Thursday, April 30, 2015

No Country Music

Speaking of very dark comedies that win Academy awards, we just watched the Cohen brothers' No Country for Old Men (2007). OK, maybe comedy is stretching it.

It is set in West Texas. It's three main stars never really meet:
  • Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, a philosophical lawman
  • Josh Brolin, just a guy named Llewelyn
  • Javier Bardem, a relentless killer with no conscience and a really bad haircut
Brolin is out hunting while Tommy Lee Jones does a voice over, when he comes across the scene of a massacre, a drug deal gone bad. He makes off with a large bundle of cash, knowing that the gang will come after him. Meanwhile, Bardem is stone-cold killing people, and we have to assume he's the one who is coming after Brolin. And Jones, well, he is on the trail, but he's getting kind of old for this - close to retirement in fact.

Bardem's killer, who goes by the awesome and Cohenesque Anton Chirurgh, is pretty creepy - the embodiment of random death. But I have to say, he reminds me a lot of Vincent D'Onofrio's killer in The Cell - similar haircut, desert hideout, etc. But D'Onofrio's character is way creepier. Maybe not as nihilistic, though, and I guess that's the point.

For some reason, I was expecting a special film score, and I guess I got one - there's very little music, mostly just the natural sounds of the empty landscape. Not counting the mariachi band in the Mexico scene. I would have gone with some Ry Cooder, or maybe a Neil Young score like in Dead Man. But I would have been wrong.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

American is Paris in the 80s

American Dreamer (1984) is a funny thing - a screwball comedy out of its time, and an 80s movie firmly within it.

It stars Jobeth Williams as an ordinary housewife with an obnoxious husband and two precocious sons. She has one romantic ambition - to win a trip to Paris by writing a pastiche of her favorite dashing international spy hero, Rebecca Ryan.

She wins the trip and heads off alone when her husband forbids her to go. The scenes of her life at home with this conformist, controlling jerk are so oppressive that I could only keep watching because I knew she would be flying free soon. Once in Paris, she loses her purse and then her memory, and wakes up believing that she is Rebecca Ryan.

I guess this is a well-known plot device - for instance, see Highly Dangerous. It's not quite the normal-person-who-thinks-it's-all-a-game plot, like The Man Who Knew Too Little, but it's close. Because she thinks she's a great spy, Williams manages to always foil the plans of the real bad guys. She does this very well, being almost good enough to be believable, but bad enough to be ridiculous. For example, Rebecca Ryan is supposed to know 5 languages - the housewife Williams listened to language tapes, but the one or two phrases she does know turn out to be exactly the codewords that will turn the plot upside down. In another scene (actually, the same scene), she tries to drink a group of Russians under the table. Although she's soon smashed as hell, she thinks she's completely sober, and manages to play that just right - she's either a great unheralded physical comedian or Rick Rosenthal is a great comedy director.

One of the first thing she does in Paris is march into the hotel room that Rebecca Ryan famously lives in, to meet up with Tom Conti, who is the son of the author of the Ryan series. It's a perfectly written screwball scene, with Conti thinking she is the new secretary and Williams thinking he is her sidekick Dmitri. She begins by rifling through some papers on the desk.

Williams: What is this? (like, what are they doing on my desk?)
Conti: Just some papers to be filed. (for you to file)
Williams: No letters? (letters for me?)
Conti: No, just filing. (I don't need you to take dictation)

Two people having two different conversations using the same words.

By the way, I've always liked Tom Conti, although I don't think I've seen him in much (Reuben, Reuben is the only one I can think of). Here, he is kind of a Dustin Hoffman type - more charming than handsome, self-possessed, confident and totally thrown by the crazy lady he meets, as a screwball guy should be.

I think I've established that this is a screwball that would have worked in the 30s or 40s. But note - Williams goes on a Paris fashion jag (charging it all to Conti, of course) and comes up with the most 80s ensembles that don't include neon or leg warmers I've ever seen. I hope they were supposed to signify Williams' essentially tacky housewife taste, because they were the most aswful collection of shapeless, sexless, shawly schmattas I've ever seen.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

It's a Plane! It's a Birdman!

We almost never watch Oscar nominated movies - that's why you never see a post about the Oscars on this blog. Our taste runs to comedies and action, the Academy likes message movies - the clunkier the better. They made an exception for Birdman (2014), and so did we.

It stars Michael Keaton as movie star who "used to be" Birdman, a movie superhero. But that was a long time ago - now he is producing, directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on the Broadway stage. You are clearly supposed to think about Michael Keaton, who used to be Batman, because this movie is very meta.

