Sunday, September 7, 2014

And subtitled Romanian Urban Myths of the '80s. Being that a little historical context is necessary, let's start with just a bit of text from the DVD cover: "The final fifteen years of the Ceausescu regime were the worst in Romania's history. Nonetheless, the propaganda machine of that time relentlessly referred to that period as the country's Golden Age."
Before we watched this film, I read a little about it online. Several reviews essentially said that, if you weren't there (for the Ceausescu years), you wouldn't get it. Well, that's a load of bunk. This is a film that speaks a universal language - satire. And the thing it's satirizing is a nearly universal source of angst - the stupidity of bureaucracies. Anyone over the age of, say, twelve, who's ever had to deal with a dysfunctional human system will understand what this film is all about.
One aspect of this film that is fairly unique, though, is that it's a comic anthology. Golden Age consists of six different stories, all written by Cristian Mungiu, and directed by Mungiu and four other directors. The titles of the episodes often give a hint of the type of foolishness to come: The Legend of the Official Visit; The Legend of the Party Photographer; The Legend of the Zealous Activist; The Legend of the Greedy Policeman; The Legend of the Air Sellers; and The Legend of the Chicken Driver. I don't think it will spoil anything to tell you that a recurring theme is the search for the basic necessities of life, generally food. This search is, of course, both caused by, and impeded by, the aforementioned dysfunctional human systems.

The Official Visit is somewhat self-explanatory, and concerns a small town preparing ("Clean up that cow shit!" "Bring the cow over! Bring the cow over!") for a visit from high officials - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Party Photographer portrays the efforts to manipulate an official news photo so it meets party requirements - only to have things go horribly wrong.
The Zealous Activist is about just that - a zealous activist who volunteers to bring the literacy rate in a remote village up to 100%. Of course, things go horribly wrong...

I think you get the idea. We enjoyed each episode, and the film as a whole, though some stood out above the rest for me. The Official Visit was the most laugh out loud funny of the legends, and, since it's the first story, the film starts off on a high note. The Party Photographer was a truly classic representation of how you generally make things worse, not better, when you start massaging the truth, and it builds to a very good (visual) punchline. The educated urbanite versus the wise country folk theme of The Zealous Activist was also very enjoyable, and showed the very real perils of being overzealous. I also very much enjoyed the final legend, The Chicken Driver, though it was more lightly humorous than full-on funny, and had a pleasantly bittersweet tone to it.

So while some stood out more than others, none of the episodes here were less than perfectly enjoyable. I don't know why there aren't more comic anthologies, frankly. Lord knows we still get horror anthologies turning up. And, since dying is easy, but comedy is hard, it seems like a smart move to hedge your bets by putting together several short humorous stories like this film does. That way, even if one or two bomb, the film as a whole may still be worthwhile.
But in my zeal, I digress. Suffice to say that this film was a pleasant surprise, and is a little satirical gem. My only real complaint might be that it has a running time (well over two hours) that generally gives me pause. But, given the episodic nature of Golden Age, it can easily be taken in a legend or two at a time.
One definition of comedy is that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. In this specific case, the tragedy happened to Romania. But the greater tragedy, the one that will speak to anyone watching this film, is the human tragedy. In other words, whether you're Romanian or not, you will doubtlessly find many things here you recognize, and much to recommend.
Comrades! Life is beautiful! Now, clean up that cow shit!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

DEATH NOTE (2006) - A Review
So, you're walking down the street and you find a black notebook laying on the ground. Even though it's raining, the notebook is resting inside a mysteriously dry circle. You pick up the notebook and take it home. Later, upon opening the notebook, you find instructions explaining that this is the Death Note, and if you write a person's name in the notebook, they will die within ten seconds of a heart attack.
That's the fantastic but believably presented scenario for Death Note, and this is the situation the main character, Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a college student, finds himself in. Not surprisingly, he doesn't believe what he's reading, but, when he sees a news report about a vile criminal on TV, he impulsively writes the man's name in the notebook before going to bed. In the morning, the newspaper reports the sudden death - by an apparent heart attack - of the criminal whose name Light wrote in the Death Note.
In case that's not enough to convince Light that he's in possession of the real deal, he's soon visited by Ryuk, the God of Death, who dropped the notebook and explains that it's Light's to keep - and use - for as long as he likes. Ryuk quickly becomes a regular presence in Light's life, seeming to take a deep interest in how this human wields his new death dealing power. Generally, Ryuk neither advocates for use of the Death Note, nor argues against the use of it, though he does ask Light the occasional probing question as the young man's life becomes more and more centered around the lethal notebook.

