From the archives: "A well-made film"

George Clooney has made a career out giving great performances in films that aren’t worthy of him.  With Syriana, Up in the Air, The Descendants, and The Ides of March, Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007) was one of a series of Clooney films doomed to be forgotten almost as soon as Oscar season came and went.  I’ve never felt the desire to revisit any of these films, well-made though some of them may be, and it’s not really surprising that when I wrote about Michael Clayton in March 2008 I was more interested in the supporting performance by Tilda Swinton—and the implications of her character—than in Clooney.  I look forward to the day when Clooney harnesses his talent to a project that’s bigger than himself.

George Clooney as the title character in Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2008).

Michael Clayton is what I would call a well-made film. The direction, the writing (both by Tony Gilroy), the performances are all impeccably controlled; everything about the movie is tight; watching it you feel as though not a shot or a line has been wasted. There is, ostensibly speaking, nothing wrong with this movie. That said, I respected Michael Clayton more than I loved it. Ultimately, it didn't make me understand movies in a new way, which is what the best movies really do. But it is still a very good film.


"The Evil Dead" as experimental film

The thing in the cellar: Ellen Sandweiss as the possessed Cheryl in The Evil Dead.

Ah, The Evil Dead (1983, dir. Sam Raimi)—the movie that asks the question, “what would you and your buddy do if your girlfriends were suddenly transformed into murderous demons?”  I’ve loved The Evil Dead ever since I first saw it on late-night cable TV as a kid.  I was fascinated by just how extreme its use of gore was, and even at that relatively young age I somehow understood that it was also hysterically funny, to the point that I was moved to giggle along with the possessed Linda (Betsy Baker) when she begins to taunt her boyfriend Ash (Bruce Campbell) in a sing-song voice (“we’re gonna get you…”). 


The Films of 2016: Sunset Song

It’s hard to know how to react to a film like Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, which is so devoutly earnest and so pure of heart that it feels like it has been beamed to us from another century.  Set roughly in the years between 1910 and 1916, it almost resembles an artifact from that period, something hewn or wrought out of stone or wood (a piece of furniture, an earthenware pot) rather than a film made with cameras and computers.  It follows the career of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Dyne), the sensitive and quick-witted daughter of Scottish farmers, as she weathers a series of personal tragedies with quiet resilience and tireless faith—values that few contemporary filmmakers (with the possible exception of that other Terrence, Malick) would even be interested in touching. 


Metteur en scène

Canted angles (I): Sean Penn and Al Pacino on the boat.
Fun fact: Cahiers du Cinema named Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) the best film of the 1990s, ranking it higher than Eyes Wide Shut, Close-Up, Unforgiven, Crash, and Twin Peaks (which apparently was counted as a movie).  I can only imagine that the film’s appeal to French critics must be, at least in part, the result of a beneficent loss in translation; like so many of de Palma’s films it’s an unabashed genre exercise, a gangster movie, and at the level of its plot and dialogue it’s pretty standard fare.  (Al Pacino’s performance, meanwhile, is somewhere between a tour de force and a travesty.)  I can only imagine that what the Cahiers critics were responding to was the virtuosity of de Palma’s camera.  The tracking shots in Carlito are relentless, dizzying, sometimes ostentatious and unnecessary, and never not ballsy.  Carlito finds de Palma taking every opportunity to indulge his weakness for canted angles, sometimes to the point of literally turning the camera upside-down, and it culminates in a bravura set piece/chase through  Grand Central Station.  Carlito’s Way doesn’t have the sinuous elegance of an earlier film like Dressed to Kill, nor is it half as cleverly written, but it does find de Palma pushing his camera to the very limits of its expression—and that’s something.

Canted angles (II): Pacino, Penelope Ann Miller, and James Rebhorn in the office.



A young Robert de Niro in Greetings (1968).

