Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lady Bird (2017) ✭✭✭✭½

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird accomplishes something I previously thought impossible; it almost made me nostalgic for the darkly anxious days of 2003. This coming of age - or in this case meandering of age - film is polished to a humorous gleam that never hides its underlying harsh, truthful glare. With the drumbeat to the Iraq war pounding from their TV screens, along with early glimmers of the decade’s crisis economics, a group of high school seniors obsess about hormones, prom dates and college admissions. For one student who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), anxiety for the future pulses through her naive spirit like the magenta streaks in her fashionably stringy hair. Lady Bird is desperate to escape the clodhopper confines of Sacramento, and its bumpkin co-conspirator UC-Davis, and attend college in the enlightened northeast, where surely her enthralling artistic aura will finally be recognized and celebrated.

While this may sound like standard post-pubescent fare, Lady Bird achieves an emotional loft miles beyond the typical teen film. Ronan’s erratic romance with an anguished young man (brilliant Lucas Hedges, who seems to be everywhere this award season) resolves into a scene of abject weeping that not only turns the gender tables, it will leave all but the most hardened souls wrecked and quivering. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Ronan’s mom, delivers a gem of a performance that launches passive-aggressiveness to the stratosphere. Something magical has happened to Metcalf in recent years. She has figured out how to play comedic abstractions so thoroughly grounded in truth that they cease to be abstractions, and instead become the astonishingly real people we deal with every day. Check out her extraordinary work in the HBO series Getting On (2015) for further confirmation.

It’s important to watch this film not just as the simple story of a geeky teenager, but within the context of time, and the grim ramifications the film leaves unsaid. Young Ronan may achieve her Ivy League dreams, but a few years later the costs will be devastating to her and her deeply leveraged family. The financial crisis will be be unforgiving to the heavily mortgaged, and during the film you just want to yell “Noooooooooooo” to her well-meaning but already struggling parents. Still, the film reminds us of a time when higher education and personal betterment seemed an unalienable right; an entitlement part and parcel of the American Dream. And perhaps that is Lady Bird’s real genius. In its mellow, microscopic way, it subtly, splendidly captures the death rattles of a once great nation. Before America fully descended to lies, greed and chaos. When anything was still possible.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

10 Years of The Savages

The Savages struck a vibrant chord with me when it was first released 10 years ago. It’s all about a pair of 40-ish siblings (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who must pause their lives and become caregivers to an aging and ailing parent (Philip Bosco). That same situation pretty much defined my existence a decade ago when, on one coast, a mother-in-law stroked out while my father, inconveniently ensconced on the other coast, grappled with the latter stages of heart failure. As my brother, my wife and I scrambled to keep everyone in Depends, meds and some ragged semblance of quality of life, all of us grew closer as a family unit. The ending of life is a powerful focuser of the mind, and the sharing of fear and grief an epoxy to souls grown distant over the years.

Written and directed by the talented Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is a smart blend of tender moments, darkly comic notes, and situations that often seem on the verge of toppling into absurdity. From these elements, Jenkins weaves a web of life that feels very real, as Linney and Hoffman try to find their own moments of solace while their cantankerous father’s days both slowly and quickly fritter away. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two of the most brilliant actors of their generation working to realize the vision. Linney’s turn as a neurotic, struggling NYC artiste rings with the authenticity of firsthand experience and was nominated for an Oscar, while Hoffman’s whiny, morose academic is squarely within his impressive wheelhouse.

For me, The Savages had the added bonus of being partially filmed in Sun City, Arizona; an irrigated, manicured - and totally preposterous - desert oasis where many privileged members of The Greatest Generation, my mother-in-law among them, lived in giddy leisure until drawing their last breaths. And just as the elder Savage draws his, the film courageously evokes an anti-climatic bathos, which is precisely how passages of the long suffering really feel to the survivors: a strange, stunning mixture of crushing sadness and welcome relief.

