Monday, March 28, 2011

If You Like Blogathons and Sam Raimi, Well Have I Got News for You!


Bryce Wilson, he of Things That Don't Suck fame, just kicked off his Sam Raimi, yesterday. But it goes on through April 2nd, so there's still plenty of time to make up for my neglect, and I suggest you do. Raimi is quite the curious fellow, beginning his career as a filmmaker with an unabashedly drive-in sensibility, before eventually graduating, or rather switching gears to, Hollywood blockbusters. Quite surprisingly, to anyone who'd followed his career from the early years. And then, of course, came Drag Me to Hell, which might signal a return to his roots. Anyway, I'm most interested in the middle period of Raimi's work, after the Evil Dead stuff, and before Spider-Man, when he was first making his mark with the studios. I will be writing up one of those films in the next couple of days, and, sadly, I think that anyone who has any feeling for my tastes and sensibilities will probably be able to correctly guess which film I'm going to take on. I'm doing it anyway, though!

Meanwhile, check out Bryce's links for the first couple of days, as well as his own write-ups, and should you have a blog of your own, why not throw in your own two cents?

Friday, March 25, 2011

This Meaningless Carcass


In The Magician (d. Ingmar Bergman), Max von Sydow's Albert Vogler, the titular magician and leader of Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater, doesn't speak for about a full hour of screen time. Tubal (Ǻke Fridell), the troupe's carnival barker, claims this is because Vogler is mute, but he isn't. We're given reasons to suspect this well before he actually says his first words (which, significantly, are "I hate them"), among them is the fact the his supposedly male assistant, Aman, is quite clearly a woman, and is, in fact, Manda (Ingrid Thulin), Vogler's wife. Then there's Vogler's fake beard, fake mustache, his wig...the man is a walking fraud. This, at least, is the view taken by Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand), a cold man of reason who wishes to expose Vogler's tricks, and publicly humiliate him.

Among the many things going on throughout the films of Ingmar Bergman, the most gripping thing to witness is his battle with God, his hopeless and desperate attempts to answer the question of the possibility of a divine existence. In interviews, Bergman often claimed atheistic tendencies, but his films reveal a much more complex picture -- even when a given film might refute the possibility of God, Bergman always respected that which he tried to leave behind him. And anyway, it's clear he could never really shake it. The Magician is one of the most interesting battles waged in this artistic and theistic war, as it's the one example I know of where Bergman depicts the skeptics, the rational, as venal, hateful, condescending little shits. Or not the only time, because check out that name: Vergerus. A not uncommon name among Bergman's deep cast of characters through his career, it also appears most memorably in The Serpent's Egg, where Heinz Bennent plays a man by that name who is not only a proto-Nazi (the ur-Nazi, perhaps), but whose approach to science and the rational is almost literally Satanic.

This Vergerus ain't that bad, but he's a cruel and petty man who must protect his worldview. Vogler's magic, however easily exposed (or is it? Certain things that happen in The Magician are eventually explained; others are not) allows for the possibility of belief, yes, but more importantly of emotion. "A momentary fear of death" is something he makes one man feel, in an attempt to shake the man to his core, to blast his certainty out of its comfortable hole for at least an instant. Vogler must be exposed, according to Vergerus and the other leaders of the village where Vogler has come to perform, because a failure to prove him a phony would "be a catastrophe for science", opening the world up to the possibility of God. "How out of date!" cries one of Vergerus's cronies. In The Magician, as today, the question of the universe's origin is reduced to a competition.

I don't claim to know what Bergman ultimately believed, nor do I really care. Hell, I take the man at his word. But over and over again in his films, he reveals himself to believe most in the necessity of the question. Vergerus says he detests the inexplicable; what Bergman detests is certainty.

There's No Hope for Me to Die

While I freely admit that among the classic Universal monster movies The Wolf Man is far from the best, I also happen to think it gets a pretty unfair rap as a low-rent pretender. Among the things I especially like about that film, which was directed by George Waggner, is Lon Chaney, Jr.'s portrayal of Lawrence Talbot as a lovable lug, kind of a pleasant meathead, whose reaction to the bizarre and terrible turns his life has taken is to be scared out of his mind. There's a pathos to that which eschews the high tragedy aims of movies like Frankenstein for a more blue collar approach -- instead of tragic, The Wolf Man goes for sad.
So on that level at least, I take The Wolf Man kind of seriously, and could probably become a bit defensive about it, should the situation warrant it. My viewing today of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (d. Roy William Neill) might be that situation. The problem is that this is a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, picking up four years after Talbot's death at the merciful hands of his father. In attempting to rob Talbot's grave, two no-goods sweep away the wolfsbane covering his body, said wolfsbane being the one thing keeping Talbot dead. So now he's not dead anymore, and he's still a werewolf. And, rather intriguingly, the plot of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man centers around Talbot's quest to die, for good.
After linking up again with Maria Ouspenskaya, the gypsy from the previous film, Talbot begins to track the story of Dr. Frankenstein, who apparently had mastered the powers of life and death. And here I'll not that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is more or less a direct sequel to James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein as well, with similarly injurious results. The Wolf Man and Bride of Frankenstein end on notes of real heartbreak, which the makers of this later film -- director Neill, producer Waggner, screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who also wrote The Wolf Man -- basically scribble out by reviving not only Talbot, but, obviously, Frankenstein's monster (no Dr. Frankenstein, though, he's still dead, replaced by glaze-eyed Ilona Massey as his daughter, Baroness Elsa Frankenstein). In other words, the two deaths from those films that mattered the most no long matter. Or I guess that depends on how seriously you take sequels to beloved film, and how easily you're able to separate them if you don't like where the follow up leads you. For my part, I can do that pretty easily, so I'm not overly put out by the sacrileges of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
Instead of being angry for an hour and twelve minutes, I instead took note that this film is to The Wolf Man and the two previous Frankenstein films as The Godfather Part II is to The Godfather, in that, like the Coppola sequel, all the points made by Waggner and Whale are simply half-heartedly underlined by Neill (there's a difference, since Coppola's underlining was quite vigorous). This is not terribly uncommon among sequels, I suppose, but there's something about Chaney's Talbot going from a happy-go-lucky fellow at the beginning of the first film, to a terrified man who wants to be rid of his curse by any means necessary by the end, and then, in the next film, to a man who, no, seriously, really wants this curse taken care of, that put me in mind of Michael Corleone's light-to-dark-to-super-dark journey. So there's that, and then there's Bela Lugosi taking over the role of Frankenstein's monster from Karloff, only to remind the world that whatever his talents, Lugosi was no Karloff, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man's ending, which is so abrupt that you have to wonder if the studio said "The moment you film a castle collapsing, no matter how much left you have to shoot, you must shut down production." That's the only thing that makes any sense, at least.

