The Stunt Man (1980): The Show Must Go On!

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From its initiation in the opening shots, The Stunt Man is built out of a comic serendipity allowing it to execute its own sense of narrative rhythm. It leans into coincidence, cinematic logic, and what really necessitates reality. Consequently, all these themes lay the bedrock for what the film is as it blithely blends genre into a fluid creature with a penchant toward action, drama, romance, and the darkest most absurd sense of humor.

For a little bit of backdrop, Richard Benjamin was slated to direct the film in the early 1970s. Before him, two very telling directors were considered. The first was Francois Truffaut who made Day for Night (1973), a film that shares many of the same thematic elements as The Stunt Man. They both enter a full-fledged dialogue with the medium of film itself and the creative process behind it. At one time, Arthur Penn was also tapped. This seems uncanny as he would later helm Night Moves (1975) another movie involving a subplot of stuntmen flying planes and the like.

All said and done, this production was labyrinthian even by Hollywood standards. Filmed in 1978, it was finally released in 1980 at the dawn of a new decade. But given the subject matter, it somehow feels like a fitting representation of the industry.

The Stunt Man, after all, is quite simple before it gets crazy. A fugitive (Steve Railsback) flees from the police utilizing his agility and Vietnam training to evade capture. Cameron breaks himself free from his handcuffs and then tries to blend into the beach scene at a nearby tourist trap in La Jolla. The ethereal theme music hums along, “Reality is your to define” and “What good are dreams in a world where nothing is at it seems.” The lyrics prove to be a portent.

Because they also just happen to be filming a movie — a WWI period piece led by the incomparable Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) — and it’s drawn quite the crowd. The use of blood capsules at once leaves the audience gasping with horror and then the next cheering with adulation. It’s the magic of the movies in bodily form.

Where a woman peels off her facade to become someone else — a stunning leading lady (Barbara Hershey) for the scraggly-haired young man to carry off to safety like a knight in shining armor. However, the masses aren’t privy to some of the drama behind the scenes. A stunt man was tragically killed trying to get a crucial shot.

So the fugitive becomes a convenient figure, and Eli quickly pulls him into his production in a calculated move of madness. With the local police breathing down his neck about his filming schedule, he covers up the setback, keeping the ship aloft by turning the wanted man into their perished stunt man. It serves them both, and so they agree to the ludicrous alliance.

Thus, The Stunt Man takes the themes of Truffaut’s Day for Night to preposterous ends by cultivating this illusion of a patched-together reality played out on screen. Spurred on by a maniacal director, it creates a whole plot out of a dead man who is replaced by a stand-in.

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As he fluctuates between his chopper or his levitating crane, Eli blithely proclaims, “If God could do the tricks that we can do, he’d be a happy man.” It’s true there’s something powerful and deceptive about him. If he’s not the devil’s incarnate in a helicopter, then he might have at least made a deal with the fallen angel. He is symbolic of the director as madman — someone who likes spontaneity — and he will go to great lengths to preserve his art.

To the degree possible, the picture goes through the paces of an action movie and there are stakes, just not what we normally expect. Because there are payoffs and yet we know in some self-reflexive way they are all an illusion, more so than usual. What’s not false is the threat of death.

If Truffaut was fascinated in the artifice — this sense of relishing the reflection to life itself — then The Stunt Man gives it a sick twist. Where fiction and reality are like death-defying bedfellows. We rarely know when scenes are going horribly awry or strictly according to plan.

There’s this razor-thin line between stunt and sleights of hand and then disaster. Hence the reason this fugitive got his gig in the first place. It’s utter lunacy, and yet it’s a bit like watching a car wreck. Who’s going to turn away? We want to be wowed. And yet Cameron’s life hangs in the balance. He feels trapped inside the madness and Eli’s not about to let him escape.

Initially, he is taken in out of necessity and eventually disillusioned by the monster, even as he is driven toward his fateful conclusion. It’s inevitable. In none too many words, the show must go on, and Cross will go to the greatest lengths to make darn sure that it does. The script calls for it.

The ultimate joke is how it slaloms so fluidly between the heights of chaotic drama to this kind of absurd humor, sinking back into an uneasy equilibrium once the darkest devolutions have boiled over. This is what’s the most unsettling.

How the movie can be feel-good and joyous with a stunt man and leading lady embracing in a triumphant moment of euphoria. Likewise, the irascible, gargantuan personality of the director still comes off as strangely charismatic (thanks to O’Toole), but it drips with the delusional insanity of something like Apocalypse Now. In other words, you cannot marvel at the movie without shuddering and laughing rather uneasily at what movie magic entails.

Because The Stunt Man is not just about the art of being a stand-in and doing the impossible. It functions as an extension of the moviemaking process in its most harrowing iterations. We have to be a little mad. First, to make something like this, and then to sit in the dark and let it affect us so forcibly. Regardless, it’s an evocative and deeply unnerving ride. But isn’t that what we go to the movies for?

