Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Movie Review: The Tribe

The Tribe
Directed by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.
Written by: Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy.

Starring: Grygoriy Fesenko (Serhiy), Yana Novikova (Anya), Roza Babiy (Svetka), Oleksandr Dsiadevych (Gera), Oleksandr Osadchyi (King), Tetiana Radchenko (Principal).

It is not often when I see a movie that is unlike anything else I have seen before – but Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe certainly qualifies as that. The entire movie involves a group of deaf students in a school for the deaf, and the entire movie is in sign language – that remains unsubtitled for the entire two hour and fifteen runtime. The students – and those around them – are often having lots of conversations, but as an audience, we have no idea what they are saying – and have to pick up everything for body language and actions. That the movie never becomes confusing is amazing – that it almost doesn’t rely on silent movie type overacting is perhaps even more so. The specifics of the conversations are unknown to the audience, but if you are paying attention – and the movie requires you to do so – you will be able to keep up.

The movie opens with the arrival of Serhiy (Grygority Fesenko) at a school for the deaf in the Ukraine, where he is rather quickly initiated into the crime syndicate that thrives there. This syndicate goes well beyond the students of the school – into the administration, and other adults. The kids mug people (brutally beating them) – but there’s more to it as well. Soon, Serhiy is working as a pimp of two of the female students – walking through parking lots with row upon row of sleeping truckers, looking for customers. Almost as quickly as Serhiy gets into the syndicate, he pisses them off – by developing feelings for one of the teenage prostitutes, Anya (Yana Novikova) – and getting in the way of them making money, including their scheme of sending the two girls to Italy. This is not something that can be allowed to stand.

Amazingly, this is Slaboshpytskiy’s debut film. The filmmaking on display in the film is confident an assured. Slaboshypytskiy favors long takes – often unmoving shots where characters have long conversations with each other, that we are left on our own to interpret, and just as often tracking shots, as we follow the character – most often Serhiy – as he either stalks the halls of the dorm, or other places. The camera never looks away at the often brutal violence on display in the movie. Be warned, the violence in the movie is extreme – Slaboshypytskiy is clearly a fan of filmmakers like Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont, who often use the same sort of shocking, yet matter-of-fact, violence on display in The Tribe. Even for a viewer like myself – who has seen a lot – some of the scenes in The Tribe tested my endurance – particularly a scene where Anya visits an apartment (you’ll know which one I mean if you ever see the film). The finale of the movie culminates is shocking, yet inevitable, violence.

What the movie does a great job of establishing is the insular nature of the system that these kids become embroiled in. There are few interactions throughout the entire movie with the hearing/speaking world - and when there are, Slaboshypytskiy’s camera remains outside, looking through a window for example, so we don’t hear what is being said. The kids are essentially cutoff from the outside world – even their principal is involved – which helps to explain why everyone seems involved in the syndicate, and why no one can get away. Where else are they to go? The consequences for rebellion in such a closed off society are extreme – as the movie well shows.

Despite the fact that there is no dialogue in the film, it should be pointed out that The Tribe is not a silent film. Its sound design is actually quite intricate – every sound we hear has been chosen specifically, and at times heightened. They are the type of sounds that are usually background noise in a normal movie (if the sound mix hasn’t removed them entirely).

If there is a problem with The Tribe, it is perhaps that the story itself doesn’t quite live up to the virtuoso filmmaking on display. I’m not sure Slaboshypytskiy is really doing anything all that terribly new in the storyline, and some have argued the film crosses the line into exploitation – a complaint I do not share, mainly because I don’t anything we see is meant to titillate. But the film is a hefty dose of miserable-ism, which I don’t have a problem with, but others will.

Still, as a debut film, The Tribe is masterfully directed, and not quite like any other movie I have ever seen before. That the story doesn’t (quite) match the filmmaking in no ways diminishes the impact of the movie. This is powerful, disturbing filmmaking – by a director who could one day do something even greater.

The Films of David Lynch: Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet (1986)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens), Kyle MacLachlan (Jeffrey Beaumont), Dennis Hopper (Frank Booth), Laura Dern (Sandy Williams), Hope Lange (Mrs. Williams), Dean Stockwell (Ben), George Dickerson (Detective John Williams), Priscilla Pointer (Mrs. Beaumont), Frances Bay (Aunt Barbara), Brad Dourif (Raymond), Jack Nance (Paul), Fred Pickler (Yellow Man).

