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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Two for the Road

Two for the Road is a 1967 film, directed by Stanley Donen, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a long-married couple who are constantly at each other's throats. On a trip to the south of France we flashback to many other trips they made through the course of their relationship.

The film, written by Frederic Raphael, who also wrote Darling, was notable for its nonlinear structure, which was (and is still) pretty rare outside of art houses. The film goes from the present to when Finney and Hepburn first met--she was part of a choir group on holiday in France, he a young architecture student, and chicken pox threw them together on a hitchhiking trip that ended in a proposal of marriage.

We also seem them with a very stubborn MG, which ends up in flames, and another trip with his old American girlfriend, her fussy husband, and their impossible child. There's also a trip in which Hepburn has a dalliance with a French playboy.

Much of Two for the Road is darkly comic. We get some great cuts, such as when Finney tells Hepburn she's lucky she will never meet his old girlfriend--cut to them all in a station wagon together. Or when Finney, passed by a car, resolves to never pass a hitchhiker--cut to, well you know.

But the problem with the film is that this wears thin. I started losing interest in the couple halfway through, because I realized that the end would be them staying together (a more honest ending would have had them breaking up, because they were so unsuitable for each other). Finney, in particular, plays an unpleasant character (he creates a stink about room service being late and gets them kicked out of a hotel).

The best sequences are with the Americans, played by Eleanor Bron and William Daniels, playing his specialty--the uptight guy who calculates expenses. They have a spoiled rotten daughter, due perhaps to them observing the rules of Dr. Spock. Bron tells Hepburn that she needs to woo the child, while Daniels tells her that she resents their daughter because she wants one of her own. It's a nice send-up of the new way parents were raising their children, when a good spanking would have done the trick.

I don't know that Hepburn ever gave a bad performance, and she's lovely here, but deserving of a better guy than Finney or the French guy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ty Segall

Although I had never heard of him before, the name Ty Segall popped up in a couple of different places that I frequent, so I took a chance on his self-titled album (the second in his career--why can't he come up with a title?). It's very good, but if you had told me it was recorded in 1968, I would have believed you.

Segall, who vocally sounds a great deal like Marc Bolan of T-Rex, has a thing for 60s music, veering into psychedelia and flower power (you can't get much psychedelic than a song called "Orange Color Queen"). The songs are poppy and fresh, and may make you think of fur vests and platform boots, but they're also well produced and pleasing to the ear.

Segall even packages the CD likes it a vinyl record, with the lyrics on the back and "sides" (presumably this is exactly how the vinyl edition is package). He has nine songs, including one massive ten-minute epic in the middle, with the inscrutable title "Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)."

The songs vary from the harder rock sound of "The Only One" to the trippy "Thank You Mr. K" to the Donovan-flavored folk-rock of "Take Care (To Comb  Your Hair)." This song, which is very catchy, also has a lyric that sounds as if it were written under the influence:

"Take care to brush your long hair
When you can't brush it any longer
It may just disappear."

The track, "Papers," may be the first song I've ever heard about office supplies:

"But my papers they depend on tape
I stuck them to the wall
Yes the paper depend on tape
So they do not fall"

The makers of Scotch tape may just have a jingle.

I enjoyed this record for no other reason that it's nice to hear someone still making this kind of throwback sound. I may just check out other releases by Ty Segall.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant

In the first moments of Alien: Covenant, I had a sinking feeling. I saw Prometheus, as I've seen all of the Alien films, but I couldn't remember anything about it except that the fuel was plotted by scientists acting stupidly. But then the characters of Covenant started filling me in. Fear not if you haven't seen Prometheus, they will explain it all to you.

Once I got that out of the way, I hunkered down for a very scary thrill ride, even if it requires the use of the "idiot plot" and very old and moldy horror-film cliches (any character than has to go off on their own but "will be right back" is goner). Again, we have trained people, on an uncharted planet, seeing something they don't recognize, and tapping it just to see what happens. We also have characters trusting androids who are acting suspiciously like Bond villains.

