Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brinks of Madness (Little Murders and Phantom of the Paradise)

Alan Arkin's Little Murders (1971) and Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (1974) are more than a pair of near-forgotten relics from the 70s; they're what Bill Ryan might call "Well, then" movies. Each teeters on the edge of insanity and seem impossible to evaluate in rational terms, to the point where "Well, then" is the only proper response.

Little Murders, Arkin's directorial debut, is adapted from Jules Feiffer's darkly comic play about random violence and urban paranoia. I wouldn't say Arkin has opened up the production so much as he brings the city to the stage. Muggings, burglaries, black-outs and stray bullets occur at frequent intervals and bring together a mismatched NYC couple. Alfred (Elliot Gould) responds by closing in on his own shell, while Patsy (Marcia Rodd) stays relentlessly upbeat and determined to change things -- especially Alfred himself. "I love the man I want to mold you into" is one of her funnier lines, and like the best of Feiffer's dialogue it contains more than a few grains of truth.

I can't say I loved Little Murders as much as Ed Howard did. Like most actors who venture behind the camera, Arkin fares better with the performances than staging, though the latter isn't bad. (He had just starred in Catch-22, and this movie seems heavily influenced by Mike Nichols's flair for surrealism.) Rarely have I seen a leading man say and do as little as Gould says and does here: he's an immobile object. Yet it's an amusing performance, not a lazy one; and he has one moment of genuine pathos, when he responds to another character's death by crawling into a corner. Donald Sutherland, Gould's co-star from M*A*S*H, has a hilarious cameo as the hippie-minister who performs Alfred and Patsy's wedding ceremony that takes a few unconventional turns. While a few of the actors shout their lines, Sutherland puts a wry spin on his. Watching him here made me re-appreciate what a unique and subtle actor he is, a master of the change-up pitch while everyone else is trying to throw heat.

Surprisingly Arkin himself, one of our greatest comic actors, gives a poorly calibrated performance as a high-strung detective. But the trio playing Patsy's deliriously chipper, unhinged family -- Vincent Gardenia, Elizabeth Wilson, and Jon Korkes -- are the highlight of the film, a forerunner to the lunatic Schlichtings in David O. Russell's Flirting with Disaster.  Gardenia is as grand a ham as always. But special mention goes to Wilson, who was Benjamin Braddock's mother in The Graduate and here gets a showcase for her mastery of repressed hysteria. She's remarkable.

I didn't participate in Tony Dayoub's De Palma-thon for a fundamental reason: I'm not a fan. While I like a handful of De Palma films (Blow Out, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, the entertainingly sleazy Femme Fatale), the bulk of his work either leaves me cold or has me ducking for cover. The excellence of the entries on Dayoub's site prompted me to give some of De Palma's earlier films another look, and while there are elements to admire I'm not convinced he's the master satirist his admirers make him out to be. For a supposed control freak, there's often something out of whack with the tone of his movies, as if he's unaware of his own effects.

Case in point, Phantom of the Paradise, De Palma's update of The Phantom of the Opera by way of Faust, is all over the place between those two poles. Its hero, the songwriter Winston (William Finley), has his musical compositions stolen by evil record producer Swan (Paul Williams) and is horribly disfigured, but returns to haunt the "Paradise," Swan's lavish musical palace set to open. Winston dons a cape and what appears to be some kind of bedpan, which understandably repels the woman he falls in love with (Jessica Harper), a singer who becomes the main attraction at the Paradise.

Phantom of the Paradise has the high energy of a well-made shoestring production. (It will be interesting to see if De Palma can repeat it if his planned bigger-budget remake comes to fruition.) There is a sense of mischief as well as an indication of mass quantities of drugs consumed behind the scenes. What I don't detect is a deeper statement or even a real purpose for the movie's existence, which is perfectly fine. Phantom of the Paradise didn't leave me cold. It just made me say, as it reached its over-the-top end, "Well, then!"

