Monday, July 30, 2012


I tried to keep the 1950s to a bare minimum. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island. I hoped this would, among other things, take a little of the sharpness out of the violence, but still keep its dreamy quality - Terrence Malick

For the last two months I've been a writing machine churning out stuff for all three sites at the same time (PINNALAND, The Pink Smoke & Flud). Coincidentally half of the stuff I've written about has been Terrence Malick-related in some way (The Thin Red Line, Ratcatcher, Tree Of Life, The films of Jeff Nichols and the multiple references to George Washington). Anyone who's a fan of Lynne Ramsay, early David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols should know that the quote above about nostalgia speaks volumes about Terrence Malick's influence.Whenever you read anything on Ratcatcher, George Washington, All The Real Girls or Shotgun Stories it's a safe bet that Malick's name will be dropped at least once along with the word; timeless. Besides the music, haunting voice-over narration (depending on the movie), characters frolicking in tall fields of grass and that overall dreaminess, what Ratcatcher, George Washington and other similar films set in the country or rural areas like Gummo, Undertow (also directed by Green), Ballast and Shotgun Stories have in common is their timeless feel. What I mean by timeless is the "look". These films almost look as if they could take place in the 1950's or today with the same exact settings, dialogue and wardrobe. The pickup trucks in Shotgun Stories and All The Real Girls look as if they came right out of Badlands. The simple white t-shirt & jeans worn by the actors in George Washington and Undertow (both films set in the present) look like they came right off of Martin Sheen's body in Badlands which is set in the 1950's. The characters in Ballast, Shotgun Stories and All The Real Girls have the same drawl and lingo as the characters in Badlands. Ratcatcher is the one unique film in the bunch in that it takes place in another country (Scotland) yet still has the same feel as an American film set in the south. Malick is kinda right in that nostalgia can distract the viewer. By keeping everything minimal, not constantly calling out what year it is and setting the story out in the country where you don't see modern architecture or new cars (still with the occasional, subtle nod to the period in time the story takes place) the audience won't feel the need to focus on unimportant details. I'm sure certain parts of the south still look as if it was untouched since the 1950's. 
Terrence Malick is one of the few directors around that still shows the laid back poetic side of the south and shies away from stereotypical shit like overalls, skipping rocks and other ignorant preconceived notions people may have about the south. 

Notice the similarity in the music used in this scene from Ratcatcher (1999) and the voice-over in George Washington...

Badlands is also known for its cinematography and use of the "magic hour" throughout the film...

Badlands, Terrence Malick's feature film debut, is based on the true story of fugitive lovers; Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate. In the film, "Kit" (played by Martin Sheen in a performance that rivals Apocalypse Now) and "Holly" (played by Sissy Spacek in a performance that's reminiscent of her role as Pinky in the first half of Altman's 3 Women) go on the run and have a mini killing spree (all the killing was done by Kit) after Kit murders Holly's father. Kit may be one of the most unique characters Terrence Malick has ever crafted as he's a somewhat detached, sociopathic child trapped in a grown man's body. For a film that's partially about murder, Badlands is pretty light and dreamlike. I guess the lightness and dreaminess of the film comes from the music and the beautiful cinematography. Badlands is told from the perspective of Holly (a somewhat naive teenager) through voice-over narration that would soon become a staple in Malick's films. But unlike everything Malick has done since the late 90's, the voiceover in Badlands, which is still airy & dreamy, actually has structure and chronicles their day to day lives instead of random poetic phrases and quotes like in The New World and The Tree Of Life. The sudden change in style of Malick's voice-over narration between his work from the 70's and 90's always intrigued me because there was no progression. After his first two films with their more narrative style he "disappeared' for two decades then resurfaced with a new found use of subconscious/existential voice-over that influenced stuff like George Washington. And speaking of influence, Badlands also had its share of somewhat random/odd moments that influenced future random/odd moments in films like All The Real Girls (the dancing clown scene is very similar to the scene where Sissy Spacek & Martin Sheen dance together) and the overall work of Harmony Korine (certain scenes in Gummo have the same randomness as the scene towards the end of Badlands where Martin Sheen is charming the police officers). Jamie Bell yelling and playing in the rain in Undertow is reminiscent of Martin Sheen playfully yelling and running through the woods with his riffle. I'd say Badlands is one of the more quietly influential influential films of the last 40+ years. 
Badlands also features a rare cameo by Mr. secrecy himself; Terrence Malick (that's right, not even the most private of directors can resist making a cameo in their own movie).


