Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 June 2016

Unintentional Hipsters

I used occasionally to visit this website called Unintentional Hipster. I think it was a tumblr. And it was mostly just pictures of elderly people making ridiculous fashion choices and riding around on bicycles. But, actually, if a bearded, manbunned twentysomething who also went to the gym were in the same outfit, we would all be like oh hello, can someone introduce me to THAD over there?

This is the premise of Hello, My Name Is Doris, an adorable romantic comedy out now on DVD about a sexagenarian hoarder whose mother has recently died. Doris, whose life has, obviously just changed very dramatically, falls in love with a much younger man who has recently started working at her job. (The man, by the way, is Max Greenfield, who is really quite gorgeous, but perhaps a bit bland.)

Hilarity ensues.

And a lot of awkwardness. So much awkwardness.

But Hello, My Name Is Doris is almost totally delightful, and Sally Field plays Doris to the absolute hilt. It's a great comic performance.

I think what I liked so much about this movie is that although it is clear that Doris misreads the situations in which she finds herself, and she doesn't understand how to deal with these young people, the film also knows that these young people do not know Doris herself. Her life is rich and full and interesting, and they don't understand that.

In any case, this is a very funny, delightful little film with a beautiful central performance, and a hilarious supporting performance by Tyne Daly as Doris's BFF.

28 June 2016

Point Blank

If you are interested in an absolutely perfect gangster picture from 1967, John Boorman's Point Blank is for you. This movie is tight, gripping, and haunting. It's filmed, in many ways, like a John Schlesinger film, and it seems to predict much of what he would do with Midnight Cowboy vis-à-vis flashback and slow motion. It's also a very obvious inspiration for Pulp Fiction, although Boorman is doing something other than Tarantino entirely. This is a real gangster picture that winds up being, fundamentally, about what it means to seek revenge, and what the ethics of killing are. The respect among the real guns is my favorite thing about this, but the ending is exquisite, and every bit of it is riveting.

Point Blank is also very violent and in surprising ways. At one point Lee Marvin actually throws a naked man off of a roof! This was, of course, while the PCA was still in power, and so this film must clearly be grouped with those films – The Killing, Bonnie and Clyde – that contributed to the end of the production code. For this we should all be grateful.

One of the coolest things this movie does is recreate the style of a film noir in color. In other words, it uses shadow and the kind of disappearing/reappearing tactics that the noir filmmakers used, even though this is a color film.

And keep a look out for the gay couple that helps Lee Marvin sneak into the apartment complex in act two.

But more than anything, Point Blank just needs to be watched as a brilliant piece of crime cinema. It's perfect.

Blood on the Sun!

This title is hilarious, and this movie is sort of hilarious too, except that it wants to be very serious.

Blood on the Sun is a James Cagney movie with the tagline "Cagney's Mightiest!". In it, he is an aikido-trained, hard-bitten reporter working for an English-language newspaper in Japan right before World War II.

Cagney plays the kind of character who doesn't do what he's told and likes to get upset his superiors by telling them the truth when no one wants to hear it.

The film is a fascinating curiosity. It is a fictional retelling of the story of the Tanaka Memorial, which was a fake story about a document written by Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi for Emperor Hirohito that explained how Japan could take over the entire world. First Manchuria and Mongolia, then China, then all of Asia. A short version of this document was actually a published story in an English-language newspaper in 1931 in China, but the whole thing was an elaborate anti-Japanese hoax.

The plot of the film involves Cagney and a double agent in the employ of the Japanese (a beautiful woman played by Silvia Sidney with whom he falls in love – because of her principles) getting ahold of the original document, which they want to publish for the world to see, so we can all see that Japan is trying to take over the world just like Hitler.

To hear the story right now, it immediately sounds like propaganda. As I watched the movie, I instantly thought to myself, well this sounds like typical American wartime nonsense. Sure enough, it is (it was released in the Summer of 1945).

