Criterion Fridays – Make Way For Tomorrow

Make Way For Tomorrow (1937, dir. Leo McCarey)
Starring Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi

The economy is bad. Unemployment. The Housing Market. Small Businesses. Crashing every day. During The Great Depression, cinema reflected this moment in history where the common man was struggling to make ends meet. People were losing their homes, ending up jobless and on the streets, and Hollywood wasn’t afraid to put that up on the screen.There were many escapist pictures in the theaters during the Great Depression, particularly musicals, but even those had elements of the financial struggles people were under going. Not so now. Particularly during the summer, we have mindless film after mindless film, featuring people so distant and out of touch with our own reality that, for myself, I become disengaged. What I am shocked to see is reality reflected on the screen.

Barkley and Lucy have been married for fifty years when the bank notifies them that their home for all this time is being taken away. Barkley hasn’t worked in four years and he and Lucy don’t have enough money for a new place right away. They contact their four adult children and explain the situation. Behind the couple’s back, the children fight about who will take them, with it being decided that Lucy will go to stay with George, the eldest son, and Barkley will go to Cora, the eldest daughter. Lucy soon finds George’s wife and teenaged daughter don’t care for her presence in the home. Hundreds of miles away, Barkley has come down with a cold and is bedridden. Cora is infuriated she has to deal with him, but puts on the facade of a caring daughter when the doctor comes calling.

Make Way For Tomorrow introduces an idea that would still be controversial today in many circles: Do not live your life as a parent completely when you have children, you must have a definition outside of that. The children in the film are not monsters; stepping back when can see things from their point of view. But we also sympathize greatly with Barkley and Lucy, they truly gave every thing they had to their children and it may have not been the smartest move. Once their children became adults they vanished from their parents’ lives and only now have becoming aware of the financial situation back home. The relationship between Barkley and Lucy is deeply loving, its rare that I see a couple on screen when I completely buy their relationship. The paths the film leads them down are not happy ones, like the title suggests, it becomes about accepting change in your life.

Orson Welles said of this film that “it would make a stone cry”. He was exactly right. The love between these people is so pure and beautiful. The final sequence of the film involves them taking an unexpected car ride to the hotel where they honeymooned fifty years earlier. The coat check girl, the hotel manager, every one treats them in the way we wish their children did. The drinks are on the house, the band conductor plays an old tune when Barkley and Lucy hit the dance floor. Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi master these characters with a sly humor that undercuts a lot of the sadness that pervades the film. It doesn’t end on a hopeful note, but a realistic one, an admonition that life changes in ways don’t want. We are powerless to fight it, so instead we should embrace the people around us.


It Should Be A Movie – Girls

Girls (2005-2007)
24 issues, Written and Illustrated by Jonathan and Joshua Luna, Image Comics

In the 1970s there was a renaissance period for both horror and science fiction. Of course there was still schlock being made but there was also a lot of thought provoking speculative fiction presented to the movie going public. These films used the facade of the fantastic to talk about modern day issues and challenges. Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth looked at how fame corrupts once noble endeavors. Mad Max dealt with the fears of lawlessness. A Clockwork Orange chose to examine the ways in which society seeks to erase the individual by examining the most despicable element. A film adaptation of Girls would follow in the footsteps of these films as a picture looking at relevant social issues in a fresh inventive way and it would haunt the audience for a long time after.

In the fictional locale of Pennystown, USA the young Ethan Daniels is tossed out on ass after getting drunk and causing trouble at the local bar. Stumbling his way home, Daniels comes across a naked young woman who appears to not be able to speak. In his alcoholic haze he brings her to his house where he tries to get her to talk, instead she forces herself on him and they have sex. In the morning, Daniels gets the authorities but when they return to his home they find she has laid several eggs that hatch into full grown duplicates of herself. These strange women wander the town, killing any woman they come in contact and attempting to mate with any male. The townspeople attempt to leave Pennystown but find it surrounded by an opaque white  dome that has cut off their communication with the outside world. In addition there is what appears to be a giant sperm in a field outside town. Tensions build as the women begin to see the men as weak and pathetic, as many of them succumb to the strange women, only exacerbating the problem and creating more of the savage creatures.

