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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Overnight

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling have just moved to California. They have a toddler son. Scott is concerned, since he's a stay-at-home dad, that they'll have trouble making friends and he'll be lonely. One day at the park they meet Jason Schwartzmann, who seems like a great guy, even if he is wearing a hipster's hat. He invites the whole family over for pizza night, and they meet his charming French wife, Judith Godreche.

This is the opening of The Overnight, a comedy written and directed by Patrick Brice, and released in 2015. I'm having trouble getting a fix on what I think of it. It is funny in parts, if not laugh out loud funny, but it's raison d'etre, to be sexually shocking, seems almost quaint. If it wanted to be the Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice of the decade it's about thirty years too late.

The set up of the film is that the strait-laced Scott, who has issues about his small penis, and Schilling, who has never had another man than Scott, are uptight while Schwartzman and Godriche are free. She makes demonstration videos for breast pumps. He makes giant paintings of assholes (literally). They are like the ego meeting the id. And though this film has a short running time, we wait for the other shoe to drop, like secretly this wild and free couple are cannibals or something. But no, when the other shoe drops, it lands with the weight of a ballet slipper.

The Overnight is like porn for people who have never seen porn. Interestingly, there is more male nudity than female, for those of you who wonder if Jason Schwartzmann is hung or not, the answer is yes. The script is cagey--at every point that the straight couple get suspicious, the other couple does something to reassure them. Although when Schilling goes on a liquor run with Godriche and she stops at a Thai massage parlor to give a random stranger a handjob, you'd think Schilling would have had enough.

The cast is good, although Scott seems, with his role on Parks and Recreation, to have settled into the guy who always looks perplexed. I just wish this film had gone further out on a limb, instead of settling for the easy ending.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Days of Heaven

Getting back to Sam Shepard, he made his film debut in Terrence Malick's 1978 film, Days of Heaven, which I had somehow not seen until last night. It's a film that has been re-evaluated over the years, and is now considered a great film, especially the Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros.

It was Malick's second film and took three years to make. Set in the Texas Panhandle in 1916, it's a love triangle, a kind of Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story in fields of wheat. A very naturalistic film, Almendros used mostly natural light, often shooting in what is termed "the magic hour," that time when the sun has set but there is still light in the sky.

Richard Gere stars as a steel-worker from Chicago who accidentally kills his boss. He, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and younger sister (Linda Manz) hightail it out to the West, getting jobs harvesting wheat on the large farm of Shepard, who is known only as "The Farmer." He seems to have inherited the land, because he lives alone and doesn't care much about it, even when he's told he's the richest man in the Panhandle. His foreman (Robert J. Wilke) runs things.

Shepard is captivated by the beautiful Adams. Gere overhears that Shepard is dying and only has a year to live. He and Adams have been traveling as brother and sister, so Gere encourages Adams to accept Shepard's proposal, since he figures he'll die and she'll inherit the money. But two things interfere with his plan--Shepard maintains good health, and Adams starts to fall in love with her husband.

When Shepard suspects that Gere is more than a brother, things come to a head, climaxing during a locust swarm and subsequent fire.

Days of Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful film. Shots of amber waves of grain, plus the main house (modeled after one in an Edward Hopper painting) are breathtaking. The story is a bit thin--there isn't much dialogue (Malick and Almendros shot it like a silent film), but it's short, so it doesn't get particularly boring.

This is one of Gere's first major films, and he's terrific, a scoundrel. Wilke doesn't trust them (he calls them con artists to Shepard's face, even after he's married her) and he plays the role very slippery. It's interesting that Shepard would go on to play many all-American cowboy types, but here is a meek, ineffectual man. He seems tentative, but when he gets angry he flowers into a great character.

Malick wouldn't make another film for twenty years (The Thin Red Line).

Monday, September 18, 2017

mother!

The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn't rate an F (I'd give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn't marketed properly--when people hate a movie, it's often because they didn't get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there's an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I'd say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn't get it.

I'm not sitting here saying I'm superior, because I didn't get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don't leave, or Rosemary's Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I'm reluctant to spoil anyone's encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise--Garden of Eden?) He's a poet, so we know immediately this isn't reality because I don't think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He's got writer's block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She's even more so when Harris' wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on--Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don't play in Peoria.

Even though I didn't understand it, I didn't have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it's not ghosts, it's something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are "Baby?"

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there's a constant, "Why are you doing this?" and "I can't put them out" vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it's sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don't think they'll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it's a great conversation piece.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Paris, Texas

Harry Dean Stanton's only leading role came in Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas, which was written by Sam Shepard. That film has lost two of its major parts in the last six weeks.

