Monday, March 28, 2011

A Safe Place

America Lost & Found: The BBS Series, Part IV

Susan peers longingly into space. At what? The past, mostly. Thinking about her brother, being able to fly. She's also known as Noah. It's not entirely clear to me why, though as I wrapped my mind around A SAFE PLACE, I thought of the scenes with her imaginary magician (played by none other than Orson Welles) constantly pulling a rainbow out of a pot, so that may have something to do with it.

Susan/Noah lives in 1971 New York, a harsh urban environment that she nonetheless smiles through, though the smiles mask much. Tuesday Weld plays her with an otherworldliness that is unique. She's gorgeous in the traditional senses (facial structure, skin tone, mesmerizing eyes), but also, she exudes an almost Greek goddess quality that fits with her temperament. She doesn't really belong to this world. It's not magical enough for her, not even NYC with its laugh-a-minute bizarre landscape. No, she remains in her "safe place" (aha?) most of the time, frustrating a suitor, Fred (Philip Proctor) who can't understand why the lass gets upset when he gives her his phone number, in digits. Not magical enough for her! She'd rather he spell out evocative names with those letters that correspond with the numbers.

Writer/director Henry Jaglom had written all this as a play in the 60s; the adaptation would be his first film. Cinematically, it's a marvel. A consistently visually inventive mess that so beautifully uses light and color to bathe our heroine as she again dreamily ponders some memory. She tolerates Fred's rationality with schoolgirl giggles but beams when an old lover, Mitch, (Jack Nicholson, doing his patented Jack things) shows up at 4 A.M. Fred is also there, and gets understandably frustrated while Susan and this interloper fool around on the couch (both actors improvising some interesting dialogue). But is Mitch even real? Jaglom's film is a continuous zigzag through time and we find ourselves unsure of most everything. This will undoubtedly test the mettle of many viewers. In fact, in this Criterion disc commentary, Jaglom remembers how half the audience booed at a screening, though he points out that some were also cheering. The author Anais Nin, by the way, was a champion of this film, citing its beauty. I'm not surprised by her endorsement.

Do I endorse it? As a study of the medium, A SAFE PLACE is a worthwhile exercise, with its visual style, amusing performance by a clearly-enjoying-himself Welles (who sports a hesitant accent), and Jaglom's ideas. Not all of them are good. Constant interspersing of Welles peering and/or spouting philosphy eventually becomes tiresome after the initial intrigue/unintentional hilarity. Jaglom would later be known for very different sorts of films like BABYFEVER and VENICE, VENICE, movie talkfests with charcters sitting and talking about themselves. Definitely an acquired taste. But so is this film, it's just more eccentric with its cinematography and editing. As part of the BBS series, A SAFE PLACE stands out as the most experimental.

Weld is the centerpiece, and it is a fine showcase for her beauty. Her acting is just right for such an enigmatic character. The final scene can be taken literally if you're so inclined (many critics did), which would render this film a tragedy. I took it as another fragment of Susan/Noah's imagination. Another moment of denial of the present, the banal, and a portal to somewhere magical. A flight, if you will, and if you make this journey, you may well debate me as to what that "flight" really is.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Targets

Spoilers

"All the good movies have already been made". These words are spoken in the 1968 film TARGETS by Sammy Michaels, a film director played by film director Peter Bogdonavich. As the real director states in the disc's commentary, "I felt that way then, and still do!"

Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff) also feels that way. The elderly actor hobbles on crooked extremities and scares himself with his own reflection. He'd made a career of playing assorted heavies and villains in horror films, long the recipient of public acclaim ("...Mr. Boogey Man, King of Blood they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream.") He screens his lastest hokum and decides he's had enough. The scripts are getting worse and the terror in his trivial films are nothing compared to the real life atrocities he reads about.

Meanwhile, a clean-cut, boy next door young Vietnam vet named Bobby Thompson (Tim O'Kelly) proves Orlok's point by murdering his wife and mother, then setting atop a tower at an oil refinery and firing rounds at motorists on the L.A. freeway. Fleeing the police, he hides in a drive-in theater, finds a spot behind the screen, then again picks off unsuspecting folks with his rifle as Orlok's film THE TERROR unspools. Orlok himself is also there, quite reluctantly, scheduled to make his final appearance before retirement.

