Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Plaza Classic Film Fest #2, The Godfather

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 5 to Aug. 15 features 70 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

The Godfather (1972, d. Francis Ford Coppola)

My Godfather observation on my recent viewing: Fredo is gay. And Moe Greene is his lover. And this is the rarest, deepest and most vital secret of The Godfather saga.

No, this isn't a gaydar thing: I'm not picking on Fredo because he is the effeminate son of Mafia Don Vito Corleone. And when I say gay, I don't mean nebulous literary homoeroticism that otherwise arises in parts of the series. I mean they are literally homosexual lovers, and if true, it is a critical piece of the story.

Now there are hints of each man's possible homosexuality (or bisexuality) throughout the saga. For instance, Greene takes a bullet while receiving a massage from a male masseuse. True, real-life straight guys do that everyday. But real-life straight guys do not have a writer/director trying to convey significant detail to an audience.

The question of sexual orientation counts most strongly in the scene with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) arrives in Las Vegas, where Fredo has been sent for protection under Greene's watch. The newly minted head of the Corleone crime family plans to move the family westward. He is there to forcibly buy out Greene's interest in the casino/hotel.

How do they do business in Vegas? Not like the traditional Sicilian way back east. Michael meets Fredo with Johnny Fontaine, the ladies man pop singer, and a room full of bimbos assembled for the men's pleasure. At first, the bawdy party plans seem to establish Fredo's playboy status. But consider an alternative. Is it possible that the excessive public promotion of his heterosexuality, particularly to family, is suggestive of a closeted gay man?

When Greene arrives, Michael makes an offer that Greene can't refuse. The discussion turns into a shouting match. Michael threateningly chides Greene about an unseen past incident in which he slapped around Fredo in public. Greene responds that Fredo has been picking up too many chicks at the gambling tables, preventing the real gamblers from playing and losing.

More evidence of heterosexuality, right? He might as well say he slapped Fredo for watching too much Man Vs. Wild. Hold on. Look at what Greene said. It's a weird thing to say. Can one womanizing drunk really cost that much money to a big casino? Or does Greene sound more like a jealous lover rationalizing his violence?

If there is a relationship, then it forms an unusual, unspoken dynamic. It creates a scene in which what is being said is less than what is actually going on. Michael may well know about his brother's orientation, or at least suspect, but he cannot say it. Fredo must suspect that Michael knows, but he must put on a show, just in case. And Michael may well understand that the his brother is putting on a show. Everyone plays along, because putting on a show and playing along is a universal practice in The Godfather. It may be the point of The Godfather.

If my theory is correct, watch what it does: it creates a parallel story between Fredo and the Corleone sister Connie (Talia Shire), who receives regular beatings from her womanizing husband Carlo. Each one is abused by his or her lover. Each one defends their abusive lovers to the head of the family (Connie to Sonny, Fredo to Michael). And each conflict leads to an assassination attempt on the head of the family.

Double Lives

Fredo is leading a double-life. But he isn't the only one leading a double life. Almost every Godfather character leads one life internally and one life for public and family consumption. This is most effectively and importantly seen with Michael.

When we meet Michael, we learn that he is the family's baby brother and golden boy. He is characterized repeatedly as Mr. Clean, a college kid and war hero, destined for things outside of Mafia life. Don Vito expects him to lead the family into acceptance, legitimacy, and respectability in America. The young Michael we meet is still at least residually invested in this vision of him. He has gone to college, fought in the war, dates the pretty WASP girl, etc.

Deep down, I don't think this was ever the real Michael. Maybe as a teenager he might have been the type to stop the car and help a stranded sea turtle cross the highway. However, he is cold from the minute we meet him, in uniform, at the opening wedding. When he protects his father from assassination at the hospital, a point is made that his hand never shakes as the assassins drive by. At a minimum, the war made Michael Corleone a cold killer outside of family view. More likely, he was always this way. He chose to play the role of the good son in order to please his father. The Godfather is usually interpreted as Michael's transformation from the goody-two-shoes son to a cold muderous mafia don. However, I do not think this is a transformation. I think it is a revelation.

