Sunday, April 02, 2006

Don't Come Knocking

This is Win Wender's latest movie, in which he combines his love of America with his love of music: if there was a genre of film called Americana, it would fit right in. Here, Wenders re-unites with Sam Shepherd from Paris, Texas to tell a tale of an actor, Howard Spence (played by Shepherd) who has had a lot of success playing in Westerns but who is now fed up with the life: we learn fairly late in the movie that he wants some time out, to catch up with the things he has finally worked out are important, such as his family - which turns out to be bigger than he anticipated. He rides off the set (with theme music which made me think back to Bonanza), junks his movie apparatus - swapping his horse, spurs and a whole bunch of "cowboy" gear for a very sweaty plaid shirt and vest - and wanders off in his red socks to find a train or rental car to get the hell out of there.

Apparently, the audience booed this movie at Cannes: I absolutely adored it. Plus, I had a spooky moment as I watched it. One of my favourite travel writers, the late Pete McCarthy, wrote of Butte, Montana in his
Road To McCarthy in such a way that I put that town on my list of places to visit. As I was watching this movie, seeing the Finlen Hotel and the M & M Diner, I was reminded more and more forcibly of McCarthy's description of the town - although I hadn't actually realised that was where we were or that they were the specific places McCarthy had visited. But, sure enough, it was Butte and upon checking back with the book, these were the hotel he stayed in and the 24 hour diner he described:
"I stepped inside and found myself in American lowlife heaven. To my right is a long breakfast counter; to my left, a long and very well stocked bar; ahead of me, several card tables and a handful of poker machines. There were more customers eating breakfast than drinking liquor or gambling, but only just. They are the people you have seen sitting in diners in every blue collar movie you've ever watched: hunting jackets, baseball caps, plaid shirts, heavy boots, visible weapons. The men look pretty tough as well."
So, we watch Howard trying to re-connect with his past (with vague similarities to Broken Flowers, including one scene in which Howard is becalmed in a sofa) - we learn when he visits his mother in Elko, Nevada (a town dominated by casinos) that some woman has made contact with her, claiming to be the mother of Howard's son. That woman lived in Butte - a place where Howard had made a movie, before a well documented decline into drugs and alcohol: his mother had a scrap book recording every step. So, we go off to Butte.

At the same time, there is this young woman, Skye (Sarah Polley),
whose path seems destined to intersect with Howard's. She is carrying her mother's ashes, intent on getting them to Butte in order to release them over the town. A third, odd, character has significance: an Englishmen named Rutter (Tim Roth) - he has been employed by Howard's film company to chase after him and take him back to his work at the film, since there is a $30 million film completion bond at stake. Rutter has some odd moments - he is out in the middle of nowhere and thinks someone is watching him then, when he gets to the diner, he gets a discourse on the various ways in which potato might be cooked for breakfast in your traditional American diner. I think this was more to add colour to the film than anything.

But the main action is around Howard meeting up with his old flame, Doreen (Jessica Lange) and getting to meet his son, Earl (Ganriel Mann). Earl is none-too-keen: he thinks Howard is a narc, has been following him - which introduces a weird element: Howard's film posters are all over the M & M diner, yet Earl doesn't recognise him from them. Earl is a very angry young man: there's a brilliant scene in which he discharges the entire contents of his apartment out through a fairly narrow window - the double bed must have been a mission! Luckily, neither his guitar nor his baby amp are broken, so he can start a song.
This gets his girlfriend Amber (an incredibly whiney Fairuza Balk) dancing on this mad sofa they have - the images aren't big enough to show that where we might expect a floral pattern on the fabric, he has naked women.

By now, it is pretty clear that Skye is Howard's daughter, I think that is foreshadowed fairly early in the movie so it comes as no surprise - she plays a vital role in getting Earl to be a little less aangry and accept Howard as his father. Earl seems to have no trouble with the idea of having a half sister turn up out of the blue.

Some have objected to the thin plot, but it is far more of film about characters (who I did find interesting) and relationships. Those who want every last detail of motivation laid out like road signs will be disappointed, but eventually things do become pretty clear as to what Howard is up to. Of course, a movie about an actor is just a little too obvious, but there seemed to be a sub-text which was only ever really hinted at, as to whether Howard had any sort of reality, or whether he simply disappeared into his characters. When he does meet up with Doreen, she certainly accuses him of being a nothing, of wanting to once again disappear, taking her for his cover. The only character that rung a bit false for me was Earl: he was too much the classic angry young man to be taken seriously. One last comment must be made about the music - T Bone Burnett as the musical director here produced the beautifully sparse guitar chords which were totally appropriate for the location, and then had the film end with a very traditional sounding, yet impromptu, singalong.

