Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Woody Allen In a Soulless Mood

Woody Allen's always been my favorite director. There's also no other director who has made as many movies as he has, forty-four by my count, that I've enjoyed watching each and every one and happily will rewatch again and again.

I've always had a thing for Woody Allen's R-rated movies. In the seventies the only R-rated movies he made were Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972, Woody Allen) and Manhattan (1979, Allen). Of the ten films Allen made in the Eighties, none were rated R.

Call it personal preference, but the Nineties have always been my favorite decade of Woody Allen movies. The R-rated Husbands and Wives (1992, Allen) with its Scenes from a Marriage (1973, Ingmar Bergman) appropriated domestic mockumentary basis combining the on-screen ugly divorce of Woody and Mia Farrow's characters with the real life split and scandals that were occurring off-screen shows Allen finding new depths of dark character studies.

And I've always had an affinity for his Miramax phase:
  • Bullets Over Broadway (1994, Allen)
  • Mighty Aphrodite (1995, Allen)
  • Everyone Says I Love You (1996, Allen)
  • Celebrity (1999, Allen)
These Allen Miramax films are still atop my list of greatest American movies of the Nineties, and all rated-R, as was the Fine Line released Deconstructing Harry (1997, Allen). All of these films have an edge that was sharper than anything before, except for maybe Stardust Memories (1980, Allen) PG or Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, Allen) PG-13; and sharper than anything that would follow, except for Blue Jasmine (2013, Allen) PG-13, which is right up there.

Irrational Man (2015, Allen) finds Allen returning to the Crime and Punishment ethical dilemma he began exploring with Crimes and Misdemeanors as JUDAH (Martin Landau) has to bear the yoke of murder while getting away with the perfect crime. Match Point (2005, Allen) shows him returning to a narrative dealing with its central protagonist attempting to get away with murder yet again, but this time also closely resembling the plot of Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Then two years after Match Point, Cassandra's Dream (2007, Allen) is another variation of that theme, but this time the crime gets punished.

Joaquin Phoenix plays the lead, as a nihilist, depressed, alcoholic, suicidal author and philosophy professor whose reputation precedes him as we find him transferring to teach at a small New England college where Emma Stone plays one of his students. He downs single-malt scotch to numb his ennui and fixates on the meaningless of life until he plots the murder of a judge, whom he has never met or is at all affected by and which reinvigorates him and is the answer to all of his problems. And unlike Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point, or Cassandra's Dream, Irrational Man is a straight comedy, whereas the previous films were heavy moral dramas. Irrational Man is fresh for this reason.

Along with Phoenix and the plucky cute naive stock-Allen female role brought to life by Stone, Parker Posey brings an enjoyable on-screen presence and makes up for Stone's character with everything she is not. Posey is the dark, cynical, detached bitch you love to see her play and no one does it better.

There's a hilariously dark scene where Phoenix's professor goes to a college party and starts up a game of Russian roulette that put its stake firmly into the gallows humor terrain the film has sought out. And Irrational Man, with its R-rating, provides Allen's dark wit as I'd hoped. Additionally, the character of Stone's boyfriend getting shunted for the Phoenix professor is delightful because he's such a WASPy pussy anyhow.

Having become familiar with these types of characters from Allen along with this type of plot, it was fun. But by the time the film wraps up, the twist feels pat and deflates the otherwise potentially fatal comedy it felt like Irrational Man had been ascending towards. Although this is Woody Allen, and the ending fits perfectly with his consummate commitment to irony--that's alway been his charm and one of the defining characteristics of his narratives.

In the Teens Blue Jasmine was a reason to rejoice, decade before that we got Match Point, so that's something. But amongst the annual Woody Allen movie, it's becoming exceedingly rare to see him returning to his master form. Yet that's not to say I'll ever lose interest in him, for his genius is comparable to no other. Irrational Man works as a dark comedy, and that's what Allen does best. Also, "The 'In' Crowd," by the Ramsey Lewis Trio began to get grating after its repetition. I just kept getting annoyed and wondering how many times are they gonna play this? I mean it's kind of cool, but sheesh.


Monday, November 23, 2015

We Must Be Doing Something Right to Last Two Hundred Years

I'd prefer to avoid being repetitive. However, I wish to express again the marvel of seeing a film projected in 35mm in a theater; and, rediscovering a movie that I've already seen on DVD at home several times. It's like time travel. It's like experiencing the same thing audiences did when the film was first released.

When I was nineteen Mike Clark's Movie Madness Video and More in Portland, OR was like being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory for me. It offered the chance to see anything I wanted or could think of. Now there are subsequent generations who have the internet for the equivalent of what for me were the VHS archives. I still enjoy home video. But, after seeing something like some of Altman's work from the Seventies on film, larger than life, it almost makes me want to throw my TV in the trash.

