Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Dead (1987) ***

John Huston's final film The Dead, an adaptation of the James Joyce story, nicely evokes the melancholy tone of Dubliners.  An all Irish cast recreates Joyce's moving tale of a Christmas night in Dublin shortly after the century turned.  Although the film looks more like a theater production at times, the quality of the acting and source material are well worth watching.

Few directors have taken on Joyce; however, Huston made a career of adapting great works of literature into film such as The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick, and The Red Badge of Courage.  While Huston never had a specific style per se, he remains one of cinema's best storytellers.

There's not much of a plot to The Dead.  It's more of a portrait than a story.  The two main characters are Gabriel (Donal McCann) and Gretta (Anjelica Huston), a bourgeois couple somewhat at odds with their Irish homeland. The guests are treated to a piano recital, a poetry reading, and dancing.  As evening turns into night, Gretta will reveal a deep secret about her past to Gabriel - changing both of them forever.

Huston gets the essence of the story right.  Times were changing and old traditions (good and bad) were fading.  Minor characters appear ghost like, as if they're walking memories. They are reminders that the snow the falls on the living and the dead.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hustle & Flow (2005) ***

Hustle and Flow is an old fashioned underdog story told with verve and honesty. Terrence Howard delivers a remarkable performance as Djay, one reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky - and all the more impressive since he's portraying a fictional character.

Set in modern day Memphis, Djay lives as a pimp/ small time drug dealer. He wants a better life, best expressed in his philosophical opening speech.  One day he meets a fledgling record producer Key (Anthony Anderson) who invites him to a gospel recording session at a church. Moved by the performance, Djay persuades Key work with him. Anderson matches Howard in every scene.

A makeshift studio is constructed in Djay's house.  They create a few songs and you can feel the energy in the room.  Unlike most music based films, Hustle & Flow does a great job of capturing the creative process.

The last act goes in an unexpected direction, at least from what one usually associates with "underdog" stories.  Djay believes his success depends getting his demo tape over to a famous rapper from Memphis named "Skinny Black" (Ludicris).  The final scenes almost feel like a separate movie.

On location shooting in Memphis added further authenticity. Strong supporting performances from Anthony Anderson, Taryn Manning, and D.J. Qualls save the film from being a mere formulaic Hollywood product.  Howard earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  As writer and director, Craig Brewer brings the American South alive.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) "Don't Be Trapped By Old Concepts" ***1/2

Unlike most horror movie remakes, the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands as an excellent companion piece to the 1956 classic.  The script by W.D. Richter closely follows the original's plot trajectory, but also added further depth, deeply rooted in the milieu of the late 1970s. Phillip Kaufman's direction brilliantly utilized San Francisco as a place oozing paranoia and mystery. There's an unorthodox geometry to every shot: the angles are off center and distorted. Danny Zeitlin's music, a fusion of classical and jazz adds to the disjointed vibe. Solid performances from Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy round out a brilliant film.

The story begins in outer space as amoeba like organisms drift towards earth. They land in San Francisco and begin to feed off the vegetation.  Early on we notice people are acting strange.  When Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) takes a sample of one of the plants a woman stares at her suspiciously. Meanwhile, a priest (Robert Duvall cameo) looks catatonic as he sits on a playground swing.  Elizabeth returns home and we meet her fiance Jeffrey, a typical American guy watching a game on TV.  The next morning Elizabeth discovers Jeffrey is no longer Jeffrey.  

Elizabeth explains Jeffrey's odd behavior to her co-worker, health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and he recommends she see his psychiatrist friend Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy). Kibner's one of those celebrity doctors who writes a bestseller every six months and frequently appears on talk shows.  He encourages Elizabeth to stick with Jeffrey and work on improving the relationship, noting people leave relationships too easily in the 70s.

Bennel's friend Jack (Jeff Goldblum) is a cynical writer who holds Kibner in outright contempt.  Jack goes off on a few rants denouncing the course of modern culture as if he's the last echo of the counterculture.  Jack's wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) quickly becomes wise to the fact people are being replaced by duplicates. She is well versed in the New Age trends of the 70s, among them the idea aliens have played a role in earth's history.

As the invasion gains momentum, the characters are increasingly besieged by the pod people. The tone grows increasingly downbeat. After repeated viewings you notice the soundscape moves from the natural to mechanical  Garbage trucks appear frequently for sinister purposes. Other recurring images include smashed windows and mirrors there to distort your point of view.

If the 1956 version parodied 1950s conformity, the remake comes from a post-Watergate mind set.  It's ironic that the setting of San Francisco, the heart of the counterculture, falls victim to the pod invasion.  With the hippy dream on the cusp of falling into the dust bin of history and Reagan's counter-revolution waiting in the wings, the times-were-a-changin.

In addition to the sharp social commentary, there's an even creepier spiritual undercurrent.  The pods do appear rather benevolent, as Dr. Kipner's duplicate explains, "You will be born again into an untroubled world free of anxiety."  What a relief!  No more fears or complications that can make life so unbearable.  Near the film's climax we hear a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace" playing as pods are being shipped all over the world - spreading their own message of salvation.

