Cockfighter (1974) is, overtly, a grimy glimpse into a nasty local (primarily Southern) subculture. But it’s also a surprisingly compassionate character study. While the fights themselves are brutal (thank God there was little, if any, CGI back then), the birds’ trainers, the film argues, see themselves as good people carrying on a generations-old tradition. They take enormous pride in making the investment to train what they feel are noble creatures. Trainers that are unusually cruel, or people who want to win at any cost, are singled out, derisively, from the ‘admirable’ professional cockfighters we follow throughout the movie.
Warren Oates plays Frank Mansfield, a second-generation cockfighter who, early on in his career, takes the road-tripping, hard-drinking good times, and a cockfighting winning streak, for granted, and loses his prize cock in an alcohol-fueled, ill-advised hotel room cockfight the night before a major tournament. Humiliated, he takes a vow of silence, swearing that he won’t speak again until he wins Cockfighter of the Year, the title he has just squandered.
The film is, then, a chronicle of his road back to his version of respectability. Director Monte Hellman creates a compelling dilemma, portraying Mansfield’s honorable aspirations within the context of what he knows we see as an ultimately irredeemable pursuit. We see, through Mansfield, that cockfighters can safely project, or vicariously examine, their own animal cruelties and desperation for survival through these structured events, through these beautiful yet potentially ferocious creatures. Mansfield’s girlfriend wants him to give it up before she’ll marry him. Mansfield places hope in her seeing him win Cockfighter of the Year, and, through witnessing the work for herself, coming to an understanding of why it’s so important to him.
The late Warren Oates is deservedly revered as a terrific character actor who slaved away with countless small TV and film roles before being recognized for his work with Sam Peckinpah and Monte Hellman (he appeared in ‘Two Lane Blacktop’ as well). While he provides some voice-over narration, his compelling performance here is almost entirely silent. His attitudes, expressions and body language seamlessly construct his fascinating character. The film is worth seeing for his performance alone, but luckily, Charles Willeford’s script and Hellman’s conception create a fully-realized and unique world for Oates’ character to function within. I highly recommend your seeking this one out.
Genuinely funny movies, these days, tend to be either breakneck-speed collections of gags (‘Airplane’ and ‘Police Squad’ films, Mel Brooks) transgressive and/or counter-culture character studies (Kevin Smith, ‘Office Space’, ‘Swingers’, Farrelly Brothers, John Hughes) or satire (Christopher Guest, ‘Dr. Strangelove’, ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘Wag The Dog’,etc). Very rarely do filmmakers attempt straight-up traditional farce – comedies- of-class and/or manners – these days. Stuff like, oh, ‘My Best Friends’ Wedding’ or Richard Curtis’ films tend to aspire to that, but they tend to stretch the form into gentler, kinder, more heart-warming shapes. True farce is relentless – everyone is ridiculed, no one gets off the hook. One can make a case that this-or-that film is-or-is-not a farce (His Girl Friday? Three Stooges? Some Like It Hot? Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?) But one film, one true farce, I’d measure the others up against is The Dinner Game (Le Dîner De Cons) (1998), Francis Veber’s cripplingly funny French farce of love and cruelty.
Thierry Lhermitte plays Pierre Brochant, a smug upper-class smoothie with a gorgeous wife who indulges himself with his friends by attending their monthly ‘Diner De Cons’ (‘cons’ being, literally, that word meaning the female genitalia that the British tend to use more than Americans, and that Cate Blanchett recently revealed on ‘Inside The Actor’s Studio’ to be her favorite curse word. It starts with ‘C’. Its more widely-used context is as ‘jerk’, ‘idiot’, or ‘asshole’). The founders of the dinner are charged with finding and bringing the jerkiest, most idiotic assholes they can find as guests. It is, of course, a competition. Brochant can’t believe his luck in being referred to Francois Pignon, a fat, balding, boring, chattering obsessive who seems to be a world champion con, perfect for humiliation at the hands of he and his friends. Brochant invites Pignon over to his place for a drink before the dinner, but ends up throwing his back out and is unable to go. Pignon, of course, takes on the responsibility of staying to take care of his new ‘friend’, even after he becomes aware of the true nature of the ‘dinner’.
From this early point on, a number of other people move in and out of Brochant’s evening – his wife, his mistress, his best friend, a tax inspector. We learn how Brochant’s life is a well-tended web of pretension and self-indulgence, and that there’s no artifice or strategy that Brochant can create that can’t be ineptly and hilariously sabotaged by Pignon’s good intentions.