Before Prêt-à-Porter (1994, Robert Altman), Short Cuts (1993, Altman), and The Player (1992, Altman), there was Nashville (1975, Altman). Nashville is the Altman template. Nashville has a prestigious notoriety that caused me to see it on DVD many years ago. I wasn't a fan. It felt bloated, boring, and initially caused me to file Altman's status as possibly the emperor not wearing any clothes. But after returning to Altman's work, I found different aspects of his talent rewarding. Talents I began to realize were featured in Nashville.

As part of a mini-Altman retrospective here in Austin, a couple of days ago I again found myself spending Saturday afternoon alone in a dark theater surrounded by strangers. Quickly, once immersed in Nashville's panoramic, rich, colorful, aurally-assaulting portrait frame, I regretted how it'd taken so long for me to give this film my full attention. The 35mm print was clean, and provided the scale with which I was able to truly engage with the film. It's like the whole vocabulary of shot selection took on a new strength.

The opening credit sequence blasts a radio station DJ voiceover hurrying through a list of cast members as he advertises a greatest hits album that features them while illustrations bombard us front and center, their names scrolling up one side of the screen and the titles of their hit songs scrolling down the other, all to some twangy good ole country and western music. Sidenote: I can't think of any other instant in my life that I've not only tolerated country music, but enjoyed it.

The Altman template I'm talking about uses his large ensemble cast, intertwining plot threads, a satirical focus on some niche aspects of American culture, improvisational dialogue, and typically a limited temporal range, in general. But where Nashville stands apart is the music. There are so many performances, done by the cast, and featured extant.

The opening scene is with Henry Gibson as HAVEN HAMILTON in a recording studio working on his patriotic anthem (which has always managed to stay stuck in my head) with the chorus, "We must be doing something right to last two hundred years." Geographically, the ensemble aren't always in the same place, with the exception of the Airport scene at the beginning and the concert at the Parthenon that ends Nashville. And while many of the ensemble recur popping up with varying degrees of screen-time, Haven Hamilton feels like the lead to me, if for no other reason that he seems to be the biggest star in Nashville and wield the most clout.

Nashville's structure follows its locations. The primary locations, in order, are:

  • Airport
  • Freeway pile-up
  • Hospital
  • Haven's cabin picnic
  • Opryland concert
  • Church
  • Race car track
  • Parthenon concert

Between all of these there are smaller concerts, night clubs, and like, the boarding house that the Keenan Wynn character runs and the Lily Tomlin character's home.

And the glue that bonds these set pieces together is a technique of mosaic conversation jumping. Often intimate, these nuanced moments are accompanied sometimes by fragments, varying from comedic to odd, but always captivating. These characters all feature in a symbiotic relationship to each other. Altman doesn't play favorites and that is one of his most accomplished feats in Nashville--he's concerned with both those who made it as stars and those who didn't. Fame and stardom is the draw in Nashville, and Haven, CONNIE WHITE (Karen Black), BARBARA JEAN (Ronny Blakey), and BILL, MARY, AND TOM reside at the top, while at the bottom are the parasites that constantly seek them out.

The stars obviously need the parasites. But with OPAL, the BBC journalist (Geraldine Chaplin) as the most desperate, L.A. JOAN (Shelley Duvall), ALBUQUERQUE (Barbara Harris), and SUELEEN GAY (Gwen Welles) a pattern begins to emerge that tends to show how much sex as the currency of the female characters buys them in Nashville. Never one for on the nose depictions, Altman keeps these intricacies graded, with for example, Albuquerque appearing the most desperate and the only one of these women specifically motivated by being a star herself, while not using sex to her own ends. Albuquerque's opposite is Sueleen, who uses her sexuality for what she hopes will be fame until in the heartbreaking surreal scene where she performs at the nightclub and gets booed off and coerced into stripping nude. (It's not easy for me to buy her complicity in that moment.) And to add further insult, when the Ned Beatty character drives her home and propositions her, she sadly amounts to nothing more than a sex object.

But I shouldn't get too analytical here. I mean Opal and L.A. Joan appear as though they have no regrets about all of their different sexual partners and having a good time. They're just drawn to the scene. But another big thread that's set up early and takes time to play out is Tom's (Keith Carradine) pursuit of gospel singer LINNEA (Lily Tomlin). There's that moment when he keeps calling her house when you realize this guy who at first sounds like a harassing pervert stranger is Tom from folk group Bill, Mary, and Tom--and yet further, that Linnea wants him too. This leads to his performance of "I'm Easy," where he dedicates the song to a special lady, and there are singles on Opal, L.A. Joan, and Linnea, each sure he's talking about them.

Next to fame, and sex, there's power. Nashville makes so much more sense than the first time I saw it, as then a random series of vignettes. The opening Hal Phillip Walker campaign voice of God van that keeps appearing is connected with Michael Murphy's character, whom we find out is trying to sign all of the big music stars to perform at a political rally. Everybody needs something from somebody.

