Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Seven Psychopaths

Written at the time of the film's release....

The Spanish Have Bull-fights
The French have Cheese
The Irish have Alcoholics
What Do Americans Have...?

Write What You Know

Martin McDonagh, the Irish playwright turned filmmaker, made one of my favorite movies of the last few years, the nastily violent yet good-hearted In Bruges, the story of two hit-men who hide out in the Danish tourist-trap after a botched kill.  One shouldn't anticipate when going to the movies, but this one was such a surprise, one couldn't help thinking about what else he might have up his sleeve.
Well, he must have seen Adaptation., because this one is playing the same trick, but with better results, I think.  Seven Psychopaths is about Marty (Colin Farrell), who's a struggling screenwriter (aren't they all?). His friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an aspiring actor (aren't they all?) who may or may not have the weirdest "day-job" of any thespian—he's a dog-napper, in partnership with Hans (Christopher Walkenthere's no one like Christopher Walken). Billy is trying to help Marty with his screenplay entitled "Seven Psychopaths," with mixed results. Marty should take the advice of Ernest Hemingway who said "Write what you know." He has enough psychopathy in his life to fill up ninety minutes of screen-time. And if the dog-napping ring wasn't enough, Marty could take some pointers from Charlie (Woody Harrelson), whose shih tzu has just been the latest target of the canine-caper ring and is hell-bent to get his dog back and wreak havoc on the pooch-nappers.
Bizarre. But, it gets even more bizarre when the stories start coming.  he newspaper is full of headlines of the "Jack of Diamonds" vigilante, who kills criminals and leaves that particular card on the bodies. Marty has a few kernels of ideas for his screenplay, which make sidebars in the film but nothing coalesces into a fleshed out screenplay. And then there's the contributions of the folks who answer an ad Billy puts in the paper to help Marty find inspiration, which produces a genuine fiend find in Zachariah (Tom Waits), who recounts a tale of serial vigilante justice in an effort to find his lost love, who inspired the killings.
What is going on here?  It's an interesting mix of truth and fiction, of apocrypha and legend that morphs with the story that the real life director Marty Martin McDonagh is weaving like a tapestry of varying skeins. The story of writing a screenplay is not the most interesting of movie ideas (although that didn't stop Sullivan's Travels, Barton Fink and others from being great movies). But, sometimes the gathering of material can be interesting—the Coen Brothers put a good spin on it by making Fink about an author who chooses to ignore what's happening around him—as it fills the requirements of a quest movie. 
And McDonagh is doing something interesting here (benefiting from a superb cast—with only the top-billed girls Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko going to waste—and quick appearances by Michael Stuhlbarg, Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey SibideCrispin Glover (I swear I saw him), and look for a great performance by Linda Bright Clay) in a way that Adaptation. only touched on with the Robert McKee script-tutorial segments: making a comment for what passes as a screenplay these days.  
Movies have changed as subsequent generations have indulged in the art-form—where films were written and directed from other sources, now movies, by and large, are created by students of film, creating a reflexive diluted (and deluded) quality that does not so much reflect reality, as the movie-realities we're used to. From Leone to Tarantino, Lean to Spielberg, Hawks to Carpenter, Powell to Scorsese, Hitchcock to DePalma, we now see films refracted through the prism of other movies, and what inspired the makers about movies in the first place.  With Seven Psychopaths' emphasis on revenge and revenge fantasies, it's squarely where movies sit right now with both the action genres and its current focus on superhero properties. 
And the character of Billy (Rockwell is brilliant in this) is an actor completely out of touch with reality, staging his life as if it was following a movie-script ("This is supposed to be the Final Shoot-Out") with the internal logic of a movie—but only a current formula-film, created by people who've learned about life from watching movies (as opposed to..ya a life).  Life is messier in real life than what's up on the screen (even one with the violence of Seven Psychopaths)...guns jam, mistakes happen, we forget our promises, and the wrong people die. It's part of why we go to the movies in the first place—to escape the randomness of life, and let artifice try to paint it in such a way to give us perspective...the way dreams are supposed to work.
This is quite a heavy burden to be laying on a quirky film that's frequently laugh out loud funny, and stomach-turning violent in parts. But McDonagh continues to be a fresh voice with an odd perspective that manages to entertain while making one think, simultaneously. Quite unique, that.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Coco (2017)