But the movie has its pleasures, particularly Cagney's martial arts fights, which are really delightful, and there are enough of them to make this movie worth watching. There's an entire sequence where Cagney fights three guys in his house in Japan and basically destroys the place. It's fun watching Cagney fight hand-to-hand instead of playing the gangster with the gun. And I have to confess that I love classic Hollywood versions of China and Japan. These old movies where white people play Asians, with "oriental-style" music in the score, that underline how mysterious the "East" is and how no one can be trusted over there. They fascinate me.

Also, this movie is in the public domain and so you can watch it on YouTube, which is what I did.

23 June 2016

Your Friends & Neighbors

It can't be that bad, I thought.

Your Friends & Neighbors, written and directed by Neil LaBute, got awful reviews, and everyone who borrowed it from Netflix also gave it a really poor rating.

Eckhart, Stiller, and Patric.
I needed to watch it for a project I'm working on, and so I tried to talk myself into it. I like the cast: Jason Patric, Ben Stiller, Catherine Keener, Aaron Eckhart, Amy Brenneman.

But. And I mean this sincerely. Your Friends & Neighbors is absolutely unwatchable. It's one of the worst films I've ever seen. And I've seen a good number of films.

This is not actually a film, to be honest. It's actually just pretending to be a film version of a play I would hate. (It was never actually a play, as far as I can tell, but that is the only medium that could actually explain what it is that I watched tonight.)

I think this movie is supposed to be a really dark comedy? It's not funny at all. Not one time.

I also think it is supposed to be saying something about how awful people are? Sure.

Brenneman, Kinski, and Keener.
The film definitely hates all of its characters. So much so that it names them (this is real) Jerry, Cary, Terri, Sherry, Mary, Cheri, and Barry. Like... really? Neil LaBute is the worst. What an awful writer.

I don't mind characters who are terrible people, obviously, but one does want at least someone in the movie that one can root for at least a little bit.

But the thing is that this isn't even a movie. There's literally no one else in this movie except these six characters. All the scenes take place in these no-man's lands that are actually public spaces (where apparently no other people come). So the characters speak to each other but interact with no one else. There is only this closed world of the characters' own making. It is so weird. And, well, just like a (boring) play.

There is no reason that anyone would rent this film, but if you are feeling like you might want to rent this movie, do yourself the favor and don't.

22 June 2016

Early Tarantino: '93 and '94

How long has it been since you watched yourself some early Tarantino?

I'm not a die-hard fan or anything, but I am currently writing a little something that involves Pulp Fiction, and while I have seen that film multiple times, I had never before seen two of Tarantino's early films, True Romance and Natural Born Killers, both of which he wrote (although QT told Rolling Stone back in 1994 that NBK had basically been rewritten by Oliver Stone, who directed). In any case, I watched both of these movies recently, and then I rewatched Pulp Fiction after reading an entire host of scholarly and critical readings of these films. I can't say that I totally enjoyed myself while doing this, but I offer some things I noticed while revisiting the early 1990s.

True Romance is a fun throwback to crime capers of old like Gun Crazy, except that this film was not made under the PCA. True Romance has a lot of great things about it, honestly, and I rather enjoyed myself.

Although everybody makes a big deal about Vincent Vega being in the bathroom for so many scenes in PF – Sharon Willis, for example, offers (and I don't totally disagree with her) that "the bathroom anchors a dense nexus that connects blood and violence to anal eroticism and smearing, that permits delicate intersections of aggressive soiling impulses with tense efforts to consolidate, to clean" – Tarantino uses exactly this same scenario in the final shootout in True Romance, in which Clarence White is in the bathroom talking to his mentor–Elvis when the Sicilians, the police, and the drug dealers all shoot each other. Indeed, Alabama kills James Gandolfini in the bathroom of the motel where they’re staying. The bathroom, to be sure, is not a standard location for crime films or for the well-made play (although there is at least one key scene in a bathroom in Point Blank), but the bathroom shows up rather a lot in Tarantino’s version of the gangster flick.

