Sunday, May 1, 2016

IN A LONELY PLACE - #810

Note: The screengrabs here are from an earlier DVD release and not the Criterion Blu-ray being reviewed.


Oh, the sick mind of a writer. And nothing so perverse as believing your particular brand of sickness is special.

I’ve been fascinated by In a Lonely Place for some years now. Film noir at its best, In a Lonely Place is a cynical, hard-bitten favorite. So much so, I wrote about in my most recent (currently abandoned) novel, as there are similar themes to be had in both. Here, let me cut and paste the pertinent section from the rough draft, which explains some of what the movie is about: 



When I was done with Leandro, I drove over to a revival theatre in Santa Monica where they were showing an old Humphrey Bogart movie. In a Lonely Place, 1950, directed by cinema himself, Nicholas Ray--a dark-side-of-Hollywood picture. While I was waiting for it to start, eating a box of Jordan almonds, I wondered what I would do next. Leo drew the line at giving me Adam’s address. He said that didn’t pop up right away, he’d have to go farther into the system, and that would leave fingerprints. I would have to find Adam some other way. Last I heard of him, after Brianne left him and we moved here and the divorce, he was still in Oregon working for that computer company. I didn’t suppose it would be too hard to find out if he was still there.

The movie was amazing. Bogie plays Dixon Steele, a washed-up screenwriter with rage issues. One night he takes a coat-check girl back to his apartment to talk about a book he’s supposed to adapt, and after she leaves his place, she never makes it home. The police chief decides Bogie did it, that he was really living out one of the lurid scenarios he writes for the pictures. Enough people keep telling that story that other folks start to believe it, including the one person who shouldn’t, the actress who provided his alibi and whom he then fell in love with. There is enough pressure that before they know it, they really are in an old Hollywood potboiler. There’s no way out of it then, and Bogie ends up back where he started. The lonely place--where murders are committed, stories are imagined, and the broken-hearted reside. I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me, I lived a few weeks while she loved me.

Leaving the theatre, I noticed a poster advertising an upcoming retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Images of Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean-Pierre Léaud. Temptresses, gangsters, and teenagers. I’d have to come back for that.



Movies come up a lot in my book. And detective fiction. Rest assured, I’ll be taking a pretty heavy pair of scissors to the above. I can see tons of things I’d cut right now, get it down to the bones. Much like Dix eventually savages the book he’s meant to turn into a faithful screen version. The way the coat-check girl (Martha Stewart) describes the imagined romance novel, I can’t help but think of Leave Her ToHeaven, and maybe that’s the kind of sharpness Dix brings to his script. We can only guess. All we know of the unseen screenplay is what the onscreen author tells us.


Dix is a sinister storyteller, one who doesn’t shy away from the more gruesome details of a plot. Naturally, when the police, including an old buddy from his army days who’s now turned detective (Frank Lovejoy, The Hitch-Hiker [review]), show the wordsmith the murder scene photos and outline their own timeline for how Dix killed the girl, he starts to puzzle through the potential suspects and motives himself. He even relays his own version to that buddy and his wife (Jeff Donnell, The Sweet Smell ofSuccess). As he spins the yarn, directing them at to act it out at the same time, Ray and director of photography Burnett Guffey (The Strange One [review]) isolate the light on Bogart’s face, making it look the way it does when a kid telling ghost stories at camp holds a flashlight under his chin. The irony is Dix can’t imagine himself doing it, despite every one else thinking he probably did. Or, to clarify, he can’t imagine himself doing this particular murder. He never wavers in his belief he didn’t, not even when he cruelly jokes with his agent that maybe he did. There’s truth in that wicked humor, and little that Dix is capable of some pretty nasty business. He has violent spells that give everyone pause. The same light lands on him when the moods take over, a visual cue to let us know that we are heading into darkness. It’s almost supernatural--even if now we recognize him as a man with anger management problems, perhaps even some PTSD from his combat service, and the classic patterns of an abuser. He erupts, attacks, and then is sorry, making amends through grand gestures and promises to never do it again. Dix is a hard man to like, and yet we do anyway, because he’s still Humphrey Bogart. Playing on the actor’s star power, Ray messes with our perceptions. We have a feeling Bogart is the good guy, because he most often is, and so we put our faith where no one else can.



