Monday, June 30, 2008

The War Isn't Over: Early Films of Resnais

In 1966, French director Alain Resnais released "The War Is Over", a title that could very well represent the ending of one chapter in his cinematic life and the beginning of another. Up until that point, Resnais was the purveyor of difficult French cinema that dealt explicitly with memory... and especially how the minds of his various men and women relate to the affects of World War 2 and The Algerian War, respectively. Yet Resnais' modus operandi was not to tackle the lingering effects of violence and war directly, but reflect the casual horror through his character's memory and their spatial displacement. With the exception of his debut film, the documentary "Night and Fog" which faced the genocide of the Holocaust head-on (and deserves a post of its own), Resnais' fiction efforts traced the lives of people going on after the war. In "Hiroshima, mon amour", a French actress visiting Hiroshima for a film initiates a one night stand with a local Japanese man, and while some of their time is spent with amour, most of it's spent remembering war atrocities. In "Muriel", even though the setting is Boulogne some ten years after the Algerian war has ended, a mother and her step-son are dealing with the traumatic impact of that war in diametrically opposed ways. And while "Last Year At Marienbad" shuttles the war altogether, it's still a watershed movie of images that continually challenges and confuses, as if it were pieced together by an Alzheimer's patient. Certain directors latch onto a theme and deconstruct this idea into dizzying proportions through the years. With Resnais, he worked out a lot of memory demons in just 5 years.

It's tough to be a "fan" of Resnais. From his own lips (on an interview added to the Criterion collection of "Hiroshima, mon amour") he derides the 'auteur' label and calls himself a filmmaker. Whether this is part of his coolly detached intellectual nouvelle vague image or the truth is suspect. If anything, one can only really "appreciate" his early films for breaking new ground in the way they smash linear storytelling and provide viewers with a stuttering succession of challenging images, deep-seated regret and a melding of time (past and present) that can never be trusted. The first film that tackled these themes, "Hiroshima, mon amour" starts out like any other fair-weather French love fest, then turns cold as its female lead, Elle (Emannuelle Riva) slowly breaks away from her Japanase lover (Eiji Okeda) and becomes swallowed up in her own tragic past. Unable to forget her war-time love affair with a German soldier, her presence in the shambled, bomb splattered Hiroshima city makes things even more unbearable. The visual consequences of the war are everywhere, and Resnais spends the first 25 minutes of "Hiroshima, mon amour" thoroughly presenting the viewer with images of deformed children, disfigured adults and radiation fallout. Memory and the past continually usurp the present, creating a suffocating atmosphere in an equally taxing environment.

In "Muriel", the war is still over, but its main characters are constantly trapped by the procession of loss and violence that singed their lives during two seperate periods of strife. A mother (Delphine Seyrig) impulsively writes to her lover (Jean-Pierre Keiren) and asks him to join her in Boulogne. He brings his now girlfriend along (much younger Martine Vatel) and oscillates between old memories with Seyrig and the pressing modern relationship of the younger woman. Likewise dealing with the trauma of war, the woman's son (Jean-Baptiste Thierre) has recently returned home from fighting in Algeria. Stiffling his experiences away in shoddy notebooks and an 8MM tape of friends during the war, we soon learn that, during the war, he was part of the torture and murder of a young girl known only as Muriel. Constantly pulling away from reality and the affections of a local girl in town (plus the man's younger girlfriend), the stepson is one of Resnais' most outward example of repressed rage. A time bomb waiting to go off, Thierre manages to encapsulate a performance that is haunting and touching. Interspersed among "Muriel's" somewhat commercial narrative, Resnais evokes odd jump cuts in conversation. Just when the characters begin to have dialogue that makes sense, he jumps to the end of the conversation and we see the older couple sitting in silence, unsure of the exact words but acutely aware of their body language. It can't be good. It's this stylistic muting of moods and ideas that Resnais works into every film. Infuriating for some, granted, but it makes for cinema that forces one to pay attention and constantly re-assess everything that happens. Just like his characters, Resnais places us in a distinct, shifting mindset that causes us to suspect the past and greet the future with timid acceptance. If anything, "Muriel" could be seen as an alternate universe sequel to "Hiroshima, mon amour". Perhaps the dead German soldier in Elle's life did live, and he shows up as the despondent war-time lover of the mother in "Muriel". Inexplicably linked by memory, anything is certainly possible in that imaginative state of mind.