Building Bridges (and Not Walls)
"I-Yi-yi, Muchacho, I Asked for a Shoe-Shine, Not Your Life-Story!!"

Miguel Rivera (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) aspires to something more; he is trapped in "the only family in Mexico that hates music." How could such a thing happen, especially to him? Music, to him, is in his soul and in his heritage.

And that's the issue. In the distant past—last century—there was a family scandal: His great-great-grandfather left the family to selfishly pursue a career in music and was never heard from again, leaving his wife Imelda and their daughter Coco to fend for themselves. They did so by making shoes and now the entire Rivera family—many generations—is wrapped up in the family business. As Grandmother Abuelita (Renee Victor) says: "Music tore our family apart, but shoes brought us together."

Until now. Miguel wants to tear that tradition apart, resisting the cobbler lifestyle of his family. He takes inspiration from the charismatic hero of his town Santa Cecilio, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a singing matinee idol, who died—tragically (but not unamusingly)—in 1942. His legacy—and his mausoleum—is a vital part of Santa Cecilio and for a boy with music in his soul, Miguel can't help but be influenced by the crooner who touched so many hearts and whose inspirational message is "Seize Your Moment."

But, Miguel must bide his time. He spends what time he can in his home away from home (known only to the street dog he's befriended, Dante), paying homage to de la Cruz by endlessly watching the old VHS tape of his old movies and playing along on a guitar that he has decorated like his idol's, examining his every move and learning to play the guitar just like his hero. His collection is like a shrine, not unlike the ofrenda in the Rivera house paying tribute to their ancestors (in preparation for the Dia de los Muertos—The Day of the Dead). Like most altars, it is where sacrifices must be made.

Music is Miguel's little secret from his family. He may protest his aspirations to them (especially to grandmama Ebuelita), but he will catch hell for even broaching the subject, much as he tries to explain. She loves her grandson, sure, but she also loves her ancient mother Coco, whose father left the family so many years ago, and the past slights cannot be softened by a newcomer like Miguel, who has not endured the pain over the years, and can be said to have not endured at all. Music sends her into a shoe-throwing rage, and as the holiday approaches and Miguel announces his intention to enter a talent contest, she will have none of it, smashing the guitar that he would use to prove his abilities.
For Miguel, that is too much, and he runs away from his family, spending the night at the one place where he can feel close to his dreams—the mausoleum of Ernesto de la Cruz. He breaks in, and knowing that his idol would understand, he takes the guitar hanging inside—Ernesto de la Cruz's guitar—his only chance to maybe win the talent competition (the rules state that he must have his own instrument). Technicalities aside, Miguel has no qualms about taking the instrument because he knows something no one else—save great-grandmother Coco—would know: that Coco's father, his great-great-grandfather is actually Enesto de la Cruz. After all, it's all in the family.

An issue with the Rivera's ofrenda has shown him the old family portrait—the father's face torn away from it—but the guitar, the guitar the missing father is holding in the picture, is the same as the guitar of Ernesto de la Cruz. Young Miguel can come to only one conclusion: Ernesto de la Cruz must be his missing great-great-grandfather. With such knowledge, how can Miguel do anything but try and fulfill his destiny, seize his moment, because music is not only in his soul, it is in his blood.

Miguel is just a child. He does not know much and has very little perspective beyond himself, what he sees and what he feels. His knowledge is very limited—he's just a kid, after all. He doesn't even know what he does not know. But, he is about to get a big education and it will impact his world, his family, but more importantly, his knowledge of it...and its worth.

