Monday, October 30, 2006

"The Ghost of Mae Nak"

The legend of Mae Nak’s ghost has served as the basis for films in Thailand 20 times, and this ghost story seems to be as popular there as the one about the vanishing hitchhiker is in America.

The latest incarnation of the Thai tale comes via the 2005 film “The Ghost of Mae Nak,” in which a pair of young newlyweds finds the early days of their marriage disrupted by a vengeful spirit.

Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) loves Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong), and vice versa. They chant this refrain to each other frequently, but it doesn’t play as cutesy as it sounds like it would because they really seem to mean it. The film tends to play just a notch or two beyond the point of reality for western viewers—reactions are a little too big and some of the dialogue seems to be delivered too broadly, but this may be the norm in Thai cinema, as it is in Bollywood films.

We meet the two a week before their wedding. They’ve seen an ad in the newspaper for a house for sale and they meet with the real estate agent, Mr. Angel (Meesak Nakarat), who tells them the house is over 100 years old. The lovers like and trust Mr. Angel, but then they trust their lawyer, too. Obviously, folks in Bangkok are a little different than we are in this country.

As they inspect the house, Mak has a brief but frightening encounter with what is surely a ghost. Her appearance is preceded by the sound of a breathy sigh, like Joan Jett singing “Crimson and Clover.” Worse yet, Mak’s been having nightmares about this same vaporous woman. The waking sight of her unnerves him, but not to the point of disappointing Nak, who really wants to buy the place.

They buy it, fix it up, and move in.

After the wedding takes place, eerie visitations and frightening nightmares increase, but now Nak is experiencing them as well. She hears the name “Mae Nak” and mentions it to her grandmother. Granny tells her Mae Nak’s back story.

Around 100 years ago, a couple who loved each other very much married. Their names were Mak and Nak. Mak went away to war and was seriously wounded. Some monks nursed him back to health and he returned to his home. While he was gone, Nak (Porntip Papanai) gave birth to their child. They were happy together, but Mak couldn’t understand why his old friends avoided visiting with him at home.

I’ve probably already told you too much, so I’ll only say from this point on in the film writer/director Mark Duffield picks up the pace considerably as the ghost woman goes after everyone in the modern couple’s life who does anything to come between them. Duffield even tosses in a couple a gruesome death scenes that should bring a cold smile to the lips of even the most jaded western gorehounds.

There’s a nice scene in an operating room that is at once both surprising and silly, but it works because we’ve become used to the slightly overwrought feel of the entire film. I could do without the head-beating of having both sets of lovers bear the same names, but the film isn’t going for subtlety.

There are no overwhelming scares in the movie, but there is a building tension. If the first half of the picture intrigues with its moments of everyday life in an exotic setting, the second half ladles on a creepy disquiet that culminates in a kick ass ending you won’t see coming.

“The Ghost of Mae Nak” is a nifty ghost story that may burrow deepest under the skin of people who think that ghosts, and ghost stories, are silly. It asks, along with Poe, “Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?” and answers, “I’ll let you know when I wake up. If I wake up.”

Friday, October 27, 2006

"We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes": Happy Halloween From Our Motel to Yours

Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read, assuming that you don’t hate pieces that begin “Here’s the thing about what you’re about to read” and go on to something else instead. This is where I tell you that something you know about PSYCHO is dead wrong. I’m writing it, but I don’t know if I believe it or not.

Well, hell, it’s Halloween and if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween, when can you? Oh yeah, St. Patrick’s Day. Okay, if you can’t make a complete fool of yourself at Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, when can you?

Here’s the bit of revealed wisdom about PSYCHO, and I mean revealed repeatedly, in just about every critical essay ever written about the film: the least involving, most boring, most unnecessary scene in the entire movie is the penultimate one in which Simon Oakland, as psychiatrist Dr. Fred Richmond (you never knew the character had a name, did you?) tells the cops, Lila, and Sam that all is not well with Norman’s inner child.

