Friday, August 28, 2015

Classic Movie Review: Two Weeks in Another Town

Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli.
Written by: Charles Schnee based on the novel by Irwin Shaw.
Starring: Kirk Douglas (Jack Andrus), Edward G. Robinson (Maurice Kruger), Cyd Charisse (Carlotta), George Hamilton (Davie Drew), Daliah Lavi (Veronica), Claire Trevor (Clara Kruger), James Gregory (Brad Byrd), Rosanna Schiaffino (Barzelli), Joanna Roos (Janet Bark), George Macready (Lew Jordan), Mino Doro (Tucino), Stefan Schnabel (Zeno), Vito Scotti (Assistant Director).

In 1952, Vincente Minnelli and Kirk Douglas teamed up to make The Bad and the Beautiful, about a movie producer on the skids, who in a series of flashbacks, we see precisely why he alienated everyone around him – but in the end, gets them back. 10 years later, the two reteamed for the lesser known Two Weeks in Another Town – also about Hollywood. This isn’t a sequel to The Bad and the Beautiful – although the two films are connected – in the universe of this movie, Jack Andrus, the character Douglas plays, played the lead role in The Bad and the Beautiful, and Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) directed it. The two have had a falling out, and Andrus has had a mental breakdown. He’s in one of those fancy “resorts” for famous people who’ve had breakdowns, when he gets a telegram from Kruger. He’s in Rome shooting his latest movie – and wants Andrus to come and work for two weeks. Andrus, who hasn’t worked in years, and is essentially a laughingstock now, gets on a plane.

Douglas is great in the movie. The film is essentially a portrait of his madness – the jealously and rage his ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charrise) was able to inspire in him – and is still able to. She’s in Rome too, and wants to see him – not to make up for anything, but simply so she can see if she can break him again. Kruger, it seems, is also somewhat toying with Andrus – he has no part for Andrus in his movie, but does need his help. Every movie made in Italy is dubbed – and if Kruger goes over schedule, the sleazy producer will take the movie away from him and finish it on the cheap. Kruger, who knows Andrus knows his work better than anyone, thinks that Andrus can help him out – do the dubbing himself and give the movie the “real Kruger sound”. Andrus, rather reluctantly, agrees.

Two Weeks in Another Town is a rather cynical movie about Hollywood – about how the system chews people up and spits them out. Not just Andrus, who is simply trying to hold onto his sanity, but also Kruger, once a famed director, now making crap, and even Davie Drew (George Hamilton), the young star of the movie – only there because he has already burned his bridges in Hollywood. The people who were once on top, always want to stay there – and will do anything to do so. Kruger is interested in staying on top because of his ego – and because being a director gives him access to an endless supply of pretty, young actresses who will do anything to be in the “pictures” – much to the chagrin of his harpy wife Clara (Claire Trevor) – who spends most of the movie screaming at him – until, of course, he needs her, and then she’s his greatest ally. If she’s married to Kruger, she is someone – if not, then she’s nobody.

Two Weeks in Another Town is an excellent portrait of the insular world of a movie set. True, much of the action happens when they are not making a movie – but basically, what the movie is about is how much people sacrifice to make a movie. Andrus risks his mental stability, Kruger risks his life, and others risk other things as well – to them “the picture” is more important than anything else.

Personally, I would have preferred a dark ending to the movie. The film seems to be heading there, after Andrus looks like he’s gone completely off the deep end – once again because of Carlotta – and then, all of a sudden, nothing. And then they tack on a happy ending. It doesn’t fit with the cynicism that has run through the rest of the movie.

But overall, Two Weeks in Another Town is an excellent portrait of Hollywood. It isn’t quite the film that The Bad and the Beautiful is – that film was more romantic about movies to be sure, but also more satisfying. But Two Weeks in Another Town has been pretty much forgotten – and that should change.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Review: Mistress America

Mistress America
Directed by: Noah Baumbach.
Written by: Noah Baumbach & Greta Gerwig.
Starring: Greta Gerwig (Brooke), Lola Kirke (Tracy), Heather Lind (Mamie Claire), Michael Shear (Tony), Michael Chernus (Dylan), Jasmine Cephas Jones (Nicolette), Cindy Cheung (Karen), Kathryn Erbe (Tracy’s Mom).

There is something lacking in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America that prevents it from being as good as it could have been – and it’s difficult to quite put my finger on what it is. Once again, it teams Baumbach up with Greta Gerwig – his off-screen girlfriend – who is as always a delight to watch as a performer, and who as Baumbach’s co-writer seems to counteract his more natural cynicism and bitterness. It also has a wonderful performance by relative newcomer Lola Kirke – who is really the lead of the movie – and who matches Gerwig every step of the way, which isn’t easy. In fact, all of the performances in the film are quite good. I think where the movie ultimately fails, a little bit, is the pacing – which just doesn’t keep up. Baumbach is trying to make a screwball comedy here – but the movie doesn’t quite zing the ways it needs to – especially when we get to the second half of the movie, where we are stuck, along with the characters, in a big house out in Connecticut. This sequence has some of the films best moments to be sure – but it really does drag the movie to a halt, especially when people start monologuing. The movie is only 84 minutes – but it feels a longer. These problems don’t quite sink the film – but it comes close.

The film stars Kirke as Tracy – an 18-year old University student, in her first semester, in New York City, who wants to be a writer, but isn’t sure she’s any good at it. She also has trouble making friends – and ends up spending most of her time alone. Her mother is getting married over Thanksgiving weekend, and suggests that Tracy reach out to Brooke (Gerwig), the 30 year old daughter of the man she is marrying, who also lives in the city. Gerwig plays what could be described as a “manic pixie dream girl” – as she is a lifeforce that rejuvenates Tracy when she sucks the younger woman into her world. There’s only one problem with that – Brooke is kind of insufferable – overly self-involved, creative, but flaky – a woman who can make you feel great one moment, and horrible the next. Tracy to a certain extent realizes this – she bases her next short story on Brooke, and is rather merciless in her depiction of Brooke (more so than Baumbach and Gerwig are) – but cannot help but love Brooke anyway. Why? Perhaps because Brooke isn’t really any better.

