Friday, July 31, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Deep Cover (1992)

Deep Cover (1992) 
Directed by: Bill Duke.
Written by: Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean.
Starring: Laurence Fishburne (Russell Stevens Jr. / John Hull), Jeff Goldblum (David Jason), Charles Martin Smith (Carver), Victoria Dillard (Betty), Gregory Sierra (Barbosa), Glynn Turman (Russell Stevens Sr.), Clarence Williams III (Taft), Roger Guenveur Smith (Eddie), Kamala Lopez (Belinda), Lira Angel (Bijoux), René Assa (Guzman).

Deep Cover is one of the best neo-noirs of the 1990s. It’s director, Bill Duke and his writers, Henry Bean and Michael Tolkin, clearly know the genre well – it’s narrated by its flawed hero, Russell Stevens Jr. (Laurence Fishburne), a cop who is assigned to go undercover to infiltrate a drug ring. He doesn’t want to do it – he hates drugs with a passion, having seen his junkie father killed in front of him after sticking up a liquor store for money to buy drugs. But he is convinced by a federal agent – Carver (Charles Martin Smith) – that he would be good at it. Stevens’ psychological profile reads more criminal than cop – he probably won’t last in a uniform, but as an undercover, his flaws become virtues. Stevens agrees, even while knowing doing so will damn him.

What clearly makes Deep Cover different from most film noir of the classic era (the 1940s and 1950s) is Fishburne’s race. Film noir has always been, among other things, about fear of the other – but the language has always been coded. Here, it’s out in the open from the opening scene. Carver uses racist language with all of the potential undercover cops – all of whom are black – to deliberately get a rise out of them. He wants to see them react – and part of the reason he chooses Stevens is because he doesn’t.

In the film, Stevens, under the name of John Hull, heads to L.A. and starts to work his way up the organizational chart. He starts as a street buyer, gets to know the flamboyant and reckless Eddie (Roger Guenveur Smith), and through him meets David Jason (Jeff Goldblum), who is seemingly respectable – he is a lawyer – but will reveal himself to be completely unhinged as the film moves along. His goal is to work his way high enough to build a case against the Latin American cartel leaders. He is all too good as his job.

The film, like all noir, is about the hero wrestling with the morality of what he does. The opening scene – where he watched his father die – haunts the rest of the film. Stevens is a black man, and a cop, who grapples with the fact that cops often commit violence against his own community – and that by taking this assignment, he isn’t a benign figure in this struggle, but being used by it. His race is specifically why they want him – it’s a cover to continue to oppress those who look like he does. The film does more than just suggest – it practically outright states – that the moral thing for Stevens’ to do is to work outside of the system he is a part of. He cannot, and perhaps no one can, fix the corrupt system from the inside. It has to be burned down.

All of this is wrapped in an entertaining noir package. Fishburne has always excelled at moral complexity – at playing characters at war with themselves over the impossible moral choices he is forced to make. This was his first leading role – more than a decade after his debut in Apocalypse Now (1979) – and brings his full force to bare on the role. In perhaps the key moment of the film, when Russell has to kill another black man, because he killed someone who worked for Russell, is unlike most killings we see in movies. Russell hesitates before killing the man – not because he’s scared per se – but because doing so will change everything. And so it does. The other key role is Goldblum’s – and I’m not sure he has ever played a character this unhinged or crazy before. Eccentric has become his stock in trade of course, but recently, it’s usually just used for comic effect. Here, his craziness is downright scary. Victoria Dillard as Betty, an art dealer who allows her gallery to be used to launder money, and then grows closer to Fishburne, is also more complex than most movies of this sort allow female characters to be. She, like Fishburne, is navigating murky moral waters – and has to make impossible choices. Charles Martin Smith is perhaps a little one note – but he’s also a perfect personification of a system that cannot be reformed.

Director Bill Duke is, of course, a fine character actor – the type of guy who shows up in everything, and you immediately recognize, but perhaps cannot quite place. It’s strange to realize he has nearly as many directing credits (67) as he does acting ones (71). He has mainly worked in TV as a director – through the 1980s, he worked on many shows you’d recognize – before, for a few years in the 1990s, he got to try his hand at directing features – before returning to TV work. Deep Cover shows just how great a director he could be – and it’s a shame he wasn’t able to keep making films in this vein forever. Deep Cover is one of the best of its kind – and we need more like it.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Husbands (1970)

Husbands (1970)
Directed by: John Cassavetes.
Written by: John Cassavetes.
Starring: Ben Gazzara (Harry), Peter Falk (Archie Black), John Cassavetes (Gus Demetri), Jenny Runacre (Mary Tynan), Jenny Lee Wright (Pearl Billingham), Noelle Kao (Julie), John Kullers (Red), Meta Shaw Stevens (Annie), Leola Harlow (Leola), Delores Delmar (The Countess), Eleanor Zee (Mrs. Hines), Claire Malis (Stuart's Wife), Peggy Lashbrook (Diana Mallabee), Eleanor Cody Gould ('Normandy' Singer), Sarah Felcher (Sarah).


It isn’t often that I wish I could see a cut of the film not approved by its director – especially when that director is a genius like John Cassavetes. But with Husbands, I would love to see the first cut of the film – the one he wasn’t involved with. Apparently, after shooting a mountain of film for Husbands, Cassavetes left all of it in the hands of his editors, who went through the footage, along with Cassavetes script, and constructed a film that audiences apparently found hilarious, and pleased the studio executives a great deal. But Cassavetes had final cut, and didn’t like what he saw, and so he retreated into the editing bay himself for a year, and came up with the film we now have. That film is a masterpiece – a dark tale of a trio of middle-aged, middle-class white guys, reeling from the death of their friend, who spin out of control. The film is difficult to watch, as its scene after scene of excoriating, selfish, obnoxious behavior – the three men often berate, and humiliate women. They are apparently best friends, and say so a lot, talking about how much they love each other – how, apart from sex, they prefer each other to their wives. Yet, take many scenes out of context, and you’d think these guys hate each other. It’s a film about these three men, at first cutting loose, letting off steam, and then going further and further – too far, for one of them anyway, to come back from. It is one of the most painful films I have ever seen. So to think there was a cut of this movie that audiences and studio executives not only loved but found hilarious is practically unthinkable.

Cassavetes has always been somewhat different from most other directors. Yes, he is considered the father of the American Indie Cinema – something that he didn’t get credited for while alive – and many (too many) directors have followed the example he set with his debut film Shadows (1959) and its indie follow-up Faces (1968), which unexpectedly became an Oscar nominated hit. Those two films are small scale and intimate – and really good. But they aren’t quite what he would go on to do later in films like Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night or Love Streams. Those films are unique to him. The emotions in them are often volcanic – almost operatic – while the films somehow remain grounded in some sort of realism. Few directors have followed that lead – perhaps most notably Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia, which is often compared to Altman, but is really more like an Altman film directed by Cassavetes. Success mainly eluded Cassavetes when he was alive – even when he tried to make a mainstream film like Gloria (1980), the result is almost schizophrenic – a mainstream story, walking to its own weird beat in a way that detracts from both.

