Monday, January 26, 2015
You do it until there’s no one left to kill. That’s what war is. I loved what I did… I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.
I wondered, how would I feel about killing someone? Now I know. It’s no big deal.
I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray.
For those who've read that book (I'm not among them) and have now seen the film many would find that American Psychopath would be a far more appropriate title. There are multiple reports of the author's fictionalization of events and even the creation of fictional figures. Is this merely bleeding heart posturing? Are Bill Maher's and others' remarks knee jerk liberalism, a readiness to politicize Mr. Eastwood's latest examination of the corrosiveness of violence? Maybe critics would not agree that this new film takes that view, that killing only further dehumanizes the killer.
Dehumanization. The military creates soldiers after they thoroughly destroy the undisciplined human beings who enlist (or were drafted in earlier days). Many will remember the harrowing basic training scenes in FULL METAL JACKET. I've met several veterans and had conversations about this process. Some were very open about it, others evasive. A few spoke of the deprogramming that was necessary when they were discharged from service. But can that really, fully occur? Once your humanity has been stripped away does a frozen core of singlemindedness remain? Kill the enemy. In the name of serving your country. "Would you want (the Iraqi terrorists) to come to San Diego or New York?", Chris asks a fellow soldier who despairs at their involvement in a questionable war.
But for all of the accurate claims one can make that AMERICAN SNIPER is a calculated flag waver, there are moments that harken back to earlier Eastwood dramas, films like UNFORGIVEN and GRAN TORINO, which dared to consider how the idea of an eye for an eye, its very methodology, only serves to erode one's soul. Not justice. Kyle is shown behind his rifle with a cocky, sometimes weary confidence, yes, but also moments of enormous conflict. Like when a child finds a rocket launcher on the ground and appears about to pick up where a dead Iraqi left off. Did the real Chris Kyle have a moment like this? Or was it just a video game to him?
I criticize this movie for showing the Iraqis as simplistic "bad guys", much like the banditos Eastwood's characters used to gun down in his old spaghetti Westerns. For example, why didn't we get more character analysis on the man who invites the Marines into his home, only to be shown later that he (unsuccessfully) planned an ambush on the Americans? Or the Iraqi sniper, very much Kyle's equivalent, with his Dragunov rifle? Does he have a family? Like Kyle, who marries a woman he meets in a bar (Sienna Miller) and with whom he has two children? Is AMERICAN SNIPER such a runaway success because the film agrees with Kyle that there's no "gray" in the scenario? There are only the bad guys? Most folks don't like the possibility that their "hero" is awesomely flawed, that he and the entire machine behind him may be "wrong". Ambiguity is not prized among most American viewers, and at the risk of sounding like a geo-snob, most of such viewers live in the South and Midwest, in red states. Just look at the box office receipts by region.
I criticize the movie, but my frustration is mainly with the discourse I've witnessed. I read in disbelief how Evangelicals love this movie because it portrays a tract for "Biblical manhood". That's some scary shit, pardon my French. Perhaps Old Testament warriors are being used as role models here. This mindset is the sort that has hijacked Scripture and fashioned it into a subculture with which I feel increasingly alienated, but that's another soapbox. Eastwood includes a few insert shots of Kyle's Bible as he's on tour. But we also have a scene where someone points out to the American sniper that he's never once seen him crack it open... This and a few other moments hint at the great film AMERICAN SNIPER could've been. I would've preferred to see Kyle shown in a less heroic light, more like a Jake LaMotta. A far more complex individual could've made this film a really incisive character study. Maybe closer to the truth. But I'm in the minority there.
Bradley Cooper, despite being given to portray what I suspect is a whitewashed version of Chris Kyle, is terrific. His embodiment of a Texan who clutches the flag and what he believes America should stand for is so spot on, it's hard to believe the same actor played that weasely FBI agent last year in AMERICAN HUSTLE. He shines even in the distressingly bland domestic scenes, when he fails to reconnect with his wife and domestic life in general. Some of these scenes reminded me of the mediocrity of Eastwood's entertaining but goofy 1986 military drama HEARTBREAK RIDGE (not a favorable comparison). These moments are paper thin and overly familiar - for a much more insightful treatment of this subject, watch THE HURT LOCKER, to me a far better movie. SNIPER also really disappoints in the later scenes, when Kyle begins visiting the VA to try to regain his humanity, to help others. Too pedestrian, and Chris's healing seems to happen too quickly, but the movie doesn't give us a timeline as to how long this took to happen.
