They Drive by Night

They Drive by Night (1940) movie poster

(1940) dir. Raoul Walsh
viewed: 01/26/09

I’ve been on a tear of old Warner Brothers features from the 1930’s and 1940’s, a fair amount of Humphrey Bogart and a solid amount of Raoul Walsh films.  This is the fourth Walsh film I’ve seen in the last 6 months.  How many more people do you know that can say that?  I watched High Sierra (1941), White Heat (1949), and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).  Of course, this film has most in common with High Sierra, coming a year before it and featuring Bogart just before he broke big.

In fact, this film is far more a George Raft and Ida Lupino flick.  And Lupino pretty much steals the show.  She has a noted hystrionic coo-coo crack-up toward the end of the film, but actually, the scene in which she decides to kill her husband is the film’s best.  The camera is on her face as she looks down at her drunken husband and the off-switch on the automobile.  In the long take, we see her look outwardly, getting the idea to murder him, then deciding to follow through.  It’s as good as noir, that sequence, big time.

The film is a little weird, starting out as more of a social realism film about two brothers who are truck drivers, having a hard time making the American dream come to them.  But about half-way through it becomes more of a crime film, quite a bit noirish, and contains probably the better parts of the film.  It’s an odd mixture, which is attributed to the way that the film was adapted and how it borrowed from another film its latter plot points.  It doesn’t matter a whole lot,…it’s pretty solid stuff.

Bogart is the smaller part, fourth-billed, just before he became a star in Walsh’s High Sierra.  Actually, those two flicks would be a good double-feature if you’re looking for one.  And George Raft actually sounds a lot as if he could have been Bogart’s brother.  Good Hollywood fare.

Waltz with Bashir

Walth with Bashir (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Ari Folman
viewed: 01/25/08 at the Clay Theater, SF, CA

Waltz with Bashir is the aptly much praised Israeli film about the memories of the 1982 Lebanese War and the Shabra and Shatila massacres.  The film is considered an animated documentary, as the narrator finds himself triggered into a recovery of repressed memories of great atrocities when talking with another friend, who shares his own nightmares of his time as an Israeli soldier.  The film is profound, intellectual, strikingly animated, and revealing.

While the style of the animation reckons of the technology behind Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), in which animation (in varying styles) is applied via software on top of shot photographic footage, offering a sensibility akin to rotoscoping, but quicker and freer, the actual visual style is high contrast figures against a variance of backgrounds, some more hyper-real, others more explicitly dream-like.  And like both of Linklater’s films, the animation, while clining to some of the naturalism of the movement and environments depicted, adds an absolute layer of Surreality to the images and story, evoking the interior of the mind on top of the “real world”.

And for Waltz with Bashir, this makes great sense.  Folman is much inside himself, or others as they recount their stories of the war, interior memories, searching for lost images, lost scenes.  There is a great sense of psychology, a hunt for the repressed, the lost, the hidden.  And in this, the film reminded me of excellent 2005 thriller Caché, in which another lost story of a massacre, of blood and history, is revealed.  The hidden are facts and memories.  But in Waltz with Bashir, the search is very much about the images.

As the memories are played out in the stylized animated designs, tracking back through one story or another, or the conversations between those seeking the repressed scenes, the sudden fulmination at the end, when the animation disappears and the images become that of the actual photographic (video) scenes of the mad horror of brutalized bodies and babies strikes forth with great power.

I’d read in The New Yorker a review of the film which criticized this final transition, saying essentially that it was a cop-out from its aesthetic and approach.  But I would disagree.  I think that this is an effective point, a transition in which the repressed comes back, no longer in some imagined, compromised memory, blurred and uncertain, but in the hard evidence of the natural world depicted via a camera.  In essence, a the real, the actual.  The horror.