This is classic french farce turnabout, efficiently executed (it’s less than ninety minutes), yet admirably paced. Lhermitte is a deft straightman and irresistibly hypocritical target, and the late Jacques Villeret is superb in his seemingly-blithering physicality, mawkish earnestness and comic timing. Of course, everyone learns a valuable lesson, and none of them will ever really change. Highly recommended.
In the scary movie department, you won’t do a whole lot better than The Descent (2005). Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) suffers a devastating tragedy, and a year later, five of her friends convince her to join them on a caving adventure arranged by their mutual friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza). Things start to go wrong; at first annoyingly, then irresponsibly, and finally horribly, as the group of friends, already hurt and exhausted, are beset upon by a savage race of subhuman subterranean creatures. But director Neil Marshall is careful to take the time to let us get to know each character before the mayhem starts. Subsequently, we’re just as concerned and frightened for those people as the characters in the film are for each other. They’re not typically disposable victims, they’re not just excuses for the next plot device – it’s genuinely heartbreaking. The ‘descent’ of the title isn’t just their descent into the caves – it’s the stripping away of each person’s civilized veneer, the descent to each woman’s elemental sense of self-preservation and survival. Calling it ‘Alien’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’ is reductive, but accurate. Marshall also takes care to keep things genuinely suspenseful, not just jack-in-the-box scary. (Although you’d be disappointed if there weren’t at least a few of those too, wouldn’t you?)
Neil Marshall is a pretty interesting filmmaker. His first major film, ‘Dog Soldiers’, is a low-budget werewolf movie that nonetheless contained the same respect and intelligence towards the individual characters, and the same convincing invention concerning the ‘monsters’. His latest film, sadly, was the shoddily constructed, gory and unoriginal ‘Road Warrior’ knockoff “Doomsday,” a major disappointment. There are hundreds of ways for good directors to end up with lousy movies, so let’s retain high hopes for the upcoming ‘Centurion,’ Marshall’s take on a gladiator epic. In the meantime, check out the scary but smart ‘Descent.’
Nick Hornby is a terrific writer. Smart, funny, and culturally literate, creating real flesh-and-blood empathetic characters. I like his books. But I have a problem with him. The first seventy-to-eighty percent of his books and/or films are totally convincing studies of smart, engaging people who Are Who They Are, flying in the face of middle-brow practicality, bland domesticity and conventional thinking. But invariably, he concludes these works by having those characters we’ve come to love and support succumbing to the very conventionality he’s been railing against, as some sort of sadder-but-wiser compromise that all of us grown-ups know we have to make inevitably.
Take ‘High Fidelity.’ I was never convinced that Rob and Laura (yup, as in Petrie…a nice touch, right?) were any kind of a good match for each other. In fact, I was never convinced that Rob, Laura, or any of the other women presented to us had any real connection or compatibility to each other whatsoever. But Rob and Laura come together at the end anyway, because That’s What Grown-Ups Are Supposed To Do.
I recently saw, as many of you did, the well-directed, well-acted, well-conceived ‘An Education.’ As written by Hornby, Jenny is convincingly disposed to commence an affair with a much older man who embodies her own worldly ideas and aspirations, and break away from the conventionally classist views of her overly practical father and silent, suffering-in-amusement mother. After a somewhat-whirlwind-but-still-believable romance, and despite becoming aware of some darker things about his nature, she chooses to quit school to be with him… and he breaks her heart. She then, I would argue uncharacteristically, chooses not to make her way in the world on her own, as obviously resourceful as she is, but decides to repeat her final year of school, stay at home with the folks, and work her way back to college eligibility. On the one hand, you can say that was the practical, understandably conventional choice. What’s unconvincing is the fact that Hornby just spent the length of the movie convincing us that That’s Not Who Jenny Is. But it’s what she did because That’s What Grown-Ups Are Supposed To Do.
