Saturday, September 6, 2014

August 2014



    I rarely write about television series, but this eight-part miniseries from HBO, which I watched via Netflix, is one of the most impressive pieces of filmed fiction I’ve seen in quite awhile.

    The acting—Woody Harrelson as Det. Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey as Det. Rust Cohle—equals anything in feature films over the past few years. These guys get so deep into these characters that, at times, it’s frightening.

     The story begins when this mismatched sheriff’s investigators are assigned to a ritual killing in rural Louisiana in which a dead woman’s body, with deer antlers attached to her head, is posed against a tree. The powers-that-be want the killing presented as an anti-Christian threat, while the detectives’ boss (Kevin Dunn) just wants it off the books as soon as possible.

     While their investigation, set in 1995, is the heart of the series, the story flashes forward intermittently to police interrogations of Hart and Cohle 17 years after the events. Harrelson’s Marty, your typical detached detective with a rocky marriage (to Maggie, played by the marvelous Michelle Monaghan), a demanding mistress and a drinking problem. But he keeps getting pulled deeper and deeper into the complex case by the obsessive Rust, an introspective, misanthrope who has no friends or loves, a tragic past and little hope for the fate of mankind.

   The series really soars during the interrogation scenes with Cohle, now out of the department and doing little but drinking, who holds forth with the two investigators who are working a similar case. Demanding they provide him with a six-pack of Lone Star, he gives them a sanitized version of the crime along with his unforgiving but fascinating philosophy. (Based, some claim, on the ideas of writer Thomas Ligotti, whose lack of credit has raised questions of plagiarism against the show’s writer/creator, Nic Pizzolatto, who denies any connection.)

     Director Cary Fukunaga, who made the recent version of “Jane Eyre,” captures the flat, unchanging geography of the bayou along with the pockets of human desperation. Often Marty and Rust are seen as small figures moving across a vast landscape, as if the inherit evil of the region is about to swallow them up.   

     The centerpiece of the first part of the series takes place when Rust goes undercover, reconnecting with a gang of drug-dealing bikers, leading to a full-scale shootout with rival dealers in a suburban black community. Brilliantly filmed and staged, the tense, chaotic sequence is both an indictment of a criminal culture devoid of basic humanity and an unforgettable action scene.   

     The final three hours focus on what happens after the 2012 interviews, as the long-estranged detectives reunite and get on with unfinished business that has taken over Cohle’s life. Even though the plot, which takes viewers into a world of lurid, twisted, cultish psychotics, is intensely compelling, it’s just a vehicle for Pizzolatto’s exploration of these troubled, talkative and ultimately single-minded detectives.       

   I finally caught up with 2012’s Oscar-winning documentary about cult-legend Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose early 1970s albums were all but forgot everywhere except in South Africa.

    On the one hand, the film superbly documents the heartfelt crusade of two men, a record shop owner and a music journalist, to find out what happen to their childhood idol along with the somewhat mysterious career of Rodriguez. But, for me, it raised as many questions as it answered.

    *If Rodriguez was so popular in South Africa—he’s compared to the Beatles—then why did it take 30 years for anyone to dig into his life after he seemingly disappeared?

   *Did anyone really believe the rumors that he had killed himself on stage? They do have newspapers and television in South Africa, right?

   *If Rodriguez sold so many records and was so admired, where were the South African concert promoters? They weren’t interested in the incredible profits a Rodriguez concert would have produced?

   *Even if U.S. record executives swindled Rodriguez out of royalties, which seems clear (Clarence Avant, a legendary music exec, is the arrogant bad guy of the film and now is facing a lawsuit), why wouldn’t they have followed up when South Africans kept buying his record? Whether they thought him talentless or not, no record honcho passes up a chance to make money.

     In addition, I found the accolades for the man’s music a bit over-the-top (I bought a best-of collection and his lyrics are closer to Cat Stevens than Jackson Browne—please don’t even mention Joni or Dylan); he seems like a fine, regional artist who probably could have sustained a career with some effort.