Husbands begins with a montage of photographs of four middle-aged, middle-class suburban New York men. They’re all married, all have kids, and the goof around in those photo. One of them, Stuart, has just died – and it sends the other three – Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk) and Gus (Cassavetes) reeling. They put on a good show at the funeral – do what is expected of them. Then they hit the town to get drunk. Then they stay drunk, and get drunker. When the real world starts to intrude – when it feels like they have to go back to their lives, they reject that, and instead board a plane to London to keep the party going.

When you look it like that, it kind of sounds like Husbands is one of those overgrown man-child comedies that dominated American comedy films in the mid to late 2000s. It’s no surprise then that apparently the patron saint of those films, Judd Apatow, is apparently a Cassavetes fan. But in Apatow’s films, the women “save” the men – make them grow up, embrace adulthood, being husbands and fathers. The most lost of all of Apatow’s protagonists in Adam Sandler in Funny People – the one who isn’t married, which I don’t think is an accident. Apatow is so in love with this formula, then even when he had a woman protagonist – in Trainwreck – he simply gender flipped rolls.

But that isn’t the case with Husbands. The wives are not a presence in the movie at all – we can see Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes own wife, in that opening montage of photos, but she doesn’t appear in the film otherwise. Here, the men are running away from their responsibilities, not embracing them.

The New York scenes are long, drawn out, painful. The trio get drunk and end up berating the singers at a bar – many of them women. They seem to be hoping to get a rise out of someone, but they never do. If they are looking for release, for catharsis, it isn’t to be found. In the New York scenes, the trio do appear to somewhat interchangeable – a mass of insecurities, masked behind false bravado. But when they go to London, they become different people – their own personalities start to seep back in. Harry, their leader, becomes even more entrenched in that bravado – pushing aside anyone in his way, including his friends, as Ben Gazzara owns the screen. Peter Falk’s hangdog expression starts to become more pathetic, sadder. He drains the life out of his one-night stand – which ends with her storming off into the rain, a torrent of untranslated Chinese being hurled at him – she just wants to escape. Gus becomes more charming – but it’s a false charm, one built to get what he wants, with nothing behind it.

As the film ends, two of the men return to New York, tails between their legs. Perhaps they were miserable before, but it was a misery they find some comfort in. One is gone – at least for now – and isn’t coming back. The title of the movie becomes telling in those closing scenes – there is something in the film about being husbands specifically – not men, not fathers, but husbands.

This film is one of the most painful experiences you will have watching it. It’s not something you’d want to dive back into too often. But there is so much ugly honesty in it that you cannot look away. It’s a film only Cassavetes could have made.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Movie Review: White Lie

White Lie **** / *****
Directed by: Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas.
Written by: Yonah Lewis & Calvin Thomas.
Starring: Kacey Rohl (Katie Arneson), Amber Anderson (Jennifer Ellis), Martin Donovan (Doug Arneson), Thomas Olajide (Jabari Jordan), Connor Jessup (Owen), Sharon Lewis (Colette), Christine Horne (Julia Stansfield), Darrin Baker (Dr. Becker), Zahra Bentham (Kadisha), Shanice Banton (Veronica), Spencer Glassman (Amy).

Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas have crafted a thriller about the most unlikely of subject – a young, college student named Katie (brilliantly played by Kacey Rohl) who has lied and told everyone she has cancer – has shaved her head to make it realistic – but now sees the walls closing in around her, as her lies start to compound, and become harder and harder to keep going. No one questions the girl who has cancer – unless of course you are applying to some endowments for people with cancer, and need to actually prove you have it. Or, if you tried the same thing in high school – and your exasperated father has had enough of the lies. It’s even worse when you have run multiple Go Fund Me campaigns to help you – or even worse, under the guise of helping different charities, and kept the money for yourself. Sooner or later, it was all bound to crash down around Katie – and the film follows her in those days when it starts to unravel, and she has to take increasingly desperate measures to keep the lie going.

There have been various real-life example of people doing this – and you always end up asking yourself why – why would someone do this? Are they some kind of psychopath? Did they really expect to get away with it? In this case anyway, Katie is not a psychopath – she is clearly ill, just not in the way she says she is. We don’t delve into the psychology around her – she is too busy trying to keep the lie going – but the answer to the second question really does seem to be yes – she thought she would get away with it. We get hints of the why – her mother died while she was in high school, and she was hurt and seeking attention. Her father, Doug (Martin Donovan) is distant to say the least – fed up with his daughters lies. She is basically on her own – at McMaster University in Hamilton. She has a girlfriend, Jennifer (Amber Anderson) – whose entire family has embraced her. She has a support system – including those at the university, who want to help her get the financial assistance she needs. All she has to do is provide her medical records.

And that, in a nutshell, is what begins the movie. She has a drug dealer – Owen (Connor Jessup) – who knows the lie, but as long as she pays, he’ll won’t tell anyone. He hooks her up with Jabari Jordan (Thomas Olajide) – a medical intern who can fake those records for her – again, as long as he pays. The film has the tension of a thriller as she goes to Jordan for the records, having to dodge invasive questions from medical staff, and keep the grift going. As she manipulates money out of Jennifer – or other friends – to keep the payments coming. As she visits her father for more money – who flatly rejects her, telling her point blank that he doesn’t believe her. Things get worse when he posts on Facebook a long post about how she is lying. She continually has to come up with more lies to cover up her previous lies.

The movie ends before it has all crashed down around her – but that crash is inevitable. Too many people know, too many people have started to mistrust her. She has not quite confessed – but come close to confessing to multiple people. And yet, she still hopes that people will be there for her – will support her. She’s sick after all.

Movie Review: The Painted Bird

The Painted Bird *** / *****
Directed by: Václav Marhoul.
Written by: Václav Marhoul based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski.
Starring: Petr Kotlár (Joska), Nina Sunevic (Marta), Alla Sokolova (Olga), Michaela Dolezalová (Miller's wife), Udo Kier (Miller), Lech Dyblik (Lekh), Jitka Cvancarová (Ludmila), Stellan Skarsgård (Hans), Dominik Weber (Feldwebel), Harvey Keitel (Priest), Julian Sands (Garbos), Julia Valentova (Labina), Aleksey Kravchenko (Gavrila), Barry Pepper (Mitka), Petr Vanek (Nikodem).

