Saturday, April 23, 2011

An Appreciation: Elaine May

There was little room for women in the new brat pack of the 70's. Either marginalized to the independent fringes such as Barbara Loden or encapsulated within international cinema in the likes of Line Wertmuller or Agnes Varda, the machismo-enraged ticket buyers were interested in large, deadly sharks or casting a fresh eye on the mean streets of New York. But there was another director who produced three stunning films in a five year creative burst amongst the boys. Elaine May. Coming to the silver screen by way of Broadway (and with ex-comedy partner/writer Mike Nichols on her roster of good friends), May never quite got the respect she deserves.... in my opinion at least.

Her initial film, "A New Leaf", which she also wrote, was released in 1971 to good reviews but little box office. Watching it today, not only does it crystallize May's unique ability to write witty (and hilarious) dialogue, but it begins her fascination with the simple interaction between two divergent souls... a theme that will be explored in all her films. Starring Walter Mattheau as a bankrupt New York playboy forced to marry the clumsy and nerdy Henrietta (May in a supporting role) for her money, "A New Leaf" avoids the trappings of its sitcom set-up that many films might have fallen into through its innocent, gleeful and almost Chaplin-esque qualities. Look no further than the awkward meeting of playboy Graham and Henrietta. Comparing it to most comedies of the last 40 years, not only is "A New Leaf" a terrific and tone-perfect debut, but still funny as hell.

In 1972, May directed her second film entitled "The Heartbreak Kid"- which I personally consider her very best. Despite the terminally awful remake by the Farrelly Brothers a few years ago, which fails to capture the supreme awkwardness or humanity of the original, May's film remains an accurate-feeling thermometer of the times. Charles Grodin stars as Lenny Cantrow, newly married to Lila (Jeannie Berlin) and on vacation in Miami for their honeymoon when he meets the much younger and attractive Kelly (a stunning Cybil Shepherd). Growing increasingly addicted to Kelly's beauty Lenny begins to make drastic choices. "The Heartbreak Kid" is a comedy... just a very dark and unsettling one. Inharmonious matrimony and the idea of separating from the stable life established by their 1950's parents, early 70's cinema bore this unrest like a badge of honor. From Cassavetes in "Husbands" to Ingmar Bergman's scathing examination of a marriage on the brink in "Scenes From a Marriage", "The Heartbreak Kid" feels right at home with this malaise, albeit with a smirk and whimper rather than existential guilt. The scene in a seafood restaurant when Lenny tries to announce his feelings about his new found young love goes on for what feels like forever, leaving Lila a crying, miserable mess and the fellow onlookers forced to confront this couple's apocalypse with them. It's a moment alternatively sad and side-splitting funny, with Lenny desperately attempting to talk his way out of it (as he's done most of the movie) and Lila, crying, gasping for air as if she's been gut punched. And in all honesty, May's film does create the alternate life of Lenny and beautiful young Kelly as something more healthy and satisfying. But even then, like her ex-partner's generation-setting masterpiece "The Graduate" 3 years earlier, "The Heartbreak Kid" ends on a resoundingly depressing note for a comedy even after Lenny succeeds in his goal. While "The Heartbreak Kid" does surpass the expectations of a great (if uncomfortable) comedy, it also features some indelible image making, such as the first appearance of Cybil Shepherd, with her face blocking out the sun of a relaxing Lenny on the beach, which in and of itself deserves to be regarded as one of the finest entrances in screen history.

In 1976, May wrote and directed "Mikey and Nicky", a modest drama starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. Filmed mostly on location in New York, the film remains May's most potent examination of friendship soured by external forces. Cassavetes plays Nicky, a low rent member of a crime organization holed up for some oblique act he committed against the boss. His best friend, Nicky (Peter Falk) is tasked to murder Mikey. The two men spend a nervous night and morning together as the questions of will he or won't he continue to surface. Played in long takes and full of awkward stammering and the usual Cassavtes-like improv set pieces filled with booze and nervous laughter, "Mikey and Nicky" infuses every moment with bustling New York life and congested street noise. It's certainly May's most visually aggressive film, and one where the subject matter seems to lend confidence, such as a tension-filled scene in a diner where we carefully wait for a payphone to ring. The parlay between Falk and Cassavetes grows stronger as the psychological games mount. Fitting comfortably in neither the crime genre or the buddy movie, "Micky and Nicky" is truly an effort that defies categorization.