No Different Than Any Other Soldier


If there's one aspect of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (d. Nagisa Oshima) that stand out as particularly unusual -- and this from a movie about which nothing is especially usual -- is the man who made it. Or rather, the nationality of the man who made it. I don't mean that Oshima is openly critical of his country, as he'd been that before on a regular basis, but more that the film, about British POWs during WWII, being held in a Japanese prison camp in Java in 1942, depicts Japanese culture as it existed during the war as entirely alien, from the point of view of its Western protagonists.

This is the sort of thing you'd expect from Western filmmakers, such as the David Lean who made The Bridge on the River Kwai (which Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence echoes at times). But I don't believe I've ever seen a filmmaker depict his own homeland in a way that is so alienating to himself. That's the key here. After suffering days of torture at the order of camp commander Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto, who also wrote the film's striking, Philip Glass-by-way-of-Tokyo score), the film's British heroes, Jack Celliers and John Lawrence -- played respectively by David Bowie and Tom Conti -- have a discussion about "what is wrong with them", them being the Japanese, specifically the Japanese of the crazed, honor-bound imperialism under Hirohito. In the film, the question is a good one, because while Lawrence, a sympathetic expert on the Japanese and the camp's liaison between the prisoners and Yonoi, originally believes he's the man to ask about these sorts of things, Yonoi relentlessly thwarts his clear thinking by behaving in ways that are entirely inexplicable. It's just that the idea of a white character, or a pair of white characters, looking on in dazed wonder at a culture and a race other than their own is the kind of thing that critics like to blast movies like Cry Freedom and Glory for doing. Here, the dazed alienation comes from within. Of course, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is otherwise in no conceivable way analogous to Cry Freedom or Glory, but still, there it is.

Whatever is at the root of Yonoi's actions -- which don't always make sense even to his own men -- it seems to relate to a deeply suppressed sexual attraction to Celliers, who Yonoi wants to take over as the POWs leader from Hicksley (Jack Thompson), an officer of the stiff-upper lip variety. But when Yonoi judges Celliers to be "a disappointment", nothing much is to be done from there on. As such, the entirety of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is played out in concentrated form during the films opening minutes as one of the Japanese officers, named Hara (played by Takeshi Kitano, in a terrific performance) forces Lawrence to witness the interrogation and awful abuse of a Korean guard and a Dutch POW, the former of whom, Hara maintains, raped the latter, though in this case force, it seems clear, was not used. The sexual denial of these two men, and Hara's blinkered approach to justice will be played out within Yonoi throughout the film.

I was put off by the bland claims that "nobody is right, everybody is wrong" that pop up from time to time in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, usually from the mouth of Mr. Lawrence himself, especially at the end. This is the sort of "sounds like it means something, actually doesn't" philosophizing that is typical of war films of a certain era, which one has to get used to. Fortunately, I'm used to it, and I appreciated the film's occasionally ethereal strangeness -- Sakamoto's score has a lot to do with that, but also, and interestingly, considering what I've already said about Oshima's approach to Japan, in a flashback to Celliers' child- and young adulthood, which presents life under the English crown as eerily dreamlike, and the dream's not always a good one.

So, an odd film, in other words. Odd, striking, discomfiting, provocative, and very much worth your time.