It’s a hell of a downer of a film.  But it’s quite brilliant.  Like Persepolis (2007), animation is used to tell a story, a very adult story, in a fashion that is quite different from most anything in mainstream feature animation.  The film is very thought-provoking, and interestingly, again like Haneke’s Caché, the return of the repressed for the characters of the movie acts as a revealing of history for the audience of the film.  The story is about real events, real history, a horrible crime against innocents, a bloodbath, yet something that is not widely known.  It is through this return of memory, the unearthing of the trauma, that educates the film viewer.  It’s a revelation of our repressed history, small as it might be in the world’s grander schemes, yet made vivid and powerful as a film.

True Romance

True Romance (1993) movie poster

(1993) dir. Tony Scott
viewed: 01/24/08

When it arose in conversation recently, I decided it was time to revisit True Romance, one of the multi-part ignition of the Quentin Tarantino universe.  Of course, True Romance was disdained, I believe, the script he had sold to fund his break-through film, Resevoir Dogs (1992).  And this film and Natural Born Killers (1994) were scripts that he had sold and got directed by others.  And while Tony Scott and Oliver Stone are not master directors, they aren’t too shabby of people to helm your scripts.  Unless you want your vision to be your own…then forget about it.

But I had always remembered True Romance fondly.  I liked Patricia Arquette, and I think this might have been the first thing that I had seen her in.  The film is almost overpopulated with good name cameos including Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, Dennis Hopper, and Christopher Walken.  And for the most part, it’s a fun run of a crime film, with building chaos that leads to an ultimate “Mexican stand-off”, the Tarantino signiture scene in which everyone is in a room with guns aimed at everyone else.

One thing that particularly struck me this time around was the fantasy of Christian Slater’s character.  Slater’s Clarence works in a comic book store, so it makes sense that he’s as geeky and thinks he knows everything.  But he comes off as always being one step ahead or at least a half a step ahead of the chaos, ballsy, foul-mouthed, and as much a wiseguy as the real bad-asses in the film.  Tarantino was still Clarence-like when he wrote this, famously working in a video store and sucking up the nutrients from all the classics and B-movies and Z-movies that he loved before expelling them in his inimitable style.

Tarantino is, I think, living is a backlash period, in which both his more recent work and his more successful early work are under re-scrutiny.  Frankly, I remember liking Resevoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and even Natural Born Killers, as well as True Romance.  I loathed Four Rooms (1995), especially his segment.  You know, one thing that is particularly good about this film is that he’s not in it.  And actually, where this film is at its best, is when people aren’t talking in the Tarantino-sounding dialogue, like “I’d fuck Elvis” and referencing/name-dropping Sonny Chiba and Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo.

The best scene in the movie is the one between Hopper and Walken.  Walken is the real wiseguy, and in typically genius Walken style, comes in smilingly and menacing Hopper, who is Clarence’s dad, a night watchman, former cop who lives in a trailer on the side of the railroad tracks.  How good or bad the dialogue is, heck, I couldn’t even really tell you, but those two guys, encased in a small room on the outskirts of Detroit, really make the whole thing work.  And overall, the film is pretty good.  James Gandolfini is actually quite good as well in his beat-up/torture sequence with Arquette in a hotel room, smiling, cheerfully brutalizing the beautiful blonde.

All in all, it’s a good yarn, a good 1990’s crime film, with a great cast (largely), and well-developed build-up to carnage that is still pretty gruesome.  Bottom line, it pretty much stands up.

Lynch

Lynch (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. blackANDwhite
viewed: 01/23/09

What does the mind of an artist look like?  What is the state at which the threshhold of genius is crossed?  What separates genius from non-genius?

Lynch is a documentary, loose and often as opaque or non-sequitur-like as many of the thoughts and creations of its subject, filmmaker/artist David Lynch.  Much of the film is shot in and around the production of his fantastic 2006 film Inland Empire.  Much of the film is about the creative process, or at least the creative process which Lynch employed throughout the production of that film.

The film doesn’t try to delve, even if that were possible, into the interiors of David Lynch’s mind.  Rather, the viewer is right along side of him, seeing how he operates in a multitude of media, when dealing with the actors both on set and on the phone, cutting holes in walls, making objects, and free-wheeling his sense of set design, camera usage, and narrative.  The cogs are turning constantly, and he’s a bit of a tsar, commanding his assistants around and making fun of people on occasion.