Wait a minute—you have seen the film, haven’t you? If not, don’t read further, even if you can’t resist pieces in which the fourth paragraph admonishes you “don’t read further.” Beyond this point are spoilers. And I promise that I won’t use that gag again, the one in which I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning, even if you tell me that you love it when I repeat at the end of the sentence what I wrote at the beginning.

Anyway, that scene in the movie is universally reviled as being unnecessary because it spells out in agonizing detail what the audience has already figured out, i.e., that Norman is a member-for-life of the Ed Gein Fan Club.

But I would like to suggest that in 1960, when the film was new and the world was still able to keep the mask of sanity in place, audiences may not have known as much about what ailed the kid as we do now, and that we know more about it today because Norman introduced us on a pop culture level to this type and degree of mental aberration. Putting oneself into the mind set of obviously historical characters is hard enough and yet still easier, in some ways, than recapturing the thinking of characters who were contemporary when the film was made but have retreated into history since. Norman looks, talks, and acts enough like us now that we see him as a 21st. century man, but he is far from that.

Okay, now we come to my particular hobby horse, the theory that appeals to me greatly while at the same time lacking in rational believability. For this it’s best that you watch the scene, but I’ll try to describe the relevant action.

Richmond enters the room in which his audience is gathered. He comes in from the left and crosses to a central position in the room. Over his right shoulder we see a picture on the wall and, above that, a light fixture. The fixture has two prongs for the light bulbs, reaching out to left and right from a sort of metal centerpiece.

Oakland doesn’t move around much because Richmond wants to remain in the center of our, and his listeners’ attention. He occasionally takes a step or two toward the camera to speak directly to Lila (Vera Miles) or to react to something Sam (John Gavin) says, but before he returns to his original spot in the room, he moves a little closer to the light, allowing us to see more of it. Then he will take a step toward us and resume talking.

His explanation of Norman’s peculiarities is loaded with psychobabble, but whenever he has a point to make that he thinks is particularly telling—“So he began to think and speak for her,” “After the murder, Norman returned as if from a deep sleep,” “These were crimes of passion, not profit”—the lamp on the wall appears directly over his head, sometimes even forming glowing horns.

Here’s what I see: a cartoon in which someone is expounding an idea he thinks explains the ways of the world, with a light bulb coming on over his head to let us know how bright he thinks he is.

It’s as if Hitchcock, whose earliest job in films was providing illustrations to adorn the dialogue title cards in silent movies, is winking at us, letting us know that he thinks all this psychiatric gobble-de-gook is just whistling in the graveyard to hide our fear of the boogie man.

As Richmond snaps a cigarette out of a pack to light up and take a bow, Hitch cuts to the outside of the room and follows a policeman carrying down the hall a blanket for the chilled Norman. We cut to the inside of the room where Norman, as Mother, sits before a blank wall. As Richmond delivered his monologue in front of a wall with a couple of items on it—one of which served to ridicule everything he had to say—Mother delivers her monologue in front of a wall that is blank, as empty as a serial killer’s conscience, as spotless as a freshly cleaned bath tub.

There it is. Do I really believe Hitchcock intended the scene with the doctor to be read this way? I wish, but no. I think it’s there to explain to the unworldly what the hell has been going on. But do I think Hitch was aware of the cartoon cliché regarding the light bulb over the head? Sure I do. Maybe he set and blocked the scene the way he did because unconsciously he wanted to suggest that Dr. Richmond was just too content living in his jargon of earthly delights.

You can’t have too many ways of looking at a film as rich as PSYCHO. And it is Halloween. Trick or treat.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"Lady Vengeance"

What in American hands would probably be a “B” exploitation thriller becomes from South Korea’s Park Chan-wook a beautifully filmed story of redemption through violence.

“Lady Vengeance” concludes Park’s Vengeance Trilogy, films tied together not by narrative or character connection, but by their explorations of revenge and what extracting it does to everyone concerned. In the first film, “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” the revenger pays a terrible price for trying to find some degree of emotional satisfaction. In the second film, “Oldboy,” it’s the victim of the revenge plot who pays most decidedly.

