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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist

What is it about bad movies that we like so much? While watching The Disaster Artist, which is about the making of supposedly the worst movie ever made, I of course thought of Ed Wood, which was about the worst director ever. Bad films are used for fodder for what's called "riffing," whether it's on MST3K or in your own living room.

But it takes a special bad film to be celebrated. Just another Hollywood clunker won't do. They have to be cheap, and here's the important thing--they have to be made by people who think they are creating greatness.

That's the case of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious creepy guy who made The Room, which I've never seen but now I don't think I need to. It plays midnight shows and by all accounts is terrible, but the passion involved in its production shows through, and people can't help but love it.

James Franco directs and plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, and while it's not as good as Ed Wood it has its pleasures, most of them involving Franco's performance as a genuinely weird guy.

The film also starts Franco's brother, David, who gets to play the thankless role of the bland guy, Greg, who is our entry into the film and Wiseau's world. He is in an acting class in San Francisco and is impressed by Wiseau's completely over the top rendering of the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite Wiseau's inherent weirdness (he has some sort of accent, a kind of Eastern European/brain damage kind), plus a mysterious source of money, and it seems no other friends but Greg. They room together in L.A. and try to become stars. One of the film's faults is that it can't convince me why a normal guy like Greg would ever room with this guy, because I certainly wouldn't.

They both struggle, although Greg's good looks get him an agent. Wiseau has a hilariously vicious encounter with Judd Apatow, who in no uncertain terms tell him he'll never make it. So they decide to make their own money. Wiseau writes a script about a man betrayed by his girl. They hire a crew, including Seth Rogen as script supervisor, who has no idea what he's getting into.

The "making of" part of the film is very funny, but, like Ed Wood, you appreciate the effort Wiseau. Things do get ugly--people quit, and when Greg moves in with his girlfriend, Allison Brie, Wiseau acts like a jealous lover.

I think, although Franco as a director doesn't quite nail it, that the spine of the film is Wiseau's essential loneliness. The cast wonders whether the script is from his own life, and clearly he is coming from a place of deep pain. He is also wounded whenever it is suggested he has the look for villain roles. "I am not villain," he wails.

The film has to rest on James Franco's performance. With Ed Wood, there were hardly any normal people, with terrific performances by Martin Landau and Jeffrey Jones and Bill Murray. But The Disaster Artist is just Franco, and is basically like the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in The Producers, with comic shots of people looking slack-jawed at what is going on. Rogen, playing his standard part, has a lot of good sarcastic lines, but it's Franco who makes the movie worth seeing. He deserves an Oscar nomination.




Sunday, December 10, 2017

Vagabond

A young woman, a vagrant, is found frozen to death in a ditch. Who is she? Where is she from? Where was she going? In Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond, these answers are not easily forthcoming. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, the young woman seems to have come out of thin air, or perhaps it's the sea.

We do know her name, it is Mona Bergeron. She is a drifter, going from place to place, "camping," as she calls it, although she is really homeless. It is winter, and she sometimes sleeps outside in a tent, but will crash with a kind person (or sometimes will squat in an otherwise abandoned house). She likes cigarettes, occasionally has sex with other drifters, and is not a particularly happy person.

Does she have a family? We can assume so. She says she was in secretarial school when she took off, but who knows if what she says is the truth. She is defiant, and unsentimental.

The homeless are an issue in almost every Western nation, and when we see someone and think about it we may wonder what their story is. When it's a young person, we might assume a runaway, mental illness, drugs. Mona does not seem to do drugs--she sometimes gives blood for money, which a heroin addict couldn't do. She is also not working as a prostitute--at one point, an actual streetwalker chases her away, saying the sight of her will lose business. Though film is not a medium for smell, we are told several  times that she reeks, and by the clothes she wears we can almost smell it.

This is a difficult film to watch. For one, we know she comes to a bad end, as the first image is of her corpse. Varda does not give us a wrapped-up explanation, such as her being "misunderstood," or any other tidy reason. She does give her a bit of mythology, though. The first time we see Mona, she is naked, emerging from the sea, like Aphrodite.

I've got a few more Varda films to see, but of her narrative films Vagabond is her strongest.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Nutshell

Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. He's written about all sorts of things, from the deadly serious Atonement to the comic Solar. Of his books I've read, Nutshell is his most comic by far--it's a murder mystery told by a fetus.

Yes, our story is narrated by a fetus. It has no name, of course, but it has quite a vocabulary. The conceit is that the little fellow (he is male, I recall) has an education that would rival an Oxonian, and he hears everything and understands it. He can't see, of course, and at times that defies logic: how could he understand the concept of "purple?" But it's very funny.