The film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is a favorite among the cognoscenti, though it did not do much business. It is a slow-moving film, relying as much on the imagery of the desert and neon signs as it is on plot. But it is a beautiful film, made great by Stanton, especially a monologue he has late in the film.

We see him first walking across the desert, with no particular destination. He wears a red baseball cap, and a well-dusted suit and tie. He collapses in a small town in south Texas, and his brother (Dean Stockwell), who thought he was dead, goes to get him. Stanton is mute, not telling Stockwell where has been the last four years, when he walked out on his family. Stockwell and his wife are now taking care of Stanton's son (Hunter Carson). Jane, Stanton's wife, has also vanished.

Paris, Texas is two road films in one. The first is when Stockwell drives Stanton to Los Angeles, where Stockwell lives. Slowly, Stanton comes back into the world of humans. He is like a small child, remembering little. He is awkward with Carson, but eventually they bond. When Stanton has fully retained his faculties, he decides to go looking for Jane (Nastassja Kinski), with Carson in tow, the second road trip.

Paris, Texas is a long film, and requires some concentration. I find these kind of films better on home video, where I can take breaks (when I saw it originally in New York City in a theater I was a bit bored). There are long takes, and the final scenes, when Stanton finds Kinski in a fantasy booth joint in Houston, have long uninterrupted dialogue.

Much of the film is about seeing. Characters are frequently looking, but not necessarily seeing. Stanton watches the airplanes with binoculars. Stockwell, after Stanton has run from their motel room early on, walks down a railroad. Stockwell looks down the tracks, and says, "What's out there?" The fantasy booths are such that the customer can see the girl, but she can't see them because of a one-way mirror. She does not recognize his voice at first, because later she says that all voices sound like his.

Paris, Texas is also about loss and redemption. Stanton asks how long he has been gone, and is told four years. His son is now eight. "Half a boy's life," he says, with the kind of line reading that gives you goose bumps. The film is really Stanton figuring out what he wants, and going to get it, which is in essence what all of narrative literature is.

As someone who is been in plenty of peep-shows, I must admit I've never seen one like the one in the movie, and wonder if they even exist. Girls enter a small room that is given some art direction. Kinski is first in a hotel room, then, during Stanton's monologue, a kitchen, which suggests domesticity, the kind that they lost. There also seems to be no rendering of payment. These kind of things sometimes bother me. Other than than, Paris, Texas is a great film.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Melodrama

When Lorde's first album was a hit, there were many who couldn't believe she was only 17--her sophisticated song writing and deep, sensitive voice belied such a young age. She's back with her second album, only twenty, and this one, Melodrama, is better than her first, with a number of standout offerings that are both brilliant writing and vocalizations.

This is also the album of someone who's gone through a lot of pain, love-wise. I can only hope someone who is so young hasn't had this much heartbreak. "Liability" is one of the saddest songs you'll hear, at least until another one comes up later on her album. It's a song about being an outcast, and dealing with it in a resigned fashion:

"They say, "You're a little much for me
You're a liability
You're a little much for me"
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I'm a liability"

If that song makes you feel like Lorde is throwing a pity party, wait for "Writer in the Dark," which has got to be the best song I've heard all year. Yes, it's a break-up song, but it's so beautifully structured and sung that you may find your reaching for tissues. It recalls the best of Kate Bush and Bjork, as she zooms from that growl to a high-pitched pleading for love:

"I am my mother's child,
I'll love you 'til my breathing stops
I'll love you 'til you call the cops on me
But in our darkest hours,
I stumbled on a secret power
I'll find a way to be without you, babe"

I'm not sure telling someone that you'll love them until they call the cops is a good idea, but it's a great line.

So, are there any upbeat songs on this album? There are a lot of danceable numbers, some with bass that is so strong that it shakes my rearview mirror. That stuff doesn't interest me as much as the incendiary lyrics, such as this one from "Loveless":

"Bet you wanna rip my heart out \
Bet you wanna skip my calls now
Well guess what? I like that
'Cause I'm gonna mess your life up
Gonna wanna tape my mouth shut
Look out, lovers"

Yes, perhaps it's true that Lorde is twenty years old, but she's twenty going on fifty. Melodrama is full of anger and pain, and is also completely brilliant. Glad to say that Lorde is no one-hit wonder.

Repo Man

Yesterday we learned of the passing of Harry Dean Stanton, an actor of certain renown who hardly ever played the lead in a film. He was perhaps America's greatest charactor actor, a gaunt, craggy-faced man who frequently played characters of darkness and melancholy. I do not recall him ever playing a song and dance man.

