Monday, June 26, 2006

The Wild Bunch


Dir: Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs; Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid; Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; Convoy)

There are only three candidates for the best ever Western. I will hear a debate about The Searchers, How the West Was Won, or Rio Bravo; but I will not be swayed after that debate. Only Unforgiven, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, and The Wild Bunch are allowed serious consideration.

I think The Wild Bunch may be the winner.

I forgot how great this film was. Some of the best characters in any Western. The old "one more job and then I retire" theme is augmented here by a crew of bounty hunters stalking our intrepid bandits. The leader of the bounty hunters (Robert Ryan) is being blackmailed to get his former partner, the leader of the bandits (an unbelievable William Holden). Ernest Borgnine is also very good as one of the bandits. The story involves a chase through Mexico and Federales who terrorize a small village. As with most Westerns, the themes of honor and duty are in the forefront. But here, the anti-heroes are rather ruthless, and the law itself is even more corrupt. This is definitely a neo-Western.

Peckinpah made his reputation as a maven of screen violence here, with truly amazing opening and closing gun battles. The opening scene is legendary, with a Temperance Union caught in the crossfire. I can recall no other Western focusing on collateral damage like this, a gripping reminder that the violence depicted is at once thrilling and disgusting. But other than that, the film is continually brilliant. Shot of gorgeous bluffs and canyon land, the harshness of the desert is ever present. While the action scenes are wonderful, the more laid back and playful elements of village life and the joyful rowdyness of these rough men are something special as well. Many great lines, breathtaking direction, everything that makes the genre special.

A particular high point for me is a minor role by Alfonso Arau. I remember my first time seeing The Wild Bunch, on its rerelease at the Mayan Theater in Denver. There, out of no where, was El Guapo from The Three Amigos. Same damn character, same cadence in this speech, same undeniably joy in every word he says. John Landis found that guy and just had him reprise his stuff. Great inisde movie joke, and a great performance in both instances.

Unforgiven is more philosophical. The Good, Bad, Ugly is cooler. But The Wild Bunch is probably the best combination of all elements of the Western. And I do think it is that genre's best representative.


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Brokeback Mountain


Dir: Ang Lee (The Ice Storm)

Second time through, see my previous review.

The first time with this film, I was caught up in the public theater of it. I watched it politically, to see how it positioned itself and made its argument. I thought of its broader message and how audiences might respond. Brokeback had become a polarizing text, and I over analyzed it as a result.

This time, I just watched it. And I liked it even more. Like all brilliant films, subsequent viewings reveal an economy of script, a depth of symbolism, and a richness of character that continues to reward. I liked the movie even more the sceond time.

I underestimated the strength of the love story initially. Not that I panned it, far from it if you read my earlier review. But I had the impression that Brokeback was one among many great love stories. I think now that it is one of the best, a retelling of a classic theme but with a significant twist (pun intended). The first act, on the mountain, is a masterpiece of dense narrative told with minimalist material. I thought initially that the reasons why these men were in love were given short shrift, that I hadn't really gotten involved enough in them to really care about their later lives. But Lee and McMurtry were too smart for me, and I was too distracted. Their love is silent, and so too is their courtship. I found it very moving.

I was too worried the first time about deciding if this film should win an Oscar. But it should be taken on its own terms. I think Brokeback deserves multiple viewings and a place among the best love stories of the decade.


Body Double

Director- Brian DePalma (Blow Out)

I sure did think Blow Out was a decent movie alright. Why not give DePalma another shot? After all, Ron says Sisters is great and I do like Carrie, even though that may owe more to Stephen King than the good director.

This film operates as homage to two Hitchcock movies- Rear Window and Vertigo. The protagonist, Jake, is played by Craig Wasson (who is a dead ringer for Bill Maher). He's an out of work actor struggling to make it as a vampire in B movies because scenes in coffins give him claustrophobia. Jake makes a fast friend, Sam (played byGregg Henry) while cruising around LA for a job, and Jake is desperately in need of some friendship because he catches his girlfriend in bed with another man.

Sam has to rush off to a show, but offers to let Jake housesit in his totally swinging bachelor pad. This apartment has quite a perk- a view via telescope of a hot neighbor next door who changes in an open window every night, like clockwork. Jake is spellbound by this woman, observes her evening ritual of undress, and one day follows her across town, saving her from a pursenatching Native American.

When he next looks into her apartment, she is the subject of a grisly murder attempt. Jake watches in horror from far away through the telescope, observing her creep closer and closer to danger. The Native American, armed with an elaborate and ungainly electrical drill, eventually succeeds in his task. When Jake decides to investigate, he is led to a porn queen played by Melanie Griffith. The rest of the plot I should leave to the film to tell you.

DePalma's movies' content is often irrelevant. This movie is in many sense a gesture that is a wink at the audience. Setting it in Hollywood, making the major players actors, characters in outlandish and unbelievable settings, and an over the top story and cinematography combine to indicate that DePalma is just playing around. For example the scene where the Native American murders the young woman with the power drill is effective in how it leaves the violence to our imagination- much as he does with his shot of the chainsaw in Scarface- we see only the blood splatter, but not the actual chainsaw on sinews and bone one might expect in say, a slasher flick.

I also detect a real voyeuristic and perhaps misogynistic streak in this period of DePalma's work. The evidence? In Carrie the scene of sexual awakening in the shower is unnecessary- we know from countless other developments in the film that Carrie is becoming and woman and becoming interested in the opposite sex. In Blow Out we can see it in the way the Nancy Allen character is a dumb hooker with the heart of gold. And in this movie there is so much nudity without point. Yes, Melanie Griffith is very hot as a porn star, as are the women who undress in the window. But is just egregious and over the top. I suppose it could be satire of the B movie tradition- one that DePalma is obviously engrossed with given the jobs his characters have in this film and Blow Out.

Do I recommend this movie? No. Its just not very good. It seems dated, is really cheesy, and while sometimes DePalma's homage works, in this case it does not fly. Do not see, unless very bored.

Friday, June 23, 2006


1977 Oscar Winner Best Picture, Best Director

Dir: John G. Avildsen (Save the Tiger; The Karate Kid I-III; Lean on Me; Rocky V)

While a staple of my childhood on cable, it had been many years since I revisited this landmark film. Rocky beat a host of other great films, including Network, All the President's Men, Marathon Man, and Taxi Driver. I can't say that it is better than all those films, but Rocky is certainly very good at what it does, a clean and pure story of an underdog that is refreshingly written. Stallone's nominated screenplay is the best part of the film, and its economy and voice remain unique.