The 2012 Toronto Film Festival is approaching and I'll be going back with John & Chris from The Pink Smoke. So from the end of august up through the beginning of October just about anything you read on PINNLAND EMPIRE will be TIFF-related. So far the list of films playing at the festival is pretty weak but I am excited for 'To The Wonder' and 'Looper'.
Make sure to check out my TIFF Highlights from last year if you haven't already...

Speaking of the The Pink Smoke, don't forget to check out the ongoing "Favorite Movies Of The 90's" project we've been working on...

Lastly, I recently took part in an amazing podcast on Inside The Phoenix where I discussed everything from film & music to race & architecture. The podcast should be up some time in October. But in the meantime make sure to check out the podcast archives as they're all great.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

TIFF HIGHLIGHT #14: TAKE SHELTER - ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! This movie is NOT "deep" (its not even good)

I love Michael Shannon just as much as the next person. He makes Oscar bait movies like Revolutionary Road tolerable, he brings intensity to silly movies like The Runaways and has been one of the FEW positive elements to Werner Herzog's recently disappointing work (with the exception of the misunderstood masterpiece; Bad Lieutenant). He's like a new breed of character actor that follows in the footsteps of old school odd, creepy, menacing and versatile character actors like Ted Levine, Tom Noonan and even Christopher Walken (actually all those scenes where Michael Shannon would spazz out and have post-apocalyptic visions in Take Shelter kinda reminded me of Walken in The Dead Zone). Shannon has become one of those actors that people will watch in anything no matter what it is. The only problem with that is people are starting to love his menacing & intense presence so much that they’ll overhype anything he's in and not question if the movie is actually good or not. Case in point: Take Shelter. A movie so bad, that I didn’t feel like watching anything else for the rest of the night at the Toronto Film Fest last year. And you know what, Take Shelter isn’t even overhyped. That’s the wrong term. Something that’s overhyped or overrated is at least "ok". No, Take Shelter is just bad. The only good thing I got out of that movie was the constant ongoing jokes myself, John & Chris had about it throughout the duration of our Toronto trip last year. Take Shelter is so bad that not ONCE have I thought about giving it another chance. You know how you see a movie for the first time, think it’s bad but sometimes, depending on the movie, you think in the back of your head that maybe in the future it'll grow on you or you'll give it a second chance in about a year? Yeah, Take Shelter won’t be one of those movies for me. A lot of my defiance in not giving Take Shelter another chance also has to do with all the undue praise it’s been getting from everyone. Like...everyone. I seriously think besides myself and John & Chris at the pink smoke, every person in the world that saw Take Shelter loved it. And I’m sure some of you reading this are thinking: well, if so many people liked it maybe that should tell you something. No, that tells me this is one of those rare times when I'm the only person in the world that’s right about something. As I'm sure you've read many times on here before, I absolutely HATE when an "ok" or "good" movie is blown up, put on a pedestal or mislabeled as a classic. There's this unexplained thing inside me that makes me dislike movies like Donnie Darko, Fight Club or The Matrix more than I really should just to add balance to all the unnecessary praise those movies get. Looks like Take Shelter is the newest edition to that list. Take Shelter is the story of a family man/construction worker ("Curtis") with a history of mental illness in his family that starts randomly having intense visions of the end of the world. In these visions, where he just randomly starts looking off in to nowhere, Curtis sees things like thick oily yellow rain, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, crows, and a mysterious grim reaper-like figure. He's so sure that the end of the world is coming in the form of a storm he uses all his money (which was supposed to be used for an ear operation for his deaf daughter) to build a storm shelter to hide him and his family from the oncoming storm. Naturally no one else has these visions and thinks that Curtis is cracking up (especially due to the fact that his mother is clinically insane). By the end of the movie we're left hanging (not in a good way) as to whether or not Curtis' visions are legit or if he's really just going crazy. I don’t need shit spelled out for me, but I also don’t like the rug to keep being pulled out from under me every 10 minutes. That gets annoying after a while.