In the mausoleum of de la Cruz, he ecstatically strums the strings of the guitar, and he and his world completely changed. He is transported, emotionally, yes, but he is also taken somewhere else. He doesn't yet notice that beneath his feet are marigold petals (which were not there before), nor does he notice that when he leaves the mausoleum, he is only there in spirit, passing through the bodies of people—as if he were a ghost. Indeed, he spirit, at least. For he has transported himself to the land of the Dead, separated from our world, but bridged by glowing arches of marigold petals (and yes, you need some sort of I.D. to cross over, but...really, you should see the film. This world, dimension (whatever) is inhabited by the souls of the departed, and before long Miguel runs into dead uncles and aunts, even his great-great grandmother Imelda, who will grant his wish to go back to the living, but...on one condition: he must give up music. For Miguel, this is an impossible dilemma—if music is his life, how can he give it up? But, he cannot return to the living...if it is part of his life.

This is very rich material, even on a simple story level (and I've barely scratched the surface of it!). But, one of the simultaneous beauties and achievements of the Pixar Studio (this is their 19th film) is their ability to enrich the story with stunning, complex visuals, empathetic characters, and hard-learned lessons. Even when you think they cannot possibly surpass what they bring to the animated feature, Pixar goes beyond...and in completely unexpected and sophisticated ways. How often have I said to myself "this is their best film yet" Ratatouille? Inside Out?) But, they keep getting better. There may be a stumble here and there—The Good Dinosaur (which thematically, is similar to Coco), any of the "Cars" movies, frankly—but even those are stepping-stones to the advancement of the story-telling craft and the art of recreating, digitally, a realistic, and frequently uber-realistic representation of life and Nature. I say, Nature, but there's one thing they don't do very well—"The Uncanny Valley." Pixar seems to avoid the technological pit-falls that keep an audience from seeing what they present as reality. I would say "nimbly" but there's never been an instance where they have been even close to the edge of failing to anticipate issues—from story-planning to background to character-design—that might cause some type of discomfiture with their intricately-honed images that take hundreds of artist-hours and terrabytes of computer-power to create.

Coco is festooned with the most intricate of details in eye-popping colors that defy traditional hues and standards but reflect the celebratory folk-art of Mexico. The movie centers around the Day of the Dead and imbues that celebration's playfulness with things underworldly—far more affectionate than Tim Burton's mordant sensibility. Death is a mjor theme, but it never rises anywhere near a horror level (so the kids are alright, despite any protests from nervous-nelly Anglo's) and emphasizes continuity with the past, remembrance, and the impact of ancestors in our lives. The dead are not to be feared, but revered, and coco drives the point home with one of its story-points. In its pixelated land of the dead, souls do not pass on until there is no one left among the living who retains a memory of that person. No one truly dies unless they are forgotten, the final death of a soul who has outlived its impact.

The retention of memory takes on a life or death importance—without it, there;s only non-existence, the last vestige of a soul, even if only a spark in the mind. A flame in the heart.

Forget any other movie coming out this holiday season, Coco is must-see family fare, worth even wallowing Disney's pre-feature short "Olaf's Frozen Adventure" which, appropriately left me cold. Coco will melt any lasting chill it evokes. Let nothing stand in your way.
Like the best of Pixar's films, it both expands the mind and expands the heart. It is a movie with a lot of souls.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The Grapes of Wrath

The Set-Up: John Steinbeck wrote the novel (which won the Pulitzer). Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson changed it considerably in his screenplay. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck championed it, although he was politically conservative. And Roosevelt Democrat John Ford won an Academy award directing it. It was one of the first twenty-five films to be selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in 1989.