We may forget how little boxing is actually in this movie. Stallone's courtship of Talia Shire is its foundation. His stupidity is contrasted against her temerity with great charm and compassion, and their dialogue is very believable for the characters. Ruminations about life and love avoid any lofty prose whatsoever, and everything seems so real that it is impossible not to pull for this couple. Shire's brother, a drunken loser, is another one of those characters that seems so real that it becomes complex even while the emotions portrayed and the dialogoue used are completely ordinary. By omitting any pretense, and going for a realistic script, Stallone has written characters that resonate with everyone, a key component to the film's broad appeal.

The boxing itself is, famously, the opposite of realistic. That fight would have been stopped in the first round. But real boxing, especially heavyweight, is often boring; it takes a lot of energy to hit that hard, and doctors step in long before the kinds of horrific wounds that both Creed and Balboa sustain pop up. This may be the most violent boxing scene ever done in a good film (B movies notwithstanding), and yet it still appeals to a broad demographic. But since Rocky has invested so much time in the love story, we forgive his pummeling because we care about him. That is the difference between gratiuitous violence and violence that drives narrative; he must both sustain and inflict that sort of punishment to purge his sins.

Rocky also rightly keeps the focus during the boxing scene on the themes of personal redemption and spiritual triumph. The high point of the movie is the last scene, where the fights official decision becomes inconsequential in the face of Balboa's development as a person. Stallone has captured better than any other sports movie I have seen the essence of competition, especially in a blood sport as punishing as boxing. It redeems the activity and elevates the audience.

No, it's not as good as Network. But Rocky really is worthy of its iconic reputation. The Philadelphian in me also recognizes its local color; I often see people running up those steps as I eat a steak sitting by the fountain at the end of the Ben Franklin parkway before the Art Museum. Everyone knows those steps, as the film has permeated our popular culture. That the film is also an artistic triumph makes it worthy of high praise.

Almost forgot: Rocky had a montage.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Baby Doll


Dir: Elia Kazan (East of Eden; A Face in the Crowd; A Streetcar Named Desire; On the Waterfront)

Denounced by the Legion of Decency, pulled by Warner Bros. two weeks after its release, Baby Doll was a scandal in the 50's. As you can imagine, it is pretty tame by contemporary standards. But any film that a Cardinal says it is a sin to watch is OK in my book, so I gave it a view.

Tennessee Williams wrote his first screenplay, and Kazan brings in Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker to act. Baker is Baby Doll (more TW names), a 19 year old virgin wife who is so infantalized that she sleeps in a crib. Her long suffering and drunken husband Archie is broke after Wallach's cotton gin showed up in town and took all of the business away. The Italian entrepeneur has been wronged by Archie, and intends to get his revenge through his nymphette yet untouched wife.

It was that seduction that raised the ire (and I wager other things) of the Legion, as the banter is quite charged and the quarters close. Baker is absolutley gorgeous and sexual, and Wallach's lothario stylings forceful. The famous swing scene featuers closeups of the pair's faces, and one can't help but wonder what their hands are doing below frame. Williams' famous sexuality is on full display here. Yet the consummation of this courtship is left ambiguous.

The rest of the story is somewhat surreal, comedic in its oddness and yet never played up for laughs. I did not find it as much funny as absurd, but I can see where some would find Wallach uproarious.

This is all well and good, but the star of the show is Malden, a performance that is somewhat lost amongst the sexual fireworks. His frustration has transformed into brutality, and it is hard not to simultaneously sympathize with and loathe the man. A very complex character, and Malden is brilliant in being both dejected and violent. His predicament is half circumstance, half his own fault, and I kept going back and forth on my feelings about him. I am sure subsequent viewings would illuminate more aspects of his character.

Kazan has also pulled off a master stroke in his use of extras. Filmed on location in rural Mississippi, Kazan uses amatuer locals to play the townspeople. The signs of segregation are real, and the rednecks and black folk have an authenticity that infuses the whole production. Not a story about the racist South, the film nonetheless uses that tension (Emmit Till had been lynched in the area just a month befre filming) to enhance the marital tensions played out in the script.

Well worth tracking down, if only as a document of what was once so deplorable. Baby Doll is a really fine example of acting, writing and direction, an intriguing film that was very entertaining.


Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Aguirre, The Wrath of God


Dir: Werner Herzog (Heart of Glass; Fitzcarraldo; Where the Green Ants Dream; Grizzly Man)

My first Herzog film, and the first time I have seen Klaus Kinski in a starring role, this tale of greed and madness is wholly disconcerting. The film is creepy, disjointed, uncomfortable and dissonant. And this mood matches the story perfectly; few films that I have seen have created an atmosphere so effectively to reinforce its themes.

A group of Spaniards travel through the jungle looking for El Dorado, beset by natives and plagued by internal strife. A mutiny along the way brings the insane Aguirre (Kinski) to power, and he leads them on a suicidal river trip. The movie is filmed on location in an unforgiving jungle, and most of the movie takes place on a raft in the heat of the sun. A puppet rebel government is set up by the rafters, with a Lord of the Flies set of challenges confronting the conquerors. But more damning than leadership struggles is the jungle, cannibals, the lack of food, and of course the futility of their fictional destination. The maniacal greed and bloodlust of the conquistadors slips into insanity, and the film records this decent with lingering and uncomfortable shots of the soldier's despair.

The film is quite a technical acheivement, with some remote shots that required a huge dedication from the crew. The opening scene, with hundreds of men scaling a steep mountain shrouded in fog, was spellbinding when you consider what work had to go into it and is worth the price of admission itself.

Kinski is freaky as Aguirre, one of those actors who really seems to be insane. Physically he is menacing, and there is abolsutely no sign of artifice in his cruelty. Herzog often gets out of the way and just lets Kinsky go, no background score or camera edits. At other times the camera frantically moves as we circle conspirators or bob along with the ill fated raft, leaving the viewer dizzy.

This is very difficult movie to describe, as so much of it is about mood and atmosphere. It's kind of like having a headache, hard to focus on and causing your brow to furrow. It is quite unlike any movie I have ever seen, and I strongly recommend it just as an experience.




Dir: Jules Dassin (Topkapi; The Canterville Ghost)

A crowning acheivement of French noir, Rififi blends a wonderful heist story with a very engaging and troubling character study to produce a wonderful picture. Unafraid to make its characters unappealing, and yet finding room for development within their dark world, Rififi reminds us that codes and honor apply in any context, even among theives.

In what may be the only movie where developing the story through a lounge act actually works, we learn that rififi means "rough stuff," the way of interacting with the world that involves guns, smacking people around, and taking risks. The rewards are great, but in the end it always catches up with you. The cast of theives in the film all represent various takes on this basic theme; the jovial life of the party, the family man with a double life, the safe cracker with a weakness for the ladies, and the brutal Stephanois, the silent but violent leader.

