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Archive for the ‘Sam Shepard’ Category

Cold In July

18 Jun

Cold In July – directed by Jim Mickle. Thriller. 109 minutes Color 2014.

★★★

The Story: A small town merchant kills a housebreaker in his home and there are many consequences.

~

Why doesn’t it wash?

We have four wonderfully skilled and properly chosen actors to perform it, Nick Damici, Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, and Sam Shepard. They all give tremendous value, and one of the problems might be the focus on that value. For the director has allowed each of them the time to reveal themselves in normal fashion in circumstances which are not normal at all.  Has he turned, or tried to turn, the instruments of a Thriller into the personnel of a Tragedy?

And if all this is true, why is the part of the wife a thankless role? Because it’s not well written, that’s why. It refuses to set the wife in anything but TV-acting opposition to the practices of her husband. Instead she whines or gathers her youngster up from the restaurant and walks out. Or canoodles. She is never allowed to be intensely interested in him as a human being. She is never allowed to try to see through him. Or she hasn’t the imagination to do so.

The piece begins in a bloodbath and, of course, ends in one. And very good blood baths they are too. But between them, all I see is circumstances that would play very well in a novel. In a novel you must imagine what you are told, so the focus of your imagination screens off the improbable. In a movie everything’s right there in front of your eyes, and imagination is fatal.  In a novel you can’t see the anomalies.

You can’t see that those men’s leaving that drugged ex-con on the railroad tracks is sure to lead back to them.

You can’t believe that in the dead of night with headlights ablaze a car could follow two other cars out into the country without those other cars tumbling to it.

You can’t believe that the FBI would permit the occupants of a safe house the liberty to consistently make snuff porn.

The secret of a Thriller is that the emotion shown has to be so tight and constricted in its range that you are never allowed to look elsewhere in your mind for human inconstancy.

But these four men’s performances are full of human inconstancy. They are beautiful performances. They are Oscar worthy performances.

But do they belong in a Thriller?

 
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Posted in CRIME DRAMA, Don Johnson, Michael C. Hall, MURDER MYSTERY, Sam Shepard, THRILLER

 

Snow Falling On Cedars

06 Feb

Snow Falling On Cedars –­ directed by Scott Hicks. Mystery. 127 minutes Color 1999.

★★★

The Story: A Japanese fisherman is accused of the murder of an American fisherman, and the former lover of the Japanese fisherman’s wife may know the truth.

The movie opens with an alluring shot of the American fisherman out at sea barely visible in a thick fog. Into it one peers, with all the need to know one possesses.

Other scenes follow – a still boat on a bay of Pudget Sound surrounded by still trees and colossal skies.

Other scenes equally exquisite follow one upon the other.

Yet none of the expectations continually before us in these displays of beauty are supported by the material underlying them in the human interactions also displayed.

The principal fault is not just the casting of Ethan Hawke who does not have sufficient character to carry a film. (I confess, I also find his face hard to look at.)

Everyone else is perfectly cast, John Cromwell as the canny judge, Richard Jenkins as the hemming-and-hawing sheriff, and Sam Shepard as the editor with probity. James Rebhorn as the hard-driving D.A., Youki Kudoh as the loyal wife, and the ambiguous-eyed Rick Yune as the accused fisherman. Max Von Sydow is delicious as his defense lawyer.

The director has also co-written the piece, and therein lies the fault, for he is blind to see that the Japanese are all presented from the outside, and that this cannot be. They must be presented from the inside. The TV series Tremé is a perfect example of a movie in which exotic cultures are presented inside-out; you see them in relation to the world around them. But presenting the ill-treatment of the Japanese-American population during and after World Ward II from the outside never invites us in and reduces their tragedy and their story to a polemic. Oh, too bad, we say. What we need to say is nothing: we need to be them. We need to say, “Ow! That hurt!”

A good deal of time is given over to the romance of Hawke and Kudoh when young, and because all of it is conventional none of it convinces. It has plenty of environment and no eccentricity. Without this properly established we cannot much care what Hawke is going through.

The director points out three mysteries in the film, but he is telling a whopper. There is only one. He also points out that Hawke has only one arm. Because the presentation of it was not properly introduced, we had to be told. These are things we shouldn’t have to be told. They should be self-evident. Instead, we are betrayed by the allusive. The title is one such allusion. Snow? Yes. Cedars? Where? Perhaps that’s the fourth mystery.

 

August: Osage County

19 Jan

August: Osage County – directed by John Wells. Family Drama. 121 minutes, Color, 2014.

★★★★★

The Story: A paterfamilias goes missing and the clan gathers, poisoned daggers out, lips drooling with vitriol.

Misty Upham, as the American Indian caregiver, is the only sane and decent woman within miles.