Keenan Wynn's (Damn I can't even begin to describe how much of a fan of Ed Wynn and his son Kennan Wynn I am) character generates so much pathos is because he's mixed up in this frenzy and is the only person not eager to worship the Nashville stars, but to get his niece--L.A. Joan--to go along with him to visit his sick wife, her aunt. The aunt dies while L.A. Joan's out cruising the scene, and the last scene of Nashville shows the Keenan Wynn character's desperate search for his niece. And this rounds out for me, just about everything that could have been put in Nashville. And now, I don't feel like it's bloated or boring, but the amazing portrait I'd long ago heard it hyped as.

So along with the satire on fame, sex, politics, there's race (I haven't gone into the Charley Pride parody), and several bursts of comedy. The freeway wreck is silly funny and great. The Elliot Gould as himself cameo is a lot of fun (wow, what a cool shirt). The line BARNETT (Allen Garfield) shouts at his wife Barbara Jean, as her manager, "Don't tell me how to run your life. I think I been doing a pretty good job of it," cracked me up and was spontaneous. Tom trying to score dope, requesting "speckled birds, L.A. turnarounds, uppers?" was neat. And Haven's wife's obsession with the Kennedys is very funny in an awesome, odd way.

Like Brewster McCloud (1970, Altman) before, Nashville's cinematography is never dull--roving long lens work, wide angle authentic location time capsules, and requisite slow zooms give the film its character. Nashville is Altman's perfect mix.


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mr. & Mrs. Smith

I'd seen a trailer online for a relationship drama directed by Angelina Jolie that starred her and husband Brad Pitt. There was an arty laughably pretentious feel to it, specifically because of a shot of her crying with eye make-up smeared, staring off camera. There's no dialogue spoken in the clip. But it looked stylish.

The visual conception of a film often takes priority over all else for me. Somewhere I heard that when someone says a movie was shot very well, that typically is a way of saying it wasn't good. I disagree. Fashion photography is also a big inspiration for me. So, mostly I love this movie because it looks great and yet I did get something valuable out of it.

By the Sea (2015, Angelina Jolie Pitt) opens with a Seventies throwback Universal title card. Then there's the famous "Jane B." single sung by Jane Birkin with music by Serge Gainsbourg--this iconographic pop artifact not only sets the retro tone, but recalls how Jane Birkin was a model who had crossover success into singing and some acting and was married to Gainsbourg. Angelina Jolie Pitt bears obvious similarities.

It's France. We're on an exotic island. An old Vogue and rotary land line telephones tell us it's the Seventies.

By the Sea as a marriage drama rings authentic and doesn't have pacing problems. It's not concerned with conventional act structure however. It has other priorities. It feels like one of Ingmar Bergman's claustrophobic chamber pieces. Aside from the glamor and the Hollywood looks of the two leads, it's far from Hollywood.

VANESSA (Angelina) is a piece of shit sulking pillhead wife to ROLAND (Brad), an alcoholic novelist struggling with writer's block that doesn't exactly seem to be any better. They speak English but are fluent in French when shopping. They've been married fourteen years. The bulk of By the Sea is these two pretty people being ugly. But this film isn't just pretty, it's gorgeous. The whole thing feels like a haute couture fashion spread honeymoon fantasy. The canvas relies heavily on subtle champagne and pink hues throughout. Much of the colors are desaturated, like the emotions of the main characters. And the Gabriel Yared score fits the period and melancholy weight of the movie.

Angelina's performance is impressive. By the last half of the film she finds some scary troubled realistic grounding that sells the message of this exploration of time weary love. In real life, she's serious when she's playing crazy women, and does the action hero stuff to pay the bills. And most of the time she's in a designer slip lounging like Blanche in Kazan's Streetcar, although in a more expensive, designer version of that getup. Or she's naked sulking in the tub the rest of the time. And she's always wearing heavy eye makeup--even when she's just got out of the shower or waking up.

In By the Sea money is no object, but sex is everything.

By the Sea is in search of, and finds, a truthful depiction of what it is to lose something that meant so much to you and never get back. There's a couple that moves in next door to Vanessa and Roland that they eventually start spying on through a hole in the wall. Vanessa is drawn to them because they have that brand new marriage sparkle happiness that she and Roland have lost and will never regain. But, that's inevitable. Aging, familiarity, and other marriage complications are horrific here.

Along with the quick cuts, Vanessa's pain and longing for sex show up as flashes of abstract colors and textures that look like scientific slides and other assorted flashes that are effective and cool.

The scene where Roland comes home drunk to bed and kisses Vanessa after he's just vomited in the toilet won me over. What that scene expresses through its tone is the combination of disgust, anger, and violence that occurs within the intimate confines of a relationship at its worst. But that's important because it takes no imagination to just show the good stuff, which is also what the neighbor couple is there for--their happiness is the opposite of Vanessa and Roland's pain.

