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Thursday, Nov 2, 2006


No one can accuse John Cassavetes of being unoriginal. In fact, he is uncompromisingly original to the point of infuriation. Many of his detractors would say that his films often rely too heavily on reality, leaving his actors to “be” instead of perform, but with Opening Night, the indie godfather is able to pull of his greatest feat: a supernatural morality “tale” set literally in a theatrical play.


The incomparable Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ stalwart paramour and professional partner in crime until his death) plays world-famous actress Myrtle Gordon, a train wreck of a woman involved an emotionally complicated stage play, who accidentally witnesses the death of a stalker/autograph hound. What follows is a complex, entertaining story about femininity, aging in the entertainment business, supernatural possession and performance.


Rowland’s Myrtle is a raging alcoholic who will do whatever it takes to find her way into the character she is playing. As she so eloquently puts it “I have no husband. I have no children. This is it for me.”. She communes with the spirit of the malevolent dead girl to while trying to find a perspective for her part. Rowland’s performance is stunning and towering. It’s an experimental, thoughtful take on an almost selfish woman who could have descended into caricature and parody in the hands of a less seasoned performer. The improvisational nature of many scenes is amazing and for me, this was a better performance than her critically acclaimed work in Cassavetes’ equally effective A Woman Under the Influence.

Veteran character actress Joan Blondell, who is probably most recognized for her small performance as “Vi the waitress” in Grease, but made over 150 films in her near-fifty year career, plays a distinguished sixty-five year old Broadway playwright. It is so interesting to watch an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age giving their comments on aging in the business. Blondell essays a clever, meaningful performance that should be remembered more fondly. Legend has it that she had numerous on-set meltdowns because she was used to working in the old studio system, where serious method acting was often discouraged. Cassavetes publicly commented that he had to trick the performance out of her because she just didn’t understand his ways of working.


The men are really just second bananas here, but when they are director/actor Cassavetes himself and legendary Ben Gazzara that’s no small order. Gazzara, as the play’s enigmatic director is, as usual, magnificent, packing a lifetime’s worth of detail into just a few lines of dialogue. Both gents acquiesce to their female counterparts with a startling compassion and chivalry that is absent from present-day filmmaking.


The scenes of the actors performing an ad-libbed play were reportedly filmed in front of a live audience, which adds so much depth to the proceedings. This is a fascinating behind the scenes look at how actors work in theater and the process of putting on a show. It is certainly challenging, but more than rewarding! I think this is Cassavetes’ true masterpiece. The innovation of his storytelling and the clear regard for the performances is just wonderful to watch.


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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006
by Ian Murphy


We should start out by saying that The King is Alive is a Dogme 95 film. That means it was made according to the rules of the Scandinavian avant-garde filmmaking movement whose vow of cinematic chastity calls for natural lighting, hand-held camerawork, no optical work or filters, no built sets and no artificial sound in the making of a movie. The lion’s share of media attention was focused on the first two Dogme efforts, Thomas Vinterberg’s scathingly misanthropic black comedy Festen and Lars Von Trier’s woefully misguided The Idiots. Danish director Kristian Levring received less notice for his single Dogme contribution. That’s a shame, because The King is Alive may well represent the most successful and overlooked Dogme outing to date.

The set-up is, by necessity, a spartan one. Eleven disparate passengers on a safari tour of North Africa are waylaid in the Namibian desert when their bus breaks down. Terrified and isolated, they are left to fend for themselves in an abandoned mining outpost that used to be a German manufacturing village in World War II. While awaiting an unlikely rescue, the group survive on rusting canned carrots and collected morning dew, and find shelter in dilapidated shacks and storage sheds that are slowly filling up with sand.

The desperate band of people seems predisposed to clash. Chris Walker and Lia Williams are a bickering young English husband and wife. Bruce Davison and Janet McTeer are a bitterly unhappy American couple straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and thus already prone to inflicting vicious psychosexual wounds on each other. Miles Anderson is a survivalist journeyman who’s not as tough as he thinks. The late Brion James plays an alcoholic Texan businessman who doesn’t last long before his delirium tremens sets in. Romane Bohringer is a refined but jealously vindictive French intellectual who seizes the opportunity to tap into her dormant malicious streak. David Calder is a smug sixty-something letch with beady eyes for Jennifer Jason Leigh, a bored, brash, frivolous free spirit who gets cruelly victimised and sexually manipulated, but may be less naïve than she first appears.


