Saturday, January 1, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#1) I AM LOVE (Lo Sono L'Amore)

(note: it's quite possible that this was the kind of film, full of elegant and wild and luscious over-the-top artistic intent and (some) integrity- it is Italian after all- that would have made it a better watch in a theater when it was released last summer.  But alas, netflix-instant was the way to go, and had its wonderful colors come out fine in the HD TV)

Aren't we all.
I Am Love is something I wasn't quite expecting: a slow-burner melodrama.  Somehow those two should not go together as items (one usually associates a 'slow-burner' with a thriller, like, say, Bong Joon-Ho's Mother).  But how director Luca Guadagnino puts it together is a fascinating, inventive and somewhat original feat.  It's a film that wears its nationality on its sleeve: you will see, whether you want to or not (but hey, you want to watch the film, you get it anyway), lots of shots of buildings in industrial Milan, and then when the scenes shift to San Remo also in Italy there are many angles given to the bright and dark contours of the countryside, the fields, the mountains, the roads that they travel.

But there is a method to all of this.  I think it's something to do with nature, or how the nature of the surroundings affect the characters, in subconscious ways that somehow affect them when they least expect it.  Or, when they do expect it, it comes on in waves about the passions and desires that are underneath.  Obstensibly this sounds like a story of power turning over: the Recchi family, led by the Patriarch, is being changed over as the 'Grandfather' decides to let the reins go and retire.  It's a company that does... well, I'm not quite sure.  Maybe textile work or knitting, we only see a couple of moments of this.  But what the hell, it's a big factory, it's a big business, and it's kept the family in the comfort of the bourgeoisie (or haute bourgeoisie, I forget which).  And in this family, now the son and grandson, Tancredi and Eduardo respectively, are put in charge.

As the company is put to the test opf the current economic climate- that is a few years ago we're led to believe, in the age before cell phones ran rampant- the mother of the family, a Russian that was brought over to Milan and mothered Eduardo and a daughter, Emma (Tilda Swinton), is left more to her own devices, just hanging around, having meals, and meeting Eduardo's friend and superb-chef-man, Antonioni (assumed hunk-with-a-beard, at least the hunkiest the movie can do for women, Edoardo Gabbriellini).  Emma feels lust for him, and how we know she does is one of the filmmaker's clever cinematic tricks, even to the point of being a kind of pure surrealism (that she's quite well-off and having sexual fantasies is not lost on a Luis Bunuel fan).

What is this scene?  Well, it's not the only one, but it's the one I'll go back to hopefully over time with a Netflix Instant account: Emma is at dinner with a couple of friends and is served a seafood dish.  It's one of those plates that has the super-exquisite set-up with not much actual food save for a few pieces of scant shrimp and vegetables in lots of cream.  Before this Emma has been getting some first-hand experience at how Antonio cooks and is fascinated, and it's a dish that somehow has her racing back in her mind to him, to little glances, looks, a 'feeling state' as my film professor might say.  How does she feel?  Well, just watch in the scene, in extreme fetishistic close-up that would make Tarantino drool ala strudel in Inglourious Basterds, and in cuts that leap off from where Emma is really at: the lighting changes and the focus has everyone else in shadows except for the harsh light on her, the intense cutting of each little piece of shrimp, savoring it, every little bite and cut and her mind racing back to Antonio and...  Did I get carried away with that?  I hope so.

I Am Love isn't entirely a great film, though it eventually attains it in the last half hour, which I'll get to in  a moment.  There are a few scenes where the director comes off as being self-satisfied with his own ultra-hip cutting and camera angles that emphasize... what, exactly?  Disassociation?  Simple dischord might be it, from what Emma is existing in and the outside world.  There is one scene that works, but just barely from being a too hit-over-the-head sequence where we see Emma in the midst of her affair taking shape with Antonio in a field, and the film cuts between shots of, again, extreme close-shots of flesh, some him, some hers, some very sweaty-both, and with shots of bugs and flowers and the intermingling and grass.  What does this have to do with the fucking?  An intimate connection with nature?  Compare/contrast?  It's all beautifully shot, but it veers on suddenly enterting pretension.  Luckily the material just skates by the skin of its teeth, if only, mayhap, for the intensity of Swinton in the scene.

Oh, and of course Swinton once again brings an emotional resonance to her character that is just staggering.  Where she is able to pull all of this from is one of the mysterious things that makes her so precious in the film acting world.  She has a fantastic ability to disappear into her characters, but never lose the connection she has with us, which is so important for a character who has been absorbed into an upper-class lifestyle filled with maids and butlers and people who can wait on her hand and foot - that is, except, usually, for her husband (badump-tish).  Swinton has something going on even when she's simply smiling or looking content.  When her face turns concerted and filled with a lustful confusion, it's exhilirating as we're brought along with her.  And then it comes to that last half hour.