That's the summary, but let's look closer at Bogdonavich's inaugural piece of cinema. Its pedigree and history suggest the creation of yet another B-movie; Roger Corman was owed a couple of days' work by B-king Karloff. Bogdonoavich had assisted Corman on an earlier B. Impressed with the younger director, Corman gave him a chance to shoot his own movie, under the condition that scenes from Corman's film THE TERROR (yes, it's real, starring Karolff and Jack Nicholson!)be included and that Karloff show up for 2 days of new scenes. Bogdonavich and his wife penned a thoughtful script that Karloff liked so much he actually stuck around for 5 days of shooting.

Easy to see why. TARGETS is an insightful character study, basing its 3 principal characters on real people: Orlok is a riff on Karloff, Michaels is a version of Bogdanovich (and Peter's acting is quite good, I must say), and Thompson is based on real life serial murderer Charles Whitman, the infamous University of Texas sniper. This movie switches between Orlok and Thompson, both supremely dissatisfied with where life has led. Orlok makes several potent speeches about relevance, how he feels like an anachronism in an increasingly commercial and violent Los Angeles (while riding to his appearance, he wonders aloud when the town got so ugly after gazing at one car dealership after another). Sammy badgers Orlok to star in his latest, a film he promises will redefine the old man's career. Orlok likes the kid, respects his talent, but retirement is imminent. The industry has changed, and he does not see a place for him in it.

Michaels is also tired, but still optimistic. Bogdanovich gets to vocalize his own opinions through this character, bemoaning the state of Hollywood. He's well qualified to do so: his interviews with notable directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks reek with authenticity. The director time and time again refers to yesteryear geniuses like Fritz Lang in his commentary; you know where his heart is. I think most true cineastes would agree, but I digress yet again...

Thompson says very little, but at one point does try reach out to his wife, albeit briefly. He feels he is "changing". Bogdanovich reveals this character mainly through action, following him around the city as he collects all sorts of weapons, letting Laszlo Kovacs' camera show the big and little things, quick flashes that reveal a bit about the boy. The camerawork is excellent, by the way. Kovacs and Bogdonavich have Bobby stalk around his own home as if he is a stranger, then frame him at the dinner table with his parents and wife (they all live together). That scene is eerily Norman Rockwell, eerie because we know that a bomb is ticking. By the time we get a close up shot of the letter Bobbly had typed (all in red ink), our growing unease becomes realized, yet we're still unprepared for the massacre scenes to follow.

Like that freeway sequence. Bobby carries an arsenal of guns and fires them indiscriminately on the highway. He does it with the same emotionlessness we had seen when he was shooting soda cans for target practice. One especially chilling moment: after taking out a driver, Bobby watches the passenger climb out and attempt to flag down help. He waits and waits, then kills her. We see it all from his point of view. Is it a game to him? We heard him try to explain his toxic metamorphasis in progress to his wife, but she didn't liten. There seems to be self awareness on Bobby's part, yet a strange detachment from reality. This is especially true of the climax; after Bobby kills dozens at the drive-in, Mr. Orlok finds him and both physically and verbally reprimands him. Bobby sees both the fictional Orlok onscreen and the real McCoy in front of him. There seems to be some confusion. Was that the problem? What is Bogdonavich trying to say here?

TARGETS is a compact little thriller with much to say, and artfully presented. It was a calling card for Bogdonavich, as those BBS guys took notice and offered him a job 2 years later: THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. In a way, TARGETS could be an unoffical eighth film in the BBS "America Lost and Found" collection. In a sprawling, ever changing Los Angeles, two men have lost their wills; one for a career, the other for life itself, both for a sense of purpose.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Invictus

What to say of a film that is based on an inspiring true story, yet is strangely uninspiring itself? There are several, especially well-meaning films like THE END OF THE SPEAR that espouse very positive messages and intentions yet end up as dramatically interesting as a few hours of C-SPAN. Well, maybe that's a bad example.

