Archive for the ‘drama’ category

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith

August 23, 2015

the-chant-of-jimmie-blacksmithIn the otherwise forgettable 1985 potboiler Badge of the Assassin, there’s an exchange between a black cop and a black revolutionary that I think of often (it was also used as a sample in the incendiary 1992 single “Guerrillas in the Mist,” by Consolidated ft. Paris). The cop tells the revolutionary that what he did “doesn’t make any sense.” The revolutionary shouts, “It do not have to! It only has to get noticed. They have to understand — oppressing people costs!” Well, those last three words could serve as leitmotif for America these last few years, and also for the morally complex 1978 Australian drama The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. This film, perhaps still the greatest of Aussie cinema, is recommended to anyone who doesn’t understand why Ferguson burned — why it had to.

It’s the turn of the century in Australia, and eager young Jimmie Blacksmith (Tommy Lewis), a “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine), goes from one job to the next, being denied full proper wages for the work he does for casually racist white landowners. It gets harder and harder for Jimmie to hold his placatory smile in place, especially when he marries a white woman (Angela Punch) and she gets pregnant. Jimmie can’t support a wife and child on what he makes, and pretty soon some local women conspire to make sure Jimmie no longer even gets groceries in exchange for services rendered. The agenda, it’s clear, is to send Jimmie back to the squalor he’s trying so hard to transcend.

Jimmie has rejected the black world — the Aborigines are required to live in repulsive circumstances — and won’t be accepted into the white world. He’s a true nowhere man, and it drives him insane. He goes to the house of those meddling local women, accompanied by his not-entirely-with-it uncle, and before anyone knows what’s happening Jimmie has killed or maimed several of them with his axe, leaving only a crying infant alive. Thus begins a terrible, personal war on whoever has slighted Jimmie, and along the way he no longer leaves infants alive. He’s too far gone. The movie in no way justifies his rampage, but it has patiently laid the sociological groundwork so that we understand why it happened. Oppressing people costs.

Released in America two years after its Australian premiere, Chant was a calling card for the strong director Fred Schepisi, who soon moved to Hollywood; his best-known mainstream film is probably the superb Steve Martin rom-com Roxanne. Here, Schepisi works in a classical style, no funny business with the camera or with editing, just a clean and horrifying account of a man breaking down in insupportable conditions, his anguish both mocked and heightened by the wide-open spaces preserved in flawless widescreen compositions. The movie is gorgeous pure filmmaking even when we wince at the violence — and we do, because Schepisi doesn’t present it as cathartic or exciting. Especially not cathartic. Jimmie goes over the edge and it does nothing for him other than to get his cheerful half-brother (Freddy Reynolds) killed and to get his own face half shot-off.

Based on a novel by Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List), which in turn was based on a true story, the film might these days, in more sensitive times, be called “problematic”: After all, does not Jimmie fulfill the whites’ jaundiced view of him as a savage? Yes, he does, and that’s the tragedy. Jimmie wanted so badly to be welcomed into white society (he was raised by a white minister and his wife), and when he was systematically rejected, he had no self to fall back on, no identity other than the “other” he was shown that he was. He had no choice but to become the “black bastard” his world insisted upon. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is both a national epic and a national nightmare, and of course the nightmare extends beyond Australia. It may trouble the sleep of anyone who is part of the white-privileged group, who scoffs at “Black Lives Matter,” who has knee-jerk racist panicky reactions to the mere presence of black people because they know deep down that oppressing people costs, and who knows when the bill will come due?

A Face in the Crowd

August 2, 2015

a-face-in-the-crowd-1On a recent episode of The View, Whoopi Goldberg prescribed a viewing of 1957’s A Face in the Crowd as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s unaccountable popularity among a small segment of the populace. The movie explains more than that, actually. A primer on the ease and dangers of American demagoguery, A Face in the Crowd sets its sights on a drunk drifter and takes him all the way up to the position of political kingmaker. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) goes a long way on cornpone aw-shucks charm, most of which he consciously ladles on. Rhodes has a sharp, shrewd mind, and people underestimate him at their peril; he has an instinctive comprehension of the relatively new medium of television, and he uses it to sell products — energy pills, candidates. Same thing.

