Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany
Movies/ Mouthing Off/ A Miscellany

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Why Westerns? Quentin Tarantino Interview

An interview conducted with Quentin Tarantino in October 2015 as he was putting finishing touches to The Hateful Eight. We talked about his interest in Westerns and some of the cinematic history behind his recent choices.

GL: What about Westerns make them a good vehicle for looking at race in America?
QT: No other genre reflects the decade in which it was made more  than Westerns. In the fifties, when Westerns were at their most prolific, they reflected an Eisenhower ideal. With the turmoil of the late sixties came not just the hippie Western, but the myth-busting anti-Western: films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue that looked at Native American massacres during the Indian wars through the lens of Vietnam, even going so far as to recreate the Mai Lai Massacre in Little Big Man, and casting an Asian actress to play Dustin Hoffman’s wife. The cynical Westerns of the seventies reflected a post-Watergate America.
little big man.jpg
Little Big Man

In the eighties, there were these little odd one-shot Westerns that had a bit of that hippie seventies influence, like Cattle Annie and Little Britches, and Barbarosa. But they had almost no theatrical release. While the two Westerns in that decade to get a real push were Silverado and Pale Rider: two Reagan Westerns if ever there were. Dances with Wolves, in the nineties, was a return to the seventies-filmed, sixties-influenced Westerns like A Man Named Horse. So I didn't set out to make a blue state/ red state Western, it just happened.

GL: Since Django Unchained was released the Black Lives Matter movement has sprung up. How does that affect the context of your new film, The Hateful Eight?
QT: While I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement, which I fully support, has much bearing on the story I’m telling in The Hateful Eight, the tragedy in South Carolina and the controversy over the rebel flag lies at the heart of what this movie is about. I’ve always felt the rebel flag was an American swastika. And people who romanticize the Southern Cause and the antebellum way of life are Neo-Confederates. It cut so close to home I removed a line because it made you think of the Mother Emanuel tragedy.

GL: Why the startling absence of movies about slavery? 12 Years a Slave exists, yes, but it was only made after Django Unchained, and largely by British filmmakers~
QT: Americans are afraid to deal with slave narratives because they are too painful. The British did 12 Years a Slave. The Italians did Goodbye Uncle Tom.
Goodbye Uncle Tom

For that matter, you could say Italians did Mandingo and Drum, in the guise of Dino de Laurentiis. Even in the golden age of Hollywood, the only movie set in the antebellum south that doesn’t make you cringe, Rene Clair’s Flame of New Orleans, was directed by a Frenchman.
Marlene Dietrich and Theresa Harris in The Flame of New Orleans
Why do you care so much about using actual 70 mm film?
QT: I hate this digital stuff. I’ve seen 3 films this last week that were ruined, in my eyes, for being shot on digital instead of film. I hate digital projection. To me it’s just like watching HBO in public -- watching television with strangers isn’t my idea of going to the movies. So if I shot my film in a huge crazy expensive format like 70mm, then I’m forcing the distributor to make a meaningful attempt to get it projected in 70mm.
--Grace Lovelace

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Trainwreck | Film Review

Meg Ryan making stalking downright cute

Once upon a time I was talking to Julia Sweeney about how I had enjoyed the Meg Ryan vehicle French Kiss, when I noticed she seemed fairly unenthusiastic in her assent. When pressed, she explained “It was okay, but why is it always actresses instead of comedians in these movies ?” Her objection, obvious once it was voiced but invisible until then: the casting of actresses in romantic comedy revolved, predictably, around their prettiness. Then Michael Eisner says there are no funny women. That's called The Circle of Life, kids.

The poster to Trainwreck announces that this is not Sleepless in Seattle. If you are looking for an ingratiating, non-threatening female lead you’ve come to the wrong place.
From the ho-hum response of most reviewers, however, it seems like they mostly didn't notice. It’s just a, you know, romantic comedy. Nothing to see. It turns out she ends up with the guy. How boring is that?  
To which I reply: if you don’t want the girl to end up with the guy, ever, romantic comedy might not be the genre for you. ( Incidentally, the two reviews I happened to stumble upon also happened to be by men,  Anthony Lane and Joe Morgenstern. These dudes take a massive number of cunnilingus jokes in stride, that's all I can say.)

