Friday, July 31, 2015

Movie Review: Southpaw

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua.
Written by: Kurt Sutter.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal (Billy Hope), Rachel McAdams (Maureen Hope), Forest Whitaker (Tick Wills), Oona Laurence (Leila Hope), 50 Cent (Jordan Mains), Skylan Brooks (Hoppy), Naomie Harris (Angela Rivera), Victor Ortiz (Ramone), Beau Knapp (Jon Jon), Miguel Gomez (Miguel 'Magic' Escobar).

There is a certain comfort in watching a movie as clichéd as Southpaw. It is a boxing movie – a sport that has never been less popular in the world than it is right now, but remains the one that the most movies are made about. The film follows a familiar pattern – rich successful boxer loses everything, gets a new trainer – an old, grizzled vet – with a drinking problem, obviously – who runs a rundown gym, helping under privileged kids learn the art of boxing, so they can become better men – and finally, gets a shot at redemption, both inside and outside of the ring. They’ve basically been making this movie, with a few changes here and there, since the silent era – and for the most part, damn it, the formula still works. It helps, of course, when you have a fiercely committed lead – and Jake Gyllenhaal is certainly that in Southpaw, and when that older trainer is played by Forest Whitaker, who has made his fair share of bad movies over the years, but seems incapable of playing a false note, no matter how forced it may seem on the page. The pair don’t really overcome the clichés inherent in Southpaw, or make them seem new, but they do sell the hell out of them. Yeah, you’ve seen Southpaw before – and in better versions – but you’ve also seen it before in much, much worse versions as well.

Gyllenhaal stars as Billy Hope (yep, Hope is his last name) – who is the light heavyweight champion of the world. He grew up in the foster system – and so did his beloved wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams) – but now he’s super rich – the kind of rich where his manager can hand him a $30 million contract to sign, and Maureen doesn’t want him to do it. Billy’s a hothead – his style of boxing is basically to let the other guy knock him around for round after round, before he gets really pissed and beats the crap out of the guy. Maureen – correctly – thinks this may end up doing some long term damage to his head. She wants him to be there for their daughter, Leila (Oona Laurence). So, after another win in the ring, it appears like Billy may well end up retiring. Up – of course – there is a hothead challenger, Miguel “Magic” Escobar (Miguel Gomez) – who wants his shot, and runs his mouth off a little too much at a charity event. Things spiral out of control, and Maureen ends up dead (don’t complain about a spoiler that’s in the damn trailer). Things go from bad to worse quickly – a fight that goes awful, mounting lawsuits and debt, child services taking away Leila, etc. So Billy Hope has to get everything back all over again – and to do so, he needs Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) – a grizzled trainer, who gave up training pro fighters. But for Billy, he’ll do it – but if, and only if, Billy will do exactly what Tick tells him to.
Southpaw works – as much as it does – because of Gyllenhaal and Whitaker – and to a lesser extent McAdams. She is fine in her role, but it’s a very small one – she dons a stereotypical New Yawk accent, and does it well, and clearly has some fun before she leaves. Whitaker brings his brand of humanism to the role – world weary and tired, but with some humor underneath – including one of the first times I have heard one of his characters discuss his eye. Tick is fundamentally a good person, and that comes through in every scene in the film. Gyllenhaal – who has been on a role as of late, with fine performances in films like Prisoners, Enemy and Nightcrawler – does more good work here. If he became wire thin like DeNiro in Taxi Driver for Nightcrawler, he bulks up like DeNiro in Raging Bull (in the boxing scenes, not the late scenes) here. You’d have to look hard to find a more clichéd role than the tough guy boxer trying to redeem himself, and showing his softer side underneath to his beloved kid – but Gyllenhaal still pulls it off. His redemption feels real, perhaps because he never does seem like that bad of a guy – just a not very smart one.

Everything that goes on around Gyllenhaal and Whitaker is perhaps even more a cliché than their characters are. The film was directed by Antoine Fuqua, who is quite good at action movie clichés, as well as drawing good performances from fine actors, and does that here as well. The scenes inside the right can be brutally violent, but that’s appropriate, and he captures the intensity as well. The rest of the cast is fine, but no one really leaves much of an impression – not even Naomie Harris, a very good actress, given not much to do as a social worker.

