The Lazy Man’s Odyssey: 300 Films in Lockdown (31-35) - whynow

This week’s films are: Casino (1995); Babel (2006); Departures (2008); Punch-Drunk Love (2002); and Macbeth (2015).


Like last week, four Great Movies, and one not-Great-Movie-but-great-movie – but only in order to keep sane.

Monday

Casino​, dir. Martin Scorsese, 1995

The backrooms of Las Vegas and casinos in general have always been fascinating, rather like the inner workings of prisons. But ​Casino​ takes a step further, and shows us the lives of the people in this world – not just the fun of it. It takes the characters of Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci – who at first glance appear quite similar, and have similar objectives, and dissect them until you see them as opposite.

Trying to not sound like a prat (is difficult in film criticism) – you do get the feeling that a lot of the shots and set-ups of this film could find a place in most other Scorsese crime dramas. That’s not to say they’re not original – simply not original in the SCU, the Scorsese Cinematic Universe. ​Casino​ feels like the higher scale, higher stake, and higher profit version of ​Goodfellas​ – but I think it’s better.

Casino​ spans three decades and chronicles the true story of a faction of the mob who ran the Vegas casinos. DeNiro plays Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, a brilliant bookie chosen to run the Tangiers hotel and casino, marrying along the way a drug-addicted con-artist trophy wife Sharon Stone and struggling with his friendship with loose-cannon Joe Pesci.

Is Ace trying to do good in a city where anyone who doesn’t have their interests at heart meets unsavoury fates?

Well, the film starts with his car being blown up with him inside it, and the opening credits are over his body flying around the screen in a giant fireball. It then cuts back to ten years earlier. I’ve copied in the banging opening monologue, where Pesci and DeNiro are both speaking in voice over.

ACE (V.O.)
At that time, Vegas was a place where millions of suckers flew in every
year on their own nickel, and left behind about a billion dollars. But
at night, you couldn’t see the desert that surrounds Las Vegas…

EXT. DESERT – DAWN

Aerial shot swooping along the desert floor, then rising above the mist to reveal mountains in the distance.

ACE (V.O.)
But it’s in the desert where lots of the town’s problems are solved.

NICKY (V.O.)
Got a lot of holes in the desert,
and a lot of problems are buried in those holes. Except you gotta do it right. I mean, you gotta have the
hole already dug before you show up with a package in the trunk. Otherwise you’re talkin’ about a half-hour or forty-five minutes of diggin’. And who knows who’s gonna be comin’ along in that time? Before you know it, you gotta dig a few more holes. You could be there all fuckin’ night.

Through the entire film, Pesci and DeNiro are both terrified of what people think of them ‘back home’, this unknown entity looming over them – something even more powerful than the air of Las Vegas itself

The cameras placed in the most inconsistent places to replicate how in Vegas one minute you are at the top, and the next you are on the floor.

It takes some of the basic formulas that were found in ​Goodfellas​ and applies them to another type of story – while ​Goodfellas​’ view was ground-level, telling the story of the blue collar gangsters of NYC, this film tells the story of the guys who controlled those guys. And it’s fascinating to watch these people run Las Vegas, control the flow of money, and then fall from the heights of power due to lust, hubris, and greed.

Interesting fact: Chain smokers in films can wreak havoc for continuity with ‘ash distances’ changing with burn rate. DeNiro combats that by always holding his cigarette at the same distance away from the ash – rather than the butt – making it seem like it is always in the same place.

Tuesday

Babel​, dir. Alejandro G. Inarritu, 2006

Three interlocked stories, in three different countries, with three entirely different casts – ​Babel w​ as the keystone of Mexican director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s ‘Death Trilogy’. The first, ​Amores perros,​ explored Mexican society in the first experiments with linking narratives. The second, ​21 Grams​, was a mosaic-like film where for most of it you are unsure of how these disparate scenes – until the last few minutes where the shambolic narrative finally concatenates up into one, linear story.

All leads in this film are treated as flawed but loving entities unaware of the pain that a series of unfortunate events can entrain. The motivations of the characters are all shown very carefully, Brad Pitt’s character behaves like a brash American in one sense, and a man terrified of losing his wife in another. He is insulting, sometimes without realising, to his generous hosts.

The children’s Mexican nanny loves them, and takes them to her son’s wedding in Mexico BECAUSE she loves them, not in spite of it. She thinks it is safe – as it should be. Gael Garcia Bernal is threatening as ever – but (like in all of AGIs films) we understand his actions. He drives the children and nanny back over the border after the wedding – generously – and is inebriated – such things have been known to happen at a cousin’s wedding. The police at the border rightly question the passengers – two unknowns with children who are not theirs crossing the border after midnight. In this small instance – something that would usually be vilified on film (border control agents – especially on the US-Mexico border) – are treated fairly.