First, We have sister number one, Juliet Lewis, who in no movie is ever sane and who arrives in a condition of advanced delusion about honeymooning in Belize with her sleazy boyfriend, Dermot Mulroney. Then we have sister number two, Julia Roberts, who arrives in high, control-freak denunciation and a condition of covert separation from her husband played by Ewan McGregor. Then we have Margot Martindale, a battle-axe aunt castigating her feckless son and married for 38 years to Chris Cooper. And last but most, we have Sam Shepard’s wife, Meryl Streep as the Medusa of the family, dedicated to speaking the hideous truth, the whole hideous truth, and nothing but the hideous truth, and suffering from cancer of the mouth and extreme drug addiction, to boot.

To record all this here seeps mockery into one’s tone, since the dishes are piled with more food than one can swallow. The actors sink their jaws into it, though, and shake it all about. It is wonderful to see acting of this high order and imagination.

Indeed I sit back in wonder and amazement at the daring, skill, and inventiveness of the performers. Julia Roberts is filmed in close-ups that leave no leeway to age. And Meryl Streep is extraordinary as the Oklahoma materfamilias out to get every member at her dining table with the meanest mouth in the West. She plays a woman seared by age. She plays not an old woman. Rather, she plays a woman denounced by age, demoted by it, defeated by it, although her dying cries are ear shattering. The beastly mouth of old age indulges itself. The part is about already being old. She laughs it off; she lies. I have never seen Streep explore such a thing before.

The play itself is not about age but about the dubious proposition that if you had a terrible childhood passing it on makes you understandable and, indeed, excusable. You are awarded all this once an author writes you an exposition scene about how nasty your own mother was to you that time. No one breaks the chain, here. There is never a choice-point, every woman spits out the venom, as to the manner born, which they were, and perhaps the playwright does not have in his belief system that people can change. The venom is very well written venom. It is not venom in a Dixie cup. It is venom in a chalice.

The writer is less adept with those less verbally adept, the parts of McGregor’s and Robert’s daughter, and of the third sister and her boyfriend. These three are mute victim bystanders, the collaterally damaged. However, all three parts are weakly conceived and written. Moreover, Benedict Cumberbach misconstrues the boyfriend as somewhat simple-minded, which he is not. In any case, both characters would be better kept off-stage entirely. They would be more potent if they could not or would not appear on it at all. That writing error leads to a bad misplacement of dramatic energy in the Third Act.

But this is a cavil in a piece which we all must see, we who honor and love and enjoy acting for itself alone. On this level, August: Osage County can’t be beat. See it.

 

 

Mud

15 May

Mud -–– directed and written by Jeff Nichols. Drama. Two fourteen year old boys set out to rescue a derelict on a desert island. 230 minutes Color 2013.

★★★★★

Is Michael McConaughey despicable?

There are such things as despicable in the realm of acting. Shelley Winters? Yes. Jack Palance? Certainly. This does not mean they are bad actors. They have their uses. And long careers even.

McConaughey, with his sleazy confidence and smug affect– one steers clear of him, repelled. Partly because all of this is found to be mighty sexy by certain females.

And it is true that he has presence, moves interestingly, his face takes the camera well, he has a wonderful figure when stripped, fine sloping shoulders, a handsome back of his head, and the most beautiful speaking voice in film since Charles Boyer. My goodness. So Southern. So ruthlessly seductive. So smart. So all things Texas.

Despicable. As romantic leads. Playing what he calls Saturday boys. The sexually confident one in a modern comedy. Despicable. But here we have him actually playing a despicable character, and he is not despicable at all. He is quite fine, and all the character requires him to be: off-hand, devoted to a cause outside himself, efficient. He is well cast as a male whose body has nothing left but his masculinity, and nothing to do but devote his whole male being to a woman with it.

He is not a trained actor, but rather one of those who wandered in off the street like Gary Cooper and someone put a movie camera in front of him, and it took. Nor is it any mark against it that he comes to his craft untrained. Many a fine actor has done the same. He single-handedly wrecked Spielberg’s Amador with his mod beat jarred up against the era of John Quincy Adams, but what else could he do? He was incapable of anything else. And there are a lot of actors whom you can’t put into costume. Jimmy Stewart would head the list. Lots of them.

But here he is and he’s really worth being with. And so is everyone else in this fine and unusual picture. Which is really about a fourteen year-old boy who lives in a bayou houseboat with bickering parents. Living off subsistence fishing, the boy, well played by Tye Sheridan, comes upon McConaughey, as Mud, living in a boat in a tree on a desert island in the sea. The boy and his buddy get caught up in the romance of Mud’s needs which consist of his yearning for a rapprochement with his old sweetheart, Reese Witherspoon.

