Jun 27, 2011

Two by Nicolas Roeg

Actually one and a half. On Netflix, I got John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy. Cinematography by Nicolas Roeg.
Check out this astonishing trifecta: Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terrence Stamp. The three of them in one movie is too much for the heart to bear. And they are all in love with Julie Christie! She says no to Alan Bates (impossible), perhaps to Peter Finch (probably the most charismatic human being ever) and she falls for Terrence Stamp, the worst choice of the three, but the most handsome one. It's a great story and it is gorgeously, stunningly shot in wide lenses and long lenses by Nicolas Roeg. There was a time in the sixties and seventies in Britain when they were making adaptations of English classics like this and the excellent Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963). They told classic period pieces with modern panache, and Far From the Madding Crowd is not a dusty, fusty period piece, but a sensual feast for the eyes. It invites you to dwell in the life of the country with its harvests and storms and natural dramas. It is also one of those big epics where they have a musical overture and an entre'acte (so you can go buy popcorn or smoke in the lounge in style). Very recommended.

The next night I saw The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) at Film Forum, which was directed by Roeg but shot by Tony Richmond. This cult movie is deeply strange. It's hard to reconcile the flawless cinematography of Far From The Madding Crowd (or even the elegant Don't Look Now, also directed by Roeg and shot by Richmond), and the experimental cheesiness of this one and think they come from the same visual mind.
It's a bit of a disappointment but well worth seeing just to bask in the glow of some truly insane seventies camp.
Some of it is hypnotizingly poetic, some of it is incoherent, vulgar and gratuitous. The actors are mostly campy. Bowie plays an alien who comes to earth to save his planet from drought (this we learn as the movie is ending). So he watches several TVs at once to try to understand humans. There is not much point in trying to summarize the plot, but there is a lovely sadness in an alien who claims that he is incapable of hate and gets corrupted by gin and tonics. He becomes a lush and doesn't fight back the evil humans who thwart his homesick desire to go back to his family. Bowie looks as elegant as Tilda Swinton, with amazing red hair and fabulous clothes. He is a great choice for an alien and has the high cheekbones of a true movie star, without the acting chops. Everybody else looks like shit. And then there is Rip Torn, who shows up, growls in his macho sarcastic way and steals the show. He's the only one who seems to know he is in some strange wonderland that doesn't make much sense and he doesn't give a shit. He's so much fun to watch. He feels like danger.
There is a plot, but the movie decides not to stick too closely to it. Roeg's predilection for intercutting scenes that happened in the past with the present, and his avoidance of narrative coherence gets a bit tiresome. There is some graphic and campy sex, but it is more shocking for the fact that it makes you realize that in movies nowadays the naked human body only seems to be comprised of the upper torso.
Some of its powerful images have been borrowed by people with bigger budgets (like The Truman Show). I also have a feeling that this movie was very influential to people like David Lynch and Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. It's a frustrating movie, but on occasion quite transfixing.

Jun 12, 2011

The Trip

The Trip is a hilarious, but also delightfully discomfiting journey through the north of England's wintry countryside with the brilliant Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, one of the most excellent, if reluctant, comedy teams around. Coogan is supposed to be writing about fancy restaurants for The Observer and he asks Brydon to come with him, despite the fact that he spends the entire movie pretending to barely tolerate him. As they did in director Michael Winterbottom's also excellent Tristram Shandy, A Cock and Bull Story, they play themselves, but it is not entirely clear if Steve and Rob are exactly like this in reality. It's like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the layer of real versus real-but-pretend adds great richness to the journey.
The two actors are a hoot. They are both extremely funny in very different ways. Coogan plays himself as a cold, withholding, competitive, jealous, insecure narcissist with a terribly acid tongue. Brydon is sunny and cheerful but he likes to upstage Coogan. He is a compulsive entertainer and he has great one liners. He is the least horrible of the two, but he is a rather lazy explorer and not much of a risk taker, while Coogan at least likes adventure. It's bad enough when they are alone together, but it gets much worse when they are with other people. The movie is not just a collection of funny bits, but a great study in contrasting characters. No writers are listed in the credits, but I'm sure this movie was written by someone, and very well.
Brydon is a masterful mimic and he doesn't tire of making impressions of famous British and American actors, something that Coogan does equally well but decides that it is below him. They get into some hilarious dueling impersonations of famous thespians. Both have magnificent voices and since they talk a blue streak, this movie is also a feast for the ears. When Brydon recites poetry (often with someone else's voice), one remembers how beautiful the English language can be. But another interesting aspect of the movie is the investigation into the craft that their comedic talents require. They observe in painstaking detail exactly how the other actors talk and gesticulate, and it becomes clear that they are keen scientific observers of others. They are artists obsessed with their craft. But it's not all about impressions. The fact that they both converge in a Range Rover in exactly opposite periods of their lives is darkly funny too. They get on a roll with some really inspired improvised bits in the car, and Coogan gets to deliver the eulogy he would (reluctantly) give in case of Brydon's death. After all, comedy is serious business. These are two middle aged men at different points of their careers. Brydon is happily married and the father of a rosy baby, but one wonders when he chides Coogan for his freewheeling ways, and then wants to have phone sex with his wife, is he not a little jealous himself. He is, however, clearly content with his life. Coogan, divorced and still on the bachelor circuit, is miserable because he feels fame eludes him, and time is getting on. He is brutal with Brydon, but Brydon knows how to get him back where it hurts (anything mildly critical you say to a narcissist is bound to hit a raw nerve).
In the end, The Trip turns out to be a philosophical movie that explores fame, middle age, unhappiness, and friendship. Michael Nyman's melancholy music is an understated counterpoint to the hilarity. The Trip is also the most comprehensive exploration of comedic oneupmanship yet on the screen.
And how refreshing to be able to laugh heartily without vulgarity or bodily grossness. How mature! Coogan has been underused by Hollywood because he is too dry a wit and he is not an overgrown child, he is just a nasty adult (I do hope that the real one is not as bad as the one onscreen). He is justly admired by Hollywood comedians, but here they barely know what to do with him (I'm not sure that the 15 year-olds who live in our malls would get him). Brydon is a born entertainer, but he's also quite sophisticated. I think they should both stay where they are, not sell out and keep doing films together on he other side of the pond. 
The Trip was originally conceived as a series of episodes for the BBC and you can find them in You Tube, but I really recommend that you go see the whole movie if it's playing near you. It is as rich and satisfying as one of those sumptuous meals Coogan and Brydon enjoy in their trip.

