“Blaze”: A Brilliant Biopic That Redefines the Genre

September 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

images-2

Ben Dickey and Alia Shawkat in “Blaze”

If biographical films all seem alike, it’s because they all suffer from the same problem: their famous subjects’ familiarity, which constrains the creativity of writers, directors and actors in equal measure. But because the country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley wasn’t famous during his brief life, “Blaze” escapes that burden. The result is glorious: a captivating exploration of life, love and art that explodes every tired biopic cliché.

Until I saw the movie a week ago I–like most people, I suspect–knew Blaze Foley’s name only because of  his song, “If I Could Only Fly,” as covered by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, and “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda Williams’s song about Foley. Perhaps because of this, Ben Dickey could choose to portray Foley’s spirit instead of merely impersonating him. It’s a beautifully nuanced and relaxed performance, and the fact that it’s Dickey’s first acting role makes it all the more astonishing. Equally impressive is the musician Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt, Foley’s best friend. Sexton imbues Van Zandt with the quiet gravity of a man prepared to sacrifice everything for art, and performs his song “Marie” uncannily. The film’s other major character, Sybil Rosen, Foley’s partner during the seventies and the co-writer of the screenplay, is played by the actress Alia Shawkat in a graceful and understated manner that belies a background in comedy.

MV5BMjE2Mjk4MjA2Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDE3MTgyNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1499,1000_AL_

Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt

The director Ethan Hawke deserves praise not only for the performances but the fascinating structure of the film, which hops nimbly back and forth in time and tells Foley’s story in different ways and from different perspectives. Instead of the usual you-are-there-watching approach, Hawke recreates the events leading up to the shooting in detail, and then portrays the crime in fragments, including Van Zandt’s recollections and Rosen’s visit to the scene afterwards. When Hawke shoots Foley’s meandering, drunken performances, he allows Dickey to play entire songs while the camera wanders leisurely through the room, following anonymous bar employees as they serve drinks, clean up broken glass and go outside to smoke. Everything is so unforced that the film seems almost plotless, except that it’s not. All the threads of the story lead inexorably to premature death, both depicted and foreshadowed. Foley’s came in 1989 and Van Zandt’s in 1997, of heart failure caused by alcoholism and heroin addiction.

Long before Foley’s life ends, Sybil Rosen leaves him to his alcoholic self-destruction, but “Blaze” is not as sad as you might think. Rosen saves herself and becomes the artist she’s meant to be, while Foley courts death, achieves it, and gains posthumous fame.  As Van Zandt says, “If you wanna to write a song, everyone’s gonna tell you you gotta live that song. But that’s not it: you’re going to have to die–a little.”

Ethan Hawke understands this, and now we do too. “Blaze” is not only the best film I’ve seen about a musician; it might also be the best biopic, and an indelible achievement in filmmaking. Future directors of the genre will have Hawke’s formidable example to live up to, and I look forward to seeing what they take from it.

 

Advertisements

“The Wife”: Glenn Close’s Oscar Bait, Built on Literary Lies

August 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Glenn Close in “The Wife”

There’s a wonderful scene in “The Wife” that will probably win Glenn Close an Oscar. As her Nobel Laureate husband Joe (Jonathan Pryce) delivers a sappy paean to her role as his literary muse and helpmate, Joan Castleman sits silently while an array of emotions–disbelief, regret, betrayal and rage–pass across her face like fast-moving clouds. It’s a master class in acting that no viewer will ever forget, and a capstone of Close’s distinguished career.

Unfortunately, it occurs in a so-so movie built on a false premise: that Joan, whose literary brilliance is already in evidence during her undergraduate years at Smith in the late 1950’s, must choose between failure as a woman writer and success as her husband’s ghostwriter. After falling in love with Joe, her married English professor, Joan chooses the latter path while working for a New York publisher, whose editors are seen rejecting all manuscripts written by women. Meanwhile Joe, whom she’s supporting (because their adulterous affair has blackballed him from Ivy League teaching jobs, he says–which never happened back then) is more than happy to encourage his wife’s self-defeating attitude. Soon she’s rewriting his turgid, rejected first novel, which is promptly published and becomes a literary best seller. After this coup, Joan continues ghost writing for Joe for the next thirty years, producing a shelf of acclaimed novels under the name of a man who barely reads them. Then he wins the Nobel Prize, and the trouble begins.

