Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mr. Turner (2014)

8/10 - One of the most beautifully filmed movies I’ve seen in a while and a thoughtful, searching portrayal of the artist J.M.W. Turner, thankfully free of the usual clichéd tropes of the Hollywood biopic. It also felt like the longest, slowest film I’ve seen in a long time, and after two and a half hours, I was grateful when it was over. I don’t recommend seeing this if you’re tired. But I wake up this morning realizing what a special film it was and how much I would like to experience it again on a big screen, to luxuriate in that lush, slow-moving world. Cinematographer Dick Pope has done a tremendous job of creating a film that looks and feels like a Turner painting at times yet also remains clearly and precisely etched when depicting the ordinary aspects of the artist’s life or his process of creating those amazing paintings. Pope's work on Mr. Turner has garnered him nominations from 12 different organizations and festivals, including an Oscar bid and a win at Cannes. Timothy Spall has also received numerous nominations and wins for his wonderful portrayal of Turner, though not from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which is too bad. Spall’s work inhabiting a complex, difficult man and making him feel so vividly real and human seems at another level compared to some of the Oscar nominees. He spent two years learning how to paint for this role and did intensive biographical and historical research, along with director Mike Leigh, to flesh out this character who was the son of a middle-class barber who rose to great fame as an artist only to endure misunderstanding and ridicule towards the end of his life as his works became less representational and closer to what would later be called Impressionism. Leigh abandons the normal narrative structure of a biographical film, which means there’s not much “drama” in the movie, but he gives us something much richer instead – long, unhurried stretches with an artist at work, in the quotidian moments of his life, or having to deal with ridiculous social conveniences of Victorian England, such as an interminable discussion of gooseberries between critic John Ruskin, his parents, and several artists. As Andrew O’Hehir said in his review of the film, “Viewers expecting a Harvey Weinstein-style period drama, or who go in consciously or unconsciously yearning for a three-act structure, are likely to find themselves bored and frustrated…. This is a richly detailed, wrenching and often upsetting story about a man who may not have been especially satisfying to others as a human being, but who spent every day reaching for the ineffable and ungraspable meanings behind observable events – or at least trying to see them, which may come to the same thing.” All I know is that I wake up today wishing I lived near the Tate Gallery, so I could go see Turner’s work. I’ll have to make do with a book from the library, I suppose.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Where Danger Lives (1950)

8/10 - Continuing with a series of Robert Mitchum noirs. His biographer calls Where Danger Lives “one of the darkest and most unrelenting examples of the film noir genre.” In this one, Mitchum plays a young doctor on the verge of great success, beloved by children and a pretty, understanding nurse. One night, as he’s about to go off duty, a suicide attempt gets rolled into the emergency room. She’s beautiful and mysterious! You can see the good doctor becoming entranced as he saves her life - while his devoted girlfriend nurse watches him during the procedure. But, come on, Bob, this dark-haired beauty just tried to kill herself! You don’t want to get mixed up with that! She’s also rich. With an abusive father. So, naturally, Mitch gets more and more involved, and you can only shake your head and say, "Bob, Bob, Bob... What are you doing?!" Then it turns out that her “father” is actually her husband! (Great smaller role for Claude Rains – I love Claude Rains). He tries to warn the young doctor that she’s crazy, and it’s so clear that there’s some seriously messed up stuff going on between this married couple. But Bob gets drunk – so torn up is he by this femme tres fatale. There’s a violent fight with Claude. Bob gets hit on the head with a fireplace poker. When he wakes up, Claude is dead and Bob has a major concussion. The woman says they have to run away to Mexico, and Bob, being groggy and not thinking clearly, agrees! So they start off on their dark journey to the border. Bob, being a doctor, realizes that his head injury is serious and that he could die at any moment! And everything is totally foggy and he can't think straight. It's like being trapped in a nightmare and not being able to wake up. He’s being chased by the police, hounded by a psychotic woman and making lots of bad decisions - because, he’s literally out of his mind. And it only gets worse...

