Sunday, March 29, 2009

Infectious diseases in cattle: questions about Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York

I didn't exactly enjoy viewing Synecdoche: New York, but I immediately felt the need to watch it again, mostly to try to catch more of the important details that writer/director Charlie Kaufman sneaks in on the edge of the screen.  Mostly, the film left me with several questions:

1) Why is it that so many films feature loser older male protagonists these days?  What is Caden Cotard?  The artist as big baby?  Was anyone else bothered by his whiny, simpering "I'm so lonely--woe is me" schtick?   

2) Writer/director Kaufman does strive for a literary density in his films.  Originally a comedy writer, Kaufman seem to get increasingly despairing in his recent movies, and in its attempt to convey one theatrical director's decline from age 40 to 80, Synecdoche is as bleak as they get.  I think Kaufman's portrait of life is slanted too far to the negative, but one has got to admire his stubborn refusal to give the viewer any kind of release from Caden Cotard's gradual doom. Synecdoche's characteristic scene: a funeral. Hoffman's characteristic pose in the movie: head bent forward, veins bulging on his forehead, about to weep.   Why is it he gets to live another forty years when he seems ready to die in scene one?  

3) What is the deal with Hazel's burning house?  A combustible living room makes for great mise en scene, but what does it mean?  

4) In the Olive-as-tattooed-nude-dancer scene, did Kaufman mean to evoke Paris, Texas (1984)?

5) Insofar as Caden's first wife Adele (Catherine Keener) dumps him for a woman (the extra-despicable Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh)), were we supposed to think of Meryl Streep's character doing the same to Woody Allen in Manhattan (1979)?  Is it just me or does much of Kaufman's world resemble a more Kafkaesque Woody Allen movie?  

6) Did anyone else notice that the movie's Groundhog Day first shot of a clock radio depicts the same time (7:45) as a clock drawn on a brick wall at the very end of the film?  

5) What are we to make of the Sammy Barnathan character (Tom Noonan) who spies on Caden for twenty years (even taking notes) before taking on his role in the nameless play project ?  Is he meant to evoke paparazzi, the side of one's two selves who looks on and judges, or the artistic self-consciousness of Caden?  When Sammy looks on to take notes on Caden's grey stool in the bathroom, why doesn't Caden mind?

6) I find it odd how Caden leads such a woebegone life, and yet he carries on several affairs in the course of the film, even marrying Michelle Williams' character.  His creative line of work makes his romantic life at times resemble Guido's in 8 1/2, yet heaven forbid if Kaufman ever lets Caden enjoy himself.  If Caden's character were to somehow reflect Kaufman's life as a successful award-winning screenplay-writer and director, does Kaufman feel obliged to punish his fictional double?  In a sense, Synecdoche, New York is a film about playing God, but, as if in atonement for this arrogant premise, Kaufman makes sure his creator-character gets punished on a scene-by-scene basis. Does Kaufman feel guilty?

7) I liked the warehouse within the warehouse set design as Caden's play project develops and expands with Dark City-esque complexity and surrealism.  As all of the extras stand immobile in the street, did Kaufman mean to evoke The Truman Show?  Or was he implying that all of our lives increasingly resemble second-rate melodramas, signifying nothing?  I especially liked the idea of one's autobiographical creation starting to catch up with and overwhelm the reality of one's life.  The film in a sense depicts the ultimate artist's nightmare--getting subsumed in one's duplicate selves like Charles Foster Kane's reflected hall of mirrors as he walks through Xanadu.  And yet, Caden's theatrical project looks like fun, for Caden anyway.

8) Finally, towards the end, Dianne West takes over the movie, guiding Caden in his final footsteps in a dystopian post-apocalyptic movie landscape by speaking into a device in his ear.  Is this Kaufman's way of asserting that God is better played by a woman? 

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Notable film and media links: March 28, 2009

---Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard continue their always-impressive Conversations series with their discussion of Steven Soderbergh's Solaris.

---For The Evening Class, Michael Guillen profiles the legendary animator Chuck Jones

---I find that at times I just like to watch French New Wave films.  Thanks in part to Allan Fish's excellent post about Bob le Flambeur in Wonders in the Dark, and in part due to Richard Neupert's claim that Flambeur was a big influence on Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and John Woo's work in the 1990s (not to mention Godard in the 1960s), Jean-Pierre Melville's nonchalant gangster tale has become my current film of choice.  

---I tried Facebook for a month, and grew to hate it.  I was always be in debt to Matt Labash and his cogent essay "Down with Facebook" for persuading me to get off the evil time-wasting online community.  As Labash writes,

"Another longtime friend, the host of Fox's Red Eye, Greg Gutfeld, tells me he has 3,200 Facebook friends: `I know maybe 50 of them.' To Gutfeld's credit, he is ashamed. He concedes that Facebook is a place that turns adults into teenage girls. `Instead of making things,' he says, `We're telling people how great Gossip Girl is. Would your grandfather go on Facebook? Probably not. I think we've become a country thirsting for attention--Facebook is basically Googling yourself for people who don't have enough hits to warrant it.' Being a television personality, Gutfeld will go on for the occasional ego-stroke, but admits, `It's all pointless. A Facebook friend won't shave your back.'"

---And speaking of Facebook, I like the way Twitter keeps finding reasons to appear in the news due to the grim reality of Twitter ghost writers, its emphasis on the personal lives of celebrities, fake twitter celebrities, or whatever. Supernews put together a nice video satire on Twitter posted here on Boingboing.