I think it’s fair to say that director Václav Marhoul is incredibly talented, and with The Painted Bird, he made precisely the film he wanted to make. Whether you want to subject yourself to the film itself is an entirely different question. The film is a parade of misery for nearly three hours – starting with a young boy being beaten, and watching as his dog is killed and set on fire – and then enduring all sorts of other torment, misery and abuse for the rest of the film – right until the end, which offers brief respite. It’s not a film that most people would want to see – and frankly, I cannot blame you if you are among them.

Yet the film is so well made, that it deserves attention. The cinematography by Vladimir Smutny is among the best of the year – this is probably the starkest black and white film since Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. The other technical aspects of the film are also top notch. The lead performance, by young Petr Kotlár, is exceptional – basically he is drained of emotion and traumatized throughout, and that is the right note for him to play. The supporting cast is weirdly one of those where familiar faces show up for a scene or two – there’s Udo Kier playing the Udo Kier role as an abusive Miller, there’s Stellan Skarsgard as a soldier, Harvey Keitel as priest, Julian Sands as a child molester, Barry Pepper as a Russian sniper, etc. They all do their roles well.

The flaws in the movie are likely the flaws in the novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It is an acclaimed novel, and one I haven’t read, so I really cannot comment on it, but the film essentially becomes a parade of misery – it’s just one damned thing after another. The poor little boy starts with a distant relative – an older woman who is kind to him, but she dies early on, and from there he is shuttled from one abusive caretaker after another. There are a few moments when you think no, this caretaker may not be that bad – like Harvey Keitel’s priest for example, and then he hands him over to the local pedophile played by Julian Sands – once again proving my theory that you can never trust a character played by Julian Sands. A moment of tranquility – like when the boy is lazily hanging out in a tree with Barry Pepper is interrupted when Pepper raises his sniper rifle and kills a man – explaining that it’s an eye for an eye – and you realize that they are only hanging out in this tree, in this calm, in order to kill people. I haven’t even detailed all the different abuses he suffers – the strange people he comes across, who use and abuse him.

The film takes place in WWII, and yet Marhoul takes pains to underline the fact that not all the abusers are Nazis. It’s a Polish book, but they don’t speak Polish in the movie – instead, it’s a hybrid of Czech, German, Russian and Latin – underscoring the point that everyone in this film is wicked and vile, and prone to abuse.

The obvious inspiration for the film is Elem Klimov’s 1985 masterpiece Come and See – about a young Russian boy who joins the Soviet Resistance in WWII, and experiences the horror of war. Personally though, I thought more of Robert Bresson – of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) and Mouchette (1967) – two films about innocents (one a donkey, one a young girl) who suffer one abuse after another – the only relief being death. Bresson, perhaps smartly, realized you can only make those run for so long – you could do a double bill of those two films (and what a pick me up that would be) in just a few short minutes longer than it would take you to watch The Painted Bird.

In the end, for all the skill that obviously went into making The Painted Bird, I couldn’t help but wonder what the ultimate point of it all was – why Marhoul and company felt the need to subject their audience to such pain and abuse for nearly three hours. The skill is evident – what the point of it all is not.

Movie Review: The Outpost

The Outpost (2020) *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Rod Lurie.
Written by: Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy based on the book by Jake Tapper.
Starring: Scott Eastwood (Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha), Caleb Landry Jones (Specialist Ty Carter), Orlando Bloom (CPT Benjamin Keating), Milo Gibson (CPT Robert Yllescas), Celina Sinden (Cpt. Katie Kopp), Jack Kesy (Sgt. Josh Kirk), Taylor John Smith (First Lt Andrew Bundermann), Jacob Scipio (Staff Sgt. Justin T. Gallegos), Cory Hardrict (SGT Vernon Martin), Bobby Lockwood (Kevin Thomson), James Jagger (Chris Jones), Alexander Arnold (Griffin), Will Attenborough (Ed Faulkner), Kwame Patterson (Sylvanius Broward), Scott Alda Coffey (Michael Scusa), Trey Tucker (CPT Stoney Portis), Jonathan Yunger (SFC Jonathan Hill), Henry Hughes (Brad Larson), Alfie Stewart (Pfc. Zorias Yunger), Daniel Rodriguez (SPC Daniel Rodriguez), Jack DeVos (Sergeant Joshua Hardt), Aleksandar Aleksiev (Sgt. Janis Lakis), Jack Kalian (Shane Courville), Chris Born (Stephan Mace), George Arvidson (Captain Chris Cordova), Marin Rangelov (Nasir), Ernest Cavazos (Sgt. Armando Avalos), Jeremy Ang Jones (PFC Jordan Wong), Ahmad Sakhi (Commander Zahid), Brandon Wengrzynek (Sergeant John Breeding), Anthony Kenmore (SPC Justin Gregory), M. Scott Mortensen (SPC Thomas Rasmussen), Anton Trendafilov (Chief Haji Yunus), Sharif Dorani (Mohammed).

A lot has been written about Hollywood abandoning the “middle range” movie – the films that aren’t designed to be blockbusters, but aren’t indies either – they inhabit the middle ground somewhat, used to be wide released, but only had to make far less than a blockbuster in order to be profitable – often times topping out between $40-$70 million at the box office. Hollywood abandoned them because these films were too much for indie studios to make, but whose profit margins were too small for the behemoth studios to care. I mention this off the top, because I think it was filmmakers like Rod Lurie who have suffered the most from this abandonment – the major auteurs and masters have been able to soldier on, keep getting their films made one way or another, but Lurie – who carved out a little niche for himself making smart, political thrillers like The Contender (2000) and Nothing But the Truth (2008) – but hasn’t made a film since 2011’s remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. He is a fine director – and writer for that matter – and we’re a poorer film culture for not having more films by him.

His latest film, The Outpost, is further proof of Lurie’s skills behind the camera. It’s a film like the recent Greyhound, that I really feel could have been better had we had the opportunity to see it in a theater. Unlike Greyhound though, it still works fine at home. Still, this is a claustrophobic war film, that seeks to trap us with its characters in their nearly impossible situation, as hellfire rains down around them.

The film takes place in 2006, in Afghanistan – at an Outpost in Kamdesh. It was never a smart place to put an outpost – in the middle of a valley, surrounding by ridges and cliffs, that give the enemy Taliban lots of place to hide, and shoot directly into the Outpost. It’s an indefensible position, but the men there are tasked with defending it anyway. They say their mission is to survive – and the movie makes clear just how hard that job was.

The first hour of the film is full of talk, with the occasional outburst of violence. Soldiers are killed, including their commanding officer, and the men keep having to soldier on. We get to know a few of the men –alpha male Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood), and the decidedly not alpha male Carter (Caleb Landry Jones) chief among them. The rest, unfortunately, do tend to blend together. We do get a sense of how fraught their situation is – how hard it is defending the position, and how death and gunfire are daily occurrences. The last hour is basically an all-out assault – the Taliban is coming with everything they have – and the soldiers basically have to fight to just stay alive. Air support is coming – but it will take a while. The soldiers may well not have a while.

