Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The characters in Ironweed weren’t always without hope. Each of them once had the world at their feet, but let it slip away. Now it’s gone, and it is never coming back. Hector Babenco’s 1987 film of William Kennedy's novel is the story of a man awash in guilt, sadness and self-loathing, who travels back to the source of all his pain.
Francis Phelan (Jack Nicholson) first appears awakening from beneath a blanket of newspapers on a cold, blustery morning. Francis is a bum, and the film quickly assures us that he has been one for some time. Riding with his buddy Rudy (Tom Waits) to a job digging graves, we start to realize that Francis is back in his hometown of Albany for the first time in many years. It’s here in this cemetery that Phelan starts to shed a little light into his past. He walks past the graves of his parents, and stops at one belonging to his infant son Gerald. Gerald was only 13 days old when Francis accidently dropped him on the floor, killing him instantly. Unable to forgive himself, Francis left home and disappeared into a miasma of alcoholism and poverty.
Phelan’s companion Helen Archer (Meryl Streep) has her own history. She was once a promising classically trained singer and pianist until her own problems with the bottle derailed her. She has been with Francis for nine years, but still thinks of herself as a musician. This despite the fact that she is forced to have sex with another bum in exchange for a warm place to sleep.
The genius of Ironwood is the way it encases these two shattered people in a world which largely excludes non-alcoholic, non-vagrant people. In this way, when the two do come into contact with the outside world, the effect is disconcerting. When their own plight is reflected back to them, the two bums have to shrink from sight.
Take a scene where Francis takes a job helping a rag-picker man doing his rounds. At one stop, Francis sees a woman that he knew as a child. Feeling shamed and self-conscious, he asks not to have to confront her. A similar scene involves Helen meeting a former acquaintance in a library. Her self-loathing is palpable here, as she can’t get up and leave fast enough, muttering about past injustices all the while.
Both Francis and Helen are deep in the throes of alcoholism and the film takes a little bit of time in illustrating just how far gone they are. One of the signature scenes in Ironwood is when Helen is asked to sing in a pub, and she does a rendition of “He’s Me Pal”. As she progresses through the song, it becomes clear that she has entered a hallucination of herself as a great artist, and the song ends to thunderous applause. Then, it doubles back to reality, and we see the truth – A couple of polite claps.
Francis’ alcoholism is built upon the pillars of the tragic mistakes he has made in his life. Growing up in Albany, New York at the turn of the century, Phelan seemed to have a bright future. He was a skilled baseball player who seemed destined for the big leagues. An Albany trolley strike gets violent, however, and Francis kills a man with a thrown rock. Another man is killed in self-defence on a freight train. Francis is confronted time and time again by the ghosts of these men, plus one other unnamed one. And we already can surmise who the other ghost is. Francis lashes out at these ghosts, and appears as a madman to onlookers.
Ironweed was filmed in and around the Albany area, and a big part of the appeal of the film is how authentically it re-creates 1938 America. The film doesn’t have the look of a pristine copy – rather, it has the look of a place that has been there a long time. It evokes the feel of going back to a place where you haven’t been for a long time. Things all look a bit weathered and run down. There’s a marvelous scene where Francis recalls an affair he had with a beautiful, sophisticated, but insane woman in his youth, and it’s utterly flawless partly because of the obvious decay of the once stately old house.
The moment that the film builds towards is the time when Francis goes to confront his family again after being gone for 22 years. It circles around it a bit first - Francis points the house out at one point. When the time finally comes, the film doesn’t deal in false sentimentality. It’s somber in the way that it illustrates people who don’t know how to begin talking to each other. Francis’ wife Annie (Carroll Baker) is cautious, but is also clearly happy to see him. His daughter Peggy (Diane Verona) is hostile at first, but softens. The key encounter here, however, is with Peggy’s son Danny. He talks to Danny, and gives him an old baseball that he had saved, and it’s evident that in this child, Francis probably sees a bit of what he has missed in all those years away. It’s an exquisite scene, full of regret and melancholy.