---Invisible Woman interviews director Dennis Dortch as part of her 7 Questions series:

"You made some unknown casting choices and filmed on a limited budget, and your film turned out to be one of the most interesting pieces I've seen for some time. As advice to some of the filmmakers who read this blog, how does one get a feel that they are moving in the right direction on a project? How does one garner support from those inside the film and outside of it?

The first question is what is the definition of the right direction? For me it is when something affects you or intrigues you. You have to be your own guinea pig and be affected before it can transfer to someone else. Trust yourself and your instincts and the people who are supposed to be attracted to your project will find it and support it. It's just energy and there is not trick in it. Just truth and honesty.

To go further, don't pay attention to the haters. There will be a lot of them. It's not that they mean you direct harm, but they have so much self doubt in themselves, and misery loves company."

---I am frequently amazed by the way friends will accept the Tomatometer's opinion as gospel summary truth about a new release.  It's not that I mind Rotten Tomatoes' input, but I can't see why one should accept the aggregate view of hundreds of critics as necessarily correct, because I sometimes find myself disagreeing with them.  For Scanners, Jim Emerson explores this important problem in "The Lonely Critic."

---How to best explain the economic meltdown?  Tom Tomorrow turns to dystopian post-apocalyptic movies, of course!  

Friday, March 27, 2009

Flight of the Jailbirds: Nicolas Cage in Con Air (1997)

[The Film Doctor continues to revisit the summer of '97 for no particular reason with this of-the-period review.]

I dreaded watching Con Air because it was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, half of the team that brought you Top Gun, Bad Boys, Days of Thunder, and the especially loathsome The Rock.  The bad boy producers Bruckheimer and Simpson specialized in these hormonal, pumped up, squealing electric guitar machismo movies.  Recently, Simpson died of a drug overdose, and so Con Air constitutes Bruckheimer's attempt to make massive action bucks on his own.  The results are mixed, but better than I expected.

In Hollywood these days, movie stars look to big moneymaking action flicks to enhance their salaries.  Val Kilmer's stock rose with the 3rd Batman.  Soon we'll see Winona Ryder as a fighting android in the fourth Alien film for the same reason.  So, given this principle of serious actors turning to pulp fiction for money, Con Air contains a convention of actors one would normally associate with much classier movies.

John Cusack plays an intellectual ranger (read wimp in this movie) who tracks the convicts' plane and spends most of his time arguing with a DEA man who only wants to blow the plane out of the sky.  John Malkovich plays a delightful criminal mastermind who gets to strut around the movie using his unusually precise speaking style to celebrate villainy.  Steve Buscemi makes a humorous appearance as a Hannibal Lector-esque mass murderer who brags about wearing the head of a little girl as a hat, but otherwise does nothing remarkable.  He shows up all zoot-suited in a mask and a strait jacket just like Anthony Hopkins wore in Silence of the Lambs, but once Malkovich sets him free to wander around the plane, you think oh, that's Steve Buscemi.  Whoopee.

Con Air begins with Nicolas Cage as a marine killing a man with his fists of steel in a bar brawl.  While he's in jail (this sequence has a spooky resemblance to the jail scenes in Raising Arizona), we witness Cage writing repeatedly to his ultra-cute blond daughter and wife.  There's a Biblical dimension to his cartoon character: he MUST survive a criminal takeover of a prison plane in order to get back to his parole and long lost family.  Even as the filmmakers pile one challenge on top of another, Cage serenely fights for his little girl.  It can be quite affecting in its emotionally manipulative way.

So, criminals hijack a convict plane, fly to a remote airstrip to blow up a bunch of rusty cars and trucks, and then eventually fly into the middle of Los Angeles at night.  The film has a luscious cinematography full of desert sun, sky, and gleaming weaponry, which, like the acting, seems way too fancy for such a silly plot.  Indeed, the movie often resembles a music video with its pounding electric guitar score, voluptuous slow motion violence, and hallucinatorily clear imagery.  In one scene, Cage drops a corpse off the plane into Carson City, and we see that corpse fall up close most of the way down, the gorgeous fluttering down of a dead con in the sun, before it lands as a joke on an older couple's car that had just been waxed.

By the time the movie gets around to its multiple climaxes/chase scenes in the colorful world of downtown Los Angeles, I found it difficult to know what to say here.  Is the film stupid, fascist, gratuitously violent, and anal-retentively macho?  Yes.  Is it also beautifully filmed cheesy fun with fine actors who all seem to enjoy enhancing their paycheck?  Yes again.  Cage becomes so noble, he even finds time to help a diabetic and a female guard threatened with rape on the plane.  In his mission to save these people and gets a little bunny toy to his daughter, he slaughters numerous bad guys put in the way of his holy mission.  As whole army battalions get blown up, Cage's search for a syringe for the diabetic resembles the quixotic quest of a man determined to carry a glass of water through a hurricane.  As in the case of the movie as a whole, it may not make sense, but you gotta admire the technique.   

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Amazon Fun on the Beach: Demi Moore in G. I. Jane (1997)

[Before her twitterfame with Ashton, Demi Moore found other ways to promote herself. Here's another unrevised Film Doctor review from the summer of 1997.]

Emphasis on the second syllabus, DehMEEE Moore's new movie G. I. Jane, like Air Force One, proved more entertaining than I expected.  Last spring, studio executives polled the American public as to whether they would be interested in seeing a new paramilitary Demi Moore movie.  Most of the respondents stressed they were sick of Demi and refused to see the film because she was in it.  Concerned, the studio executives delayed the film's release until recently.