The film’s direction is credited to blackANDwhite.  The IMDb doesn’t even list a director.  According to Netflix, the director is Søren Larsen.  But maybe that is sort of the point.  The film is really not about its own construct but rather the process and art and artistry of David Lynch himself.  There are even some allusions to the possibility that there are coming sequels to this documentary, with the DVD even featuring “teasers” for them.  Who knows?

I am a dedicated appreciator of David Lynch.  I’ve followed his career since the 1980’s and was completely amazed by Inland Empire.  I think it’s his best film.  I think his work has gotten stronger and stronger since his Twin Peaks days.  And I think he’s a very American filmmaker, perhaps a true voice of a generation.  Of course, in my sensibility about what that statement means is not only is he literally American and focused on America as much of his subject matter, he is also unique.  Not so “oft-imitated, never replicated” as just out there in his own fully unimpeded-upon space.

Well, even with this being my attitude and appreciating the artistry of the filming and freedom in Lynch, I wasn’t utterly blown away by it.  It’s a film for people who would be interested in doing a ride-along with Lynch in his day to day.  Seeing “the master” at work, in his elements, creating masterworks, even.  There is much to be gleaned.  But you have to be a gleaner.  You don’t get much handed to you here.  Which is fine, suits its subject well.  Just nothing powerful or as radically strange as Lynch’s films, or Lynch himself.  Quite a character.  And an artist.

 

10,000 BC

10,000 BC (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Roland Emmerich
viewed: 01/20/08

Wow.  It’s really great to see pre-history come alive like this.

The caveman (or caveperson, as they like to be known) film is really a fairly small genre.  And really, these folks aren’t even cavepeople.  They are part of a change from the hunter-gatherer culture to the agrarian periods, a step on the evolutional escalator.

Heck, they even get to see the pyramids being built some 7000 years before they were built.  That’s the magic of cinema for you.  That and a kindly interaction with a sabre-tooth tiger, mastodons galore, and some big flightless birds gone wild.  And some cross-cultural bonding that presages the UN by a few millenia.

I’d been wanting to watch some lowbrow fare, some bad movies to balance out my run of really good ones.  Well, this fit right in.  I think it was largely critiqued around the fact that all these hunter-gatherers and such all have perfect orthodontestry, something I guess that we’ve devolved from in the time.  And everyone has dreadlocks and abs of steel.  And a voice-over narration that could have come from a Christmas special.

As bad as it is, it’s not really the cult-inspiring kind of bad.  It did however remind me to revisit such classics as Quest for Fire (1982) and The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), which as I recall, have more entertaining badness, yet more ambition too.  What should one expect from the director of Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998)?

Mirrors

Mirrors (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Alexandre Aja
viewed: 01/16/08

I’d been watching so many really good films lately, I felt like I needed to take a break.  So I queued up a couple of guranteed groaners hoping to get a little variety in my viewing and writing.  It’s kind of exhausting being effusive all the time.

Directed by French filmmaker Alexandre Aja, whose films, breakthrough High Tension (2003) and his first American foray The Hills Have Eyes (2006) re-make, put him on the “splat-pack” map, comes up with this convoluted horror film, based on or inspired by a more obscure Korean film.  Mirrors.  You’re already sweating in fear, right?

Film has played with mirrors since the onset of cinema.  And many of this film’s primal scare images are things we’ve seen before.  A sudden glance in the mirror when the mirror reflects something different than it should.  A distorted version of a face.  A kid who stays seated when the actual kid has gotten up and walked away.  And a woman who rips her jaw apart in the mirror.  That sort of stuff.  Actually, Poltergeist (1982) had a scene where the guy picks his face to a pile of meat.  We have, gore aside or not, seen this stuff many times before.

And the story is pretty convoluted too.  A psych-ward hospital that became a monster department store.  In the middle of New York City.  And schizophrenia or possession?  Well, it turns out to be the less interesting of the two.