For all the mob warfare onscreen, The Godfather is really the story of a marriage. It begins with the wedding of Carlo and Connie. It ends with Michael ordering Carlo's death, Connie storming into Michael's office to scream about killing her lowlife husband, and Michael falsely denying responsibility to his wife Kay (Diane Keaton).

Ultimately, this is the double life of the story itself. The wedding introduces the Corleones as a family based on love and loyalty. Over three hours, The Godfather erodes this facade and exposes the Corleone family as a fraud. Family members play their roles and pretend not to notice the big picture. The family is not held together by love and loyalty. It is held together by power and deception.

Plaza Classic Film Festival, No. 1

(Film Critic Kevin Bowen is visiting his hometown - El Paso, Texas - and attending the third annual Plaza Classic Film Festival. The festival, running from Aug. 5 to Aug. 15 features 70 classic films. Bowen will write sporadic reports on the classic films that he watches at the festival.)

Yojimbo (1961, d. Akira Kurosawa) The value of re-watching old films is to reach new conclusions that reflect growth and experience. Everyone has those films they saw in high school that they were too young to fully appreciate. As a high schooler, I never suspected Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo is actually a samurai dark comedy.

And when I say dark, I mean dark. Dark, dark. Like "Michael Haneke called to say 'Turn that frown upside down'" dark. This is a movie bathing in the worst instinct in human nature. In the late 19th Century, two rival gangs hold violent sway over an isolated Japanese town, turning it into an undertaker's delight. The only thing preventing an evil bloodbath is that both sides are too cowardly for an all-out fight to the death. Playing both sides, Toshiro Mifune's romaing master samurai tries to lure them into a mutually assured massacre, partly for his own twisted amusement. Later, his primary act of nobility gets punished with torture and near-death. That's dark.

This is a bleak vision of the world made at the peak of the Cold War in 1961. Now think about it ... two rival sides ... always backing away from the brink of all-out conflict ... facing the introduction of a new weapon of mass destruction (a pistol) ... a town with a compliant Japanese mayor .... has anyone pointed to this film being a Cold War allegory? This film reminds me as much of Dr. Strangelove as it does Kurosawa's other epics.

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, d. Agnes Varda)
There is an astounding visual sequence early in Cleo from 5 to 7 by Agnes Varda, the First Lady of the French New Wave. We see Cleo through a Paris shop window as she samples chapeaux. The camera strolls smoothly along the storefront, capturing the busy street life in the reflection, blending the indoor and outdoor images. We then cut inside to a circling closeup of Cleo trying on hats. The rotating camera captures her images fractured in the store mirrors, creating disorientation out of the mundane.

I don't know how Varda even conceived of this shot, much less executed it. But the former photographer and her second film give deep consideration to the power of the camera. Take a moment later when two people on a park bench are shot at three different distances. Each has a different feel - close and intimate; medium and removed; long, isolated and part of the surrounding environment.

Or take another photographic idea - the power of observing versus the power of being observed, of being an object. In the latter, others watch us. We attract their attention. We become an influential part of their world. But we become slaves to their distorted image. We deny ourselves to gain that power. Then we watch others. We become unimportant, anonymous to them. We lose the ability to influence but gain the ability to find and fulfill ourselves.

This polarity seems at work in Cleo. As a drama queen pop singer waiting on the results of a cancer test, Cleo at first chooses to be an object. She uses her pending illness to attract attention and sympathy. She maintains this diva posture. Then something changes. She feels horrified when an ass-kissing pair of songwriters presents a new song inspired by her struggle. The song flatters her, worships her, but the dirge does not grasp her real struggle.

At this point, Cleo performs the most meaningful tearing off of a wig in screen history, thereby rejecting her status as a famous object. Naturally coiffed, she descends into the streets into a position of observation and anonymity. She converses with a nude sculpture model in a similar position. She meets a soldier with a real reason to fear death. By the end of the film, she finds new possibilities rooted in her real self.