Ebert begins his review with a quote from George Bernard Shaw: ‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language.’ I think this film poo-poos that – in Japan, Morocco, Mexico, and America – our pain or love is much more similar than we imagine.

Wednesday

Departures​, dir. Yōjirō Takita, 2008

The less said about this film the better. The word ‘moving’ is a word you’re taught at school to not touch with an Amazonian bargepole – but if there’s one time for it; it’s now. Here goes: this is the most moving movie I’ve ever seen.
Thursday

Punch-Drunk Love,​ dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002

This was my first foray into the oeuvre of Paul Thomas Anderson – which I’d been told was entirely different from all his other work (which didn’t make a difference since I hadn’t seen any of it.)

I have to admit, after the last few days I was not in the mood for something shocking, or gut punching, or pretentious, or precious, or avant-garde (which is French for bullshit), or even particularly stimulating. So it’s a good thing I sparked one up and put on ​Punch-Drunk Love ​- a completely hypnotic romantic-drama.

It’s hypnotic both in the way it is filmed and edited (anyone who’s seen​ Uncut Gems​ can see how much the visual style here inspired the Safdie Bros), and in the way it’s acted and written. Events unfold bit by bit, there are rarely large time or place jumps (and when there are they are utilised fully). Adam Sandler guides this chaotic, semi-crumbling, sex-line-calling, bipolar role through a transition to confidence and surety. This happens when he draws a sort of invisible inner power from the well of the woman (Emily Watson) he has just met. There is something so beautiful in watching him knock out four brothers who previously terrorised him, with this emotional electricity he now possesses. The scene in Utah with Philip Seymour Hoffman is gold – power dynamics cresting and crashing like the waves in Hawaii a couple of scenes before. I wish I could link it here.

The final thing to mention is the soundtrack – by Jon Brion. Rather than scoring the film after rough footage had been shot, Brion made compositions while making the film. During the scoring process,

Brion would experiment with tones and sounds, making note of what Anderson would respond to. Anderson himself would create the vocal tempos he would envision in the score and use them on set – to the extent of inspiring the pace of Sandler’s performance.

The situation with Sandler duct taping the harmonium mirrors the real life experience of Brion, who before going on tour had found an abandoned one, and taped over the hole to use it.

P.S. This is the first time I’ve thought of Hawaii as this beautiful island that has been turned into a strange, fake American playground – only a flight away from LA. It’s all a bit weird this modern US colonialism.

Friday (non-Great)

Macbeth​, dir. Justin Kurzel, 2015

This skeletal version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is shockingly good. Macbeth has historically been a play used for directors to show their cinematic mastery, with Kurosawa and Polanski both dipping their hands in for completely different versions. This one stays faithful to the time and language – less so to the script.

It opens on Macbeth and his wife, magnetically played by Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, oozing emotion at the funeral pyre of a child – presumably theirs. This opening, posing their vulnerability before we see their strength, is an interesting one, and sets the tone for the entire film. People who have nothing to lose are the most terrifying. Shakespeare’s most famous couple, who have inspired virtually all unhealthy, power-hungry husband and wife dynamics since then (like Frank and Clare Underwood) begin weak, and with their new-found power, are confused.

Macbeth’s condition becomes progressively worse – whilst his Lady switches from manipulative to regretful to murderous in the length of a few short verses. There is a sleepwalking scene around halfway through the film that is a balance of haunting and sad I haven’t seen in a while.

Macbeth is a well known story of ambition and tyranny but what I was looking for in Justin Kurzel’s interpretation was a connection that an uneducated sloth like myself could get from a tale that had had four hundred years of retelling, as well as cursing countless theatrical productions.

The script is bare – gone are the ‘double, double, toil’ etc. – this is Shakespeare basics. The grit of human emotion and nothing else. The real hero here must be Adam Arkapaw – the cinematographer (True Detective, Assassin’s Creed) – because the only thing that may upstage the acting is the landscape, the continuously shifting, visceral Scotland that changes between reds and oranges of blood, fire and passion, and greys and greens and whites, of forests and virgin snow.

Next week, we’ll take a look at ​Down By Law (​ Jim Jarmusch), and ​Some Like It Hot ​(Billy Wilder), among others.

Rampa  They Will Be