Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Place Beyond the Pines

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

One may think that there are three stories here that should have been made into three separate films. But, by putting them together, a unique story is concocted, where the different parts amplify each other and reinforce a cohesive whole.

Ryan Gosling's character, Luke, (another unforgettable performance by this great actor) is a drifter who does motorcycle stunts at a traveling carnival. If you gals like tattoos, he has plenty of them. One under his eye shows a dagger dripping blood, which can also look like tear drops, implying his sad situation. He sees Eva Mendes' character after a show. We discover he had a fling with her. He implies there can't be any relationship because the show won't be back for a year. However, he finds out that she has had his baby, and she now lives at the house of her new boyfriend. Luke didn't have his father around and wants to be there for his boy. He quits the show and does some minimum wage work for a guy who was impressed by his riding in the woods. That fellow tells him he can get money for his son by using his motorcycle skills to rob banks. Luke eventually agrees, and the crime spree begins. Luke buys things for his son, and in the process, intrudes into the life of the child's mom and eventual stepdad. He assaults this man at one point, but gives himself up to the police, knowing he was in the wrong. He is bailed out by his partner-in-crime, who wants out because of Luke's increasing recklessness. Luke forces a bundle of stolen cash onto Mendes for his son. After trying to go it alone on a heist, he is cornered in a house, lets the occupants go instead of using them as hostages, calls Mendes and tells her not to tell his son about him, and is killed by a policeman. The policeman, whose last name is Cross, played by Bradley Cooper, does not wait for back-up, knocks down the door, does not repeat his police warning, and shoots Luke first.  Luke gets off a shot after being fatally wounded and before falling out of a window, hitting Cross in the leg.

Now the story shifts to Cross, who is questioned by his superior, played by Bruce Greenwood. During this interview, the cop's mistakes are revealed. Cross alters the story, saying he did not shoot first, and only responded out of self-defense. With the revised story, he can now be depicted by the department and the press as a hero. He does have feelings of guilt about the way Luke was killed. He tries to get his captain to make him a renovator of the department. But, his superior instead assigns him to the evidence room during his convalescence. This action is all a setup to put a supposedly beyond reproach person there so officers can steal or alter evidence.

Ray Liotta's policeman and others show up at Cross' house one night and take him to Mendes' place to look for Luke's stolen money. They find it under Luke's son's crib. It is ironic that stolen cash is placed under a sleeping innocent. They give half of the cash to Cross. He brings it to his captain, wanting to expose the others. The captain wants nothing to do with the scandal that could result. Cross now mimics Luke's action, again bringing the money to Mendes, although now the money is stolen by cops. Mendes refuses it. She appears honorable in a world of criminals on both sides of the law.

When Cross now realizes that he is in danger for trying to expose his fellow officers, he escapes a possible assassination in the woods by Liotta, and goes to his father, the judge, for counsel. His dad is a politician, and has already said that Cross is a good speaker and can use his hero status to launch a political career. Cross, who has a law degree (more irony, considering his escalating unlawful acts), is next seen extorting an assistant DA job for himself and immunity in exchange for not revealing the police corruption to the press.

The story then shifts fifteen years into the future. Cross has been politically successful, and is about to be elected the attorney general of New York. But, his ambition has cost him his marriage, and his son is a spoiled, selfish drug user. The boy zones in on a youth at his new school and sees him as what he calls a "stoner loner." He pushes him into scoring drugs. They are apprehended by the police. Cross, coming to get his son, discovers that the other youth is Luke's son. Cross' son continues to pressure Luke's boy, and the latter steals drugs from a pharmacy. He also discovers who his real father was and that Cross killed him. He attacks Cross' son and brings Cross into the woods. He doesn't kill him though, and runs away.

Luke rides a motorcycle, wheels that take him into a round cage at the carnival, in which he rides in circles. There are Ferris wheels and other rides in the background that go in circles. The carnival returns to the same places. Luke wants to break the vicious cycle in his family by not being an absent father, like his dad before him. But, despite good intentions, his life is locked into antisocial, self-destructive ways. The cage in which he rides is symbolic of the prison of his family lifestyle. Luke's son seems to have inherited this situation as he steals drugs on a bike, similar to his father's activity. Cross also initially tries to reform the corruption in the police department, but becomes part of the deceptive system as he has caused the death of Luke, conspired for his own advancement, and bails his son out of compromising situations through his power. Cross stands with his son on the stage at the end as victors. Despite good intentions, the darkness inside individuals and society perpetuate the sins of the fathers. Cross and Luke (names ironically having religious connotations) have good inside them, but it is not enough to overcome the negative forces around them.

