Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Irina Palm, Sam Grabarski, Belgium/ Luxemburg/ UK/ Germany/ France 2007

Irina Palm tells the story of a grandmother, Maggie, played by Marianne Faithful, whose grandson, Ollie, is terminally ill. Determined to scrape the money together that could safe Ollie's life, Maggie finds work as a sex-worker in SoHo under the alias Irina Palm, a name given to her by her boss as Maggie/ Irina turns out to have a particular good hand for ... errrrrr, well - hand-jobs.

So far, so good. Grabarski's film sure has a promising premise, to say the least, especially given the current economic climate which makes topics like these all the more relevant. What a pity then, that Grabarski has wasted most of the potential his film's central theme offered by turning Irina Palm into an exercise in conventional film-making that puts even the most predictable of mainstream Hollywood fare to shame. If it weren't for Maggie's unusual job, we might as well be seeing a classic Hollywood melodrama as Irina Palm comes with all the trappings of films like Stella Dallas or Terms of Endearment and so on. First of all, the fact that Maggie lives in suburbia, where she is friends with a particular square and narrow-minded set of housewives from whom she keeps her work a secret, makes her job even more scandalous. Yet, it is clear from the first that eventually, her friends will get wise. However, true to form, their comeuppance is as predictable as Maggie's revenge on them when Maggie reveals - in front of all customers in her local shop - that she knew that one of them used to have an affair with Maggie's dead husband who told her - on his deathbed, no less - that she liked to get spanked. On the same token, the first time Maggie lied eyes on her new boss, we know that the two will eventually end up being lovers. Next to no twists or turns in the film's narrative come as any surprise as they're all, say, vintage MGM at its most predictable.

If it weren't for the fact that Maggie works as a hand-job-giver.

However, instead of using that to make a statement about the situation, the problems, of the disenfranchised and disadvantaged, Grabarski and his fellow-screenwriters merely use it to shock effect, to provoke, to grab attention, thus wasting a topic with enormous potential. What's shocking is not what Maggie does for a living - what's shocking is that she has to do it to save her grandson's life.

Irina Palm is out on DVD.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Lantana, Ray Lawrence, Australia/ Germany 2001

Lantana denotes a noxious weed native to tropical areas in the Americas and Australia. As such, it serves as an apt metaphor for the dysfunctional relationships and the distrust, suspicion and lies that come with it, which, in a nutshell, is what Lantana, the film, is all about. Seen differently, Lantana is about trust - or the absence of it - and its requirement as the basis of all relationships. This makes Barbara Hershey, who plays the psychologist Dr. Valerie Somers, Lantana's central figure, even though hers is by no means the leading role. But it is Valerie, who in a lecture she is giving emphasises the importance of trust and its lack of it in many relationships. And indeed, it is trust that is missing in all but one of the relationships we see in Lantana. Yet, it appears that more than anything else, Valerie bemoans her very own inability to trust. And in the end, it is not a serial killer or a car accident that brings her down, but this, her inability to trust which results in fear - as it often does - eventually leading to her downfall.

Based on a play by Andrew Bovell, Lantana is a subtle, densely woven pyschological drama set in an unnamed Australian town. The film dissects several - and as the viewer is to find out - intertwined individual relationships by first pointing to the problems in them before highlighting their intricacies and underscoring what holds them together. Naturally, Lantana is rampant with dishonesty and deception, however, one of the most extraordinary things about Lantana is that Lawrence never passes judgement on any of the characters. Far from polarising, Lantana moves entirely in an area of various shades of grey, making clear that in human relationships few things are ever just black or white while mostly, they're a complex maze. While this may be a truism, in most films the two-timer is usually considered the guilty party while the woman who is the object of a married man's attraction is generally portrayed as a marriage wrecker, or worse, a desperate lunatic (Think 'Fatal Attraction'!). Hence, few films, if any, have understood better to show the complexities of the institution of marriage, demonstrating what makes them tick but also subtly drawing our attention to why two people grew apart - even though they may still love each other.

I first saw Lantana on its European release in 2002. Having watched it a second time just a few days ago, I still found it to be as engrossing and absorbing as I did then, and to once more evoke 'Woolf' and 'Scenes', Lantana seems equally timeless as Nichols' and Bergman's film - like those two, it's a modern classic.

Lantana is out on DVD.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Jacob's Ladder, Adrian Lyne, USA 1990

When Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder first came out twenty years ago I rather smugly gave it a miss, assuming that since it was directed by Lyne, it would be just another glossy Hollywood blockbuster peppered with a fair amount of naked flesh, a dash of violence and drenched in a manipulative, syrupy score that is characteristic for this sort of film. Now, after having finally seen Jacob's Ladder at long last, I have to admit that my assumption was not only smug, but actually wrong and therefore downright stupid.