You could say Demi can't act; she certainly has a far more limited range than, say, Michelle Pfeiffer has.  You could also say Demi cynically exploits her amply proportioned body for profit.  Ever since she first posed in Oui magazine, she's known how to get the public's attention with flesh.  She posed nude and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair.  Her recent particularly bad movie Striptease showed the limits of her circus-like self-promotion.  As she moved like a weirdly disconnected tank through her strip show scenes (while her body undulated, her face looked like she was preparing for the GRE exams), the movie tanked in the box office.

Fortunately for us all, Demi Moore as Navy SEAL in training suits her abilities pretty well.  She fights the top brass for equal treatment from the sniggering mustached "Master Chief" Viggo Mortenson, but most of the time she blandly follows orders, and so the movie viewer can wonder at the fraternity hazing atmosphere of becoming a Navy SEAL.

Inductees get to stay up all hours of the night, do push-ups in freezing cold water, eat dinner out of lunch's garbage can, and push big barrels around in the Florida dunes as sadistic Navy officers yell in their ears with megaphones.  As Demi grunts, sweats, and has half of her face nearly sheared off in training, the director, Ridley Scott, keeps cutting back to the Washington Monument and other Washington DC iconography to show the skullduggering politics behind her appointment to this most difficult assignment. There we see a Texas-drawling Anne Bancroft whoop it up and make deals as a ball-breaking Arms Committee senator.  I liked seeing the former Mrs. Robinson sink her teeth into such a empowered role.

Basically the plot closely follows a hundred boot camp movies.  I kept thinking of Bill Murray in Stripes, but also you could conjure up Private Benjamin and An Officer and a Gentleman.  The new trainee undergoes every kind of humiliation and physical punishment to eventually attain a new freedom in discipline, not to mention fun hand-on-your-throat walkie talkies and some nifty hand signals to use when you jump into the beach-front shrubbery.  There's something weirdly androgynously erotic about watching Demi shave all of her hair off, and she keeps going off to do Rocky-like one arm push-ups so the camera can dwell upon her statuesque muscle tone in the half-light (these scenes reminded me of Cindy Crawford's workout videos).

The climax of the movie involves Demi getting tortured by her Master Chief for "intel" info in some faux POW camp.  After several blows that should have caused her to lose all of her teeth and suffer several concussions, I marvelled how, in the lack of a real enemy, American war movies must manufacture one.  The torture scenes looked very "real" and I wonder how much we were supposed to pay attention to Americans hurting Americans here.

Late in the movie, Demi gets to fight in a semi-real battle off the coast of Libya to prove her mettle.  Here the director relies on rapidly moving his zoom lens back and forth to create the urgency of battle sequences, but I don't want to ruin all of the good jokes of the film.

G. I. Jane proves to be a surprisingly fun cornball cheese entertainment.  In spite of the filmmakers' good intentions and all of the feminist empowerment going on, we can all take pleasure in watching Demi Moore suffer for her stardom.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Forced Hot Air: Harrison Ford in Air Force One (1997)

Note: For no particular reason, The Film Doctor continues to revisit the summer blockbuster wannabes of 1997.  Next up: G.I. Jane.

I get tired of military movies.  There's always the snare drumbeat, the brass band music, the official-looking credits against a flag blue backdrop, some hush hush special marine fighting corps jumping out of helicopters at night with their infragreen night glasses, swooping down on the enemy military installation.  As if we don't already see enough of this on TV recruiting ads.  In fact, this is the way Air Force One begins, a deeply silly but admittedly entertaining film that resembles the original Die Hard, Con Air, and any Indiana Jones flick.

You know you are in a fantasy movie right away because Harrison Ford as President of the United States immediately stands up to give an impassioned extemporaneous speech against terrorism without his teleprompter.  He claims he will not negotiate with terrorists and we in the audience have the pleasure of knowing he will eat his words soon enough.

Gary Oldman and a gang of terrorists hop on board the Air Force One, breaking through tight security by showing their driver's licenses to the man at the gate.  We see a tanned youthful-looking Ford lollygag with his wife and kid in the back presidential bedroom of the jet.  Gosh, they love each other!  Then, an inside secret service man working for the Russian retro-nationalists casually opens the closet with all of the machine guns inside, and we're off on a freewheeling flying terrorist jaunt.  

Because of the way the studio kept pounding the preview into my eye sockets all late spring and summer, I badly wanted to hate this movie.  But it is fun to sit through just as long as you don't closely examine the extreme unoriginality of the plot or smell the mouldering political underpinnings.

I liked watching a terrorist pilot Air Force One around a German airport like a drunkard, almost plowing into one of the hangars, barely clearing another airplane.  Frequently, you get to see the president flying around in the air, hanging on to a strap or dangling off a metal line.  Once Ford starts sneaking around the jet, he gets unconscionably long periods of time to find a portable telephone in the luggage to enable him to call Glenn Close as vice president back at the White House. While Gary Oldman amuses himself by speaking in a thick guttural Russian accent and shooting hostages, Ford pretty much gets the run of the plane, pouring out the fuel, and clobbering bad guy Russians over the head with a metal chair.

I ultimately felt the movie cheated the most on its politics.  It turns out that Oldman's character wants the Soviet Union back, thus making the whole proceedings a Hunt for the Red October-esque return-to-the-cold-war wish fulfillment fantasy.  I can see the studio storyboarding conference now. Recreate the president as a daredevil action figure and bring back some nasty commies to fight against.  Oh, the nostalgia the screenplay writers have for such simple good/evil dualities!  When Oldman pistol whips Ford, the director Wolfgang Peterson kept cutting to the grimaces of the president's officers.  The audience is invited to snarl away at this blatant mistreatment of our number one American and then cheer him on as he fights back.  

