assistant named Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito). Rudy embodies jaded optimism while Deck exemplifies utopian cynicism. Their would-be foil is the insurance company's legal team, headed by Leo Drummond (Jon Voight). Leo tries to play Rudy like a violin, but Rudy doesn't like being played and fights back. A lot of that fight comes from the off-screen narration, a tact that's easy to abuse, yet Coppola never allows a flicker of unease.
                               Rudy
Sworn in by a fool and vouched for by a scoundrel. I'm a lawyer at last.

Or:

                               Rudy
My dad hated lawyers. You might think I became one just to piss him off, but you'd be wrong. Did piss him off so much though that when he heard he fell off a ladder and didn't know who to sue first.

   Plot may be the guiding light of most movies. It is just short of irrelevant here. The beauty lies in the way the characterizations elicit the social forces that have created the people struggling for a place in a world they did not create. Danny Glover as the trial judge makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the insurance company. DeVito as the paralegal is righteously offended at the suggestion that there's anything wrong with being an ambulance chaser. Claire Danes, who plays Rudy's love interest, meets her salvation while in the hospital from a beating delivered by her husband and his aluminum baseball bat; her performance is so understated that we cannot help but feel every bruise and shattered bone she endures. Chain smoking Mary Kay Place, as Danny Ray's mother (and wife to a shell-shocked Korean War veteran), makes us lean forward to catch every subtle nuance of speech and facial expression. Having met all these people, our fists clinch when the big dollar legal team strolls up to their house to take a deposition, feigning unawareness of the run down neighborhood, barking dog, dozens of stray cats living in the junked car in the front yard. We can see who the bad guys are, we can identify the victims, and we intuit that the heroes are those on the side of young Danny Ray.
   If you live long enough, someone will eventually tell you that there is no such thing as either black or white--there's only shades of gray. What I tell people who say that is that gray happens when people don't have enough insight or information to sort out the real situation. Granted, gray can appear more multi-dimensional than black and white. Gray gives the false impression of complexity, confusion, layers of depth. The Godfather was gray, for instance. It was a movie about people who did some very bad things presented from their own point of view. We might not want Al Pacino to have the Pope killed, but we also don't want the head of the crime family getting shot. In The Rainmaker, the only gray character is Bruiser. He's a big time crook who flees the country under criminal indictment, yet when we find him lapping up the sunshine on a tropical island, we don't really mind at all. In that sense, Rourke's character deserved more screen time than he received. 
   Through its obvious tendencies, through its contrivances, Coppola's movie shakes the charcoal and separates good from evil. This filmmaker shows that he understands a motion picture to be a means of telling a story and that a story is capable of having a child-like simplicity without once being false. 
Danny Devito, Matt Damon, Jon Voight


Monday, June 29, 2015

THE COLOR OF BABY POOP

   Diane Keaton plays her cinematic roles with such precise imagination that it can be fun to argue that no one else could have embodied her characters in the early Woody Allen movies, or in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Crimes of the Heart, The Godfather, The Little Drummer Girl, or the majority of her other successes. It also holds true that on rare occasions some of us wince in pain when exposed to movies beneath her talent, movies that failed less because the roles were uninteresting and more because the premises of these films subvert the proud deviations her best works have celebrated.
   Baby Boom (1987) stinks on ice. 
  No reasonable person can blame the odor on the acting. Keaton, Sam Shepard, James Spader, Sam Wanamaker, the twins who play the baby, even the typically estimable Harold Ramis all work their lines with brilliance. The script itself--and its directorial delivery--smells up the theater in this movie. It accomplishes this formidable task by its fevered embracing of the Yuppie Aesthetic so omnipresent during the 1980s love affair with what some sociopath decided to call romantic comedies. 
  Keaton plays J.C. Wyatt, an executive in some corporation who puts in a one hundred hour work week, has scheduled sex sessions with her paramour that last one full minute, and certainly has no time for a baby of her own. When one gets handed to her (it doesn't really matter how this comes about), she resists the idea and eventually gives in (as we know she will because otherwise there's no movie and what are we all doing sitting together in the cinema?) and moves, as all yuppies do, to the country where she develops her own brand of baby food which takes off like the Yarnell Fire and sweeps across the nation because clearly Keaton's character is made of stronger stuff than you or (especially) me. 
   If the storyline sounds moderately uninspired (I'd call it immoral, but I've taken a twelve minute vow of restraint), you should check out the dialogue that was geared for yucks.


Doctor Jess Cooper
You know, you kind of remind me of some kind of bull terrier.


J.C. Wyatt
I'll bet you say that to all the girls.

And then there's:


J.C. Wyatt
I can't have a baby because I have a twelve-thirty lunch meeting!