The end is enigmatic, since Luke's son rides away without permanently hurting anyone. But, he does so on a motorcycle, like his father. Will he follow the same path, or a different one? Why the title? The suggestion of robbing banks follows the scene where Luke rides in the woods.  Liotta's character brings Cross into the woods, which causes Cross to go the political route. Luke's son takes Cross into the woods, but lets him live. Each venture into the "pines" puts characters onto a different road. Perhaps the title means that we desire to get beyond becoming lost in the woods, and reach a clearing, where we can achieve moral clarity. What do you think?

Next week’s film is Prometheus.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Outlaw Josey Wales

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Well this film definitely does not fit the typical John Wayne style western, pilgrim. (Did Wayne actually ever say “pilgrim”? Let me know if he did). It shows how war, especially the American Civil War, can subvert civilization. The title alone tells you something. We're dealing with someone outside the established system of government. He became this way when renegade Union soldiers killed his wife and child and burned down his house. He and his family are collateral damage in this universe. This movie shows a topsy-turvy world. There’s a lot of that going on in 1970’s films – this one came out in 1976. Here, the Union army is as bad as the Confederate. At first, Josey joins up with the Confederates for revenge. But, the man who recruited him, Fletcher, becomes a traitor and, for money, convinces everyone except Josey to surrender. After the Confederates are double-crossed and killed, Josey kills the Union soldiers. He is now an outlaw. Fletcher hunts Josey, probably to obliterate the person whose existence makes him feel guilty for his own betrayal.

The actions and words of the film show the inverse reality created by war. Josey, while placing a wood cross on his wife's grave, starts to angrily slam it into the ground, knocking it over, as much an act of defiance as of reverence for God. At one point, Josey says about being dragged "all over hell's creation" – instead of using the familiar phrase "God's creation."  In this film, Josey, a white man, joins forces with an Indian, played by Chief Dan George. When they first encounter each other, it is the white man who sneaks up and gets the drop on the Indian. George dressed not as a Native American but in white man's clothes, looks like, as George says, sarcastically, a "civilized man." The white man’s world is being satirized here.

There is a ferryman who transports Union and Confederate passengers alternately, for money, singing Dixie, for Josey's sake, when ferrying him. He almost seems like Brecht's Mother Courage, switching flags for practical purposes. In another scene, after his identity is discovered in a town, Josey confronts Union soldiers by saying "Are you going to pull out your pistols or whistle Dixie," – not what you would think Union men would sing. But, in this world, allegiances can fluctuate. When Josey and his new family of Native Americans, left behind townspeople, and displaced Kansans defend their new home, the house has crosses cut out of the windows, looking, ironically, religious, but actually useful for shooting side to side and up and down in the last battle with those pursuing Josey.

In the end, Josey makes peace with the local Native Americans, saying that governments took everything from both of them, and now peace can only be made between people – not governments. When Fletcher finally catches up with Josey, he lets him go, as the two make an unspoken agreement, outside the laws of governments.

This film upholds the traditional western value system which exalts strong individualism, but, in this case, as the way to heal society.

Any other Eastwood films you would like discussed?

Next week’s film is a more recent one: The Place Beyond the Pines.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Verdict
(A version of this post first appeared on the Bryn Mawr Film Institute Blog)

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I say that the verdict is in on this movie -- it’s a masterpiece. We lost one of our most gifted and prolific directors not too long ago. Sidney Lumet made such great films as: Long Day's Journey into Night; Fail-Safe; The Pawnbroker; and Network.  However, a number of his films deal with crime and the legal system.  These include: 12 Angry Men; Serpico; Murder on the Orient Express; Dog Day Afternoon; and Prince of the City.

My favorite movie of his in this area is The Verdict. You cannot find another title of a movie which has so much to do with what the film is about. The word "verdict" is derived from the Latin and means "to speak the truth." This movie shows how lies can have tragic consequences, and how outward appearances are not good indicators as to who is the most reliable source of truth. It is here where the marriage of Lumet with writer David Mamet is a match made in screenwriting heaven. Mamet, too, deals with the line between justice and injustice, society's rules and the breaking of those rules, in such films as House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, Glengarry Glen Ross, and The Edge.

The Verdict, a 1982 film, showcases Paul Newman as Frank Galvin, in maybe his best performance, as a promising lawyer who has fallen from legal and ethical grace in the Catholic world of Boston's jurisprudence. We first see him as an alcoholic who tries to fund his visits at his favorite bar by browsing the obituaries and soliciting representation from grieving families at funerals, pretending to be a friend of the deceased. He is so ashamed and angry at what he has become that while intoxicated he slams his framed law diploma against his desk, and a glass fragment hits him near his eye. This action symbolizes how the legal institution has become subverted in his world, and how this corruption has undermined Frank's moral vision. 