As a straight on horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers works. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Detour (1945) *** 1/2

Some movies come from a place so outside their time they look like they were made for another era.  Edgar G. Ulmar's Detour, filmed on a shoestring budget over one week in 1945, sounds and looks unlike anything that came before or after.  A definitive entry in the film noir genre, Detour expands in complexity and depth with each viewing.

The story follows one Al Roberts, a really down on his luck sad eyed piano player. The film begins when his girlfriend Sue, who sings at the local night club, aspires to make it as a movie star in Hollywood.  Al decides to stay behind.  So Sue heads out west and Al eventually decides to join her.  Low on cash, he hitchhikes and trouble ensues. One of his drivers dies suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of nowhere.  Afraid he'll be accussed of murder, Al assumes the man's identity.

Then he runs into Vera (Ann Savage) at a gas station.  Vera remains the ultimate femme fatale as she relentlessly inflicts verbal abuse upon Al.  She also knows he's guilty of identity theft and blackmails him.  They trade verbal barbs repeatedly.  Once they arrive in California, in a crazy coincidence, they learn the man who's identity Al stole has a rich father who is dying.  Vera tries to convince Al to impersonate the son to collect the inheritance.  It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out the scheme is completely wacko.

If you ever come across Detour, it will look horribly dated upon first viewing.  But don't be fooled, the sharp dialogue and nuanced performances keep the story humming along. Directed by German expatriate Edgar G. Ulmer, a fringe figure in Weimar Expressionist cinema, Detour has a unique, hypnotic style. If you ever wonder what a pulp story directed by an avant garde filmmaker might look like, check out Detour.  One can see a foreshadowing of Tarantino's cinema.

Tom Neal's performance as Al exudes helplessness, a man totally out of his depth. Like most film noir protagonists, he's entrapped in a maze and there's no exit.  We see his character appear over and over again, whether William H Macy in Fargo or Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.  As Al says at one point, "That's life, whichever way you turn, Fate sticks out a foot to trip you."

Friday, April 17, 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) ****

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is my favorite movie from the 1950s.  With elements of sci-fi, horror, and satire, Invasion improves with each viewing.  At 80 minutes, the film moves along at an amazing pace.  Also, Invasion is full of great shots, a creepy score, great acting, and first rate direction from Don Siegel.

The film is set in a small California town where everything runs like clockwork.  Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), the kindly local doctor, has just arrived back in town from a conference and notices his patients are acting odd. They talk about their loved ones not acting like themselves.  He rekindles a relationship with an old flame Becky (Dana Wynter) and together they try to figure out the strange behavior spreading in their community.

Eventually Miles and Becky discover the terrifying truth: people are being replaced by emotionless doubles who emerge from pods planted by aliens.  They attack when you sleep.

Interpretations of the film help explain the political climate of the 1950s:

1) McCarthyism - Many critics viewed the film as a parody of McCarthyism. America in the 50s embraced conformity and anyone outside the mainstream could be a communist - or worse.  Were the pods a portrait of Americans obsessed with conformity?

2) Anti-Communism - Or were the pods a sobering portrait of a communist society?  Emotionless, free of competition, and no religion too?

3) Anti-Fascist - Or did the pod people's groupthink and disavowal of individuality recall Nazi Germany?

Whatever one's interpretation, the political subtext adds a fascinating element.  

Humanism is also a key theme.  At one point Miles says to Becky:

All of us - a little bit - we harden our hearts, grow callous.  Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is. . .

I see the humanism as the pivotal theme:  If humanity is ever threatened with extinction, in whatever form it should arise, even the most cynical will cringe at the thought of losing their humanity.  

I plan on reviewing the remakes - all of which put their unique spin on the story.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States: ***1/2

Oliver Stone's 2012 documentary for Showtime, The Untold History of the United States, features 10 episodes starting with the Second World War and ending with the Obama years.  Don't be fooled by the pretentious title, Stone's documentary offers a thought provoking investigation of modern history.

The film consists of Stone's narration, archival footage, and some animation. Thankfully, no talking heads.

Most of the documentary deals America's engagement with the world.  The story is one of hubris and misplaced goals, a dangerous need to bend the world to its will.

Unlike most overviews of WWII, the documentary focuses on the Soviet Union's sacrifice of 20 million people in defeating Germany.  And yet America, after the war, insisted on running the post-war world, and immediately treated the Soviets as an adversary.  

Stone also raises serious questions about the decision to use the bomb twice on Japan. Of course historians have debated the issue for years.  A general consensus arose, best summarized in the Paul Fussell essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb", argued that using the bomb was awful, but necessary.  Others believe the Japanese were ready to accept peace terms, making the use of the bomb unnecessary.  As decades roll by, America's use of the bombs grows more problematic.