Director Clint Eastwood's INVICTUS follows the events in Johannesburg, South Africa after activist Nelson Mandela's long prison sentence. Nearly 30 years. He is elected President four years later and immediately seeks to mend fences between the oppressed blacks and the whites who held them down. His efforts begin in his own office as he convinces staffers with one foot out the door to reconsider and work with him towards that end. He will even hire white bodyguards, much to the shock and dismay of his current, black protectors who understandably worry about the new hires' trustworthiness.

But there's nothing like obsessiveness about a sporting event to rally the country. Mandela realizes early on that if his citizens can unify in their shared devotion to a rugby team, they may well co-exist in everyday life, perhaps even on the road to freedom from hate and suspicion (hasn't exactly worked in U.S. cities but check back..) Unfortunately, the Springbok team has been stinking up the field of late. Many locals even root against them. Further intrigue: factions want to retire the Springbok name and team colors as they represent years of apartheid. Mandela will show up at a town meeting and convince the citizens to keep the name, to take it back, in one of his many disarming, convincing orations. A true politican.

Also, a great man. Morgan Freeman, needless to say, entirely inhabits the much beloved figure. He not only ressembles him physically, but captures his soothing yet firm demeanor. It's some of the most pefect casting ever. Mandela recognized an avenue for harmony and fostered it, encouraged it. He meets Springbok captainFrancois Pienaar (Matt Damon), eventually revealing his hopes that a winning team can engender a united nation. He'll also share William Ernst Henley's poem, "Invictus", with the young man, stating that the power of its words kept him going all those years in a tiny prison cell (which Pienaar will eventually visit). The film will conclude with the Big Game. No medals will be given to any viewers who guess the outcome.

INVICTUS is a workmanlike meat-and-potatoes drama that is satisfying to its core. We'll watch decent men who love their families and country Do The Right Thing. Sports films (and real life games) usually work on our seemingly innate desires to watch competitive prowess overcome some obstacle, be it a player's handicap, a hissable opponent, or even racism. By the end of this movie, those previously uncommunicative bodyguards of different skin will bond not only over their mutual fanship for the team, but they'll even start their own game on the lawn!

I'm not complaining. This is such a well made entertainment that it is a pleasure to watch. Eastwood wisely does not contrive any unnecessary subplots or attempt to shoehorn a villain or succumb to piousness. I was impressed by that, what was left out. But INVICTUS remains coolly uninspiring, predictable. Perhaps like a reliable old pair of jeans.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Say Amen, Somebody

 When Willie Mae Ford Smith sings about goin' to Canaanland, you know there's no mere show business happening, no sir. Even though she and Tommy Dorsey and several of the gospel singers featured in the joyous 1982 documentary SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY routinely get up in front of packed congregations and even concert halls, they're singing to their Lord, to an audience of One. You can see it in their faces; it's not about them. Director George T. Nierenberg really brings that across as he follows his subjects around their towns and churches and in their homes, even as they sing in their backyards. They're on a mission, and their method is through thundering refrains with closed eyes and hands toward the sky.

There's no beating around the bush with this review. You need to see this movie. Even if you don't share the spiritual convictions of these singers as they proclaim the freedom they've found in their faith (my favorite: the hefty O'Neal Twins singing "Jesus Dropped the Charges"), you will be inspired by these singers' devotion. Often, it is lifelong. Smith, Dorsey, Sallie Martin, and others had been at it for decades; younger folks like Zella Jackson Price are no less passionate (her "I'm His Child", complete with back-up choir is rousing).

The gospel music here, by the way, is good old fashioned, raw, undiluted praise. No studio slickery or post-production gloss to be heard. Even if the soundtrack is at times not completely in sync with the visual, we still get the message. And the music we hear performed in this movie is in churches where folks ain't worried that the service is running long. It's so, inspiring.