Those pastel Sun City cottages are now being snatched up by a new generation of aging Boomers, eager to live out their days basking in the town’s favorite activities: golf, bingo and horrendous driving. Most of the new residents are my age - a few even younger - and well, it makes a guy think. As a film, The Savages does the same thing. It presents a stage of life we’ll all face sooner or later - if we’re lucky - and it gives us an unusual opportunity to reflect on our own character and our own mortality. And like the Savage family, may we all learn from our anguish, and find the strength to venture on.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

40 Years of Close Encounters

I’ve changed my mind about Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) several times over the years, proving once again that consistency is not my strong suit. When I first saw it, nestled cosily in a shiny new multiplex, I thought it was pure hokum. Its car chases, toothless hillbillies and mashed potato mountains made the film seem like Smokey and the Bandit Meet the Flying Saucers. It didn’t help that the aliens’ mother ship - a spectacular reveal intended to make audiences gasp - looked like that tacky, oversized chandelier hanging over Aunt Elisabeth’s dining table, under which I had spent many uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners as its dagger-like crystals swung precariously over my head.

Still, despite my complaints, there was something about the movie that haunted me. Not doubt because it was a story I really wanted to believe. I’d like to think that if there are intergalactic craft buzzing about the earth, and if one day they should decide to make themselves known to us, that they would be a kindly, peaceful, emotionally stable lot that would happily take humanity under their wing, or whatever alien appendage would be appropriate, and show us the way forward. Now that’s something we could really use.

I’ve encountered, closely (stop it!) the film a few more times over the past forty years: on TV, on home video and I even paid to see the ill-advised 1980 Special Edition, which promised to show us the inside of the alien spaceship (spoiler: it looked like an enormous, austerely designed Norwegian disco). And I’m happy to announce that I’ve not only made peace with the movie, I now revel in it, warts and all. Forget about the acting, which ranges from serviceable to embarrassing - Richard Dreyfuss could certainly chew some scenery in those days - and ignore its poorly developed female characters. Hey, it’s a Spielberg, his films don’t do interesting women. A few years ago, he had the great Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln, one of the most psychologically complex women in American history, and turned her into a clingy hausfrau.

But I digress. Close Encounters is a film to be appreciated for its sheer grand spectacle. It’s a film beyond the scale of humanity, and therefore its human elements are simply in the way. Its special effects, state of the art in 1977, still hold up and seem strangely subtle and tasteful compared to today's full throttle CGI fests. The lighting of the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond is simply a marvel here, and imbues each scene with a palpable sense of the otherworldly. And John Williams’ score, complete with that unforgettable five note major scale ditty, provides an aural grandeur worthy of the film’s extraordinary visuals. Forty years later,  Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a flawed masterpiece, but even flawed masterpieces can contain important messages. The film impresses upon us mankind’s true, rather insignificant, place in the cosmos. And these days, there are lots of puffed up, self-righteous folks running around who need to be taken down a couple of pegs.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

30 Years of Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigious award. It started a hot streak of sorts, when the following year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror pretty much ran the table, claiming the Oscar, the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globe, further confirming to the world that the Danish film industry had arrived. While the Danes would not win another Oscar until 2010, for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, this tiny nation of just under six million souls has become a capital of cinematic creativity, boasting such talented filmmakers as Lars van Trier, Per Fly, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nicolas Winding Refn, to name a few. If the grand moralist dirges of Carl Th. Dreyer define Danish cinema of the WWII generation, then Babette’s Feast must be considered the nation’s inspirational exemplar for baby boomers and beyond.

Directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast has the feel of an austere fairy tale for adults. Set in a remote village of thatched huts on the windswept Danish coast in the 19th Century, the story tracks the lives of two sisters: Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) who have devoted themselves to performing good works for the less fortunate of their tiny community. Their father, a charismatic minister (Pouel Kern), built and in many ways ruled the hamlet with strict Calvinist sermons that forbade any experience of sensual pleasures. Out of devotion to their father, the sisters dismissed suitors and career opportunities alike, choosing to live out their days in spartan self-sacrifice, delivering bowls of bland soup to the elderly and infirm.

