Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joe (2014)

Dir. David Gordon Green
Viewed: From the Couch

Sean:

I’d heard plenty about Joe leading up to this viewing. Not only was it being called a continued return to form for director David Gordon Green (coming less than a year after Prince Avalanche), just as many words were being written about Nicolas Cage’s performance as the titular character. Cage and Green are certainly not an expected pairing. Even the outliers in their respective careers (and at this point Cage may have more outliers than inliers) wouldn’t lead anyone to expect a collaboration - certainly not one that works as well as Joe does. Say what you will about David Gordon Green’s dalliances with the Hollywood studio system, he has always been a master of tone - even when dealing with medieval dick jokes. Harnessing the powers of Nicolas Cage’s screen presence into something resembling a human may be a crowning achievement of sorts for Green.

For the first time in a while, it would seem, Cage is acting instead of giving one of those flamboyant performance-pieces that he seems to channel out of the ether to make otherwise unwatchable movies perversely entertaining. (That Green’s next film is starring Al Pacino could lead one to believe that Pacino’s agent took note?) His Joe is well rooted within the first half hour of the film as he expertly shepherds his crew of tree-poisoners, helps his friends manage some literal in-house butchering and patrons the local whorehouse.

But the tone of the film, one of highly tuned menace and impending doom, is well established by Green in the opening three minutes of the film. We’re introduced to 15 year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, who after this and Mud is making quite the name for himself as the go-to actor for a wayward teenager in search of a father-figure) and his poisonous, drunk dad Wade (Gary Poulter). It’s a tense bit of business as Gary calmly lays into his father over his drinking and continuously ruining their prospects. Wade responds by slugging his son and purposefully walking up a hill to take the beating he has coming to him for whatever his past discretion was.

David Gordon Green found Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died shortly after filming his role as Wade, and he gives one of the more haunting performances in recent memory. Green has always had a habit of casting local non-actors for his films but I don’t think he’s ever captured something like what Poulter bring to Joe. Wade’s threatening presence is felt even when he’s not on screen stealing his son’s hard-earned money or another sad-sack’s booze. And when he is on screen, like all real-life drunks, he hovers between a pathetic mess and an evil animal. As someone who spent too much time with his own drunk dad, it’s unnervingly uncanny.


At the halfway point of the film, after he has given Gary a job in his crew and is deciding on whether to betray his instincts and further intervene, Joe gives a mini-monologue of sorts that Green sets to one of his typically impressive montages. Joe tells his girlfriend that restraint is what has kept him alive so far and that doing the right thing, stepping-in to help Gary, doesn’t mean their story will have a happy ending. “Do you think I have a move here?” Joe asks, incredulously. Part of what makes Joe such a good character is his self-awareness. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and it’s a good bit of acting that Cage can sell this character as confidently as he does.

Of course Joe does step-in and take Gary under his wing. Thankfully there’s many, albeit brief, moments of humor in the film and a few of the best come from Joe trying to teach Gary some life lessons from his own peculiar book of rules. His instructions on how to make a cool face, “Hold the pain, smile through it,” is a particular delight (and reportedly improvised)... “Stand like you own land.” But even in these moments there is a sense that Joe knows he doesn’t have much time with Gary. Try to make a difference in this world they live in and something wicked will surely this way come. By this point Joe’s already taken a bullet from a predatory asshole he tried to straighten out in a bar fight so this kind of interference is bound to bring even worse.

This is David Gordon Green working squarely in his sweet spot. Those who long for his George Washington days will find plenty of that film’s leisurely paced scenes in D.P. Tim Orr's gorgeously shot fields of ruin. All that’s missing to really tie this film in as a finishing trilogy to George Washington and Undertow would be Gary’s casual voice-over narration - but the film is all the better for sticking to the ominous melodies of Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo (who has contributed music to all three films including working with McIlwain on spiritual cousin, Mud).

So Paddy, what are your impressions of Joe? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on the ending. (And one of these days I want to get around to having a discussion about the power of a good or bad ending and how it can ruin a good movie or salvage a mediocre one.) If there’s one detriment to a movie that telegraphs and builds towards a grim conclusion it’s that you can get to feeling like it really has to deliver on it. For the most part I think it did, though, aside from my struggling with this feeling of it all happening more or less as expected, I have some issues with Ronnie Gene Belvins being a little too actory with his predatory asshole character - which feels like it is really saying something given that he’s acting alongside Nic Cage. But I must say I quite enjoyed watching him get interrupted by Joe while trying once again to bring up his experience with that windshield he didn’t give a fuck about.


Padraic:


So I hate to spoil the good vibes we had after our Ida review, but I had a difficult time with this one. I think Joe has some strengths – the deliberateness with which Green handles the scenes of the men working in the forests, a few of the set pieces between Cage and Sheridan (they do have some real chemistry, though Sheridan is on the road to -ish likability and would probably have good chemistry with anyone) and the tremendous sense of place created by the location shooting – but this was a real slog to get through.

I suppose we should start with Cage himself, whom I’ve never cared much about, either in the sense that he was a wasted talent or in the ironic way people rush about to see his horrible movies. He does better than expected here, and doesn’t look comical with a beard and flannel shirt, but the presence of Cage still overwhelms the more subtle and nuanced film Green is aiming for. This doesn’t have to be the case: McConaughey in Mud (I’ll come back to this comparison, which is not flattering) or Stiller in Greenberg, or whoever Tarantino drags out of the 70s, all seem to inhabit real people, while here the persona that is Nick Cage completely subsumes whatever real person Joe is supposed to be; you could have picked a New York stage actor at random and had a more moving and touching film.