The film takes some narrative shortcuts throughout – many of which strain credibility if you examine them too closely. Hope’s fall is way too rapid for example, and no one much seems to care about arresting anyone for, you know, murdering McAdams. The uplifting ending is all well and good – but someone died here, so perhaps a boxing match cannot fix everything.

Still, Southpaw satisfies that itch for something that is just explosions or dumb comedy in the heat of summer, when every other movie at the multiplex is just that. It’s smart summer, counterprogramming, and fits the bill. Although, like many of those blockbusters, you may well forget about Southpaw when you hit the parking lot – as the film is running, it basically satisfies.

The Films of David Lynch: Wicked Game by Chris Issak

Wicked Game by Chris Isaak (1990)
Directed by: David Lynch.

Wicked Games was one of the major songs on the Wild at Heart soundtrack. The movie has an eclectic mix of music – Elvis, heavy metal, Angelo Badalamenti’s excellent, offbeat score – and Chris Isaak’s love ballad, which Lynch returns to in the film when we are alone with Sailor and Lula. Lynch also directed the music video for Isaak’s song – the second video he directed in his career. The video really isn’t all that special if I’m being honest. It cuts between shots of Isaak and his band performing the ballad – in beautiful black and white shots – and shots from the movie itself – a fairly typical approach for music videos from soundtracks. What makes it of limited interest is both the scenes that Lynch chooses for the video, and how he often manipulates the image of those scenes.

Most often in soundtrack based music videos, the selected scenes from the movie act as a “greatest hits” package – basically turning the video into a trailer for the movie. But Lynch doesn’t do that here. There is no hint of the extreme violence from the movie in the video. Lynch simply concentrates on the two lovers – in the throes of ecstasy – in the scenes he has chosen to be in the video – often fading between the scenes and Isaak’s band using the flames, seen so often in the movie. At times, Lynch manipulates the image, blurring it, stretching it, trying to heighten the erotic charge in the visuals. The song is good as well – not great by any means, it’s kind of a sickly, sweet ballad, but it works perfectly in the context of the film, and in the video as well. The video and the song are forgettable – unless you view them in conjunction with the movie itself.

As a side note, I have to admit I know next to nothing about Chris Isaak – just that two of his songs, which by themselves I’m not sure are great, are forever stuck in my head because of how great directors used them – Wicked Game by Lynch in Wild at Heart, and Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing by Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: Wild at Heart (1990)

Wild at Heart (1990)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch based on the novel by Barry Gifford.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Sailor Ripley), Laura Dern (Lula Fortune), Willem Dafoe (Bobby Peru), J.E. Freeman (Marcelles Santos), Crispin Glover (Dell), Diane Ladd (Marietta Fortune), Calvin Lockhart (Reggie), Isabella Rossellini (Perdita Durango), Harry Dean Stanton (Johnnie Farragut), Grace Zabriskie (Juana Durango), Sherilyn Fenn (Girl in Accident), William Morgan Sheppard (Mr. Reindeer), David Patrick Kelly (Dropshadow), Freddie Jones (George Kovich), John Lurie (Sparky), Jack Nance (00 Spool), Pruitt Taylor Vince (Buddy), Sheryl Lee (Good Witch).

David Lynch doesn’t make love stories. The central couple in Eraserhead doesn’t last to the halfway point, the couple in Blue Velvet may end up together, but it’s based on them ignoring reality, everyone in Twin Peaks seems to be cheating on each other, or else or miserable, Mulholland Dr. plays like it could be a love story, until the truth comes out in the end. Needless to say, love doesn’t usually end well in David Lynch’s world – where nothing usually ends well. The exception is his controversial, Palme D’or winning Wild at Heart from 1990 – which really is a David Lynch love story. The central couple, Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) love each other before the movie begins, and no matter what is thrown at them along the way – and A LOT is thrown at them – they stay in love. This fact, despite how much violence and human depravity on display in the film, may well make Wild at Heart Lynch’s most optimistic film outside of The Elephant Man.

