Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ciao! Manhattan (Palmer. Weisman. 1972)

"They serve like a mockery in way of reality because they think everything is smiles and sweetness and flowers, when there is something bitter to taste. And to pretend there isn't is foolish"

Technically, Ciao! Manhattan is the second movie from the 1001 starring Edie Sedgwick to be reviewed in my blog. The first is the superfluously bad Warhol interpretation of “A Clockwork Orange”, Vinyl. In that movie, Sedgwick is billed as a star, but serves more as a set-piece for Andy’s cinematic display of artistic ineptitude. In fact, Warhol pretty much delegated Edie to eye-candy duty more often than not. Though under his tutelage she did eventually become a fashion icon and worldwide “It girl”, very few people had any idea whether or not the gorgeous glamourpuss actually had talent. 

Honestly, I don’t think she does have very strong talents as an actress, but that does not make her or Ciao! Manhattan any less enthralling. The entire thing started in 1967 as a project for several of Warhol’s “Superstars” as a way to capitalize on Edie’s fame. The original idea was to film a movie about her and another factory-man, Paul America. It was meant to be shot as cinema vérité and the cameras were asked to just…follow them around and document their adventures. Budget problems and excessive drug use by the “writers” forced production to halt after only a few scenes had been shot. Rather than let this undeniably interesting footage go to waste, Jim Palmer and David Weisman decided to write a completely separate, fictional movie and then use the old footage for flashback sequences. 

Rather than an actual documentary, the movie became more of a realistic avant-fiction that juxtaposed Edie Sedgwick’s real struggles with that of the fictional Susan Superstar (played by Sedgwick). Superstar is a former model and “It girl” who has been eaten up and spat out by the fame monster. She is introduced to the audience as a drunk, high and sleep deprived former scenester who is now feeling the repercussions of her once loved attention. The fictional parts of the movie were shot in 1970 (3 years after original production stopped), so Edie is noticeably drugged out. Playing Susan Superstar could not have been very difficult for the beauty. She was practically playing herself. I have found some reviews online that suggest Edie was only told to get really high and “talk about the past” during filming. I wouldn’t be shocked if these claims are true. 

The fiction in Ciao! Manhattan is haunting and sad when it isn’t mind-numbingly confusing. A man arrives at a large estate to find Superstar living in an empty swimming pool surrounded by posters of her own former glory. Her mother does not much care for her and she does not seem to have any support system to fall on. Obviously drugged out of her mind, Superstar dances around topless, waxes about the past and then sleeps with the aforementioned man. That’s pretty much it. If the story stood alone there would be no significance to it at all. The acting isn’t great and the story is obtuse. 

What makes this movie work is that it contains the old footage shot in 1967 of Edie and America. Actual, sometimes candid-seeming, images and footage of Edie’s life is superimposed over Superstar’s stories of former glory and pain. The audience is immediately saddened by the differing states of the leading lady. In the real footage she seems to have a metropolitan glamour about her that “radiates sunshine”. As Superstar, there is no sunshine. The lifetime of extravagance has taken everything from her. She is no longer an icon; she is toeing the line between cautionary tale and obscure pop-culture reference. The film famously and successfully blurs the line between fiction and reality. We all know that, even during filming, Edie is no longer a superstar. She’s a drugged out, psychologically damaged blip on the radar. 

Perhaps the most lingering memory of the film happens when the directors play actual, drug-induced factory interview audio over the documentary footage. Edie can be heard explaining her love of certain drugs and even confesses to not fully knowing that she was born extremely attractive. 

And if this isn’t sad enough, the film will unexpectedly go back to reality where the current day Edie Sedgwick has been reduced to dancing around topless without any tangible control of her own actions. Though she was knowingly involved in the film, it is hard to describe Ciao! Manhattan as anything less than extreme exploitation. The men who wrote and directed this film were supposed to be Edie’s friends. She spent the years before the film’s shooting living in and out of psychiatric wards and was even arrested on drug charges. Even the audience can tell that she has no business being in this movie. She wasn’t healthy. And then…

After only a month of shooting the film was completed and sent into post-production. Shortly after, Edie Sedgwick died of a drug overdose at the age of 28. The filmmakers took little time to capitalize on her publicity and even added an ending to the film that features an actual newspaper headline announcing Edie’s death. It has been said that she desperately wanted to see Ciao! Manhattan finished because she wanted her story to be told. She did not want anybody else to go through what she did during her few adult years on the planet. If anything, the film stands as a haunting and belligerent depiction of a decade that has been retroactively remembered as loving and “far out”. It is hard to watch a woman as young and beautiful as Edie Sedgwick crumble the way she does. The film might not be great, but I believe it to be must-see material. 

