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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Saturday Night At The Movies: Double Feature

A tonic for summer blockbusters: Two films without guns

By Dennis Hartley

As we gird our loins for Hollywood’s seasonal onslaught of loud, overproduced and generally chuckleheaded summer fare, I thought we would take a moment this week to catch our breath and take a peek at two decidedly offbeat alternatives-one film currently in limited release, and another that I just caught at the Seattle International Film Festival.

First up: a new film from writer-director Harmony Korine called Mister Lonely (currently in select cities, but also available right now via the “IFC in theaters” PPV service). Now, I will be straight with you and admit upfront that Korine, a member of the “love him or hate him” film school, is not one of my favorite directors. If you have followed this weekly post for a while, you know that I have a pretty high tolerance for what a lot of other folks might call “weird” or even “unwatchable” cinema, but I found Korine’s Gummo (1997) and Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) just, well, too weird and (virtually) unwatchable. However, I had heard good buzz about his latest (OK, the fact that I had the option of “ordering in” as opposed to dragging my lazy ass to the theater may have had a hand in my decision). It turns out that Korine can make a “watchable” film-in the form of this tragicomic rumination on alienation, mental illness, and the tendency of humans to kowtow at the alter of both pop culture and, erm, “God” with equal fervor.

Beautifully shot by DP Marcel Zyskind (Code 46, The Road to Guantanamo), the film begins with an elegiac slow-mo sequence reminiscent of the opening credits for Blue Velvet. Choreographed to Bobby Vinton’s plaintive ballad “Mr. Lonely”, a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna), replete with requisite red jacket, shades and surgical mask, rides a scooter, with a stuffed, winged monkey toy in tow. It’s a remarkable scene that manages to convey both a blissful innocence and an aching sadness at the same time.

The otherwise shy and awkward young man puts out his hat and performs all the requisite flamboyant MJ dance moves in the streets of Paris, where he is largely ignored; he supplements this meager income with help from an “agent” who gets him the odd booking. While performing at a nursing home, he meets a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Samantha Morton). The two have an immediate attraction to each other, although “Marilyn” is quick to mention her husband, a Charlie Chaplin impersonator (Denis Lavant). She and “Charlie” live on a communal farm in Scotland with their daughter “Shirley Temple” and a few dozen other celebrity impersonators; she talks Michael into joining this odd but welcoming community (the “One of us! One of us!” chant from Freaks did enter my mind more than once.)

At first glance, this extended family of fringe dwellers appears to lead a Utopian existence. They have a barn (and yes, at one point, they do put on a show). They cheerfully tend to the livestock and enjoy warm communal mealtimes together (usually in full costume), but upon closer examination, it seems that there is trouble in paradise. A sadomasochistic undercurrent runs through Marilyn and Charlie’s marriage; at one point, a tearful Marilyn blurts out the film’s best line: “Sometimes, when I look at you, you seem more like Adolph Hitler than Charlie Chaplain.” The “Pope” (James Fox) is an alcoholic. “Abe Lincoln” (Richard Strange) has an impulse to utilize “fuck” in every sentence. The Buckwheat impersonator has an unhealthy obsession with chickens…and so on. Korine throws in a somewhat weaker second narrative concerning a missionary priest/pilot (German director Werner Herzog, who cannot act) and his posse of er, flying nuns (don’t ask) doing relief work in the jungles of Central America. I will say no more.

Luna and Morton both give lovely and touching performances; they are a major reason to see this film. I’m not going to pretend that I completely grasped Korine’s intent; but his film is visually engaging, emotionally resonant, and it did haunt me afterwards. I find it easier to contextualize by pointing to two Nicholas Roeg films that I strongly suspect had a major influence on Korine here: Performance (1970) and Insignificance (1985). In Performance (written and co-directed by Donald Cammel), the narrative plays with the concept of two self-loathing protagonists who swap identities in an attempt to escape themselves; in essence “impersonating” each other. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Korine has cast two of the principal actors from Performance in his film-James Fox and Anita Pallenberg (who plays the Queen of England impersonator). In Roeg’s Insignificance, screenwriter Terry Johnson fantasizes Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Senator Joe McCarthy and Albert Einstein interacting in a hotel room in the 1950s; the result is a strange but compelling treatise on fame, politics and nuclear paranoia. Korine uses the same device (the unlikely juxtaposition of iconic figures) to expound on his themes as well. Granted, Mister Lonely is not for all tastes, but if you would prefer to not “Mess With the Zohan” this summer, thank you very much, it is one possible alternative.