Darling, He Said in a Tender Voice

Anyone who's heard the audiobook version of This Is Orson Welles -- which consists of the actual interviews between Welles and Peter Bogdanovich that make up the print version, with some bonus tracks -- will no doubt remember the moment when either Welles or Bogdanovich, can't remember which, brings up Make Way for Tomorrow (d. Leo McCarey). I have the audiobook on cassette, which means I haven't heard it in a long time, but I remember that when Welles talks about McCarey's film, he sounds as though he's been practically transported, the emotion almost overwhelms him, and he comes close to babbling about Make Way for Tomorrow's melancholy brilliance. Jesus, if that word's even big enough for it. As Welles said, "It would make a stone cry."
I say the film's melancholy, but it achieves this through a gentle, consistent sense of humor; without that, I wonder if Make Way for Tomorrow might not be unbearable. The story, about an elderly couple who loses their house and is forced to split up, the wife living with the family of one child, the husband with another, the two homes located 300 miles apart, because none of their children can find their way to bring in both parents, is perfectly constructed to support a series of scenes in which the parents find themselves, not ripped, but let's say delicately wrenched, from their happy home together and placed in environments where those who would ostensibly take care of them and work towards joining them back together, subtly and explicitly make them feel unwanted, in the way, a goddamn hassle. But the couple only wants to live together again."Together for always," says the old wife, Lucy Cooper (Beulah Bondi) during a rare and expensive long distance call with her old husband Barkley Cooper (Victor Moore), in one of Make Way for Tomorrow's very best scenes.
In some ways, Make Way for Tomorrow defeats analysis. I have no doubt that much has been written about its place in the history of the Great Depression (the Coopers lost their home to the bank, and the film was made in 1937), and still more about the film's relevance to today. But I don't care about any of that. Instead, I wonder if there have been two better performances on film than Bondi and Moore's work here. Moore's "Those places must be terrible," in reference to old age homes -- one of which he learns has been scouted out by his daughter-in-law (Fay Bainter), wife to his son George (Thomas Mitchell), with whom Lucy is staying -- is full of quietly, but barely, suppressed pain. And Bondi's whispered "I love you" as the couple takes a cab back from their last grand night out, as her husband sings an old favorite song, is as exquisitely beautiful as any delivery of those three words has ever been. And I wonder if helpless guilt has ever been more fully embodied than it is by Thomas Mitchell's George, during a crucial conversation with his mother, his body stiff and shoulders hunched, as if he's steeling himself just to get through it. Or if, as happens at the film's end, a moment of such perfect joy has ever eased so seamlessly into such crushing, inevitable sadness, in a matter of seconds.
There's a moral to Make Way for Tomorrow, and it's stated right up front. I urge you to watch this heartbreaking film and see for yourself what it is. And then, if God willing it's not too late, heed it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Real, Real Truth


In Death and the Maiden (d. Roman Polanski), Sigourney Weaver's Paulina Escobar is already angry, frustrated, and frightened when we first see her. In a dialogue-free opening, save for some radio chatter which provides plot information, we watch her as she finishes preparing dinner for her husband Gerardo (Stuart Wilson), but these are just the mechanics she needs to perform. As we learn, via the radio, that her husband has been appointed to head up a tribunal that will publicly try cases of torture and murder carried out by the recently overthrown dictatorship of the film's unnamed South American country, we can see Paulina's inner tremors and haunted desperation rise up, just under her skin. She was one of the tortured, and she considers the tribunal, whose goal is to merely name, not prosecute, the guilty, to be a whitewash. This is what her husband will oversee.

It gets worse. The short version is that one way or another, and for one reason or another, a man named Roberto Miranda (Ben Kingsley) follows Gerardo home, and Paulina recognizes the man -- or his voice, his quirks of speech, his snorting laugh -- as the man who tortured and raped her all those years ago. Soon, she's giving it back, beating Miranda, tying him up, gagging him, and putting him through any number of indignities, over Gerardo's horrified protests.

Is Miranda the man she thinks he is? This question is at the heart of Ariel Dorfman's play, on which Polanski's film is based (with a script by Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias), and it's a rather too neat way to approach questions of justice and guilt, madness and terror. The material is in danger, at every turn, of becoming schematic in its countless ambiguities, though Polanski does try to cut that with his typically perverse sense of humor ("You don't want to push him off the cliff?"), and by playing up the goofy personality of Kingsley's possible demon. It all winds up being an odd mix, but an involving one. This despite the fact that, in the end, Death and the Maiden is a filmed play, worse still a filmed modern play, which means that every five to seven minutes one character will leave the room, or ask another character to join them outside, leaving two of the three leads alone at any given time so that they can talk. Any time this happens in a filmed modern play, you can count on listening to a five to seven minute conversation -- this stuff can get as rote, structurally, as any sitcom. None of this matters if the play is especially good, or if the playwright is a master of language, but when it's only fine, as it is here, when the dialogue is merely a vehicle on which to pin bits of backstory and, I guess you'd call it characterization, well, then I think you can be excused if you choose to let the film play while you go get yourself a bowl of cereal.

Then there's the answer to it all, the real, real truth -- or not the answer, but what the characters and, rather more to the point, Dorfman and Polanski choose to do about it. The solution -- which I have to assume is Dorfman's -- is sort of insidiously gutless, and the ending is almost funny due its endless false starts. A nice shot at the very end leaves the audience something to wonder about, but the penultimate scene on the cliff is quite goony in its refusal to depict action that might have consequences. Yes, there's that shot, and those looks between characters in that shot, but we only get that because Dorfman and Polanski betray they're central character, one who betrayed not an ounce of doubt, until she was required to.

Don't Make Me Hurt You


The question that must be answered regarding Skyline (d. The Strause Brothers) isn't whether the film is good or bad. It's bad. This much we know. The question is: how bad is it? And I'm afraid you're not going to get an answer from me, because as I watched this shamelessly derivative story of alien invasion unfold (Colin and Greg Strause don't so much nod at Spielberg's War of the Worlds as jump up and down, waving their hands feverishly, and pointing at War of the Worlds as they try not to wet their pants), I reflected on the fact that while this deeply stupid movie was critically blasted the moment it poked its head into theaters, I would much rather this rake in the hundreds of millions of dollars than something like Transformers. I mean, if a stupid movie has to be the one to make all that money, then why not Skyline?

The film is about a global catastrophe -- aliens invade the Earth and blow Los Angeles (among other cities, one assumes) all to shit, but it focuses on a small group of characters, headed by Greg Balfour, Scottie Thompson, and Donald Faison, who watch the awe-inspiring devestation from the window of Faison's (he plays a movie star) vast L. A. apartment. Like the Spielberg film, and Cloverfield, Skyline keeps its cameras well back from the action, at least at first, placing it among the distant observers. Though by no means original to the Strause Brothers, this is, I think, a wonderful technique for this kind of film, putting the audience amidst the action by keeping us far away. Much of what little success Skyline achieves can be chalked up to this (this, and to the fact that the special effects really are pretty damn good). Seeing massive, hovering spaceships and giant creatures shambling through the wreckage of L. A. essentially through the lens of a really good telescope is not that much different from how most of us experience actual catastrophes that we see reported on television, and because of this, Skyline strikes an occasional chord.