The reason that prompted me to watch Lyne's film a full twenty years down the line, had to do with the fact that every so often Jacob's Ladder would pop up in a review, a book or an article by always being discussed either favourably or even enthusiastically. Needless to say, this made me curious.

What Jacob's Ladder has in common with Lyne's other films is that it is gripping from beginning to end. But while films like 91/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction are guilty pleasures and one is constantly aware of how Lyne manipulates and plays with the emotions of the spectator as they watch the film, in Jacob's Ladder this manipulation happens in a far subtler way. Yes, Lyne still does know which button's to push, and he especially understands perfectly how to create 'mood', atmosphere or, to use a term often associated with German Expressionist cinema, 'Stimmung'. The scene in the mental home is not just visually brilliant, it is also extremely harrowing and morbid. Moreover, It is hard to think of another film in which New York City has looked more apocalyptic, more menacing, than it does in Jacob's Ladder. David Fincher's Seven springs to mind, but of course the city in that film remains unspecified throughout. And while it seems to resemble New York, Fincher's decision to keep the city nameless was a stroke of genius and undoubtedly one of the things why Seven is so hauntingly eerie as it made the menace universal and not tied to a specific place or city. However, what Fincher appears to have picked up from Lyne was the look, for the city that is home to the despondent detectives played by Freeman and Pitt is not dissimilar to the bleak and grubby New York of Jacob Singer, who - it seems - is a Vietnam veteran and, like many of them, returned home to the US a mentally scarred person.

Jacob's Ladder as visualised by the English poet and painter William Blake

That Jacob only seems to be a Nam vet is something the spectator becomes gradually aware of as the story wears on. And the film's only flaw may well be that Lyne - most probably upon the instigation of the producers - spells this out way too explicitly at the film's end rather than keeping it subtle as he has done up to that point. It is a minor flaw, though, and one that I'm more than willing to forgive in the light of the film's overall brilliance. It is during Jacob's Ladder's last minutes that all of a sudden the film's title make total sense, at least in its biblical meaning. (The film's title is taken from The Book of Genesis, in which Jacob envisions his ascent into heaven). And it occurred to me that with Jacob's Ladder Lyne may not only have influenced David Fincher, he also anticipated films like Shymalan's The Sixth Sense, Nolan's Memento, or Amenabar's The Others. Ironically, although all of these films noticeably took their cue from Jacob's Ladder, they have enjoyed a far more positive reaction upon their first release than did Lyne's antecedent, which was a moderate critical success but a complete box office flop. This, I suppose, was because Jacob's Ladder was so unlike Lyne's previous films, and his habitual following probably felt quite disappointed and let down, expecting something rather different from the director who, two years earlier, gave them a fascinating, sexually charged, yet ultimately murderous Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. Upon closer inspection, however, the main themes of Fatal Attraction and Jacob's Ladder and indeed 91/2 Weeks are, perhaps, not that far apart after all as at the core of all three films is a character who is out of synch with reality, who is either mentally deranged or a variation thereof as, for instance in the case in Jacob's Ladder, where the main character is wildly hallucinating (while in the process of dying).

It is no exaggeration to call Adrian Lyne the quintessential 1980s director. Few other films epitomise that particular decade as well as his films of that period do. With Jacob's Ladder, though, which was released in November 1990, Lyne anticipated and influenced a whole string of films of the 1990s and early 2000s with a timeliness which in hindsight seems as eerie as the film itself.

Jacob's Ladder is out on DVD.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

City Of Angels: Final Resting Places, Part 3: Westwood Memorial Park, 1218 Glendon Avenue, Westwood

This quiet, inconspicuous little cemetery is a 'blink and you miss it' affair. Overshadowed - literally - by Wilshire Boulevard's string of high rises, the casual visitor had better know exactly how to get there as otherwise you might drive past, assuming, as I did the first time, that it had been razed like so many other places and buildings in this transient city.

Located just off Wilshire Boulevard in LA's posh Westwood neighbourhood, this small, almost intimate, cemetery is as unpretentious and unassuming as the Hollywood dignitaries that are interred here. Hence, its by-name - Memorial Park - is actually a slight exaggeration as it suggests something pompous and grand, which is precisely what this cemetery is not. Unlike Forest Lawn, there are no grand mausoleums or burial chapels to be found here. Instead, the vast majority of grave sites are simply nothing more than markers in the nevertheless well maintained lawn.

However, although small in size, Westwood Memorial Park has become the final resting place for some of Hollywood's biggest names including Natalie Wood, Burt Lancaster, Marilyn Monroe, 20th Century Fox co-founder Darryl F. Zanuck as well as Billy Wilder and his pals Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, all three of which are buried next to each other.

