The Misfits (1961) is a beautiful (if hard-to-watch) elegy, not only for the American West it depicts in a slow fade into obsolescence, but also for three of its actors. Plotwise, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) goes through a dismissively quick divorce (for which Reno was already famous by 1931) at the start of the film. Through a divorcee friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) and then Gay Langland (Clark Gable); Steers disappears without fanfare about halfway through the film, to be replaced by Perce Howard (Montgomery Clift), met by chance en route to a rodeo. The men are outwardly tough western types, though only Gay is explicitly called a cowboy. Guido is a mechanic, a former airforce bomber traumatised both by the war and by his wife’s unexpected death. Perce (Clift) completes the trio of men, as a youth formerly destined to inherit his father’s ranch, but ousted by his father-in-law, winding up a sort of doomed protégé to Gay, who is himself waning in relevance. Along with Roslyn the four form a strange sort of family and are presumably the titular misfits, though there’s a clear parallel with a handful of horses they seek in the hills, to corral by plane, the pathetic remnants of thousands that once ran wild in the hills of Nevada. Continue reading
Several years ago I watched Winter’s Bone (2010) and thought it was quite good, opening my eyes to rural devastation in America. I read a bit about it and found out that the director, Debra Granik, had directed a film in 2004 called Down to the Bone. It aired in July on Film4 and I just got round to watching it. It shares with Winter’s Bone themes of poverty, drug abuse, and desperation, but it finds its desolation in the life of a coke-addicted mother in upstate New York, rather than in the grim family ties of the meth-addicted Ozarks.
Quite enjoyed Leviathan (2014). The Book of Job adapted to modern Russia, about losing everything one values in life and all hope for the future. Like Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, Bergman’s Winter Light, or Akin’s The Cut, it’s about whether a life of suffering can or should be endured (when you’ve lost possessions, people, and freedom). It shares with Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, The Edge of the World, and Yol the stark indifference of nature to human endeavours, and with On the Waterfront, Touch of Evil, The Sweet Smell of Success (maybe even Brazil) the crippling powerlessness created by corruption. Like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance its slow takes are made even more difficult by being shot incredibly wide, and like The Searchers the worst violence takes place just out of frame, making it traumatically ambiguous and turning the audiences’ imaginations against them. It has a scene like the opening of The Grapes of Wrath that must be seen to be believed. It works on political, philosophical, religious, and personal levels as an inquest into deprivation, pain, and the meaning of life. ★★★★☆
A few weeks ago I watched eXistenZ (1999). I was surprised to realize that it’s the seventh David Cronenberg film I’ve seen. Not that I’ve avoided him, but I didn’t think I’d seen that many. The first I ever saw was The Fly (1986) which I think we had on Betamax when I was young. Unsurprisingly it left a pretty strong impression on me, particularly the graphic arm-wrestling scene, but having seen it again more recently I don’t think it’s actually that great of a film. Continue reading
I finally got around to watching A Field in England (2013) this weekend, and quite enjoyed it. It’s an odd, surreal film in which a motley group of deserters from the English Civil War (1640s) flees its violence only to meet stranger ends. With hallucinogens blurring the lines between reality and alchemy, it’s entertaining but not particularly narrative, a bit like a version of Dead Man (1995) set a few centuries earlier. I won’t say more about its plot as it is something better experienced than explained. I do think that the film marks a return to form for director Ben Wheatley, whose fantastic debut was the pitch black crime comedy Down Terrace (2009), featuring one of the most dysfunctional family in film history making a series of terrible decisions. The more commercial thriller Kill List (2011) followed, about contract killers on a macabre mission. It had some of the darkness but none of the comedy of Wheatley’s first film, and a rather weak dénouement despite a strong and atmospheric opening. I was disappointed by his next film Sightseers (2012), which had the promising premise of an unhinged couple combining a holiday in the countryside with an impromptu killing spree, but the comedy fell a bit flat which made it a bit of a struggle. A Field in England recaptures the effective mix of atmosphere, dark humour, and de-glamorized violence that Wheatley nailed in Down Terrace. Because of these two films I very much look forward to his next film, High Rise, based on a J.G. Ballard novel and featuring Jeremy Irons, and scheduled to come out in 2015.
