Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

A little girl named Hushpuppy is raised on the margins of society in the Louisiana swamps, with an insane father and lots of floor-stompin', jug-swillin', toothless bayou stereotypes.  The "point" of the movie (I suppose) is to show how the least of the world (the smallest insect/these people) are just as vital as everything/everyone else, and that these people are slowly being killed off to the detriment of the planet..."balance of nature" metaphors abound.   Also, retarded dialogue, hammy acting, clumsy surrealism, and nauseating camera moves are in full supply.  I couldn't wait for it to be over.  What a crock of shit. 

Keep The Lights On (2012)

Gay movies.  Ugh.  They have a built-in audience, therefore they don't have to be good, and ninety-five percent of the time they're not.  As a gay man, I try to imagine the characters heterosexual and ask myself if I'd still be interested in the story.  Usually the answer is no, this time the answer is "meh".   It stars Thure Lindhart as a documentarian and Zachary Booth as a young, drug addicted lawyer who embark on a nine year tumultuous relationship.  Good acting and enthusiastic sex scenes by the two leads barely keep this from becoming one of those depressing relationship movies, like the terminally dreary Blue Valentine.  Plus, I've always wanted to see Zachary Booth naked, ever since first seeing him as Glenn Close's teenage son on Damages (he read "gay" then, yet he still proclaims his heterosexuality in interviews, he must be a very good actor).  Very sincere and ultimately insignificant.  Not a fraction as good as another gay film that came out about a year ago, the fantastic and perceptive Weekend...a film that anyone would find moving, gay or straight.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Compliance (2012)

"Thriller" (more accurately a drama) written and directed by Craig Zobel, and starring the terrific Ann Dowd and Dyan Cannon lookalike Dreama Walker.  Supposedly based on true events, a cop calls a fast food franchise and claims a female employee is a thief and needs to be strip searched.  The clueless manager spends the next few hours inspecting and probing the naked employee in the back office while the "cop" on the phone gives her ridiculous instructions like: "Make her do jumping jacks."

No red flags went up for any of these people...or maybe they did and they ignored them, triggering some base emotions in the participants...there is a lot of grey area in this movie. The good acting, and the details of working in a fast food restaurant, as well as the mindset of doing what you're told in a corporate environment, keep the plot from reaching the point of collapse.  I lasted a month in a place like this when I was nineteen, and an anal probing or two would've been a welcome break.

Seven Psychopaths (2012)

Writer/director Martin McDonagh's follow-up to the marvelous In Bruges (2008).  Colin Farrell plays an alcoholic screenwriter wrestling with the script of a hollow action film called "Seven Psychopaths" who suddenly finds himself in hot water with a murderous gangster, thanks to the shenanigans of his best friend (Sam Rockwell, an out of work actor who kidnaps dogs for money).  Not surprisingly, real-life psychopaths walk among us, and soon Farrell has found the inspiration for his seven protagonists and ends up writing the film we're watching. (This device has been used before, many times, yet I can only recall Adaptation.  If anyone reading this can think of others, I'd like to know, it's killing me.)

Lots of cartoonish violence and many great one-liners, this was a lot of fun.  It's inferior to In Bruges only because that film seemed more focused, and had more sincerity.  The cast is great, particularly Christopher Walken, who for once isn't on autopilot, his best performance in years.  Also starring Tom Waits and Woody Harrelson (a last minute replacement for Mickey Rourke, thank goodness).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Detropia (2012)

Hyped documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Detropia (a somewhat clumsy portmanteau if you ask me) chronicles the decline of Detroit by following the downtrodden residents as they go about their lives in a dying city.  The directors seem to take a page from Frederick Wiseman's book by just pointing the camera at people as they talk and flounder (This at times reminded me of Wiseman's devastating documentary Public Housing, another kind of "dying city").  While maybe not ethnic cleansing, class cleansing seems to be occurring.  I have a hunch that Detroit has become so cheap to live in that it'll soon be overrun by artist and hippie types, turning it into some sort of Fruitopia.  This isn't focused enough, just an assemblage of footage.  There's a moment in Gary Hustwit's 2011 doc Urbanized that manages to say more in three minutes than this does in ninety:  Wordless footage of a ride on the Detroit Monorail from thirty years ago, then that exact same ride today...it looks like an atom bomb had been detonated.  I'd recommend watching an Urbanized/Roger & Me double feature instead.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Bland director, bland leading man, I still had high hopes for this one.  It's something of a cult film, and has a few promising credits attached to it, screenwriter Jules Furthman and cinematographer Lee Garmes.  Plus Joan Blondell, an actress who always looked and acted like she was on the rag...she always perks up a film with her sour and exhausted presence.  But this just didn't quite do it for me, Tyrone Power is an actor whose appeal eludes me...too glossy, no depth.   I don't even find him terribly handsome (Tallulah Bankhead was once asked who the best looking woman in Hollywood was, and she replied "Tyrone Power").  And for a screenwriter as talented as Furthman, you could see the ending coming a mile away.  Not good enough.  Also starring doomed actress Helen Walker, who steals the movie playing a butch, evil psychologist.