In a country where we hear permissive sex being blamed for all society’s ills, the Luna Brothers examine that idea more closely by sequestering these townspeople and discovering how they behave when sex becomes weaponized. While the actual science fiction elements don’t have a tight wrap up (things are left fairly ambiguous) , the story is a springboard for fascinating character interaction. The townspeople are variety of races, ages, and sexualities. One character is revealed as being gay in a rather gruesome way. This is comparable to films like Lifeboat or Cube, where you have people thrown into a pressure cooker and we sit back and watch how all the tension and building violence plays out.

The look of the comic is so crisp, clean, and symmetrical I was reminded of the way Kubrick would frame a shot. That in mind someone like a Paul Thomas Anderson would be already adept to film this. Even more than that, I see Duncan Jones, who brought us the minimalist science fiction masterpiece Moon being tailor made for a project like Girls. With Moon he showed us that the climax we expect for a film is not necessarily the one that is appropriate for the story. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Ethan Daniels and think you would have a very fascinating film on your hands. In many ways it would be the opposite of Pandorum, released in 2009, where a awesome sci-fi premise was abandoned in favor of thoughtless action. So while we wait for Hollywood to greenlight a Girls film, do yourself a favor and pick up the collected volumes.

Newbie Wednesdays – The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

M. Night and I have a long history together. The first film I saw my freshman year of college was The Sixth Sense. It terrified me. Now, with a decade of film obsession behind me, it takes a lot to creep me out that badly, and I look at The Sixth Sense as a very sad atmospheric film, still good though. His next film, Unbreakable, is still one of my favorite comic book films, in that is captures a certain idea of superheroes that I’ve never seen another film come close to. About there is where my love for the director ended. I’ve seen every film he’s made in the theater, the only other director who I have done that with is Christopher Nolan, sort of the antithesis of Shyamalan. While Nolan produces better and better films, Shyamalan only gives diminishing returns. This latest, his first foray into adapting an already established property, is an utter disaster.

If you haven’t seen the Nickelodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (I’ve only seen the first five episodes) here’s the premise. In a fantasy world, the planet is ruled by the four elemental nations: Fire Nation, Air Nation, Earth Nation, and Water Nation. A hundred years before the start, the Air Nation was wiped out and the Fire Nation began its quest to spread its empire across the globe. Two Water Nation children, Katara and Sokka, discover a little boy frozen in ice. Once thawed, they learn he is Aang, the last of the airbenders and the one destined be the Avatar, meaning control over all four elements. Searching for the Avatar is Prince Zuko, the exiled son of the Fire Nation king. He sails the world, hoping to prove his might to his father by bringing him the Avatar. Zuko’s forces become aware of Aang and epic battles ensue.

The concept here is ready made for a film franchise, and it has the potential to be as popular and well loved as Harry Potter. It’s a rich, complex universe that doesn’t pander to kids. It treats them like intelligent beings who can handle more than stand alone episodes. The film however, creates a narrative mess. One of the elements of screenwriting that you’ll find is seen as a no-no is voice over exposition. Its passable at the beginning of the film, just to set up the story, but when large chunks of the movie are rushed over and explained with voice over you have a major problem. The sort of things being summed up in a sentence by Katara, the narrator, are romantic relationships, something that you have to earn from your audience, make us care that these two people get together. Not so, and Shyamalan has never been too good with romantic relationships.

This is an incredibly faithful adaptation in terms of story elements, hence the rushed exposition as Shymalan tried to condense 20 episodes of the first season into 90 minutes. Motivations are cast out the window for the sake of hitting plot points. The most glaring omission from the the series though, is the sense of humor. In the cartoon Aang is a mischievous klutz who is both the hero and the comic relief. Katara and Sokka are also not great warriors and don’t master their abilities in the series near as quickly as their movie counterparts did. To delete the humor and sense of growing into these powers sort of turns the film into something that an unfamiliar audience member won’t enjoy and neither will a die hard fan of the cartoon. There really is no audience for this type of film, and its sad because the failure of this picture probably dooms the chances of a different director coming onboard and correcting things. And once again, we have to wonder how many chances does Shyamalan get before they revoke that DGA card?

Wild Card Tuesdays – Right At Your Door

Right At Your Door (2005, dir. Chris Gorak)
Starring Mary McKormack, Rory Cochrane

The concept of Right At Your Door has the makings of an amazing movie. The story is relegated to single home with a small number of cast (2 lead, 2 supporting) and brings up topics and themes very relevant to modern America. With all of these elements present, you would expect the film to be good. Sadly, it never really becomes about anything. It touches on a lot of ideas briefly, then abandons them, then collapses as film that never really goes anywhere. Its definitely working hard to be important but the substance isn’t there. It’s truly disappointing though, because it could have been one of the best films about post-9/11 America.