The final conversation between Francis and Annie is poignant, but sadly predictable. Annie still loves Francis, despite everything. She forgave him for Gerald, and in fact never told anyone what happened. She even strongly suggests that she would like him to stay. Francis, for his part knows that that isn’t in the cards. This reunion with his family has been somewhat cathartic for him, but he can’t allow himself to go back. Others may forgive him, but he never will. As the film closes, Francis is in yet another freight train, leaving Albany behind him, probably forever this time. The camera goes back and shows Danny’s room, as it was shown to Francis earlier, and we hear Annie’s voice again:
“It’s a nice big room – We could set up a cot in there”
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
14 Hours – 1951 drama from Henry Hathaway concerns the efforts of New York police to talk a suicidal man (Richard Basehart) off a ledge. Paul Douglas plays a traffic cop who is first on the scene, and develops a relationship with the man. I look at this film as an interesting opportunity that was wasted. The premise is interesting, and I was most involved when crowds started to gather to watch, including a group of cab drivers who start a jump pool. My thought was that this would have worked well as a social satire, a la Ace in the Hole. The film falters for me when it concerns itself with sidebar stories of spectators, like a woman (a pre-stardom Grace Kelly) in a meeting with her divorce lawyer, or a cute young couple (Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter) who meet in the crowd. As well, 14 Hours wears out its welcome a bit. After a while, we know the guy is not going to jump, and we start to want to get on with it. In sum, this is just an OK movie.
The Most Beautiful – Interesting early effort (1944) from the great Akira Kurosawa. This film, which was financed by the Japanese Navy, focuses on a group of women working in a factory making lenses for scopes. This is probably the most “Japanese” film I have seen out of Kurosawa, as it spends a lot of time illustrating the concept of duty before self. Not a great film, but worth a look as a slice of war-time propaganda filmmaking.
They Made Me a Criminal – John Garfield plays a fighter who has to go on the run after a reporter is murdered and all evidence points to him. Claude Rains plays a detective on his tail, and Gloria Dickson is the operator of an Arizona date farm/reform school where Garfield ends up. This one should have been better than the finished product. The 3 leads are all good, but the film suffers for the inclusion of the Dead End Kids as the young delinquents of the farm. They spend a lot of time onscreen, and I got tired of their ongoing “Why, I oughtas” and “Wise guy, eh’s”. I also wanted more of Rains, a former hot-shot detective whose career was derailed when he sent the wrong man to the chair. The romance between Garfield and Dickson is a bit of a head-scratcher, too. He lies to her throughout the movie, and there isn’t really any reason she should fall for him. Not really recommended.
Monday, November 18, 2013
The Line-Up – Above-average police procedural from 1958 from Don Siegel. Eli Wallach is a killer/smuggler trying to recover a cache of heroin, and leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. A couple of veteran San Francisco detectives (Marshall Reed and Emile Meyer) are hot on his tail. Like most of Seigel’s work, this one is told without fluff or pretense – It’s just good, straight-ahead storytelling. The film makes terrific use of the SF locale with some great location shots, and culminates in a scintillating car chase on an unfinished highway overpass. Recommended.
Moontide – Apart from a cool title, there’s not too much to recommend about this 1942 Noir-ish entry from director Archie Mayo (who replaced Fritz Lang at the helm). The great Jean Gabin made his Hollywood debut as a party-loving drifter who may or may not have committed a murder during a drunken binge. Ida Lupino plays a girl he rescues from a suicide attempt and falls in love with. The film has an interesting premise, but unfortunately doesn’t do much with it. The actual murderer is fairly obvious to anyone who applies Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, and after her life is saved, the film forgets that Lupinos character was ever suicidal. Gabin is OK, and the films’ climax on a windswept breakwater is nicely shot, but overall, this one is a no.
Eva – Cool and cruel 1962 drama from the great Joseph Losey. Stanley Baker plays a caddish writer who treats everyone he meets with distain, all the while carrying a shattering secret. Jeanne Moreau plays a high end prostitute who he becomes obsessed with. This one is interesting for the strange chess game between the two leads. Bakers Tyvian is engaged to a beautiful, successful woman who worships him, but is strangely drawn to the coldly sensual Eva, who treats him with distain. There is an undercurrent of self-flagellation in Tyvian's character, who is secretly a fraud. He seems to subject himself to Eva’s abuses willingly, seemingly as some sort of penance. Not an easy film to warm to, but worth the effort if you stick with it. Recommended.