I have seen Blue Velvet at least 10 times – if not more – and yet oddly, I always forget precisely what happens at the climax of the movie – when young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) comes face-to-face with Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) once again in Dorothy Vallens’ (Isabella Rossellini) apartment. Much of the rest of the movie is seared into my brain, but the actual confrontation between good and evil right near the end often slips my mind. Why? I think it’s because that confrontation is inevitable – we know that it will likely happen from fairly early in the movie. That scene of what ends up being shocking violence is normal and anticipated – when so much of the rest of the movie clearly is not. Those shocking images throughout the movie never lose their impact.

Blue Velvet is a modern noir set in suburbia, where the perfect façade covers up shocking violence and depravity. Lynch does nothing to hide this – the first scene in the movie is a montage of the seemingly perfect suburban neighborhood – white picket fences, smiling firefighters, lawns being watered, dogs being walked. And then one of those men watering his lawn simply collapses, and Lynch’s camera shows us that lawn, and then the seething, writhing violence of the insects just below the surface. Filmmakers have been picking on the suburbs at least since Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt in 1943 – where a serial killer (Joseph Cotton) kills a series of women, and only his niece (Teresa Wright) can stop him. Lynch himself would continue with this in Twin Peaks – although Twin Peaks could hardly be called a suburb, but simply a small town, which just makes Lynch’s point even clearer – there is violence and depravity everyone. You cannot escape.

Jeffrey Beaumont doesn’t know this at the beginning of Blue Velvet. He’s a university student who comes back to his hometown of Lumberton for a while. It was his father we see collapsing in the opening, and Jeffrey is needed to help run the family hardware store while he’s in the hospital. It’s while walking home from visiting his father, through the woods, that he finds a human ear. He brings it to the police station and shows it to Detective Williams - “That’s a human ear alright” – he confirms. Jeffrey is fascinated by this, and wants to know more, but Williams, logically, will not tell him more about the investigation when he visits his house later. That’s not true of Williams’ daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) – a high school senior, who has overheard her father talking about a singer named Dorothy Vallens. Sandy knows where Dorothy lives – and Jeffrey cannot help himself. He breaks into her apartment to watch Dorothy – and is shocked twice. Once when Dorothy discovers him, and once again when she tells him to hide again because Frank is coming. These twin scenes sets the depravity of the movie in motion – first with Dorothy abusing Jeffrey, and then Frank abusing (much more harshly) Dorothy. A smarter man than Jeffrey would leave it alone – but he cannot do that. He’s drawn to Dorothy, and wants to protect and help her. He figures out what Frank has done, and decides to help. Meanwhile, he’s also falling in love with the innocent, virginal Sandy, which complicates things. Blue Velvet is about that pull in Jeffrey between these two women, who are film noir standards – the femme fatale the hero cannot help but be drawn to, and the innocent naïf he should be drawn to. But Lynch complicates things here more than a little. Dorothy is not a typical femme fatale – but a wounded woman, a victim of horrific crimes, who has grown used to her abuse – and sees it as normal. Jeffrey doesn’t really see her like that though – she is to him both a sexy older woman who wants him, and a damsel in distress that needs his protection. She gets him to do things to her that haunts him afterwards. It’s only near the climax – in a scene where she shows up on her lawn naked (the scene that offended Roger Ebert to no end) – that he finally grasps just how damaged she is.
Blue Velvet is as effective as it is because of how Lynch is able to play with tone throughout the movie. Those opening shots are beautiful, but deliberately phony. Other than those writhing insects, the early scenes in the movie play almost like a comedy, and certainly Jeffrey’s investigation comes across as one step removed from a Hardy Boys novel (later, in Mulholland Dr., you can see a Nancy Drew investigation!). Jeffrey’s plan to get into Dorothy’s apartment the first time – with a fake bug sprayer – so he can prop open a window or steal keys is something that would only work in those books. Then he’s got the spunky, beautiful sidekick Sandy – who first walks out of the shadows like a Hitchcock blonde. These two are hopeless innocents who do not understand the world they are entering.

Things take an abrupt turn when Dorothy finds Jeffrey in the closest. It’s no longer a game then, as she forces him to strip, and threatens him with a knife. Things go from intense to insane with the arrival of Frank Booth, who sucks some of gas out of a canister, and acts both like a psychopath, swearing every other word, and a child (“Baby wants to fuck”) – who makes an immediate and terrifying entrance into the movie in that first scene. The lightness of those opening scenes is gone, replaced by shocking violence and horror. Later, there will be another terrifying sequence with Frank – a surreal, nightmare of a car ride for Jeffrey, who may finally get what the hell he’s gotten himself into.