Keaton winds up playing opposite Ed Norton, a brash, hot, young method actor (just like Norton in real life). He's a real jerk, but he is a good actor. We get quite a bit of acting, both in the rehearsals, and off-stage. There are a lot of monologues in this movie, and they don't all come from Carver. More meta.

Then, little by little, we realize that Keaton is going crazy. I'll try not to spoiler this too much, except to say that it is very sad and tense, and very funny, slapstick even.

Two interesting stylistic choices in the movie:

  • Very long takes: Some people say the movie is one long take with no visible cuts. Not true, but some takes appear to be 15-20 minutes long. This is supposed to be immersive, and it is, although I wonder if we needed so many shots with the camera following someone walking down a corridor. I found myself thinking about acting with your shoulders - what can you convey emotionally in a medium shot of the back of your head.
  • Solo drummer for the soundtrack: Most of the music was provided by a single jazz drummer. It gave the movie a ton of energy and tension. It even made some relatively quiet or normal scenes seem climactic - what else are you supposed to feel when cymbals crash? Also, there's some nice classical music, mainly for the play-within-the-movie.
So, you've got a funny, but very dark, comedy. It has a bunch of stylistic tricks, pulled off flawlessly. It has a lot to say about acting, movies, theater, fame and sanity. I'm sure the last one is what got the Academy.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's an Agent!

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (2014) is a funny kind of thing. It's hard to know what to think, but it's full of stories - like its subject, Shep Gordon.

Gordon is an agent. He's worked for a number of clients, especially Alice Cooper. He's also worked with Mike Meyers' agent, and Meyers made this documentary as his directorial review. He does a great job, too, with some great old clips and maybe re-creations. But it's really just plain about Shep.

The story of how he got started as a manager is a classic, involving drugs, the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, getting punched out by Janis Joplin, and taking Jimi Hendrix's advice that he should manage Alice Cooper. He has no idea what he's doing, but he sure has a lot of soul. When Alice Cooper was starting out, Shep would get him gigs in folk clubs, because his name sounded like a nice female folk singer. The next big act he manages is Anne Murray, the Canadian Snowbird, who actually is a nice female folk singer. Shep really preferred her stuff to Alice Cooper's noise - incidentally, I kind of like her too.

He is winds up as the guy who does more drugs, diddles more groupies, drinks more, and makes sure, when everybody is passed out, that the money is safe. He manages soul acts - He kind of made Teddy Pendergrass, which is a sad sweet story. Then the movie takes a weird turn when he takes up gourmet cooking, and invents the concept of a celebrity chef, just to make sure his cooking buddies are getting paid. Here, Meyers seems to veer into infomercial territory, which I can understand as a creative decision, but I don't think I would have gone in that direction.

He also cooks for the Dalai Lama.

Meyers shows a lot about his spiritual side - his Buddhism, his longing for a family, the orphaned grandchildren of an ex-lover he adopts. His crass side - the dope, the women, the "No Head, No Backstage Pass" t-shirt, those are taken for granted. But he always made sure his clients got paid and didn't screw anybody over (or at least nobody went on record in this movie).

Mostly, this is just a bunch of cool stories about a guy who was off to the side of some amazing happenings. He's interesting too, even if he isn't super-powered.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bright Young People

Another TV blogpost: We recently finished watching all of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012). I have seen the Phryne Fisher mystery books in the library, but never read any. Miss Fisher is an Australian flapper and lady detective in 1920s. The Australian Broadcasting Company made the series into a TV program starring Essie Davis that just hits the spot.

It reminds us a lot of the Nero Wolfe show - it has that polished historical feel, the cozy, well-loved characters, but with zing. Post-WWI Melbourne is a colorful setting, but there isn't much to confuse the North American viewer. It seems that Miss Fisher was brought up lower-middle class, lived a Bohemian life in Europe, posing nude for famous artists, attending drug parties, attending orgies, learning to shoot and fight, etc. Then, WWI wiped out a whole generation of her well-placed relatives, leaving her with a ton of money and a title. So she returned to Australia to be outrageous and fabulous.

She meets up with a handsome police detective named Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). If you like the detective's name, you'll love her butler, Mr. Butler (Richard Bly). She has a strait-laced companion, a couple of pinko digger pals, a lesbian doctor for a buddy, and best of all, her Aunt Prudence, played by Miriam Margolyes - The Spanish Infanta from Blackadder, and a true joy.

