by request: hostiles (scott cooper, 2017)

The trustworthy Wikipedia defines "Slow cinema" as "a genre of art cinema film-making that emphasizes long takes, and is often minimalist, observational, and with little or no narrative." By description alone, Slow Cinema would seem to be the exact opposite of what I like in movies. I don't like movies that are "too long" (a complaint, of course, that depends on the movie ... I don't complain about how long The Sorrow and the Pity is). I am a slave to narrative. But when I look at Best-Of lists of Slow Cinema movies, I find plenty that I like, often quite a bit. Like Kiarostami's Close-UpOnce Upon a Time in Anatolia, and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman 23 Quay Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. So, to make an obvious point, if I like a movie, I don't care how long it is.

But if it's not as good as the aforementioned films, I usually find myself thinking about ways the movie could have been shorter, and I get impatient.

Hostiles is 134 minutes long, and there is no reason why it isn't closer to 100 minutes. I liked the movie more than Mick Lasalle did, but I can't resist quoting him, anyway:

One could say Cooper takes his time, but that would be understating the situation. Better to say that Cooper makes Liv Ullmann look like Michael Bay. Have you ever seen a movie directed by Liv Ullmann? If it’s subtitled, you can watch it on fast forward and not miss a single nuance. Cooper is even slower than that. Characters think before they talk. They think a long time. They think before they ask a cliched question — such as: How did you feel the first time you killed somebody? And then they think forever before answering: Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.

Scott Cooper is after something in Hostiles ... it's not like he turned in a 90-minute movie and the studio added 45 minutes behind his back. He wants the audience to slow itself down to the pace of the film, and he succeeds. He also tosses in the occasional violent scene to wake us up. And there is an underlying existential feel that didn't do anything for me, but which seemed to impress some of the people with whom I watched the movie.

It looks beautiful, and while the actors tend to muzzle their emotions, Rory Cochrane manages to effectively express melancholy (plus, it's Rory Cochrane! In a beard!). But it's awfully long for something so submerged.

 


local hero (bill forsyth, 1983)

I've only seen one other Bill Forsyth movie, Housekeeping, and while I have fond memories of that one, they may be influenced by my good feelings about the novel on which it is based. I get the feeling from reading other critics that Local Hero is a typical Forsyth saga, but I can't speak from experience about that. Suffice to say that Local Hero is full of subtle observations about people who aren't eccentric as much as they are familiar in their oddities. Forsyth takes his time getting from point A to point B, but we're never bored, because the characters in the town where most of the movie takes place are allowed the time to reveal themselves to us. We get to know them, and their town, just as Peter Riegert's Mac, who comes from Houston with a business proposition, gradually comes to appreciate them.

Mac represents a big oil company that wants to buy the entire town of Ferness in Scotland, in order to build a refinery. A standard version of this story would have the villagers being a plucky band who refuse to give in to the big oil company, but while the people of Ferness are plucky, they aren't interested in fighting the company. They just want to make sure they get as much money as possible in the deal. Forsyth pulls this off in an unassuming way. He lets us see the pleasures of living in Ferness, but he also shows how the people of Ferness don't have blinders about their situation. There aren't really any bad guys ... not Mac and his company, not the townspeople who are willing to sell for the right price. It's a character study where the town of Ferness is one of the characters, and Forsyth has a genial feel for all of his characters.

I haven't mentioned yet the biggest name in the cast, Burt Lancaster, and given that he is one of my favorite actors, it's surprises me that I've waited so long. But Lancaster has what amounts to an extended cameo as Happer, the head of the oil company. He is, though, the person who is able to connect the rich oil corporation and the small Scottish town. His eccentricity comes from his love of astronomy. It seems at first that he is more interested in what the skies above Scotland might reveal than he is about building his refinery, and by the end of the film, Forsyth has allowed Happer to have both. It's a happy ending in a movie that never moves too far towards anything else.