The performances in Blue Velvet help a great deal. Agent Dale Cooper may be MacLachlan’s most famous role for Lynch, but Jeffrey Beaumont is a close second. He has that innocent look about him – he’s smart, but not as smart as he thinks he is. He thinks himself a grown-up – the world of high school is almost quaint to him now, big college man that he is. But he’s delusional. Dern is wonderful as Sandy – who like Jeffrey, wants to believe herself to be an adult, when really she has no idea what the world is like. She is beautiful and popular – dating a football star – but her life is mundane. She wants to be involved in the investigation, until she realizes what that means. Rossellini has never been better than she is as Dorothy – which is probably the most complex role in the film. She has to hold back so much, play so many different notes. And Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth is quite simply one of the most memorable, and terrifying screen villains in history. A depraved maniac, as only Hopper could play him, he does what so few memorable movie villains fail to do – make you hate him. He isn’t a charming psychopath like Hannibal Lecter, who you secretly (or not so secretly) root for, nor a sympathetic one like Norman Bates. He’s just a depraved, terrifying human being.

Coming off of the overly complicated Dune, Lynch kept the narrative of Blue Velvet simple. It’s got a classic noir setup and mystery – even though Lynch doesn’t seem overly interested in that mystery. It’s pretty much tossed aside, the resolution comes quickly, because he doesn’t really care about it. The whole mystery starts because of an ear in a vacant lot (but why would the people responsible for that ear no longer being attached leave it there), and ends, with a little bit of a whimper. That’s because Lynch is more concerned, as always, in the themes of the movie than the narrative. He is showing American suburbia – that white, middle class enclave (and yes, it’s almost all white in Blue Velvet – save for two, black men – who are completely non-threatening, wisecracking, hardware store employees) as being a place of delusion. The end of the movie – not the climax, the scenes after that (which, unlike the climax, I remember) – show this clearly. No matter what happened, Jeffrey and Sandy have moved on – forgotten or buried what happened. There is a robin with a beetle in his beak though – and we know he hasn’t forgotten. And neither has Dorothy – who we see in a final moment that should be happy, but isn’t. She doesn’t have the luxury of Jeffrey and Sandy – to forget and move on.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Movie Review: Insurgent

Directed by: Robert Schwentke.
Written by: Brian Duffield and Akiva Goldsman  and Mark Bomback based on the novel by Veronica Roth.
Starring: Shailene Woodley (Tris), Theo James (Four), Kate Winslet (Jeanine), Ansel Elgort (Caleb), Miles Teller (Peter), Naomi Watts (Evelyn), Jai Courtney (Eric),  Mekhi Phifer (Max), Octavia Spencer (Johanna), Zoë Kravitz (Christina), Ashley Judd (Natalie), Ray Stevenson (Marcus), Keiynan Lonsdale (Uriah), Maggie Q (Tori), Daniel Dae Kim (Jack Kang), Janet McTeer (Edith Prior).

The middle book or movie in trilogies are often my favorites – and the reason is fairly simple. There is no need for a lengthy set-up, which are all usually the same, as the film has to establish the rules and characters of the world that they have created, and since the story doesn’t really end, it just stops, there’s no need for boring “wrap-up” sequences. Basically, the middle part of a trilogy is all the good stuff, with none of the filler – at least in theory. That isn’t the case with Insurgent, the second movie in the Divergent series, which is almost entirely filler. There is very little actual content or story here – we don’t really learn anything new about this world, or its conflicts, and what we do learn doesn’t really fill two hours’ worth of screen time. I dread the third installment of this series – Allegiant – in part because the book (and yes, I read all three Divergent books) is absolutely horrible, and also because, like all YA franchises now, the studio have decided to split the book into two – for purely artistic reasons, I’m sure.

In Insurgent, our hero Tris (Shailene Woodley, who pretty much singlehandedly keeps these movies watchable) has copped off her hair (and somehow in this post-apocalyptic world, seemingly got highlights as well), and is now on the run with her boyfriend Four (Theo James, who in these movies seems like a poor man’s Sam Worthington), and two other, less willing companions – her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), who doesn’t really trust his sister, and the hated Peter (Miles Teller, who at seems to know how ridiculous the movie is, and decides to have some fun with it). As you will undoubtedly recall, the leader of the Erudite faction, Jeanine (Kate Winslet) had brainwashed the Dauntless faction into killing the Abnegation, with only Divergents, like Tris and Four, being immune. Jeanine is still trying to completely take over – but in order to open up a super-secret box, she needs a Divergent that she can put through five “simulations” that will ensure some very important information gets revealed. The faction system is cracking, the factionless (led by Naomi Watts), want to take over – and of course, Tris is the key to the whole thing.

