Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Patch in Boots

Frances Ha (2013)
directed by Noah Baumbach
rating: 3 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

A Google search for Alyson Hannigan returns a handful of awkward photo shoots from the early aughts that it's difficult to imagine Greta Gerwig ever suffering through. Hannigan is a millionaire many times over for her work on Buffy and How I Met Your Mother, and for all I know, couldn't be happier as one of America's most-recognized, best-loved comedic actors. Gerwig shares many of Hannigan's mannerisms (that's why I was thinking about her) but try to picture Hannigan and her husband Wesley Wyndham-Price in this picture and you can't help but wonder if maybe you should be watching HIMYM instead of Frances Ha.

My point is that Noah Baumbach might have had feathered tips in the sit-down interview with Peter Bogdanovich that's included on the Criterion DVD. I'm not sure because I turned it off before the goodwill came undone like a joke about one of Willow's addiction spells. Do you know why the movie is called Frances Ha? I didn't, but there's a reason, and it's terrific.

The whole movie is pretty terrific, in fact, in part because of Gerwig, and in part because it's so restrained. Like Midnight in Paris, it allows all of the funny lines and situations to settle softly around a single, gentle observation about the thrill of finding happiness in a lonely and indifferent world. Poor Frances is never faced with a "cringe-inducing" blowup of embarrassment; nothing ever falls completely to pieces. She endures a series of disappointments and frustrated expectations, but they don't add up to more than six weeks on a friend's couch and a run of sleepless nights.

Every so often, I think that the music Georges Delerue composed for Jules and Jim might be my favorite film score (in fact, I'm adding Music from the Films of François Truffaut to my library cart now!). Then I watch a movie like Frances Ha--chock full of sounds from "the Mozart of cinema"--and wonder if I'm one Bogdanovich interview away from feathered tips myself. We'll probably never know.

But take Benji (Michael Zegen). Benji is roommates with Adam Driver's Lev. All movies like this have a joke about a roommate like Lev: charming, oversexed, rich (nine times out of ten, he is usually played by Adam Driver). The Benji character looks like a good guy, but isn't, or else isn't a good guy--a little self-centered, a little demanding--but still ends up getting the girl (either our heroine, or maybe the heroine's best friend). Eric from Entourage is this archetype's Demon King.

Baumbach's Benji is glib and not a great listener but seems okay, if dull. When Frances gets drunk and feels sorry for herself, he senses an opportunity but knows it would be a mistake and doesn't take it. Over the course of the movie, his joke about Frances ("undateable!") evolves into a joke about himself. He seems, even at the periphery, even--at best--as a potential future partner for Frances, to mature.

Frances doesn't kiss Benji because Frances Ha isn't about Frances finding the right guy, another important point that movies like this often fail to make. But maybe that's because movies like this are actually pretty rare.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Dressed to Shop

Passion (2012)
directed by Brian De Palma
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

This month's Vogue includes a Miu Miu ad campaign with Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos that made me rethink that "model pretty" comment in my Blue is the Warmest Color review. Modeling and acting make different demands, but Exarchopoulos, in particular, is indistinguishable done up in "girlish styling" from a dozen women I passed en route to work this morning. She's pretty, but so are a lot of people. In resort wear with styled hair and makeup, she mostly just looks young (after all, she is).

I love Brian De Palma movies and one of the reasons I love them is that his sexual obsessions involve grown-ups. Nancy Allen was 30 in Dressed to Kill (which also starred a 50-year old Angie Dickinson). Melanie Griffith was 27 in Body Double. In Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, and Femme Fatale--I'm listing my favorites--the female leads are closer to my age (I'm 33) than 18. Even 17-year old Carrie was played by 26-year old Sissy Spacek. He has his hang-ups but youth isn't one of them.

The women who star in Passion--Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams--are 33 and 35. Neither one of them plays a mother and neither character is married. Each enjoys casual sex but De Palma does not infantilize that part of their personalities by making them coquettish or demure. Men in the movie see their strength and appetites and fall like flies.

That is the point, of course: Christine and Isabelle are... passionate! They are demanding and accomplished. Doubles, sisters, split screens, old hat. This time, the crime turns, more or less, on Christine's desire to move to New York City (from Berlin), which, by all appearances, she has more than enough money to do anytime she wants. But she wants to do it in the context of a promotion, for some reason, and so exploits her subordinate, Isabelle, and takes credit for a successful viral ad campaign.

