Friday, March 29, 2019

Darkness Visible: My 1986 review of Agnes Varda’s Vagabond

Agnes Varda’s Vagabond has the chilly clinical detachment of an autopsy report, and the profoundly unsettling reverberations of a vivid nightmare. It begins in the south of France, as farmers discover in their field the body of a young woman who has frozen to death. Who was she? How did she come to such an end? A faceless narrator, determined to answer these questions, seeks clues by investigating “the last weeks of her last winter.”

What follows is a series of spare, elliptical flashbacks, as the narrator interviews — or, to be more precise, quietly listens to — various people who crossed the young woman’s path. But in those flashbacks, we’re told precious little. Her name, she claims, is Mona. She used to work as a secretary, but quit because she hated the job. “People bugged me for a long time,” she says. “But that's over now.”

She says nothing of relatives, friends or lovers. She has no plans, no ambitions. Occasionally, she latches on to a man for food, or a warm place to sleep. More often, though, she prefers to stay on her own, sleeping in abandoned buildings, or in a tent she pitches in the damp woodlands.

Her aimless wandering evokes diverse responses. A girl vaguely resentful of her mother’s possessiveness speaks with envy of Mona’s “freedom.” An ex-hippie, now gainfully employed as a goatherd, chastises Mona as selfish, lazy and irresponsible. (“You’re not a dropout — you’re just out! You don’t exist!”) A buttoned-down agronomist, patiently awaiting the demise of his wealthy, elderly aunt, is terrified by Mona’s matter-of-fact anarchy. A derelict who camps with her in a deserted mansion is bitter about her sudden disappearance — but grateful that, after all, she didn’t steal his transistor radio.

And so it goes, anecdote linking anecdote, as we trace Mona’s path from a dip in the ocean to a stumble into darkness. She travels in silence along wintry landscapes, as solitary as the bare trees clawing at overcast skies. She seeks nothing more than the next ride, the next resting place, or the next place to cadge a meal. She merely shrugs off the trauma of being raped by a passing stranger, or the disappointment of a short-lived relationship with a vineyard worker. For a while, she seems beyond pain, beyond humiliation. But even Mona has her limits.

The severely beautiful Sandrine Bonnaire gives an excellent 
performance as Mona, betraying not a single trace of personal vanity as she slips seamlessly into her role. Every physical detail — everything from the dirty fingernails to the tattered leather jacket — is just right. More important, though, is Bonnaire’s impressive ability to convey Mona’s surliness and cynicism without obscuring the character’s naked vulnerability.

Vagabond doesn't try to explain Mona. Indeed, the narrator’s inability to comprehend Mona’s motives, or to discover the wounds that fester in the dark corners of her heart, is the whole point of the film. In Varda's view, some people quite simply are unknowable. They plod lemming-like toward self-destruction with the ruthless efficiency of a guided missile. And nothing anyone can do or say can deter them from their course.

There are few things in life more disturbing — and, yes, more threatening — than the spectacle of someone who just doesn’t give a damn. But, much like a violent traffic accident or a spectacular natural disaster, the spectacle has a mesmerizing fascination.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Remembering Akira Kurosawa's cinema -- and his laughter -- on his birthday

On this date in 1910, Akira Kurosawa was born in Tokyo. And I remain ridiculously proud of the fact that, during a Manhattan press conference tied to the 1985 New York Film Festival premiere of his masterwork Ran, I made the sensei of cinema smile.

I was asking a question, through a translator, about his reputation as a director of unforgivingly harsh and often brutally fatalistic dramas. And I wanted to know if he thought that was a bad rap, because there actually were some upbeat movies on his resume — like the sweetly romantic One Wonderful Sunday, a deeply affecting 1947 tale of life and love in post-WWII Japan that did not get wide US release until the early 1980s.

“Now, I’m not saying that you’re a party kind of guy…” I continued. But then I had to pause, because at that point, Kurosawa exploded into laughter. Which, of course, made me wonder how much he really needed that translator.

But seriously folks: Here is an appreciation of Akira Kurosawa and his work — tied to a 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston — that I wrote back in the day for CultureMap Houston

Friday, March 15, 2019

See Captive State now. Don’t wait for the cult to coalesce.

From my 3.14.19 Variety review: Given the allusions to literal and thematic Trojan Horses that pepper its third act, one probably shouldn’t be surprised that Captive State — which opened cold on March 14 after Focus mysteriously canceled screenings for critics — actually is something of a purposefully camouflaged interloper. Although the TV ads and other promotional material appear to promise a megaplex-ready thrill ride about space invaders and rebellious Earthlings, this rigorously intelligent, cunningly inventive, and impressively suspenseful drama plays more like a classic tale about a disparate group of resistance fighters united in a guerrilla campaign against an occupying force. 