Do we ask whether Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields films have challenging  plots, or even plots that make sense? And if so, where does the harp playing come in? The most subversive comedic approach has been to regard the plot only as a vehicle for delivering funny lines (an approach Anthony Lane should appreciate, incidentally, given how difficult it is to discover his verdict of any given film. What are moving pictures, after all, but occasions for witty put-downs?). To cite one example, W.C Field’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, about a guy trying to peddle a script he has written in Hollywood, the bare-bones, self-referential comedy plot doesn’t pose a problem in itself.

W.C. Fields of course

Come to think about it, something about Amy Schumer, maybe the bibulousness,  is very reminiscent of W.C. Fields. Or better yet, Mae West, whose rubbery face, va voom body, and major attitude place her out of the realm of mere actors and into that of attitude peddlers like Schumer. Give this woman a cigar and a gold lame gown. . .

A young Mae West wrote and produced her own material

Like Fields and West, Schumer writes much of her own material, and though the script is predictable at times, it provides some delightful twists. Her casting of Tilda Swinton as the British editor of an outrageous online men’s magazine called S’Nuff, a sort of female Nick Denton , is a particularly nice touch . And the scenes of eager young reporters trying to outgross and inappropriate each other seem especially prescient given these week’s meltdown at  Gawker.

And casting herself as a reporter for S’Nuff allows Schumer to explore her character’s edginess, while simultaneously turning the cutesy  usual professions of romantic comedy heroines -- gourmet cupcake baker is a popular one -- on their ass. The over-the-top nature of the new media is a great satirical subject, adding some heft, as well as a needed update to the romantic comedy genre, which frequently seems to be stuck in early sixties Pillow Talk mode.

Romantic comedy has suffered from an image problem for at least the last few decades (probably not a coincidence it is a genre almost entirely centered on women). If the Reeses and Sandras want to win their Oscars, they better not tarry in that part of town too long, whatever the financial rewards. Judd Apatow, the director of this film as well as producer of many other innovative, women-centered efforts, including Girls and Bridesmaids.
Not to belabor the point, but the true formula for the success of Bridesmaids was, in a word, Kristin Wiig. A woman drawing on years of experience writing and performing (from Saturday Night Live, as opposed to the Pilates studio) was finally being allowed to strut her stuff in a romantic comedy. When that exploded, Apatow reinvested in Schumer. And so on, and so on. . .until one day,ideally, we get our Sarah Silverman rom com. That will be a real happy ending.

--Grace Lovelace

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Great Aloha Disaster of 2015 | Aloha Movie Review

By now Aloha is a widely recognized disaster. All that’s left is to sort through the rubble, draw lessons for future skirmishes (i.e.movies), and to debate whether or not Cameron Crowe’s career is in fact unwinnable. And though some of our finest military minds are all already on it (Amy Pascal: “I’m never starting a movie again when the script is ridiculous and we all know it”), I figured I should put in my two cents as a doctor of literature.
Most of the early attention has gone to the fill-in-the-blank -- clueless? -- typical? -- casting of Emma Stone as the part Chinese, part Native Hawaiian love interest of military contractor Bradley Cooper.
emma aloha.jpg
Emma Stone weeping part of actual movie, not movie fallout

In hindsight casting of haole-er than thou,  Emma Stone as Allison Ng (“like ring, without the R,” as Emma Stone informs us) was wrong on various levels. Wrong for Cameron Crowe’s image (you're supposed to be a sensitive guy) and also wrong on a moral level (based on this movie not an actual concern).
Crowe has defended himself in a recent blog post by claiming that Ng is based on a “real life, red-headed local.” And it is indeed a running joke that Allison Ng, while claiming Hawaiian ancestry, does not convincingly look the part. Not a terrible joke in itself, but given the context of Hollywood movies forever casting Caucasian actors even in the few ethnic parts that come up, almost the definition of “punching down.” Not a good look, C.C.