3.5/5 Stars

Something Wild (1986): Happy is a Yuppie Word

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One of my favorite bands penned a song called “Happy is a Yuppie Word.” I never spent much time dwelling on the meaning of the statement, but as I grow older, it somehow takes on more pertinent meaning. If I remember correctly, Bob Dylan gave an interview with Rolling Stone magazine where he said essentially the same thing. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the song took its cues from one of America’s foremost bards. I start here because Something Wild comes at us ready to bulldoze the Yuppie conventions we come to attribute with the 80s and 90s. That is Happiness as this quantifiable qualifier for the richness of one’s life.

Look at Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels). He’s the picture of middle-class success and respectability. He’s rising up in a formidable firm. He’s always reasonably dressed in a suit and tie. He has his pager on hand for important reminders. And yet there are inklings of chinks in his armor. After all, he is human.

He still wears his wedding ring, but his home life isn’t quite as idyllic as he would like the world to believe. Likewise, sitting at a perfectly conventional cafe, he has an urge to do something really, incredibly outrageous! He steps out without paying his check!

Except no one seems to notice…aside from one pair of perceptive eyes. They belong to the one person who will change his life forever. Meet Lulu (Melanie Brooks). Her look is unmistakable with a Luise Brooks-inspired bob and sunglasses — an air of self-assured confidence. She could rat him out. Instead, she offers to take him for a little ride.

From here on out Something Wild becomes a road comedy-screwball hurricane propelled by a giddy soundtrack and Lulu’s total rejection of Charlie’s middle-class monotony. They go careening down streets and racing down the highways and byways blasting The Troggs “Wild Thing.” What follows are scenarios replete with shenanigans, handcuffs, amorousness, and more unpaid checks.

And yet if Lulu comes off as a glitzy, laissez-faire call girl, she slowly begins to show more of herself, including her real name: Audrey. She proves herself to be far more three-dimensional and far more of an innocent human being. She takes Charlie to visit her mother where they masquerade as a married couple in front of mom. But there is no malintent. The charade is purely out of a desire to please the good-natured woman. Then, Audrey brings him to her high school reunion — celebrating the spirit of ’76 — complete with performances by The Feelies.

If anything, these series of scenes hint at where the film might be going as it slowly sheds its craziest inclinations. In fact, the film takes its major tonal shift with the introduction of Ray Liotta as Ray Sinclair — Audrey’s former love. But there’s more. Previously the movie was frisky with a dollop of lunacy. Now Something Wild stands poised to takes a bitter turn.

We suspect it from the moment Liotta enters. He’s handsome and charismatic, but there’s an instant menace to him — behind his eyes and his cajoling tone — the way he handles the part in a kind of underhanded way. Reference to his prison sentence gives a bit more heft to his reputation. But it really comes to a head when he robs a gas station.

Of course, Lulu and Charlie did much the same before. This isn’t to totally absolve them, but Ray’s brutal brand of reality plays in stark contrast to the carefree mad-dash infractions Daniels and Griffin were accustomed to before.

This is a stone-cold crime with consequences, and there’s no longer anything left to laugh at. Crime, all of the sudden, isn’t a lark; it’s something callous. And with its ugliness, all the leisure and fun is siphoned out of the picture. It’s given up its roots in pure, zany screwball to be something else — less warm and fluffy in conception.

Charlie gets shoved around, beaten up and bloodied, and Ray ultimately goes off with Audrey — to take her back as his own — threatening that he’d better stay away if he knows what’s good for him.

Even though my education in Demme is brief, my inclination is a desire for him to go toward the film’s initial tone. Because it’s the idiosyncratic touches that function best for me. They do not alienate my sensibilities. For instance, Charlie proves himself to be the most conspicuous trailer when it comes to the art of the tail.

He sets up on a street corner with a new wardrobe across from Ray and Audrey’s hotel room. For me, it’s scenes like these where Demme really shines; he has a sense of geography and how to use it to build a full-bodied world around our characters. He captures his hero in his car snoozing or peering out from behind a pair of binoculars.

But the church behind him, the store across the way, even the folks lounging at the pool make this feel like vibrant pieces of humanity albeit in a fairly relaxed town. He uses this same motif later when they finally have their fated confrontation at a genial family restaurant. The only reason Charlie gets enough gumption to actually face Ray and Audrey has to do with the reassurance that some local policemen are sitting at the table just across the way. These are the quotidian joys of the film at its very best.

However, this is a story that never quite rests on what is easy or comfortable. Because in itself this would be the antithesis of what it is looking to shoot down in the form of yuppie culture and all its signifiers. There must be another fanatical reverse in fortune. It’s genuinely terrifying. Far from spoiling it, I will leave you to it so that you might experience it for yourself.