Ford is the American way personified, the next best thing to Sylvester Stallone as Rocky wrapped in a flag, and I felt a little uncomfortable as any moral ambiguity evaporates under all of the heroism.  You enjoy the b movie action sequences, all of the jets streaming around, the loyal little citizen hostages fighting for what they believe is true and right, the jump cuts back to CNN news briefs or worried Americans holding candlelight vigils in front of the White House, but ultimately I felt guilty for liking anything about Air Force One. Remember to pick your brain up at the door as you leave.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bride, groom, and pretty woman: notes on My Best Friend's Wedding (1997)

Note: To balance out my critique of Roberts' work in Duplicity, here's an appreciation of My Best Friend's Wedding from my preblogging days.

Julia Roberts has a nose like a ski jump.  It plunges down before abruptly slanting up towards the end over her puffy upper lip, leading one to wonder if she's had collagen implants.  In P. J. Hogan's My Best Friend's Wedding, a conventional but funny romantic comedy, you get to know her face pretty well because close-ups of it fill most scenes.  In fact, you get the story largely from her perspective.

At the beginning, she gets a call from her old male friend played by Dermot Mulroney.  He announces to her that he's going to marry Kimberly (Cameron Diaz) in a 4 day upper class wedding extravaganza and he's quite naively asking her to "help" him through the ordeal.  Julia suddenly finds herself jealous and in love with him, and from then on plots various ways to break up the bride and groom before 6 pm on the upcoming Sunday.

So she flies to Chicago and encounters the massively preppy blond Diaz, who has a tendency to gush and squeal as a only a society bride-to-be can.  Meanwhile Roberts' long lost boyfriend Mulroney has a scar over his right lip (I said there were a lot of close-ups), and your generally hunky-tanned-droopy-brown-eyed-brunette-aw-shucks look we've been trained to accept as appropriate for leading men.  Pretty soon you have all of the sexual jealousies, misunderstandings, and recriminations that one would expect from a romantic triangle.

I may be making the film sound more tired than it is.  Fortunately there are several elements that make it work.  Often the movie is very funny.  At unlikely moments, characters burst into song, during the credits, in restaurants, and once underneath a tent three young men breathe in helium and harmonize some cheesy 70s song in high pitched voices, and the joyful silliness of their sound nicely offsets the romantic to-and-fro of the principal players.  

Moreover, Roberts has a gay friend named George, played by the even more handsome Rupert Everett (this film is full of pretty people) who pops into the movie on occasion to give it a well-needed punch.  During one of the many strangled-by-her-inability-to-admit-her-love-to-Mulroney scenes, Roberts blurts out that she's actually George's fiancee, and the audience gets treated to George's high parody of heterosexual love.  Speaking too quickly and generally mocking all of the other love scenes in the film, George lightens up everything in his few choice moments, seducing Diaz's rich family, fondling Roberts ironically in front of her old boyfriend in the back of a taxi, and making up outrageous stories about how they fell in love.  

Otherwise, the movie hangs on Roberts' nose.  Can she still carry it as she did Pretty Woman so many years ago?  Yes.  She's quite good at delivering punch lines or looking emotionally naked as she moves from one dastardly trick to another to stop the marriage.  Curiously, all of the attention on Roberts, and Everett's occasional scene stealing flatten out the rest of the characters in the film.  Diaz's father, the owner of the Chicago White Sox, never gets more character development than to look happy-go-lucky.  Mulroney himself, the cause of much of the confusion, never amounts to much of a character either.  He's just a hunk for Roberts to project her romantic fantasies upon. Diaz shows some spunk early on by driving wildly and jealously threatening Roberts in an elevator, but she quickly becomes a frighteningly faithful and loving rich woman who wears flower print yellow dresses.  I found her about as appealing as a model for a Saks Fifth Avenue catalog, but perhaps the director Hogan intended that.

After a lull in the middle an Apple notebook (these show up in most movies these days), Roberts finds herself doing the right thing both for herself and for the good of the movie.  In a summer full of grotesquely inflated ill-written special effects-filled action fodder, it was a pleasure to watch Julia Roberts reclaim her romantic comedy throne in My Best Friend's Wedding.  

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Bemused by its own deceptions: a review of Tony Gilroy's Duplicity

Even with its witty script, its detailed portrayal of corporate espionage, and the combined star power of Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, I was distinctively underwhelmed by writer/director Tony Gilroy's Duplicity.  I was surprised, too, because Gilroy's Michael Clayton still strikes me as one of the best films of 2007.  The former movie's blistering portrayal of a law firm and a corporation's willingness to cover up pesticide poisoning by any means necessary has a chilled loathsome air that seemed perfectly accurate.  Public relations can mask any kind of corporate skullduggery, even murder, and what better way to depict that corruption than from the jaded point of view of one law firm's "bagman" played with weary charm by George Clooney?

Duplicity also concerns corporate shenanigans, but this time Gilroy treats the subject in a much more playful way.  After Owen (Ray Koval) and Roberts (Claire Stenwick) meet for the first time in Dubai back in 2003, they jump into bed together, but then Claire drugs Ray and steals some sort of Egyptian defense code from his hotel room. The two corporate spies continue running into each other in exotic locales like Rome and London for the rest of the film, planning their ultimate swindle.  Their marks turn out to be two CEOs (Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti) whom Gilroy depicts in the opening credits as they walk menacingly toward one another.  Eventually, the two start to fight in slow motion as their underlings look on aghast. As they roll around on the wet tarmac in their suits, the other executives rush in to tear them apart, and now we know about the ridiculous rivalry of these shampoo manufacturers.  