Then there was "Ishtar". Released in 1987 at a staggering budget for a comedy, amidst rumors of director and star discontent and unanimously negative reviews, it's a film that basically killed May's career behind the camera. Starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as lounge singers who embark on a circuit tour in Morocco and end up being mistaken for CIA operatives, the film's out of proportion legend far proceeds its actual merit. All of that to say it's not a terrible film, consistently funny and completely indicative of the 1980's buddy comedies of Akroyd, Chase and Murphy. One of the biggest laughs I can remember having at the film is its typical Elaine May conversation that skewers both politics and the almighty dollar. While being 'recruited' in Morocco by CIA officer Charles Grodin, he lures Hoffman with the line of... "we'll pay you 150 dollars a week"... Hoffman- "really?" Grodin- "sure, I mean you can't really put a price on democracy". Then there's the blind camel scene that plays like a another reference to Chaplin... and Hoffman's impersonation of an Arabic auctioneer in the desert... jokes and scenes that feel like rocket science compared to the gross out humor and juvenile antics of current comedies. "Ishtar" certainly doesn't deserve the banishment it's refined in certain circles today, and its a supreme shame that May has never rebounded from the personal and bureaucratic offenses stirred up by the film. She's much too talented to be sitting in the wings. Now, if we could only get a few of these films available on DVD, maybe the retrospective appreciation could begin.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On Hanna

There's no doubt that director Joe Wright loves all that's technically dazzling when it comes to camera movements. The much talked about tracking shot in his 2007 film "Atonement" is self indulgent, yet my heart still races when I realize I'm in the midst of a specially arranged tracking shot that dares to visualize certain narrative points in unique and challenging ways. While there's not quite the length of this shot anywhere in his latest film, "Hanna", Wright does showcase several technical moments of brilliance in a film that otherwise feels remote.

Starring the young Sairose Ronan- who has quickly amassed a few roles that pose her as an energetic new talent on the brink of something great- "Hanna" sets up the premise that she is a fresh-faced killing machine, trained in the wilderness by her ex-CIA father (Eric Bana) and chased relentlessly by government figure head Cate Blanchett. The moment young Hanna is captured and her innate ability to run, survive and shoot weapons becomes imminent, "Hanna" turns into an eye-catching, post-punk fast and furious romp across downright weird locales bracketed against the techno thumpings of The Chemical Brothers. If nothing else, "Hanna" feels like a modern revenge grrl fantasy, filled with innovative cinematography (by the great Alwin Kulcher) and jaw-dropping set pieces.... such as the image of the very evil Cate Blanchett emerging, literally, from a giant wolf's mouth in an abandoned amusement park. Thrown into the mix is Ronan's dough-eyed connection with the outside world and a friendship with a fellow teenager (Jessica Barden) that quietly slows down the middle section of the film into an offbeat coming of age tale. But its not long before director Wright re-emerges with bullets, sadistic German bounty hunters and lots and lots of running.

Ultimately, I'm split on "Hanna". One side of me wants to celebrate the uniqueness of the film through Wright's esoteric style of filmmaking... such as the long handheld shot of Eric Bana through a bus station, down an elevator and into an underground parking garage where a quick fight ensues with a half dozen agents wanting to bring him in. There's yet another scene early in the film that explores some of Hanna's background, where a handheld tracking shot slowly follows Blanchett's fatal walk up to a burning car. While I loved every second of the anticipation of what was to come, I could hear the grumbling in front of me of "hurry up already". Clearly, parts of "Hanna" are not for mass consumption... and that alone should be enough to recommend. But there's never really a solid connection established for Hanna as a person. It's all surface, neon lights and, at times, MTV-video style ediitng... all aspects of modern film that don't quite lend themselves to strong character interaction. "Hanna" is a noble effort, but not quite. For me, that's the most frustrating thing about 2011 so far and the number of "almost greats" and "not quites".

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Alphabet Meme

An interesting idea.. and an experiment that tests ones recollection for movie titles at the drop of a hat, but fun nonetheless. Started by the terrific Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog, this meme asks that each participant list their favorite (or random) movie titles alphabetically. There are all types of diversions, so be sure to click on the participants and discover some great movies. So, without further adieu, here's my very 70's edition:

A is for All the President's Men because no other film justifies the idea of truth being in the details... and I hold my breath to this day everytime Pakula films someone simply dialing a phone.

B is for Badlands because the sweet innocence between Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen still impresses today. And you know, its Malick.

C is for Cemetery Without Crosses, one of the best non Sergio Leone revenge westerns of the late 60's and early 70's..

D is for Day of the Jackal, another riveting 70's police procedural that boasts an international cast and flawless storytelling.

E is for The Exorcist because one its a great film, meticulously framed and edited and two, its damn hard to come up with any other "e" titles of the 70's.

F is for Un Flic, aka "Dirty Money", and the great Jean Pierre Melville's final film about a bank robbery that tailors his penchant for doomed criminals and fatalistic hues. And I'm sorry, but no one films guys in trench coats walking around quite like Melville.

G is for Get Carter because the British are just ballsy about their lone-man-on-a-revenge-spree movies. And Michale Caine is Carter!