I'm all about plot twists, open endings, psychological thrillers and movies on mental illness (these are all aspects of Take Shelter), but sometimes when you throw a bunch of shit in to a pot it turns in to a big mess. And that’s what happened with Take Shelter. By the middle of the movie I had given up hope and knew the movie wouldn’t pick up in the 2nd half and just figured I'd ride it out because Michael Shannon's performance was ok. But not even he could save the constant flip flopping of the story that kept annoying the shit outta me. Is he crazy or is there really a storm? Is his wife the one that’s crazy? Are they both crazy and just don’t realize it? Is the world around him just oblivious and he's the only one that can see the oncoming apocalypse? I haven’t been this annoyed from a pointlessly plot twisted movie since Kill List (another overrated movie I may rip in to in the near future). Here's what I don’t get; why does M. Night Shayamalan (who IS an awful director) catch so much hate these days and get shitted on for his empty plot twists, but Take Shelter gets a pass? What’s the difference between the stuff that pisses you off in an M. Night movie versus Take Shelter? Seriously, think about that one. Take Shelter also has this forced vibe as if it’s saying; "Hey, us southern & midwest folk got depth to us too!" Just like Winter’s Bone, Take Shelter is another movie that took the trailer park, poor/working class white southern family drama and tried to mix it with the psychological thriller genre. But at least Winter's Bone was "ok" (overrated, but ok). Take Shelter was like "Country fried Polanski" (no that’s not a good thing). Jeff Nichols was trying to mix worlds that didn’t really go together in my opinion. Another thing that annoyed me about Take Shelter was Curtis' daughter. For some reason filmmakers today think that the presence of a quiet, cute yet creepy little kid ads some kind of symbolism to the film. You're not Stanley Kubrick and this isn’t The Shining. WHY do so many people like this movie? How does it have an 80-something% rating on rotten tomatoes while other great genre bending films on mental illness like Trouble Every Day have a 17%? Normally in these kinda rants I ask; "What am I not seeing? Help me out." But I’m not doing that this time. I’m seriously not kidding when I say this, but it’s almost like Jeff Nichols was poking fun and making light of mental illness like it’s something someone can go in & out of or turn on & off like a switch (obviously I know that’s not what he was trying to do but that’s what it felt like). In Take Shelter it felt like he's going "CURTIS IS CRAZY! oh, wait no he's not. JUST KIDDING, HE'S CRAZY. Nah, he's fine...OH, NEVER MIND, HE'S CRAZY AGAIN!" Take Shelter makes you crazy just watching it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

TIFF HIGHLIGHT #13: KILL LIST (The Bastard Son Of The Wicker Man)

If The Wicker Man had a child with one of those British hooligan soccer movies and gave it away to be raised by Guy'd have Kill List - a genre-blending mess of a film that mixes mumbly UK tough guy Ray Winstone-ism with the occult (there's also a pinch of noir, a dab of the psychological thriller genre and a touch of gritty kitchen sink realism). I know that was a hell of a description but it really does best describe this overrated film that somehow got a bunch of praise last year on the festival circuit. I honestly didn’t even plan on writing about this because after seeing it in Toronto I seriously thought it wouldn’t make any kind of an impact at all. But a few months later it started showing up on quite a few "best of the year" movie lists, still maintains a nice fresh rating on rotten tomatoes with plenty of positive reviews to back it up and played at respectable art house theaters here in NYC. Just like Take Shelter (another overrated mess from Toronto) I'm scratching my head at all the positive praise this has been getting. To me it’s another example of how trying to combine different genres into one film don’t always work (example: Southland Tales). But unlike Take Shelter I'd actually give this one a second chance in the future. It actually had some enjoyable parts, but overall the dialogue was difficult to understand because the lead actor mumbled through most of the movie, there were these random (almost) unnecessary scenes of eerie creepiness that seemed forced and overall it just felt like a bunch of short films mushed together to make one feature length film. First we have a gritty handheld drama about a husband & wife at each other’s throats, struggling financially and can’t seem to make ends meet. Next thing we know it’s a hitman movie. Then outta nowhere it’s an homage to culty/horror films from the late 60's early 70's. Naturally, those that know me well could imagine me in the theater with that confused/frustrated look on my face going; "Wait, what?" quite often. In a post-Wicker man remake-era why would anyone wanna go near those types of movies? Don’t people know Neil Labutte ruined just about any possibility of bringing legitimacy back to that genre after he remade a classic film and turned it in to quite possibly one of the worst movies of all time (yet strangely enough one of the most entertaining)?

