Friday, September 30, 2005

New York Stories

At David Quimby's behest, I rented this movie on Netflix and watched it the morning before my evening flight to Paris. I thought it would be a fitting end to my wonderful summer in New York City, a tribute to my time there, a period to put at the end of that particular sentence of my life story. Having watched it, however, I am comfortable in saying that this movie should never have been made.

A collaborative effort by Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen, the movie is overwhelmingly uneven. The film is divided into three segments, each directed by one of the above. It all starts well with "Life Lessons," the Scorcese segment about a successful but neurotic painter (Nick Nolte) living in SoHo, who uses his studio and the offer of "life lessons" as a means to bag young women to serve as his assistants/live-in lovers. It's a neverending exercise in self-torture for both parties, the girl (Rosanna Arquette, in this case) kowtows to the older, wiser painter until she realizes that he's really no more than a little boy with a paintbrush, at which point the tables are turned and he plays the fool for her until she kicks him to the curb, whereupon he washes his hands of her in a shower of tears and goes on to find the next girl. Humorously and touchingly written, fantastically and innovatively shot in a way that only Scorcese could pull off, and set to a great soundtrack, this segment gives high hopes for the rest of the film.

The next segment, Coppola's "Life without Zoe," however, immediately dashes those hopes to the ground. Co-written with his then 18 year-old daughter Sofia, this piece is tantamount to a cinematic Take your Daughter to Work Day. The story is about a prepubescent Upper East Side princess and simply shouldn't have been written. Sofia was only a teenager at the time and she's more than made up for it with Lost in Translation, but Daddy should have known better.

The final piece, Woody Allen's "Oedipus Wrecks" is something of a recovery (anything would look good coming after Coppola's piece), but in comparison to his other work it's disappointingly one-dimensional. A farce about overbearing Jewish mothers, this short film is the kind of self-hating Jew schlock that only encourages modern-day anti-Semitism.

It's an interesting idea to get a few distinctly New York directors together to make a tribute to the city, each focusing on his/her own neighborhood and lifestyle, but the city and these directors are all too big to limit to just one third of a movie. Scorcese did another movie about SoHo in the 1980s called After Hours that, while of an entirely different style (his one and only comedy), does a better job of encapsulating the atmosphere of Lower Manhattan during that time. Coppola isn't really the New York director that the other two are, but if you want to see his take on the city's overpriveleged elite, look no further than the first two Godfather films. As for Woody Allen, you can take your pick, but for a love song to New York, go with Manhattan. For a great New York comedy, watch Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Just, whatever you do, don't watch New York Stories.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Normally, American movies have a delayed release in Europe. The last time I was in France, I had to wait several anxious, hand-wringing months to see the second installment of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. It was therefore quite a pleasant surprise to find Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang already out in theaters in Paris, when it's not due for release in America until October 21.

Robert Downey, Jr. plays Harry Lockhart, a two-bit New York thief (and our narrator) who accidentally stumbles into an audition for a Hollywood movie and earns a shot at a part as a private eye. The producers fly him out to the Coast and set him up with detective lessons from the rapier-tongued and mean-witted Perry Van Shrike (Val Kilmer). Of course, when Perry takes Harry out on a case that's supposed to be boring and routine, they end up witnessing the disposal of a dead body and, before they know it, they're embroiled in a murder plot (not to mention a romantic subplot with a long lost love from Harry's hometown). Perry being gay - the producers refer to him as Gay Paris (French pronunciation), which went over well with the audience here - adds a fun and interesting spin to the film's take on the buddy genre without being just an excuse to throw in a bunch of gay jokes.

In some ways, the movie is formulaic - it has to be or there would be no story - but it's also incredibly subversive.
Black (for whom this is a winning debut directorial effort after a long and mixed career as an action film screenwriter) brings out every trope of film noir genre and then turns it squarely on its head. The real detective is gay and thus doesn't get the girl because he doesn't want the girl, but nonetheless he's far tougher than the straight protagonist. Melodramatic dialogue standard to 40s and 50s detective movies wiggles its way into the film, but the delivery is overwrought and ironic. Like lots of other films noirs, there's a voice-over narration, but Harry doesn't just break the fourth wall orally. He is not only the film's narrator, it seems, but also its editor and his editing style matches his stuttering, nervous storytelling; he frequently stops the film, backtracks, and starts over, introduces admittedly "fictional" elements to his story as a point of self-mockery, and even writes and draws on the screen to better direct the viewer's attention.

