Sunday, August 30, 2009

Forty Guns (1957)

By Eric Jessen 8/29/09

Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns is covered with annoying clumps of throw-away conventional cinema. But underneath it is a wonderful mock-western. The Arizona 19th century frontier is stripped of its man-on-horse love affairs and macho honor code (Peckinpah-esque) babble. The dusty, hairy and dirty wild west is replaced by a drab, clean-cut town. The cowboys look more like city slickers, as fit to hold a tommy-gun as their Colt-45. The violence isn't overly drawn-out with shifty eyed stare-downs and High-Noon-esque staginess. Instead, it is spontaneous, sometimes anti-climatic and the results (who lives and who dies) of the shootouts and bar-room brawls are unpredictable.
Forty Guns is about U.S. Marshal Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) who is sent to an Arizona town to arrest Howard Swain (Chuck Roberson). When he finds Swain, he learns that Swain is one of the 40 hired guns of local landowner Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck). Drummond and Bonnel eventually cross paths which leads to a romantic relationship.
Taking the aforementioned clumps into consideration, Forty Guns has its peeks and valleys. There are moments of dull conversation, there are some lame set-ups. But there are also moments of crazy, unkempt activity (real movie-fun), the kind of moments you'll always remember (your brain attaches a mental post-it note). They're great attention grabbers. Samuel Fuller is giving a joyful wink to the audience when he shocks or appalls, when he breaks unwritten rules.
In Forty Guns when Griff Bonnell is confronted by a drunk hooligan, Brockie (John Ericson) who has just terrorized and shot-up the town, don't expect them to take 10 steps in opposite directions, turn and fire. Instead Griff simply walks comfortably towards Brockie, as Brockie screams and threatens to shoot, and then abruptly pulls his gun out of his holster and thumps Brockie over the head. In a Samuel Fuller quiet Arizona town, don't expect a peaceful wedding: as the picturesque newlyweds share a first kiss, the husband is shot down. In Forty Guns don't expect a heart-to-heart conversation to reach its tear-jerking climax, that too is liable to be cut short by gun fire. I cherish all of these great little moments of artless violence. They can be silly or ridiculous but they're always entertaining. And my favorite moment in Forty Guns is the ending (ignoring the final two scenes added on top because the producers disapproved). It's a fantastic slap in the face to westerns. Griff's girl, Jessica, is being held up by one of her 40 guns, Brockie (the same hooligan from earlier). Brockie yells at Griff, “I'd like to see you shoot her!” Then, wasting no time, BANG! Jessica is down, then BANG... BANG... BANG......... BANG! Brockie is dead. Griff walks past them with a cold forcefulness, never once looking down at the two bodies.
That scene brings to mind one other interesting thing about Forty Guns: its phallic love for guns. All the characters in the movie talk about guns with a strange passionate attentiveness. Jessica says to Griff, “I'm not interested in you, Mr. Bonnell. It's your trademark,” pointing to his gun, purring. She then says, “May I feel it?” The trigger clicks... BANG....and they get goosebumps all over. One shot after another from their freshly polished pistol is how they get off. They treat each other like strangers and their guns like a loved one, their one and only companion. At the end when Griff shoots Jessica, he has expressed his deepest feelings for her. Griff shooting Jessica at waist level is their way of consummating.
With Forty Guns, despite its final two scenes, despite some boring characters and listless performances, I can think fondly back on the spontaneous violence and the hilarious covertly sexual dialogue. I love Samuel Fuller the fringe, pulp-movie director. And what I love most is his willingness to shock me.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Big Lebowski (1998)

By Eric Jessen 8/28/09

The Big Lebowski is a hilariously entertaining film. F-bombs and pot-belly, shaggy-dog laziness only add to its charm. Joel and Ethan Cohen approach a film about a group of slouches and bums with a joyous twinkle in their eye. They pepper the dialogue with everyman cursing. They run the movie to a first class mixed tape. And they also show off a taste for LA flashy style. It's enthusiastic and playful. We welcome The Big Lebowski as a sort of camp fire tale, told by baritone old west Sam Elliot, about a man we all know: “The Dude.” He straddles a dangerous line of unemployed, on and off the streets and indifferent. But “The Dude” never gets too down, he somehow stays afloat. And though we may berate him for not being motivated (which makes us feel superior), part of us wish we were a dude. We wish we had carefree nonchalant swagger and stress-free life of nothing but bowling and avoiding paying rent. And The Big Lebowski is “The Dude's” wild ride. Our dude, Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), sets down the beer in one hand and pulls his fingers out of the bowling ball in the other hand. He tilts down the shades covering his eyes, flicks back his overgrown bangs, scratches his scruffy beard and side burns. He picks himself up off his minor weed high and is ready to roll.
In The Big Lebowski our dude finds himself in a sticky situation. One night after shopping for some milk at Ralph's, “The Dude” comes home and is beat up by two thugs who mistake him for another Lebowski (David Huddleston) who owes them money. During the break-in one of the two thugs urinates on his favorite carpet (which he says “really tied the room together”). So our dude decides to for once go against his pacifist instincts and confront the other Lebowski who is apparently rich and ask him to replace his carpet. “The Dude” saunters into the other Lebowski's mansion but his pleas for a new carpet are to no avail. So, of course, what does “The Dude” do? Well, he steals a carpet, that's what. Now he has a beautiful Persian rug as the centerpiece of his room. Not long after, the other Lebowski calls “The Dude” back to his home with an urgent request. He tells “The Dude” that his trophy wife Bunny a ditsy teen played by Tara Reid, has been kidnapped. And if “The Dude” will be the courier for a 1 million dollar payoff, he'll get paid $20,000. When “The Dude” tells this to his bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), a high-strung Vietnam Vet who pulls his gun on people who violate bowling rules, Walter takes control and concocts a ridiculous plan for the drop off. He packs an Uzi into a paper bag and his dirty undies into a suitcase that will serve as a decoy for the kidnappers, so Walter and Lebowski can grab Bunny and keep the money.
Over the course of his wild ride, “The Dude” finds himself at a gated community police station, watching Walter demolishing a convertible to intimidate a teenager, in a bowling-ball-vs-sword fight with a German leather-pants band, and inadvertently drinking an acid, roofie spiked “White Russian” at a porn Tzar's house. He is thrown around like a ping-pong ball to every corner of LA, to every weird person in town. And it is fun to watch him sigh, irritated that all these shenanigans interrupt his lounging routine. He sits at the bar and orders his favorite drink. He laments to the bartender about a rough day. But he still keeps a small smirk on his face. He gets up, whips back his hair, and slowly and smoothly puts on his shades remembering, I shouldn't be whining, I'm a dude.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