In preparation for seeing Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s documentary about Brian de Palma, which opens next month, I’m trying to catch up with some of the few de Palma films I’ve never seen.  Which brings me to Greetings (1968), de Palma's second feature, starring a twenty-five-year-old (!), pre-Godfather, pre-Mean Streets Robert de Niro as one of three New York hipsters who wile away their afternoons hatching schemes about how best to score chicks and dodge the draft, and who shot JFK.  Greetings was released the same year as Martin Scorsese’s debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, which deals with similar material and feels similarly rough around the edges (though Scorsese’s editing is already far more sophisticated than de Palma’s).  Watching such films is like looking at someone’s baby photos: underneath the unformed face of the child you can just make out the contours of the adult.  They’re loose, sloppy, young-man’s films, animated by a juvenile spirit—the films of young men with more energy than skill, too horned-up about sex and art and being funny and being political to really get any of it right.  It’s the energy, not any of the comedy or the “ideas,” that comes through.      

Greetings is a hybrid film, a comedy about 1960s counterculture with sexploitation elements, directed in the style of Godard and scored to a bargain-basement pop tune (“Greetings, greetings, greetings, / Spend a day or two with Uncle Sam…”).  In a way, it’s the kind of movie that Otto Preminger’s studio-produced Skidoo—also made in 1968—was trying to be, a movie that makes fun of both the youth movements and the establishment but still manages to work on young audiences’ wavelength.  The problem, of course, was that the very production model used to make Skidoo meant that it was doomed to be square, whereas Greetings, an independent feature made by a no-name kid, could afford to be tossed off and stupid and was all the better for it.  (The adolescent humor of Greetings also helps explain some of the goofier touches de Palma would bring to later films like Carrie.) 

While it’s hard to take Greetings very seriously on any level, de Palma’s fascination for the voyeuristic nature of cinema is shown to be already in place.  De Niro’s character is a wannabe peeping tom and an amateur pornographer who, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, convinces a pretty young shoplifter (Rutanya Alda) into posing for a cheesecake movie.  The final scene of the film is a fake news broadcast from Vietnam in which we see de Niro squatting in a rice paddy, trying to get a female Viet Cong to strip for him.  Ever the horn-dog, de Niro would rather make love than war; for de Palma, who would rather make art than either love or war, the camera has already become his new favorite plaything.

Shooting women: Tisa Chiang and Rutanya Alda.

The homosexuals in the text: The men and women of "Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives" (1977)

I first heard about the 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives a couple of weeks ago while listening to a Film Comment podcast in which a roundtable of critics were discussing the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent retrospective of queer cinema before Stonewall.  Word Is Out was not included in the retrospective, the main reason for that being that it’s a post-Stonewall film, made some seven years after the riots that have since come to signify the beginning of the gay rights movement.  The documentary, which cuts together interviews with some twenty-six gay and lesbian Americans of various races and ages, serves as a record of the opening of a new chapter in the history of queer sexuality; many of its interviewees are aglow with the sense of possibility that the liberation movement seemed to promise.  The film is even more poignant for having been made just before the specter of AIDS came to descend upon the gay community.


The Films of 2016: The Lobster

In Giorgos Lanthimos’ absurdist comedy The Lobster, single men and women cruise the grounds of a resort hotel that looks like a leftover set of a Kubrick movie, searching for potential mates and making small talk in flat, monotonous voices.  If they fail to couple up within forty-five days of their stay at the hotel, they are transformed into animals and released into the wild.  The most ambitious of the guests immediately set about finding suitable partners for themselves, while others, like the mild-mannered David (a portly Colin Ferrell), approach the process with numb passivity.  It’s only after David defects to the forest outside the hotel grounds to join a band of renegade “loners” that he finds love in the form of a near-sighted woman played by Rachel Weisz—the joke perhaps being that, as the old cliché goes, we find love when we stop looking for it.  But life in the forest turns out to be just as brutal and oppressive as life at the hotel: romantic relationships between loners are forbidden, forcing David and his lover into further exile. 


The homosexual in the text: George Carlin as Eddie Detreville in "The Prince of Tides" (1991)

Gay and straight buddies: Nick Nolte and George Carlin in The Prince of Tides.