You can read the rest of my Variety review here

Monday, March 11, 2019

Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are The Highwaymen

From my 3.10.19 Variety review: "Arriving more than a half-century after Arthur Penn’s violent folk-ballad Bonnie and Clyde tapped into the zeitgeist and caught lightning in a bottle by portraying the Depression-era gangster couple in a manner that recast them as anti-establishment rebels, The Highwaymen aims to set the record straight with a respectfully celebratory depiction of the two lawmen most responsible for ending their bloody crime wave. Bosley Crowther, among others, likely would have approved of such revisionism. Still, this workman-like Netflix production — set to kick off a limited theatrical run March 15 before streaming March 29 — commands attention less as historical counterpoint than as a sturdy showcase for the neatly balanced lead performances of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson."

You can read all of my Variety review here.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Vincent D'Onofrio's The Kid is a dang good Western!

From my 3.7.19 Variety review: "The extended dance of death played out by lawman Pat Garrett and outlaw Billy the Kid has inspired countless accounts of varying authenticity in literature, cinema and prime-time TV, ranging from Sam Peckinpah’s violently elegiac 1973 Western (featuring a singularly hunky Kris Kristofferson as the desperado also known as William Bonney) to The Tall Man, a 1960-62 NBC series which fancifully imagined Garrett (Barry Sullivan) and Billy (Clu Gulager) as frontier frenemies in Lincoln, N.M.

"It’s to the considerable credit of actor-turned-director Vincent D’Onofrio and screenwriter Andrew Lanham that they’ve come up with a satisfyingly fresh take on this familiar mythos in The Kid, a consistently involving and often exciting drama in which the two Wild West icons are presented from the p.o.v. of an impressionable adolescent who weighs the pros and cons of each man as a role model."

You read all of my Variety review here, and my interview with Vincent D'Onofrio here.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Luke Perry: The man who loved Truffaut

That headline is, I admit, a slight exaggeration. But Luke Perry — who passed away Monday at the ridiculously young age of 52 — really did express high regard for Francois Truffaut while I interviewed him for Cowboys & Indians magazine a few years back. Which, of course, was enough to transform me from an admirer to an ardent fan.

We were talking about Goodnight for Justice: Queen of Hearts (2013), the third in a trilogy of Hallmark Channel western films in which he starred as John Goodnight, a straight-shooting circuit court judge who dispenses justice with eloquence, compassion and, when necessary, lethal firepower. (Fun facts: 2011’s Goodnight for Justice was directed by Jason Priestly, Perry’s co-star in the original Beverly Hills 90210 TV series — and was, at the time it aired, the highest-rated made-for-cable movie in the history of the Hallmark Channel.) The official plot synopsis: “Between dealing with difficult defendants and dealing cards at saloons, John crosses paths with a stagecoach under attack. Drawing his gun, he comes to the rescue of the only surviving passenger, a beautiful woman named Lucy Truffaut (Katharine Isabelle, pictured above with Perry), who John doesn’t realize is actually a convicted con artist on the run.”

But wait, there’s more. Lucy doesn’t realize – at first, anyway — that John’s an honest judge. The bad news: Lucy is being pursued by Cyril Knox (Ricky Schroder), a wealthy aristocrat who wants her jailed. The good news: Lucy manages to convince John to help her escape – and board a riverboat where passengers are encouraged to indulge in high-stakes gambling.

Naturally, I had to ask:

Your lead female character is named Lucy Truffaut – like Francois Truffaut, the great French filmmaker who famously claimed, “Women are magic.” Did you intend this as a kind of wink-wink tribute to him?

Perry: Absolutely. Here’s the thing. When I sat down to come up with this one, the one sort of request that the [Hallmark Movie Channel] had made was that – well, in the past, I hung a guy, and shot a couple of other guys, and beat up a guy pretty badly in the last one.

Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

Perry: [Laughs] Well, being the judge and jury and sometimes the executioner, that’s all part of his job. But the Hallmark people said, “Luke, our audience would also like to see you do some romantic stuff.” And at first, I couldn’t figure out what would be romantic about this character so much. But then I thought, when it comes to meeting a beautiful woman —historically, we’ve seen it — that’s when we men make our worst choices. While we’re thinking of ways to woo a beautiful woman, they just get into our heads. And I just wanted to do a story about that. And Truffaut knew all about that.

By the way: Has anyone else who’s interviewed you for this film noticed the Truffaut hat-tip?