Andrew Sarris wrote about "Hiroshima, mon amour": "when I first saw the movie in New York in 1960, its themes of loss and memory struck home with me because I was still mourning my dead brother. Now, more than a quarter of a century later, watching it on videocassette, I must confess that it is not quite as stylistically startling nor emotionally explosive as it was back in the early sixties. But it remains a landmark of world cinema in many ways". My own re-visiting of "Hiroshima, mon amour" as well as my initial viewing of "Muriel" exact some of the same sentiments. I can appreciate the filmic language established by Resnais in his early films, but there's an intellect that's hard to grasp. It's always difficult to make sense of his subliminal cutting, yet we want to feel its 'kinda revolutionary'. It's hip to like Resnais even when his films leave us cold. But what does translate through his challenging oeuvre is the inescapable attention to loss, regret and the mind's refusal to give up the past. That is certainly something we can all relate to, not matter how much we love or hate Resnais.

Friday, June 27, 2008

70's Bonanza- The Mackintosh Man

I've been watching a lot of Paul Newman lately. And we're not talking "The Sting" or "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (although those are fine films in their own right), but hidden gems like "Pocket Money" , "Fort Apache, The Bronx" and "The Drowning Pool"- films that still highlight the boyish good looks of Newman with a little gray hair thrown in for maturity. The best thing about Neman's 70's and early 80's work is his sense of haggard charm, as if every role he takes is a silhouette of a previous life. He knows the detectives and hustlers so well, there's hidden fun in his portrayals. There had always been a little dash of irony in Newman's performances, but the 70's seem to play up this charm a little more. None moreso than in 1975 when he teamed up with director John Huston to film "The Mackintosh Man". Nestled in between 70's work for hire such as "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean", acting gigs in "Chinatown", and his pitch for Academic seriousness with "The Man Who Would Be King", "The Mackintosh Man" is a straight-forward, brash effort that zigs and zags in various directions before settling into the mode of old fashioned thriller. Part prison film, part spy caper... it also features one hell of an exciting car chase through the most unlikely and exotic of places- the coastal cliffs of Ireland, complete with rock walls and all.

Part of the joy of "The Mackintosh Man" is not knowing where the film will take you- which is why I'll even shy away from a plot description. For the first 45 minutes, it plays everything close to the vest and refuses to identify the central role of Newman. Is he good guy or bad guy? What exactly is anyone's motive? Why is he trying to break out of prison? And while we're thinking through the possible options, there's Newman.... blue eyes and wry smile speaking volumes that we should just trust him and watch. Unencumbered by flashy direction (which has never really been the modus operandi of Huston as a filmmaker), "The Mackintosh Man" is not recognized as staple 70's cinema, but it quielty exemplifies the workmanlike charm of so many of its underrated counterparts. But don't let me undersell this thing. When the action does kick in and the motives of everyone involved becomes clear, it continually impresses through its mild mannered calculations and Huston's control of character decision. And while the ending does poise an interesting spin on things, its a finale that certainly falls in line with Newman's easy-going persona. Common sense over guns is always a good choice.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Things I Learned In Los Angeles

I feel infinitely smarter now having been exposed to the following:

1. I seemed to have picked the hottest days in the last 1000 years to visit L.A. as everyone I met told me, "wow, it's not usually like this. This is the hottest it's ever been." Hell, I could've felt that in Dallas.

2. The coolest thing about Dodger Stadium- the reflective logo that lights up after dark on the top tier behind home plate:

3. I snapped a quick photo of Joe Torre walking back to the dugout after a pitching change (as promised to my father, a HUGE Yankees fan). If this has been his last game as a coach or something, I think this would have been one helluva iconic image:

4. While billboards in Dallas are busy talking about houses for sale or the campaign to eliminate teen pregnancy (this is still the Bible belt, remember), L.A. billboards are busy pimping cool things as below:

5. The best food on Sunset can be found at Mel's Diner (pictured below, but didn't come out like I wanted it to). Burgers on sourdough bread, fries, milkshakes... and the place where Lucas filmed "American Graffiti" as the walls are adorned with black and white photos of the shoot.

