Monday 22 July 2013

Summer Reviews: The Conformist/Almost Famous/Heathers

I've noticed something recently: I watch a whole lot of movies. I mean fuck, not just a lot or loads, I mean it's summertime and I'm surprised Netflix hasn't crashed yet. Most people will imagine summer as a childhood recall of sun and beach and ice-cream, but for me it's lots of nights filled with movie magic, the days are what's inbetween; and the sunlight hours are there so I can try and make up for being such a nerd; which is a fantastic thing to be by the way. I'm usually watching as many as rewatching but this summer I feel so spoiled for choice that I'm trying to make every watch a first-time viewing, which is probably the reason I feel so behind on my movie reviewing; so here is my first collection of summer reviews, no connection other than timing between them: 

The Conformist 
There was a posting online the other day of a David Lynch interview where the man talked about how he hates neatly tied films; mysteries ruined by explanation. The exact words aren't important, just that between the lines Lynch was saying people shouldn't have to have everything explained to them; a thinly cloaked defense of his own films without ever mentioning one. My mind instantly jumped to a previous night when I was watching Bertolucci's The Conformist.

The film throws you straight into the confusion, your never so much given an explanation as your given a thread at which to unravel everything yourself. The opening jumps around from one set piece to another, and even once it's stabilized onto a straight line the image of our main character Marcello and his associate Manganiello driving through a snowy land is returned to throughout the film, with the story finally catching up to them near the end. They drive without giving us any explanation of where they're going, and the world outside is foggy and hard to make out. It's a good metaphor for Marcello's journey, shrouded in confusion and constantly changing direction.

That journey is to Paris where Marcello must assassinate an old teacher of his. A newly-wed, Marcello brings his wife on the trip, although this only starts to confuse matters even further, especially when the teachers wife Anna turns out to be as bored with marriage as he is. He's got an assassin's mission but there's little explosive nature here; Bertolucci focuses a dialogue heavy film around a world trying to escape the boring of fascism and Marcello's opposing wish to conform into the everyman. It's the reason the film's set in 1930s, and why an anti-fascist is the target. In one sequence Marcello's wife and Anna lead a conga line of everyone in a restaurant, Marcello declines to play along and ends up in the middle of everyone in the room; all of them circling around him until they blur into each other, all faceless, all becoming one single entity. It's only Marcello who stands out in the middle, unable to conform with any of the people around him.

Being this is the 30s there's lots of extravagant art-deco, the bright colours and careful framing brought to mind a twisted Wes Anderson, and the weighty loft of the characters, along with ending that jumps ahead years to show us the effect of all of our character's choices echoed the recent output of P.T. Anderson. Yet Bertolucci doesn't follow the path of either of those men; this film (logically) lacks the quirk or endearing message of Wes or the false grandeur of Paul; despite the weight of the world on it's main character's shoulders The Conformist feels fantastically light on it's feet; serious in tone throughout yet set in a world filled with dancers and party's and characters who seem to have only one major aim in life and focus all of their energy on that.

That blindsided focus on the objective is most apparent in Marcello; he's got his mission yet his life doesn't resolve around it; it flows in any direction the tide takes him. That the movie came out in 1970 means Marcello preceded other anti-hero's of the 70s such as Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle, yet in a sense both of those men had redemption floating around their heads; Corleone was a war hero and he starts off on the right side of the law, while Bickle tries to find redemption by saving Jodie Foster's prostitute; no such redemption follows Marcello. His wish to conform with the rest of society almost seems to suck the life out of him. A flashback to Marcello's early life when he comes close to being sexually abused might add somewhat to his motives but it still doesn't humanize him, not that he would wish to be humanized; even when confessing his sins to a priest he doesn't seem in anyway sorry, he just sits and talks out of obligation as he describes the crimes he has committed and the one he will commit next.

It's this blankness of character in the face of such a colourful world that gives the film it's core. Overall I enjoyed The Conformist; it dragged in places but in the end all pieces, even the ending which felt un-needed as it was unfolding, make a meaningful whole. I must say I dislike most modern foreign films, not because of subtitles but because they lack style or personal touch. Watching A Prophet the other night I couldn't help but be uninterested in the lack of any auteur putting his stamp over the top; the French invented the damn word so why are they so fast to forget it. A good story is needed of course, and The Conformist has that too, but what most modern foreign films lack is that added stylization, that confirmation that it's a movie your watching, because remember kids: the style is the content. The Conformist has that, and a lot more too. 9/10

Almost Famous 
This site might only be-able to sum me up with the broad stroke of being a writer, or even a blogger, but go read some of the music reviews and you'll see being a music journalist is a big goal for me. I'm past 15 so I can't quite fulfill the fantasy presented in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous; of William, a young music fan who gets the chance to write for Rolling Stone by following up-and-coming band Stillwater, but it's still a source of fascination.