If that previous paragraph read like incomprehensible goobly-gook, then, you can probably stop reading this review know, content in the knowledge that Insurgent is not the movie for you. Like The Hunger Games before it, the Divergent series is a series of young adult books, and now movies, with a teenage girl heroine, in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, trying to take down an enormous power structure. Unlike The Hunger Games – either in book or movie form – the Divergent series isn’t very good – the whole faction system makes no sense, and while Susan Collins, writer of The Hunger Games, was smart to make her heroine, Katniss Everdeen, smart and brave, and yet realize she is still a pawn in the game, that everyone tries to use, Veronica Roth of Divergent really does see Tris as some sort of noble, self-sacrificing saint – the only one who can save the rest of humanity.

You have to give Woodley a lot of credit in these movies. Tris is a fairly impossible character to play – a boring character really, who spends a lot of time obsessing about how special she is, and her sins, even though no one really blames her for what has happened. She spends most of her time either crying or having to kick ass – with a few moments to look lovingly in Theo James eyes. There’s not a lot to play her, but damn it, Woodley does everything she can to make the role work. It doesn’t – but I don’t much blame her for it.

In fact, I’m not sure I much blame the filmmakers behind Insurgent for the fact that it’s such a boring experience to watch. Director Robert Schwentke is one of those anonymous studio directors, who specialize in action movies (Flightplan and RED are among his other films), and the action is handled fairly well here, even if it relies on slow motion too often – and slow motion that makes the slow motion in Zack Snyder movies look better by comparison. Almost all of the actors are better than they need to be in the movie – with Oscar winners and nominees like Winslet, Watts alongside Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer, and fine young actors like Teller and Zoe Kravitz wasted in their roles.

The problem with Insurgent is the source material. It’s just really, really bad – and so the only way to make it better would be to change it, and the legions of fans of the source material would get really mad about that, so they’re kind of stuck. When you have bad source material, how good can the movie really be?

The Films of David Lynch: Dune (1984)

Dune (1984)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch based on the book by Frank Herbert.
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan (Paul Atreides), José Ferrer (Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV), Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica), Brad Dourif (Piter De Vries), Leonardo Cimino (The Baron's Doctor), Linda Hunt (Shadout Mapes), Freddie Jones (Thufir Hawat), Richard Jordan (Duncan Idaho), Virginia Madsen (Princess Irulan), Silvana Mangano (Reverend Mother Ramallo), Everett McGill (Stilgar), Kenneth McMillan (Baron Vladimir Harkonnen), Jack Nance (Nefud), Siân Phillips (Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam), Jürgen Prochnow (Duke Leto Atreides), Paul L. Smith (The Beast Rabban), Patrick Stewart (Gurney Halleck), Sting (Feyd Rautha), Dean Stockwell (Doctor Wellington Yueh), Max von Sydow (Doctor Kynes), Alicia Witt (Alia), Sean Young (Chani).

It’s one of the great ironies about David Lynch’s career that his 1984 Dune is considered his biggest bomb – critically as well as commercially, and is still the highest grossing film of his career. But when the studio sinks at least $40 million (a lot back then) into your sci-fi epic that they are hoping is going to be another Star Wars, and the films barely crosses $30 million at the box office, well, that’s not good. When it was released, Dune was considered to be a disaster – a bomb that could potentially destroy careers. Over the years, the film has gained a cult following, with some insisting that as bizarre as the film is, it’s actually a misunderstood masterpiece. I don’t say this very often but those people are, in a word, wrong. Dune is every bit as bad as people thought it was back in 1984. An incoherent mess of a movie that somehow spends almost its entire runtime doing exposition, and still makes no damn sense. I’ve seen it twice now – the first time I gawked in amazement at the screen. This really cannot be as bad as I think it is, can it? Watching it this time I have my answer – yes, it is. But as colossal a failure as Dune is on every conceivable level, it still stands as one of the most important films in David Lynch’s career. After his independent debut Eraserhead (1977) gained a cult following, and was a surprising success, he was approached by the studios. He did the relatively safe The Elephant Man (1980) – a decent enough film, a critical, awards and box office success (adjusted for inflation, it beats Dune’s gross – but barely - but it didn’t cost nearly as much to make). He then made Dune – taking over a film that had defeated others – like Alejanrdo Jodorowsky (last year’s doc Jodorowsky’s Dune is a must see for what happened there), and Ridley Scott, who walked away to make Blade Runner instead. It’s odd to think now, but Lynch was even considered (along with David Cronenberg, an equally odd choice) to be the director of Return of the Jedi. Had Dune been a great success, who the hell knows what direction Lynch’s career would have gone in. Because it worked out the way it did, Lynch learned a lesson. “I would rather not make a film, than make a film where I don’t have final cut” he would say of the experience. To get final cut, he had to make smaller films – which has led him to make the kind of bizarre films that only Lynch could make.