Ciao! Manhattan: B-

Monday, October 22, 2012

Clueless (Heckerling. 1995)

"Until mankind is peaceful enough not to have violence on the news, there's no point in taking it out of shows that need it for entertainment value."

Before I get into a review that will probably garner negative feedback, I would like to divert any potential reader’s attention over to my heavily scrutinized write-up of the Best Picture winning American Beauty. In said review, I talk about how I believe American Beauty asks overly-simple questions and takes itself far too seriously. I also mention, although briefly, my feelings on Amy Heckerling’s cultural landmark of a movie, Clueless

Go ahead and scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the comments left on the review. There is one in particular left by a user called “SomeDude”. He disagrees with my assessment of American Beauty, and in doing so says some strangely true things about me. That is not why the comment stands out though…keep reading. 

At the bottom of his comment he writes “how in the Hell is "Clueless" a fucking masterpiece?! It's just another Beverly-Hills-teenage-crap movie.” He then follows his superior logic with “I actually only watched the trailer but there you have it”. He, like so many others, judged a book by its cover. And though Clueless does have a pretty shallow cover, it is not exactly an easy read. The film is very loosely based on Jane Austen’s novel, "Emma" and features some of the most ironically twisted performances in teen cinema. If you really think it is a “teenage-crap movie”, you have obviously never seen it. Because that is the exact type of movie that Heckerling is parodying. 

The film has an ensemble cast which features some young faces who went on to become heavy hitters. Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphey and maybe Donald Faison are probably the modern day anchors of the cast, but the show in Clueless is continuously stolen by Alicia Silverstone’s immaculately irritating performance as Cher. This is a character that went on to become a cultural milestone and helped put a physical embodiment to the greatly exaggerated stereotype stamped on rich girls from The Hills. 

Cher is not a stupid character, but she is very ignorant to some normal social standards. Her father is a hot shot lawyer and she has been living a life of luxury since birth. She has a computer in her closet that only has one function; it helps her decide what to wear to school that day. I mean, how can anybody expect her to understand the common man? Rather than creating an empathetic character for herself, Silverstone gives depth to Cher. She may not know it right away, but there is a smart girl hiding under the expensive clothes. Her classic lines include ironically delivered gems like (in reference to her best friend) “She's my friend because we both know what it's like for people to be jealous of us.” Is that conceited of Cher? Or is that really the genuine reason why they are friends? 

That is just one example of the sarcastic and witty nature in which Clueless was written. Heck, Heckerling basically invented a new ebonic-esque teeny language that hadn’t been heard since Valley Girl (1983). I am the third child of four in my family and the oldest boy. That means I have two older sisters. Let me tell you, I heard my fair share of “as if” and “whatever” complete with the obnoxious hand motion. The language from this movie took over the world. And why not? It had to have been predictable that younger girls would not see the film as “poking fun”. Did Heckerling care? Maybe she did about as much as Tina Fey did when she wrote Mean Girls (2004) – whether it be a lot or a little. 

I am fully aware that Clueless has flaws. I would never try to claim that it is a perfect movie. But unlike some other “teenage-crap movies”, this movie was written by a smart woman who knows how to create interesting characters. Heckerling’s other hit is Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I believe Clueless is a better movie because it has a little more to say about life, love and growing up. The performances in the film are camp-classic, the soundtrack is phenomenal and the dated references to pop culture cement the film in a time capsule for an entire decade’s worth of people. The best comparison I can think of would be to say that Clueless is to the 90s what The Breakfast Club is to the 80s. It may not actually define the generation, but the people of those respective generations will never deny the influence that a movie like this had on their vocabulary, fashion choices and behavior. 