His concerned, although foul mouthed and sometimes racial slurring mentor Mick, played by Jack Warden, throws a potentially lucrative malpractice case Frank's way. At first, Frank is just out for the money, looking for a quick settlement. He reassures the family of the comatose victim while not revealing his dilapidated office (an expressionistic touch which mirrors his life) under the pretense that it is filled with paper for another case (a lie). He hangs a sheet of paper on his door that says he is meeting with the judge (untrue).

The way setting is presented in this film is important to depict who has power and who are the downtrodden. In his book, Making Movies, Lumet says "In The Verdict we used a very narrow color selection and older architecture. No modern buildings were seen in the movie." St. Catherine's (the Catholic hospital), the courtroom, the office of James Mason's defending lawyer Concannon (whose name implies he is a big shot), Frank's sleazy apartment, even the bar Frank frequents, are old fashioned in style, but are differentiated as to level of refinement by those who populate them. You can feel the heft of the dark hardwood weighing everything down, emphasizing how difficult it is to alter society's entrenched power structure. Lumet emphasizes the disparity as to the opposing sides as he cuts between the old legal library where Frank and Mick prepare for the case alone, and the army of litigators in the opulent conference room presided over by Concannon.

Editing is essential in showing Frank gravitating back to his ethical base (and living up to his name which means "free from guile"). As Lumet says in his book, "In The Verdict, the most important transition in the movie was illuminated by the close-ups of Paul Newman examining a Polaroid photograph. He had taken the picture of the victim, and he watched it develop. As the photograph took on life, he did too. I could feel the present breaking through for a man who, up until then, had been trapped in the detritus of his past life. It was the intercutting between the developing Polaroid and the close-ups of Newman that made the transition palpable." When Frank meets the Bishop (played by Edward Binns) he cannot accept the low offer of $210,000 because "no one will know the truth" that those who should have looked after his client failed her. If he takes the hush money, he will be "lost."

Past lies derailed Frank before and hinder his forward movement in the present. Mick tells Frank's new girlfriend, Laura, played by Charlotte Rampling, that Frank was forced to lie and take the fall for his law firm's jury tampering after he threatened to expose his partners. He lost his job and his wife. In the current case, he has a doctor willing to testify against a peer, but that physician is forced out of the country by the powers-that-be, so he cannot tell the truth. Even Frank is not honest with the relatives of the patient about no longer wanting to settle out of court. Cocannon is always one step ahead of Frank and we find out why:  Mick finds Concannon's check made out to Laura, who is a spy, feeding information to Concannon. How Ironic, since on their second meeting Frank tells Laura, "Tell me the truth. You can't lie to me." But, she has fallen for Frank, and does not tell Concannon about the admitting nurse (played by Lindsay Crouse), who Frank convinces to testify. The esteemed doctor who is the defendant had not read that the patient had a full meal one hour prior to the delivery of her baby. The close time of the meal to the delivery caused her to aspirate vomit into her mask, causing her to lose oxygen, creating the vegetative state. The doctor then coerced the nurse to lie about the time of the meal, changing the "1" to a "9." The lies of the powerful spread like a virus to infect those working for them.

It is also ironic to see Concannon, who has been duplicitous with Laura, lecture Crouse's character about perjury. Even though the photocopy of the original admitting form is tossed out, the testimony is heard by the jury. The Bishop asks an underling, after the nurse's testimony, that despite Concannon's legal prowess, did he believe her? The other's silence shows that the jury saw the truth. The irony that the supposedly trustworthy Catholic Church is behind such a distasteful cover-up is evident here. Earlier in the film, Frank tells Laura, "The jury wants to believe. I mean they want to believe." In his summation, Frank says that we hear so many lies that we doubt our institutions. We feel powerless, and we become victims. But, he tells the jury that today they are the law, and he believes that there is justice in our hearts. Of course, he wins big, but the huge settlement is not as important as is the moral victory.

The film ends enigmatically with the guilt-ridden Rampling repeatedly calling Newman.  He appears that he may answer the phone (while now only drinking coffee), but just can't do it. Truth may bring redemption, but it does not erase the betrayal of lies.

Newman lost the Oscar to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi. Do you think that the right choice was made? What are your favorite Paul Newman roles?

Next week’s film is The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Midnight Cowboy

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I'm a big Dustin Hoffman fan as you can tell by my previous selections. He chose to do this film because he wanted something very different from his star-making role in The Graduate. His acting versatility is demonstrated here. This movie, like literature and film before it, explores the themes of "east" versus "west," and the "frontier" versus the "city" in America. The wilderness was first seen as evil, a place where transgressions occurred outside of the law. Then the western frontier was idolized as "The New Eden," where human individuality flourished and freedom was king. It was the place for redemption, to start over. The city became the place of urban industrialization, where slums grew and people became oppressed and impoverished. Theodore Dreiser wrote novels which descried the city. The Great Gatsby talks about the loss of that western ideal, the loss of innocence. But then comes a novel and a film called Deliverance which explodes the bucolic myth, showing the brutality of living in the uncivilized wilderness, where man becomes an animal.