Kill List                                                                                     The Wicker Man
Kill List                                                                                    The Wicker Man

After an unspecified disastrous mission in Kiev leaves "Jay" (a soldier & part time hitman) shaken and suffering from some type of a post traumatic stress, he hasn’t been able to "work" (perform a hit) in quite some time which makes things tough on his family because they have no money coming in. One night at a dinner party Jay's best friend "Gal" (another former soldier and current hitman) offers Jay a job that’s apparently too good to turn down. Together Jay & Gal are hired by some type of tight-lipped, mysterious, eyes wide shut-style secret society to carry out a series of killings. Jay & Gal are given the most basic information to carry out the kill list (which is still pretty vague) and whenever they inquire about who/why they're killing someone they're met with subtle hostility from their strange secret society employers. Nevertheless the two hitmen still carry out their task. Throughout the film Jay & Gal come across signs & symbols that hint towards the occult and the events surrounding each murder start to become more and more weird - After their first kill, Gal's strange girlfriend appears outside of Jay's hotel room dressed like she's in a cult and just stares at him and one of the people they kill says "thank you" right before dying. Next Jay, who's still obviously suffering from his unexplained post traumatic stress, gets too emotionally involved when he finds out the people on the "kill list" is tied to some type of child porn ring. At that point Gal wants out, but his employers won’t allow it and they have to finish out the kill list. Eventually Jay & Gal discover that everything is coming full circle and they may be targeted by the same people who hired them. Suddenly the last 30 minutes of the film, which IS still kinda entertaining, turns in to a psychological thriller/horror about cults with a sudden ending that'll have you scratching your head like; "what the fuck?" Like, seriously...what was the point of this movie? Don’t get me wrong, it had its cool atmospheric moments, the music was a perfect mix of drones, subtle synths & eerie samples, the natural handheld cinematography worked for the most part and it was a daring attempt to try and mix genres, but at the same time it just seemed pointless once the ending credits rolled. I don’t wanna spoil too much (even thought I REALLY want to so you can know how ridiculous the ending is) but if/when you see it you'll know what I'm talking about. I honestly think even people who enjoyed Kill List can’t really fault someone like myself for disliking it so much.
Like I said, Kill List may be worth revisiting in the future (I made a point to call out the few positive aspects that stood out to me). And I'd be lying if I said the movie didnt have its share of great shots (see shots) and a few legitimate creepy moments. I can almost get why some people would be in to this, but maybe it’s just not my thing...

Friday, July 13, 2012


It’s common knowledge among most people who know me well that Taxi Driver is my all time #1 favorite movie (with Blue Velvet at a close 2nd place). And no matter how many new or old movies I discover in my lifetime I don’t ever see it being bumped from the #1 spot. Outside of my reference to it in my Claire Dolan review I realized that I have yet to actually write about it. I think part of the reason I haven’t written about Taxi Driver is because over the years it’s becoming more and more known for that one famous line ("You Talkin' To Me?") instead of its overall brilliance and I didn't wanna waste my time writing about a great movie that a lot of people don't fully appreciate. It’s also become one of those classic movies that people are supposed to like just because it stars Deniro and was directed by Scorsese in his prime. This kinda stuff automatically makes people defiant and not like it as much. But there's so much more to Taxi Driver than "You Talkin' To Me?" Writing about this movie is both; cliché (how many reviews, essays and blog entries have been done on this movie to date?) AND intimidating (although there are tons of pointless writings & reviews on Taxi Driver, many great things have been written about it by people far more qualified than me). Seriously, what’s left to write about or analyze when it comes to Taxi Driver? We should all know its influence and impact on cinema. Who hasn’t borrowed or downright stolen from it? The subway scene in Kids where the man is playing the accordion could easily be traced right back to the random scene from Taxi Driver where the greasy guy is playing drums on the corner. That momentary focus on something so random clearly had an impact on Harmony Korine (and I realize Larry Clarke directed Kids, but that scene is totally a Harmony Korine moment). The cinematography and claustrophobic apartment setting (which was influenced by Bresson's early work) clearly had an influence on Jim Jarmusch's early work like Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation. There's even a scene in Bobcat Goldthwait's recent film 'God Bless America' that recreates the scene from Taxi Driver when Travis goes to purchase guns from the shady salesman. And let’s not forget its pretty much singlehandedly responsible for the careers of Abel Ferrera and Quentin Tarantino (yeah, I said it. what?). Taxi Driver kinda started that film genre of vigilantism in the big apple. Death Wish, Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara), Defiance and many more all came from Taxi Driver. And there are numerous other films & filmmakers that this movie clearly had an impact on like Lodge Kerrigan (Keane & Claire Dolan), Aki Kaurismaki (Shadows In Paradise) and even Nicolas Winding Refn (Fear X & Drive). The Travis Bickle character alone inspired a generation of crazy shaved head white guys from Ed Norton in American History X to Woody Harrelson in Natural Born Killers (which was written by Tarantino). Taxi Driver even started the on-going beef between Paul Schrader and Vincent Gallo (Paul Schrader felt Buffalo 66 stole from Taxi Driver and he denounced the film which obviously didn’t sit well with Prince Vince). Had there been no Taxi Driver there wouldn’t have been shows like HBO's Taxicab Confessions. I mean let’s be honest, so many of Travis' encounters in his taxi could easily be episodes of that show (people having sex in the back seat, an unstable man spying on his cheating wife with plans to kill her, a child prostitute trying to get away from her pimp, etc)...