By Eric Jessen 8/27/09

From Adaptation, a movie about Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) writing the script for Adaptation, to Synecdoche, New York, a movie directed by Kaufman about directing, Kaufman attempted to take a step toward the truth in his creative madness. But unfortunately I think he only found a bigger disaster and more confusion. And the once lovably jittery and quirky writer has shifted and evolved into a foreboding director.
In Synecdoche, New York Kaufman's on-screen persona is Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a theater director whose life is unraveling. For Caden it's one ailment after another, one visit to the hospital after another. He is always deteriorating. His marriage is crumbling. Finally his wife (Catherine Keener), who is an artist of miniature paintings, leaves him and takes his daughter. Caden then starts flirting with Hazel (Samantha Morton), a delicate box-office girl. But after Caden crumbles under carnal pressure one night in Hazel's bedroom, he's left feeling inept and humiliated.
At this point “Synecdoche” is simply keen melodrama: well acted and engaging if maybe a little depressing. But then unexpectedly, Caden receives a MacArthur genius grant which gives him unlimited funding to pursue any artistic whim. This also gives Kaufman unlimited freedom in depicting the “creative process,” (obviously his favorite topic). In Adaptation he was forced to do this with narration because his on-screen persona was a writer. With “Synecdoche,” because his persona is a theater director, his thoughts and ideas can come alive on stage.
Caden decides to make his masterpiece, a huge all encompassing work of art, a brutally honest and realistic depiction of his plight and what he believes is his rapidly approaching death. Caden assembles a large cast, he chooses a gigantic warehouse in the NY theater district to house the project. At first his somber, depressing piece seems focused: It's about “Death!” But as his life becomes more confusing, so does his play. He concludes, “I don't know what I'm doing.”
In the deep and scary abyss that is “writer's block” also known as the “creative process,” Caden does as Kaufman did in Adaptation, except he takes it even further which ends up being a step in the wrong direction. In Adaptation Kaufman dug himself out of a “writer's block” hole and a muddle of conflicting ideas by deciding to write the script about the writing of the script: including all the funny stories, reflecting on his social awkwardness, then finally relating it to it's original aim (Kaufman was supposed to be adapting The Orchid Thief). But with Caden's piece, instead of being retrospective, he only deepens the “writer's block” hole. Instead of making a play about how he was struggling with the “creative process” and a terrible, nerve-racking life, he makes an endless play about how he is continually struggling with the “creative process” and his nerve-racking life. As a result the giant warehouse becomes a stagy replica of Schenectady and NYC. His actors mimic everything happening in his life. He hires a woman to play Hazel and another to play his wife. His actors play their parts non-stop. He creates a copycat world to study, maybe so he can discover what is causing his pain.
Synecdoche, New York is at times a synecdochical, poetic delight: thoughtful and fascinating. But in the end it is a mad spiraling-out-of-control mess. The mass of ideas converge and form a confounding, bewildering blob. I was also exhausted and tired from watching Caden's relentless trepidation and bemoaning. But then again as frustrating as the movie is, it comes to a perfect end, its only logical conclusion. The endless spiral, the blob of ideas surrounding Caden finally vanish. He has a serene “writer's block,” “creative process” death. I guess, it's what he had anticipated all along. He falls into the arms of the actor playing him and says just before he passes, “I know how to do this play now. I have an idea, I think...”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

By Eric Jessen 8/26/09

Quentin Tarantino is a unique director. He is the ultimate movie geek film maker. His movies are an endless homage, a slapped-together mash-up of exploitation b-movies and his Fave 5 soundtracks (Ennio Morricone spaghetti-western music and David Bowie's “Putting Out Fire” from the 1982 remake of Cat People). They are whimsically gory and sarcastically serious. They indulge QT's extraordinary movie love. He is lovably hip if somewhat childish, wearing tennis shoes and giving the peace sign on talk shows. And with Inglourious Basterds (speaking of childish, what a title) QT has nearly accomplished something unprecedented. At least for a good portion of the movie Inglourious Basterds is the first funny, entertaining cartoonish slam-bang action spoof of the Nazis and the Holocaust.
The movie is made up of 5 chapters. The first begins at a quiet dairy farm in 1941 occupied France where SS officer Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter” (played by Christoph Waltz who won the best actor award at the Cannes film festival for his performance), is visiting the LaPadite family out of suspicion that they are hiding Jews. In another chapter we meet the “Basterds,” a renegade group of Jewish American soldiers tracking down and killing as many Nazis as possible. Their leader is Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), aka “Aldo the Apache,” a rough and tumble hick from Tennessee. Other note worthy “Basterds” are “The Bear Jew” (Eli Roth) who clubs German skulls like Ted Williams does baseballs and Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) known as a master of slitting throats.
For the most part Inglourious Basterds is a success and the ending a wonderful rewrite of history, the perfect “burn baby burn” Nazi slaying. But unfortunately the movie stumbles over a few attempts at seriousness. As a result the collection of scenes seems uneven. The bursts of raucous comic violence clash with drawn-out scenes of genuine tension. Most of the 5 chapters begin slowly with scenes of interesting subtle dialogue and then end with guns blazing.
Even some of the individual scenes seem off balance. I think this is mainly because of the brilliant performance of Christoph Waltz as the chilling and menacing SS “Jew Hunter.” Waltz brings a seriousness and believability to his roll which is sometimes awkward to watch because he is paired with characters that aren't at all serious (especially Brad Pitt and his silly accent). His performance adds a new more complex dimension to the film, but one I think Tarantino isn't ready to handle.
Watching Inglourious Basterds, we laugh and get excited at the scalpings, Aldo poking and digging his finger in a bullet hole, carving swastika's in German soldier's foreheads. We get all riled up for a Tarantino stylish sadistic blood bath (in a sexy Nazi red) because his lack of seriousness allows us to ignore any of the horrible, sad implications of death. But the second I closely connect to a character or in this case see the true Nazi in Hans Landa, the endless corpses take on meaning (Landa's strangling of Bridget Von Hammersmarck played by Diane Kruger is the first brutal hard-to-watch death I've seen in a Tarantino movie). The nasty implications of Inglourious Basterds rear their ugly head. I remember I'm not supposed to laugh and have fun watching a movie about WWII and the Holocaust. And the somber topic is a total buzz kill of my Tarantino Nazisploitation thrill ride.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Point Blank (1967)

By Eric Jessen 8/24/09

Point Blank is a routine revenge film made dazzling and mesmerizing by hip sixties style and French New Wave cutting. We find Lee Marvin, his face pockmarked and battered as usual, dazed and confused, lying in a puddle of dirt on the floor of an Alcatraz prison cell with two bullet holes in his chest. The film is cut and slashed, we jump back to a heist gone wrong. Marvin as “Walker” and his friend Reese (John Verner) steal thousands in cash from a helicopter transporting Mob money to the prison, known as the “Alcatraz drop.” But Reese then betrays “Walker” taking his $93,000 share, making off with his wife (Sharon Acker) and leaving Walker for dead at the prison. The background turns to an Andy Warhol-esque swirl of oranges and reds, a color splurge (like a psychedelic finger painting). The opening credits roll. Then for the rest of the movie we follow “Walker” living out his vengeful fantasy, cutting back and forth, flashing back to the cell, back to the heist, back and back again, over and over. Walker hits San Francisco landmarks, patrols under the highway bridges of Los Angeles, and then at the end drifts into a dark shadowy oblivion back at Alcatraz.
Was it all Walker's last dream? Did Walker die at Alcatraz or did he recover? (At one point Angie Dickinson tells Marvin, “You died at Alcatraz.” ) One of the treasures of Point Blank is that these questions are left unanswered. Walker remains an enigma. He sifts through LA and San Francisco like a ghost. Lee Marvin's stiff cold demeanor and statuesque figure, his leathery skin blend in with the silver coated cities, the straight-cut fashion, satin faded pastel colors, (Dickinson's yellow striped dress) prim models, mini-skirts and leopard-skin sheets.
Walker tracks down Reese, his wife, and the mob men responsible for the “Alcatraz drop,” leaving mounds of corpses behind. But strangely enough, Walker never actually kills anyone. Sure, he roughs up a few body guards but only ever in self defense. He instead acts as a kind of evil spirit causing Reese, his wife, and the mob men to either kill each other or themselves.
Point Blank is an exhilarating if sometimes confusing ride of brute bullish action glossed with smooth, sleek style. But it is also a stifling of emotions (except for the brilliant scene where Dickinson slaps Marvin repeatedly to no avail). In this world of jazzy music and stoned faces, violence is inconsequential and sex is trendy.
A dream or not, Point Blank with Marvin's degenerate steamrolling, Dickinson's sexy fleshiness, John Boorman's New Wave showoffish directing, the pulp novel “The Hunter” turned pulp-action 60's vogue movie is a thrill.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sophie's Choice (1982)

