Friday, June 24, 2011

RIP Train - Peter Falk

"Today Peter Falk and Denis Leary went into a Starbucks and shot twenty-seven people... without any announcement whatsoever." (Denis Leary, 'Lock n Load')

I don't know if I have particularly strong feelings towards Peter Falk (weird how that sounds I know), but I do know he was a damn fine actor, from the obscure (Joseph Strick's The Balcony), to the long-running acclaimed iconic character (Columbo) to the real meaty acting parts with long-time collaborator John Cassavetes (Husbands and especially A Woman Under the Influence), and the occasional cameo (The Great Muppet Caper as the hobo who talks failed dry-cleaning businesses with Kermit on a part bench).  He died at 83, and while he didn't have a particularly strong end to his career - frankly, appearing in garbage like Corky Romano and mediocre Cage films like Next, with one exception I'll post below - his reputation as a Hollywood legend was pretty solid by the time he passed.'s to it.

still really need to see this one (and how oddly apt?):



Thursday, June 23, 2011

'Bout Damn Time - William Wyler's THE DESPERATE HOURS

While The Desperate Hours is written by Joseph Hayes from both a play AND a novel that he also wrote, it's hard not to see the film and not think, if one has also seen it, the 1936 film The Petrified Forest.  Twenty years apart in release, both films feature Humphrey Bogart as a no-nonsense-I'll-kick-your-fucking-teeth-in gangster who is on the run - previously he was Duke Mantee, a bank robber, young and full of vigor - and this time just got out of prison.  Both films has the man held up in one location, putting the people he's with at gun-point to do what he says or he'll plug em' full of holes, and all while waiting for a girl to come to pick him up.  Always with the dames.

Just another house.... or is it?  Actually, yeah it is, but the family...

For me it was fascinating to have that Archie Mayo film in mind while seeing this, and how much Bogart, while obviously older, without any less of the fear or terror he could put into people, only this time maturer and with his Glen Griffin with a couple other goons (one of which, the big galut Hal played by Dewey Martin, is his brother), holds up a family in a suburban Indiana town.  And more than that, Bogart, for what it's worth for him being the Goddamn Bogart, has a worthy adversary on screen with Frederic March playing a father of two and a husband who won't stand still for Griffin's taunts at the family and threats... until he has no choice really, and shows his fear.

"Hey, Captain Obvious, we get it!"

It should be a pretty fool-proof scheme for Griffin and his crew, to hang out at a very clean cut 1956 suburban home while the damn from Pittsburgh drives over to get them out of police lines, but it's not so easy when little occurrences come up: the daughter's boyfriend who has to be kept out of the loop, and to the point where he wonders what's gotten into the girl he loves; the little boy, Ralphie (played by an unusually great child actor, natural and incorrigible, Richard Eyer), who is the toughest of the whole family and doesn't get (till a gun is pointed at him) the severity of the situation; a delivery man in the morning who wonders why Mrs. Hilliard looks so pale, and then is even more surprised when Hal hijacks his truck as they drive away.

Don't make me break out the loogie, kid!

It's a tense kidnapping situation that is led by a character like Griffin (and through Bogart's usual composure his performance) with a mix of gruff brutishness and a kind of honor-code that he'll keep his word, and the script by Hayes turns the 1950's a little on its head.  A film like The Desperate Hours, like Nicholas Ray's also 1956 film Bigger Than Life, takes the "Common Suburban Family", the kind that sits at the table and minds there manners and where the wife makes the table and stays at home while the father reads the paper and Knows Best for junior, and strips the veneer just enough to see the raw and potential underneath.  What happens when the Average American Family becomes vulnerable?  To be sure this is an extreme example of being held hostage in one's home while criminals await a pick-up so as to get away from prison, but it does the job well to see the nerve endings of the Hilliard family in this situation - what humanity is left underneath.

There's some standard scenes in there too, like the police detective on the case doggedly trying to pursue the leads, make sure to track all calls going from this town to Pittsburgh and don't stop her just tail her oh no she's been put away for the night for speeding, and how this case goes through those motions with some tension in the department.  And there's some genuine suspense at what Mr. Hilliard (a very tense but pitch-perfect performance from March) will do next, such as when he's in his office and could alert someone, but how, and what way(?)  But it really comes down, at least in my opinion, to this struggle between the family and the criminals, and what Mr. Hilliard will actually *do* about this situation, and what fear really means when confronted with it.

This looks like a job for Superman.... maybe.

By the last ten minutes it becomes a down-to-the-second kind of scenario, and when the tables finally turn between Bogart and March it's hard to see it coming down any other way.  But what I liked near the end, what I didn't expect from Wyler, was just for a split moment giving (via Bogart being so cool when he can be) just a hint of sympathy when the gun is finally on him.  It's not spoken, and I may have read it wrong since Griffin is such a mean bad-ass character.  But is there anything else for him but doom in this scenario?  Maybe not.  And maybe The Desperate Hours works so well that way, as a solid, unpretentious thriller of its period that makes things so tightly wound.  Certainly its one of Bogart's late-period highlights, and a classic (if not perfect due to a few unnecessary scenes with the kids and some fretting from the wife) that should be seen by any film enthusiast of the period of American film.