Eddie Detreville in The Prince of Tides (dir. Barbra Streisand, 1991) is a typical example of the gay-best-friend character that began to appear semi-regularly in Hollywood comedies and dramas of the early 1990s.  The figure of the gay best friend can be seen as representing the domestication of the homosexual by dominant culture: while, on other fronts, queer independent films and passion plays about AIDS put homosexuality front and center, films like Tides treat it as a flavoring particle, a garnish for a heterosexual entrée.  (It’s interesting to think that Tides came out the same year as both Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia and Todd Haynes’ Poison.) 


Vanya and Sonia and Louis and Andre

I can imagine some small-minded philistine trying to dismiss Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) as “uncinematic,” on the grounds that it’s basically a film of a bare-bones staging of a play, and because the camerawork and editing are so unobtrusive as to appear invisible.  But there are all sorts of ways for a film to be cinematic (or uncinematic), and sometimes “all” that’s needed to make a great film is a solid mounting of a dependable source text.  Except that Andre Gregory’s mounting of Vanya ends up being so much more than just “solid,” and Chekhov’s play is so much more than just “dependable,” that even that description isn’t really appropriate to the film, which, nearly a quarter-century after the fact, remains nothing short of sublime. 


In praise of "Shampoo" (1975)

Julie Christie and Warren Beatty acted opposite each other three times between 1970 and 1979—first in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) for Robert Altman, lastly in Beatty’s directorial debut Heaven Can Wait (1978), and, in between, in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975).  Despite being one of the highest-grossing films of its year as well as an Oscar winner (for Lee Grant) Shampoo has never really maintained much of a reputation as a classic film, which seems unfair; watching it this week for the first time, it struck me as one of the slickest, grooviest, funniest movies of the decade.  And one of the sexiest, too, thanks to Beatty and Christie’s scintillating onscreen chemistry, no doubt informed by the traces of their own off-screen relationship which had run from the late ’60s to the early ’70s.  Christie’s Jackie is the only woman beautiful and intelligent enough to make the womanizing George (Beatty) want to settle down and become an honest man; but their hope of finding happiness together is undone by bad timing, and by circumstances that mirror the state of the union at the dawn of the Nixon administration (the film is set portentously on Election Day, 1968).


From the archives: "A kind of grace"

I haven’t revisited Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married since I first saw it in November of 2008, but I was enough impressed with it to list it as my #3 favorite film of that year, and to single out Bill Irwin’s performance as one of the year’s best.  (Anne Hathaway’s performance, unfortunately, hasn’t stuck with me, though I wrote glowingly about it at the time.)  Having run hot and cold on Demme over the years, it still seems to me one of his stronger efforts.  My original review is excerpted below.

“It's a big, messy, imperfect film structured around a Connecticut wedding, as the family of the bride, Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), is thrown into disarray upon the arrival of prodigal daughter/sister Kim (Anne Hathaway). Kim is a recovering drug addict, temporarily sprung out of rehab for the special occasion, and she not only wears her dishonor proudly but readily picks fights, taunting her sister and parents with passive-aggressive barbs. […] The sisters vye for attention like teenagers. ‘That's not fair!’ Kym shouts when, in the middle of a heated argument, Rachel makes a tactical move that immediately wins her a shower of affection from their family, who has been watching them warily from the sidelines. ‘Can't I have one day?’, Rachel pleads to their goofy, emotionally fragile father--stunningly played by Bill Irwin--who tries desperately to please everybody and ends up pleasing no one.


Seeing double

Pictured: Olivia de Havilland and Olivia de Havilland as twin sisters Terry and Ruth in Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror.  Considering it was made in 1946, it sports some pretty impressive effects work.  Watching the film for the first time—the premise of which, according to the typical pop-Freudianism of Hollywood, is that the evil Terry has spent her life harboring murderous jealousy toward the good Ruth—it occurred to me that this might have been one of the inspirations, along with the more obvious Rear Window and Psycho, for Brian de Palma’s Sisters (1973), in which Margot Kidder plays, or appears to play, a pair of mentally disturbed twins.  De Havilland is quietly chilling as the manipulative Terry; this was the same year that she won an Oscar for To Each His Own.  (De Havilland will turn one hundred in July, by the way.)


