Friday, November 21, 2014
CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR would be Nichols' swan song in 2007, capping a career of mostly excellent films, including THE GRADUATE, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, CLOSER, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, ANGELS IN AMERICA, and many more. I've yet to see WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, his scorching debut.
Nichols was just as renowned for his stage work, recently mounting productions of Spamalot and Death of a Salesman. Many younger fans may be unaware of his earlier days as 1/2 of the great comedy team of Nichols and (Elaine) May. Their brand of humor is sorely missed: comedy based more or characterization than jokes. Check out some YouTube clips; this is how it's done.
Monday, November 17, 2014
But writer/first time director Dan Gilroy does not shed any light on Lou's earlier years, what led/reduced him, as the film opens, to hawking stolen metal parts to junk yards. One buyer sees straight through Lou's corporate zombie speak/positive thinking/"what color is your parachute" patter when he asks for a job: "I'm not hiring a fucking thief." Undaunted, Lou combs the night looking for other career opportunities, finally seeing his bright future when he discovers that accident and crime scenes can mean big paydays. That night when Lou watches the police pull a woman from a twisted wreck and the guys videotaping it. Local network affiliates offer sometimes generous fees for grisly footage. "If it bleeds, it leads!" cries amateur crewman/eventual competitor Joe (Bill Paxton).
Lou buys himself a cheap camera and police scanner (to scope potential material), clumsily attempting to capture footage that may provide a lead in to the Morning News. He's threatened with arrest and pushed back by cops and EMTs, but a start-up entrepreneur sees no obstacle. He'll at last get that money shot, the close-up of gore over which T.V. news directors salivate. In Nina (Rene Russo), Lou will (eventually) find a like-minded opportunist, a woman who lives and dies by overnight ratings, who hops from station to station every few years when the numbers go south.
Nina is near sixty, desperate, bitter. Lou sizes her up quickly, and her industry where a half hour news program spends mere seconds on stories about the infrastructure and politics but precious minutes on murders and home invasions.
Lou is a go-getter. A real producer. He'll beat the police to crime scenes, capture video inside private homes, even re-arrange a corpse to get what he needs. With the assistance of a slow-witted drifter named Rick (Riz Ahmed), Lou will prove himself to be the ultimate closer, even manipulating both criminals and the police into a shoot out and deadly chase to get the goods.
NIGHTCRAWLER, for all of its strong points, still falls short of being the expected nasty little classic. Gilroy has written a tight and cynical tale that speaks of many ills, but often it feels a day late and a few dollars short. Local news? Almost a quaint notion these days. I'm sure there's still an audience, but this tale would've resonated a lot more 20-30 or more years ago. With cable news and smartphone ubiquity these days, the plotline is a bit stale. Yet, technology plays a vital part in NIGHTCRAWLER, namely the Internet and GPS. Lou states that his education came entirely from hours online, in fact. It might explain his complete lack of ability to relate to others in any human way. Others are rather pawns, tools to "get to the next level."
Gyllenhaal is just great in his role, total ownership. The isolation and behavior of Lou reminded me of Travis Bickle and Patrick Bateman more than once. His emaciated appearance allows eyes sunken into a gaunt face, positively ghoulish, especially when he smiles. You can just as easily see him behind a lectern in a boardroom as lurking on L.A. streets. His dialogue is a virtual reprisal of every corporate manual, every cold performance review ("It's clear that I have more faith in your abilities than you do."). Gilroy is clearly evoking not just headline making CEOs but any middle management drone. Taken to the next level, natch. Russo also has her best role in many years.
Robert Elswit, frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson, frames the cityscape so beautifully, so enticingly, and so icily. His work here is among his best. Another example of L.A. is a character. NIGHTCRAWLER has some of the best location work I've seen. And yet, it all feels so retro, even cheesy at times. The attempt to use James Newton Howard's feel good score in an ironic fashion doesn't quite come off. While there are some thrilling moments of action, the film does resist opportunities for pace halting sex scenes and over the top violence, but Gilroy's direction somehow makes everything feel like we're merely watching a smart B-movie.
Friday, November 14, 2014
But consider a novelist who has his work poorly adapted for the big screen. Or a screenwriter who watches his masterpiece bowdlerized. This happens frequently in Hollywood. Would these writers be willing to accept the thoughts expressed in my first paragraph?
Former Los Angeles cop Joseph Wambaugh began penning the exploits of the men in blue in the City of Angels in the early '70s. The novels were laceratingly good reads, apparently loaded with authenticity. Television programs like Police Story and The Blue Knight were born. There were also decent to good movies like THE NEW CENTURIONS, THE ONION FIELD, and THE BLACK MARBLE. But in 1977 there was also THE CHOIRBOYS.