David Bradley is the kindly, morally superior former actor and theatre manager who comes up with the idea of staging an amateur production of Shakespeare’s King Lear (which he transcribes from memory) to amuse themselves while awaiting rescue. The cast is rounded out by two little-known African actors: Vusi Kunene as the roundly maligned bus driver, and Peter Kubheka as an ancient, eccentric native Swahili hermit who has learned to master this hostile landscape and is provided with all the mental and physical sustenance he needs from the desert.

The central idea is hardly a new one, firmly in the tradition of claustro/agoraphobic Darwinian psychodramas that stretch from Hitchcock’s stagy 1944 film Lifeboat and Lord of the Flies onto 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix, John Sayles’ terrific Limbo, Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island with just a painted volleyball for company in Cast Away, and, of course, The Blair Witch Project. The impact is also blunted somewhat by the recent spate of hugely popular survival-of-the-fittest reality gameshows like Survivor, Big Brother and Treasure Island. It’s no surprise, then, that the tourists rapidly descend into primitive behaviour, or that the film takes a pointedly cynical look at the ugly side of human nature. So how come The King is Alive still manages to chill to the core? Maybe it’s because this group of people aren’t clever, they aren’t likable, and above all they aren’t particularly resourceful. It helps make the film a bleak, harrowing and searingly visceral experience. The drama feels as primal and organic as possible. In its own way, it’s more unsettling than countless “proper” horror films, and possessed of an apocalyptic power that’s hard to shake off afterwards.

Shot on three hand-held digital video cameras and later converted to 35mm film stock, this movie is a feast for the eyes, saturated in dazzling, vivid colours. The luminous desert photography evokes such great films as Lawrence of Arabia, Walkabout and The English Patient. Many of the haunting, painterly images will burn themselves into your memory: the ghostly lighting provided by glowing firesides and kerosene lanterns; the icy, blue-tinted night scenes and aerial footage shot from an airplane; the blistering, toxic white sun that occasionally bleaches out all else in the frame; and most of all the stark, eerie natural beauty of the untamed Sahara desert – the rolling golden sand dunes have both a majestic grace and a palpably malevolent power. In some shots, the hapless tourists dwarfed by its vastness, it looks ready to eat them alive. Rotting to death in the lonely desert has never looked so ravishing.


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Wednesday, Nov 1, 2006


It’s no secret: I am probably the world’s biggest fan of Joanne Woodward. Though she sadly doesn’t really make films anymore (with the notable exception of her Emmy-nominated turn last year in HBO’s Empire Falls, co-starring husband Paul Newman), her work between the late 1950s and early 1990s showcases an ever-evolving talent: a woman as fearless, rebellious and experimental as they come. Awkward in the old Hollywood studio system, Woodward really began to blossom as a performer as she aged, the medium becoming more relaxed right along with her.


Woodward has been directed by her spouse on five separate occasions. Three of these outings featured her delivering some of the most assured, interesting, and memorable work of her career: 1968’s Rachel, Rachel saw her tackle an emotionally tricky role as a repressed school marm living in a small town, wishing she had another, more exciting, life, and as legendary Tennessee Williams’ matriarch Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie (1987), the actress put a fragile stamp on a traditionally steely character. A professional triumph came with the adaptation of Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer prize-winning play The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1972, where Woodward tackled a doozy of a role that would win the actress her first and only Best Actress accolades at the Cannes Film Festival: a funny bad mother.


