Friday, March 13, 2015

Renoir Noir

6.5/10 – Jean Renoir fled France in 1940 and spent seven frustrating years in Hollywood making five American films. The Woman on the Beach was his final Hollywood project, usually classified as a film noir, though it feels more like a psychological drama with norish elements. It’s an interesting but flawed endeavor that struck me as being bizarrely edited or even unfinished. It’s only 71 minutes long, for one thing. I began to suspect that there must have been some longer original version that the studio chopped up over Renoir’s objections. Turns out that the story of its production was a little more complicated than that.

There was a lot riding on the project, as Renoir’s earlier Hollywood films hadn’t done that well by commercial standards. Though he had struggled within the confines of the studio system, he enjoyed being in Hollywood and wanted to stay, so he was determined to make a successful movie. The story had a lot of potential. Here’s Richard Brody’s description: “A Second World War veteran (Robert Ryan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress, including nightmares of a torpedoed and sinking ship and his own near-drowning, works as a Coast Guard officer in a small seaside community. In his lonely waterfront wanderings, he meets, amid ruins, a glossy and brooding woman (Joan Bennett). There’s an instant erotic spark between them, and she invites him to her cottage. There, he meets her husband (Charles Bickford), a formerly well-regarded painter who is now blind—and who possessively brings the young man into the household for company. But the brewing romance between the youngsters (not to spoil the plot) is troubled by an ugly element of backstory between husband and wife.”

Renoir got along well with Joan Bennett, who spoke fluent French, and enjoyed working on the film. He felt happy with the results. But in September 1946, the movie was given a preview at the University of Santa Barbra, and the crowd hated it. Evidently, Renoir hadn’t followed the conventions of the mystery genre to their liking. There’s conflicting information now about what happened next, whether studio bosses ordered extensive changes or Renoir himself was responsible. In a later interview with Francois Truffaut, he claimed, “I was the first to advise cut and changes.” Obviously, his previous experiences with producer Daryl Zanuck and Renoir’s own desire to succeed may have prompted him to revise the film in a way he thought would please the studio. In any case, he wound up re-shooting between one-third and one-half of the film and completely re-editing it. Nothing helped. It failed miserably at the box office and received harsh criticism when it was finally released a year later. Unfortunately, there is no known copy of his original version, nor any surviving footage of that attempt. So we are left to wonder what might have been.

Even in its “mutilated” form, the film still has fans. Some, like French director Jacques Rivette, consider it a masterpiece. And Brody calls it one of his favorite films. For him, The Woman on the Beach “has a dreadful, oneiric allure that bursts with a dark brilliance into an emotional and artistic apocalypse. It’s one of the great endings, one that foreshadows, remarkably, that of another noir classic, ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ directed by Robert Aldrich, who was Renoir’s assistant director.” I thought it had some fascinating moments and some potential in the plot. The fact that the husband in this tense triangle is a famous painter is certainly interesting, considering Renoir’s own background. The acting is very good throughout, and some of the moody photography in the abandoned ship along the beach is wonderful. But the writing itself, at least in this version, feels clunky and somewhat predictable, despite whatever Freudian allusions may be offered. It’s worth watching, primarily because it’s Renoir. But it doesn’t come anywhere near his great masterpieces, or even excellent work like The River, which would turn out to be his next project and helped re-establish his reputation after his difficult Hollywood sojourn.

I’ll let Renoir have the last word on The Woman on the Beach:
“Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work . . . they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes. And seven years of deceptions too . . .”

Monday, March 09, 2015

Concern - Misfortune

Drone music for a rainy, quiet Monday on a deserted campus during spring break. An interesting project I just discovered this morning, called Concern. This is from the most recent release, "Misfortune," which was created entirely with a box harp and field recordings.

"The fundamental link between all Concern releases is the strict use of acoustic instruments (and field recordings) as source sounds, meaning no electronic instruments or signal generators were used.... The initial box harp sounds on Misfortune were recorded in two house basements, then broadcast from car stereo speakers and re-recorded in several hospital parking garages in Portland, Oregon. There are also field recordings from public locations, specifically the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels and an indoor public market in Hamburg. The intent of utilizing the hospital parking garages was to explore and document the reaction of the box harp tones in thematically relevant and acoustically unique spaces. These underground, concrete garages are not only ideal locations as guerrilla reverberation chambers, but also contain deep feelings of veiled emergency, quiet desperation, and anonymous suffering, especially late at night."