Perry: You’re the only one who’s caught it, you’re the only one who’s asked. And I so appreciate it.
(Note: Francois Truffaut also was 52 when he died in 1984. And also gone way too soon.)

Friday, March 01, 2019

You must remember this: Katherine Helmond in Brazil

No doubt about it, Galveston native Katherine Helmond — who passed away Feb. 23 at age 89 — was an accomplished comic actress in such popular TV sitcoms as Soap, Everybody Loves Raymond, Coach and Who’s the Boss? But I must admit: I will always remember her best for her absolutely fearless performance as Ida Lowry, the plastic surgery-obsessed mother of protagonist Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in Terry Gilliam’s audacious dystopian farce Brazil (1985).

Helmond talks about working with Gilliam — and enduring some painful make-up magic — in this clip from a 2008 interview. (You can view the entire interview here.)

Al Pacino might have played John Rambo. And Rambo might have died in the first Rambo movie. But...

After hearing yesterday’s announcement about the Sept. 20 release of Rambo: Last Blood — the fifth and purportedly final chapter in the long-running franchise featuring Sylvester Stallone as troubled yet tenacious Vietnam War veteran John Rambo — I was reminded of a conversation I had back in 2012 at Fantastic Fest in Austin with director Ted Kotcheff (pictured above with Stallone), the director who helped start it all with the original First Blood (1982).
Kotcheff reminded me that he came to the project after it had been offered to other actors — including, no kidding, Al Pacino — and before the fateful decision had been made to keep John Rambo available for a string of sequels, Yes, it’s true: At one point, First Blood was envisioned as a one-and-done melodrama.
Here are some highlights from my 2012 conversation with Kotcheff.
John Rambo actually dies at the end of the novel that inspired First Blood. And I understand that’s also what happened in early drafts of the script. Have you ever wondered what a different sort of pop-culture impact the character would have had if you’d offed him like that – and not allowed him to survive for sequels?
What happened was, originally, the movie was conceived as the story of this Vietnam veteran who’d been kicked around from pillar to post. He didn’t feel there was any room for him in American society anymore – he was a piece of machinery that was broken. But then something happens. When he returns to that town where he’d been told to leave, he’s on a suicide mission. This was it — he had to die. Because he didn’t want any more of America.
And I take it that’s how the character came across in scripts that went out to people like Al Pacino, who was offered the project before Sylvester Stallone came on board.
When I cast Sylvester, we worked on the script together. And thing about Sylvester is – he has a very good populist sense. While we were shooting the film, we had a pretty good idea what it was all about. But we rewrote the ending various ways – something like 16 times – until we came up with the idea that the colonel, the character Richard Crenna plays, comes in there to put him out of his misery, to shoot him. And when he can’t do it, Rambo commits hari-kari. That’s the “alternative ending” you can see on some of the DVDs.
It’s really quite shocking in its abruptness. Stallone just pulls the gun while it’s still in Crenna’s hand – and pow!
And after we shot that, Sylvester comes over to me and says, “God, we put this character through so much. He jumps off cliffs, he gets shot and has to sew himself up, dogs are sicced on him – and now we’re gonna kill him? The audience is really gonna dislike this.”
And then he said, “Also, looking at it from a crass commercial point of view, I’m sure that whoever distributes this film” – because we didn’t have a distributor yet, we made it independently – “they’re not gonna want him to die at the end.” And I said, “You got a point, Sly. I have an idea – I know how to do this.”
And that’s when you shot the ending where he survives.
And the funny thing is, the producer wasn’t happy. He asked, “What are you doing, Kotcheff? What are you shooting? We already agreed, this is a suicide mission. We can’t have him surviving.”
And I said, “Just leave it to me, it’ll only take two hours, we can shoot this other ending.” And he was like, “We’re already over-budget. We can’t afford two hours of shooting.” But I finally convinced him to allow me to do it.
And then?
We had the first test screening in a suburb of Las Vegas. And I have to tell you, I never had another audience respond like that. They were yelling: “Great! Get him! Get him!” They were so involved with the action, it was just amazing. And then, he commits hari-kari. Well, you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema. And then a voice rang out: “If the director of this film is in this moviehouse, we should grab him and string him up from the nearest lamppost.” So I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of here before they string me up.”
So it was a no-brainer to make the change?
All the response cards we got back had things written on them like, “This is the best action film I’ve ever seen, but the ending…” And all you saw were exclamation marks. Every card had the same reaction. So I just turned to the producers, and said, “Boys, I just happen to have this other ending.” That’s how it happened.