They come together to rob a jewelry store (once again, the best kind of heist). The robbery itself is great, all done without sound and in painstaking detail, forcing us to concentrate on the silence and duration of the whole thing. It is intersting to watch them overcome 1950's theft prevention technology, where muzzling a bell alarm is their biggest challenge. You don't need gizmos in order to generate excitement.

After the heist, complications arise that force the characters to make difficult decisions. Each chooses differently, with their personal flaws either sealing their fate or facilitating their own redemption. It is great stuff, and still comes with the traditional coolness of a heist film to provide crowd pleasing entertainment.

Rififi succeeds in being both populist and intelligent, action oriented and character driven. It is the best of the French noirs I have seen recently, really a tremendous film.


Blow Out

Director- Brian DePalma (Snake Eyes)

Oh Brian DePalma. I think you're really overrated. This last few days has been an active attempt on my part to overcome that prejudice. I watched this film and Body Double. A quick review of my opinion of Mr. DePalma's record is required before I delve into this film.

Good DePalma Movies: Mission Impossible was good. It didn't make sense, but he didn't write it so i don't blame him. Carlito's Way is a fine film. Carrie is fabulous and tense.

Mediocre DePalma movies: The Untouchables. People think this movie is good? I think its really really mediocre. Just like Scarface, which has some incredibly neat shots, but overall can't seem to sustain most of its characters or running time.

Bad DePalma movies: Snake Eyes is really atrocious. Mission to Mars is really decent- until the incredibly crappy ending. Finally, The Bonfire of the Vanities is complete and utter junk.

This movie, Blow Out, is interesting. It is obviously referencing two films- Blow Up and The Conversation. John Travolta plays Jack, an ex-cop turned into a sound engineer for a B movie studio. While attempting to gather sounds for a movie, he observes and records a car accident that kills a presidential candidate. He dives into the water to fish out a woman from the car named Sally, played by Nancy Allen.

In the aftermath of the accident, a cover up is apparent. The woman's presence in the car is kept quiet and Jack is told to keep his mouth shut. Jack cannot help but endeavor to replay the accident and his recordings of it in his mind, and during this process believe that the accidental tire explosion was no accident. He endeavors to investigate this more and encounters and increasing array of obstacles telling him to stop looking.

As he finds out more, he encounters a sleazy photographer played by Dennis Franz, a plot to extort the candidate, and a creepy psychotic played by John Lithgow. The tension escalates as Jack and Sally decide to go public with their information. The ending of the movie is its weakest part.

A few things stand out about this movie. Some of the visuals and shots that DePalma uses are fascinating. I think the movie's opening is very, very well done. Moreover, Jack's character is well done and his backstory and behaviors are involving. The scenes in Jack's sound laboratory are particularly well shot.

A few bad things. Nancy's performance as Sally is pretty terrible- I had trouble believing Travolta would fall for her. The Lithgow character is flat and as is often the case with DePalma, I think he depicts a few too many violent acts when a simple one would easily communicate to us that Lithgow's character is a nut. The ending is bad. Contrived and formulaic. Brings to a mediocre end an otherwise fine film. I solidly recommend it, but don't bend over backwards to see it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Glengarry Glen Ross


Dir: James Foley (Who's That Girl?; Confidence)

Not much to add over my previous review. This time I payed particular attention to Pacino's monologue in the first act about middle class morality, a master piece of nihilism and its seductiveness to the weak.



Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Magic Flute


Dir: Ron's Least Favorite Director (Hour of the Wolf; Persona; Scenes From a Marriage; The Virgin Spring; Cries and Whispers; Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries)

Bergman's straight-up television staging of Mozart's comedic opera, I see this film like a great musician who does an album of her favorite covers. Bergman is urging us to reconnect with narratives of old, and is using his fame to present the classic essentially unadulterated. He can put whatever he wants on Swedish TV and millions will watch, so he chooses an opera. It would be a mistake to put this film in the same conversation with Ingmar's own works, this is Mozart first and foremost. And since the work is, of course, one of genius, The Magic Flute should be sought out by those with a curiosity about opera.

This is not to say that Bergman brings no value added. His fascination with the medium of film, so self refexlive about the artificiality of his own films, is echoed here in his foregrounding of the theatrical elements of the opera. The entire overture is played behind reaction shots from an assembled audience. Every possible type of human is represented (old and young, rich and poor, etc.) but most especially a little girl that Bergman returns to throughout the performance. Her subtle smile at the fantastical story, full of comedy and magic, asks us to see the opera through her eyes.

The work is translated into Swedish, once again reinforcing the idea that Bergman wants to bring opera to the masses. The language fits the music quite well, and adds a note of novelty that is very welcome.

The opera itself is very intimate on the small screen, allowing for closeups and whispered sentences that would be impossible in an opera house. I must admit that Mozart's plot is a bit of a mess, but the music makes up for it. Operas are never known for their subtle character development and paint with very broad brushes.

Certainly at the bottom of your Bergman must-see list. But the film does serve as a user-friendly introduction to the opera itself, which was Bergman's point. Watch for that reason.


Friday, June 16, 2006

'Breaker' Morant


Dir: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies; Crimes of the Heart; Driving Miss Daisy)

Australian military drama that explores the ethics of war under changing circumstances. Set during the Boer War at the turn of the last century, an Australian patrol is under court marital from British authorities for executing some Dutch prisoners of war and a German missionary. Their case is caught up in global and colonial politics, and throughout the course of the movie we recognize their predetermined fate and yet are forced to judge ourselves whether their actions were censurable.

The story is by and large interesting, certainly complex enough to make the audience do some work. Tidbits of information come out during the course of the trial that make us reconsider the characters several times. Much of the acting requires that stiff upper lip British aloofness, giving only the Australians much of an emotional range in which to work. I have no complaints there.

The sound, though, is particularly muddy. The film did not have much of a budget, and it takes place largely in one cement courtroom, leading to echos on top of already quickly spoken and accented English. I had to back it up and relisten to dialogoue several times.

The issue raised by the film is what conventions of war apply when the enemy themselves does not follow them. The Boer's are irregular soldiers, not in uniform, raiding on farms and civilian property, early commondo fighters. The British "gentlemen's" system cannot fight that, so tactics turn more brutal. Should we blame them? And should we blame the soldiers who carry out those orders?