In essence, we are the lover that the actress who falls for Dix can’t be, because we put aside our doubts and put our faith in the supposed inevitability of a Hollywood happy ending. The noir twist here is how the stories about the writer, rather than the ones he crafts himself, take their toll on Laurel (played by Nicholas Ray’s real-life (and estranged) wife Gloria Grahame (The Big Heat, Sudden Fear [review]). Laurel lets her imagination get the better of her; she can’t separate the violence she’s witnessed from the violence Dix is accused of perpetrating. It’s a shame when you let a thing like a dead body get in the way of a good love story, but then again, as Dix explains, “A good love scene should be about something else besides love...Anyone can look at us and tell we’re in love.” This little bit of poetry is delivered during the scene where the film really turns. He’s making her breakfast, and Laurel is groggy, having taken sleeping pills to (unsuccessfully) block out her nightmares about Dix beating another man. Where earlier in the film she saves him with her alibi and pulls him out of his slump by taking care of him, now he’s her caretaker, right down to the domestic chores--though the results aren’t quite the same. There is a wonderful metaphor embedded in this scene: Dix is trying to prepare Laurel’s breakfast grapefruit, but he is having a hard time because he has straightened out the curve in the grapefruit knife, thinking the bend is not supposed to be there. All the better for stabbing things with...?


Bogart and Grahame are a natural screen pairing. They are attractive and confident, and they both have a bit of a speech impediment. She is aloof, and then a rock, and then a bundle of nerves that grows more tangled even as she unravels. (Dix will never straight her out!) Fascinatingly enough, Laurel’s not opportunistic. The failed actress never pushes the more successful scribe for a part in his new movie. This makes Laurel less the femme fatale and more the stable good girl. Dix has no nemesis but the one buried inside him.


Nicholas Ray manages to both have his tongue in his cheek when dealing with this Hollywood nonsense and be perfectly serious when relaying the rest of his tale. In a Lonely Place goes to some deep recesses and sifts around in the muck, yet it also maintains the aura of illusion. The scenes around Dix and Laurel’s apartment complex are played with an almost sitcom-like airiness. It’s classic Hollywood at its finest, and also a subversive, self-reflexive tribute to the system that spawned it. Joining the pair is a cast of eccentric characters and Hollywood types: a nebbish agent, a one-time matinee idol turned drunk, a controlling masseuse, a raven-haired actress on the prowl, the producer that’s also the son-in-law of a studio chief and whom no one respects. All that’s missing is a studio fixer. Even the coat-check girl is a type, she’s the wide-eyed movie fan who can’t believe she’s rubbing elbows with celebrities. In a Lonely Place is a cautionary tale: motion pictures are a deadly business.


Elsewhere on Criterion’s disc of In a Lonely Place, the camera is turned on the filmmaker. The 1975 documentary I’m a Stranger Here Myself caught up with Nicholas Ray while he was working as a teacher, at the time he was shooting We Can’t Go Home Again [review]. The movie details Ray’s cinematic philosophy, shedding light on his approach to character, his championing of the outsider, and how he expects to communicate with the audience. John Houseman, Natalie Wood, Francois Truffaut, and others also chime in to talk about the filmmaker. Early in the doc’, Ray talks directly about In a Lonely Place, including how he came to the film’s knockout ending.

Among the other extras is a 1948 radio adaptation of Dorothy B. Hughes original novel for In a Lonely Place. (Hughes also wrote the source book of Ride the Pink Horse.) Performed for the Suspense series, it stars Robert Montgomery as Dixon Steele, a would-be novelist and serial strangler. Though a Los Angeles story, there are no Hollywood trappings, and the portrayal of Dix’s compulsive behavior is far less complex, despite being related from a first-person point of view. Is it possible Bogart’s dismissal of then novel he’s supposed to adapt in the movie version a meta joke about In a Lonely Place’s own source material.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

PARADE - #731


Following last week’s review of Charles Chaplin’sLimelight, I considered how Jacques Tati’s final film, the 1974 television feature Parade, might make a good follow-up. The French comedian was an acolyte of Chaplin’s, with his own M. Hulot being a tight-lipped descendent of the earlier director’s Little Tramp. Parade makes for an interesting companion to Limelight, even if it’s not entirely successful or nearly as fulfilling as the Chaplin picture.

Actually, the closest relative to Parade might be Federico Fellini’s 1970 documentary I clowns [review]. Fellini was another director with a passion for live performance, and I clowns captured several renowned circus clowns at work. Tati uses his own stageshow as a blueprint, but he showcases the event in a circus environment. His set-up is notable for two things: it’s inclusion of the audience, including planting performers in the crowd (if, indeed, the entire audience isn’t just people cast by Tati for the event); and a split between the old and the new, with the younger clowns being set apart not just by their fashion, but relegated to the side of the stage where they have a kind of workshop, often mimicking the main action in the center ring, sometimes joining it.


I should note here, when I say clowns, I do not mean of the greasepaint and red nose variety, but in the broader comedic sense. They are silent performers, engaging in physical slapstick and sleight of hand. Tati himself has several skits where he pantomimes different kinds of athletes. There is also an elder magician who engages in card tricks and the like, and who enters into a competition with one of the scruffy youngsters. While the older men are dapper and composed, the new generation are hippies and flower children. Yet, Tati isn’t looking to separate, he’s seeking to find what is similar in the shared comedy and bring it all together.