 The quote comes from Rick Moody's interview with Gordon Ashworth, the guy behind concern.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

6.5/10 – Kill Your Darlings is a coming of age story about a young, somewhat awkward kid from New Jersey in his first year at Columbia University and the circle of friends he becomes involved with. They get into mischief, they have intense discussions, they’re exploring boundaries, exploring their sexuality, exploring their own self-identity, not unlike many young people going off to college for the first time. It just happens that the Jersey kid is Allen Ginsberg, and his friends include Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Interestingly, though, they’re not really the center of the story. That would be Lucien Carr, who dazzles the young Ginsberg with his literary knowledge, vibrant energy and desire to live life big. But Lucien is involved in an unhealthy relationship with an older man who’s part mentor, part lover, and part stalker. Things deteriorate until there is a murder that winds up involving everyone in this happy-crazy little circle. Based on real events, Kill Your Darlings does a good job of showing Ginsberg’s transformation from a shy, somewhat innocent kid into the young, more experienced and interesting man who would go on to become one of the most important poets of the 20th century. Though there’s plenty of potential for joking about Harry Potter playing Allen Ginsberg (Columbia=Hogwarts, Burroughs=Weasley, etc.), I thought Daniel Radcliffe was actually very good. He certainly nails the look of young Ginsberg, and he brings an Everyman quality to the role which makes it easy to like and relate to the poet, which I think is important. Dane DeHaan is mesmerizing as Lucien Carr, looking like a young David Bowie and definitely conveying the kind of charismatic intensity that would attract young impressionable poets to him. Ben Foster has a fun turn as Burroughs. There are some amusing scenes with the three of them, especially one at a jazz club when Ginsberg is super-wired on one of the multitudinous drug offerings that Burroughs carries around in his suitcase. The film never reaches any great heights, especially considering the subject matter. It’s a rather traditional Hollywood movie about the Beats, and it has the feel at times of a young adult novel, but that didn’t seem to bother me very much for some reason. I thought it was an interesting story and that it was told well and with care. It’s fun seeing Ginsberg & Co. in their youth, but it also brought a wry smile to my face as I thought about the excitement of that time in my own life, when the world seemed so fascinating and it was possible to start a literary revolution. Those dopey college kids actually managed to do it.

Monday, March 02, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

7/10 - There's a lot one could write about in discussing American Sniper. It's a much more interesting and complex film than many have made it out to be. First of all, I would say that it’s not really about the war in Iraq or sniper Chris Kyle, on whose autobiography the story is based. Yes, Clint Eastwood uses those specific elements to tell his tale, but it’s clear that his real objective is tackling much broader themes, such as the nature of violence and the effects of war on those who wage it. Richard Brody, from The New Yorker, says the film is “political in the highest sense of the word. [Eastwood] dramatizes the use and abuse of state power in the light of great philosophical ideas.” I think that’s what led to Bradley Cooper’s clumsy statement that the film “wasn’t political.” It’s actually a very political film, and an intriguing one, but it’s not specifically about the political aspects of the invasion of Iraq or the cultural politics surrounding the figure of Chris Kyle. It’s a film that should probably leave people on either side of the liberal-conservative spectrum somewhat uneasy in the end. If someone believes it’s just a patriotic movie about Kyle and our invasion of Iraq, then I think they are only seeing what they want to see.

Alex Trimble Young, in an interesting analysis in Salon, calls American Sniper a “revisionist western,” and it’s clear that Eastwood structured the film along these lines. Kyle was a modern-day cowboy (rodeo rider) from Texas who goes off to “the Wild West in the Old Middle East” to fight the “savages.” He sees himself as a gun-slinging lawman out to protect his men (and women) and his ideal of civilization. He faces another “bad” gunslinger (a sniper from Syria fighting for Al-Qaeda), and the climax of the movie comes in the form of a long-distance showdown between the two. Eastwood even references a famous shot from The Searchers early on in the movie to let us know what he’s doing. Young writes, “In the tradition of the greatest westerns… ‘American Sniper’ offers up its familiar western narrative not as a triumphalist myth but as a disturbing object for contemplation and critique. The film’s point of view cleaves to Kyle’s in such a way that it both immerses its viewers in his Manichaean worldview and, at crucial moments, alienates us from it. From the violence that is visually foregrounded in the now infamous ‘sheepdog’ scene until the shot that foreshadows Kyle’s murder, ‘American Sniper’ tells a story of a man who is unable to insulate his family or his homeland from the violence of the war he is fighting. Like John Wayne’s character, Ethan, in ‘The Searchers,’ his own character is under threat of being overtaken by the very savage violence he set out to quell.”