The thing that is the most off-kilter in the film is Kiefer Sutherland’s character.  He’s an ex-cop who takes a job as a security guard in the burned-out remnants of this massive building.  He’d shot and killed someone, became an alcoholic, left his family, is being treated assumingly for depression, trying to get his life together.  And then suddenly, all the mirrors in the world can kill him and everyone in his life.  Jeez.  When it rains it pours.

There is a scene in which he returns to his family’s home and removes the endless number of reflective surfaces in the house or paints over them.  To me, this is pretty paranoid behavior.  Why would anyone believe him that the mirrors are evil?  He even unloads a clip into a mirror outside the suburban home to demonstrate (failingly) that the mirror will heal itself.  Okay, a guy pulls out a gun in the suburb, shoots a mirror, and has been under stress.  Shouldn’t you call the cops?  For his safety as well as others?

Well, it only takes one odd mirror incident to convince his wife: “Why didn’t I believe you?”  But what about the rest of the world?  Sutherland goes forth and kidnaps a nun at gunpoint to solve the problem and save his family.  Where’s the APB?  This guy is a psycho.  And frankly, it might have been a lot more interesting if he just was plain old crazy.  He can’t tell the difference between reality and reflection and fantasy.

Oh but there is a demon and he was right all along.  It’s convoluted, as I said.  It’s not scary in the least.  And I also found the art design of the department store a little wishful.  A blazing fire killed some 30 people and destroyed most of the building, but there are mannequins galore, all artfully singed or scorched, but still sitting or standing in provocative poses, suggesting figures or people while really just being decor.  They should be more melted than scorched, I would think.  And wouldn’t someone have cleaned up a little?

You are not supposed to question plausibility in many films, and certainly, there are times when it’s good to throw reality to the wind and just roll with things.  But too much of this film relies on you needing to believe or care about what is going on.  And it’s just silly.

The Gleaners and I

The Gleaners and I (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Agnès Varda
viewed: 01/16/09

Long ago, 2000 or 2001, I noted this film when it came out and placed it in my queue of films to remember to see.  It’s a documentary by notable French filmmaker Agnès Varda, who is perhaps best known for her brutal, amazing film Vagabond (1985) about a young woman who roams homelessly and in utter disconnect across the country.  I’d actually seen Vagabond in film school and had been interested in Varda since.  Why it took me this long or why I suddenly popped it to the top of my list are more the vagueries of randomness and life.

The Gleaners and I is a remarkable film in a number of ways.  Varda, armed with a light digital video camera, is freed to explore the world largely unencumbered, able to film and view and commentate in a new fashion, one which she embraces whole-heartedly.

Inspired by a painting by Jean-François Millet, “The Gleaners”, and the culture of gleaning, which begins with the subjects of Millet’s painting, people stooping over, gleaning from the earth the leftovers of a harvest.  In the times of the portraiture, this was done for subsistance, to live on the fallen leftovers, the abandoned food.  And Varda begins her investigation into the still-existing culture of gleaning, the people who glean tomatos that the huge machines have failed to capture, grapes, and potatos.  And this also delves into the cultural sensibility that resides in this.

In the past, farmers allowed gleaning.  It is, as one of Varda’s legal experts affirms, a legal practice dating back centuries.  But times have changed.  In some of the apple tree orchards the farmers have set more rigorous rules about gleaning, the distance back from the pickers that the gleaners can pick from.  And the potato farmers, who have strict rules about the size and shape of marketable potatos wind up dumping tons of potatos from each harvest because they have been rejected.  The film touches upon the irony of the great bounties of wasted food against the starving stragglers who glean from these piles.

But Varda’s film is not out-and-out polemic.  She is as much of the film as the rest, shaping the rhetoric and the ideas, riffing along in an almost jazzy fashion, thriving in her joy and freedom to film and think.  She becomes drawn to particular images, most specifically the heart-shaped potatos that are invariably rejected by the farmers, but have great charm and character as objects.  She also makes a lot of her own “gleaning” of images, the way she uses the camera to capture this world of things.