Much of the documentary follows the New Left critique of foreign policy, one based on expanding markets at all costs.  Leaders in the establishment, the "wise men", as they came to be known, implemented a policy of Containment against the Soviets, involving massive military budgets, costly wars in Korea and Vietnam, and a maddening arms race.  The conventional narrative saw the Soviet Union as bent on global domination with the United States as the sole defender of freedom - a myth perpetuated to this day.

The series improves as it moves along, especially into contemporary history.  A few conclusions can be made.  The 1980s looked like wild west in world affairs, with proxy wars and interventions at every corner. Neoconservatives in the Reagan administration, the intellectual nemesis of the New Left, believed in supporting authoritarian regimes and reactionary movements in the Third World.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, greeted by many as an American victory in the Cold War, proved yet another misleading "victory" narrative.  Instead of welcoming Russia as a partner at "the end of history", the United States during the Bush and Clinton administrations continued to antagonize the Russians by expanding NATO, proceeding with anti-missile programs, and weaponizing space.

The First Gulf War in 1991 dazzled TV viewers as the U.S. military demonstrated its superiority for television audiences.  Stone raises the right questions about the new wars and our culture's worshipful attitude towards technology. Drone warfare promises an all new and perhaps deadlier arms race.

Stone singles out a few individuals in American history such as Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy.  All looked beyond the constraints of their time and envisioned a peaceful future with America setting the example - and not at the barrel of a gun, missile, or drone.

Although you might not agree with all of Stone's conclusions, the documentary offers a strong argument for truth and considering the roads not taken.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) ***

The satirical 2010 documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop explores the mysterious artist known as Banksy.  Based in England, Banksy's style calls to mind Warhol, Tarantino, and Che Guevara. He leaves subversive, ironic pieces of art at strategic locations around the world. For example, he once visited Disneyland and left a dummy of a Guantanamo prisoner beside the Thunder Mountain rollercoaster - much to the chagrin of Disney Security.  In a suspicious twist, Banksy takes over directing duties halfway through the film and the focus then shifts to Mr. Brainwash (who had been filming Bansky). We also meet other street artists such as Invader, who creates images from the classic video game Space Invaders.  Or Shepard Fairey, an L.A. based artist who fashions images of Andre the Giant with an "Obey" inscription.  Meanwhile Mr. Brainwash, a French expat living in LA, creates his own mash up portraits of pop culture icons, a twist on Warhol.  Mr. Brainwash evolves into a sort of doppelganger of Bansky; one who creates art for fame and fortune.  While Exit Through the Gift Shop maintains a comical tone, there's a queasy undercurrent on the inevitable commodification of all art. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Wrecking Crew **1/2

Many of those 60s hits still played on oldies radio feature musicians who never received credit for their contributions. "The Wrecking Crew", an unofficial group of session musicians based in Los Angeles, played a pivotal role in the evolution of American pop music. The number of hits they played on is literally the soundtrack of your life: everything from Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, the Beach Boys epochal LP Pet Sounds, Sonny and Cher, and many others. Ironically, most of the musicians were trained in jazz and looked askance at Rock and Roll.  Lively interviews with former members, including guitarist Tommy Tedesco whose son directed the documentary, take up most of the film.  As a nostalgia trip and the chance to hear some great tunes, The Wrecking Crew will return you to the era. Perhaps more detail about how the crew worked with the artists would've been more interesting rather than an endless stream of "good old days" anecdotes.  For example, the making of Pet Sounds could stand as a documentary on its own.  Nevertheless, The Wrecking Crew fills a gap in the history of American music as portrayed on film.

For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism ***

From 2008, the documentary For the Love of Movies examines the evolution of film criticism.  Interviews with critics of varying backgrounds describe their love of film and why they write about it.

Vachel Lindsay's book The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) is credited with being the first serious study of movies .  As movies matured, film criticism followed suit.  By the 60s and 70s critics were at the height of their influence on the culture. Their reviews could make or break a film.  Some critics even went on to make their own movies, Peter Bogdanovich and Paul Schrader being two examples.  

At The Village Voice Andrew Sarris popularized the French New Wave auteur theory, the idea that film directors are like the author of a novel. Pauline Kael's iconoclastic reviews for the The New Yorker revolutionized film criticism with incisive, deeply personal, stream of consciousness writing.

By the 1980s, a new crop of critics fueled by the video store revolution embraced mass media and film geekdom. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert's weekly TV show turned the film critic into a something of a pop culture icon.  Meanwhile a backlash arose against "elitist" critics who sneered at Hollywood's growing reliance on blockbusters. The rise of the internet leveled the playing field and gave rise to the cliche "everyone is a critic."

The documentary contends film criticism no longer matters. True to a certain extent, but the more voices the better.  The good ones will stand out from the crowd. While podcasts and blogs have added so much to the conversation, it's increasingly difficult to make a living at it.  

Print critics are still important as well. My favorites are Dana Stevens at Slate, A.O Scott at the New York Times, and David Thomson at Film Comment. All carry the torch of well informed critical writing.

Good criticism remains the same in whatever form it appears.  For a history of the craft - check out For the Love of Movies (currently streaming on Netflix).