Her name was Lola / She was a showgirl

"C'est moi, c'est Lola": Anouk Aimee in Lola (dir. Jacques Demy, 1961).

It’s a real shame that the recent attempt to restore Jacques Demy’s Lola (1961)—overseen by Demy’s son Mathieu—failed so miserably, as reflected in the dim, smeary Blu-ray edition of the film for Criterion’s otherwise exquisite Demy box set.  That’s because Lola is a poignant and underrated gem of French New Wave cinema, and a strong debut feature by Demy in which many of the filmmaker’s trademark themes—chance and fate, separations and reunions, and, of course, song and dance—are already in place.  Set in the quaint port town of Nantes (Demy’s birthplace), and enlivened by scenes at a cabaret where the title character works as a dancer entertaining American sailors, it has the effervescent charm that one associates with the early films of Truffaut and with Godard’s jauntier efforts, like Bande a Part (1964).  But it’s cut with the quiet melancholy that colors so many of Demy’s films, which resemble Shakespeare’s comedies in their recognition that a happy ending for one character usually creates an unhappy one for another.     

Lola becomes even more affecting when viewed back-to-back with Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).  Cherbourg having been a favorite film of mine since adolescence, I remember being stunned to re-encounter the character of Roland Cassard (Marc Michel) as the leading man in Lola when I saw it for the first time several years ago.  I was even more amazed to hear that Cassard’s musical theme from Cherbourg, composed by Michel Legrand, was already in place in the earlier film. 

The points of connection between the two films are more than superficial.  Demy uses the two films to show how the movements of various couples ripple out over time and space to determine the fates of others, and how every relationship is informed by the memory of past love affairs and missed connections.  Cassard’s relationship with Lola (Anouk Aimee), for example, is jump-started by good timing when he literally bumps into her on the street, only to be doomed by bad timing later when she reunites with her long-lost American lover and the father of her child.  Dejected, Cassard exits the film on his way to carry out some shady business involving diamonds in South Africa; when he turns up in Cherbourg, he has become a dealer in jewelry.  Has he come to Cherbourg on the hopes of re-encountering the young Cecile Desnoyers, the precocious teenage girl who he meets in Lola and who runs off there at the end of the film?  Cecile and her mother re-appear in Cherbourg in the form of Genevieve and Madame Emery; where Madame Desnoyers fails to snap up Cassard as a potential husband for her daughter, Madame Emery succeeds.  And there is a fatedness, too, in Cassard’s decision to marry the pregnant Genevieve; we learn that Lola’s lover left her single and pregnant, and that this has been a source of hardship for her.  Cassard “rescues” Genevieve from Lola’s fate, and in so doing prevents Genevieve from reuniting with the father of her child—as Lola eventually does.  

Roland Cassard at dinner with Cecile and Mme Desnoyers in Lola (top) and with Genevieve and Mme Emery in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (bottom).

Cassard’s shifting role in the two films also speaks to Demy’s philosophy of the illusion of agency and the capriciousness of fate.  A leading player in the story of his own life, Cassard is relegated to a supporting player in the story of Genevieve.  Even in Lola, his role is tenuous; initially he, not Lola, seems to be the focus of the film’s plot, but she is the figure with whom the film ends, and he’s last seen as a figure in her lover’s rear-view mirror.  In Cherbourg he ends up getting the girl; but his good fortune comes at the expense of Genevieve and her lover.  In the perpetually spinning love roundelay of Demy’s films, c’est la vie.


On "Two for the Road" and the New Freedoms

As cultural artifacts go, Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967) is a strange beast, a Hollywood movie made just at the moment that the studio system was breathing its last.  Bolstered by bankable movie stars and directed by studio mainstay Donen, but “experimentally” edited and wittily scripted by Frederic Raphael, it has one foot in classical Hollywood and one foot in the nouvelle vague.  It’s also interesting to consider in light of the new permissiveness of American cinema in the late 1960s.  Two for the Road was released one year after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966) broke new ground in the use of profanity in movie dialogue, and it ends with an exchange between Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney that would have been unthinkable in a film of, say, 1963. 