By Eric Jessen 8/22/09

Sophie's Choice is a heart-melting, tear-jerking guilt trip. Layers of intrigue unfold with an exploitive, manipulative touch blurring our memory of gratuitous posturing.
The first layer has a campy artificial glow. We meet Stingo (Peter MacNicol), a sweet southern writer who has moved to a cute old boardinghouse in Brooklyn, and an odd couple, Sophie (Meryl Streep), a Polish immigrant and her lover Nathan (Kevin Kline). They are a match made in cliché threesome heaven. Sophie is beautiful but vulnerable and naïve. Nathan is erratic and abusive but exciting. And Stingo is the perfect third wheel, soft-spoken and thin-skinned, standing idly by watching Sophie and Nathan's destructive relationship, worshiping Sophie while subtly loathing Nathan. Scene after dull, predictable scene our threesome play the same game. Sophie and Stingo begin a conversation. They seem to be connecting. Then suddenly in pops Nathan with his strange but fun-at-heart antics, stealing Sophie's attention. The camera focuses on Stingo as Nathan and Sophie kiss and cuddle. We see him look down at his feet, pouting like a sad puppy. Awkwardness sets in.
These opening scenes are kind of boring and much too clean but I think maybe intentionally so. After 30 minutes we are lulled to a near sleep, already tired of the characters. I was thinking, did Streep really win best actress for this? But little did we know that in Sophie's Choice when you chip away the layer of campy fun (?) underneath you'll find a thicker layer of gut-wrenching melodrama and guilt mongering exploitation.
To our surprise both Nathan and Sophie have “ugly” secrets. We learn Nathan's occasional rant or tirade and dressing-up-in-costumes exuberance can be explained by his paranoid schizophrenia and cocaine addiction. (Only in the movies does a short temper, jealousy and enthusiasm indicate mental disorder and a drug habit). This strange revelation coming near the end was an unnecessary jolt. The cocaine piece was too much. I think mental disease would have been more than enough. And Nathan was already forgotten by this point. Our attention was totally wrapped in Sophie.
Early in the movie we saw that Sophie had a number tattoo indicating she was a prisoner of the Holocaust. And in one of the heart-to-heart talks with Stingo she alluded to problems she had with her father in Poland. (I put the Holocaust stuff in my memory banks expecting it to come up later.) Then midway through the movie Sophie once again sat down with Stingo, the camera closed in on Meryl Streep's face (this is when she won her Oscar) leaving us no wiggle room, no way to ignore Sophie's story. She then unveiled her depressing past, her memories of Auschwitz and her fateful “choice.” We see in flashbacks that Sophie was once married with children in Poland and her father was a Nazi supporter. She and her children were taken to Auschwitz for being Polish. There she was forced by a Nazi guard to choose between her two children, who lives and who dies.
My heart was pounding. My first thought was that Sophie's Choice is a great movie and that Streep's performance is unbelievable (she deserved the Oscar). But I remembered a low, awful feeling while watching. I remembered my boredom from watching the early scenes. And I remembered a specific manipulative lurid cut in the flashbacks. (We see Sophie and her two children on a train heading to Auschwitz. The camera zooms in on the two kids. They are trembling, clinging to their mother. Then cut to smoke shooting out of gas chambers.) I realized that the light-hearted early scenes are a device to lure us in or at least warm us up. Feeling we're on even ground, we welcome Sophie, Stingo and Nathan's problems and stories, unaware we've been made an easy knockout for stomach churning guilt and teary-eyed melodrama.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

By Eric Jessen 8/21/09

Don't be fooled by sharp tongue, sardonic soldier-jive (plucked from Gustav Hasford's novel, The Short-Timers) or the early scenes of Marine Corp S&M. Full Metal Jacket is undoubtedly Stanley Kubrick's least imaginative film and his most disappointing.
The film opens at recruit training camp where heads are shaved to the music of “Hello Vietnam.” In the midst of crotch-grabbing silly chants (“This is my rifle, this is my gun. This is for fighting this is for fun”) the first part of “FMJ” has a macho self-punishment nightmarish vivacity. The skin head “maggots” are spit on and berated by drill Sergeant Hartman, played with a cartoonish over animated temper by Lee Ermey. He shouts obscenities and idealizes the marksmanship of Lee Harvey Oswald while praising the Virgin Mary. Hartman in particular verbally abuses and humiliates the incompetent, overweight Leonard who he names “Gomer Pyle,” played by Vincent D'Onofrio. Hartman's tough love slowly turns Gomer into a gun-groping psychopath which finally leads to a confrontation. D'Onofrio tilts back his eyes, half smirks and drools to best mimic the warped, crazed look.
We jump from the neatly folded white sheets, bunk beds and synchronized jogging of the camp base to an only slightly more chaotic, not at all intimidating Vietnam (Kubrick chose to film in England), which pales in comparison to the frightening jungle in Platoon or Apocalypse Now. Oliver Stone's Vietnam makes Kubrick's look welcoming. We follow “Joker,” (not that he's funny), a correspondent for the “Stars and Stripes” military propaganda paper, played by Matthew Modine. Modine has the sarcastic grin of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, but none of the devious bite or intelligence. The “Joker” is totally uninteresting. But I'm not sure I should blame Modine. Kubrick gives him nothing to do and no time to shine. Actually, all of the characters in the film are no more human or engaging than “HAL” from “2001.”
In the second half of “FMJ” we don't closely follow any characters and there isn't much of a story. It is more a collection of dull vignettes. Kubrick uses steady-cam to death giving us the illusion of a story moving forward. (I'm having trouble remembering what actually happens.) Oh, “Joker” and his photographer Rafterman (Kevyn Howard) fight off the North Vietnamese Army during the Tet Offensive. They go to Phu Bai and fight, usually in the traditional way: moving slowly forward, hiding behind rocks or walls.
When journalists interview the soldiers and ask what they think about the war, they all give strange, stoned faced answers: some talking about trivial things, others sounding racist. I think Kubrick is trying to convey that the soldiers have become indifferent about killing and desensitized. But the setting is non-threatening. We never felt a connection to the characters (maybe the split second before their hair was shaved in the first scene). As a result the message seems arbitrarily supplanted to make the film anti-war trendy.
I think I would let all of this go if in the second half the film retained its sadistic comedy. But that is also left at training camp with Gomer and the drill Sergeant. There are bits of irony like “Joker's” helmet which has a peace symbol pin attached and “Born to Kill” written on the side. But the humor lacks a character center. It's like a Kubrick movie without an actor to give one menacing stare (which Gomer does in the bathroom scene).
The first part of the movie has a dark irony horror show vigor, the unique audacity of Kubrick giving us a jolt and even living up to hype. But the rest falls flat on its face. It is slogging in war movie clichés and by the end I'd nearly forgotten Gomer and the famous soap socking scene.“FMJ” features some of Kubrick at his worst: suffocating actors until he doesn't have any characters. It also in the end fails to live up to our enormous expectations for a Kubrick movie. And although Kubrick is great at damage control - rousing us with a catchy soundtrack, a few beautiful shots, and fun foul mouthed dialogue - Full Metal Jacket is for Kubrick, shockingly banal.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