It could be said that some of Almost Famous was born from truth, Crowe did work as a Rolling Stone writer from a young age, but there's no pretense here for this being a true story, even the band Stillwater is fictional. Almost Famous is a piece of pure fantasy; one of the most wonderful wish fulfillments ever put to celluloid. The wish fulfillment comes from a young William, who during the film's opening witnesses his sister run away to the free world of the hippie 60s. She does leave him one thing behind though; her record collection. In a note she leaves she tells William to listen to Tommy by The Who with a candle lit as it will show him his future; cut to 1973 and that future is here.

William meets Lester Bangs, the Creem writer who many believe to be the greatest rock critic ever; you can see from my last post that I'm one of them. It's another part of the fantasy; I'm sure most aspiring music critics would love to sit in a cafe talking shop with Lester Bangs, and seeing Phillip Seymour Hoffman play the man was one of the main reasons for my viewing. Not that he's in the movie for long, but his scenes make him out to be the typical mentor figure; I kept thinking Crowe would reveal it all, that Bangs had duped him, that his whole dark opinion of rockstars and Rolling Stone was just wrong and William had outgrow the master and entered into a new age of rock n roll. One of the first things Bangs tells William is that rock is dead, this isn't the 60s anymore and the game has changed. I was waiting for him to proved wrong, not really because I cared too much about the state of rock, I will with sadness and all admit that rock is dead, or at least it's been dying more and more since the 60s. But Bangs never gets proven wrong, not that you can't be friends with a rockstar, but Bangs points still stick, and in the end I'm glad they did; Lester Bangs wasn't like the rockstars he reported, not even his lifestyle brought him up to speed with them, but he was himself, no-one broke him down and changed him, and that's rock n roll. Near the end Bangs picks up the phone, William on the other end, and after an unheard question says without any sarcasm or anger "I'm always at home, I'm uncool"; that's beautiful, and real words of a very very cool man, at least to uncool people.

And things just get better when you get to Stillwater; each member of the fictional band feels fleshed out without any of them following the expected rock band stereotypes. Thankfully this is no serious Spinal Tap. You can't link these characters to real rock figures, at least not completely. William follows the band, his time with the band growing and growing as he tries desperately to pry an interview out of front-man Russel. All the while he's introduced to a world of swimming pool bashes and threesomes that his mother, played by the surprise performance of the lot Frances McDormand, definitely wouldn't approve of. She's the grounding of the whole film, always at the back of the film (and William's mind) trying to push her way to the front with endless phone-calls nagging William of the school he's missing and his upcoming graduation. Mainly because up to that point she's given William a very sheltered life; she's a college teacher who teaches her kids in her own unique way and from the outside, and even when up-close to be honest, seems over-controlling and a little self-deluded.

To top it all off William falls in love with a Stillwater groupie named Penny Lane. Played by Kate Hudson in her only notable performance that springs to mind, she plays Penny as an alien; her movements and speech unique to her. Although she's a 70s groupie which obviously means she's depressed and too doped to know what's really going on. She's William's ultimate escape from his tedious life, which isn't all too bad with the Rolling Stone deal and music tour and all, but it still all seems dull in the flashing lights of Penny's offer for the both of them to go to Morocco and find a new life.

In the end William is a little blank. An interesting protagonist and a well-intentioned kid, but a soul in need of someone to guide him. And that's all the characters in Almost Famous try to do. His mother trying to turn him off all of this rebellion and put him on track; the track she clearly set him on long ago. Penny in her self-induced fantasy, stuck in the awe of the stars around her, just like so many other people, living in the hope of a fantasy world that becomes so real to her that she even invites others into it. Lester Bangs with his me-against-the-world pose, trying to build William up by telling him that it's ok to be down. Stillwater, who still debate in privacy if talking to a journalist is really the right thing to do, yet who also try to live the high life and be free even if it means bottling everything up inside until it eventually explodes. All of these different ways of life, all colliding in on William. And that's why I loved this film, because each side is given equal time to make it's case. And in the end? They're all right, and all wrong too. In the end William's mother just wants whats best for her son, and she finally notices how that's done, his sister finally makes her peace and excepts her wrongs, the band finally open up and Bangs is who he is, unapologetically; all of these characters are. It's nice to know that in a world of opposing forces all can get along without anyone having to budge; unless of course they actually needed to.