Clueless: A-

*Note* Entertainment Weekly magazine’s October 19th issue just did a Clueless reunion story that offers some interesting films perspectives from the cast and director. I recommend reading it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Frailty (Paxton. 2001)

"Only demons should fear me. You're not a demon are you?"

Frailty is a rare movie that is actually darker than its subject matter would lead you to believe. That’s saying something, because this is a movie with a very dark plot. Two brothers – 7 and 10 – live with their father in a small Texas town. Everything about their lives is normal; they live in a ticky-tacky house near the community rose garden and their routine very rarely changes. At night, the three meet up for supper and then some television time. Dad tucks them under the covers and kisses them goodnight. Every day. The same…

That is, until their father is visited in his sleep by an angel with a troubling message. The boys wake up to hear that their family has been chosen to be weapons for God in the war against demons. God has bestowed three weapons upon the father – an ax, a pair of gloves and a lead pipe – that are to be used in the murders of demons in a human form. The angel, who we never hear from, has a very particular and clear set of instructions and was very descriptive in how these killing should be done. The poor kids are then exposed to an entirely different world. Nothing is happy anymore. Their father kills people. 

Or at least that is the mindset for one of the two boys. Fenton (Matt O’Leary) is the older of Dad’s (Bill Paxton) two sons and he doesn’t quite buy into the idea that God wants their family to murder people. He is convinced that his father is crazy and tries desperately to make his younger brother, Adam (Jeremy Sumpter), think the same way. Adam has no reason to distrust his father. When Dad touches the demons he can see vivid and graphic scenes of why they deserve to die. Fenton cannot see them, but Adam can. The audience never does learn if Dad really can, so there is a chance through clever screenwriting that Dad is delusional and Adam is blindly following him. Or maybe they’re both sane and Fenton is crazy? You never really know…

Either way, the entire concept of people being murdered by God’s will is a tricky one. There are references in the Bible to God being excruciatingly vengeful, but the Commandments tell us not to kill. There is an understated scene where the two boys are watching religious cartoons. The little clay-mated boy asks his father why God would allow bad things to happen. The Dad responds by saying that God cannot force anyone to do anything, but rather he gives people the ability to make choices for themselves. The boys watch this until their father walks in to tell them more about their unavoidable mission from God. Mixed messages, much? 

The father and Adam continue to kill “demons” while Fenton protests – though he is often forced to participate. Seemingly normal looking people are brought to their home, tied and muffled, and then ax-murdered. God is protecting their father from being caught. Or is Dad just crazy? Paxton’s performance does not give the audience any hints to the answers, and the constant twisting of the plot keeps everybody on their toes. The story is told by Matthew McConaughey in a flashback, but even that circumstance is not what it seems. Nothing in Frailty is concrete. The audience never stops piecing things together and they are left guessing even at the end. 

One thing I really appreciated about the movie was the fact that there was almost no blood. Don’t get me wrong, the film is full of disturbing imagery, but there is nothing “gross out” about it. Even with the numerous ax-murders, Paxton (also the director) decided to use the inherent discomfort that comes with the action to frighten the viewer. This is not a movie that needs jump-scares and gore. It sticks inside your brain and makes you think. It is only scary because it seems so real. Could this same scenario happen to you? I guess it depends on which God you believe in, vengeful or forgiving. I massively prefer the forgiving God. 

Killing demons has been a much used device in storytelling for many years. People can get behind characters like Buffy, Blade and the boys from Supernatural. Hell, a mass amount of people see Dexter as a good guy – and he kills PEOPLE. What makes Frailty darker than it may seem is the fact that the father’s destiny to kill demons is taking place in front of his young children, and these demons happen to be human. A happy childhood is turned upside down and obliterated by a duty handed down by the Creator. What would you do? Praise God…

Frailty: B

Monday, September 17, 2012

Raising Arizona (The Coens. 1987)

"I'll be taking these Huggies and whatever cash ya got."

I feel like the best way to open this review is to say that I, Christopher Jake Mikal Ray, love Nicolas Cage. Like, I think he may be my favorite actor. Are a lot of his movies bad? Sure. Is he bad? Never. Say what you want about his ability to choose roles in films, but there has never been a person on this Earth who would say that he isn’t giving 100%. Think about his work in the famously bad remake of one of my favorite movies, The Wicker Man. In that train wreck of a movie Nic Cage still gives the audience his best shot. I would say that though he may not have a lot of respect for himself, he certainly respects the moviegoer. And that is all I need in an actor. 