This film has just as much pop culture pastiche in it as the rest of them. The characters in TR cathect through pop culture. They fall in love by talking about movies, form relationships by discussing Elvis fandom (as Clarence does with a total stranger at one of the many burger joints he visits), and characters establish trust by trashing movies they both hate. The characters fall in love while talking about Sonny Chiba. They connect with one another not because they are particular people – we really know nothing about who Alabama is (except that she is from Tallahassee and is a call-girl) except that we know or think we know that she likes specific pop-culture products. In truth, I wouldn't even remember anymore which pop-culture products these characters liked unless I had made notes. I remember Sonny Chiba, of course, because he comes up again and again in QT's work, but the thing is that it doesn't much matter which objects these characters like; it's arbitrary.

* * *
Natural Born Killers is almost nothing like a Tarantino movie. It’s an enormous satire on television media. What is, perhaps, ironic about this is that, although this movie got pulverized for being some kind of indication of the way movies have just gone too far vis-à-vis violence, the film is, in fact, about television. It cites Married… with Children and those true crime shows explicitly.

This film is also vaguely Lynchian. It is like a fever dream half the time, and there is an entire subplot with Tom Sizemore that feels insane and as though Lynch himself might have directed it. (The function of this subplot is to establish that the cops are just as fucked up and perverse as the criminals, and it is worth noting that Tom Sizemore appears in both this movie and as a cop in True Romance.)

There is one similarity between NBK and PF – the phony backgrounds through which the cars drive. In both movies, it is obvious that the backgrounds are movie screens. This is, I would say, without thinking much about it, a kind of internal reference within the film, to the fact that the characters themselves understand themselves as stars of the films of their lives, to the way they make sense of their own worlds through movie-culture. These are characters who believe themselves to be characters.

Otherwise it is rather hard to believe that Tarantino even wrote this thing. It really has very few of his themes and (to my mind) showcases few of his obsessions. As much as NBK appears to be in on its own ironic jokes, I don't think it actually is. The irony all feels pretty forced here. It's as though someone who takes himself very seriously (Oliver Stone) is trying to loosen up a little.

I mostly hated this.

Oooo. But I liked Tommy Lee Jones. He was over-the-top and very funny.

* * *

I've seen PF a bunch of times, and I am actually writing about it for something that I want published, so I won't say too much here, but, two things:

Some critics have said that Vincent is really killed because he doesn't wash his hands. (We know he doesn't wash his hands because we "watc[h] [him] wash them" at Jimmie's house and he still turns the towel into a bloody mess.) If he had just washed his hands after using the bathroom at Butch's place, he would've given Butch time to get away, and the toaster pastries would have popped up earlier and wouldn't have surprised Butch. But as much as I agree that Vincent really should wash his hands, I think way too much has been made about Vincent in the bathroom. As I said above, the bathroom appears a lot in QT movies: Jules uses the bathroom as soon as they get to the bar in the prologue (which allows for Butch and Vincent to be alone together, and for Vincent to insult Butch by calling him Palooka) and Fabienne and Butch have an entire conversation in the bathroom – him in the shower, Fabienne brushing her teeth. And she brushes her teeth (and spits in the bathroom) again in the morning. Honey Bunny, too, announces that she needs to pee. None of these bathroom uses has to do with Vincent and his death. The bathroom is just a place that QT finds interesting for gangsters. Even professional criminals have to poop, it turns out. (If you want to think about how revolutionary this is, by the way, take a minute and imagine your favorite movie gangster pooping: James Cagney? Edward G. Robinson? Alain Delon? Jean-Paul Belmondo? Marcello Mastroianni? I'm having a hard time doing it.)

QT uses his someone-in-the-bathroom-while-a-shootout-is-happening thing twice in PF. It happens in True Romance, it happens at the house where Jules and Vincent kill the three boys, and then it happens again when Honey Bunny and Pumpkin hold up the Denny's or Spires or whatever it is.