I mention the 'slow-burner' aspect as I Am Love is something one has to stick with.  If it were made in America so much of it could be easily spelled out.  I understand if some will have a problem with this aspect of it, how much time it takes to draw the viewer in to its seemingly simple story of a rich Italian family of industry.  But when it finally does build up to where it's going, it leads to some of the finest and most rewardingly honest drama in years.  It's in this last half hour where a great sudden tragedy happens, and it changes what's going on immediately on the surface but underneath lets out for Emma what's been there for so long and she hasn't tapped into: how trapped she's been.

The numb quality to her, physically and emotionally, moved me so dearly.  It's a display of raw emotion that is subconscious; we know how devastated she is, but it moves us more to see her not be able to tap into it - at least, at first.  The final scene achieves a kind of melodramatic-shoot-out feel ala The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Only a lack of a denouemont is troubling here, but can be forgiven for the wonderful feeling given by the (not-too) quick cuts and harrowing music (which, by the way, nears Leonard Bernstinian feeling of balletic precision).

I Am Love is European art-film all the way and damn proud of it.  It will bring in its audience or it won't, and I can see this being a split-the-crowd kind of film.  Good.  I'm glad to have seen it, despite sadly not in the ideal environment of a NYC art-house with fellow snobs who could soak in the rich Italian atmosphere and Swinton's searing and dark performance.  It's not one of the best of the year, but it made me feel something deep and true and that's something.

A January Netflix project

So, what's on the menu this evening?  How about for the next month?

As I've been blessed recently with the Power of the Instant Netflix- a format that as days go by becomes a preferred format to watch films and television over DVD (hey, no scratches, at worst there's too many pixels or a bad ethernet connection)- I've decided to take advantage of it.  And, inspired once again by Kevin Murphy's movie-travelogue A Year at the Movies, I'll make a semi-challenge of it.

For the next month, starting tonight, I will make sure to watch one movie per day or night until January 31st (interestingly when I start school again, so time will suddenly be restrictive just in time).  What movies will I watch?  I have no idea.  I have many options at my disposal, and like Murphy in his travels I'll be open to anything: crap blockbusters, obscure indies, beautiful foreign films, fun trash, and the real oddities of the abroad.  That I already have a massive queue gives me options-a-plenty, but it doesn't stop there.

So-so-so many movies are available via instant-watch on Netflix.  Now some that one might be curious to watch that are new or of a particular kind.. are not always available.  But there are so many options that there is no excuse not to be able to find something each day or night.  My only enemy really is time; if for some reason, via physical impairment or brain damage or if I get stuck at a party that just won't let me go, and I miss a day, I won't be all besotted like Murphy almost was (then again he stuck it out through a fucking kidney stone so the man has balls the size of watermellons).

So... project begins tonight.

Friday, December 31, 2010

All apologies on this NY-Eve from a Star Wars Fan

So... just finished up the episode 3 review from the Red Letter Media guy, aka Harry Plinkett, aka (real guy) Mike Stoklasa.  Mike/Harry's been at this for the past year, dropping his Phantom Menace review back in December of 99, and giving all of us Star Wars fans a reason to.... reassess.... or just be reminded how fucking awful the movie is.  Or, well... maybe not awful is the world, just 'flawed'.  You know.  The way that they say that Manos: The Hands of Fate is in the Mystery Science Theater episode on the movie.

Harry Plinkett: "Oh..."

I have to admit it.  This is the mea culpa time, and maybe it's too late or way past the time for forgiveness.  I used to like these movies.  Nay, I did enjoy the first two just as being hyped up into the theaters.  Fuck, I even saw them multiple times (for the first one, to age myself, I was 15, and the second one 18 and mostly stoned most of the time, what else was I gonna do, read a book?)  I was already a fan going in, having loved the original trilogy (I was one of those bastards, actually parodied by Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry, who had a Star Wars themed Bar Mitzvah for Yahweh sake).  I was excited to see what Lucas would do.

Why did I like these movies?  Want the proof, hell with it, here, here, and here are my original reviews written years ago on the IMDb, unaltered and filled with the bullshit that nightmares are made of.  How into it was I at the time?  Just to make sure I knew what I needed, I even sat down and watched the movies on DVD with commentary.  Hrm.

More hell with everything, up until a year ago I still maintained that Revenge of the Sith was a great movie, nevermind a good one, going as far as to put it in my top 50 of the decade (albeit at the bottom number but in there), had a lot of resonance, was what the prequel series was building up to and delivered with fantastic action, real emotional connection, a dark palette that called back to Faust, and even featured some awesome Ron Fricke photography in the background of the rest of that CGI lavastorm.  I might still hold on to the DVD to check it out from time to time just for some individual scenes and shots.   But... I do a double take now.... and a triple take... and I realize as a filmmaker and an audience member, so much of the film, and the other two of course, are filled with lazy filmmaking decisions, tired troped, repeated themes and other bullshit.  Damn.

Going to Plinkett's reviews, however, was not necessarily seeing the light, but seeing with clear, critical-cum-constructive criticism, that these movies had a lot of bad things going on.  Stupid things.  Things that didn't connect with the audience, or were full of shit (one such thing, for example, being Lucas' "admittance" that these movies are really just for children.... sure, just say something that is meant to cheapen the effect of the original 77-83 series while also coyly looking over the fact that these prequels include things like trade federation talks, decapitations, dismemberments, killing of children, lots of other dark shit... loh yeah, good times away from Pooh bear).