The film clearly takes it leads from something like Ridley Scott’s masterful Black Hawk Down (2000). People who complained that the Somalian soldiers in that film were basically a faceless horde without humanity, will likely complain about the same thing hear. To me though, that’s part of the film’s strategy – this isn’t a “both side” film – but a film about what it was like trapped in that valley, in that outpost, with sniper fire, mortar fire and everything else raining down on you – never being quite sure where it’s coming from, or how to fight back. It isn’t about the politics of the war, whether we should have been there or not, etc. It’s about these American soldiers put in an impossible situation, how they fought back and tried to survive anyway – and how many of them had to die in order for the policy to change.  It is, as the cliché goes, about fighting for the man next to you.

And it is viscerally entertaining. No, it doesn’t rank up with Black Hawk Down, or Saving Private Ryan, or films like that. But it does do what many films about America’s war in the Middle East have been unable to do to this point – and really be about the men on the ground, and make audiences – no matter what their political persuasion – question what it really means to “Support The Troops”. I would think the best way to support them is to not put them into this kind of impossible situation to begin with.

Movie Review: Relic

Relic *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Natalie Erika James.
Written by: Natalie Erika James and Christian White.
Starring: Emily Mortimer (Kay), Robyn Nevin (Edna), Bella Heathcote (Sam), Jeremy Stanford (Alex), Chris Burton (Jamie), Christina O’Neill (Grace), Catherine Glavicic (Doctor Stanley), Steve Rodgers (Constable Mike Adler).

The best horror movies often walk a fine, subtle line between the terror they are showing on screen, and what the terror is really about. Think Rosemary’s Baby – a Satanic horror movie yes, but really about the terror of being pregnant. Or Hereditary, another Satanic horror movie, but one about buried secrets and undealt with trauma in a family. Or The Babadook, where the terror of being a parent manifests itself as a demon. Relic, the debut film by Natalie Erika James, tries to do something similar – but with old age and dementia. It’s a brilliant idea, and Relic is a very good horror movie – but perhaps one that leans a little too heavy on the real world terror – so much so that you may end up thinking it didn’t need the haunted house aspect of the film at all. It is, though, an immensely promising debut for James – who is certainly a filmmaker to watch.

 The film is basically three women in a house. Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) have come to Kay’s mother house because Edna (Robyn Nevin) hasn’t been seen in a few days – so they come to help find her. It isn’t too long before Enda shows up – but she was already on the downward slope towards dementia before she went missing – and things have simply got worse since then. Not only that but her large, messy house seems like it may be haunted. The three women bounce off each other – a collection of things left unsaid, and heightened emotions as the dementia – and whatever is haunting the house – ratchet up the tension.

Relic is a film about this family who cannot communicate with each other, following that same pattern throughout the film. When Edna does arrive – with no explanation of where she’s been, everyone is content to just pass it off as a senile episode – an old, doddering woman who wandered off, but is back now. Kay wasn’t close to Edna in the first place – it had been weeks since they talked (and you almost get the sense that Kay is who lying about that – that it may have been longer). Edna is the one first notices that things aren’t right with the house – but she is dismissed. A disturbing incident with the neighbor is written off as more proof that Edna has lost it. No one takes her seriously. But she’s right.

There is also a sense that Kay and Sam are at the start of repeating the pattern that Edna and Kay have been in for years. Sam has dropped out of school – and shows no signs of going back. “Are you going to work at a bar the rest of your life?” Kay wants to know, and Sam doesn’t see much wrong with that. Sam isn’t any more open to seeing Edna as anything other than a senile old woman either. Until, of course, it may be too late.

You can sense the references that inspired James’ film throughout – Polanski’s Repulsion certainly, and other haunted house movies. This is a slow burn of a horror film – perhaps a little too slow at times because the ending – more full of action feels like perhaps its piling too much on at one point. Still, James shows a real gift for directing horror – for the sense of mode, atmosphere, and pace. And Relic is one of the most promising debut films of the year.

Movie Review: Athlete A

Athlete A *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bonni Cohen & Jon Shenk.

The Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal that rocked U.S. Women’s Gymnastics has become one of the most documented of all the recent sexual abuse scandals. We’ve already had one documentary – last year’s At the Heart of Gold – about it, and excellent podcast – Believed – about it, as well as countless articles, TV pieces, etc. Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s Athlete A – named after the at the time anonymous athlete who first brought Nassar’s horrific conduct to the public’s attention, therefore has some work to do to justify why we need another documentary on the same subject. For the most part, Athlete A more than clears that bar. This is a movie that is about Nassar’s conduct to be sure. But it’s wider reaching than that – like the judge in the case, who allowed all of Nassar’s victims who wanted to into the courtroom to deliver victim impact statements, the film does give voice to his victims. It also – and I think this is crucial – shows that like something like Catholic Church Sexual Abuse Scandal, this scandal was far more wide reaching than the pervert himself. It goes to the heart of female gymnastics in general – and US Women’s gymnastics specifically.

We now know, of course, then Nassar abused hundreds of teenage gymnasts over the span of more than two decades. If that, however, isn’t the beginning of the story. For that, you have to go back all the way to 1976 – when Romania’s Nadia Comaneci won gold, at just 14 years old. Up until then, most world class female gymnasts were – like their male counterparts – in their 20s. But much like in any other sport, monkey see, monkey do – so the world over they started to turn teenage girls into the elite athletes. This required more training – strenuous training, placed on younger athletes. Eventually Comaneci’s coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi – came to America to train their female gymnasts – their approach either bordered on, or outright ‘s crossed the line, into abuse according to many of the young athletes they trained. You couldn’t complain – because if you did, you risked your spot on the Olympic team – which the Karolyi’s pretty much handpicked themselves. This is an environment that allows something like Nassar to be possible – scared young girls, already fearful of rocking the boat, who don’t really know a lot about sex, being told by Nassar – who they admit was the friendliest one of all the staff – that he was helping, when he was anything but.

Still, things could have been stopped – but they weren’t. Steve Penny joined US Gymnastics as a marketing guy, eventually working his way up to CEO. He was concerned about money, about sponsorships, about image. It wasn’t that no one ever complained about Nassar until the scandal hit – it’s that Penny didn’t do anything about it. If the complaints weren’t signed personally by a gymnast of their parents, it was dismissed as hearsay, filed away, and forgotten. When some people did push for more, they were assured something was being done – but didn’t push it. If they did, their Olympic spot was on the line.