I call bullshit, but not on screenwriter of “The Wife,” Jane Anderson, or its director, Björn Runge. The responsible party is Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the novel of the same name and whose premise so far has escaped scrutiny. Critics who are unacquainted with the period could simply search online for American women writers of the 1950’s and find Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith and Mary McCarthy, for starters. Or they could look at the Wikipedia page on 20th century American women writers, which has nearly four thousand entries. But apparently no one has bothered, so it falls to me.

[/caption]In the film, Joan is first glimpsed (in a lovely portrayal by Annie Starke, Glenn Close’s daughter) as a Smith student in 1958. At the time Smith was probably the best possible college for woman writers, with a faculty that included Mary Ellen Chase, one of the most famous English professors and literary critics of her generation. Recently Smith had  graduated a literary star: Sylvia Plath, class of ’55, who was a nationally published writer of short stories and poetry at twenty, won a Fulbright and earned a graduate degree at Cambridge. Guess who was back at Smith teaching in 1958? Plath, who no doubt would have taught Joan Castleman if Joan weren’t fictitious. With her slew of prizes, publications and fellowships, Sylvia Plath would have been a much better role model for Joan than Elaine Mozell (Elizabeth McGovern), the film’s lady writer, who tells Joan that even if she’s published she’ll never be read, so why bother? The fact that Elaine strongly resembles Mary McCarthy, Vassar ’33, makes this assertion even more bizarre, since by the mid-1950’s McCarthy had accomplished all of Joan’s goals: literary success, fame, massive book sales, marriage and family. Far from being lonely and unread, McCarthy recently had spent two years on the New York Times best seller list (with The Group) and would remain a leading literary figure for the rest of her life.

Baffled by this counterfactual history, I did a little research on Meg Wolitzer. It turns out she went to Smith–before transferring to Brown, from which she graduated in 1981. The Wife  therefore might be interpreted as a slam against her orignal alma mater. Still, there’s little doubt that Wolitzer was aware of Mary Ellen Chase during her time there, and none that she was well-acquainted with Plath, who arguably is Smith’s most famous alumna. Another striking biographical detail is the literary career of Wolitzer’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer, a novelist who, despite being close to Joan Castleman’s age, has somehow managed to publish a number of books.

It’s a shame that one of the rare films that deals with literature is hollow at its core, but that’s what sinks “The Wife”. The idea that Joan is forced by sexism into thirty years of fraudulent literary servitude is so absurd that even Glenn Close’s bravura performance can’t redeem it. As for Wolitzer, she should be glad that Mary McCarthy, a master of the literary put-down, isn’t alive to deliver the sharp-tongued rebuke her premise deserves.

“Nico, 1988”: A Biopic Worthy of Its Beautiful, Enigmatic Subject

August 3, 2018 § Leave a comment

Trine Dyrholm in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988”

Nico Circa 1988

It means a lot to me that the only two theatrical releases I saw in July, both excellent, were directed by women: first Deborah Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” and then Susanna Nicchiarelli’s “Nico, 1988.” When I arrived in Los Angeles with filmmaking ambitions in 1989, any untried young male had a better chance of directing than the most qualified woman, and screenplays by women were generally rejected because they didn’t appeal to the coveted 14-year-old boy demographic. Thus it’s gratifying to see that women directors are now being given a chance, and even some money, to make their films.