From the archives: "A would-be vigilante story"

I’ve long been fascinated by Clint Eastwood as a figure who has spent the latter half of his career interrogating the masculine codes that he spent the first half rehearsing.  While some have been better than others, Eastwood’s late films (from Unforgiven on) make up a formidable body of work, one that finds him quite consciously (even obsessively) running over the same ground again and again but doing so with the curiosity of an artist rather than the laziness of a hack.  Gran Torino was met with mixed reactions when it came out in late 2008, but—as my review from January 2009 shows—I appreciated even those aspects of it that left many other critics spluttering.  Unabashedly sentimental and given to moments of old-fashioned conservatism (which in the wake of George H. W. Bush felt downright quaint), Gran Torino was seen by many as a harbinger of Eastwood’s senility; meanwhile, Glenn Kenny was inspired to draw a comparison to the work of Sam Fuller.      

“Stephanie Zacharek wrote that Eastwood’s Mystic River ‘is hard-boiled beyond toughness: it's so tender the skin falls away from the bone.’  This evocative turn of phrase could be said to sum up the best of Eastwood’s late films—Unforgiven, Absolute Power, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and now Gran Torino, a would-be vigilante story in the vintage Eastwood vein that instead winds up being an elegy for that kind of film and the kind of violent justice it advocates. […] I was intrigued to see the emergence here of themes that resonate across these late films: a haunting secret from the hero’s past, lost or estranged children (and surrogate children), religious guilt, an awareness of what violence does not only to the victim but to the killer.  While one could easily criticize Eastwood for revisiting these themes so often, I think they help to unify his work and they’re never handled predictably or cheaply.  Each of these films is very much a variation on these same themes, and each works through them with its own narrative elements. These are all beautifully dark, mournful films, and they share this sense of hauntedness, but they also stand alone as great films independent of one another.


Armando Iannucci: The anti-Sorkin

Before he became Dr. Who, Peter Capaldi was probably best known as the foul-mouthed, irascible Malcolm Tucker, Director of Communications for the British Prime Minister on Armando Iannucci’s BBC television series The Thick of It.  Having never seen the series, my introduction to Capaldi and Tucker came in 2009 with Iannucci’s In the Loop, a spin-off film that also works flawlessly as a stand-alone comedy.  Capaldi spends much of the film in a state of apoplectic rage, snarling obscenities so fabulously devised that they almost resemble metaphysical poetry.  Much of the film’s satirical humor derives from the contrasts between British government officials and their counterparts across the pond: Malcolm’s American crony, Linton Barwick (David Rasche), is a war-monger who hides his ruthlessness behind a thick layer of smarm (where Malcolm uses the word “fuck” as its own form of punctuation, Linton says things like “gosh darn it!” and uses dashes to spell out dirty words). 


On Judy Garland in "A Child Is Waiting" (1962)

Judy Garland was forty in 1962 when she made A Child Is Waiting, produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by a young John Cassavetes.  It’s an incredibly odd social problem picture that is somehow very much of its time and also completely sui generis, a drama set at a progressive school for developmentally disabled children run by—of all people—Burt Lancaster.  Garland shows up at the beginning of the movie as a kind of artist manqué looking for a job as a music teacher at the school.  (Lancaster’s secretary tells him she’s been “drifting” in New York, typical behavior for “a girl [who’s] in her thirties [sic] and still alone.”)  At this point in her career Garland was in decline; her face looks haggard and tired here, and there’s a desperate, grasping quality that bleeds the performance and the character together.  As Lancaster and his secretary discuss Garland while observing one of their young charges (see below), the implication is that Garland herself is closer to being an inmate at the school than an authority figure.  Directionless, inexperienced, and guilty of becoming too emotionally attached to a favorite student, she is a case study in pathology unto herself.  In the end, as she proves her worth by mounting a successful Thanksgiving pageant, the film suggests that she has been solved along with its many other social problems.