Baumbach is in familiar territory here – his characters are often like the ones in Mistress America – charming, funny smart and also self-involved assholes. Films like The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot at the Wedding (2007) and Greenberg (2010) are all films that mix extreme discomfort with humor – as the main characters do horrible things to each other. Greenberg – which was Baumbach’s first film with Gerwig – did mark a turning point though. His last three films – Frances Ha (2013), While We’re Young (2015) and now Mistress America are similar to his earlier films, but somewhat lighter and breezier – more accessible to be sure, even as they tap into the similar terrain.

For me, Mistress America is the least successful of these films in a while. I think part of the problem is that while Gerwig and Baumbach write two terrific female roles – Brooke and Tracy – they do not really give them anything to do. So they get forced into a kind of superficial plot – where they are drawn together, than ripped apart, than come back together because of a series of contrivances, etc. Gerwig and Kirke are never less than enjoyable to see on screen – and quite often much more than that. But the final half of the movie – where things are going crazy just never quite goes crazy enough. Lots of characters are introduced – and some are interesting, some not so much, and the situation is overly contrived.

Mistress America was a bit disappointing when compared to other Baumbach films to me. It feels like another draft or two at the screenplay stage could have helped a hell of lot. Still, it’s always a pleasure to see Gerwig do her utterly fearless comic performances – and Kirke is terrific as well. They movie doesn’t live up to them – but you have to give it credit for trying.

Movie Review: Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies
Directed by: Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon.
Written by: Morgan Neville & Robert Gordon.

When I watched the pretty good documentary, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia last year, the few minutes the life spanning portrait of Vidal spent on his televised debates with William F. Buckley Jr. were my favorite parts – so much so, that I wished the entire movie had been about them. As if reading my mind, director Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon made Best of Enemies this year which does just that. The film doesn’t just show the debates – although it does that as well – but it also digs into all the stuff that was going around the debates, and the effects that the debates had – on the lives and careers of Vidal and Buckley, and on television news itself. Some of that was good – much of it wasn’t.

In 1968, ABC news was a distant third behind NBC and CBS. The top two networks were going to run “gavel-to-gavel” coverage of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions that year - but ABC decided to try something different – an hour and a half “wrap-up” show that would show the highlights of the conventions and feature other coverage as well. One of the things that they decided to do was to get the well-known Conservative – Buckley – founder of the New Republic Magazine, and the well-known Liberal – Vidal – to debate the issues raised at the debates. The pair ended up making television history. Pretty soon, every network had this sorts of debates during their coverage – and in today’s landscape, whole cable news outlets are built around them.

The Vidal-Buckley debates were different than what we see on TV today – which is basically blowhards on each side yelling at each other (the movie shows the infamous clip of Jon Stewart decrying Crossfire while on the program for doing this during its end credits). Vidal and Buckley were not like that – they were intellectuals, who spoke like intellectuals, and would likely be dismissed as snobs if they tried to go on TV today. For another thing, while you get the impression that many people on today’s TV are simply posturing for the camera, Buckley and Vidal legitimately hated each other – they hated what the other person stood for, and thought that if the country, that they agreed was at a crossroads, were to follow the other one, it would be destroyed.

All the debate clips the movie show are interesting and funny – it’s nice to see two incredibly smart people debate each other using their considerable gifts of language. The infamous exchange – where things got very personal – happens in the 9th debate – where Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”, and Buckley responded with “Listen you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” This exchange would still be shocking today – so you can only imagine the stir it caused back in 1968. Even stranger is the effect it had on the two men – who would not or could not just let it go. Buckley was embarrassed that he allowed Vidal to get under his skin so much – and wrote a long article trying to come to grips with why he did it. Vidal, not smart enough to leave well enough alone, and realize he won, responded with his own article – where he insulted Buckley to such an extent, that Buckley sued him and the magazine who ran the article. To the end of their days, they talked about these debates – Buckley horrified when the clip was shown on his last PBS show after decades on the air, and Vidal relishing the fact that he outlived Buckley – so he could have the last word.

The movie is terrifically entertaining for most of its running time – with the clips from the debates, and other appearances by Buckley and Vidal, as well as modern interviews with many of the people who surrounded the two of them at the time, and for years afterwards. When it gets to the post-debate stuff, it turns a little darker – what a shame that something that started out so well has devolved into the clusterfuck of cable news “debate” we have to today – and how kind of sad, and a little pathetic, is it that these two intellectual giants could not just let the damn thing go. The result is a fascinating documentary, about the past and present of American media.

Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Mr. Holmes
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by:  Jeffrey Hatcher based on the novel by Mitch Cullin.
Starring: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), Milo Parker (Roger), Hiroyuki Sanada (Tamiki Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot), Roger Allam (Dr. Barrie), Philip Davis (Inspector Gilbert), Frances de la Tour (Madame Schirmer).

