Emotional Intensity in the films of Mike Leigh

We watched Mike Leigh’s newest film “Another Year” and then last night watched “High Hopes”, and I realized how many of his movies I’ve seen without trying to be complete-ist, and how much each of them sticks with me long after I’ve seen them. “Happy Go Lucky”, “Secrets and Lies”

The thing all these movies have in common, and the thing that can make them hard to watch sometimes, is that there’s always one or more characters who are emotional open wounds. It’s not that their performances are broad or that they chew the scenery, they’re just characters that seem to have crashed on the rocks of their lives, and live with an existential horror of how disappointing, lonely and sad their lives have been. No one else is able to find and present these characters.

But for anyone who’s seen “High Hopes”, I was struct by the next door neighbors of the old woman at the center of the story. It’s a married couple — Rupert & Laeticia Boothe-Brain (what names!) who are insufferable upper class twits. The weird thing about them is how much they sound and act like the characters Raymond & Connie Marble in “Pink Flamingos”. I’m sure Leigh at that point had seen Waters’ films, but could there be a conscious homage going on?

It would be very funny if the upper class twits in Thatcher’s England were modeled on a couple who compete to be the filthiest people alive.

“One Day Like Rain” — Worst SF Movie Ever?

I was trolling through the ‘watch instantly’ selections on Netflix the other night, and started watching “One Day Like Rain” (official site), and made it past half way before giving up.  This isn’t Plan 9 From Outer Space bad, it’s in its own category of bad.  It has characters, sort of.  Well it has actors repeating lines anyway, but at no point does anything about this movie make any sense. Where Ed Wood was aiming at a popular entertainment, and missed horribly and hilariously, “One Day Like Rain” isn’t even in the same building with any sort of coherent goal, or message, or plot.

Case in point. The protagonist is this high school age girl, who apparently dislikes the sterility of suburban life.   So she gets involved in this project to… do something?  Who knows! How does she go about it? She goes to a hobby shop and buys 4 chemistry sets.  On the way home she starts ranting about how stupid and cheap the chemistry sets are, takes one out of her bag, and stomps it on the sidewalk.  When she gets home she pulls out a few chemical vials and throws the boxes away, still complaining about the chemistry sets!

Then, as the movie progresses, she does … things? … in the garage that have something to do with a blood sample from the hobby shop clerk, but it soon has nothing to do with the blood, or the guy, and evolves into her fiddling with crystals and crumpled lengths of copper wire.

Along the way several things happen:

  • Her brother(?) is road racing with some other guy. He misses a turn, and knocks over a fire hydrant.
  • some guy, not sure who, visits a campsite where random people sit around, in some sort of gobsmacked trance, and he plays the guitar for them.
  • the protagonist’s friend, takes some sort of drug the protagonist has brewed up, and the posters on her walls become animated.
  • Every so often someone in the movie looks really stoned and droning faux-East Indian music plays for a few minutes.

But … there’s no payoff! Nothing is ever made clear! The characters never converse or interact, they say obscure non-sequitirs past one another.  The most prominent actor in this movie Jesse Eisenberg (lead in Adventureland) enters every scene with a quizzical expression on his face like he’s wandered onto the wrong movie set, to deliver lines from some other movie.

This movie has all the markings of being made by someone afflicted with the twin towers of bad art: a complete lack of talent, and perfect imperviousness to outside criticism.  This is a surprisingly common template — in the past couple of years I’ve been sent review copies of two novels with  the same atmosphere of pure WTF-ness and lack of comprehensible meaning.  My mom worked for a guy who was writing ‘musicals’ with awful lyrics set to awful music, in service of a plot that made no sense populated by characters with no trace of normal human motivation. That guy’s arrogance was titanic, and so was the craptastic-ness of his ideas.

It’s a commonplace that a genius knows what to do, and knows not to pay attention to anyone who says otherwise.  Unfortunately there’s a certain kind of anti-genius, who thinks they can prove their genius doing the same thing. Only they have no talent except for ignoring useful criticism.  “One Day Like Rain” looks to be the product of just such a misguided auteur.

Brittany Murphy — The Lesser Known Movies

So, writing about a movie star when they die isn’t exactly my thing, but Brittany Murphy dying got to me. And I wouldn’t write about it at all except that through random trolling for movies with Melissa, I saw a few of her lesser known movies that were interesting. To wit:

Sidewalks of New York was Ed Burns’ auteur turn as the post-milleneal answer to Woody Allen. Watchable but not fantastic. Murphy is decent and better than just watchable. She has a face that’s like a CNN crawl of her thoughts, and she’s a good enough actress that her thoughts when in front of the camera are what her character would be thinking.