Why should I be angry about this now?  When I think back to the movies on their own there are lines, moments, shots, even scenes that I do remember, and kind of fondly.  And then other times... I just shrug and wonder a big WTF, like Zach Galifianakis finding the tiger in the bathroom in The Hangover.  I try and think back to the time and suddenly it's like a blur.  Did I write these fucking reviews?  Did I even *see* these movies?  I'm reminded of the line from Tom Servo from a MST3K episode: "I have a theory the director shot this without having watched it."  That's on my end.  I know Lucas watched it.  Without.. energy... hrm.

He's a Frog-Man, Jerry, a FROG-MAN!
Am I going to sound like another of these idiots who suddenly do an about-face and say "oh, yeah, the Star Wars prequels, I knew they were bad all along".  No.  The truth is I'm like that guy in the parable at the end of Raging Bull.  "All I know is, I once was blind, now I see."  As a teenager, and into the age of 21 and for a few years on, I put on blinders (not completely, but somewhat) that these movies were really entertaining and awesome blockbusters.  Just look at those reviews.  Jebuz crisp.

I'm almost surprised you're still here and not shaking your head at how I was in my youth.  I'm almost surprised at myself myself that I still would want to hold on to episode 3 after the clear and insightful analysis, going down to the language-of-cinema and character building and storytelling that Stoklasa lays bare... I have to try and think back again, what did I see in these movies, or at least in Revenge of the Sith that so impressed me?  The action?  Perhaps.  Some of the special effects?  Maybe.  That opening shot?  ... Damnit, I might still find that kind of cool, but in a way that is completely a guilty pleasure kind of opening shot (I could disagree that the chaos of the action there *is* part of the whole point of it, but... no, maybe it's best to let that go).

It was clear even during the times the prequels came out and in the interveneing years that the Lucas of the 70's and the Lucas of the present was different.  It is telling, and accurate and so wonderful, to see the comparison to Citizen Kane with the Revenge of the Sith.  I might go a step further than Plinkett and find that that third film, if not the whole prequels, are still very personal films to Lucas.  I wonder if Lucas sees himself in both Anakin Skywalker and Palpatine: one has fallen from grace, and the other has  risen to a point of power that is truly Machiavellian and he pulls all of the strings of all of his underlings who seem to be at his every whim and never challenge him.  That sounds about right.

It's like poetry, it rhymes.  Shrug.

But does it being an independent film and the work of an auteur who has a personal connection make it a great film?  I don't think so.  Not anymore.   Fuck.  Why was it even a great film for me to start with?  Will it ever be a *good* film again after seeing this review?  I keep asking this- maybe in some part as I'm drunken on this New Years Eve and rolling around the subject in my brain- because of some disappointment levied at the prequels compared to the original ones.  In a way Plinkett's reviews in their critical analysis are like the movie-review form of psychotherapy, looking over again at things that seemed good at the time but were not.  It's similar to a family member getting hypnosis and just 'realizing' that they treated their respective family member like crap years before and didn't really connect with it at the time.  It's eye-opening.

Do I apologize to myself?  To you, you reader in your comfy chair or reading in your car (don't do that!) Do I try and ease the pain by trying and defending my previous assessments in any way?  Do I bring up the one think Plinkett didn't bring up in the reviews: John Williams musical scores, which were still, despite everything, as beautiful as they could be given, uh, how the movies were?

Maybe it's just something about growing up and realizing what was childish... or droolish, stupid things of youth, are there and for there really.  The Star Wars prequels were beefed up technologically-saavy pieces of product in the guise of a character study.  As a Star Wars fan, they are messes, but at the time they were fun.... and, hell, here I go again (don't I sound like one of those guys who says "Well, I know I shouldn't have enjoyed getting drunk and driving at 100 MPH alongside a screaming bus of children, but, well, it was fun at the time."

Or... it was the hype of the moment... a new SW movie... lots of lightsabers... Yoda fighting... growl... Palpatine has unlimited power... Order 66 (btw, it's pretty clear Lucas is just trying to be cute there- 6 is too obscure, but 666 is too obvious and would incur the frightful, powerful wrath of IRON MAIDEN, so... yeah 66).  Or maybe it's just because of being a kid and liking those older movies, and making excuses like for the alcohol comparison I mentioned earlier.

So... in short... I'm Jack Gattanella, and I'm a recovering Star Wars prequel fan.  And I haven't had a drink in... I don't remember, but not for a while (that is, not having watched the movies outside of the reviews).