Based on Wambaugh's highly regarded 1975 novel, THE CHOIRBOYS is, I can say without even a hint of hesitation, one of the worst movies I've ever seen. A disjointed, unfunny, badly paced, immoral waste of celluloid. Truly. I wasn't expecting much, as for over 30 years I've been hearing how awful the movie was. That Wambuagh took legal action to have his name removed from the credits and to this day still angrily denounces it was really all I needed to know. Yet I was still compelled to watch.
With many restricted films of its era, during which I was just a child, I had this odd fascination. I remember the original TV spots for THE CHOIRBOYS, the ads in the newspaper. The marketing aggressive to inform us that this was an outrageous, irreverent picture with "stuff you won't see on TV." Unless you had HBO, of course, where this film played not long after its short run in theaters. But by the time we had pay TV in my house, the movie was never shown. The mystique grew. Its lack of availability for many years added intrigue, as is the case for many movies with similar fates.
How bad is THE CHOIRBOYS? Finding even one element for which to recommend it is difficult. Even with its large, accomplished cast of actors like Charles Durning, Robert Webber, and James Woods. Pros that they are, they still fail to make this worth your precious two hours. It's a film that is almost consistently vile, and when it isn't it is just plain dull.
The story follows a group of L.A. lawmen who have frequent sessions of "choir practice", nights to decompress after hard days on the job. Sometimes in someone's apartment but most often at McCarthur Park where, one night, a particularly loathsome cop (Tim McIntire) is drugged and tied naked to a tree. The other cops laugh and laugh, shown doubled over. It goes on for awhile, to make certain that we get that this is supposed to be funny. The audience does not share their merriment. Then, after his cohorts leave him, an effeminate man with a pink poodle approaches and thanks the Lord above. Har dee har. No caricatures here.
Another moment, one of those you couldn't see on TV: an overweight cop works his way under a glass table, upon which a female cop called "No Balls" Hadley is sitting sans underwear. He puts his tongue to the glass. Before that, Hadley is groped by Durning's character, nicknamed "Sperm Whale" in a swimming pool. Ah, boys will be boys. And hey, whaddaya think of that scene where a disliked lieutenant is lured to a hotel room by a hooker, then photographed in a compromising position by two other cops? Are you laughing?
The first hour of THE CHOIRBOYS in fact plays like a POLICE ACADEMY movie, though it predates the series by seven years. There's even a scene when all the cops try to back out of their parking spaces at the same time and cause a gridlock. Another where a guy tries to arouse his wife very early one morning for some action, boasting he has something that will wake her up. "Only if you poke it in my eye," she deadpans.
The second hour gets all serious, with a repellant plot line involving the accidental shooting of a gay man by one of the men in blue (who suffers Vietnam flashbacks) and the subsequent cover up. Another cop is seen dealing with an addiction to sadomasichism.
It's little wonder why Wambaugh demanded control over future adaptations. The rape and burial of his novel here is near breathtaking, a real textbook example. To add insult, director Robert Aldrich (why, Bob, why?) frames the movie like a cheap T.V. show, complete with "wipes" between scenes and an awful score by Frank DeVol that is one of the most incongruous to the screen action and inappropriate I've ever heard. There are no transitions between scenes, just a crude collection of them.
Defenders of this movie cite things like "they don't make 'em like this anymore" or "this was back when comedies weren't so PC..." etc. These statements are true, and chauvanism, racism, and other all around bad behavior can be funny, but...here things are just foolish and offensive. A reactionary scuz pit of sleaze. Maybe I would've actually liked THE CHOIRBOYS when I was eight.
Too bad Robert Altman didn't get his hands on this project. His (seemingly) disorganized approach with this ensemble may have made the thing palatable.
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
My wife and I were walking off a heavy dinner in downtown Lake Worth, FL on a recent Saturday evening when the above poster caught her eye. She has worked for an immigration attorney for several years and may well know as much about the film's subject as that of the filmmakers. She has very strong opinions, informed by her unique position, her role in the processes of those who seek to gain a green card, a work permit, to become legal residents, etc.
One of DEPORTED's directors was standing in front of the Stonzek Theater that night, encouraging folks to see her film. Hors d'ouevres and rum punch (that was mostly rum) were served beforehand. Sponsored by the Boca Black project, the film was on a mini tour of South Florida, having played in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale days earlier. Co-director Rachele Magiere also fielded questions from the audience of forty or so at our showing afterwards. Most seemed to reflect a real lack of understanding of immigration laws, which changed drastically in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act. It states:
"Immigrants unlawfully present in the United States for 180 days but less than 365 days must remain outside the United States for three years unless they obtain a pardon. If they are in the United States for 365 days or more, they must stay outside the United States for ten years unless they obtain a waiver. If they return to the United States without the pardon, they may not apply for a waiver for a period of ten years."