At first, Light does what he sees as a public good, by targeting and eliminating criminals who seem to have escaped being punished by the legal system. He reasons that ridding the world of these despicable individuals is an inherent good, and, hopefully, will send a message to other would-be criminals that just because they escape the law doesn't mean they will escape justice.
Soon enough, dozens of rapists and murderers around the world are dead, and the authorities are both interested in how this is happening, and concerned that it will continue. As the investigation into the deaths grows, it becomes clear that the person or persons behind them are in or near Tokyo. So, in order to try to get the authorities to back off, Light begins targeting various law enforcement investigators, hoping their deaths will frighten those who remain away from continuing with their efforts to find him.
And this sets up the central dilemma in the film: How much bad can you do in the pursuit of doing good, while still being able to convince yourself that you're still doing good? It's watching Light try to navigate this moral quandary that seems to engage Ryuk. Even though he's the God of Death, and literally takes his life force from those who die, he appears to be genuinely surprised at the lengths to which Light goes (killing numerous members of the law enforcement community) in order to continue with his supposedly righteous crusade (killing numerous members of the criminal underground). So, sure, this is a fantasy film with teen appeal, but that doesn't mean it couldn't spark some interesting conversations about the nature of good and evil.

In the end, the film offers some nice twists and surprises, and there are a lot more details about the Death Note itself offered, all of which I've avoided talking about here, and this film certainly seems perfectly calibrated to appeal to the youth market. So perfectly, in fact, that as we were watching this, I found myself marveling that it hasn't been remade by an American filmmaker. Well, oops! As soon as I looked this up online, I discovered that a remake is indeed in the works, directed by Gus Van Zant, of all people. Sounds like Mr. Van Zant knows he needs a more commercial property on his resume right about now.
Though, unlike my wife, I was less than taken with the character of "L," a young, brilliant super sleuth (played by Ken'ichi Matsuyama), he made perfect sense from a commercial angle. Personally, I found Ryuk to be more believable and engaging, even though he is an over-the-top CGI creation. It took me a few minutes to buy into his super stylized and cartoonish appearance, but once I did, the humor and observations he brought to the story worked well. As Light becomes more and more of a one-note(book) character, bent on enacting his personal justice, Ryuk comes to be the more thoughtful and nuanced personality of the two. What's more, despite Ryuk's monstrous appearance, he doesn't behave in any of the ways that a typical (American) CGI creature would be expected to. He doesn't growl or threaten, or act aggressive in any way, really. He just hangs out talking with Light and eating apples.
It is perhaps needless to say that this film ends with a perfect set up for a sequel - and one did indeed come out later the same year, one of the three films that director Shusuke Kaneko helmed in 2006. (He's also directed projects with characters that should already be familiar to American audiences: three Gamera movies, one Godzilla movie, and multiple episodes of an Ultraman TV show from the 2000s.) We certainly enjoyed this enough to seek out the sequel, and I'll be curious to learn a bit more about the American remake as well. In the meantime, if you're looking for something that mixes fantasy, humor and the moral issues surrounding the power of life and death, well then, I'd say this is the film for you.
Just be sure to have plenty of apples on hand when you're watching it - just in case.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

LAUREN BACALL (1924-2014) - A Tribute
Bye, bye, Baby - The Look has left the building. When someone is nearly 90 years old, it's not exactly surprising to hear that they died, but it's still sad to lose Lauren Bacall - though, up in Movie Star Heaven, I'm sure that Humphrey Bogart is looking forward to having her company again. As for the rest of us, well, we still have her films.
The general outlines of her biography - young model makes her first movie with big star Humphrey Bogart and they live happily ever after together until his death - are pretty well known, so there's no need to go into the details again here. Little Betty Perske became Lauren Bacall in the time when Hollywood was still forming real, honest to goodness Stars, and goodness knows, they certainly created a hot celestial body with her. While I think she was somewhat limited as an actress, there's no denying that she had magnetism and Star Power to spare. Those eyes, that voice, that attitude - who could resist?