I had no particular expectations of “Nico, 1988,” though I was very interested in its tragic subject. For those unfamiliar with Nico, she began as a teenage model and actress in the late 1950’s but achieved her greatest fame as an Andy Warhol Factory girl in the mid-late 1960’s. During those years, she starred in some of Warhol’s films (notably “Chelsea Girls”) but more importantly reinvented herself as a musician, singing with the Velvet Underground and making important connections in the music world–not only with Lou Reed but Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. Two of her early hits, “These Days,” and “The Fairest of the Seasons,” were written for her by the teenage Jackson Brown, and decades later brought Nico a new audience and respect when Wes Anderson used them in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”

Nico Circa 1965

I was a young child when Nico first appeared on the scene, and can remember the universally low regard she enjoyed as a performer. The general opinion was that Warhol paired her with the Velvet Underground solely for her looks, which happened to be spectacular: long blond hair, huge green eyes, high cheekbones, bee stung lips. Nico’s singing voice–low, droning and German-accented–was compared to a foghorn, which was not a compliment. The only critic I know of who saw beyond her Teutonic pulchritude was Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice, who wrote, “She sings in perfect mellow ovals. It sounds like a cello getting up in the morning.” (Nevertheless, he made a point of calling her “half goddess, half icicle.”)

By the opening of “Nico, 1988,” Warhol’s goddess is unrecognizable. Pushing fifty, she’s a longtime heroin addict with a heavier frame, rotting teeth, bad skin and dark hair. Living badly in Manchester and performing in tiny clubs, she’s a has-been. Though the only similarity between the current Nico and the old is her bangs, all she’s ever asked about is her Warhol-Velvet Underground days. Steering interviews toward her current music is as difficult as turning a cargo ship, but she never stops trying. “Call me Christa,” she says at one point, but almost no one ever uses her real name. Nevertheless, it’s not all bad. Nico has continued to write and record music, and her new songs have a power Lou Reed never guessed at. Her performing style has evolved, too: no longer a laconic mannequin, she belts out “Janitor of Lunacy” like the punk rocker she is.

Nico has a manager of sorts, Richard (John Gordon Sinclair), a club owner who is secretly in love with her. Richard soon takes her on the road with her marginally talented band, cramming everyone into a Land Rover for a European tour of unmatched grottiness. After some dispiriting dates in France and Italy, they go to Prague for what turns out to be an illegal concert. Worse yet, there’s no heroin. Nevertheless, Nico gives an electrifying performance before the police arrive, forcing the entire group to flee for the border. Around this time, Nico is also reunited with her son (by Alain Delon) Ari (Sandor Funtek), who by his mid-twenties has followed his mother into heroin addiction and suicide attempts. Improbably, they both embark on methadone treatment and, when the film ends in the summer of 1988, seem to be recovering.

Nico is wonderfully played by the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, who manages to sound exactly like her when she sings. Unfortunately, Dyrholm looks nothing like Nico apart from her hair, and Nicchiarelli makes no attempt to increase the resemblance. Still, the film is beautiful, its dream-like qualities enhanced by Jonas Mekas’s footage of Warhol, the Velvet Underground and the real Nico. Archival footage is sometimes a distraction, but in “Nico 1988” it slips in effortlessly, before evaporating like the gorgeous memory it is.

Remembering Jonathan Gold

July 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

Today would have been Jonathan Gold’s 58th birthday, which I’m sure he would have celebrated with a fabulous meal at one of the countless restaurants he championed during his years as the food critic for the LA Weekly and the LA Times. His unexpected death from cancer two weeks ago was a shock that Angelenos are still absorbing; whether or not we knew him personally, Gold was a familiar presence in our lives. In luring us to hidden gastronomic gems all over Los Angeles County, he gave us a taste of adventure that was as thrilling as the food.

Having listened faithfully to his “Good Food on the Road” segment on KCRW for years, I wonder who will tell me where to eat—and more importantly, where not to eat—in the future. Whoever it is, I wish him/her good luck in succeeding the first and only food critic to win a Pulitzer. Also, ixnay on using the second person in reviews, which was Gold’s trademark.