Even the sharpest minds eventually succumb to old age, and the forgetfulness that goes along with it. In Bill Condon’s enjoyable Mr. Holmes, it is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s infamous detective Sherlock – whose mind is failing him. That’s understandable, since when we first meet this version of Sherlock Holmes, it is 1947, and he is 93 years old. He has been retired for decades – Watson is long dead – and Holmes lives in the country, tending to his bees, and having little interaction with anyone save for his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) – a war widow – and her young son Roger (Milo Parker) – a fan of those books by Watson, that Holmes finds so ridiculous. Holmes has just returned from Japan with some “prickly ash” – a substance that is supposed to ward off his forgetfulness, which he worries is encroaching more and more, and that the royal jelly he gathers from the bees doesn’t seem to be helping anymore. In an effort to get his mind going again – and to appease young Roger – Sherlock has decided to write his own story – about his last case – way back in 1917 - that Watson had already written about. But when Sherlock goes to the cinema to see the movie version of the case, something doesn’t seem right – the conclusion doesn’t make any sense to him, plus, while he doesn’t quite remember what happened, he does remember that it led him to retire full of regret, so what Watson has written just doesn’t add up. But if that didn’t happen, then what the hell did?

Mr. Holmes was directed by Bill Condon, who is coming off of a few bad movies (the final two installments of the Twilight Saga – for which I am sure he was rewarded nicely, and good for him – and The Fifth Estate, where he failed to capture the enigma that is WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange). Condon is back in his element of period pieces that brought him his best films (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, and hell, Dreamgirls) – and he has reunited with the stars of two of those movies. As Holmes, Ian McKellan is a delight – not even the layers of makeup that are used to transform the 76 year old actor into the 93 year old character can hide his delight in playing this role. In the scenes when he is 93, he is more than a little bit of a grumpy curmudgeon, who is eventually brought back to the living through his relationship with Roger, who he grows to love. In the flashback sequences, McKellan plays more the version of Holmes we are used to seeing – whipsmart, confident with the ability to deduce everything about those around him – not the somewhat confused old man in the other scenes. And yet, McKellan does an excellent job at tying these two different era Holmes together in their inability to understand normal human behavior. Holmes is brilliant – but he doesn’t much understand emotions. Laura Linney, who had a much better role in Kinsey than here, is stuck with a role that for most of the running time seems like it will be the one dimensional stick-in-the-mud wife/mother figure – although she does get some nice scenes in the last act.

Mr. Holmes is the type of movie that seems to have been made strictly for the senior set – those retirees who venture out to matinees, and who keep the likes of Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench working – for which we can all be happy, as those actresses are still delightful. The film is gentle, and not overly challenging in any real way. The scenes set in Japan, and around Holmes’ relationship with Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), don’t really go anywhere – I know it’s there, so we can see that Holmes has changed with his last action in the movie, but it’s a hell of a lot of running time for such a small insight into his character. But the movie is fun, and well-acted and well made, and does offer a little counter programming to a summer full of action and explosions. Yes, like many blockbusters, you’ll probably forget about Mr. Holmes soon after you drive home – but also like many of them, you’ll have fun while you’re watching.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Movie Review: The Sniper

The Sniper (1952)
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk.
Written by: Harry Brown and Edna Anhalt and Edward Anhalt.
Starring: Adolphe Menjou (Police Lt. Frank Kafka), Arthur Franz (Eddie Miller), Gerald Mohr (Police Sgt. Joe Ferris), Marie Windsor (Jean Darr), Frank Faylen (Police Insp. Anderson), Richard Kiley (Dr. James G. Kent), Mabel Paige (Landlady), Marlo Dwyer (May Nelson), Geraldine Carr (Checker).

I couldn’t help but think of many of the recent mass shootings while watching Edward Dmytryk’s 1952 film noir The Sniper. True, the main character in the film, Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) never goes on a one time killing spree, but instead picks his victims out one at a time. Yet the psychology behind his actions, and that of other mass shooters remains the same – a hatred of women brought on because the man cannot understand why women do not want him. He sees himself as a nice guy, but he is driven mad when a woman who was simply being nice to him announces, casually, that she has a boyfriend. Why not me, he seems to be thinking. This sets him off on his spree – a spree he cannot stop himself from carrying out.

When you watch a film like The Sniper, you have to try and imagine what it was like for audiences back in 1952. While shows like Criminal Minds, and countless other shows and movies, are commonplace. But that wasn’t the case in 1952. Many of the weakest scenes in The Sniper involve a psychologist (Richard Kiley) who explains everything that the killer is going through. These are like the scene near the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which grinds the film to a halt, when a shrink goes into the pathology of Norman Bates. The Sniper argues that Eddie Miller cannot control himself – and makes the case that these people need to be identified early, so that they can be treated – or at least locked away before they kill a lot of people. There is more of this in The Sniper than there was in Psycho, which hurts the film, but in 1952 was a somewhat daring choice – so much so that the film received an Oscar nomination for its writing – rare for B-noir film at the time.

The rest of the film is a tense thriller however – well handled by journeyman director Edward Dmytryk – by then a veteran of noir films like Murder My Sweet (1944) and Crossfire (1947) – the later of which does a better job at mixing social issues (in that case anti-Semitism) with a crackerjack thriller. The murder scenes are well handled and non-exploitive, and Dmytryk does a good job of juggling the scenes of Miller’s unravelling and the police procedural of trying to catch him.

The Sniper is, admittedly, a relatively minor noir effort. It’s not a great film, and it is something that has been done better, both before and since it was made. But it’s a fine example of the genre – a stylistic thriller with slightly more on its mind that many noirs of the time. It may not be a great movie, but it’s a good one.

The Films of David Lynch: Conclusion and Updated Ranking

So with all that said, I decided to do an updated ranking of the features, as well as a separate ranking for the shorts and experiments and music videos, all rolled into one. I didn’t rank the Twin Peaks TV series or the On the Air Pilot, because how the hell could I (I am already stretching things with including the Yves Saint Laurent Perfume add in the shorts.

Updated Rankings

I didn’t rank the three that Lynch was involved in – it doesn’t make much sense to rank Twin Peaks or Off the Air, as a single entity, and I could not track down Hotel Room – which was a miniseries. But, I did rank the features, and then the shorts, music videos and oddities.

Feature Rank

Here’s a ranking of the features only – everything else will be below.