Wild at Heart starts with a scene of shocking violence – when Sailor is confronted – in front of Lula, her mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) and all of her friends outside of a fancy party. The man tells Sailor Marietta has paid him to kill Sailor – and whips out a knife, at which point Sailor bashes his head in – quite literally – killing him and ending up in jail (not for long though – he must have got manslaughter). When he gets out, Lula is there waiting for him – and the two take-off on across country road trip to California. Marietta, a wealthy woman with criminal connections, will do anything to track them down and kill Sailor, not only because she doesn’t want Lula dating him, but because he may know a dark secret she has been hiding. She sends Johnnie Farragut (Henry Dean Stanton), a P.I. who is in love with Marietta to track them down, but her other lover, Marcelles Santos (J.E. Freeman), who she has been working with on various criminal enterprises, convinces Marietta to send professional killers after Sailor – and poor Johnny as well. The deranged Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) and her two boy toys get Johnny, while the even more demented Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), teams up with Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to get Sailor. Violence ensues.

Wild at Heart is an odd movie in many ways. It isn’t totally unlike Blue Velvet, in that Sailor and Lula are innocent (relatively, considering everyone else in the movie) characters who are dropped into a world of human depravity. The rest of the characters in the movie are insane, violent, perverted fiends, but Sailor, while he can be violent, only does so when forced. They are also in love – a foreign concept to the rest of the people in the movie, who use each other like sexual playthings, and nothing else. Lynch lingers on Sailor and Lula having sex often in the movie – but it’s rough, it’s also passionate, erotic, and mutually satisfying – something Lynch makes clear, as his camera is more likely to linger on Dern during sex than Cage, which isn’t uncommon, but the pleasure he shows is. He also spends equally, if not more, time on their chats while still in post-sex bliss, revealing their characters. These are challenging roles for Cage and Dern because in many ways they are both playing versions of icons – he, Elvis, her, Marilyn Monroe –and they have to effect certain speech patterns and mannerisms to get those parts right, while making the two of them feel at least somewhat real. Dern has always done her best work with Lynch – and this is one of her better performances – and the film acts as a reminder of just how good Cage can be when working with a great director in a great role.

The rest of the cast is demented, insane – and a hell of a lot of fun. Lynch knew, I think, he couldn’t top Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, so he spread the insanity out this time. Amazingly, Diane Ladd received an Oscar nomination for her performance here – I say amazingly, not because she isn’t great in the role, but because it’s such an over-the-top role in such an over-the-top movie, I am amazed the Academy actually sat through it. The other supporting performance to truly highlight is Willem Dafoe’s as Bobby Peru – which may be the most grotesque Dafoe has ever been on screen, and that’s saying something.

Wild at Heart though is not the masterpiece that Blue Velvet was. It’s a movie with an odd tone, that doesn’t quite manage the shifts in tone as well as Blue Velvet did. Roger Ebert complained about the scene where a bank guard got his hand shot off, and then a dog runs away with it, and although I don’t necessarily agree, I see where he’s coming from. The shifts in tone felt more natural in Blue Velvet, whereas here they are a little uneasy. Lynch also grafts on a strange Wizard of Oz parallel to the movie that is really, very awkward at times. The film also feels like the material wants to be a little bit looser – wants to explore a few more side alleys, like the amazingly strange Jingle Dell sequence with a great Crispin Glover – but Lynch won’t quite let it off its leash.

Still, Wild at Heart is a memorable movie if nothing else – and one I keep returning to. I know why some booed it at Cannes when it premiered – and booed it again when it won the Palme D’Or, which really does feel more like a jury giving a prize to a filmmaker they love rather than a prize for the film itself (although looking at the competition that year, it was a weak lineup). And I understand where viewers mainly stayed away, and it so split critics, and initially got a NC-17 rating. It is a bizarre and violent film, with a ton of sex. But it’s also a fascinating film – one that rewards repeat viewings that allow you to delve deeper into this world. It’s more uneven that Lynch’s best films – but it’s just as memorable.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Films of David Lynch: The French as Seen by... : The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988)

The French as Seen by... : The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988) 
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Harry Dean Stanton (Slim), Frederic Golchan (Pierre the Frenchman), Jack Nance (Pete), Tracey Walter (Dusty), Michael Horse (Broken Feather).