There is a reveal that the film builds toward. And while truthful, this feels casual overall. It all amounts to a discovery in a short getaway for them that we leave with and that finds a catharsis that is now out in the open, and while not gone, importantly portrayed. And in the best way, it leaves us with something we cannot forget through mapping a complex emotional reality.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

La Búsqueda del Medellín por El Verdugo en Ciudad Juárez

I felt like Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve) wasn't a complete waste of time when I went to see it in the theater in 2013. That it was shot by Roger Deakins lent it some prestige, meriting it worthy of attention. I couldn't decide if it was well paced and suspenseful or just boring.

Is it me or does the first half of the year's films released suck?

Among the trailers online for Fall releases, Denis Villeneuve's slick action Mexican cartel flick with Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro looked very promising.

Okay, so Sicario (2015, Villeneuve) isn't an action flick. Although it has some intense action sequences for sure. It's a suspense procedural about drug cartel manhunts from the perspective of an US FBI agent. Sicario is a perfect film. Its precision of pacing, storytelling and cinematography is surgical, sparse, and somehow continuously driven to its singular goal, which is shrouded in ambiguity; and, only slightly less so at its conclusion.

A prologue in Chandler, AZ begins in a quiet suburb, accompanied by low, barely there electronic beats that highlight the adrenaline and anxiety quickly to be revealed as caused by a huge FBI raid on a group of Mexican cartel. The ensuing carnage uncovered is stomach-turning.

The leader of the kidnap response team that uncovered the criminal target is KATE MACER (Emily Blunt), an elegantly beautiful waif with little makeup coming off as a twenty first century Clarice Starling. Emily Blunt is our surrogate. She's who we identify with. She's important. She knows that the house is owned by Manuel Diaz.

The inciting incident is a secretive meeting that follows where MATT (Josh Brolin) arrives at the decision to hire Macer for a task force he's putting together. Macer's motivation: to get back at the people responsible for the Chandler, AZ massacre house, which also leveled at least one fatal casualty from Macer's team. Matt wears flip-flops, doesn't shave, and wears his shirt untucked and unbuttoned in the meeting even though the other bureaucrats all wear suits. Matt's cool.

This meeting ends with Matt explaining that he'll be taking Macer to get Manuel Diaz's brother Guillermo.

Next we see a home in Nogales, Sonora where a shaved head Mexican cop is awakened by his son whom we learn wants to go play soccer. This cop only appears in a few shots, each lasting only a short while. But, scenes at the cop's house serve as act breaks. This first one tells us Act I now begins.

Roger Deakins' bleached out wide-angle landscape vista shots are breathtaking location work--it's the real deal. It makes the shots from The Counselor (2013, Ridley Scott) feel like Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick). And this trip to get Guillermo Diaz is the standout achievement of Sicario.

In fact, the three act structure can be divided into:

I.   Going after Guillermo Diaz
II.  Going after Manuel Diaz
III. Going after Fausto Alarcon

The trip to get Guillermo introduces the mysterious character Matt works closely with, played by Benicio Del Toro. Benicio Del Toro's performance is accomplished almost entirely without dialogue, and, as it will be revealed, this film is all about him really. His aged, wearisome raccoon-circled droopy eyes are menacing and suggestive of an undoubtedly hefty backstory. And his relaxed assurance is foreboding.

As Macer and Matt board a private jet (gorgeous aerial POV, border-establishing photography), Macer introduces herself to Benicio's character. She says hello. He asks her if she's ever been to Juárez before. Noticeably alarmed, Macer demands to know from Matt (who's got his shoes off and is taking a nap), "we're going to El Paso, right?" The already half asleep Matt answers, with his eyes still shut, mumbling, something like yeah okay mmm hmmm. God this movie makes me laugh in some of the most unexpected moments. Same scene Macer asks Benicio character, "Is there anything I need to know?" the explanation she gets from him is:

"You're asking me how a watch works. For now let's just keep an eye on the time."

Then there's a briefing with a cadre of US Marshals, Army, military of who knows what class, all assembled for this (illegal, unsanctioned) trip to Juárez. After it's dismissed, Macer, still prying for answers, confronts Benicio character--she gets: "Nothing will ever make sense to your American ears. And you will question everything we do. But in the end it'll all make sense." Okay, what? The level of suspense had me.

The Juárez trip to get Guillermo culminates with 5 blacked out SUVs and the horrors that are found there. Mutilated bodies hang from bridges. Gunshots from automatic rifles echo in the vicinity. And then a harbinger parallel to them, a police cruiser, identified as a spotter car can be seen as they're driving on their way out of town, between city blocks. Macer's POV: sees it once, twice, then disappears. As Matt's team's intel predicted, on the way back, at the border is where there'd be an attack, if an attack was to happen. And that nail-biting imminent danger crescendo is ruptured with a Peckinpah shootout (later I'll argue that Sicario is actually a Western).

The team take their prisoner Guillermo back to a barracks somewhere. A Mexican who works for some unspecified agency here first addresses Benicio character as "EL MEDELLÍN." Again keeping with the economy of what is and isn't scene, the interrogation between El Medellín and Guillermo is composed of: El Medellín walking in with a five gallon water bottle (full), then up to the seated Guillermo, sticking his crotch in the dude's face, and a camera that tracks down to the floor drain while gasps and groans of disgust are heard.