Local Hero is a movie that makes you smile, if not laugh out loud. This may work in its advantage for someone like me, who doesn't always enjoy "laugh out loud" movies. #608 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

 


creature features: the incredible shrinking man and zombieland

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). An acknowledged classic of 50s sci-fi. My memory was that the special effects were weak, and the philosophical conclusion silly. But I'm glad I gave it another watch, because I was wrong. Sure, the effects are not up to the standards of today, but they work in the context of the movie. We are regularly surprised by the gradual shrinkage of the man, and while his battles with cat and spider might be done better today, I don't think we'd do any more to improve the excitement. As for that "I still exist!" ending, it's not nearly as dumb as I remembered. Grant Williams does a fine job in the title role. The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are my two favorite 50s sci-fi movies, but The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't far behind. It's Jack Arnold's best film.  #874 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). This is an enjoyable zombie movie, with some of the feel of Edgar Wright's films. The zombies are MacGuffins ... this is actually a road movie, with Woody Harrelson playing the grownup. All four of the main cast are good (including Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), but it's Harrelson who walks away with the film as a badass with a Twinkie obsession. There's also a great cameo ... most reviews I've read tell you who the person is, but that seems wrong in a spoiler-ish way, so on the off chance you haven't seen this nine-year-old movie, trust me, you'll like the cameo.

 


film fatales #39: a girl like her (amy s. weber, 2015)

Amy S. Weber is new to me. She comes out of advertising and educational films, and A Girl Like Her is only her second feature. The movie starts out looking like it will be the story of a victim of bullying who tries to kill herself, but the focus gradually changes to the bully herself. Weber has said that she wanted us to understand that bullying grows out of pain, that the victim is not the only person who is hurting. Weber does a good job of balancing this out ... she never lets us forget the victim. And she gets very good acting out of her three main performers, Lexi Ainsworth as Jessica who is bullied, Hunter King as Avery, the bully, and Jimmy Bennett as Jessica's friend Brian. (They are not amateurs ... Ainsworth and King have both won Emmys for their work on soap operas, and Bennett has been piling up acting credits since 2002.) To the extent that Weber wants us to feel the pain of the bully, she succeeds.

But there are serious problems with her approach. The film started as a documentary project, where youngsters would go to their schools wearing hidden cameras to show what their lives were "really" like. Gradually the documentary became a fictional narrative film, but Weber chose to retain the cameras, making A Girl Like Her more like a reality show than a fictional movie. The "found footage" makes up a good part of A Girl Like Her, and it is effective. But Weber also creates a character for herself, a documentary filmmaker named Amy, who gets permission from Jessica's parents to film their lives (the high school also gives her access). The secret footage from Jessica's hidden camera is important, but the rest seems squeezed in ... it's more distracting than illuminating. The character "Amy" also becomes the bully's confidant, which adds a creepiness that detracts from the attempt to show us that bullies are people, too. In essence, I never understood why the documentary angle was part of the movie. It allows for the big scene when Avery is confronted with her behavior, but I wish they had found a different way to give us that scene. "Amy" is far too important for a story about three high-schoolers. (The website for the film includes a couple of videos of "Amy" interviewing "Avery", "Jessica", and "Brian" showing how the characters are doing, a few months down the road. For me, it's several steps too far, but in fairness, it seems that many have been affected by the movie and what I see as its excesses.)

A Girl Like Her would be better as an hour-long afterschool special, with the documentary stuff eliminated. As is, it's just an interesting try.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)


dishonored lady (robert stevenson, 1947)

An undistinguished film with a hint of "what if" to make it more interesting off the screen than on. It's based on a 1930 play by Edward Sheldon and future Pulitzer Prize winner Margaret Ayer Barnes, Dishonored Lady officially made it to the screen in 1947, but the road was long. There was a Joan Crawford film in 1932, Letty Lynton, which has been unavailable since 1936 after a lawsuit claimed it was plagiarized from the play Dishonored Lady. (Ironically, the film Dishonored Lady fell into the public domain, meaning there are lots of crappy versions, like one on YouTube.) This film was delayed by a couple of years due to disputes with the Hays Office. Wikipedia picks up the story:

The Hays Office insisted that two affairs - one in Mexico and the other in New York - might be "overloading" the picture, and also objected to the "night of sordid passion." A memo dated April 25, 1946, stated that, despite revisions, the script was unacceptable because of its gratuitous sex and its references to Madeleine's unsavory family secrets. In the released version of the story, references to Madeleine's parents were omitted completely. The character of Moreno and the affair in Mexico City were completely excised, and the "night of sordid passion" was not shown. All suggestions that Madeleine was a murderer, or had even contemplated murder, were also removed from the film.

