[My writing about the movies we've seen over the years is very sporadic, and, paradoxically, almost completely dried up after I retired in 2000. I notice that, whether I thought they were great or hated them, many of the movies I bothered to write about have disappeared from everyone's consciousness. I don't know if you can even buy DVDs of them.]
THE MAMBO KINGS (directed by Arne
Evidently, it's impossible to get financing for a movie now unless there's at least two sex scenes with nekked people. (I heard a recording once of a monologue by Atlanta journalist-humorist Lewis Grizzard, who pointed out that, while you can be innocently "naked", you can't be innocently "nekked"). The two sex scenes in The Mambo Kings are just like all the rest. I really feel sorry for the actors. I'm not a good judge of the adequacy of their sexual simulation, but they certainly can't seem to do much with their simulation of ecstasy. In spite of the movie's sound fidelity, I've heard better moans through motel walls. But maybe I was hearing hormones.
The other movie was Howards End, and it's a must. The video won't do: it's got to be seen on the big screen. It's so luxurious. The color, the camera shots, the acting, the sets, the story, all seem so perfect as a recreation of Edwardian England. I had to read Howards End for English 39 (The Novel) back in 1957, before all college courses had to be identified by three integers. My transcript testifies that I passed the course, so I must have answered at least some of the test questions, such as:
Compare the character of Biddy Schlegel in Howards End with that of Stephen Hero in Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man. How are their personalities affected by their background? How are they changed by the action in each novel? How well do they achieve the aims of the authors? Why or why not? Justify your answers.
I remember reading the book, but I don't remember a thing about the plot or characters, and not one word from it (well, maybe "and"). I suspect that there wasn't much in it that a farm boy, particularly one who had not yet learned about British Class Structure, could relate to.
While standing in line for tickets, I remembered my ignorance of Howards End, and tried to act the part of the sort of patron I enjoy being near in a line: I authoritatively explained to Liz that the movie was about Captain Horatio Hornblower, thus confusing E.M. Forster with C.S. Forester. Hopefully, I also confused some other people in the line.
Anyway, Liz was not only thrilled by the sets and the characters, but also by the horses. She says they're of much higher quality than those in American films, particularly cowboy movies, where the horses are no better than the real horses the cowboys had to ride. For her, the special resonance in the final scene was the way the two Clydesdales pulling the mower made the turn at the end of the swath.
But the movie is truly an anachronism: there's no blood to be
seen. In addition, the actors manage to pull off an Edwardian trick not
often seen on the screen these days: they mate with their clothes on.
HIGHWAY 61 (directed by Bruce
There are many more that don't work: the barber shaves a motorcycle gang. The Roadie decides to go straight and give the corpse a decent burial by floating him off into a bayou. However, the movie has at least one good line: "The trouble with a trumpet is that, no matter what you play on it, it sounds like jazz."
All the main actors have bad teeth, and that's a plus. Most of the road scenes are the yellow line at night, and that's a minus. And there were some geographical inconsistencies that bothered me. In 1968, on a business trip to Louisiana, the only rental car left was a black Oldsmobile convertible, and I drove Highway 61 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. It looked exactly like Robert Penn Warren's description in All the King's Men: old, with gray asphalt, yet made for high speed; flat, running along a bayou; and littered with the flattened remains of large water rats (Nutria, I think). Since than, that stretch of Highway 61 has been covered over by freeway. Still, the protagonists didn't have to go to New Orleans by the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway: it's almost 100 miles out of the way. The fact that there's a lot more freeway signs than "61" signs in the road scenes may be a social commentary by the director, but I doubt it. I grew up within a half-mile of Highway 61 in Minnesota. It was one of the commonplace pieces of knowledge of my childhood that you could get on it and drive straight to New Orleans, and that it was paved road all the way. The fact that you no longer can do that, but have to take a generic freeway instead, is part of what's wrong with America, and it seems like there should be some movie that explores that in depth. But this isn't it.
The music for the closing credits is a Sonny Terry &
Brownie McGee piece I'm not familiar with. I was struck by how
inimitable Sonny Terry's harmonica playing is: you can always recognize
it. At the very end, the credits state that the movie is dedicated to
Blind Boy Grunt. A good try, but too little and too late.
A WOMAN'S TALE (directed by
Paul Cox) and
The movie turned out to be even worse than I expected. Like so many Earnest Endeavors, it easily straddles the broad line between Bathos and Twaddle. I would have said there wasn't a wet eye in the house, but that wasn't true -- the place was packed with people who had a moving experience. I know the University Film Society has to put on that kind of crap to pay the bills -- it's just that I feel bad contributing to Sentimental Turpitude.