I'll bet that you'll also be inspired by the energy of this film. Not just the music sequences. The interviews with family, the candid stories of the toll of touring has on said families, the recalled memories, it's all pieced together so compellingly by Nierenberg. One film editor termed the dialogue between songs in a given film (doc or fiction) as "shoe leather", but here those bridges illuminate the subjects, give background and evidence to their dedication to service to the Lord. No filler. I particularly enjoyed Smith's conversation in her grandson's pick-up truck, speaking of Bible stories. She doesn't mince words. Dorsey, an elder statesman, is mellower, reflective, but still has a fire in his gut. We look at his irises as if peering through transparent windows, seeing into a long, well-lived life.

I especially loved the keen eye of the director in SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY. He captures not only the dynamic praises but also the wonderful, unscripted or prompted behavior in the peripheries of the frame, like that little girl gazing with wonder and astonishment at her parents during a spontaneous church pew stand up of "We're Blessed". It's a scene you will see in a real Pentacostal church (no inhibitions of raised hands there). I imagined her growing up immersed in this atmosphere, likely sharing her progenitors' enthusiasm. Other family members seen in this film may not be so devoted, as one drags on a cigarette and even mildly blaspehemes as he recounts memories, but still admires the spirit when he sees it. Likewise, I would venture to guess that even the heathens will admire this picture. Its power is too much to resist.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Erin Brockovich

 Whatever else director Steven Soderbergh's 2000 hit ERIN BROCKOVICH may be, it is first and foremost a Star Vehicle. The sort of film that tailors everything around its lead. It matters not if the source is a true story; in fact, all the better! Particularly in a story where a scrappy, foul-mouthed Everywoman takes on Corporate and wins one for the Little People. The screenplay in a Star Vehicle is designed to showcase the Star in the most favorable of possible lights, to make that individual shine brightly at the expense of perhaps story credibility and sometimes, even other characters' ability to behave like real folks! This is the central problem I have with this movie, which I think otherwise is pretty good.

It's an inspiring story: a financially struggling unwed mother of three is hired on as a file clerk mercifully by her lawyer (Albert Finney, winning as always) after she loses a personal injury case following an auto accident. The woman is brash and crude and dresses like, well, you know.., the very opposite of pretty much everyone else in the peaceful office. Erin will eventually run across some curious documents and discover that a large company, PG & E, covered up their contamination of the water supply of a small California town. Erin will tirelessly interview residents of the town, learning that many of them became quite ill over the last 35 years. Brockovich will also meet a Deep Throat of sorts, a man who has vital knowledge of PG & E chicanery and even claims to have destroyed some key documents. The case will end in a multimillion dollar settlement for the hundreds of plaintiffs in the town of Hinkley, CA. True story.

Great. It's the sort of vindication we love to see both in real life and in fiction. It is also the raw material for a potentially melodramatic Lifetime pic. Instead, Soderbergh frames (he often holds the camera himself) a slightly askew examination of a desparate, fiery woman hellbent on seeing this case to its conclusion. I would expect nothing less of such an innovative director, and his style cannot be faulted. He finds the correct balance between overly stylized experiment and straight-faced narrative, a fine line he doesn't always succeed in executing. I wish all such stories were as visually interesting as ERIN BROCKOVICH.

How so? The director shoots all the usual scenes, but in ways you may not expect. For example, the inevitable love scene between our heroine and George (Aaron Eckhart), a friendly biker she meets, is shot more tightly than we would expect-Soderbergh is not trying to titillate by going for the best angle of these attractive actors' forms. We stay mainly on their faces, and the camera flails around restlessly. The director always seems to find unique ways to shoot these kinds of scenes (witness the "through the cube glass" distorted sex scene in the otherwise wretched FULL FRONTAL).

But yes, all of the typical docudrama scenes are here: the heartfelt testimonials from the townspeople, the intense showdowns between the protagonist and her boss, the domestic difficulties. Again, Soderbergh and screenwriter Susannah Grant do things a bit differently, such as when Erin dresses down George after he dares ask her out. She gives him a fierce lecture and turns away; George is so exhaustedly smitten he simply falls to the ground. Finney portrays Edward Masry as a thouroughly jaded, yet compassionate crust with seemingly little effort, adding more than a bit of weight to every scene he's in, even as he holds court with that 800 lb. gorilla in the room.