By Eric Jessen 8/19/09

An Orson Welles film destined for failure, a box-office flop, cut to pieces (maybe rightfully so) and turned into a confounding mess, is no doubt destined for legend.
As the story goes, Orson Welles was once again in way over his head on a project. He was attempting to remake Around the World in Eighty Days adding an ironic twist. Of course he needed money, 50,000 dollars, so he made a deal with Columbia producer Harry Cohn: Cohn would lend him the money if Welles would write, direct and act in a film with Columbia star Rita Hayworth (Welles' wife at the time) for no further fee. When Cohn asked Welles what the film would be about, Welles, standing in a hotel lobby, glanced at the book stand and suggested the film be based on If I Die Before I Wake. Which he had never read.
The film was slapped together in less than a year but as with all Welles films, much time was needed for heavy editing. The result is The Lady from Shanghai: chaotic, perplexing, labyrinthine (Cohn famously offered 1000 dollars to anyone who could explain the plot), featuring bits of brilliance, bad dubbing, overlapping dialogue, strange camera angles, awkward gaps that are an indication of cut footage (all Orson Welles trademarks). It's the Welles mystique verbatim. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Butchered, untidy, confusing, whatever, The Lady from Shanghai is an absolute favorite.
Welles plays an Irish drifter, Michael O'Hara, who encounters the beautiful blonde Elsa Bannister, played surprisingly well by Hayworth. (Welles taunted and infuriated Columbia pictures by forcing Hayworth to cut and bleach her famous long auburn hair.) Michael saves Elsa from three attacking ruffians, so Elsa hires Michael to be her body guard. Elsa is enticing, seductive, seething with passion but also bitter over her marriage with handicapped lawyer Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane). Michael somehow finds himself entangled in conspiracies, winding up the fall guy for a murder. The story spirals out of control into a muddle of who done it? Say what? Then finally coming to the mesmerizing climax in the hall of mirrors. Aurthur Bannister points his gun at Elsa and says “Killing you is killing myself. But, you know, I'm pretty tired of the both of us.”
After watching one of the botched Orson Welles films, I always ask myself, do I really want to see The Lady from Shanghai, or any of the others as Orson truly intended? Do I really want to see the so called “holly grail” of lost film, the original ending to The Magnificent Ambersons? I'll admit, my answer is always an emphatic Yes! But I think the “Ambersons” ending and what Welles truly intended for his other films are better left to the imagination. And there's no doubt in my mind that all the lost footage, crazy horror stories, bombed or unfinished projects have raised Welles' esteem as a director. We watch a Welles film, see bits of brilliance and imagine what could have been, lifting Touch of Evil, “Ambersons,” or Falstaff in our minds to “Kane” level.
The Lady from Shanghai - cut, mangled, thrown together in shambles - is yet another Welles gem.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

By Eric Jessen 8/18/09

Luis Bunuel's films are a guilty pleasure: indifferent sacrilege and whimsical pornography with a lawless depraved charm. Their utter absurdity keep me in limbo, bewildered and confused but oddly enough, laughing. At first I laugh as a nervous reaction to being completely shocked. I feel a sort of detachment, as if Bunuel's message is always one step ahead of me. But slowly a Bunuel film strips me of my conventions for movie watching (the woman looking out a window is not necessarily watching the man in the following shot, they could be completely unrelated). I'm put in a primitive state of dream logic (the Freudian term for no logic). There is no message. It doesn't make sense and it's not supposed to. I chuckle at the ironic or satirical, shake my head (hiding a smile) at the revolting, feeling as though I understand the gag.
A Bunuel film is an attitude - anti-establishment, leftist, blasphemous but mostly carefree - and a collection of remarkable little zany ideas, put together with a shaggy slap-happy fancy. He mocks seriousness and snobbery by undercutting it with perversion and cruelty (the noble priest or proper bourgeoisie are always closet fetishists, treating each other like "An Andalusian Dog"). He scoffs at the thought of mise en scene, throwing together jagged shots, leaving in abnormalities or goofs, and seeming to cast blindfolded (although having two different actors play one part in That Obscure Object of Desire must have been calculated). Of all Bunuel's hedonist, insane masterpieces (Belle de jour, The Exterminating Angel and “Discreet Charm” among my favorites) Un Chien Andalou, the 16 minute short, is undoubtedly the most maddening and the most purely ridiculous.
One afternoon in Paris Luis Bunuel had lunch with Salvatore Dali, one of many friends from the French surrealist cult. Bunuel remarked to Dali that he dreamed that a thin cloud cut the moon in half like a razor blade. Dali responded by describing a dream in which his hand was crawling with ants. It was from there that Dali and Bunuel conceived Un Chien Andalou.
The movie opens with the card “Once upon a time....” We then see a man (Bunuel himself) sharpening a razor blade on a balcony. He looks up and we see a thin cloud approaching a full moon, cut to “wife” (played by Simone Mareuil who later committed self-immolation) being held down by “husband.” The cloud crosses the moon, then we see the razor blade slice “wife's” eye (actually a calf's eye) in half. From then on, to the music of Wagner and a jaunty tango, taunted by ever changing title cards (“About 3 in the Morning,” “17 Years Before,” “In Spring”) we see a man riding a bike down the street in a nun's outfit. We see Dali's dream of an ant-hill hand, then someone run over by a car, then the “wife” being groped by a man drooling blood. We see the “wife” running from the man, then grabbing a tennis racket to defend herself, and the man abruptly stopping to pick up and pull two ropes attached to two ten commandment tablets, two priests (one played by Salvatore Dali), two pianos and two rotting donkey corpses. Later we see a man's mouth replaced by a patch of armpit hair. (I'm giggling just describing the wacky lewdness.)
Call it obscene, disgusting debauchery, but Bunuel's films are a necessary evil. They are the perfect counterbalance to obedient conventional cinema. With his dry humor and weird antics, I adore Bunuel, the wonderful lecher, cheerful and lovable in his eagerness to offend.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Terms of Endearment (1983)

By Eric Jessen 8/17/09

Terms of Endearment is the perfect “spiders stratagem.” It's a well refined lie, a remarkable unprecedented achievement in manipulation. Director James L. Brooks weaves a web of enviable humanity and catches the audience blindsided in a puddle of tears, rubbing their eyes and forced to remark, “I can relate to those characters.” To admit that it is a tearjerker, and worthy of winning best picture, is to acknowledge that it was extremely well executed and has many dupes.
Terms of Endearment pokes and prods at our emotions with calculated precision (Micheal Gore's score assaults our tear ducts relentlessly). It tickles our funny bone with a touch of slapstick: when Shirley MacLaine, as the mid-50's mother, slips and falls while ogling Jack Nicholson, her impressionable neighbor, or when Nicholson's hand gets stuck in MacLaine's bra. It also has quick wit that walks a fine line of biting without leaving teeth marks. But Terms of Endearment mostly relies on humor defined by the characters' persona: MacLaine as Aurora is funny in embarrassment when her childish mom-paranoia and dilapidated overly proper libido are exposed. Nicholson plays Garret Breedlove with non-threatening drunkenness and potbelly charm. Debra Winger, as Aurora's daughter Emma, is endearing with her dorky crackle-laugh and a baby producing machine earthiness. The actors, including Jeff Daniels as Emma's innocent, simple-minded husband, and John Lithgow as a understanding adulterer, all rise above the film's pink gloss. Their wonderful performances make the film watchable for anyone, including non-dupes.
But back to the issue at hand. Terms of Endearment masks itself as honorable, honest, genuine benevolent empathy. It pretends to show “real” people in their true form, encountering love and sadness unexpectedly through life's spontaneity. But the film mistakes the natural unpredictable movement of life for over-eager shabby jumping. It starts with Emma's birth, then leaps to marriage, then to disease, then to death. And the characters, though lovable, reflect an ideal, made for TV bunch. They have only virtues and adorable good hearted faults. We'd all like to believe that our worst quality is that we care too much, or that we're too protective of our children.
James L. Brooks panders to the audience by depicting characters that, no matter what, are innocent, living in the world that's sometimes inexplicably harsh. Nicholson as Breedlove drinks but only enough to bang his head once and act funny. Aurora is stern but not enough to turn any men away. And then all of a sudden there's Emma's cancer. It comes so abruptly and in such an uninspired way, as if to say “Gotcha! See how unpredictable life can be?” I guess I'm supposed to think, “Wow, I hope I'm not taking my loved ones for granted.” But instead I'm thinking, is this all they could think of? It's true, cancer does unexpectedly kill in real life. But in Terms of Endearment James L. Brooks' use of that fact is grotesquely exploitive. He intends to start the waterworks and have word get around, sending flocks of semi-masochistic, stressed women in need of a cry, to the theater.
And yet I'll admit, Terms of Endearment is an effective trick, tolerable for a non-dupe because of its great performances. I'm proud to say I sat through the ending and never shed a tear. Maybe I have a heart that's cold as ice, or perhaps I saw through Terms of Endearment's web of masterful manipulation.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Diner (1982)