American torture policy was foremost in my mind during the film. I think that we are supposed to sympathize with the defendants here who were put in an intolerable position by orders from above and now are being made scapegoats. I take a more judgmental view, that following an unjust order is itself an unjust act. But to the extent that the film wants to put ultimate fault in a flawed war policy, I could not agree more. No matter how heinous the enemy, the moral high ground can only be maintained by strict adherence to reasonable rules of war. Shooting prisoners, or torturing them, is blameworthy on the ground and inscribed in policy.

Sometimes movies can be presentist in ways the filmmakers could not have anticipated. But continually telling stories is a way to reconsider old themes, and hopefully relearn their lessons.


Le Cercle Rouge


Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai; Bob le Flambeur)

The third minimilast noir from Melville that I have seen recently, and this caper film is the best of the lot. The action is a tad less cerebral than Samourai, and a tad more familiar than Flambeur. All three are outstanding pictures, but I found this one to be the most entertaining and satifsying of them.

Two theives recently out of prison (one by release, one by escape) team up with a crooked ex-cop to rob a jewelry store. Of all the possible heists, I like jewelry store pictures the best. Banks are usually done with lots of gun play and blowing up safes and the like. But the jewelry store, or art gallery, is about patiently overcoming technological defenses in the dead of night and over a period of time. The demands for silence, stealth, and steely control create a lot more tension and excitement than most other crimes.

Le Cercle Rouge does retain many of the thematic elements of Melville's other films. The East/West connection through the silent warrior is preserved. In fact the movie's title and main symbol comes from the words of the Buddha. The sparseness of dialogue, the way the characters communicate through sublte gestures and never betray their inner motivations is also here. Maybe no moviemaker I have seen has told better stories with fewer words than Melville.

A special performace is given by Yves Montand as the thristy ex-cop who happens to be a heck of a shot. By then a suave veteran screen star, Montand's supporting role is suprising in its grit, and the clever way that Melville represents his inner demons. Very familiar, actually trite, story line, but it is handled very well here.

Much of the first half of the movie is spent as both our protagonists are chased by the cops and the mob. The film is actually non-stop action, if in the muted and leisurley pace that Melville likes to set. I found it engaging throughout.

Good place to start for Melville, I think. This movie holds many hallmarks of crime stories we are familiar with, and was very entertaining.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Bottle Rocket


Dir: Wes Anderson (Rushmore; The Royal Tenenbaum's; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou)

The first film from Anderson and writing partner Owen Wilson, a cute character study that shows flashes of the brilliance of Rushmore and Tenenbaum's. A story of a group of misfits yearning for glory as criminals, Bottle Rocket is above all compassionate to its characters despite their flaws, an ethos that allows us to both laugh at and sympathize with them.

Obviously, the whole movie lies with Owen Wilson. I know a guy just like Dignan (no one reading this, don't worry), so awkward and simultaneously well intentioned that you can't help but like him even as you cringe at his mannerisms. The loveable loser thing is here taken to real heights by the spot-on performance. I found the rest of the movie to be less intersesting, with too much time devoted to Luke Wilson's whirlwind romance with the motel maid. I get the point, but the strength of the script lies in the other half of the plot, and found myself marking time until the Owen returned to the fore.

This movie showcased for me why I didn't really like Napoleon Dynamite. They both share an attention to the quirks of outcasts and their attempts to fit in. But in ND, we were held at a distance from the main characters as they were humilitated or acted rudely (I think Ebert made this point?). Bottle Rocket begins themes explored more fully in Anderson's later movies, where the outcasts are really the sweet ones, people with a lot to offer and their own stories to tell. ND is caricature (sometime funny), Bottle Rocket is character, less funny but much more rewarding.

This film is clearly inferior to Anderson's next two, but wathcing Owen Wilson was enjoyable and seeing the early development of this unique appraoch to filmmaking was worthwhile. Recommended, but really for Anderson fans only.


Sweet Bird of Youth


Dir: Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; $)

After Hot Tin Roof and Streetcar, my knowledge of Tennessee Williams drops off dramatically (get it). So I queued up Sweet Bird of Youth knowing little about it. This movie belongs in conversation with the two famous TW adaptations, a splendidly dark tale of lost love and broken dreams.

Paul Newman is Chance Wayne, a local hero who goes to New York to find fame but ends up using his good looks to get no farther than a boy-toy. He has left behind Heavenly Finley (I love those TW names), the daughter of the local political Boss (Oscar winning performance for Ed Begley). Chance has drifted in and out of town over the years, always on the verge of making it so that he can prove his worth to Heavenly. This time, he has in tow a drunken actress (Geraldine Page) trying to forget the loss of her beauty and power.

While Newman is really dynamite, he almost loses the show to Page's Alexadra Del Lago, who dominates the second half of the film after sleeping through most of the first act. Her story is stupendous, a great mixture of foreshadowing and resistance to the inevitable so that we understand Chance's probable future through her own failings. At different times in the film she is the helpless victim of circumstance and the all-powerful dominator of would-be successes like Wayne.

Paul has never been more attractive, and that is saying a lot. His impotence of Hot Tin Roof here becomes the seeting sexuality of Brando in Streetcar. His struggle with Boss Finley is less engaging than that with Del Lago (see All the King's Men for that story line told better), but Newman's determination carries through scenes.

A special suprise is Madeleine Sherwood, who played the shrewish Mae Flynn in Hot Tin Roof, but here takes a sultry turn as Finley's neglected mistress. It is rare to see actresses get that kind of range from the same director; usually they are either sex symnbols OR unattractive foils. Sherwood pulls of both very nicely over the two movies.

Sweet Bird of Youth is a very tough examination of power and beauty, the way that either can be manipulated for selfish gain. It is a very compelling film, and deserves your attention.


Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Passenger

Director- Michael Antonioni (Blow Up)

This movie was the opposite of almost every modern mainstream film. It has the trappings of a typical international thriller, but chooses to run with that plot in a completely and indescribably unique and challenging way. I have not seen any other Antonioni, but if anyone has recommendations I am all ears.

The movie boasted what in the mid 70's was a surefire cast. Jack Nicholson (in the same year he did Cuckoo's Nest- good year Jack!) and Maria Schneider of Last Tango in Paris fame showed up in the film during career highs. Although Nicholson's career has been so sweet, the whole damn thing has pretty much been a high. Except Wolf.

This movie takes its cast, which would surely be a bankable leading tandem for box office success, and starts out simply enough. Nicholson is an investigative journalist somehwere in the Third World reporting on a civil war. He befriends a fellow on on this trip, and returns one day from his assignment to his motel room to find his new friend dead of a heart attack. Nonplussed, his character, Locke, responds to this death in a unique way. Noticing the man has a similar face to his, he takes his identification papers and destroys his old ones, assuming the man's identity, that of Robertson.

