Monday, June 29, 2009

Harold and Maude (1971)

The film opens with the camera following a pair of feet, slowly but deliberately moving down a flight of stairs. We follow the feet to a record player, the camera slowly showing us more of this character as a Cat Stevens record in put on the turntable. We're up to the waist, which is enough to see the expensive watch and rings the gentleman is wearing, and that the room is covered in the wood that denotes money...old money, inherited money. Cat Stevens plays on as the body, now visible save for the head, moves to a table where he writes a note and delicately pins it to the lapel of his expensive suit. His slender, delicate hands move for a match, striking it against the crystal case.

Arms outstretched, his hands light a candle, and it's only as the hand moves back and he blows out the match that we see his face: young, refined, half covered and back lit, providing an almost ghostly visage before the camera retreats back to his feet, which move back across the floor, jumping up to a small step stool. The music crescendos and abruptly ends as the feet step off, swinging in a dead man's dance as, directly below, the words "Directed by Hal Ashby" appear.

What a credit sequence. And for a comedy, no less.

Utterly failing in its initial box office run, HAROLD AND MAUDE has become a cult classic; a black, morbid comedy whose situations feel more at home now than it did when it was release over 35 years ago. Even though I had seen THE LAST DETAIL years before, this feels like my "true" introduction to Hal Ashby. The basic story, despite its somewhat unique concept of a young, 20ish something boy falling in love with an 80 year old woman, is pretty standard stuff for a film coming out during the horrors of a post-Woodstock, Vietnam War: reject the Establishment, the military is a joke, live free easy, blah blah blah... In truth, there's not a lot you can't figure out 20 minutes into the film.

So what makes it so special? A large part of it is the perfect casting and top-notch performance of Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon as the titular couple. A lot of the praise over the years has been showered on Gordon as the vivacious hippie/flapper/guru Maude, but watching the film I feel like she had the easier role of the two. Bud Cort had to be very careful - it's clear that, although he is much younger than Maude, he's by no means a child: a hard trick to pull of with such a youthful face. Luckily he's got a great, mature voice that balances things out, and his slow discovery of love and living, even in the midst of killing himself time and time again, is captured beautifully.

None of that would have worked, however, without Ashby's eye and fresh visual take. Wrapping the obvious message in a visually arresting, genuinely funny film (all to the great soundtrack by Cat Stevens), Ashby brings an astute eye to the scenes, using longer takes and a very naturalistic shooting style that still manages to feel very filmic (if that's even a word - I don't want to give the impression that this in any way feels like a documentary).

Harold's "suicides" are a perfect example of the type of look Ashby brings to HAROLD AND MAUDE. Each is graphic, sudden and explosive, cut a second later by the humor of the situation. The first time I saw a still of the bathroom scene, where Harold's mock suicide involves slashed wrists and more blood than your average horror movie, I had no idea what I was seeing, let alone how effective it would be by his mother's pronouncement seconds after walking in on the scene. Likewise with his final attempt in front of a potential date set up by his mother - he demonstrates hari kiri, stabbing himself in the stomach and falling to the floor, blood spilling everywhere. His date, not in on the joke, still thinks it's an act (she's an actress) and proceeds to mimic his death throes perfectly. Hilarious.

You may know where you're going with HAROLD AND MAUDE, but it's the ride getting there that makes it such a fun and embracing film. As a kickoff to the work of Ashby it's a great starting place, and I'm looking forward to what's on deck, the Woody Guthrie biopic BOUND FOR GLORY, a film of a different make altogether.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Before my brain turned to tapioca pudding during the 2 1/2 hour visual onslaught that is Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, I managed to learn or confirm the following tidbits:
  1. Giants robots fighting each other = Awesome
  2. Everything else = not so much
There's been a lot of talk that REVENGE OF THE FALLEN was conceived and plotted out during the Writer's Strike, which makes a lot of sense when you try to follow what little story there is. Apparently the Transformers (as they're called in the movie - which sounds really awkward when you hear it come out of people's mouths) have been on Earth before, and they built a machine that generates their Energon cubes by blowing up the Sun. An old, evil Decepticon known as the Fallen wants to do just that so he can repopulate the Decepticon Race. The problem is, he needs the information in Sam Witwicky's head, which got there because a shard from the Allspark was stuck in his jacket and he touched it and...and...and...