But AMERICAN SNIPER works extremely well during its scenes in Iraq. Eastwood has staged some of the most intense battle sequences in recent memory. These skillful, highly technical scenes work on a gut level, an involvement in the excitement of a firefight, of near misses. They are maybe even "fun", as Kyle stated. And what did Francois Truffaut say, that he didn't much like these sorts of films because they make war look like fun? But there is always a backdrop of fear, there is always chaos, especially in a brilliantly rendered sandstorm battle, one of the best of Eastwood's career. Cooper registers a tumult of emotions behind that rifle, perhaps more than the real Chris Kyle did?
Friday, January 23, 2015
The unnamed lead character played by Ryan Gosling even at times resembles McQueen, especially in a few profile shots. His face rarely reveals anything. Steely cool. He works as a mechanic and Hollywood stunt driver during the day and pilots getaways cars for assorted criminals in the evenings. Managing all of his gigs is Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a hard but good natured guy who very unwisely takes advantage of his Mob connections. His employee is precise, leaving nothing to chance but ready for anything. Each getaway job has but one condition: the client must complete the job and get back to the car in no more than five minutes.
Shannon persuades mobsters Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) to buy a stock car for his employee to race. Meanwhile, the driver meets his new next door neighbors: a young mother named Irene (Carey Mulligan) and son Benicio (Kaden Leos) with whom he becomes close. The driver begins to show a softer side, a heart. But then Irene's husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is released from prison, coincidentally owing a debt to another gangster who we'll learn has ties to Nino, a real hothead (with an overheated performance to match by Perlman).
Alternatively, Brooks has one of his best roles as a Jewish mobster who is quicker with his brain than brawn. Almost Zen-like, remaining calm even as he slashes a victim to death, quietly uttering "there's no pain. It's all over." Icy menace, with none of the usual neuroticism we've seen in his other roles.
Despite an abundance of plotting, DRIVE is more interested in the shadows in which the characters dance. The wellspring of enigma within each of those characters. Dutch Director Nicolas Winding Refn is going for the feel of French existentialism, not BAD BOYS 2. His mise-en-scene works each element to that end, to allow viewers to drink in the dread of each location. Not only dark warehouses, but also the harsh L.A. sunlight upon parking lots and the sickly glow of elevators. Los Angeles as a character. Every shot is rich with Meaning, or maybe Refn is just in love with his images. Either way, it works.
My one criticism of DRIVE is the baffling use of extremely graphic violence. I realize this is yet another element for Refn's palatte but for me it was a distraction, an unwelcome destruction of the unique mood created. The squibs are quick, though, and should not deter the thoughtful from seeing this most unusual movie.
In the end, if you find yourself criticizing DRIVE because, for example, a briefcase of money is purposely left in a parking lot, you may want to seek other fare.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few living filmmakers who can truly be called an artist, has long been enamored with author Thomas Pynchon, author of such indescribable works as Gravity's Rainbow and Mason and Dixon. INHERENT VICE came together for Anderson after a previous project proved too difficult to adapt. I've read some Pynchon and my hat is off to anyone who even tries. PTA is certainly the best candidate for the job, someone whose films have had their share of oblique moments. The author, whose reclusiveness and lack of head shots kinda makes him the Terrence Malick of the publishing world, gave his blessing when he read the director's adaptation. I wonder what Pynchon thought of some of the odder moments in PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and THERE WILL BE BLOOD? Did he view a kindred spirit?
Los Angeles, 1970. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, in a great comedic performance of deft physicality) is a stoner hippie private eye who one night is visited by his ex, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), for whom he harbors vivid, warm memories despite a cranium polluted by weed, coke, and Lord knows what else. She's there on business, worried for her current squeeze, a greedy land developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who she thinks is about to be committed to an asylum by his wife and her fitness trainer/lover. Doc, who uses an examination room in a medical office to see his clients, has also been hired to find one of Mickey's bodyguards, gone missing. Soon, Mickey and Shasta also disappear. Also missing is a saxophone player named Coy (Owen Wilson). To add to the stew, a formerly missing girl turns up in the office of druggie dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) and Doc learns that her father (for whom he once worked) is somehow linked to Wolfmann. Oh, and several kilos of heroin.