I am currently immersed in the 2008 Seattle International Film Festival, which kicked off on May 22. Well, as “immersed” as I can be, considering that I have a pesky 9-5 gig, which doesn’t give me the spare time (or energy) that I would need to catch all 400 films between now and June 15 (I’ll have more on this year’s SIFF, beginning next week).

I was going to wait until next week to begin reviewing Festival films, but since it cozies up nicely with this week’s theme, I thought I’d give you a sneak preview of a black comedy out of Canada that I hope will find a U.S. distributor at in the near future. Quebecois writer-director Stephane LeFleur’s Continental: A Film Without Guns breathes new life into the old “network narrative” trick (a device most associated with the work of Robert Altman, but which has been around at least since 1932’s Grand Hotel.)

In fact, LeFleur uses a hotel as the rendezvous point in this story of four lonely and disenfranchised people, whose lives are destined to intersect, directly or tangentially. In the enigmatic opening scene, a middle aged insurance salesman snoozes through his bus stop and wakes up at the end of the line (literally and/or figuratively). He calmly gathers up his briefcase and coat, and after what appears to be a moment of Zen, meditating on the night sounds of the forest, walks straight into the darkness of the trees and disappears.

The remainder of the film delves into the ripple effect that the man’s disappearance has on the lives of four people-his 50-ish wife (Marie-Ginette Guay), a 30-ish life insurance salesman who is hired to replace him (Real Bosse), a 60-ish owner of a second-hand store (Gilbert Sicotte) and a 20-something hotel receptionist (Fanny Mallette). To be sure, the age spread of the characters indicates a convenient symmetry, but LeFleur is examining certain universal truths about the human condition that transcend age and/or gender; namely, the fear of dying, and perhaps most terrifying of all- the fear of dying alone.

That is not to say that this is a Bergman-esque, “excuse me while I go hang myself in the closet” fest. LeFleur injects just enough deadpan humor into his script to diffuse the inherently depressing nature of his themes. All members of the cast give uniformly excellent performances. The almost painterly photography (by DP Sara Mishara) is richly moody and atmospheric, no small feat in a film largely comprised of static interior shots.

LeFleur exhibits a style quite similar to that of fellow Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (The Adjustor, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter). Like Egoyan, LeFleur is not afraid to hold a shot as long as he needs to, nor is he afraid of silence. Silence can speak volumes, especially in the hands of a skilled director (watch a Kurosawa or Ozu film for a master class). In a movie season of explosions and screeching tires, a little silence can be golden.

All by myself: Henry Jaglom's Someone to Love, Lars and the Real Girl, Marty (1954), Sunday, Naked Into the Wild, Never Cry Wolf, Edward Scissorhands , Happiness,Lost in Translation Brief Encounter, Brewster Mccloud, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Taxi Driver American Beauty , Spirit of the Beehive, I Stand Alone, Following, Ikiru - Criterion Collection Tokyo Story Minnie and Moskowitz, Harold and Maude, Harry and Tonto Cal Me and You and Everyone We Know Persona, Zelig, Images, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, The Conversation, The Lives of Others, The Lonely Guy, Magnolia, In the Realms of the Unreal - The Mystery of Henry Darger, Welcome to L.A., The Station Agent, Fat City Monsieur Hire , Turtle Diary, Why Shoot The Teacher, Middle of the Night

Previous posts with related themes:

The Visitor
Pan’s Labyrinth

Tonight’s second feature: Sketches of Sydney Pollack

By Dennis Hartley

I’m sure you have heard by now that we lost director-producer-actor Sydney Pollack earlier this week.