The Cowboy and the Frenchman is an oddity even among the film of David Lynch’s career. It was made as part of a TV miniseries called “The French as Seen by…” – although I cannot find out much information about any of the other episodes. But the premise is pretty clear – a director gets an opportunity to make a film about how they view the French. For Lynch, he made this bizarre 25 minute comedy.

The short stars Harry Dean Stanton as Slim – a nearly deaf ranch hand, who along with his two underlings – played by Jack Nance (obviously) and Tracey Walter, see a strange man coming down off the mountain. They catch him, tie him up, and then start going through his comically large suitcase. The man speaks in some sort of strange language that none of them know (it’s clearly French), and they pull one clichéd French item out of his suitcase after another – finally realizing he’s French after they pull out a plate of French fries. From there, the ranchers decide not to kill the Frenchman – who they had thought was an alien – but befriend him.

This opening scene is probably the highlight of the whole short – it’s funny, and well played by the whole cast, and done in seemingly one shot, as they keep pulling the various items out of the suitcase. It’s well acted too – especially by Stanton, who spends most the time yelling, repeating what the others tell him, because he cannot hear them.

From there, the film gets weird – more Lynch-ian than the beginning to be sure, but also less interesting. The Frenchman becomes one of the cowboys, and Stanton slowly starts turning into a Frenchman. There is a scene with a Native, played by Michael Horse of Twin Peaks, which goes nowhere (it’s about a debt, and if it had a point, I missed it). The film than becomes a bizarre party scene – with dancing girls, and a Stanton on his guitar singing in a surprisingly good singing voice.

Overall, The Cowboy and the Frenchman is an odd short. It’s very funny at the start, but does start to drag as it becomes more abstract. It’s more of a curiosity piece than anything else – not particularly great, but an interesting diversion. It’s Lynch one true out and out comedy – and for that, Lynch fans should seek it out.

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.

The Films of David Lynch: Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserheard (1977)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Jack Nance (Henry Spencer), Charlotte Stewart (Mary X), Allen Joseph (Mr. X), Jeanne Bates (Mrs. X), Judith Roberts (Beautiful Girl Across the Hall), Laurel Near (Lady in the Radiator), Jack Fisk (Man in the Planet).

No matter what the circumstances of Eraserhead’s creation, it would be a remarkable achievement. David Lynch’s debut film comes as close as any movie I have ever seen to recreating a nightmare for the audience watching the film. Lynch’s strange wall of sound was ground-breaking in many ways, and places us directly into the headspace of the main character. The art direction makes the film seem like its set in the past and the future at once. The film is remarkable in many ways. What makes that all the more impressive is the fact that Lynch had never directed a feature before, he made this on a shoestring budget – over the course of five years, shooting scenes when he had the money and had to replace the original cinematographer when he died. Yet the movie doesn’t show the signs of what should have been all those limitations.

The film stars Jack Nance as Henry Spencer – a strange, sad, confused young man, dressed in an ill-fitting suit, with a giant mass of hair on his head. He works in a factory – in a bleak industrial hell scape – but says throughout the movie that he’s now “on vacation”. After a lengthy opening of him walking through his world, the plot kicks in when he is called to the house of his girlfriend’s parents. His girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) hasn’t been around much lately – and it has confused Henry. After the surreal dinner begins – with her overly cheerful father, who seems to freeze at times, her angry mother, who like Mary is prone to unexplainable fits, and a very small chicken that bleeds a lot – Henry discovers just why he hasn’t seen Mary in a while – and why he has been called over now. There is baby – at the hospital. It is Mary and Henry’s – so the pair have to get married and raise it. Cut to life in Henry’s nightmarish apartment – with his new wife and child – and things have gone from bad to worse. The child is not a normal child – he looks like a giant spermatozoa or a creature perhaps related to the alien creature for Alien (which came out after this movie). He is a mewling, drooling, slobbering, constantly crying mess of a child. He just won’t shut up – and Mary has soon had enough, and walked out on them both, leaving Henry in charge. And he has no idea what to do.