Such was her appeal that it's not much of a stretch to say that Lizabeth Scott started her career as a sort of Bacall knock-off. (A statement that is not in any way intended as a knock of Lizabeth Scott, mind you.) Both co-starred with Humphrey Bogart early in their careers, and both had bedroom eyes and distinctive husky voices - but only Bacall managed to achieve the status of being an A-List Star and Hollywood Legend.
To be sure, the films she made with Bogart are all infinitely watchable and enjoyable. I've seen them all multiple times, and have even made the pilgrimage to the very cool art deco house in San Francisco that her character in 1947's Dark Passage lived in.

But my absolute favorite Lauren Bacall film is a little obscure - in more ways than one. It's The Cobweb (1955), an all-star oddball that I still marvel at. I am not joking when I say the plot is all about the conflicts that erupt at a ritzy mental hospital over drapes. Richard Widmark is a psychiatrist, Gloria Grahame is an oversexed nut, and Oscar Levant is a neurotic nut. Trouble ahead! Bacall is the calm in the eye of the storm in a movie that is often over the top, totally inexplicable, and highly entertaining.

Still, no matter how long her career, or what other projects she was involved with, it's likely to be the films she made with Bogart that people remember the best. Much of the press about her passing has focused on the four films she made co-starring with Bogart - but they actually appeared in five films together. Yes, five. There are the four iconic ones, and then there is Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), a Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan vehicle in which she is mentioned throughout, and then, at the end, she and Bogie make cameo appearances as themselves. (See video clip below.)

So long, Slim. You'll be missed, but very fondly remembered. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1970) - A Review
Or, in a sense, The Purge for two, in a film that is really just one joke played out in multiple ways.

The set up is simple. George Kellerman (Jack Lemmon) has to fly from the Midwest to New York for a job interview. His wife, Gwen (Sandy Dennis), goes with him. And from the moment their plane lifts off, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. Rerouted landings, missing luggage, missed trains, canceled room reservations, a transit strike and a garbage collectors strike, crooks, conmen and a really big dog - these are but a few of the things to plague the unlucky couple.
So yes, it's one joke, offered up in a variety of ways, for an hour and a half. In most cases, this would probably be a fairly effective recipe for boring or annoying an audience. But in this case, with the truly great Jack Lemmon in the lead, the film manages to be funny nearly all the way through, as Lemmon does a feature film-length slow burn, before finally melting down completely. His comic skills save the day, and elevate the script (by Neil Simon) to a higher level. (He had already done this same trick a few years earlier, in 1967, in Simon's The Odd Couple - a DVD of which I picked up just this weekend at a thrift shop.) I personally think that a little Neil Simon goes a long way, and I fail to completely understand his sterling reputation as a writer. But this is a case of "It's the singer, not the song," as Jack Lemmon tucks into the simmering fury of the ever more frustrated George Kellerman.

Further adding to the fingernails on the chalkboard fun is Sandy Dennis. A nasal, toothy presence, she adds immeasurably to the aggravation Lemmon's character is visibly feeling every time she whines his name - "George." Though in the end she manages to maintain her composure better than Lemmon, it's only because he has to bear up under everything she is also experiencing, while also bearing up under her. And, while she may not get as many laughs as Lemmon does, she does manage to perfectly nail several laugh lines, including one or two ("Oh my god, the children!") that aren't necessarily, in and of themselves, that funny, save for her delivery.
I would never call this a great film, but it does offer a fairly choice leading role to the great Jack Lemmon, who more than makes the most of it, ably supported by Sandy Dennis. It's no stone cold comedy classic, but you could certainly do much worse than this for entertainment. (Say, for example, watching the remake of this? Hmmm?)