I also really enjoy the Coen Brothers on pretty much every level. In fact, I have seen the vast majority of their work – not that it is particularly difficult to come across their movies, I simply have always made an effort to find a Coen masterpiece. Their Shakespearian ability to turn a phrase and the fluidity of the dialogue has always fascinated me. Like Taratino, the Coen Brothers do not just make movies, they create universes. And the characters who inhabit those universes always become more real than real.  My favorite film of all time? No Country for Old Men. So you get my point. 

With all of that being said, I was immensely disappointed with the one Coen “masterpiece” that has eluded me for all these years. Raising Arizona is a goofy, screwball mess of a movie that tries to combine too many things that the makers seem to know nothing about. I can safely say that in retrospect because the Coens did go on to make some good comedies. But at this time it might have been over their heads. It isn’t safe to call it a wacky movie. The Marx Brothers were wacky. Raising Arizona crosses the line that every comedy toes. It is a stupid movie. 

Nicolas Cage plays a small-time robber of convenient stores who constantly finds himself in the same rut of robberies, arrests, fingerprints and prison. During said rut, he meets a questionable cop played by Holly Hunter and the two fall in love and make a home together. Sadly, Ed (Hunter) is not able to conceive a child. And H.I. (Cage) has a more than spotty criminal background that keeps the couple from being able to adopt. These two are not the wisest characters to ever be spotlighted in a movie. Their solution to this problem is to kidnap one of Nathan Arizona’s quintuplets and parade him as their own child. 

Nathan Arizona is a major furniture salesman in the area and seems to be living a pretty shallow life with his wife and five new babies. I kinda wish that his character would have been explored more in-depth. Arizona is hilariously played by Trey Wilson and could have been a zonky pusher of the side plot. While watching the movie I kept wanting to see more of how Nathan was reacting to his child going missing, but the Coens decided to take the movie in a couple of directions that did not work for me. 

Movies can be stylized, I get that. But sometimes it is important for the filmmakers to take a step back and pay some respect to believability. Nothing in Raising Arizona can be believed – especially the main antagonist. Leonard Smalls is a finder of men who lives in the underworld. He represents evil. He blazes into town on a smoke-shooting hog with sawed-off shot guns strapped to his back as if to symbolize the wings of Satan. He is equipped with grenades, knives, unbelievable hand-to-hand skill and a ridiculous tolerance for pain. Key words? Unbelievable and ridiculous. 

Because those are words that could perfectly describe the man hired to find Arizona’s kidnapped son and return him home. As masterful as the Coens were when they created Anton Chigurh as the apex of everything evil, they were equally as neophyte-trical in creating Smalls. His badass traits did not carry weight because he was obviously supposed to be over the top. What did that accomplish? It made him look silly. Which may have been the point the Coens wanted to make. But only certain amount of silly can work. Think about the difference between Anchorman and Semi-Pro. Exactly…

 I think there are a lot of interesting things happening in Raising Arizona. Cage, Hunter and John Goodman all give everything they have in their respective roles. A lot of talented people were involved in making this movie. My issue is that it is too over the top. It doesn’t stick as a satire of anything, and its finer points are overshadowed by certain scenes of prolonged stupidity. What makes the Coens great is their ability to thrust the audience into something that they can believe is real and tangible, but ultimately ludicrous. It should take some thought before it is dismissed. Raising Arizona is dismissed immediately. And that’s what makes it disappointing. 

Raising Arizona: C

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Chasing Amy (Smith. 1997)

"She was the girl, I know that now. But I pushed her away. So, I've spent every day since then chasing Amy..."