The plot is a mess – and really takes about 30 minutes or so before it can even start, because it requires so much setup. The film opens with a bizarre introduction by Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen – who otherwise is barely in the film) as she floats in space (and occasionally fades out, for what reason, I do not know) as she tries to explain about the planet Arrakis aka Dune – a desert planet populated by giant sandworms, and an indigenous people known as the Freman. Arrakis is also the only place in the universe where “spice” is mine – which is the most valuable substance in the universe as, among other things, it allows you to fold space, so you can travel great distances without moving. Irulan is the daughter of Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrar), who rules the universe. He fears that Duke Leto Atreides (Jürgen Prochnow) has grown too popular and powerful – so he decides to give him control of Arrakis, which is a plum assignment, but is really just a ruse. He is going to use the Atreides long-time enemies, the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to kill the Duke, thus eliminating him. What he doesn’t know is that the Duke has a son – Paul (Kyle MacLachlan) – whose concubine mother, Lady Jessica (Francesca Annis), defied her orders to give the Duke a daughter (he’s only supposed to have daughters) – and instead gave him a son, because she loved the Duke so much. This, of course, sets up a war on Arrakis.

That paragraph was probably painful to read – it was certainly painful to write – but it only hints at the entire plot of the film. There are dozens of other characters – played by talented actors like Brad Dourif, Dean Stockwell, Max von Sydow and Patrick Stewart among many, many others. There is talk of a chosen one (gee, I wonder who it’s going to be), a psychic little girl with glowing blue eyes, a psychotic Sting strutting around in weird underwear, strange weapons that use sound to pulverize things, strange body shields that makes it look like the characters are trapped in translucent boxes, cheap looking special effects (even for their time). And there is an awful lot of shots of various characters – especially McLachlan’s – staring blankly off into space, while a voiceover tries to explain what the hell is going on. One of the “rules” of screenwriting is never use voiceovers because they are lazy. Of course, in films like Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), and Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. (2002), among others – voiceovers are used to tremendous effect, filling in information and offering commentary in an entertaining way. I think when whoever wrote that “rule” was thinking of a movie like Dune – where it’s simply ridiculous to watch characters star off into space.

I cannot think of a thing about Dune that actually works. The performances are almost all bad – but the actors weren’t really given much to do. Best of all may well be Sting – who is given less to do than many of the other characters, but does it in such a cocksure way that at the very least he’s different than the rest of the characters – you remember his performance, even if you can barely remember what the hell he was doing in the movie. I guess Kenneth McMillan is pretty good as the Baron as well – although making him gay, and covering his face with gross, pulsating sores at the height of the AIDS epidemic was probably not the best idea in the world. Most of the other actors simply look lost – as they probably were.

Apparently, Lynch’s original cut of the film was close to 4 hours long, and he had wanted to cut it down to about 3 hours – but the final version of the film is only two hours and fifteen minutes. I have never seen the longer TV cut – which does run just over three hours – because Lynch had nothing to do with that cut, and took his name off of it. Perhaps a longer film would have been better – but I have to say, I doubt it. Dune is cluttered and overstuffed – too many characters, too much plot, too much strange dialogue to try to parse – too much everything. A longer version of the film would like not be better – just be more.

Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see why this film didn’t work – and why Lynch was all wrong to direct, and write, the movie to begin with. Ridley Scott may have been able to reign the movie in – although apparently his version would have been two movies long. Scott has excelled over the years in making large scale epics, with large casts and scale. Scott, while not the most imaginative director, excels at this type of large scale storytelling. Lynch, decidedly, does not. Narrative has never seemed to be much interest to Lynch – his films are often complex, but the actual narratives are simple, the casts typically small. Yes, he expanded in the Twin Peaks TV series – but that was a series that allowed him time to explore, and he was working with TV vet Mark Frost, who certainly helped. With Dune, Lynch was basically on his own – and really had no idea what he was doing. You can make some auteur related arguments for Dune – but to what purpose?