What remained in the finished product was watered down and largely dull. Hedy Lamarr holds up her reputation as "The World's Most Beautiful Woman", and her acting isn't bad. The rest of the cast was made up of lesser lights like Dennis O'Keefe and John Loder (married to Lamarr at the time), along with pop culture icons such as Natalie Schafer (in her mid-40s at the time, she went on to play Lovey on Gilligan's Island 20 years later) and Margaret Hamilton (best-known as The Wicked Witch of the West). Director Robert Stevenson made the Orson Welles/Joan Fontaine Jane Eyre, got an Oscar nomination for directing Mary Poppins, and eventually made 19 movies for Disney, back when that meant Son of Flubber and Herbie Rides Again.

Dishonored Lady went over budget and then bombed at the box office. Lamarr went on to Samson and Delilah, and today is known as much for her work as an inventor as for her beauty.

And there's a personal connection for me. The music for the film was done by Carmen Dragon, Oscar winner for Cover Girl. Dragon was born in my hometown, Antioch, California. For many years, he was connected with The Standard School Broadcast, which was piped into my elementary school on occasion for all the students to hear. Dragon was also the father of The Captain of The Captain and Tennille fame.

None of the above makes Dishonored Lady any more worth watching.




dressed to kill (brian de palma, 1980)

Ah, Brian De Palma. It is almost impossible to talk about one Brian De Palma movie without talking about them all. For De Palma elicits extreme reactions from critics ... not that they agree with each other. I find myself in the middle, except I don't ... all I mean is, there are some of his movies I like, and there are some I don't, and I don't think any of his films are classics, nor do I think any of his films are worthless. But there's a big gap nonetheless between his best and his worst.

Since Pauline Kael gives me the tagline for this blog, I should start with her. She was an early and regular champion of De Palma's work ... in my mind, the best example of this is perhaps her review of The Fury, where she favorably compares De Palma to Peckinpah, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Welles, and Scorsese. David Thomson, on the other hand, compares De Palma to Leni Riefenstahl. It may be De Palma's great achievement that both Kael and Thomson's comparisons make some sense.

Where do I stand? I once wrote about Femme Fatale, "the only time this movie exists outside the world of Brian De Palma movies is when it's attaching itself to other movies ... it's never about real life". Dressed to Kill wouldn't exist, at least not as it turned out, if Vertigo didn't exist, and I don't think De Palma shames himself in the comparison (he's never made a movie anywhere near as great as Vertigo, but neither have most directors). The great set piece in The Untouchables doesn't just bring Potemkin to mind, it forces us to make the connection, which doesn't do De Palma any favors, except his version in The Untouchables is still undeniable.

De Palma was on a roll in the 1980s ... Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties of War ... and Dressed to Kill is as good as any of them. Yet he began the 90s with The Bonfire of the Vanities, and as I look as his filmography, I realize I have never seen a single Brian De Palma movie from that decade, so I was apparently turned off by that point. In the 21st century, I liked Femme Fatale, and found Mission to Mars tolerable, but The Black Dahlia is the worst De Palma movie I have ever seen.

So ... Dressed to Kill. I think the best word to describe this movie (and many of De Palma's films) is "gleeful". De Palma is an expert at drawing reactions out of his audiences. Not everyone is happy about this ... they'll point to something like Angie Dickinson getting brutally slashed to death with a knife as an example of the director's misogyny, or just simple misanthropy. It's not that they are wrong, it's just that De Palma is so gleeful about the way he manipulates us that I often find myself admiring his work, even as I feel bad for liking it. It's unfortunate that Dressed to Kill resorts to transphobia (Sherilyn Connelly: "On a purely cinematic level, you're pretty brilliant ... On the other hand ... I would be perfectly happy if nobody ever watched you again, because you're deeply transphobic. So fuck you, Dressed to Kill.") There is no use denying this. Which is why you can compare De Palma to Welles and Riefenstahl at the same time.

Ironically, given that many people think Brian De Palma's films, especially Dressed to Kill, are so misogynistic, the person who comes off best here is Nancy Allen. As she does in RoboCop (from another controversial director, Paul Verhoeven), Allen brings a pleasing humanity to her acting. Dressed to Kill might be her best movie. (She was married to De Palma at the time, and he wrote the part with her in mind.)

Ultimately, your opinion about Dressed to Kill might reflect your thoughts when Angie Dickinson's character, having just had extramarital sex, finds her partner has a venereal disease. Either you find the use of the trope tired and offensive, or you think it's an eye-winking joke.

