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Great immersion in LA world, 30 April 2016

This has a convoluted story like out of Chandler. The dreamy woman who has disappeared and the unlikely schmo hired to find her. She is white, a rich man's wife, and thought to have disappeared in the black side of town so they get him as improbable private dick who has to sniff her out, a black guy who just wants to make mortgage to keep owning his house.

A lot of snooping in clubs and seamy places around LA. People turning up dead in the night and he stands to get the rap. Hidden machinations that involve people in high places, a set of incriminating photos with a mayoral election in the balance. And all this as the noir world that turns against the protagonist - he's beaten, framed for murder, used as pawn - but now it acquires another layer of significance that conveys a more real plight than Marlowe.

And we have a curious camera, a world rife with texture and depth. This isn't the glossy recreation of an era of LA Confidential, more like Altman where we brush against spaces and the world surrounds from all sides, worthy of The Long Goodbye. It has all these marvelous places, the blues club above the convenience store, the cabin up in the hills where a body turns up, his sunny neighborhood that is routinely invaded.

It's as good as if adapted from Chandler I daresay, plus about black experience in a world where boundaries are drawn starkly against you, plus a world rife for exploration in and out of these boundaries. It's good stuff, this one. They tried to set it up for future films where he returns as the PI but I see that it didn't pan out. First time's the charm anyway.

Noir Meter: 3/4 | Neo-noir or post noir? Neo

Night sea swimmer in search, 29 April 2016

A man who is starting to feel the pangs of lonely life, late at night he can't stop himself from phoning to an ex-wife that walked out on him. A series of crimes around the city where men turn up dead, lonely men seeking women late at night. He investigates, by posing as one of them, until he meets her.

The middle portion revolves around these two selves in him trying to decide on the narrative; the lonely guy who's finally found her versus the cop whose job is to suspect her, even if that means she's the killer that he has to bring in.

He settles for the latter, until a horrible version of himself is spat out by the story in the end, a man broken after his wife walked out on him. He gets to wrestle this uglier side of himself and come out on the other end for her purged of demons.

That's all fine but it labors itself by trying to be one of those "character studies" that Methodist actors seem to gravitate to, Pacino here. A lot of them were being made in the 70s but they carried on, minus the young passion. So a lot of protracted scenes between characters, the thought is that just by seeing them together in scenes, we get "life". We don't of course, we get scenes. It's all a bit like Pacino's acting; aimless lumbering with the occasional bug-eyed frisson, but never amounts to more than pacing through motions.

There are a few moments that suggest deeper undercurrents - the slumped look on the middle-aged blonde's face as she walks out the restaurant with a defeated soul - how Elen eerily manifests out of a dark hallway - and my favorite moment, the poem his father recites about someone who is living alone in the woods. It's so good, the poem and timing of delivery, it surpasses the whole film.

Noir Meter: 1/4

Phoenix (1998)
Fates calling the shots, 28 April 2016

This acquires a certain charm that comes from how inconspicuous it is, so as I was expecting straight-to-video fodder the kind you watch stupefied because it happened to be on late at night, it reveals itself to be a taut little thing that tries to create its own world and have a character swim in the currents.

It was caught in the Tarantino craze so we have small talk about cartoons, movies and music peppered throughout. It has, eventually, a heist in animal masks gone awry that makes poor sense and cookie cutter resolutions where we drive around to settle scores with a bunch of characters that were left hanging so that it's all neat by the end.

For a while it manages to strike some spark, most of it in the first half.

A man who we understand is trying to be upstanding while everyone around him is fickle, but he has a blind spot for gambling. It's not about the money, for him it seems to be a warped way of measuring himself up against the universe, challenging the fates to pave whatever way they have in store so he can have a mandate to abide by. He makes a mess, owing everyone in town, but won't take the easy way out because a bet is a bet; opportunity for self-worth.

So when the fates shuffle the deck and he's dealt the role of hapless stooge who loses everything, he goes through it with stoic persistence to settle debts. Ray Liotta is as good as he was for Scorsese in a similar twitchy role as fates conspire to crush him.

It's no Asphalt Jungle where the heist is the ritual that opens us from anxiety to dreamlike visions, but it beats Reservoir Dogs.