Taxi Driver is the story of a former marine-turned cabbie ("Travis Bickle" - played by Robert Deniro in his prime) and his slip in to insanity due to the gritty & grimey environment around him. After a series of events that either don’t go his way (a date with the woman of his dreams that goes horribly wrong) or just push his buttons (observing the way people live amongst each other in NYC) he's finally pushed over the edge when he crosses path with a teenage prostitute ("Iris" - played by a young Jodie Foster) and sets out a plan to "save" her (*TRAVIS SAVES*) from her pimp ("Sport" - played by Harvey Keitel) and for whatever reason kill presidential candidate Senator Charles Palentine as well. He doesn’t succeed in killing Charles Palentine but by the end of the film he does in fact save Iris in a bloody shootout. A common misconception about Travis Bickle is that he isn’t already a little "off" at the start of the movie and the events we see in the movie cause him to go crazy. Not exactly. From the opening shot (after the credits) when we see Travis at the cab station trying to get a job we know he isn’t all there. Even his grin isn’t normal. In the first 15 minutes of the film we get that he's a loner, has limited social skills (but he manages to get by), he zones out, isn’t the smartest guy in the world and he goes to porn theaters in the middle of the day as if he's catching a regular matinee. No normal person functions like that. All New York City does to Travis is heighten his depression and violent side to the point where he acts on it. Actually, New York City is kinda like a character itself that fuels the fire inside of Travis and pushes him over the edge. What’s great is that Scorsese & Schrader didn’t use Travis' military background as the source for his instability. Him being a marine is only mentioned once at the beginning and later on when we see him wearing a marines t-shirt, but that’s it. Unlike future films like Full Metal Jacket or Rambo, there's no tortured ex-soldier pushed too far or having a flashback about 'Nam or basic training and going off the deep end. Another misconception about Travis Bickle is that he represents the "everyman" (this is something I hear all the time). Ehh, not really. I mean...shit, I hope not. I’m sure right now as you read this there's some angry guy on the verge of insanity that you and I walk past every day (probably somewhere in New York City) sitting alone in his apartment stewing and waiting for the perfect moment to snap, but average people don’t do that and that's not what/who Taxi Driver represents. Who Taxi Driver represents is "Mr. Nobody". Although Taxi Driver is my favorite movie and I think it’s one of the closest things to perfection, I personally don’t really relate to Travis outside of his growing hatred for New York City (now THAT we DO see eye-to-eye on). I don’t love Taxi Driver because I think Travis is "cool" (like I imagine so many people do). I don’t sit alone in my apartment zoning out in front of a television with violent thoughts in my head, I don’t build homemade weapons in my spare time, I don’t have plans to assassinate a presidential candidate and I don’t have a strange unexplained aggression towards black people. So I genuinely hope this doesn’t represent the average "everyman". But at the same time he does represent that person in the service industry we don’t think twice about or just associate with the job they do (or car they drive in Travis's case) and not as an actual person.
Travis Bickle is one of the most iconic antiheroes of cinema. People know they shouldn't root for him but for whatever reason they do.These two scenes below kinda capture a lot of Travis Bickle's qualities. Watch his unexplained aggression towards someone black at the very beginning of the first video and at 1:39 in the second video (Originally the role of sport was supposed to be black but was eventually played by Harvey Keitel to not give the film a distracting racist subtext). Watch how he just zones out at 2:12 in the second video, or his urge to want to do something bad in the first video.

For those of you who haven't had the chance to see the special features on Robert Bresson's Pickpocket as well as the making of documentary on the Taxi Driver DVD, Paul Schrader gives some insight in to how it inspired him to write Taxi Driver, specifically the small apartment and living conditions of the main character. Isolation and loneliness are two huge factors in Taxi Driver and Travis' apartment is the center of that loneliness. There's even a line in the film - "Loneliness has followed me my whole life".  To this day I cringe when I hear people say "You Talkin' To Me?" because it’s almost like they got nothing else from the movie or that scene in particular. Do people realize how amazing that scene is and how it shows the dark side of loneliness? We're watching someone essentially crack up right before our eyes in this small tiny apartment. Outside of the Bresson influence, Travis' relationship with his apartment falls right in line with other similar films like Repulsion, The Tenant and even The Shining where we see people crack up from loneliness and isolation...

