Friday, September 9, 2016

Eye on Movies: "Lo and Behold!"






Ecce Herzog!

For nearly fifty years, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has been challenging, entertaining, dazzling, annoying, and infuriating filmgoers and critics around the world. Every film he releases is a special event in the strictest sense of that overused adjective.

With his affable craziness and his unique mellifluous Bavarian diction, there is simply no one like him in the movies. I doubt there will ever be. Even when the work is not good (which is seldom, as in say, Nosferatu and Scream of Stone), Herzog defines sui generis.

Herzog still makes fictional features, but it’s his documentaries that seem to draw the most attention, at least in this country, with classics such as My Best Fiend (about his uproariously conflicted relationship with Klaus Kinski—a man he thought should be murdered), Grizzly Man, and Encounters at the End of the World.

Herzog seems to me to be an extremist of the human experience (i.e., Fitzcarraldo, where he dragged a full-sized riverboat over a steep hill in the South American jungle), but his latest documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World is a reverie, an almost quiet and detached look at the Yin and Yang of the new world we have created with the Internet and its related digital technologies, including AI and robotics.

The film is divided into ten chapters, stepping back and forth contrasting such techno-utopians as Elon Musk with a variety of techno-dystopians, each with a different perspective on the Internet. It opens with the birth of the Internet in a non-descript room on the Stanford. campus (now plaqued as a landmark) which contains the very first server.

From there, it turns to the Internet’s dark side with the Catsouras family, who were psychically assaulted by hackers who posted photos of their dead daughter, Nikki, online, mocking their grief. The Catsourases honestly believe the Internet is a tool of the Antichrist, an accusation I believe deserves some credit.

But alongside the awfulness, there’s geeky joy and wonder. But it’s wonder plagued with anxiety. In the end, we’re left with nervous questions about where this new world had led us and where it might lead us still.

Among the other characters we meet is an engineer who devises robots to play soccer well enough to someday, he hopes, beat Brazil (which is all very clever but . . . why?)

Some of these new techno-tricks may actually make some people sick. Herzog visits one small community of souls who have been driven off the grid due to their allergies to digital technology. They’ve take up residence near a large SETI telescope because it’s the only place where they can avoid the damaging effects of electromagnetic waves. If those solar flares—discussed in another chapter—ever wash over us and shut down the entire world’s telecommunications system, those folks may be the only humans left standing.

But “no one ever gets the future right,” as one cosmologist says. The Internet was only sparsely predicted in the popular culture of science fiction, which was busy predicting flying cars, jetpacks and vacations on Mars. Stanley Kubrick et al were off by a cosmic mile, it must be admitted. What we have is the Internet and its associated technologies to show for it all. We still remain earth-bound.

Lo and Behold isn’t one of Herzog’s most electrifying films. It’s impressionistic rather than thorough and many viewers will already be acquainted with some these debates. In this film, Herzog seems a little like your strange but adored uncle who’s just turned on his first computer for the very first time: “Wow! Whoever thought!? Lo and Behold!”

With his distinct narrative style (parodied by everyone, including himself) Herzog is the best of companions to this dangerous new world. Wherever he travels, Werner Herzog is your perfect tour guide.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Eye on Movies: "Hell or High Water" and "The Boxtrolls."







Hell or High Water is a good snapping show, the kind of movie corporate Hollywood lost the skill for long ago—the smart, well-made crackerjack thriller.

Toby Edwards (Chris Pine) and Tanner Edwards (Ben Foster) are quarrelsome brothers eking out an existence in today’s West Texas, where the once great wide open spaces are being used as a rusting trash heap for the twenty-first century, as Americans withdraw to the cities, leaving behind the big banks to suck dry whatever wealth is left from whomever they can find to exploit.

To make money, these querulous partners rob banks. Each brother comes to the job with different motives and a different approach. Toby is trying to guarantee some sort of future for his estranged son, Justin, an escape from the grinding poverty the Edwards family has known for generations. Once he makes enough to cover the mortgage on the broken-down family ranch, he figures to quit. He’s not a greedy man and while a criminal, he’s not evil. You may not like what he’s doing, but you get the why of it.