Previously, it would require more serious criminal offenses that would guarantee five or more years behind bars for someone to be deported. Under the 1996 Act, even minor offenses were fair game. And then came 9/11/2001.
Magiere and Chantal Ragnault interview several men in Haiti who were deported from the U.S. after many years on American soil. They grew up in this culture. All had left the economically depressed nation when they were quite young and now found themselves back in a territory as alien as anything could possibly be. It's a dangerous, dirt poor existence, a "hell", as one man, back in Haiti for 20 years but still not adjusted, describes it. We see the conditions under which he and the others live, total squalor.
Each subject had committed an offense in the States, served jail time, and were then sent "home." Richard, our 20 year subject, also describes Haiti as a continuation of jail. He and the others, whose crimes included dealing drugs and burglary, angrily denounce the U.S. most of the time. Their families back in the States are shown reacting to the videotaped interviews: crying, shaking their heads, though some feel the bed was made......
DEPORTED is an engrossing hour that effectively documents each man's plight. One could not exactly call the film objective yet it is not exactly a bleeding heart tract. Points of view from the deported and their families back home (many of whom live in ghettos themselves, though far better than that of the deported) are given equal time. It is a raw, straightforward, completely unslick doc.
The film does not answer several questions, many of which nagged my wife: Were the subjects' parents, who brought them to the U.S., illegals or not? And what of those parents' roles in shaping their children's attitudes? During the Q & A, one audience member asked why no women were featured. Magiere stated that they did follow one, but her dialogue and overall situation "did not fit in with the rest of the film". I'd like to hear her story. Maybe a future DVD deleted feature?
To me, DEPORTED plays like a deterrent to would-be criminals, a warning as to what fate lies ahead for the undocumented who screw up. Yet, it's tough to tell if that was what merely what was intended. Magiere's accent was also tough to decifer as she took questions after the movie, and her attitude did not point clearly toward either a soft or hardline take on immigration reform. It was more of a sad resignation. Her advocacy remains, but at the end of the day, did these men earn their fates? Can the take home message of DEPORTED be as simple as "crime doesn't pay"??
The topic of immigration is a guaranteed inflammatory among dinner guests. My wife is a compassionate person but she has seen many who've tried to "milk the system." I think on my grandmother, who turned 101 in October, and how she had no choice but to learn English when she arrived in NYC from Italy in the early 1920s. She "did the right thing", even when circumstances were desperate. How does that relate to the Mexican who found his or herself in Texas after a "coyote" (funded by the illegal's family back home) trekked them over the border? Does everyone have the same opportunity? As I said: complicated.
P.S. In an interesting bit of coincidence, former Haitian leader Jean-Claude Duvalier, aka "Baby Doc", passed away on the day we saw DEPORTED. Duvalier was in exile in France from the mid 1980s until 2011 after years of iron fist rule.
Friday, November 7, 2014
BIRDMAN or (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) is also not the first film to feature a lead character who is informed/inspired/tormented by an alter ego. TRUE ROMANCE featured Christian Slater being tutored by Elvis Presley. But writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu's (BABEL) latest is a certified original, a real stunner. To me, the most exciting film I've seen in a very long time. It is a grand example of how the appreciation of the art form of film is truly not what it's about, but how it's about. That does not mean "style over substance", as the screenplay makes points that should convict you where you live, at times (and not just to actors). But the form is the thing, the cinematic essence, and BIRDMAN employs a maestro's modulation that blindsided and delighted me straight through to the final moments.
An actor named Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) finds himself in the opening scene in a dingy dressing room, wondering how he went from bankable movie star to has-been thespian trying to make his adaptation of a Raymond Carver story work on the Broadway stage. His role as a superhero called Birdman made him a household name and spawned a trio of over-the-top action spectacles, perhaps the kind Joel Silver used to produce. But that was over twenty years before. When people actually existed without social media.
Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone), again out of rehab, is his assistant. She's typical of her generation: tech savvy, caustic, jaded, apathetic. She nails her father with a lengthy rant as to how irrelevant he is in this age of Twitter and Facebook. Riggan also finds himself dressed down in person by a New York Times theater critic, the type who can wield her pen and close a show with one acid review, a gut punch to his confidence. Maybe she's right. Who is he to tackle Carver? And there's also coveted actor Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), newly cast to the company and brimming with arrogance about his craft. Hell, everything.