Is that the price of international financing? To shoot your film in sleek, borrowed locations that emphasize how rich, how comfortable, your characters are? Because the obvious motivations for murder--greed, lust, obsession--are undercut completely by the entitled corporate culture that both women live in. They both have nice offices and nice apartments and probably keep up with resort wear. They're bored, something no responsible De Palma heroine should ever have to be.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Vikings in Flanders

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)
directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
seen onscreen at the Manor Theatre

Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998)
directed by Don Coscarelli
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)
directed by Alan Gibson
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Let's briefly rehash that conversation we've had and agree that casting someone as beautiful as Adèle Exarchopoulos betrays a filmmaker's claim to universal truths. Her mouth might be smeared with spaghetti sauce or she might be sobbing in her room alone, but she's never less than "actress pretty." Let's also agree that the sex is not "frank" but comical (if broadly relevant). Would this be the hit it is if the movie were about two young men? Would I have gone to see it? I like to think so but it's a question worth asking. My Blue is the Warmest Color is your Les Cousins Dangereux.

But first, Phantasm IV. What's the closest example of a creator-controlled franchise that continues to receive funding but on terms so paltry that not making the movie seems like the obvious choice? Coscarelli does what any sensible person would do in moments of crisis: he heads for the desert. It felt as if at least one out of every four scenes was a clip from Phantasm, but Coscarelli repurposes the footage he needs to produce a feature-length cut as a testament to male friendship in the face of past betrayals.

Not that Reggie is denied the opportunity to say "blow me" before firing a shotgun through the roof of a police car to dispatch an undead officer, or to reiterate the point that "some cops can be real assholes" ten seconds later. Phantasm IV provides no answers for any of its mysteries--not really. Coscarelli is content to let Reg and Mike and the Tall Man drift forever out of time, like the wind they hear when it should be quiet inside the car. But it isn't that the series is inconclusive, or stretched merely to accommodate the possibility of some future sequel. Rather, the quest that these characters embark upon is a circular one made of memories they cannot get back to or escape. You connect Reggie Bannister to Eric Rohmer (because that's what I want to do with my time) through the last scene of Perceval le Gallois, when Perceval rides into the forest alone.

In Dracula A.D. 1972, vampires can be drowned in "clear running water," so Peter Cushing starts a shower and kills one of Christopher Lee's lesser minions. I like the elemental aspect of supernatural creatures and I like it when bodies of water function as barriers of protection (like the bridge adjacent to the Old Dutch Burial Ground in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). But Gibson's narrative is much more topical, evidenced in the bathtub/overdose routine. Cushing gets to be the hero, even if Dracula can't be bothered to leave the decrepit churchyard where he is brought back to life or to claim even a single bride.

Hammer productions always aim for that conservative middle ground between salacious and inoffensive, and I think this might be the last of them I watch for awhile. I try be an Anglophobe whenever possible so I'll talk about the French instead.

For one thing, I hadn't sat through a three-hour movie in forever. I rarely sit through a 90-minute movie at home without pausing it for food or to put the kettle on the stove (or read trivia about an actor or get a snack for the dog). I don't like long movies, as a rule, because my favorite movies tend to do more with less. I checked my watch after the first hour of Blue is the Warmest Color, and again every twenty to thirty minutes until it was over. The time did not pass quickly but it felt good to spend it sitting still in front of a big screen.

Criticisms of Blue is the Warmest Color are more or less correct, but the point of the movie, to me, was to convey the sense of loss that a person who loves someone deeply feels when that love is not returned--or more to the point, when it was once returned, but is now diminished.

Adèle and Emma break up on unequal footing: Adèle feels lonely and wanders, but Emma falls in love with someone else. The moment when Emma confronts Adèle over her infidelity is a great scene not because of what they're fighting about (we never even learn, for example, if Emma actually cheated on Adèle with Lise) but because Adèle must come to terms with the extent of the pain Emma's indifference has inflicted at the exact moment that Emma cuts her off completely.

There is no closure for Adèle because Emma will always be a part of her. Other movies have made that argument about love, but it is not a tidy conclusion. Blue is the Warmest Color does not put Adèle through the ringer just to be cruel, but she is not happy in that final scene. She is very beautiful but it's a good movie anyway.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Deep Fritz, Deep Eddy

Computer Chess (2013)
directed by Andrew Bujalski
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on Netflix

I couldn't help but understand Computer Chess as a Texas movie, and an Austin movie specifically, in the same way that Primer was as much a film about Dallas to me as time travel. I watched both Computer Chess and Primer by myself on my TV at home, and both times I thought of my relationship to the cities where the movies were filmed but also take place in (although never by name; I'm not sure I ever even saw a telltale license plate). Because I grew up in San Antonio, a day in Austin or Dallas--days in Dallas were very rare--always began with a trip along Interstate 35. Highways are not generic; every routine, every drive has its own identity, and the on-ramps and off-ramps of Austin are important to my memories of the city.

In scenes set on the grounds of the hotel in Computer Chess, busy I-35 is visible in the glass of the lobby door. The humidity is obvious if you recognize it; you can see it in the limp look of the curtains and in the atmosphere of the conference rooms. Bujalski is a Boston transplant, and I don't know how much of the largely nonprofessional cast (who play characters visiting from as far away as Caltech and MIT) comes from Texas, but the brightness and vegetation and interior decorations are unmistakable. As the movie progresses, the tournament increasingly resembles a regional conference more than a national symposium. When Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige by way of Rick Von Sloneker) finally sets out for his mother's house in the hill country, it's hard to believe that everyone doesn't live within fifty miles of the hotel.