H is for Husbands because you know at least one Cassavetes film has to make its way onto this list and for that 30 minute diner scene that runs uncomfortably long like only Cassavetes can orchestrate. In his films, dinners are often like slasher films.

I is for Idaho Transfer. Once available on DVD but now sadly OOP, Peter Fonda's hugely under appreciated time travel movie is definitely a relic of the early 70's, with hippie students playing with time and creating some drastic consequences. Look for it.

J is for Junior Bonner because not only is Steve McQueen a majestic bad ass, but this is probably my favorite Peckinpah film.

K is for The Kremlin Letter. This fun, convoluted spy thriller saw venerable director John Huston move into the 70's (for my money, his most creative period) with a bang. Hard to find, but it does air on cable sometimes and well worth the DVR set.

L is for The Last Picture Show. So many great L titles I could have chosen here, but I have to go with my fav in "The Last Picture Show" because, 40 years on, this film still inhabits the Texas landscape like no other and so closely nails the feelings, moods and whims of the state I call home.

M is for The Master Touch, a well plotted, brilliant heist film that tackles that age old theme of the 'old criminal and his one last job'. Kirk Douglas, doing what many aging film actors did in the 70's, stars in this Italian production of that great genre known as Euro-crime and succeeds with dazzling results. Available on a bare-bones DVD so Netflix it now.

N is for The Nickel Ride, another seemingly forgotten, modest mid 70's character study about a wheeling and dealing neighborhood crime boss trying to hold onto his sanity as modern progress and personal upheavel threaten to override his lifestyle. Jason Miller is terrific and the film darts in several directions that are shocking.

O is for The Odessa File, Jon Voight's best film, directed by the workmanlike (and recently deceased) Ronald Neame that dares to place Nazi hunting into the mainstream.

P is for The Passenger, a thriller like no other, helmed by auteur Michealangelo Antonioni and infused with that sublime paranoia rampant in 70's cinema, made all the more quizzical through Antonioni's methodical avant garde gaze.

Q is for Quintet. Robert Altman's most misunderstood effort? Probably, and not near as bad as everyone claims. In fact, the re-emergence of cold, clinical sci-fi films like "Code 46", "Gattaca" and "The Island" probably owe this film a huge debt.

R is for Return From Witch Mountain, which not only remains one of my very favorite films as a kid, but the one that got me hopelessly attracted to Kim Richards and made me pay to go see movies like "Tuff Turf".

S is for Smile because a re-watch lately makes me think Michael Ritchie's panaromic view of mid 70's California against the backdrop of a beauty contest just might be better than "Nashville". Discuss.

T is for Three Days of the Condor. More trend setting paranoia from the 70's.... can't possibly leave this one off the list.

U is for Up In Smoke. On a Saturday night at 2am, watch this and see if you don't laugh until it hurts.

V is for Vanishing Point. Like the title, somewhere along the half way point, this film becomes something else besides a chase movie. Only in the 70's could artists take something as mundane as muscle cars and transform them into a mythical quest across the cosmos.

W is for Wedding In Blood, Claude Chabrol's deeply moving tale of infidelity dwarfs anything else he made in the 70's. Enigmatic at times, the title alone should tell one this is an alienating study, but well worth the effort to track down and see.

Y is for The Yakuza because Mitchum, like Kirk Douglas earlier, travels to Japan and kicks ass in some great Euro-crime. Sydney Pollack behind the camera doesn't hurt either.

Z is for Zombie, one of those illogically edited and filmed Lucio Fulci splatter fests that always brings a smile to my face when I watch it.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Random Thoughts

First off... new television. I'm not sure how I got turned onto AMC's new show "The Killing". I rarely watch AMC for their butchering of classic movies with commercials. Maybe it was advertised on the last season of "Breaking Bad" I watched on DVD. Regardless, a fantastic show after just two episodes. The choice of basing its harrowing and sad tale of a pretty 17 year old girl's murder in dreary Seattle is somehow fitting and takes the atmosphere to a whole new level. Lead actress Mireille Enos perfectly portrays a female detective drawn back into the murder on her last day before retiring and starting a new life in San Francisco. The faces she makes when her new partner makes the family a promise to find the killer.... the tired way in which she questions a witness... the lackadaisical strut in which she carries herself establish the character as a new spin on old genre tropes. Set the DVR's.

New music. Two old dogs have resurfaced to make some new noise. First, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr fame just released a blistering solo album that combines melancholy acoustic numbers mixed in with his heavier trademark slurred guitar. Admittedly, Mascis really always was Dinosaur Jr. so any new work from him makes me very happy.

Unlike Dinosaur Jr, its debatable whether Thurston Moore was the singular driving force behind Sonic Youth's wall of sound. His latest solo album entitled "Demolished Thoughts", due to be released in May, knocked me over with the first song introduced last week. I can't wait for this one.