Instead, my mind goes to this. For how merciless and scummy Liotta feels throughout the picture, Demme extends him the ultimate courtesy. The climactic moments are unnerving in a way. I hope I haven’t said too much already.

But in a single moment, Liotta is allowed to look into the camera his eyes full of surprise — a sign of weakness for the first time — and that one shot nearly single-handedly makes us feel sorry for him. It’s a hard sell, but we’re almost there: Having compassion on a seemingly irredeemable man.

The movie settles into a new normal. The moral, if we can call it that, seems obvious. To grab life by the horns — with warmth and spontaneity — within some framework of reason. Something Wild lives up to its name even tonally as it seesaws around. It wasn’t quite what I expected or what I might have wanted, but this could easily play in its favor for someone else.

Demme still shows himself to be a genuinely humane director. He likes people and with comic verve and music, he’s capable of whipping up something quite enjoyable. What is more, he shows himself willing to go somewhere else with characters.

I am slowly learning more and more about his oeuvre, but Something Wild suddenly makes a film like Silence of the Lambs feel less and less like an outlier. The jump is not too far to make, and we come to understand his movies even a little bit better. If you humanize a gangster, could it be the next step is to connect us with a serial killer? Wild Thing, indeed.

But I started out by talking about Bob Dylan, and it’s as good a place to end as any. Happy is a Yuppie word. It’s something fleeting — momentarily attainable — and then stripped away from us.

Dylan suggests a change in paradigm: between blessed and unblessed. Could it be that Charlie would agree? Because whatever assails Audrey and him, they are no longer dictated by the world’s measures of happiness. They can live by a new standard — a standard that is not dispositional or material. It’s based on us and whether or not we are prepared to search out the joys and blessings of life no matter the turmoil. That’s something wild. It can flip your world upside down.

3.5/5 Stars

Divorce American Style (1967): Debbie and Dick Get Divorced

Divorce American Style starts out as a symphony of marital nagging, and it looks to build off this cacophony to make some sense of the current state of affairs in 1960s America. While the title doesn’t capture the same milieu of its Italian counterpart, it fits for a plethora of other reasons. It’s satire in the American mode and Norman Lear, who would become renowned for his brand of socially conscious comedy, is hard at work. In order to go about it, he hones in on one couple in particular: Richard and Barbara Harmon.

Off the top, it’s an important distinction to make. Creatively, it seems like a stroke of genius to cast Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds as this bickering couple slowly tearing apart at the seams. I say this purely from the likability factor. Their entire career trajectory thus far from sunshiny MGM musicals to crowd-pleasing family sitcoms all banks on their likability quotient.

Here is a picture that tests all of that built-up reservoir of goodwill and fuzzy feelings we have for them. If you only accept them as the picture of Cathy Seldon in Singing in the Rain or Rob Petrie in Dick Van Dyke, there’s a reason to vehemently oppose what Lear has done with them here.

While it’s not my favorite pastime to see two such actors put each other through such hell, some part of me understands why they wanted to take a stab at it. Because it’s not safe, and it challenges the status quo and how we accept them as performers. To their credit, in stretching themselves, it’s an attempt to get past one-note characterizations.

True to form, their first full scene starts with a fight. It’s postponed due to the party they are throwing only to reconvene after all the friends have shuffled out the front door. They can drop the veneer and all pretense is cast off again.

She bemoans the fact he’s critical of everything, and he just doesn’t understand her anymore. He’s frustrated that when they finally get some of the things they always dreamed about, his wife seemed to turn unhappy, and he can’t figure it out. It was another picture from 1967 that famously acknowledged a failure to communicate. This one gives it a whole new domestic context.

We see their bedtime rituals and there’s something almost mechanical to them because there’s no intimacy between them even in this highly intimate space as they open cupboards, plug in razors, and do their bits of business…without a word and still somehow in perfect cadence.

By day, Barbara continues seeing a psychologist and Richard begrudgingly gives it a try, although he’s uncomfortable sharing his feelings with a stranger; the way he was brought up it just isn’t done. If we wanted to add something else to their marital complications, it’s their kids. Normally, their two boys would be trapped in the middle, but there’s a pollyanna-like understanding about them. They are so easy-going and well-adjusted as their own parents continue to go down the tubes.

One call to a lawyer and all of a sudden it’s like the trip wires have been set off on both sides. There are trips to joint bank accounts and friends on both sides supply their two cents worth, not to mention their respective legal counsel. It’s not a new phenomenon, but we are reminded how these things can escalate; this is divorce taken to outrageous proportions.

They sit at a table in the law office as their lawyers casually settle their case, mixing in chit-chat about their latest golf games and shared business associates. Then, Richard is taken under the wing of Nelson (Jason Robards), a fellow divorcee, who gives him advice about alimony and how to survive. His life is fairly abysmal and pretty soon Richard is going down the same path moving into his new digs and trying to find romantic direction.