Two years ago, he was the subject of a very good documentary, “City of Gold.” I wrote about it (along with “Knight of Cups”), and recommend it highly:

Two Cinematic Tours of Los Angeles: “Knight of Cups” and “City of Gold”

March 24, 2016 § 2 Comments

At the Stahl House in “Knight of Cups”

Downtown Los Angeles in “City of Gold”

Since the early 20th century, Los Angeles has been the city that outsiders have loved to hate, usually based on fleeting touristic impressions. But no matter what the haters say, indignant reactions from the home crowd are few and far between. There are two reasons for this: 1) Angelenos don’t care what outsiders think of Los Angeles. 2) The last thing Angelenos want for people to move here, so all deterrents are welcome.

In L.A.-bashing, as in most matters, context is crucial. When Woody Allen wrote that L.A.’s “only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light,” he was a non-driving visitor to Beverly Hills and the Sunset Strip. How could he know about either local culture or driving? And when David Bowie said, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth,” he was referring to his near-fatal cocaine abuse in Los Angeles. (Never mind that his addiction began years earlier, in London.) Ironically, Bowie spent a fair amount of time in Los Angeles over the course of his long career, making movies, collecting awards, appearing on talk shows and recording one of his best albums, “Station to Station,” in Hollywood. Yet he clung to the opinions he formed while high in the back of limos and darkened hotel rooms.

I was thinking about all of this as I watched the new Terrence Malick film, “Knight of Cups.” The plot, such as it is, concerns Rick (Christian Bale), an improbably attractive screenwriter who meanders around Los Angeles (with side trips to Death Valley and Las Vegas), his mind veering back and forth in time. Rick covers a lot of miles, yet he never writes a word. In fact, the closest he comes to working is meeting up with his agents, twice at CAA (Century City) and once at (I think) the Warner Bros. back lot (Burbank). But who has time for writing when there are so many women to recall? Apart from Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, most of Rick’s paramours are young models who wear filmy dresses (or less) and extremely high heels. (FYI, Terrence Malick: real L.A. women favor pants and shoes they can walk in.)

Fortunately, the places in the movie are decidedly real. Even the most over-the-top party (hosted by Antonio Banderas, though for me the highlight was the appearance of Joe Lo Truglio) takes place in well-known location: a massive Versailles-like mansion in Beverly Hills. Rick goes downtown (Broadway, the Bonaventure, etc), to the beach (constantly), to LACMA (Mid-Wilshire) and the Huntington Gardens (San Marino). He lives in a well-known industrial-looking apartment (the Gallery Lofts in Marina Del Rey), although I’m pretty sure that no one has seen a naked woman in six-inch heels talking on the phone on the balcony. Among the many visual highs are a twilight photo shoot at the Stahl House (Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #22), gorgeous shots of Venice and PCH, and footage of the L.A. River and the tracks at Union Station. In short, it’s a film is by Emanuel Lubeski, with tiny amounts of dialogue and large amounts of voiceover written by Malick.

As the film washed over me, I was surprised at how many of the locations I had visited, not only architectural gems like the Broadway Theaters, the Stahl House and the Annenberg Beach House but a street in Hancock Park three blocks from where I used to live. For outsiders, “Knight of Cups” is a dream-like look at a great swath of Los Angeles–at least the rich, white, show biz side of it. But for those of us who live here, it’s much more: a trippy, deluxe home movie shot by three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer.

Coincidentally, I saw “Knight of Cups” on the same weekend as “City of Gold,” the new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Like the Malick film, “City of Gold” provides a beautiful, in-depth tour of Los Angeles, though a less rarefied one–e.g., no naked women in towering designer shoes and many ordinary people, all of whom have jobs. Gold is a native Angeleno whose knowledge of L.A. is profound and inclusive. Intrepid and expert in most of the world’s cuisines, he takes us to a wide variety of notable restaurants, two of which happen to be food trucks. The wonderful street scenes in “City of Gold” show the real Los Angeles: a multi-racial, multi-cultural vibrant megacity. The documentary also contains this truth: Los Angeles is beyond the grasp of those who, in Gold’s words, “come for a couple of weeks, stay in a hotel in Beverly Hills, take in what they can get to within ten minutes in their rented car and [then] explain to you what Los Angeles is.”