There are so many small things to talk about in this film of subsections. Notice the integration of the soundtrack with the ambient street noise. At one moment, Cleo passes a child playing a few notes on a piano in the street. Those notes are picked up by the score as she walks. Later, the music abruptly ends amid the flutter of street pigeons. Also note the radical shifts in emotional tone during long takes. Brilliant. The first time that I saw Cleo, I was impressed by it. The second time I fell in love with it.

Easy Rider (1969, d. Dennis Hopper)
What is more amazing about Easy Rider? That this film was ever made (by a major studio, Columbia, no less)? Or that such a wild country ever existed which could produce such a wild film?

No other significant American film is so precisely moored to its moment in time, an epic freewheeling travelogue through late-sixties America. The only way to make it more sixties would be a special guest appearance by Wavy Gravy and the Hog Farm Commune. (Wavy Gravy's not in the film, right?)

Easy Rider is a little hamstrung by Dennis Hopper's limits as a director. While the highway-apocalypse finale is brilliantly put together, there are a few too many loose scenes and underwhelming New Wave mimickry. More disconcerting is Jack Nicholson's star-turn-at-all-costs role as a tagalong small-town lawyer, a noisy performance in a film of understated authenticity. Do we know for sure that the rambling band of rednecks beat him for hanging out with no-good longhairs? Or are they just sick of him chewing scenery?

Easy Rider has suffered its own Odyssey, from the heaven of cultural myth to the Hell of cultural mockery. Isn't it time to remove it from the Cinematic Underworld and start seeing it again for what it is - an eager paean to the best virtues that came out of the America of its time? This time-capsule treasure has plenty that is timeless - kindness, cruelty, innocence, sadness, freedom, death.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

Scott Pilgrim Versus the World
Grade: B
Cast: Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzmann
Director: Edgar Wright
free admission granted

Stephen Stills? His name is Stephen Stills? ... And he lives in Canada? ... and he's the singer in a band? .... Do the kids know Stephen Stills nowadays? ... Are the kids thinking "There's somthing happening here and what it is ain't exactly clear" .... I guess his roommate is Neil Young, right .... Ha no! Young Neil .... Isn't that joke a little too hip for the room? .... and hey, hey-hey, hey-hey-hey-hey, these guys can play ....

So Michael Cera, Scott Pilgrim .... Nice guy bass player extaordinnaire ....Tragically Canadian .... dating a high school girl .... A little old for that, no? .... But Scott Pilgrim, such a nice guy, can't bring himself to .... And now we're running through a door in the middle of a snowy nowhere .... and through surreal scene to surreal scene like we're in a dream .... A dream .... A dream .... Are we in a dream? .... Are we in a dream? .... But who would dream of Toronto? ... Do even people from Toronto dream of Toronto? ....

Oh, hey, look, there's a skater girl with dyed purple hair, skating around a cactus in the desert .... And now she's in the library, flesh and blood and tempting, wounded eyes .... and now she's at that party .... And has she heard that story about why Pac-Man was called Pac-Man? .... And are you going to dump girl for girl? .... The nice guy code forbids dating two girls at once .... And how do you write about Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World? .... The adaptation of the graphic novel by Bryan Lee O'Malley .... Is there a normal way to do it? .... Can you accurately convey the feeling of a film with such a short attention span but so long on humor and just being itself ....

Wait! Wait, wait, wait ....

Now we're at the battle of the bands .... And stop children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's goin' down .... And Scott has to fight him .... And him ..., and him and him and him .... her seven evil ex-boyfriends .... Nooooo, seven evil exes .... Defeat each one .... to win Ramona's affections .... How romantic .... How bone-jarring .... And that's why she moved to Toronto .... Because love is a battlefield and Canada is for deserters .... and isn't that the dude from Superman .... And he has vegan superpowers? .... And he plays bass, too .... And now her hair's blue .... And now her hair's green .... And now everybody is kung-fu fighting .... And everybody is fast as lightning ....