Whereas Michael Clayton maintained a compellingly sinister air throughout, Duplicity treat its similar milieu in a lighter, more cartoonish way, relying on Owen and Roberts' verbal jousting to keep the audience engaged.  Later on, they set up the mechanism to steal the secret formula that can earn one company billions in profits, but they still can't quite trust each other due to their sneaky habits of mind. The film's screenplay has a jarring Memento-esque habit of jumping back in time three months here, one week there, two years, and so on, and we have to piece together all of the multiple game-playing and betrayals from this jagged timeline. 

In the midst of all of these switchbacks and doublecrosses, I was irked by my boredom.  I have heard that Owen watched Cary Grant's rapid wordplay in His Girl Friday to prepare for the role, but Friday works in part due to the fun of watching Grant scramble to con his former wife into staying with him (not to mention the delightfully punchy world of 1940s newspaper journalism).  Both Owen and Roberts come off as a bit smug in comparison, and I really didn't care about whether the two stayed together or not.  I prefer the rougher-edged version of Owen in Children of Men, and Julia Roberts looks more complacent and motherly now that she's just had three children.  I found myself distracted by the tired expression on her face and the many panning shots of her walking through European city streets.  In comparison to her work in, say, Erin Brockovich, Roberts just seems to be hanging out in this film, and she can't quite disguise that her mind is somewhere else, even when she's in bed with Clive Owen.

Duplicity does have one last clever plot twist towards the end, but by then I had since resigned myself to idly staring at Roberts' awkwardly placed black eyeliner and her ski-slope nose. Perhaps it was the inherent problem of too many recognizable stars making a film less plausible, or perhaps it was just the lack of frisson between Owen and Roberts.  Maybe witty banter no longer suffices anymore.  Duplicity seemed ultimately too bemused by its own cleverness to involve me in its deceptions.  

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Poppy amidst the damaged: 2 notes on Happy-Go-Lucky

1) If Happy-Go-Lucky lived up to its tag line--"The one movie this fall that will put a smile on your face"--then it would be insufferable, but I like the way the assured director/writer Mike Leigh immerses Poppy (Sally Hawkins), the cheerful 30-year-old primary school teacher, into a group of psychologically damaged people. Leigh balances his portait of joy with a borderline psychotic driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan), a child who beats up other kids in the playground, a dance instructor who has an emotional breakdown in mid-lesson, and a Stanley Kubrick-lookalike homeless man who spouts nonsense (I can easily imagine Leigh having a bit of fun at Kubrick's expense). Of course other characters such as Poppy's flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zeckerman) and a social worker love interest Tim (Samuel Roukin) come off as looking therapeutically put together, but often I was struck with how others, especially men, tended to fritz out in the course of the movie. In contrast to other films with villainous antagonists, Happy-Go-Lucky has characters at war with themselves. Mostly Poppy has to negotiate herself safely through them.

2) I also wondered about what Leigh might be saying about the emotional release of different forms of movement. Reminiscent of the final shot of every Avengers episode with John Steed and Mrs. Peel trying out every possible form of conveyance, Happy-Go-Lucky ends with a boat ride that seems deliberately in contrast to the angst-filled, claustrophobic driving lessons. The last shot gradually moves to an extreme long shot of a beautiful sunlit lake that reminded me of the open form shots at the end of Boudu Saved from Drowning. Also, Happy-Go-Lucky begins with a montage of Poppy bicycling serenely through the streets of London just before someone steals her bicycle (an homage to The Bicycle Thief?). One could also include the scenes of Poppy dancing and jumping on the trampoline, as well as her pretending to fly as a bird with her students as more examples of how she stays in motion.  Her character is all about movement, but Leigh slants the film in favor of individual, leisurely motions and away from machine-driven ones. One wonders how much we are supposed to associate Scott's inchoate rage with the many rules and constraints of city driving. Earlier in the film, Poppy discusses with her fellow primary school teachers how their students often go home to play video games all weekend, and later we witness Poppy's married sister's hen-pecked husband badly itching to play video games if only his wife would let him. Perhaps Leigh means to associate video game-playing and driving as ways that machines stifle the body's need to express itself.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Notable film links--March 14, 2009

---Is Rushmore Wes Anderson's best film?  I'm inclined to think so, and The Stop Button makes a good case for its magnificence. 

---I saw Baghead recently and found it intriguing in part because the two Duplass brothers who directed it used Godardian methods (yelling out lines to the actors when needed, and allowing them much room for improvisation during the shoot).  Also, they claimed that the film cost only $1000.   Now, David Denby of The New Yorker considers the mumblecore movement: "When the material is emotionally raw, and the nonprofessional actors show some strength, mumblecore delivers insights that Hollywood can't come close to."

---When it comes to link lists, no one does it better than David Hudson.  After he left GreenCine Daily, I despaired, but now his always impressive Shorts appear on I also admire Todd's Links for the Day at The House Next Door.   

---I enjoyed Dennis Cozallio's discussion of the history of his blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule and his take on the current state of film blogging as part of the Behind the Blog series of Film in Focus:

"Not for me it isn’t. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t frequently wish that it could be, but the reality is that bloggers who are serious about the format as an avenue for creating good writing have discovered that they are part of the creation of a new mode of communication which has helped to destabilize traditional (print) criticism and establish the fundamental template of free (as in, no compensation) film journalism. As more and more print jobs dry up, readers have replaced the habit of following all but the most high-profile critics with seeking out online alternatives. Readers who care at all (and there are plenty who value criticism simply as consumer reportage) have come to depend more and more on these labors of love as sources of regular film reading. Unfortunately, for the writers, there’s not been much development in regard to making that writing economically advantageous, and there probably won’t be for the foreseeable future."