But what about the reviews by Plinkett?  Oh, they are completely and wholly works of critical-art, the likes of which I would like to hold and cherish like the previous generation held up Pauline Kael's reviews as works of art.  That doesn't mean every moment is perfect, but it's genuine, entertaining, eye-opening, incisive, insightful, and totally deranged which I really love.  Nothing can really quite match the awe and surprise of that first Phantom Menace review, particular as most of us (certainly not me) had seen one of this man's reviews before and known his methods of pizza-roll delicacy and a penchant for grinding hookers into bone in his Teaneck, New Jersey basement... oh yeah... (::Howdy neighbor!!::)

But not just that, Skoklloosssssoo, (sorry, misspelling) does one better: he actually puts his own story around the critical framework.  It would seem to my understanding like his own subtle challenge to Lucas: "not only will I take apart your movies, see why they are so flawed in their inception to the little bits like green-screen and static reverse-shots (the likes of which are making Steven Soderbergh RETIRE for Dogsakes), but I will put a story in there, as B-level as it is with a hooker escaping my grasp and getting revenge and what-not, that WILL connect with the audience on some level, and has engaging shot compositions, mood-perfect lighting, and even some nice music and swell acting.  He's branching into a new form of internet-movie criticism where the videos become movies onto their own realm.  He's riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave of his own making.

So I salute this guy and his pizza rolls and his hookers and merkins and cat fucking and pizza rolls and his in-depth take on the prequels.  They've reduced me to a blathering lot of apology and reassessment.

What do I think of these movies now?  Should I give them another look see?  Would it be like revisiting an old would-be friend like in Interview with the Vampire where Brad Pitt goes back to the old homestead to see the burnt remains of Tom Cruise sitting in that chair?

Maybe... maybe not...


THANK YOU FOR THE MENTION OF THE CEDAR LANE CINEMAS IN TEANECK NEW JERSEY!! (coincidentally where I saw Revenge of the Sith... on one of my multiple viewings of the film in the summer of 05)

So... Happy New Year!

Sylvain Chomet's THE ILLUSIONIST @ Film-Forward

aka L'illusionniste, one of the best animated films of the year:

so there.

Rockin' & Rollin' with Keith Richards (Exile & Chuck Berry)

My whim with movies and other odds and ends of popular culture can be taken along based on a number of things, like if I hear a song or I step in the wrong puddle or if I eat a burger that gives me just the kind of gas that has an image akin to a movie that I once thought of.  So in the past month as I on one side got very weirdly interested in seeking out Andy Warhol's films that are (somewhat) available at a (not really) reasonable export price just based on listening to Velvet Underground songs, on the other side I fell back in with some of my favorite rock and roll dudes, the Rolling Stones, specifically Keith Richards (or 'Keef' for short).

It's from reading his memoir, all very simply but accurately titled Life, that I tried to seek out movie-related artifacts that had to do with the man/myth/open-tuning-guitar-legend/pirate.  Unfortunately, unlike his brother-in-arms Mick Jagger, he's not much in the way of acting.  So it was really up to the documentary Gods to deliver some material on Richards.  One of which was a re-watch, one of my favorite things with the Stones- maybe the best and most invigorating in their later years- Martin Scorsese's Shine a Light concert-doc.  That made for a good night of (somewhat) watching while I multitasked with the very nerdy interest of cataloging all of my movie ticket-stubs (someday I'll post pictures... and then proceed to be beaten up on the playground for such pronounced nerdiness - but hey, it ain't a collection of nametags and hairnets ;)

But the other two movies were new ones, and so I shall give some over-view here.  Neither one entirely focuses on Richards, and yet they wouldn't exist without him.

Taylor Hackford's tribute to the other man/myth/legend/Goddamn God-Man Chuck Berry, who influenced an entire generation of rock and rollers if not single-handedly then with a much bigger hand than others around him, is very good.  It probably lacks a reach of greatness due to it being just a bit too... referential might be the word?  And I don't mean that it can't be praiseworthy, especially to, you know, someone who made rock and roll the Name of the Game for so many musicians in the second half of the twentieth century.

No, of course, his music is revolutionary, to some extent.  'Some' in that he was first and foremost a songwriter-singer, which set him apart after what was the norm for so long: singers were singers, writers were writers.  If not for Chuck Berry it's likely Lennon and McCartney wouldn't have had the gumption to set to task to scribble down their own love songs (or, at the least, we wouldn't have their cover of the Berry classic 'Roll Over Beethoven').  And he had a very specific set of songs in mind to present to people: songs about school, cars, and love, and the details in the song (as Bruce Springsteen describes it) is what made them so special.  "A 'coffee-colored Catilac', I would know it if I saw one."  Don't we all, if they're around.

But what is a little distracting is Berry's own sense of himself and how he presents himself at times- not all the times, in a lot of his interview bits he's charming and understanding of how it could be rough for black musicians at the time (usually reminded by his conpatriots also interviewed, Bo Diddley and the ever-colorful Little Richard, wooo!)  Maybe this is more on the end of Hackford.  The way he shoots the movie is not like a lot of other music documentaries.  Not necessarily with the concert footage, that's something else, what I mean are those scenes where he'll be following Berry into somewhere like the old building where he first really got his chops playing in front of people, or when he shows off his cars and their history in the 70's.  I can understand that first part, but the cars?  And the way it's shot, while professional, is almost too slick for a documentary.  It's more like a fictional-narrative with its dolly-tracking and precise cutting from one shot to the next (EXT to INT for you screenwriters out there).