One stormy day, a visitor (Stéphane Audran) shows up at Filippa and Martine’s doorstep; a mysterious 35-ish woman in flight from France’s civil war. Her name is Babette and she bears a letter of introduction from a mutual Parisian acquaintance. The sisters, now elderly themselves and their beloved father long dead, take in the grateful Babette who in exchange devotes herself to their modest cottage’s menial chores. As the years pass, Babette becomes a valued and respected member of the community. When she receives a sudden financial windfall, Babette finally has a chance to repay the villagers for their unrelenting love and kindness. She decides to treat the ascetics to a special dinner; a meal so refined and sumptuous it will not only reveal her origins, it will leave the diners questioning their life-long denial of mortal pleasures.

Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc, several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works. By the final act, the artist’s place in society becomes a central theme and despite its gray skies and cold, biting winds, Babette’s Feast offers a most sunny and optimistic assessment of that uneasy coexistence. It also presciently hints that future divides between artists and audiences – and between deity and worshiper – will be spanned by bridges built of gentleness and respect.

Among the many riches of Babette’s Feast is a rare and clever parallel drawn between altruism and artistry. According to Dinesen and Axel, the joy bestowed upon the doer of good works stems from the same emotional needs that propel artists to ever higher levels of creativity and craft. Therein lies the secret to the success of Babette’s Feast. Despite the religious trappings, despite the self-denial and dour atmospherics, the film serves up a memorable celebration of all that is good about humanity.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

40 Years of Stroszek

Stroszek (1977) is a weird and wondrous black comedy from the weird and wondrous mind of writer/director Werner Herzog. It’s the story of a slow witted ex-con from Berlin (Bruno S.) who immigrates to the frozen tundra of Wisconsin in a half-baked pursuit of the American Dream. There, amid a motley group of eccentric goofballs, Stroszek soon finds he has become just another victim of consumerism’s traps, and his innocent mind now must grapple with new complications he doesn’t fully understand. For Stroszek, America’s streets are not paved with gold, but with the ravenous financial quicksand of spring thaw in the Midwest.

It's hard to watch Stroszek these days and not be reminded of the Coens’ hit comedy Fargo (1996). The two films revel in the same kind of aw shucks frosty lingua-franca while beneath friendly, smiling faces lurk coal-black hearts ready to prey on the next innocent victim. But Herzog’s European perspective gives Stroszek a more sardonic air, as the American characters seem like either Wall Street sharks or Deliverance inspired inbreds with little middle ground. America’s history of guns and land theft figures prominently among Herzog’s satirical targets, as Stroszek is drawn into an absurd - but potentially violent - dispute between two neighboring farmers.

Stroszek’s improbable real life backstory is as interesting and outlandish as the film itself. Herzog chose to film the Wisconsin scenes in the town of Plainfield, home of Ed Gein, the most notorious serial killer of the 20th century and the inspiration for Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991). During off hours, Herzog roamed Plainfield’s back roads, researching a documentary he hoped to make on Gein, but the project was eventually abandoned.

But the most amazing story belongs to Stroszek’s “star” Bruno Schleinstein. Born in Berlin in 1932, Bruno was the unwanted son of a prostitute and was shuffled among various foster homes. At the age of 8, he was surrendered to a Nazi research facility seeking mentally retarded children for a series of experiments. Bruno survived, but was committed to an insane asylum, where he lived until the age of 23. The shy, deeply withdrawn Bruno then eeked out a living as a street musician, sleeping in doorways and under bridges. 

One night, Herzog watched a TV documentary on Berlin’s homeless, and was struck by Bruno’s unique presence. The director cast him in The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974), and the rest was history. Schleinstein would act in several more films and become something of an avant-garde sensation. He was also a self taught painter, and a show of his work was held in New York City in 2004. When Bruno died in 2010 at the age of 78, Herzog declared “in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him. I mean in his humanity, and the depth of his performance, there is no one like him."

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

20 Years of The Ice Storm

Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm is a melancholy take on suburban angst that still offers viewers an absorbing and relevant journey. The film explores the soft, lonely underbelly of American prosperity, as typified by a neighborhood of modernist houses on densely wooded lots in upscale New Canaan, Connecticut. Set during Thanksgiving weekend 1973, with TV news reports abuzz with the initial crumbling of the corrupt Nixon administration, the film has an edge of discontent eerily similar to today. The counter culture's sexual - and pharmaceutical - freedom of the 1960s has infiltrated this staid conclave of middle class comfort, and the possibilities both enthrall and terrify its residents.