Meanwhile, Barbara tries to make her own way with an oft-married family man (Tom Bosley), getting to know all his children. It devolves into another madcap orchestration, reminiscent of the opening prelude. This time we have the notes of parents and step-parents, kids and step-kids all being assembled for a day out.

With the robust cast, it’s rather curious the film was not better known in its day because it gradually introduces other familiar faces including Joe Flynn, Lee Grant, Robards, Jean Simmons, and Van Johnson.

In the epochal year of 66-67, it does make sense Divorce American Style never received the same plaudits as Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate or Two for the Road. If not altogether a sitcom episode, it’s the American counterpart to its more high profile continental brethren starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney.

Again, there is the sense of the middle-class malaise where things and stuff and cars are in one sense inconsequential compared to the relationship. And yet they mean everything when it comes to comfort and status.

To the very last frame, there’s something subversive about seeing sweet Debbie Reynolds and lovable Dyke Van Dyke as divorcees with a marriage hitting the skids. But if this is true, there might also be a kind of catharsis for Reynolds when a hypnotist puts her under on a stage in front of a whole host of people. She’s been through so much and there she is throwing off the shackles of all our preconceived notions. She heads off stage and goes to give Van Dyke a big ol’ kiss, effectively rekindling their romance.

The film hasn’t aged particularly well, but then again, what better way for it to remain as a testament to the social mores of the times and the prevalent anxieties? It’s probably better for it. Because all the fracturing, recoupling, and suburbanization of society definitely created a new kind of landscape.

It’s all there in the later scenes as all the stars couple up uneasily. Van Dyke is with Simmons who was Robards’s former spouse. He’s trying to marry her off so the alimony doesn’t break his back. Then, Robards and Simmons try and set up Reynolds with Johnson — a genial used car salesman — because that makes Van Dyke even more unattached.

I tried to make this all needlessly convoluted but hopefully, the point has been made. Love is strange. Love is messy. Love is complicated. If that’s true of love American style, then it’s true of divorce even more so.

3/5 Stars

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

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I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 Stars

Baby Doll (1956): Elia Kazan Does Southern Comedy

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Elia Kazan had a fairly lucrative partnership with Tennessee Williams and the same could be said of his ongoing working relationship with Karl Malden. It’s fitting that all three are back for Baby Doll and yet it still manages to feel like a bit of an outlier in Kazan’s oeuvre thus far.

As per usual, Kazan invests great commitment in his actors and the emotional richness of their performances, which enter near hyper-realized heights. Because there would be no Baby Doll without Malden, Eli Wallach and of course, Carroll Baker. They must carry its weight and for what it’s worth, they manage the task quite well.

Malden is the bug-eyed hick, Archie Lee, who made a pact with the dying pappy of his virginal bride that he would take care of her. Whether he’s held sway on his side of the bargain is up for debate, as Baby Doll and he live in a home literally crumbling around them by the hour

He’s a narrow-minded cotton gin operator who has recently been hitting the skids due to competition. If you are looking for the bare minimums of the story, there you have them. The situations themselves venture on the absurd in this hardly fully-realized plot.

With their house a decrepit eyesore, the furniture soon gets taken away. Archie Lee’s just about at the end of his tether and so he sneaks out one night and commits an act of arson on a whole silo full of cotton. It’s a desperate attempt to give himself an advantage and direct some business his way.

It’s true many might be unaccustomed to comedy in a Kazan film because though it’s masked by typical antics, melodrama, and the risque veneer that precedes it, the humor is unquestionable. If it sounds like melodrama you only have to look at the performances to crack a grin because they do feel like over-the-top exaggerations.

The galvanizing moment, of course, is our first view of Baby Doll lounging in a crib-like bed, sucking on her thumb. Her husband peeps on her through a hole in the plaster giggling like a lecherous schoolboy when she wakes up. We have a Lolita archetype and no doubt the source of its censorship woes, which elicited a “Condemned” rating from the Catholic League of Decency.

What always stings more is hearing the N-word bandied around so inconsequentially as the African-American characters play an unheralded supporting role in the far-off periphery. There you see the hypocrisy. No one in the Catholic or Southern Christian communities probably saw it fit to condemn this element, no doubt considering it acceptable, even commonplace. It’s at least something worth acknowledging soberly.

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If Archie Lee is our entry point into this asinine world, then Baby Doll and Vacarro (Wallach) have the presence to keep us watching. In a momentary lapse in judgment watching Long Hot Summer, I mistook Lee Remick for Carrol Baker because they look vaguely similar at first glance. However, Baker does more than a southern belle here full of sing-song dialogue. There’s a tremor, an impediment to her speech which, comes off as strangely childlike. She boasts a cutesy name and enticing sensuality akin to Darling Jill from God’s Little Acre and really there’s the film we can draw the most parallels between.