Few actors I think would need such cliché early shots of realness (the distracting reliance on cigarettes, booze, dogs, guns and brothels) to establish him as a bona tough guy, or the absurd action-movie scene of him healing his own gunshot wound. We see Cage as a part-time drunk and chain smoker, yet he still looks in great shape. He even can smoke cigarettes in the pouring rain. And I’m not sure if it was the script, Green, or Cage’s vanity that required establishing Joe’s sexual acumen, but the scenes with his various women at the whorehouse and the girl shacking up with him at home seemed so jarring with the otherwise sensitive tone of the film. Yes, Joe is a beaten down old man who smokes and drinks constantly, but he’s still a great lover!

While Cage is the most prominent acting problem here, he only slightly eclipses Ronnie Gene Blevins, who you note might be laying it on a bit thick. I can’t speak to his overall talent, but I don’t see what else he was supposed to do given his less-than-fleshed-out role as guy with a scar who has a feud with the good guy (what was their beef about again…I forgot before the credits finished rolling). This is a character merely introduced to have something happen in the plot. Aside from doing absurd things like wiping down his shotgun prior to picking it up again and throwing it in a creek, he just pops up to have things for Joe to do. Their history is barely sketched out, as is the whole history of Joe himself. We learn far too late in the film about his proclivity for beating up cops, but there is no real depth to his supposed issues – I can’t imagine anyone caring about what happens to him at the end. While Mud delivered a complex character with a fully realized history and motivation, Joe gives us two guys shooting at each other because…well, because they have to shoot at each other to get the film to its ending. It’s astonishing that Mud’s island-dweller who is looking to rebuild a boat is a far more believable and three-dimensional character than Joe’s average dude who works, drinks beer, and smokes cigarettes.


I’m more ambivalent about Poulter, who is genuinely scary. I think it borders on exploitation to cast him in this role, but there is no denying the fact that his character is believable, and he provides more than enough to get you to empathize with Gary and his sister (though the murdering of a fellow homeless man to get some wine was gratuitous – we get that he’s horrible). The problem for me was that he was in some sense too real, and the reaction when he was on screen was close to what happens when a truly disturbed (and possibly threatening) homeless approaches you in real life – you’re disgusted and want to get away as quickly as possible. I simply did not want to watch the movie when he was on screen, and not in a way like, say, legendary cringe-worthy figures like Bill Maplewood from Happiness. Maybe it’s not Green’s job to humanize such a monster – they no doubt exist – but Wade as played by Poulter seems to reflect every worst thought I have about a homeless drunk. Maybe it’s true, and maybe its true (as for Gary's mom) that some homeless people really would be delighted and baffled by a mechanical alarm clock, but I would hope a goal of the film would be to add more complexity to characters and not to confirm gut reactions and instincts.

Whether it is the acting, the original story, or Green’s directorial and editing choices, the lives of these characters (Gary aside) simply never came alive for me. Aside from the well-chosen locals who chopped the trees, butchered the deer, and worked the convenience store, I was always aware that I was watching a film, its devices and motivations were all too transparent; its efforts to induce empathy fell flat. I was bored. At the end, when Gary is talking with his new employer, in a shot that beautifully echoes and inverts the first scene of the film, I so wanted to follow Joe in its story of a moral lesson of good hard work over the lures of alcoholism and hate, but so many things got in the way for the previous 100 minutes that I just wanted it to end. 

The problem may be in the title itself: why is it called Joe, and not “Gary,” when the kid is the better actor, and has a more richly developed character? The kid arrives at Joe’s work already possessed of a hatred for Wade, ambition, and a work ethic to escape his roots, so why does he even need Joe? He's got nothing to learn, and Joe has nothing to teach him - the lessons on women and how to stand are superfluous; Gary has the important shit down cold from the first second he picks up an axe. As in so many of those “flamboyant performance-pieces” you mention, Cage’s character is pointless, and generally only helpful with a gun in his hand. Unfortunately, in this case, it distracted from an actual attempt to make a real movie.


Sean:

I can't say I had any issues with Joe being about Joe. To me it felt like a film about a guy who has to make a choice and face the repercussions of that choice. I certainly didn't get this morality tale about good work over alcohol at all. I think everyone, even Gary, enjoys a drink in this movie (okay, except for the mail-lady). I don't think the movie is making the case that Wade is evil because of booze - I'd say it goes out of its way to not make that point. (Anyway, no one has, or will, put it any better than Homer Simpson did when he said it was "the cause and solution to all of life's problems".)

From the first scene, which shows Wade taking a beating for the unspoken transgression he's made, to the last being Joe getting his - it felt cohesive and on point throughout. If anything, Gary is the plot point character. He could have walked in from any dozen of other movies, yeah Mud being the most obvious one, and is the character who exists to get the machinations of the plot, however thin it may be, going.

As with Wade's beating, I liked that we don't have Joe and Ronnie Gene Blevins' (for the record, his character's name is Willie-Russell, not "predatory asshole") backstory spelled out for us. Joe punched him in a bar over something or other and after spending a minute with him Gary kicks the shit out of him too and the film doesn't make it difficult to believe that these things would happen to Willie-Russell, being as he is. Which is to say, an asshole (and a pretty dumb one as well - perhaps why he wipes a gun of before throwing it in the river?).

Getting into Joe himself, I can completely understand the casting of Nicolas Cage casting too large a shadow on the picture. Here's a guy with numerous websites and Tumblr pages devoted to his outsized personality. I'm not immune to it either. But in this case I bought it. As they say, every movie is owed a suspension of disbelief and David Gordon Green makes it easier than most. I actually have a much easier time buying Cage as Joe than I do (to use a related filmmaker) Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. Joe is the boss and not only does Gary not have a job (or a cool truck giving him hope, self-esteem, something to live for, etc.) without Joe but you get the idea that some of these other people under his employ might not have quite the same lives without him either.