Rhodes is discovered in an Arkansas jail by radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), and soon enough she regrets her role in “making” him (she even dubs him Lonesome). Rhodes segues from radio to a local TV station to a major New York network. He can’t seem to step wrong. His listeners/viewers love his honesty, and when he ridicules his first sponsor, a mattress company, sales of their mattresses rise 55%. Marcia and one of Rhodes’ writers, Mel Miller (Walter Matthau), look on in dismay. They know Rhodes is starting to rot behind the mask. There he is on his top-rated show, enabling a senator’s explanation of why Social Security is un-American. Daniel Boone, after all, wouldn’t have needed it.

Griffith’s hungry, lunging performance (it was his film debut) is a shock and a revelation to anyone who knows him primarily from The Andy Griffith Show or, God knows, Matlock. Rhodes wasn’t the last villain Griffith played, but it was most likely his most vulnerable and recognizable. Rhodes’ impish, vulpine grin and ferocious cackle — Whitman’s barbaric yawp in full frightening effect — complete the mask, the face that the crowd wants to see. In one respect, it’s the audience’s fault for buying into Rhodes’ patter, because they need someone to believe in, someone to give that power to. If it isn’t him, it’ll be someone else. The audience is gullible but also fickle, and is always looking for a reason to discontinue its belief.

Budd Schulberg’s script verges on didactic at times but never quite tumbles over. As sociopolitical satire, the movie was decades ahead of its time, even scooping 1976’s Network. The acting, especially by Griffith and Neal, is witty but primal at times, almost Kabuki-like (also note Neal’s silent-horror-film method of indicating distress by clutching her face). There were moments when I was afraid on behalf of various characters in a room with the raging Rhodes, even though, aside from a bar fight he gets into (but doesn’t start), he’s never particularly violent. He’s never too far away from hysteria, though. One of the film’s virtues is showing us the burden of Rhodes’ cult of personality. He got where he is by artificial honesty, and now he can’t ever say what he truly feels or it’s all over. I’m not sure what, if anything, that says to us about Mr. Trump, but it bears remembering no matter who steps up to a podium to sell us a pill, a candidate, or a war.

The Third Man

July 26, 2015

The popular line on The Third Man is that it’s a thriller, or even a film noir, but it reads to me as a tragedy about disillusionment — personal and global. The movie is set in post-war Vienna, and the great city’s old-world beauty is crosshatched with scars. One American pursues another: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) has landed in Vienna to take a job offered by his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that Harry has been fatally hit by a car. Apparently it was an accident — or was it? The story keeps changing: two men supposedly carried Harry’s body to the side of the street, but later an unidentified third man is said to have helped move the corpse.

Thus the title, I suppose, and yet it also seems to refer to the overlap that happens when two very different men meet. Holly is a naïve American, the author of many pulp westerns; his outlook on the world has a similar simplistic coloration. Harry is more worldly, an avatar of the moral murk America muddled into during and after the war. Holly would have been shocked by the revelation of bodies strewn like broken toys at Auschwitz; Harry would not. After the movie, Harry was resurrected for 52 radio episodes and 77 television episodes; Holly, poor sap, was not, ultimately being as desolately ignored as he is at the end of the film, when his unrequited love interest (Alida Valli) pointedly disses him in a final shot famous for its bitter understanding of life in Harry Lime’s world.

Welles’s Lime is given an equally famous intro (a little more than an hour into the film’s running time) — first only the feet, then his smug moon face briefly illuminated in the shadows of the city. Harry is the villain of the piece, but Welles, like so many others playing villains, acts as if the movie were really about him exclusively, with him as the misunderstood hero. Welles was a still-ridiculously young 34 when he played Harry, but he was probably born sounding 56, and his voice caresses Harry’s monologues. Oh, how pleased he is with himself — Harry, I mean, not Welles, I guess — when he uncorks his legendary “cuckoo clock” speech, prefaced by remarks about the meaningless shapes moving around down there. This sort of thing sounded self-serving and callow when Joseph Cotten spewed it six years earlier in Shadow of a Doubt, and it sounds the same now. Harry has made money by consigning children to death with diluted penicillin; his villainy is not savory and amusing but sordid and appalling, however he tries to justify it by nihilistic rhetoric.