It’s also a sort of coming-of-age film on a macro level, with all ages and generations flailing in the wake of a societal riptide. Whether it’s the film’s teenagers (Toby Maguire, Christina Ricci, Katie Holmes and Elijah Wood) grappling with their raging hormones or the various moms and dads (Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline and Joan Allen) and their empty revel in fashionable infidelity, the film is a mosaic of lost souls as bleak and dismal as the dark gray skies that lurk just outside their windows.

Production Designer Mark Friedberg has stuffed his sets with all manner of 1970s’ kitsch, creating an amusing, pitch perfect array of avocado kitchens, shag carpets and forlorn hanging ferns. Friedberg’s filmography reads like a hall of fame of off-beat American cinema, as his frequent collaborations with Jarmusch, Lynch and Charlie Kaufmann attest. Here he teams with his old pal cinematographer Fred Elmes (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) and once again the pair are successful in crafting a visual cognate to the murk of psychic alienation.

How a director that grew up in Taiwan could possess such profound insights into this uniquely American web of malaise is quite a mystery, but it’s all in a day’s work for the talented Ang Lee. While possessing the command of an auteur, Lee remains a cinematic chameleon, allowing the material to shine through while transcending his own personal style. Lee’s eclectic portfolio consists of a mind-bending potpourri of subject matter; everything from Asian art films to Jane Austen romances to CGI extravaganzas. While not every outing has been successful, Lee remains a testament to the value of versatility in the art of storytelling. The Ice Storm ranks among his most perfectly realized works, and in the last 20 years it has only gotten better.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

60 Years of The Giant Claw!!!

Our anniversary series usually commemorates a film significant for its popularity, its impact on culture or its advancement of the artistry of cinema. Today we are breaking from that tradition with The Giant Claw (1957), which is utterly devoid of any of those qualities. I can't call it the worst movie ever made, simply because I haven’t seen every movie ever made. But in my life I have seen approximately 6000 films, and of that sprawling lot The Giant Claw is the worst. The absolute worst. By a mile.

Its premise is fairly typical for 50s' sci-fi: a mysterious force from the darkest reaches of space invades planet Earth and proceeds to run amuck. But this time, humanity is not threatened by malicious aliens bent on conquest or an advanced society with the power to incinerate every vestige of mankind. No, here our world faces extinction from an ugly-ass interstellar turkey buzzard. You read that right, it’s a giant friggin’ turkey buzzard. A turkey buzzard with the ability of supersonic flight, easily out-racing our state of the art fighter jets while plucking the intrepid pilots from their cockpits. A turkey buzzard impervious to our most powerful weaponry, even surviving an atomic bomb blast with nary a lost feather.

Within the fanciful strictures of science fiction, I suppose such a formidable buzzard is at least theoretically possible. But then the filmmakers - who out of compassion will remain nameless - make the mistake of actually showing us the thing. And frankly, this scourge of the human race looks like a discarded puppet from some rapidly cancelled kiddie TV show; its fishing line controlled wings flapping so slowly and erratically it’s hard to believe the creature could remain airborne, much less outrun an F-16. As bad as the effects are, they’re only part of The Giant Claw’s multitude of sins, which include horrendously corny dialogue, a romantic subplot drenched in sexism and continuity errors aplenty. When the film premiered in lead actor Jeff Morrow’s hometown of New York City, the audience burst into laughter every time the creature appeared. Morrow was so embarrassed he sneaked home after the film, hoping no one would recognize him.

Some bad films are so bad they’re actually good; their camp elements making them entertaining despite, or perhaps due to, their unrelenting sloppiness. The Giant Claw has no such redeeming value. It is simply bad. Appallingly, moronically bad. It literally is not worth the film stock on which it was photographed. But don’t take my word for it. Thanks to the providence of youtube, this massive turkey - in every sense of the word - is now available for your perusal in all its stunningly feeble glory. You’ll never think of Thanksgiving in quite the same way again.

Elevator to the Gallows Turns 60

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a stylish and seductive thriller about a murder plot gone terribly wrong. But unlike most th...