10. Dune (1984) – I’m not exaggerating when I saw this may be the worst thing Lynch ever directed – and not all of the shorts, music videos, etc. are very good at all. It’s an example of the wrong director with the wrong material, with the wrong producer/studio behind him. Lynch learned a lesson, and moved on. So should we.

9. The Elephant Man (1980) – Yes, it was a hit – and got Lynch his first Oscar nomination for Best Director (and remains the only one of his films to be nominated for Best Picture). But it’s a dull, overly sentimental – if wonderful looking – film. This isn’t what I watch Lynch for.

8. Lost Highway (1997) – Yes, it’s still the most frustrating film on Lynch’s filmography, because so much of it is so good, but it ends up making you feel like you’ve been jerked around. But, over the years, I’ve come to accept this, and enjoy it on its own terms – as limited as they are.

7. Wild at Heart (1990) – The fact that I quite enjoy this film, and still ranks fairly low, tells you how good Lynch’s filmography is. Yes, it does look fairly weak alongside other Palme D’or winners, and other Lynch films for that matter, but it’s still very entertaining, and quite possibly the most positive movie of Lynch’s career – at least among the films that contain that much violence and bloodshed. And Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern are terrific – the supporting cast is wonderful too.

6. The Straight Story (1999) – A deceptively simple story that is quietly powerful and heartfelt. I had only seen it once before starting this series – and to be honest, once is probably enough for this movie. But it has a great central performance by Richard Farnsworth, and is a really, really beautiful film. But it is quite simple and straightforward. I’m very glad Lynch made it though – if only to prove he could make a great film without being weird.

5. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – This film, without a doubt, was the most improved on the most recent viewing. Perhaps it was having the original series so fresh in my memory, or perhaps it was just knowing what to expect this time around. But watching the film this time, what emerged was a near-brilliant, surreal nightmare – a definite sign of where Lynch was going to go later in his career. It still has flaws, but it is a great film – with an incredible performance by Sheryl Lee. If you hated the film the first time you watched it, give it another chance.

4. Inland Empire (2006)- The wonderful, bizarre, three hour odyssey that may or may not add up, but is so brilliantly executed, that I don’t much care. Laura Dern delivers one of the greatest screen performances of all time, and the film really is a one of a kind experience. It’s also a throwback to Lynch’s DIY spirit of his first films. It’s too bad he stopped making films after this – because he really could have gone on to do something even better.

3. Eraserhead (1977) – I always loved Eraserhead – but I think I loved it even more this time than I ever had before. The soundscape is brilliant, the visuals haunting and unique, the performances odd. From his first feature, Lynch had his aesthetic down pat – and made one of his masterpieces.

2. Blue Velvet (1986) – I have seen the film so many times, and never fails to win me over, to draw me into the seemingly perfect suburban world on the surface, which hides the unspeakable evil underneath. The film is funny at first, and then gets sickening as it moves along, and at the end, we all just bury our head in the sand again at the end. The more times I watch it, the better it gets.

1. Mulholland Dr. (2001) – This is Lynch’s masterpiece – a surreal dream world that slowly becomes a nightmare. No other film I have ever seen has ever so perfectly replicated a dream world. An absolute perfect film – one that usually makes my list of the 10 greatest films of all time.

Shorts/Music Videos/Commercials/Experiments Rank

Ranking 35 shorts, videos, oddities and experiments is a ridiculous activity – so of course I did it. Take it with a grain of salt, which is how I intended it.

35. Longing - X Japan (1995) – Music Video – Painful song, sappy visuals – if it was much longer than the 6 minute length, I may well have given up watching it.

34. Yves Saint Laurent's Opium Parfum (1993) – TV Commercial – It’s just another perfume commercial – the type of thing we see every day on TV, and nothing at all special or memorable. Not sure why they wanted him to turn in something that any director could have done.

33. DumbLand (2002) – Web Series – The title is apt – it’s is very dumb. A series of 6 shorts, 5 minutes long each, which are stick figures swearing and doing crude things. It would work if it was funny – but it isn’t. The 30 minutes spent watching this seems much longer.

32. Fictitious Anacin Commercial (1967) – Short – The title is apt – this is a fake commercial for Anacin, which is very similar to most headache medication commercial, just slightly exaggerated. I can think of worse ways to spend 1 minute of your time – but there isn’t much to recommend it either.

31. Out Yonder – Neighbor Boy (2001) – Short – Lynch co-stars with his son in this short about two guys hanging in their backyard that is trying very hard to be funny, but isn’t.
30. Thank You Judge – BlueBob (1999) – Music Video – This was supposed to be the first of three videos made in support of Lynch’s band BlueBob’s album. The fact that the other two didn’t get made probably tells you how good the video – and song – are.

29. Industrial Soundscape (2002) – Short – Not really a movie, but a strange motion painting, with some very strange music. It works for what it is – but what it is, isn’t exactly all that interesting.

28. Intervalemeter Experiments (2004) – Experiment – An experiment, which is right in the title, and it is rather interesting. But there isn’t much here to talk about.

27. Wicked Game - Chris Isaak (1990) – Music video – A fairly typical little music video – taking clips from Wild at Heart, combined with Isaak and his band playing the song from the movie. It’s better than most of these – but still not precisely that great.

26. Absurd Encounter with Fear (1967) – Short – A very odd little short, with a man coming across a woman in a field, and attacking her, with bizarre results. It’s only two minutes, so there isn’t much here – but it’s weird.

25. I Predict – Sparks (1982) – Music Video – The video was controversial in 1982, not so much anymore, and not particularly interesting. But that song has been stuck in my head for weeks – and it is amusing, so it’s not bad by any means.

24. The Amputee (1974) - Short – Lynch only had a night to write the screenplay, and shot it twice in a row, on different film stocks. It’s kind of funny, but the short time frame shows – especially compared to what was made right before and right after this.