Aiding and hindering Doc in his mystery solving is his weary attorney Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, at times looking like Walter Matthau), oddball cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, who is riotously funny and almost steals the movie), and Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), Doc's sometime lover. The complexity of the plot in Pynchon's story and Anderson's movie invites comparison to THE BIG SLEEP (book and film). For the inevitable complaints of INHERENT VICE having an inpenetrable storyline and not making sense, I refer you to SLEEP'S author Raymond Chandler, who created such a labyrinth of a story even he couldn't identify who committed one of the murders. Read: it just doesn't matter.
If you can get behind that attitude, you'll have an easier time with INHERENT VICE. Go with it, man. Hell, you may enjoy yourself. This was a wildly pleasurable movie for me, a smorgasboard of eccentricity and directorial flash. Anderson again steers expertly, channeling the likes of Robert Altman (who he obviously emulates greatly), the Great Noirs of the '30s/'40s, and even current peers like the Coens (lots of BIG LEBOWSKI vibes, but other films, too) and sometimes even a dash of Tarantino. But Anderson is his own animal, and unlike many, able to tame himself in the process. Even with a goofy project such as this, he has matured dramatically as a director. As much as I admire MAGNOLIA, I felt it ultimately spun way out of control. More recently, PTA has known when to hold back, to let the pace slow and to let a scene play and play. Long takes, sometimes uncomfortable. Lots of close ups, reminiscent of '70s motion pictures. So exciting to see on the big screen.
And yes, this new movie is quite bizarre. Very few people will get this one. I was surprised at how silly and broad the film was at times. Real belly laughs. And lots of drug consumption. Underneath the weirdness, occasional insight on social and political mores of the post-hippie era, a time when the Charles Manson slaughters rang heavily in the air. Fine score by Jonny Greenwood and a few choice tunes by Neil Young. There is unobtrusive narration that isn't mere laziness on the storytellers' part (which narration tends to be), but rather diffident commentary that fits perfectly. It, Del Toro's presence and many other elements reminded me of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, but INHERENT VICE is a lot easier to take and far more enjoyable.
I was fortunate to sit with a savvy, appreciative audience. Only two walkouts out of twenty plus. Normally, I'd be quite content if I were the only one in the theater, as idiot audiences really detract from the experience. But when everyone is in the groove and laughing in the right places, it's like a real symbiosis, brah.
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Despite the cinéma vérité stylings of last year's BOYHOOD, all of the above characters are fictional. Part of the brilliance of this historic project is that everything feels as if Linklater had his cameras running at just the right moments in a real domicile to capture the familiar and sometimes painful experiences of growing up. Like he was the documentarian/interloper who let life happen and didn't try to add any flourish. Not his method, anyway; Linklater is not much for visual stylistics. Yet, most of the scenes - save a discussion between father and son about the possibility of a new STAR WARS movie - in this nearly three hour movie were in fact scripted and thought through very carefully.
Ellar Coltrane and the director's daughter Lorelei play brother and sister so naturally, so comfortably. Sometimes their acting is a bit rough, and this is how it should be for such a warts and all project. And imagine how odd this twelve year experiment was for them! Playing these characters while having their own developing, formative lives. You begin to wonder how much of one affected the other. Life and art in a completely believable, albeit necessarily messy union. We witness their bodies and features grow into young adulthood. Observe their shifting personalities. Particularly Mason Jr's, who is so urgent as a youngster and becomes more laid back as he ages. How by the end of the film he speaks articulately like many Linklater characters before him yet creates his own variation. I anticipate watching interviews with these actors, to hear them explain how they sorted through and between their performances and their real lives.