Act II begins. Back to the Nogales house. Dad's not there. Mom and the son eat breakfast.

Macer's motive in this act is now to help Matt get Guillermo's brother Manuel Diaz called back to Juárez, which as explained to her would be like finding a vaccine for cancer, if successful, because they're after Manuel's boss.

There's a midpoint scene where a cop Macer meets in a bar takes her back to his place, but she realizes he's actually in cahoots with the cartels. Things get awkward. He tries to kill her, but El Medellín is there to save her life. I'll come back to this later.

Act III. Nogales house. Dad and son have breakfast.

Matt's gonna follow Manuel Diaz from AZ back to Sonora, which was exactly his plan all along. Matt reveals his ulterior motive as using Macer the whole time because the CIA can't operate within US borders without a government agency attached. Defeated, helpless Macer now just goes along out of curiosity.

So after Matt's team follows Manuel through an underground tunnel into Sonora, El Medellín breaks off, and Macer follows him. He's found the shaved head cop, and has a gun on him. The cop addresses him as "El Medellín." Macer pulls a gun and tells El Medellín to release the man, but he instantly shoots her. He tells her, "Don't ever point a weapon at me again. Catch your breath and get back out of here."

Disgusted Macer leaves back through the tunnel then punches Matt in the face, whom in turn knocks her down and physically dominates her. There's nothing she can do. So, do I have a problem with the gender politics here? Three times Macer's pinned helpless to the ground by a guy and each time there's nothing she can do. I argue no, because as I said I identify with her. I feel like these are the guys you don't fuck with and that her moral obligations are eventually defeated, which I find a truthful element of this drama.

Sicario's third act climax follows El Medellín as he gets his target, El Verdugo (The Executioner), Fausto Alarcon. I argue that this is a Western in disguise because El Medellín is like the Man with No Name whose allegiance is to no one, which renders the politics of drug trafficking moot. El Medellín's motive is to get revenge after what happened to his wife and daughter. And he plays both sides like the ronin from Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa) for his own ends.

The resolution epilogue begins with a shot of Macer seen through a gauze black curtain in her dark apartment. Completely transformed by what she knows now that she didn't know then. And El Medellín making her sign the statement shows that he's keeping up his end of the deal for Matt, and no one's worried about what the future holds for him. And in fitting last words he leaves Macer with: "You will not survive here. You're not a wolf and this is a land of wolfs now."

And a coda in Nogales: the boy plays soccer and his mom watches. Gunfire somewhere nearby is heard. People pause, but this doesn't entirely stop them from getting back to their lives. So it seems like this border drug cartel problem is something that cannot be ignored. Or can it? These ambiguities are another strength of Sicario.

Deakins' work as cinematographer is always minimal, just what's needed to tell us what's important and where we are. Most of the locations filmed are shabby, unadorned, domestic middle class type feel to them. But his exteriors are striking, if not bleached out bright day shots, sunsets and sunrises in skies that recall early Western movies.


Monday, November 16, 2015


Avatar (2009, James Cameron) was the first movie I saw screened in 3D in a theater. There have been a few every year since then that I've enjoyed. But Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011, Takashi Miike) was very surprising to encounter because I'd read a listing that said it was screening at the Cannes Film Festival in competition in 2011. Miike in 3D at Cannes? I'm so glad I had the chance to see it. It was a one-off screening and I'm so glad I didn't have to work or anything. Then there was Adieu au langage (2014, Jean-Luc Godard) which was even more alluring. Godard in 3D at Cannes? This past May at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival Gaspar Noé debuted out of competition his latest film in 3D.

Love (2015, Gaspar Noé) opens cold with a single take static frame depicting MURPHY and ELECTRA fondling each other's genitals until he shoots his load. And underscoring this shot is Erik Satie's exquisite "Gnossiene, 3" (Lent) piano composition.

The film then wakes with Murphy in bed with his child and the child's mother OMI. The rest of Love is a series of flashbacks taking place in a single day that show the events in Murphy and Electa's history that led up to this morning. I've always been a fan of this reverse chronology narrative structure, like for instance in the South Korean movie Peppermint Candy (2000, Lee Chang-dong).

Gaspar Noé's style is on full display foremost featuring cinematography by Benoît Debie, who also shot Irréversible (2002, Noé) and Enter the Void (2009, Noé). Noé has a sex industry catering to all manner of tastes, taboo-targeting, dark, tungsten, warmly lit, strobing, steadicam first person subjective POV aesthetic. And if that's what you fancy, Love will not disappoint.

There are so many sex scenes in Love. And they last a long time. There're also several in-jokes, sly meta-framing devices, and playful humor to be found. Early in the film, when Murphy goes to his bookshelf (alongside of which is the Love palace model from Enter the Void) and retrieves his opium stash, along with photos of Electra, the VHS case that hides these contents is Noé's debut film I Stand Alone (1998, Noé). Later in the film Murphy and Electra are seen early in their relationship to commit a pact where they agree to always "stand together" and never leave each other. There's also a dialogue exchange that gets big laughs: when Murphy responds to what he wants to name his child, "Gaspar." Also when Electra introduces Murphy to her ex-boyfriend art gallery owner, Noé, this character is played by Gaspar Noé, albeit with a grey wig.