By Eric Jessen 8/15/09

Diner is a lukewarm, humdrum “Happy Days” retread of 1950's nostalgia (a twinkle in the eye, tilted head smile and a depressing sigh included) with cute little bits of the obligatory coffee talk - sports and music, “Sinatra or Mathis?” over a burger and fries and your hot date over apple pie - generic (the eventual sitcom pilot quality) plot devices and reminiscing good old fashioned wholesome guy love.
Diner is set in 1959 Baltimore, where five high school buddies, now in their early twenties, still meet at their favorite diner, sit at their favorite table and eat their favorite dish to forget women, money and adulthood. They bicker and finish each other's thoughts like old married couples, talking about music, movies, and the Colts, recalling the prom and past girlfriends. They cling to their boyishness and boo-hoo their evolving relationships. All five have “growing pains.” Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is on the verge of marriage but getting cold feet. “Shrevie” (Daniel Stern) is already in the sexless arguing stage of marriage, fighting about how to organize his record collection with his wife (Ellen Barkin). “Boogie,” played with a suave desperation by Mickey Rourke is a hair dresser by day, law student by night and knee-deep in gambling debts. Fenwick, played with inebriated tears of despair by Kevin Bacon, is a whiny failure who “rejected the family business” and is now living on his parents allowance. And Billy, played with muted deadpan personality by Timothy Daly, has impregnated a girl he loves but who doesn't love him.
But as the boys say, “At least we have the diner.” It's their safe haven from the frightening outside world (though we see it as basically harmless), and their uncertain futures. They cherish relaxed guy love at the diner and fear conversations with their wives. They cherish Sweet Smell of Success and fear The Seventh Seal.
Barry Levinson in his directing debut immediately regresses to childhood memory-schmaltz, drifting into his adolescence of growing up in Baltimore, playing sophomoric pranks and watching game shows on a black and white TV. Although Levinson captures the sadness of fading teenage innocence - becoming an adult and feeling uncomfortable and inept cruising for girls or married and bored - behind an uninspired story, lacking snap, crackle or pop, the genuinely amusing dialogue falls flat in the lurking mist of homesick melancholy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nixon (1995)

By Eric Jessen 8/14/09

Nixon is a captivating epic muddle of conspiracy theories and the “beast,” a huge biopic of Nixon and the victims of his presidential scandals, battered faces and tortured souls played by an extraordinary cast. Nixon is also a distinctly personal tragedy, a mix of Macbeth and Kane playing out in Oliver's universe, “Citizen Stone.”
Stone's is a complex, frightening movie world, a treacherous “beast” with wars fought in wild, angry jungles (remember Oliver Stone's Platoon), TV News and Animal Planet porn destroying innocent teenage minds (remember Natural Born Killers), a ferociously competitive financial market (remember Wall Street and Michael Douglas saying “greed is good”) and a corrupt political system of communists and assassinations (remember JFK and the magic bullet). “Citizen Stone” is Oliver's paranoid delusional nightmare. He tickles our fancy for borderline absurd conspiracy theories, dazzling, awesomely thrilling while also vindictive and menacing, deeply personal, begrudging, stubborn, and desperate to be controversial. It's uniquely Oliver. With Nixon he's found a perfect playmate, the ideal antihero, awkward loser. Oliver's Nixon played by Anthony Hopkins is a strange complicated mess of emotions and Freudian psycho-drama: his blessed mother, father's “woodshed,” and two brothers' deaths lurk over his shoulders. They share a “me against the world,” spit in the face of the east coast elite mentality, a bitterness and hatred for the establishment.
In Nixon Oliver Stone also invokes basic Shakespearian tragedy and Wellesian Kane. This Nixon has a tragic flaw and a “rosebud,” smoking gun, hidden secret. The film is set during the last few months of Nixon's presidency as he drinks, pops pain pills and completely unravels. Hunched over in the Lincoln room, Nixon listens to the infamous Watergate tapes and remembers his life.
We watch, through flashbacks, Nixon's rough childhood, his rocky political life of embarrassments and a building jealous hatred for JFK and the Kennedys. Oliver Stone paints Nixon as a man in constant struggle, a victim of the “beast,” the political environment, his childhood, the pressure to succeed, but also a victim of his own insecurity. He was ugly, poor, awkward, and desperate to be loved, drawing more and more inward as he was rejected, never letting himself be vulnerable. So he became a tireless worker, a bull of a fighter, battling his way to the top. But as the public rejected him he became more and more bitter which only fueled his crotchety, corrupt villain persona. He realizes his self fulfilling prophecy: “Others may hate you. But those who hate you don't win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.” Nixon despised JFK because he saw in him everything he wanted to be: rich, attractive, personable and loved. He says in front of JFK's portrait in the White House, “When they look at you they see what they want to be. When they look at me they see what they are.”
Oliver Stone portrays Nixon as a complicated human being instead of a caricature. He also captures the mystery in Nixon. In the “Citizen Stone” world, Nixon is also a fascinating, Kane-esque enigma, always seeming to be holding back a deep dark “something.” He's a black hole of emotions but a treasure chest of juicy secrets. Maybe the 18 ½ minutes of missing tape hold the answers.
Nixon is as much about Oliver Stone as anything but he surely doesn't deserve all the credit. Though he doesn't look or sound like Nixon, Anthony Hopkins does a fantastic job of depicting Nixon's internal pain and suffering, his tension but also his enormous presence. Nixon also includes a marvelous supporting cast. Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, James Woods and J. T. Walsh as Halderman and Ehrlichman, Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger, Bob Hoskins as J. Edgar Hoover, and Powers Boothe as Alexander Haig are all spectacular. And Robert Richardson's photography is beautiful.
Nixon is now a fascinating, tragic enigma, a tortured soul in my mind and never again merely a crotchety, corrupt villain.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Detective Story (1951)

By Eric Jessen 8/12/09

“Never mind a doctor, get a priest.” Detective Story has a foul, rotten milk, stewing in the fridge, chunky and yellow, grimy aroma: first setting me back in my chair, cringing, then only tingling my nostrils. Its squalid B-Movie cop melodrama reeks of a rank stale cheese passion: everyone has a rap-sheet, there are criminals, tramps, and officers bemoaning the “crummy system.” The sizzling misanthropic stench and gamy taste simmers and spoils but eventually becomes interesting tart.
The movie has a scrapping, clawing, tearing up dirt method, searching desperately for significance and barely breaking the surface, but making for an exorbitant romp.
Detective Jim McLeod's (Kirk Douglas) demons are drudged up during the course of one raucous day at the precinct. McLeod is a bloated stiff, his belt tightened to puff up his chest (a perfect Douglas role). He fancies himself a one man street sweeper, ridding the big NYC of crooks, sticking to his principles, never letting anyone off the hook. He huffs and puffs, steam shoots out of his ears, he stomps around, pounds his fists on his desk at work and then heads home to his “immaculate wife” who is blonde, thin, gorgeous, and saintly (Eleanor Parker).
But underneath McLeod has untold fears. And when he discovers that his untouchable wife has a shady past that includes premarital sex and abortion, his craggy exterior begins to crack and clichés burst out of his seams, cluttering up the Styrofoam, cardboard, blatantly fake set. William Wyler ramps up the ridiculous and Douglas leads gaudy, but absorbing tangy cheese acting. We learn McLeod had one bad case, “when he was just a rookie.” His father was a “hardass.” His tough bravado is only for show, to hide his inner torment. McLeod pulls his hair out, envisioning his wife with another man, threatening to kill himself and saying with a creepy seriousness, “I'd give my soul to take out my brain, hold it under the faucet and wash away the dirty pictures.”
As much as Detective Story stinks it has zesty bellowing exuberance. And within the cloud of odor, Douglas' relentless yelling and the look and feel of overwrought cheapness, I think director William Wyler stumbled upon the patch job of an actual character. McLeod dreads a murky world and lack of control so he neatly packs everything into black and white, good and evil terms but as the movie warns, he is only “digging his own grave” of disappointment.
So I admire, or at least value Detective Story. It doesn't pack things together nicely, it scrapes together flames of overripe passion, lets emotions run wild and the result is an exhilarating, if sometimes disagreeable or laughable, experience.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Blue Angel (1930)