What's most subversive, however, is the joke that Black's movie actually plays on itself. A spoof of hardbitten detective movies and pulp fiction, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is a black comedy, but the movie even turns on that genre. Robert Downey, Jr.'s Harry is more than just a bumbling loser hero blindly tripping his way through life à la Mr. Bean. Harry's self-deprecating humor - as delivered both verbally and visually - is a defense mechanism and, reminiscent of Black's past work on the original Lethal Weapon, occasionally his façade cracks, revealing that a lot of this stuff isn't really funny and also that Downey is still one hell of an actor.

In a way, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the perfect contemporary American film for a contemporary French audience. It's an up to date film noir: the kind of good old-fashioned L.A. detective movie that fascinated the French so much as to kick start the New Wave forty years ago. Like today's France, the movie is a reinterpretation of an old genre, respectful of its roots but also willing to make light of them. Even out of the context of a Parisian movie theater, however, this film is a winner and well worth a night out at the movies, even in
America.

Note: I normally use my posts' title link to point to the appropriate page on the
IMDB, but there's not much up there because the movie's not out yet in the U.S., so I've linked to the film's trailer on the Apple site instead. I think it does the film far better justice.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Four Los Angeles county sheriffs and a German shepherd

Last night, for the first time in a good long while, I watched Reservoir Dogs. Like most movies I really like, I'd begun to take it for granted that it was a great movie and no longer gave any thought to what made it so. Seeing it again (for the first time), I realized that, other than a weirdly sloppy deep-focus shot about three quarters of the way in, the movie is basically perfect. I'm of the opinion that, generally speaking, acting in a movie is not quite as important as most viewers think it is. Above all, film is an artistic medium; it is a marriage of picture and sound in which the actors are little more than another of the director's tools. Whether he was aware of it at the time or not (I can't say for sure), Tarantino made a brilliant move by completely subverting this notion and actually making Reservoir Dogs about performance.

In addition to serving as a showcase for marvelous acting jobs by all involved, the film's story is itself about acting. None of the robbers participating in the heist know each other, so they're all trying to act as tough as possible in order to impress one another. Acting. Additionally, they're all going by fake names in order to preserve the secrecy of their identities. They are each pretending to be Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Blonde, or whatever color it is they've been assigned. Acting. On top of that, Mr. Orange is an undercover cop, so he's doing twice the acting that everyone else is. He's pretending to be a criminal who's pretending to keep his identity secret. For this role, he rehearses, learns lines, and otherwise works to get into character.

At no point is this element of performance more clear than during the episode surrounding the commode story. Orange's boss makes him memorize "an amusing anecdote" about a drug deal that he can repeat to the criminals he's trying to win over and the manner in which the film illustrates Orange's process of learning and then recounting the story is nothing short of brilliant. Orange's boss, with all his idiosyncracies - his penchant for bandanas, communist iconography, open vests, and oddly colorful meeting places - and his flair for the dramatic, seems much less like a law enforcement officer and much more like a theatre person. Like a true director, he molds Orange into the perfect actor; the story becomes so real to Orange that when he finally tells it to the group of criminals he's trying to infiltrate, he can actually see himself in the story, acting out the words that he's worked so hard to memorize. When he describes his emotions, however - something that takes time in the process of the storytelling but, in the real-time of the story takes less than a second to act out - it's the Mr. Orange in the story who takes over the narration, describing his "character's" emotions to the other fictional characters in the story. In this move, Orange embodies the character of the film; he makes the story more real for himself by actually making it about his performance rather than the events of the story.

There are other cool performative elements to the film, but it would take far too long to describe them all. Tarantino's work is a constant invitation to this type of analysis, which I suppose is what makes him a great writer/director. The viewer continues to enjoy the film long after it's over.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Here Lies Cinema

It's no secret that movie theater attendance is dwindling in respect to DVD sales. Americans, it seems, would much rather watch movies in the comfort of their own homes while enjoying all of the special features offered by most DVDs, rather than allow Clearview, Loews, and the like to swindle them into paying exorbitant prices to watch a half hour of commercials before watching the feature amidst ringing cell phones and spilled popcorn (also exorbitantly priced). It's hard not to see their point of view.

The above linked article by Christopher Parkes in the Financial Times (of which, sadly, you can only see an excerpt unless you're a subscriber. No worries, it's no great work of journalism; I'm just using it as a jumping off point, really.) also cites the overwhelming glut of uninspired sequels and rehashed comic book movies (he better not be talking about Batman Begins) as a cause for the drop in ticket sales.

While both of these are understandable reasons to not want to go to the movies (I personally still cannot accustom myself to paying more than $7 for a ticket. Call me old fashioned.), there is still something magic about watching a movie on a big screen. The lights go down and, if the movie's any good, you're transported to a different time and place where you live someone else's life for a while. Watching a movie at home, no matter how good your entertainment system may be, just doesn't do that. The simple knowledge that you have the power to pause the movie, freezing the on-screen action for as long as you like, is enough to ruin the illusion.