However, the film also features people saying and doing things, and this is where it all falls apart. None of the cast sparks, even a little, at any moment -- it must be said that Skyline has some of the very best shots of actors looking at things off-screen and screaming that I've seen in ages -- and the things they're made to say sometimes cross the line into embarrassing. For instance, at one point, when friends have died and our heroes are at their lowest, Scottie Thompson has to utter, with tears streaming down her face, the words "I hate L. A." Ha ha, because she thinks they're all going to die. And frankly, this is nothing compared to the actual story, the idiocy of which tends to slowly dawn on you with the same slow dread as gradually realizing you accidentally e-mailed that picture of your wang to everybody. As best I can tell, one of the many ways these aliens go about killing humans is to make them stare at a blue light. That blue light hypnotizes the person, whose eyes go white, veins darken and rise beneath their skin, and then they're sucked into the alien's...vagina face? I couldn't really tell, but anyway, they're dead afterwards. However, if something breaks your lock on that blue light, then you start to become a, in a way, sort of like a superhero. And people complain about the aliens in Signs not knowing that water is poisonous to them! But I guess I can almost see it -- staring at the blue light just long enough to get super powers, but not get killed, is the difference between getting bitten on the hand by a radioactive spider, and getting bitten in half by a radioactive shark.

In any case, this little bit of plot draws us towards the end, which has gotten some play on-line as being appealingly bonkers, but I'm not prepared to hand it that kind of credit. Foolish, yes, and crazy in an "Are you kidding me?" sort of way, but not so batshit that anyone needs to go out of their way to see it. No, by then, all of Skyline's best stuff has been left far behind, and I was left with thoughts of what might have been. What might have been could have simply been a better rip off of Spielberg's War of the Worlds, but I'd take that over Transformers or Independence Day any time. Hell, I'd take Skyline over those films as it stands. I don't care how bad it is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Good Old-Fashioned Pants Kicking

In many ways -- most ways, in fact -- I am like a child. By and large, you'd rather not know what I mean by that, but in regards to this post you should know that part of what I'm talking about is that when I have a day off from school (in terms of my life as an adult, this means work) I have a tendency to eat lots of sugar (cheese) and run around like a goon (lay on the couch) getting into mischief with my no-good pals (watch movies like Skyline all day long). Parents know that this can be counteracted by giving their children structure on their free days. So it is with me. As an adult, though, I've recently learned that this responsibility falls on me, which is bullshit, but whatever. The point is, I, in fact, have one of those free days coming up on Friday. Every time I find myself with an extra chunk of time to myself -- and really to myself, because my wife will be out of town, and I have no friends who might choose to visit -- I make all these plans about how I'm going to not only relax, but productively relax, by watching interesting movies I've never seen, or read, like, six books in a day, or write, and things like that. This almost never pans out because when the time comes I find myself thinking something along the lines of "Eeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhh......" as I watch a rerun of Bizarre Foods and then see what's up over on Fearnet. It's usually around this time that the microwave dings, announcing that my cheese has melted.
But not this time! This time I'm going to kill two birds with one stone by enforcing this productive structure on my time. It will be not unlike the Night of Pain thing I did a while back, where I watched three notoriously unpleasant films back-to-back-to-back, and wrote about each one afterwards, but with two or three key differences. Here's how it'll work: starting Thursday night, I will watch a movie. Then I will write about it here. Then I will watch another movie. Then I will write about it. I will do this until I decide to go to sleep, and then pick things up again on Friday morning. I won't be restricting myself to unpleasant movies, either, but will limit myself to films I've never seen. Whether I draw exclusively from my DVD collection, or expand out to cable, DVR, OnDemand, I haven't decided. We'll see about that.
Among the things this will achieve for me is filling in certain cinematic gaps (though it occurs to me that in order to keep up any sort of rhythm, I might have to steer clear of any film that is especially long, which eliminates a couple of possibilities; further, "filling in certain cinemtaic gaps" does not mean that I won't be watching all kinds of movies), kick this blog right in the pants because it needs it, and, frankly, possibly give me a little bit of practice for something I hope to be able to do later this year, involving a particular film festival (I should probably underline "hope to do" in that sentence). By posting this tonight, I've pretty much locked myself in to actually doing it, and therefore in a sense I've also imposed deadlines on myself -- maybe this is good practice, maybe it's not, but it's better than nothing.
The whole deadline thing is very much an ancillary motivation. The main thing is that I like doing these sorts of things from time to time, because it can be a fun challenge. And gimmicky as this might seem, I will take the writing as seriously as I always do, even if -- again, in order to maintain a rhythm -- the posts are not as long as they might normally be. But who knows, if the my brain tells me to keep writing past the point I might have wanted to cut it off, then I'll keep writing.
Anyway, that's it. Big announcement. Hooray. Sometime Thursday night, be here or go suck it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Language Barrier

In the US, the Melville film is called Le Samourai*, not The Samurai. Similarly, Bob Le Flambeur is not known as Bob the Gambler. But then again, L'armée des Ombres is more commonly known in the English-speaking world as Army of Shadows.