Taxi Driver takes place during an interesting and overlooked time in New York City (1975/76) when it was on the verge of hip-hop culture, punk rock, the no-wave scene, Reaganomics, the crack epidemic, etc. I guess that's why the film was preserved in the national film registry almost twenty years ago. Its that strange period in New York City's history where many big things were on the verge of happening. Shortly after the events of Taxi Driver take place all these things blew up in New York City (and eventually the world). And the AIDS epidemic and wall street yuppies were just around the corner as well. Although I would probably commit suicide and take a few people with me if there was EVER a sequel to Taxi Driver, it would be interesting to see NYC through the eyes of Travis Bickle (picking up a young kid with a green Mohawk, a group of breakdancers or even Andy Warhol). I guess we'll have to use our imagination on that one.

Monday, July 9, 2012


At this point Rebecca H. (Lodge Kerrigan's latest film) is just a myth as far as I'm concerned. It still doesn’t have a release date, there's like ONE review on it and only two short clips on YouTube that don’t reveal much. To deal with my anticipation for this movie I've decided to revisit the world of Lodge Kerrigan hoping that by the time I'm done, Rebecca H. will get a distributor. Keane (2004) feels like a slightly different retelling of Kerrigan's first film; Clean, Shaven (1994). I know it’s common for filmmakers to explore similar territory in their work: Roman Polanski (a huge influence on Kerrigan) had his “apartment trilogy” (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby & The Tenant), a lot of Michael Haneke's work deals with a lot of the same themes (depression, boredom, isolation, suicide, etc) and David Lynch's Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive & Inland Empire could be considered a loose trilogy (the three movies, all set in L.A./Hollywood, tell the story of a character transforming in to another person). For those of you who don’t feel like reading my write-up on Clean, Shaven, it’s a subjective film about a paranoid schizophrenic ("Peter") trying to track down his daughter after being released from a mental institution. Keane is about a paranoid schizophrenic ("Keane") trying to find his daughter who was kidnapped from the port authority bus terminal. The biggest difference between the two films is that Clean, Shaven is much more subjective, aggresive and experimental whereas Keane is a bit more straight forward (although by the end of it the subjectivity kicks in and you question if his daughter really was kidnapped or if she even existed to begin with). Both films have that same raw, "realistic", gritty feel (although Clean, Shaven is a bit more gritty looking because it was shot on film with a smaller budget in the early 90's while Keane was shot digitally in 2004 giving it a slightly more polished look...but still still realistic). Both films feature a minimal cast of supporting actors and the dialogue in both films is a lot less than your average script.

Like any film by Lodge Kerrigan, Keane is also filled with plenty of tense and uncertain moments that leave you feeling uneasy right down to its open ending…

But at the same time this is the least "threatening" work he's done so far in comparison to something like Clean, Shaven or the very tense Claire Dolan. ...Or is it?
It was my friend Warren Anderson of the Inside The Phoenix podcast that put a slightly different perspective on Keane...
I've worked with children almost half my life but still to this day I have none of my own so the fear I have of a child being abducted doesn't come close to the fear that an actual parent would.
At my suggestion. Warren & his wife (who have a young daughter together) watched Keane but couldn't finish it because they said the movie made them feel uneasy. I like to think that's a compliment to this movie on some level (although I'm sure Lodge Kerrigan would prefer people watch Keane from beginning to end).
You don't have to be a parent in order to feel the impact of this movie, but I imagine it certainly heightens the viewing the experience.
I'm sure a big motivation behind the making of Keane was the loss of Kerrigan's 2002 film; In God’s Hands (another film about child abduction starring Peter Saarsgard and Maggie Gyllenhall that was wrapped but abandoned because of major negative damage to the film). In that kinda situation, the loss of a feature length movie that you worked on for a year, you either fall in to a depression and kill yourself or you bounce back and quickly make another film. Kerrigan chose the latter...