To make the contrast even greater, I happened to turn on the TV on Satuday AM and caught the last half-hour of an old favorite movie, The Attack of the Giant Killer Shrews (1959). Enjoying such a movie requires Suspension of Belief: you don't believe a bit of it, because ordinary events, motivations, actions are demolished by the mess made by incompetent script-writing, directing, acting and editing. Yet, the simple-minded plot and action leave resonances in the mind long after the movie is over. I connect the theme of the Idealistic Scientist conducting experiments to understand nature, only to create monsters, with the theory that AIDS was started by experiments in Africa involving injecting baboon blood into humans. The Giant Killer Shrews are doomed, even if they eat the heroes, because their appetite is so ravenous they will eat each other and become extinct on their desert island. I remember Shakespeare: ... mankind must perforce consume itself, like monsters of the deep.
But I wouldn't have thought of Shakespeare if the script writer had ever heard of him. The trouble with movies like A Woman's Tale or Fried Green Tomatoes is that they demand of you Suspension of Disbelief: they expect you to believe what's presented on the screen, and to take it seriously. So, like Peer Gynt peeling the onion to find the center, you think through the layers of meaning only to find, as Gertrude Stein supposedly said about Oakland, that "there's no there there." I suspect that, in order to get funding, the movie scripts have to pass some Understandability Test by accountants. A fiction author (I forget who) said, "If you know what your writing means, you don't know much." That's also true of movies.
Liz's opinion of A Woman's Tale: "All the women in the
were nurturers, and all the men were assholes, which makes it sort of
true, but also trivial."
BLADE RUNNER (directed by
MYSTERY TRAIN (directed by
THE LOVER (directed by Jean-Jacques
The movie has explicit sex scenes (although Liz complained that you couldn't see anything explicitly male), scenes of exploitation of women without punishment of the male involved (for which I would suppose feminists would boycott the movie), and scenes of extreme family dysfunctionality. Strangely, there are no scenes with exploding heads or bloody body parts -- I thought you needed those to even get funding for a movie these days (although it was made by the French; maybe that explains it).
I don't know what its rating should be: maybe a multiple
rating system should be used, like
At the end, the credits revealed that Jeanne Moreau was the
narrator, so maybe it was the ghost of her younger self (in a
flashback) that I had seen in the lobby. If only Truffaut could have
been the director!
WITTGENSTEIN (directed by
LIKELY ACTORS FOR THE TONYA HARDING
They've probably already started filming The Tonya Harding
Story, but we still could think about what the proper casting
should be. I believe the choice for director should obviously be Jim
on the basis that he's already made two very similar movies (Sranger
Than Paradise and one of the episodes in Mystery Train).
And Jeff Gilooley could be easily played by Nicolas Cage -- he looks a
him, and he's a natural for expressing that special kind of creepiness
that gives criminality a bad name. Nicolas can also look
dumb, so that helps. Anybody can play Nancy Kerrigan, so we might
as well use Julia Roberts, who's so popular now, playing roles like
prostitutes and law students -- I'm sure she could handle figure
skating. Tonya is more problematical -- Judy Holliday, were she not
dead, could have done the voice part perfectly (remember her as the
silent movie star in Singing in the Rain who couldn't make the
transition to talkies). We just don't produce nasty actresses any more,
or maybe they're all on daytime soap operas and I don't see them.
Similarly, we don't have good prospects for the role of bodyguard.
Sylvester Stallone looks dumb enough, but he's too muscular. We need
someone like the actor who portrayed One-Round, the cellist in The
Ladykillers (Britain, 1955, directed by Alexander Mackendrick) who
later became very protective of Mrs. Lopsided -- someone who
could play Lennie in Of Mice and Men without
looking like he was acting. And they should reassemble the old Monty
troupe to play the part of the Figure Skating Ethics Committee, or
whatever they call themselves.
THE SECRET OF ROAN INISH
(directed by John Sayles)
Well, the scenery was nice and bleak, and there was one
sequence that had just the right timing and atmosphere (where the young
girl drifts away in a boat), but it's a general failure, which I
suppose I should have expected. The grandfather and grandmother are the
stockest of stock characters, the Irish Salt O' The Earth types, and
there isn't much they can do with any of their lines. In fact, all of
the actors had read all their lines before the filming started, so
there was no sense of mystery or surprise. In order to be successful, a
film like this has to be written by the director, who has to write the
next day's shooting during the night. And no one would have any idea
how the film's going to end until it's wrapped. That's the kind of
mystery, combining a lack of human foreknowledge with artistic
inevitability that I associate with pre-Christian stories such as those
about Selkies. But, alas, the need for outside financing of modern
movies means that even The
French Lieutenant's Woman couldn't be filmed
today. So my thirst for Scandanavian mysteries is still unfullfilled.