Without knowing anything about it, I went into Lone Star (1996) expecting a sort of western homage, maybe something like the way that Unforgiven (1992) reworked elements of Shane (1953) for a modern audience. I was surprised to find that although it’s a dirge for the end of the west, it’s less like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and more like The Last Picture Show (1971). That is to say, it’s not a requiem for the lawlessness of the 19th Century, but actually for the end of an earlier era of the 20th. It’s enormous in scope, probably a bit more than Diner (1982) but a bit less than Terms of Endearment (1983), but similar in the number of subplots across generations that it deploys simultaneously. While Lone Star doesn’t have the same emotional authority or performances as these other films, it is in some ways more ambitious. Its interests are broad: family ties, betrayals and reconciliations, race relations, and corruption. And yet despite the breadth of focus it is never superficial. It engages in detail with the struggle of Mexicans, Native Americans, blacks, and whites not only to live together peacefully after terrible atrocities, but also with their desire for history to be represented fairly for each group, which the film shows to be no easy task. It does an admirable job of showing the effects of fathers on sons, and of living up to the standards of previous generations. I personally found none of the performances to be outstanding, but all of them are solid and rather understated, which works well with the thoughtful and reflective mood of the film.
A few nights ago I was fortunate enough to get to see a preview of Errol Morris’ film The Unknown Known (2013) at the lovely Olympic Studios cinema in Barnes. The film is a documentary in which Morris interviews Donald Rumsfeld about his career and political decisions. It focuses mainly on his second go round as Secretary of Defense under GW Bush (2001-2006), but his early career and first appointment by Ford (1975-1977) are also discussed. Continue reading
Prisoners (2013) is an abduction thriller which, despite some implausibilities, is a reasonably good film. It is well-crafted throughout and not without surprises, though it’s not particularly original in either its themes or content. To begin with, Jake Gyllenhaal plays what is becoming a bit of a type for him—namely the troubled, ineffectual cop obsessed with a grisly investigation—in films like Zodiac (2007) and End of Watch (2012). Spiritually, and in a few of its particulars, Prisoners is a cousin to films like Frailty (2001), Kill List (2011), and especially The Vanishing (1988). I won’t spoil these films for you if you haven’t seen them, but if you have, don’t fret: serious, suspenseful and unpleasant as Prisoners can be, it’s more mainstream and lighter than these films. It’s also somewhat better constructed than the first two.1 Finally, the film is familiar in that it centres on that most archetypal incarnation of evil in film since Fritz Lang’s M (1931): the child kidnapper and murderer. In this respect, it’s part of an interesting trend in the depiction of crimes against children. On the one hand, the film depends on the revulsion that this type of villain generates in a rather straightforward way. On the other hand, like M and several other recent films, it at least raises questions about the damage done to society by making exceptions for certain crimes by presenting retributive violence as acceptable. Continue reading
- The Vanishing being a brutally effective masterpiece that would be hard for any film to surpass. [↩]
Last night I saw Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). Knowing little beyond the basics (a man lives with bears and they eat him) I found it quite surprising. I was expecting Timothy Treadwell to be an extreme or even insane environmentalist, but what really struck me is how completely normal he is: he’s a stereotypical modern westerner. However outlandish his foray into Alaska, he ended up there for mundane reasons: he was living a directionless life, working menial jobs, depressed and a worsening alcoholic, and needed meaning in his life. The headline for most people, of course, is his odd life and dramatic death, and Herzog chose to focus on the footage he left behind—for its great unintended beauty, out of finding in Treadwell a kindred directorial urge, and for the inner turmoil (at times Kinski-esque) that sometimes boils to the surface in Treadwell’s monologues. But what struck me the most was how utterly unexceptional Treadwell was in most regards. It’s not that this desire to go rogue or native might afflict anyone bothers me (I’d welcome it if people were a bit, or even drastically, more unconventional), but rather that such an extraordinary outcome had such common causes. Continue reading