I bounced back pretty quickly. I think there was a 2-year period between that (In God’s Hands) and this (Keane). I wrote a new script. Steven (Soderbergh) went out and got it financed. It is a very devastating thing to happen, and the most devastating thing for me was how so many individuals turned their back on it, and ran for cover. That was really upsetting. Steven was the only one; he stood behind me the whole way. It was due to him that I got this made so quickly. Crippling? No. Devastating? Yes. At that point, I was reading a lot of Murakami's work. I found a lot of peace in it. You suffer bad fortune in life, but nobody got hurt. - Lodge Kerrigan

Keane represents a filmmaker's resilience and refusal to give up. It was made with a very small crew and shot in under 8 weeks. It also has elements of In God’s Hands in the plot (child abduction). So in a way something good came out of tragedy (although I can only imagine the performance of a lifetime that Saarasgard gave under the direction of someone like Lodge Kerrigan). But at the same time, Damien Lewis gave the performance of his career in Keane (and it's so underrated its criminal). In Keane, Lewis was reminiscent of other performances in previous Lodge Kerrigan films like Vincent D'onofrio in Claire Dolan and Peter Greene in Clean, Shaven along with Ralph Fiennes in Cronenberg's Spider. The scene in the bar alone should have got him an academy award nomination. All the moments where he's is trying his best to control his schizophrenic outbursts are just heartbreaking to watch. Lewis' performance is also another example of the understanding that Kerrigan has about mental illness and how it should be represented on film.

An "issue" I have outside of its similarity to Clean, Shaven is the logic behind one aspect of the story - In the film Keane lives in a motel and becomes friends with a struggling single mom and her daughter (Amy Ryan & Abigail Breslin) who live down the hall from him. One night he loans her money when he discovers she's about to be evicted. Then after briefly getting to know each other she suddenly trusts him enough to leave her daughter with him for a few days while she goes out of town to sort out personal business with her husband and family. Ok, house cinema has seen its share of questionable parenting on the big screen - the mother in Francois Ozon's See The Sea, the foster family returning their daughter to the orphanage in Haneke's 71 Fragments, the mother from Alice In The Cities, etc. I questioned what kind of mother would leave their daughter with someone who is technically a stranger but she's in a very desperate spot (her back story is slightly ambiguous as well) and is out of options. Again - I've never been in the position of a desperate parent like Ryan in Keane and I imagine things like this have definitely happened in real life. I also know this part of the story was to show Keane's fatherly side and to remind the audience that he is (or was) a father at one point in his life and knows what he's doing.
I don’t wanna come down on this movie too much because I still enjoy it very much. I just wonder what Kerrigan may have come up with had In God Hands not been ruined. Don’t let some of the things I’ve said in this write-up discourage you from seeing this because it really is a must-see (Keane is actually my initial recommendation to anyone looking to get into Kerrigan's work). But if you have the chance to check out his other films I’d do that first...

Monday, July 2, 2012

FAR FROM HEAVEN (10 years later and I still don't know if I like this or not)

Far From Heaven is the ONE Todd Haynes film I've always had conflicted feelings about. Even with my limited knowledge about Bob Dylan (and by limited I mean almost none) I’m able to enjoy I'm Not There as it was kind of a return to his early 90's style of light experimentation like with Poison & Dottie Gets Spanked. I own Far From Heaven on DVD and always find myself watching it at least once a year which always leads me to questioning as to whether or not I like it. It’s the one work in his filmography that sticks out the most because at the time of its release this was the first film of his to receive major recognition. I remember when this came out I though; 'Did Todd Haynes just sell out?" (of course he didn’t sell out). Haynes used elements from every one of his previous films and incorperated it in to Far From Heaven. The repressed homosexuality of Dennis Quiad's character is the same as the young Christian Bale character in Velvet Goldmine or the lead actor in "Homo" (Poison). The somewhat "empty"/flighty housewife played by Julianne Moore in Far From Heaven has many similarities to Carol (also played by Moore) from Safe. And the seemingly "leave it to beaver-esque" 1950's setting is similar to Dottie Gets Spanked. It’s almost as if Dottie Gets Spanked and Far From Heaven take place in the same universe. And if not that, the story of Steven in Dottie Gets Spanked could very well be the back story of Dennis Quiad's character in Far From Heaven.

This was Hayne's first (and to this day only) exploration in to racism and the taboos of interracial relationships during a time when it wasn’t really possible. Drawing inspiration from Rock Hudson and Jane Wayman in All That Heaven Allows (a love story about an older woman and a much younger man), Haynes took that story and replaced age with race, similar to what Fassbinder did with Ali: Fear Eats The Soul. And the fact that Far From Heaven, a film partially about repressed homosexuality in the 1950's, is a loose adaptation of a movie that starred Roc Hudson kind of adds an additional subconcious layer to the movie's atmosphere.
Far From Heaven is pretty to look at, features great (and underrated) performances from Dennis Quiad and Dennis Haysbert, and it references the work and overall style of great filmmakers like Fassbinder and Douglass Sirk. And at the end of the day Far From Heaven is one of the few “mainstream” films to try and bridge the gap between race & homosexuality.