The most beautiful scene of the movie though is when the Stillwater plane gets caught in some form of electronic field. I'd say they were hit by lightning but I know for a fact that would have no effect on the plain; so either I wasn't listening carefully enough or Crowe didn't do enough non-musical research; one of us is wrong at least. All members think they're about to die, so even in front our young journo/hero they spill the beans on everything. They each get their shot at shouting out the secrets they wouldn't want to die never telling, and to be honest it gets a little dark; the band-mates go a little hard on each other. And it was in this moment I noticed the big difference that separates Cameron Crowe's movies from almost all others. I'll confess to being no Crowe fan; I liked Jerry Mcguire but after that it was all just films about zoo's and Orlando Bloom and I couldn't really find my motivation, but they all have this factor that pulls them in another direction from most; there's good in the bottom of all Crowe's characters. They inhabit optimist worlds, but it's the characters themselves. They might say bad things now and again, and as they all think that plane's gonna crash they might not be the nicest of people, but there's good in all of them. Cameron Crowe simply hasn't been knocked down. And that's as perfect a way one could present the time and place presented in Almost Famous as one could ask for. 9/10

Winona Ryder is fantastic isn't she. Lets just imagine this review is transmitted to us from 1988 for that to be true. No, I couldn't give a crap if she did some shoplifting some lifetimes ago, it's just not a crime that would bother me. No, the reason is simply that even now, in 2013, during Winona's big career resurgence, she's still that same person. Still weird and quirky and all too real for most celebrities. I, in my teenage dome, have no real connection. I'm sure she'd be a big catch if I was 40 and didn't want a trophy wife, I wanted someone nice instead. Instead it's 1988, I'm 16, and I don't want an A-grade girlfriend, I want someone nice instead. And it's weird to tell who Ryder's actually playing in all her old movies, she's no outcast, not really; far too cool for that. But she's always the relatable one, always gothic and self-assured. A contradiction which a fool could predict Tim Burton getting attached to, and his twisted visions did serve her well, but it's in Heathers where Winona Ryder's weird enigma of a teenage persona reached it's peak.

Ryder plays Veronica who's recently got herself into the hottest clique in the school; the Heathers, which has only three members, all girls, all named Heather. Veronica doesn't seem to hate her new label, she has sold out a little to be where she is, but these are her best friends. It's not until new kid JD, played by Christian Slater, shows up that her world flips. The boys got a bit of a murderous streak and without revealing those all destroying spoilers I'll say that Veronica gets involved in his plans, which have which have to do with the Heathers.

The level of satire here was surprising at first; this is real satire, where every conversation Veronica has with her parents being exactly the same other than the name of the place she is going. It's hammering home the point of these passive parents; fulfilling their obligation without really participating at all. Everything in Heathers is like this; why build up love between Veronica and JD when you could show them talking for the first time then cut to them naked in the middle of the garden. None of it would work unless the whole world of Heathers worked in this way, and luckily it does. The whole school, all the Heathers, all the parents, everyone, they all sizzle to this extreme. Take the two jocks for instance: Kurt and Ram, both typical bully types who always wear those matching red sports coats, who go on double dates and end up shit faced in the middle of fields trying to screw over the cows. Everything in Heathers goes so far out to make it's point it makes everything in the film seem normal. It's only once the credits start to roll when you notice what a weird world you've been let into.

And what is the point this films trying so hard to make? I'll be honest and say most of it gets lost in the translation. It's a fun movie, well done, and staring at it once it's done you can tell there's some sort of point been made somewhere, you just can't tell where exactly. It's popular kids being killed, everyone staying blind to everything, all of the outcasts been given a bigger voice; some of the message could even been swept aside as expected teen angst, but there is something; especially in the society in the background of Heathers who accept all the weird happenings of these teens. Society is happy to accept those two jocks were gay lovers who committed suicide because, well, those adults just don't understand us youngsters. I related to that point, this feeling that people who aren't certified "adults" yet aren't real people, that they're simple 2 dimensions as easy to read as a statistics sheet. Which is a point still relevant now, maybe more-so now, which the film gets right by portraying the adults as being just as oblivious of everything as the kids.

So in the end it could be said I enjoyed the sarcastic exterior of Heathers more than I enjoyed the darkness it was trying to let out from beneath. Winona Ryder, only 16 at the time of filming, got the role she played in every movie back then as right as anyone ever has. Christian Slater overacted and generally tried to be the big mysterious movie star he wanted to be, although for once it fits. The rest of the cast and the colorful production do the vision well. It's a very fun movie, although it's probably a lot easier to root for Veronica if your of the younger crowd. 9/10

So that was my first batch of summer reviews, sorry for all the positivity it must be the sun's rays, and remember...

No comments:

Post a Comment