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.)

music friday: 1976

The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the U.K.". Back when Glen Matlock was still in the band, on bass.

VIcki Sue Robinson, "Turn the Beat Around". Wendy Simmons on bass.

Thin Lizzy, "The Boys Are Back in Town". Phil Lynott on bass.

Lou Reed, "Temporary Thing". Bruce Yaw on bass. (I'm on a roll.)

Max Romeo & The Upsetters, "War ina Babylon". Boris Gardiner on bass.

Blondie, "The Attack of the Giant Ants". Gary Valentine on bass.

David Bowie, "Stay". George Murray on bass. No disrespect to Murray, but the reason this is my favorite Bowie song is the guitarists, Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar.

Heatwave, "Boogie Nights". Before I get to the bass player, a word about Rod Temperton, who wrote this song and played keyboards in the band. He later worked with Michael Jackson, writing such hits as "Off the Wall" (which sounds a lot like "Boogie Nights") and "Thriller". Mario Mantese on bass. In 1978, Mantese was stabbed by his girlfriend, and was clinically dead for a few minutes before going into a coma. A few months later, he awoke from the coma blind, mute, and paralyzed. He eventually recovered.

Patti Smith, "Pumping (My Heart)". Ivan Kral on bass.

Robin Trower, "Daydream". Cheating ... the song came out a couple of years earlier, although it did turn up on a live album that was released in '76. I saw him that year (second time). Obviously, when a band is named after the guitar player, he's the primary musician, but ... James Dewar on bass. Dewar is one of the most underrated blue-eyed soul singers of this time.

For all my jabbering about bass players (and I have no idea how I got started on that, I think because I wanted to highlight Wendy Simmons), there is some great guitar work here ... "Daydream" has always been my favorite Robin Trower song, and I've already singled out Slick and Alomar on "Stay". Here's a delightful 2-minute video where the guitarists explain how they came up with the guitar lick for "Stay":

Spotify playlist

international women's day

Some of the women whose work informs and inspires me today:

Maureen Ryan, TV Critic, Variety. Sample piece: "‘Sweet/Vicious’ Canceled by MTV but Should Live on Elsewhere (Opinion)". "One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to the nervous system."

Sleater-Kinney. All of them, in all of their projects. Special shout-out to Carrie Brownstein for her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

I think I was too scared to be open with the fans because I knew how bottomless their need could be. How could I help if I was just like them? I was afraid I might not be able to lessen their pain or live up to their ideals; I would be revealed as a fraud, unworthy and insubstantial. The disconnect between who I was on- and offstage would be so pronounced as to be jarring. Me, so small, so unqualified.

Dee Rees, Director, Mudbound.

Lana Wachowski, Director/Writer/Producer. Along with Lilly Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, created Sense8.

Hall of Fame: Pauline Kael. "In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

pickpocket (robert bresson, 1959)

Bresson takes his title seriously. The movie does such a good job of showing how a pickpocket works that it was banned in Finland for several years for being too detailed in the presentation of the pickpocket.

The titular character, Michel (Martin La Salle), lives in one of the most beatdown rooms you'll ever see. Sparse doesn't get it. There's a ratty bed that takes up most of the space, a closet, and ... well, he keeps money hidden in a baseboard. The room is one of many examples of how Paul Schrader, who loved the film with a passion, imbued Travis Bickle with the loner status of Michel (Schrader wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver). Michel has no friends ... even the pickpockets he works with as a team are unknown to him outside of their particular shared skills. He doesn't like to visit his dying mother. There is a suggestion that he will develop a relationship with young Jeanne (Marika Green), but for most of the brief 75-minute running time, a suggestion is all we get. (Fave trivia item: Green, then 16 and making her first movie, later became Eva Green's aunt.)

Bresson is an acquired taste, and Pickpocket is a fine place to start, not only because it's a good example of his work, but also because of that 75-minute running time. Of the ones I've seen, I'm partial to A Man Escaped, but Pickpocket is almost as good. The non-actors fit well into the style of the film. Pierre Leymarie, who plays Jacques, went on to become a professor ... this was his only movie. La Salle and Green continued acting for a long time ... among other credits, Green was in the softcore film Emmanuelle#81 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 


who's a star

Donald Trump Is Right: The Oscars Have a Movie Star Problem

You know who’s a star? Spider-Man. You know who’s NOT a star? Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and even young Tom Holland, the three actors who have all slung sticky webs in the seven films that Spidey has appeared in during the last sixteen years. More germane to this conversation, though, you know who’s not an Oscar nominee? Spider-Man! ...