Truffaut's fourth feature film is known either as Jules and Jim or Jules et Jim, depending on how large a boost of self confidence the writer needs at that moment. The vast majority of Kurosawa films are known in the US by their English titles, until you reach 1970, where a small cluster of his work is known only by the Japanese titles. In the case of Dodes'ka-den, the English version would wind up being something like Chugga-Chugga, or whatever you tell your kids is the sound a train makes, so that's understandable. Virtually none of Fassbinder's films are known in America by their German titles. When it comes to Fassbinder's countryman, Werner Herzog, the same thing holds true -- what is it about German, I wonder?

None of this bothers me, mind you. Bob Le Flambeur is a better title than Bob the Gambler, after all, and the choices made about which language will carry through to the American release seems almost entirely arbitrary. Yes, some foreign language titles scan better, even to monolingual Americans such as myself, in their original French or Spanish or Russian or what have you than the English equivalent, but replacing "and" with "et" when talking about Jules and Jim is just silly. You're fooling no one.

But at least in that case, you should by now be prepared to hear either one. What really gets up my nose is when somebody takes a foreign film that is known exclusively in the US by its English title, and then digs around to find out the original title, so they can throw it out in print, or conversation. By way of example, I have very little doubt that some version of the following conversation has taken place:

Guy #1: So, what do you want to do tonight?

Guy #2: I'm in the mood for a movie. A bunch of movies, even, but I don't feel like going out.

Guy #1: No problem, we can stay in and watch a marathon of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo.

This is meant, one assumes, to solidify the speaker's place among the elite, or what they view to be the elite, and to weed out any listeners with whom the speaker may not want to associate. This is a working theory only, but I feel confident that at its core, this practice is motivated by wickedness.

This expanded version of what should have been a Facebook update has been brought to you by my having recently seen someone refer to Michael Haneke's Code Unknown as Code Inconnu.

*Sorry, this computer wouldn't let me do the two little dots over the "i".

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Pha Loves Pa


This poster is both roughly accurate, and a goddamn lie

“I think we should make a thriller, and Mike Nichols should direct it.”
“What kind of thriller?”
“A dolphin thriller.”
“Well, who should write it?”
“It seems to me that the clear choice here is Buck Henry.”
So, in my dreams, goes the inception of The Day of the Dolphin, the film that brought Nichols, Henry, George C. Scott, Paul Sorvino and talking dolphins into the world of the 1970s paranoid thriller. I’ve come to learn that, unfortunately, things likely played out much differently, not least because there was a novel first, and also because several directors, including Roman Polanski and Jean-Luc Godard, either were up for or actively lobbied to make the film themselves. This is an intriguing variety of filmmakers, I think you’ll agree, but I’m pretty confident not one of them could have done a better job than Mike Nichols ended up doing, which I don’t exactly mean as a compliment, because, again: talking dolphins.
I watched The Day of the Dolphin last night after several months of letting it gather dust on my shelves, because I’d think “Well, George C. Scott, and everything…but it can’t be any good, can it?” To outright steal a phrase from John Self, the film does turn out to be any good; it’s just not many good. Nichols and Henry take an intriguingly straightforward approach to this story, and in the early goings I was more than willing to see where it took me. This low-level enthusiasm was helped along by George C. Scott, who in many ways I think is my ideal actor (this is because I believe that he's very good). Scott plays the hero, a dolphin scientist or whatever, who requires private and government funding to keep his artist/science/dolphin commune running. It is in that commune that he is teaching dolphins to talk. Or a dolphin, named Alpha, or (weary sigh) Pha, for short. I think there’s a logic behind that diminutive, something to do with making it easier for the dolphin to pronounce its name, but in that case maybe they should have gone with “Paul” and avoided all that cutesy “Pha” bullshit. Or if not “Paul”, then “Eeeeeee-eee-EEEEEEEEEE”. Anyway, long story short, some people come to take the dolphins, and The Day of the Dolphin becomes a thriller in its last thirty minutes or so.
I liked George C. Scott a lot, but I can’t shake the feeling that he probably felt like a jackass the whole shoot, and no wonder. He has two scenes with (weary sigh) Pha where he and the dolphin talk for I’d say roughly about 71 minutes, each time. Dragging things down still further is the fact that Scott – the only real actor between him and the dolphin – is made to repeat his questions over and over (“Where’s the boat!” “PHA LOVE PA!” “Where’s the boat, Pha!?” “PHA SAY BOAT GO NOW!” or whatever the fuck the fucking dolphin says) so that any zip the dialogue may have had is quickly lost. Another casualty of scenes like this, it turns out, was my attention, because I’ll be honest: I started to drift after a while. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you what the bad guys wanted the dolphins for. I do know that the eventual plan was to kill the dolphins, because one of them could talk, but what they expected that dolphin to say and therefore necessitate its being terminated with extreme prejudice, I don’t know. In fairness, I do not doubt for a second that somebody in the film provided that information, but I didn’t hear it because that “PHA LOVE PA” shit was wearing on my last nerve and I started arguing with people on the internet about what’s to be done with bullies.
So anyway, that’s my review of The Day of the Dolphin.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Capsule Reviews: You're Confused, Bro