Butte remains a place I must visit, and soon.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ferpect Crime

Now this movie was funny, colourful, whimsical, quirky - I loved it. It starts off with the same sort of contest as 36 Quai des Orfevres: Rafael and Don Antonio both work in a department store: the position of floor manager is vacant and whichever of them has the most sales for the month will have the job. Rafael is a legend: he can sell anything to anyone (I was getting flashbacks to Glengarry Glen Ross) and is on top of the world (Bonfire of the Vanities came to mind). He has been with all of the women in the store, at least the ones he has noticed. If they're not hot, he won't have noticed them. He owns the place - it is his whole world - he was even born here. Don Antonio is a funny wee man in an over loud check coat.

But then things turn to crap: Rafael has this huge sale on the last day of the contest, when he charms a woman to buy a 16,000 Euro fur coat she can't afford. Rafa doesn't know this, so is elated for one night - which he celabrates by having a lobster dinner, champagne, a woman - all on the store. When he finds out that Antonio is in fact his boss, there's a row: in which Antonio is "accidentally" killed. So the dillemma is how to conceal the body. What Rafael doesn't know is that his problems are just beginning to start - one of the women he has never noticed, Lourdes,
knows everything. In fact, her previous experience as a butcher's assistant turns out handy in disposing of the body.

But she's crazily manipulative, with a shocking family - pure trashy background. Her favourite TV programme is one in which TV cameras hijack innocent blokes, while their girlfriends pop the question. She has this mad idea that fashion should be taken over by images from clown suits - baggy pants, floppy shows, the waistcoats and red jackets.

Rafael is drawn in more and more to her net. All his fun is gone, because she fires all the beautiful sales assistants and replaces them with frumps - making the customers look good, so sales go up. He has to spend all of his time with her, while desperately trying to hide that from anyone who knows him. He's no longer cool, heading straight for the mediocrity he so despises. Any time he tries to take a breather, she's threatening him with disclosure of his secret: it will have no consequences for her, as she had no life prior to him. At the same time, Antonio
is his companion - not so much as his conscience but as his partner. (He says to Rafael "What you really have to do is kill her once and for all." "Don Antonio, this is not right at all. You are dead, you can't chat with me.")

Rafael wants out, and is planning the perfect crime to allow that, one in which Lourdes will die but it will look like something else, not murder, so that he can escape the consequences. He does his research, by getting out lots of videos - the film title is a play on a miss-spelt name of one of these videos. and the results he achieves.

Of course, there is some substance to the story as well - a commentary on our consumerist society, on the place of those who don't conform to the image of perfection (and it isn't just about the women - Rafael's male assistants are carefully chosen not to be any sort of threat to him). But while making thse points, the movie is firmly located in its genre, that of black comedy, and worked wonderfully. So, it didn't matter too much that the end was just a little flat.

5 x 2

I tend to be good at working out which movies I won't like and not seeing them, so saying that this is the worst movie I have seen in a long time doesn't mean it is the worst movie ever, just the worst in a self-selected bunch of generally good movies. I really did not like it; and those I asked about it afterwards were also unenthusiastic. One, in fact confessed to being stupid: he had seen the Pinter play from which it was drawn and not liked it.

1. Gilles and his brunette, hiking liking girlfrind go to some vile "holiday village" for a week. Gilles meets the blonde non-hiking liking Marion. They swim while the hiker hikes. 2. They get married. Gilles is already so tired of her he goes to sleep while she removes her wedding dress. Her parents, meanwhile, are still dancing lovingly. Marion goes for a walk, gets near-raped by some wandering husband lookalike hiding in the bushes. 3. She has a baby: Gilles is all "I'll be there in a minute" but instead holds all calls so he can work and then goes for a nice steak meal before finally turning up at the hospital. 4. Gilles's brother has a new boyfriend, a young and very good looking fellow - with whom Gilles is sure it won't last, because the fellow doesn't love the brother. 5. Gilles and Marion get divorced, the judge shares their property and makes decisions about their boy. Marion nonethless goes to Gilles's hotel and gets into bed with him. When he wants sex, she pushes him, so he turns her over and has sex anyway, she's all the while shouting "arretez". When she leaves, he asks "so, do you want to try again?".

There's your five scenes. No substance was added by the gimmick of playing them in reverse order, except maybe a bit of irony when Gilles says the relationship between his brother and boyfriend won't last. Gilles is a cock, Marion is nice but bland. Divorce is such a commonplace these days that if you want to make a movie about it, something original needs to be said, or the people involved need at least to be interesting. These ones weren't.