23. Boat (2007) – This is Lynch simply goofing off, with his strange short with a disembodied voiceover with only shots of boats and water for the first half (of 7 minutes), then Lynch himself driving a boat on a “journey into the night”. Does it mean anything? Not really – but it’s somewhat amusing.

22. Crazy Clown Time – David Lynch (2012) – Music Video – Too long, and not a very good song that just keeps going and going and going. It’s strange, but not much else.

21. 42 One Dream Rush - Dream # 7 (2009) – Omnibus Segment – Another film that doesn’t have much to offer except strangeness – but at least its short, at only a minute.

20. Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (1990) – Short – This really is a film stage play that Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti co-created. From what I saw, I would have loved to see the stage show. But as a movie, it doesn’t really work – and at 50 minutes it is a little long. But it is very interesting.

19. Bug Crawls (2004) – Short – A bizarre short – which is about a bug crawling on a house, and falling off. That’s all. But god is it creepy and memorable – at least for.

18. Blue Green (2007) – No, Blue Green doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a haunting little piece of surrealism that sticks in your head – and perhaps that’s all it was intended to be.

17. The Three Rs (2011) – Film Festival Intro – The film is rather haunting, and although I don’t get it, I do think there’s something here – even if I don’t quite get what.

16. Idem Paris (2013) – Short – A short documentary about master print makers is fascinating, yet repetitive, and more than a little slow.

15. Rabbits (2002) – Web Series – As a part of Inland Empire, the rabbits are haunting, memorable and really rather brilliant. As a standalone series – especially when they are watched back to back to back for 50 minutes, it’s a one joke comedy that still works, but certainly drags.

14. Ballerina (2007) – Short – A mixture of beautiful and creepy, this short from the Inland Empire DVD is haunting, creepy, beautiful and memorable.

13. I Touch a Red Button – Interpol (2011) – Music Video – A decent music video that may be repetitive, but is also creepy and memorable.

12. Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1966) – Short – The first thing Lynch ever directed – a “motion painting” which is about what the title implies. This one has grown on me since first seeing it. It really is something to see where he started from.

11. Lamp (2003) – Short – A 30 minute documentary about Lynch making a lamp. It shouldn’t work – but it does.

10. The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988) – TV Segment – A half hour TV stand alone TV episode for a show that never existed. I enjoyed the more typical, sitcom level stuff at the beginning, more than the strange turn at the end – but it is certainly amusing.

9. Shot in the Back of the Head – Moby (2009) – Music Video – One of Lynch’s best music videos, a wonderfully animated film that takes Moby’s song both literally, and then spins off into the surreal.

8. Came Back Haunted – Nine Inch Nails (2013) – Music Video  - It may given you a epileptic fit, but if it doesn’t, this is the best music video that Lynch has directed in his time – for the best song as well.

7. Lady Blue Shanghai (2010) – Short/Commercial – Yes, this is basically a 15 minute purse commercial, but it’s one that only Lynch could make, and one that works, even when you can tell what it’s selling.

6. More Things That Happened (2007) – Deleted Scenes – Still not sure if it’s supposed to be a standalone movie, or just a collection of deleted scenes from Inland Empire – but at its best, it is very, very good and a must see for Inland Empire fans.

5. Darkened Room (2002) – Short – An odd short that starts in one place, and ends somewhere completely different. Perhaps not overly original, but really effective.

4. Absurda (2007) – Omnibus Segment – An odd three minute movie that was supposed to be about the future of film – I have no idea what Lynch thinks this is saying about that, but I do know it’s a surreal nightmare par excellence from Lynch.

3. The Grandmother (1970) – Short – This half hour short is probably a little too long – but is a key short to show where Lynch was going from here. The little boy in this may well have grown up to be the lead character in Eraserhead.

2. The Alphabet (1968) – Short – A haunting mixture of animation, and live action – a childhood nightmare about a girl getting her period, the film is abstract, haunting and somewhat brilliant.

1. Lumière and Company - Premonition Following An Evil Deed (1995) – Omnibus Segment – Lynch embraces the limitations placed on him to be a part of this omnibus, and ends up making a brilliant, haunting, 52 second silent masterwork – as complex and jammed with ideas as many features. Absolutely brilliant.

So that’s it – 10 feature films and 35 shorts and other curiosities ranked – and that doesn’t even mention a two TV shows. I know I probably missed some things – Lynch has made and released a lot of these weird shorts in the past decade or so. I still hope that one day, Lynch will directed another feature – but perhaps next year’s Twin Peaks revival will be even better than that.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Movie Review: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
Directed by: F. Gary Gray.   
Written by: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff and S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus.
Starring: O'Shea Jackson Jr. (Ice Cube), Corey Hawkins (Dr. Dre), Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E), Paul Giamatti (Jerry Heller), Neil Brown Jr. (Dj Yella), Aldis Hodge (MC Ren), Marlon Yates Jr. (The D.O.C), R. Marcos Taylor (Suge Knight), Carra Patterson (Tomica), Alexandra Shipp (Kim), Keith Stanfield (Snoop).

There is no denying that Straight Outta Compton is a musical biopic that hits just about every cliché of the genre – so much so that there are times where I couldn’t help but laugh and think about Jake Kasdan’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which mercilessly sent up the genre. Like in Walk Hard, actors playing famous people come on screen and are immediately introduced to the audience in somewhat awkward dialogue, even when no introduction is necessary (do we really need the movie telling us that the giant bald man, in a red track suit smoking a huge cigar and looking mean is Suge Knight immediately after he appears on screen for the first time?), or when the movie overly simplifies the music writing process – so that in one scene the members of N.W.A. are needlessly harassed on the street by the cops, and then immediately afterwards Ice Cube writes what would become “Fuck the Police” – in seemingly 30 seconds flat. So yes, it is true, Straight Outta Compton is as clichéd a musical biopic as it could be – yet that only slightly diminishes the film itself, which is so well directed and acted – and, to be fair when it isn’t shoehorning in star cameos or simplifying the song writing process, written, as well as being a film that is both very much of the time and place the events came out of – the late 1980s, early 1990s L.A. hip hop scene, and yet completely relevant to what is going on in America today. There are other, more significant shortcomings to the movie to be sure (which we’ll get) – but the fact that it is as clichéd as it is, didn’t bother me too much.