Yes, that would be Roberts. And we're back to where we started. For all of my admiration of ERIN BROCKOVICH, my enthusiasm was deflated by how this picture caters to her Performance. Perfect example: Conchatta Ferrell plays Masry's receptionist, a gruff, takes-no-BS type who is constantly barraged by Brockovich's profane tirades: and the film never allows her to retort! Were the filmmakers paying attention to Ferrell's character? I didn't believe for a second that such a veteran of human communication would allow this scantily clad hussy to just walk all over her.

Another perfect example: when the door-to-door interviews commence, a slicker, more conservative representive tries to talk to the townspeople, and of course fails miserably because she's not as flashy and entertaining as the buxom Brockovich. This screenplay never gives the other woman a chance, reducing her to a cliched uptight prude. She's given no depth, because that would undermine our Star. And we're supposed to cheer! That's how simple-minded the film gets. Many in the audience were cheering; I was not among them.

I'm sure that Ms. Brockovich (the real one) is a larger-than-life character. She's fascinating. Roberts does fine work interpreting her, no question. But the movie is playing a zero-sum game, pretty much. I wish the other characters were given as much dimension.

Part V: The Great Overrated

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The King of Marvin Gardens


 America Lost & Found: The BBS Story, Part III

Bruce was supposed to play David and Jack was supposed to play Jason. If 1972's THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS had been filmed with this original casting, it might've been a different picture. Oh, Bob Rafelson would've still directed a fascinating drama, but the choices Dern and Nicholson, respectively, make here I suspect are much their own. These are two consummate professionals who own their roles, whatever they may be, no matter what movie. Viewers may have expectations etched into their craniums as to how these actors (with patented personas) will approach their parts. They (and you) may be surprised this time out, mainly with Jack.

It wouldn't be the only time in cinematic history that such changes occurred before the cameras rolled. As reported in Bob Woodward's inflammatory biography Wired, "I think I'm the other guy", was spoken by John Belushi when he read the script for 1981's NEIGHBORS, an odd comedy about a milquetoast whose uneventful life is disrupted by the arrival of an eccentric, swinging couple who moves in next door. The filmmakers wanted Belushi for the role of said milquetoast, instead of Dan Aykroyd who instead ended up playing the other guy. While that movie was essentially a failure, the casting against type was interesting. The usually endlessly mugging Belushi turned in a nicely controlled perfomance as a precise, nervous sort. It seems that buttoned downed introverts take more skill to play than loud Type As, though I could be wrong.

For MARVIN GARDENS, patented charmer/wildman Nicholson takes a different path than usual and positively embodies David Staebler, a 30ish nebbish who lives with his grandfather in a dreary Philadelphia flat, forever slogging home in the middle of the night after another lonely shift. He's a radio monologist, not exactly like Garrison Keillor or Paul Harvey but rather a morose narrator who relays stories of his liftime across the airwaves to insomniacs. The film opens with a 5 minute tight shot on him as he explains why he no longer eats fish. The story may not exactly be portentuous but it is relevant to the film. The studio is dark, the speaker's face is half concealed in shadow. We're not sure at first where we are or why this guy is baring his soul (and to whom). Then we see a flashing red light splash up on Staebler's face, then, a guy behind a sound board in the next room signaling the narrator to wrap it up. From this first shot, we marvel at famed cinematographer Laslo Kovacs' stark compositions, his use of light.

We'll follow David as he travels to Atlantic City, a once sparkling resort town fallen on years of decay. Appropriately, the story takes place during the winter when only scattered retirees haunt the boardwalk, trolling for cheap trinkets and early bird specials. David's brother Jason had summoned him to come down and be part of the latter's latest "opportunity", something which takes little analysis to recognize as a scheme, a pipe dream. We first see Jason behind bars, an apt introduction. He tells his brother he needs to meet with a guy named Lester, a local kingpin who will not only pay his bail but also finance this latest big business deal.