Maybe I should head for the Shetland Islands to see if they're still
singing a version of Good Old Child #113. It was last collected from an
old woman there in the 1850's, and maybe she or one of her descendants
is still alive and singing it, and I'd have to be satisfied with that.
BLESSING (directed by Paul
After the movie was over, Liz said, "It's too bad they didn't have Sam Shephard and Jessica Lange in the movie."
"Why?" I asked. "Their acting couldn't have saved it."
"No," she said, "but Sam would have re-written the script."
"Besides," she added, "he could have called it Fool For Cows."
FARGO (directed by the Coen
The bad guys were really good, with the exception of the car-salesman husband of the kidnapped wife, who was a little too realistic as an amateur criminal. I was razzing Liz (who, being a dentist's daughter, believes strongly in orthodonture) about how, if these actor's parents had had their children's teeth fixed, the actors would never have made it into the movies, and Liz commented that it seemed as if the entire cast had been chosen on the basis of crooked teeth. The crook with the really ugly teeth ends up getting shot in the mouth, perhaps a comment on the current obsession with straight teeth.
Whether you like the movie or not, I'd classify it as a must-see, just for repetitive dialog like "So it looks like we've got a X type thing goin' here, then", where "X" stands for any number of things. The weirdest scene, and the one I'll remember the longest, is a somewhat botched episode that has nothing to do with the rest of the film. I think it must be based on a real Minnesota-type person, because it seemed so familiar. It involves an ex-classmate of the heroine, a man of Japanese descent who is an engineer at Honeywell, who had married the class beauty (with a Scandinavian name). She died of leukemia, though, and he misses her terribly. The classmate dissolves in self-pitying sobs. The heroine hears from someone else, later, that the guy never married, has no job, and is living with his parents.
Oh, yah, I forgot: when the no-nonsense millionaire gets
shot in the stomach, some goosedown flies out of his jacket -- a nice
THE ROCK (directed by Michael Bay)
I suppose it's partly our fault. As good as our intentions
are, we don't get over to the Oak Street Cinema nearly as often as we
should, and we should stop putting our money where our ears shouldn't
MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (by
August Wilson, presented
at the Penumbra
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom would make no sense at all if
color-blind casting were used, and that's because his plays have a
relatively modest vision -- they aren't much about universals, being
more about hierarchies among the common folk, and the subtleties of
oppressed behavior. Shakespeare, on the other hand, had much more
universal themes in mind when creating some of his best plays, so that
they are fairly independent of race or, in some cases, even sex. The
family themes (Lear, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, Antony &
Cleopatra) and the royalty themes (Caesar, Macbeth, the Henrys) could
all be done easily with color-blind casting. But you'll notice that, in
spite of jealousy being the main overt theme of Othello, white
actors in the title role always reach for the burnt cork (else why
be a black ram tupping the white ewe in the opening scene?) and Shylock
is likely to remain being a Jew, either genuine or imitation, in future
performances of Merchant of Venice, because race and religion
(or, perhaps more precisely, overclass / underclass) are major themes
those plays. And I can easily imagine what the audience response would
be if a color-blind director of The Tempest truly believed that
David Duke was the best actor for Prospero and O. J. Simpson was a
fit for Caliban, and cast them as such (they both need jobs, so they
might be available as actors).
SLING BLADE (directed by Billy
I notice that The New Yorker reviewer intensely disliked the movie. I liked the accents, even though Kentuckians probably look on them the way Minnesotans regarded the accents in Fargo.
I'd rate it at 1-1/2 stars, and a must-see, both at the same
LENINGRAD COWBOYS GO AMERICA
Aki Kaurismäki's )
On viewing it the second time, I believe drugs may have been involved in the making of the film. It has some very funny moments, even if you have no Finnish heritage. And the earnest attempts of a bunch of Finnish musicians trying to imitate American regional music is very interesting.
Then we went to see American Movie on Friday night (to
make up for getting in free on Saturday, the Lagoon Theater hit us up
for two people). It's a better movie than you'd expect, mainly because
overweight sidekick sounds so dumb when he talks. This is in contrast
to the hero, who talks like an aggressive Hollywood director at the
same time he's really a 2-bit loser. The sidekick was exactly the type
who'd forget to get change if he were assigned to sell tickets.
OH, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?
(directed by the Coen
I especially appreciated the Tommy Johnson character (based on the Robert Johnson myth) saying he sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for guitar prowess, because "I wasn't using it, anyway."