---When it comes to having a blog, like, say, GOOP, Gwyneth Paltrow proves how it pays to have friends in high places.  Here, she shares the favorite films of Steven Spielberg, Jon Favreau, Wes Anderson, and, oh yeah, Sofia Coppola (tip of the hat to R.J. of Cine-O-Rama).

---Mr. Peel considers one of my favorite 1970s films Being There

"Less than a year after BEING THERE was released, Sellers died from a massive heart attack at the age of 54. It wasn’t his final screen performance—we don’t need to go into that film right now—but the way he leaves us here is like the way he left us in life. Gazing in wonderment, bafflement and trying to decide what we’re supposed to make of any of it. Ashby directed a few other films before his premature death in 1988, none with any significant acclaim. I still need to see a few of those films, but if there is anything to the idea that BEING THERE really was a personal statement for him, then maybe it’s the last one that really matters. It doesn’t really make any difference what I say about the film—just like anyone who encounters Chance, it’s designed for anyone to take from it what they wish. That’s part of what makes it so brilliant." 

---I enjoyed Nathaniel R's "77 Appropriate Ways to Celebrate Elizabeth Taylor's Birthday" in his Film Experience Blog:

"Be sexy. Seek a voice role on The Simpsons. Work towards making lots of "all time greatest" lists in whatever it is that you do and actually deserve the honor. Make the world a better place. Get divorced. Go to a gay bar with friends. Jump on a plane to Hawaii. Excite the tabloids. Be legendary. Have a tracheotomy. Survive pneumonia. Have a hip replaced. Have a tumor removed. Survive cancer. Throw your back out. Call yourself "Mother Courage" and mean it. Survive everything."

---Ray Pride of Movie City Indie assesses "Kubick's legacy, ten years on." 

---Will Sundance Film Festival favorite Assassination of a High School President go straight to DVD?  /film argues in favor of a theatrical release with the help of these intriguing five video clips.

---Lastly, celebrate the genius of Jean Renoir as he delightfully bashes bourgeois stupidity in Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932).  Rick of Coosa Creek Cinema will host the TOERIFIC discussion this Monday (March 16) starting at 11 am.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"Turn momma's picture to the wall": notes on the beginning of Hitchcock's Psycho (1960)

1. I love the masterfully cold, manipulative beginning of Psycho, written by Joseph Stephano, in part because it has little to do with the main story at the Bates Motel. The entire beginning is one long red herring designed to make the audience uneasy because they are invited to share in the paranoia of a singularly inept thief.

2. "Phoenix, Arizona, Friday December 11, 2:43 pm." Psycho opens with these words appearing on a straightforward shot of the Phoenix skyline before sneaking the viewer peeping tom-style inside the window of a cruddy hotel, where you can barely see a bathroom as the camera pans to Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) lying in her underwear on the bed as her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) towers over her. Their respective positions foreshadow a design tendency in the film to have one thing tower over another thing that lies supine, such as the way the Addams family Gothic home of Norman Bates looms over the flat motel.

3. Sam says the first line--"Never did eat your lunch, did you?" as we see a rapid insert shot of a sandwich on a table. In this fashion, Hitchcock immediately associates eating with sex and excretion (the bathroom). Marion has no need for lunch because she's satisfied her "ugly appetite" (to quote Norman's mother) another way. All of this and an upcoming shower scene make the normally innocent bathroom a chamber of existential dread. Much of the rest of the dialogue is exposition, but I like the way Sam says "Turn momma's picture to the wall?" as a way to characterize what fun they would have after an evening of respectable dining. Hitchcock loves to rely on photographs, paintings, stuffed birds, mirrors, and anything else on the walls to convey significant mise-en-scene. He even did that in his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

4. It appears that the cheerful eroticism of this scene is the last one in the movie. From hereon, things get weird.

5. Hitchcock used his television crew to help film Psycho, and the anonymous 1950s bland set design of the film as well as its black and white cinematography give it a blunt grungy appeal. The interiors look so pitiful, middle-American, and desperate, why wouldn't one resort to murder?

6. Marion then shows up at what seems to be a real estate firm. We first see Hitchcock himself standing outside in the heat for his trademark cameo. By this point in his career, he had to appear early in the film or audiences would be too distracted looking for him to pay attention to the movie.

7. As Marion walks in, she passes two paintings, one showing a water scene like a lake, the other a desert landscape behind her desk. I've never entirely understood why they are there--perhaps to show her need to escape for the "desert" of her current life by stealing money? Of course, later on she will end up in the trunk of her car in a swamp, so perhaps that's the implication of the water scene.

8. I like the way Hitchcock has his daughter Pat play Caroline, Marion's fellow secretary. She also brings up a mother figure. When headachey Marion asks about aspirin, Caroline says she has something else: "My mother's doctor gave them to me on the day of my wedding. Teddy was furious when he found out I'd taken tranquilizers." Aside from the omnipresent influence of two mothers now, why on earth would Caroline talk about being drugged on her honeymoon? Already, the sweet romantic tone of the opening scene has started to change into something more ominous.

9. To go along with this shift, Frank Albertson appears as oil man Tom Cassidy, who lamely tries to use his money ($40,000) as an excuse to flirt with Marion. Of all of the manifestations of the male gaze, Tom is the most overtly lecherous. For the next several scenes, Marion will be looked at as a possible "wrong one" or criminal instead.

10. Then, once Marion goes home with the money instead of properly placing it in a safety deposit box in the bank, the scene cuts to a skillful nonverbal expository shot where Hitchcock frames Marion (now wearing black underwear, as befits her new status as thief), and then the money in a white envelope (handy for making a dominant contrast in a shot). Then the camera frames her open suitcase, and then back to her getting dressed, wherein we can see a showerhead and part of a bathroom behind her head. As he does with the opening scene of Rear Window, Hitchcock uses a camera moving carefully around a room to let the audience figure out what is going on.