The movie’s ugliness — wreaked on architecture by the war and on humanity by greed, as if nothing were learned from the war and people were just going to go on doing the same old stupid exploitative things forever — is leavened by aesthetic loveliness. Director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker shoot almost every scene off-kilter, except for a few establishing shots, but as soon as people start talking the camera tilts. Anton Karas’ celebrated zither score finds an unstable balance between sprightly and melancholy. All the elements are in place for a standard classic, but the decay is never far from the lovely surface. In that respect, The Third Man is as perverse as any David Lynch film, and probably more knowing on a political level than most of Hitchcock.

And so we return to Holly and Harry, the soundalikes, two sides of the same rusted coin. Holly, maybe, was driven to the simplicities of pulp by the incomprehensibility of the war. Harry, driven the other way, styles himself an elegant, suave villain, but he’s really a squalid little opportunist (Welles as seen in The Third Man is “the most hideous man alive” used by the girls in Heavenly Creatures as their imaginary kingdom’s hideously sexy villain), and he closes things out in an appropriate place. In the end, though, who truly wins? Harry has at least been saved from the indignities of prison, and chose his old friend as the one to send him off, whereas Holly, profoundly disillusioned, stands on the side of a road at the end, like the two men who allegedly bore Harry’s corpse to the side of another road, or like the third man.


July 5, 2015

Brace is a pocket-size (24 minutes) romantic anecdote that engages an under-represented group: female-to-male transgender people. Adam (Jake Graf) is searching. Fresh out of a relationship with a woman, he drops into London’s gay nightlife to see if the company of men works any better for him. He meets Rocky (Harry Rundle), a delicate-looking young man so nicknamed because of the fights he’s been in (“I didn’t say I started them”). Both people have a secret — the same secret, as it turns out. Adam and Rocky are both transmen.

Adam is a bit further along, having obviously started on testosterone treatment and gained manly stubble. He looks like a cross between Jeremy Renner and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, two actors whose soulfulness plays against their masculinity. Adam seems like your typical brooding gay man. Rocky is smooth-skinned and wide-eyed, an innocent. One can see what Adam sees in Rocky, and vice versa.

Written by Graf, and co-directed by video artist Sophy Holland and actress Alicya Eyo, Brace is a compact story of difficult love that segues organically into a tale of violent intolerance. The gay-bashing scene at about the two-thirds point isn’t there only so that we can feel sad; it moves the plot along as the victim of the beating effectively becomes outed. The directors stage the violence so that we wince, but don’t rub our noses in it. The nightlife scenes, by entertaining contrast, are brief but punchy; unlike similar scenes in feature-length films, they don’t drone on long past the point at which we want to go home.

Adam’s ex Zoe (Georgia Winters) stays friends with him and even accompanies him and his friends to clubs; when the boys plan to go to a men-only joint, Zoe graciously bows out, even though she must be aware of the irony. (Adam is pre-op.) The directors handle Zoe as though they’ve been in her shoes, while Jake Graf has been saying in interviews that Brace has a strong element of autobiography. The story and dialogue feel lived, authentic.

I sometimes say a feature-length movie needed to be shorter, or to stay a short film if it had begun life as one (see Eat with Me). This movie needs and deserves to be fleshed out to regular length. It ends somewhat abruptly, and I wanted to know more — about Adam and Rocky, and whether they overcome their secrets. From Boy Meets Girl to Transparent to Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, we’ve seen the male-to-female journey so often lately it’s almost in danger of becoming a trope. Female-to-male is relatively fresh in narrative film, and it brings up a whole other volume of interesting things to say about gender and its performative aspects in culture. I’d welcome a longer Brace, a longer visit with these people.

Brace is viewable now on Vimeo.


June 14, 2015

Passion counts for something — passion and respect for idiosyncratic detail. In Honeyglue, the parents of a dying twentysomething stand in their living room and try to talk their way through their agony. They want their daughter dead and out of her pain — no, they want to die instead of her — no, they want to do something, but nothing can be done. The exchange, with all its awkward pauses and its rise and fall of emotion, takes up perhaps two minutes but feels much longer. The language is strange, stilted, grasping. It doesn’t sound like the way normal people talk, but these aren’t normal people; they are unwilling tenants of a land called Our Daughter Has Terminal Cancer, a place full of derangement and grief.