But aside from all that, Alien: Covenant is gruesome fun. Ridley Scott is the director (as we was for the original Alien, now 38 years old, and Prometheus) and it forms a bridge between those two films (although if the box office is good enough, maybe they can wedge another film in there). A crew of fifteen is on a colonization mission, carrying 2,000 people to an Earth-like planet. They are in suspended animation (we see a lot of films like this, including the recent Passengers, and I have to wonder, why doesn't their hair grow while they are asleep?) but are awoken early due to a stellar flare. The captain, James Franco, is incinerated in his pod, so Billy Crudup takes command.

On a spacewalk, another crew member (Danny McBride) gets a rogue signal of someone singing a John Denver song. They track the origin to another planet that meets qualification for habitation. Crudup decides that instead of traveling another seven years to their original destination, they will go there and check it out. Katherine Waterston, second in command, thinks is a bad idea. Lesson: listen to Katherine Waterston.

This planet turns out to be the Prometheus planet. If you remember that film, only the android David (Michael Fassbender) "survived." He's still there, having reattached his head. I'll leave what he's up to for your surprise. The Covenant crew also has an android who is also played by Michael Fassbender, Walter (apparently Wayland Industries, the corporation behind all of this, liked Fassbender's face so much they made many more). This involves neat scenes where Fassbender acts with himself.

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that the planet is thick with the H. R. Giger-created aliens, which I see are referred to as xenomorphs, and they wreak havoc, as one by one the crew are killed off in horrible ways. These films have become a kind of And Then There Were None game, guessing who will live and who will die, That's fun, in a dumb kind of way. In addition to the idiot plot, there is a twist at the end that I saw way ahead of time, and I'm sure anyone who has ever seen a movie can figure out (but of course, the crew can't). It helps if you know your romantic poets.

So there is some eye-rolling involved with Alien: Covenant but also some really good scares and a nice sense of dread that permeates the film. A smarter script would have made this one of the best of the series.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bone Tomahawk

The movie business is such a mystery. I was looking for a movie to watch last night to fit my mood--I wanted a comedy or a horror movie (some mood!). I ended up watching what could be called a horror-western that I had wanted to see for a while, Bone Tomahawk. It was terrific, and had all the elements of not only a commercial hit (lots of suspense, humorous dialogue, and gruesome violence) but was also well-made, with Oscar-worthy performances. But it hardly got a release, and ended up making under 300 grand. None of the major studios picked it up. Dummies.

Anyway, this 2015 film, written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, is a Western in the strictest sense, and it has no supernatural elements, but it plays like a horror movie. A common thief (David Arquette) disturbs the burial ground of an isolated band of Indians who also happen to be cannibals, and are called troglodytes because they live caves. In retribution, they come to town where Arquette has been jailed by the sheriff (Kurt Russell). They abduct Arquette, the deputy on duty, and a woman (Lili Simmons) who was tending to his bullet wound (Russell shot him in the leg).

So a posse of four--Russell, his "backup deputy" (Richard Jenkins), Simmon's husband, who has a broken leg but will not be deterred (Patrick Wilson) and a man who dresses like a dandy but is also an accomplished Indian-killer (Matthew Fox) set out to rescue them. Along the way of course they will encounter obstacles, and by the time they get there they find their adversaries like something out of a nightmare, who make eerie shrieks like banshees.

For much of this movie I was figuratively on the edge of my seat. The characters are great, especially Jenkins' addled old man, who has two great scenes, one about how does one read a book in a bathtub without getting the book wet, and another about the veracity of flea circuses. He has the film's best line when Fox kills two Mexicans who come on their camp: "Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of manifest destiny." Fox's character is also great, a man who wears a white suit, but is a steely-eyed killer. He says in a meeting of concerned citizens after the kidnapping, "I've killed more Indians than anyone here." An Indian man says, "That's an ugly boast." Fox replies, "It's not a boast, just a fact." I haven't seen Fox since he left the island.