     Of course you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be touched by the upshot of the search for this “lost legend.” It is quite a tale, but it falls short in its documenting.



    I’ve never quite known what to make of Mae West. Her films, immensely popular in their time, haven’t aged well—they now play like Marx Bros. films without any of the brothers. West might as well be digital inserted into her films as little interaction she has with the other performers. She saunters through her scenes performing her faux sexy routine and delivering ribald one-lines like Rodney Dangerfield on Quaaludes.

   Yet West was a pioneer in opening up the Broadway stage to controversial, “indecent” subjects through the 1920s. Writing and starring, the ambitious actress brought portrayals of the underbelly of society and the unspoken appeal of sex from burlesque and presented it for upper-class audiences on the legitimate stage, breaking box office records. As chronicled in Marybeth Hamilton’s fascinating book, “When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” West was among the first playwrights to fully explore a side of society not spoken of in polite company, penning characters who were prostitutes, homosexuals, promiscuous, criminals and, even “worse,” were of races other than white. Unfortunately, little of that cutting-edge attitude made it to her Hollywood pictures.

     “She Done Him Wrong,” a watered-down version of her Broadway hit “Diamond Lil,” tells the story of a Bowery nightclub performer in the “Gay ‘90s” who enjoys both expensive jewelry and good-looking men. Of most interest to Lady Lou is Captain Cummings (a pre-stardom Cary Grant), a newly arrived do-gooder who is at odds with Lil’s sleazy boss and cabaret owner Gus Jordon (Noah Beery).

      Paramount Studios ran into the brick wall of the Hayes Office immediately after announcing they had purchased the rights to West’s play. The censorship board, set up by the studios to protect themselves from outside censorship (movements where gathering steam across the country in the late 1920s and early ‘30s) couldn’t stop Paramount from making the picture—all they could see were the huge profits she had made with the stage play—but did its best to tone it down. But West is West.

     It’s not so much the lines that are so suggestive, but the manner in which the 40-year-old actress delivers them. Out of her mouth, everything sounds dirty. Yet, most of the time, her co-stars don’t respond to what she says, as if she’s an off-screen commentator.  The film, directed by Lowell Sherman, but clearly controlled by West, couldn’t be more stagey or move at a more sluggish pace. But the movie was a major hit, immediately skyrocketing West to the top of the most popular actress polls (a ranking very important in that era).

    After “She Done Him Wrong,” each successive film starring West (most adapted from her plays) became less and less racy as the studios began to acquiesce to calls for a more “family-oriented” product.

     While I’m not much of a fan of the actress or her movies, she certainly deserves credit for trying to open up the cinema to a more adult view of the world. It wouldn’t be until the 1960s—when everything was changing—that Hollywood realized that talking about, or even showing, sex would not cause the ruination of society.


     While not up to the director’s recent successes—“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), “Midnight in Paris” (2011) and “Blue Jasmine” (2013)—Woody Allen’s latest amusement offers his most unabated assault on the idea of the afterlife and its suspicious cousin, the supernatural. 

     Primarily set in the south of France during the 1920s, the single-threaded story involves successful illusionist Stanley (a strangely lightweight Colin Firth)—he performs as Wei Ling Soo, complete with a fake bald head and fu manchu mustache--who is invited by fellow illusionist and boyhood friend Howard (Simon McBurney) to debunk an American psychic (Emma Stone). Sophie has convinced a wealthy widow (a very amusing Jacki Weaver) that she can speak to the dead and predict the future, which seems to include her marrying the widow’s simpleton son.

     It takes only a few days for the low-keyed, childlike Sophia to upend the world of righteously cynical Stanley; she senses things about him and his spunky aunt (the great British actress Eileen Atkins) that turn Stanley into a believer. 