There's no point in making a list of anachronisms or
impossible events -- they're of no concern to the Coens who put
together a story that's believable anyway. There's also no way of
knowing whether they're intentional or not. For example, at the end,
there's a tsunami caused by the new dam on the river. Dammed rivers
don't rise that way -- maybe an inch per day would be more realistic.
But a tsunami is needed for the story, so a tsunami appears, and we
don't mind. For the Coen's stories don't take place in the real world,
anyway. They occur in a magical place named Silly Coen Valley.
This re-telling of the Book of Job requires multiple viewings, for this fabulous movie contains way too much to take in if you watch it only once. The Coen's movies all play with philosophical and ethical questions on some level or other, but this one is more overt than most. The action takes place in 1967 in the Jewish shtetl of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Larry Gopnik is a spiritually bereft physics professor who is being squeezed from all directions. Sy Abelman, a fatuous parody of the worst imaginable warm, empathetic person, is poaching his wife and (it turns out later) writing anonymous derogatory letters to Larry's tenure committee. His brother, Arthur, is hanging on Larry like a lamprey eel on a lake trout. His daughter, Sarah, wants to get a nose job, presumably to become a shiksa (female goy). His son, Danny, gets stoned on pot, watches F Troop on TV, listens to Jefferson Airplane, and was perhaps cast for his ability to look like he's completely unaware of anything around him. Danny isn't paying attention to Hebrew lessons, so he's learning his bar mitzvah recitation by listening to a record. His goy neighbor, unlike Larry, is raising a son in his own image, while encroaching on Larry's property, squeezing him just like the Poles squeezed the Jews into small ghettos before exterminating them. His boss, "reassuring" him about the tenure committee while mentioning all the roadblocks and anonymous letters alleging incompetence, only makes Larry more anxious.
Larry has no authority in his house, and every self-absorbed member is taking from him. Arthur gets up in the middle of the night and drinks refrigerated orange juice straight out of the can. Sarah steals money from Larry for the nose job, and Danny, in turn, steals from Sarah to buy pot.
I wonder if the Coens were influenced by the Rocky & Bullwinkle Fractured Fairy Tales that they must have watched when they were growing up? They can't retell a story straight. So, in this case, Job's trials have been dispersed. For example, Larry has bad dreams and "loses" his children, but Arthur is the one afflicted with boils. If I read The Joys of Yiddish correctly, Arthur is a shlemiel and Larry is a nebech. Rosten says that they are often "twin brothers." Rosten's example of the difference: A waiter spills soup on a diner. The guy who spills the soup is a shlemiel; the guy who gets the soup spilled on him is a shlimatzl; and the nebech cleans up the mess.
Larry and Arthur have to move out of the house to the Jolly Roger Motel (I wonder where the Coens found that gem), where Arthur becomes even more of a burden, getting arrested for gambling and then for soliciting male sex in North Dakota. The lawyer bills are piling up. In one bleak scene, Arthur is distraught because God favors Larry instead of him, completely unaware that all his wounds are self-inflicted.
Meanwhile, a failing Korean student has left a large bribe behind for Larry, adding an ethical burden. The longer Larry waits, the harder it becomes to report the bribe. Larry has been teaching about Schrödinger's cat, trapped in a box that randomly kills or doesn't kill the cat, and the cat is in a state of being simultaneously both alive and dead until someone opens the box to observe. The student says he understands about the cat. Larry says it's not about the story -- that's only an illustration. It's the math that counts. But of course, the stories are all we have in life. Later, the Korean student's father shows up threatening to sue, and Schrödinger's cat reappears when the father gives Larry a choice: either be sued for accepting a bribe or for slander. "Accept the mystery," he says.
A random example of how the Coen's scramble stories: Larry
goes up on the roof to adjust the antenna so Danny can see F Troop
more clearly. As he moves the antenna, the sound track is of a radio
tuning between stations. In the new antenna location, the story has
changed from Job to 2nd Samuel, chapter 11:
I made a covenant with mine eyes; why then should I think upon a maid?
But the sub-plot doesn't go anywhere. The neighbor is more reminiscent of the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel, chapter 28) than Bathsheba, but she has no spiritual answers. Larry goes over there, gets stoned, but spends his high time looking at refractions in a water glass rather than seeking enlightenment.