I still feel the need to defend Joe's character just a little bit. I don't know where you picked up this "beaten down old man" idea from this movie. It makes a strong case in the early going that he's a pretty happy, respected guy (aside from this predatory asshole - but that's Texas and, speaking of which, do you think Joe has health insurance?) until this kid shows up and forces him to go down a road he'd rather not. Even after he gets shot, he isn't mopey or acting "beaten down" about it. In fact, he gives one of my favorite lines of the movie. His girlfriend asks, with him in bandages, bleeding and coughing, "Are you ok?" To which he replies, "I gotta quit smoking." From reading what I have about the film, there's little doubt that Cage improvised this line as well and it only adds to my appreciation to what he brings to the roll.


As far as Wade/Gary Poulter goes, my only tinge of worry comes from wether or not Poulter was too proud of the work he did and celebrated a bit too much, leading to his death. But none of this is for me to say. Gary Poulter was clearly someone completely different from Wade. I feel pretty certain he wouldn't be allowed within sight of the set of this film, never mind being cast and giving the performance he did, if he showed up to work like Wade does or was anything like this character he plays. Wade isn't homeless so I don't understand why you think his character represents your worst fear about homeless people. Instead I would admire that some homeless people have the capability of giving a film performance as well as Poulter does here. As far as drunks go, I think the scene (as nasty as it is, agreed) of Wade committing murder isn't as unnecessary as you think - if only to show how much Wade doesn't represent your typical drunk. Though I think it was important to show how far his evil ran - past lazy and abusive which is all that we witnessed before.

Well, I had only around a 50-50 feeling that you might get around the CageFactor of the film. I thought maybe, as I, you might harbor unending goodwill due to things like Raising Arizona, Birdy, Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, or even Bringing Out the Dead. As odd as he's gotten in the past let's say 15 years, I have always felt this weird "good intentions" thing about even the most misbegotten films he's ventured into. Granted, I haven't seen most of them, not even his quasi-misstep of most high regard, that Neil LaBute Wicker Man remake. But unlike a lot of actors who act in a lot of things (even those without crazy IRS debts like Cage) there tends to be an underlying respect for the craft with Nicolas Cage that sometimes has a difficulty shining through the muck. That is to say, even in the worst of movies, he doesn't half-ass things and people respect that. Maybe there is a percentage of fans that only like him ironically, but I think it is small and they are young and even the Tumblr pages don't really care about them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Ida

Dir:
Viewed From: Goggleworks, Reading, PA

Ida
Padraic:

I don't know what it is about short titles, especially when they're proper nouns, that leaves me cold. Sean brought up Ida, as well as Joe, as possible reviews this month, and I thought 'eh.' But many times this means nothing. Mud is a great film, Her not so much (Hud, unsurprisingly falls somewhere in the middle).

The possible dullness was not helped by hearing that the film was Polish, Black and White, about a nun, and about the legacy of the Holocaust. As Sean can attest, I have absolutely no objection to subtitles at all, or about intricate stories about the everyday lives of people in very different times and places. In fact, I tend to like this stuff more than quirky stories of people sort of like me. But the combination of all of the features listed above, a title like Ida, and a boring (at first) picture of young nun in the snow on the poster, and I was preparing for a very serious and heavy lesson on Polish Catholicism and/or the (in)ability of the place to reckon with its participation in one of the great crimes in the history of humanity. I'd just seen Mother Joan of Angels, which (if you swap witchcraft for the Holocaust) has the same topics and location of Ida (though a wildly different aesthetic), and I wasn't sure if I was ready for another dreary trip through the gray and bloodied lands of Eastern Europe. 

Well, Ida was very much all of this...but still a great fucking movie. I mean, really good. The film is indeed gray, very gray, and starts with a group of nuns and novices (apprentice nuns) carving a statue of Jesus and eating silently some sort of gruel out of a communal bucket. I was expecting something like maybe Of Gods and Men or Andrei Rublev: deeply spiritual, mentally rewarding, and inspirational, but a challenge to actually sit through and watch.

Ida fortunately picks up, and picks up quickly, so that it is no major spoiler to say that Anna, one of the novitiate, learns very soon that before she can make her vows and become a full-fledged nun, she should meet with her only surviving relative, her very unnunlike Aunt Wanda. After a terse introduction, where the audience is led to believe that Wanda may be a prostitute, and will have nothing to do with her niece, Wanda has a moment of reckoning - it turns out she's a judge, and is spectacularly bored by what I imagine were the not very exciting show trials and false justice of communist-era Poland. Not only does Wanda rush back to the bus station to see Anna, but she then tells her the secret that sets the plot of the film in motion: Anna is actually Jewish, and her parents and entire family were killed during the Holocaust. Anna is actually Ida, more specifically Ida Lebenstein, which quickly gets her thinking about whether the Catholic nunnery is the way to go.

Why Wanda changes her mind is unclear at first, but it becomes apparent that the arrival of her niece can provide a way to finally answer the questions surrounding the disappearance of the Lebenstein family. Why did Anna and Wanda survive? What was the role of the people in the town where nearly all of the Jews had lived? What about their house, and the people who briefly sheltered the family? How could people simply go missing, without anyone saying or doing anything? More broadly: how can people simply forget? What do we stand to gain (and lose) from remembering?

Though the themes are deep, the exploration is conventional, as the travels of Anna and Wanda quickly take on the trappings of a classic genre: the mismatched couple on a road trip. Anna is young, inexperienced, very Catholic, and almost completely ignorant about the real world, having been taken into the nunnery as an orphan. Wanda is quite (ahem) knowing and experienced, and is deeply cynical about people, in particular Christians. Agata Kulesza's Wanda is a truly frightening and powerful force, smoking, knocking back vodka, interrogating townspeople who should know more, and generally portraying the kind of rage you might expect when someone, after years of repression, suddenly embarks to discover the killers of her family (in a side note, Wanda may also be repenting for her years as a highly effective and brutal judge in the corrupt and violent courts of 1950s Poland - she's no doubt made other families disappear). There is even a hitchhiker in the film, whose arrival (and very good sax rendition of Coltrane's Naima) stirs up more repressed feelings. No matter the stakes, they are a very enjoyable pair to watch.

