Monday, December 11, 2017

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

John McCabe isn't good for much.  He's a businessman but seems more content with low stakes poker games and egg in his beer.  He can't even do arithmetic. He's had some degree of success but barely thinks beyond saloon walls.  There's a rumor that he killed an important man some time ago.

In the Pacific Northwest in the turn of the century, McCabe finds himself in a town called Presbyterian Church, but most folks there don't seem too devout to things spiritual.  Brothels do a brisk business.  When Mrs. Miller rides into town, she seeks to expand McCabe's low rent whore house into something classy, with clean linens and all.  Even a bath house.  This would be quite something in this muddy wasteland of a town that must reak of alcohol and dirty overalls.  Mrs. Miller is smart, sexy, and has a head for business. She brings in some girls from San Francisco.  The kitty fills with cash.  She explains that when clients are slow to arrive you gotta keep the girls busy otherwise they get bored and read the Bible. Then the church fills up instead of the house.

How does a two bitter like McCabe fit into Mrs. Miller's life?  Business partner? Lover? She charges him the top rate of five dollars, just like any other client.  She makes him take a bath like all the others.  But she will soften eventually.  She doesn't tell him of her opium habit. What will happen when representatives from a mining company offer to buy out McCabe's enterprise?


1971's MCCABE & MRS. MILLER is nominally a Western but refuses to play like one. Even with a climactic manhunt when pistols are raised.  Robert Altman directs with his usual wandering eye but this time the audience is never denied what the key players are saying or doing.  That multi talker babble/overlapping soundtrack is there as always, but even if you're not listening through headphones you should catch what you need.  You'll want to pay particular attention to McCabe's ramblings, particularly towards the end, when he describes himself as "full of poetry" during a realization that he is not the smartest or bravest of his gender.  But he is not the only flawed, tragic figure in this story.

With many of his films, Altman distances himself from the material (THE LONG GOODBYE, QUINTET, even MASH) but here he seems to be as invested in his characters as they are. There is more dramatic tension than usual.  His script, co-written by Brian McKay, is more than just a jumping off point for improvisation. The social observations are as pointed as ever.  But also, so many points made about the encroachment of progress, technology, and the timeless vice of greed.  The Old West was dying, choked by corporations that nary give a whit about the individual.  Altman could certainly relate to that.  Maybe he saw himself like McCabe, downed in a snowdrift.

The director clearly sees through D.P. Vilmos Zsigmond's dirty lens, capturing the grime and ice so vividly as to make the viewer feel somewhat immersed.   The use of three Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack only adds to the overall feeling of isolation and defeat.  The loneliness is palpable. This is my favorite Altman picture.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Aerial

Are you old enough to remember the heyday of T.V. antennas? Your only method of receiving signals from local (and some faraway) stations? You can still see them atop some houses, hospitals, businesses.  To me, they are not blights on the landscape, but rather comforting reminders of simpler times.  Those that remain stand tall in this digital and even nearly post-cable age, almost defiant in their stance, like a soldier holding a post, despite frequent punishing weather.  VHF and UHF forever!

Yes, I realize that antennas are still used, they just don't receive analog signals.  One needs a digital converter box if the television is analog.

Until the early 1980s, we had one.  The last one was shaped like an arrow.  While the stations from Broward county were still a bit snowy, I fondly remember Channel 45, with its reruns of Leave It To Beaver and Channel 51 showing old Bat Masterson episodes.  The Holy Grail was the VHF Channel 6, which seemed to be very intriguing programming (I was a TV Guide maven in those days).  It was an independent out of Miami, and even people in Ft. Lauderdale had trouble picking it up.  Once for a few glorious days I was actually able to get it on the little black and white in my bedroom, with its bent two pronged square protrusion in the back.  It was astonishing.  The wind must have been blowing just right.  Radio host Big Wilson did some spots. A between programs bit called "Snippets", aimed at children, had educational value.   Things like this thrilled my young heart.

How crushing! Hurricane David sent out beloved aerial into our backyard in 1979.  We also lost power for several days.  I stayed with my grandparents, who lived a bit east of us.  They had no such setbacks.  I helped my dad reinstall the mighty antenna, and it remained there for another two years or so.  Actually, a bit longer.

My friend down the street got cable circa 1981. The Showtime pay TV channel.  Of course I was down there as much as possible.  After a round of Marco Polo in his pool we'd watch uncut movies like AIRPLANE! and MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  It was magical.  No commercials! People were swearing! When we happened to catch the sketch comedy show Bizarre, we got to see female breasts.   We were twelve.  A very big deal.