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Date Which Shall Live in Infamy

The Man From Porlock commenced blogging two years ago to the day: September 22, 2007. My first post, a long-winded defense of The Graduate, managed to contain at least one thought worth repeating: What I responded to immediately in that film (and still do) is how it evokes "the possibilities of cinema." Similarly, the possibilities of online criticism have opened doors that the print media, to its detriment, still hasn't fully grasped. I'm not without sympathy toward the original form. My first real job was at a professional newspaper; I've even been paid twice for cultural critiques in The Chronicle Review. I got hooked on reading movie reviews in my teens and I'm still hooked today. Some print critics are still worth reading, but the hard truth is that Internet criticism is now heads and tails more topical, versatile and stimulating than its hard-copy counterpart. The creation of this blog was a modest yet overt effort to go where the action is. To contribute to the discussion. 200 or so posts later, I hope in some small way to have accomplished this.

Marking my 2nd anniversary will be equally unassuming: no "Here are links to 18 posts that inexplicably nobody commented on!" from yours truly. I'm always grateful when anyone takes time to leave a comment, and frequently surprised about what provokes a response. A year and half ago, my pan of the little-seen indie comedy Rocket Science stirred an angry rebuttal from an anonymous reader. And little did I guess that my latest post, a snarky doodle about Legends of the Fall, would prompt some impassioned defenses. Of course I'm susceptible to compliments and have been inspired by the generally positive response to my stuff, especially those longer "think-pieces" every few months when I have a bug up my ass about a topic and need to vent. I appreciate the huzzahs when you think they're warranted. But I hope it's clear that I enjoy disagreement too.

I want to extend thanks to everyone who has ever posted a comment, with special acknowledgements for regular FoPs (Friends of Porlock) Jason Bellamy, Ed Howard, Fox, Hokahey, Edward Copeland, Steven Santos, and Fernando Croce. Relative newcomers (for me) FilmDr, Kevin J. Olson, Adam Zanzie, and others have also contributed vitally to the general discussion. Additionally, I want to thank Helen, Mary, Caius, Robin, and the many incarnations of Mr. & Mrs. "JD," a handful of real-life friends and family who are aware of my double-life on these pages and stop by to visit now and then. (Helen has also contributed as a guest-blogger and will hopefully do so again.) If you are a regular reader that has never commented, that's okay too. You have my deepest gratitude.

Except for the aforementioned, The Man From Porlock came into being largely due to the absence of real-world counterparts who shared my enthusiasm for movies. (Which is more than fair; I suspect many of them have eked out private domains for their own obsessions.) I spent about a year leaving the occasional comment at The House Next Door before a "Close-Up Blogathon" finally spurred me to build an online home. (I was inspired enough to make not one, but two contributions to that blogathon.) For this, as well as providing several "Links of the Day" to my stuff in its tenuous early months, Matt Zoller Seitz is an indirect founder of this blog. More currently, Keith Uhlich has welcomed my sporadic contributions to The House and has been a constant source of encouragement. Thank you, Matt and Keith.

Readers can expect more of the same over the coming year. (A cause of personal amusement in looking back was my initially frenetic pace: about 15 posts per month. That's dwindled to approximately 8 or 9, a more reasonable number for my own time, energy and sanity, so thanks for your patience between posts.) Two things that I think more or less distinguish The Man From Porlock are A) comparisons between different films or media; and B) forays into television and the odd book. The Fall TV Season promises more of the latter and I'm looking forward to delving into my favorites again. That said, movies will undoubtedly occupy the majority of my attention. They are my passion and always will be. The day they stop being so will be the day I stop writing.

Not gonna happen any time soon.

Onto Year 3!



Saturday, September 19, 2009

Positively Zwickian!

"I don't get Brad Pitt, do you?" Pauline Kael asks her interviewer in the book Afterglow, as she rattles off her likes and dislikes among actors. Jeez, lady, what's not to get? He's a rare Hollywood superstar who (relatively speaking) doesn't seem to take himself too seriously, who is aging gracefully into his 40s, who comes across happiest and strongest as a performer when cast in spry support. He was sexy and jaunty in Thelma & Louise, ingratiatingly manic in Twelve Monkeys, energetically dim-witted in Burn After Reading, wry and self-mocking in Inglourious Basterds. How many other A-list celebs would have agreed to what is essentially a background character in Raine, would have willingly played most of his part in the tavern scene as an offscreen voice, would have sported a ridiculous Italian accent? ("Bawn-jerno!") Pitt's best roles take advantage of the fact that he's a scene-stealing bit player trapped in a leading man's body. His worst put his handsome mug front and center and ask him to do nothing but pose like a pinup boy.