It's got period sets and locations, a hot jazz soundtrack and some wild flapper gowns. Davis makes a great Miss Fisher, with her bobbed hair, Hispano-Suiza motorcar and gold-plated revolver. Her beauty is that of a Bright Young Thing who isn't all that young anymore. But it isn't all bed-hopping and dope taking - the crimes involve human trafficking, child molesting and some racial and gender politics. There's also a through-line about Phryne's sister, killed by a serial murderer when they were children. This part mostly just annoyed me, and the pay-off episodes were pretty outlandish and even a bit silly. OK, they were fun too - especially since we watched them around the same time as The Cell and a certain Egyptian themed episode of Warehouse 13.

We've finished the first two seasons and will have to wait for the third to come to Netflix. In the meantime, I've started taking the source mysteries by Kerry Greenwood out of the library.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Baby Vanishes

For some reason, I've always considered Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) to be connected to Don't Look Now. Maybe because they are both thrillers about missing children (that I was kind of afraid to watch). Turns out, they are nothing alike.

I knew about the stylish Saul Bass paperdoll credits, but was surprised to discover the movie was in black and white. It starts with Carol Lynley, who has just moved to London with her brother Keir Dullea. She is looking around a school, trying to find someone to tell that she has dropped her daughter off for her first day of school. She winds up telling the disgruntled cook, and hurries home to let the movers in, while Dullea is off on some kind of diplomatic errand. But when it comes time to pick up her daughter, no one has seen her. The cook has quit and disappeared (well, she was disgruntled). The headmistress is shifty. The police (Laurence Olivier) are urbanely skeptical. Can anyone confirm that Bunny Lake even exists? Even we, in the audience, have never seen her.

I used to think that Preminger was a purveyor of slick, middle-brow prestige pictures, like, say, Forever Amber. If Bunny Lake is any indication, I am mistaken, and he has a twisted, twisty mind - by the end, this gets pretty wild. It's got a bit of Hitchcock - the tension and the visual style are there - but it strikes me as less restrained, less detached. Good for him!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Slow, Comfortable Screwball

What with all the suspense and horror and music and action movie blogging, you may not realize that my favorite genre is black and white screwball. I had to branch out when I finished watching most of the classics, but they made a ton of these. For example, the Loretta Young twofer disk: The Doctor Takes a Wife/A Night to Remember (1940).

In Doctor, Loretta Young is the best selling author of Spinsters Ain't Spinach, which tells women that they don't need a man. She is stuck in a rural hotel and has to get back to the city. She imposes on medical lecturer Ray Milland, who has a car, but unbeknownst to either of them, someone has stuck a "Just Married" sign on the back. Of course, the famous (ex?) spinster is immediately recognized. For damage control, her agent convinces her that her next book should be about the joys of married life. Meanwhile, Milland discovers that his university prefers to promote married men, so it is in both of their interests to keep up the charade.

This movie's idea of medical science is hogwash - Milland is basically a phrenologist - but his friends and colleagues are all the kind of gnomish twinkly pedants that you get in movies like Ball of Fire. So even if we've got cutrate Cooper/Stanwyck or Tracy/Hepburn (the old war of the sexes), it's still fun.

A Night to Remember (not the Titanic one) gives us Loretta Young married to mystery author Brian Aherne. They are just moving into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village to soak up atmosphere for his next novel. The landlord, creepy Don Costello, isn't really ready for them - the front door doesn't latch, for instance, bu the movers are showing up that night, so they roll right in and then go out to a local joint for dinner, where they meet some more disturbing residents. Someone turns up dead, of course, and police Sidney Toller and Donald MacBride show up. There is a lot of nonsense involving speakeasies and a tortoise named Old Hickory.

These two movies aren't really quite screwball comedies - they don't have the whirlwind pace or overlapping dialog. Lorretta Young comes across as a bit languorous, even when tart and snappy - I think it's just who she is. The movies also aren't exactly hilarious - more pleasant and fun. But if you like 40s comedy, go for it. You'll get two features for one disk rental!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

See Me, Touch Me

So, speaking of musical movies and psycho-sexual freakouts: Ken Russell's Tommy (1974).

I guess we first saw this in its first or second run - I say "we" because Ms. Spenser and I saw it around the same time, but not together, as we were not an item yet. I'm trying to remember what our stance on the Who was back in 1974. I don't think our crowd was too into the rock opera Tommy. Who's Next was big in my high school: Every senior class would graffiti a big rock near the school and our year painted "Teenage Wasteland". It proved enduring, and I'd say 90% of senior classes for the next 20 years just repainted it. In college, we were more into the Maximum R&B sound of Live at Leeds. Post-college, I tried to get into punk, but when me and some friends got tossed out of a punk club for being hippies, we went to see The Kids Are Alright. But Tommy was never a big deal.