Friday, 16 July 2010

City Of Angels: Final Resting Places, Part 4: Woodlawn Cemetery, 1847 14th Street, Santa Monica

Even less conspicuous than Westwood Memorial Park, Woodlawn is what you could call an old school cemetery which, except for the palm tress, is bearing more resemblance to a mid-European style graveyard with tall, simple headstones rather than to one of LA's characteristic so-called Memorial Parks replete with temples, burial chapels, mausoleums, lakes and fountains.

Located in the heart of Santa Monica, this pretty, unassuming cemetery is not exactly a place for celebrity hounds, at least not for celebrities in the usual, ordinary sense. In fact, Woodlawn is more notable for having become the final resting place for some of the emigres who had fled Nazi Germany. As explained in a previous post, Santa Monica was a major emigre hub at the time, and so it is only natural that they would be buried close by.

And so one of Germany's most important 20th century poets, Lion Feuchtwanger, found his final resting place here when he died in 1958, as did his wife, Marta, who passed away 30 later, in 1988, still living in the house her and Lion had purchased back in 1942, the beautiful Villa Aurora, which following Marta's demise, was purchased by the German government which has since turned it into an artists' retreat. Also buried at Woodlawn were German poet Heinrich Mann and is wife Nelly, who committed suicide in 1944 as she could no longer bear the hardships of exile which had plunged them into misery. In 1961, however, the then East German government requested Heinrich's and Nelly's ashes to be moved to East Berlin. And so, Heinrich and Nelly were interred in Berlin's Dorotheenstaedtischer Friedhof, where they have been laid to rest in the company of fellow emigres Hanns Eisler, Herbert Marcuse, Wieland Herzfelde, Johannes Becher, Arnold Zweig, Anna Seghers as well as Bertolt Brecht and his wife Helene Weigel.

Back to Woodlawn: One of the most prominent names buried here who also figured prominently in the Hollywood emigre community of the 1940s, is actor Paul Henreid, best known for his role as Viktor Laszlo in Casablanca and as the man who made lighting two cigarettes at a time sexy in the 1942 Bette Davis tear-jerker, Now Voyager.

Lastly, Woodlawn also became the final resting place for one of the first openly gay Hollywood stars, actor William Haines, who forsook his acting career because he refused to heed Louis B. Mayer's order that he leave his long-term lover, Jimmie Shields. Subsequently, William managed to successfully establish himself as one of Hollywood's premier interior decorators with a list of clients that included Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, Marion Davies and, later, the Walter Annenbergs as well as the Ronald Reagans. William Haines and Jimmie Shields were a couple for over forty years and were laid to rest next to each here at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Monday, 12 July 2010

City Of Angels: Final Resting Places, Part 2: Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, West Hollywood

Entrance to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Santa Monica Boulevard

This beautiful 60 acre Necropolis was initially named Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery when it was opened in 1899.Conveniently located on Santa Monica Boulevard, adjacent to Paramount Studios, this vast open-air shrine has become the final resting place for many Hollywood luminaries, and unlike Forest Lawn's Glendale branch, all grave sites and mausoleums are easily accessible.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery: The Great Mausoleum and lake

Over the years the cemetery had fallen out of favour with the Hollywood crowd, and as a result, by 1998 the ground were in a sorry state of neglect and disrepair. Luckily, a young Missourian rescued the cemetery from falling apart entirely, buying it for a mere $375,000 by investing a further $3 million to repair the graves, mausoleums and the cemetery's lake. It just so happens, that the cemetery's new owner is also the producer of the only television series in history to take place in a funeral parlour - HBO's Six Feet Under.

After extensive restoration and a listing in the National Register of Historic Places, the grounds reopened as the Hollywood Forever Cemetery and it almost outshines Forest Lawn in beauty and serenity, for with its lush greenery and mausoleums which, although beautiful are never ostentatious, Hollywood Forever has achieved a rare blend between a park and a final resting place - an oasis placid enough for the dead to rest in peace and graceful enough for the casual visitor to pay homage or simply to seek some peace and quiet from the hubbub outside.

Hollywood Forever: Grave site of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.

Among the countless Hollywood luminaries who are laid to rest here are Adrian, MGM's legendary costume designer, and his wife Janet Gaynor; Tyrone Power; Peter Lorre; Rudolph Valentino; John Huston, Clifton Webb; Harry Cohn, Norma, Constance & Natalie Talmadge; Jayne Mansfield; Douglas Fairbanks Sr.; Jesse Lasky Sr. & Jr.; Paul Muni, and Victor Fleming, to name but a few.

The Hollywood sign in the Hollywood Hills as seen from the Hollywood Forever Cemetery