Though the story and writing is good enough to propel the film, it's helped by very economical filming. I  And I don't just mean the pleasant 80 minute run-time. A shovel here, a glimpsed forest there, and we are given volumes of meaning. Except for the final shot, which is jarringly (and notably) filmed as a handheld shot, I don't think the camera moves a single time. Kind of interesting - there are scenes of action, and the film is propulsive in its narrative, but the camera and perspective is static. As I indicated earlier, it's not entirely clear that it's a good thing for Wanda and Anna to look into the past, and the respective fates of the two characters may lead viewers to different conclusions about whether they should really want to know what happened to their family. Both main characters end up doing something that could be seen as a direct result of their search...or doing something that would have happened anyway. Maybe their shocking discoveries altered the fate of their lives? Maybe they changed nothing? The film's lack of easy psychoanalysis sheds a complicated light on discovery, one that might make our own struggles with the past seem less determinative.

Economical may be the wrong word, but saying that the film is beautiful seems almost too pat, as if anyone could simply film in black and white a stunning young women, wearing a habit (and sometimes less), make her trudge through the snow and forest, and call it a day. But director Pawlikowski does much more than this, as the composed shots, projected in old-fashioned box format, are each a study in composition. But they are really beautiful, as are the women in the film, as is the story, as is the past. Am I going too far here Sean - this is a great film, right?

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Sean:

Ida is indeed a great film, certainly one of the year's best - from both a technical and storytelling perspective. I love when a film is deliberate with when and how it gives you the next bit of info to move the story forward and Ida does this as immaculately as it frames the characters in its images.

As you say, the film does take on a traditional road movie vibe once the plot kicks into motion - complete with clashing personalities of the sober Anna and the acerbic Wanda. But the character of aunt Wanda, and Agata Kulesza's performance, is revelatory. The way the pieces of her backstory fall into place the further they dig into their family's past is the stuff of Shakespeare. Ida treats the third-act reveal that changes everything that came before it with a deft, touching grace that gives this tragic story a feel of inevitability that makes it easier to sit with, despite it's heaviness.

If there is one plot contrivance that is a bit too tidy, it is this hitchhiker Szymon. Initially he does just serve as a hunky thing to stir up more doubt in our prospective nun but he comes to represent something more important - a positivity to the future of Poland. Ida is the first movie to come out of Poland that discusses this issue of their involvement in the treatment of Jews during WWII. Wanda, at least at the beginning, nicely encapsulates this denial or refusal to come to terms with the past in much the way that Poland itself has. On this trip they take, both Anna and Wanda and Poland are at the figurative crossroads so it suits the film that there is a glimmer of a bright future represented in Szymon and jazz to balance out the grim past they're trudging through.

Szymon and Ida in the 'Sky Room'
I feel I could go on forever about how much I liked the cinematography in this film. Indeed the composition on display here is fascinating and makes even the quietest moments of the film a bit electrifying. I especially took to the use of the boxy Academy ratio and what they are calling the "sky room" in this film. Often we'll see the characters framed towards the bottom of the film, giving off an "isolation below, inspiration from above" feeling that seems to me to be pretty unique to Ida. This technique almost seems simple in a way as it is like giving room in the frame for thought balloons that aren't there and yet are deeply felt anyway. I'll lead you here for a great discussion on how this film was shot: http://www.theasc.com/asc_blog/thefilmbook/2014/05/13/lighting-scenes-ida-with-lukasz-zal/

I find it interesting, especially after discussing how the black and white A Field In England was shot digitally, how Ida feels so timeless. One of the issues I had with A Field In England was how the digital aspect made it look like something modern trying to cover up the fact. Cutting it some slack and taking into account its inspirations, I notched it up to the idea it was trying to give off a "reenactment" feel, for better or worse. Ida takes digital black and white to a very special place and I think the link above explains the pains you have to go through to shake that modern feel off of your film if you are using this technique. In a way it's like that technique you hear about with make-up - how to achieve the "no make-up" look with just the right amount of make up. Ida does this and goes further by using all these format and lighting decisions to add depth to the story and characters.

There really isn't much to criticize in Ida. I feel like every choice made is fully thought out here. From the bolted-down cameras to having no score and only allowing for sounds or music that are coming from within the scenes. It all helps the viewer get inside these two character's heads and in the case of Anna, it still remains a tough nut to crack. For a first time performer, I find Agata Trezbuchowska to be perfectly suited for the role. Perhaps I tend to like hearing these stories of someone plucked from a cafe to be cast in a movie but after watching the Ida I can only think it would be a detriment to cast someone else in this role - especially a real actress who might try to cram more emoting into the role.

There's an argument to be made both ways for whether the main character in the film is Anna or Wanda. Either way, Anna is the one who begins and ends the story and leaves you asking questions about her choices. While Wanda is definitely the more relatable character and in that way I understand even her most shocking of choices. Through her we get a good representation of the human capacity for regret and, yes, perhaps a warning against journeys through the past. But as tragic as the outcome is, I feel the film gives us ample evidence that it was one that needed to be taken - again, much like Ida does with Poland's own past and for its own good in order to move forward. It's not like Wanda was in a good place before Anna showed up at her door. And Anna, on the other hand, acts as the viewer surrogate in many ways and nicely remains a bit of an enigma throughout the film. As it should be.