Some have complained that Kyle was a more problematic figure than how he's portrayed, but I think that’s missing the entire point of the film. Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have obviously created a character based on Kyle that is purposefully seen as a kind of perfect soldier who sees everything in black and white, believes fervently in his mission, strives to protects his buddies and his homeland and does an excellent job with his ability as a marksman. Yet, in the end, what happens to this person? He has becomes something less than human, as his wife struggles to make him realize thoughout the film, and despite all of his valiant efforts, his fellow soldiers are killed or return home disfigured, maimed and/or totally disturbed. Even the most fervent believer, Eastwood shows us, is ultimately destroyed by the war and undone by violence. In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes in the film, U.S. forces are literally constructing a wall to try and “contain the violence” in Sadr City, but their engineers keep getting picked off by the Syrian sniper. Kyle finally kills the bad guy responsible, but just as soon as he does, he and his men have to abandon their position as they are swarmed by many other “savages” and overcome by the natural environment of the land they have invaded in the form of a giant sandstorm. Kyle’s most cherished personal belongings, those items which most give him his identity, his rifle and his pocket Bible, end up buried under the sand. In the end, Kyle can’t even prevent the violence against himself, as he is killed not by the enemy abroad but by a fellow solider, a U.S. Marine, also from Texas, suffering from PTSD.

American Sniper is expertly filmed and well-directed. Bradley Cooper gives a great performance as Kyle, much of it silently and through body language, transforming from easy-going cowboy to a man intensely hunkered down in himself and trying to remain human. In one of the best scenes of the movie, he’s approached in an auto repair shop by a Marine whose life he saved earlier, but he’s so uncomfortable that he can’t even look the man in the eye or deal with the man’s gratitude. I thought about Cooper’s performance here in comparison to his role as the coiffure-obsessed man living with his mother in American Hustle, and I have a greater appreciation for his range as an actor.
Despite its grand ambitions and high level of craftsmanship, though, American Sniper never becomes the kind of great film it could have been. There’s a hesitation at the heart of the film that keeps Eastwood from pursuing some of the harder themes to their full conclusion. He lets up at the end just enough to keep the film from reaching another level. That same hesitation may also be responsible for opening the door to various kinds of cultural criticism. And maybe it’s just too soon to create a larger, more mythic story from what has happened to us and to the Iraqis because of our misguided invasion. The horrors have been great and continue even now. But American Sniper is not just some jingoistic exercise. As Brody concludes his own article, “Far from patriotic pomp, it’s a vision that sees past the still eye of the American self-image to the whirlwind.”

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

6/10 - I don’t know what to say about this one. Kingsman is a bizarre, over-the-top spoof on James Bond films that is very funny at times and fairly entertaining overall but not really my cup of tea. Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a member of a super-secret spy organization that’s supposedly not associated with any nation but whose members are all British gentlemen. When one of their agents is killed, Harry recruits a disgruntled street kid who is the son of a former Kingman who died saving Harry’s life. Meanwhile, Samuel Jackson plays Valentine, a billionaire tech mogul who started out trying to stop climate change but has now decided that it’s too late and the only thing left to do is to kill most of humanity. I give the movie one star just for Jackson’s lisp. Colin Firth is surprisingly good in a tricky role, and I’m impressed to read that he did most of his own stunts, which is impressive given some of his action sequences. I wonder what distinguished one over-the-top film from another? I like some but don’t like others quite as much. This one just feels a little too oriented for 15-year old males - or females, who actually give it a higher rating on IMDB. It’s based on a comic book and feels like a video game at times, and I’m tired of both elements in cinema, so that may be part of why I couldn’t enjoy it fully, though I can still laugh at several of the scenes. Some will enjoy it much more than I did, I’m sure. If you liked the Kick Ass movies, this is the same director. For what it's worth, Alexandra gave it a 7. Bloody Colin Firth.