      Part of the problem with the film is that it plays out like an early rehearsal of a stage play, with most of the actors delivering their lines as if they were handed them an hour earlier.  Allen’s script is heavy on talking points, slight on character development, yet I think a different set of actors, especially in the leads, might have helped. Stone never exudes the kind of charisma or gravitas you’d expect from this type of character. One of the hallmarks of Allen films through the years has been his often surprising yet spot-on casting; recently he’s widely missed the mark in key roles.

     But I was highly entertained; both by the 78-year-old filmmaker’s politically incorrect commentary on the impossibility of anything beyond the known reality and his enthusiastic embrace of the unending hope for romantic magic.     



UNDER THE SKIN (2014) and LUCY (2014)

    I liked the sci-fi genre much more when it was the poor cousin of Hollywood filmmaking. When sci-fi meant cheesy B-movies in the 1950s, some real gems emerged (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still”) amid the rubber-masked aliens and cardboard-constructed space ships, which, in their own way, are as entertaining as the current big-budget events. Then came “Star Wars” and the studios discovered that by throwing a few more dollars into the budget those B-movie plots and characters could make them billions.

     But occasionally a picture reminiscent of those pre-“Star Wars” days gets made--“Brazil,” the first “Terminator,” “Children of Men” and “Super 8” come to mind. Brian Glazer’s darkly stylish and totally baffling “Under the Skin” fits the bill.

     This intentionally vague film begins with a beam of light arriving from outer space and eventually taking the human form of Scarlett Johansson (utilizing a conveniently beautiful dead body). Her assignment—a mysterious motorcyclist seems to be her operator—is to drive around Glasgow, Scotland, picking up guys who she then leads into a deadly pool inside abandon houses.

    Who these aliens are, what they want with human bodies and when or how they set up these pool-like portals on Earth are issues never addressed. We just see the process—her victims slowly undressing just as she does, leading them to their death.

    The moody film benefits from its use of mostly real people along the streets of Glasgow who Johansson seduces into her van, giving it a documentary feeling. At points you can see the actress being amused by the interactions.

     It doesn’t take long before Johansson’s alien starts understanding human emotion and wants to know what it feels like. As we humans know all too well, things get complicated once emotions enter the picture.

      Under Glazer’s judicious direction, the film offers just the right amount of horrific mystery and real-world observation, with Johansson’s unnamed alien the perfect conduit for exploring the results of human emotions. She’s as other worldly and all so human as she was in “Her.”

     “Lucy” is nearly as difficult to comprehend, but much more fun; a wild ride of a nutty sci-fi film that is equal parts intellectual exploration and violent shoot-em-up. 

      A clueless party girl living in Taipei, Lucy ends up delivering a briefcase full of drugs to a volatile, ruthless Chinese mobster (Min-sik Choi). After an intense standoff, Lucy and three other foreigners are selected to smuggle this drug—an experimental, mind-expanding compound—into their homeland, where one of Mr. Jang’s men will take possession on the packets. Oh, and, the packets of drugs have been surgically inserted into each of the smugglers’ stomachs.

     The real fun begins when the drug starts increasing Lucy’s ability to utilize her mind (much is made of the fact that human’s use but 10 percent of the brain’s capacity.). Soon, she enlists the help of a French police detective (a bemused Amr Waked) and a world-renown expert in brain power, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman, as always, the voice of reason).

     Both revenge fantasy and scientific lark, the film, written and directed by French action specialist Luc Besson (“La Femme Nikita,” “The Professional”), tries to explore the burden of dealing with too much information, even as Lucy, virtually single-handedly, takes on this fearsome mob with the power of thought.

     Johansson is again superb in this supernatural role; she manages to be convincing as both a dimwit and the smartest person on the planet. And, happily for once, the script doesn’t attempt to insert an implausible romance, presenting Lucy as clearly understanding the seriousness of her mission.

    At some point, the science became a bit deep and I stopped trying to understand the details, giving in to Bresson’s highly entertaining controlled chaos.