One of his most memorable films is Repo Man, a 1984 film that has achieved cult status, I think mostly because of him. It's a mess, but a fun mess, a mix of explaining the lives of repo men ("the life of a repo man is always intense") and a science fiction story about aliens in the back of a '64 Chevy Malibu.

The film stars Emilio Estevez, back when he starred in movies (a check of Wikipedia shows that the hasn't made a film since 2010). He plays a punk who has quit his job and is just walking down the street when Stanton tricks him into repoing a car. Estevez, lured by the money and danger, takes up the profession.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man is driving a car with something glowing in the trunk. If you look at it, it reduces you to a smoldering pair of shoes. The government is after it, and so is a UFO researcher (Olivia Barash), who has struck up a relationship with Estevez. The car is listed with repo agencies, so Stanton's group, as well as their rivals, the Rodriquez Brothers, are after it.

Directed by Alex Cox, Repo Man is fun, even if it makes little sense. The film is full of little quirky things that you may or may not notice, such as a sign saying "Plate of Shrimp" after one character talks about how that phrase may pop into your head. The editing is anarchic, but the music, by Iggy Pop among others (the Circle Jerks also make a cameo) is wonderful.

Stanton plays Bud, a great repo man, who knows all the tricks and the code of repo men. Unlike many of his roles, he is fully in charge of who he is, and dedicated to his profession, so much so that he hardly ever sleeps. "Most repo men are on speed," he says.

The film may strike some as a precursor to the work of Quentin Tarantino, and I would imagine he was influenced by it, with the use of surf rock, and the mysterious glowing object in the trunk (which in turn came from Kiss Me, Deadly). Cox's career, though, after Sid and Nancy two years later, went nowhere. He's made films, but none I've heard, including one called Repo Chick, which I may have to check out.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jesus' Son

Denis Johnson died this summer, and his most lasting legacy may be a slim volume of short stories called Jesus' Son, (the titled based on a line from Lou Reed's song "Heroin") published in 1992. The stories are all narrated by an unnamed drug addict and alcoholic as he stumbles through life, occasionally working as an orderly at a hospital but mostly looking to have a drink or get a fix.

When I read stories about down and out characters I'm partially horrified, as I have lived a sedate life in comparison. But these stories are very funny, and have some killer opening lines that require being in a museum of great opening lines. "I was after a seventeen-year-old belly dancer who was always in the company of a boy who claimed to be her brother, but he wasn’t her brother, he was just somebody who was in love with her, and she let him hang around because life can be that way." That's a great sentence.

The narrator is a passive sort, driven by his addictions and love, for lack of a better word. His relationships with the opposite sex are frequent but misguided, at times just two people crashing in the night. Here's another opening line: "I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin." Later he says of that girl: "She was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her."

Some stories stand out as comic masterpieces. "Two Men" has the narrator and his friend picking up a mute man and trying to follow his directions to drop him off, but they get stuck with him. "Emergency" is set at the hospital, where he and a fellow orderly are high. The shift ends with a man coming in with a knife sticking out of his eye (put there by his wife). The ER doctor has the narrator call to gather specialists, but his friend pulls the knife out in a moment of drugged haze.

The most interesting story is the last, "Beverly Home," in which our hero is staying in Phoenix, drying out. He attends AA meetings and has gotten a part-time job writing a newsletter for a long-term medical facility. "I was a whimpering dog inside, nothing more than that. I looked for work because people seemed to believe I should look for work, and when I found a job I believed I was happy about it because these same people—counselors and Narcotics Anonymous members and such—seemed to think a job was a happy thing." He describes dating a dwarf and a woman who is half paralyzed. But he is obsessed with a woman in an apartment he passes by to the bus stop. He peeps on her when she steps out of the shower, hanging from her bathroom window. Later he will try to catch her and her husband having sex. He concludes that they are Mennonite.

Mostly this character just likes being in bars. There are some lovely images of them: "I looked down the length of the Vine. It was a long, narrow place, like a train car that wasn’t going anywhere. The people all seemed to have escaped from someplace—I saw plastic hospital name bracelets on several wrists. They were trying to pay for their drinks with counterfeit money they’d made themselves, in Xerox machines."

I've read a few other of Johnson's books, but this book is unlike them, and feels more like Charles Bukowski or any other of a number of sketches of dipsomania. After all, a lot of great writers were drunks or hopheads, and Johnson was one of them. What makes him like Bukowski is that he sees the humor in it. I loved a moment when a character asks him if he wants to work, and the narrator honestly replies that he would rather have a drink.