In Ramen Girl, she plays an American girl stranded in Japan, who, for reasons not readily apparent to me, decides she must learn to become a Ramen Master. This was, I think, a movie originally for Japanese audiences (with Brittany’s English in subtitles) that got language-inverted and sent straight to DVD. She seems a little too gobsmacked and weepy in this movie, but she did her best to make an actual character out of a dishrag of a caricature. This reminded me of Tampopo, which had its basis in the same Japanese in-joke: Americans take at face value the reverence for ramen in the movie, but to a Japanese audience this is ridiculous — Ramen is fast food, and becoming a Ramen master is a little like becoming a French Fry master at Burger King.

The Dead Girl in which she plays the title role, is a movie that tells the story of a murder as the story of the people around the event. Murphy is only in the last segment, detailing her last day as a prostitute trying to deliver her child a birthday present, and of these three movies, this one is the best performance.

I’m sure in coming days we’ll find out all sorts of tawdry details of how she died, her less salubrious proclivities, her schlubby husband, etc. But for now I think it’s worth reflecting on her work, which on the whole was really good. A lot of mention has also been made of her voice work; her Luanne on “King of the Hill” was peerless. And if you peruse her filmography there is ample evidence (she worked A LOT) that she was without fear when choosing roles — she’d try anything once.

“Iris” — a movie not quite as good as people seemed to think in 2001…

I watched this the other night, and I found it … puzzling? It seems like alternating scenes — old lady losing her mind, kate winslet gets naked, rinse and repeat. Alzheimers, boobs, Alzheimers, boobs… but though I got what they were trying to do, it just seemed really disjointed and sketchy.

In the process, it pretty much tells you nothing at all about Iris Murdoch. And Jim Broadbent won for a grand job done as Iris Murdoch’s husband who nursed her in her latter years, but … he dodders, he stutters. So … he won an Oscar!

I’m sorry, but some movies try too hard to be serious, and forget to be satisfying entertainments. Sometimes even Kate Winslet getting naked isn’t enough.

Bad Movie Night – “The Children of Huang Shi”

We watched this the other night, and it’s a complete piece of crap, but honestly I loved every minute of it. It’s about an Englishman, George Hogg, who was in China during the Japanese invasion before World War II, who ends up running an orphanage for young boys. It’s based on a true story.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Charles Hogg, and Radha Mitchell plays Lee Pearson, a nurse of sorts. Leaving aside the fact that the movie white-washes Hoggs’ commitment to Communism, this film is marred by some of the worst dialog I’ve ever heard, and Meyers’ delivery of such claptrap as though it was Hamlet’s soliloquy is howlingly bad.

It reminded me of the animated Beowulf, that I saw the last night I was in Berlin. I should have seen it in German, which would have improved on the frightful script. “Huang Shi” would have been improved by being unintelligible. Not the least because the movie is visually beautfiul, and like every movie I’ve seen that features it, makes me want to visit rural China. The acting of the Chinese boys is so much better than the Hollywood stars they surround, not that Meyers and Mitchell are given much to work with.

The best part of the movie for me was the end, which features interviews with some of the boys from Hogg’s school. Their real-life admiration and gratitude to a man who saved their lives only underlines the tin ear of this movie’s writers. And it underlines what a great story the movie has to tell. Too bad it tells a different story entirely, and does so badly.

Insane Movie: “Nothing Personal”

Nothing Personal is on Encore, and it’s fucking insane. The description in the tv guide: “Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers vs. a giant corporation killing baby seals.”

With a tagline like that how can you resist? And if that doesn’t get you excited, it also has Dabney Coleman, Catherine O’Hara, and Roscoe Lee Browne. Those 3 are the the utility infielders of 80s and 90s cinema — rarely the star, but in dozens of movies and tv shows.

And what other movie has Donald Sutherland and Suzanne Somers laying in bed talking about how many orgasms they had? They also drive a VW bug into the Reflecting Pond in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Quit possibly a benchmark in cinematic absurdity.
Roscoe Browne, in case you don't recognize him by name...
Roscoe Brown — cast member of “Soap”, acted in Roots, was a voice actor for “The Real Ghostbusters!”

The Awfulness of Religion-driven Art

The other night I watched, beginning to end the movie Faith Like Potatoes. It’s based on a ‘true’ story of a farmer who leaves Zambia for South Africa, and how he becomes a lay Evangelical preacher.

I liked the setting in Kwazulu Natal, and hearing Zulu spoken. It was beautifully filmed. Those two things kept me from getting up 20 minutes in and turning it off. After 40 minutes, I wanted to see if it ever found a way to redeem itself. In the end, though, it is an example of how fundamentally some people misunderstand how to make religious art.
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