I know the film has its fans. Perhaps for fans of Herbert’s novels, all this makes much more sense than it does to layman like myself. Perhaps they simply ignore the plot, and look at the utter weirdness on display throughout much of the movie. I think the movie generally looks bad – the special effects are awful – but the costumes and makeup are, at the very least, interesting, and often unique.

For me though, the film is interesting only because it’s a failed experiment by Lynch, a brilliant director, who was given the wrong project and ran with it. He knows he shouldn’t have made it – he doesn’t often discuss the movie, but when he does, it with regret. But perhaps he shouldn’t regret making the film. The years between Eraserhead and Dune seemed to be taking Lynch more and more into the mainstream – something he was about to depart from – and in the process, make a masterpiece.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: I Predict by Sparks (1982)

Music Video: I Predict by Sparks (1982)

Between The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), David Lynch directed a music video for the cult group Sparks. I have to be honest, I don’t think I had ever heard of Sparks before I saw this video on Lynch’s Wikipedia filmography, and then tracked it down on Youtube for this series. But despite my ignorance of the group, they have had a long career, where the two permanent band members, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have taken on many different genres over their 40 plus year career. They have even made a radio musical entitled The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, which may be turned into a film by Guy Maddin.

The song I Predict is a catchy little number – nothing brilliant or ground-breaking – it sounds like many songs from the early 1980s, which isn’t my favorite musical era. The lyrics though are quite good – a little strange and joke-y, the song, as the title suggests, makes a series of bizarre predictions about what going to happen – ending the song with the lyric, and this song will fade out, which, of course, it does. The song became a minor hit in America – and perhaps would have become more had the video not been banned by MTV.
When you hear that a video was banned by MTV, you would expect it to be explicit or controversial. I Predict isn’t – at least not my today’s standards. The bulk of the video is made up of two types of shots – the lead singer (Russell) singing the song (standard), and keyboardist (Ron) doing a striptease on a cabaret stage with a Hitler mustache. There is no nudity in the video – but I guess the combination of cross dressing striptease and a Hitler mustache was enough for MTV to ban it.

The video, it must be said, not particularly good. It isn’t particularly bad either – it’s just like most music videos, it sells the song, and it ends, and you forget about it. Back in 1982, MTV and videos were in their infancy – so perhaps this looked provocative (after all, Lynch and the band couldn’t do much more – they already got banned for this). It’s something, but like the song, the video is amusing and not much else.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: Christopher De Vore & Eric Bergren & David Lynch based on the book by Sir Frederick Treves.
Starring: Anthony Hopkins (Frederick Treves), John Hurt (John Merrick), Anne Bancroft (Mrs. Kendal), John Gielgud (Carr Gomm), Wendy Hiller (Mothershead), Freddie Jones (Bytes), Michael Elphick (Night Porter), Hannah Gordon (Mrs. Treves), Helen Ryan (Princess Alex), John Standing (Fox), Dexter Fletcher (Bytes' Boy), Lesley Dunlop (Nora), Phoebe Nicholls (Merrick's Mother).

The Elephant Man is undoubtedly the most conventional film that David Lynch has ever directed. It tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), who was born with hideous deformities in Victorian Age England, spent much of his life as a circus freak, before being brought to a London hospital by Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), and shown kindness, and given a home, for the first time in his life. The message of the movie is simple – Merrick had every reason to hate humanity, for he saw its ugliest side, and never did. He was an inspiration. How much this gels with the facts of Merrick’s actual life, I’ll leave for others to decide. But in Lynch’s film, everything is fairly straight forward. Yes, the film is well made – you can tell it’s by the same director who made Eraserhead just three years before, because of its visuals, and its sound. But it’s such a dull story, and it isn’t particularly given an original, or unique, treatment. It’s the type of “inspirational” true story that ends up getting nominated for a bunch of Oscars, than being forgotten. Which of course is what happened with The Elephant Man. Although the film didn’t win any Oscars – it was nominated for 8, including Lynch’s first for Best Director. It remains the only film he directed to get a Best Picture nomination. There’s a reason for that – Lynch usually doesn’t make films that groups like the Academy find palatable. That he did so with The Elephant Man should tell you that it’s one of the least “Lynch-ian” of all Lynch films.