This is not a very major criticsm levied at the movie, more of an observation at how the movie is, in a way, like a refurbished old car.  It's like a wonderful relic of a former era, and we have Keith Richards to thank for it as he's really the musical "director" of the piece (or, as he says, more of a 'getting-people-together' director; in his memoir it was he who took the time and effort to track down Johnnie Johnson the piano player, one of Berry's 50's regulars, to give the Berry Band the kick it so desperately desired after years of hack road bands).  He also plays live in the concert, and while mostly in the background blending so delicately into the sound of the rest of it all he does show off some good solo-work on a lot of the classics like "Riding Along in my Automobile."

Oh, and yeah, it's a concert movie in very large part (I'd say 70% concert, 30% doc), and when Hackford cuts back to that it's a lot of fun.  Berry's a natural entertainer here, at least in the extraordinary setting of his 60th birthday concert with lots of special guests ranging from Etta James to Julian Lennon.  No guest is really wasted however, and James especially brings an unexpected, awesome down-ol' blues feel to her number.  But it's also just fantastic to hear the same, or maybe better with Richards and Johnson, energy and swagger that Berry likely had back in the day with all of the hit numbers, and some I hadn't heard before (shamefully) like 'Sweet Little Sixteen'.  The band is a cracking good ensemble, tight but having fun, and led by a charismatic figure.

Maybe what would have made it great is if Berry had been just a little more open in some parts, not trying to sound like he was talking to the camera.  He's better when Hackford is asking him questions, or has him with his actual mother and father telling stories.  When he speaks to the camera, I'm worried he might break out and try and sell me the latest refurbished hit collection.  Nevertheless for real rock fans it's a must, and you know who you are, the likes of whom would want to dance like Travolta and Thurman in Pulp Fiction to 'Never Can Tell' (which, by the way, is sadly missing from the film).

Stones in Exile, which is decidedly much more about Richards but also about the group of the Stones at large, is perhaps just a little too short.  It runs at a very brisk 60 minutes, which might be fine if one is looking for just the basic scoop ala-TV-documentary time.  And maybe that is what it was meant for and is okay at.  But this is a grand, epic story that got just the right amount of coverage in the books that have been released on that fateful summer of 1971 where the Stones left to France after England kicked their asses with over-taxes.  You think it's tough here in the States, try getting an 83% tax rate!

Maybe it's cause it's a book versus a movie, or maybe there isn't enough that the Stones, all of whom including retired members like Bill Wyman and ex-lovers like Anita Pallenberg, agreed to let out due to being interviewed.  Hell, even Richards's oldest son Marlon, who got a good deal of mention in Richards' memoir, gives some scoop on what little he could remember of the period.  Or maybe it's more of a specific stylistic choice that is a little irksome in the doc: there is precious little actual interview footage shown of the Stones- we do see Jagger and Charlie Watts wandering around the old grounds of the basement recording studio at Nellcote- as it's mostly just voice-over and narration over still images and some limited rehearsal footage.

There are a few talking heads- Martin Scorsese, Jack White, Benicio Del-Toro (?!)- but they're book-ended at the start and finish.  I guess the one complaint is that it's not enough of a good thing, like a quarter of a filet mignon instead of the whole fucking slab of meat.  And yet what is thrown to us is just fine, and if you have absolutely no knowledge of how the album was made (that is a novice Stones fan or maybe a curious visitor to their catalog) it is a good primer.  We get to see some of the process, the long laboring to make just one song that could take days, and the peculiar and sometimes frustrating set-up at the Nellcote mansion of setting up musicians in a kitchen or a closet or bathroom just to get a particular sound.  And, of course, other hassles like the distance-gap for Charlie Watts (a 6-7 hour drive round trip from his place to Richards' mansion!) and Mick Jagger's hyped marriage.

Oh, and Richards' heroin addiction, which is given some mention but not to the extent that one could see in some of the books, certainly by Richards' own admission (after the summer he actually had to go to a special rehab in Switzerland just to get one of his many future cold turkeys).  But it is a fun process to watch in the documentary, filled naturally and thankfully with every song from the album (save maybe for "Let it Loose" if I'm not mistaken).  It's a tale of exiles making a record that is filled with great sounds and experimentation, and it gets better on every listen as its little idiosyncrasies and mix of hard-rock and blues and western and even gospel ("Just Wanna See His Face") make it so eclectic as to be one-of-a-kind.  As for the documentary... not so much.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How Do You Know (when a filmmaker's lost)

(Ye be spoilers ahead, if you must know...)

I wanted to root for How Do You Know going in.  With all of the negative buzz, that it was a misguided and dumb-headed and, maybe the most accurate word I could surmise 'dopey', romantic comedy without the right shine of romance or the good shot of comedy for a James L. (As Good as It Gets, Broadcast News) Brooks film, I still didn't want to shoot it down too fast.  The cast looked promising: with Reese Witherspoon, adorable-as-a-button as ever in her first live-action feature in a while, Paul Rudd in another good-guy role, Owen Wilson in another (sorry to use again) dopey shaggy-haired would-be surfer-dude, Jack Nicholson as... Jack, I could figure.