Because Eli Wallach plays the other man who pays Archie Lee a visit the following day after the conflagration at his place. He’s derisively referred to as a “Whop” and so it’s easy for him to become the outsider with a chip on his shoulder. He’s willing to do what he needs to do in order to get back on top of the heap. Ironically, he lets Archie Lee in on his philosophy.  He’s a proponent of “biblical justice,” an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, though he obviously didn’t read the scriptures too closely.

Instead, he implements their “Good Neighbor Policy” and while the other man is out fixing his machines to take on a new cotton crop, Silva starts playing with his wife even sneaking into the house to toy with Baby Doll. But remember this is not A Streetcar Named Desire. Wallach has his own inner demons but he’s no Stanley Kowalski and Baby Doll’s no Blanche.

Their trajectories take them into different places as a drunken Archie Lee gets jealous of his wife’s suitor, going after his adversary with his shotgun. However, in the end, the stakes are slighter than its predecessors and yet there’s something novel and slightly refreshing in this. While Baby Doll is nowhere near the best of Kazan’s work its “otherness” makes it a risible endeavor out of left field.

3.5/5 Stars

I, Tonya (2017)

I,_Tonya_(2017_film)Sufjan Stevens released a song not too long ago as an elegy to Tonya Harding. Being the modern-day folk poet that he is, he cast her as a tragic hero, championing her as a definitive portrait of an All-American girl, larger-than-life, unapologetic, and ultimately beaten back by society at large.

I will date myself and say that I don’t remember much about Tonya Harding because I was barely born when she was in the public spotlight. So, I come at the events as an “impartial” observer or at least one who lacks any clear understanding of what her story was really like in the heat of the moment.

Thus, Stevens’ song and this film, I, Tonya, were necessary for me as obvious mechanisms of empathy. Emphatically the film proves that Tonya Harding — at least for me — cannot be cast as a hero and I don’t necessarily think that she was expecting that. But what has been done on her behalf is equally vital. Finally, it seems like others have been willing to speak up on her behalf in telling a more multifaceted even sympathetic side of the story.

Her life and times as detailed in Craig Gillespie’s film functions as a nearly absurd black comedy as it plunges into familial discord and moments you could hardly make up if you tried. But what we would do well not to forget is that this is a dramatization of someone’s life — someone with inherent worth even as she’s being berated and abused by a mother and then abused by her husband and finally raked over the coals by the mass media.

If anything, this film is an indication that Tonya’s life does have meaning. The flaws are there but also present is immense trauma and the subsequent tenacity that made her the first female skater to ever land a triple axel.

Screenwriter Steve Rogers’ work employs slightly pretentious talking head moments and fourth-wall breaking monologues that were used in a similar fashion to Experimenter (2015), except it’s hardly a gimmick and there’s a great deal of resonance within the madness of narrative dissonance with a smattering of different perspectives colliding.

Because Tonya’s story really is recalled and remembered in so many different ways by all sorts of people with their facts conveniently conflicting. First, there’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie) who was the skating prodigy by the age of 4 and despite a lack of education, her enduring work ethic made her one of the finest American skaters to ever grace the ice.

Allison Janney is as acidic and foul-mouthed as they come, pushing the envelope as Tonya’s ultra-vitriolic mother LaVona who never seems content, continually berating her daughter in all regards because every penny she makes as a waitress goes into her lessons. Love is not in her lexicon.

Then there’s the infamous Jeff Gillooly with Sebastian Stan donning that regrettable mustache as the awkward boyfriend who no doubt loved Tonya at one point and yet still embroils her in an unhealthy and abusive relationship. His slobbish oaf of a friend Shawn Eckhart, who fancies himself a counterterrorism expert of some kind, is a surprisingly authentic caricature. He’s got grand delusions of how they will sabotage Nancy Kerrigan’s chances in the Olympics by unleashing an onslaught of psychological warfare.

Jeff condones the plans but soon he’s shelling out $1,000 that disappears after Shawn gives it to a pair of dubious contacts. Little does he know that this will devolve into “The Incident” after Shawn okays a hit and an equally vacuous nobody, Shane Shant, injures Kerrigan with a police baton. They’re so inept that the FBI is soon on their trail. First, it’s Shawn, then his fingers point to Jeff, and finally, Tonya is implicated. Right here we have the clearest embodiment of both the real-life farce the and tragedy of Harding all rolled into one.

The extensive soundtrack is utilized not only as casual character development but an instant accessibility point in denoting either an era or a mood. In fact, it’s one of the few constants in a story that regularly hurtles back and forth between different points of views, time frames, and the like. Hearing Norman Greenbaum, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, Chicago, Doris Day and a whole host of others offer instant touchstones throughout.