And in another bit of meta business, Murphy explains to the other girl at the party that his ultimate dream is to make a "sentimental sex film." Obviously that is what Noé is showing us. And as tediously as Love is paced, as excessive are all of the sex scenes, as bad as all of the acting is, I admire his intentions; and, this outweighs all else here. A lot of the dialogue is exemplary of the tightrope one walks when trying to be sincere and risking sounding cheesy. Like when Electra says "How can something so lovely bring such great pain. Maybe it's better to never love at all." I'm vulnerable to that kind of material because it's what I go to the movies for, the communication of feelings. And I think Noé invested everything he needed to to craft this narrative in a way that is abundantly satisfying and creative.

The third act really takes things further with the visit to the sex club. Around this part of the film Murphy gets arrested for drunken assault on a guy, and the cop at the precinct ends up inviting him out for a beer later, then recommends he take his girlfriend to a sex club so he can have sex with her and other women and not be jealous because that's the problem with his American mentality. The night Murphy takes Electra to this sex club is a wonderful set piece. I was definitely reminded of the suspenseful, dark, what's going to happen underground sex club scene in Cruising (1980, William Friedkin) and also to some degree the club from Irréversible. I never would have imagined how ominous and filthy sex club-fitting John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 theme could have sounded until I witnessed this scene.

The final shot of the movie was perfect. The aspect ratio switches from 2.35:1 to 1.33:1 and Murphy and Electa embrace each other in a bathtub, face to face, as water from the shower trickles down on them. Electra asks, "Please promise me that you'll never leave me," and Murphy responds, "I  promise I'll love you to the end." After holding on this, superimposed on the screen is THE END. Then the credits roll, holding this image, as the scene is underscored by an excerpt from Glenn Gould's rendition of Bach's Goldberg Variations. And for me this is didactic and romantic--Noé saying that this first night together, this first moment of two people having just decided to fall in love and believe they have a chance at being together for the rest of their lives is love. Nothing else after that matters.

We never find out what happened to Electra. There's just a cryptic phone recording that says something like out of service. She says if she ever had to be in pain and not have love that she'd kill herself. And her mom tells Murphy that she'd been saying some suicidal things for the past two months. Dark.

Although there is a CU shot of a penis ejaculating in 3D with sperm projecting out into the audience. This movie is as dirty as it is sweet. There is the moment when Murphy claims he wants to make films with blood, sperm, and tears.

The soundtrack is a lot of fun too. There are some hauntingly beautiful pieces, especially the Satie stuff. But, also some other clever choices like the first sex scene between Murphy and Omi using Goblin's "School at Night," lullaby from Deep Red (1975, Dario Argento).


Tuesday, November 10, 2015


La nouvelle vague has captivated me since right around 1999, when I'd first arrived in Portland. Around that time I'd also happened upon Dogme 95, but whereas that movement proved to be a passing fancy, a shallow trend, its entries seemingly all but have elapsed any interest or value I can find in them, La nouvelle vague appears as inexhaustibly pertinent as an exercise in personal filmmaking style. Jean-Luc Godard is and always will be my most revered, but it's not possible for me to exclude Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette--both of whom I had to wait longer for and found less of their work to view.

Of all the time I'd spent watching Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette) I'd wanted to see more by its writer-director, Jacques Rivette, but had no luck. Finally after importing a British dvd of Paris nous appartient (1958, Rivette) I'd had something else to process. Surprisingly, Paris nous appartient was unlike Celine and Julie Go Boating in several ways; for the most part, it was darker. Shrouded in paranoia, conspiracies, intrigue, and shot in black and white, it was hard to believe it was by the same person.

By the way, I'd always been a filmographile. Wait what's the word for that? I mean like obsessed with filmographies of directors. And as I'm sure people who know me are sick of hearing, I began my pursuit of seeing all the movies of specific directors before the days of prevalent access to the internet. In researching the filmography of Jacques Rivette, one will find his fourth feature film listed as Out 1 (1971, Rivette) with a running time of thirteen hours. When I first thought about it, I did a double-take. As intriguing as it sounded I sadly concluded that I'd never actually have a chance to see it. Especially not in a theater. Especially not in one day. But, again, thanks to Austin, sometimes a chance comes along to see a movie I've waited for my whole life and never thought I'd get to see in a theater.