And .... And it's like a video game .... so like a video game .... director Edgar Wright (of the lovable Hot Fuzz) embracing video game aesthetics with as much gusto as a movie based on a video game .... And how do you write about Scott Pilgrim .... How do you write about a film that is so aggressively its own unique self? .... Even if it has absolutely nothing to say .... You know what this film is like? .... It's like that entertaining house guest who's a blast for an hour then slowly gets just a little bit on your nerves ... Just a little bit on your nerves .... Because he goes to the same well once too often .... And twice too often ... And maybe thrice too often .... But even if you quit laughing hard, you never quit smiling .... you never quit smiling ....

Get Low

Get Low
Grade: C
Cast: Robert Duvall, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Lucas Black, Gerlad McRaney
Director: Aaron Schneider
free admission granted

This is the thing about a movie with a deep dark secret. The payoff should be about equal to or greater than the buildup. It certainly shouldn’t feel like a letdown or a cop out. It should not be a way to get off the hook a likable character with a checkered past. No matter how tenderly Robert Duvall tries to sell the revelation in Get Low, it never quite burns off the rubbery smell of a soft landing.

As Felix Bush, Duvall hits a sweet spot as the Boo Radley of a Tennessee town in the thirties. Living as a hermit on his farmstead with only a mule for company, children make a game of running up to his property and throwing pebbles at him. Bush answers their rock-throwing with shotgun fire, which is roughly his answer to everyone. There are rumors and fears about the things he has done.

With death approaching, Bush wants to “get low” before God and seek forgiveness. With the help of the local funeral home, the shaggy old man decides to hold a funeral … while he’s still alive… to make amends. He invites the town to come and tell the stories they have heard about him. He plans to tell a story, as well.

Director Aaron Schneider’s smartest stroke is casting Bill Murray as the town’s mordant mortician. Placing Murray into this setting seems so antithetical to his screen persona. Yet it’s perfect, because we have all met people in small places that make us wonder how they got there. Murray delivers perfectly playing a mirror to Duvall; they are both men in whom it is too easy to believe the worst, only to be surprised by the generosity that emerges.

Most of Schneider’s career has been spent as a cinematographer, and that is evident. The film sparkles with a beautiful candlelit tone. A magical haze that makes it feel like the town might disappear, like Brigadoon, once the rainbow disappears. Some will inhale this mythical feel; some may see it as too much movie magic. I felt both ways at times.

Get Low has a fairly singular quality, it manages to be unique without being quite daring. While its emotions never feel fraudulent, at times they feel a little forced. It does many things right, leaves a memorable and amiable feeling. But it does not stamp itself on your mind.

Dinner for Schmucks

Dinner for Schmucks
Grade: F
Cast: Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, Bruce Greenwood, Stephanie Szostek, Jermaine Clement
Director: Jay Roach
free admission granted

How bad is Dinner For Schmucks?

It is so bad that I wish there were a bunch of other movies featuring dead mice in dioramas, just so I could say, “This is the stupidest movie with dead mice in dioramas that I’ve ever seen. “

Paul Rudd is a financial analyst aiming for a promotion. To land the job, he must impress his boss at a dinner attended by the company executives. At this dinner, each person invites the strangest person that they can find, so the group can make fun of them. Mind reader. Animal psychic. Blind swordsman. It is a little like the Gong Show.

Rudd runs into Steve Carell with a car, because in movies that is the only way people meet these days. Anyway, Carell collects dead mice, dyes their hair, makes little mice clothes, and inserts them into re-enactments of famous paintings. Rudd sees him as the ticket to the big time. But he doesn’t count on Carell destroying his relationships in the process.

The “annoying buddy ruins my life” genre has been done a million times. In about 999,999 of those times, it’s been done better. Rudd does his comic everyman routine to no discernible end. Carell places an unusual and unwise amount of faith in the comic potential of dumb windbreakers and overbites. He appears to be under the impression that he is in a Jerry Lewis movie. Perhaps the French will dig it.

At one point, the movie’s phony artist (Jermaine Clement) observes that a goat will eat anything. That is a telling moment, because Dinner for Schmucks seems to be a Hollywood test just to see how low they can go and still get you to eat. If you choose to go to this particular dinner party, then the laugh is probably on you.