For these very reasons I, Tonya is the most inventive biopic in narrative terms that I can remember since Brian Wilson’s story told so evocatively in Love & Mercy (2014). There is a similar exploration going on here as we try and make sense of someone who has gained, in this case, so much notoriety whether it was totally deserved or not. And the beauty of the picture is that it never fully divulges the truth because in so many words “the truth” in the lowercase sense is relative and like innumerable pieces of history how are we to say that we have the definitive answer?

The media’s part in all of this feels almost damning and yet we cannot condemn them without condemning ourselves too. Some David Letterman footage articulates the ubiquitous reality that Tonya Harding became a punchline in the wake of the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 even as she received a lifetime ban from skating. Should I feel sorry for Tonya Harding? I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s a sorry affair.

Though it starts to paint some layers of Harding’s backstory and her working-class roots rubbing up against the protocols of standardized perfectly primped and costumed female figure skaters, that’s not necessarily the film’s allure. It gets its zing, admittedly from the almost soap-operatic twists. And yet with anything, if that is what gets you to stay and kept the media involved in the story for such a long time, maybe it’s good that time has passed.

Even as the script tries to put the pieces together it can hardly succeed perfectly though it does give us something to work with. Again, it all comes down to some form of greater understanding. But then again, Tonya Harding probably doesn’t care about what others think about her or about anyone trying to mount a defense on her behalf. So be it.

Now, all that seems left to make is a Nancy Kerrigan movie. Yes, she was cast as the perfect ideal, Snow White on Ice, but as with any media fixation, it cannot always serve true justice nor capture the hardships in a person’s life. Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and nearly every other person on God’s green earth is a testament of that. As Sufjan puts it only God knows what they are.

4/5 Stars

 

Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are

Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed

Triple axel on high
A delightful disaster
You jumped farther and faster
You were always so full of surprises

Are your laces untied?
What’s the frown on your face for?
And just what are the skates for now?
Tell me which is your good side?

Are you lonely at night?
Do you miss all the glory
And the mythical story
Of the Olympian life?

Yamaguchi in red
She had high rise and roses
And red-carpet poses
And her outfit was splendid

Nancy Kerrigan’s charm
Well she took quite a beating
So you’re not above cheating
Can you blame her for crying?

Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights

Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done

Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end

So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star

~Tonya Harding by Sufjan Stevens

 

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Monsieur_verdoux57Prior to the making and release of Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin had undoubtedly hit the most turbulent patch in his historic career and not even he could come out of scandal and political upheaval unscathed. To put it lightly his stock in the United States plummeted.

You would think that he more than anyone would have been aware of his current state of affairs. It’s a plausible assumption and yet that’s precisely what makes the release of his latest film during that very climate all the more remarkable.

Chaplin always had a handle on emotional clout and he was the king of pathos but with time as film evolved he did evolve with it and it could easily be said that his sound pictures were imbued with much more prominent political overtones, most notably in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. The first was a blatant lambast of the world’s resident tyrannical dictator and his cronies with a tremendous bite that goes beyond simple comedy. The latter film takes a broader scope that’s not quite as evident at first.

It shares similarities with Shadow of a Doubt, Kind Hearts of Coronets, or even The Bigamist and it took inspiration from a passing whim of Orson Welles. But Chaplin plants his particular drama in the previous decade–the age of poverty and depression and that allows him to relate his protagonist once more to the plight of man as the Tramp did perennially. However, Chaplin’s latest incarnation is a far cry from the Tramp and no doubt on purpose. Chaplin had officially retired the character after Modern Times, but with the similarly depicted Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was a character with no semblance of his predecessors.

For lack of a better term, he is a wife killer, a Bluebeard, a gentleman murderer and there’s no other way to put it. Yes, he began as a bank teller with an invalid wife and little boy who hit hard times following the crash. True, he maintains his pretenses at civility and yet here is a character so vastly different from all others because for once Chaplin is making his hero difficult for the audience to like. At the very least, he’s a conflicted hero and as such the contemporary viewer was not about to pity him given Chaplin’s already muddied reputation. This was another nail in the coffin and it’s probably part of the reason Verdoux was generally scorned by the American Public at the time. But now, with the clouds of the cultural moment dissipated we can look at Chaplin’s blackest of comedies without the established biases.

The narrative is comprised mostly of Verdoux cycling from wife to wife, town to town, identity to identity with such fluidity it’s mindboggling. Our only indication that he’s moved is the ubiquitous image of the locomotive always chugging along to the next destination. But we’re introduced to this whole charade through the most curmudgeon, bickering household ever known to man in the Courvais.

The only reason they matter for this story is that Verdoux has married their sister who has just recently taken all her money out of the bank and vanished. Only the culprit knows what happened but presently he busies himself with tidying up his affairs in one location so he can check in on his other “business endeavors.” To Annabelle (Martha Raye) he is a sea captain away months at a time which explains his frequent absences.