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Saturday, September 28, 2013
Le Chinois – Godards 1967 examination of a group of idealistic young Marxists. Godard is usually a mixed bag for me. I admire the way he just goes ball-to-the-wall, and how he is unafraid to bend the rules of narrative form until they scream. In his best films, which for me are Week-end and Pierrot Le Fou, he is able to marry his maverick story-telling to a more or less conventional plot, and it works. Other times, his cleverness gets in the way, and that is the case too often here. The first half of the film takes place primarily in an apartment shared by the Marxists, and it is formless and pretty impenetrable, as the characters spout socio-political mush at each other. There are some better spots, primarily an extended dialogue aboard a moving train, but overall, this is a miss for me.
Le Bandanas – This 1935 offering from Julian Duvuvier was a nice surprise. Jean Gabin plays a man who kills another man, and is forced to go on the lam. He joins the Spanish Foreign Legion, but finds himself pursued by another soldier, who happens to be an undercover cop. Gabin is terrific as a man who struggles with personal demons. Recommended.
The Makioka Sisters – Kon Ichikawa is probably my favorite of the great Japanese directors, and this 1983 offering is worlds away from his best known offerings like Fires on the Plain or The Burmese Harp. This centers on four sisters of a wealthy Osaka family, and the issues they face as Japan teeters on the brink of societal changes just prior to WWII. Two of the sisters are older and more traditional. The fourth one is a free spirit who sees no need to confirm to the status quo. The third one is causing headaches for the rest of the family because she is not interested in any of the potential husbands the family is lining up for her. Sisters is brilliant in the way that it uses this family as a microcosm of Japan – How the established, older ways are now being challenged, and that the country is going through something that will change it forever. The period sets and costumes are stunning, and I highly recommend this.
Zero Focus – A brilliant little Japanese film that I knew nothing about. A young bride has her new husband go off on a business trip and disappear off the face of the earth. The film follows her quest to find out what happened, and in the process she discovers that the husband had a second, secret life. Focus is quietly relentless, and it slowly peels back the layers of this story. Mush of the film is set against a wintry, harsh mountainside, and this adds to the feeling of frustration and melancholy. The conclusion, set on a windy precipice, is first rate. Recommended.
Vertigo – I try to never let too much time go by without a Hitchcock, so I had to check this one out again. This time around, I concentrated more on Kim Novaks’ Madelaine/Judy, and the tragic secret she is keeping from James Stewart. Novak was not a great actress, but I found myself feeling a great empathy for this character. This is such a complex role – Certainly the most complex female character Hitch ever put on screen, and she does a pretty good job with it. There is one scene that struck me this time. After Stewarts Johnny has forced her to make herself over, they dance together, and it’s striking how cold and unaffectionate he is with her. For Johnny, the idea of Madelaine is more powerful than the actual woman.
Sunday, September 01, 2013
Thursday, August 29, 2013
The Movie – Amadeus, dir. Milos Forman
The Set-Up – Mozart (Tom Hulce) lies dying, while the man responsible, Salieri (F.Murray Abraham) helps him finish his Requiem.
Amadeus is the story of one horribly conflicted man. Salieri loves music, and has given his life to it, but is shamed and angered by the loose cannon genius that is Mozart. So much so that he vows to destroy him. The rub is that Salieri loves Mozart’s music, and is really the only one who realizes that he is hearing something truly transcendent. All these emotions come together in this great sequence. Salieri hopes to be credited as a co-author on Mozarts last work, so his motives are dishonorable, but he is also exhilarated by being up close to Mozart creative process. Look how obediently he hands over the written pages when asked. My favorite part of this scene, however, is when Salieri has to ask Mozart to slow down. Even near death, the music is just flowing out of him. At one point Salieri puts his head in his hands because he can’t fathom what Mozart is trying to explain to him. It think it is right in this moment that Salieri really, really grasps that Mozart is a special being. This clip is unfortunately cut off before the end, but when Salieri finally tells Mozart, “You are the greatest composer I have known”, it’s the final straw. It isn’t hard to imagine that that moment is the one that really sends Salieri on his way to an asylum.