It’s a normal weekday morning in Los Angeles, Brad makes sure Lexi wakes up on time so she can head downtown for work. A few hours after she leaves, news reports come on talking about a series of coordinated explosions that have gone off in the most densely crammed traffic areas of the city. Authorities believe these were dirty bombs and that people need to stay in their homes, sealing their doors and windows off. Brad tries to head down but police have things blocked, so he gives up and waits in his home, terrified that Lexi is dead. However, Lexi turns up at the house, after Brad has sealed it off and now the heavy weight of confronting mortality is before them.

I see this as an awesome stage play. Two actors on stage, divided by a prop door. Very minimalist and very open to exploring lots of ideas about relationships, love, death, and the effects of terrorism and fear on contemporary America. Instead, the film has a great set up, I was completely onboard and ready to take this journey. And when Lexi first shows up after the explosion things are interesting, Brad is very torn. However, the film becomes repetitive in a way that is a technique of stalling. The picture is an hour and a half long and the screenplay doesn’t seem to know how to stretch that one day out in an interesting way. So all sorts of ludicrous things are thrown in. A friend of the couple shows up, a neighborhood child is wandering the street, there’s gestapo like military wandering the city. But it never adds up to a point, never reaches the profound pinnacle that it feels like it should. Instead we get a third act twist that is technically plausible, feels forced as a way to end the film on  quasi interesting note.

DocuMondays – Prodigal Sons

Prodigal Sons (2008, dir. Kimberly Reed)

It is impossible to watch this film and not be affected in someway. It is one of the most inside looks at a family and their struggles, particularly with mental illness. I can’t say I have ever seen a documentary that captured such intensely intimate and violent moments on film. While the details of this particular family may seem drastically different from your own, when looking at the core nature of the relationships it is like any other: there is a lot of emotional pain and little done to resolve it for years. It’s one of those documentaries that is bound to ignite arguments about what is incited by the director and what is the natural progression of these people in this situation.

Kimberly used to be Paul, the high school quarterback and basketball center. After leaving Helena, Montana as a teen, she moved to San Francisco and embraced her life as a woman. Meanwhile, older adopted brother Marc was in a car accident that left him permanently brain damaged. Marc has trouble building new memories and for him Kim is Paul. In addition, youngest brother Todd he came out of the closet and moved away to California. The center of the film is the three brothers issues of identity as it relates to their relationships with each other. Marc is having trouble with medication that is used to balance him and lashes out repeatedly in violent ways that chill you to the bone. This is told through the filter of Kim, who is angry that Marc still thinks of her as Paul, and its unsure if this is a choice Paul is making or if he is physically incapable of permanently processing this.

The documentary is sold in its trailer as being about the discovery of Marc’s biological family. It turns out he was the son of Rebecca Welles, daughter of director Orson. Kim follows with her camera as Marc travels to Croatia and meets Welles’ lover Oda Kodar. Kim and Marc seem to bond over this trip and it appears that he has control over his temper. The next time they meet up though, Marc flips out about a broken gas gauge on a truck and physically assaults Kim, all of it recorded on camera. Things continue downhill at the family Christmas when Marc brutally tackles Todd from behind, police are called, and Marc grabs a knife. He ends up in a mental institution. Tragically, Marc died as the result of a seizure in May of 2010.

The film has to re-find its footing a few times as it starts out as being about Kim returning to Helena for the first time as a woman. It quickly becomes about she and Marc’s relationship, in particular his jealousy at never being the “good one”. Kim was the straight A student and star athlete. Marc was held back in preschool and drank and partied to excess. Now that Marc has suffered this injury he has faded from being able to impress, now he appears to use his disability to make every family get together about himself. But how much does Kim incite and how much is Marc manipulating? The film never completely answers this, but it will stay in your mind for a long time.