"Let's go."
The women-with-bare-feet thing has not been given enough attention. Do you know about this? Mia wears no shoes for a majority of her scenes in the film, including during the dance. And the camera lingers directly on her feet before they go to Jackrabbit Slim’s while they're still at the apartment. But also there's this painting on the wall that QT commissioned especially for the movie with Uma Thurman as Mia on a sofa with her bare feet prominently displayed. And QT did interviews where he talked about her sexy feet. (Indeed, her feet are on display again in Kill Bill.) I've read about this in various places, but it isn't only Uma's feet that the camera loves in Pulp Fiction. Esmeralda Villalobos drives the cab with bare feet, and Fabienne is in bare feet for basically the whole film even though they are in a rather seedy-looking motel. So: I know that it is standard in film theory to spend all of our time talking about phalluses and castration, and that's all good and well. And it's also true that some other critics have tried to invert this by focusing on the film's economy of anality – Captain Koons hiding the watch up his ass, the rape in the pawn shop, Vincent taking a shit (twice), Jules's talk about Brett trying to "fuck" Marsellus – this is where all the bathroom talk starts actually to look quite important. But it seems to me that the film is much more interested in women's feet than either phalluses or anuses. (And yes I do know that a fetish is supposed to be a substitute for the phallus in Freudian thinking. I'm just noting that it's the fetish that has currency here and not the phallus itself.) Film theorists haven't spent a lot of time thinking about how a katana or a Louisville Slugger or a shotgun might signify a woman's foot – they're too busy seeing phalluses everywhere they look – but perhaps it's high time we started.

For me, Pulp Fiction mostly holds up – it's been 22 years since it came out! I still like the "Gold Watch" section the best, and the stuff with Samuel L. Jackson continues to be a highlight. But I also continue to be bored by the Mia Wallace section. I find that whole section so phony. Not that any of the dialogue seems natural because it doesn't, but the Mia Wallace section seems especially writerly or contrived or arch to me. I find that entire sequence to be bloated.

Related:
On The Hateful Eight.
On Django Unchained.

19 June 2016

Bloodbrothers

People said this was melodramatic, but I found it sort of hard-hitting and very good.
Richard Gere is really excellent (and gorgeous) in this too.

18 June 2016

On the Beach


This is superb. It's brilliantly shot, and Ava Gardner and Fred Astaire are mind-blowingly good. This is also a movie that pulls absolutely no punches about nuclear war. It avoids sentimentality. It steers clear of redemption and utopia. It is simply elegantly and excellently directed. (And I love Anthony Perkins, too.)

I've actually seen much of Stanley Kramer's output as a director (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, Ship of Fools, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Judgment at Nuremberg), but I haven't really thought of him as an auteur or of his entire body of work at all before. That was foolish of me. This is obviously a man who directed quite a few awesome pictures about the twentieth century's worst atrocities.

11 June 2016

01 June 2016

With Friends Like These...

Let's talk about We Are Your Friends, a dance-music-fueled, millennial-targeted bro-movie that totally bombed at the box office when it was released last August. (For the record, it slowly recouped its costs and actually ended up making a small profit, but when it debuted the silence surrounding We Are Your Friends was deafening.)

Zac in a tank. He spends most of the movie in a tank.
First off, I don't think I understand Zac Efron movies. Now, I watch all of them (or at least most of them – I can find nothing to justify pressing play on Bad Grandpa), but I sort of fail to understand who the intended audience of these pictures actually is. First off, let's just say that I think Zac is a good enough actor, who does a decent job in all of his movies. He doesn't read as false to me, and I think he has great moments in all of his movies. But, who are these movies for? Efron is gorgeous, and he's nearly naked in like every movie, so I assume that these movies are for me or other gay men who want to look at Zac's body. I might think that they're for women (who one might want to assume want to look at Zac's body), but then the movies all appear to be aimed at young men. This movie, for example, is all about a young boy's dreams and all that, and is filled with topless strippers and bros in the San Fernando Valley doing drugs and playing chicken with topless young women in their pool. #squadgoals

...but this is what the movie is selling.
My point is that I am not sure that these films of Mr. Efron's have a target audience. I knew who was supposed to go see Charlie St. Cloud and New Year's Eve and The Lucky One and 17 Again. Even That Awkward Moment was clearly a romantic comedy where the three boys at its center learn to be in love and leave behind their silly singlehood. But for whom was We Are Your Friends made? Nerdy guys, I guess, who are supposed to want to be Zac Efron. I don't really think that's such a bad idea, I just don't think Efron's the right guy for that. He's just too... gorgeous.