Consequently, his Pigeon also has to be one of the most annoying chatterboxes of all time. It makes sense he’s crafting a poison to kill her even if it’s not quite forgivable.  He also calls upon his second asset the rightfully suspicious Lydia while looking to woo the affluent Marie Grosnay who happens to be less of a boob than the rest of his conquests. Though he is a persistent devil. Soon enough wedding bells chime again and that becomes the fateful day when his many strands get tangled in one brief moment at his latest marriage ceremony.

If nothing else it suggests that the time is running out as global tensions rise and Verdoux finds his fortunes dwindle in the wake of his imprisonment. But now on trial, he’s allowed to be up on the stand and mount his final defense–his rebuttal against the indiscretions of mankind. Ultimately, it’s an invariably cynical take on the ways of the world comparing his spree of mass killing to the prospects of the very scientific mass destruction of the world at present. It’s all business, war and anything else you can imagine, merely profiteering endeavors to get ahead. As he walks off to the guillotine the Priest asks him if he has anything to confess and strikingly he asserts, “I am at peace with God, my conflict is with man.”

This is where we overtly see Chaplin’s stance once more as he stands up on his soapbox as it were but he gave us some indications earlier on as well. Verdoux’s most telling interactions come in the form of chance encounters with a particular young woman. At first, he sees her as a test case for his poison, but soon he’s taken with her words, the way she sees the world. It affects him deeply (You better go before your philosophy corrupts me ). And in a striking parallel to Limelight several years later, Chaplin’s character falls to his demise as this young woman’s fortunes increase. She doesn’t forget him. But the rest of the world isn’t quite so kind.

Monsieur Verdoux goes to the chopping block deservedly so as did Chaplin but the verdict’s still out on whether he deserved it all. Perhaps that’s what his film is getting at. He was full of faults as a human being but then again we all are. It makes sense that God is other, perfect, and outside of our messiness. It’s the rest of us that cause ruin, pain, and suffering. That’s where the blackness of this comedy finds its source and it’s something to ponder and then resolve to allay with doses of love and compassion.

4/5 Stars

Blue Velvet (1986)

bluevelvet1It’s certainly not a news flash that I often have immense troubles dealing with black, satirical comedy. I think the difficulty for me lies in the dividing line between comedy and tragedy. Oftentimes, although I’m not always fond of violence or profanity, I can make a concession if there’s something deeper behind it. With Schindler’s List, this means watching the scenes of the Holocaust, because there are vital realities to be gleaned from that. In a Scorsese film, aside from being well made, I often see them utilizing profanity in such a way that shows the corruption and baseness that lies within mankind. Take Goodfellas for instance.

All this to say, Blue Velvet was hard to pronounce a verdict for. Without a doubt, David Lynch is a worthy director with his own surrealist vision, that is nevertheless polarizing to the viewing public. There is no doubt that his films are fascinating and in moments mesmerizing; there’s no arguing on that account.

However, Blue Velvet is a dark and brooding film, as are many others, but the big difference here is that all of that is buried under a thinly layered caricature of suburbia. These scenes are so superficial; almost stupid, because the dialogue seems torn off some billboard or magazine cover. There are flowers, white picket fences, and robins denoting the changing seasons. It reminded me of some precursor to American Beauty, except the ending was brighter and the depths seemed darker.

Under the surface lies something sinister and it all comes to a boil when Jefferey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his hometown of Lumberton to visit his injured father in the hospital. The college boy comes across a severed ear, and it leads to stakeouts, and eventually brazen attempts to break into a mysterious woman’s apartment.

And as you would expect Jefferey gets in too deep, getting sucked into a twisted, subversive spiral that includes singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini), a sociopathic maniac named Frank (Dennis Hopper), and a whole lot of ambiguity. All things return to the status quo in this suburbia and we can go back to singing “Blue Velvet” and “In Dreams” in peace. But there’s this nagging sensation that Lynch’s treatment of this topic is utterly cruel. Isabella Rosellini gives a stellar performance that is a constant emotional roller coaster, while Dennis Hopper is the definition of a screwed up, drugged up, lunatic. These individuals have so much darkness and twisted caverns in their characters that it’s hard to leave them like this.

After all, this isn’t a big joke, and it shouldn’t be, but it’s hard to get away from that idea since the dichotomy between the two is separated here by a hair’s length. However, for others who find it easier to parse through the tonal problems I have with Blue Velvet, there’s undoubtedly a lot to take note of. This is one of those enigmatic films we leave with more question than answers; more confusion than clarity. It’s not always the easiest, but it can certainly be rewarding.

3.5/5 Stars

Punch-Drunk Love (2002)

punchdrunk1When Paul Thomas Anderson said he was making a comedy with Adam Sandler, people undoubtedly scoffed at him. I know I would have if I had known about this film back then. However, he proved that you should never question him as a director. Much like a Kubrick or a few other auteurs, I’m not necessarily the biggest fan of Anderson, but you have to admit his films are interesting and very much their own entity.