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Padraic:

Good to see we're in agreement here on the complete mastery exhibited in this film. In the great post you linked about the lighting and cinematography, the author notes Pawlikoski's insistence on a balance between what he calls the "four legs" of film: structure, acting, photography, and sound. This film certainly has all of this, and, as remarkable as it is for each element, it really is this balance that makes the film so engaging, and why it appears to be unanimously praised.

I'm glad you got to the "sky room" shots, which I forgot to mention. The idea is helped I think, by the wise decision to place the subtitles at the top of the screen for these shots, which makes the thought/speech bubble idea almost literal. There is a great deal of life that is beyond these characters - not only the timeless question of theodicy, but the basic questions about the location of their family's remains (an importance unfortunately reinforced by the recent anguish of Dutch citizens for the remains of their families in a Ukrainian wheat field, whose presence is a stark reminder of how many died, unmarked, in the fields of Eastern Europe). This is an inventive, yet not too intrusive, device, to bring meaning through image alone.
 

I was surprised to hear that this was the first film from Poland to deal with Polish complicity in the Holocaust. This almost seems impossible, but I guess communist-era Poland was built on the myth of a unified anti-German front, and it's only been possible to touch on these ideas fairly recently. As this 1997 story from the New York Times indicates, a decade after liberation from communism, Poland was nowhere near confronting the atrocities of the past - towns where 1/2 the residents had been Jewish in the 1930s had no collective memory of this community even existing. I remember reading somewhere, unlinkable, that there were towns in Poland now who have almost a touristic revival of Jewish life in the cities, which if true may be part of a collective reckoning. While Poland is nowhere near unique in its difficultly in dealing with the past (the equally astonishing novelty of 12 Years a Slave in the US should keep anyone from casting stones), I still would have thought a film would have been made before this. In any case, the country is fortunate that the initial steps, at least artistically, have been made in such a well-crafted and sensitive film.

What this recognition may mean, however, is another story. Germany has certainly reckoned with its past, and now seems like, well, Szymon - generally happy and free of concern with the past or even future. From abroad it seems like a place where good-natured soccer taunts are the worst we hear about a country that, three generations ago, intentionally slaughtered 12 million people and brought on a war that cost another 40 million lives. And maybe Szymon does represent a kind of easy escape (Jazz, wife, children, happiness) but it's notable that his innocent pleasure-seeker is the minor character here - his path is not open to Anna or Wanda. Palikowski may have tried to open Polish eyes to its history, but there's no sense in the film that the truth will set anyone free. That, it seems, is left to Coltrane.

Here's a good interview where Pawlikoski explains what he does better than we do: http://collider.com/pawel-pawlikowski-ida-interview/

Here it's noted (down the page) why Ida basically means everyone should abandon color film-making: http://www.avclub.com/article/best-films-2014-so-far-halftime-report-superlative-206679

Monday, July 14, 2014

Notes from 29.2: The King of Marvin Gardens

Dir: Bob Rafelson
Viewed From: The Couch

There are, at the least, a few benefits to being cheap, though these are almost never apparent at first, and almost never have anything to do with money. The benefits accrue at random, thrown up at you when you least expect it, and, usually, unless you pay very close attention to these things, go by without notice. The reason they go by without notice is that no one will ever tell you the benefits of not paying for something, because, unlike the many people who will tell you how great you are for paying for something, and stand to profit directly from that payment, there is no one to benefit from your not paying, except the cheapskate himself, and the cheapskate himself, even at his most self-aware, tends to think only of money while being cheap, and not the ancillary benefits.

And then comes something like Movies, a channel distributed most everywhere I think, but which comes into my home via a $30 antenna on channel 29.2 (a kind of absurd decimal, given that I have only ten or so channels), and provides about a dozen great movies a month (in addition to a host of curiosities), most I've not seen, at no cost. It exists I believe on cable, but is a major presence in my television life for the reason that I do not pay for cable, or have much in the way of internet service, and so therefore lean much more heavily on its offerings than your average 500-channel + Hulu/Netflix/Torrents viewer.There is advertising, of course, which, entertainingly in itself, tends to feature really second- and third-rate infomercials, but as the lead-in to each movie notes, the film is not edited to fit in these commercials, and is shown in its entirety, with curse words simply not heard, and Dateline-like blurry blobs obscuring the nudie bits (which really brings you back to being a kid and, in its own way, is actually more erotic than seeing the boob/butt/vagina up close). There is the freeness of this to like, of course, but also the spontaneous serendipity, which allows you to do more than discover something new, but to gratify your curiosity immediately, even if you've already missed the first ten minutes (which again, oddly, is somewhat pleasurable, though annoying in that these are always the longest ad-free segments).

This kind of thing happened the other day, when I flipped on 29.2 to see Jack Nicholson, out working the oil rigs with Elton (a character/name so memorable that this was the first thing my dad said when I mentioned seeing Five Easy Pieces on TV), and then patronizing Karen Black, whose first outfit in the film is her pink waitressing one, the one that rides absurdly high up her thigh as she flips Nicholson on his back onto her bed and climbs up on top. I hadn't seen the film in a while, and couldn't remember, exactly, why Nicholson was out here, playing cards, when I remembered the film mostly for the house in the Pacific northwest, with the pianos, the Andy Kauffman-like nurse who seduces Nicholson's crazy sister, and the road trip up there, with the two iconic scenes that really, at this point in my mind, are more individual shorts rather than scenes vital to the narrative: the chicken salad bit and the Helena Kallianiotes garbarge rant. How did he get out here? Did the movie ever explain why he left? Do you see more of Karen Black's thigh?

I watched the rest, trying to remember how the film began, and, checking the channel listing (a very cool feature of the digital broadcast signal which, in some ways, makes up for the loss that occurred when the analog was halted [why this is a loss is a whole story in itself, but basically boils down to the inability to fudge with the antena]), saw that Five Easy Pieces was being shown again in two hours. I could simply catch the repeat broadcast to see whether we start with Elton and Jack out on the fields, or if we're given more of a story. In between the end and beginning of Five Easy Pieces was The King of Marvin Gardens.