The day before I was to attend the theatrical screening of Out 1 I was scared. The longest movie I'd seen in a theater was Lawrence of Arabia, at nearly four hours. How was I going to sit through a thirteen hour movie? Would I get like bed sores? Would I get claustrophobic? Fall asleep? It began this past Saturday at 10:30AM and I had a seat in the middle, flanked by other audience members, but I saw that the front row was nearly empty and not too close to the screen so I moved there so I could sprawl out and slouch in my own space. For the first few hours I yawned a lot but then I was transported to that calmingly relaxed hypnotic trance into another world. Okay, okay, sadly it was a DCP, but other than that I was in complete bliss.

Out 1 contains several references to the number thirteen. It's strongly tied to Honoré de Balzac's three novels from La comédie humaine called "The Thirteen," as Colin (Jean-Pierre Léaud) finds, along with the Lewis Carroll reference about the thirteen gathered to hunt the Snark while searching for clues to solve his conspiracy theories. And it seems to me, although difficult to prove, Colin and Frédérique (Juliet Berto) are the two central leads, along with the five members of the Seven Against Thebes theater group and the Prometheus theater group's six members, which makes that thirteen principal cast members to follow. Also, the film runs thirteen hours.

I so admire Rivette's style in Out 1. He takes us down a rabbit hole into the intricacies of social dynamics among these thirteen people who all embody a cool, early 70s, bohemian, youthful, free-spirited, creative, cultured, literary cluster of sexy intellectuals. And he shoots them often on the streets of Paris, filming found locations. Maybe I'm jaded because I've been working in film and television production for the past three years, but how refreshing to see Out 1 full of most of the things it's my job to prevent: boom or other crew or equipment's shadows or reflections, and random people (bogies or lookie-loos as we call them) looking at the scenes being filmed, for example. I've always wanted to make movies like this.

And then there's the austerity that comes from Rivette's choice to leave the film without a non-diegetic score. The opening shot is unforgettable: the Seven Against Thebes group is stretching and we hear a recording that is played of some tribal bongos. Those bongos open the subsequent seven of eight parts of the film to follow and they become akin to a theme. But while I'm on that opening shot, most of the first two hours is just two different theater groups rehearsing, and while trying, it sets the foundation for Rivette's diegesis.

So if half of the movie is the two theater groups, the other half is Colin and Frédérique. Both he and she live alone in small apartments that feel like prison cells to me. Both of them are introduced as cafe hustlers. They both eventually hunt the thirteen. And they both fall in love by the end of the film, albeit to different people. And they cross paths only for a second and never say more than one word to each other or actually meet.

These are some simple structural techniques I noticed. The movie is thirteen hours long, I'm not gonna go crazy here. Colin's scenes are fun and break the theater group's monotony. But Frédérique's scenes are magic because Juliet Berto has to be the sexiest most sensually ravishing actress to have come out of French 60s cinema. The way Rivette photographs her recalls Godard's work with Jean Seberg, Anna Karina, Bridget Bardot, and Anne Wiazemsky. And, Berto is fun too, just like she'd go on to carry Celine and Julie Go Boating--who's character in that film coincidentally went on to provide the inspiration for Madonna's character in Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, Susan Seidelman). Frédérique spends the latter half of the movie in her own spy disguise with a boyish short hair wig, trousers, jacket, and collared shirt with cravat--damn that cravat puts me in stitches.

Thomas is a little older but damn he's cool in the stereotypical French way. He (and his theater group) smoke tons of cigarettes, he's always breaking down the literary relations to their rehearsals, always wearing mock turtle-neck sweaters, romancing seemingly every woman he meets, drinks wine, and enjoys eating in a lot of scenes, one of which he's seen sharing snails with Sarah. Oh, the French.

Like Paris nous appartient the air of paranoia prevails heavily. I forget what all goes on in that movie but I know the Betty Schneider character stumbles upon mention of a guitar recording by a character named Carlos, whom she never finds and is never shown in the film nor is his recording. That's key to Out 1's plot points. It's like never finding or showing Pierre. Same with the way Paris nous appartient features many scenes--and attracts the Betty Schneider character--of rehearsing a play that is never performed. I love that the journey is the payoff not the destination. I feel like Bruno Dumont makes his films similarly. Oh, the French.

But so yeah, the thirteen hours I spent sucked into the world of Out 1 was immersive and powerful, unlike any experience I can begin to think of comparing this to cinematically. Bulle Ogier as Pauline is also similarly photogenic in the way Juliet Berto is in this. Both of them go on to appear in Celine and Julie Go Boating and other of Rivette's 70s work. Man I wanna see Duelle (1976, Rivette) with Juliet Berto and Bulle Ogier. To bring up some of the film's playful humor and self-referencing, there's a scene with Colin hanging out with Pauline in her shop with some other friends. They're eating crackers and fruit jam. Pauline asks Colin if he's ever heard the story of "Charlotte and the Jam Pots." Colin replies that he has not. To which Pauline responds she'll tell him some other time because it's too long.

Needless to say, I'm proud to have discovered that there's a place for something like Out 1 and that it works. And I can't wait for the chance to see more of Rivette's early work.