The cinematography is by the great Nicolas Musuraca, who did Out of the Past, and the visuals are great throughout. (Mitchum said it was one of his many films “lit by matches.”) Real noir. The set-up of the concussion allows the director and cinematographer to get in some wonderfully surreal scenes. Very efficient directing by John Farrow, who was, evidently, a sick tyrant on the set – Mitchum’s agent “ran screaming at his throat” at one point, because he kept making Bob fall down a dangerous set of stairs instead of using a stunt man, and after several of these takes, Mitchum finally told Farrow to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words. The screenplay, piling up one outlandishly extreme scenario after another, is actually by Charles Bennett, Hitchcock’s old screenwriter, who did The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Foreign Correspondent, etc. The only real drawback to the film is Faith Domergue, who plays the femme fatale. She does pretty well as a crazy woman, but I would like to have seen another actress in the role. Jane Greer, perhaps, who worked with Mitch on Out of the Past and The Big Steal. Or Gloria Grahame – that would’ve been interesting. All in all, it’s a classic noir, not one of the greatest but interesting and worth watching, with Robert Mitchum out of his head. Relentless is a good word. It gets on a roll, heading downhill fast to “the border” – the mystical line between love and hate, sanity and madness, and darkness and its even darker shadow.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Macao (1952)

8/10 - More Robert Mitchum noir. Mitch teams up again with Jane Russell in this 1952 film about American ex-pats who get entangled in a web of crime in Macao. Josef von Sternberg is credited as director, and it certainly bears some of his hallmark mysterious Asian exotica. I kept waiting (hoping) for Marlene Dietrich to show up, but no such luck. We do get Gloria Grahame, however, so at least there’s that. But Sternberg was fired by producer Howard Hughes during production and Nicholas Ray (Grahame’s husband at the time) finished directing the film, with Mitchum actually writing sections of the movie in an effort to string everything together. Despite some unevenness here and there, it’s a solid noir, with excellent camera work again by Harry J. Wild (who was also shot the previous Mitchum-Russell movie His Kind of Woman.) There’s a gorgeous chase scene at night through sampans docked in the harbor, so you have Mitchum and others maneuvering through lots of fishing nets while precariously balanced on dark water. Mitchum, Russell and the always reliable William Bendix disembark in Macao and immediately become involved with another American who runs the biggest casino on the island. As it turns out, someone’s a cop working undercover, and the plot twists around as different characters try to figure out who is who and who’s helping who and who’s going to wind up with who. (Okay, that last one is never really a mystery.) Mitchum and Russell once again have great chemistry – I wish they had done more films together. Macao was Sternberg’s first film since 1941’s interesting The Shanghai Gesture, and it would be his last Hollywood project. No one will mistake it for his early masterpieces with Marlene, nor will Macao ever be ranked among the greatest noirs, but it has a lot going for it.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

His Kind of Woman (1951)

8.5/10 - Currently enjoying a streak of great Robert Mitchum noirs from the late 40s / early 50s, and it started with this one. His Kind of a Woman somehow manages to combine classic film noir elements, action, psychotic violence, and a healthy dose of comedy (though not of the Monty Python variety, as the back of the DVD weirdly claimed). Mitchum plays Dan Milner, a down-on-his-luck gambler who’s set up by high-level mobsters who then “offer” him a large sum of money to go down to an isolated resort in Mexico and wait for instructions on the job they want done. On the flight down, he encounters Jane Russell, the girlfriend of a famous actor – played deliriously by Vincent Price – who’s on a hunting trip at the lodge. The first half of the film has a languid, mysterious atmosphere as Mitchum waits around at the lodge, encountering a strange array of characters, including a sexually predatory Jim Backus (!), and trying to figure out what’s going on. What he doesn’t know is that he’s become involved in a scheme to get a major gangster (Raymond Burr) that’s been deported to Italy back into the United States. Mitchum and Russell sizzle together (they would be re-matched a year later in another great noir, Macao, and, according to the bonus feature, became lifelong friends), but Vincent Price almost steals the show as a hammy, fed-up actor who finally finds himself when he’s actually shooting at bad guys, quoting bits of Shakespeare along the way. The story’s a little convoluted, the product of Howard Hughes re-doing much of the film after the initial version by John Farrow (Mia’s father). The last section alone includes a particularly brutal beating scene (for 1951), a terrifying Nazi serum(!), shootouts, and a swashbuckling fight aboard a yacht, but it’s ultimately quite entertaining. The cinematographer, Harry J. Wild, was a noir veteran (Murder My Sweet, Cornered, The Big Steal) and does a great job with the shadows and angles, making the most of the elaborate Mexican resort set. The casting is terrific. Russell is stunning looking (that according to Alexandra, and I would not disagree) and a lot of fun on screen. Robert Mitchum is, well, just his bad-ass self. His Kind of Woman is a bit of an odd duck as a film noir, with the comic elements and over-elaborate plot twists, but it conjures up just enough of the existential angst before turning into something of a romp. I saw it alone the first time and enjoyed it so much I made Alexandra watch it, and it only got better the second time. Very entertaining.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Birdman (2014)