By Eric Jessen 8/11/09

The Blue Angel is combination of silent expressionism - stacked pointy houses (reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), dim street corners, every frame suffocated by darkness grasping for light, featuring Emil Jannings (of F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh and Faust's fame) - and a Josef Von Sternberg, Marlene Dietrich (of Shanghai Express and The Scarlet Empress) sensuous, sultry, libidinous talkie. One star emerged and the other had his final hurrah. Emil Jannings got top billing, the silent German film star famous for an overacting lively visage, brooding, mournful as the sad sack in The Last Laugh. But Marlene Dietrich with just one sarcastic, baiting glance, strutting around in her panties singing “Falling in Love Again” stole the show.
Jannings plays Emmanuel Rath, a craggy college professor: sour, abrupt and authoritative. He cracks the whip on his rowdy students with a sadomasochists' delight. When he learns from his teacher's pet that his students spend their nights enjoying a peep show at The Blue Angel, he charges down to the Vaudevillian club to confront them. Rath wades through a nylon sheath and a fog of smoke to arise in the dressing room where he meets Lola Lola (Marlene Dietrich). Her casual fleshiness and smoldering voice scream raunchy depraved sex (without love or commitment). She prances around the room, toys with the professor, showing a leg, pouting then bubbling (like Louise Brooks in Pandora's Box) with a mocking callous but playful tone. She effortlessly breaks his rough exterior and he immediately becomes her lap dog. Rath and Lola Lola get married, which seems somewhat implausible although at a few moments Lola shows signs of compassion for Rath. He reluctantly starts traveling with the bawdy show and eventually is peddling lewd pictures of his wife and getting dressed in full clown costume having eggs cracked over his head. Rath mopes and stays silent as he watches his wife sexually taunt and humiliate him, absorbing sorrow and pain, forever trapped under the Dietrich spell (reminding me of the torturous ending to “Caligari”).
In The Blue Angel I witnessed the perfect combination of two remarkable landmarks. Marlene Dietrich burst onto the screen as tempting and marvelous as ever and her salacious voice (in an English or German version) for the first time tantalized the ear. She and Josef Von Sternberg were beginning to master their craft. And at the same time I was pleased to see Emil Jannings make one last expressive silent sad face.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

By Eric Jessen 8/10/09

As a result of my movie temperament being warped by the current slam bang brand of cinema, at least two boobs and a punch in the face per 30 minutes (I'm still recovering from Natural Born Killers), my first impression of Young Mr. Lincoln and most John Ford movies is that they are dragging blah. Young Mr. Lincoln's astute patience and even delivery plays flat and artless. The overly folksy “Lincoln” is commercial Americana, like bland campaign propaganda: Henry Fonda in full make-up, suit and top hat chops wood, eats pie, plays a Jew's Harp and tells stories of cattle and “the cabin” to overall-wearing, straw-chewing midwesterners. But with multiple viewings or careful consideration a John Ford film slowly penetrates the psyche (I found myself fervidly arguing that Abe Lincoln is the greatest U. S. President in history), splitting my depraved sensibilities with its saintly, calm naturalism. Its depth becomes apparent.
Although Henry Fonda (not a favorite actor of mine) once again tilts his head and looks to the skies with a pious self-assurance like a deity, never engaging the audience, in this case he's perfect as legendary hero President Lincoln. At the same time his overpowering goodness and morality are thankfully not shoved in our face to the point of being nauseating. Fonda as Lincoln has a blind confidence and sense of reason. His witty remarks and down home chats are refreshing, making him a ideal trustworthy politician.
The skill in Ford's direction and Fonda's acting is in creating a noble but nuanced figure. Watch closely Lincoln's awkwardness around women and Illinois bourgeoisie. At heart he is just a bashful country boy with a bumpkin attitude masking a religious mentality and inherent wisdom, speaking the honest truth with the utmost clarity (at one point to soften an angry mob). Watch closely for the appearance of fear and indecision when he is alone with his thoughts by the river. He seems distressed as if he is shouldering a great burden. In the final scene when a lovable drunkard asks him “ain't you comin' Abe?” Lincoln replies, “No, I think I'll go on to the top of that hill,” (not as cheesy as it sounds).
Young Mr. Lincoln may often seem overly simplistic in portraying democracy and mid 1800's America. At times it may seem boring. But even if you've been forever jaded by the sexploitive, bloody macho porn of CGI infested, washed out 3D and IMAX modern cinema, take some time to think, watch “Lincoln” again, watch The Searchers, My Darling Clementine and all of John Fords films again, because they're subtle, enduring and sublime.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Major Dundee (1965)

By Eric Jessen 8/8/09

Major Dundee is a fascinating cluttered disaster of drunken Sam Peckinpah. Columbia Pictures and Charlton Heston loved Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah's first film, and decided to lump a sizable budget, a Harry Fink script, and a feeling of flexibility on the shoulders of the tormented genius. The boozing, coarse director ventured south to a remote dusty Mexican hole, threw the original script in the trash and began shooting, shifting the movie's focus to a morose character study of Major Dundee (Charlton Heston). But as the spending skyrocketed and rumblings of Peckinpah infuriating, torturing the cast, and being too wasted to direct emerged, Columbia cut funding in half. The production rushed to an awkward finish. The released studio version got negative reviews and flopped at the box office. But in a cloud of studio cuts and production turbulence, Major Dundee is still full of bits of classic Peckinpah and is an interesting representation of the director's career.
The movie begins at the sight of a massacre of Union soldiers, women and children by Apache Indians. Major Dundee, the goat of the Union's loss at the Battle of Gettysburg, exiled to the Mexican border, decides to put together a troupe of soldiers and confederate prisoners, including his former best friend and rival, Captain Tyreen (Richard Harris) to hunt down the Indians.
The early passages of the movie run smoothly but painstakingly slow, progressing like an epic (I've read Peckinpah's original cut was over 4 hours long). Dundee and Tyreen pussyfoot around, conversing intently, their lines crawling from their mouths then floating above their heads clearly indicating “to be referenced later,” before they decide to “ride together.” The first few scenes are boring and bloated, the soldiers singing rah-rah songs, but hint at a meaningful payoff (like the overly happy scenes in The Big Heat).
Dundee, Tyreen and company head down to the expansive Mexican wilderness (photographed very well by Sam Leavitt) setting up patented Peckinpah themes: the macho brotherhood of battered men and their “sacred word.”
Dundee is at first trimmed (Heston's chin lathered in aftershave) and confident, seeking glory, but suppressing the feeling of impotency and heading into a dangerous jungle. Dundee seems to be shaping into a compelling character. Charlton Heston's bullheaded machismo and Richard Harris' effeminate British demeanor make for an interesting love affair. And I also found it intriguing that the American soldiers, armed with guns and cannons would struggle to defeat the Indians' bows, arrows and intimate knowledge of the terrain.
But as the film entered its second hour it became increasingly choppy and uncomfortable to watch. Lines from Heston, Harris and the supporting cast fall on dead air (like I'm missing key information, a scene or two, lost in a cut maybe). The action scenes are jerky (definitely not Peckinpah). And worst of all there are 20 to 30 minutes of a hapless love interest. Dundee meets a woman in Mexico, Teresa, played by Senta Berger. She is dull and mundane. Her scenes are painful to watch. I don't think you can call what Berger does acting. She just exists with no personality and big breasts.
With Sam Peckinpah plastered, well off the wagon, working for an apprehensive studio, Major Dundee was destined for failure. Peckinpah would just have to wait to make his drunken masterpiece.