But Cameron Crowe, for a guy who casts himself as a scruffy, alternate lifestyle, writer type (Singles, Almost Famous) has always been deeply attracted to power. Seriously, who else writes movies about successful sports agents (Tom Cruise) and successful sports shoe designers (Orlando Bloom)? The distinctive Crowe plot of a corporate-guy-gone-temporarily-askew-but-coming-back-as-an-even-more-lucrative-independent-contractor is very much in evidence in Aloha, a movie cluttered with powerful aging actors ←-male that is. The women remain distressingly a good 10 years younger than they should be reality-wise. In short, basically what you'd expect from a star reporter for Rolling Stone.

spirit animal.jpg
Bill Murray as Aloha's Spirit Animal, Carson Welsh

The love affair with power which forms the true story of Aloha, romantic comedy trappings aside, finds its true spirit animal in the character played by Bill Murray. “Carson Welsh” combines traits of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and Bill Murray collecting a big paycheck for a few days sketchy work.
In a culture devoid of anything sacred, Billy Murray has become our bowling alley Buddha, dispensing wisdom and Bud Lights, as seen on Instagram. His appearance in Aloha is very much in this spirit, trading on accumulated good vibes while he gives Bradley Cooper a long backrub (so generous in a mega-billionaire!) and boogies with Sergeant Ng to Hall and Oates. 
Alas, he turns out to be an evil plutocrat who wants to rule the world, but the movie’s iconography will have nothing to do with this minor plot point -- from his appearance as jolly Father Christmas (above) to when he is arrested by a bunch of military guys on a photographic isthmus, his beatific expression and white peasant shirt tell their own story of redemption and corporate jets.  He is, more or less, God as CEO, shining his benevolent hipster light on the 99%.

I musn’t neglect Bradley Cooper, the star of the film. He meanders through the film with the slightly incredulous expression he wore when forced to act in a Major Motion Picture alongside a plastic baby doll.

Forgive me, Clint Eastwood. You made a serious movie about war and post-traumatic stress disorder with one little lapse. Aloha  has borrowed your themes, your actor, and woven a lei of lapsed thoughts and fragrant bullshit.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Wrecking Crew Documentary: Netflix Movie Review

There’s a great moment in The Wrecking Crew  where several members of this legendary group of studio musicians, reunited decades after their heyday,  bring up the group Milli Vanilli (though the sexagernarians keep getting the name wrong). They chortle over the idea that good looking front people who don’t actually make the music constitute a “scandal” -- twas ever thus, say their insider smirks. They should know, under the aegis of record producers like Phil Spector and Lou Adler, they created most of the hit songs of the sixties--arguably creating the sound now known as rock and roll. These are the actual human beings who made up the famous "wall of sound."
As described in the film, the Wrecking Crew was a loose group of 20-30 musicians who, given a simple pop melody, could punch it up and make it a hit. While you might expect that such a film would be about the essentially plastic and interchangeable nature of commercial music (after all, how can the same group “be” Nat King Cole and the Byrds), it turns out to have a surprising warmth to it. This is probably partly because the film was made, over many years and much scrambling for funds, by the son of one of the crew, the guitarist Tommy Tedesco. Tommy Tedesco seems to have been a cutup as well as a virtuoso guitarist, and, at least as presented by his son Denny Tedesco, to have been part of the glue that held the group together.

The other thing, of course, was the enormous amounts of money they made working 18 hour days, producing mountains of hit material. It was only much later that they, and their families, bemoaned the fact that their names were seldom on the historic records they created--that honor went to the Association, the Monkeys, and the Fifth Dimension and other assorted Milli Vanillis.
The Association
Tommy Tedesco and Carol Kaye

One of the pleasant surprises of the film is that early rock and roll was actually much more integrated than those college boy album covers would have had us believe. It seems to have been a true meritocracy, with everyone more or less welcome as long as they were cool and could produce the work. It seems the ears of Americans were ready for more integration than their eyes could take in.
The backgrounds of the musicians add to our understanding of the music as well. Most came from diverse but deep musical backgrounds -- Carol Kaye had a mother who played piano in movie houses; Plas Johnson grew up in New Orleans with musician parents who found peak employment (one during the night and one by day) playing for the constant stream of soldiers in WWII. He became a saxophonist, first working at 12 on a Mardi Gras parade. Drummer Hal Blaine talks about how he achieved the focus and concentration he needed for endless studio session during his early as a drummer at strip clubs. Almost all of them came from jazz, and many cite that form of music, not rock and roll, as their original vocation.