You know who IS a legitimate movie star? The Rock. No matter what movie Dwayne Johnson appears in, people flock to the theaters. You know who else? Liam Neeson, Scarlett Johansson, Emma Watson, and Hugh Jackman. Sure, those four have a few scattershot bombs amongst their work this decade, but more often than not, when they make movies, fans buy tickets. Who’s got ten thumbs, made a popular movie in 2017, but did not get nominated for any Oscars this year, though? These five!

best picture oscars

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016).  I knew nothing about it going in, not that three actors played one character over time, not that there was a gay angle, not that Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris were in it, not that it took place in a drug milieu. I'd never heard of Mahershala Ali, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Pretty much all I knew was that it won last year's Best Picture Oscar. (Since even at this late date, I've only seen three of the Best Picture nominees from 2017, it doesn't mean much, but Moonlight is the best one I've seen.) The film is seamless as it progresses through three different periods in a young man's life, with the three actors portraying the boy/man clicking on an emotional level, no matter whether they look like the same person. Like the best coming-of-age stories, Moonlight is passionately specific in its story yet remarkably universal in its appeal. It feels true to the life of a black boy gradually discovering his gayness, but the insights into his life let everyone in the audience into the story. Complex, but made with such confidence that it never confuses. Great acting across the board, as well. #89 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Grand Hotel  (Edmund Goulding, 1932). An early winner of Best Picture, and still the only such winner that was not nominated in any other category. It's noteworthy today for its cast, which included Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore (who between them had 3 acting Oscars and 11 nominations). And it is most famous for being the movie in which Garbo said she wanted to be alone. The acting is variable ... Beery and Lionel B overact as usual, so your tolerance depends on how much you like them. John Barrymore is perfectly cast as a thief with a heart of gold, even if he is old enough to be the father of the two possible love interests. He seems decent, and, as befits his nickname "The Great Profile", seems to be shot in profile 90% of the time. Garbo is the film's star, Crawford (for some people) steals the film. Although they were roughly the same age, Crawford had made almost twice as many movies as Garbo, but she was third-billed after Garbo and John B. For me, Crawford's best work was done in these early years, and she is quite wonderful in Grand Hotel, but once Garbo comes on the screen, you don't look at anyone else. (Critic Mick LaSalle has written, "She is the woman who wrecked my life, or at least changed my life. Before Garbo, I always figured I'd go to law school, and I never had any special interest in movies -- certainly not any fanatical interest. And then I saw Garbo in 'Grand Hotel,' and some switch went off in my head.") With all of this, Grand Hotel still isn't a very good movie. When none of the three big stars are on screen, the movie drags, and the entire plot and characterizations are serviceable and nothing more. Worth seeing for Garbo, though.


music friday: 1975

Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run". In 1975, when this album came out and my wife and I saw him in concert for the first of dozens of times, the lyric "Someday girl, I don't know when, we're gonna get to that place where we really wanna go, and we'll walk in the sun, but 'till then, tramps like us, baby we were born to run" seemed like a romantic look at our future. Now we're 64 years old, and Bruce is almost 70, and we've heard the song hundreds (thousands?) of times, and sung along with it at concerts 30 or so more times, and that lyric still hits me hard. Because when you're 64, no matter how well your life has gone, you know that you're never going to get to that place where you really wanna go.

Patti Smith, "Gloria". Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.

Donna Summer, "Love to Love You Baby". Publications argued over how many orgasms there were in the long version.

Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue". Dylan's early-70s records weren't all that ... yes, his label did release Bob singing "Big Yellow Taxi" ... but he re-teamed with The Band, put out a decent album, went on a successful tour with them (our first time seeing him), and then, in 1975, came Blood on the Tracks and the release of The Basement Tapes. You could be forgiven for thinking at that point that Dylan would go on forever at the top of his game. But it took until the 90s before he started putting out good records, and he didn't really reach another peak until the 21st century. Which could convince you that he was always at the top of his game, if you are able to forget things like the album he made with The Grateful Dead.