I am not sexist. I am active in the fight for women’s rights and I was practically raised by only women.  I do not believe in the double standard that says a woman who has multiple sexual partners is a whore, while a man with the same is some sort of stud. Does that mean I support having sex with a ton of people? Absolutely not.  I don’t endorse the double standard because I believe that anybody who randomly has sex or does sexual acts with a variety of people is doing something bad. I may have very loose morals in some respects, but I take sex very seriously.  I do not have any religious pre-disposition or anything like that, I just believe that people should take be more willing to wait for love. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

I am fully aware that sex is fun. I mean, I have it. But I have only ever had it with two people – both of whom I romantically loved. Am I telling you this to brag? No. I merely would like to be open with any reader and maybe they will be easier on me for being so uneasy after watching Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. I am not saying that I thought the movie was bad, because I didn’t. I just think I related with the wrong character. Kevin Smith is obviously a big supporter of equal sexual-liberation. And honestly, I would love to be as easygoing about sex as he makes some of his characters. But I’m not. It isn’t that Alyssa is a female that bothers me; it is that she is a person in the first place. Man or woman, I am not sure I could be friends with a person like Alyssa. Did I mention that I used to date an Amish girl?...

Chasing Amy tells the story of Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) who work together on a sophomoric comic book, "Blunt Man and Chronic" to significant underground success. Everything is going great for the duo until Holden meets a female comic book writer named Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). After a short, but charismatic conversation over a game of darts, Holden becomes enamored with Alyssa. I could see that happening. They are both kinda grungy people with an abundance of short-sighted opinions and foul stories. There is one problem. Alyssa is a lesbian. 

Taking a break from the story, the aforementioned dart game scene is a perfect example of what you can expect from Kevin Smith’s direction. Like in Clerks, Smith chose to simply set the camera down and allow it to frame the action. “Shooting-style” does not play a part in the movie, but rather the characters always remain the central focus. Most of the time, they are doing something completely mundane or ordinary while having witty, natural-feeling conversations. Writing is Smith’s strongest asset as an artist and filmmaker. His dialogue gives the green light for the actors to tell the story themselves without bells, tricks or whistles. I like the realistic lack of style in Smith’s early movies. It was refreshing then, and it remains that way in the days where Michael Bay forces explosions down a moviegoer’s throat. 

What I don’t like about Chasing Amy specifically is what the movie is about. I think it is exceptional at being about what it is about; I just don’t like my own visceral reaction to watching it. It made me feel like a bad person. Maybe I am. Maybe I totally missed the point. That could have easily happened. Because I personally sympathize with Holden, a lot, and that is not where my head should want to go. 

Alyssa eventually falls for Holden and leaves her gay lifestyle to pursue a heterosexual relationship. In doing so, she tells Holden that she has never been with a man in a sexual or romantic way. In what turned out to be another great cameo, Jay and Silent Bob inform Holden that Alyssa has been with men. In fact, she’d been with two men at the same time. Not them, but rather two men with whom Holden attended high school. Alyssa had “fingercuffed” with two men at the same time, two men Holden knows, two men Holden has hated for several years. 

After this knowledge is passed along, Holden starts to second guess his entire relationship with Alyssa. And why not? She did lie about never being with a man; let alone being with two men at the same time. More of her sex life becomes an issue as the movie progresses and eventually Holden cannot handle it anymore. The demise of their relationship is due to the fact that he cannot get passed her previous sex life and accept that she only wants to be with him now. Of course, Alyssa doesn’t make it easy. Maybe that is my issue. She did lie to him. And instead of ever really apologizing to him for lying, she makes excuses for her past and passes it off as something that shouldn’t be upsetting to Holden. Why wouldn’t it be? He just had a wall dropped on him.

I would never break up with someone because they’ve had sex with more people than me – no matter how icky those situations may seem in my opinion. But if I had learned this information in the way that Holden did I might expect that my girlfriend be patient with me and give me some space. Because I have a feeling Holden was not mad at Alyssa, but rather he was hurt that she lied, embarrassed that he fell for it and uncomfortable about the whole thing. I understand that. I side with Holden. Do I think he takes it too far by the end? Of course I do. I’m a prude, not an animal. 

I think what Chasing Amy did was made me realize that I am a very insecure person. Holden obviously is, and I believe in his cause. What does that say about me? What does it say about anyone who agrees with me or him? Kevin Smith did maybe what he was trying to do. His movie has forced me to do some serious self-reflecting. So far, I am embarrassed about what I have found. I think that might make it an important movie...

Chasing Amy: B+