Here’s how I spent the last three months of the year, checking out some celebrated new releases and revisiting some old favorites.
There’s no getting around it. My summer viewing was piss-poor, almost indefensibly so. Along with that, I’ve let the blog falter longer than ever, and it’s left me unsure why I even still do it, or why I ever did. I’m not that anal about anything else, that’s for certain.
At any rate, I also lost the first version of this piece, so in order to post anything at all, I’m going to have to write extremely brief reviews of the films I watched this summer. Hey, that’s the trend on the web anyway, right? (Buzzfeed!) No one wants to read anything lengthy.
I was surprised how good I thought Paper Moon was. Like so many, I had become accustomed to the fall from grace narrative that has followed Peter Bogdanovich. His Sopranos appearances. His books on cinema. His incessant references to Welles, “Hitch” and others, always wearing the ever-present ascot. It’s all had the effect of someone playing a cameo in his own life, cobbling together bits and pieces of what he used to be.
But maybe Paper Moon shows us all that Bogdanovich ever was: a gifted critic with a gift for mimicry. The film feels something like The Grapes of Wrath played as a screwball comedy. John Ford fused with, I don’t know, Howard Hawks? There’s some Wellesian deep focus photography mixed in too. Bogdanovich’s influences are splattered everywhere. This was also true for The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (both fine films in their own right). As the saying goes, you could do worse than to have Ford, Hawks and Welles as your influences. But which one was the real him? Or was it the director who later made At Long Last Love and Mask?
Paul Schrader’s characters fight their primary battles with themselves: Think DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull as written by Schrader. They are plagued by guilt. They seek redemption. They’re at the mercy of forces that they can’t overcome—or sometimes perceive.
The films can be rough sailing, especially Schrader’s Affliction, which features a (never better) Nick Nolte muddling through life in such a manner that you’re either empathetic or exasperated. Nolte’s Wade Whitehouse Is a small-town cop and toady who seemingly has never gotten a break in his life, his fate apparently sealed because of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father (James Coburn). When I think of Schrader’s films, I think about men eternally at war with modern life, even those who seem to effortlessly sail through it, such as Schrader’s lead characters in American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, urbane sophisticates who believe they’re the players until the world flips over and crashes down.
As Rian Johnson’s Brick unfolded, I felt increasingly thrilled. To quote Ebert from way back: I had never seen this movie before. A neo-noir that suggests that high school is as rough and dangerous as any LA bowery where Marlowe may roam, the movie shines largely through its terse, coded dialogue.
The films Brick made me think of while I was watching: Bugsy Malone (kids as gangsters), A Clockwork Orange (an impenetrable youth culture with its own slang), and, of course, The Maltese Falcon. (Lukas Haas’ character has a walking stick adorned with a falcon.)
Schemin’ in the rain
Robert Altman does John Grisham. If that sounds like a combination made in Hell, you’re right. This was the late 90s, when Grisham ruled the best-seller lists and studios wanted a big cut of the action. Altman and big studios have never gotten along (see, Player, The).
I recall being confused about the link back the first time I saw The Gingerbread Man. What was Altman doing here? Gambling debts? Blackmail? No matter—the results are pretty much as you might expect: a legal thriller with a side helping of quirk. But make no mistake: It’s not even close to the other way around.
It’s done. How can summer be on its way out already? But then, an August that gave us here in Washington an earthquake and a hurricane perhaps deserves to be given the bum’s rush. (And as I write this, it’s almost 80 degrees and sunny in Washington, so maybe it’s not so far gone after all.)
Never gave much thought to Melanie Griffith. In the height of her career, the late 1980s/early 90s, I dismissed her as a dollar-store Marilyn Monroe, with the Michelin body and the boop-a-doop voice. (See also: Jennifer Tilly.) She seemed insubstantial, especially compared to leading actresses of her time, such as Glenn Close, Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
But I’ve been forced to reassess, watching Griffith back-to-back in two films, Stormy Monday (Mike Figgis, 1987) and Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986), and realizing that she has a quality, one that may have been better appreciated in the days of classic Hollywood, an ability to shift from light drama to comedy effortlessly.
I had a girlfriend once–hm, maybe I should stop there.These days, that alone seems like an accomplishment. Anyway, I clearly recall this woman becoming almost physically ill as she watched Nic Cage commit suicide-by-drink in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). She simply couldn’t watch someone purposefully abuse themselves so thoroughly.
But then, she wasn’t in love with Cage’s character (or me, as it happened) and so perhaps didn’t quite understand the capacity a spouse or partner can develop for witnessing the self-mandated destruction of an intimate.
Post-war is hell in both Tokyo (above) and New Mexico.
War–and service–in these two very different films are things to be exploited.
In Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo, GIs who defeated Japan in the Big One want to do it again, from the inside out. Acting from a sense of superiority and entitlement, they seek to dominate the country in a criminal sense in the way just a decade earlier they did so militarily.
In Karl Reisz’s Who’ll Stop the Rain, the Vietnam vets at the center of the story want nothing to do with the country they left behind, but they’ll use its riches–in this case, heroin–to profit in the same manner as Fuller’s ex-Army men.