Four Lions (d. Chris Morris) - Despite the fact that I've been discussing this film at some length at another internet location over the last day or so, I'm finding it very difficult to write about Four Lions, Chris Morris's somewhat madcap comedy about a group of Muslim suicide bombers planning a major attack in London. The problem I'm having is that, while I can very easily pinpoint specific problems with the film -- and will do so shortly -- I have a larger objection to it that encompasses film in general, or Film Today, that can't be justifiably laid on Morris's doorstep. For instance, it occurs to me that, in Modern Film As It Is Practiced Today, suburbanites routinely don't get as fair a shake as Morris's terrorists do here, but what that has to do with Morris or his film, I couldn't tell you. It's just a sense of things that I have, one that I don't like.
But how far does Morris's fairness towards his terrorists really go? Well, pretty far, all things considered, but then again not all that far. Four Lions is a comedy, remember, and if Morris's inspiration wasn't Jimmy Breslin's novel about bumblingly absurd mobsters The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, it might as well have been. There are more than four terrorists here, though there are only four at the end, and of those only three matter: Omar (Riz Ahmed), the leader, and the smartest one, and a family man with an unnervingly supportive wife; Waj (Kayvan Novak) the dim-witted nice one, on whom the film's morality ultimately hinges; and Barry (Nigel Lindsay) a radical white Londoner who converted to Islam, who is about as stupid as Waj, but more confident. Morris makes quite a bit (of all sorts of things, including comedy) out of the logical break between what they're planning and why they think it's the right thing to do, and what the reality is. We're invited to sympathize, up to a point, with these men as human beings, but it's understood that no one should be rooting for success here, and certain fatal accidents are meant to carry a certain relief, and produce laughter, which is more or less the result I experienced.
Morris is walking a very fine line here, and I can't help but find the film slightly inorganic, as if Four Lions came into being only because Morris thought it would be awfully ballsy to make a comedy about suicide bombers. If the film had its head secured more firmly, the scenes between Omar and his wife (Preeya Kalidas) might have played better, or differently. As it is, her warmth and support and complete lack of perspective not only regarding his impending death, but the deaths of whoever is unlucky enough to find themselves within his blast radius, comes off as quite eerie, and appalling in a way that it's hard to know who to blame. Well, her, and Morris is quite evidently not pro-terrorism, but these scenes seem designed to underline the idea that Omar is just a man, and his wife is just a woman, and they love each other -- they are human -- not to underline the blood-curdling ruthlessness of their shared ideology. I can't imagine that Morris isn't aware of what's going on in these scenes, but I believe there is a tonal challenge here that he's not quite up to.
Where the movie fully collapses for me is in the final stretch, when Morris is obliged to trot out a small cast of British counter-terrorism characters, who bumble right along with the terrorists, and who are bigoted, and have no warmth, and are merely satirical targets. The argument has been made to me that this is a film, specifically a comedy film, about the terrorists, so naturally the counter-terrorism guys won't get much focus. A fair point, except that it's hard for me to accept what Morris is implicitly dealing out here, even if he doesn't realize it, which is that it behooves us to understand the though processes and hearts and souls of those who would strap bombs to themselves, step among us, and hit the trigger, but that those who would seek to stop that from ever happening are to be looked at askance at all times.

I Spit On Your Grave (d. Steven R. Monroe) - When Meir Zarchi's original I Spit On Your Grave was released in 1978, it was met with righteous howls of disgust by not a few people. Most famously, Roger Ebert's review fairly seethed with anger as he judged and found wanting not just Zarchi and his film, but the crowd with whom he saw it:

I wanted to turn to the man next to me and tell him his remarks were disgusting, but I did not. To hold his opinions at his age, he must already have suffered a fundamental loss of decent human feelings. I would have liked to talk with the woman in the back row, the one with the feminist solidarity for the movie's heroine.

There was a tendency at that time for some critics to assume, as they did nothing more than fulfill their professional obligations to see certain extreme horror films so that they could write about them, that the audience that surrounded them was made up entirely of either potential or currently active serial killers (see also Harlan Ellison's comments about going to see The Omen, of all things), and while Zarchi's film remains an entirely unpleasant viewing experience, Ebert's subsequent positive review of Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects makes me question from what angle he really approaches this kind of material. The guy didn't even blush.

The thing about Zarchi's film is that it could not be any less complex about its motives, or what it wants the audience to experience. The lead character (Camille Keaton) is repeatedly, and graphically, beaten and raped by a group of men. This goes on forever, and as hard as it is to watch initially, it only gets harder from there. Then, left for dead, the woman rises up and exacts just-as-brutal revenge on her attackers. Zarchi (who was supposedly inspired to make the film after witnessing a rape, a claim I've always sort of questioned) wants our horror at Keaton's prolonged suffering, followed by our feeling of grim catharsis at her vengeance. The fact that one of her attackers is mentally handicapped only adds some ambiguous spice, something all revenge films must have. And it's all just a terribly uncomfortable parade of atrocity.

So it's I guess maybe a comment on the state of something-or-other today that, when the announcement was made that there was going to be a new I Spit On Your Grave in 2010, the reaction was essentially "Oh, they're remaking that one, too?" If you could take that reaction and somehow translate it into a creative drive, then you'd have director and co-writer Steven R. Monroe's attitude towards that very remake, a film that pulls way back on the level of violence inflicted on its heroine (Sarah Butler) and turns her eventual reign of terror into a series of damn silly Saw-like torture scenes. Whatever else can be said about Zarchi's film, you can't call it silly.

But, you know, one doesn't want to sound as if one is wishing a given film could have contained more rape. Quite frankly, Monroe's film has plenty. It's just that Zarchi's film was a film of two halves -- the rape and revenge killings are inseparable, and are, in fact, all that the movie is. In the remake, rape is the launching pad. All revenge films need to get kicked off somehow, after all, and it's pretty clear that whatever imagination was being delicately portioned out in the making of this new I Spit On Your Grave, it all went to thinking up the bit with the guy who has a shotgun stuck up his ass. And apparently, in the interim between being left for dead and coming back for some scalps, Butler's character has turned into a super detective, because what she's able to pull off -- getting vital information on the private family life of one of her attackers, somehow ensuring that another attacker will step just there right when she needs him to -- is not only impressive, in a stupid sort of way, but never explained. Not that, typically, explanations are needed in a film like this, but some nod in that direction can make absurdity a bit easier to swallow.