Noir Meter: 2/4 | Neo-noir or post noir? Neo

Femme fatale struts through story she invents, 28 April 2016

This has a smalltown sense of place, upstate New York with these quaint large houses surrounded by lawns, it has a devious femme fatale who wraps the square country boy around her finger and makes him dance, laying sexual traps all over the place. Linda Fiorentino is a pleasure to watch; cocky twist of the head, feline mischief while splayed on a bed, pure sashaying allure.

On the other hand it's a bit quaint itself, something drummed up on a screenwriter's desk to twist and turn a certain way but, as we see it unfold, convenient in more than a few spots, and never really dreamed up as visual smoke from her sultry cigarette.

It's simple so far as noirs go; a woman who cynically manipulates a story all along the way and the hapless stooge whose desire for her makes it come to life. When her story is foiled by a last minute revelation, she improvises a new one on the spot, using sex as the lure, ever the cunning storyteller.

Noir Meter: 3/4 | Neo-noir or post noir? Neo

An eye for ignorance, 27 April 2016

Another movie about the external world of organized inadequacies, this one set in Brazil and also about deep-rooted suffering in the cogs that give rise to that world. We race through, seeing with a certain narrative eye that tries to make sense, so let's see a few observations made by that eye.

It lambasts several worlds. The world of corrupt cops who take bribes to do their job and still more bribes to look the other way, ignorant bureaucrats or yet another gang. The world of privileged university kids who like to harp on about power structures but become unwitting cogs in the chain of abuse when they go to the barrio to score drugs for their socially conscious lifestyle. The world of drugs, of course, with petty chieftains taking the lives of hapless kids on their neck.

It's an angry film; angry at what it sees as the competing selfishness of different tribes who are only looking to please a narrow self interest. It begins with two rookie cops who it presents as extraordinarily competent and who just want to do work that untangles knots, but become stifled by bureaucracy and ignorance. They finally enlist in the special ops squad to come out on the other end as merciless rambos as the only way to get something done; direct action the only way to cut through the ambiguity and indifference.

It doesn't shy away from showing horrible police brutality and not the Dirty Harry cartoon. Kids are beaten, suffocated with plastic bags, and almost raped with a wooden broom to spill the beans. The point here is that it could have airbrushed this view but didn't and chose instead to confront the reality. Had it come out in the US, it would have been the most controversial films that year.

But just as we think that in their frantic chase to restore order they end up brutalizing an innocent kid, torture leads them to the right place. In the end this eye comes with its own blindness. It's all a bit of a mess apart from this like we're seeing parts of different episodes of a season of crime TV.

Stultified noir, 27 April 2016

This has the basic fulcrum of noir; red-haired devilish femme fatale, the schmuck who is bedeviled by desire for sex and money, looking bamboozled while being smitten by cruelly ironic fate, desire that bends reality and manifests in offbeat ways. I do like that we have it dictating metaphorical spaces of being lured and trapped by that desire.

A hole in the ground that he has to keep feeding with money. Watching through binoculars at sex across the street, inflamming the desire. A dream where he's inside a giant ferry wheel and buffed around while she is playing his life at dice down below. The embarrassment of rolling on the floor with her when his colleagues walk through the door. It ends in an aptly noirish way, quoting Detour, where he's been the narrator gone mad as he waits hopelessly in some desert limbo, flicking through the photo-album that chronicles a life wasted when desire entered the pictures and all this (diner, photos) as being trapped in his own mind that relives the past and is conjuring the film itself.

Even that is rather intermittent here, not the result of focused vision like the Coens or Almodovar did.

Truth be told, I'm simply not too enamored of the obviousness that accompanies many of these modern attempts at film noir. It's like an excessively made up face wearing with some effort a selfconscious grimace as it makes its way through the amoral occasion. For whatever reason I am reminded a lot of Lynne's attempt at Lolita; something that was elusively fluid in its original guise, stultified by too much focus on grooming appearances.

Oldman affects his usual twitching self, rather apt in the whole thing.

Noir Meter: 3/4

Knowing without knowing. Inhabited by, 24 April 2016

Most films narrow us down, make as if reality is some solid, fixed, particular thing. I don't perceive it in any such dogmatic way in real life and what I'm after in the cinema is filmmakers who can show it to be fluid and empty of a particular reality, currents of colored air. Baudelaire spoke of the flaneur who walks the city in order to experience himself in the center of the multitude of possible views. Further back it was Taoists who talked about being able to wander far and wide, freely entering each thing without being fettered by its particularity.