Playing Beatrice, a slatternly, crude protector of two teenage daughters who could use a little help with cleaning and parenting, Woodward has some amazingly selfish moments: embarrassing her children with vulgar, abrasive behavior whenever possible (like screaming “Matilda, go fetch your sister before she gets pregnant” at her young daughter while her horrified oldest is chatting up a boy). She apparently doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions on her kid’s awkward adolescent minds, and her boisterous, inappropriate actions runs wild. She has moments of quiet grace while reminiscing of lost loves mere seconds away from erupting into hysterical fits of babbling about killing rabbits. Woodward, in full-on “bravura performance” mode, goes to places she hadn’t yet experimented with at this point in her career: accent, posture, costumes and all of the usual physical trappings play a big part in her transformation. The performance evoked, for me, the great female lead films of the 1950s: pure character studies that didn’t need any leading men. Beatrice is an innately theatrical and outlandish character that Woodward makes into an emotional, funny and believable woman who just happens to obsessively seek her family’s fortune through the classified ads.


While Woodward was directed by her husband in Gamma Rays, she wasn’t the only Ms. Newman on the set: co-star Nell Potts (real name: Eleanor Newman, the couple’s daughter) proves that talent is genetic. Potts is a marvel as the quiet, sensitive Matilda; her chemistry with her real-life mother is tremendous during some of the film’s complicated emotionally-charged scenes (in particular when Beatrice rudely snaps “Jesus, don’t you hate the world, Matilda?” Potts’ manages a shell-shocked, whispered response that is heart-breaking). It is clear she created an actual character. This is the furthest thing from a Newman family documentary, though each member of this esteemed clan gets to really strut their stuff.


These instances where Woodward is guided by the watchful blue eyes of Newman represent some of the most fruitful filmed artistic experiments that a married couple has produced. While she wasn’t directed by him in one of her most esteemed performances, Merchant-Ivory’s elegant Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, Woodward still had Newman to rely on as her co-star, much like she did back in 1958 when the newlyweds made the dangerously sexy The Long, Hot Summer. These inspired pairings almost make you forget she made other great films without her husband.


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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006


Don (2006)
Dir: Farhan Akhtar


Poised to open on the biggest holiday weekend of the Indian calendar, (October 20th-21st, the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali) which fortuitously coincides with the Islamic celebration, Eid-al-Fitr, Farhan Akhtar’s Don is perhaps the most highly anticipated Bollywood movie of the year. That means that over a billion people, from Mumbai to Lagos, from Singapore to London - even all the way to Jackson Heights, NY, await its arrival in thrall. The film marks the return of star Shah Rukh Khan, to the screen. It’s been three years since his last picture. To his legion of fans, three years is like an eternity. Shahrukh is a celebrity demi-god: Tom Cruise before he succumbed to “creative suicide,” Leonardo DiCaprio circa Titanic. Mass hysteria hounds him wherever he goes.


Don is a remake of the 1978 gangster movie of the same name, which was then Bollywood’s answer to Shaft.  Chandra Barot’s original movie exudes Bombay blaxploitation—mod costumes, violent brawls, harshly erotic love scenes, and an atmosphere that oozes 70s funk.  The plot centers around a rakish, good-natured street-performer named Vijay who is the spitting image of a sadistic, Goan mafia kingpin named “Don.” The Indian police quickly put unsuspecting Vijay to work as Don’s decoy, allowing them to penetrate the leader’s seamy underworld. But the mafia is on to the police plot, and they kill the only inspector who knows Vijay’s identity, leaving Vijay fighting for his life to outfox the mob and the police on his own.


Akhtar’s Don does away with some of silliness of the 70s film in favor of plausibility. Here, Vijay is a struggling single parent, trying to make ends meet as he reluctantly agrees to the dangerous assignment. Updated to the 21st century global sensibility, the movie takes us to Malaysia, where international crime bosses evade the grasp of the Indian police to control the Mumbai underworld from afar.


Journalist, Sukhetu Metha, writes that the term “underworld” is really a fallacy in India, and in Asia in general. Crime there exists in an overworld. Dons are pictured in society pages. They manage international narcotics rings and inaugurate hospitals. Lawlessness permeates every aspect of urban life in the business and media, from the small family mom-and-pops to the multinational corporations. It only augments the sense of helplessness of the individual and widens the abyss between the wealthy and the rich.


Elements of John Woo’s Hong Kong films pervade the storyline—the stylish characters spiraling towards destruction in a city controlled by ruthless triads. Woo’s flamboyant American debut, Face/Off, is a strong influence: two men with the same face, the cop posing as a gangster, the gangster posing as cop, two versions of the same anguished man.