A common theme in Linklater's films is the dilemma of pursuing an artistic career, perhaps a calling, while reality beckons otherwise. Mason Jr. shows a real skill for photography, eventually winning a scholarship, but is perceived even by his art teacher as indifferent and unambitious. Unable and unwilling to rally for a deadline and work on a project that disinterests him. The way adults have to. Throughout the movie, the boy is called out for his deliberate way of doing things, like household chores, schoolwork, duties at his job, and by that teacher. The kid is disappointed when his father (Ethan Hawke) quits playing music to work in insurance and later trades his ultra cool, beloved GTO for a minivan. Jr. is disappointed because he was promised that car when he turned sixteen, yes, but also because he feels his father has become a square, sold out, even if there were solid reasons for doing so. Is that sort of compromise essential? Is this what life is to be?
Linklater characters love to talk, wax philosophical. Maybe not as much here as in DAZED AND CONFUSED or certainly WAKING LIFE, but when Jr. offers his views on the enslavement of social media and technology in general, you can just hear the director (and likely be reminded of someone you know) in those words. I really appreciated the sentiment of how we often get a neurotransmitter rush when he hear the ding in our inbox, how we've been brainwashed/conditioned to think a new message on our smartphones is a real connection. How much life is missed in the meantime. How we may miss being "seized by the moment" rather than the other way around.
BOYHOOD will resonate strongly with parents, of course. They will laugh and likely cringe in recognition at behaviors, reactions. They will relate when Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles in her balancing act - her attempts to maintain a household and be an available parent in the face of several moves, her efforts to get a degree, and unreliable men. The last time we see Olivia, all she can do is break down in sobs as her son is about to leave for college. She finds it incredulous that life has moved so quickly, that she couldn't "freeze this moment a little bit longer." I also found myself feeling she was a bit selfish in that moment, making it all about her, but then I haven't been there myself, yet.
Most viewers of BOYHOOD will be unaware of the UP series, Michael Apted's documentaries that beginning in 1964 followed, every seven years, a group of Brits from age 7 until well into their fifties. Real people. Quietly powerful films that revealed the triumphs and disappointments of life. Some inevitable. I'm sure Linklater was at least aware of those films, how fascinating it was to see each person's dynamic ("growth" not always an appropriate descriptor) over time. With BOYHOOD, Mason is viewed from ages 6 to 18, many of the most critical years of one's life. As he sits with a potential new girlfriend on his first day of college and the credits flash, we're left to imagine the rest of his life, the possibilities. BOYHOOD is a cinematic time capsule through which many will see their own and/or their children's lives. The film deserves such recognition and multiple visits.
Sunday, January 11, 2015
It would've been a real shame if THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE had languished in obscurity for good. This is a perfectly realized bit of early 70s grit, a lean exercise in crime cinema. Sharp, no nonsense direction by Peter Yates. Another film of its decade without a shred of phony sentiment or sympathy for its characters or their predicaments. Not so much a cautionary tale as just a (nonetheless stylish) point and shoot documentary style elegy to a crummy life, with its day to day droning, and certain pitfalls. Paul Monash's script is as bleak as they come.
Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is a small time criminal in Boston, running guns for a crime syndicate. He has been busy of late, supplying and constantly replenishing for a group of serial bank robbers who dispatch their weapons after each job. Coyle obtains his arsenal from a supplier named (yes, it's true) Jackie Brown (Steven Keats).
Eddie also has a legitimate truck driving job and wife and kids, but barely making it. To add to his woes, a prison sentence looms for his previous involvement in a truck hijacking. Coyle desperately tries to cut deals with an ATF Fed named Foley (Richard Jordan), who, unbeknownst to Coyle, uses his "friend", bartender Dillon (Peter Boyle) as an informant.
THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE nimbly travels the Boston landscape across locations both sleazy and manicured with each character, each with their own strict methodology. All are desperate, not just Eddie. Dillon balks at being rushed to do a hit. Jackie, all twitchy energy in his street smarts, has particular standards for his purchases and sales. Foley is trying to please his superiors. Everyone is acutely aware of the danger of their work and trying not to get pinched by somebody else. Selling out the other guy is always an option in order to survive. Running out of time hangs like the oft referenced Sword of Damocles over everybody. All are quite aware that the System will eventually destroy them.