11. Implicated in her guilt, the audience now feels concern over Marion as she drives out of town. She looks slightly freaked, but Hitchcock distracts the viewer with a voiceover in which she imagines Sam talking about meeting her in Fairvale. Sam says, "Marion, what in the world? What are you doing up here? Of course I'm glad to see you. I always am. What is it, Marion?" With Sam's voice getting lower and more intimate, the viewer gets caught up in this fictional half of a discussion when Hitchcock performs a maneuvre like a magician drawing your attention to one hand while the second hides a coin. He cuts to a point of view shot of her looking out of the car. And then, there's her boss walking by and nodding at her absentmindedly. He then stops and stares at her, realizing that she hasn't gone home as she said she would, before walking on. With the viewer fully locked in to her perspective, Marion's guilt and paranoia are just beginning.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Propaganda: notes on Jerry Bruckheimer's Armageddon (1998)

Note: Way back in 1998, long before Pirates of the Caribbean, Jerry Bruckheimer produced a little summer film called Armageddon. The Film Doctor was there to review it. It might help to know that yet another possible earth-destroying asteroid film called Deep Impact came out that same summer. I'm not entirely sure that this review makes any kind of coherent sense, but then again, neither did the film.

The Michael Bolton of movie producers, Jerry Bruckheimer makes jingoistic sledgehammer movies. Many years ago, Top Gun set the mold for power rock-n-roll machismo with Tom Cruise as the new American Nazi. Since then, I have suffered through The Rock and most recently Con Air in the same vein.

Now, on Independence Day, when everyone has gotten maximally nihilistically bored with summer, Bruckheimer brings us Armageddon, quite simply the end result of summer movies as we know it. How to describe Armageddon's uniquely unoriginal concussive effect? You know those Dow Chemical ads on TV that have no clear point to them, since you never see any chemicals, but you do see lots of innocent Americans romping around the general store and the feed silo in a kind of backlit corporate fantasy of rural America? That pretty much nonexistent land of bib overalls, checkers games on the main square, and couples necking in the Chevrolet convertible?

Well, Armageddon often looks like that, a movie that's basically an ad for itself, a testosterone-dazed celebration of endangered straight white male American values like military might, stripper bars, oil drilling, apple pie, and Norman Rockwell. I spent half of the movie fully prepared to stand up and pledge my allegiance to the flag, but then another gun metal asteroid shower would knock me down in my seat.

No doubt conscious of the monotony of Deep Impact's similar plot line, Bruckheimer jazzes up Armageddon with more big explosions and "suspenseful" plot complications. A meteor shower sends fireballs all over New York City (There's even an opening sequence when a small dog chews on a toy Godzilla, the movie's one attempt at camp irony).

Regardless, Bruce Willis runs an oil rig somewhere and he's hopping mad at Ben Affleck for sleeping with his daughter Liv Tyler. Since the moviemakers are far more concerned with propulsive machines and explosions than with humanity, character development takes place in brief rock video vignettes.

Affleck runs an Animal Cracker across Tyler's belly off in some backlit sunset prairie paradise. The sensitive strings swell as Bruce cries with Tyler near the Stonehenge-like monument to Apollo 1, but mostly you see a bunch of NASA men freaking out over the oncoming asteroid the size of Texas. Bruce gets to handpick a ragtag crew of oil riggers to save the earth in a couple space shuttles, and then you spend the rest of the 2 and 1/2 hour movie waiting around on some leftover Lost in Space prickly black set as Bruce gives speech after noble speech when there should be no time left to blow up the asteroid.

Aside from some humorous bits early on when the colorful working class oil riggers resist NASA training, the movie largely turns into a Chevy/Air Force commercial. People all across the world look up in the sky and pray for American technology to save them. Liv Tyler has hysterics in the NASA control room. Ben Affleck sings "Leaving on a Jet Plane" offkey to Tyler on the launch pad and then nearly gets killed about 17 times. A doofus Russian astronaut appears out in space for some leftover cold war Soviet-bashing and reconciliation. Up on the asteroid, the land terrain vehicles have machine guns for no discernable reason (enemy aliens?) except that we're in a Bruckheimer movie.

Does Bruce Springsteen show up and sing "Born in the USA"? Will the planet earth survive, let alone still circle around America? Will our lovable beer-drinking stripper-ogling working boys come home heroes? Will Rosanne grab her crotch and sing the Star Spangled Banner? With every flag, hero, and nuclear warhead, I kept feeling bludgeoned with forced love for my country.

On your knees, Bruckheimer seems to imply, get down on your knees.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Hitman High: notes on Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Note: I wrote this time capsule of a review back in 1997.

Grosse Pointe Blank has the kind of high concept plot that would doom most movies: a hitman returns to his high school reunion to rediscover the love of his life while still fighting other hitmen who trail him.  Fortunately for us, the film stars John Cusack, a young actor with enough clout to star in not one, but two Woody Allen films, and enough intelligence to shape a film to suit his abilities.  Cusack made a strong impression in Say Anything as a ditzy kickboxer who wins over the smartest girl in his class.  Since then, he has resisted any typecasting as the charming young swain, preferring offbeat roles like the conman he plays in The Grifters or the innocent playwright in Bullets Over Broadway.  