Runner up food joint: Tarantino's Pizzeria in downtown Pasadena

6. The view from Mulholland Drive overlooking the city is simply breathtaking. The friends I was visiting had never been up there before, but they got just as much pleasure out of the scenery as I did:

And another from Mulholland:

7. While I first thought this may be a movie being filmed on the 405, the realization quickly set in that it was just another example of why California traffic is so bad. An RV had caught on fire.

8. The coolest thing about Beverly Hills? Seeing the police station and thinking of Eddie Murphy trying to enter at the front gate with the automatic option box and his expression of 'what the fuck?':

9. Palm trees do make the scenery look nicer:

And another:

10. The airlines only hand out these neat little luggage tickets to instill a sense of comfort in us passengers. The real fact is, they don't mean a thing when presented to the LAX baggage claim office because your luggage was lost in transit. They seemed pretty shocked I would even present this as evidence that my luggage should, indeed, be in L.A. with me. Instead, I filled out paperwork and went to the Dodger game in 95 degree weather in my jeans and long sleeve shirt. My luggage showed up 2 days later. My friend's advice: always fly into Burbank. I now know why.

11. The movies always make downtown L.A. appear.... bigger. It's not so big. It did make me want to go back and re-watch "Heat", though.

12. Careers begin.... and end... here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

DVD Shout Out- The Girl In the Cafe

Director David Yates is now a heavy Hollywood commodity (as the man responsible for bringing the previous Harry Potter movie as well as it's next two sequels to the screen), but over the past decade or so he's been quietly making a name for himself via the small screen in Britain. I recently wrote about his masterpiece, "State of Play", a few months back. The sheer intelligence and economic visual style of that series piqued my interest in this filmmaker. In 2005, he took a script from renowned writer Richard Curtis and directed a small made for television film called "The Girl In the Cafe". A May-December romance with intensely political leanings, this 93 minute movie is just as devastating as his previous 6 hour mini-series and cemented in my mind the talent that lies within Yates.

Lawrence (Bill Nighy) is an isolated loner who works for the Chancellor of England as a financial advisor. During a quick coffee break in a cafe across the street from his office, he meets pretty (yet equally isolated) Gina (Kelly MacDonald) and they strike up a conversation since her booth is the only empty seat in the place. Coffee turns into lunch two weeks later and the dinner the next night. Lawrence eventually asks Gina to accompany him to the G8 summit in Iceland later that month and she obliges him. A relationship builds slowly and quietly between the two of them, but does Gina have ulterior motives?

Nighy and MacDonald (who worked so well off each other in "State Of Play") imbue their characters with grace and sensitivity. From the opening scenes, Nighy does a remarkable job of drawing out the odd tendencies in his personality. Here is a man so accepting of his solitude that we see him side stepping people in the hallway so they can walk by him as if he isn't there. Another scene punctuates his invisibility by the way he sits in his seat doodling when his peers enter the conference room and sit around him... barely noticing him as they pass papers in front of him. MacDonald, on the other hand, presents herself as a fragile beauty, escaping from something (what? we don't know until the very end) and idling her time away in this coffee shop. The idea of her obliging Lawrence her company doesn't feel that far off. And while, sometimes, the May-December romance can seem forced or inaccessible, Nighy and MacDonald hit every note perfectly as they etch out the understated emotions and motives of its complicated love story. Like "Before Sunset" or "Lost In Translation", this is a simple film that revels in two people talking, growing close to one another, and learning to accept someone when the surroundings are far removed from the comforts of home. Seek this one out.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sports Spectacular

Even though the month of June is typically unbearably hot here in Texas, I love it for its array of sports. The Rangers are playing solid ball right now (scratching their way to .500, popping a game over, then under, then back over) and the ride has been fun. Not to mention, Josh Hamilton is becoming a modern day folk hero in these parts, rookie David Murphy is earning ALOT more jerseys at the ballpark and Michael Young/Ian Kinsler and hot tempered Milton Bradley are all adding their two cents to the Rangers offensive strikes. It's really fun to watch this team come together after a horrible April. Boston Red Sox, here we come! Or maybe I should direct that towards the Chicago Cubs who look like the real deal right now. But none of that matters if the Angels don't slow down, either.