I've spent a lot of time trying to understand the Dybbuk that appears in the prolog. I don't think he's a direct reference. There were certainly no Dybbuks in 1967 St. Louis Park. Instead, I think the prolog is about a long-gone culture that trusted knowledge. The wife knows the stranger is not a rabbi, but a Dybbuk, because she talked to a credible person who sat shiva for the dead rabbi. And with certain knowledge, you can act with confidence. Larry has faith in the mathematics, but he seemed not to notice that the 19th century dream of Physics as the source of certainty was shattered in the 20th by the very events he's teaching. There's a key scene where Larry is teaching Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. He's filled the entire front wall, up to about 40 feet high, with arcane equations. As the bell rings, he mathematically proves that you can't know anything precisely ("but you're responsible for it on the test," he adds). Sy's ghost shows up to physically insist that Larry see a Rabbi for spiritual help, since "mathematics is only the art of the possible."
The first and second Rabbi that Larry sees could easily have quoted Rashi from the epigram at the beginning of the movie: Accept with simplicity everything that happens to you. All of them have studied the Book of Job and know that Job got nothing but bad, unhelpful advice. Still, spiritual guidance is part of the job description, so the first rabbi enthusiastically tries to get Larry to look for God in the blacktopped parking lot. The second rabbi tells a long parable about a dentist who finds a message inscribed on the teeth in a Goy's mouth. It read, in Hebrew, help me; save me. The dentist surveys hundreds of other mouths, but finds no other message. What does the parable mean? The rabbi doesn't even find meaning to be a relevant question. It's a parable, after all.
Marshak, the third and oldest rabbi, is too busy to see Larry, even though it's obvious he's just sitting there. I think this scene is a reference to the parable at the beginning of Kafka's The Trial, where a shlimatzl waits at the Gate of Justice for an entire lifetime. A guard refuses admittance until the poor guy is dying, when he reveals that the supplicant could have entered at any time. Marshak says nothing to Larry because he recognizes that there's nothing to say: there's no point in giving spiritual advice to a rationalist.
Early in the story, Danny was listening to a transistor radio through an earpiece during Hebrew lessons, and it was confiscated. After a stoned Danny stumbles through his Bar Mitzvah, he's sent to see Marshak. Marshak doesn't say much, but it's the spiritual turn in the movie. He's been listening to Jefferson Airplane on Danny's radio, and quotes their song, Somebody To Love:
When the truth is found to be lies,
He omits don't you need somebody to love, because Marshak doesn't waste time with the obvious. Instead, his advice is, "Be a good boy." Job's story had a happy ending, but that was the 10th century BCE. Three thousand years later, there's no such happy ending for Larry, as he's finally driven to corruption that he can be really punished for. It looks like God is coming in a whirlwind with a redeeming message for Danny, though. Then again, maybe not.
My rating: six stars out of a possible five.
Upon Further Review ... (April, 2011):
1. Arthur was arrested in The North Dakota, not
North Dakota. Now I can appreciate two unlikely jokes: the idea that
North Dakota would have a gay bar, and/or that a gay bar anywhere in
the universe would be named The North Dakota.
CRAZY HEART (directed by Scott
This case requires extreme suspension of disbelief, though: an old, drunken, smelly has-been country-western singer (Bad Blake, played perfectly by Jeff Bridges) unaccountably attracts a 30-something (Maggie Gyllenhaal) sweet lady. Bridges has played losers before, so he has his act down pat. Gyllenhaal tries valiantly, but given the script, I don't think any actress would be able to make her part believable.
Blake plays bowling alleys and two-bit bars, and complains to his agent that he's broke, but he drives a gas-guzzler, stays in motels, and has a whiskey habit that must cost him at least $30 per day. He pukes a lot, but never seems to wash up, and, unlike most drunken performers, he remembers the words, chords, tune and rhythm to his songs -- his singing is terrific. A realistic performance, I suppose, would have been even more unwatchable.
Maggie finally wakes up to the fact that Blake is unreliable after he loses her kid in a shopping mall (hey, it could happen to anyone -- it's happened to me, and I was sober), so Blake decides to dry out. He can somehow afford treatment at a sunny locale where you sit in a circle and, by admitting you're an alcoholic, you get cured. I haven't seen such a painless overcoming of addiction since The Man With A Golden Arm (directed by Otto Preminger, 1955) where, as I recall, Frank Sinatra beat his heroin addiction in a record 1:45 of screen time (I didn't time it, but it seemed awfully short). Blake doesn't get the girl, but she inspires him to write some more lonesome songs, which also doesn't jibe with typical reality: once alcohol no longer works to fuel writing, it usually does not help for the writer to dry out -- creativity doesn't return.
I can't tolerate movies or other works of art that
cynically try to program my emotions, which is why I avoid all Steven
movies. I don't know anything about Scott Cooper, except that I'm going
to avoid his movies in the future, too.