   I know. Sad, isn't it? Perhaps the musical accompaniment will enhance the experience of being subjected to pre-programmed drivel? No chance. The songs were by Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, the latter once described in writing as being so laid back it's a wonder she can stand up. 
   No, the entire enterprise (and that word is selected with serious intent) exists for no other reason than to reinforce the psychotic drive to be the best you can be by enlisting a supreme act of will and drive, one which deprives the actor of any auxiliary aspirations--doing what you do for the good of the company, the husband or boyfriend, the species, the child, the town--when there is no Godly reason to expect any person to forego an appreciation of the things in life that actually matter, things such as the company, boyfriend, species, child, town--things that might be valued if the actor/savior (after all, her name is J.C. for a reason) weren't so busy burning herself out to appreciate them. 
   Maybe that's one reason no one uses the word "yuppie" any more. It's certainly the main reason nobody rushes to Netflix or elsewhere looking up romantic comedies from the 1980s.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

SPIDER FEAR

  "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read 'President can't swim.'"
   --Lyndon Johnson


   Steven Spielberg served as the uncredited second unit director, the man responsible for shooting stunts, establishing shots, inserts and cutaways. Uncredited or not, his prints glow on Arachnophobia (1990), which is one of the sources for the expression "The Spielberg glow." In movies such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this appeal to wholesome mischief is appropriate. In a movie about spiders--specifically bad spiders--the glow gets in the way. 
   The idea for the story is as old as horror movies themselves. Jeff Daniels plays a doctor who moves his family to the country to escape the pressures of city living only to find an insidious trail of monsters awaiting him, threatening the very sanctity he so desperately wants. Okay, so there's only so many plotlines in the world and as such things go, that one stinks less than most. 
   Dan Jacoby, Al Williams, and Wesley Strick came up with the story, which Pauline Kael referred to as resembling a Boy Scout remaking Jaws. That's a funny line, Pauline, and I've always wanted to work it into a review of my own and if you weren't already deceased, I'd be worried about lifting it in such a shameless manner. 
   But back to Spielberg, first-time director Frank Marshall ground bones with the Spiel Man on Back to the Future, Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark and other glowing balls of good clean fun that eschewed logic for brain drain. But influence does not equal exchange just as correlation fails to equal causation. For instance, in the aforementioned Jaws, the title character is the emotional focus of the film, the vortex around which the personal relationships in the story spin. In Arachnophobia, the monster is a transplanted tarantula that sets up a kingdom in Jeff Daniels' barn. Yet the monster does not dominate the attention of the audience. That honor goes to John Goodman, in the guise of the perfectly named Delbert McClintock, the town exterminator. We welcome his intrusions into the prefabricated anxiety we keep expecting to feel from the platoon of killer spiders. We want Goodman to argue with Daniels, to seduce Daniels' wife, to haul out the blowtorches and napalm the barn in order to save it--something, anything! As the only person in the movie who swings emotional content, we virtually yearn for Goodman to save the picture. But that would shift the glow from E.T. to Animal House, something the Spielberg folks--who are more terrified of chaos than any other major filmmakers--simply could never endure. So instead of Goodman doing what we can see he wants to do, we get impotent attempts at humor such as this:

Molly Jennings (the wife): Why is all the wood rotting?
Delbert: I'll tell you why. Bad wood.
Molly: So what do we do?
Delbert: Tear out bad wood. Put in good wood. 

Or. . .

Delbert: Would anyone object if I tore this floor out?
Molly: I would.
Delbert: False alarm then. Lead on.

  As a result, people filing out of the theater say things like, "That was cute" rather than saying "That thing scared me to death!" 
   I imagine Spielberg must occasionally feel akin to Lyndon Johnson. Here is a man who has created the cinematic equivalents of Medicare, The Voting Act and the Civil Rights Act and yet people just can't quite get over that darned Vietnam thing. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

ALL THE WAY FROM ALICE

   Any motion picture with the decency to begin with a song by Mott the Hoople leaps into the world with enough credibility to sustain damn near anything, including a script by Robert Getchell that has not necessarily aged all that well, a performance by Kris Kristofferson which (while being his overall best acting job) does not bode well for his thespian future, and some issues that get raised while often cancelling out one another. While I must admit that I am not one of those film critics who genuflects every time the name Martin Scorsese is mentioned, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1975) remains one of his best films, right up there with Taxi Driver and Goodfellas in the sense that as a member of the audience you believe you are right there in the thick of things, hurting and laughing and smacking your fists. 
   Ellen Burstyn plays Alice, a recently single mom who moves Arizona to start a new life with her young son. Alice is a singer and she plans to make it big in Monterey, California. She is also a realist, so she knows she will have to work some toilets and dives before getting discovered by the right talent scout. She is not a pessimist, however, and so she expects to at least get a shot at performing in divers and toilets. Instead she finds herself waiting tables at Mel and Ruby's Diner in Tucson. It is there that she meets Diane Ladd as her co-worker Flo, Vic Tayback as Mel, and Harvey Keitel as a snake in the grass. 
   Scorsese's contribution to the film's success lies in his willingness and ability to exploit useful realism while not getting bogged in pointless minutiae. So we find Alice and Flo sharing a laugh about Vera's boyfriend, Tommy the son belittling Kristofferson's love of "shit-kicking" music, and especially Jodie Foster's performance as a pre-teen seductress and shoplifter (and when will the retired Ms. Foster be recognized as one of the greatest actors of her generation?), any one of which episodes--much less all of them--so true to life that we struggle with the natural affinity between laughing and crying. 
   This movie recently played again on TMC's "Essentials" where hosts Robert Osborne and Sally Field repeatedly referred to it as Scorsese's first movie. It was no such thing. Discounting documentaries and shorts, there was still Who's That Knocking at My Door from 1967 with Harvey Keitel and Boxcar Bertha in 1972 with David Carradine, either one of which might be reasonably overlooked. But how could these two presumed experts not remember Mean Streets from 1973? Especially since that was the film that at long last put Robert De Niro on the map (another name intended to cause the audience to bow) and that most of its success was enhanced by the director's unauthorized use of Phil Spector's "Be My Baby" by The Ronettes. 
   Beats me. 
   Alice remains a great movie. Also starring Valerie Curtin as Vera and Alfred Lutter as Tommy.