The King of Marvin Gardens is a film that has Nicholson in it as well, is directed by Rafelson, the director of Five Easy Pieces, and, as I learned from the promo shown between movies, features some great location shooting in pre-Casino Atlantic City. It showed Nicholson and Bruce Dern, running around on the beach, with some kind of fire going on. And it was shot by Lazlo Kovacs. I was going to watch this film.

It is, in my mind, a better film than Five Easy Pieces, though I'm willing to admit that had the roles been reversed, meaning had The King of Marvin Gardens been the much-referenced early highlight of Nicholson's career and the one I'd seen clips from a hundred times, and Five Easy Pieces had been an unknown, serendipitous find, I might be making the opposite argument. But I don't think so.

It is a daring film, daring to open with the charismatic star's face almost completely obscured, as Nicholson is seen up close, with glasses, while being only half-lighted, and telling the story of his own troubles with his father and grandfather. He's telling it into a microphone, as part of his improbable radio show called Etcetera, which seems like it could be an early version of Moth Radio Hour, but much more depressing and only focusing on one person's story (I have no idea whether there existed in the 70s commercial radio shows where one sad guy talks for an hour; if so, another reason to like that decade). It's a great story, one maybe not true, and it goes on for what seems an interminably long time. By the time we're through, we know that Nicholson's David Staebler (who is not at all stable, which that added 'e' reminds us) is one dour and depressed dude, with an almost complete inability to connect with anyone, especially his family (he lives with his Grandfather, who listens to David's shows and corrects the inaccuracies of the stories). To reinforce David's isolation, we then follow him down the dank stairway to the 34 Septa Trolley, which takes you from Center City out to West Philadelphia, and whose platforms are still pretty scary (it reminds me a bit of Harry Caul riding the San Fran trolleys in The Conversation [also recently on Movies]. Imagine Nicholson trying to be as repressed as Hackman, and you can get a great sense of how good a job he does. This is a movie to use when people accuse Nicholson of not being a real actor, but only playing versions of himself.




It's safe to say then that David is not The King of Marvin Gardens. That would be his brother Jason, played by Dern in full-on charm and mustache mode, who operates some scam or another in Atlantic City, and who finds himself in jail, needing David to bail him out. David agrees to tape his radio show, and hops on an Amtrack train to AC to help both his brother and, as we see, himself. I probably don't have to mention how good a duo Dern and Nicholson are, or how much freedom Rafelson gives them to perform. David opens up considerably when his charismatic brother is around. The two ride horses on the beach, scam some old ladies into buying used junk at an auction, and put on a fake Miss America pageant in the legendary Atlantic City Convention Hall. They also make plans to buy an island and set up a casino, even if David largely remains skeptical. It's a tremendous amount of fun to just watch them walk and talk on the AC boardwalk, even as we know the best laid plans will go nowhere (in part, due to the presence of bossman Lewis, played by Scatman Crothers, who worked with Nicholson in The Shining and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). This is Atlantic City before the legalization of casino's, but it's also the Atlantic City that needed the casinos to survive. It's winter, but the tram cars still run, and the scammers and dreamers are still around.


As good as these two are, however, about halfway through the movie, you realize a very different story has been going on. As David and Jason strut and drink around the city, they're joined by Sally and Jessica, two girls without much means who are seemingly content to hang around with the brothers Staebler for whatever excitement (and money) they provide (incidentally, cannot help wondering whether this kind of kept woman still exists, like Teri Garr in The Conversation or Ann-Margaret in The Cincinnati Kid). Sally is played by Ellen Burstyn and, while she is prominently featured in the posters and ads for the film, seems only a minor character in the beginning. Then she becomes Ellen Burstyn, and it can be an at times frightening thing to watch, as those wild eyes make you realize (if you're a man) that women contain multitudes upon multitudes, and that there is much more to Sally and Jessica than meets the eye. I was a tipped off that the movie was going beyond the brother's story by a scene about halfway through, when Sally and Jessie (Julia Anne Robinson) are discussing the fates of beautiful women as they age. It's a scene Alison Bechdel would have been proud of, as the two women intricately discuss aspects of their lives that are not related to men, and it sets up the harrowing conclusion to the film where the contradictions in all four of the character's lives are resolved in a single, tremendous, scene.

It's safe to say that Burstyn brings more of a complicated presence than Karen Black, and the fact that the film gives empathy equally across the characters (especially women) makes it superior to the myopia of Nicholson's Robert in Five Easy Pieces, from whom we get mostly the perception of the world from a single vantage point. Valid as it may have been, the narcissism of Robert (who constantly asks: Who am I?) feeds back into the most common criticism of Five Easy Pieces, or of Easy Rider, about the selfishness of the late 60s generation. The easy targets of the Dupea siblings Lois and Carl, to say nothing of the poor waitress who is just trying to get through a tough day without some petty jerk telling her how to do her job, are replaced by much more broadly conceived characters. We never think that Carl might be right to live a fairly dull bourgeois life teaching Piano, or that the waitress might be right to insist on the the 'No Substitutions' policy, but viewers of The King of Marvin Gardens may justly wonder whether it is David's resigned gloominess, Jason's irrational enthusiasm, or Sally's repressed violence that is the most appropriate response to the crumbling of the American Dream.




Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Field In England

Dir. Ben Wheatley
Viewed: From the Couch



Sean:

What a film to launch us back into some RFC activity. I must admit that I was hoping you’d start this one off as I’ve been struggling to come to terms with this oddity. Not only is it a strange film in its own right, it’s also a bit of an anomaly in the impressive one-film-a-year catalog Ben Wheatley has been putting together since 2009’s Down Terrace (still my favorite of his, by the way). That’s not to say there aren’t many things that impressed me about A Field In England, it may be more of a case of the burden of expectations as to why I had trouble fully connecting with it.