Perhaps the commercialization of American cinema has robbed us of our innocence - the aforementioned commercials have stolen all the magic from that moment when the film projector kicks into life - and we can no longer summon up the childlike wonder we once felt when spending an evening at the movies. Maybe we've just become members of the cult of convenience and we'd rather not leave our homes during our hard-won free time. Whatever the cause, I don't like it. Cinema may be dead (or at least dying) in America, but it's alive and well elsewhere.

In a few days, I'm moving to Paris, where moviegoing is more than just a weekend diversion; it's a way of life. Whereas arthouse cinematheques like the Film Forum in NYC are dwindling in America, they are alive and well in Paris (often referred to by film scholars as Cin City) and I intend to go to all of them. Check back to read about my observations.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Nashville

If it's Robert Altman's trademark to direct large, ensemble-cast films, then Nashville is his flagship production. There are twenty-four significant speaking parts in the film, many of them played by high profile actors. The truly amazing thing, however, is that none of them ever really holds center stage for more than a moment or two; the spotlight consistently returns to the constantly churning collective that is the entirety of the production itself.

The story focuses on the goings-on during a long weekend in the title city of Nashville, Tennessee. There are far too many characters to list and describe here. Suffice it to say that there are two parallel themes running throughout the film: music (primarily country, regrettably) and politics. Nashville was and is the nation's country music capital and politically Tennessee is - in the film, at least - something of a modern-day Ohio in that it almost always (only once did it not) goes to the winning presidential candidate. Nashville, Tennessee is the ideal arena in which either a musical or political contender would try to make a name for him/herself, but, as the films shows, when every person is trying to stand out as an individual, they each become imperceptible in the swarm.

There are, of course, a few exceptions to the rule. In spite of all the competition, country stars Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) and political spin doctor John Triplette (Michael Murphy) stand out prominently from the crowd, but, like everyone else, they remain resolutely unindividual. Rather than exercising a certain authority due to their prominence, they merely have responsibilities; they are more like slaves than rulers. When Haven introduces Barbara Jean with the preface "Nashville's own" in the beginning, his words bear a more literal meaning than he realizes. As a performer, her celebrity is far more of a duty than a privelege; she is at the whim of her admiring public and, essentially, she is their property.


Similarly, John Triplette is nowhere near as important as an individual as he is for what he represents. As prominent a physical role he plays in the plot of the movie, his significance to the story derives itself entirely from his connection to Hal Phillip Walker, a mysterious third-party presidential candidate who never appears on screen. Through the use of wit and finesse, Triplette charms his way into the people of Nashville's good graces, but he's little more than a salesman; as far as everyone else is concerned, he's not a real person but rather just the embodiment of Walker's interests. Like Haven Hamilton and Barbara Jean with country music, it is not his personality that defines the character of his political party (the fictional Replacement Party), but rather the political party that defines his actions and behavior.

As such, Triplette, Hamilton, and Barbara Jean (it's impossible to separate the one name from the other) are little more than placeholders; they have risen to their prominent positions entirely by chance and are sure to be replaced the moment they step down. Even though both politics and popular music are founded upon a certain cult of individual personality, the collective character of the movements in question far supersedes that of the individuals who stand as their figureheads.

If there is any truly significant individual, it is the man who works behind the scenes. The most important characters in this movie, therefore, they are Hal Philip Walker and Robert Altman himself. Neither of them ever appear on screen, but they are both far more important to the story of the film than any of the on-screen characters. However, while Walker uses his power to draw attention to himself - or at least his name - Altman does not. He simply diffuses the viewer's attention across the entire film, thus preventing any one actor or actress from stealing the show. Distinct from most contemporary films, Nashville - like most of Altman's other works - is not simply a showcase for a celebrity or two; the actors are merely the paint to Altman's paintbrush and his style of direction insists - justifiably and successfully - upon the viewer's recognition that his films are indeed art.

Being no fan of country music, I find it regrettable that Altman had to choose it as the subject matter with which he would strike a blow against the cult of the individual and demonstrate the almost ethereal strength of culture and politics. As the two-and-a-half hour movie began, I steeled myself against the upcoming onslaught of country and I can't say my appreciation for the genre has grown any since watching the film. Nonetheless, Altman's presentation of the subject matter was so subtly pervasive that, upon the movie's end, when the appropriately anonymous character of Albuquerque stands up and sings "It Don't Worry Me" before the largest audience presented in the film, I actually found myself singing along.