Sunday, July 20, 2014

JAMES GARNER (1928-2014) - A Tribute
It's an overpraised and too heavily focused on concept in the entertainment industry. If you're a performer, it's the equivalent of a happy ending for a movie - a must-have item.
Well, as a performer, James Garner well and truly had likeability. Though he once said, "I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote," there clearly seems to have been some aspect of Garner that still came through in even the best written of his roles - he generally seemed like a decent, likeable guy.
James Garner was one of those people who took a roundabout path to stardom: Coming out of Oklahoma, dropping out of school to join the Merchant Marines, getting wounded (twice) during the Korean War, and eventually ending up in small parts on Broadway, then moving on to Hollywood and fame and fortune. Surely this equal parts earthy and salty background as a person informed his performances as an actor.
After doing time in supporting parts on TV for several years, Garner first hit it big as the star of the TV western Maverick, which aired from 1957-62. From there, he made the jump to starring roles in a wide variety of movies.

One of my favorite of his films is 1962's Boys Night Out, in which Garner co-starred with Kim Novak, Tony Randall, Howard Duff and William Bendix. Though a terribly dated film today in many respects, it still entertains, and Garner has a terrific scene in which he explains that he is drunk because he had "tee many martoonis."
Garner followed this light sex comedy with the classic action film, The Great Escape (1963), co-starring with Steve McQueen. In 1965, he made another of my personal favorites of his films, the World War II thriller, 36 Hours, with Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor. Based on a Roald Dahl story, it tells the tale of Major Jefferson Pike (Garner), who is captured by the Nazis, who then try to convince him that the war is over, so that he'll divulge information about an upcoming U.S. military invasion. It's a tight, lightly Hitchcockian film, and Garner is very good as the beleaguered Pike.
In 1967, in Hour of the Gun, Garner played the iconic Wyatt Earp opposite Robert Ryan as Ike Clanton, and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday. A couple of years later, he played Raymond Chandler's iconic detective, Philip Marlowe, in the film Marlowe (1969), a role that had previously been played by Dick Powell, Humphrey Bogart and Robert Montgomery. (And that would soon also be played by Robert Mitchum.) Even if Garner's career had ended here, he was obviously already in heady, and very manly, company.
But 1969 also found Garner in lighter fare, starring in the popular comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! This was followed by a sequel, Support Your Local Gunfighter, in 1971. Both of these films seemed to be in endless rotation on TV when I was a kid, and I would always tune in to watch Garner (and Jack Elam, his sidekick in both films) bumble their way through the Wild West.
Then, beginning in 1974, Garner scored the role that would well and truly define his career for all time - low rent private investigator Jim Rockford on the TV series The Rockford Files (1974-80).
To digress for a moment...The 1970s were an awful, ugly decade. The colorful tie dye swirls of the 60s degraded into what I call the terrible Taco Bell trio of colors - everything seemed to be mustard yellow, orange and the world's worst shade of brown. Energetic psychedelic freak out rock became bloated "progressive" rock. Pop music became disco. Bellbottoms and pet rocks. Culture-wise, it was pretty rough going most of the time. For years I've said that the only two good things to come out of American pop culture during the 1970s were the Ramones and The Rockford Files. That might be an oversimplification, but I'll still stand by that statement.
The Rockford Files took a well established and tired genre - the TV P.I. - and breathed new life into it, and created a show that was greatly entertaining at the time, and still is greatly entertaining today. And at the heart of it all was the infinitely watchable and charming James Garner. (Who was, admittedly, also surrounded by a rock-solid supporting cast that included Noah Beery, Jr. as his father, Joe Santos as the ever put upon Dennis Becker, and Stuart Margolin as the world's greatest weasel, Angel. Other recurring performers included Bo Hopkins, Isaac Hayes, Strother Martin, my friend Mills Watson, and even Lauren Bacall.)