Truth be told, We Are Your Friends isn't really that bad. And don't judge me too harshly. Even the Hollywood Reporter called it "surprisingly winning". Early on I thought Max Joseph was going to be doing something cool. There's a very fun sequence where Zac does PCP and hallucinates at an art gallery opening and the whole thing gets animated à la Richard Linklater's Waking Life. It's really fun.

But the film has two other little formal conventions that it does sporadically that both totally suck. Both are from YouTube. One involves putting the text of the film in giant capital letters onscreen as a character (in this case Jon Bernthal's version of Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross) talks. It's designed like a lyric video to, say, Cee-Lo Green's "Fuck You". The other involves illustrating an educational sequence about the science of the desire to dance using tiny clips from stock footage to explain how, say, the heart beats and where the impulse to dance comes from, and how many beats per minute Reggae and House and Hardcore each has. Am I watching a movie or a YouTube video by ASAPscience?

The title We Are Your Friends, by the way, relates to one of the film's subplots, which is about the housing market crisis in the U.S. and the way that assholes come in and make money off of poor people who are trying to make their mortgage payments but who have gotten foreclosure notices. Zac works for a little while as a cold-caller, pretending to be peoples' friend in order to get them to sign over their houses to his slimeball boss (the aforementioned Bernthal).

Still, there's the EDM, and it's mostly all good. The film has great dance track after great dance track in it, and I enjoyed them all. The narrative is super conventional and totally predictable and not at all interesting, but the beats are good, and Zac is dynamic.

The message of the film, though, is pretty awful, and I can sum this up by describing a single sequence near the very end of the third act. Wes Bentley, who is Zac's mentor for the whole movie, has been telling Zac he needs to make electronic music organically, man (which is, like, soooo Los Angeles, but let's let that go). And Zac is beating himself up about the girl that he lost and the friend that he lost, and he's listening to little recordings he made of each of them on his phone and then he goes for a run in the Valley. Shot of Zac running while listening to his headphones. He runs past a place with a ton of electric wires. He runs past a house. He runs past a whole bunch of trees. Then his internet goes out (or something?) and he no longer has any music to listen to. Zac is mad. But now he runs back past the trees, past the house, past the electric wires. And now instead of dance music we hear birds in the trees, and the sound of a lawnmower. We hear electricity hum. We hear a wind chime hanging from the house's front porch. Some serious John Cage shit, right? If you stop listening to the music you start to hear the music that is actually around you all the time. And if you listen correctly this is music. So this is the message. Well, no, this is the first half of the message.

Zac's listening to his heart. What are YOU listening to?
What you do now, if you're Zac and you're in this movie, is that you take all of those things that you were ignoring, those real-world sounds that make up who you are and where you're from and what you bring to this world, and you record all of those sounds, and you mix them up, and you make them into a really badass dance track that other people love and will pay a lot of money to listen to. You transform those sounds from the real world back into music. Actually not so John Cage, after all. (All props to Pyramid, who did the songs, though. They are so good.) The message of the film – and someone literally says all of this at the end of the movie – is that the thing that we all need to do is figure out what it is that makes each of us into us and then share that with the world and hope that a lot of people like it. This is, in fact, the reality-television dream: I know I have something special to share with the world because I am special. I hope everyone will notice and give me lots of dollars. This is also quintessentially a story of capitalism as immanent. What everyone in this movie is really looking for is a way to transform themselves into something that can make a ton of money: I will actually have figured out who I am when whatever that is is loved by many people and making me a lot of cash. The lie of We Are Your Friends is that the way to do that is to "be true to yourself". This is the ostensible message of the film, but this is ideological bullshit. What the film really has to say is exactly the opposite: What We Are Your Friends firmly believes is that you can only finally know if you've been true to yourself... if people are throwing money at you.