The films opens with a bizarre scene (perhaps the most Lynch moment in the film actually), where Merrick’s mother is being trampled (raped?) by a heard of stampeding elephants. It’s a bizarre scene, and doesn’t much fit in with the rest of the movie, but it’s something to behold. From there, the movie follows Treves as discovers Merrick at a freak show – where he is “owned” by Bytes (Freddie Jones), who treats him horribly, beating, taunting him, locking him in cages, etc. Treves is amazed by what he sees – Merrick’s head is huge and misshapen – almost always covered by a hood. He has strange skin all over body. Treves knows that he cannot cure Merrick – nobody can – but he wants to help him. Bytes wants his prized possession back – and accuses Treves of doing the same thing he did – basically, putting him on display. Bytes’ isn’t entirely wrong – but Treves does try and help Merrick. He speaks to him kindly, and insists on everyone doing the same. He introduces him to popular society – some who are genuinely sympathetic, and others who just want to say they’ve seen the now famed Elephant Man. Merrick maintains his humanity and kindness throughout – and although he runs away once again when he is humiliated, he comes back once again as well. His life, according to the movie, should serve as an inspiration.

I’m not entirely sold on that message – as least as it delivered in the film. I think a big reason for that is that I’m not as sold on John Hurt’s performance as many are (he received one the film’s Oscar nomination for best actor – losing to Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull). Hurt is covered by so much makeup, that I think it ends up hurting his performance. The makeup itself was made of casts of the real Merrick, so it is accurate, but Hurt is so buried under it, I didn’t get much from that performance. The eyes are the only part of Hurt visible, and he does as good a job with them as he can, but even they cannot help in the scenes where Merrick is wearing a mask. Hurt speaks in such a soft voice throughout the film, that at times it’s hard to understand him. It doesn’t help that the movie has him go from a guy who won’t speak a word, to elegantly quoting Shakespeare, and having refined afternoon tea in a matter of a few short scenes. I’m also not quite sure what to make of the movie’s final scene of Merrick’s – which seem to imply he ended his own life on purpose (we had been told, more than once, during the course of the movie that Merrick has to sleep sitting up, because if he lied down, he would asphyxiate – yet in that final scene, that’s precisely what he does – purposefully, too). It’s hard not to think that awards voters back in 1980 were impressed with the makeup – and the big “I am NOT an animal” scene late in the film, and overlooked the rest of what is a rather bland performance.

The rest of the cast is better. Hopkins who has to navigate his complicated feelings about Merrick, worrying that he is exploiting him, but trying hard to treat him with kindness. John Gielgud as Treves’ boss, who at first isn’t sure about keeping Merrick, but changes his tune when he meets him. Wendy Hiller as the veteran nurse, who hard exterior masks a woman of genuine concern. Anne Bancroft, in just a few short scenes, as a famed actress who shows Merrick real, not faked, compassion. Jones as Bytes, who really does seem to miss Merrick when he comes looking for him, despite how cruel he is most of the time. Michael Elphick as The Night Porter, who exploits Merrick for his own gain. Elphick is good, but the whole storyline with his character doesn’t really work – especially the way it ends. We’ve clearly seen him sneak people into see Merrick before, who knows it is happening (and doesn’t say anything) – but the final time he does it, Merrick seems shocked, and it causes him to run away. Then we get a scene where Treves’ confronts him, and is backed up by Hiller’s nurse, which is supposed to be a feel good scene, but comes across as phony.

The best thing about the movie is the way it looks and sounds. Lynch worked with cinematographer Freddie Francis for the first time (they’d work together again on Dune and The Straight Story), and the black and white photography is wonderful – recalling the look of Eraserhead. Lynch once again worked with Alan Splet on the sound – and while the wall of sound effect isn’t as constant as it was in Eraserhead, Lynch does use it to great effect when it is utilized. Lynch worked with Frederick Elmes (who had shot Eraserhead) once again on the visual effects in the movie, and has moments where it works brilliantly. While I think the makeup work ultimately hurts John Hurt’s performance, it is quite an achievement in itself, and helps Lynch make the compare and contrast between Merrick and Victoria society. While Merrick is ugly on the outside, he is a good person underneath. Victoria England has a veneer of civilization, hiding a deep seeded ugliness. Lynch doesn’t develop this theme much – but it’s there.