Jun 5, 2011


A case of terminal preciousness from writer-director Mike Mills, Beginners is a rambling, repetitive, faux charming movie about Oliver, a young man (Ewan McGregor, yum) whose father, Hal, (Christopher Plummer) comes out as gay after years of living a lie, and then dies of cancer. I'm not giving anything away; this happens in the first five minutes. The rest is a back and forth between the present, with Oliver, in mourning and deathly afraid of relationships, and Plummer, giving a saintly, restrained performance as a sick old man living it up before he dies. The best thing in the movie is Cosmo the dog, one of the best canine actors I've ever seen, playing Arthur the dog. He is funny and serene and I don't know if he put his costars through hell at the shoot, but he seems to be a consummate professional.
I have very little patience with twee, whimsical, independent movies like this one, where adults pushing forty refuse to grow up and act too preciously for words. Beginners is proof that some independent films have already become a tired cliche. It tries hard to avoid the conventionality of clear emotions (even if they are confused, they should be clear) and stays away from conventional dramatic exchanges. It's like mumblecore without the mumbling.
Oliver is an illustrator, and he draws deadpan illustrations of his sadness. He is asked to do a record cover for a band (the kind of band that exists in a movie such as this, as hipsterish as it is humanly possible), but instead he draws the history of his sadness. McGregor is lovely and tries hard to be soulful, but he spends half the movie watching his dad and his new gay friends in benign incomprehension, and the other half cautiously falling in love with Melanie Laurent, who plays Anna, a French actress. Most of the time he opens his eyes very wide and looks very, very sad. Laurent is not particularly charming. She lays on the French gamine shtick a bit thick (I will never stop resenting the way French women can put up their mussed up hair and look like they are eternally rolling out of bed and good at the same time). It is not understood why Anna and Oliver, who have a quirky romance in which they roller skate through the carpeted halls of her hotel, and do other immature things like write graffiti on walls (the movie takes place in LA), can't get their act together. It is all ascribed to Oliver's aloof and eccentric mother, and there is some allusion to a dark father on Anna's side. I never understood if he had committed suicide or he was threatening to do so. The little drama there is, however, is rather muffled, because it seems to be a convention of the genre that the characters should be emotionally unintelligible.
Now, a note on hipsters. Some of my best friends are hipsters. Seriously, I have some friends who could be described as such, many of them young, talented, smart and living in Brooklyn. None of them behave like the people in the movies who are supposed to be like them. They don't do cute. If they did, they would probably not be my friends (or I theirs).
For a movie about such a tremendous loss, Beginners failed to move me, and I think the reason is that the main relationships are sketched rather than fully realized, particularly between Oliver and his father. Oliver always keeps himself at a safe remove from his dad, which may be psychologically believable, but it doesn't make for an interesting character. He is rather passive and morose, and as much as McGregor infuses every moment with quiet emotion, it is hard to care for him as he does not allow anyone, including the audience, to know him. This I blame not on the actor, but on the writing and direction.
The movie uses up its meager reserves of charm quite soon after it starts and then repeats itself with precious tropes over and over. Oliver shows his apartment to Arthur the dog, then he shows it to Anna, then Anna shows her hotel room to Oliver, and so on and so forth. It's good to have recurring themes once in a while, but they are not supposed to sound like a broken record.
Let me point out that going in, I had nothing but good faith for Beginners, since I didn't know much about it. Had I known, for instance, that Miranda July was mentioned in the acknowledgements, this would have been a huge red flag for me. Beginners has plenty of her kind of smartypants shtick, although unlike her films, it does not set out to provoke. Quite the contrary, Beginners is too well intentioned to be interesting. I lost my patience at the emotional incoherence in the writing and the navel-gazing je ne se quoi of it all. The movie is more alive whenever Plummer is around. I'm not a super fan of his, but he has undeniable chops. Still, there was something about his final days, the corny camaraderie of his multiculti gay friends and the puppy love of his too cutesy boyfriend (Goran Visnjic) that seemed fake to me. Terminal illness is not only sad, it is quite often horrible. Hal is invaded with cancer, but he looks none the worse for wear. There may be amazing people like him, who have the best attitude and never show an ounce of bitterness, anger, frustration, or regret, but I found the entire situation bathed in too much golden light, so to speak. It would have been more interesting if Hal had not been such a saint. The same goes for Oliver. A dutiful son, an uncomplaining, befuddled guy, he doesn't seem to harbor complicated feelings other than sadness.