The film comes as an important corrective for those interested in the history of pop music. Even after all these years, however,  this still feels like somewhat dangerous and disputed territory. The people most willing to talk on camera are give credit to these foundational players tend to be singers, like Nancy Sinatra and Cher, with little at stake in pretending they did it all themselves. Most generous, perhaps, is Brian Wilson, who talks about how utterly central Wrecking Crew were to the legendary Smile recordings. Of course that album went on to influence to course of pop music to come, inspiring The Beatles, among others, with the possibilities of the genre. (That Wilson simultaneously gets to note how little other official Beach Boys members had to do with the Beach Boy sound is a not-so incidental bonus.) Other groups featured prominently on the poster--Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas--are notably absent as commentators. It seems not everyone is quite ready to revise their own history as pop auteurs.

In spite of this willful effacement, however, the Wrecking Crew (both group and documentary) ends up making musicians look damn good. They  were undoubtedly shortchanged on the credit they deserved given that their improvisation, looseness and familiarity with each other elevated frequently  rote tunes and brought them to life. On the other hand, these were incredibly well-paid studio musicians. They ended up with mansions, rolls royces and yachts, and all while retaining their anonymity.The absence of the corrosive effect of fame, along with the built in impetus to get along (no one was irreplaceable), seems to have allowed the group to work together, over incredibly long hours, without any of the tantruming seemingly built in to supergroups. Furthermore,  the film was finally completed, and the complicated permissions for the 110 songs soundtrack procured, with funding from “music brass” Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.
For those of us still hopelessly in thrall to pop music a half a century later, The Wrecking Crew is essential viewing.

--Grace Lovelace


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Plastic Augury, or the Unexpected Drama of Disfiguration

These days when actresses sashay down the red carpet, we look to see not whose dress, but whose face they have donned for the occasion. For example, recently Renee Zellweger tried out Robin Wright’s face for size. While undoubtedly amusing and profitable for everyone involved, especially internet commentators, occasionally things veer into the downright terrifying. Yes, I’m talking about last year’s abyss-peering Oscar ceremony.

I know, I know -- it seems women are damned if they don’t, and double damned if they do. And I have been reminded by author and enlightened being, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) that the kindest thing to do is to look away

What, exactly, has ever been solved by the genteel lookaway? This shit is oppressive. I don't respect clitorectomy as a choice either.
And though the truly ghoulish products of this process (Goldie Hawn, anyone?) were ostentatiously swept under the red carpet this year, where we were only allowed the eminently presentable Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews, the extreme pressure to look a certain way and never age is, inevitably, showing up in the work.
Many people thought Jennifer Aniston’s performance in Cake was unfairly overlooked. (Neil Patrick Harris pointedly said she deserved to be there.) All the things that were said about Still Alice -- that it was a great performance in a so-so film (I’ll get to that later)--are actually true of Cake-- Aniston’s is a transformative performance in the middle of an inert mess. It’s true that the details of the film don’t make sense -- how does a disabled lawyer, traumatized by a catastrophic car wreck, afford a classic mid-century home in the Hollywood Hills, especially now that she is no longer living with her husband --a federal employee,  so no answers there money-wise.

These loose threads, while troublesome, don’t finally undermine the power of her performance, mostly because in some crucial way Aniston is playing herself as much as the character I see credited as both Claire Bennet and Claire Simmons on IMDB. See, it really doesn’t matter. This is Aniston is all her lithe glory, but massively scarred and racked with pain. The part inevitably ricochets off our tabloids image of her as a poor little rich girl, unable to hold a man or have a child. She hobbles through her glamorous gem of a house, sneaking pain killers squirreled away behind the original art adorning the walls, while she fitfully attends various therapies and tries to get her shit together.
Response to the role inevitably clustered around ideas of the suffering movie star fighting her way back, though the theme was clearly not deemed as worthy as in the catastrophically male BirdMAN. Manohla Dargis commends “a slight hardness” invoking “midcareer Ginger Rogers” -- invoking a classic movie star. I was reminded strongly of Sunset Boulevard, with the aging, doomed not-movie-star circling the pool with her inexplicably loyal  foreign servant forever at her side (the treatment of Mexican actress Adriana Barraza deserves a column of its own.)
Though the movie inserts a buoyant ending, the Academy provided the what seems the rightful verdict: Damaged Goods. Do Not Pass Go. She was still welcome on the red carpet, however, asserting  her  buoyancy in time-tested fashion.
Julianna Moore, in contrast, was the queen of the evening, with a dress to match. The Los Angeles Times reports that Moore’s Chanel dress contained 80,000 hand painted sequins and flowers, and took 27 people 987 hours to make.