Brother Tanner is a thousand acres of trouble. Rivetingly played by Foster, he’s the real bad guy of the pair, a trigger-tempered loudmouth and ex-con who couldn’t stay out of trouble if you gave him the key to Fort Knox. He loves robbing banks for the hell of it, like Willie Sutton, but he’s truly dangerous. Tanner would be well rid of him, but sibling loyalty, along with its twin, resentment, runs deep as a mine. You just know someone’s going to buy the farm before this is over.

But as the bank robbers tear across the Texas, through landscapes beautiful like we imagine the Old West to be and desperately dreary, as they are now, trouble is on their trail. And because it’s Jeff Bridges, playing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, bringing it, we know it won’t be a smooth escape for them. By Hamilton’s side is his deputy, Alberto Parker (played by sad-eyed Gil Burningham) who suffers his boss’s oblivious racist teasing, occasionally getting him back, while sticking to his job. Their tense biting rapport make for some of the film’s best moments. Bridges brings some of the same phlegmatic gruff he brought to his Rooster Cogburn in the Coens’ True grit. The movie wouldn’t be the same without him.

Chris Pine does very well as the careful taciturn Toby. It’s pleasing to see him away from Captain Kirk in Star Trek making his own path. Unluckily, though, he’s up against a broadly written character played by a most skilled villain in Ben Foster.

It’s a brisk modern Western, well-structured with the suspense pitched tight and high, with the violence blunt, believable and not overdone. Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) has written plum roles for all four main actors and director David Mackenzie, a Brit making his first American film, allows them to run lose through the landscape magnificently framed by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens, with New Mexico dressed up as West Texas.

The dialogue is mostly excellent, occasionally didactic and sometimes muddled as both Pine and Foster, digging deep for their West Texas accents, occasionally bring up curdled oil (or maybe it’s just my hearing). The film has a fine feel for low-living, hard-bitten types strongly reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah at his most attentive and heartfelt.

But what sticks to me most about Hell or High Water is the landscapes, portraits of places once conquered, now abandoned by the conquerors to gather. The very next day after I saw it, I toured the California and the West photography exhibit now on display at SFMOMA, which contains dozens of similar photographs, full of charmless ruins. All modern empires, it seems, leave little in the way of legacies but waste and ruin.


 

At my darling wife’s request, I checked The Boxtrolls (2014) from the Berkeley Public Library’s wide selection of DVDs. For serious animation devotees and artists—not to mention kids—it’s a treat offering a fine fusion of stop-action, CG and traditional animation (and 3D if you, have it; we don’t).

The best moments come from the villain Archibald Snatcher and his giant steampunk trash incinerator marching around the Victorian town of Cheesebridge, scooping up the innocent Boxtrolls of the title. The DVD extra discussing the painstaking production process proved more fascinating to me (unusual for extras, which I’ve come to ignore).

In fact, the extras may be the best part. For viewers not supremely devoted to animation, the film plays a little flat. The dialogue is pitched low, voiced by a mostly Brit cast, including Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris (from Mad Men) and Simon Pegg, plus Americans including Elle Fanning and Tracy Morgan. The story, which, of course, celebrates tolerance, never caught fire in my soul.

Yeah, I know: maybe, just maybe, my soul is made of asbestos.



Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up  novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Eye on Movies; "Florence Foster Jenkins" and "La Tete D'Un Homme"



Righteous Lovebirds

Whatever our vocations, few of us have a real grasp of our talents. We’re either better or worse than we think we are. Sometimes much better. Sometimes much worse.

Among those whose perception most exceeded their talent was one Florence Foster Jenkins, the titular subject of one of the best, most delightful movies now playing.

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a real-life American high-society matron of the last century. Jenkins was gripped by a fantastic delusion: that she was an opera singer. And a great opera singer at that. That she was completely tone deaf is the comic underpinning of much of this good-hearted comedy, deftly directed by the excellent Stephen Frears, who has portrayed upper class folly before in such classics as Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen.

A passionate music lover, Jenkins founded the Verdi Club in New York, in 1917, an exclusive society dedicated to "fostering a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English.” What the club mostly seemed to be though was a showcase for Jenkins’ vaunting vocal extravagances. She was no post-modern, winking ironist, nor a Jack Benny, a competent musician playing for laughs; She was as real and absolute as you can get. She couldn’t hit a note in front of her, but thanks to her inherited wealth, there was nothing to stop her in her sincerity.

