Monday, November 20, 2017

Lucky
















LUCKY           B                   
USA  (88 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  John Carroll Lynch             Official site

Well, I gotta go, my shows are on.
—Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton)

A slow and meandering tale about the journey of life, as seen through the eyes of an aging character who has been fortunate to remain healthy through his waning years, none other than 90-year old actor Harry Dean Stanton, someone known affectionately as Lucky throughout the small Southwestern town he lives in, where it follows in the footsteps of other outstanding films on the subject, namely David Lynch’s Disney film THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999), starring 79-year old Richard Farnsworth in his final role, with Harry Dean Stanton making an appearance at the end of that film which couldn’t be more appropriate.  Amusingly, David Lynch makes an appearance here as a man suffering from the profound effects of losing his best friend, a 100-year old tortoise that goes by the name of President Roosevelt who makes an escape through an open gate and scoots away, adding a touch of personal intimacy throughout, the kind of characterization that defines the film.  Much of it emblematic of Stanton’s own life, Lucky is seen doing crossword puzzles, watching old game shows on TV, while exhibiting a passion for singing Mexican songs, yet what’s most poignant is the actor’s own death coming just weeks prior to the release of the film, making this a stunning final farewell, becoming the centerpiece of his own film, where he is viewed as a national treasure, with the camera following his every move.  With nearly two-hundred credits in a career spanning six decades, Stanton was a regular on various westerns on TV in the late 50’s and 60’s, was the best man at Jack Nicholson’s wedding in 1962, and even lived together for more than two years after his divorce, while also singing “Danny Boy” at the funeral of Hunter S. Thompson.  Working with eclectic directors from Monte Hellman in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Sam Peckinpah in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Ridley Scott in Alien (1979), and John Carpenter in Escape from New York (1981), always playing a character actor in secondary roles, Stanton is among the best to ever do it, where his big breakthrough came with Wim Wenders strange American odyssey film, Paris, Texas (1984), with Stanton finally playing a starring role, a psychologically damaged character who was mostly silent, but whose stunning monologue near the end is a thing of legends, written by Sam Shepard, backtracking through the most painful moments of his life in dreamlike flashback sequences, actually improved upon in Robert Altman’s Fool for Love (1985), another Shepard effort, where Stanton’s profound eloquence speaking over the flashbacks is simply mind-altering.  To his credit, Stanton has become an endearing character on the American cinematic landscape playing primarily isolated or lonesome characters, building his reputation as something of an outcast or an outlaw, a man on the fringe of society who always speaks his mind, uncensored, yet inevitably ends up alone, having spent a lifetime accumulating memories filled with regrets.  According to Shepard, Stanton didn’t really have to act in order to tell a story, reminding us “His face is the story.”

While David Lynch has developed a particular fondness for casting Stanton, appearing in several shorts, four of his feature films, while also featuring him in five episodes of his revamped television series of Twin Peaks (2017), where he is seen here singing “Red River Valley,” Harry Dean Stanton - Red River Valley - YouTube (1:09), this same tune becomes the predominate theme with Stanton on the harmonica playing throughout this new film, where we watch him follow his daily routine, waking up, turning on a Spanish music radio station, washing his face and armpits, brushing his teeth, combing his hair, lighting a cigarette, doing morning yoga exercises in his underwear between puffs, drinking the only thing he has in his refrigerator, a chilled, already poured glass of milk, with several cartons lined up to be next, before finally selecting what he’s going to wear.  As he walks out the door to face a new day, it looks pretty much like every other day, where his established routines define his life.  Heading for the local diner, he orders coffee and works the local newspaper crossword puzzle, frequently asking customers for assistance, where he’s well looked after by the cook, Barry Shabaka Henley, the bartender playing a similar role in Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), while a doting waitress, Yvonne Huff as Loretta, takes a personal interest, treating him as if he’s family, expressing one of the joys of small towns, where people tend to look after one another.  Afterwards, he heads around the corner to a local market, buying cigarettes and his carton of milk from the Mexican proprietor (Bertila Damas), exchanging pleasantries in a combination of English and Spanish before disappearing back home to watch his quiz shows.  Each evening, he drinks Bloody Mary’s at the local bar, owned and operated by Elaine (Beth Grant) and her husband Paulie (James Darren), often meeting his best friend Howard (David Lynch), commiserating over his missing tortoise, who happens to be Howard’s best friend.  This little touch offers a glimpse into the lives of the elderly, or just lonely people, as often the only friend they have in the world is their pet, heaping all their social skills onto that one animal, not knowing what to do with themselves when the animal is gone.  Howard is particularly effected, making what might be the most heartfelt defense of his missing friend during an anguished moment of exposed vulnerability, yet it’s especially affecting, small and tender, the kind of moment you’ll only find in a film like this, Lucky clip - Gone  (2:29).  It’s always fun to share moments with film directors “in front of” the camera, as it feels like a rare privilege. 