So I think maybe I Spit On Your Grave circa 2010 was born out of a certain cynicism. In fairness, if you can score the rights to that title, it must be pretty hard to resist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Sketches: A Rumination, Part Two

It's difficult for me to say what, exactly, I'm hoping to say in the following self-portrait (number two in a series). Still, I do believe that this is a reasonable illustration of how the world views me -- not how I view myself, please remember, although, actually, there's not much difference, if I'm being honest.

Anyway, it's just sex, America -- try and loosen up for once! Also, you can't even say I'm racist, because almost all of the major female hair colors are represented.

Finally, I'd like to dedicate this post to my wife.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Sketches: A Rumination

Recently, I've started branchingn out into the visual arts -- or, rather, I'm channeling more of my creative soul in that direction. Below is the first of a series of self portraits I'm working on:

Rough? Perhaps. But I feel it does have a certain energy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Solved Nothing

[Spoilers for The Missouri Breaks and sort of for Night Moves follow. I'd include Bonnie and Clyde as well, but, I mean, seriously.]
When Arthur Penn died last year, it was my belief that in the wake of his passing, Bonnie and Clyde would be about the only film anyone was going to bother to remember, and that I might as well accept it (which, considering the man was dead, was exceptionally brave of me). Well, I should have known better, because while Bonnie and Clyde (1967) –a film I hate – is easily Penn’s best known film, and would appear to be his most consistently loved, and would further appear to be the one that is most likely to endure, God help us, the kind of people who are going to bother writing anything about Arthur Penn in the first place, even when he was alive, are going to have a deeper knowledge of the man’s work, and are going to appreciate more than just the poor-little-killers film that invites the audience to share in its own obliviousness.
I hate Bonnie and Clyde. But I like Arthur Penn. Penn was a bit of a genre guy, which is always nice, even if his interest lay primarily in subverting them, or subverting what we expect and desire from those genres. His genres of choice tended to be Westerns and crime films, which are spiritually linked in a very basic way which somehow often goes unremarked upon. But listen: how many Westerns essentially double as crime films? Yes, you have your cowboys and Indians Westerns, and your historical Westerns (which Penn covered as well), and all that, but the tin star and the posse and the bad man fed just as many films as did frontier life and Cavalry uniforms.
Such is the case, sort of, with Penn’s first feature film The Left Handed Gun (1958), and his later, commercially and critically disastrous (well I like it) The Missouri Breaks (1976). The Left Handed Gun, which stars Paul Newman as Billy the Kid, is plainly the work of a young filmmaker who desperately wishes it was already the 1970s, or at least the late 60s. In some ways, Penn is already pushing towards Bonnie and Clyde here, with its near-romanticizing of a punk kid whose claim to fame is spilling innocent blood (though probably less blood of any kind in reality than in this film). But eventually The Left Handed Gun takes a more peacenik approach to its violence, because of course – or not “of course”, because this is not an element you can necessarily bank on in films that print the legends of Billy the Kid, or, say, Jesse James – Billy finally goes “too far”, and Pat Garrett (John Dehner), who’d rather not kill the boy, finds that his hand is forced, for the greater good. No, if The Left Handed Gun has problems, which it does, it’s not due to the film collapsing under its own confused morality, but rather to the two men involved with the film who would eventually enjoy much higher profiles than Penn: Paul Newman and Gore Vidal. The film was based on Vidal’s play, and I’m willing to blame all the shortcomings on him because I hate Gore Vidal about as much as I hate Bonnie and Clyde. But the film’s real problem is its theatricality – despite the variety of locations, and the horses, and all the things you wouldn’t expect from a stage play, the damn thing still seems weirdly stage bound in the sense that it seems pitched to the back of the theater.
Newman, who was still finding his sea-legs, doesn’t help. It’s I guess ironic that the common line on The Missouri Breaks is that Penn lost control of star Marlon Brando, who was at the “fuck it” stage of his career, and would, so the story goes, rather amuse himself on set than help whatever movie he was filming. But when I watch The Left Handed Gun, I see a young Paul Newman who is out of control, as yet unable to keep the lid on his worst instincts, and receiving no direction on how to do so from Penn, so that this great actor instead bounces around and mugs like a cartoon psycho. Meanwhile, when I watch The Missouri Breaks, I see a legitimately mad Brando who towers over everything else, and manages to raise the film up to his lunacy. Before Brando shows up, the film is a bit wearyingly ordinary: a bad rich man (John McLiam) takes to hanging horse thieves, thereby putting a group of otherwise decent horse thieves, led by Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson), on edge. But the bad rich man hires Lee Clayton (Brando), whose line of work, while never described quite in this way, is that of an assassin. And once that happens, “ordinary” is no longer a word one could logically use to describe The Missouri Breaks.
Is any of what follows Brando’s introduction – specifically, anything that actually involves Brando and his performance – really out of control? The commercial failure of The Missouri Breaks badly stalled Penn’s career, but I’m more inclined to blame the people who didn’t go see it and the critics who didn’t give it a fair shake than either Penn or Brando. My understanding is that giving Clayton an Irish brogue was Brando’s idea. Okay, so? Brando doesn’t do a bad job with the accent, however many people claim otherwise, so where’s the problem? And Brando wears a dress at one point. Yes indeed he does (he dresses strangely throughout, but this moment would, I admit, have to count as the pinnacle of that). By the time he puts on the frontier-lady dress, Clayton has been established, partly through Brando’s performance, and partly through what Thomas McGuane’s script has him do and say, as a complete lunatic, loyal to nobody, a sadistic chessmaster, so that, to a degree the dress makes sense, and anyway, as this scene goes on and the building burns and more blood is spilled, the dress adds a Psycho-esque chill.