He was one of the last of the old school Hollywood filmmakers; a dependable “all purpose” director in the Michael Curtiz vein. From westerns (Jeremiah Johnson, The Scalphunters) and war films (Castle Keep) to love stories (The Way We Were, This Property Is Condemned) and sweeping epics (Out of Africa, Havana) Pollack displayed a real knack for effortless genre-hopping. He may not have been an “auteur” or a flashy visual stylist, but he knew how to tell a damn fine story, and he always did so with intelligence and class. He respected his actors; you could glean that from the full-blooded performances that usually informed a Pollack film. Perhaps this was not surprising, as Pollack spent substantial time in front of the cameras as well, usually in supporting roles.

As an actor, he was most recently seen in Michael Clayton (which he also co-produced). He received critical raves for his acting in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives(and deservedly so-he more than managed to hold his own opposite the formidable talents of the great Judy Davis). His relatively small role in Eyes Wide Shut was one of the few highlights in Stanley Kubrick’s final (and most disappointing) film.

Perhaps his most endearing turn as an actor was when Pollack the director cast himself in the gender-bending rom-com Tootsie . ( Pollack played the exasperated agent of a “difficult” and mercurial actor (Dustin Hoffman, who some might say was basically playing himself) and got to deliver a line which has become a classic quote: “I BEGGED you to get some therapy!” While inarguably Pollack’s most audience-pleasing film, I don’t necessarily consider it his best (One major drawback? That god-awful soundtrack.)

Beginning with his 1993 legal thriller The Firm, Pollack’s films began to slouch more toward “product” than artifice (with the possible exception of his 2005 documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack. All in all, however, he left behind an impressive legacy of well-crafted cinema in his nearly 50 year long career. A few personal recommendations:

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? -This richly decadent allegory about the human condition has to be one of the grimmest and most cynical films ever made. Pollack assembled a crack ensemble for this depiction of a Depression-era dance marathon from Hell: Jane Fonda, Gig Young (who snagged a Best Supporting Actor Oscar), Susannah York, Bruce Dern and Red Buttons are all outstanding; Pollack even coaxed the wooden Michael Sarrazin (the Hayden Christensen of his day) into showing some real emotion.

The Yakuza -I was overjoyed when this 1975 sleeper came out on DVD. Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura are excellent in this complex (and surprisingly credible) culture clash/gangster drama. Pollack had some major writing talent on board-Robert Towne and Paul Schrader scripted from a story idea by Schrader’s brother Leonard. The similarly-themed 1989 Ridley Scott thriller Black Rain was a relatively shallow exercise, IMHO.

Three Days of the Condor -One of seven collaborations between star Robert Redford and director Pollack, and one of the seminal “conspiracy-a-go-go” films An absolutely first-rate thriller with more twists and turns than you can shake a dossier at. The film’s final scene plays like an eerily (serendipitously?) prescient prologue for All the President’s Men, which wasn’t released until the following year. An exemplary cast includes Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow, Cliff Robertson, and John Houseman. Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel adapted from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”.

Absence of Malice -Before it was fashionable to take the news media to task, Pollack delivered this solid blend of morality tale and civics lesson about the straight arrow son of a mob figure (Paul Newman) whose reputation is sullied when he becomes the fall guy in an unethical federal prosecutor’s investigation. An irresponsible newspaper journalist (Sally Field) is no help, with her eagerness to print first, and fact check later. Newman decides to ingeniously turn the tables on the mudslingers, whilst putting the average citizen’s alleged protection under the libel laws to the supreme test. A scathing indictment of the press (ah…if they only knew how much worse it could get). Scripted by ex-reporter Kurt Luedtke, and featuring that wily old scene-stealer Wilfred Brimley.

The Swimmer -It’s not technically a 100% Pollack project (more on that in a moment) but one of the more underrated dramas of the late 60s. A searing, downright scary performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this existential suburban nightmare. Frank Perry is the credited director, but Pollack was brought in to finish the film after Perry dropped out during production. Eleanor Perry scripted from the original John Cheever short story.

More to explore: The Slender Thread, Bobby Deerfield, The Electric Horseman, Sabrina, Random Hearts, The Interpreter .