About as intimate as you can get, there are deafening silences in this film, small and large, but there’s also an understated humanness in every sequence, including Ed Begley Jr. as his physician, where Lucky visits him in his office after suffering an inexplicable fall, indicating the tests reveal no lingering issues, who simply has no medical answers for how one man can smoke nearly every day of his life and his lungs are completely clear, reporting Lucky is amazingly healthy for a man of his age, informing him, “You know most people don’t get to where you are, they never get to the moment you’re in right now, where you have the ability to witness what you’re going through and clearly examine it.”  One of the sweeter moments is a visit from Loretta, who simply stops by one day unannounced, checking up on him, catching him in an awkward moment watering his plants in his underwear.  With no ulterior motive other than pure friendship, they sit down and share a joint together while watching Liberace on TV, an entertainer so flamboyantly different he may as well be from outer space, yet it leads to a stunning personal confession, revealing for perhaps the first time in his entire life that “I’m scared,” a universal truth when it comes to aging.  Tom Skerritt shows up in the diner one morning wearing a Marine insignia on his cap, drawing the interest of Lucky, who was in the Navy, as the two rehash old war stories about World War II, but certainly not the kind we’re used to hearing.  While there are moments between moments that are filled only by the presence and personality of Stanton, who easily fills the screen with his monumentally recognizable face, there are a few stand-out moments, one of which is a lengthy scene simply watching Lucky at home alone smoking a cigarette as we hear the somber tones of Johnny Cash calling out to us from the grave, Johnny Cash - I See A Darkness. - YouTube (3:42), a particularly haunting song that sends chills up the spine contemplating one’s own mortality.  Lucky is extremely aware he’s closer to the end, but that doesn’t seem to bother him, instead he shares what little wisdom he has with others while remaining true to himself, laughing in the face of the void, even offering a singular moment when that look is directly at the camera, a cinematic tribute to none other than Giulietta Masina who does the same near the end of Fellini’s THE NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957), easily one of her most poignant moments.  But perhaps the scene of the film belongs to Stanton, invited to a young boy’s birthday party, “Juan Wayne,” the son of the grocery lady, where they have food, flan, a piñata, and even a mariachi band, when suddenly out of nowhere Lucky breaks into a traditional mariachi song, “Volver, volver,” dramatically singing in what appears to be perfect Spanish, Exclusive Lucky Clip “Mariachi” - Harry Dean Stanton - YouTube (1:19), surprising everyone, including those in the audience, providing a kind of effortless poetry that is a beautiful tribute to his memory. 

As a kind of bonus video from an earlier documentary, HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION (2012), Actor Harry Dean Stanton sings (Bonus video) | Kentucky Muse | KET ... YouTube (4:10), Stanton can be seen joyously singing more songs in his living room with Michelle Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Nocturama










NOCTURAMA            B                  
France  Germany  Belgium  (130)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Bertrand Bonello

Another variation of Fassbinder’s THE THIRD GENERATION (1979), a political film set during the era of the Baader-Meinhof Gang (later called the Red Army Faction), revolutionary cells in the 70’s that carried out terrorist activities across the country, wreaking havoc with the status quo.  Fassbinder’s film is more of a satiric spoof of the bourgeois elite who comprise an offshoot underground movement of leftist radicals who come across more like a gang that couldn’t shoot straight, a rag tag group that reads all the literature, holds clandestine meetings, and believes fervently in what they’re doing, but haven’t any coherent ideology to speak of, remaining utterly clueless about how to accomplish social change, instead it’s more of a lifestyle choice, where they believe what they’re doing is fashionably chic.  The biting sarcasm becomes even more exaggerated in this film, which is basically divided into two halves, with the first part nearly wordless, featuring various characters following an exact regimen, following their watches, with time repeatedly imprinted onscreen, as if everything is scripted and coordinated as they take metro trains, pick up or deliver packages, including keys to carefully placed cars, enter buildings, pass through security, and walk through endless hallways, most of it in real time, where it feels like a satiric take of a meticulously synchronized thriller, like RIFIFI (1955), but pales in comparison, as this is more spread out, covering more territory, where the audience has no idea what’s going on as no background information is provided, yet it all seems to be taking place in secret, behind closed doors or in cloistered chambers before finally discarding burner phones after exiting.  Something we find odd is that it’s hard to care about what these individuals are doing as none of the characters are revealed to the viewers, remaining blank slates, where an hour into the film we still haven’t a clue who they are or what they’re doing, where the aloof style of the film intentionally distances the audience, nonetheless, what it amounts to is a choreography in motion through the streets of Paris, like something Rivette accomplished in a variety of his films such as Out 1 and Jacques Rivette R.I.P. (1971), Céline and Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau)  (1974), and Le Pont du Nord (1981), where he made it a point to crisscross through distinctly recognizable Parisian streets, creating what amounts to loving time capsules of a beautiful city.  Bonello on the other hand is content to travel through non-descript hallways and inner rooms that could be just about anywhere, where the city and featured characters remain discreetly anonymous.    
  