Various investigations by Locke turn up some interesting facts- namely that Robertson was an international arms dealer. Locke/Robertson decides to continue to attend the meetings scheduled in Robertson's planner. While travelling through Europe, he bumps into Schneider's character (unnamed in both the credits and press materials, she is known simple as The Girl). Their conversations are empty. Their relationship is sexual, but I feel like I should not describe it as romantic. Nor even, sexual. I mean, they fornicate. But its completely immaterial to what is occurring.

Meanwhile Locke's estranged wife, saddened by reports of his death from the international periphery, decides to hunt down Robertson, the last man known to have encountered Locke. The wife and Locke's old boss are found in various European cities tailing Robertson/Locke, even as he has numerous meetings with actors interested in purchasing various and sundry international arms.

The film's final shot is famous, and for good reason. It is amazingly powerful. I simply cannot do it justice except to here say that it rates in my top 5 all of time. (The others, in no particular order, are the shot of Lt. Elias as he is gunned down in Platoon while helicopters circle above, the shot in Spiderman 2 where Peter erupts out of the rubble in the coffeeshop where Ock has abducted Mary Jane, the closing shot of The Godfather in which Kay gazes into Michael's office, and the incredible climactic battle scene in AVP. Actually, I just barely prefer the blood in the drain shot in Psycho. But its close!)

There is much to discuss in this movie. Firstly the names. Locke, a name tied to political philosophy of governance and property. The name seems to say held and made fixed. After all, Locke helped to develop theories of sovereignty of ownership. Locke as an identity could represent fixedness, or at least the existence of a natural order that made things the way they were- a static existence. Robertson, on the other hand, is a totally ubiquitous British name. Quite average. Perhaps it blends in. At least, we can think that at first. But since the movie reveals that "stealing an identity" is not a truly liberating move in its narrative scope, it seems the name Robertson may not in and of itself liberate. Morevoer, these individuals are defined not by their name but rather their acts. An act literally named after a name carries the baggage of those actions. Benedict Arnold anyone? Robertson has actions he must answer for, just as Locke has actions he is required by societal position to carry out.

Another read to bring to bear is existentialism. Many critics have commented on the film's literal performance of existential anxiety- Locke is a character literally running and being pursued by his old identity. His attempt to manufacture a new one just causes him to take on the baggage of Robertson in addition. Perhaps this is because his existence after the identity theft is so empty- he just cavorts about Europe with Maria Schneider. A refusal to enact a new set of behaviors to represent an identity means the old ones will just fill in the vacuum perhaps.

Excellent film. I highly recommend.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Paradise Now


Dir: Hany Abu-Assad (Another Day in Jerusalem)

Omri has already posted a very careful and insightful critique of this film, so I will refer you to him for plot summary.

Paradise Now is everything Munich could/should have been but was not (also see Ron's review). It is gripping, it is fair, it is politically challenging, it is above all a fantastic story and a work that manages to both entertain and make a point. I really loved it and believe that anyone interested in politics or human rights should see it.

Do not be fooled by the flat first twenty minutes or so, when the would-be suicide bombers have one last night to be with their families. I think much was lost on me in cultural translation, but I was not invested in the characters at that point. It is after the mission begins that the movie gets really good. On its own, the plot generated a lot of tension in me, with many possible lines of resolution and the script letting out key motivations for the characters at unexpected moments. The story got more complex, we came to see how all of the viewpoints articulated by the various characters make sense for them, and this depth makes the film great viewing just on its own.

But Paradise Now is even better as a political document. While Omri notes its omission of the Israeli perspective, he also notes the nuance from within the Palestinian perspective about the various approaches to their cause. The important thing, in my mind, is not representation of the entire controversy, but a faithful and illuminating representation of the issue as seen from the subject position of the characters. This is a film about Palestinians, and rightly tells the story from their side. But it also critiques the actions of everyone, the suicide bombers and the peace activists, the cowards and the crazy, the zealots and the level headed. This is what stories give us, the chance to step inside another person's world and in so doing learn more about the human condition. The contrasting views on the efficacy and morality of terrorism present a full panoply of the issue, and let the audience appreciate the society's struggle as well.

Paradise Now, read with my eyes, is an interventionist plea for peace while at the same time condeming the material conditions that make terrorism possible in the first place. And it is, of course, correct. Killing and poverty, occupation and jihad, all are things the world would be better off without. The film very skillfully implies the existence of another route to resistance, even at the same time understanding those who take more aggressive tactics; understand, never condone in my mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I am confident I will continue to think about and cite this movie as an important document in the history of political filmmaking. I strongly urge everyone to see it.


The Omen

Director- John Moore (Behind Enemy Lines)

Is it just me or is this summer movie season kinda beat so far? One interesting movie a week comes out and then there are some ancillary features of varying quality. Despite being in Nashville, An Inconvenient Truth was not playing anywhere, so this was the next best option. I have never seen the original, so anyone familiar with it could chime in on its merits.

This film is a summer oddity. I suppose the idea of a gimmicky 6/6/6 release appealed to studio executives. It is entirely possible that this is why it was remade in the first place, purely for the marketing opportunity. That would be rather sad, but predictable. I could not shake the feeling during this movie that we would have been better served to see it as a release in the Fall, closer to Halloween. Because the movie itself endeavors to be scary and creepy, but not a horror film closer to high art, ala The Sixth Sense.

Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles star as parents whose child dies while being born. A priest offers them another motherless child born on the same day- at 6 am on June 6th!!!! As the child grows up more and more creepy and disconcerting things begin to happen to the people around him. The movie does not go to great lengths to hide that the child is the anti-christ.

There were a couple good things about the movie. Mia Farrow's presence as the child's wicked nanny is inspired casting, adding a powerful wink and nudge given her involvement in Rosemary's Baby. There are some seriously frightening and creepy moments. But overall the movie is just not that good- I feel like there is a great idea for a movie in here waiting to get out, but the acting isn't great and it just doesn't work. I cannot recommend this film, but it wasn't really bad. Just not good.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bound For Glory


Dir: Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude; Shampoo; Coming Home; Being There)

In the annals of American folk music, few names resonate more strongly than Tom Joad and Woody Guthrie (Jesus is higher up there, at least). These icons stand for the common man's political awakening in the face of oppression. As chronicles of the Dust Bowl and its effects in California, no documents are more powerful than The Grapes of Wrath and Dust Bowl Ballads.

Bound For Glory is a biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie, hero of Dylan and a whole generation of American musicians. But rather than focus on the rise of Guthrie's career, reminding the audience of how he got famous, Bound For Glory examines the rise of Guthrie's political conscience. Himself an "Okie" (from Texas, though) who sought the Eden of California's fruit groves, Guthrie turned his anger and sense of injustice into some of the most imporant folk songs of the century. It was his local fame as an activist that later made him famous throughout the country. So Ashby focuses more on the conditions of Guthrie's creativity than the spread of that work.