Everyone is dandy, and the setting and the story and the adventure keep one attentive right up to the end which is a bit more patly worked out than the texture of the material promises, but never mind. We have Sam Shepard, super as a cranky coot, leading a fine supporting cast. And fascinating are the settlings, the place, the world of the fisher folk. And completely believable is all those two boys dare on their secret rescue of Mr. M.

 

Blackthorn

20 Apr

Blackthorn – directed by Mateo Gil. Butch Cassidy has survived and twenty years later wants to leave Bolivia to visit Etta Place’s son, but is waylaid by a suspect Spaniard. 102 minutes Color 2011.
★★★★
As an actor Sam Shepard can carry a film, but in this case he cannot carry it far enough.

And that is because of the construction of the narrative. If we learn only at the end that the Spaniard is a nefarious character, we feel cheated as an audience of the loyalty we have bestowed on the destiny of these two characters. And there is no reason for it.

We should know the Spaniard is a nefarious character from the start. Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy, disguised as Blackthorn, should not know it. His tragedy should be that his long, deliberate, and pseudonymous isolation has caused him to become ignorant of the truth of the world. And our participation as an audience should be our suspense waiting for the truth to be disclosed to him and how he behaves at that moment. And it should also result in some change in his romantic attitude regarding his twenty-years after planned visit to his “son.”

But there are other faults with the script. First: is Etta’s child fathered by Sundance or by Butch; were they both involved with her, and how come?

Second: how was Sundance mortally wounded?

But, third and most important: we are given no clue whatsoever, either in the playing of Shepard or in the script, that Butch has a moral bone in his body. We hear that in the old days he and Sundance only stole from the rich, but that may be a legend. Butch’s final action must come out of a code which is never offered to us, so once again we feel cheated. Will Butch be pulled toward the money or toward his code when he learns the truth about that Spaniard? That should be lodged in our suspense early. As it is, Butch’s code springs upon us at the last minute like a rattler.

The Spaniard is beautifully played by the beautiful Eduardo Noriega. Stephen Rea is quite wonderful as a degenerate Pinkerton laying in wait for Butch all these years. His character and his scenes and his playing of them are all extra to the story, but they shed a light, they bring a life, they supply a dance, essential to our beguilement. As does the flabbergastering scenery of Bolivia where principal photography took place.

 

Don’t Come Knocking

16 Apr

Don’t Come Knocking directed by Wim Wenders. Drama. A has-been Western film star flees the set and finds his way back to the families he disregarded 20 years before. 122 minutes Color 2006.
★★★
The poster shows Sam Shepherd perched on the hood of a 50s sedan, his chin in his hand, his hat on, his head down, his face invisible, contemplating his boots. This invisibility of the main actor is typical of the picture, the actor, and so is the way it is shot, largely on bare empty streets of Butte, Montana. No cars, no people, no content. Content Invisible.

Wenders has striven for an Edward Hopper look. But that is a look of blank tedium. And it is also a look which works in paintings because paintings do not move and the look of blank tedium is found only on the faces of humans who do not move. Movies move. So here the trick falls out of the rubric of film-making and into one of the pretenses which govern this picture.

One of the pretenses is that this hollowness holds Some Meaning. But the piece is written by Sam Shepard and as such falls apart before our hopeful eyes, just as all his other pieces do. For there is something empty in Sam Shepard and it is not the emptiness of The Divine. It is the emptiness of a criminal. The crime of art from the non-artist.

In this case, for instance, the confrontation scenes between Jessica Lange and the actor who plays her son, and between the son and Shepard,are not just overwritten but lies. For Shepard does his usual trick of busting up the joint as a display of anger. Smashing a ton of beer bottles at the end of a porch, wrecking your mother’s kitchen – here throwing all the furnishings out of a second story window is simply conventional Shepard shtick. And the convention does not hold because the issues is not rage, but fear.

Anger is easy to act and dramatize. But fear? This we never get to here. We never get to it in the character Shepard has written for himself, or in himself as an actor. I used to think that Shepard was a better actor than a playwright, and that he could carry a film, but I believe I am wrong.

His concerns are ones he wishes to nurse, not to solve. Certainly Butte is interesting to see. George Kennedy is brief fun as a floored director. Tim Roth is effective as the Javert character. And Sarah Polley is right on the money as a newly minted orphan. However, Jessica Lange mugs through her role, as usual, making much of her mouth, perhaps to draw fire from her eyes, which are not good actor’s eyes.

Besides all this bushwah, all the women in this piece are angels, and all the men are devils, and that does not add up to a drama. The rest of it does not add up to one either, and one is left at the finale duped once again by the sexiness, routine taciturnity, good looks, and self-involvement with which the public has masterminded Sam Shepard’s reputation into being. The films leaves you flat.

Flat.

 
 
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