Certainly one aspect driving the suspense is a pulsating, electronic score written by the director himself, paying homage to none other than John Carpenter, whose haunting, atmospheric musical themes provide chilling counterpoint to his visceral thrillers throughout his indelible career.  As daylight turns into early evening, Bonello uses a device of four screens, like security experts watching a panel of different viewpoints, with explosions of violence erupting on each screen, followed by close-up views of each moment, where this is the first sign of what this film is really about.  When jolted into a better understanding of the master plan, the irony is that it seems small and insignificant, as the target was not human life, but they just wanted to blow up stuff, like the Weather Underground of the late 60’s and early 70’s.  But while the 60’s radicals targeted government buildings, along with several banks, they were also careful to alert these institutions ahead of time in order to evacuate humans to safety, while also sending a political message with each attack.  This group showed no such foresight, nor does it appear they are particularly concerned about others, as throughout the film they show a decided self-interest, identifying with the Selfie generation.  This scattershot approach to radicalism resembles Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), a picture of a fractured America expressed through a portrait of young radicals, police violence, capitalist cronies, endless desert landscapes and discontented youth, using unknown stars who had never acted before, where the prerequisite was not acting talent, but to flaunt their youth and be completely unashamed.  Jump ahead half a century and this film seems to be exploring similar themes, using a modern era context where smartphones have replaced the counterculture, where people are nearly always electronically connected to something of interest, resembling the giant advertising billboards in Antonioni’s film, as much of this feels entirely random.  In a mysterious turn, all the participants meet afterwards in an upscale department store, hiding to avoid detection until it is safely closed and locked up for the night.  While we see a few security guards start their rounds, in a gruesome turn of events, none are around to complete them, subject to a specific brutality that makes little sense and seems like it happened more out of convenience than anything else.  What’s radically different about this eclectic group of outsiders is that they have no common cause or ideology, where the director leaves out any hint at why this happened, suggesting they may not know themselves, which makes it all the more chilling. 

When an all clear is given, our motley group comes out into the open and is finally identified as a group, a collection of privileged white university students along with a couple of Arab kids, where it’s never clear how they all came together, or even what they were trying to accomplish.  Instead, a security guy from the building, a new character we’ve never seen, has complete familiarity with the building, turning on the lights as well as the escalator, where people are free to wander around at will, trying on clothes, playing with various electronic gadgets, even riding around on a little mini-car, as well as invading the food courts and liquor cabinets, turning it into a party atmosphere, breaking off into smaller groups, friendships or love affairs, where they even blast contemporary music out of the sound system, feeling very good about themselves, completely disconnected from their earlier business.  As they wander around the building, the interaction with name brands and recognizable merchandise adds a degree of interest, as they’re hardly anti-capitalists, as these kids are completely at home in a capitalistic paradise, happily indulging themselves.  While there are televisions galore to watch the city recovering from the attacks, most show little interest, where the lack of curiosity certainly stands out, as these are not the brightest kids, some obviously having it all too easy, where a brother and sister compare alibis given to their mother for a night away from home, revealing the kind of personal attachments they still have.  Borrowing the security guard phone, who must remain accessible to his employer, one even calls his mother to send his love.   Other than that, they are all cellphone free so as not to leave any traces for the police.  Without it, apparently, this kids are completely rudderless, as not one of them is seen reading a book or writing something of significance, instead they appear bored with themselves and each other, as if that is their driving force.  As they wander the grounds, one of them even goes outside to smoke a cigarette, exploring the vicinity, asking about what happened, clearly unafraid of being seen by security cameras or the thought of being captured, even inviting a homeless couple inside, telling them there is plenty of food, adding a Buñuelian touch of the macabre when they have a feast and gorge themselves, where it all looks so ridiculously out of place, perhaps the only carefree zone in the entire city that is not affected by what is being described as terror attacks.  Occasionally one or two of them will have thoughts about what might happen to them, even thinking the worst, but they’re only really thinking of themselves.  Without warning, or revealing how they found out, a SWAT team moves into the ground floor and works its way up each floor, radically altering their smug view of themselves.  Immediately, two films come to mind, the fatalism of van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), where viewers remain clueless to the killer’s motives throughout, yet the camera wanders the halls first revealing the banality of just another ordinary day before the armed killers alter the mood entirely by seeking to execute anyone they see in those same halls, but also Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where the police systematically go floor by floor in a similar multi-floor office building that is closed for the night, hunting a trapped criminal suspect who is hidden somewhere inside.  But Lang builds an extensive psychological profile of both the deranged criminal and the police while all but inventing the police procedural film, while this in comparison feels overwhelmingly empty, void of any real purpose, with characters we never really get to know, where you couldn’t even call these kids terrorists, but in this day and age the police have little choice but to mercilessly treat them as such.  This film feels like terrorism light, as it’s not the real thing, becoming more of a satire on how easily kids can confuse grandiose ambitions with reality.