In addition to these clowns, there is a donkey act, an orchestra, and a tumbling troupe. They all perform with varying results. Some bits land, some fall flat. There is a quiet tone to Parade that seems both generational and cultural. The clowning has a certain reserve, and there aren’t many guffaws to be had. Still, it’s pleasant entertainment, and Parade really only goes off the rails in the second act, when Tati embraces modernity too tightly. An extended psychedelic rock performance looks like it would have been out of step even back then, and now just seems laughable. This isn’t exactly your grandfather’s rock-and-roll, more like what his grandfather might think is rock-and-roll.

Which maybe is the problem overall with Parade. With Limelight, Chaplin saw vaudeville as an art vital enough to build a story around, and so it came off as more than just a nostalgic trip through a comedian’s greatest hits. Tati, it seems, is trying to show that his old routines can compete in the then-current marketplace, but never really reignites the spark that probably inspired his career path to begin with. A mild exit for an otherwise gifted artist.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

LIMELIGHT - #756

I thought you hated the theatre?

I do. I also hate the sight of blood, but it’s in my veins.


As I write this, it’s Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. Born April 16, 1889, he would have been 127. This puts him at more than 60 years old when he made his final American film, the bittersweet tribute to vaudeville, Limelight. Though he had a couple of more movies to come following his exile to Europe, of all of his efforts post-1950, this one feels like the final curtain, a summing up of a well-spent career, with a few touches of real life for those looking to see the man in his art.

Chaplin stars in Limelight as Calvero, the last of the great stage clowns, known for his wordplay and hobo persona. (Perhaps it was the presence of the former that discouraged the performer from actually making the film about his own Little Tramp, a character born of silent cinema.) Calvero’s act has passed into the history books, drowned in alcohol and anxiety. As the picture begins, he stumbles home from the bar, only to realize his downstairs neighbor Theresa (Claire Bloom, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold [review]) has locked herself in her flat with the gas on. The old man kicks in the door and rescues the young woman from suicide, letting her sleep it off in his apartment where the air is clear. Terry is a dancer who is despondent over many things. She let the love of her life, a composer (Sydney Chaplin) get away, and her sister’s turning to the streets to pay for her dancing career has left the girl unable to take the stage, the guilt is too much to handle.


In fact, following the attempted suicide, Terry is so upset, she can’t walk, her mind has completely shut down the lower half of her body, not unlike how nerves and booze have overtaken Calvero’s ability to step in front of a crowd. The pair of artistes bonds over their respective blocks. Calvero swears off the sauce and nurses the girl back to health, giving her pep talks, all the while dreaming of his old routines, sometimes inserting Terry into the act, sometimes waking up in terror, realizing his dream self is playing to an empty house. Helping her gives him purpose, and a chance to lead by example.

It’s a lovely and loving relationship, one that could have been tainted by Chaplin’s real-life dalliances with younger women, but the honesty with which he presents their shared experience avoids any actual creepiness. Calvero’s view of Terry is paternal, despite the cover story that they are married as a means to fend off gossip. In fact, there is a frankness throughout Limelight that is surprisingly fresh, even if the script must tap dance around saying some things outright. Calvero first thinks that the whispers about his new roommate being a prostitute are true, and that she tried to kill herself due to consequences stemming from the profession. Though the truth is far more mundane, the way in which the elder statesman is prepared to accept the younger’s indiscretions--he notes that he himself is an old sinner--makes for a sweet dynamic between them. They accept each other’s faults only in so far as they encourage their companion to overcome them.


Chaplin was likely looking for a little acceptance himself, following accusations of Communism and FBI smear campaigns due to some of his less idyllic carnal affairs. (Check a recent episode of You Must Remember This to hear how this affected the auteur’s previous release, Monsieur Verdoux [review]). Later in the film the clown demands truth in both performance and life, as it’s the only thing he knows to be steadfast in a fickle world.

Despite all of this off-screen drama, Chaplin does not allow for any cynicism in Limelight. Quite the contrary, the film is entirely romantic, in both its love stories and in its view of the theatrical community. Behind the laughs beats a great big heart, and Limelight is less a comedy and more of a melodrama. Working with a plot structure more befitting a play--and often staging his scenes in small spaces like in a theatre, focusing on the two characters in conversation rather than the surroundings--Chaplin draws from a variety of theatrical traditions to create something perfectly cinematic. The filmmaker pulls out and goes wide, funnily enough, when in the theatre space itself. The cutaways to the dream sequences, showing Calvero on stage, and later showing Terry dancing, give us both the breadth of the performance space, but also the size of the crowd. In a way, his framing suggests that our own lives are small, and its art that gives them larger meaning, transcending borders so that people around the world may share all that they have in common, including not just our own foibles, but also the natural world in which we live and operate (mother nature and human nature). Most of Calvero’s routines center around animals (worms, sardines) or compulsions (love). The only exception being a fun skit featuring Chaplin and the great Buster Keaton--a comedian down on his luck for real--as two inept musicians that ends up being Calvero’s ultimate encore.