Then, of course, there’s the climax to Clayton’s story, his last night on Earth, spent with a couple of horses and Penn’s patient camera, which records Clayton’s loving interaction with one horse, then stern rebuke of another, then his lilting attempt to sing himself to sleep, then sleep, the blackness, then death. I have to rank this as The Missouri Breaks’ finest hour, and possibly Penn's, and if much of what precedes Clayton’s sleep was improvised by Brando – and I don’t know that it was anyway – then bravo to him, and to Penn for seeing the worth in it all. There’s some darkly comic poetry at work here, and if this counts as out of control, then I want more of it.
Though the connection is thin at best, when, in its early going, The Missouri Breaks seems to be about how law and order crushes otherwise peaceable thieves, or at least that the idea of "frontier justice" was an oxymoron, it plays a little bit like a wheezing version of Bonnie and Clyde (thin at best, I know, I said that, but you gotta connect these things somehow). Bonnie and Clyde. Motherfucking Bonnie and Clyde. It's a well made film, I'll grant you -- watching it again recently, I was impressed by how well it moved -- but if I had to boil my contempt for it down to one scene, it would be the part where the gang robs a bank and Clyde fires a shot at the bank guard (Russ Marker), who'd been going for his gun. In this same scene, Clyde tells a bank customer to keep his money (because he's nice like that), and later we see both the customer praising Clyde's generosity to a newspaper reporter, and the bank guard vainly posing for a photograph while he describes looking into the face of death. We're meant to laugh at this guard because, additionally, we're supposed to scorn the way he pumps up the danger in his story. In order to do this, the audience needs to forget, or not care, that not only after that robbery, but before it, Bonnie and Clyde (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) have been killing policemen by the handful. The real Bonnie and Clyde did the same thing (though, in terms of the film, I'm told this doesn't matter), so it's more than a little appalling to see the police represented in the film either as glory hounds or bumbling seekers not of justice, but of vengeance (this in the form of Denver Pyle's Sheriff Hamer, who after being humiliated by the Barrow gang, later orchestrates the ambush that will lay our heroes low).
There's a sense that Bonnie and Clyde played to audiences who outwardly professed to abhor violence and bloodshed, but might be okay if the blood was being shed from pigs. I'm sure the film's admirers, as well as Penn and screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman, would wave their hands in the air and say "No no no no no!" if presented with the theory. But look at how the stage blood is dispensed in Bonnie and Clyde. One innocent victim, the first one Clyde kills in the film, is allowed a brutal death, with shattering glass and a blown off face. The film comes very near to making something out of this, but in order for that to really click, the pursuit by law enforcement of the Barrow gang would have achieve at least ambiguity, but it doesn't -- the cops aren't good, and we're shown this. Not only that, but the dozen or so cops who are murdered by one or another member of the Barrow gang don't get to be brutalized, and therefore humanized. All those deaths are of the grab-chest-and-fall-over variety of the Hollywood crime films and Westerns that Bonnie and Clyde is supposed to be signalling the end of. That is, of course, until Bonnie and Clyde are most cruelly ambushed by the police force, whose ranks the Barrow gang has bravely thinned. Then, Penn makes with the red paint, and how. Because these were human beings, damn it. We know this, because the manner in which their deaths are depicted invites the audience to look away. All those cops, though, well, you know. You can't make an omelette, etc.
There's a terrible smugness to Bonnie and Clyde that I absolutely cannot stand. It flatters its audience, those who like it, in a way that, say, Sam Peckinpah, the master of moral confusion and splattered viscera, never did. It's a kids film in a lot of ways -- Clyde's gun is like a penis that one time, and so on -- and thankfully Penn would grow out of it. He would do this most notably, to my mind, and going by my incomplete experience with his work, with Night Moves (1975). Written by Alan Sharp and starring Gene Hackman, Melanie Griffith, James Woods, Jennifer Warren, and Edward Binns, Night Moves is the kind of loose, digressive detective story that, in literature, is perhaps best represented by the fiction of James Crumley. There's not a huge narrative drive to solve the mystery, and in fact for quite a while it seems that there is no mystery, once Hackman's Harry Moseby, a private detective, does right by his client (Janet Ward) by tracking down her free-spirited and often nude teenage daughter (Griffith), who has been hiding out in Florida with her stepdad (a quietly terrific John Crawford). When bodies start to appear, and motives come into question, all the plot elements that had been held in reserve -- which have to do with stuntmen and filmmaking and drugs and statutory rape -- are released in a rush towards the end, so that while Moseby is able to piece together what's been going on, he has to acknowledge that it all just fell into his lap. "I didn't solve anything," he says.
He sure didn't, as the film's incredible and devastating final ten minutes makes clear. It takes a great deal of courage, not to mention confidence, to intentionally leave an audience as confused by why something has just happened as Penn and Sharp do at the end of Night Moves. I've said before that one of the great tragedies of the word "mystery" as it relates to genre fiction is that it has come to mean, in most people's minds, "something that is solvable." Night Moves rejects that utterly. This embracing of uncertainty is one reason why Night Moves feels like the film of an adult, or group of adults, rather than a film like Bonnie and Clyde, which was made by people who just wanted to set fire to all the shit that was older than they were.
TIFF's Lightbox is running an Arthur Penn series in the coming weeks. All films discussed in this post, and many more besides, will be shown. The Left Handed Gun will be screened on March 27; The Missouri Breaks will screen March 28; Bonnie and Clyde on March 24, March 27 and April 6; and Night Moves on March 31.