Somehow, I convinced my parents to subscribe to Showtime.  I can still remember hearing my mother gasp in the other room when she first watched Bizarre.  She was not as liberal as my friend's mother, who actually let her son and I watch such "smut".  I was raised in an environment where you were more or less taught that you would go blind if you saw female nudity in a movie or show.  Violence was OK.  I've never understood that, or heard a satisfactory explanation in its defense. Why? Because there isn't one.  Talk to someone who grew up in say, Europe in earlier years.  Nudity was very common on T.V., even in commercials.  I imagine most of those impressionable viewers turned out to be well adjusted adults, free of the hang-ups that plague so many Americans.


So now the mighty antenna was just a prop, an ersatz weather mane.  No longer needed.  Cable cleared the snow.  I was not nostalgic for "regular TV" though I still watched plenty of network shows well into the 80s. My father finally pulled old faithful down.  I don't recall being even slightly sad about it.

When analog signals ceased to be transmitted in 2009 (excluding some low power stations), many aerials remained but their time had certainly passed.  I always think of childhood when I see them.  Innocent family time around the T.V. before cable invaded and desensitized us.  It's a nice memory, a warm feeling.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Verdict

1982's THE VERDICT is a filmed masterpiece.  A choice example of how to polish the old underdog victory tale and create what I consider to be a work of art.  David Mamet, known for a very distinctive style of dialogue, did write the screenplay, and is good as it is, to me it is the weakest element of this movie.  Great films don't necessarily come from great screenplays.  I say this regarding THE VERDICT for several reasons: there are holes in the plot; there are questionable actions committed by lawyers and judges that would likely get them dismissed (if not disbarred); there are some contrived elements.   Viewers who appreciate and recognize how to discern cinematic art will not be distracted by such deficiencies.
 
Orchestrating THE VERDICT is the great Sidney Lumet, director of too many landmark films to mention.  THE VERDICT joins them.  Rarely has a film been as effective in stillness and silence as it is in its more audible moments.  Many of the later scenes occur in a courtroom, with a few intense exchanges and a witness stand breakdown.  Just about every movie and T.V. show with this setting have verbal fireworks in chambers and in court.  To convey the urgency of a broken soul vying not just for a professional comeback but also some sort of redemption requires less, for more.

Newman plays Frank Galvin, a once prominent Boston lawyer whose whistle blowing against corruption in his firm some years back earned him jail time and a broken marriage.  He now spends his days drowning in booze and playing pinball.  Reduced to scouring the obituaries and trolling funerals for potential clients.  When his old mentor Mickey (a feisty Jack Warden) sends a medical malpractice case his way, Galvin sees a potential glimmer in the darkness.  Mickey, too, knowing that the Archidiocese would rather settle out of court than have the Catholic hospital suffer bad publicity.  But then Frank visits the victim - a young woman who became comatose after improper administration of an anesthetic - in her facility.  He sees more than a surefire payday; he feels a moral obligation.

Frank's decision to go to trial is a surprise to everyone, including the obstinate judge (Milo O'Shea).  The victim's sister and brother-in-law are angered and bewildered.  Does Galvin really believe he can win?

Lumet uses interiors and exteriors very effectively.  The drab color palate suits the mood . Deep browns of courtrooms and offices.   Dark spaces, barely lamplit.  The bite of winter informs outdoor scenes, whether seen in close-up (Frank's realization that his star witness has bailed on him) or from a bird's eye view (Mickey informs Frank of a stinging betrayal). I especially like the second example, filmed with only the sounds of the city.  Perhaps Lumet felt it more effective that way.  I agree; the pain Frank feels at that moment is best observed from such a vantage point, with the loneliness of the city about him.  Andrzej Bartkowiak's cinematography is perfect at every moment.

Newman is simply great, using expressions and relatively spare dialogue to convey his personal hell.  The bathroom scene, the one in which he is crippled in anxiety, will ring painfully familiar not only to recovering addicts but anyone ever paralyzed by the fear of failure.   James Mason is appropriately menacing, yet always so dapper and polished, as the opposing counsel.  Charlotte Rampling is elegantly downtrodden, beautiful yet unspeakably sad, as Laura, a woman with whom Frank becomes involved.   The attraction is understandable for several reasons; they do have much in common.  