It’s interesting to consider that Chaplin himself must have seen many tides turning, and rather than submit to the trends, he instead dug in his heels and tipped his hat to where it all began for him (including street performers). Not that Limelight is a completely fanciful representation of theatre life. There is a toll to be paid for the spontaneity and joy of stagecraft. Not just age and passing fads, but also the isolation and the physical and mental demands come to bear for the comedian and the ballerina alike. Chaplin sees a kindred spirit in the dancer--both disciplines require perfection and control, but they also allow for improvisation, for injecting one’s personality into the material.


The final act of Limelight has some O. Henry-level twists, including ironic sacrifices and difficult decisions. Yet, even with the heavy foreshadowing--Calvero tells Terry pretty much exactly how it will go--by the time the change-ups and misunderstandings occur, you’ll be so invested in the characters and the drama itself, the artifice won’t bother you. Plus, the artifice is kind of the point. Limelight is as much about the movement of the bodies on stage as how they affect one another offstage--though no moreso than the movement in the ballet Chaplin pauses to show us, featuring both the clown and his admirer, and which itself draws from traditions of the Commedia dell’arte. In Chaplin’s narrative, the history of the stage is as interlocked as humanity’s. We all build on what came before, and so by extending a hand, the old can aid the young with their experience and wisdom, and maybe themselves get a new lease on life.

And, of course, as throughout, Chaplin walks it like he talks it. The ultimate message of Limelight? Always leave them laughing.


A few images from this review were borrowed from my old alma mater, DVDTalk.com. Read Justin Remer's review here.

Friday, April 8, 2016

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS - #806


Why is it we always forget that Cary Grant could be rugged?

Sure, we remember that he’s funny and handsome and debonair, but even when he was playing the dandy, Grant was a man’s man. In movies when he wasn’t on the same continent as a tailored tuxedo, he was still suave and commanding, but in a way that was far different than the romantic playboy image that endures.

He was rugged.


Should you not believe me, then you need look no further than Howard Hawks’ 1939 aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings. In the film, written by Jules Furthman (The Docks of New York [review]), Grant plays Geoff Carter, the head of an airmail service flying out of South America. His crew is made up of guys who are mostly young and have the daredevil streak that is the stock-in-trade of motion picture pilots. They live for their time in the air, and when on the ground, they spend it getting high, indulging in booze, food, and women.


It’s one of those women, a tough Brooklyn gal, that serves as our entry point into their world, as well as the dramatic catalyst of much of what goes on in Only Angles Have Wings. Jean Arthur (The Devil and Miss Jones [review]) stars alongside Grant as Bonnie Lee, a traveling musician who runs into a couple of Geoff’s boys during a cruise layover. The two pilots (Allyn Joslyn, Heaven CanWait, and Noah Beery Jr., Red River) make a play for the beauty, but she’s more taken with the idea of conversing with her countrymen than she is being romanced. It would seem the American pilots have a similar homesickness, as they are all ready to have their heads turned by the visitor. This includes Geoff, who rearranges his team’s assignments to try to make sure he’s the one who can woo Bonnie before she has to return to the ship.

This proves disastrous, however; Bonnie has picked the wrong night to visit the airfield. Geoff’s people are responsible for shuttling the mail, and they must fly regardless of weather. One of Bonnie’s suitors has to go up in the terrible fog that has spread across the area, and he doesn’t make it back.


The scene in which Geoff and his right-hand man, Kid (Thomas Mitchell, Make Way for Tomorrow [review], Stagecoach [review]), try to guide the doomed flyer back to base is the first of many bravura sequences that Hawks delivers in Only Angels Have Wings. He plays the scene long, focusing on the ground team, cutting out ambient noise both for effect and because, storywise, it’s necessary for Geoff and Kid to ascertain where the plane is positioned. It’s a good trick. As they lean in to listen for the vessel’s location, we instinctively lean in, as well. Only Angels Have Wings has our attention.