Monday, September 12, 2005

"I hope you have a big trunk, because I'm puttin' my bike in it."

The 40 Year Old Virgin: Not a date movie.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Why I Like Sports Movies Better Than Sports Themselves

I am not a sports fan. That's not to say that I don't like sports; I do. I just don't have the patience and the zeal to religiously follow a team's standings every single day. I enjoy a good game (especially football) every once in a while, but I'm simply not a fan. I have trouble identifying with a team in order to truly care about how they perform; more often than not they're either a completely anonymous and personality-less group of athletes (most football teams) or they have such a ridiculously over-constructed identity as to rival that of a professional wrestler (the Boston Red Sox).

Sports movies, however, when they're done well, offer up teams with strong personalities without, ironically enough, imbuing the viewer/fan with a sense of having his/her emotions manipulated. We grow to love our team's collection of personalities before they become winners and when they enter competition after a rough training period we have to suffer with them before they win out in the end (as we know they will) and, in so doing, we become their fans.

I've just now watched Andre Agassi lose to Roger Federer in the U.S. Open final round and I'm disappointed because, for the first time since I was a child, I was a fan. Watching the Open this summer, I couldn't help but succumb to the infectious charm and energy of Andre Agassi, who, like the protagonists of a sports movie, overcame all odds to reach the final round at the ripe old age of 35. Uncharacteristically, I found myself pumping my fist in the air at every point earned and slamming my hand against the nearest hard surface with a disappointed "Godammit, Andre!" at every single unforced error.

I suppose it's because he's a single person and not a team that I managed to become one of Agassi's many fans. If he weren't the only one out there, his enthusiasm and boyish smile wouldn't have meant nearly as much. Either way, I don't expect to be as much of a fan again for a good long while. Or at least until the next good sports movie comes out.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Hunger

Last night, on the recommendation of my friend Jenna, I rented and watched The Hunger. She sold me on the idea with three basic points: (1) it's a vampire movie, (2) it stars Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon, and (3) there is a lesbian sex scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

I love vampire movies. Unlike most other movies of the horror genre, vampire movies tend to have a certain erotic beauty to them. Zombies, mummies, and other monsters are ugly and basically all they want to do is kill you in as grotesque a way as possible. I admit, this style of horror can be fun, but vampires are so much more aesthetically pleasing. They move with grace, they tend to wear very stylish clothes, and their porcelain skin portrays a youthful beauty frozen in time. Basically, they're fashion models who can't go out into the sun and might one day kill you. Basically they're fashion models.

And they kill you by sucking your blood! I can imagine a no more sensuous and erotic way to die. The hunger they feel is a kind of lust, a bloodlust, and, more often than not, they lead up to their final kiss of death with a bit of very intense foreplay. A vampire would be the best and last lover you'd ever have. The "petit mort" that the vampire would give you would in fact be death itself.

Clearly, I was sold mostly on the first point, but the cast - especially Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie - were a major factor, as well. Frankly, I took the lesbian sex scene as a given.

For a vampire movie, the plot is somewhat unique. There's a bit of an Egyptian twist to the mythology and, blasphemously enough, the vampires can go out in daylight, but I still found it fairly boring. While the story is not formulaic, it's certainly not gripping either; it moves rather slowly and doesn't bother to express itself well with all the time that it takes.

What Jenna didn't say when she recommended this movie was who directed it. Therefore, I only understood afterwards - when I discovered that the director was Tony Scott (brother of Ridley) - why it seemed to be so heavily influenced by Blade Runner, which had just come out the previous year. Poor Tony quotes his brother so heavily - diagonal shafts of penetrating light in airless, dusty rooms; excessive cross-cutting between the present and the characters' memories - that one wonders if he has his own vision at all. It's all very beautiful in its own way, but it doesn't really say anything.

The movie is really more of a music video than anything else, which, I suppose, makes it a fairly fitting vampire movie to come from the 1980s: a lot of glitz and visual splendor, but little to no substance. Thankfully, Tony (who must have loved that his name was more "normal" than his brother's when they were growing up, but probably hates it now) has since moved out of his brother's shadow and has a few decent movies of his own (Top Gun, Spy Game) under his belt. Maybe now he can give the vampire genre another try.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Outraged Frustration

I just finished writing what I considered to be a particularly insightful post about Robert Altman's Nashville, clicked the publish button, and walked away from the computer, and returned only to find that the page had not loaded correctly and I'd lost everything I'd written.

I'm sure I'll come back to the topic sometime in the near future, but in the meantime please believe two things: first, that Nashville is a very good movie and it behooves you to rent it immediately and, second, that I have some very profound thoughts on the topic.

Thank you.