8/10 – Birdman begins with an epigraph by Raymond Carver set against a credit sequence taken from mid-1960s Jean-Luc Godard and a musical score that sounds like a Rashied Ali solo from late Coltrane (performed by a drummer who suddenly appears at times during the film), and then cuts to Michael Keaton meditating in his underwear while actually levitating in his dressing room, a washed-up actor who once played a superhero named Birdman (that regularly converses with him) and who is now trying to put on a Broadway version of Carver’s “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love” that includes a dream sequence with women wearing elk antlers and co-stars a snotty, preening method actor (Edward Norton) who demands to have a tanning bed in his dressing room because he’s "playing a redneck" and who reads Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges while sunning himself. And that’s the kind of film Birdman is. A frenetic mess of a movie. It veers wildly between dark humor, fantasy sequences, backstage Broadway dramedy, Hollywood satire, (interesting) commentary on social media, questions about the nature of art, and some good old fashioned, slightly twisted, existential crisis. It’s basically a Theatre of the Absurd piece about the conflicted mind of its protagonist as he faces life without meaning. The quick visual reference to Borges and Labyrinths is no accident. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki structured the film so that (in theory) it feels like one long take, and the camera’s multiple dizzying turns down the labyrinthine backstage hallways of the St. James Theatre replicate the complex, tortured mind of the protagonist as he tries to sort through his life as an actor, artist, celebrity, father, husband and overall human being. Luckily, it’s a crazy, often hilarious mental and spiritual crisis. I thought Birdman was one of the funniest films I’ve seen in a while, but it’s probably not for everyone. It’s a strange, gleefully over-the-top affair. Not perfect by any means, but crackling with energy. What seemed like a wild, sometimes bumpy roller-coaster ride for Alexandra and I will probably, for some, feel like a convoluted tale signifying nothing. Most likely you’ll know by the first scene which way it’s going to go for you. I hated Michael Keaton as Batman and never liked his other films (not that I bothered to watch many of them), but I thought he was very good in this. And the rest of the cast also excel. (The film just won the Screen Actors Guild’s highest award of Best Ensemble Acting.) Besides Norton’s terrific turn as the arrogant “pure” stage actor, Zack Galifianakis does great in a (thankfully) very different kind of role for him. I also liked Emma Stone as Keaton’s daughter. Some great writing throughout. Lubezki’s camera work is often beautiful, especially on the big screen. And the musical score – often just drums – is a refreshing change of pace from the Alexandre Desplat-ization of Hollywood. If you’re a Raymond Carver fan with a sense of humor, there’s the added pleasure of watching the frequently awful attempts to stage one of his greatest stories. (And a nice “Thank You” to Tess Gallagher at the end of the movie.) I should knock off a half-point for the disappointing ending, but I had such a fun time during the rest of the ride that I’ll cut it some slack. There’s an awful lot going on in Bridman, and not all of it works, but I look forward to re-watching it later to sift through the craziness. It was one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I’ve had in a while.