And gleaning for food translates back into the cities, where the poor glean from the markets, the garbagecans, the dumpsters, for wasted food for the poor.  But food is not the only thing gleaned.  Much as Varda gleans her images, she focuses on a number of artists and/or collectors of trash, abandoned objects, and the ways that in is inflected in their lives and approach to life.

The film is quite joyous, despite the poverty, despite the political aspects.  It’s a surprising and enjoyable film, with Varda playing with the imagery as much as playing with the ideas.  She is drawn to the beauty of the abandoned things, of trash, of mold on her ceiling.  She captures with her hand the large trucks on the road that she likes, physically demonstrating the gleaning of her own.  The film touches on much, much about life and the connections through the past, toward a world globalized, yet still marginalizing.  It’s an unusual, quite striking film, which I am recommending to many friends.

 

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. David Lynch
viewed: 01/13/08

David Lynch, I think, is one of the most important American directors of his generation.  But because I never really followed the television show Twin Peaks, I never got around to seeing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, also perhaps at the time remaining within the backlash that came at him from the popularity and character of the tv show.  Lynch always walks the sublime line with at least one foot treading perpetually in the absurd.  And while it was surprising that the popularity of his visions was at all possible, he also found himself ranging into indulgence of these visions and indulgence of more out-and-out humor.

The film, which went into production not long after the television show was canceled, was made to be a prequel and yet something to answer the questions left open at the end of the show.  And when it was released, much as the show had fallen into rapid disfavor, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was lambasted by critics, booed at Cannes, and probably set back Lynch in ways that ultimately might have helped him develop as a writer and filmmaker.  It was panned big-time.  But then, not terribly long after, the film was re-visited, and more positive reactions developed.  Perhaps the backlash at the film and the show had been too shallow, and somewhere within the film was something more interesting.

Well, beyond all that, I never felt that I would ever slog through all 2 or 3 seasons of the show to catch up enough to care to watch the film.  But after my growing appreciation for Lynch’s more recent films (Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999), Mulholland Dr. (2001), and Inland Empire (2006)), I have felt compelled to explore this feature film, at least from the standpoint of one only mildly aware of the show’s mythologies and characters.  So, in watching it, I came fairly ignorant of the closures and loose ends.  Which may or may not be a problem.

My take on the film is this: It is deeply indebted and devoted to the television show and much of the film’s narrative arabesques and extraneous characters bear significance in ways that one would not appreciate without knowing their significances.  That said, the story of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is played out in a largely complete fashion here, and in a way that communicates the story enough to appreciate outside of further connections to the television show.  So the film is perhaps halfway between the spot of needing the backstory and not, and perhaps that is what waters it down to an extent, waters down what is in other ways an emotional story of incest and the hidden world inside the prom queen with drug addictions and sexual exploitations.

The Surrealist aspects of the film probably play out more “Surreally” than they would if one was to understand the more complex tropes of the narrative featuring some psychic phenomena and “The Black Lodge” that unlike images and weirdness that can be read only in their impact, have more telling metaphorical and narrative importance perhaps.  Lynch has always been interested in the “underneath” of American life, as most clearly portrayed in Blue Velvet (1986), and that is at play here too.  But afterwards, he became more interested in a more explicit duality in identity, which also is at play here.

For a dedicated David Lynch afficianado, it’s well worth seeing this film if one hasn’t yet, even if you can’t be asked to watch the whole television show.  I think that Lynch’s experience in televsion influenced his work, pushing him more toward a more and less in the indulgences of his style.  And Mulholland Dr., I believe, was a failed television pilot, which took the buidling of the complex universe of characters and wound up trimming it back as it was reconstructed into the feature it became.  I am eager to see more of Lynch’s work.  I do mean it, he is one of the most important directors of his day.  And gladly his day is still going.