The title comes from one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes, from Hamlet: "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad
dreams." As the novel begins, our hero is in utero with his mother Trudy, who has broken up with his father, a poet, and taken up with his brother, Claude, whom the baby finds quite stupid. "And Claude, like a floater, is barely real. Not even a colourful chancer, no hint of the smiling rogue. Instead, dull
to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque. Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega." The baby realizes, to his horror, that they plan on killing his father.

What sustains the concept is the uproarious and absurdly erudite narration of the fetus. His first line is "So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for." He gives us insight into a situation we've all been in but have no memory of, such as: "Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose," or "How solipsism becomes the unborn."

Trudy is not one to have read all the literature on pregnancy, because not only does she have sex rather late in her gestation, but she drinks wine. But the little bugger doesn't mind: "I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good
burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta."

This is funny stuff. The second half of the book, after the crime is committed, is the fetus listening to the investigation. In the end, before Trudy and Claude can escape, he does the only thing he can possibly do. It fulfills the mandate of endings: be unpredictable but inevitable.

Nutshell is a wonderful comic novel, McEwan writes giddily, as if he came up with the idea and finished in, laughing at his computer (or whatever he writes with). Hard to see how could they make it a movie, though.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Cleo from 5 to 7

Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 is one of the major films of the French New Wave, along with Breathless and The 400 Blows. It was existential film about a flighty young singer, which doesn't seem to go together and at times I found it confounding. It's more of historical importance than entertaining.

Varda, as the title indicates, shoots the film in real time, cheating a bit here and there during car rides. Each chapter is about five minutes long,and follows the time along perfectly. Cleo packs a lot into an hour and a half (it doesn't go all the way to seven o'clock), especially when I realize I can spend that much time doing nothing but laying in bed.

The time of the film is Cleo waiting for a medical test result. She fears she has cancer. The first scene is at a fortune teller, where she is having tarot cards read for her (interestingly, the shots of the cards are the only color in this otherwise black and white film). The reader sees only bad things for her, and withholds some information, which makes Cleo even more panicked. She meets with her personal assistant, Angele, and they go shopping for hats, but Cleo is only interested in black hats, even though it's the first day of summer.

From then on she goes home, meets briefly with her lover, who has no time for her, and then goes back out to meet her friend, a nude artist's model. "I'm happy with my body, not proud of it," she tells Cleo. They take a drive, and Cleo ends up in a park, where she meets a young soldier who is back from the Algerian War (this is a topic throughout the film, as it has to be--it would be like making a film about American in 1968 and not mentioning Vietnam). The soldier is a philosophical sort, who makes Cleo feel better.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, in what appears to be her only major role. She is a pop singer, and there is some horseplay when she is visited by her collaborators (composer Michelle LeGrand plays one of them). She also visits a movie theater, where she watches a silent short film in the manner of Harold Lloyd, starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Godard has been wearing dark glasses and it gives him a dim view of the world; once he throws him in the river he sees the world in a better light.

All of this can be said to be a commentary on mortality. I can't imagine what I would go through in Cleo's place, especially for one so young. She is preparing for a death sentence, while at the same time trying not to think about it. An entire life can go by in such a short period.

This was Varda's major contribution to the New Wave--the features that followed weren't as celebrated (or available) until Vagabond in 1985.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Farewell, My Lovely

Another major Hollywood centenary this year is that of Robert Mitchum, who was born in 1917. While never included as one of the Hollywood greats, he was a reliable leading man who mostly played the tough guy with a heart. Interestingly, he died within a day or two of Jimmy Stewart. On their show, Gene Siskel said that Stewart was his favorite movie star, Roger Ebert said his was Robert Mitchum.

I'm going to try to sneak in a few Mitchum movies I haven't seen before the year ends. Many of his best films can be found on my site, such as Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, as well as a few that I wouldn't say are great films: The Track of the Cat and The Sundowners.

I'll start with Farewell, My Lovely, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel featuring Philip Marlowe. It had been made originally under the title Murder, My Sweet in 1946, but this is the kind of book that deserves a remaking every generation or two. Mitchum played Marlowe, much older than the character is supposed to be, but his basset hound expression gives credence to the claims that Marlowe is "old and tired."

The story is considerably different than the book and the first movie. It still begins with Mitchum telling the tale to the police in flashback. He had been hired by a mountain of a man, Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran, a former boxer) who is just out of the can and looking for his girl, Velma. As with many detective novels, a second job, involving a stolen jade necklace, will link together and end in a shootout on a yacht (in the book it's a beach house).

What is changed is interesting. For one, the concept of race is added, as Mitchum, going to where Velma last worked, is in the black part of town. Secondly, the character of Jessie Florian, the washed up dancer, is treated much more sympathetically. In the book, she has the face like a "bucket of warm mud," but here Sylvia Miles plays her with much more depth (she would earn an Oscar nomination for the part). Thirdly, the character of Jules Amthor, expert on jade, is changed to Frances Amthor, a madam. Finally, and perhaps most significant, the character of Anne, the "good girl," is cut completely.