Jim Rockford was a far cry from the often glamorous and/or tough guy private investigators that had populated TV and movies for decades. Rockford seemed to be on the losing end of fights more often than not. He couldn't necessarily run faster than the people he would chase - or who would chase him. He got things wrong. He fell behind on his bills. But his dogged determination (mixed with a healthy dose of self-preservation) and Garner's skill as an actor made almost every episode of the original series a delight. Growing up in the 1970s, I watched a lot of TV shows, but The Rockford Files is the only one that's still vivid in my memory - and is the only one I'd want to watch again as an adult. It's not weighty, it's not meaningful, but as entertainment, it has more than stood the test of time.
John Wayne once called James Garner the best American actor. Well, maybe - or maybe not. But there's no denying his talent and charm. We have literally hundreds of examples of that captured for all time on tape and film. Though I certainly wouldn't say that I like everything he ever did, James Garner created some performances that I will always enjoy, and that I will want to revisit from time to time throughout my life. On a more routine and daily basis, it's hard for me to see an answering machine and not immediately hear him saying, "This is Jim Rockford..."

Saturday, July 19, 2014

THE PURGE: ANARCHY (2014) - A Review

I didn't see The Purge (2013) in a theater, but did finally see it on DVD not that long ago. It was a flawed film, but one driven by an intriguing premise: In the not-too-distant future, America's New Founding Fathers pass a law instituting The Purge, a 12-hour period that comes once a year during which all crimes, up to and including murder, are legal. The Purge is sold as a state-sanctioned way for people to release and cleanse themselves of anger, and to reduce crime.
Within the context of the films, this set-up has a perverse logic to it. You're less likely to do something (rob, cheat, steal) to someone if you are aware that they can legally get back at you in the most extreme manner a few months later. It takes the concept of mutually assured destruction down to a personal level. (Both films also take pains to make it clear that politicians with a rating of "class 10 or higher" are not fair game during The Purge.)

The first film focused on an intact and successful white family that lived in the suburbs. Needless to say, it turned out that even a secure house in the 'burbs wasn't safe from the jealousy and anger that drives people to Purge. Given the current racial and economic politics of life in America, it only makes sense that this sequel shifts to a larger urban area, and features a whole lot more brown-skinned people, racial politics, and keeps coming back to the issue of economic inequality. As an action film that doubles as social commentary, especially in the area of (quite literal) class warfare, The Purge: Anarchy is far more effective and engaging than the recent, and overpraised, Snowpiercer (2014). Where that film was awkward, a little heavy handed, and set in a distant science fiction future, Anarchy is set in a future that feels about as far away as next weekend, and is set in a place - The American City - that will be familiar to most audience members.

Not unlike John Carpenter's Escape from New York (1981), this film centers around a small group of people on the run inside a large city, with all manner of enemies also roaming about. However, while both are essentially action films, Anarchy's unbroken serious tone and political commentary make it a very different kind of action film. Despite the disreputable nature of genre films in some people's eyes, I would hope that, over time, people would give these Purge films a chance, and some serious consideration as social commentary. Like it or not, these films do deserve to be taken seriously. The fact that they work as both entertainment and commentary is not a strike against either notion. It's the fact that these two elements are so naturally intertwined that makes them compelling.
Several of the reviews of this film I read before seeing it bashed it for being based on a totally unrealistic concept. They felt that there was no way that the far right in this country would ever pass a law that sanctioned even a temporary period of anarchy, because they stand for law and order - not lawful disorder. They also felt that there was no way that voters, especially poor and vulnerable ones, would support such a policy.
From my perspective, the idea of The Purge is all too believable. For one thing, people vote against their own interests all the time. Read Thomas Frank's classic What's the Matter with Kansas? as a starting point on that subject.

As for the far right not supporting violent disorder...I think there are some renegade ranchers and immigration protesters in the southwest that could quickly dispel that notion. Some of the things we've seen and heard coming out of these angry mobs could be right out of The Purge. And remember: Much of this anger has been directed at children. By supposedly family-friendly conservatives. Purge much, Fox News?