And Paul Rudd will make the drinks!  I loved him in Halloween 6!
And hey, Janusz Kaminski doing the cinematography!  And it looked to be a cute love-trio set-up with people a little mixed-up in their lives.  What could go wrong?  Simple to put it, Brooks has lost his way as a storyteller, and writer of dialog.  The voice is there but it's off-key, like a musician who is trying to recreate old rhythms and ending up with a bad pot of stew.

It might be mostly on his end that the movie has fault.  It's not at all a bad thing for a writer in a romantic-comedy genre to have characters who are a bit mixed up in their lives; in this case it's a 30 year old Lisa (Witherspoon) who has just been dumped by her team, in a tenuous if amicable relationship with a self-absorbed (also) ball player, Matty (Wilson), but also courted almost by accident by a fellow in-trouble person, this being a corporate white-collar guy George (Rudd) with a much-more corrupt and blustering corporate father (Nicholson).  So Brooks has his pieces set, and the set-up could make for something that involves us these characters who have brains and possibly know how to use them... maybe.

Indeed having Nicholson in a supporting role might not be an accident; perhaps Brooks might look at him as his wild card as he's been in Terms of Endearment and smaller role in Broadcast News (the latter of which this film might hearken back to is tale of two guys and a lady, one super-cocky but nice, another a little more goofy and sincere, and the girl neurotic and not totally sure of herself).  Suffice to say, before I get to other aspects of the film, Nicholson is mis-used here.

(on phone with agent): Wait, that script?  What is this crap... oh... two Oscars, right, right.

I won't quite say mis-cast as I could see why Brooks would want him, but it's a kind of thankless role, a corporate creep who acts like Rudd's character's only-friend-in-the-world when it comes to this FBI investigation into his affairs (of which we are kept completely out of the loop, maybe for the best as it doesn't seem like Brooks knows it outside of a plot/character device).  Usually there's something likable in Nicholson's devilish ways (hence the eyebrows).  But here he just blusters and uses the same one tone and hand gesture and with a few moments of exception isn't very funny.  I don't know whether it's him or the script, but for the several minutes he's in the film, it's a let-down.

But then, so is a lot of the rest of the film.  Where is the heart here?  And, on top of that, where is the logic?  This isn't meant to be presented like one of those intolerable 'rom-coms' that we get force-fed in the studio mill in the early part of the year, say, with Jennifer Aniston or Jennifer Lopez or another Jennifer I might be forgetting.  Brooks wants us to like these guys and gal, or at least see them as human.  We might see their faults, but when we're meant to look at them more realistically then we would in, say, an Aniston vehicle or one of those intolerably unlikable movies like, uh, (what came out this year I'd rather forget), Leap Year.  And yet the characters don't act in ways that would endear us to them, or would make us want to see their faults early on and maybe see how they grow and progress.

"One thing we can agree on: You, Me & Dupree was a mistake." "Wait, you were in that?"  
The characters start out a certain way and pretty much end up the same as they came at the start, only with some minor revelations with Matty being revealed to be a slightly bigger jerk than we thought of him before (not a total jerk, just enough to have to move on to the more obvious choice).  So what comes of it?  It's just... dull, really.  I didn't care about a lot of these people as one- Lisa- brings along two guys thinking they could be in for the long-term, maybe, hopefully- and another, George, is the kind of super-nice-guy who is almost painfully nice.  And why are they attracted to her?  I dunno, she's the star, I guess.  And why she to them?  At least George seems like he could be fun after a while, or under a few drinks.  With Matty it seems more like convenience, or another part of his life that is set and not too unmovable (it would almost be charming how clueless Matty really is, such as saying "this is my apartment" after asking, pleading for Lisa to move in).

And sure, there are some one-liners that do connect (at one point Rudd calls Nicholson a 'something-something' after a big revelation that brought the house-down as they say).  Others in the cast are left more with their arms flailing in the wind for their brief moments like Kathryn Hahn as George's very pregnant underling (and you know, such wacky things happen with hormones!) and an oddly moving scene between her character and her estranged significant other in a hospital room.

The script just feels confused, and maybe Brooks as well, like he thought he had enough time with the material but didn't put it through another draft, or two, or ten maybe.  One might think the cast themselves would be enough to care for the characters, but it really isn't.  You need good dynamics, good relationships, reasons that there could be change and stuff to care.  One saw this in spades, with real affecting heart and spirit, in Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, which also happened to have the grace of being about other things than just the character-relationships.  Here it's just... kind of lumpy.