It doesn’t take a psychology major to figure out the issues that Henry – and Lynch – are going through in the movie. The film is, at its core, about a fear of fatherhood, responsibility, relationship and intimacy. Watching it for the first time since I had children, Eraserhead takes on another dimension. The child in Eraserhead may not be literal child – I don’t think anything in Eraserhead is really literal – but that fear is undeniable. Henry cannot care for the child – and doesn’t know how to. He has other, competing desires – some involving the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall. There are two other characters in the film – who represent opposite desires. The film opens with Man in the Planet – played by Jack Fisk (future production designer on films like There Will Be Blood, as well work by Terrence Malick, and yes, David Lynch) – pulling levers, controlling everything above him. Then there is the Lady in the Radiator, who sings her strange song (In Heaven) – which beckons Henry closer.

Eraserhead is an odd film to say the least – the type of film someone like Lynch could only make on his own, without a lot of people getting in the way. The whole film plays like a nightmare – a bleak one at that, with unexplained events littered throughout. Lynch’s films often operate on dream logic rather than reality – but often times there is some relief from the nightmare. Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet at least appear to take place in idyllic places until their secrets come out – but there is nothing idyllic about the world of Eraserhead.

Perhaps the single greatest technical achievement in the film is the sound design – by Lynch and Alan Splet – who worked with Lynch on every project between The Grandmother and Blue Velvet. The sound in the film is constant – the industrial noises that are loud whenever Henry is outside, and seep through the walls when he is not. The constant hiss of the radiator. The ever present crying of the baby – there is not a quiet moment in Eraserhead, and it serves its purpose of placing us in the middle of the nightmare Henry is living. But the film also looks great – shot in stark black and white, first by Herbert Cardwell, who died during production, then by Frederick Elmes – who give the film its nightmare look. There is a dream sequence in the film – a nightmare within the nightmare if you will – which is even bleaker than the rest of the film.

Eraserhead is a dark film, to be sure – a tormented one that could only come from David Lynch. While his shorts had shown promise, they do not equal Eraserhead, which has to stand as one of the greatest debut features of all time. Lynch took his time making this film – part of this was because of lack of funds, but part of it was by design. He took a year to get the sound right for example. It’s as if Lynch, who struggled to get the film made at all, wanted to ensure that whenever he finished it, it was distinctly his. And it is. For such a low budget film, with such a singular vision however, it’s influence can be seen in films as disparate as Kubrick’s The Shining, the Coen’s Barton Fink and David Fincher’s Seven – not to mention Alien (Lynch apparently would not work with H.R. Giger on Dune, because he felt Giger stole his ideas – Giger being the one who designed the Alien after all). It is a perfect place for Lynch’s directing career to truly start. His first great film – and the best thing he would make for quite a while.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Movie Review: Trainwreck

Directed by: Judd Apatow.
Written by: Amy Schumer.
Starring: Amy Schumer (Amy), Bill Hader (Aaron), LeBron James (LeBron James), Colin Quinn (Gordon), Brie Larson (Kim), Tilda Swinton (Dianna), John Cena (Steven), Vanessa Bayer (Nikki), Dave Attell (Noam), Randall Park (Bryson),  Jon Glaser (Schultz),  Ezra Miller (Donald), Evan Brinkman (Allister), Mike Birbiglia (Tom), Norman Lloyd (Norman), Method Man (Temembe), Amar'e Stoudemire (Amar'e Stoudemire).