Character Actor Month – Part 1

What is a Character Actor, you ask? Think of a Coen Brothers film, O Brother Where Art Thou? for example. George Clooney is the lead. Clooney will always be the lead of almost whatever film he is in. You can say the same about Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts and so on. These actors have been categorized as “lead actors” meaning its general accepted that they are relatable enough to carry a film on their own. Yawn. Lead actors are incredibly boring, in my opinion. The most interesting roles are those of the character actor; an actor who has so captured a certain type or one who has taken the role of supporting characters in films. In O Brother Where Art Thou? John Tutturo and John Goodman are the character actors. These are the Ned Beatties, the Luis Guzmans, the Amy Sedarises. And many times, its the character actors who can make a terrible film actually watchable.

Stephen Tobolowsky (IMDB credits: 200 roles; Groundhog Day, Memento, Deadwood, Glee)

“That first step is a doooozy.” For most of this is the line that cemented Stephen Tobolowsky into our psyches, I know it was for me. It was Ned Ryerson, the annoying insurance salesman and former high school classmate of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. In that role, Tobolowsky was able to repeat the same performance again and again, and somehow made Ned increasingly more annoying with each iteration. Tobolowsky is a Dallas native and made his film debut in 1976. It wasn’t until later pictures, like Spaceballs, that audiences really took notice of his face. Beyond simply being an actor, Tobolowsky has become a well known personality in Hollywood due to his skilled abilities as a storyteller. He co-wrote True Stories with David Byrne after, according to Mr. Tobolowsky, staring at Byrne worldlessly for two hours and making pencil drawings related to plot ideas. If you can track it down, and I never have been able to, there is a documentary featuring his storytelling titled Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.

Michael Lerner
(IMDB credits: 158 roles; The Candidate, Barton Fink, Newsies, Elf, A Serious Man)

Lerner is known by his trademark silver hair and an educated Brooklyn accent. I remember him best as Jack Lipnick, the fast talking Hollywood producer who expresses his utter confidence in screenwriter Barton Fink, that is until Fink actually turns in his first script which transforms Lipnick into an apocalyptic figure of rage. Lerner got his start as a television guest spotter, popping up on The Brady Bunch and The Rockford Files, before transitioning to films as a supporting actor. No matter where he shows up, he is instantly recognizable, in particular I remember him in Safe Men (1995), a very small independent film, where he plays crime boss Big Fat Ernie Gayle who accidentally hires two singers (Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn) as safe crackers. Gayle has a son, Bernie, Jr. who dresses and behaves like his father minature clone, as well as a henchmen named Veal Chop (Paul Giamatti). A very odd film, but full of great work from other character actors as well.

Beth Grant (IMDB credits: 142, Rain Man, Donnie Darko, The Rookie, Little Miss Sunshine, No Country For Old Men, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, King of the Hill)

She really doubts your commitment to Sparklemotion. The role of the uptight conservative Christian schoolteacher in Donnie Darko has cemented itself in the minds of many of my peers and it was definitely a standout in an amazing career like Beth Grant’s. Grant was born in Alabama and its hard to believe she is 60 years old. The character type that she seems to have captured is the one mentioned above, a rules stickler and a Bible thumper. As a youth she was an incredibly accomplished young woman, working as a page in the North Carolina Senate and being recognized as a talented and gifted student by the North Carolina governor. Grant is a staunch liberal and enjoys creating these characters audiences love to hate, which she admits are based off certain people she grew up around who expressed very narrow minded views. Grant has taken her energy from years involved in politics and transferred them into a career that would exhaust the most energetic twentysomething, not only taking on multiple film and television roles a year, but also working in live theater for which she has won multiple awards.

Brad Dourif (IMDB credits: 133, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dune, Blue Velvet, Child’s Play, Alien: Ressurection, The Lord of the Rings)

One of the most recognizable actors I’ll be talking about, Dourif has had a character actor’s dream of a career. His second film was his breakout role as poor tragic Billy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and he has kept working ever since. Even in film duds like David Lynch’s Dune or the dismal tv mini-series Wild Palms, Dourif is always a standout. He’s just one of the actors with the wonderful combination of an interesting look and awesome talent. Dourif lent his voice to the killer doll Chucky in the Child’s Play series which has garnered him a huge following in the horror film community and, what is likely his biggest role to date, he played the bewitching Grima Wormtongue in The Two Towers and The Return of the King. Dourif dipped his toe in playing the lead early in his career, most prominently in John Huston’s Wise Blood, a film that is by no means perfect but showcases the intensity Dourif brings to every role.