About A Boy (2002) winds us down the same garden path with the same results. The difference here is that Will (Hugh Grant, in one of the good performances)(he’s kind of hit-or-miss these days, isn’t he?) is a genuine shit. Independently wealthy, but completely bored with himself, he decides to invent an imaginary child to enable him to go to single-parent meetings to find single mothers to pick up – women so committed to their children that they’ll never ask for more than a mutual good time. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Marcus, a unique, smart but annoyingly nerdy kid with a suicidally depressed mother, who befriends the cantankerous Will . Will takes Marcus on as a de-nerding project, which inevitably ends up exposing his single-mother machinations to the single mothers who thought he was a swell guy. How Will redeems himself is a plot device I won’t dignify by describing its mawkish and manipulative details – suffice it to say that single-mom babe Rachel (Rachel Weisz, whom I declare blameless for this claptrap foisted upon her) inexplicably re-warms to him, along with her son, who thinks he’s a shit, too, along with Marcus and his Mom (Toni Colette, playing a completely thankless role with grace, substance and comic chops the role doesn’t deserve). Will Settles Down, because That’s What Grown-Ups Are Supposed To Do.
Now, here, let me state that I haven’t read the book, and there’s evidence that the Weitz Brothers (who directed, not well, and did the script with Hornby) changed the ending. People who have read the book would do me a favor by assuring me that Will’s character didn’t turn into a hipster Mike Brady, which is how the movie ends. Please tell me that, charming as Will can be, neither Marcus, his Mom, or Rachel actually bought this transformation.
Hornby’s good, so if you like him, you’ll probably like this movie. But I’d beseech you to put ‘An Education’ at the top of the list. I’d pass on this one, but I understand if you don’t.
I couldn’t help but think, upon viewing ‘Avatar’ (great experience – you should go – but the novelty wears off quickly) of having recently viewed another animated film, made at, probably 5% the budget, over probably 10% of the time, that dealt far more inventively and intelligently with most of the same issues. That film would be Princess Mononoke (1997), one of a number of wonderful films by the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Like Avatar’s Jake Sully, an afflicted young warrior must enter a foreign environment to learn some dark truths about the conflicts between nature and human progress.
Feudal Japan is entering the Iron Age, and the well-intentioned and powerful Lady Eboshi is using the new tools in ways she feels will enrich her kingdom, clearing away forests for factories and providing industry to her people. Princess Mononoke is a young girl raised in the forest by the wolves, and is a lone human among the leaders of the animals’ resistance to Lady Eboshi’s devastation of the landscape. The local villagers, who only know her as the feral wolf-girl San, think she’s completely crazy, but they aren’t unaware of the dangers of Lady Eboshi’s ambitions. The young warrior, Ashitaka, has come here to try to cure a lethal curse he has inherited from a giant marauding animal who attacked his village. He discovers that, in simple terms, the curse has arisen out of nature’s anguish at being attacked by the world of men. But he sees the complexity of the situation as well; the need for both of these philosophies to compromise and coexist is essential, but the self-empowering tendencies of Lady Eboshi’s civilization and the wolves’ savage protection of their primacy are almost insurmountable extremes.
And, like ‘Avatar,’ an incredibly intricate and eye-popping world is created around the characters and events within. The storytelling is rapid and involving, but there are thousands of smaller amazing details and images to enrich the whole experience. You should especially look forward to discovering Okidama, Hayazaki’s version of the tiny forest sprites that Cameron, as well, employs, to similar effect.
I suspect most of Hayazaki’s work is required viewing if you have any interest in how animation can gloriously expand our creative use of storytelling. I highly recommend this.
I had high hopes for Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell (2009), his seeming return to gleefully absurdist and terrifying shockers. The first two ‘Evil Dead’ movies are rightfully revered as low-budget masterpieces of entertainment. And the flawed-but-admirable ‘Darkman’ began a transition from his isolated deep-woods surrealism into more real-world thrills that were still compatible with his unique sense of giddy shock and surprise. But I think that real-world foundation is what trips him up here.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a loan officer in a suburban bank, thanklessly toiling away for her next raise, her next promotion. But, as her boss (veteran actor David Paymer) advises her, she needs to make the tough decisions in order to get ahead. As a result, she turns down a loan extension that would allow an old gypsy woman to keep the house she’s lived in for years. In return, the old woman currrrssses her to two days of abject misery, culminating in fiery demons of hideousness rising up and, yes, indeed, dragging her to Hell. As the symptoms of the curse start to manifest themselves (alternately scary and/or darkly funny), she seeks help from a psychic (Dileep Rao), whom then recruits major-league exorcist Shaun San Dina (Adrianna Barazza) to rid her of the curse. Occult hijinks ensue, which compel her to follow up with Plans C & D, and she’s finally cured. Or Is She…?