Pépé le Moko

Pépé le Moko (1937) movie poster(1937) dir. Julien Duvivier
viewed: 01/12/08

Pépé le Moko fits well within several types of filmic explorations that I am currently on.  A post-WWI French film about a criminal hiding out in the Casbah in Algiers, Pépé le Moko is played by the suave and handsome Jean Gabin, who I’d recently watchin in Touchez pas au grisbi (1954).  The film is a sort of proto-noir, a seminal film, whose influence echoed throughout much of true film noir and many later films of and around the French New Wave.  The film was re-made in the U.S. twice, first as Algiers (1939) and again as Casbah (1948), and it offers the classic line (though in French and not French-accented English), “Come with me to the Casbah”.

Gabin is excellent as the ultra-lady killer criminal, who has slept with almost every gal in the Casbah and has them all swooning heartily when he sings from the rooftops.  But Pépé, who has been hiding out in the Casbah for 2 years, is trapped by the labyrinthine, nearly M.C. Escher-esque world of the Casbah.  The moment he leaves the maze and its protection, he’ll be arrested and sent to prison.  He longs for Paris, fantasizing about it with the woman for whom he falls.  And the police, while incapable of capturing him on his own turf, are wily and waiting for him to make a mistake.

The use of Algiers itself is extremely effective, a multicultural mishmash, a strange and exotic world.  For Pépé, however, all of its trappings have become traps, even the beautiful Inès, his Casbah woman.  He yearns for his home, and ultimately falls in love with Gaby, a girl from a nearby neighborhood to his.  There is a significant sexism that I have to estimate is not a-typical for the time and the culture.  Pépé can be brutal, brutally blunt, brutally physical.  But this passion and physicality is meant to be part of his overall charms.  He is a man, a true anti-hero, a thief but not a killer (he shoots the cops in the legs on purpose), capable of violence but also the romantic hero, a true French Man.

The film has great elegance in its production, simple but effective camerawork, and a narrative that is quick-footed and spry.  It’s interesting to see the French crime film, with its echoing influence of American crime films, yet its completely French difference, or is it differance?  Vive la différence!  Much like Gabin, the film is suave, romantic, and classic.

 

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 01/11/09

An excellent pre-code flick, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is Hollywood social criticism and drama in effective, realistic, and iconic ways.  Directed by Mervyin LeRoy (Little Caesar (1931)) and starring the excellent Paul Muni (Scarface (1932)), it’s pretty primal, gritty, pre-noir, yet with some truly noirish character.  Based on a book about the true-life experience of a chain gang fugitive from Georgia, this film actually helped to bring an end to the brutal chain gang system that it depicts.  How many Hollywood films of any era have had such significant social effect?

Muni is a decorated war hero, returning from WWI (notably at the time the only “World War”), but he’s not satisfied with returning to the old job, the small town.  He has had a taste of the world, the opportunities in engineering and the depravity of war, and wants more.  Hitting the road to find work, he travels a very Great Depression-era experience, hoofing it, living hand-to-mouth, and not making his name.  When he gets mixed up in a small-change robbery and arrested, he winds up on the brutal chain gang, where beatings are ritual, and men in chains are treated worse than animals.

LeRoy’s narrative style is very visual, with rhythmic repetitions of the hammers striking the rocks as time ticks past, the chain gang spirituals intoned by the men, and the grim faces of the slave-like world.  And it’s an exciting and fast-paced tale, moving through the narrative with rapidity, and using language and vernacular in ways that feel strongly of the world of the time.  While Preston Sturges echoed this experience in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), one kind of imagines that it was both of these films that inspired the milieu of the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), especially with this film’s use of music.

It’s excellent stuff.  The final image of the film is awesome and telling, too.  After having re-submitted himself to the the chain gang system to pay his debt to society, Muni is tricked into a never-ending cycle again, and is forced to escape a second time.  He appears to his lost love out of the shadows, saying that he is on the run and that he’ll always be on the run.  And rather than some solution and reconcilliation, he drifts back into shadow, with the hunted look on his face, it’s a haunting ending.  Excellent, excellent stuff.