Sunday, May 22, 2011

Friday, May 20, 2011


Ralph Meeker

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

My Week of Movie Watching

The Red Shoes – Ever since my wife and I saw Black Swan, I’ve wanted to show this to her. RS is still a great film, but perhaps not for exactly the same reasons that I remember. The big pluses are the performance of Anton Walbrook as the one-minded ballet director Lementov, and the set design and choreography (especially in the great extended Red Shoes sequence). The films falters a bit, (and I stress a BIT) where it comes to the romance between Moira Shearer and Marius Goring. The two lovers don’t really get a chance to deliver any heat – The film has to tell us how in love they are, because it’s not that evident. Still, recommended.

Rabbit-Proof Fence – The true life story of two young aboriginal girls who walk 900 miles across the Australian outback after being forcibly taken from their home by Government officials. This is the story of a monumental human achievement, and for all its terrific qualities, the film doesn’t do a great job of capturing the magnitude of what these girls did. I mean, the walk took 9 weeks, and the two don’t really look the worse for wear at the end. Still, this is a good film, and a biting indictment of a shameful racist law. Peter Gabriel does the soundtrack, and it’s top notch - Its organic, ethereal, and moody. Recommended

Woodstock (Blu-Ray Directors cut) and Monterey Pop – I love Woodstock, and I try to watch it every few years or so. Putting aside what I consider the musical highlights (Richie Havens, The Who, Ten Years After, Canned Heat, Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Sly and the Family Stone and especially Santana) it is such a perfect time capsule because of the non-music. Everything that made the sixties the sixties is here - The fashion, the drugs, the attitude (“We live in a group – what you would call a commune”), and it’s to the films credit that it spends so much time on the stuff that was happening when the music wasn’t playing. I’m fascinated at how many of the characters one remembers – The Porti-San guy and the guy who pops out of the Porti-san. The girl who has lost her sister out there. The “Stay ON the grass” guy. The naked Frisbee girl. The yoga guy. Watch this if you haven’t. If you have, watch it again.

Compared to Woodstock, the Monterey Festival in 1967 was small potatoes when you look at the numbers involved (half a million versus less than 70,000), but Monterey was the template for what was to come two years later. Again, there were some terrific performances, Like The Who doing "My Generation", (and smashing the shit out of everything), Otis Redding, Janis Joplin doing "Ball and Chain", and of course Hendrix again. This was the concert where Jimi set his guitar ablaze, and my favourite shot in this film is a quick audience reaction shot right after Hendrix’ set. Instead of cheering and pandemonium, the reaction is gaping mouths and utter shock and awe. My only musical quibble is that Ravi Shankar’s set seems to go on forever, after most of the other artists only get a minute or two onscreen. It’s doesn’t compare to Woodstock in giving the viewer the sense of what the experience was like, but I still recommend it.

2012 – If you love lotsa stuff blowing up, this is for you, because basically the whole planet blows up. This one is entertainment for 16 year-old boys, I guess. The premise is that the sun starts acting up, the earths core is boiling, and we’re all gonna die. The film centres on a writer (John Cusack), and his estranged family, and how they can make their way to China to join an enormous “ark” that has been built covertly to save the earth’s best and brightest. Hollywood being Hollywood, the bad guys are US Government officials who are willing to kill anyone who endangers the plan. The same pattern happens again and again. There is a little scene where people talk to each other, and then they are interrupted by that damn apocalypse. Cusack and family somehow outrun earthquakes, meteor showers, falling buildings, you name it. Not recommended. Really, don’t bother.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Jacob's Ladder

Adrian Lynes Jacob’s Ladder is a maddening dervish of a movie. It’s dark, nervous, and soaked through with hallucinogenic angst. One could watch it through ten times in succession and still not have a grasp of what you have just seen. Despite all this, it works wonderfully as a portrait of a man’s descent into madness.

The Jacob of the title is Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins), a well-educated Viet Nam vet now working as a mailman. The film starts with a flashback back to the jungle, as Singer’s platoon is ambushed and suffers devastating losses. Singer himself is bayoneted and almost dies.

Pitch forward to the present, and Singer is now working in a post office, and living with a co-worker played by Elizabeth Pena. There are signs early on that there are some cracks in his psyche. Singer awakens from the Viet Nam flashback to find himself in an almost abandoned subway train. He asks a lady for help, and she is so silent and strange that it is frightening. That’s not the real kicker however – A cursory glance at a sleeping bum seems to reveal a tail like a serpent. These images defy logical explanation – This guy must be nuts, right?

Some more info is introduced. An old photo of Singers now-dead son Gabe (Macauley Culkin). We start to learn about his shattered marriage, and the tragic loss of this child.

A character from Singers past comes into play – A platoon-mate named Paul, who suffers from the same nightmarish visions. This starts to skew our view of what we are seeing, and when Paul’s car explodes in a ball of fire, it’s evident that there are more layers to this story.

The movie calls attention to the Biblical names of the main characters, and it’s interesting to investigate this in the context of the story. Jacob was the son of Isaac, and was known for having wrestled an Angel whilst on his way back to meet his estranged brother, Esau. The movie Jacob is wrestling, too, and a comment made by Jacob’s chiropractor (Danny Aiello) circles back to the biblical Jacob. “If you're frightened of dying and you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.”