Advertisements

Remembering Shinobu Hashimoto, Japan’s Greatest Screenwriter–and the 20th Century’s

July 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa in the 1950’s

Few centenarians’ deaths come as a shock, but last Thursday’s announcement of Shinobu Hashimoto’s passing at 100 marked the end of an era. Hashimoto, whose blazing career with Akira Kurosawa began with “Rashomon” and continued through the decades with such classics as “Ikiru,” “Seven Samurai,” “Throne of Blood,” “The Bad Sleep Well,” and “Dodes’Ka-Den,” was a giant of cinema, and not just in Japan. His screenplays, whether written alone or in collaboration, have resonated throughout the world since 1950, their relevance unfaded by time and trends.

Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe in “Ikiru”/Courtesy Toho Films

Though deservedly famous for the samurai films that brought fame to Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, his most important leading man, Hashimoto was equally renown for his contemporary films. Poverty, wartime devastation and existential dread were his themes, and he explored them with compassion and an unsparing eye for everyday cruelty. In “Ikiru,” my favorite film of all time (if I had to choose just one), Watanabe, the dying bureaucrat, not only finds life’s meaning in his remaining two months but does so in secret because his doctor has withheld his fatal diagnosis, as was the Japanese custom until recently. Watanabe’s only son treats him with disdain and his daughter-in-law regards him as a nuisance; neither will listen as he tries to break the news of his impending death. So Hashimoto, after granting the abstemious Watanabe a brief period of hedonism, sets him on a path to greatness: creating a park from an urban swampland, against almost insurmountable odds.

In “I Live in Fear,” Nakajima, a foundry owner, is so convinced of a coming nuclear war that he decides to move his family to the safe haven of Brazil. His family responds by having him declared incompetent. “Dodes’kad-den,” explores the daily lives of impoverished shantytown residents, including a boy who lives in a fantasy world in which he imagines himself a tram conductor.

Beyond his work with Kurosawa, Hashimoto wrote for other major directors of his time. His screenplays for “Summer Clouds” and “Whistle in My Heart” became two of Mikio Naruse’s best late-period films. “Harakiri,” for Masaki Kobayashi, is considered a masterpiece.

Still, it’s not necessary to have seen any of these films to know Hashimoto’s work well. “Seven Samurai” became “The Magnificent Seven;” “Ikiru” spawned “Breaking Bad;” “Hidden Fortress” inspired “Star Wars.” And even the least cinematically inclined are familiar with “Rashomon,” which has entered the English language as a word for conflicting yet true accounts. It’s hard to imagine life without these touchstones, all of which sprang from the pen of Shinobu Hashimoto, who survived World War II and tuberculosis to forge an unparalleled and unforgettable body of work.

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in “Rashomon”

My related articles:
https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2014/01/26/the-japanese-masterpiece-at-the-heart-of-breaking-bad-akira-kurosawas-ikiru/

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/awakened-by-impending-death-the-transformational-heroes-of-ikiru-and-breaking-bad/

“Leave No Trace,” 2018’s Best Film So Far

July 12, 2018 § Leave a comment

Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie in Deborah Graynik’s “Leave No Trace”


For years I watched several movies a week in theaters and more at home; hundreds per year. These days I rarely set foot in theaters, and the last film I saw in one was a documentary. As for features, what little isn’t of the superhero/action variety is usually unsatisfying, and often forgotten by the time I get home.

Further complicating matters are the increasingly compelling original series on streaming services. Nothing I’ve seen in this year has interested me as much as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Crown,” so why make the trip to ArcLight? Fortunately, some relief has arrived via Deborah Graynik’s new film, “Leave No Trace.” Will, a war veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) hides from civilization in the woods outside Portland with his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie). Father and daughter live harmoniously in primitive conditions until their inevitable discovery by park rangers. Though their re-entry into society yields mixed results, there are no villains or platitudes in “Leave No Trace,” and no violence. Social workers are sensitive and kind, as are Will and Tom’s new neighbors, but Will’s problems have no easy solutions.