And The Purge actually is happening all around us, but it's just spread out over the whole year, rather than being confined to one 12-hour period. Smoking is The Purge. Fast food is The Purge. Union busting is The Purge. These insane "stand your ground" laws in some states are The Purge. Whenever a company sells a product that they know will harm or kill X number of people, that's The Purge. The films just amp up something that's already happening for dramatic effect - and as a license to comment on what we're doing to each other.
After seeing the first film, I could easily envision a million different scenarios to explore in future films. This first sequel - surely there will be more - goes down a very fruitful and thought-provoking path, and is far better than the original film in almost all respects. (There are some flaws, including the overly spacious apartments of the supposedly poor main characters, and an overdressed and over the top internet revolutionary, but they don't lessen the overall effectiveness of the film.) With so many possibilities for future episodes, I look forward to seeing where these films go next. Though I am generally against the disease of sequelitis, in this case, I think there are many, many more Purges waiting to be seen. The possibilities are endless.
We've been warned.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

ELI WALLACH (1915-2014) - A Tribute
Eli Wallach was one of those stealth actors. Never really a star, certainly never really a leading man, but always interesting and enjoyable to watch. As a working actor, with a career in film spread out over a half century (and then some), he also has a sort of stealth career in some ways, winding up in a great many iconic and memorable films.
Needless to say, he will always be remembered for his, shall we say enthusiastic performance in 1966's ultimo classico western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The film may have put Clint Eastwood over the top as a star, but I suspect it's Wallach's over the top performance as the amoral Tuco (the Ugly) that people remember most vividly. Having just recently watched that particular film again, it really does belong to him. Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are all cool, stony silence, but Wallach tears into his role like Tuco would tear into a bottle of whiskey - as though it might be the last chance he gets to enjoy himself, so holding back is not an option.

My personal favorite film of Wallach's has him as a much more restrained but no less dangerous character, the intellectually curious but extremely violent hitman Dancer in The Lineup (1958). It's a great crime film, and the role of Dancer allowed Wallach to play a deeply flawed, multifaceted character that is a clear notch above the usual crime picture villain. If you've never seen it, it's absolutely worth checking out.

Of course, Eli Wallach had already made an indelible impression with his very first film role a couple of years earlier, in the controversial and condemned (by the Catholic Legion of Decency) classic, Baby Doll (1956). With a screenplay by Tennessee Williams, and direction by Elia Kazan, Wallach got handed a hot potato straight out of the shoot with his role as the slimy yet-not-entirely-unlikable Silva Vacarro. I don't know that I'd agree with the Legion of Decency about the film's moral laxity, but there's no denying its steamy Southern soap opera entertainment value.

Working in both TV and film, Wallach kept busy, and the classics kept coming. In 1960, he was in the beloved western, The Magnificent Seven, second billed after Yul Brynner, and appearing with Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. The next year, with his next film, Wallach hit gold again, co-starring in 1961's The Misfits. It should be needless to say that this film is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it was the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and also featured Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter. It's also heartbreaking and beautiful.

The would-be epic How the West Was Won came along in 1962, and, though not a very good film, it is notable as one of the few feature films to be shot in the ultra-widescreen Cinerama process. (Also appearing in it were his Baby Doll co-stars, Caroll Baker and Karl Malden.) Following this were supporting roles in two Peter O'Toole vehicles, Lord Jim (1965) and How to Steal a Million (1966). Later in 1966 came Tuco, and Wallach's cinematic immortality was assured.
Still, he never stopped working. Wallach appeared as Mr. Freeze on the campy Batman TV series in the 60s...or co-starring with Dean Martin in the lightweight comedy How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968)...Returned to the spaghetti western genre with Don't Turn the Other Cheek (1971)...And even found himself at the very gates of Hell in The Sentinel (1977). You might spot Eli Wallach on an episode of Kojak, in the pretentious and preposterous all-star trainwreck Winter Kills (1979), or co-starring with Johnny Cash in a made for TV movie like The Pride of Jessie Hallam (1981). His career spanned many years, many genres, and many mediums.

Eli Wallach always kept busy, kept acting, almost right up until the end. It seems clear that Eli Wallach loved his craft, and was indeed very good at that craft. He may have never been a big, big star, but he certainly earned a place in the heavens - though the odds are running 5-to-1 that Tuco would be headed for the Other Place.