This is what happened to Maggie Nichols – who did complain about it, and whose parents backed her up, but didn’t push too hard – for fear of it ruining her chances. Not that it mattered – she still didn’t make the Olympic team in 2016 – even if a year before she was considered a shoo-in. They used an injury as an excuse – but that doesn’t make logical sense – as Nichols still came in sixth in Olympic trials, but wasn’t selected not only as one of the “Fab Five” – but wasn’t even selected as one of the three alternates. Speaking out wasn’t good for her.

What Athlete A does is show the group of young gymnasts – some Olympians, others nowhere near that level, who were abused by Nassar – and how they came forward. One story in the paper lead to dozens of people coming forward – and the rush never really stopped. Years after the abuse was suffered – with these women now in the 20s or even older – they were no longer going to be silent.

I’m not really sure I learned all that much more about the scandal from Athlete A than I already knew. But the film is a wide ranging one – showing us the actions of the gymnasts, the coaches, the executives, the journalists – and eventually the legal system in dealing with, or not dealing with the scandal. Even if you know the story, this documentary will still make your blood boil.

Movie Review: The Beach House

The Beach House *** / *****
Directed by: Jeffrey A. Brown.
Written by: Jeffrey A. Brown.
Starring: Liana Liberato (Emily), Noah Le Gros (Randall), Jake Weber (Mitch), Maryann Nagel (Jane).

With trips to the beach and cottage at an all-time low this summer, perhaps watching indie horror flick The Beach House will make you feel a little bit better about not being able to go. Horror films like to inject the horror into the everyday – trying to ruin our fun in each and every one of our mundane activities – and The Beach House does that for trips to the beach. It’s a low-fi horror film – really there is only one CGI shot that is complicated – and mostly, the terror comes out the never-ending fog (which, we will be told later in the film “It’s not fog”) – and lead actress Liana Liberato’s terrified face as one thing after another mounts.

Liberato stars as Emily, who has headed for the beach house owned by her boyfriend, Randall’s (Noah Le Gros) – father. The two are there in the hopes to getting their relationship back on track – but like many young couple who meet while still in school, it may not be possible. Randall has dropped out of school – and likes to go on long rants about conformity that only people in their teens and early 20s can get away with. Emily is talking about grad school – and doesn’t believe, like Randall, that it’s all bullshit. The area is essentially deserted – it’s early in the season, so most of the other houses are deserted. They should have everything too themselves. Or so they think.

It isn’t long before the pair discover another couple – Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel) are actually staying in Randall’s father house. Old friends of Randall’s dad, they have come up here to get away – Jane has medical issues, and may not last too much longer – they wanted another trip to a place where they were happy. The two couples mainly get along – they bond over dinner, wine and eventually edibles. And they all agree that they have never seen a fog like this before.

Needless to say, the fog is trouble – and soon none of them will be immune. I won’t go into further details – except to say that Jeffrey A. Brown, who wrote and directed the film, was smart to mainly focus on Liberato’s Emily. Yes, the whole “final girl” thing is beyond cliché – but Liberato is a gifted actress (she has been wonderful in films like the little seen Trust or more recently Banana Split) – and her expressive face is really all the film needs to continuously up the terror level of the film. The film is fairly light on gore – although a sequence involving Emily’s foot is certainly not for the squeamish.

You can tell The Beach House is an indie horror film – and it’s probably better for it. The cast is small, the special effects minimal, but the combination of Brown’s smart direction, and Liberato’s performance is more than enough to keep the film scary throughout. It doesn’t transcend its origins or its influences – but it’s a fine example of what indie horror can do. You may well be glad you cannot go to the beach this summer after seeing this.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Classic Movie Review: King of New York (1990)

King of New York (1990) 
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas St. John.
Starring: Christopher Walken (Frank White), David Caruso (Dennis Gilley), Laurence Fishburne (Jimmy Jump), Victor Argo (Roy Bishop), Wesley Snipes (Thomas Flanigan), Janet Julian (Jennifer), Joey Chin (Larry Wong), Giancarlo Esposito (Lance), Paul Calderon (Joey Dalesio), Steve Buscemi (Test Tube), Theresa Randle (Raye), Leonard L. Thomas (Blood), Roger Guenveur Smith (Tanner), Carrie Nygren (Melanie), Ernest Abuba (King Tito), Frank Adonis (Paul Calgari).


There was always something different about an Abel Ferrara movie – even back in his period working with screenwriter Nicholas St. John, where the pair apparently had a vision of marrying exploitation with something approaching art. Some will call that pretension – and to be clear, that is what it was at times. And yet, at their best, Ferrara and St. John really did come up with some strange visions of violent characters, living outside the law, and yet sticking to some sort of moral code. There is a twisted version of Catholicism running through these films, and there is a tension between all the sin, and the moral viewpoint, however twisted, of their central characters. Where the pair fell out, St. John stopped working – and Ferrara’s career became even more tumultuous than it had been before –with some high points, and some dismal lows, as Ferrara abandoned any hope of anything approaching mainstream success. But many of those films the pair made remain fascinating and one of a kind.

King of New York (1990) is one of those films. It stars Christopher Walken as Frank White, a drug kingpin recently released from prison who sets out to become, well, the King of New York. You can see echoes of The Godfather or Scarface in the film, but it’s also very much its own twisted view of crime. It doesn’t take Frank long to start his plan in motion – he acts as if he is going to make peace with the other gangs, but soon alongside his psychotic right hand man Jimmy (Laurence Fishburne) – he is simply mowing them down, and forcing them out. The body count mounts in increasing ways.

Walken is one of the most fascinating of actors. His weirdness can slip into self-parody too easily – and that is basically all he’s been asked to do for years now, so easy to forget how good he can be in the right role, or how he got that reputation in the first place. His Frank White is one of his most fascinating characters – a drug kingpin with a lust for power, who has all the trappings of decadence, but doesn’t seem to enjoy any of it (Jimmy, on the other hands, enjoys it all too much). Frank isn’t above walking around with an almost nude model on each arm, or driving around in his limo surveilling his kingdom. He already has more than enough, and a keen sense of his own mortality – being in prison has convinced him he never wants to go back to that, so he’s going to embrace whatever time he has left. Yet, he almost feels like an alien – watching humanity with a detached, analytical eye for their weaknesses. In another way, he’s simply a capitalist – he knows that people will never stop doing drugs, hiring prostitutes, etc. so it’s pointless to try and stop them. With him, at least, he plans on giving back to the community – building hospitals, etc. In his mind, that makes him moral – or at least more moral than the other options.