Judd Apatow is a smart man. His last two films – Funny People and This is 40 – were both box office and critical disappointments. This alongside the fact that his two previous films – The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up were both successes, and his good friend Paul Feig’s successes alongside Melissa McCarthy, made it look like perhaps Apatow’s moment had passed. But, as mentioned, Apatow is smart – and knows talented people, and so was smart enough to hitch his wagon to Amy Schumer. Schumer’s TV show, Inside Amy Schumer, is often daring and boundary pushing in its depiction of feminist issues on TV and in comedy (and even more frequently, hilarious). The two of them working together on Trainwreck – which Apatow directs, and Schumer wrote and stars in, works quite well – even if it does seem like Schumer has been forced, a little bit anyway, to fit her comic persona inside an Apatow shaped box. Trainwreck has a lot in common with The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up – except the genders have been reversed, so that it’s Schumer playing the irresponsible one who needs to grow up, and her love interest – Bill Hader – who has to be the one who helps her get there. Trainwreck is not revolutionary, like Schumer’s TV show, but what it is one of the funniest mainstream comedies of the year, so who really cares. It gives Schumer a fine entrance into the movies – where stardom looms – and gives Apatow a chance to get back on top. The two work well together.

In the film, Schumer plays a thinly veiled version of her own comic persona – also named Amy. But this Amy isn’t a stand-up comic and TV star, but like every other romantic comedy heroine, works at a New York based magazine. This one is called S’Nuff, and it’s a seemingly offensive, sexist and misogynistic “Men’s magazine”. Amy is up for a big promotion – and she has to nail her next story, a profile of a sports doctor, Aaron (Bill Hader), who works with all the big name athletes you could think of. But she hates sports. And Aaron is her seeming complete opposite. When we meet her, Amy is in a sort of relationship with Steven (Jon Cena), but also goes out and has a series of one-night stands – often waking up hung-over, after a night of hard drinking not sure exactly where she is. Aaron is more of a homebody – a little reserved and kind of awkward around women. Or, at least, I think that’s how I think he’s supposed to be, although as played by Hader, he’s doesn’t really come off that way. Anyway, of course these two are going to fall for each other – despite it being completely unprofessional, and no one will much care about that.

As with every Apatow movie, there are also several subplots that while enjoyable in their own right, may have been better off being cut. There’s Amy’s father (Colin Quinn) – one of those outspoken old bigots in the Archie Bunker traditional, who has MS and has had to go into assisted living, despite being very young to be there. There’s her sister Kim (Brie Larson) – who went in the opposite direction of Amy, married young, become a stepmother, and is now on her way to be a mother herself. There is Aaron hanging out with one of his clients – LeBron James – who spends an awful lot of time in New York for someone who works in Cleveland. There is a series of workplace scenes with Amy’s cruelly dismissive boss – Tilda Swinton – and her co-workers who all walk on eggshells around her. Some of these subplots work, some don’t – but all of them are elevated by having terrific actors in roles that sometimes border on the underwritten. Again, as with many Apatow movies there are also several scenes that probably seemed funny by themselves that simply drag the whole movie to a dead stop and don’t work in the movie as a whole (none more apparent than a “romantic intervention” staged by an odd collection of celebrities who are supposedly Aaron’s friends, that is not only unfunny, but painfully so).

Yet, whenever the movie threatens to head off the rails, Schumer herself is the one who more often than not brings it back. Schumer is thoroughly charming, funny and likable throughout the film. Like some other Apatow protagonists, she does some things that risk losing audience sympathy – but she’s so likable, and vulnerable, that she never does. Schumer doesn’t quite push as hard against stereotypes in the film as she does on her TV show – mainly playing it safe, as far as R rated romantic comedies go anyway. That’s actually kind of smart, as it allows her to establish herself as a legitimate movie star in this movie – and it works. If the film were just a comedy, it would still be worthwhile, as it’s smarter and funnier than most R-rated comedies to come out of Hollywood. But the film is also legitimately heartfelt – and may well have you tearing up once or twice. That balance takes skill, and although at times it’s not quite right, for the most part Trainwreck nails it.

In short, Trainwreck works – it walks that fine line between a Schumer comedy and an Apatow comedy. Schumer probably does have a more daring comic movie inside her somewhere, one that doesn’t quite cohere to Apatow’s style of humor – which while it can be gross out, is actually fairly conservative underneath all the sex. Schumer may be the person to burst past that at some point. For now though, Trainwreck will more than suffice.