Monday, November 09, 2015

The Birds

With a career that spanned five decades and a personal vision that always remained uncompromising and experimental, Robert Altman, more than any other American filmmaker, requires time when one attempts to warm up to his talent. Most of the time I've spent has been laborious, tedious, and sometimes disappointing. But so has my search for great films in general. Now that isn't to say the payoff wasn't exceedingly worthwhile on numerous occasions. Yesterday downtown at a movie theater here in Austin I was lulled into a sublime hypnotic trance by Brewster McCloud (1970, Robert Altman).

For someone who considers themselves a fan of Independent American cinema Altman's is one of the most revered of reputations. However it was only after seeing Magnolia (1999, Paul Thomas Anderson) that led me to Short Cuts (1993, Altman), which I thoroughly and profoundly connected with, due to its vast array of troubled, struggling, funny, romantic, believable characters. Short Cuts is serious Altman at his finest.

Later I found 3 Women (1977, Altman) to be indecipherable, frustrating, and bewildering. But also funny, captivating, poetic, and a real treasure. Again, as has he always been reputed for, the ensemble casting, namely Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek, are revelatory. 3 Women is surreal Altman at his finest.

And finally the most impressive of all Altman's work, which I'd seen only recently is his made for television opus Tanner '88 (1988, Altman). It is his most serendipitous, inventive, and enjoyable narrative, in the guise of a political satire.

If the aforementioned three titles are his crowning achievements--and I realize McCabe & Mrs. Miller might belong there but I haven't seen it and I demand the opportunity to watch it projected in a theater--then their other, their counterparts, their vital components are Altman's rebellious comedy satires. For me those have been O.C. & Stiggs (1984, Altman), The Player (1992, Altman) and now Brewster McCloud.

Not quite having to structure my thoughts here as either a movie review or film criticism, the Reviewiera platform is my medium for expressing the bliss of truly, sincerely, and without pretense, enjoying the hell out of a movie.

All I'd ever heard about Brewster McCloud can be seen in its poster. Bud Cort plays the title role, lives in the Astrodome, and builds wings to fly with. As great as MASH (1970, Altman) is, and an admirable beginning to Altman's canon, that he followed it up with Brewster McCloud really makes me appreciate his reach.

Hearing that a movie was a flop, panned, alienated audiences, or was weird often makes my mouth water, and Brewster McCloud was known for all of those things. But what a payoff. It opens showing the MGM studio card without sound and as the lion roars we hear "I forgot the opening line." It's unbelievable that MGM distributed Brewster McCloud and the only one other Altman film, O.C. & Stiggs. O.C. & Stiggs also plays with the MGM opening logo card. There are several similarities between both of these MGM Altman comedies: rampant drug use, offensive racist slurs, misogynist jokes, adolescent male protagonists, contemporary pop soundtracks, non-sequitor gags, car chases, violence, and satirizing American culture. Yet they were both commercial flops, though destined for cult status.

Brewster McCloud is full of references to birds. His name sounds like rooster and his surname is a nod to the clouds. And parallel with the entire film is an inexplicable completely set apart classroom lecture by a character played by Rene Auberjonois, who is evolving into a bird before our eyes. Altman's got imagination.

There's also Michael Murphy playing a Bullitt spoof pursuing a string of homicides where there's bird shit at every crime scene. (The Murphy gags about his obsession with personal appearance and his turtlenecks is killer.) All of the cars have license plates that refer to a type of bird. The Road Runner driven by Suzanne (Shelley Duvall) has the license plate DUV 222.

The movie also has some marijuana humor that feels a lot like Cheech and Chong. Coincidentally Brewster McCloud was produced by Lou Adler (that tall skinny dude with the white beard and pink shades who always sits next to Jack courtside at the Lakers games), who managed Cheech and Chong and would go on to produce and direct Up In Smoke in 1978.

More references to flight include Sally Kellerman as Brewster's guardian angel (who in yet another bird reference plays a scene bathing nude in a fountain that also recalls her exposed shower prank in MASH), Brewster's construction of his own wings, and the name Astrodome itself alluding to a celestial monument. There's also some remnant of the Icarus myth, but Brewster McCloud becomes its own fable. It's not for me to question why Brewster is pursued as an object of physical desire by the women characters, but it adds to the anti-Hollywood feel of this comedy. Like the character Hope wrapped in a blanket masturbating while wrapped in a quilt as she bounces on Brewster's inflatable raft, how do you explain that to a producer? There's so much different stuff going on in Brewster McCloud that I'm just glad made it into the cut.

And what a debut for Shelley Duvall, more than ever I honed in on her naive nuances as the virtuous ingenue with a hint of worldliness. I'd just happen to rent Thieves Like Us (1974, Altman) a couple of weeks ago and began realizing more than ever before what she brings to a performance. Furthermore she is like the Altman actress.

A refreshing break from my usual high art preferences and mainstream interludes, Brewster McCloud won me over with its sumptous 2.35:1 canvas, Houston streets, whip zooms, long lense work, and deserves its own special place with my appreciation, due to succeeding while being unlike anything I've ever seen.