And from baseball, we switch to the US Open at Torrey Pines... a course yielding unique first day results (Steelerman? Hicks? In the words of "Tin Cup", who are these guys?) As a lover and player of golf, nothing is more exciting than watching the world's best players stumble and scramble and hack their way out of 7 inch rough. Makes me feel a little better when I stumble and scramble and hack my way around a golf course. And all of this in Primetime for the first time in years. It's going to be a great weekend. I hear there's something big happening in the NBA as well, but since I despise the sport, I'm hoping the Celtics close the door over the next 2 games so we can all move on and be relieved of having to hear Stepehn A. Smith each night on Sportscenter.

So, I'll be driving home to spend Father's Day with the family. Expect light posts around here the next couple of weeks. I'll be traveling to Los Angeles for the first time next week as well to spend 3 days with friends and soak up Hollywood. Dodgers game Friday night, sight seeing the other days. Lots of pictures should follow.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Thoughts On M. Night

All the advertisements for M. Night Shyamalan's latest, "The Happening", have been playing up the fact that it's his "first R rated movie". When the crux of your marketing campaign is singling out the fact that a reasonable portion of your regular summer movie-going audience (13-16) can't get into this thing, it sorta loses its luster no? Compounded with the idea of no screenings for critics yet, and that could be strike two. Perhaps 20th Century Fox and Shyamalan have crafted such a genuinely exciting film (complete with awe-inducing twist ending) that early word-of-mouth would ruin its chances of opening weekend buzz. Doubtful. But, as pessimistic as all this sounds, I am looking forward to "The Happening" just because it's the first film in two solid weeks I kinda care about- yep, no "Don't Mess With the Zohan" for me.

I suppose one could call me an inverted Shyamalan fan. My least liked films from the auteur seem to be the most revered by other film fans- "Signs" and "Unbreakable"- while my two favorite- "The Village" and "Lady In the Water"- always bring forth bile and disgust from so many people who felt cheated or disappointed. This, of course, is exempting his mainstream Hollywood calling card "The Sixth Sense", a film that exists as a near perfect exercise in modern Hitchcock-ian reflexivity, camera placement, timing and subliminal scares tied to a well rendered denouement. This was simply a film that came along at the right time and place, delivering the goods all around- and for better or for worse, a film that proved the atmosphere was ripe for twist endings... and financially plausible. It kept the audiences growing exponentially. "You've got to see how this thing ends". And in that sense, Shyamalan's career has been broken into two distinct sections- pre and post '99. Some directors would love to have this kind of dichotomy.

The largest criticism leveled against him after his success with "The Sixth Sense" was that he'd become egotistical and bloated in his self-important thrillers (as if thrillers can't be saying something while attempting to scare your socks off). He didn't play by the rules, but more importantly, his success allowed him the luxury of not playing by the rules. While "Signs" and "Unbreakable" certainly have their cult followings in science fiction and comic book realms respectively, I think Shyamalan's real triumphs have come in the form of his last two 'failures'. First, "The Village". Not only was this an engaging theater experience where the audience listened and gasped at every small scurry at the edge of the frame, but it's also where Shyamalan attempted to add his contributions and politicize the horror genre with an underlying theme. While it seems "The Village" was largely maligned because of the audience's unwillingness to accept a conclusion that's not attributed to anything other worldly or ghostly, I found its final 'twist' to be just as devastating and even more terrifying that anything conjured by boogie men. "The Village" stands as a greatly satisfying yet futile examination of our culture's mounting hysteria towards anything "different". The fact that it's wrapped up in a pseudo horror flick didn't help its cause. The people who might enjoy such an allegorical romp stayed away and the people who expected a good old fashioned scare ala "The Sixth Sense" showed up in droves and left wondering what the hell they'd just seen. The movie business is so fickle.