The Elephant Man is far from a bad movie – anything with black & white photography this good, and sound design this unique is worth seeing. There are many elements of the film that actually work quite well. But both times I’ve seen the film, I could not help but be disappointed in it. I understand that this was Lynch’s first studio film – perhaps he felt he had to mute some of his weirdness to get any work at all. And hey, it worked. He ended up an Oscar nominated filmmaker, with a critical, awards and box office success on his second film – which would allow him to go onto bigger (but not better judging on his next film) things. It’s just when I normally think of a Lynch film, I think of a film only he could make. On Lynch could have made Eraserhead for example. There are a lot of people who could have made The Elephant Man.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Movie Review: Tangerine

Directed by: Sean Baker.
Written by: Sean Baker & Chris Bergoch.
Starring: Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee), Mya Taylor (Alexandra), Karren Karagulian (Razmik), Mickey O'Hagan (Dinah), James Ransone (Chester), Alla Tumanian (Ashken), Luiza Nersisyan (Yeva), Arsen Grigoryan (Karo), Ian Edwards (Nash), Clu Gulager (The Cherokee), Ana Foxx (Selena), Scott Krinsky (Parsimonious John), Chelcie Lynn (Madam Jillian).

Sean Baker’s Tangerine both feels like many other movies, as well as something new and exciting. There’s a little bit of Kenneth Anger or John Waters in its depiction on life on the fringes of society that most people aren’t paying any attention to, a little bit of early Tarantino in all the L.A. locations, that feel like some place the characters of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction would frequent, a little bit of 1990s DIY Sundance films, and a few other types of films as well. Still, even if the movie does little to hide its inspirations, it does feel like something raw, energetic and totally unique. The film was shot entirely on an iPhone (with some of adapter to get the right aspect ratio), and the colors are as saturated as an old MGM musical (or a Michael Mann film now that I think about it). The storytelling can be sloppy at times – and even at just 95 minutes, the film feels padded and overlong – and the mostly non-professional acting is uneven in spots. But the film works – it pulls the audience along into its own strange little world.

The film opens with Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) in a Donut Shop – and not a chain donut shop either, but something called Donut Time. Both are transgender prostitutes, and Sin-Dee has just been released from a 28-day stretch in jail on Christmas Eve, when Alexandra gives her the bad news. Her pimp/fiancée Chester has been cheating on her the whole time she was in jail – and worse still, with one of natural born female prostitutes. This sets Sin-Dee off on a cross L.A. journey to try and find this woman. Alexandra meanwhile is giving out posters for her singing gig that night to all of their friends – telling them be there at 7 sharp. Then there’s Rasmik (Karren Karagulian) – an Armenian cab driver, with a wife and baby (not to mention a very loud mother-in-law) at home, who frequents the transgender prostitutes in L.A. – and has very particular tastes.

The film mainly plays as a comedy – even when the film gets a little violent - and when Sin-Dee finally finds the woman she’s looking for, Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), its gets violent as she drags the poor woman across all over town, with just one shoe – the film mainly plays it for laughs (whether those scenes are funny or not is open for debate). The ending also has a little bit of a tone problem – as Baker tries to bring all the threads of the plot together in one big scene – a madhouse really, where we finally meet Chester, and everyone else shows up at one spot. This long scene is at once one of the best in the movie – it is remarkable how it sustains its energy throughout what is a long, complicated scene, and one of the more problematic – as things go from comic to serious in the blink of an eye, but the movie never pauses to consider the serious consequences of this scene. As well, the scene adds new information to an already overly complicated sequence.

Still, problems with the storytelling aside, Tangerine mainly works because the characters feel real, and unlike ones you have seen before. They aren’t saints to be sure, but they also aren’t really bad either – meaning they’re just like real people that way. They may do things that are awful – and hurt others without pausing to consider what it means – but they are mainly well-meaning. They feel like those rare movie characters who exist outside of the movie – as if the audience just dropped in on them for a day – their problems had started before the movie, and will continue afterwards.

It’s somewhat surprising to be that co-writer/director Sean Baker is not a first time filmmaker, because Tangerine certainly feels like a debut feature. It has the energy and ambition that first timers often have, coupled with the raggedness of the execution. You can tell there’s a lot of talent here, it just needs to be a little more focuses. Overall, Tangerine works because of the humanity on display – a glimpse into a world that movies rarely attempt to portray – but this one does, and does it well. Baker wasn’t on my radar before – but he is now, and I want to see what he does next.