Friday, August 7, 2009

I Heart Huckabees (2004)

By Eric Jessen 8/609

I Heart Huckabees is bawdy slapstick and unrelenting farce mixed with entry level existentialism. It's full of wacky, hilarious little bits like when Lily Tomlin asks Jason Schwartzman, “Have you ever transcended time and space?” and he responds “Yes. No. Time not space. No I don't know what your talking about.” I Heart Huckabees throws philosophical gibberish about “the big everything” and “everything is the same even if it's different” against the wall hoping they stick but fortunately never taking any of it seriously. It's like watching the Three Stooges or the Marx brothers babble Nietzsche. The balloon to the face, muddy sex, stupefying comedy made me laugh and chuckle but left me mostly bewildered (sometimes I scrunched my lip and brow in a “whatchu talkin' bout Willis” facial expression).
The story progresses like a mad sprint, hard to follow, full of holes, leaving the details and the ideas in the dust ending with a celebratory “I don't get it” and all the pretty couples united. Describing it will take a first class effort on my part.
Okay.....there's this guy, Albert (Jason Schwartzman), who is an environmentalist, or at least he talks a lot about saving a marsh and he once planted a tree in the middle of a parking lot. He's also a poet and a sentimental fool writing about his favorite rock with the timeless line “you rock. Rock.” He is confused, very confused and semi-seriously frustrated. So he goes to see the “Existential Detectives” because......he's depressed, confused, frustrated? No. Because he wonders about these coincidences in his life, that involve a tall African doorman and a Jessica Lange photograph and he wants to know what it all means.
Detectives Bernard (Dustin Hoffman) and Vivian (Lily Tomlin) are hired, pro bono, to do a full scale, 24-hour study of Albert's “crisis”. They do complete surveillance (“even in the bathroom”) and wiretapping. They follow him around, hide conspicuously in bushes or outside windows, peeking at Albert, taking notes, looking silly. The ultimate reward, so they say, is deep, trippy total self awareness where “everything you could ever want or be you have and are,” and things magically come apart in little 2D squares, relieving you of stress and the feeling of responsibility. And I guess then, for Albert, happiness.
As the investigation begins Albert starts to unravel, tearing apart the world and his arch nemesis Brad Stand (Jude Law) with a machete while in his happy place. Bernard and Vivian decide to introduce Albert to his existential support group buddy, Tommy (played very well by Mark Wahlberg), so they'll both have a breakthrough. Tommy is struggling with the temptation of the dark side, nihilism, where everything is nothing, and nothing matters. The rest of the movie is a strange journey of weird humor and a shouting match between nihilism and existentialism in an effort to get Albert to reach “who cares” bliss.
I Heart Huckabees has philosophical ramblings with little depth and base level humor but a wonderful air of whimsy. When I think of I Heart Huckabees I have a brain freeze. There's an infinite void of confusion, and all I can remember from watching were my many laughs.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Natural Born Killers (1994)

By Eric Jessen 8/5/09

Natural Born Killers is a religious experience for psychopaths and an angry rant against the TV generation. It's a twisted sitcom, a demented Robert Crumb cartoon, a pulp novel, a trashy newspaper and an acid trip. Oliver Stone's direction - hand held restless, gyrating camera, jumping quick cuts, black and white and color, tilted weird angles, fish-eye distorted curvy lenses, hip music, a river of blood, guns blazing, - is like a Quentin Tarantino movie on crack (I wasn't surprised to learn Tarantino wrote the story but not the script). It's every horrifying, gut wrenching, sex and violence exploitation scene stylized and put to Dr. Dre's smoothest beats and the banging of Nine Inch Nails. It's an unbelievable experience. It's a relentless assault on the eyes, like a thousand punches to the face, enough titillating elements to make you want to hurl. I felt myself sinking, lower and lower, feeling more and more empty as my senses were endlessly rampaged. It's a truly unnerving, dehumanizing feeling.
In Natural Born Killers Oliver Stone satirizes our world of the OJ Simpson trial and Ted Bundy. He pronounces every warped TV junkie child of Generation X a demon born for destruction, sick and deranged from watching Discovery Channel animal humping, ratings obsessed news, wars, and Kung Fu, westerns, and action movies (especially the ending of The Wild Bunch). Everyone is a killer or a corpse, crying inside, popping “E” and smoking weed, high on slam bang TV, blurting music lyrics, sitcom platitudes and reciting movie lines. Charles Manson is our “king.” It's a horrible scary wild hell.
Natural Born Killers is a million crazy things thrown into one. But at its heart it's a 1990's, shot gun wielding, frenzied, insane, perverted Bonnie and Clyde. We follow Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Marley Knox (Juliette Lewis) as they go on a killing spree across rural America, devastating diners, grocery stores and gas stations, having sex in motels and their truck. They murder everyone in sight but always leave one person alive to tell their tale, making them a big hit, on the cover of Time, a favorite among rebellious teens.
Their journey of love, death and TV is strange and fascinating. The imagery is as mesmerizing as disorienting and haunting. Oliver Stone ventures into the depths of total mid 90's, self awareness. But in the end I was left with many questions and little to think about. Oliver Stone extensively ponders the TV zombie's mind and the result is tired hypothesis. The Knox duo carve their demonic, grim reaper, Javier Bardem from No Country for Old Men, place in the world mimicking TV slaughters because......... Marley was molested by her father (Rodney Dangerfield), Mickey's father committed suicide, “killing is pure” and no one is innocent, they're too jaded to care. The world is “hell” because........everyone has seen too many boobs, sex, blood, and sodomy on TV, not to mention, the media only cares about ratings.
Natural Born Killers is a unique masterpiece of style, unforgettable and impossible to ignore. But it contemplates and generalizes, searching the mind and finding clichés and emptiness.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Small Back Room (1949)

By Eric Jessen 8/5/09

The Small Back Room is a drunken dream and a sober nightmare. It's an awkward messy treasure, a strange excursion by dynamic Technicolor duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (of A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes fame) into dark cramped character study with alcoholism and the bomb, sometimes seeming to lack film noir sense but always interesting and captivating.
This movie is a tale of two distinct ironically juxtaposed halves. The first is a confusing frustrating jumbled hallucination full of inexplicable experimental Wellesian camera angles: into a mirror, under a table, threw the legs, behind the back. Our hero, Sammy (David Farrar), a weaponry scientist for the British military working with the “back room gang,” is at this point on the wagon, but his life is spinning out of control. He's an unstable wreck, crippled by a broken foot and self-pity, without “guts” or nerve, brooding over his life. He's pathetic. Afraid to be left alone and afraid to take chances, he relies on his lover and secretary Susan (Kathleen Byron) to keep him sober. In one scene he pleads, “Tell me I can have a drink.” In another, Sammy sits alone, waiting for Susan next to his lone bottle of whiskey, sweating, rubbing his face, tugging his collar as the tick tock of the clock gets louder and louder. His bottle of pain pills crashes to the floor. Suddenly he's hunched over under the peaked ceiling, the camera tilted accentuating deep shadows (reminding me of The Night of the Hunter), then surrounded by hundreds of tiny clocks, and a gigantic bottle of whiskey.
Sammy and Susan frequent a jazzy bar where Sammy often gives puzzling unexpected monologues, rambling and muttering odd babble. He tells Susan, “You've got it all worked out in the way women always have. They don't worry about anything except being alive or dead. Being dead to them means beginning to smell. Yes, you take it and make what you want of it.” Sammy sober sounds like an incoherent lush.
Susan finally gets fed up and leaves Sammy. Distressed and alone, Sammy goes on a drinking binge and trashes his apartment. The next morning he gets a call from the military telling him they need him to disarm a bomb. Sammy douses his face and gets a second wind. His buzz gives him a steady hand and confidence. He disarms the bomb, takes a promotion that gives him power and responsibility. Then Susan comes running back to him.
On the wagon Sammy and the movie is confused, boorish and fidgety (though still interesting) and off the wagon everything is peachy. Sammy is strong and in control. The movie runs smooth and steady. At the end Susan says, “Sammy, have a drink.”