That the beauty she undoubtedly heard in her own ear was not heard by anyone else daunted her not one bit. Feeding her ambitions, she was safely encircled by a coterie of dedicated and loving fans (the Verdi Club had a membership of 400, including Enrico Caruso and Cole Porter). Even her vocal coach cheerfully plays along with non-compliments like “You’ve never sounded better.” The lengths some of the characters go to both protect her from the truth and from having to actually hear her sing are hilarious and charming.

Her most loyal fan of all is her partner of over 30 years, St. Clair Bayfield, a British Shakespearean actor of limited talent, but, as the movie tells us, well aware and content with it. Played with enormous brio and loving attention by Hugh Grant, Bayfield spends most of the movie juggling three balls: running between Florence and his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson); managing Florence’s career; and, most importantly, protecting Florence from the world’s slings and arrows, from the savaging she’s doomed to face when she decides to step out of her bubble and under the eye of a wider public with her legendary 1944 Carnegie Hall debut. He wins the viewer’s heart, as well.

The third pillar in the story is her long-suffering accompanist, boyish and baffled Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg as so uncomfortable in his skin, it just may slough off. McMoon is a shaky underfed chap on whom a coat of paint would look baggy. He’s equally driven, except, unlike his patron, he seems to possess great skill as a pianist. He knows he’s risking his career ambitions, but being a musician (meaning no money), he must take the job. It’s not long before he falls under Florence’s spell.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a joy for most of its two hours (though some of the performances at the bottom of the cast list are out of tune). It pulls off the difficult balancing act of getting us to root for, and delight, in Jenkins unstoppable spirit, while never forgetting the fact that, well, she stank up the room every time she took the stage. (At one point, my wife and I both cried out, “No, please no! Don’t sing that Mozart!” She tackles the “Queen of the Night” aria so hard, I nearly called for an ambulance.)

Whatever Jenkins’ lack of pitch, director Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin pitch the film just right. Most crucial of all though is the acting and in this, Meryl Streep embodies Jenkins’ deluded grandeur with exuberant perfection. She fully inhabits Florence Jenkins without a wink of condescension. It’s another superb portrait in her late-career gallery of grand eccentrics (among them, Julia Child in Julie and Julia). By embracing her with such artistry (even going so far as to actually sing like Jenkins, if this article is accurate), we embrace her as well.

That Hugh Grant matches her every step away, shunning his stuttering image to play a man of unbridled dedication, is to pay the both of them the highest of compliments. The screen is theirs.



 

Like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, is one of those detectives the movies can never let go. Even after Bruno Cremer’s successful run at the character from the 1990s to 2000s, filmmakers still turn to Georges Simenon’s novels for inspiration, with Rowan Atkinson (yes, “Mr. Bean,” that’s right) the latest to take a stab at portraying the doughy determined detective.

Where Holmes is an outsider and inspired amateur, Maigret is the professional insider, a willing cog in the system. His appeal may, in part, lie in his image as the perfect government bureaucrat: persistent, pragmatic, patient, willing to cut red tape when necessary in his pursuit of truth and justice. And, unlike Holmes, he’s not overstuffed with self-regard. He’s the clerk you hope to encounter at the DMV, the guy you most want heading the investigative team should you ever be murdered.

Belgian author Georges Simenon created his legendary detective Inspector Maigret in 1931. Movie producers seized on the books almost right away, filming them one after the other as they came out. Simenon’s fourth Maigret novel La Tete d’un Homme (Head of a Man) was first filmed in 1933 by director Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko and Tales of Manhattan).

It’s a beautifully photographed, striking film (as seen on a DVD I checked out from the Berkeley Public Library.) The plot concerns Maigret’s (Harry Bauer) unravelling of a murder plot involving, among others, an emigrant medical student (Valery Inkjinoff), who, facing death from cancer, embraces nihilism. The plot lurches about with Maigret seeming a little too passive at several points. But the atmosphere is delightfully Parisian and the camerawork often astounding: one sequence stations an inquiring detective in front of a projection screen as it dissolves from scene to scene as he conducts his interviews.

The film may seem slight. Bauer is not a particularly memorable Maigret. But the film is a treat for fans of vintage French film and Inspector Maigret.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.