With Rivette, as with Resnais before and Lynch after, it comes down to fictions within fictions, selves within selves or as other selves who hover in and out of experiencing themselves at the center of fictions. Possible views where no single one alone is real but they all make each other possible.

Everything with these makers often doubletimes as self-referential; obvious here, about actresses coming to a villa to rehearse a play at the behest of the author, coming and going from enactments of trysts and dalliances as part of the play to actual affairs taking shape outside the fiction in the same house.

But - as with Hiroshima mon amour and Mulholland Drive - it's the broader view that entices me with something like this, that it can chart that liberating path where reality is neither fixed nor on the other hand random, a surreal flight of fancy, but something is giving rise to its dreams and in turn inhabiting those dreams as itself. Rivette had done it before in Celine and Julie, he bestows us the gift of free wandering again here.

It's marvelous to be able to walk freely to find ourselves at the center of what he has prepared.

The main reality here is someone wondering about love, perhaps after a betrayal. It may be that only Geraldine or the woman- inside-the- play's character is real (but that doesn't mean anyone is imaginary in the sense of Tyler Durden where we know he is).

It begins with the two women discovering each other as mistresses of the same man, but instead of something that irrevocably happened in any one reality, we get it as the last scene of a play that unfolds inside an apartment, with the audience snooping after the actors in full view of the fiction taking shape.

Two actresses; one brash and free- spirited, the other reserved and romantic, both - like Celine and Julie - different facets of a self that dreams herself as either, both complicit in the effort to make sense out of some mystery concealed in the fictional play that requires their participation to come alive.

They fall for two men; both illusionists (playwright - stage magician) used to being in deceiving control of appearances, both were in love with the same woman who disappeared one night and the play, we find out, is about events of that night in the same house, disguised memory that needs a woman to come alive.

So as it comes alive in this house, all sorts of spontaneously arising views blossoms, not all of them as planned within confines of that story. Selves are swapped, Jane ends up playing the character of Paul the magician while being courted by him outside the play. Omens abound, premonitions of mystery; a hallucinated scene of murder, a mysterious dark room with boarded windows where one of the men sits alone in a chair.

Eventually, having persisted in the fictional remembered world where a woman (an inner woman wondering about love) is courted by those two, both are shown to be deceiving. It comes around with the last scene of this play with an audience in full view; but now the woman- within makes an appearance, summoned by the fiction to be chased off, the girls saving her for her own good. The premonition of death conspires to happen but, unlike the dream, no one really dies.

We get to freely inhabit without knowing; dreams, affairs, overlapping layers of illusion that can only come to life because actors comply to participate, and all this as a woman wandering through her own place in unfathomable emotions that were set in motion long ago. Eventually the fiction is shown to be empty. The women go out laughing. The statue of Cupid that she broke to pieces one night is magically put together and standing in its place.

To my mind, this is a milestone on the path from Lady of Shanghai to Mulholland Drive and that makes it indispensable wisdom.

Something to meditate upon

Vying for control, 24 April 2016

This begins with a cop routine, good cop who is there for his cohorts and his friend, a bad apple in the force who beats his wife and is being investigated by IA for excessive use of force, but it's the halfway turn towards noir that is the most interesting.

They pull two threads from classic noir. We have a homme (not femme) fatale in the 'good cop' who now we see seduces wives and weaves an insidious influence in the lives of those around him, a sociopath who capriciously strides morality for the pleasure of control. The private dick is here the IA freshcut who is determined to bring him in, but he's turned into the hapless noir schmuck who loses sight of reality and succumbs to paranoid hallucination. Is his own wife being seduced?

The idea is that when he sees the two of them having lunch or when he's taunted and beaten by him in the escalator, that these impressions exist in a tentative reality of the anxious mind losing control. The filmmaker knows as much and later gives us obviously hallucinated impressions of the two of them making out in his mind. But altogether it's always more obvious than I'd like.

This is a neo-noir (not post noir which is a different beast) and better than those that just hang 40s hats and trenchcoats in new faces to give us color re-enactments of old noir. But it's also one of those films (Lethal Weapon is another) where you can plainly see noir being subsumed by action thriller dynamics. It will come down to viewer preference for how elusive or tight you want these to be, this one tries to grip more than swim.

Noir Meter: 2/4

Incomplete dreamlike machine, 23 April 2016

There is a kind of liberating brilliance here, enhanced all the more by its never having been finished so it's an open thread that vanishes. It's one of several projects Lynch pitched for TV while Twin Peaks was hot, for whatever reason this was given the go ahead.