It’s not the only time that Hawks lets a moment run long in the film. His narrative style was Tarantino-esque before Tarantino, drawing tension from delayed resolution (see, for instance, Death Proof [review] for Quentin’s employment of the same kind of withholding). Hawks is patient, taking his time with the scene, knowing that a quicker release would have far less impact. A year later, Hawks would make movie history with His Girl Friday, when he famously had his actors (including Cary Grant) perform the script at twice the accepted pace. Here, however, he is not concerned about getting through the material quickly. At times, Only Angels Have Wings appears shaggy. It is episodic rather than plot heavy. In the camaraderie amongst the pilots, Hawks achieves a surprising realism, letting the conversations follow a natural course and somehow capturing the performances in such a way that they appear, if not improvised, at least unrehearsed. Take for example a scene where Geoff and Kid try to settle a disagreement by flipping a coin. The action when the actors chase the money is clumsy, the way it would be were two fellows trying to one-up the other in real life. Maybe Grant and Mitchell had marks to hit, but the audience would never see them.


This stripe of convincing buddy-buddy behavior is essential to a film that is all about the relationships between men who have signed on to do a particular job. In many ways, Only Angels Have Wings prefigures the sense of duty that would permeate more patriotic films made in the years during World War II. What sets it apart from those films is its sense of isolationism. Geoff and his air force do what they do, and outside interference is not welcome, even when it’s a beautiful woman who is willing to accept that the untamable adventurer would be a fine lover just as he is. Only Angels Have Wings has story points in common with Casablanca. Both feature rogues who exile themselves to exotic, dangerous locales to escape a broken heart--but unlike Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, Cary Grant’s Geoff doesn’t do what he does because it would be good for others, he does it because it’s what is expected of him. It’s what he signed up for.

In this, Only Angels Have Wings also prefigures film noir, and even another famous Bogart picture, The Maltese Falcon [review]. There is an existential streak in Geoff that we would see in noir antiheroes. He has a code, and he must follow it. As a rake and a rapscallion, Geoff’s Achilles heel is his commitment to doing the right thing. Geoff’s fatal flaw is that if the mission is considered impossible, he’ll take flight himself rather than send one of his men. It’s the sort of soft and gooey character trait that makes audiences care for him and adds credibility to Bonnie’s unrequited love for the flyboy. We know he’s good despite his cynical protestations.


Also reminiscent of noir is the sense that the past will catch up with you, no matter how good your are at outrunning it. Fans of Gilda [review] take note, Only Angels Have Wings gives Rita Hayworth her breakout role, and in many ways, it sets the tone for her signature performance. Hayworth plays Judy, the wife of Geoff’s newest hire. She also happens to be the woman who broke Geoff’s heart, the mysterious phantom that Bonnie sees hovering over her would-be lover from the jump. Neither Geoff nor Bonnie reveal this fact, it would be too complicated and they both would rather deny their past. Yet, the added irony is that Judy’s husband (silent-era star Richard Barthelmess) is himself harboring a disgraceful history, one he has hidden from his bride. Geoff and the boys keep that secret to themselves, even though, for Geoff, exposing it might change everything. Move this plot to a casino, and it’s Gilda before Gilda.


The big difference between Only Angels Have Wings and noir, though, is that Only Angels Have Wings is more redemptive. Both men will get another shot to prove themselves, and even Judy will have a chance to get it right. The only one who doesn’t need redemption is Bonnie, but then if we know our noir, the down-to-earth blonde might have a chance to ground the aerial daredevil. Just maybe.

Furthman gives his script a kind of doubled structure, like a coin with the same face on either side (plot point!). The first flight will be echoed in the last flight, and though we might guess that hearts will melt, the writing stays true to its main character’s principles right to the end. That last scene is pure old Hollywood, and yet smarter than it has any right to be, holding fast to the manly ethos laid out in the rest of the movie. I feel simultaneously more sensitive and more macho for having seen it.


Criterion’s high-def presentation of Only Angels Have Wings is wonderful, offering a pristine picture and a soundtrack that lacks any snaps, crackles, hiss, or pops. Extras include a radio performance of the movie, condensed for the home listening audience, and a new documentary examining Howard Hawks’ other aviation-themed movies.

And for comic book fans, the cover and interior illustration is by Francesco Francavilla, artist on Zorro and Afterlife with Archie, as well as creator of the pulp-inspired The Black Beetle.


The screengrabs for this review were taken from an earlier DVD release. The Criterion disc under review was provided by the Criterion Collection.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

SHALLOW GRAVE - #616


Motive, means, opportunity.

Except all out of order. That’s the way of 1994’s ShallowGrave. It’s backwards. Opportunity provides the means, and hanging onto those means becomes the motive.

An accidental overdose of the fourth and newest roommate in a Scottish flat offers the tight-knit friends sharing the apartment the chance to change their own lives. The three twentysomethings--journalist Alex (Ewan McGregor, Trainspotting), doctor Juliet (Kerry Fox, An Angel at My Table), and accountant David (Christopher Eccleston, eventual star of some television sci-fi medical drama or other)--find a suitcase full of cash in the dead man’s bedroom. He was a drug dealer as well as a user. No one outside of the apartment really knew he lived there, he had just moved in. If they can discard the body undetected, they could keep the cash.