Which brings us to Legends of the Fall. Anybody recall this film? It was released in 1994, as Pitt's star was rising and filmmakers were still figuring out what to do with him. Neil Jordan botched the job in Interview with the Vampire (though, in fairness, he had an equally miscast Tom Cruise to contend with). Yet Robert Redford had directed him well in A River Runs Through It, preserving Pitt's smartassiness while bringing out a hitherto untapped sensitivity. Legends of the Fall is A River Runs Through It run amuck. It adds one extra brother, replaces Tom Skerritt's flawed but caring patriarch with Anthony Hopkins' more overbearing version, ramps up the familial angst, and bloats itself into (so it believes) a tragic American epic.

I caught about 20 minutes of Legends this week while flipping past Oxygen, and it's even more horrendous than I remembered. (If ever there was a movie for the Oxygen Channel, this is it.) I had forgotten that Pitt's character was named Tristan, and that he is the type of turn-of-the-century Harlequin stud with flowing golden locks that was mocked at the start of Romancing the Stone. I had forgotten that Pitt along with his two sibling, older Aidan Quinn and younger Henry Thomas, all fall in love with the same woman (Julia Ormond, whose appealing and natural flintiness was airbrushed during this period in a misguided attempt to make her an ingenue). All also go to war -- the First WW -- where their wounds are distributed with dour predictability: Quinn's are physical; Pitt's psychic; and Thomas's lead to his untimely death. Legends of the Fall is the kind of movie where the baby brother with the doe-eyed fiance back home isn't just shot; he's ground into mincemeat by a German machine-gun. Any illusions left over from Glory that Edward Zwick was a competent director were quickly dispelled by this unintentionally hilarious, tone-deaf scene, only one among many.

But wait, there's more. After Henry Thomas becomes machine-gun fodder, Pitt isn't happy. No siree. He feels responsible, but more than that he feels that the Jerries are responsible, and he's primed for vengeance. Heroic Man Of Nature that he is, he slips into the tent of a Native American compatriot, apparently confiscates a knife, puts on war-paint and ambushes the pair of Germans. (Note: I wasn't paying complete attention during the tent scene, so please correct any errors of assumption.) Then, after slitting the poor bastards' throats, Pitt scalps them. It's unclear precisely what he does with the scalps but Ormond is undoubtedly drawn to his psychotic machismo so they must have done the guy some good. (There's a later scene where he waked from a nightmare and puts a knife to her throat. If that's not a turn-on, I don't know what is.) Pitt and Quinn return home for the interminable second half of the picture, and I changed the channel.

Pitt would work with Hopkins again in the somnambulant Meet Joe Black. (Directed by self-deluded auteur Martin Brest -- never has a director demanded so many takes for such meager results.) And he recently appeared with Ormond in Benjamin Button, though they share no scenes. I'm tempted to deem Legends of the Fall his worst film, yet the scalping scene gives me pause. What do you think: Is Legends a forgotten favorite of Tarantino's? Are we overlooking the Zwickian influence on his work? 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Old Dogs, New Tricks (Tetro and Redbelt)

I desperately wanted to like Tetro, the new Francis Ford Coppola film starring Vincent Gallo and Alden Ehrenreich as estranged American siblings abroad in Buenos Aires. Who doesn't? It's a testament to the reach of his epochal work from three decades ago that every Coppola movie still instills hope for another classic -- or at least a good movie. His last picture, the metaphysical time-travel fantasy Youth Without Youth (2007), I quite enjoyed despite not knowing what the hell was going on. The movie was anchored by Tim Roth's inventive performance as an old man who gets struck by lightning and begins aging backwards, and it featured startling images like Roth's rotting teeth abruptly falling out to give way to new ones. The (mostly) Rumanian setting was given a lustrous vibrancy by cinematographer Mihai Milaimare, Jr.; and Coppola, who had become a notorious trailer-dweller on his increasingly fewer sets over the years, concerned with technique above all else, seemed more engaged with his characters and narrative than he had in ages. Youth Without Youth received mixed reviews, to put it mildly, but in retrospect it does more with its concept than the thematically similar Benjamin Button failed to achieve. (Now there's a picture that's hermetically sealed.) More than a few critics I respect recommended Youth Without Youth and thought highly enough of Tetro that I decided to give that film a shot too.