Forget it. I'm already confused and I only saw the movie an hour ago. Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox return as the only humans who know what's going on, and although they both sell the story as best they can, it's incredibly distracting because Bay can't film them without rotating the camera around like it's a Aerosmith video. It's a shame - LaBeouf's got charm to spare in everything he does, and Megan Fox gives the impression of having more than just the body of a goddess to sell as an actress, but that's not the kind of thing Bay's interested in. He just wants explosions, and unlike the first film, which did (I think) a fairly good job at balancing the human drama with the technological overkill, this time his human cast members are relegated to being damsels in distress for the machines or convenient plot exposition to rescue.

So if that were the only problem, things would be fine. I mean, stuff DOES blow up real good, and when you can understand the fighting (like the incredible fight scene in a forest), it's, well... breathtaking. But apparently Bay and his cadre of writers wanted to be sure they injected enough sophomoric humor that everyone's IQ would diminish just a little bit more. It was hard enough to swallow Jazz's break dance move from the first movie - here we have, among other offenders in poor taste:
  1. A tiny, Joe Pesci robot that humps legs
  2. An evil appliance transformer that shoots bullets out of an erect phallus equal in size to his height
  3. Two good robots who are either in black face or doing a really bad ghetto stereotype
  4. A robot with massive testicles, and finally...
  5. Multiple robots farting
All this being said, I can't find it in my heart to work up the vitriol for TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN other reviewers have expressed. Yes, it's extremely stupid, a lot of it's in bad taste, and the story/script is barer than Megan Fox's mid-drift. But none of it seems to have been done with any forethought of malice, and like I said, them robots blow things up REAL GOOD.

Make of that what you will. And now, because I can...

Back to the Drawing Board

Way back in February I wrote a post called "Filling in the Blind Spots" that you can read it in its entirety here, but the following excerpt pretty much tells the story:

I mentioned in my first post that I had two over-arching goals:

  1. Improve my overall writing with regards to film criticism
  2. Expand the breadth and scope of the films I see... and try my damnedest to erase the enormous stockpile of DVDs I have lying around the house.

Embedded in the second item is catching up on those movies that seem to be required viewing for anyone who wants to claim to be a "cinephile" or even a "film buff" in like company. The problem is I've always been pretty resistant to people pushing stuff on me, especially when it comes with the tag of:

"You're not a real ________ unless you've seen ________."

(fill in your preferred term/film)

Time to "Man up" and admit it: There's a gaping hole in my film vocabulary that can't be completely explained away by things like scarcity or disinterest. I've been plugging those holes a few at a time, usually late at night so as to not cause a stir in the hen house that is my circle of friends/acquaintances I can discuss movies with. But in the interest of full disclosure I think I'll turn my education process into a monthly (to start) feature here at Celluloid Moon. Every month I'll take one movie and go into a little more detail than the general reviews that are posted, and talk about the film's impact both on the world of cinema and me personally.

And of course I left it at that.

Oh, I watched a lot of film. Even had a small schedule of which films I wanted to hit, beginning with RAGING BULL, a particular sore spot considering how much I revere Martin Scorsese as both a director and a film historian. Watched it, let a couple of days pass, and forgot about it.

In April I picked up the Criterion edition of Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING, meaning for that to be the second in the series. Still haven't watched it.

Things were looking pretty grim. I was watching movies, sure, but the desire to really watch them, pick them apart and see what makes them tick couldn't have been further away. Maybe it didn't help that most of what I was watching was on a similar level to TERMINATOR SALVATION, but this wasn't something I could lay at the feet of Christian Bale.

A few weeks ago, however, a biography of 70s film icon Hal Ashby came out. Ashby was a director I knew nothing about. I had heard his name before, and years ago I had seen THE LAST DETAIL during a Jack Nicholson marathon, but his filmography and influence as a whole had escaped me. It didn't escape the people I read, though: everywhere there was talk about the incredible run of films he had in the 70s, topped only by his downfall and early death in the 80s. The more I got to reading, the more surprised I was that I was so unfamiliar with any of his films.

So, to kick things off again, I'm starting with a look at some of his films, beginning with the cult classic HAROLD AND MAUDE, moving to BOUND FOR GLORY and finally settling on a film I have been meaning to see for years, BEING THERE.

When that's done I'll circle around back to RAGING BULL and finally get to DO THE RIGHT THING. In the meantime, to keep my chops up I'm going back to writing short, quickie reviews for everything I watch in between. Don't know if I'll post everything over at Celluloid Moon and refer to it here or go hog wild and post it everywhere, but hopefully this time the 2009 movie goal will stick.

As they pop up feel free to leave your thoughts, agreements, disagreements, or suggestions for films I can see to "shore up the cracks" so to speak.