The film is extremely violent, as a movie about cannibals might be expected to be, even when Zahler cuts away right before the horrible part (in a couple of scenes he does not). This gives it the horror flavoring, as the weapon of the title will be used effectively a couple of times.

Siskel and Ebert used to do shows on what they called "Buried Treasures," movies that are really good but didn't get a proper release. Bone Tomahawk is the epitome of a buried treasure.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Impeachment Fever

Here in the U.S. we've got impeachment fever. Since Nixon, it comes about once a generation. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, Clinton was impeached (but acquitted), and now Donald Trump, to the surprise of no one with half a brain, is on the road to impeachment.

Why do I know this? After all, most Democrats were thinking Trump wouldn't make it through his first term the night he was elected. His whole life has been based on sleaziness, such as intimidating people through lawsuits, not paying people who have done work for him (always get paid upfront with him) and settling lawsuits before the shit can hit the fan. One of his first jobs was intimidating black people not to buy in his father's real estate holdings. According to an article I just read, he was inspired by Nixon man Roger Stone, who taught him you can get away with anything.

So it was only a matter of time, but that we're talking about this not even half a year into his presidency is making short work. It is serious now, because I saw a clip of David Gergen, who is one of the smartest pundits on TV, say it was. Gergen, who I didn't even know was still on TV, is one of the few people who have worked in the administrations of presidents of both parties, showing he cares more the country than party.

Anyhoo, Trump has certainly committed two impeachable offenses of obstruction of justice. One, he fired FBI director James Comey, who was leading an investigation of Trump's associates of ties to Russia. Then, it was revealed, he asked Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, who was working as a foreign agent (for Turkey) when he was named National Security Advisor, a whopping conflict of interest.

So now we just wait and see how long this will take. Over the cries of "witch hunt!" Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI, has been made special prosecutor over this mess. There is the possibility that a smoking gun will be found that shows Russia, with Trump's knowledge, influenced the U.S. election. I don't know if it will go that far, but Nixon was ousted on far less serious a crime.

Probably this will drag on, at least until midterm elections, so the Republicans can lose congress and possibly the Senate. That will certainly grease the rails of Trump's removal. For now, we can't be sure if Republicans, who control both houses, would A: bring articles of impeachment, and B: convict. But if they see their seats on the line, they might.

Or there might be intense pressure on Trump to resign. I'm not sure if he would or not. He probably would if he could spin it so he was doing it on his terms--"I can't lead this nation with this kind of hostility" or maybe his ego wouldn't allow such a thing. Then again, he could resign and Mike Pence, who would become president, would pardon him.

That would mean a President Pence, who is a nightmare of a different sort. He would probably be the most insanely religious president we've ever had. one who puts his "faith" ahead of the Constitution. His presidency would see horrible things attempted against the LGBT community, and lots of problems for abortion providers. But he was a governor, so presumably he could at least be somewhat competent and perhaps keep the country from war.

And I don't know if any pundit has speculated on this, but I will, because it's fun: who would Pence choose as vice-president? He can choose anyone, who then has to be confirmed by the House. If the Republicans control the House, he could go the bat-shit crazy route and picked someone like Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann. He could go with Marco Rubio, or Paul Ryan. All of these are terrible. There might be a lot of pressure to pick a woman, so in addition to Bachmann there's always Sarah Palin (but I doubt it) or some tea party Congresswoman. The most reasonable choice would be Maine senator Susan Collins, who is the only person who passes for a moderate Republican anymore. She could be the choice if the Democrats control the house. It would be great if they did and forced him to pick a Democrat. If Lincoln could do it with Andrew Johnson, so can Pence.

But that's way down the road. Mueller, who by all accounts is a capable and bipartisan man, will do his job and we'll see what happens. Trump's numbers will continue to decline, and there will be more insane tweets and general hysteria in the White House. As long as he doesn't start bombing North Korea, this will be a circus. Grab the popcorn.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Right Now, Wrong Then

I haven't done well with the Hong Sang-Soo (see reviews of Woman on the Beach and Night and Day). But the third time's the charm with Right Now, Wrong Then, an intriguing film that is open for viewer interpretation.