Tetro begins as a much more accessible movie, focusing on Bennie's (Ehrenreich) quest to reunite with his expatriate older brother Angelo (Gallo). Years earlier, Angelo, a talented writer, had a nervous breakdown and fled to Argentina, where he lives with his almost-wife Miranda (Maribel Verdu) and mans the lights for a local theater. Now calling himself "Tetro," the character is an agreeably familiar archetype -- the tortured artist who reinvents himself -- and Gallo, who would seem to know a few things on the subject, plays him with an appropriate shroud of mystery. Tetro is a prick who cares; and his one-step-forward/two-steps-back treatment of Bennie is believably frustrating and touching.

Unfortunately, Coppola has weightier themes in mind; and while Gallo navigates them as well as anyone could, Ehrenreich, who bears a startling resemblance to the young Leonardo DiCaprio from the latter's This Boy's Life period, flounders in the kind of melodrama that Leo has successfully faked his way through for years. There's a place for Greek tragedy; I just don't think these characters and this setting -- which together hit such an easy groove early on -- warrant that level of gravitas. Still, it's a pleasure to see Klaus Maria Brandauer (where've you been, dude?) in the pivotal role of Bennie and Tetro's famous patriarch, and a kick to note the obvious appreciation Coppola has for Verdu's sensuality. (She was Luisa in Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and is nearly as good here.) I grew exasperated by the number of dance sequences Coppola appears to stage less to enhance the narrative than to put on his own version of The Red Shoes, no matter how ravishingly they were shot (by Milaimare again, as sudden bursts of color in a predominantly black-and-white movie). Tetro has some promising elements that didn't add up for me, but it made me glad Coppola's still out there swinging away.
David Mamet's Redbelt, his tenth feature film, released last year, shows the famed playwright still plugging away in the film medium as well; and perhaps to underscore a sense of struggle he makes jujitsu his subject. His protagonist, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a low-rent dojo owner in Los Angeles whose window is accidentally shattered by a high-strung woman (Emily Mortimer) and finds himself in need of the kind of quick cash that professional martial-arts bouts can ostensibly provide. Money is a constant in Mamet's worldview ("That's why they call it money!"), as are scams, cons, grifts, grafts, red herrings, petty hustlers, wealthy schemers, and two-timing tramps.

All are in ample supply in Redbelt, which despite its novel setting echoes Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner (1997) in more ways than one. Mike is reminiscent of Campbell Scott's naive, honorable hero who owned a valuable piece of intellectual property in Prisoner, as is the casting of a well-known comic actor (Tim Allen in this film, Steve Martin in the previous) to portray a shady mentor figure whose intentions may or may not have an ulterior motive. Where Redbelt departs from Mamet's earlier works is the near total absence of stylized dialogue. Even more distinct are its surprisingly human qualities. Part of this comes from the authenticity that actors like Ejiofor and Mortimer bring to the table (I look forward to those two more than just about any performers working right now), and part of it is from a filmmaker who, at the end, is clearly becoming more interested in revealing something about himself than jerking us around. Some have expressed surprise that Mamet's next feature may be The Diary of Anne Frank, but that seems like a natural extension to what he accomplishes here. Redbelt is a minor work and doesn't make a damn bit of sense, yet it shows a side of David Mamet that seems done with playing games.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Death Becomes Her (Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones)

Considering that The Lovely Bones features two of my least favorite literary devices -- serial killers and the afterlife -- I was surprised I took to it as much as I did. Add to this characters with cutesy-metaphorical names (starting with the protagonist, Susie Salmon), ghosts walking among the living, salt-of-the-earth seniors who drink and swear and tell it like it is, heavy-handed symbolism everywhere you look (watch out for that sinkhole), and narration from the Great Beyond, and small wonder it took me seven years to plunge into Alice Sebold's huge 2002 bestseller. The Lovely Bones isn't cynical, like Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd, in which William Holden voiceovers with the acid bemusement of a man drinking Scotch in purgatory and cursing his dumb luck. Quite the opposite, in fact. But the rough early goings would have been unbearable had the author framed them from a traditional third-person point-of-view. Filtering the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl from her own divine perspective dilutes the grisly details so we can focus on how the loss of that individual shatters those she leaves behind. For Sebold, that's the real tragedy of the tale. Also its potential for hope and renewal. The struggle to fill Susie's vacated space forms the real thrust of the approximately decade-long narrative, overshadowing the quest to apprehend her killer. 