A couple of things about the movie: I love the fact that there is no dialogue. It is sung-through, like a real opera. Also, Ken Russell is nuts, so there are lots of weird things going on, in particular, Ann-Margaret as Tommy's mother swimming in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate sauce. She probably does the best acting - mostly because Oliver Reed is playing such a swine and Roger Daltrey, who plays Tommy, can't really act.

Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" number was not great, but I loved Tina Turner's "Acid Queen". All in all, we didn't think this really held up.

We also watched Quicksilver (1986), which you can't get on Netflix, so we bought it. It stars Kevin Bacon as a hot-shot stockbroker who loses everything and becomes a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. It's pretty fun, with lots of cycling stunts, real SF locations, and a big chase at the end. It's pretty much by the numbers, but well done. It's got a nice little part for "Larry" Fishburne. And why do I mention it?

That dire 80's Giorgio Moroder theme song, "Quicksilver Lightning"? That's Roger Daltrey shouting out the lyrics.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Red Raincoat

Alternating with musical videos, we're watching scary movies. Don't Look Now (1973) was the movie Nicholas Roeg made before The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'd never seen it and Ms. Spenser assured me I would be able to take the tension, so I took the plunge.

It starts with happy couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at their stately home, while their little girl plays outside in a shiny red slicker. Sutherland is taken uneasy, spills his drink on one of the architectural slides he is studying and runs outside. While Christie sees the stain spreading like blood across the slide of a church, Sutherland finds their daughter drowned in the lake.

Much later, the still-grieving couple is in Venice, where Sutherland is restoring a church. They meet a couple of weird sisters - The blind one tells Christie that she can see their daughter with them, and that she is happy. This brings Christie comfort that Sutherland can't share; he thinks it's a scam. Even though the couple have a long, hot sex scene, the death is coming between them, with shots of them getting dressed for dinner intercut with scenes of their lovemaking.

Although I think everyone knows how it ends (I had heard all about the red slicker), I'll leave off the rest of the story. The point is, this is a creepy, tense and haunted movie, made with a ton of style. Roeg called it a master class in editing techniques. There are masterful matchcuts, color leitmotifs, shadowy canalscapes, and surreal inserts.

When I was writing about The Man Who Fell, I realized that I was getting Nicholas Roeg mixed up with Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar) in my head. Well, maybe it isn't so far-fetched: both love overwrought psycho-sexual drama with a fever dream sense of style.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Jackaroo Davie

Some of my movie fads and faves come and go, but it looks like I'll be doing plenty more musical movies. This time, Julie Taymor's take on the Beatles: Across the Universe (2007).

It's the story of Jude (Jim Sturges), a lad from Liverpool who comes to America in the 60s. He meets Max (not Maxwell) and his sister Lucy (Joe Anderson and Rachel Evan Wood) and has adventures, all to the tune of the Beatles' greatest hits. Max is a madcap rebel, who rooms with Jude at Sadie's place - played by Dana Fuchs, Sadie is a Janis Joplin type who sounds great doing songs like "Helter Skelter" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?". Her boyfriend is a Hendrix symbol, Jo-Jo, played by Martin Luther McCoy, with a lot of soul - I thought he might be more of a Buddy Guy type, a less demonic than Hendrix.

And so on. A cute little runaway named Prudence (T.V. Carpio) comes in through the bathroom window, then won't come out of the closet and play. The gang falls in with a psychedelic bus driver played by Bono, with muttonchops and mustache ala Sonny Bono (furry vest and all). They wind up at the League of Spiritual Development where the Breadloaf Puppet Theater puts on a show - you think you'll get out of a Julie Taymor production with no giant puppets?

Max gets drafted. MLK gets shot. Lucy protests. Drugs are kept to a minimum for the ratings, except for "I Need a Fix" from "Happiness is a Warm Gun", with Salma Hayek as a rock 'n' roll nurse. Everybody does their own singing, and it's pretty great - the leads are only workmanly, I'm afraid, but nobody is embarrassing and we get some great oddities like Joe Cocker (!) singing "Come Together" and Eddie Izzard (in a Rip Torn beard) doing a smashing "Mr. Kite".

The story is a bit wet, not bad, not great. One thing I have to say - I lived through those years and the hair and clothes and overall feeling was spot-on. You might have seen some of my friends in those party scenes. The real fun is in Julie Taymore's surreal, over-the-top production.

This may not be for true Beatles fans - too many liberties, too much cuteness that doesn't pay off (Max does not kill anyone with a silver hammer, they just awkwardly squeeze in a reference). But, hey, everybody likes the Beatles, and you'll like this too.