The film could have just wallowed with Frank and Jimmy in their excess – but it does something interesting with the police as well. Bishop (Victor Argo), an older cop who is trying to patiently build a case against Jimmy, but his younger, underlings don’t have the patience. As the bodies pile up, these younger cops (led by David Caruso, reminding you he actually could act at one point, and including Wesley Snipes) – decide to take matters into their own hands. They have more in common with Frank than they’d like to think – as they are going outside of regular morality for what they assume are moral purposes. Bishop is the only one who keeps his hands clean – and yet the film acknowledges that by doing so, he isn’t going to get anywhere. He’s the only one playing by the old set of rules everyone else has discarded.

As with all Ferrara films, there is plenty of excess here – lots of violence, perhaps a little less sex than is typical for Ferrara (but a hell of a lot more than what we see in films today). With some of Ferrara’s films, all that excess can overwhelm whatever is being said. Here, they coexist – you need that excess to see Frank for who he is. He isn’t Jimmy for example – his goals are different. But perhaps that just makes him worse.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Purple Noon (1960) & The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) & The American Friend (1977) & Ripley's Game (2002)

Purple Noon (1960)
Directed by: René Clément.
Written by: René Clément & Paul Gégauff based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Alain Delon (Tom Ripley), Marie Laforêt (Marge Duval), Maurice Ronet (Philippe Greenleaf), Erno Crisa (Inspector Ricordi), Frank Latimore (O'Brien), Billy Kearns (Freddy Miles), Ave Ninchi (Signora Gianna), Viviane Chantel (The Belgian lady), Nerio Bernardi (Agency Director), Barbel Fanger (Mr. Greenleaf), Lily Romanelli (Housekeeper), Nicolas Petrov (Boris), Elvire Popesco (Mrs. Popova).
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) 
Directed by: Anthony Minghella.
Written by: Anthony Minghella based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Matt Damon (Tom Ripley), Gwyneth Paltrow (Marge Sherwood), Jude Law (Dickie Greenleaf), Cate Blanchett (Meredith Logue), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Freddie Miles), Jack Davenport (Peter Smith-Kingsley), James Rebhorn (Herbert Greenleaf), Sergio Rubini (Inspector Roverini), Philip Baker Hall (Alvin MacCarron), Celia Weston (Aunt Joan), Fiorello (Fausto), Stefania Rocca (Silvana), Ivano Marescotti (Colonnello Verrecchia), Anna Longhi (Signora Buffi), Alessandro Fabrizi (Sergeant Baggio), Lisa Eichhorn (Emily Greenleaf), Gretchen Egolf (Fran). 
The American Friend (1977) 
Directed by: Wim Wenders.
Written by: Wim Wenders based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: Dennis Hopper (Tom Ripley), Bruno Ganz (Jonathan Zimmermann), Lisa Kreuzer (Marianne Zimmermann), Gérard Blain (Raoul Minot), Nicholas Ray ('Derwatt'), Samuel Fuller (Der Amerikaner), Peter Lilienthal (Marcangelo), Daniel Schmid (Igraham), Sandy Whitelaw (Arzt in Paris), Jean Eustache (Freundlicher Mann), Lou Castel (Rodolphe), Andreas Dedecke (Daniel), David Blue (Allan Winter). 
Ripley's Game (2002) 
Directed by: Liliana Cavani.
Written by: Charles McKeown and Liliana Cavani based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith.
Starring: John Malkovich (Tom Ripley), Dougray Scott (Jonathan Trevanny), Ray Winstone (Reeves), Lena Headey (Sarah Trevanny), Chiara Caselli (Luisa Harari), Sam Blitz (Matthew Trevanny), Paolo Paoloni (Franco), Evelina Meghnagi (Maria), Lutz Winde (Ernst), Wilfried Zander (Belinsky). 

Tom Ripley is one of literature’s great psychopaths. The creation of Patricia Highsmith, who followed Ripley through five books over nearly 40 years, Ripley was a conman and a serial killer – although not one who took particular pleasure in killing – he didn’t do it out of some deep psychological need, but normally only to protect himself – not self-defense, but self-preservation. Over the years, there have been five movies made out of the Ripley books – oddly though only three of the novel have been filmed, and I cannot find Ripley Under Ground – leaving just the other four. Purple Noon (1960) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) are based on the same novel, and The American Friend (1977) and Ripley’s Game (2002) – the first and third of Highsmith’s novels. They are a study in contrasts, in the approach of the directors to the material, and by the actors who play Ripley. It isn’t many roles that could be played by Alain Delon, Dennis Hopper, Matt Damon and John Malkovich – but here we are.

Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (1960) came first – and deviated from the books in some key ways – starting with the ending, which flies in the face of all the Highsmith novels, but also starting the action with Ripley (Alain Delon) already entrenched with his target, Phillippe (Maurice Ronet) and his girlfriend Marge (Marie Laforet) in Italy. In a way, this serves to make Ripley even more mysterious – as his job remains the same, to convince Phillippe to return to the bosom of his wealthy family, something Phillippe has no intention of doing, and something Ripley doesn’t care to make him do – that would cost him his trip to Italy. The film all but drains Ripley of any sort of backstory at all – making him a beautiful enigma. This is one of the most impossibly beautiful films ever made – with the gorgeous Delon never more attractive, and the sundrenched Italian locations just as beautiful. It also gets Ripley himself mostly right. Ripley is amoral, and doesn’t much like anyone – he is after his own self-interest first. When the time for the murder does come – it is in part revenge on Phillippe, who humiliated Ripley by putting him in a dingy, and leaving him there stranded for hours (an invention of the movie) – but it’s mainly because he knows the gravy train is going to end if he doesn’t kill Phillippe, and then assume his identity. The murder of Phillippe’s brash friend Freddie, is all there to cover up the crime – but once again, he feels no emotion, no pity. He does what he has to do. As played by Delon, this Ripley is a beautiful blank slate – chillingly emotionless, approaching his prey like a shark. The ending of the movie is a copout – perhaps a necessary one given the time, where bad guys were not allowed to do bad things and get away with it in films – but it doesn’t really work either.

Strangely, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) is at once more loyal to the book, and yet less loyal to Ripley himself. Here, as played by Matt Damon (in his greatest performance), Ripley is more than a little but pathetic – the poor kid trying to hang with the cool kids, but never fitting in. Dickie (Jude Law) is an American playboy, charming and likable, but also cruel and cold – something even his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) acknowledges. He sees Tom as a plaything, and when he’s bored of him, he’s going to throw him back. This Ripley is the most sympathetic of them all – when he lashes out and kills Dickie, it isn’t the premeditated murder it was in the book or Purple Noon – but an emotional outburst when he realizes Dickie is going to dump him. Freddie (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is more of a character though – somehow deeper by being shallower than he was in Purple Noon, and brilliantly played by Hoffman in what was a star making year for the actor (he also made Magnolia and Flawless that year). The film does invent Meredith (Cate Blanchett) to complicate the narrative and Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) to makes it clear that this Ripley anyway is gay, but oddly even though he kills more people here than before, he remains sympathetic. His is killing here for self-preservation, but he feels horrible about it – he cries as he commits the films final murder.