Then there’s the case of Singers’ woman Jezebel. The name has become synonymous with deceit and treachery, and it’s not by accident that the character has this name. It is, however, a little hard to get a firm grip on Penas’ Jezebel. She’s got a streak of treachery in her, like when she incinerates Jacobs photos of his family. On the other hand, she does seem to genuinely love him, and saves his life at one point. Like I said, she’s hard to pin down.

It’s hard to gain a toehold in this film, because Lyne doesn’t ever give you a chance to reliably stand back and decide what is real. There are passages that are plainly hallucination, sure, but he doesn’t stop there. After Jacob almost dies, and is revived, he is suddenly back with his family. It would be reasonable to assume that the previous events are imagined, but then the screenplay does a sly thing – it has Jacob jokingly reference the hallucination. “You know Jezebel from the post office? I was living with her! She had these fantastic thighs..” I found this scene not reassuring, but disorienting, like I was being teased with another layer of fog.

There’s a scene where Aiello rescues Jacob from the hospital, and again, what seems like a reprise from all the madness and disorientation actually raises a lot of questions, like how did he know Jacob was there, and how does he just waltz in and take him away? I felt the film was maybe pulling a sleight of hand on me.

I’m making this movie sound like an impossible slog, aren’t I? It IS difficult, and disorienting, but it is to its’ credit that it manages to maintain its narrative drive, as Jacob plows forward in his quest to find out what is happening to him. There is a shadowy character that we have seen briefly who seems to be following Singer, and eventually, the two men meet face-to-face. It’s here, in a barren alley that the fogs lift, as Jacob learns about a hippie chemist who made a deal with the Army to stay out of jail, and how the job he was given went horribly wrong.

This final revelation seems to lift the cloak off of Singer, and as he goes back to his old home, which seems strangely preserved in time, we think back to what the chiropractor said “If you’ve made your peace, the demons are angels freeing you from the earth.”

I spoke above about the preponderance of Biblical names in JL. The one I failed to touch on was Jacobs’ dead son Gabe (or Gabriel). The Biblical Gabriel is an angel, who is considered a messenger from God. Thus, when Jacob encounters his son again in his old home, we know why the child is there. This passage is beautifully soothing after everything we have gone through with Singer, and the expression on the man’s face as his son speaks to him is absolutely perfect – It’s sadness, recognition, love, peace, fulfillment, and relief all rolled into one divine smile.

For all the misdirection and twists in this story, however, JL saves the biggest till the last. An epilogue flashes back to Viet Nam and we encounter Jacob after he has been brought to the hospital. Theories abound about what this scene means. Is it an hallucination? Is it what really happened, and everything we have seen the hallucination? I have my own theory about it. Coming immediately after Jacob has again encountered his dead son, I think that this scene is a “reboot”, where Jacob has somehow erased all the pain and paranoia of his post-war life. Just have a listen to the song playing in the background during this sequence. The singer is Al Jolson, and the song? The song is "Sonny Boy".

Sunday, May 01, 2011

The Art of Showing Nothing - An Interview with Robert Bresson

This is another interview from Charles Samuels landmark book Encountering Directors. Samuels spoke to Bresson in 1970, and the two covered most of Bressons’ work to that point in this lengthy conversation. Samuels’ discussions are notable in that he actually has the balls to tell these great filmmakers how they might have done their job better. Enjoy.

My Week of Movie Watching

This is actually a few weeks worth.

The Kings Speech – It’s like someone sat down with a “How to win an Oscar” kit and put this movie together. First of all is the lead character with the disability (Much like Rain Man, Forrest Gump, My Left Foot, etc). Add in sumptuous costumes and set designs. Add a couple of high-profile stars in Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter, and fill in with the cream of Brit character actors (Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Timothy Spall). Yeah, it’s easy to look at this film and be cynical, but I have to say I still enjoyed it. I never knew the story of King George and his stuttering, and the way that the abdication of Edward VIII is woven in is well done. Guy Pearce is terrific as the monarch who gave it all up. Recommended.

Mouchette – I always have hits and misses with the films of Robert Bresson, and this is one of the latter. The story concerns a troubled French girl, her dying mother, and her abusive father. Mouchette’s life is a hard one, and it gets worse as she suffers a rape at the hands of a man she trusts. Bressons’ protagonists are always tight-lipped, and Mouchette maybe more so that any other. The films’ heartbreaking finale will leave you grasping for answers. I sort of recommend this, but I don’t put it in the class of the great A Man Escaped, which I consider Bresson’s masterpiece.

Proof – Little-known Australian film from the early 90’s concerns Martin (Hugo Weaving), a blind man who takes photos of his everyday life and has a friend (a young Russell Crowe) describe them to him. There’s also a housekeeper (Genevieve Picot) whose relationship with Martin is a jumble of sexual attraction and calculated cruelty, and who begins a clandestine affair with Crowe. This film is low budget, and looks it, but it redeemed by stellar performances by the three leads. It’s definitely worth a look.