Blackness and the art house

In Ava Duvernay’s Middle of Nowhere (2012) there’s a scene where David Oyelowo asks Emayatzy Corinealdi out to a movie, and she warns him that they might not share the same taste in movies.  He asks her what kinds of movies she likes.  She tells him, “Indie ones.  Foreign ones.”  (They end up going to see Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.)  Middle of Nowhere (which I find to be vastly more interesting than Duvernay’s Selma, by the way), and Duvernay’s career generally, take up the question of African-American filmmaking (and filmgoing) in relation to art house cinema—two categories that are often thought to be mutually exclusive, even though many of the best black filmmakers (Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, Haile Gerima) have, by virtue of necessity, fashioned entire careers making art-house movies.  But as the success of Selma promises to launch Duvernay into the world of mainstream Hollywood (she is currently slated to mount an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time), I worry that Duvernay will continue to move further and further away from the independent spirit of a film like Middle of NowhereSelma already signaled a move away from that spirit toward something that was weightier; even at its deftest moments, the film never really allows you to forget about the burden that Duvernay was made to carry in taking on that material.  I hope that, as Duvernay continues to make movies, she doesn’t forget about all of us—black, white, and every color in between—who like indie ones, foreign ones.


The Films of 2016: Little Men

Having been impressed with Ira Sachs’ Love Is Strange (one of my ten favorite films of 2014) I was eager to see his new film Little Men, which screened here at IFF Boston last night.  A modest coming-of-age drama, it opens with 13-year-old Jake Jardine moving to Brooklyn with his family to take over the apartment they have inherited after the death of Jake’s grandfather.  Jake—quiet, imaginative, artistic—quickly makes friends with Tony, the cocksure Chilean kid whose mother owns a shabby little boutique below the new apartment.  Their friendship ends up being tested when Jake’s parents raise the rent on the shop and Tony’s mother refuses to pay.


From the archives: "Intimate marital rage"

Writing about Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road in February of 2009 I tried to assess the performances by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, who were being pushed for awards consideration, as was the film itself.  That campaign ended with a fizzle; the movie was ultimately too bleak to gain much traction.  Winslet changed horses mid-stream and rode The Reader to an Oscar win.  Her performance here was the superior one, but films about women who die after performing abortions on themselves generally do not do well with Academy voters.  In its commitment to capturing the utter hopelessness of Yates’ novel, the film was perhaps doomed from the beginning.  

Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road.

“Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time in eleven years as a married couple trapped in claustrophobic 1950s suburbia. It’s like Titanic, only they crash into a little white house with a green lawn instead of an iceberg. […] This is a despairing, disturbing film—one that, like Yates’ novel, presents us with scenes of intimate marital rage that make our stomachs queasy, and then presents us with more, and more, until we’re almost numb with them. I was relieved to see Mendes stay true to Yates’ despairing vision and not cop out with a cheap ending.



Framed: Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper in The American Friend.

The duplicitous Tom Ripley—forger, murderer, identity thief—has been portrayed on film by actors as various as John Malkovich, Alain Delon, and Matt Damon.  As played by Dennis Hopper in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend (1977), Ripley is a menacing hipster in a cowboy hat who, seemingly on a whim, decides to make an enemy of Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz), a German frame designer.  And with an enemy like Ripley, who needs friends?  Ripley and Zimmerman become locked in the kind of half-hostile, half-tender relationship that one so often finds in Patricia Highsmith, the creator of the Ripley novels (in addition to Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt, recently adapted as Carol).  The homoeroticism that Anthony Minghella makes overt in his own adaptation The Talented Mr. Ripley is more muted in Wenders’ film, adding a quiet and unsettling tension to Zimmerman’s interactions with Ripley.  As he works to subtly destroy Zimmerman’s life, then finds himself moved to protect him from even more dangerous adversaries, it’s difficult to know whether Ripley wants to be Zimmerman’s friend, lover, killer, or all three.