Margo Martindale (IMDB credits: 71, Lonesome Dove, The Rocketeer, Dead Man Walking, The Hours, Million Dollar Baby, Dexter, Paris Je’Taime, Walk Hard, Hung, Hannah Montana: The Movie)

Margo Martindale is one of those actors, that when I see them on the screen, I am immediately happy. There is something about her persona and the types of characters she plays that are comforting. She looks like your mom, but she has taken on such a variety of roles, playing everything from doctors to prostitutes to a woman soliciting a prostitute to mothers to nuns. Beyond film, she has led an amazing career in the theater, getting a Tony nomination in 2004 for the role of Big Mama in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was also in the original stage production of Steel Magnolias in 1987 and her role was played by Dolly Parton in the theatrical version. Martindale hails from Jacksonville, Texas and started, like many actors, in commercials, her most well known being a Downy fabric softener series that first made her a recognizable face to the public. My favorite performance of Martindale’s has to be from Alexander Payne’s segment in the short film collection Paris Je’Taime. It’s a thing of beauty and you should find it…right now…go!

Director in Focus: Brian De Palma – Femme Fatale

Femme Fatale (2002)
Starring Rebecca Romijn, Antonio Banderas, Peter Coyote, Eriq Ebouaney

De Palma came off of Snake Eyes and went in a total 180 to make Mission to Mars. I don’t think any one could have really predicted that film from him: A science fiction film set in the future involving a rescue mission to Mars with aliens and special effects and so on. It was definitely a risky move on his part, and ultimately it failed. There were moments that worked, in particular a planetfall sequence involving risky maneuvers using a deep knowledge of gravity and physics. It had a lot of tension in and drew me in, but overall the film was a mess. So for his second film of the 21st century, De Palma revisited some Hitchcock elements, but more he dipped fulling into the Noir genre, something he had skirted his entire career but never gone full bore into.

The film opens on a heist being taken by a trio of anonymous figures. The main element in the heist is a tall, attractive blonde posing as a photographer. She lures the arm candy of a director at a film premiere in Cannes to the bathroom, and the two women begin having a tryst. The photog undresses her from the flimsy gold and diamond encrusted chest ornament (its not really a shirt or bustier, its like gold snake that doesn’t cover all the bits and such). A second person takes the pieces of the ornament at it drops to the floor. Things go wrong and the photog double crosses the man running things and heads off with the diamonds. Through a case of mistaken identity she ends up in the place of a French woman whose husband and daughter have just been killed. Her life diverges onto a very strange path that culminates seven years later in a series of double crosses and cons.

This film is one where De Palma’s camerawork completely meshes with the plot. The opening heist sequence, taking place in a lavish theater in Cannes is so much fun. Its obvious that Mission: Impossible was the practice, and this heist is its culmination to perfection. Seeing all the devices and methods employed to get the ornament is lots of fun. Its also full of that nervous tension that makes those types of scenes enjoyable to watch. We root for the thieves and wriggling in our seats as security inches closer and the chance that every will fall apart goes higher. The entire sequence is near wordless and, like many of De Palma’s top film moments, could be presented as short film unto itself.

Rebecca Romijn is not a great actress, I know I shocked you with that statement. But, when you think about it, neither was Grace Kelly, but she made a hell of a Hitchcock female lead. Romijn does what she needs to do here, the classic film noir femme fatale is not really a three dimensional figure. And I have to say she fooled me during many of her double crossing, well both she and De Palma together fooled me. Like any great noir female she creates stories that make her sympathetic and earn the trust of those around her. She is duplicitous and evil, yet we root for her. Antonio Banderas’ tabloid photog on the other hand is not quite as charismatic or interesting, even though he makes for a more plausible protagonist.

The third act twist seemed a bit out of left field and reminded me of the much better Mulholland Drive (if we’re talking metaphysical identity mysteries, its is better). There are clues sprinkled in the first half of the film that hint at two interpretations of what happens in the rest of it. This could be a Dorothy Gale instance of imposing faces onto figures in one’s psyche or it could all be literal. De Palma never says for sure but he leaves the door open so that either makes sense within the universe of the film. There are set pieces galore here and a real admittance that this is not about substance, its about style. The fact that the director pulls this off in such a technically clever way makes it heaps more enjoyable than whatever a style focused director like Michael Bay offers up. The film was a colossal financial failure for De Palma, however, something he hasn’t recovered from in the eight years since.

Next Up: The Black Dahlia and De Palma bombs again