The debut of Danny Boyle, Shallow Grave is darkly comic, almost Hitchcockian, with hints of the cinematic verve (extreme angles, tricky camera moves, songs by Leftfield) that would quickly become his trademark. The ease with which he developed that style, and with which he now cravenly exploits it in humdrum efforts like Trance [review] and Steve Jobs, doesn’t necessarily suggest the cinematic revolution to come, but Boyle, producer Andrew MacDonald, and writer John Hodge were on the verge of something big. That they would take off with Trainspotting two years later, only to crash and burn with the unfairly maligned Coen Bros.’ riff A Life Less Ordinary and the exaggerated failings of The Beach is perhaps a defining story of 1990s motion pictures. Frame it as a mini version of the rise and fall of the American auteurs of the 1970s. Like Coppola leapfrogging from The Godfather [review] to One from the Heart and Apocalypse Now (if, you know, everyone hated the latter). We aim so high only to have our excess bring us low.


There isn’t a more 1990s movie than Shallow Grave. It’s not just of its time, but it’s accidentally about its time. Sure, there’s the obvious bad, poorly fitted fashion and the techno soundtrack, but it’s more than the outer trappings, it’s also the characters. Think about the types: the smartass Kurt Cobain wannabe, the independent woman with the short haircut, and the uptight accountant. Give us a Joey and a Phoebe, and you’ve got yourselves an episode of Friends where the Ugly Naked Guy dies in Monica and Rachel’s flat. (Oh, wait, we need a Rachel, too.)  And just like the 1990s, you want to slap that mildly amusing smirk off Shallow Grave’s face by the end. Its deep lesson is about as deep as the title would have you believe. It’s so ’90s, its sequel is John Cusack’s suit in Con Air. To quote Pulp, a band whose rise was contemporary to the folks involved with this picture, “You’re going to like it, but not a lot.”


Part of the problem is that the Juliet, David, and even Alex are all aggressively unlikeable and, even worse, not that interesting--which is usually the way around unlikeability, we want to watch the terrible people doing terrible things. Witty Alex isn’t all that funny, and none of the three appear to be anything other than mediocre at their chosen professions. Hence their need to belittle others and play cruel pranks. While Hodge’s scripts does raise a lot of moral conundrums, with the dead body and the stash of cash proving an apt metaphor for much of the 1990s--does one stay true to oneself or sell-out?--his characters never break out of their types. This means none of their decisions are all that surprising. We can guess that, for instance, the uptight bean counter who initially blanches at the prospect of covering up a death will change his mind after being humiliated at work, and eventually decide he wants to e  a big man and deserves the lion’s share of the treasure. Likewise, we know that there will be other bad guys on the hunt for that money, and the urge to protect it will cause the friends to all turn on each other.


Which, hey, that could quite possibly be a good movie. Think The Treasure of Sierra Madre but in a four-room Edinburgh rental. The cast here is as game as John Huston’s was in 1948. McGregor is fresh-faced and buoyant, his charisma punching holes in the script’s smarm, and Eccleston is predictably tense but without the egotism later directors would exploit to varying effect. The problem here is that Boyle feels often more like an architect and a technician than a storyteller. Shallow Grave predicts the award-winning sheen of his most successful feature, Slumdog Millionaire, and like Slumdog, has the same preoccupation with making the pieces fit a schematic rather than find an organic path to the same conclusion. It’s more Jenga than plot. Have you ever asked yourself how Dev Patel’s character managed to be asked not just the right questions, but in chronological order mirroring the events of his life?


In fact, if you think about Slumdog’s ever-present, Oscar-winning score and how much polish that added to Slumdog, you have another connection. Because the music in Shallow Grave, provided by Simon Boswell (Santa Sangre, Hackers), is cheesy cliché all the way, like a bad television movie that is afraid the dramatic histrionics won’t work well enough on their own, despite how obvious the emotional beats really are. It’s all shortcut.

It’s also pretty easy to watch, and thus pretty easy to give Shallow Grave a pass, despite its considerable flaws. Boyle’s filmmaking is skillful and alluring, and draws the viewer along like a Looney Tunes character who has caught whiff of a savory pie, floating on air, ready to take a bite. Perhaps I’m being harsh on the film, I used to be a fan, and it’s been since the actual 1990s that I likely saw it. It’s funny how things strike you depending on where you are in life, and it is worth remembering how exciting the 1990s could be post-Sex, Lies, &Videotape; however, unlike that movie or, perhaps, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Shallow Grave may be too much of a time capsule, frozen in its era, and less relatable for it.