Eddie is the saddest of all. A low level hood whose life ultimately isn't highly valued. The climax and denouement of the movie makes the case in devastating understatement. It cuts harder and deeper than would've a louder conclusion. This is one of Mitchum's very best roles. And a hell of a movie.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
Ten people were there. Family, friends, and a couple who visit my mother every week, trying to encourage her rehabilitation. I could tell that their style of humor would be appreciated by my mother, who often describes feeling scared and/or alienated by the staff. The Deacon regularly leads masses at her and my grandmother's facilities. As I was finalizing details at the funeral home a few days before the ceremony, the director relayed that the Deacon was very taken with Theresa and wanted to conduct the service. He took my wife and I aside just before to share his warm memories of her unfailing optimism and spirit. His message, like the entire ceremony, was simple and appropriate. I stood up and uttered an impromptu remembrance. There was so much to say.
I thought of her huge influence on my forty-five years. How during my childhood she brought me to church, disciplined my smart mouth, encouraged me. She dealt with an alcoholic husband who tended bar down the street and refused to join her for church. In response, she and her pastor began an Al-Anon chapter. Where did she find the time? What with her successful Mary Kay salesperson gig and jobs at places like Razook's in Palm Beach. Her large network of friends. My memories of grandma are of a very proactive, strong, and godly woman. She put up with the verbal poisons from my father far better than I would have in her position. A real model. Heartbreakingly, she also had to cut off all ties from her son, another alcoholic who was back in Brooklyn and doomed never to escape.
Theresa also led a bereavement group which met at her apartment every Sunday afternoon for several years, concluding sometime around 2006-7. Seems so recent. I thought about the women who came, how most had not attended the funeral this day because they too had passed.
Some of us met at the gravesite afterward. My mind flickered with images of my younger self riding a bike with friends around and over the many nameplates on the big lawn. We'd try to spook each other in the moonlight. This resting place for so many is not far from the houses in which I spent boyhood. It was impossible not to be rushed with memories of those days as I made my way to the tent. The funeral director delivered a brief farewell and gave me a crucifix. Seeing my grandmother's casket lowered into the ground was more difficult than I had imagined. It was poignant as she would now be in the same plot of land as my grandfather, some thirty years later. The finality of it was crushing, even as I rejoiced in remembrance of her unwavering faith. But something about it was so matter of fact. The cemetery workers toiled, then perhaps went home. Another job.
So much to write but so hard to do so. Maybe more later. Thank you, my grandmother, for molding and inspiring me. It is not "goodbye", but "see you later."
Monday, January 5, 2015
Pre-WW2 Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is an American who flaunts a devil-may-care lifestyle in between her gigs as a dancer at the Kit Kat Klub. When she chances upon a polished Brit called Brian (Michael York, appropriately fey), a new arrival to the same boarding house in which she sleeps, her bohemian existence takes a backseat to perhaps unfamiliar emotions. Or maybe ones reawakened.
It doesn't start that way. She initially thinks the boy is queer, but soon friendship goes further, inevitably tested by other lovers (some bisexual), increasingly political instability, and the rise of Adolph Hitler. Romance burns and fades. There is a tragic decision regarding Sally's pregnancy. There will be more and more Nazis at the Klub.
CABARET is a deliberately paced film, rarely glacial, aside from one draggy scene in which Sally and Brian join friends around a table one afternoon. Apparently many significant changes were made for this film adaptation of the 1966 Broadway musical, which was based on the novel The Berlin Stories and the play I Am a Camera. Of what I've read, Jay Presson Allen's screenplay suits Fosse's appropriation of this material, his worldview. While some may come away with the message that showbiz is a jealous mistress that rarely co-exists with any other kind of life (certainly a theme in Fosse's films), having the tightening vise of the Third Reich adds an interesting dimension.
Fosse's direction is meticulous but never seems flashy or overly orchestrated. Even in surrealistic moments, as when adults and children chillingly sing Nazi songs at a picnic, it feels organic. The restraint is what makes CABARET work as a film, a dramatic piece rather than merely some adapted musical. At the end, we have a long pan over a reflection seen in a piece of gold artwork on a wall; it is one of the most effective final images I've seen on film. Fosse established himself as a cinematic artist with this film, and what a tragedy we would only get three more.
Minnelli would later star in Scorsese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, playing a very different sort of character in a different time and place, but many elements of the story were essentially the same. So goes the showbiz life?