The movie quickly introduces what will become the three main characters in the first three scenes – the first showing Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) in a drug deal that threatens to become violent before the cops show up and he has to flee, the next showing Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) listening to music, before being chewed out by his mother for not taking his life seriously, and the third with Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr. – playing his father) – as a teenager on the bus working on lyrics. The three already know each other, and Dre and Cube already have their goals in the music industry clearly defined. Eazy-E isn’t as sure – but he has the money. They decide to cut a song – and when the original group flees the studio, not understanding Cube’s lyrics, Eazy-E steps into the studio instead. The song becomes a local hit – and soon he is approached by Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) – who we get the feeling is an industry hanger on – someone who used to be big, but is now struggling. He thinks Eazy-E has something special – and it isn’t long before all of them – Eazy, Dre, Cube – and others are in the studio making what will become one of the biggest, and most influential, rap albums in history – Straight Outta Compton – and heading out on tour. Egos and money will eventually get in their way – and the movie keeps following them – together and separate – for about a decade.

The movie is at its best in its earlier scenes – when the whole N.W.A. is together, working on an album, going on tour, dealing with instant fame and money, the women who come along with that – not to mention the controversy that followed them, as the many thought their new brand of “gangsta rap” glorified crime, violence and drugs, and their controversial song “Fuck the Police” drew the attention of police everywhere they went, and even the FBI. Director F. Gary Gray – making his best film since Set It Off, nearly 20 years ago – goes full Scorsese in these scenes, with a camera that is constantly swirling around these characters. The concert scenes are wonderful, and capture the energy, passion and anger of the music. The movie becomes slightly more disjointed at the end of that tour however – when Cube refuses to sign the same contract as everyone else (thinking, correctly, that Heller is taking advantage of them) and leaves – a path that Dre will eventually follow as well. Without the chief songwriter (Cube) and musical genius (Dre), Eazy-E starts to fall on harder time, while Cube goes off to a more successful solo career, and Dre gets into producing, and eventually falls in with Suge Knight.

The three main performances in the movie are all excellent. There’s no denying that O’Shea Jackson Jr. takes after his father – he looks a lot like of course, but also nails his vocal mannerisms, and has mastered his various looks of outraged anger. Hawkins gets the more serious Dre as well – he’s less vocal than the rest of the group, more committed to the music and producing, and clearly the most visionary. Best of all is Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, who has a lot of heavy lifting to do, going from a fun loving hedonist, to someone paying for that.

The movie taps into the anger that fueled N.W.A. – an anger that is just as relevant now as it was then. It is impossible to watch the movie – with its various scenes of them being harassed by the police, and riots that greeted the Rodney King verdict – and not think of everything that has happened in the last year, starting in Ferguson, and spreading out across America. America likes to talk about how far they have come on race over the years – and there’s no doubt, they have come a long way. A movie like Straight Outta Compton however is a reminder of how, in some regards, nothing much has changed.

The movie has come under attack over the past week for its whitewashing on incidents involving Dr. Dre and violence against women, which the film doesn’t acknowledge at all, as well for the film’s glossing over the misogyny inherit in some of N.W.A.’s lyrics. The film does address – directly – the controversy around their lyrics for glamorizing violence, and even for one of Cube’s songs accused of being anti-Semitic, for its attack on Heller – but the film seems unwilling to grapple with the misogyny at all. The soundtrack seems to have been chosen carefully – only one song (which, I gather, is about sucking dick) is highlighted that crosses that line. To make matters worse, the film lacks any real female characters - only Eazy-E’s widow Tomica (Carra Patterson) is given significant screen time (not surprisingly, she, along with Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are among the film’s producers) – while the rest of the female characters are anonymous – and it does get a little tiring seeing scene after scene of what amounts to orgies, with woman in various stages of undress, that the movie barely acknowledges. A better, stronger, braver, more confident film would have tackled this issue in some way. It would have given its characters more complexity – and considering hip hop culture still struggles with misogyny today, would have been a riskier, yet more relevant choice. The movie is already long at nearly two and half hours – but other scenes could have been sacrificed for at least addressing the issue.

Still, Straight Outta Compton accomplishes what it sets out to do – and even if it is a whitewash of its subjects, well, most musical biopics are. The movie could have certainly been better than it is. Yet, it’s rare that a mainstream American movie addresses all the issues that the film does – in such a forthright way, and in such an entertaining package. Perhaps its success will lead to more movies like this (please, someone make a Snoop Dogg movie with Keith Stanfield, who first broke through in Short Term 12, who is utterly brilliant as Snoop in his few scenes in this movie) – and that they will address what Straight Outta Compton leaves out. What we have now however, may be imperfect, but it’s still something worth celebrating.

Movie Review: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Directed by: Marielle Heller.   
Written by: Marielle Heller based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.
Starring: Bel Powley (Minnie), Kristen Wiig (Charlotte), Alexander Skarsgård (Monroe), Christopher Meloni (Pascal), Miranda Bailey (Andrea), Abby Wait (Gretel), Austin Lyon (Ricky Wasserman), Margarita Levieva (Tabatha).  