"Mr. Dead Drug Dealer, you're trying to seduce me."


Friday, March 25, 2016

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON - #805


One of cinema’s most observant documentarians meets the ramshackle world of rock ’n’ roll in the 1974 film A Poem is a Naked Person. Part concert movie, part journalistic portrait, part travelogue, Les Blank trains his camera on singer-songwriter Leon Russell, an Oklahoma native, piano player, and revered session musician who, in the early 1970s, transitioned into solo work, performing swampy rock jams and writing a few classics along the way, perhaps most notably “A Song for You.”

Blank joins up with Russell’s camp at the apex of the performer’s career, when success has allowed him an opportunity to build a recording studio in his home state. Blank’s team follows Russell throughout the construction, though they don’t always stay around to watch the hammers swing. Interspersed with these scenes are snapshots from the road, including full performances and dalliances backstage. For much of A Poem is a Naked Person, these are our only real glimpses of Russell. Probably unsurprising to anyone who knows Blank’s work, the director spends much of the movie looking at the world around his subject, getting reactions from the locals regarding their famous new neighbor or watching as Jim Franklin, the man painting a mural on the bottom of Russell’s pool, catches scorpions before putting brush to concrete. Or stepping away from people altogether to look at the natural environs.


This impulse to cast his glance sideways keeps A Poem is a Naked Person from being a great music documentary, but Blank makes up for it by basically inventing something that is its own beast. Throughout his work, he has been fascinated by Americana and folk art, and there are subtle touches here, like the Hank Williams façade on the front of a building, or the accidental visual echo of the man with the butterfly tattoo hearkening back to the butterfly imagery in that painting on Russell’s pool.  Even the rootsy music that Russell covers in his concerts remind us of a musical tradition that stretches back to the earliest days of our nation. Not to mention added performances by George Jones and Willie Nelson, themselves legends in the country music field.

The downside is that if you’re looking to learn more about Leon Russell, you’re probably going to be better off reading his Wikipedia entry alongside the film. He doesn’t step out from behind the piano and start to emerge as a character until about halfway through the movie. And even then, since Blank never interviews him directly, he remains an enigma, almost entirely in control of what he shows the camera lens. One is quickly reminded of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back [review], especially so in a scene where Russell sarcastically dresses down a musician using his studio who steps to him in the wrong way. The way the elder statesman verbally bats around the young newbie (Eric Andersen) and puts him on the defensive is up there with Dylan’s humiliation of Donovan, right down to the lesser’s naïve sincerity.


But then maybe the code to this thing is right there in the title: A Poem is a Naked Person. Blank is creating something evocative of the man and his art, and through these captured impressions exposing something about both. He doesn’t exactly strip Leon Russell bare and show him off to the world, but perhaps he exposes more of the personage by suggesting the image dominates all that may be underneath.


For more local color, Maureen Gosling’s, Poem’s sound recordist and assistant editor has put together a montage of some of her own footage taken during the shoot, adding commentary using excerpts from letters she wrote to her parents. (Gosling is one of the director’s of the recent This Ain’t No Mouse Music [review], which shows Blank’s influence quite heavily.)

There are also supplements looking back at the making of the film, including a more recent conversation between Russell and Les Blank’s son Harrod, in which Russell discusses why he initially disliked the film and kept it out of circulation for years. Turns out, he didn’t think it was about him enough either! So is the naked person being put on display really Les Blank after all? Leon seems to think so.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY - #804


Just when a guy thinks he’s had enough of coming-of-age dramas about troubled adolescents, along comes a movie like A Brighter Summer Day to remind him of why he liked the genre in the first place.

Released in 1991, Edwin Yang’s true-to-life tale has a lot going for it: an interesting setting (Taiwan) during an interesting time period (the start of the 1960s), and historical roots that give it elements of a docudrama. The climactic incident that happens to our main character, Si’r (Chen Chang), actually occurred, and the fallout had a tremendous impact on Taiwanese culture and politics. Or so we are told in a textual coda, Yang’s movie is the build-up to the moment. The denouement is for others to explore.


Taking into account all those things mentioned above, to call A Brighter Summer Day merely a coming-of-age story is to understate it. Yang’s narrative is all encompassing, novelistic in length and approach (the film is nearly 4 hours long), looking not just at the teenaged boy’s troubles, but the struggles of those around him and the reality that informed his downfall. Following the Communist takeover of China, many citizens left the mainland for the small island country of Taiwan to escape persecution. At the outset of the 1960s, the people there are feeling the influence of America (mostly by choice) and Japan (not so much) even as they endeavor to establish their own identity. As Si’r will find out the hard way, there is also an influx of the same oppressive politics his parents tried to outrun.