(PS: Apparently the role was originated on stage by Paul Newman that Bogart plays, and some at the time thought he was miscast due to age.  If it'd been meant to be played young, yes, but boy were they wrong!(

KIDNAPPED (Secuestrados) review over @ Film-Forward

Yep, it's one of *those* kinds of movies, but in a good way!


Or, maybe not, but click it anyway and see what happens....

Always I'll wrestle with Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE

"Why are we here? What's life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Well, tonight, we're going to sort it all out.

For, tonight, is the meaning of life."
- Monty Python and the Meaning of Life

For the past week and a half or so (that is since the Friday after last) I've been wrestling within me the fifth feature film from 68 year old hermit-philosopher-king-auteur Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, and I have a grasp of what it is.  Arm's length, or maybe by a foot.  I don't know still, as other things keep happening in life to tear me away from the images and feelings and awe evoked from what Malick is exploring.  How to describe it?  Well, Roger Ebert does it pretty succinctly, and also relates it to his own experiences growing up as it almost seems to be a quasi-autobiography for him (if not in all the details than emotionall).  And Jim Emerson, Ebert's protege, also does a fantastic job of illustrating "how" to approach it.  I recommend reading both, though at your discretion depending on whether you've seen the film or not.

It's not wrong of them to do this.  This is deceptively dense AND simple filmmaking at the same time, much the same way Stanley Kubrick had done with his 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Only this time there's even less of a clear narrative than in that film, which really when one thinks back had a strong through-line up until (arguably) the last ten minutes via science fiction writing.  This time it's like opening up Malick's gigantic Notebook of Memories - akin perhaps to what I used to keep when I was in college, more like poetic/philosophical musings I never thought I'd share with anyone... maybe - and getting a look inside, as it goes through a human being's experience in life and something much bigger than anyone can really think about.

At first the film would appear to "be" about Jack (Sean Penn) working as an architect thinks back through time, first to his brother's death (is it a suicide or what is it?  Perhaps inspired, I can speculate somewhat morbidly, by Malick's own brother committing suicide when he was relatively young), then through his own childhood growing up in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's, living with his father and mother and learning how to live.

This is a logline, but what else "happens" in the film?  What's the story?  It's not a story so much as the "Story of Life" I suppose.  Usually there isn't a thru-line to life, though Malick does have certain things 'happen' like a character leaving to go off somewhere (like Jack's father, Mr. O'Brien, when he goes off "on business" that we don't know where), or when something happens like a physical accident like to Jack's brother out in the woods with a slingshot.

But as with Days of Heaven and other Malick Adventures, it's as much about memory as anything else, and how we piece together parts of life that matter, or that the parts that should be minor are the most significant (and you know, you reading this, that there is no such a thing as an insignificant memory, even the "boring" ones can have some meaning to them), and to a large extent how we fit into nature as a whole.  But more than that, at least for a little while, Malick means to make the Memory of the Universe or how it could be perceived into the framework of the picture.

::and cue Pink Floyd music in 3-2-1::

Like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia, Malick posits what the origin of the universe and Earth was like, only with better special effects and not-as-great music (though still very good) from Alexandre Desplait.  In the conventional terms these are extraordinary images, done with the kind of visual FX splendor that made me more at peace than anything in the past year.  And of course, as others have noted, there are dinosaurs.  (For a moment only, don't get excited Raptor Hunters).

From here it transitions to showing... well, not the rest of the creation of the universe, that might make this a little too long (or perhaps Terence Malick's six-hour director's cut which will probably see the light of day on DVD if at all).  It then goes on to show Jack's early life, first through his parent's courtship, then his birth with the now semi-iconic image of his feet being held and pondered by Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and then just being a baby, in his crib, being held and coddled by his Mother Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain, a quasi-reborn image of Liv Ullmann perhaps in American form), and even being told 'No' at doing a little thing as he plays that he shouldn't do.

Then from a baby he's a child, with another baby in the crib, and then another.  Now as a regular child with his brothers, running around and playing, or being at the dinner table with his not-one-to-mince-words father saying grace, asking later in the day for a match for his tobacco (one of those minor details I love in films, not just here), and continuing on with being a boy, going to church, exploring around the areas of the woods and streets, being put on to 'be a man' and hit his father to learn how to protect himself, and so on.

... and so on and so on.  What I've described should sound like there is a story here, and maybe there is.  But it's one that is more felt than expressed.  There is the narration from the boy played by Hunter McCraken, but it's done in whispering, as if he's telling us a secret of some kind (or maybe it's from the subconscious or a cinema-conscious or something-something, like in Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her).  They're thoughts about the past, as if it's too sacred, even (or especially) the little things about a moment of time or just an observation, like when Young Jack passes by in town a criminal being put into the back of a car to be taken away.