Immediately it struck me as perhaps the funniest of Wheatley’s films. At the start we’re introduced to a small group of deserters circa the 17th Century English Civil War. Much time is spent simply following them as they walk away from the battlefield, with the promise of reaching a pub, and as such the dialog doesn’t let us down. It’s funny stuff and establishes the characters nicely. At the center of the group is Whitehead, an alchemist of sorts - certainly not a soldier, enlisted to help find a colleague of his who has also defected from battle. He’s what you’d consider a proper Englishman and there’s a lot of fun watching him try to communicate with his fellow deserters Jacob and Friend who more resemble your Laurel and Hardy variety of soldier.



Leading them down this path is the more mysterious Cutler. It doesn’t take long before the other three realize that they are not headed to a pub but rather a rope. Yes, a long, heavy rope tied to a carved post in the ground. After some forced-at-gunpoint labor it is revealed that on the other end of the rope is O’Neil, the man Whitehead was charged with finding. Did they pull him out of the ground? It would seem so. As Friend (who has most of the best lines in the film) puts it, “It does not surprise me that the devil is an Irishman, though I thought perhaps a little taller.” And things just get more bizarre from here as O’Neil forces the group to help him find some sort of treasure that is buried in this field they’ve been wandering about in. But seeing as most of these guys can’t help but consume the psilocybin mushrooms that seem to be growing everywhere in this field, what’s really going on is hard to say.

There’s a definite circular logic to this film. Wheatley, working with his ongoing (since Kill List) screenwriting collaborator Amy Jump, was inspired to make the film after shooting a short documentary on a reenactment group. As A Field in England is shot in digital black and white, there’s an odd feeling of seeing something modern trying to look less so - much like a reenactment itself. And when we discover what the “treasure” is, and what happens when you shoot it, it - along with the last scene of the film - reinforces the idea that we’re watching men of war caught in some sort of a loop. They were here in this field and they will always be here. Perhaps they can never die as history doesn’t really allow them to.

Is that a fair assessment, Paddy? There’s a fair amount I didn’t touch on and I suppose we should just tack on a spoiler warning here as this is a difficult one to talk about without getting into the ending. What were your impressions?



Paddy:

It’s perhaps good that you didn’t “connect’ with this film, because I’m not sure I would want to meet the person who immediately responded to this film with: “oh yeah, that story’s pretty much a metaphor for my understanding of the human condition.” This film is indeed very funny, but most of that humor comes from a place of absolute despair and horror. On humor, I was going to mention the “Irish devil” line too, but other classics include “I think I’ve worked out what God is punishing us for: everything,” Friend’s dying words to his wife, or the litany of venereal diseases that Whitehead diagnoses while examining Cutler. Amy Jump’s writing in general is just extraordinarily funny, and I could have followed these characters to the actual pub, heard them discuss their lives, tell a few jokes, and enjoyed a fine film. I have no idea how she was able to create these five distinct voices and characters, all generally speaking (I assume) 17th century dialects and accents, but I think it is the most impressive part of a very impressive (in the true sense of the word - this films leaves marks) film. The writing and character’s voices are so strong that I had assumed (wrongly) that the material began as a novel. It’s just that good.

But of course, the trope of a newly-formed band of friends, setting out on an adventure, telling jokes, is the set up to what can only be described as a stirring, disturbing, and flat-out mesmerizing series of scenes in the film’s final 45 minutes or so. Once O’Neil shows up, shit gets crazy, and Wheatley lets out such an insane series of art-school (I mean this in a good way) visual and audio tricks that I felt I could be watching the film in a gallery or installation in a museum (again, a good thing in my book). What sets this change in tone is a horrifying sequence when O’Neil takes Whitehead into his tent and, over the course a few minutes where we (and the the other travellers) here only screams, screams so loud and scary that I had to close my windows and turn down the volume in fear of my neighbors calling the police, before Whitehead emerges from the tent, tied up like a dog and presumably under the complete mastery of O’Neil. The sexual dimension of the sequence is pretty obvious (the sounds from the tent sound just a little bit like what sets Bruce Willis’s eyes wide in Pulp Fiction), but O’Neil seems most interested in making Whitehead into a divining tool to find treasure. There’s quite a bit about the relative divining and astrological abilities of Whitehead and O’Neil, and it seems that each needs the other to complete their fated task.


Whatever the reason, the relationship of O’Neil and Whitehead make for some of the most remarkable scenes in the film, like the strobe-like alternation of the two men, the showdown in the tall grass, or (in what I think are the best scenes in the film) the near-still shots of the group divining their next location. There is really no overstating how good Wheatley is at both composition and sequencing his shots. The final showdown, taking place in an open field, could be a minefield of confusion, with little other than grass and trees to guide the characters’ spacial relationships to each other, but it comes off quite clearly. This kind of skill in editing and shooting action and movement is what sets him apart from someone like, say, Shane Carruth, who could fill up Soho with beautiful still images and sounds, but whose films (at least to me) seem utterly inert.

So, we have an extraordinarily original script combined with an almost limitlessly talented director, but I haven’t really answered the question about meaning. I should be able to find something in the film’s setting - the English Civil War - to support your ideas about a continual loop of suffering for the protagonists. Oliver Cromwell (the winner of the Civil War and really the first European dictator since antiquity) was as tyrannical a figure as Europe had ever seen, and it’s hard not to read the “Irish devil” as a commentary on a reckoning borne out of Cromwell’s submission of Ireland to England (with the film reversing the role of the Irish and English), the crucible out of which much Irish-English antogonism was forged. In other words, if you want to really feel like what it was like to live in Cromwell-occupied Ireland, you could do worse than watching this film. But that’s really just a guess.