Dickinson is brilliant in this dialogue-free set piece:

And the scene to which De Palma plays homage. Note that in Hitchcock, the focus is on the man gazing upon the woman, while with De Palma, our attention is on the woman. We learn nothing about Kim Novak's character here, but we learn a lot about Dickinson's.


vacation movies

Watched a couple of movies while on vacation last week, and they were perfect for the occasion, meaning they weren't very good but they passed the time pleasantly with friends.

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017). I'm not sure why this keeps getting remade. In all formats, it's the fourth version in my lifetime (a movie in 1974 that earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar for Supporting Actress, a stripped-down made-for-TV version in 2001, and an even more stripped down TV episode in 2010 ... I didn't count it, but there was even a Japanese mini-series). Since it features a surprise ending, and since that ending is no surprise once you've seen one of the films or read the book, it would seem that the story would have increasingly limited returns. Shows what I know ... it earned more than $350 million at the box office, and a sequel has already been announced. Kenneth Branagh carries his affectations too far, both as Poirot and as the director, where he indulges in odd flashiness to no apparent purpose. Penélope Cruz wears a wig that does the impossible, making her look homely. Michelle Pfeiffer comes off best ... for more of her, try Dangerous Liaisons.

Colossal (Nacho Vigalando, 2016). This is a dirt-cheap ($15 million) homage to Kaiju films that falls apart in a plot that rarely makes any sense. Anne Hathaway does what she can as an alcoholic "writer" who goes back to her hometown after her boyfriend (Dan Stevens from Legion) breaks up with her. Jason Sudeikis is also interesting as her childhood friend. But the movie is too stupid to make anything of its ideas. Some critics liked it ... Matt Zoller Seitz gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4, offering a good description of the film: "Imagine a relatively laid back, small-scaled indie comedy about a woman coming to terms with the mess she's made of her life, but with her demons represented by a kaiju that looks like something out of an older 'Godzilla' movie." I admit, though, that I didn't see much comedy. For more Anne Hathaway, check out her Oscar-nominated performance in Rachel Getting Married.




tropical malady (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2004)

As I did when writing about Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I'll refer to the director as "Joe", which is what he asks English speakers to call him. Thanks, Joe!

Joe's films have a reputation for being difficult. As I noted in that earlier review, when Uncle Boonmee was shown at Cannes, people started walking out after only six minutes. Tropical Malady suffered a similar fate ... as the ever-reliable Wikipedia tells us, at Cannes, "several audience members left before the film was over and some of those who stayed until the end booed it." Nonetheless, it won the Jury Prize, and its critical reputation has grown (it is currently #251 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #9 for the 21st century).

Tropical Malady is only half-difficult. It is split into two parts, the first of which tells of the budding romance of a soldier and a country boy. If not exactly straightforward in its approach, that first half nonetheless is easy to follow, beautiful to look at, and rather charming as we watch the two men get to know each other. The second half arrives without any real warning, and is open to interpretation. It also involves a soldier, and perhaps the country boy, although who knows? He goes into the jungle looking for a missing villager, and finds a shaman who turns into a tiger. Many odd things happen. The film is still beautiful to look at, and the soldier and tiger man are played by the same actors who played the soldier and country boy in the first half. You decide what it means.

Jeff Pike is onto something when he says Joe "might as well be approached as something of an Asian David Lynch." Lynch usually annoys me, but there is something playful about the way Joe confuses us, which for me, at least, makes him easier to take.




the wanderers (philip kaufman, 1979)

I don't think I'd seen this since it came out, almost 40 years ago. I had fond memories, and a revisit mostly matched up with those memories.

But The Wanderers, which tells the story of New York City street gangs in 1963, is very much a "guy" movie, and it's hard not to notice. The girls/women aren't crapped on, but they mostly exist as plot devices, with little attempt to turn them into full characters. The one exception is Linda Manz, just off of her turn as the narrator in Days of Heaven, as Peewee, and that's because she is the one female character who is also in one of the gangs. She is the film's version of Anybodys from West Side Story. (The film makes good use of the size difference between Manz, who is 4'10", and Erland van Lidth, 6'6", who plays her love interest, Terror.) Karen Allen is spunky, but she is either from another world or headed to a different world from the other characters. Toni Kalem plays the girlfriend of Richie (Ken Wahl), the film's main character, and she's offered up as a stereotypical Italian-American (her father's in the Mafia ... Kalem later gained some fame as Angie Bonpensiero in The Sopranos). Because they exist outside the world of the gangs, they are separated from the main action.