     Foolishly, I had some hopes that this time-travel romance would be something interesting; the trailer made me think it had potential and writer-director, Richard Curtis had a good track record, having penned “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

     Early in the film, the awkward, somewhat immature Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Weasley from “Harry Potter”) is told by his father (an overly maudlin Bill Nighy) that the males of the family have the ability to go back in time.

      Immediately after Tim is convinced—the process involves going into a closet and closing your eyes wishing yourself back—his father tells him that he should not use it for financial gains because “that’s not what’s important in life.” What nonsense! Of course money is important.

      Why have the movies, especially in recent years, demonized the desire to have money? Constantly, characters are judged by whether they follow their heart or go for the money—if it were only that simple. No, it’s not the most important thing, but if you have a chance to watch a sporting event and then go back in time to place a bet, you’d be crazy not to do it. Even if you only did it once; even if you didn’t want this “dirty” money and you gave it all to charities or used it to help poor people in some way, becoming a modern day Robin Hood.

      But the film wants to put that obvious use of this amazing ability out of bounds so that Tim can go back in time to kiss a girl on New Year’s Eve and, later, make a better impression when he has sex with a woman he’s fallen for. I guess improving one’s love life is more legitimate than making some bucks on the World Cup.

       I did understand Tim’s motives to some extent since the woman he’s smitten by is played by Rachel McAdams. She brings a life-affirming glow to all her roles, no matter how minor the film and then showed in the spy thriller “A Most Wanted Man” that she’s capable of a portraying a very serious, complex character. “About Time” could have used some of that side of the actress; instead she’s relegated to playing the dutiful, sensible girlfriend/wife. (Oddly, she was also the love interest in 2009’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife”—hardly enviable typecasting.)

      Tim ends up having to go back in time to help out her father’s playwright friend, forgetting that it wiped out his first meeting with Mary. But when you can keep going back in time, everything is possible. Too much, actually.

      The arbitrariness of the film makes it ludicrous, along with its basic toothless approach to life. I know, I know, it’s a comedy, but it attempts, badly, to offer insight in how we live our lives, so some standards need to be applied. Yet I might have bought it (McAdams: what can I say?) if Tim had just placed a single bet.

NOAH  (2014)

    The man who built the ark is given a big-budget, special-effects loaded film treatment by writer-director Darren Aronofsky, who does his best to turn the simplistic story into an action-adventure epic.

     Russell Crowe plays Noah as a man possessed, bringing the same strident intensity he displayed as Javert in “Les Misérables,” after he receives a message he believes comes from the creator of the world. As a descendent of Adam and grandson of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), this father of three jumps into the ark-building obsession with the help of giant rock creatures (God’s angels but looking more like prehistoric transformers.)

     Adding to the chaos is the presence of what seems like a much too sophisticated, ahead-of-its-time army led by the film’s representative of evil, Tubal (the menacing Ray Winstone), who traces his lineage back to Cain—need I say more?
    The coming of world-cleansing rains—God, pissed at the destruction of his paradise, decided to start over, according to the Bible story—offers impressive CGI sequences and provides the only reason to watch this film. Unlike previous depictions of the story, this movie doesn’t make much of the gathering of two of each living creature for safe keeping in the ark or that Noah is allegedly between 500 and 600 years old.

    Of course, the religious right was offended by the depiction of Noah’s heroics because it didn’t follow the Bible word for word, as if it was written by those present at the flood. For everyone else, the parable doesn’t hold (sorry) much water.

    Jennifer Connelly, who played Crowe’s mate in “A Brilliant Mind” (and winning an Oscar for it), is back as his wife, but her role as Naameh is barely there; though she looks great for a woman who’s lived a couple of centuries.

    I’m not sure what Aronofsky, best known for “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” and co-writer Ari Handel were aiming for; they knew they’d upset Christians, but, at the same time, who else would be interested in this ponderous ancient world tale?