Wait... I lost my mantra.  
I should also add, since I mentioned it earlier in this review, of Janusz Kaminsi's cinematography.  That... is not really worth going too deep into here, except to say it's very workmanlike and glossy and shiny, and could be mistaken for someone else's work entirely - such as, well, any other hack DP working in the business (that there are some shots that seem oddly framed could be put more on Brooks end than Kaminski, however he is the buffer here stylistically).  Without much reason to care overall, How Do You Know loses its way not all at once; the initial promise, and indeed almost self-homage to Broadcast News' opening with the children in their early form before becoming adults, could speak to something better, but where that grew out with intelligence, this just... I don't know.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (Lightning Round): Blake Edwards' DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES

(Blake Edwards has been considered one of the prestigious directors of film comedy, mostly through the Pink Panther series and a few others that more or less fared well like Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Party and 10, but I thought it would be more intriguing to check out one of his non-comedies, indeed a dark-and-dirty drama from the early 60's.  And here it is.  Smile, and drink up, Shriners!)

Sometimes the toughest thing is not to say 'no', but to get someone else to say 'no' with you.  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend looked at one man's crippling, hallucinatory nightmare into alcohol abuse, but the strength morally for the characters in Blake Edwards' film in 1962, Days of Wine and Roses, and what makes it hold up for the most part today, is on two drinkers, a man and a wife, and how their love for booze is in stiff competition with the love for each other.

It's also a doomed pairing practically from the start as Lemmon's Joe Clay gives the impressionable and lovely Kirsten (Lee Remick) her first drink, brought on by her love for chocolate but her distaste for things alcoholic.  If you've ever wondered what it might be like to get your honey on the sauce, this movie will steer you clear, by Dog!

It's power dramatically is looking at these two characters, who by all accounts should be a happy couple of people but are in reality rather miserable in what they do- he a PR man pushed around by his superiors, and she a simple secretary putting herself through her own self-made college by reading the entire encyclopedia-dictionary-whatever- and the drink brings out the euphoria they eventually need to get by the day.  It would be one thing if just Joe was fighting the addiction, and eventually after a couple of missteps he conquers it, but it's his love for his wife and her lack to fight it that makes the story loaded with a tragic dimension.  We want to see these two be at least amicable in their daily affairs, to be able to take care of their child and have some "sober" happiness.  But can it happen when three- the third being alcohol- is a crowd?

Edwards' skills as a director of actors has often been in setting up a solid situation for his players to go to work in in the comedies.  In drama it's just as strong, and with a script by J.P. Miller that provides a lot of great one-on-one tension when sobered and harrowing escapism in the drunken state it seems more mature and grounded in a realism that one might expect in the period.  The one aspect that feels dated, by proxy of it being almost fifty years ago, is how it shows what happens to a major addict of booze as Joe Clay gets all but electro-shocked in a loony bin, straight-jacket and all, and freaks out to a rather insane degree in a couple of key scenes (one of which, involving a look-see through a greenhouse for a bottle he hid in a potted plant does gain great momentum by the wildness of the search, almost like everything has to be destroyed in true self-destruction).

Aside from that, Edwards gets a lot of really wonderful scenes and moments between his two leads, early on with a kind of absurd comedic touch when Joe tries to pursue Kirsten with an up-and-down-up-and-down slow chase in elevators, and then in an awkward first meeting with Kirsten's father in the middle of the night, which happens on a whim and is anchored by the rugged, no-bullshit face and mannerism of Charles Bickford as Mr. Arnesen.

This helps to give some breathing room early on to prepare for the heavier dramatic scenes later, but it should be known that this is a drama when one is watching early on; if there is a, not false but misleading, impression it's that this might be a light romance film.  Stick with it, and it'll reveal its true self in little moments, the great scene where Joe and Kirsten reveal their wants and problems in life by the water-side at night is one such (the lighting here is also especially good, not too heavy, just enough to give the scene a glow of bittersweet hope and terror, if that makes sense).

If nothing else, even if the idea of watching what sounds to be a preachy-don't-drink-go-to-AA movie doesn't sound to liking, the acting turns it around as something of a milestone for both actors.  It's not just their acting either, but Edwards' camera on them.  Late in the film as Joe has tried to sober up and has stuck with it for a while he loses Kirsten as she plunges deeper into alcoholic disarray, and he tracks her down to a motel.

The two have a confrontation, nothing that's loud but very emotional, draining on both sides, as she can't understand why Joe won't stay and drink with her, and Joe can't reconcile how to leave one or the other as they're intertwined.  It was said that Edwards hypnotized Remick to give the performance in that scene.  Fine, whatever.  It's still harrowing work, emphasized by how haunted everything is around her, the lights in the room kept off but light from outside pouring on to bedraggled face and teary, lost eyes.  It's the kind of scene that should be shown in any acting class to beginners, but also to lighting-for-actors as well.

Oh, and Lemmon: here is where one sees what is so special about him in latching on to another performer in the same scene, whether its the fun-leading-to-dark side of Remick, or the more workmanlike acting from Jack Klugman.  He's a receptive and generous actor, able to give so much in a scene and given the tough nature of this character- often drunk, and if not drunk a little on edge half the time- he has to look real even under some extraordinary personal circumstances.