The outcries against "Lady In the Water" were just as loud... if not deafening. While there were semblances of his horror film aesthetic left, "Lady In the Water" seemed to be where Shyamalan had finally been given way too much creative control. Veering wildly in mood, tone and underhanded insults (at professional film critics no less), it's a film that deserves to be re-watched in a different frame of mind. Again, Shyamalan's past efforts probably influenced how the audience reacted against "Lady In the Water", and it certainly wasn't viewed as the light hearted modern fairy tale I took away from it... even though the film's subtitle references it! I overlooked a lot of the film's shortcomings due to Paul Giamatti's honest performance, Bryce Howard's penetrating innocence, and the film's overall ambition to say something quite epic in small gestures. And the scene where Giamatti's emotions finally come pouring out as the seven sisters put their hands on him is a shining example of just how good Shyamalan can be with framing, timing and the ability to draw something fundamental out of his actors. It deserves a second chance.

Back to "The Happening". I was talking to buddy and movie lover Chris from his Trashcan Odorous blog and he wondered about the ability of Mark Wahlburg to carry the film. I agree. His reading of the line about "there are forces in the universe that can't be explained" in that Wahlburg-Dirk Diggler lisp do come off as cringe-worthy. But, to some degree I trust in him as an actor (and Zooey Deschanel as an actress even more) and I also trust in Shyamalan to create a genuinely creepy and apocalyptic atmosphere that could push this film over the top as his return to form- although I really don't think he's lost it yet. "The Happening" could be that perfect melding of total creative control and story that once generated so much anticipation about his upcoming films. That's been lost the last few years. And with films like "Get Smart", "The Love Guru" and The Matri.... uhh "Wanted" on the horizon, I'm dying for some creativity from somewhere.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

DVD Shout Out- Boarding Gate

Olivier Assayas' "Boarding Gate" can be seen as a direct companion to his 2002 film, "demonlover". Both films are thrillers in the loosest sense, situating a sultry and headstrong female lead smack dab in the middle of a multi-national, multi-continent series of shoot-outs, drugging and double and triple crosses. This time, the responsibility lies with actress Asia Argento. Broken into two parts, "Boarding Gate's" first half pits Argento and former pimp/lover/boss Michael Madsen against each other in a war of psycho-sexual wordplay and sadomasochistic foreplay first in his office, then later at his home. The second half finds Argento landing in China and abruptly being held hostage and then attacked by a series of baddies (led by Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon!) as she attempts to reconnect with new boyfriend and international businessman Lester (Carl Ng).There's no higher schizophrenic shift than in this film. While there are hints of the international intrigue to come in the first half through a brief longueur depicting Argento's business of drug importing, the second half dispenses with explanation and becomes an abstract espionage thriller as Argento is propelled through a foreign city, over and down its rooftops and having to carefully choose who she believes are her friends and who has used her. All of this is captured with Assayas now trademark visual style- loose, handheld cameras that seem to be searching for something within the frame, deep near focus shots that keep everything around the periphery fuzzy, and sharp jump cuts that continually force the viewer to reassess his or her understanding of time and place. The locations are the similar as well. In his early films, Assayas was comfortable with the interior browns and greens of personal home life. With "demonlover", "Clean", and now "Boarding Gate", the milieu is clear exterior shots, hotel rooms, glass office buildings that threaten to pummel the sense with their reflectivity, nightclubs and karaoke bars... even the 20 minute stretch that takes place in Madsen's home between he and Argento is a huge modern structure that seems to have been built entirely with glass. Needless to say, Assayas chosen locations seem to amplify the fragile existence and tepid industry status of his lead women.