The Wanderers came out a few months after The Warriors, which was associated with supposed violence in theaters. The Wanderers was placed into this genre of "gang movies", although it was very different from The Warriors. The latter adopted a comic-book approach, and had its basis in ancient Greek drama. The Wanderers is essentially a coming-of-age story with a nostalgic approach. Both films featured New York street gangs, but that's about it.

Kaufman uses actual events to place the film in its time. Sometimes this works well ... near the end, Richie stumbles onto Gerde's Folk City, where Bob Dylan is singing "The Times They Are A-Changin'", which seems too obvious but is well placed. Other times? Well, when Kennedy is assassinated, and everyone realizes the times are indeed changing, it feels too easy.

As is often the case with movies like this, you can spot many actors at the beginning of their careers. It was Wahl's first movie, and Allen was barely known outside of her role in Animal House. I didn't even recognize Alan Rosenberg, a Hey It's That Guy who has been a regular in numerous TV series over the years, most recently in Shameless. The most notable figure associated with the movie is probably director Phil Kaufman, who made The Wanderers between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff.

Ultimately, The Wanderers works as nostalgia (for 1963, not 1979) ... the great soundtrack helps a lot. And it is an effective coming-of-age story, if you're a man. But that's a big If.

The ending features Ken Wahl's best acting in the film. Watch his face as he goes from sadness over his future, to a temporary return to where he has been.

 


by request: film fatales #38: american honey (andrea arnold, 2016)

Andrea Arnold's earliest films were shorts influenced by the Dogme 95 movement. The two other features of Arnold that I have seen (Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights) didn't seem clearly attached to Dogme, and it could be that Arnold has moved on. Still, both of those movies strive for a "real" look and approach, and this is even more apparent in American Honey. For one thing, Arnold likes using non-professional actors, which runs the risk of amateurish performances but which also makes for the "real" feel that Arnold is after. Shia LaBeouf (Jake) and Riley Keough (Krystal) are the only professionals I could spot, while the cast is a large one, with plenty of roles for the amateurs. It works in American Honey, for a number of reasons. Arnold gets natural performances from her big cast, which makes the film as a whole feel accurate. Shia LaBeouf effectively buries himself in his role, not standing out because of his acting expertise (Keough stands out, but that is appropriate for her character). Finally, and most important, Sasha Lane delivers in the lead role. Like the other amateurs, she feels natural. Like a movie star, she has an intriguing look to her. You could imagine her moving from acting novice to movie star very easily (her character's name is Star).

American Honey tells the story of a big group of young adults (Star is 18) who travel America in a van, selling magazine subscriptions door to door. It's a sprawling movie (163 minutes) that doesn't seem all that interested in focusing on any of the group beyond the main characters. They are recognizably different, but it seems less important than how they seem as a group ... their identity is tied to the group. Since not a lot happens in the film, and since the group is more important than most of the individuals, Arnold is relying a lot on Star, Jake, and Krystal to justify the movie's length, and she doesn't always succeed. Star is the only character with an arc ... it's not exactly a coming-of-age story, but she is learning about herself and about life as the movie progresses, while Jake and Krystal aren't different at the end than they were at the beginning. A lot of the traveling scenes run together, and the movie could easily have been shorter while still doing justice to Star.

As with the other films of hers I have seen, Arnold films in a 4:3 aspect ratio. Arnold has said that she feels 4:3 is perfect for framing one person, and she is often focusing on one person, so 4:3 works better than a widescreen format. Since American Honey, which looks quite beautiful at times, features lots of shots of landscapes, the squarish ratio seems counterintuitive. But it certainly works for Sasha Lane.

Arnold also makes effective use of music. The group is always listening to music, which makes it easy to offer an appropriate soundtrack to their actions. (I confess I was thrown out of the film for a bit when Bruce Springsteen's version of "Dream Baby Dream" came on, since that song always makes me cry.)

The thing I liked best about American Honey was the respect it has for its young characters. Too often we see teens filled with all sorts of negative stereotypes, in movies that seem designed solely to look down on those teens. American Honey is honest about its young people, but it is never snooty. This is my favorite Andrea Arnold movie so far. #450 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)