This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are straight-up terrible. But those are the parts that grew on me, because they attempt something, and the movie fearlessly works its time-honored trope — dying young woman falls in love — in order to illuminate and to explore weirder corners. The woman, Morgan (Adriana Mather), meets Jordan (Zach Villa) in a nightclub. She has gone there alone on her birthday, telling her parents she was at a movie. Jordan, a sardonic crossdresser, steals her wallet, then thinks better of it after a bee stings him. Jordan is putting together a kids’ book about a bee who falls in love with a dragonfly, and he’s the bee, and Morgan is his dragonfly.

I believed in the affection that developed between them, because the actors have a tender, unstable, witty rapport. Morgan’s dad, a former detective, distrusts Jordan on sight and is implausibly rude to him; I agreed to accept that as the father’s way of trying to protect his daughter from whatever hurt he can spare her. But Jordan is for real; he turns out to be Morgan’s perfect gentle knight, albeit one in a skirt and Louise Brooks wig. Jordan lives in a tent on an apartment building roof; his presence there is tolerated by a junkie acquaintance (Fernanda Romero) who is pointlessly vicious to him, and who is connected to ethnic baddies to whom he owes money (which he borrowed for art school). This thread of the movie is ludicrous and needed to go.

Morgan and Jordan soon get married, after he shaves his head out of solidarity with her, and their honeymoon is extended and sometimes feels padded. There’s a truly terrible sub-subplot in which Jordan seems to have kidnapped a doctor — though we don’t see it happen and don’t know how it was accomplished — so that the doctor can be on call in case of emergency, I guess. It’s an idiotic thing for Jordan and the movie to do, and it has no consequences. This detour more or less kills the film.

But before it dies, it has a bizarre life. I respected the difficulty of many scenes. When the couple go to visit Jordan’s mom (a fine turn by Amanda Plummer), it feels almost as if the writer-director, James Bird, gave Plummer a basic outline and invited her to run with the scenario — you haven’t seen your son in a decade, you thought sure he was gay, and here he is married to a dying girl. Like Jordan, Bird has Native American ancestry, and he has a simple, unstressed and unfaked sympathy for the outsider that a more polished tearjerker like The Fault in Our Stars couldn’t quite reach. (If anyone is still going to adapt Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Bird has the chops and the heart for it.) Honeyglue — the title refers to a plot point in Jordan’s book — has its bad and pompous moments, but it also feels lived-in and genuine. I could see why these two cared for each other, and I cared for them. That is far from anything to sneeze at these days.

Eat with Me

May 25, 2015

Eat with Me began life as a short film (2003’s Fresh Like Strawberries), and maybe it should’ve stayed one. The story really doesn’t gain from being expanded to feature length. Emma (Sharon Omi), on the outs with her husband, moves in with her gay son Elliot (Teddy Chen Culver), who owns a failing Chinese restaurant. Mother and son have never properly talked about his sexuality. A lot of stuff happens that feels like padding. Elliot gets a Brit boyfriend, Ian (Aidan Bristow), who’s in a band. Emma hangs out with Elliot’s extroverted neighbor Maureen (Nicole Sullivan) and gets high on ecstasy by mistake.

This is a personal, somewhat autobiographical film for its writer-director David Au, who doesn’t run a restaurant but whose parents did have some of the same troubles Elliot’s parents do. It’s a shame that Au doesn’t pull anything especially compelling out of his experiences. Like many other indie filmmakers, Au makes his living by editing, and some of Eat with Me feels a bit over-edited — not in terms of speed but cross-cutting. An early sequence goes back and forth between Elliot’s tryst with a friend-with-benefits and Emma in Elliot’s apartment finding his beefcake magazines. All this accomplishes is derailing any erotic rhythm (this is a fairly chaste movie, fading to tasteful black when things start heating up).