Prizzi's Honor (1985)

By Eric Jessen 8/4/09

Prizzi's Honor is a warm, funny Mafia contractor's lullaby and a smooth, creamy portrait, washed in watercolor, with hits and kidnappings, and a switchblade or silenced pistol under our pillow never reaching a fever pitch but instead lulling us into sweet dreams. Prizzi's Honor is a nice tune, a pretty picture, a farcical satire, but above all a wonderful love story.
Our two love birds are Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna, the regular guy turned Brooklyn mob boss who takes names so he can mail every busboy and photographer he encounters a ten dollar bill, and Kathleen Turner as Irene Walker, the femme fatale assassin. They first spot each other at a wedding which was scheduled as Mafia alibi for a murder. Charley and Irene share a dance and then Irene suddenly vanishes. Charley finds her in Los Angeles, tells her “I love you,” looking just dumb enough to mean it, and then sleeps with her. They seem a match made in heaven. Eventually they get married and decide to work together in Charley's new assignment: kidnapping a swindling bank executive.
The abduction is a hilarious and skillfully crafted. Irene, hidden behind a corner, looking suave holding her magnum gently against a plastic baby, throws the doll in the air, expecting the bank executive to lunge for it, instead it falls to the floor. An innocent woman unexpectedly arrives on an elevator. Irene promptly shoots her between the eyes with cold blooded efficiency as Charlie knocks out the target. Irene and Charley, dragging the unconscious man, feel closer then ever.
Later Irene and Charley find out the innocent bystander was a police commissioner's wife. The police decide as a point of moral principal to quit taking kick backs, bribes, and quit turning a blind eye to illegal betting, pimps and prostitutes until the Mafia give up the shooter. Charley and Irene are filled with paranoia, greed, and a killer's mentality but they always stay connected.
Jack Nicholson is great as Charley Partanna (though I found his mob goon impression, scrunched face, puckered lip “uh” talking annoying). Kathleen Turner is absolutely fantastic. She is the first actress, or co-star to truly match Nicholson's screen hogging. In fact at times she is a more intriguing, dominant presence. They are spectacular together. Charley seems gullible, but also an efficient, level headed criminal and Irene has a scheming smile, lying eyes but appearing desperate enough to leave Charley (and the audience) always uncertain.
Prizzi's Honor is a movie with a great attention to detail. John Huston is the ultimate professional for the job, showing little signs of age. His direction has calm patience, never descending into cheap gangster movie clichés, keeping a consistent lush, alluring vein. It progresses swaying with whimsy, quiet, but with a charming black comic sarcasm in portraying the mafia (watch for the anti Brando “Don” played by William Hickey, old and confused). And most of all Prizzi's Honor is the perfect assassin's love story, ending as it should (minus the final minute) with the two killers staring tenderly into each others eyes as they hurl their final collective bullets and daggers.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Radio Days (1987)

By Eric Jessen 8/3/09

Oh the sadness of fading memories. I wish we could return to the good old days when we laughed and played and danced together to our favorite radio programs, when rainy days, glowing snow, and dirty rooftops surrounded by neon lights were beautiful, when we were all truly happy. Music plays in our head as we remember our wondrous childhood when we cheered substitute teachers, peeped on sexy middle aged neighbors, scampered around town with our friends and ran from our belt, pot and pan wielding parents. And all the memories, the songs, the laughs, the characters, wacky or somber mesh with clarity and weave together in our minds at a New Years Eve party: the day that we realize time flies, our lives will change, nostalgia begins and the memories from the previous year start to slowly deteriorate. Oh how sad. But should we really shed any tears reminiscing over such forgettable, bland stories (above) shown in Woody Allen's Radio Days?
By 1987 Woody Allen had reached the point of arrogance and confidence as a result of fans and critics telling him he was “brilliant” that he felt the need to enlighten everyone on the remarkable adolescence that made the “genius,” like Federico Fellini before him. The only difference is that Fellini's ode to his childhood, Amarcord (1973) included flickering, radiant color and Nina Rota music to back interesting stories. Fellini painted a weird, unique portrait of the freak show, Mussolini-filled circus that made the strange artist. Allen creates a sparkling romantic vision and a memorable soundtrack glazing over banal vignettes.
Allen wrangled in a star studded talented cast of his favorite actors but unfortunately gave none of them captivating parts to play. Seth Green plays Allen's kid persona. Julie Kavner and Micheal Tucker play the New York city Jewish parents predictably whiny and arguing. Dianne Wiest plays an aunt looking for love and stumbling upon a married man, a coward and a closet homosexual. And Mia Farrow plays up and coming actress Sally White naive, dumb founded annoying with a piercing high pitched shrill voice. There are also cameo appearances by Dianne Keaton as a New Year's singer, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels as Biff Baxter and Wallace Shawn as the Masked Avenger.
Radio Days has one or two genuinely funny anecdotes (the baseball pitcher with bad aim, an itchy trigger finger but with plenty of heart). Woody Allen has a good understanding of the hue and mood of the Amarcord style nostalgia. He also shows a sincere love for his past avoiding the temptation to set scores and point fingers. But despite Allen's skill and intelligence to make the definitive statement of a love for himself work, he just doesn't have enough intriguing or humorous stories. I could cry like a baby at the idea of fading memories in Radio days but the USO show, kissing his crush, drooling over the new hot teacher, the neighbor that has a nervous breakdown and the New Years party..... are all coming of age, Hollywood cliché and not worth my tears.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)

By Eric Jessen 7/31/09

Robert Mitchum seems as if he's carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders at all times: towering, intimidating, yet his drooping eyes cowering, repressing his innermost thoughts, letting out only baritone mumbles, the nuances of his face revealing exhaustion, weariness, and vulnerability. In the Friends of Eddie Coyle, Mitchum is given the perfect character in the perfect setting. Eddie Coyle is Robert Mitchum. Early 1970's Boston is Eddie Coyle, which is Robert Mitchum. They are dissipated voids, latching on to tired conventions, appearing calm, safe and under control, but masking utter confusion.
Robert Mitchum as Eddie Coyle saunters and smirks, puckers his lips, rolls his eyes, sits alone always seeming to loathe company. When joined, he speaks only when spoken to, replying with short vague answers, either out of breath or unsure of what to say, sometimes responding swiftly as if he's trying to end the conversation as fast as possible, sometimes waiting and waiting as if the conversation comes second to his thoughts. He never shows the want, only the bitter need, always acting like he was forced to talk, or work, or live. Eddie Coyle is a simple hoodlum, past his prime, decaying, ready to hang it up, ready to deal. After a lifetime of small, petty thefts, working up to escape (to Florida), he sinks and sinks into insignificance. Caught in a trial, facing a few years in prison, Coyle struggles with the idea of ratting on his friends to save his hide. He's an old school gentleman's crook, attached to Boston, relying on friends, lost among drugs, feds, machine guns in a world where everyone is guilty and everyone rats.
Eddie is broken and battered, peddling dozens of stolen guns, walking over, sitting down and looking a federal agent in the eye, his way of begging to bargain out of trouble. At first he tries to be clever, only giving the agent information that he knows is useless (informing him of a robbery that is minutes from occurring), but by the end when he is most desperate Coyle is forced to break his only rule, to never give up friends.
Eddie is a stranger in a new world of crime. Mitchum is an actor, born and bred in an era of westerns, hunks, and film noir, now an oddity, washed-up, old cheese, among hippies and new wave, fast pace film making. Although forever under-appreciated, he is the heart and soul of all his movies: fascinating, merciful, with extraordinary depth. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, is tempered, cool, smooth, methodical, not exciting but extremely engrossing simply because of Robert Mitchum. I could watch The Friends of Eddie Coyle hundreds of times, over and over again just to study Mitchum. He has the most interesting face I've seen in the movies.
Robert Mitchum is perfectly placed in an early 70's Boston fall: a distressed city, a hot spot for racism and prejudice, yet blooming, colorful leaves, a beautiful backdrop, people letting out pent up anger and tension at Bruins games.
Eddie Coyle, Robert Mitchum move through the Boston streets, the wind blowing in their face, with a nonchalance, hurt, slowly dying, fading, but in a confident comfortable unison.