A cynic could see Bound For Glory as a rehash of The Grapes of Wrath. And I am a pretty big cynic. There is no way that this film is better than Steinbeck's book or the brilliant film adaptation of it. But this is certainly a resonable reconsideration, especially given its Oscar winning cinematography. Many shots are quite extraordinary, long shots of men riding on the top of a train and who move in front of a sunset at just the right time in the script. Much of camera work was very carefully planned, and that is the film's most rewarding aspect.

The soundtrack is of course great. It sounded to me like David Carradine did his own singing, not too hard a task since Guthrie was from the "voice of the people" school. Just about every important Guthrie song is here, as well as some other staples of folk music.

Guthrie is giant of culture and music. Anyone who is not familiar with him should get a hold of Dust Bowl Ballads. Seeing Bound For Glory wouldn't be a bad idea either.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Hour of the Wolf


Dir: The Great One (Persona; Scenes From a Marriage; The Virgin Spring; Cries and Whispers; Fanny and Alexander; Wild Strawberries)

Since Ron seems to hate Ingmar Bergman, I feel it is up to me to stand up for the greatest director of movies ever. After every film of his that I see, my belief in that sentiment continues to grow.

This is Bergman's lone horror movie, a fantastical exploration of Max von Sydow's decent into madness. Liv Ullmann, oh sweet Liv, is von Sydow's wife who is pulled down with him. The film explores the ways that our inner demons can take over our lives and how the lines between reality and nightmare can become blurred in the diseased mind. It can be classified a horror movie (for certainly Bergman has played with the reality of mental symbols before) by its constant references to classics of that genre, especially a steady stream of vampire allusions. Most of his films disturb, but this is designed especially to terrify. As you might expect from this material, Bergman is rather inscrutible, forcing the audience to reckon with what is real and false along with the main characters.

Each of the mental demons that plague von Sydow are personified and are archetypal in the emotion that they represent (jealousy, lust, fear, etc.). The complicated script has these people float in and out of corporeal reality; sometimes we know they are figments, sometimes both partners in the marriage experience the same delusion. von Sydow keeps a diary that is ambiguous as well. Trying to get a sense of where the film comes down on these "monsters" is half of the terror; there is a lot of cognitive dissonance between the realism and the magical nature of the story, just as our own understanding that vampires are figments does not stop them from physically disturbing us.

Like Persona before it, Bergman is also very self reflexive about the movie making process here. The allusions to Bela Lugosi for example are plain as day (physical appearance, camera angle, acting), reminding the audience that this is a film like many they have seen before. The opening credits are shown over a black screen, but in the background are sounds of the crew building sets and Bergman's voice giving direction. The themes of artificiality and reality are at play in many ways, all fascinating.

This is a hard movie to write about. Did I say it was brilliant? It was. The acting is impeccable, the imagery is genuinely frightening and memorable, and the film is plenty smart to have meaningful messages about psychology and art.

Yet another brilliant, wonderful, jaw dropping film from Bergman. Maybe one day Ron will drop the hate and learn to appreciate good films.


V for Vendetta

Director- James McTeigue (This is the only thing he has ever directed)

Ahhh the two dollar theater. What a marvelous invention. God knows I was mad that I missed She's the Man in the theaters. I will not even mention the all time winner for two dollar theater movies, Cabin Boy. But hey, two bucks for a couple hours worth of entertainment? Pretty good deal ya know?

Especially when the source of that entertainment is V For Vendetta. Damien and Carly opined a good line about the film which was "loved the movie, hated the discussions that followed it". I do think avowedly political films can spark some of the worst conversations. Witness for example The New York Post's comically bad review of An Inconvenient Truth, which had no issue with running the worst set of arguments I had ever seen against Al Gore at both a political and personal level.

But this film is marvelous. Really excellent. I did not go in expecting more than a pretty solid movie, and came out blown away. The story is set in futuristic London, ruled by a fascist (played with much vigor by John Hurt). The city has curfews, and a news organization that is played like a puppet by the government (complete with a character meant to obviously imitate the worst of Fox News's talking heads). At the center of the story is Evey, played by Natalie Portman. At the beginning of the movie she is saved from some governmental agents by V, who wears a Guy Fawkes mask (and acted quite well behind this mask for the entire film by Hugo Weaving, of 'Mr. Andeeeeeeeeeeeerson' fame).

The movie opens with a dramatization of Guy Fawkes failed plot to blow up Parliament several hundred years ago. This fades out into Evey's salvation at the hands of V. V then takes Evey to where she can observe the destruction of the Old Bailey by a series of explosions. After releasing Evey, V engineers another disruptive act at the state news service where Evey works, during the course of which he proclaims that in a year he will blow up Parliament. He also absconds with Evie, taking him to his lair (The VCave). Here they have a number of discussions, and Evey is horrified at V's willingness to take life in the name of freedom.

From here on the movie becomes focused on the police's pursuit of V, the backstory of V and Evey, and the increasing viciousness of the regime. I will say no more about the plot except that the movie has chosen a very proper setting for making us very sympathetic with V's behavior.

Technically, this is excellent filmmaking. With the involvement of the Wachowski brothers, we knew that the action sequences and explosions would be very well executed. These do not disappoint. All the actors and actresses involved are quite competent, especially Stephen Rea as the chief governmental investigator who is unravelling both the mystery of V and the nefarious behavior of his own government. Portman is also given a real chance to shine in the second half of the film, and does not dissappoint. (Her performance is not like sand, which is rough. It is like the water, which is smooth and cool to the touch.)

Politically, the film sparks some discussion no doubt. V deals in absolute truths. His experiences throughout the movie and his political conversations with Evey do not wean him off of this perspective. He is willing to do pretty much anything to fight what he perceives as governmental injustice. Well, dealing in absolutes is exactly what the government does. Yet V is sympathetic, the movie is effective at rallying our support for his terroristic acts, and I found myself cheering for his success in blowing up Parliament (I know, I hate freedom). The message can be any number of things. That politics is a dirty business and so we must get dirty too. Or that sometimes there is right and wrong and you damn well better be fighting for right.

Inspired filmmaking. It made me want to go free some people from Guantanamo who are faceless and nameless, and speak their story. Not because I think it speaks so appropriately to our current political circumstances, but because I find its claim thats "ideas have power, ideas do not die" to be such an important sentiment and one that is timless because ideas do not only exist in a moment in time, but become summoned effectively by mental markers. Guy Fawkes=American Revolution=Warsaw Resistance=Choose your own political adventure may seem like a great jump, but "People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people" is as telling and crucial an idea not just in this era of neoconservative imperial governance, but one which was crucial to throwing off the shackles of colonialism in India or mainstreaming civil rights in America.