In Grosse Pointe Blank, we see Cusack counteract his charm with his job.  The film balances Cusack's emotional sterility against his budding warmth brought out by meeting his old high school friends.  In many ways, this is a quintessentially cold movie designed for disaffected  twenty-somethings living under the shadow of the baby-boomer generation.  The screenplay writers make frequent references to 90s-style exploitation (Cusack finds that his home has been converted into a convenience store) and contrast that with Cusack's mixed morality split between the undeniable glamour of killing people for money and the job's obvious evils.  

The charm of the film lies in its verbal wit and the glint in Cusack's eyes sometimes hidden behind dark glasses that make him look exactly like Elvis Costello.  Minnie Driver plays Cusack's old girlfriend that he left in the lurch on prom night ten years ago.  She has married and divorced since then, leaving her conveniently single for Cusack's return.  Once they rediscover each other, Minnie never really puts up much of a battle over his job; indeed she accepts him pretty quickly after seeing him murder another hitman by stabbing him in the neck with a pen (after all, he is rich).  Much of the tension of the movie is played out in more subtle ways, as old high school friends confront him with marriage, babies, clerking in convenience stores, car dealerships, and real estate.  Even Dan Akroyd want him to join a hitman union.

Cusack must choose between the freedom of isolation, and the responsibilities of commitment.  In a strange way, Cusack's job fits in perfectly with the vicious 90s-style economics confronting young men and women in a suburb of Detroit.  When he tells Minnie's rich dad that he kills for money, her dad replies "Good, there's a growth industry."

In the end, Cusack goes for the girl, and he does this in the midst of a shoot out, a perfect example of romantic detachment under fire.  The violence is gracefully choreographed, as if Cusack knows he needs it in the film to help the studio market it, but he's impatient with such visual meat and potatoes.  He even includes a huge explosion for those in the audience who find they need one.

One senses Cusack is getting too knowing to star in movies at all, hence the wry, neatly ironic vehicle he chooses here.  One part urban western, another part sly suburban satire, Grosse Pointe Blank delivers its barbs with cool precision.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Guns, banks, and attention to detail: notes on Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

[spoiler alert]

Aside from being the film that helped Pauline Kael get her job reviewing for The New Yorker, Bonnie and Clyde still strikes me as elusively brilliant. A casual glance of the story of these two yokels robbing and shooting their way to an early death would not seem to promise very much--a grungy palate of dead-end Texas towns, depression-era FDR posters, and crude, sometimes clownish dialogue. And yet, in 1967 Joe Morgenstern of Newsweek did something very rare. He reversed his opinion of the film and wrote a new review retracting what he had said before, mentioning "scene after scene of dazzling artistry." The film's craft camouflages itself within its rapid shifts in tone between comedy and violence, and, as in the case of our film class study of The Graduate, I like to tease out Bonnie and Clyde's allegiances to the French New Wave even as it looked forward to the triumphs (such as The Godfather) of 1970s American cinema.

Take the movie's debt to Godard's A Bout de Souffle. Both films share a photogenic couple engaged in a straightforward story of running from the law, but whereas Godard's film constantly winks at the viewer (with devices such as the jump cuts) into enjoying the film as a film, thus diminishing the sense of any ethical impact on Michel for his crimes, Bonnie and Clyde is more realistic. Yet, the latter film shares in the self-conscious pleasures of subversive behavior by having Bonnie and Clyde constantly photographing each other for the adoring press. Whereas Michel poses throughout his film in slightly ironic American gangster fashion, Bonnie and Clyde displays more of the confused, fearful, tender side of its murderers. In comparison to Michel's and Patricia's practiced cool, Bonnie curls up in a fetal position in bed when she realizes that Clyde is the only family she will have. And Bonnie and Clyde is very deliberate in the way it plants hints of their doom in talk of "bringing a mess of flowers to their funeral," the fact that Gene Wilder's character is an undertaker, the dark cloud that happened to cover the twosome when running across a cornfield (surely someone was thinking of North by Northwest?), the grim conversation with Bonnie's mother, and finally in the extended death scene of Gene Hackman's character Buck.

It is perhaps this sense of comedy incongruously mixed with judgment that makes the film so appealing. Aside from the temporary thrill of successful robberies, no one ever gets away with anything for long, except for C.W. Moss (and Moss perhaps gets to live because he was so childlike, fleshing out the basic "family" unit of Bonnie and Clyde. If he was punished, the youthful audience would have felt violated by his death). I like the way Blanche's blindness is prepared for by Buck taking sunglasses from a policeman during a robbery, and bragging about it--"Take a good look, pop. I'm Buck Barrow"--thereby showing how much he too loves crime, and therefore, perhaps, making him deserving what happens to him. Buck gives the sunglasses to Blanche, and we see her polishing the lens, and so on, until she' s blinded by a strafed car window's broken glass. Then, as the "family" reacts to the horror of Buck's gunshot to the head and Blanche's blinding, Bonnie ironically places the sunglasses over Blanche's maimed eyes. Also, by the end of the film, just before he dies, Clyde wears sunglasses with one lens missing, in direct homage to Michel doing the same towards the end of A Bout de Souffle.

Of course, this post is just scratching the surface of an extended analysis, but I will end for now with a question about craft. If one wonders why Bonnie and Clyde has become a classic, perhaps the answer lies in Beatty's perfectionist methods. As discussed in Mark Harris' excellent study Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Penguin Press, 2008), Beatty (as producer) and director Arthur Penn would frequently spend hours during the shoot arguing about "aspects of the script as small as which word in a line should be emphasized" or "the tone of a particular moment. A flourish, a camera angle, a reaction, a grace note--no issue was too trivial to stop both men in their tracks. `What else is making a movie,' Beatty said, `except attention to detail?'"