I also really like the final scene, where one pays for their sins and the other, though perhaps troubled in the moment, enjoys a moment of respite. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Logan

SPOILERS

It's encouraging to see a superhero film like this year's LOGAN, and it does most everything right.  While some of the darker tinged comic books collapse under their own seriousness, this installment in the X-MEN series closes a chapter on one of its most celebrated mutants without feeling like a two plus hour dirge.  In other words, it's still an exciting super hero movie, with powerful action scenes and demonstrations of super powers and big special effects.  But it's appealingly grounded, in every sense of the word.  I guess the right description would be, human.

Nonetheless, some viewers may not want to see an aging/aged Wolverine, ne Logan (Hugh Jackman) addicted to booze and analgesics while pushing his old mentor Professor X ne Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who's suffering degeneration of his brain, in a wheelchair.  It's 2029.  The last mutant was born a quarter century before.  Logan makes a living as a limo driver in Southern Texas.  Across the border, he lives in an old smelting plant with Charles and albino mutant tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant).  Logan's efforts to lay low are destroyed when he is approached by both a mysterious Mexican woman and a guy named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), who is looking for her.  There is also a little girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who may be the woman's daughter, and may not be what she appears.

Much of LOGAN is on the road, as after a series of violent showdowns Logan and Charles escort Laura to North Dakota, where there is a rumored safe haven for "special" children.  The journey is expectedly perilous, and the trio brings death and destruction to many they encounter.   I'm leaving out lots of details, but I think you can fill in the blanks.  Even though LOGAN is not a film that lives or dies by surprises and certainly not by its oft told story, I won't ruin it for you.

The film does feature the bloodiest violence I have seen in an official comic book movie.  Those retractable claws do some serious impaling this time out.  This is perhaps the balls-out film Marvel fans have been waiting for.  While certainly not the caustic equivalent of last year's DEADPOOL, LOGAN does release the shackles of any previous restraint with its relentless mayhem and truckloads of profanity.  This is an unapologetically R-rated feature.  I did not find a moment of it gratuitous.

Director/co-writer James Mangold in fact has created a drama (quite similar to a Western) about the end of a life that just happens to involve a man who is one hundred and ninety seven years old.  But middle agers like me will recognize that he looks to rather be merely pushing fifty. That's relatable.  So is the fact that he doesn't heal like he used to (never mind that that includes gunshots).  And so is the fact that Charles Xavier's failing telepathy results in violent seizure like events (never mind that they cause seismic rumbles that render anyone within a few city blocks paralyzed).  To call the film great drama is a stretch, but like other exemplary films of this type it effectively transcends its comic book origins to become something more.  More serious, more involving emotionally.  Not another mere video game.

I like how throughout the movie, Logan rifles through X-Men comic books and shakes his head, damning what he considers an exaggerated account of his and his old colleagues' exploits.  Nice touch.

LOGAN is quite moving as its former super heroes are facing mortality, with perhaps a new generation to take up the reins. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Metropolis

It wasn't until 2010 that modern audiences were able to see writer/director Fritz Lang's (almost) complete original cut of his classic 1927 film METROPOLIS.  You may have read that long missing footage was discovered in a museum in Argentina in '08.  Over the years, various editions were released, including one presented by composer Giorgio Moroder, with '80s rock songs (curious about that one).  Earlier this year I finally took the time to watch the 2 and 1/2 hr. edit that is described as "95% complete".

The missing footage is in rough shape, but is mostly necessary to continue and/or bridge scenes.  It is a bit jarring to watch beautifully restored shots that cut to frames riddled with vertical lines, but I am grateful for the painstaking effort.  Some scenes are still lost, remedied by text that explains the action.  It all plays together quite seamlessly.  METROPOLIS' timeless story of class struggle will resonate with those who seek out/stay with the film, and not simply because we are now closer to the film's time period: 2026.

Certainly in the 1920s (in Germany and elsewhere) there were rich industrialists who literally looked down on their wage slaves.  Manual workers toiling for hours in deplorable, unsafe conditions.  METROPOLIS features a namesake city that seems to not house a middle class.  One is either high society or an underground plebian. Forever attending black tie galas or pushing impossibly heavy objects connected to machines, one of which seems to power/run the entire dystopia above.

Straddling this divide is the youthful Freder (Gustav Frohlich), son of Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), the city's "master".  We first see Freder in a lesiurely place, a garden filled with greenery and women, but it's clear he is far from content, especially after a woman named Maria (Brigitte Helm) invades the idyll with a group of poor, soiled children who were born to the workers. This intrusion brings reality to Freder's eyes, and soon he is investigating the world below, even disguising himself as one of the laborers.  To find Maria, but also in deference to his father, discovered to be an ambivalent despot.  Is Freder destined to be a mediator between the classes?

Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an eccentric inventor who has a rather unpleasant history with Fredersen, is also introduced.  He has built a robot that is intended to be a recreation of a lost love.  Fredersen  instead orders him to kidnap Maria and transfer her visage to the robot, leading to various complications and eventually chaos, including a climactic flood that threatens Metropolis.

Much has been written of METROPOLIS' eye popping special effects and it's all valid.   The very old school use of miniatures and mirrors still looks impressive.  Astonishing, really.   Lang was quite exacting and merciless with his actors and crew, keeping his actors in freezing water and housing them for hours at a time in uncomfortable costumes.  The film took a year to shoot.

Thea von Harbou's adaptation of her novel jettisons many science fiction and occult elements to focus on the sociopolitical.  Some critics ultimately found it simplistic, though many of the most effective statements are made simply and clearly.  And damn does this movie look sensational.  The reconstructionists should be proud of their toils.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Every '70s Movie

Want to truly indulge your jones for '70s movies? Check out "Every 70s Movie", an excellent blog of reviews by author and filmmaker Peter Hanson, who has spent the past seven years seeking out every film released in the U.S. in the 1970s.  He also occasionally devotes a week or two to films from 1980, which he argues merit inclusion as they were made in the '70s.  Hanson does exclude '70s films that did not play on American movie (or T.V.) screens during the Me Decade, like 1979's STALKER (which you will see on this blog sometime in 2018).

You will learn quite a bit about both mainstream and obscure cinema from this (arguably) best of eras for the medium. "The Best, The Worst, The Weirdest, and Every Far-Out Thing in Between."  What a formidable task for Hanson.  He requests donations as seeking out some of the lesser known titles can be expensive.  I imagine he had to watch some on VHS.

Hanson reports that his mission of providing daily posts for this task will likely conclude this coming March.  A few hundred titles of which he is aware will go unseen and un-reviewed as availability is nil.  Hopefully readers can fill in the blanks by sharing a videocassette dub made off of television back in the day or even a 35 mm print?

Every70s Movie

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving


I've spoken of Christmases past a few times on this blog, but how about some memories of Thanksgiving? Someone recently told me it is their favorite holiday as it involves families and friends coming together without all the concerns of gift giving. No argument.  Some of my more recent ones have been the best ever, with time spent up North with family.  Amazing trimmings, lots of laughs, and even a football tossed around.  In the early '00s I went to Monterey, CA a few times to visit my girlfriend (now wife) as she would help prepare a neighborhood feast with her grad school roommates.

Childhood Thanksgivings are murkier.  I have snatches of recollections of all the food.  I grew up as an only child, and we usually spent the Day with my grandparents, who lived nearby.  Some years we went to their place, other years they came to ours.  My mother and grandmother did most of the talking.  I'm sure I chatted about school.  My grandfather usually got more vocal by his third of fourth can of Busch.  Sometimes he would become unpleasant, necessitating my and my parents' exit, but I think he usually just retreated to his bedroom to nap it off.  He would get up after a few hours to join my father and I as we watched a game or movie.

But it's all like a barely remembered dream. Odd, as many other moments and events of those years are crystal clear.  I have no tragic Thanksgiving memories, or of turkeys that were burnt or hijacked by our dogs.  All the food was great, excepting that Ocean Spray cranberry goop that retained the can's shape as it was unceremonious dumped in one of my mother's ancient bowls.  These days my wife makes a sublime cranberry dish flavored nicely with navel orange gratings and ginger.  I always liked "Turkey Day", even if I was secretly envious of my friends who had larger gatherings, or got to fly off to a cold weather place for the festivities.

Even hazier are my young adult memories of Thanksgiving.  Did I join some of the other singles from church at someone's house or apartment?  I'm sure I did, but darned if I can place it.  I'll bet I turned down a few invites.   I assume many were spent alone, with maybe a visit to see my mother, who worked a variety of live-in nanny jobs in those years.

And the Publix commercials with Mannheim Steamroller music playing over images of folks traveling home for the holidays?  I do remember being affected deeply by them. In earlier years, my reality did not match them.

I am so thankful and blessed to be surrounded by family and friends near and afar these days.  I value solitude but wouldn't trade what I have now for all the free, aimless, empty T-Days of yore in the world.  I like to think that this blog may provide some diversion for the lonely.  Besides having an outlet for writing for myself,  this is why I keep doing it.  I hope you have a warm day of thanks, and know that even if you are by yourself someone is thinking of you.  Even if you don't believe that.