An excellent film, even though critics who say it glorifies terrorism have a point.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Boy and His Dog


Dir: L.Q. Jones (The Devil's Bedroom)

Harlan Ellison supplies the award winning source material for this low budget post-apocalyptic satire. The film fails to do justice to the novella (I wager) but does hint at some potential in more capable hands.

Don Johnson gives one of his first performances as a very horny young man, whose psychic connection with his trusting dog facilitates a symbiotic relationship; Johnson gets the dog fed (Blood has lost his hunting ability) and Blood gets the boy laid (he sniffs out the few females left on the desert landscape so they can be raped). Why the dog can talk/think, or cannot hunt, or even why so few females are left the movie leaves to conjecture. But that's OK, I am ready to suspend disbelief.

For once in a film a talking animal is somewhat interesting. Blood (voiced by singer/actor Tim McIntire) is intelligent, cynical, witty, and realizes the odious nature of his life. But after World War IV, survival comes first. Over time, the Boy and His Dog develop a close relationship.

Then, an attractive woman shows up who is willing to submit to Johnson. He follows her into "The Down Below," an underground dystopian society. Now here the movie gets good, no doubt capturing all of the bizarre social commentary that made the book famous. But Jones saves the good stuff for essentially the last half hour, after an hour of wandering the desert looking for fun.

The dystopia has modeled itself after home spun country values. Everyone dresses like farmers, the oppressive "Town Council" punishes any transgression with a "trip to the farm" and certain death. Bake sales and marching bands and one room schools all strictly regiment the lives of the denizens of "Topeka." But apparently the women cannot get pregnant. So Johnson has been lured down to supply sperm to the women, and not in a pleasant way. It is a satisfying turn of the tables on the roving rapist of the top world. I am sure there was much more to explore in terms of the gender relationships and politics of the whole thing, but we don't get it here.

There is some sort of rebellion, and a chase, and some robots. The end of the film (which I might as well reveal) involves the Boy reuniting with his abandoned Blood, and turning the tables on the duplicitious young lady once more, in about the most permanent and taboo way possible. But after the Apocalypse, you have to get food where you can get it.

The underworld scenes are bizarre enough that you won't hate this movie. But it strikes me as such a missed opportunity, ripe for a remake by a filmmaker who has a clue for what is interesting in a script. And it has talking animals!

Not recommended.


Sunday, June 04, 2006

The River


Dir: Jean Renoir (Rules of the Game; The Golden Coach; Grand Illusion)

I have said this before, but the Renoir family has perhaps the most artistically talented gene pool in history: the father a genius painter, the son widely considered one of the greatest film directors ever, the nephew a gifted cinematographer. All this despite being French. I know Marcus is high on Bergman as best ever, but I believe Renoir's complete cinematic opus might be comparable in quality and artistry. The River is a late Renoir film, and his first shot in color (and perhaps the first shot in English) and filmed entirely on location in India.

Harriet is the eldest daughter of five children, four girls and one boy, from a British family living in India. She is our narrator reflecting on her experiences as a teenager smitten with an injured American serviceman who stays with the neighbors, a British widower and his mixed race daughter who returns from boarding school. Unfortunately for Harriet, all the local ladies are quite fond of the American. The American, who lost his leg in an unnamed war (presumably WW II), is rather despondent but caring, uncertain of his place in world. Ostensibly, the narrative is a coming of age story for a young lady. However, the story speaks to the social complexity of waning British colonialism and the ascension of a new global superpower. Each character reflects the fascinations and dangers that often accompany the confluence of two cultures: one dominant but curious, the other submissive but seductive. Normally, I am not a fan of voiceovers, but it is a curious decision for a French director attempting to negotiate the relationship between the British and the Indians. Harriet is the most thoughtful and poetic of all the characters, certainly a byproduct of her being our narrative anchor, but it is from that perspective we avoid the condescension and myopia often present in imperialist narratives.

The acting is poignant yet subtle and the dialogue lyrical. However, my favorite character is India. The rich Technicolor film stock creates luminous hues that jump of the screen. Renoir did not have a dolly, so the mise en scene had to create the motion, and his nephew's keen framing and exquisite set designs demonstrated how simple camera motions can not substitute for gorgeous settings. The river, I believe it is the Bengal and not the Ganges, as one would guess, is the film's lietmotif: it is both everpresent and reliable, but in constant motion washing away time and change.

This is one of Martin Scorsese's favorite films, and easily his favorite Renoir (he likes Rules of the Game, but it does not resonate with him in the same way; so Marcus, you and Marty are on the same page). It may not be my favorite Renoir, but that is like saying I prefer the Ninth to the Fifth.

Time Bandits


Dir: Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; 12 Monkeys; Brazil)

I really do not know what to think of Terry Gilliam. I like most of his movies, his visual style is always engaging and his projects are often ambitious. However, there is always an undertone of pretense and condescension that informs his films. Similar to the conceit of Marx, Gilliam is burdened by his ability to see beyond the false promises of economics and technology. But he claims that his playful stories and silly visuals do not try to make grand statements; for he is just a humble film maker that just wants to direct interesting little films (just as long as he is not making them in the United is just too constricting). To me, Gilliam and Altman are directors of similar disposition.

Time Bandits has all the Gilliam staples: A cheeky plot with some clever dialogue that uses an absurd fantasy theme to critique technology (or bureaucracy or religion). The time bandits are five little folks who pilfer the temporal map of the universe from the Supreme Being, their former employer. They use the map to steal from various historical subjects: Napoleon, Agamemnon. But along the way, they pick up a young child, a boy who is neglected by technology-obsessed parents, that serves as the moral conscious for the band of cherubic thieves. Although the Supreme Being is attempting to reacquire the map by chasing the bandits through time, the ultimate enemy is the Evil Genius who lives in the Castle of Ultimate Darkness. EG lures the bandits to his domain by preying on their greed, promising the most valuable object in history. Mr. E. Genius wants the map so he can alter time by reconstructing the world in his images, which is dominated by technology. The adventure is pleasurable and the visual styles and thematics are clearly influential (I imagine Tim Burton is a big Gilliam fan...I also remember a TV series, I believe it was called the Voyagers, that followed a 18th Century inventor and a sidekick 80s child that journeyed though time solving historical problems).