The Commies and the government are no match for rock ’n’ roll, though. It’s the biggest influence on Si’r and his friends, who form street gangs and adopt ludicrous American nicknames like Honey, Airplane, Tiger, and Deuce. Si’r’s best friend, Cat (Chi-tsan Wang), sings with his brother in a band that covers the latest hits, transcribed for them by Si’r’s older sister. The babyfaced, angel-voiced Cat doesn’t know the meaning of the lyrics, but he gets the emotion and sees how the girl’s react to even a middle-aged Asian man singing Elvis. The title of the movie is a misheard lyric from “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” and as Cat’s subplot wraps up, we’ll see that music has come to mean for him what it has meant for so many kids since Bill Haley first rocked around the clock: escape from the everyday. Cat and Si’r likewise indulge in escapism by spying on the productions at a movie studio neighboring their school.


Ironically, Si’r is the one perhaps the least in need of escape. Though the budding juvenile delinquent’s behavior might remind one of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows [review], Si’r comes from a nice family who take an interest in his studies and, much to their eventual chagrin, trust him enough to think he’s sticking with it, even when bad behavior and poor performance gets him busted down to night school with other students who act out and underperform. Si’r’s older brother (Han Chang) has gone down a similar path. He’s a hustler with a penchant for pool. So far, though, Si’r has mostly observed rather than participated in anything truly bad. A little vandalism, a minor theft, that’s about it. The kid acts tough, and doesn’t back down when challenged, but he’s not got the mettle to carry through with real violence, especially when his opponent is at a disadvantage.


Deep down, Si’r has romantic tendencies. He fantasizes about a knife that Cat has, believing it was used in a lovers’ suicide pact, staring longingly at a photo of the woman who allegedly owned the blade. He also falls for Ming (Lisa Yang), the girlfriend of the leader of the Little Park Gang, currently on the lam from the law. His absence has left a power vacuum that other boys are trying to fill. This includes making claims on Ming. As many a sensitive adolescent before him, Si’r fancies himself a bit of a white knight, though his intentions and the girls he tries to impose them on never quite line up. Not one, but two young ladies dress him down for trying to change them. These fumblings ultimately lead to tragedy, and of a manner that has haunting parallels to other such tragedies of today.

It’s kind of fascinating how Edward Yang (Yi Yi [review]) constructs such a broad story, and yet manages to pull the strings closed to make it all seem like it’s been about Si’r and Ming. A Brighter Summer Day is so long because Yang’s eye roves from person to person. We see Si’r’s brother get tangled up with a rival gang he’s hustled at pool, we see Si’r’s dad burdened by work woes and government suspicion, and we see Ming’s mother and her declining health. Even the most minor characters get their own arcs. The owner of a café where the Little Park boys like to hang out is only in a few scenes, but from one to the next, she has suffered and grown. It’s not arbitrary, either: in the last scene in the café, Si’r is witness to an alternate option should he choose to step away from gang life. Likewise, his brother’s skill at billiards has an effect on Si’r’s trajectory, it’s not just there to add color.


Yang’s style here is steady, both in visual presentation and scripting (he’s one of four credited writers). The pace and construction is a little bit Godfather-era Coppola, a little TV miniseries. There isn’t a lot of fat, nor a lot of lingering or expository scenes. The dramatic staging is realistic, and the natural settings feel lived in, but A Brighter Summer Day is still big moviemaking at its most fundamental. Yang’s story is large enough to take up as many reels as required. To be honest, before I realized that A Brighter Summer Day was a true story, I thought it might be autobio and Si’r was going to end up working at the movie studio. No dice. Instead, Si’r will eventually decide filmmakers really don’t know anything about life. It’s an ironically meta comment for a movie that itself seems to know so much.


The bonus disc in the A Brighter Summer Day package features a 2002 documentary called Our Time, Our Story, chronicling the rise of independent cinema in Taiwan and the eventual loosening of government control of the motion picture business. The full-length doc does a good job of shedding light on the cinema scene that Edward Yang came out of, even if Yang himself is not interviewed. His contemporaries, like director Hou Hsiao-hsien (Flight of the Red Balloon [review], Three Times [review]) do a good job of explaining what a fertile, creative period the mid-1980s was and how they shifted the focus of mainstream movies from kung-fu and romance to reflect life at that time.

Also included is a videotaped performance from 1992 of Yang’s stage play Likely Consequence. Shot on a bare set with the audience flanking both sides, and featuring timed sound effects, the production is ambitious and engaging, even if the presentation here is lo-fi. The drama focuses on a couple debating what to do with a dead body that the wife may or may not have killed on purpose. The more they argue, the more that is revealed about both their past and their current situation.


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.