It's a mind and state of narration that is not describing what we're seeing on the screen (though it is) so much as it's figuring things out in its own way.  What is life but trying to figure out how to live, or how other people tell us to live, or what we do that could be wrong or right or just the way it is?  Or what attitudes go with each parent, as they each love their own way.

Maybe I'm ruminating here a little, but that's the state of self I felt watching the better part of this movie.  How it's shot is also crucial; Emmanuel Lubezki's camera glides along, sometimes noticeably hand-held and sometimes not, like a bird following along (or, dare I be pretentious enough, a God-like spirit of some kind, or just memory itself floating through pockets of time), and he as with the director are interested in these people being apart of the Earth (a friend of mine pointed out it's like a complimentary sense of geometric shapes of the people, which kind of goes above my head), and what really is faith.

::baby's first thought:: "Neck!"

I liked that the camera wasn't always sure where it would land on a scene or a moment; in a sense Malick is finding his way along with the characters, and there's a thrill for a little while in seeing this discovery of cinema taking place.  That and the actors, given what they have who are characters not fully formed but perhaps with some backstory (i.e. Mr. O'Brien being a failed musician who now works at the local factory-plant and maybe has some bitterness), give convincing, real performances.

For a while I did love the movie... yet there was a point, and I could sort of feel it as it was happening, which is a scene where Young Jack, following his father leaving off on business (this coming off of the big family row that happens after a lunch-table confrontation, one of the few times we see Mr. O'Brien really get pissed), goes into a house.  It seems abandoned, or that no one is just there at the present, and he roams around, and comes across a dress.

He brings the dress to bury it or get rid of it, so instead he puts it in a river.  From here the film takes on a period of time that shouldn't feel too different from the loose-structure of the rest of the 1950's Waco scenes, as Young Jack wanders about his days ruminating and playing and wondering about his place in the world or with his family... and for the life of me, I started to tire of it.  There is so much in the first two thirds of the film that works so well, the opening crisis-of-existence with the death of the brother and the adult life in a period of questioning, the 'Origins' section that is so masterful, and those passages of childhood that feel real and moving.

But after so long - and while it's two hours and sixteen minutes they feel longer as it's such a collection of scenes and moments less than a full story - I just started to think 'enough already', though not to the point where I was so done with it as to leave or whatever.  There just seemed to be a certain point that Malick, perhaps unconsciously, was leading towards with his non-narrative, but then the non-narrative kept on going.

The childhood scenes do find a point of closure, with leaving the home due to something that's come up for Mr. O'Brien (wisely, we're not told really why, and like many other moments it's heard but not shown spoken), and then it flashes ahead back to Adult Jack scenes with the much adrift-looking Sean Penn.  It's also at this point Malick decides to make his BIG ending, which has the air about it like the ending of the TV show LOST only double the WTF factor: everyone, main characters and those in the background of the Waco scenes, coming to meet on a beach.

What is this?  Why is this happening?  Is it Malick's main statement on what happens "after" now that we've seen what's come before the Earth as we know it and the Earth during (or during 'his' time)?  I still am not sure.  Maybe a revisit will help, or two or four or more.  Maybe I should be glad that I'm challenged at the end with such a quandary that has no real words spoken, just people coming together, bodies intermingling, the beach and ocean as a kind of tide bringing people out to sea at the end of things - or a 'new beginning' as it could be... Or it's just the pretentious I-don't-know-what finishing icing that would give those who find the film already a slog to get through an unpleasant "artsy" traipsing through the afterworld or some other such bullshit.

It's still beautifully shot - maybe too much so, as if the cosmos is supposed to look like a commercial for pain medication - and there's a question mark that is enticing to the proceedings of a closing shot of a bridge (or that, as a possibility, it's all been in adult Jack's head the whole time).  Yet I can't shake how so much of The Tree of Life affected me like going through the levels of happiness and pain that makes up a life, and what our position is in it?

There is the "Bigger" out there of space and how we're really just made of stars or whatever, and that dinosaurs did much the same as us.  And then there's just how we live to day to day, what little moral challenges we come up against, how we cope in a family and love one another, and what grief really means.  After the death of the brother a priest or reverend comes up to Mrs. O'Brien.  "He's with God know."  "He was always with God, wasn't he?" she responds.  Maybe.  Maybe not.

I'll love to come back to this film, even as I find it imperfect and, mostly in its last twenty minutes or so, messy and not able to find its way.  Maybe that will endear me to it even more, or I'll just come to love the cinematography that much more and how vividly Malick and Lubezki and his composer Desplait capture 1950's Waco.  Life is just full of maybe's, isn't it?

Postscript: any additional feelings or thoughts on a repeat viewing in theaters I'll either add to this blog as an addendum, or make up another blog altogether if it's such a strong thing to cope with.  Also, this film has only some relation to another Big Tree in a film, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, though it's been a while since I've dipped into that mind-fuck pool.