But the biggest thorn in the side of Riggan Thompson is Birdman himself, his old character that perhaps never left his cortex. Always demeaning and pissing on his host's attempts at a clean start - an ammends to his family, friends, and still adoring public. Is it conscience? Reason? Left-brain logic? Heard in a raspy voice, the "superhero" persona dispenses toxic advice and encouragement for an unbrided id to (continue to) act on the baser impulses. It's a fascinating battle to witness. These scenes take the film to surrealistic heights, places best not described here, for the discovery of them is part of the film's charm and magic.
If you've read anything about BIRDMAN you know that the entire film was skillfully constructed to resemble one long take. There have been other features to try this but I have not seen them. Here, it is mostly seamless. You will try to find the cuts, but resist that. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione lead viewers through all corners and rafters of the St. James Theater (where most of the film takes place) in a breathless dance, a whirl of nervous energy that doesn't necessarily lead where you expect. The choices for focal points are certainly fodder for interpretation (why do you think we linger on that hallway?).
Accompanying the story is a propulsive score and at various times a drummer is seen doing his stick work in the background of a scene. It manages to be distracting, disturbing, electrifying, and strangely appropriate. This is one of several seemingly disparate elements which create a unique experience, a real-one-of-a-kind bit of movie going.
Every cast member is at the top of his or her talents. While, yes, having Keaton play this character is a big meta exercise (you recall the actor's late 80s/early 90s franchise participation), he explodes in every scene both with torrents of repressed anger and a mellower, resigned wisdom. He's aged, and so have his longtime viewers. Now and then you recognize some of those quirks Keaton trademarked in his 80s films, too, adding even more to the poignancy of it at this late date. Norton is every bit his match, likewise barreling through the movie with brio, his fiery take on the insufferably brash (though very self aware) thesp. Perhaps he too is pulling the trigger on his real-life image. The two actors literally come to blows at one point but more often claw at each other's egos in speeches that deconstruct the whole acting/celebrity culture with scalding precision.
Stone gives a real game changing performance with her bitter/vulnerable turn and Naomi Watts, while not having the flashiest role is effective in her insecurities as a first time actress on the Great White Way. Her Lesley could almost be an East Coast version of the innocent she played (at least in the earlier scenes) in Lynch's MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Most surprising is Zach Galifianakis as Riggins' lawyer and friend Jake. He's funny and unpredictable and demonstrably capable of more than we've seen elsewhere. I believe we'll look at him quite differently after BIRDMAN. And there will be nominations for members of this cast.
Many have written that some of the best cinema in recent years has come out of Mexico and BIRDMAN most certainly backs that up. Iñárritu's film contains elements of many films past, familiar storylines and characters and scenarios and glares at them with newer, wilder eyes, with deeper respect. With a new perspective on the possibilities of film that seemed all but dead. Plus, it's another one to cite as to how foreigners seem to understand American culture better than Americans.
Monday, November 3, 2014
I just finished watching Before Sunset, the perhaps long-overdue follow-up to 1995's Before Sunrise. Director Richard Linklater and his actors, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy, all return to allow us to again peek into the lives of two cynical romantics who spend the films' running times pontificating ad nauseam while they traverse European cities with pretty scenery. In the earlier film, Hawke played a tourist who strikes up a conversation with an attractive French girl. They spend the evening yakking to each other in cafes and through alleyways and cemeteries. It was an enjoyable, romantic picture.
This time, the characters have grown older and again get to spend some time theorizing on why love just really sucks (but life without it is unthinkable). The journey this time is again pleasant, but I was struck at how immature both characters seemed. For all their supposed growth, they seemed awfully self-obsessed and shallow. Sure, they write and participate in political rallies and travel, but their emotional development seemed regressive, possibly even less developed than before. They whine about how life has disappointed them. Articulately, I might add. It is a pleasure to hear intelligent discourse in films for a change. But, the lack of responsibility Hawke's character displays left me cold, rendering the supposed happy ending a bit hollow. His narcissism is laid bare, and damn his wife and kid back home--HE'S NOT FULFILLED!
Maybe I'm just older and see through the slacker/Gen-X arrested development BS quite a bit more clearly now. I was there. The self-absorption bit is destructive, and (rightly) tries the patience of all who are infected by such behavior. Maybe the point (at least in part) was to draw these characters as such (the 3 principals wrote the screenplay). That does not make it easier to root for their courtship, however. Still, Linklater and his collaborators have fashioned another trip worth taking. Insightful, laden with eye pleasing vistas, and occasionally inspiring, Before Sunset is a document of a generation. Perhaps the film's most effective, if certainly unintentional, impression is the strong argument it makes for the use of SSRIs.