Opening & Closing Credits from Far From Heaven (L) and All That Heaven Allows (R)

Far From Heaven is about a 1950's New Haven housewife ("Cathy", played Julianne Moore) who has recently discovered that her husband ("Frank", played by Dennis Quaid) is a closeted homosexual who has to seek treatment to "cure" his homosexuality. At the same time Cathy is starting to develop romantic feelings for her black gardener ("Raymond", played by Dennis Haysbert). These two intercrossing stories bring up many questions and concerns: Is it worth expressing you love for a black man in a time/era when you know it won’t be accepted? Is Cathy more concerned about the fact that her husband is unfaithful or does she care more that he's been unfaithful with men? When she walks in on Frank kissing another man she isn’t upset at all. She's confused and almost scared. This isn’t the typical reaction of a wife walking in on her husband with someone else. Sure there's exceptions but generally speaking, she reacted more to the homosexuality than the infidelity. Haynes intentionally shows racism & homophobia (the two main issues in the film) quite differently. The racism is more out in the open and accepted whereas homosexuality is only hinted at. There's moments of racism like intentionally visible black servants, terms like "boy" thrown around, and there's even a scene when Raymond's daughter is the victim of a racist attack by a gang of white kids. But to my knowledge at no point is the word "Gay" or "Homosexual" used by any of the characters in the film yet it’s all around them. In conversation, the characters stop themselves mid-sentence or say stuff like "he's...ya' know..." (obviously implying that someone is gay). There's that quick moment in Safe where two women have a conversation about homosexuality without hardly saying anything. Haynes even gets a little bold (for a white director at least) and shows black on black bigotry in Far From Heaven. Setting the film in New Haven is an interesting choice. For me, films that deal with racism set in seemingly harmless/neutral places like Connecticut, Maine or even somewhere in Canada are a breath of fresh air. I think most people understand by know that the racism in the south is on another level. The northeast doesn’t have the same history as the south so it’s interesting to see racism somewhere besides Mississippi or Alabama. Similarly, it’s interesting to see homosexuality shown in the 1950's instead of today's homophobic environment. Homosexuality was kept so hush-hush back then because of those generic American family values that you'd think it didn’t exist. Shit, people thought it was a "disease" back then.

Not only does Todd Haynes pay homage to Douglass Sirk's use of rich, bright colors (All That Heaven Allows), but he blends the actors in to the environment. Notice the red train train lights in the background behind Julianne Moore (wearing her red jacket and gloves) or her hair and how it kinda blends in to the background, as well as Dennis Haysbert's jacket and how it subtly camouflages him in with the leaves...

My two issues with Far From Heaven have to do with Raymond's naivety and the way Frank is portrayed in the story. Todd Haynes goes out of his way to show that Raymond is an intelligent & sophisticated man who's aware of his environment. Given that he's such a wise human being, why would he do some of the things he's does in the film out in the open like aggressively grab a white woman's arm on a crowded (mostly white) sidewalk? Why would he essentially take a married, well known white woman on a "date" or the world to see? That kind of stuff just doesn’t add up to me. I know love is strong and can make us impulsive but that still doesn’t jive with Raymond's character. He acts as if it’s no big deal to stroll around town out in the open with a white woman in 1950's America. And speaking of love, I can never make up my mind if Raymond is even in love with Cathy to begin with. It’s obvious she's head over heels for him (almost in a curious/fetishist way), but sometimes Raymond seems like he just wanted a friend. Am I the only one who picked up on the disconnect between those two characters?
Frank is a little more complicated (both in a good way and a bad way). Todd Haynes took the stereotypical American male who occasionally slaps his wife when she gets outta line and made him gay. Technically Dennis Quaid is "A-list" and has been in his share of great movies but when you think of your favorite actors, chances are his name isn’t going to come up these days. Far From Heaven is by far his greatest performance. And it goes beyond the fact that a straight actor stepped outside of his comfort zone and portrayed someone gay. There's plenty examples of gay performances that were a bit overrated just because they were portrayed by straight actors but Quaid was great. His aggression, his repression, the scene at the end when he breaks down and cries in front of his family...everything. All that stuff I liked very much. But at the end of the day he's portrayed as a spineless snake (especially in the last scene when he talks to Cathy on the phone). I know it wasn’t Todd Haynes' intention to show a gay person in that light (after all, he's openly gay), but is this homophobic world we live in that already hates gay people to begin with ready for such a spineless, cowardly gay character? That’s all homophobic people need to fuel their ignorance.


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