I remember the time in my life when I was excited about the release of Mutual Appreciation, but that honestly feels further away than my San Antonio childhood. The men and women in Computer Chess are self-conscious but the writing and direction are confident and naturalistic. Financial assistance from the Austin Film Society made the acknowledgment of Richard Linklater in the credits inevitable, but I looked for it. Computer Chess isn't derivative of Slacker but the humor and warmth of both films is rooted in the same gentle curiosity.

Afterwards, I thought of all the ways that people who make movies and TV shows right now (I kept thinking of people who make comedies) would make Computer Chess, and make it worse. Bujalski's programmers and New Age swingers are strange, unsettling characters, but they are recognizable in so many of the friends and family and acquaintances I know. The role of the uncanny in Computer Chess is critical to its fundamental humanism. While celebrating agency and individuality, Bujalski allows for misery and mystery, and lets those moodier qualities haunt his collected strangers as they will.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Motor Trends

Decasia (2002)
directed by Bill Morrison
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Carnegie Library

The Sitter (2011)
directed by David Gordon Green
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
watched on HBO GO

Phantasm III (1994)
directed by Don Coscarelli
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Of course there is beauty in the physical decay of film, although I don't understand Morrison's decision to manipulate the film stock digitally. Is Decasia more abstract than Lyrical Nitrate, made in 1991? Morrison drew from a larger archive than that of the Netherlands Filmmuseum, but only part of Lyrical Nitrate is online.

The circle is the prominent visual metaphor in Decasia, but according to Dave Kehr, Morrison constructed the movie to accompany Michael Gordon's symphony (not the other way around), and frankly it feels that way. Nothing here is ever entirely repurposed as something new; I couldn't help but think of the absorbing alien world of Lessons of Darkness, but I think about Lessons of Darkness a lot. Which is only to say that the hyperbole on Morrison's site is well-intentioned but somewhat out of proportion to the product.

I watched The Sitter on Tuesday night and found this recent quote from David Gordon Green yesterday at work: "I don't ever want to stop having nightmares about Magic or to stop finding The Blues Brothers funny or to be bored by a Béla Tarr film." I always let Green (or "D. Green," per the Eastbound & Down preview panes on HBO) off easy because he's a Thunderbolt and Lightfoot fan and because he doesn't apologize for directing stupid comedies instead of doubling down on Terrence Malick knockoffs like George Washington (and I like George Washington!).

But couldn't The Sitter or Your Highness be better? They could! It isn't that Green is indifferent to the quality of an innocuous comedy about Jonah Hill and three funny kids, but that he should be capable of directing a Thunderbolt and Lightfoot of his own. Sam Rockwell is terrible in this movie. The gang gags are groan-inducing. Isn't there that rule about the five-year window a director earns himself after a successful picture?

Pineapple Express was 2008 but the money well isn't dry yet. I don't want to see Prince Avalanche and I don't believe that Nicolas Cage's beard in the Joe production photo on IMDb is real. But still, a Larry Brown adaptation? Who else is doing that? But Green's next movie stars Al Pacino and is called Manglehorn. Manglehorn! Ugh.

Phantasm III went straight to video and the copy I watched didn't include the "Lord of the Dead" subtitle anywhere. Phantasm is one of my favorite movies but I truly admire Don Coscarelli's commitment to his original cast in the sequels. These men are not professionals; Universal forcibly replaced A. Michael Baldwin in Phantasm II, but Coscarelli made it a point to bring him back in III (presumably one of the reasons the film didn't get a theatrical release). The sequels aren't particularly scary or involved, but they are fun. Isn't the Phantasm franchise sort of what I want from a guy like D. Green?

An ongoing joke in Phantasm III is Reggie Bannister's efforts to "make it" with the beautiful traveler/nunchaku specialist Rocky (Gloria Lynne Henry) that joins his vengeance squad to fight the Tall Man. Bannister was a bald, pudgy guy with a ponytail pushing 50 in 1994 and no one--not the orphan he picks up, not Rocky, not me--thinks he's going to score. And he doesn't, except in a dream in which Coscarelli gives the audience what the audience wants, which is Rocky without her shirt on. The best that in-movie Reg gets is a brief hug.

Like Green with Stevie Janowski or Bust-Ass, Coscarelli clearly feels genuine affection for the Phantasm regulars, and he prioritizes that camaraderie, and shares it with you and me. Phantasm III is much, much better than The Sitter, which commits so many sins of inattention. But the point stands. Reg prowls the countryside in a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda and DGG won't even let poor Jonah Hill steal a good-looking car.