I was pretty much alone in my opinion on the second installment, but as someone once quipped, "Pharoah's heart is hard", invisible audience; I was and am unrepentant on my feelings. So why would I bother with Part Three? I didn't, for awhile. But I respect the actors and director Rick Linklater and recognize the talent behind these films, these dizzyingly verbose experiments. I was again expecting the pleasures of hearing real dialogue, exchanges with some substance. But I was dreading what I considered inevitable pretension. Sometimes intelligent discourse is nonetheless embarrassing and self-serving. All three BEFORE movies are guilty of this. But that's who these characters are, and I admire that the creative trio never whitewashes this.
It's nearly a decade later and Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Delpy) have now long been a couple. They have twin girls. BEFORE MIDNIGHT opens as Jesse sees his teenage son (from his failed marriage) off at the airport after a summer vacation in Greece. Jesse has lived in France since we last saw him and greatly misses the boy. His guilt riddles him near incapacitated, enough to suggest to his wife that perhaps they could move back to the States. She is not fond of this idea for the reasons many Europeans would inevitably cite. "I don't want to find myself buying peanut butter in Chicago," she sighs during one of several arguments.
And BEFORE SUNSET spends a majority of its time documenting the fallout, the latter day bitterness that would likewise be inevitable. This is not the romantic, dewy eyed waltz through ancient plazas like the earlier films. Jesse and Celine are now hardened individuals. I hesitate to say "adults" because they still act like petulant brats. I wanted to heave rotten vegetables at them several times. But they're acting like many people their age do in these days. Sometimes I wonder if there are any adults under the age of 50 anymore. Generation X and following have produced gaggles of self-obsessed, ironic T-shirt wearing children.
This is very apparent in the scene around a dinner table, where a few generations of couples share their views on relationships. A wistful elderly woman describes her feelings and memories of her late husband, how he is sometimes seen clearly, then fading when the reality of her current life crashes in. By contrast, the younger characters offer paper thin, sometimes embarrassingly narcissistic commentary on their own damaged unions.
My patience was waning with BEFORE MIDNIGHT, but then came the final act - the lengthy hotel room battle between the two principals. An uncomfortably real, beautifully acted sequence which offers real insight on the complexities of relationships. The dialogue is scaldingly realistic. It is not fun to watch, and if you're with your significant other you may find yourself wanting to slink out of the room, but it really encapsules the dynamic, the arc of this union. It makes all of the pretension from earlier worth the slog.
Friday, October 31, 2014
The film is atmospheric. Starkly photographed by Davis Boulton. You can almost feel the chill in the air. Director Robert Wise shot the film at Ettington Hall (now a hotel) in rural England. Eerie things happen throughout the movie: noises throughout fill hallways and bang on doors in the wee hours, mysterious writing is discovered on a wall. THE HAUNTING is indeed a ghost story, set in an old mansion called Hill House with a long history of tragedy. Untimely deaths and a suicide. Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson) narrates this for us in the opening scenes.
Markway invites two women to the mansion to assist with his investigations in the paranormal, including Theodora (Claire Bloom) and a very shy woman named Eleanor (Julie Harris), who had spent years caring for her sickly mother, recently deceased. She is, to say the least, emotionally volatile. Why someone so unstable would be on the doctor's "shortlist" is but one of many of the screenplay's many faults. Eleanor is so out of sorts and shrieky that your patience with her, before her ultimate (and perhaps inevitable) fate, may well run out before the film's two hours elapse. Before the film can tie its themes of the occult and reincarnation together in an admittedly efficient closing.
Nelson Gidding, who based his script on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, is the real culprit as to THE HAUNTING's ultimate failure. He thoroughly blands fascinating source material and the overall scenario with one dull scene after another. Things become very tedious. His characterizations are also dull, though Bloom transcends her part and is absolutely seductive as the sly psychic, with possible lesbian tendencies. Harris gives the part her all but remains annoying and hard to identity with (much less cheer on). Her erratic (bi-polar?) behavior and cloying voiceovers are often painful. The other roles are thankless, including Russ Tamblyn as the son of the heir of Hill House. His injections of humor fall flat.
But on a technical level, the film sometimes delivers. Wise employs then-new anamorphic Panavision and innovative lighting to make his film dreamlike. His direction is mostly excellent, despite having little with which to work. The sets by Eliot Scott are sensational. I liked the spiral staircase, always threatening to unbolt from the wall.
THE HAUNTING is such a disappointment, especially for a film Martin Scorsese calls one of the scariest of all time. I wasn't scared, just non-plussed.