Side By Side (2012)

Excruciatingly dull and meandering documentary presided over by Keanu Reeves.  This is supposed to weigh the pros and cons of digital versus film in moviemaking, but it's just a bunch of luminaries talking about video cameras, with Keanu explaining how cameras work as if he were speaking to a kindergarden class.  It's not like they didn't talk to the right people, perhaps Mr. Reeves didn't ask the right questions?  I noticed a funny pattern:  Whenever he was speaking to a distinguished cameraman, it would list credits that starred Keanu Reeves over any others.  For instance, legendary Director of Photography Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now) was billed as the DP of Little Buddha.  Listless and unenlightening.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Garbo: The Spy (2009)

Astounding documentary from director Edmon Roch about the first (and one of the only) deliberate double agents (most double agents are found out and then turned).  A Spanish guy who was just looking for a job, he pretended to be an ardent Hitler supporter around Madrid for a few weeks, then marched into the German Embassy in 1940 and offered his services as a spy, saying he regularly traveled to London (a lie) and spoke English (another lie).  They trained him, showing him tricks of their trade and vital encryption codes, and sent him to London.  Instead of hopping a boat to London, he spent 11 months in Lisbon lounging on a beach and using a travel book of England (!) to fool his employers that he was actually in London.  He made up every piece of information he gave them, when they grew suspicious, he would blame a contact (a person he fabricated) for the misinformation.

He was eventually hired by the British (who gave him the code name Garbo, saying he was "the greatest actor on earth") and shipped off to London, where he invented an elaborate network of contacts, each of them paid by the Germans (he had thirty or more completely imaginary contacts).  When his "contact" in Liverpool failed to report a British fleet deployment, he told the Nazis the contact had been ill.  Garbo then placed a bogus obituary in the local newspaper announcing this non-person's death, and not only did they swallow this, they sent a generous pension to his non-existent widow (pocketed by Garbo).

 He would purposely feed lies to the Germans, the Brits would give him enough true but harmless information to make him appear credible, and the Americans would give him vital information, but a few hours too late to do any harm.  His most cunning trick was to convince the Germans that Allied forces were planning on invading the French coast at Pas De Calais, not Normandy, claiming Normandy was the diversion and not the other way around.  They believed him, so much so that two months after D-Day, they still had most of their army poised at Pas De Calais, thus saving thousands of lives, on both sides.  A few weeks after Germany surrendered, he met with his secret Nazi contact in Madrid, who thanked him for his valuable service, handed him a fortune, and Garbo disappeared into thin air, never to be seen again (the Allies arrested the contact minutes after Garbo left).  That week, he was awarded the German Iron Cross (in absentia) and a month later was awarded Master of the British Empire (in absentia), the only person in history medaled by both sides.

The film itself is not anything out of the ordinary, a mixture of talking heads and clips of old spy movies.  But this guy's story is so extraordinary that I was totally enthralled during its breezy 82 minute running time.  Why a narrative film has not been made about this scoundrel is perplexing...perhaps because no one would believe it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Sky's The Limit (1943)

I haven't posted in over a year.  I'm so damn bored that I've decided to resume this thing, at least for now.  So once again I'm twisting in the wind and have rejoined the innumerable ranks of opinionated assholes with a blog.

There are so many wartime movies that treat the frontline as if it were one big party, full of flag-waving and characters espousing dated American values, so The Sky's The Limit is an oddity:  a wartime musical that is cynical about the war and actually critical about homefront patriotism.

Fred Astaire plays a Flying Tiger on leave who wants to get off the war bond tour he's stuck on and just get laid.  The train he's on stops in the middle of nowhere and he sneaks off.  Astaire did a lonely, middle-of-the-night solo on a train trestle high above a ravine.  This was shot over the course of days, with great expense to the RKO special effects department, but for some reason the scene was cut from the film and is apparently lost.  Too bad, for the insight this gives to the character he plays...dancing high in the air, flanked on either side by a deadly fall, is an effective metaphor and is recalled for his final solo of the film.  The object of his lust is played by Joan Leslie, a young magazine photographer who views the war almost strictly as a career opportunity, begging her editor to put her "where the action is."  Over the course of their brief romance, he hides his true profession, worried that he'd spend the remainder of his leave "telling her all about China."  His character doesn't care, about anything really, for he knows probable death awaits him once his leave is up.  But (of course) he starts to feel true love towards Leslie, and this fills him with what could only be described as anger and bitterness over his precarious situation.  In the end, Leslie finds out who he really is.  The war, which before she had viewed as a chance to further her ambitions, now takes on a whole new meaning.  No flag-waving here.  Near the conclusion, Astaire, in a drunken rage, smashes up a bar (because sugar was rationed, real glass was used, which cut up Astaire's hands and ankles).  One of the only instances where a tap dance was choreographed to express anger;  Astaire's body is like a coiled spring and he lays into the floor like a jackhammer.  This tremendous number is the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen classic "One For My Baby", and after Astaire demolishes the place, he toasts the two things that are causing his grief: Leslie and the war..."Make it one for my baby / and one more for the road / that long, long, road."

The film is filled with draft-dodgers, corrupt politicians, incompetent war profiteers.  There is even a scene (which really sours Astaire's mood) where the film's producer hired an actual war widow to tearfully christen a fighter jet...the same kind of jet that malfunctioned and killed her husband.  The film was a modest success, but people didn't get it.  Some critics noticed something "vaguely disturbing" (James Agee in The New Yorker) but ultimately dismissed it as another frothy Astaire musical.  This is clearly an anti-war film, a musical drama.  An intelligent, well acted, very moving film.  This deserves rediscovery.