Still there is Helen Grayle, the femme fatale, played sleekly by Charlotte Rampling. Also still there is much of Chandler's writing, much of it in voiceover by Mitchum.

In small roles are Harry Dean Stanton, as a crooked cop, and Sylvester Stallone, who I believe has no dialogue as a thug (he does get to shoot someone).

Farewell, My Lovely, directed by Dick Richards, isn't top drawer Chandler--it can't touch the original The Big Sleep or Murder, My Sweet. Mitchum was the only actor to play Marlowe twice--he would play him again in a remake of The Big Sleep set in London (!) a few years later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Blue Jay

Having time on my hands that I didn't expect to have, I went looking for a movie on Netflix and landed on Blue Jay. Mostly I choose movies by time, because if it's no good at least its short.

The film was released briefly in 2016 before going to Netflix streaming, and is very basic: mostly two characters. It's more like a play than a film, though it has a few artful touches, such as being in black and white. Blue Jay was written by Mark Duplass, who also starts, and was directed competently by Alex Lehmann.

Duplass and Sarah Paulson bump into each other in a supermarket in their old home town. They used to date years ago, and have both come back for a spell. Small talk in the supermarket aisle turns into an entire night together, as they reminisce and almost rekindle the spark they had twenty years earlier.

For the most part I liked this film. Duplass plays a sad sack, while Paulson appears to be normal and successful (but of course she's not). The film even includes a ticking bomb: Paulson has bought ice cream that is in the trunk of her car. They keep referring to it, and my OCD was kicking in because I never would have left it in there. Lehmann might have added interstitial shots of the ice cream melting for suspense.

Paulson and Duplass find all sorts of stuff relating to their relationship in his mother's old house (she's dead, he's renovating) including, somewhat unbelievably, a cassette tape of them pretending to be married adults with children. Do couples in high school really do that? Duplass doubles down on this, with the two of them acting out that it's their twentieth anniversary. I found this to be ridiculous,

Of course there's a big reveal at the end that I won't spoil. At 80 minutes, Blue Jay (the film is titled after a diner that they visit) seems long, maybe because it's just the two of them and it's hard to stay interested in just two people for that long. Also, Duplass' acting is not up to Paulson's.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Crazy Rhythms

I'm working on a play. I haven't said those words in over thirty years, and it's good to say them. Once upon a time I was a playwright, and that's what I wanted to be, but like so many wishes and dreams, it didn't pan out. Since then I've written screenplays and short stories and one novel, but I think plays are the thing for me.

In coming up with an an idea, I decided to return to days I remember well: it's 1980, the day after The Empire Strikes Back opened. The setting is a comic book shop, but next door is a record store (selling only vinyl, maybe some cassettes).

The year 1980 was an interesting one, as I went over the list of releases that year. Classic rock was heaving its last breaths. Paul McCartney and Elton John both out new albums that years (fuck, they still are!), but to us college kids the future lay in new wave. I was never really into punk, I mean hard-core punk like The Sex Pistols and Ramones (although I have learned my proper respect) but I was very much into new wave. While Pink Floyd's The Wall still dominated many college dorm stereos, new groups like The Police and Talking Heads were gaining my interest.

One group that I missed entirely was The Feelies, who are now thought of as indicative of that era, as much as Joy Division. They were from New Jersey (not too far from where I lived in 1980) and formed in 1976. From the cover of their first album, Crazy Rhythms, which came out just before in time to be mentioned in my play, they look pretty clean cut. And they were in response to punk, not part of it, so they get dumped in the huge rock pile called "post-punk." They are also labeled jangle-pop for their very loose and easy guitar work. To get into the mind-set of 1980 I listened to it this week.

There are a few interesting things about this record. One, they have some of the longest mostly silent intros I've heard. The first song "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness," goes for many seconds without a sound, which made me think my CD player wasn't working. "Forces at Work," at over seven minutes, more like a prog-rock song than punk, the intro, with just some very minor tapping noises, goes almost two minutes.

They also do a Beatles cover that is better than the original, which is very rare. "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" is one of the most punk songs the Beatles ever did, and The Feelies get it. A chugging guitar lick throughout and vocals that sound like they are coming from the next room are winners.

All the songs are fine here, including the very pop "Fa Ce-La," "Moscow Nights," "Raised Eyebrows," and the title track. Lyrically they are not great poets, but the title track (which ended up being the name of a record store in Montclair, New Jersey) does have some remnants of the era:

"Said it's time to go, well alright
I don't wanna go, I say alright
You never listen to me anyway
You're always talking, never much to say
You remind me of a TV show
That's alright, I watch it anyway
I don't talk much cause it gets in the way
Don't let it get in the way"