And finally, RIP to the great Sidney Lumet. I'm extremely glad I completed a retrospective of his work a few years ago. He will be missed on the cinematic landscape.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Current capsules

Source Code

No sophomore slump for director Duncan Jones. His latest film, the Jake Gyllenhaal/Michelle Monaghan starring sci-fi thriller is even better than is debut film “Moon”. Never straying far from the emotional connection of his main characters (which always lends the loopy sci-fi genre a welcome sense of identification), the film works so well as a thriller because I actually wanted this couple on a bomb-laden train to survive. Through a series of recurring events timed to 8 minutes, Gyllenhaal is the root of a government experiment sending him back in time (or memory rather) to uncover the source of a terrorist attack on a tram outside Chicago. Redundant, of course, as he relives the same eight minutes of time over and over but never boring, director Jones emphasizes each segment with an exciting new perspective. Upping the ante is Gyllenhaal’s human nature curiosity to figure out why he’s involved with this experiment in the first place. All of this comes together in a taut… and even sweet… mind bending finale.


Dissonant piano chords… a bleached out, flat visual style…. And a title card that literally jumps off the screen with aggression… James Wan’s “Insidious” starts out as a slow burn horror movie and evolves into something pretty disturbing. The moments early on- involving the ominous use of a baby monitor and the horrific sounding voice it picks up- more than make “Insidious” an enjoyable haunted house story for people wanting to jump a bit. And then, when Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell begin to explore ideas of astral projection, demon channeling and dream walks into hell in the second half, “Insidious” becomes something altogether terrifying. I give the filmmakers credit for not playing it safe. This is not the usual horror movie and (thankfully) a huge departure for Wan and Wannell with their “Saw” franchise, completely devoid of blood and gore. In the final 30 minutes, “Insidious” travels to some insane places and I found it genuinely unsettling, much like Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses”. Both films use the standard genre to spin their own macabre tales replete with odd images and unique editing styles that propel shadowy craziness into new heights. A new midnight cult classic for sure and one of the first great viewing experiences of 2011.

Certified Copy

Abbas Kiarostami’s “Certified Copy” continues on his penchant for meta-cinema of the highest order. Alongside his great 1991 film “Close Up”- which dared to mix up cinema, voyeurism and documentary with head spinning acuity- “Certified Copy” follows a couple, writer James (William Shimell) and antique dealer Elle (Juliette Bincohe) as they (possibly) first meet and then spend the day together playacting a relationship with both themselves and strangers in the sunny Italian countryside. Trying to decipher whether their relationship truly is real or not (which the beginning gives hints to both sides of the coin) seems inconsequential. “Certified Copy” is Kiarostami inverting the meet-cute romance genre into a war of words, body language and imagination. Binoche is simply brilliant here, running the gamut of emotions with ease.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

70's Bonanza: Sitting Target

Douglas Hickox's 1972 crime film, "Sitting Target" begins as a prison break-out film before turning into a revenge thriller of the highest possible order... and all of it is very angry. Starring Oliver Reed as Harry Lomart, a British thug sent to prison, the opening moments see him sitting down for a visitation from his lovely wife (Jill St John), who proceeds to tell him that even though she's pregnant, she'll be divorcing him and marrying another man. Lomart proceeds to punch his way through the glass and unsuccessfully strangle his wife. Thrown in the hole for 30 days, Lomart has plenty of time to think of the devious ways he'll make his wife pay for her unwillingness to wait for him. Alongside partner in crime Birdy (a very young Ian McShane) Lomart makes his break from prison in a taut sequence of wall climbing and barb-wire vaulting into the free world. From there, "Sitting Target" becomes a meticulous pattern of tracking down old cohorts, procuring weapons and carrying out their plan of revenge.

Director Hickox (a personal favorite auteur for Quentin Tarantino) frames "Sitting Target" in visually aggressive ways. In prison, the main characters are represented by stilted angles behind bars. On the outside, one of the main sets is an apartment where Birdy and Harry corner and trap the girlfriend of an old cohort. There are rumblings of past deceptions amongst the band of thieves and Lomart and Birdy menacingly wait for their old partner to return home. In an apartment full of mirrors on the doors and ceiling, "Sitting Target" becomes a paranoid longueur as they flirt with the cornered girlfriend and (eventually) take advantage of her.

But it's not long before the burning desire of Lomart takes control and "Sitting Target" gets down to the nitty-gritty of its central revenge idea. Of course, this is the 70's (and British no less) and "Sitting Target" spins into a nihilistic and especially violent denouement. If nothing else, the film is worth seeing for Oliver Reed's determined performance that will almost turn your stomach for his single minded obsession for payback. Made immediately after Ken Russell's maniacle epic "The Devils", one can't say Reed wasn't pushing the boundaries of stardom.