In this scene, Tom Joad must run to protect his family. But he's not running away. He's running to something. He's running for something. He sees something's wrong, and he wants to change it. He doesn't know how. He can't explain it. But he's seen what's happened to his family and his friends and it's got to change. And so he explains it the only way he knows how. And Ford and his brilliantly innovative cameraman Gregg Toland shoot it, like so much of the film, as faces in the dark. The mother and son can barely look at each other, and neither knows what the future holds.

Nobody does.

But with these affirming words Ma Joad ends the film:

"I ain't never gonna be scared no more. I was, though. For a while it looked like we was beat. Good and beat. Looked like we didn't have nobody in the world but enemies. Like nobody was friendly no more. Made me feel kinda bad and scared too, like we was lost and nobody cared.... Rich fellas come up and they die, and their kids ain't no good and they die out too, but we keep on coming. We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out, they can't lick us. We'll go on forever Pa, 'cause we're the people."


And in 2017, those words need to be if they were bible.

The Story: The Joad family has lost the farm, and they've headed for a better life and employment in California. But, so far, life has been hard. Family members have died. After two bad experiences they've finally landed in a good work-camp, but their ex-con son Tom (Henry Fonda) has killed a police guard when his preacher friend Casy (John Carradine) was attacked at a worker's meeting. Now, under cover of darkness, he says good-bye to his Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) before he can be arrested. Dawn's a-comin'.


Ma Joad: Sit down for a minute.
Tom Joad: I'd like to stay, Ma. I'd like to be with ya, and see your face when you and Pa get settled in some nice place. I'd sure like to see ya then. But, I won't never get that chance, I guess, now...
Ma: I could hide ya, Tommy.
Tom: I know ya would, Ma, but I ain't gonna let ya. Ya hide somebody that's killed a guy an' you're in trouble, too.
Ma: Alright, Tommy. But what do ya figure you're gonna do?
Tom: Ya know what I been thinkin' about? 'Bout Casy. 'Bout what he said. What he done. 'Bout how he died. An' I remember all of it.
Ma: He was a good man.
Tom: I been thinkin' about us, too. 'Bout our people livin' like pigs, an' good, rich land layin' fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres an' a hundred thousand farmers starvin'. An' I been wonderin' if all our folks got together an' yelled...
Ma: Oh, Tommy, they'd drive ya out and cut ya down just like they done with Casy...
Tom: They're gonna drive me, anyways. Sooner or later, they'd get me for one thing if not for another. Until then....
Ma: Tommy, You're not aimin' to kill nobody?
Tom: No, ma, not that. That ain't it. It's just....well, as long as I'm a outlaw, anyways, maybe I can do somethin.' Maybe I can jus' find out somethin.'
Tom: Just...scrounge around, an' maybe find out what it is that's wrong. And then see if there ain't somethin' can be done about it.
Tom: I ain't thought it all out clear, Ma, I—I can't. I don't know enough.
Ma: Well, how am I gonna know about you, Tommy?
Ma: Why they could kill ya an' I'd never know. They could hurt ya. How'm I gonna know?
Tom: Well, maybe it's like Casy says.
Tom: Fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody. Then...
Ma: Then what, Tom?
Tom: Then it don't matter! I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere, wherever you can look.
Tom: Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat...I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy...I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad.
Tom: I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry an' they know supper's ready.
Tom: An' when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise, an' livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.
Ma: I don't understand it, Tom.
Tom: Oh, me neither, Ma,'s just somethin' I been thinkin' 'bout.
Tom: Gimme your hand, Ma. Goodbye.
Ma: Good-bye, Tommy. Later, when this is blowed over, you'll come back?
Tom: Sure, Ma.
Ma: Tom, we ain't the kissin' kind, but...
(She kisses him on the cheek. He kisses her in turn)
Tom: G' bye, Ma.
Ma: Goodbye, Tommy.
Ma: Tommy....

The Grapes of Wrath

Words by John Steinbeck and Nunnally Johnson

Pictures by Gregg Toland and John Ford

The Grapes of Wrath is available on DVD from Fox Home Video.