Punch-Drunk Love is a comedy certainly, but not in your typical sense. It’s a romance, but it’s not quite like any romance I’ve ever seen. Thanks to the bolstering performance of Adam Sandler, it’s whimsical and odd. He plays Barry, a rather passive and antisocial type, who seems constantly quelled by the dominating personalities of his many sisters.

He’s obsessed with buying up pudding for a chance at frequent flyer miles, he picks up a harmonium tossed on the road-side, and most of all he’s lonely, but he’s not comfortable going on dates. His sister tries to set him up with a nice friend of hers who happens to be British (Emily Watson). Barry rejects an offer to go out to breakfast with them and out of loneliness calls a phone sex line. Out of stupidity, he hands over his credit card info, and the rest becomes a big scam that he can’t escape.

Thus, his work phone at the office is ringing off the hook from a girl trying to steal his money. His sister is continually trying to set him up, and Barry seems to live in his own little weird world at times, overflowing with his own personal odd ticks and quirks. He also has an anger problem, meaning he’s bad news if you give him a hammer.

punchdrunk2At times the film is thoroughly unsettling and nervously, uncomfortably funny, thanks in part to Sandler, but also the pervasively weird sound design that utilizes the harmonium. At his core, Barry is a lonely and confused man, aren’t we all, and it reveals a depth to Sandler that many probably have not seen before. It helps that the sweet Emma Watson makes us believe he is likable and in truth, he is somewhat endearing in how he can get lost in an apartment building or always wears the same blue suit. He even follows her to Hawaii for the sake of love. But don’t get any wrong ideas. This is nowhere near the realm of 50 First Dates.

3.5/5 Stars

Fargo (1996)

fargo1The Coen Brothers have always been an interesting case for me. I admit that there are still a lot of their films that I wish and need to see. Films like True Grit and Fargo I find thoroughly enjoyable or at least passable, but they do not completely resonate with me. However, I certainly respect them as writers, directors, and auteurs, because they know the lineage of film as a medium and they have their own unique way of approaching movies. It’s often clever, unique, and carries a wickedly funny tone no matter their subject matter.

Fargo is arguably their greatest work, following a kidnapping and murder investigation that involves Fargo, North Dakota and Minneapolis. William H. Macy is your standard Midwestern dupe Jerry Lundegaard, who makes an honest living selling cars. However, there’s another area of his life that’s not so honest. He’s in desperate need of money; we don’t know the reason, but he has resolved to hire two men to kidnap his wife. It doesn’t make much sense to the audience or the easily agitated crony Carl (Steve Buscemi). However, Jerry has a rich father in law with the necessary funds to bail out his daughter. And so it goes.

Except after the deed is done Carl and his taciturn accomplice Gaear get stopped by a highway patrolman and things are downhill from there. Murder, and blood, and more murder, all on a snowy Minneapolis evening.

The next morning pregnant cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) leaves her hubby and heads to the scene of the crime where she quickly pieces together the turn of the events. The search is on for the vehicle, and she questions a couple of prostitutes who aren’t much help except pointing out one of the men was “funny looking.”

Meanwhile, everything is falling apart on Jerry’s end with his father in law and he even gets paid a visit by Gunderson. When the drop finally does take place, Carl is livid when he is met by Wade instead of Jerry. He’s not messing around and neither is Jerry. Crime scene number 2 is set up. Carl finds a snowy locale to bury the payoff and heads back to the cabin, but he’s about had it with Gaear and the feelings are mutual.

Meanwhile, after a disturbing meeting with an old high school classmate Mike Yanagita (a rather troubling performance by Steve Park), Marge decides to question Jerry once again, and this time she gets somewhere. The reunion with Mike sets something off in her head.  Another tip eventually leads her to Gaear and his friendly neighborhood wood chipper. Being the pro-cop that she is, Marge subdues the culprit and gets an ABP out on Jerry which leads to his arrest. After a successful day at the office, it’s back to fast food and tv in bed with her loving husband Norm.

Fargo, to its credit, exudes a Midwestern charm thanks to all its colloquial “You betchas, darn tootin’s, heyas”, and so on. Perhaps most effectively it mixes the mundane and the violently shockingly in one pot of inspiration. The two-pronged story following two very different worlds somehow meets in the middle amidst all the improbability. The Coens start the film off labeling it as “based on a true story” and that opening statement had many people tricked. I myself was taken in the first time I saw it because however outrageous the following events are we trust the words of the filmmakers guiding us. And in the characters of Marge, Jerry, and most everyone else there is a charm or normalcy that feels so familiar. Thus, the Coens could get away with such outrageous plotting, because it so often felt grounded in truth.

4/5 Stars