Parliament, "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)". Perhaps in an homage to James Brown, who was so good at giving us parenthetical titles like "I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing (Open Up The Door, I’ll Get It Myself)", when this track was released as a single, it was called "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)".

Joni Mitchell, "The Hissing of Summer Lawns". Prince loved this album.

Dorothy Moore, "Misty Blue". A country music hit in the 60s. Moore's version isn't country.

The J. Geils Band, "Love-Itis". J. Geils was always good at finding semi-obscure R&B songs and turning them into, well, J. Geils music. The original was by Harvey Scales and The Seven Sounds, and J. Geils didn't mess with it much. My wife tired of this song a few decades ago, because I was always putting it on mix tapes and singing along.

Minnie Riperton, "Inside My Love". Her first single after "Lovin' You". In 1976, she was diagnosed with cancer; in 1979, she died.

Led Zeppelin, "Kashmir". My favorite Led Zeppelin song, which puts me in good company ... Robert Plant, among others, agrees. I find this quote from Wikipedia to be perfect:

"If you listen to 'Kashmir' very loud, it's just unbelievable," enthused Swans front man Michael Gira. "Jimmy Page's guitar is lyrical and soulful – just beautiful. I don't understand what Robert Plant is saying, though I suppose that's a good thing. I don't know the lyrics. I think they're about hobbits or something."

I hate every single cover version I have ever heard of "Born to Run". It's simply sacrilege. But I never tire of hearing versions of "Kashmir", because it's all about the riffs. Heck, Jimmy doesn't even play a solo to speak of. Puff Daddy might have the best cover, because he wrote an entirely different lyric and pasted it onto the "Kashmir" riff. He also got Page to play on the track. Amazingly, it was for the soundtrack to an awful Godzilla movie.

Other guitarists love the riff, too:

 Spotify playlist

creature features: cat people (jacques tourneur, 1942)

Many years ago, when we would have a party at our house, I got the idea of replacing all the light bulbs with colored, low-wattage bulbs. The idea, I would say, was to make the party more festive by adding color. The real reason, I wouldn't say, was that the low watts made it hard to see clearly, which meant I didn't have to be so careful about cleaning the house.

Val Lewton is a legendary film producer. Some years ago, Barry Gifford wrote an appreciation of Lewton that was given the title "The prince of Poverty Row", and that just about gets it. The story has been told enough times that it might actually be true, rather than apocryphal, that Lewton saved RKO in 1942 when he was put in charge of the studio's horror films. RKO, which had lost money on the Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hoped to emulate the success of Universal horror pictures, like the franchises for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The story goes that RKO gave Lewton $150,000 and the title Cat People, and told him to bring in a short picture that might make a little money. The subsequent film was RKO's biggest box office success for the year, which meant Lewton was given many more chances to work his magic, although as far as I can tell, he was still held to the $150k budget, and still had to work with the titles the studio gave him. (They never forced a plot on him, just a title.)

Lewton is admired for his ability to crank out artful films on a low budget within the studio system. Cat People is an excellent example of this. Ironically, the lack of money meant the movie was filmed in part on leftover sets from Ambersons. Many of Lewton's film are similar visually, and that similarity means Lewton is seen as at least partly the guiding force behind the films, rather than the directors, many of whom worked with him multiple times. I think the power of Cat People comes almost entirely from its use of light and shadow, which grew out of the low budget, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the name Nicholas Musuraca, an amazingly prolific cinematographer who worked on several of Lewton's classic movies.

The swimming pool scene is often cited as the peak of the imaginative, inexpensive power of Cat People.

The scene was so effective that it was copied quite closely in the 1982 remake, although changing times meant that in the later version, Annette O'Toole managed to get her top off before she dove into the pool.

Cat People is a marvel to look at it, and its ability to frighten through suggestion was trendsetting. But I find myself agreeing with Kael, who wrote, "Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary." I wouldn't go that far ... I think I Walked with a Zombie is very good, indeed. But for all its imagination, Cat People still suffers from things like weak casting (Kent Smith as the male lead,  Tom Conway as always seeming not quite as good as his brother George Sanders, and Simone Simon, who admittedly works OK because she comes across as just odd enough to be an actual cat person). I do have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Randolph, whose last credited appearance came in a favorite of mine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Jacques Tourneur helmed other pictures I prefer to Cat People, especially Out of the Past. Cat People is striking and important for film historians. But I don't think it's a classic.