In the ‘Evil Dead’ movies, Bruce Campbell was effortlessly compelling and hilarious, primarily because of his own (and the character’s) reckless abandon in becoming just as ridiculous and frightening as the forces he was fighting. Liam Neeson hit a good balance with ‘Darkman’s character between the responsible scientist he started out as and the darkly enthusiastic near-madman he became. The big problem here is that Raimi allows Christine to be, essentially, just a victim. She always engages what’s happening to her from her own rock-solid suburban trixie sensibility. From desperate and frightened to hopeless and, eventually, vengeful, her character never rises to meet the nasty goofiness that she’s being submitted to. We’re never convinced that she’s in any way equal, in some way, to the horrors being visited on her. We always know she’s overmatched, so we’re never compelled to root for her. We just wait for the next series of vile things to happen to her, and hope they’re particularly creative.
A disappointment. Sam’s non-horror, larger budget work has been admirable (‘A Simple Plan’, ‘The Gift’, the ‘Spider Man’ movies) – I’d like not to think that he’s simply past doing these smaller, riskier genre projects. Here’s hoping he’ll still indulge himself with a few more of these kinds of projects. Despite the failure of this one, I still think he’s got a few great ones in him.
How risky and thankless must it be to be a film producer? For every Jerry Bruckheimer or Kathleen Kennedy, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of good producers with worthwhile films who end up with lousy distribution, or no distribution at all. Not all of these producers need to reach Weinstein-level notoriety or wealth – they just want their good films to be seen.
I see the truly amazing film Julia (2008) had 12 people listed as executive producers, producers, co-producers and line producers. That may be part of the problem. Whatever the reasons, it’s a goddamn shame that this film wasn’t distributed more prominently, because it’s one of the most compelling, frustrating, addicting, confusing, but ultimately rewarding films I’ve seen in years.
Julia is a middle-aged L.A. party girl who should have left the party behind years ago. Convinced, or, more accurately, forced, to attend AA meetings, she meets Elena, who relates the story of her little boy, who, post-divorce, is apparently being kept away from Mom against his will by the boy’s wealthy grandfather. She needs Julia to kidnap the boy and secure, through ransom, money from the grandfather that will make all three of them rich. Desperate for money, strung out, and no stranger to the world of minor-league crime, Julia decides to go through with this lunatic plan. Of course, things go from ‘Now what?’ to bad to worse to terrifying, as Julia irresponsibly careens from one jaw-dropping screw-up to the next. The film is very loosely based on John Cassavettes’ ‘Gloria’, and the incongruity of Julia developing her own weird bond with her eight-year-old kidnappee in the midst of her self-induced shitstorm is one of many intriguing undercurrents.
It sounds pretty grueling, and, in fact, it is, but it’s a trainwreck you’re compelled to keep watching. Tilda Swinton gives one of the most celluloid-devouring performances I’ve ever seen. And I mean ever. French filmmaker Erick Zonca (‘The Dreamlife Of Angels’) creates a consistently believable, tawdry, low-brow, and, ultimately, violently dangerous journey for Swinton to navigate, and tells the story with breathless urgency.
I don’t recall this getting any standard Chicago screening, although Ebert reviewed it (glowingly). It’s available on DVD and on Netflix (streamable). Make no other plans for the evening, and don’t invite the kids, whatever you do. But absolutely pick this one up. It doesn’t deserve the obscurity it may soon fall into.
Finally, if you’re looking for one of those classics you just haven’t gotten around to but will love when you’ve seen it, let me suggest The Red Shoes (1948), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s lush, kaleidoscopic tragedy of art, love and sacrifice.
The film follows Victoria Page’s (Moira Shearer) rise from fledgling ballerina to international star, her career enabled and fostered by charismatic empressario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The only thing or person she loves more than dancing for Lermontov is brilliant composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), who, like Vicky, rose inexorably from rehearsal rooms to musical fame. Their romance parallels their mutual artistic successes. When they marry, Vicky sacrifices her dancing career to support Julian’s career, but, inevitably, she longs to dance again, despite knowing that her returning to the stage will break Julian’s heart, and most egregiously if she dances again for the persuasive (and by now equally smitten) Lermontov, whom Julian has come to detest.
I hadn’t seen this in years, and had forgotten just how flat-out gorgeous this whole film is. The color is spectacular, the production design is richly elegant, and the Stravinsky-inspired music (by Brian Easdale) is agreeably and aggressively modern, even for today. The direction is seamless, the performances are bigger than life… this is the Old School at it’s finest. It’s a must-see.