The clothes and technology have changed, but the badass sensibility still remains. Don is an unequivocal star vehicle for Shah Rukh Khan precisely because Barot’s original film was also a star vehicle, for the young Amitabh Bachan, India’s biggest and most beloved movie star. Khan is stepping into big shoes here. Yet the show is his and his alone.


Even though Sharukh Khan is, at this moment, in the very epicenter of stardom, his position is precarious.  He is Muslim in a predominantly Hindu country where the emotional and political divide between religions is as explosive as the one in Northern Ireland.  Market analysts have surmised that Don will do well in secular, urban centers and in the Arab and East Asian market, but not in so well in Bihar, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, the heartland of India, the hotbed of Hindu fundamentalism.


In spite of the communal tensions surrounding its release, Don cleverly captures the essence of India: the glitter of the metropolis, the cultural mélange of Muslim and Hindu, the rustic honesty of the Indian worker, and the unyielding power of greed. The movie is set primarily in Kuala Lumpur. The Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia’s national landmark, standing tall at over a 1, 400 feet, serves as the centerpiece to many of the film’s pivotal action scenes, bathed in green light against the night sky; Through gaze of Akthar’s lens, Kuala Lumpur positively glistens with mystery and menace. 


Malaysia is a modern, inclusive Muslim state. Many of the extras are Muslims, the women in headscarves and the men in skullcaps. And yet the song sequences on the street are deeply rooted in Hindu culture and phraseology. Particularly “Khaike paan Banaras-wala” (“Chewing a paan from Banaras really opens up the mind!”), sung after Vijay is stoned on a traditional Indian marijuana-laced milkshake. It is full of the vigor and rustic charm that’s reminiscent of tribal India.


Khan’s song sequences are the high points of the movie, if only for the sake of the sheer amount of energy he pours into them. Like with all musicals, the bulk of characterization in Don plays out in the songs. And the composers, Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy, have created the perfect score to set the film’s mood.  They move from Don’s cool menace to Vijay’s earthy playfulness and provide some entertaining respite from the barrage of action. “Main Hoon Don” (“I am Don”), the obligatory villain entrance number, is a P. Diddy style spectacle with Don clad in sunglasses and velvet Shanghai Tang jacket surrounded by glitzy shindig dancers and swirling cigarette smoke. Though lacking in substance, “Main Hoon Don” is dark and atmospheric, bringing us into the mobster’s tantalizing lair.



The same mood is evoked by the better written and staged, “Aaj Ki Raat” (“Night Falls…”), a retro-disco number with an eerie, seductive feel. The real showstopper, is the rousing religious hymn, “Maurya Re” (“O Lord, O Father”), sung by Vijay in devotion to the god Ganesha. The entire sequence is saturated in vibrant colors, full of graceful temple dancers, gleeful extras, and clouds of pink powder. There’s a recurring sprightly melody played out on the electric guitar that’s positively infectious.


But the boldness of Don is the ending, in which the plot unravels to reveal a surprisingly equivocal turn of events. It’s one of those haunting denouements, along the lines of the ending in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, that lingers in your mind long after the credits roll. Throughout the movie, Akhtar explores the question faced by Vijay: Are we good people pretending to be bad, or are we bad people pretending to be good? In a movie that seems to glamorize the mafia, Akthar fervently condemns them and the men who invariably get away with it all because they’re masters at exploiting our vulnerabilities, our need for justice.


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Tuesday, Oct 31, 2006

After nearly a month of horror highlights (and some significant lowlights) SE&L will be regaining its critical composure. As part of the post-terror healing process, we present five days of Forgotten Gems - films that have fallen through the cracks and that definitely deserve a second look. Beginning with the latest in Bollywood wonders, our retrospective will cover everything from Dogma ‘95 efforts to classic period pieces. But don’t worry, we’ll be back Monday, 6 November with a bunch of brand new features, including a Beginners’ Guide to Exploitation, a look at the best that Criterion has to offer, and that most maligned of motion picture presentations, the Misunderstood Masterpiece. Until then, enjoy.


The SE&L Staff


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