Monday, 22 November 2010

Leningrad Cowboys Go America [1989]

The Leningrad Cowboy's are Russia's tightest, least known band; Vladimir, their manager, takes them to tour America; they discover rock and roll and drive across the country trying to get to a gig in Mexico. Oh - and they are carrying the coffin of their dead/frozen guitarist (guitar gripped rigid by rigor mortis). On the way Jim Jarmusch sells them a car, and Vladimir swindles the lot of them whilst drinking a lot of budweiser.

A great little film, and obviously a little weird and precious. There are some wonderful visual gags (see the cowboy's nailing their winkle pickers back so that they can put their foot on the accelarator pedal) and the music made the film. Kaurasmaki has a unique perspective on cinema, one that has developed from oddball movies like this to the more restrained, contemplative recent films such as The Man Without a Past. I look forward to seeing more.

The Parallax View (1974)

Part of Alan J Pakula's 'Paranoia Trilogy' (along with Klute and All The President's Men). The plot focuses on Warren Beatty's reporter and his attempt at uncovering a shadowy organisation that seems to specialise in political assassinations. The opening scene sees  popular (democrat?) Presidential candidate being shot in the Seattle space needle by one of the waiters. The shooter runs up to the top of the needle and then manages to act falling off the edge really badly....

Obvious allusions to Bobby Kennedy are present, but it doesn't detract from the immediacy of the shooting which really does make you jump in your seat. Although the film was released 6 years after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr's murders it still successfully conveyed the sense of confused panic that pervaded the 70s: a feeling I felt recently when watching Olivier Assayas's Carlos.

The film was a gift for the DOP - loads of widescreen exterior scenes with forbidding modernist architecture, and dimly lit, labyrinthine interiors.

Warren Beatty played a good roaming journalist trying to uncover the reason why all of the witnesses to the initial assassination have died in suspicious circumstances. This involved a lot of snooping through drawers, talking to psychoanalysts with chimpanzees on their lap, getting into one hell of a contrived bar room brawl and subsequent car chase, and then more snooping around in imposing office blocks...

I'm not sure it's the minor masterpiece that some hold it up to be. Much of the atmosphere of the film was simply that - atmosphere: no payoff. And for as much as I enjoy ambiguous scenarios I would like to have had a little more insight into why the Parallax organisation were killing people, and who, if anyone, employed them. Without any rigorous intellectual questions the lack of further explanation of the plot does feel like a kop-out. Antonioni could have made it better.... In fact he did with Blow-up and The Passenger.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Network (1976)

Another mid 70s American film. There's something about that grainy, washed out film stock and the convergence of fading Hollywood stars and young upstarts that really appeals.

Network is a much talked about film, mainly due to the frenzied rages of Peter Finch's doom-mongering newscaster Howard Beale and his cry of 'I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!' He's fired from the network due to failing viewing figures, but after he announces he' going to kill himself on air the figures start to climb. The network, desperate for the share of the audience eggs him on, puts him on prime time with a blank canvas and the nation becomes hooked on the ravings of this late middle-aged man who has got sick of the bullshit.

Then there is leather faced William Holden who plays his old boss and the only person who seems to have his interests at heart. He's having a fling with Faye Dunaway's ambitious programming director, who in turn takes advantage of Finch's rants and put him centre stage on the networks listings.
Robert Duvall puts on his bombastic, face rubbing act and really attacks the screen with his bullish network chief. An opportunist with some killer lines ("That's a big fat, big titted hit!") Duvall is the best thing in the film next to Finch.

Paddy Chayefsky won the Oscar for his screenplay and deservedly so. Its a stagey, overwritten and unrealistic script, but one that is suited to such an outrageous scenario. You could never accuse Network of realism. Insider jokes abound: especially funny are the programme pitches Dunaway has to sift through every morning, most of which involve a "crusty yet benign older man working with a brilliant, beautiful woman. S pointed out that this could equally be said of Dunaway and Holden - whether this was deliberate irony or just sloppy writing, I couldn't help seeing their relationship as the weak link, a magnet to get ticket sales at a time when Faye Dunaway was a big box office draw. 

Lumet excels at this kind of picture, withdrawn and observant, allowing his actors range to express themselves (or overact) and somehow managing to make great entertainment out of a bunch of cold characters. An enjoyable and highly prescient film, it seems that there has never been a time since its release that Network could not be held up as a mirror to the current era's television addiction.