As stated above, don't go into "Boarding Gate" expecting a tidy, routine thriller. Yes, there are gunfights, druggings and hitmen, but Assayas has ripped the logical connections of the espionage thriller to shreds. We're never exactly given the meaning of the relationship between Madsen and Argento. We're never told why Argento becomes the hunted, although I think the re-introduction of a small character at the very end of the film represents some satisfaction of explanation. And, we're never given the fleshed out reasons for why one character helps Argento in China. The motivation seems to be, simply, corporate greed and a complete removal of embedded morals. Full of amorphous killing machines, nothing seems quite as terrifying as the moment when, after being trapped in a warehouse in China, one man quietly hands a gun to a shirtless tattooed man and instructs him in Chinese to 'finish her off'. Without a word or emotion, the shirtless man takes the gun and sulks into the room where Argento is being held. No better example of moral emptiness can be found, and "Boarding Gate" wallows in it. "Boarding Gate" is less about the rules of corporate espionage and more about the journey of one woman caught in the web of globalization. Just like "demonlover" and its representation of a world mangled in cyber greed and corruption, Assayas is searching for the place for a confused and exploited woman to call her own. As the finale suggests, Argento will probably go on being exploited and confused in this dog-eat-dog environment, a message just as dark and nihilistic as the final image of Connie Nielsen in "demonlover" morphing into a cyber sex toy. No rest for the weary.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #17

It's been a busy week and blogging has, sadly, taken a backseat. We're hoping to change that now. Next 10 titles in my queue:

1. Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die- With the release of several Pasolini films to DVD, I'll be catching up with his work. This documentary, released in 1981 six years after Pasolini's murder, is as good as anywhere to start.
2. Don't Look In the Basement- What list of mine would be complete without a crummy exploitation horror film? This one, directed by 'Z lister' SF Brownrigg (of several "Don't Look..." films in the 70's) deals with inmates of an insane asylum taking control. Worth a look.
3. Lights In the Dusk- Latest film from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki. I've never really been of fan of Kaurismaki's deadpan, sarcastic comedies and this one has been referred to as the Kaurismaki film for introducing oneself to his work.
4. Muriel- Recently released Alain Resnais film. Netflix describes it as "A war veteran and his widowed stepmother struggle to come to terms with the past in Alain Resnais's drama about the persistence of memory. The story follows ex-soldier Bernard (Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée), who relives a horrible atrocity he committed during the war, and his stepmother, Helene (Delphine Seyrig), who can't let go of her former lover (Jean-Pierre Kérien). Nita Klein, Claude Sainval and Laurence Badie also star." From his mid 60's work after international acclaim from films such as "Night and Fog", "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" and "Last Year At Marienbad".
5. Accatone- Pasolini's debut film.
6. The Swimming Pool- Flick starring Alain Delon from the 70's recently released in a five pack series of his harder to find efforts.
7. Lost In La Mancha- Documentary about the colossal failure of Terry Gilliam to bring to the screen a story of Don Quixote.
8. And Soon the Darkness- I know nothing about this film except the Netflix description: "Two British girls on a bicycling vacation in France quarrel and separate. Jane, feels guilty about leaving and decides to return to the infamous stretch of road where she left her friend. She finds her friend is missing and, as time passes and there is no trace of her, Jane imagines the worst. Atmospheric, suspenseful, and shocking. A gripping thriller." It was recommended based on my high ratings for "thrillers" and the people reviews on the site are pretty glowing.
9. Anzio- Edward Dymytryk's late 60's war film starring Robert Mitchum about an Allied attack in Italy. It could be total crap, but my experience with these off-the-radar war films of the 60's has been impressive.
10. Violent City- I think I've seen this long hidden Bronson film. Aint It Cool News raved about it, and while they rave about everything, I'm a sucker for any Bronson flick.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Trailers I Love

With the release of Olivier Assayas' "Boarding Gate" on DVD Tuesday, here's a quick look back at his previous film, "Clean". Released in 2006, it stars the beyond beautiful Maggie Cheung as a music producer scratching her way out of addiction to maintain a relationship with her son. Filmed in typically observant handheld style by Assayas, "Clean" defies character expectations in just about every way. Assayas has become my favorite international film director, and this one deserves a rental if you haven't seen it.