Unlike Kill List, which I think did have a very clear meaning, largely about the destruction of the souls of mercenaries and the eventual reckoning one must have with acts of evil in one’s past, A Field in England does not provide much of a psychological entry-point into the minds of its characters, which makes identification difficult. We get a little on Whitehead and O’Neil’s history, but the five men are mostly expressions of ideas - of scholarly detachment, or pure ambition, or libertine sexuality, or ignorant bliss, or mercantile detachment - rather than fully fleshed out characters whom we can judge and then reflect on in our own decisions and lives. And, as mentioned, I’m quite happy for this, because if psychological identification were possible with any of the characters, their fate in the film would have me heading for either a couch or a pharmacy. There is a refrain, when O’Neil dies: “I am my own man...I am my own man!” This of course is true - the wild sways of humor and horror in A Field in England will mean very different things to different people - and I’m quite thankful that O’Neil, Whitehead, and the rest were (or are) their own men. Anything more personally relevant about such a strikingly well-written and shot film about such despair and death would be far more than any film should offer.



Sean:

It’s fair to say that, especially after A Field in England, anything is possible with the future films of Ben Wheatley. But one thing that seems to be a constant is that his humor will be pitch-black. His previous film, Sightseers, a serial-killers in love comedy, and A Field in England seem to be reaching towards an apex in this regard.

Comedies rarely get pointed to when thinking of cinema that speaks to suffering, despair, death and the human condition, but they are perfectly suited for it and in fact make the subjects much more accessible and enlightening. I think it’s what makes the films of Woody Allen, Mike Leigh and the Coen Brothers so memorable and meaningful while a good majority of your deadly-serious, weepy prestige films can come across as sanctimonious, dull and forgettable. Wit goes a far way towards pathos when dealing with such things.

The last words of O’Neil, “I am my own man…!” definitely hits on the strongest theme for me while watching the film. These are men who are not in control of their destiny. They are simply acting out what has always been. When O’Neil fires the gun into the pit of skeletons and wounds himself, it seemed pretty clear to me that these men are already dead and simply performing history. They are reenactors in the most sadistic sense. The “treasure” is their predetermined destiny - what ultimately greets everyone at the end of their quest: no reward, just death.

While I enjoyed it, and agree with pretty much all of what you said, it sounds like you got more out of this film than I did. I especially can’t say I took to all of Wheatley’s editing decisions as well you did. For a 90 minute movie, it felt like there was a lot of padding and unnecessary repetition - and the over-abundance of reflective imagery was evoking Led Zeppelin-era psychedelia for me (not necessarily a good thing in my book). I understand the need for our hero to complete his journey and become a soldier but the shoot-out was the least interesting part of the film and a bit of a letdown for me. And do people in movies in this day and age, even in ones taking place in the 17th century, still have to come up with a one-liner after blowing someone’s head off? We witnessed such creativity in the film up to this point that I’m surprised we didn’t witness a more inventive way to dispatch a bad guy.



I also don’t feel too comfortable comparing Wheatley to Shane Carruth, and I probably shouldn’t even mention it but I guess I’ll explain why. This is mostly due to the meticulous 5-years-in-the-making nature in which Carruth layers sound, editing and composition to weave together multiple storylines in Upstream Color (which, yes, is a film I’m so enamored with that after numerous viewings it has made Carruth nigh untouchable) to the point where not a frame of film is wasted. Though as much as I love it I don’t want every movie to be like Upstream Color. These are filmmakers with different agendas in my eyes. A Field in England is filled with fantastic shots, sound and editing but I got a definite sense while watching that this is Wheatley being unfussy and experimental, and quickly so. This is certainly not a bad thing but I don’t feel the desire to revisit the film multiple times and figure out how those recurring shots of the mushrooms were enriching the story. If I’m going to revisit A Field in England it will definitely be for the dialog.

Speaking of editing, did you know that there’s a whole section of post-production videos online showing how A Field in England was put together? As more and more films like this are being released online either before or simultaneous to a theatrical release (not to mention the growing preference towards digital copies - putting DVDs and Blu-rays in a boutique corner) there’s a fine opportunity in this practice to make supplements available online as well. It’s definitely something that more of these on-demand movies need to take advantage of. At this point there is no excuse for old movies to leave behind a sad website with little more than a couple trailers and some publicity stills. Outside of a Criterion release, I don’t think I’ve come across as fine a set as Channel 4 has put together for this film. From development to completion there is an obscene amount of detail covered. Recommended for your standard movie nerd - but even moreso for anyone interested the specifics of digital filmmaking. I’m embedding the more standard making-of video below but for much, much more I linketh ye here: http://www.afieldinengland.com/masterclass/


Thursday, April 17, 2014

What's to Come of This

You're not reading the timestamps wrong. It's been a while. Yeah, that Nirvana post puts us at close to 5 years. But it seemed fitting, in a way. It's Easter weekend. Resurrection is all around us in many different ways. There is a radio on top of the refrigerator in the house I'm living in - seemingly built-in to the fridge, and set to this station that is honoring the 80's this weekend as is it supposedly a great decade for music. I'm pretty confident it's 90% shit that this BBC mandated off-shoot is covering but I'm just as confident that all of life and art has a circular aspect that needs to be respected and Reviews From the Couch isn't about to wait for the non-existent blog revival committee.

Two opinionated guys talking about movies. That's what we've been about and what we'll continue to be about - despite some inevitable digressions (e.g. that long music related post below). We hope you'll tune in and maybe even help carry on the discussion. Follow the site on G+ for instant updates and extra links, videos and all that jazz. New content is imminent.

In the meantime, any issues or concerns should be solved by taking this advise:


Go, Lazarus, Go!