Sharon Omi and Teddy Chen Culver also starred in the earlier short film, and they acquit themselves calmly and well (except when Emma freaks out on ecstasy). The expanded cast, including a pregnant server whose condition affects the plot not at all, tends to distract from what should be the central conflict — the confused Emma dealing with Elliot’s sexuality, and Elliot dealing with his parents’ estrangement. Maureen, the next-door neighbor, is too baldly conceived as The Wacky, Life-Affirming Neighbor, and comedic actress Nicole Sullivan often goes too big in close-ups or makes weird noises. The effect is that Maureen seems to be trying to monopolize everyone’s attention, including ours.

Eat with Me was shot, unaccountably, in a very wide format, which seems too overbearing for such a tiny movie. Au doesn’t use the wide frame terribly artfully, and the color scheme is drab more often than not. Towards the finish, for no apparent reason other than that the filmmakers could get him, George Takei shows up as himself, counseling Emma on gay matters, because presumably he’s the expert on being gay and Asian-American. Takei brings some theatrical brio to his few minutes, but the marketing is pimping the poor man as though he were a supporting player throughout. For full metal Takei, I refer you to the mild but affable documentary To Be Takei. For a great Asian foodie movie that deals with identity and family, I recommend Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman, which David Au cites as his favorite film. At least he has good taste in movies.

The Film Critic

May 3, 2015

The only thing more boring than a movie about movies is a movie about a movie critic. I mean, come on: we are not, as a group, enchanting. We do a lot of sitting: we sit and watch movies, we sit and write about them. We are as dull as any other kind of writer, and with the exception of Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael (subjects of past and future documentaries) or, in the realm of music criticism, Lester Bangs, critics are not movie material. There was that ridiculously pandering bit in High Fidelity when John Cusack referred to an ex-girlfriend’s gig as a film critic as “unassailably cool,” but no. It’s not. Maybe it used to be, back in the glory days of the ’70s, but not now.

The Argentinian comedy-drama The Film Critic seems to take place in some alternate universe where people still care what critics think and a harsh review can end a filmmaker’s career. (I’d say the movie is set in the past, but modern tech is used throughout.) The eponymous critic, Victor Tellez (Rafael Spregelburd), mopes from screening to screening, complaining about the overused clichés in most movies, particularly romantic comedies. He sits with his androgynous niece Agatha (Telma Crisanti) and roasts the usual Hollywood endings featuring slow-motion running, kissing in the rain, and so forth.

Then Victor meets a woman, Sofia (Dolores Fonzi), who wants the same apartment he wants. At this point, the movie could go one of two ways. It could follow the lead of the film’s American tagline: “What if your life became a movie … that you hate?” Or it could blandly nod to the clichés but put nothing interesting in their place. The Film Critic goes the second and less engaging way. After all, we know quite well that life isn’t a movie. A movie telling us over and over how non-movie-ish its events are seems a bit like special pleading. That Sofia is more or less a non-entity doesn’t help; we don’t know what they see in each other or why they keep each other company for a while other than that they’re in a movie.

Writer/director Hernán Guerschuny apparently thinks the answer to boringly conventionally-structured narrative is boringly anti-climactic narrative. Whatever is introduced in the script, nothing seems to come of it. A moneybags of Victor’s acquaintance offers him money to write a script for him to turn into a movie; nothing comes of it. A filmmaker whose career Victor ruined becomes an eleventh-hour mustache-twirler who breaks Agatha’s heart; nothing comes of it. The city is presumably littered with the corpses of cinematic careers Victor’s withering prose has butchered in their cribs. I don’t know if that’s what it’s like in Argentina, but in the larger world, nobody kills movies except the merciless and largely tasteless whims of the market. Critics can assume neither credit nor blame for the failure of terrible movies, the success of great movies, or, more frequently, vice versa.

The Film Critic could have been a meta-fantasy in which a cynical critic does find himself inside a clichéd Hollywood story that he either loathes or grows fond of. But it isn’t; Victor neither loves nor hates his own story, he just shlumps around inside it. He’s never especially witty or appealing; I don’t think he ever even smiles. He’s a dull protagonist, film critic or not. We don’t care whether he ends up with the equally dull Sofia; the only character of more than passing interest is the niece Agatha, and she gets the short end of the narrative stick. If a movie called The Film Critic is not to be a red cape waved in front of film critics, it should probably be unassailably cool.


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