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film about 15-year old Minnie (an extraordinary Bel Powley) discovering her sexuality, and exploring it without shame. She likes sex, and ends up making what most people would consider mistakes in choosing her partners – all of whom exploit her in one way or another, even if she doesn’t quite see it like that. The movie actually does show her cut off a couple different sexual relationships when they start veering towards territory she doesn’t like, or feel comfortable with – and admitting that she has made some mistakes, but still she refuses to feel bad about them. Nor is she befallen with great tragedy or lasting consequences – this film isn’t a warning that sex will lead to nothing but STDs, pregnancy or some other dire consequences. It is a movie that will likely make many very uncomfortable – it doesn’t judge any of its characters for their actions, even if more than a few of them would be considered horrific by most.

Minnie, along with her younger sister Gretel, is being raised by Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), who has just got out of a long term marriage with Minnie’s step father Pascal (Christopher Meloni) and is apparently eager to make up for lost time. The year is 1976, the place is San Francisco, and Charlotte starts partying practically every night – with drugs and booze, and new boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). One night at a bar – which Charlotte pushed the pair into going to toward – Minnie and Monroe get to talking, which leads to a lot more than talking. She says he wants him to “fuck” her, and after a limited amount of resistance, he agrees, starting an affair that will run through the movie. Monroe is clearly a creep, but even with a 1970s mustache, he isn’t the one dimensional kiddie rapist that we would expect to see in a movie like this. He’s immature – perhaps as immature as Minnie – who manipulates and uses him as much as he does with her. This certainly doesn’t excuse his behavior – but it does allow for more context than we normally see in a movie like this. Besides, Minnie doesn’t feel used – she feels liberated. Once she discovers how much she likes sex, she continues to explore that – in a series of encounters that verge on becoming dangerous, without ever quite getting there. When a classmate she is sleeping with tells her that her “aggressiveness” scares him, he’s out of the picture. When her first girlfriend tries to pimp her out for drugs, she’s gone as well. Her sometimes partner in crime is Andrea (Miranda Bailey) – her blonde best friend who is as willing as Minnie to push the boundaries past the normally expected levels.

Now, admittedly, this probably sounds like an exploitation picture like the fictional Rochelle, Rochelle from Seinfeld about a “young girl’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk” – which in other hands is how this material undoubtedly would have played. But the film is written for the screen and directed by Marielle Heller and based on a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and they keep the focus squarely on Minnie throughout. The camera respects Powley, the actress, and Minnie the character with none of the usual shots we would get here. The sex scenes – many of them have Powley at least partially dressed – concentrate on her, and her pleasure, not the other way around. It locks into her perspective, and stays there. The film works, in large part, because Powley is so good as Minnie – she was in her 20s when he made the film, but looks like a teenager in the film – with a kind of awkward walk (and more awkward run) that at times make her seem more childlike – although throughout the course of the film, she loses part of this. The movie works because it gets that being a teenager is literally being caught in between being a child and being an adult – which means sometimes you’re one, and sometimes you’re another, and often those times crash into each other, as happens often here. It also works because the two other key performances are excellent as well. If Kristen Wiig weren’t a SNL veteran, she would probably get more credit for becoming an Indie Queen – doing great work in a series of small movies. Here, he’s playing a woman who is largely a narcissistic – but not a completely hideous one who doesn’t care about her daughter – just one who doesn’t know what the hell is going on with her. Skarsgaard is excellent as well – a kind of awkward teenage in a grown man’s body – who drifts from one thing to another with “big plans” (he’s going to start a mail order vitamin business and then buy a boat), when really all he does is get drunk or stoned, and have sex with either Charlotte or Minnie. He’s a creep – but doesn’t see himself that way.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl doesn’t judge its characters, nor does it endorse their behavior. It is an honest exploration of this girl discovering her sexuality, and owning her decisions. It’s rare to see a movie like this – it walks a very fine line between, and does it very well.

The Films of David Lynch: Shorts and Curiosities 2010-2013

David Lynch has continued to direct shorts and other things in the past few years. Here, I’ll go over one short/commercial, three music videos, a short that played at the Vienna film festival as an introduction and one last short. Again, there are some gems here, and some that are, well, not gems.
Lady Blue Shanghai (2010)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Gong Tao, Emily Stofle, Cheng Hong, Lu Yong, Nie Fei.

There are few things that David Lynch has directed that I have covered so far that I disliked more than a perfume commercial he directed for Yves Saint Laurent back in 1995. Well, dislike, is perhaps the wrong word – bored would be better, since it’s basically like any other commercial. So, I wasn’t sure what to think of Lady Blue Shanghai – which is essentially a 15 minute commercial for Dior – when I heard about it. But watching it, I can say confidently it’s one of the better things Lynch has directed since his feature career stopped. Yes, it’s a commercial – there’s no getting around that, and the many loving shots of a Dior handbag, which figures greatly in the plot, are there to justify Dior giving Lynch the money to make this. But aside from that, this is an odd little film – starring the always great Marion Cottilard as a French woman in Shanghai, who finds a handbag in hotel room, and has no idea where it came from – calling hotel security, and then having a fever dream that explains it. No, it’s not quite as fucked up as prime Lynch – but it’s certainly a surreal little film, that works very well, and is actually very well made. The past 15 years or so, more and more companies have given great filmmakers a little money to make shorts/commercials, and although we should probably hate this, as a sign of selling out, if more of them were like this (or Scorsese’s Key to Reserva), I wouldn’t complain.

I Touch a Red Button – Interpol (2011)
Directed by: David Lynch.