Best Picture Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy is more in the Gatsby camp. The traditional cowboy in films is seen riding in the great open spaces on his horse in the daytime, or into the sunset after heroic deeds are done. Here, we have a "midnight cowboy," a traveler of dark places. In this film, the cowboy has degenerated to the form of Jon Voight's Joe Buck, who, although na├»ve, has had his innocence corrupted even before he goes to New York. The town in Texas that he leaves has nothing of the grandeur of the Old West. It is a bleak, boring place, from which Joe wants to escape from his menial dish washing job at the local diner. In flashbacks, his girlfriend would say "you're the only one." But she and Joe are jumped by a local gang of boys, who rape both of them. In her shock she just keeps saying that Joe was "the only one," and it appears that he was blamed for the assault. The flashbacks also show how Joe was abandoned by his mother and dropped off to be raised by his grandmother. She is promiscuous, and is seen in bed with Joe and a gentleman caller. She shows inappropriate affection toward her grandson. She also has religious pictures all over the house and takes him to become baptized (supposedly cleaning him of the original sin of the knowledge of good and evil – the Bible equates "knowing" with sexuality). Joe cannot reconcile religion’s rules and individual sexual practices, and is shown as having disdain for evangelical preachers. 

Joe leaves his rural home with a suitcase that has markings like a branded cowhide. He comes to New York to ride women, not horses, and make money as a hustler (not a rustler). He is a different type of “Buck” -ing bronco. The city is a place of prostitutes, male and female, and of filth and apathy, as people ignore a collapsed man on the street (in front of Tiffany's to emphasize the disparity between the classes in America). Joe looks out of place with his tacky cowboy outfit. He is a fallen cowboy where the only shooting he does is at an arcade game. On the radio that Joe carries we hear a woman say that her idea of a man is Gary Cooper (the hero of High Noon), and the response to that is that he's dead – implying that the myth of the western hero is also dead. He strikes out trying to hustle women, and out of desperation lets a gay man (a young Bob Balaban) perform oral sex on him. However, the youth has no money. The film came out in 1969, and is not enlightened as to its attitude toward homosexuality, with slurs being used and gay self-loathing shown. But, then again, it shows an accurate view toward the topic of that time.

Joe meets Ratso Rizzo (Hoffman), who promises to hook him up with someone who will help him make money as a stud. He scams Joe, and sends him to a disturbed religious fanatic instead (played by John McGiver). There is no spiritual redemption to be found here. Joe catches up with Ratso, who invites him to live with him in his condemned building room with no heat. Rizzo pulls down a shredded shade over a filthy window in a scene that makes him look like a parody of a happy homemaker. Rizzo becomes Joe's urban sidekick, but he is no Ward Bond to John Wayne (who ironically won the Oscar that year for playing a cowboy in True Grit). Hoffman's Rizzo is a limping panhandler, who even looks like a rat, with pointed features accented by slicked back hair looking like wet fur. At one point it totally defies the straightening attempts of a comb.  Hoffman's Ratso is great with his rodent high-pitched voice, who instinctively reaches for leftover change from public phones. Ratso tries to become Joe's manager. He has a deadly respiratory illness. He fantasizes about living the American dream of retiring to warm Florida. But we hear the commercial slogan in the background for "orange juice on ice," implying that for him, in wintry New York, the closest he'll get to Florida is a cold fruit drink. 

Joe finally looks like he is going to make some money as a sexual hustler after meeting Brenda Vaccaro's character at an underground artist party, and being paid for sex by her.  She sets him up with a date with another woman. But, Ratso is very sick, and can't even walk anymore. These two, who have become unlikely friends, are now dependent on each other. Joe robs a gay man (played by Bernard Hughes) and takes Ratso on a bus to Florida. After they reach Florida, Joe stops at a rest stop and dresses them in colorful clothes. He sheds his cowboy outfit and says he's no hustler and should be able to get a regular job. He is seen as trying to move on and adapt to the real world so he can provide for Ratso.  But, his friend is too far gone, and dies on the bus.

In the end this film is about trying to connect with another human being. Joe comes from a dysfunctional world, warped by a twisted upbringing and violent events.  Ratso sees his dead shoe-shining father as a loser, and is an outcast hustling cripple. Yet these two social misfits find emotional sustenance from each other in a dehumanized world.

What are your favorite Hoffman and Voight performances?

Next week's film is The Verdict.