It's not spoiling anything to reveal that Susie is killed (she spills the beans herself on page one), nor to announce that the culprit, Mr. Harvey, is a neighbor in her early-1970s Pennsylvania suburb (page two). Sebold's period detail is evocative, understated: we're given to understand that the idea of a predator in one's neighborhood was still unheard of at the time; that a person like Mr. Harvey, who lives by himself and builds dollhouses, might be considered an eccentric oddity and nothing more. Sebold's bravest stroke is to humanize Mr. Harvey. Assuming a literally omniscient perspective, Susie periodically shows us snippets of his tragic upbringing, his ability to craft an unassuming persona to fool others, his attempts to reform, his loneliness and the uncontainable violence that emanates from it. (Sebold herself is a survivor of sexual assault.)

But Susie spends most of the story watching her family pick up the pieces in her wake. Her father obsessively strives to bring her killer to justice (he suspects Mr. Harvey almost immediately), while her mother has a sad affair with Len Fenerman, the detective in charge of the case, and eventually flees to start a new life. Other key characters include her younger sister Lindsey, who shares her father's tenacity, and Susie's friend from school Ruth, a social misfit who has the ability to sense the dead. All of the characters are distinct and well-defined, while Susie's "heaven" is given disappointing short-shrift. Basically, heaven is whatever you want it to be; and your heaven can intersect with another person's in the afterlife, but you can't influence any actions on earth. Except when you can. I get that this is meant to derive from a young girl's idea of what the afterlife is like, but it's still a pretty limited concept -- so limited that Sebold makes the rules as vague as possible presumably so she can break them.

This leads to one of the weakest passages in the novel, when Susie "falls" to Earth and inhabits the body of another character. I don't think it's the author's intention to remind us of All of Me during this ostensibly moving sequence. Nor do I suspect she intended her villain's elaborately contrived denouement to recall Final Destination. The Lovely Bones is far from the glorious masterpiece its legion of admirers contend. Its best moments shake off Divine Providence and make the earthbound seem ethereal.

I decided to read The Lovely Bones after seeing the preview for Peter Jackson's screen adaptation, to be released over the holiday season. Following his stellar work helming The Lord of the Rings saga and the exhausting gigantism of King Kong (there's a great movie somewhere inside that overwrought mess), The Lovely Bones looks like a potential return to Jackson's primary strength -- finding the fantastical within the ordinary. (Think Heavenly Creatures, or The Frighteners pre-studio meddling.) His command of CGI may give the movie's version of heaven the imaginative landscape that the novel lacks. And a great cast will hopefully demonstrate his underrated touch with actors (e.g., the impassioned ensemble in Lord of the Rings, Naomi Watts giving the most vibrant performance of her career in King Kong). The gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan, who made a big splash as the prepubescent sexual hysteric in Atonement, appears to have the right otherworldly quality for Susie; while Mark Wahlberg, as her aggrieved father, has an opportunity to remind us of what a touching actor he can be. I'm unfamiliar with Rose McIver, playing Lindsey, but I look forward to what will be unquestionably her key scene, the high-watermark in Sebold's book. Michael Imperioli as a 70s-era cop seems a little on the nose. It's also depressing to ponder the significance of the still-striking life-force Susan Sarandon as "Grandma Lynn."

Friday, September 4, 2009

A Break for This Basterd

It's been a stimulating (in some ways overstimulating) few weeks of conversation about Quentin Tarantino's magnificent opus, here at Porlock and elsewhere. I'm going to spend Labor Day weekend in what Bill R. might call blogger's "detox" and start fresh sometime around the weekend after. I'll be traveling and hope to get a beer or two with friends, preferably at a better choice of rendezvous than the cellar tavern where Mr. Hicox and Ms. von Hammersmark ended up above. Poor basterds.

UPDATE: One last piece of stimulation: Fernando's review is up.

UPDATE #2: I promise I wrote the words "magnificent opus" before reading Mr. Croce's review, which includes a sentence that begins: "The first of the five chapters in the filmmaker’s new opus, the magnificent Inglourious Basterds...." Matt Groening's Life in Hell comic strip once featured "The Movie Critic's Guide to Adjectives" where you randomly matched words from one column to another ("powerfully haunting," "hauntingly powerful," etc.). It's time for a new language.

Finally, don't let my brief sabbatical inhibit comments. I'll post 'em if you got 'em.