Lynch’s style is uniquely suited for music videos – where things can be strange and surreal, and are more about visuals and sound that any sort of coherence. Yet, often his videos haven’t always been good – either being too weird or too normal. His video for I Touch a Red Button for Interpol works – up to a point – and actually reminded me of Lynch’s first film – Six Figures Getting Sick (Six Times) – which he called a “motion painting”. That’s because I Touch a Red Button is crudely animated – much like that film, in an unmistakedly Lynch-ian style. But the longer you watch the video, the more you realize it’s basically on a loop – a ugly, creepy figure, with a distorted face, repeating touching a red button. The camera zooms in a out, concentrates on different points at different times, but basically it’s on a loop. This works for the video – and it’s nice to see Lynch playing with a style he did decades ago.

The Three Rs (2011)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Mindy Ramaker

At times, watching these Lynch shorts can make you feel kind of dumb – as was the case with The Three Rs – a “trailer” made for the 2011 Vienna Film Festival by Lynch, which when I watch the 52 second film, I see more of Lynch goofing around – making some memorable images – including a disturbing finale – but without much of a point. The Vienna Film Festival website sees things differently of course – but for me, The Three Rs is just another curiosity piece – and not much else.

Crazy Clown Time – David Lynch (2012)
Directed by: David Lynch.
Starring: Emily Elicia Low (Scarlett Soles), Chris Pounders (Mohawked fire starter), Pandie Suicide (Demented lipsyncher).

I can imagine Lynch’s song “Crazy Clown Time” fitting in very well in the course of one of his movies. It’s on odd song – to say the least – with repetitive notes, and Lynch singing as if he just sucked in a lot of helium. But as a song unto itself, it really isn’t very good. And the video – a bizarre backyard party – isn’t either. And it drags on for 7 minutes.

Came Back Haunted – Nine Inch Nails (2013)
Directed by: David Lynch.

Of all the Lynch directed music videos I have covered for this series, I think the one he directed for Nine Inch Nails Came Back Haunted is the best – perhaps that;s just because of all the acts he has worked with, Nine Inch Nails is far and away my favorite, but I don’t think so. The video – which opens with a well earned epilepsy trigger warning – is a very odd video, but one that is perfectly fitting with the song and the band. To a certain extent, there is some of what Lynch did for Interpol here – but there’s more going on this time – flashing not just on a main image – but on Trent Reznor himself, or other disturbing images. Music videos don’t need to make sense – and Came Back Haunted doesn’t – but damn it, it’s good.

Idem Paris (2013)
Directed by: David Lynch.

It’s no surprise that Lynch – who seems like an old school guy in many ways (accept for his embracing of digital) would be drawn to the “master print makers” in Paris, he films doing their job here. It is interesting – it’s in way – to see them going about their business without a word. It’s also repetitive, and a little slow. I prefer watching Lynch make a lamp to this.

So that’s it. All of the work by Lynch I have seen. Coming up tomorrow, a conclusion and a ranking!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie.   
Written by: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram and Jeff Kleeman & David C. Wilson based on the television series by Sam Rolfe.
Starring: Henry Cavill (Solo), Armie Hammer (Illya), Alicia Vikander (Gaby), Elizabeth Debicki (Victoria), Luca Calvani (Alexander), Sylvester Groth (Uncle Rudi), Hugh Grant (Waverly), Jared Harris (Sanders), Christian Berkel (Udo), Misha Kuznetsov (Oleg), Guy Williams (Captain Smith).

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is the type of action movie you expect to be released in August – the dog days of summer, when studios are releasing movies they don’t have enough faith in to release earlier in the summer. It’s based on a TV show from 50 years ago, which is probably vaguely familiar with most audiences now (my mother remembers it well), and has two fairly generic male leads – who are famous, but not really movie stars. It has been directed by Guy Ritchie with his usual energy and breakneck pacing, which can either be effective or headache inducing depending on the movie. The end result certainly isn’t bad – it’s kind of fun – but it’s a parking lot movie – as in you have completely forgotten about it by the time you reach the parking lot after leaving the theater. In a summer that has given us an excellent spy movie – and 1960s TV adaptation – in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation there really is no real reason to see The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The story takes place just after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the mid-1960s. The opening sequence has CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB Agent Illya Kurykin (Armie Hamer) competing against each other to see who can get Gaby (Alicia Virkander) out of East Berlin, in the hopes that she can help them track down her former-Nazi rocket scientist, who has gone missing, and everyone worries is working for an international terrorist organization developing more advanced nuclear weapons. It turns out, it doesn’t really matter which agent wins – their organizations have already decided that this is such a huge problem that they are going to team up to take down the organization – with Gaby’s help. So, it’s off to Rome, where the trio go under cover – and try and figure out if they can trust each other.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fun little movie in some ways. Henry Cavill is amusing and charming in the role of Solo – which is surprising considering how bland a Superman he made (admittedly, Superman is kind of bland) – and shows that perhaps he could be good in these types of roles, if only they give him a little more to work with than this movie does. Likewise, Armie Hamer is amusing as Illya, but he’s given even less to do. The highlight of the trio is the immensely talented Virkander, who looks great in the exaggerated 1960s fashion the movie drapes her in, and is effortlessly enjoyable to watch. Elizabeth Debicki is also a joy to watch, as an over the top, aristocratic bad girl. And Hugh Grant gives the movie an dose of humor when it needs it most.

The movie is directed by Ritchie with constant energy, which gets tiring after a while, especially since he doesn’t really seem to know how to direct action sequences very well. The best one in the movie happens in the background while Solo stops to eat a sandwich. The nadir of the action sequences is a late movie which is chaotic and confusing. The movie is at its best when its at its most relaxed – sequences between Illya and Gaby in their hotel room for example - and since Ritchie is not a director who likes to relax, those moments don’t come often enough. Then there is a bizarre sequence late in the film that uses the horrors of WWII in a way that made me quite uncomfortable.

For the most part though, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is just an amusing, low stakes films – the type of late summer movie you see because its too damn hot to do anything else, and its starting soon. It’s not bad for a time waster – but its not something you really need to see.