He's able to be subtle but full of expression, like when he comes back to a dinner table after hearing on the phone that his wife set the apartment on fire.  How does a man react to something like that?  A quasi-smirk, just a few glances, another drink, a mix of bewilderment and sorrow, does just fine.  It has to rank with some of his best work, and Remick doesn't follow too far behind in a role that dives deeper into tragedy.


Bottoms up on a smashing-good drama!   Oh, and Henry Mancini's score, as the kids say, is made of WIN! (not too jazzy, but full of soul and remorse and high-tension and pain)

Sunday, December 26, 2010



So, who was Valerie Solanas?  Attention-monger?  Determined revolutionary (she did make a "Manifesto" after all in total squalor)?  How about just a mixed-up broad... sorry, chick, babe, whatever us "Men" call women.  She was certainly not one thing, which was stupid.  And as well she wasn't full of shit either.  This leaves off the last point on the George Carlin 'Some People Are..." meter: fucking nuts.  She had a bad childhood, the flirtation of a career in psychology on the horizon with a degree, and then a play called "Up Your Ass", which she tried to get produced in New York City by Andy Warhol's Factory.  In the end, she put a slug in his torso, nearly killing him, and wound up in squalor after a stint in the loony bin.  Her fifteen minutes, or, to quote the *other* Warhol line, another famous person made every fifteen minutes "made" by him.  Fame, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.

Waaah, I was controlled by a fey man in a grey wig waah.
Mary Harron's film is tough and fiery in its spirit.  It captures the loose, too-cool-for-school attitude of the people at Warhol's clique-ish factory, which really looks more and more like a clique the more Valerie hangs around there.  She's like a refugee from a John Cassavetes movie (it was hard for me not to think of Gena Rowlands pestering people on the street in A Woman Under the Influence when Valerie does the same here, with that tough, blue-collar street-tough accent).  And like a character in a Cassavetes movie we almost take it for granted, at first, that she's a little crazy.  Valerie's on the fringes by an entirely existential reason: she could have a regular life and job and career.  Fat chance of that.  Work for the man - shit, *a* man?  She'll go down on them, or screw them for money, but connect with one?  Better yet are the drag queens, whom she can somewhat relate to.

Yes, that's Stephen Dorff.  Now move along.
The movie charts with a growing sense of agonizing dread that she won't get her work published - that is since she can't get her Euro-trash publisher's seemingly questionable contract out of her head - and that Warhol, who a) doesn't know how to put on a play and b) takes the advice of one of his 'factory girls' and decides not to go with it.  Warhol is a fascinating cat almost by his lack of character, a decided move (like the drag queen, he is "playing" a character almost all the time, Andy Warhol created by Andrew Warhola), and by being one of the ultimate passive-aggressives (more so former than latter).  He's played with an icy precision and detachment by Jared Harris.  He gets that this guy has an innocence to him, somewhere, but it's hidden behind an also too-cool-for-school put-on.  But hey, it's the 60's.  What can you do except, you know, make soup cans and try and be a Superstar and drag all of the hanger-ons with you, good and bad.

"Oh, wow, that's so amazing.  I'l just leech off you like a fungus until I'm through and need another wig."
Valerie, on the other hand, is such a curious, strange person because of how frank she is, and how troubling she becomes.  We want to feel sympathy for her, in some great part due to Lili Taylor's portrayal of her fractured mental state.  She might be drawn to being a 'Superstar' like Warhol would want, except that she doesn't fit into the mold of the usual "Superstar" that others in the Factory would want as she's not beautiful or a junkie or whatever.  And she doesn't fit in with the other revolutionaries, or rather doesn't tap into it; there's a painful if somewhat funny scene where she sees on TV a bunch of feminist protesters burning their bras and using sheep for symbolism.  "Why aren't I there, why am I not on TV?" she asks.  She finds this out the hard way when she does get on it, first by a trap she falls into by a snidely talk-show host, and secondly when she gets her fifteen minutes from shooting Warhol.

The other position that Harron takes with Solanas, one that had me respect the film very much, was not giving an easy point of view with her protagonist's worldview.  What she says about female repression by men, and how they've fucked up everything that's come about in the world, is not wrong, and that women have been put into a position for what seems like forever of expected roles, those that she thinks need to be broken.  Harron is more than sympathetic to tenets of her feminist ideology.  But she's also in way over her head, one step away (if not just) one of those bums on the street rambling on or, of course, panhandling, and Harron doesn't sugarcoat how messed up she really was.  There comes a point right before the film enters its third act that Solanas could have things going more her way.  The self-destructive edge, as happens to a lot of so-called or actual revolutionaries, gets in the way.

As a character study it really rocks, for lack of a better description, and as a feat of stylistic integrity its very solid as Harron naturally-cleverly mixes around realism with a fantastic sense of the Factory, of its decadence and overblown self-importance (that is she doesn't make it look it, her point of view reveals how shallow and stupid it could be as an overrated hang-out for The Pop Artist), and then with black and white images of Solanas giving her manifesto words to the camera.  In a sense I Shot Andy Warhol is the much darker and less satirical version of The King of Comedy, where a nobody tries to reach out to a somebody, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.