It's classic dreamer pie-in-the-sky: a island resort in no less than Hawaii. Jason is kinetic in his description, like many other self-deluded souls before him. His dream sustains his dreary life in a long-past-its-prime beachside hotel, with two female companions: one a middle-aged prima donna named Sally (Ellen Burstyn), the other a younger, more traditionally attractive waif, Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson, in apparently her only acting role). We'll observe the women and begin to form theories on the nature of their relationship before it is revealed. Their drama will further elucidate many things about Jason, one of the brilliant achievements of the screenplay, which often seems to wander and often frustrates the hell out of you, but after the picture is over, you realize you wouldn't change a thing. A critic noted of MARVIN GARDENS that it is the sort of film you feel tempted to walk out on, but after it is over you want to see it again.

But back to David and Jason. Their complex yet familiar relationship forms the real crux of the story. With so much history (some of which is explained to us), you can only imagine the weariness David feels by this point. He'll find himself on the floor with Jason, like a couple of little boys, peering down at a map of the Pacific, gazing at the floating paradise, the place where it will all be made right. Far away from the rust of Atlantic City, another locale of the "Lost and Found" so titled in the BBS collection. David's been in this scenario before, and part of the skill of Nicholson's work here is the way he conveys the cynicism as he listens to Dern nary take a breath, each word always a hustle of some sort.

Nicholson's nuances, posture, and reactions are all not only believable as that of a nerdish intellectual, but also as that of a relative who feels he cannot save his own. He truly loves his sibling, and a hug they share midway though the movie is genuine and painful. Nicholson conveys love and a certain resigned acknowledegment in mre eseconds of screen time. David does indeed love his brother, will try to dispense some sanity and order, but things don't look promising, especially after David finally sits down for a chat with Lester (played by Scatman Crothers, who has stated that this was his favorite role of his career)and learns what is truly happening. It isn't so much informative as it is confirming.

THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is another neglected gem of the 70s, an original, lacerating drama fueled by Jacob Brackman's observant script and Rafelson's patient direction. Following the triumph of FIVE EASY PIECES two years eariler, Rafelson and Nicholson again create a vivid Americana where the Dream is constantly interrupted by the stark reality. Rafelson keeps the camera still most of the time, giving the actors their space, but allowing Kovacs to frame them so artfully, whether in hotel rooms or empty auditoriums as they act out a mock Miss America pageant (a very telling scene), with Jessica as the crowned beauty. The characters themselves seem as worn out, as past their prime as the city itself.

Where does that leave Sally? Her own dream crumbles daily as she realizes her life with Jason is listless and his desire towards her is being eroded by the younger woman. Here further explains MARVIN GARDENS' worth, the acting. Burtsyn is just great as the hysterical and sad hanger-on who will actually come to acknowledgment (her bonfire scene is powerful) before her final catharsis. Dern nails Jason with a pathetic yet unwavering confidence that holds to the end. Robinson is of course the least accomplished but she acquits herself well enough as a perhaps not so shallow young woman. Crothers only has 2 scenes but he's mighty fine as the underworld financeer. During Rafelson's selected scene commentary, he tells a great story of how he later visited Crothers and Nicholson on the set of THE SHINING, the former venting his frustrations with Stanley Kubrick's legendary perfectionism. "'I can't believe that motherfucker,'" Rafelson recalls Crothers relaying, "'how this MF makes me do a hundred takes, what's the difference the way I said this the first time and the fiftieth...?'" It's quite funny. Rafelson states that Nicholson loves telling that story himself as well.

And Nicholson is really why THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is worth the effort. It was so surprising to see him disappear into this low key character, only occasionally flashing those familiar brows and teeth, more often hunching his shoulders and averting his eyes. After years of watching his wild performances in THE LAST DETAIL, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, THE SHINING, CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, and so many others, I felt like I was watching a true artist at work, not just flashing the goods or perpetuating his image, like so many actors tend to do. Take note during his final radio monologue. Never maudlin, just heartfelt.