Saturday, August 03, 2013
Thursday, August 01, 2013
Cat People and The Curse of the Cat People – First time seeing these. Cat People was a real little treat – A bargain-basement horror film that should be a primer on how to create fright on-screen. Director Jacques Tourneur had virtually no money to work with, but by expertly using light, shadow, and eerie sound effects, he managed to create a truly frightening film. The story concerns a mysterious woman (Simone Simon) who believes that she carries a curse that will turn her into a vicious panther if she becomes aroused. This, predictably, causes problems when she marries a kind, decent architect (Kent Smith). Things get even more deadly when she begins to suspect that her husband is falling for one of his co-workers (Jane Randolph). Check out a scene where the co-worker is terrorized in a swimming pool. Although you see literally nothing, the scene builds an almost unbearable tension. Highly recommended.
Curse features the same cast playing the same characters, and is considered a sequel, but is a very different movie. This one follows the young daughter of the architect as she is approached by an imaginary “friend” (Simon again). There is also a relationship with a strange old woman and her frightening daughter (The daughter appears briefly in Cat People). This one is not bad, but it falls far short of the original, because the movie never quite manages to create any feeling of dread and unease. The film still has great visual appeal, but the characters don’t engage. Thus, I can’t quite recommend it.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Tuesday, July 16, 2013
Criss Cross – Simply put, this 1949 gem from Robert Siodmak is one of the greatest of all Noirs. Burt Lancaster plays a man who returns to his home and rekindles an affair with his ex-wife (a stunning Yvonne DeCarlo). Things are complicated, however, by the fact she already has a man – nasty mobster Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea). The triangle leads Lancaster to agreeing to front a risky robbery in order to get himself out of an awkward spot. Lancaster is a little bit wooden in spots, but he is wonderful in the films closing minutes, as he realizes that he’s been played like a fiddle. Highly recommended. An added note: This was remade by Steven Soderbergh in 1995 as The Underneath, and it is worth a look, as well.
Citizen Kane – I hadn’t seen this in several years, so I thought it was time for another look. The thing that always strikes me about CK is how imaginative its story-telling is. The story is non-linear, but easy to follow partly because of the use of the newsreel at the beginning to “pre-tell” the story. There’s Welles’ use of the camera – high and low angle shots, his use of light and shadow, and depth of field are still stunning to look at today. One thing that doesn’t often get mentioned about Kane is the way sound is utilized to create effect – Consider the scenes in the vast Xanadu estate, where Kane and Susan are talking across a wide expanse, and the reverb of their voices amplify the emotional space between them. There is one strange plot point that I had forgotten about – Kanes son and first wife die in a car crash, and I find it a bit odd that the movie doesn’t do anything with that point – It’s mentioned, but then forgotten. Still, recommended – If you are a movie lover, you have to see Kane.
Monday, July 08, 2013
Thursday, July 04, 2013
The Golden Coach – Sumptuous 1952 costume comedy from Jean Renoir centers on a vivacious stage performer (Anna Magnani) who disrupts a small Central American fiefdom. Magnani’s Camilla finds herself the object of the affections of 3 suitors (including the local Viceroy), and when she receives his ornate golden coach as a gift, all hell breaks loose. This is superb from the standpoint of visual impact – The sets and costumes are first-rate, but the story lagged a bit for me up until the end. A lukewarm recommendation.
Gentleman’s Agreement – Elia Kazan’s 1947 study of anti-Semitism. Gregory Peck starts as a writer who goes undercover to experience the everyday discrimination suffered by Jews. This one was kind of a mixed bag. After a while, you just go on autopilot waiting for another bigot to pop up, but I do have to admit that this film goes into a couple of places that I wouldn’t have expected, like Peck’s icy blonde secretary. She’s a Jew who has changed her name and masks a deep self-loathing. Dorothy McGuire plays Pecks love interest, and she is interesting as well, due to her well-meaning discrimination. John Garfield has a small yet vital role as Peck’s Jewish army buddy, and the highlight of the film for me was an exchange between him and McGuire towards the end where he lays out the danger of suffering in silence. A recommendation, but with a few minor caveats.