Foster and McKenzie are brilliant actors, though it pains me that American characters in this quintessentially American movie are played by an Australian and a New Zealander. Aside from that, I can find no fault with “Leave No Trace.” The film is visually beautiful, as would be expected from its Pacific Northwest setting, but more crucially it captures the passage of time as only film can do. For anyone who longs for movies about humans rather than superheroes, this one’s for you.

“First Reformed”: Paul Schrader’s Homage to (or Rip-Off of) Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light”

May 14, 2018 § 4 Comments

Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theater, May 10 2018/Hope Anderson Productions


Spoiler Alert: This review contains plot details
Paul Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” is about faith and the loss of it. Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of an austere Dutch Calvinist church in upstate New York, is a man in mourning for his dead son and failed marriage. Spurning the romantic attentions of his ex-girlfriend, Esther, and suffering from a serious illness he’s determined not to treat, Toller subsists mostly on alcohol while going through the motions of his job. Not that it matters, as only a handful of parishioners show up at services. In fact, First Reformed survives only because it is supported by a much larger church whose leader, Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) regards it as historical monument: before the Civil War, it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As part of his preservation effort, the well-meaning Jeffers tries to minister to the alcoholic and faithless Toller, to no avail.

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”


In his journal Toller writes: “I know that nothing can change and I know there is no hope.” Yet both arrive on his doorstep in the form of a young couple who seek his counsel. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant and desperately worried about her husband Michael, an environmental activist who pressures Mary to have an abortion rather than bring a child into a world beset by climate change. Rev. Toller sets out to persuade Michael to embrace life, but instead is quickly seduced by his nihilism. Michael’s suicide propels Toller to greater extremes, even as he embarks on a friendship with Mary that progresses into love.

Paul Schrader, who was raised in a Calvinist church so extreme that he didn’t see a movie until he was 17, knows Christianity’s downside well. So did Ingmar Bergman, whose father, a Lutheran minister, meted out punishments at odds with the teachings of Christ. Set in winter, “First Reformed” reminded me so much of Bergman’s films that I mentioned it to my seatmate, who brought up “Winter Light.” Never having seen this 1963 film, I watched it afterwards and was astounded at the similarities, from the plot to the glasses worn by the lovelorn female characters.

Gunar Björnstrand and Max von Sydow in “Winter Light”


Like Toller, Tomas (Gunar Björnstrand) is the pastor of a small country church with a dwindling congregation. Middle-aged and widowed, he ministers with all the passion of an office worker clocking time until retirement. As does Toller, he mistreats his ex-girlfriend Märta (Ingrid Thulin), who remains desperately in love even as he repeatedly rejects her. Speaking directly at the camera, Märta responds:

I see I did it all wrong….Every time I’ve hated you I’ve made an effort to turn it into compassion….Nothing can save you–you’ll hate yourself to death.

Before he can, however, Tomas hastens the demise of a depressed congregant who, like Michael, comes to him at the behest of his wife. Jonas Persson (Max von Sydow) is suicidal because the Chinese have threatened to use nuclear weapons. Instead of reassuring him, Tomas insists on confessing his own loss of faith:

If there is no God, would it really make a difference? Life would become understandable. What a relief. And thus death would be a snuffing out of life, the dissolution of body and soul. Cruelty, loneliness and fear–all these things would be straightforward and transparent….There is no Creator.

With help like that, why go on? Jonas doesn’t but Tomas does, forging ahead with his ministry because the long-suffering Märta shows up at church when no one else does. A single devoted parishioner is enough, apparently.

Though “First Reformed” has a much more tragic ending, its similarities to “Winter Light” are beyond coincidental. At the screening I attended last week, Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke spoke at length about “First Reformed,” yet neither acknowledged “Winter Light,” much less credited it as source material. Having seen both, I think Bergman’s film is far better–moving, profound and indelible. Schrader falls back on magic realism and violence to drive home the message of “First Reformed.” Bergman, the unequaled master of realism, needed neither.