I remembering seeing this film as a child, and so many images can back to me during this viewing. I enjoyed it then, but perhaps a little bit less so now. It is still pretty good, and maybe my malaise regarding the film's broader message/ambition is unwarranted (I'll entertain arguments that prove the film's genius). It's Criterion, so I am probably wrong. Next stop, directors commentary...but then again my gut feelings about Gilliam may influence my read.

Eye of God


Dir: Tim Blake Nelson (The Grey Zone)

The second Nelson film that I have seen, this his directorial debut. Like The Grey Zone, Eye of God is brutally honest about its subject matter, unrelenting in its dedication to the story without artifice or sugar coating. Nelson clearly has a gift for writing, his work more theatrical than anything else. His is a genuine talent, and this film is well worth your time.

In rural Oklahoma, we learn in disjointed time the circumstances of a murder. Tommy Spencer (Nick Stahl) finds the body, and we learn this young man's story at the same time as we follow the marriage of Ainsley (Martha Plimpton) to Jack (Kevin Anderson) a born again ex-con. The two narratives develop along their own course until they come together in the film's climactic moments. Nothing about Eye of God is very suprising, the essentials of the plot can be guessed in the first 20 miunutes. It is in the eye for detail that Nelson brings to the script that the film becomes intriguing. These stories are well worn, the themes as old as stories themselves; but there is a vision in this film that makes it gripping. The idea that beneath a sleepy conservative town lurks evil and despair is nothing new, but this film is fresh.

The film is a bit too cute at times, with the poetic voice over thing and the broken chonology sometimes becoming a distraction. But I am rather a purist with such things. For the most part, the technique of the thing enhances the tension as we try to piece together the plot from fragments, only occasionaly overwhelming the story. And when you have a story this compelling, I find the less artifice the better. A much better directorial decision is the omission of any resolution or explanation to key details of the killing, spurring some interesting conjecture after the film from my viewing companion as to exactly what happened. Nelson has chosen to focus on the motivations for the characters, not the ins-and-outs of how those were manifested. Our minds fill in details that are more shocking than what could have been shown.

A solid effort across the board, an opening salvo from a writer/director with a real vision. I recommend the film strongly.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre


Dir: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon; Key Largo; The African Queen; The List of Adrian Messenger; Annie; Prizzi's Honor)

It goes without saying that this film is an essential for anyone who is cinema or pop culture savvy. It is also a tremendous movie, with directing and writing Oscar's going to Huston. A classic (I mean, ancient) tale of hubris and greed updated for a modern age, Sierra Madre combines archetypal character study with the lawlessness of a Western.

While Walter Huston (John's father) took home the Oscar for his supporting role as the grizzled and wise prospector, even more impressive is Bogart as the paranoid but confident fortune seeker who feels the strongest effects from the party's quest for gold. His transformation is extremely compelling, not wide eyed running around the room insanity but more an assertion of his latent psychopathic qualities that are alluded to in the film's first half-hour. It would be easy to put some people in the mountains and let them go crazy, but the character development before the obstacles arise is what separates this film from lesser ones.

An intelligent, very well acted and written Western/thriller. Certainly in the array of the greatest films ever made, and I would not laugh at someone who tried to make that claim.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Blue Velvet

Director- David Lynch (Dune)

My ventures into David Lynch territory have been limited. As an old boy, I saw Mulholland Drive and was more attracted to its prurient content than its mystery wrapped in an engima wrapped in a riddle story. And yet I can not help but feel that if I had paid full attention to the movie it would not have made complete sense to me, aside from providing the engine for some very inspired rambling.

The story of this movie is, in some senses, quite simple. It walks and talks in some ways like a film noir. Drawn back home to Lumberton, USA, by the collapse of his father, young Jeffrey (played by Kyle Maclachlan) stumbles upon an ear lying on the ground during a walk at night. Intrigued, he heads over to talk to his friend Sandy's father, a local cop. He reconnects with Sandy, and they decide to use information she has obtained from her father to investigate the missing ear themselves. Their interactions smack of good old fashioned youth and vigor, summoning up the sexless, chaste, and eager tales of The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

It is here that the movie develops its split personality. One track of the narrative follows the tale of Sandy and Jeffrey's investigation, the other follows Jeffrey's descent into Lumberton's netherworld. One connection drawn from Sandy's father is that the ear is somehow connected to a jazz singer at a local club in town. Further investigation involves a complicated plot to sneak into her apartment and further investigate. While checking it out, Jeffrey is discovered upon her return and is made to hide at the appearance of Frank, played by Dennis Hopper. Frank has a taste for doing nitrous hits and engaging in rough sadomasochistic sex with the jazz singer. It becomes somewhat apparent that Frank has kidnapped the singer's relatives, and is using them as leverage to extract sexual favors from the woman.

Jeffrey becomes sexually involved with the singer, and discovers that the rough treatment of Frank, far from harming her, does quite a bit for her. Jeffrey is internally conflicted about this when she makes demands upon him to perform during their encounters. As Jeffrey is drawn deeper and deeper into this world, Sandy becomes more and more concerned about him. Jeffrey is eventually confronted by Frank, and they have an absolutely ludicrous night out (which includes one of the all time great Marcus repeated quotes). The rest of the film I will not even try to describe, but suffice to say that its ending is less linear and more deep than that of say, Return of the Jedi.

Having culled various interviews, criticisms and readings I find myself most drawn to Lynch's own descriptions of what he meant in the movie- that in many ways he does not even know what he means until he sits down and watches the movie. What does it even mean, does it even mean anything? I'm tempted by one reading promulgated by the author David Foster Wallace and illuminated for me by my friend Grant. This reading claims that Frank and Jeffrey are the same person, just two sides of the same coin. This reading dovetails nicely with the frame of the movie. The town is essentially a civic Janus- two faces on the same body. There is Lumberton, meant to be Anytown, USA, where shiny fire trucks and happy citizens like Sandy walk about with nary a care in the world. Then there is dark Lumberton, the shadowy, violent, corrupt, and masochistic town of Frank.

Ron's parallel drawn in his initial review of A History of Violence is I think quite correct, and very telling. Cronenburg and Lynch are two of the primary promulgators of the "weird but good" movies, and I think this movie and Violence are making similar points about the libidinal economies of normal communities. The machinations of the good and wholesome can only run on the kinetic energy of dark violence and sex. I don't think that Blue Velvet is even condemning this violence either. After all how much of what occurs between Frank and Jeffrey is even real? And if Isabella Rossellini's character finds the sado-masochistic sex satisfying and has it consensually, it is difficult to read the movie as a condemnation of it. Even our all American boy Jeffrey enjoys it a bit.

There are literally a thousand threads to be found in this movie. Let us explore some, because I really do not know where else to start.