When Moore collected the Best Actress statuette late in Sunday’s ceremony, she was clearly claiming what was rightfully hers.  In a career filled with spectacular performances, some features of the “Moore” role stand out. From the beginning, she was a very sexual presence, unafraid to put herself forward in that way. It’s hard to believe it was over 20 years ago she made a splash wearing in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. Hard to forget her memorable scene fighting with movie husband Mathew Modine while wearing no bottoms, her red pubic hair on full display. Here was somebody demanding to be noticed on multiple levels.
In recent years, Moore’s performance’s have continued to be very sexy, but with an overlay of poignance perhaps inevitable for a Hollywood actress approaching 60 (She is currently 54.). The part the Academy chose to award her for, after being nominated four other times, is an interesting departure, emphasizing extreme professional competence.

Moore plays a Columbia linguistics professor confronted with her own waning powers in the grip of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The emphasis is on Alice’s amazing accomplishments and the matching scope of her loss: inevitably the parallel with Moore’s own incredibly distinguished career suggests itself and lends an extra intensity. What exactly are the prospects for a leading lady heading toward 60?
The  husband writing/directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland has not been shy about extending the Alzheimer’s as metaphor in the film itself and in their public discussions of the film. Alice’s daughter in the film, played by Kristen Stewart, is an actress appearing in Angels in America, a work that is also quoted extensively in the film, inevitably suggesting the plight of AIDS sufferers disappearing before their time. And, as Moore mentioned in her acceptance speech, Richard Glatzer is succumbing to ALS; this film is, in a sense, his swan song. When his Westmoreland asked him about his remaining time, Moore recounted onstage, he said he wanted to spend it doing what he loved: making movies.Though her own plight was left unspoken, Moore, Oscar in hand, must have been contemplating her own imminent oblivion.
As usual, Patricia Arquette’s body language was at least as articulate as her passionate acceptance speech. Here’s a 46-year-old woman, unstarved, wearing reading glasses: Equal rights to age onstage now.

--Grace Lovelace

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Now on Netflix Instant: Photographic Memory/ Stories We Tell

For some reason, I’ve always had a soft spot for the documentary Sherman’s March (1985). It’s not actually about Sherman or the Civil War, but instead is a resolute avoidance of its declared topic. Ross McElwee somehow procured funding for a documentary on the lingering effects of Sherman’s merciless campaign 1864 campaign through the South, and then spent it making, well, I'm not sure how to characterize what he ended up with.

Anything I know about Sherman and the Civil War, I most assuredly did not pick up from McElwee’s fly-away, free-associative film, which devolves into a series of monologues on procrastination broken up by flirtations with a series of Southern, well, I wouldn’t exactly call them belles. The most entertaining among them (with some possible competition from a hippie-linguist completing her thesis on a deserted island in the Carolinas)  is Patricia “Pat” Rendleman, a beautiful nutcase, I mean aspiring actress, who allows McElwee to film her rollerblading, doing freeform Jane Fonda era calisthenics, swimming, and roller-blading some more in a series of provocative early eighties outfits.
Patricia "Pat" Rendleman

Unfortunately, Rendleman takes off for Atlanta in pursuit of the elusive Burt Reynolds, whom she somewhat mysteriously considers the key to her personal and professional future. She’s deaf to McElwee’s claims (borne out by a quick look at IMDB) that his film could in fact be her big breakthrough.
His picaresque adventures through the South and its women continue,  completely independent of the Civil war, apart from some vague gesturing on McElwee’s part. The whole thing is less Ken Burns and more proto-reality show -- sort of Annie Hall meets The Real Housewives of Atlanta.
Given my excessive attachment to Sherman’s March, I was pleased to discover a newer effort, Photographic Memory (2011) available for viewing on Netflix.