Both of the films are great – and perhaps it’s sacrilege to say it, but I prefer Minghella’s 1999 version to Clement’s 1960

version, even as it changes Ripley so much he’s barely even Highsmith’s character anymore. For one thing, the supporting cast is amazing – Law is perfect as the casually cruel Dickie, Paltrow wonderful as Marge, whose suspicions mount through, Davenport is a perfect sympathetic victim, and Hoffman simply owns the screen in his few scenes as Freddie – with such casual, unearned bravado. For another, Damon’s Ripley, while not being Highsmith’s, is a complex, fascinating character – a man with the gifts of Highsmith’s creation, but a conscience as well – it doesn’t stop him from killing, but he feels horrible about it. And the film is perhaps equally beautiful to Clement’s – the cast is, of course, beautiful – and so are the locations. Minghella is generally regarded as one of those boring, middlebrow directors, making prestige films of the late 1990s and early 2000s that win Oscars, but are mostly forgotten – a charge certainly earned by The English Patient, and arguably Cold Mountain. But here, he created a masterwork. Yes, Purple Noon is wonderful as well – and Delon is a perfect Ripley – but Minghella’s film has haunted me for 21 years now, and will likely continue to do so.

In 1977, Wim Wenders adapted Ripley’s Game into a German film, The American Friend, and had Dennis Hopper take over the role of Tom Ripley. Yet, Wenders is only partially interested in what Highsmith’s novel is doing, and the character of Ripley – who becomes almost supporting character, as the narrative concentrates on Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) – the plaything for Ripley in his game, who becomes something more. Older than he was before, Ripley has started selling counterfeit art (the great director Nicholas Ray plays the forger), and meets Zimmerman – a restorer and framer – at an auction, where Zimmerman rudely dismisses him – when introduced to Ripley, Zimmerman says simply “I’ve heard of you” and won’t shake his hand. This is all Ripley needs – when a criminal associate asks Ripley to kill a rival gangster, he refuses, but suggests his friend reach out to Zimmerman instead. Zimmerman has an incurable blood disease – and is in financial trouble. Ripley starts spreading rumors that Zimmerman’s health is worsening – making the German paranoid. Eventually, he will agree to commit the murder – and then things spiral further out of control.

Hopper’s Ripley, like Delon’s, remains an enigma more than anything. We don’t see his private life here – nor really get to know his motives, beyond he was insulted by Zimmerman, so came up with an elaborate attack of revenge. Hopper walks around Berlin often in a cowboy hat – as if Ripley is embracing his role as an ugly American (something Highsmith’s Ripley would never do). But this Ripley, like Highsmith’s, does have a moral code – he corrupts Zimmerman by making him do that first murder, but doesn’t like it when the game gets away from him – and more murders are asked of Zimmerman. This leads to one of the great set pieces of the 1970s – aboard a train where Zimmerman is supposed to murder people – and Ripley helps him out.

But it is Ganz who is really the focal point of the film. His Zimmerman, with his loving wife and child, is a sad, sympathetic character. He is angry at his lot in life, and falls further and further down the rabbit hole. It is one of the great performances of Ganz’s career. The film is clearly meant as an homage to the American film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s – in addition to Nicholas Ray, the great Samuel Fuller also has a small role – and the film is drowning in atmosphere. This is some of the best cinematography of the great Robby Muller’s career, and the film is all dark edges and rooms. The train sequences are among the most suspenseful you will ever see. The ending of the film strikes the perfect, tragic note as well for Zimmerman – and keeps you wondering about Ripley.

2002’s Ripley’s Game, by director Liliana Cavani is more faithful to the novel, and contains a wonderful performance

by John Malkovich as the older, wiser Ripley – but it’s also less satisfying as a whole then any of the other films. Once again, Ripley is insulted a framer with a terminal illness - Jonathan Trevanny (Dougray Scott) – and sets his sets on revenge by getting him to murder someone at arm’s length. This time, the narrative does focus on Ripley – the wealthy American living in England with his wife – it is his redecorating of his home that draws Trevanny’s ire, although he didn’t mean for Ripley to hear what he was saying. Malkovich is, of course, perfectly cast as the amoral Ripley – who nevertheless has a code. His performance is the best thing in the movie. Yet, perhaps it’s because Dougray Scott is so dull as Trevanny, or his wife (Lena Headley) is playing the stereotypical wife trying to get her husband back, that the plot feels like it’s going through the motions more than anything else. I’d seen Ripley’s Game before – probably 10 years ago now – and didn’t much care for it. I liked it more now (perhaps due to lowered expectations) – but aside from Malkovich, there isn’t as much going for it.

I still think the opportunity is there for someone to make a series of all five Ripley novels with the same actor (perhaps the upcoming TV series with Andrew Scott as Ripley will be that). These one-offs are mostly great – and viewed in short succession of each other, rebound and play off each other in fascinating ways. Each has a worthy, but different Ripley. But I’d love to see one actor get the play the whole of Ripley’s career. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