We have only a small portion, 5 episodes plus 2 with Lynch's involvement and only a handful of these aired before it was pulled. It's just too weird so we're lucky we even got this small bit. Unsuspecting viewers would have stumbled upon it for two weeks one summer and then it vanished into air as strangely as it had appeared, and was it a prank of some kind? A glitch in programming? Was it a bit of irreverent mischief that someone managed to sneak into the airwaves while no one was looking?

And this is what it's about. A TV show about a TV show that should have been harmless fluff but mischievous forces conspire to throw a crank in the gears of entertainment, making the machinery collapse on the stage in a pile of magical change and human buffoonery.

Outside of Lynch's hands you can see it devolve into farce and slapstick, harmlessly buffoonish. It's still much the same thing, about a show going awry each night - staging gear intrude upon the scene, the diva's entrance is foiled by doors, the suave protagonist of the show made a fool of, producers are flummoxed - but it's writers taking these characters and bumping them around without agency in the collapse.

It's Lynch's portion that you have to see; preferably you'll see it all, how Lynch envisions agency in the pilot, then go through the next few to see how it's harmless fun without his input. He returns again for the last one as writer only but you'll know he's there.

The protagonist of the show-within is Lester Guy, a sly charmer past his heyday. The real protagonist in Lynch's vision is his blonde simpleton costar, Betty.

Something else is taking place in his episodes. Anxieties of this innocently goofy soul - opening day anxieties in the pilot, not being able to remember the name of her mother in the last - create the dreamlike machine that collapses, spontaneously carrying visions of that anxiety?

I watched with marvel. Somehow in all the furiously goofy stuff, Lynch manages to evoke a fragile soul who is terribly unsure about her place on that stage where life should have been without blemish, controlled, carefree.

It even adds that we have only this small bit without the James subplots that TV demands to drag its feet through whole seasons. You can imagine that she has a home somewhere that she comes back to, dreaming is she even Betty and does she have a husband who is going behind her back?

It has rocketed among my favorite works by Lynch and in general. It's the same noir god in the machine that creates Betty's world in Mulholland Drive.

A certain amount of fear, as well as things to dream about, 22 April 2016

This is how Lynch described his attraction to Gifford's book. It speaks just as well about every other film he made of course where a certain amount of fear makes the things to dream about stand out from the night as all the more urgent.

It has enough going for it either way; a road movie given to us with a gonzo eye, crime and anguish as kitchen- sink ritual, archetypally American male and female avatars of sexual youth, a sense of wanting to just love but the world is a wicked place, and if that's not enough something else will come along in the next scene.

It was awarded the top prize that year at Cannes. I would have to guess that the French saw some of this as archetypally tweaked America, quintessential in the fracture. It's the same audience that was going to receive Pulp Fiction with plaudits in a few years.

And this is the whole thing. At this point Lynch could still be thought of as one among the quirky bunch that included the Coens, Stone and soon Tarantino. But can he be thought of as one of them now? No indeed and that's how much he has evolved.

What sets Lynch apart is that others create movies as self-enclosed worlds; for Lynch it's rather one larger, open-ended world that he carries with him everywhere and now and then summons some part of it in movie form.

The Coens for example, who are closest to him in several ways, both work with metaphysics and indulge loves for song, noir and dreams. Blue Velvet and Raizing Arizona, I can't think of one without the other, both with a dreamlike noir engine that skewers idyllic middle America. But the Coens think up a story and cleanly work out its mechanism, Lynch's work seems to come from prolonged stays in meditative habitation of that world. They are intellectuals, he's spiritual (not the same as pious).

Except this one came from a book Lynch was given while finishing the Twin Peaks pilot and decided to do; not so much summoned from his world as he visited someone else's and came back with impressions. Now in my third viewing, it continues to be my least favorite of his post- Velvet long works that constitute the Lynch world but still one of the most endearing messes I know. It's Lynch letting out steam more than anything.

But I'll keep with me the powerful noir engine that creates the fearful dreaming; two women, mother and daughter, who are traumatized by something they (she) allowed to happen (rape, husband's murder) and this is now spilling and surging through the film as helplessness to resist evil (most notably seen in the helplessness to avert the PI's death and the Bobby Peru scene).

It does show Lynch as a humanist filmmaker, not a cynic, and that alone elevates it above mere carnage.

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