A famous director, (Jung Jae-young) is in a small city in South Korea to screen his latest film and give a talk. He's a day early, so he wanders around town and visits a local tourist attraction, some kind of palace. He sees an attractive girl (Kim Minhee) and starts up a conversation. She has heard of him, but has not seen his films (the lot of an art-film director). They go for coffee, and she relates that she used to be a model but is now a painter.

They spend the day together. He visits her studio, they go out for sushi and he gets drunk. He tags along to a small gathering of her friends. You think they might hook up until she finds out he has a reputation as a womanizer, and is in fact still married. She tells him to leave her alone.

The next day he is cranky at the screening and rants about how words have no meaning.

This is the end of the first half of the film.

The film then starts over. Same characters, same circumstance. It's like Groundhog Day in a way. The dialogue is the same at first, but the characters are shot from a different angle. Then the dialogue starts to change. She doesn't tell him she's a model. He asks about her parents. At her studio, he criticizes her work and she gets angry, but still goes out for sushi with him. He tells her he loves her, but that he is married. They go to the party but he is so drunk that he takes his clothes off. She finds this funny.

I read about the film a bit beforehand so I knew it was two movies in one, but I can see how someone could be very confused if they were in the dark. But I think this structure is genius. To me, it shows how the choice of words can change everything. If you spent a day with someone there is no way you could reconstruct your dialogue, unless you had an eidetic memory. If you had a second chance, you'd say something different--maybe better, maybe worse, and the outcome might be different. In the second half of the film, Minhee tells the director how honest he is, an it is honesty about being married that keeps them together longer than the first film.

There have been a couple of short films about this premise, played for laughs, and then an entire feature film, About Time, in which time travel is used to try to say the right thing. But Right Now, Wrong Then doesn't allow that luxury, it simply replays the day. I suppose Hong could have made an infinite number of scenarios, each having a different outcome. As a character says in Richard Linklater's Slacker, there is an infinite number of universes for every decision that you make. If you go right, that's one universe, if you go left that's another one. In Hong's story, this is two universes.

The performances are really great, too. Jae-young is particularly good, as he is kind of a stuck-up asshole but plays up the modesty. It's clear that he wants to fuck the girl, and you keep waiting for his move, but he blows it (at least in the first half). Minhee is a young woman who is adrift, complains she has no friends, and enjoys being fawned over for her beauty. Two very interesting characters.

I highly recommend Right Now, Wrong Then. You may have to see it twice to really get the full effect.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle, one of the nominees for Best Animated Feature at last year's Oscars, has no dialogue. Well, the word "hey" is used several times, but that's it. It is nonetheless a beautiful mediation on love and nature.

I was hooked by the opening shots of a sea in turmoil, the waves sloshing, the rain pouring down. A single man is bobbing in the waves. He will eventually come ashore on a deserted island. He finds some food, but builds a raft to attempt to leave. The first two times he tries this, an unseen force smashes his raft. The third time he sees that it is a giant red turtle, about as big as he is. The turtle looks him in the eye, and swims off.

Later, the man finds the turtle on shore. He clubs it and flips it over on its back. Victorious, he starts to build another raft, but feels guilty, and realizes the turtle is dead. But then it's carapace cracks, and well, I don't want to spoil it, because I had no idea what was coming.

The film was directed and written by Michael Dudok de Wit, and though it seems like it's based on some ancient folk tale, apparently it is original. What is engaging about this film is the absolute beauty of the animation. Some scenes are so striking, such as a moonlit beach, or the interior of the jungle. It's not necessarily realistic, but it feels authentic. When I was giving art a try I always thought rain was impossible to paint or draw, but Dudok de Wit captures it perfectly. There is also a big scene involving a tsunami that's a whiz-bang moment.

At 120 minutes, The Red Turtle is a nice length, though it does sag a bit in the middle. But for anyone who values animation, this is a must see.