Classic Movie Rivette: La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

La Belle Noiseuse (1991) 
Directed by: Jacques Rivette.
Written by: Pascal Bonitzer and Christine Laurent and Jacques Rivette inspired by the novella by Honoré de Balzac.
Starring: Michel Piccoli (Edouard Frenhofer), Jane Birkin (Liz), Emmanuelle Béart (Marianne), Marianne Denicourt (Julienne), David Bursztein (Nicolas), Gilles Arbona (Porbus), Marie Belluc (Magali), Marie-Claude Roger (Françoise).
Frenhofer was once a great painter – but he hasn’t painted anything in 10 years. It isn’t for a lack of ideas -an idea has haunted him this whole time for a painting called La Belle Noiseuse – the beautiful nuisance – and he started it years ago, with his wife Liz (Jane Birkin) as his model and his muse. But he wasn’t able to bring it to completion – somehow knowing that completing it would destroy his relationship with Liz, and not wanting that to happen. Liz was the last of his muses – and he used the others, and discarded them, but he could not do that this time. Liz tells us that he started painting her because she loved him, then because he loved her. The former is something he experienced before, but perhaps not the latter. Then his dealer shows up at his estate one day with a younger artist – a great admirer of Frenhofer’s – and the artist’s girlfriend. This is Marianne (Emmanuelle Beart), and she awakens in Frenhofer the desire to finish the painting for real this time. It will be an arduous, painful process for all involved.
That is basically the plot of La Belle Noiseuse, Jacques Rivette’s four-hour masterpiece about the creative process, but doesn’t begin to describe what the film is like to watch. There aren’t any more twists and turns in the plot other than what I have described above, because Rivette isn’t interested in that. What he is observing here is the creative process itself – what the artist, and the muse, go through in the creation of art. By the end, we will see the painting the process created. Is it a masterpiece? It doesn’t really matter.
What we watch, in scene after scene, is the artist and his muse engaged in some sort of tug of war. He will pose her, sometimes in painful poses that he’ll ask her to hold for extended periods of time. She’ll complain that it hurts – and he’ll explain it hurts him as well. The soundtrack is largely made up on Frenhofer’s pen on canvas, sketching out various drafts, sketches, ideas on the page, which we see come together, and just as often discarded. It’s one of the secrets of the movie that we don’t really see the painting at the end of the film come together – so much as all the rough drafts – all the things that are not the painting.
Frenhofer is played by the late, great Michel Piccoli, in one of his finest performances. He is stubborn, he is demanding. Somewhere deep down, he knows what he wants – he just has to get there. Beart is his match in every way. She poses, she sulks, she pushes when he pulls, etc. Because she is so much younger than Piccoli, and so stunningly beautiful, we suspect that perhaps we’ll get one of those lame stories about an aging male artist seducing his young muse. But that isn’t this story. Frenhofer doesn’t ever try and seduce Marianne at all. The only time he touches her, is to pose her differently. Jane Birkin is also wonderful as his wife – who knows this won’t turn sexual in any way – but still feels like a kind of betrayal.
Perhaps all of this sounds boring – I know that I certainly worried that I would be bored by the movie when I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay about the film. But it isn’t. It’s entrancing. Most movies about painters are boring – they either don’t understand what drives painters, or probably more accurately, have no way of capturing it on film. They concentrate on the troubled lives of great painters – the sex, the alcohol, the drugs, the mental illness, etc. – all of which is far more cinematic than the process of sitting in front of a blank canvas and creating something.
But that’s the secret to Rivette’s film. We only know a little about Frenhofer’s life – even less about Marianne’s. And yet, somehow, throughout the process of the film we learn all we need to learn about them both. It’s a quietly remarkable film – not quite like anything else. Yes, it needs to be four hours long. Rivette, undoubtedly knowing that most theaters wouldn’t play a four-hour film, did recut a 125-minute version for international release in 1991 – but I can think of no reason to watch it. Yes, you may know what “happens” in the film by watching the shorter version, but you cannot possibly understand what it means. How it feels to create – to feel that irrepressible urge to create, and the process you go through to do that. That’s far more important than the end result – which is precisely why we see about 180-minutes of Frenhofer and Marianne locked in the creative process, and only fleeting moments looking at the end result.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Classic Movie Review: Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974)

Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) 
Directed by: Jacques Rivette.
Written by: Juliet Berto and Dominique Labourier and Bulle Ogier and Marie-France Pisier and Jacques Rivette and Eduardo de Gregorio based on stories by Henry James.
Starring: Juliet Berto (Celine), Dominique Labourier (Julie), Bulle Ogier (Camille), Marie-France Pisier (Sophie), Barbet Schroeder (Olivier), Nathalie Asnar (Madlyn), Marie-Thérèse Saussure (Poupie), Philippe Clévenot (Guilou), Anne Zamire (Lil), Jean Douchet (M'sieur Dede), Adèle Taffetas (Alice), Monique Clément (Myrtille), Jérôme Richard (Julien), Michael Graham (Boris), Jean-Marie Sénia (Cyrille). 
French New Wave director Jacques Rivette in general, and his 1974 masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating specifically, has long been my biggest cinematic blindspot when I looked at the acknowledged masters. It’s been that way for more than a decade – which is when I finally delved into the works of Soviet master Andrei Tarkovsky. I wanted to see Rivette films – but I didn’t want to do it until I could see Celine and Julie – widely regarded as his best film – and that was impossible to do (at least legally). So I waited – I didn’t see his other films, and wait until I could finally see this one. When it hit the Criterion Channel, I decided the time was right. Before watching Celine and Julie – I watched two earlier Rivette films of the Channel (Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun) – and quite liked them both. Then claim Celine and Julie Go Boating – a film that days later, I’m still trying to wrap my head around.
Those expecting a plot in the film will inevitably end up disappointed. This is a long film – 193 minutes – and it loops around and around, playing with story, with character, with theater, with narrative construction. It’s film inspired by Alice in Wonderland, and like the two main characters, an audience member has to be willing to go down the rabbit hole, unsure of what they will find there, to get the most out of the film.
It begins with the two of them playing a game together. Julie (Dominique Labourier) sits on a park bench, reading a novel, when Celine (Juliet Berto) walks by, dropping her sunglasses and scarf. Julie picks them up and pursues Celine, unsure of what to do when she inevitably catches up to her. Eventually the two become friends, and their identities blur in some ways. Celine pretends to be Julie when meeting up with an old friend of Julie’s, and rebuffing his sexual advances. Julie pretends to be Celine, and goes on her audition for a travelling magic show, tanking the audition. And all of this is even before they come across a strange house, and enter it – and see an entirely different narrative playing out in front of them – that will eventually lead to murder. The pair of them take turns entering the house, and taking on various roles within it. Eventually, they don’t even need to enter the house at all to be part of the narrative.
Whatever lines there are between reality and fantasy – dreams and waking life, are never really made clear. You can easily see why the film is often cited as a major influence on David Lynch – and more recently on Chinese filmmaker Bi Gan (Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Kaili Blues). Rivette invites us into this world, and then lets us determine what precisely is going on.
Celine and Julie Go Boating is certainly a collaborative film. The two stars are credited as co-writers of the movie, and they come to their characters organically. The film allows them the time and space to be precisely who they are – there is a naturalism in their performances that feels real, no matter where the movie spins out. It’s hard to say just what Rivette and company are ultimately doing here. The film can resemble something like Daisies – Vera Chytilova’s feminist film about two women trapped in the patriarchal system, but having fun while there (while still being angry). And you get a sense of that here as well. Celine and Julie seem like free spirits – drifting through their lives, having fun. But there is something darker running beneath the surface. Why do the pair of them so want to escape? What are they escaping from? Lynch usually gives us a glimpse of that nightmare, but Rivette doesn’t – not really. His film is more playful than that, and is right up until the ambiguous last shot (which gives the movie its title) – as all of the main character are adrift down the river.
Celine and Julie Go Boating has never been an easy film to see – so if you are inclined, you should watch it now before it disappears from the Criterion Channel, and perhaps, from legal viewing again for who knows how long. It’s a haunting mystery of a film – not a puzzle box, as I don’t think Rivette is very interested in having you put together all the pieces (that’s a mistake many make with Lynch as well – thinking that there is a grand solution that only they can figure out)- but a film to get lost in – and drift right down that river with its two leads. It was worth the wait.