Photographic Memory finds McElwee having abandoned all historiographical aspirations, but carrying a good deal of baggage. The 25 year interval following Sherman’s March finds McElwee a family man; indeed, the film is dedicated to his son, Adrian, who is its major subject. Photographic Memory alternates footage of him as a beloved toddler and young children with that of the intractable adolescent McElwee believes he has become. Their previously idyllic relationship has become fraught, as Adrian ceases to gaze adoringly at his father and begins to pursue his own interest in making extreme sports videos, filming himself skiing backwards while stoned and similar stunts. “How many teenagers have been saved by our visions of the beautiful children they used to be, “ intones McElwee in his familiar Southern twang, his voice gone sour.

Not that McElwee has lost his taste for the broader gesture--running through his commentary about his son is the suggestion that his son’s problems--specifically his scattered attention and his servitude to electronic devices--are those of an entire generation. From his newfound position of gravitas McElwee diagnoses his son, and his entire cohort, with ADD.
Adrian McElwee in extreme sports mode
For someone who watches the two films in tandem, the ironies come thick and fast.The flippertigibbet of Sherman’s March has become the elder statesman of Photographic Memory. The crazy part is that  essentially Sherman’s March is a paean to ADD and to flitting around at whim.
And it’s not like the middle-aged McElwee has outgrown these tendencies; though the film is, at its core, about his relationship with his son, he suddenly decides to take off to Brittany and revisit his own past as a photographer. Suddenly we are in a whole different story, concerning a swinging Frenchman’s fall from grace, replete with interviews with his widow and some of his lovers. While mildly engaging, it must be said: a lot of this plays like so much stoned backwards-skiing.
It’s easy to see where Adrian got these tendencies; one of the more perverse satisfactions of Photographic Memory is seeing into the areas of McElwee’s psyche where he appears most blind. On the other hand, his own blindness is part of the film. In the end the film, while fitfullly illuminating, has a lost, melancholic tone: this is the unmistakably creaky sound of aging in action.
If Ross McElwee’s insights as a filmmaking can feel wispy and incidental, with Sarah Polley’s own family documentary, Stories We Tell, we are in the hands of a commanding artist.

But Polley seemed to arrive that way. It made sense, at the beginning to see her as an “actors’ director” since she came from an acting background. (Her most famous film was The Sweet Hereafter, afterwards it seemed like maybe this had been some sort of apprenticeship with its intense, idionsyncratic writer/director, Atom Egoyan.)
Away From Her  drew an astonishing, Academy award nominated performance from Julie Christie. The concept itself of an aged women beginning to suffer from dementia also being chic and sexual itself seemed incredibly startling and provocative. (I can’t help but this that it was an influence on the current Julianne Moore release Still Alice.) 
Julie Christie in Away From Her

Polley adapted Away From Her from an Alice Munro story;by her next film, Take this Waltz, she was writing the whole thing. This almost willfully slight film also is quite innovative in its treatment of women’s sexuality and marriage. These themes make a good deal of sense when we learn about the dramatic story of Polley’s mother in her next film, Stories We Tell.
I don’t want to reduce the impact by giving away too much of Stories We Tell, since the pacing is highly dramatic. I will say there are major revelations throughout, including in the very last frame. That Polley chose to go from a successful career making feature films to making a documentary itself seems to upend convention; usually you’d expect a director to swim fiercely toward the mainstream.
But Polley has always seemed to enjoy defying Hollywood's social Darwinism. For my part, I don’t see why she isn’t a bigger deal; but, in a way, she doesn’t seem to crave Angelina Jolie levels of attention. Maybe that’s part of the documentary thing, besides having a fascinating story to tell; she is able to operate, still, somewhat under the radar of the culture machine.
Maybe it’s because she’s Canadian. In any case, I consider her a treasure, national or not.
[Sherman’s March, Photographic Memory, Take this Waltz, and Stories We Tell are all currently available on Netflix Instant.]

--Grace Lovelace