In this final installment, “Lady Vengeance,” retribution may at last bring some peace, if a horrible peace it is, to the people whose lives have been devastated by continuing acts of evil.

We first see Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) as she leaves prison after serving 13 years for the kidnapping and murder of a child. The crimes were committed when Geum-ja was just 19.

Her story is revealed in the non-linear way that is so popular with filmmakers now. As she pursues her course of vengeance against the monstrous school teacher Mr. Baek (Min-sik Choi, whose terrifying performance in “Oldboy” is impossible to get out of the mind), Park cuts back to snippets of Geum-ja’s life in prison as she makes friends with the weak and becomes known as the “kind Ms. Geum-ja.”

But Park and co-screenwriter Seo-Gyeong Jeong begin playing with our heads early. Geum-ja is only kind to fellow inmates she plans to use later. The bullies that oppress them are dispatched with the same lack of conscience she will call on later.

There would be no vengeance to extract if Geum-ja, now wearing red eye liner and clothing to hide the gentleness others see in her, had really committed the crimes for which she was imprisoned, and although we quickly learn that she was innocent, it takes a while for us to find out why she confessed. That’s part of the need for revenge.

After you’ve begun piecing the narrative together it is all easy enough to understand. Even Geum-ja’s motivation, which at first seems so simple, becomes more twisted before it finally evolves into a clarity and is both inevitable and perfect.

And speaking of perfection, no other word comes as close to describing Lee Young-ae’s performance. Every facial expression, some of which are tellingly blank, and every body movement tells us a little more about this woman. In a matter of seconds she can transform from a modest girl to a killer, switch from a hard-boiled woman with something serious on her mind to a nearly-campy actress who wants to wink at the camera. It’s a chilling and, by film’s end, heartbreaking performance.

Cinematographer Jeong-hun Jeong makes the Korean cities and landscapes look like killing grounds of the mind, covered in leaves or snow grass or asphalt, but always shot with the pristine framing of a travel magazine.

Park ties all this up in a package that is sometimes creepy, often sad or black humored, but always completely convincing.

The emotional content of “Lady Vengeance” isn’t as noisily melodramatic as that of “Oldboy,” but is the more satisfying for that. It’s much easier to identify with the protagonist of “Lady Vengeance.” You may wish you didn’t have to, but I suspect in some ways you will.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Half Nelson," dir. Ryan Fleck (Oklahoma Gazette)

Head of the Class

Genuine surprise is no small feat for a movie, particularly when the picture in question deals with an inspirational schoolteacher and at-risk children. It might sound like familiar stuff, but “Half Nelson” is an extraordinary achievement -- a film that subverts cliché in its meaty tale of drug addiction, life decisions and the competing impulses that drive us all. One of the year’s best movies, “Half Nelson” will screen Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s Noble Theater.

Ryan Gosling gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Dan Dunne, a history teacher and girls’ basketball coach at a Brooklyn middle school. Smart and roguishly charming, Dan strays from textbooks to bring history alive for his students, most of whom are African American and Latino. History, he tells them, is an eternal consequence of opposing forces, a never-ending struggle that spurs constant change.

Dan’s own struggle manifests itself at night, as he feeds a crack addiction that leads him through New York’s drug-infested underbelly. He is eventually found out by one of his students, a 13-year-old girl named Drey (Shareeka Epps), who happens upon the crack-addled Mr. Dunne in the girls’ locker room. The encounter develops into a curious friendship. For Drey, a latchkey kid whose older brother is in prison, the teacher’s habit is disappointing, if not shocking. Dan lamely tries to fill the role of the girl’s mentor -- even if he doesn’t seem particularly suited for it -- and he warns her to steer clear of Frank (Anthony Mackie) a drug dealer who is friends with Drey’s family.

Part of the brilliance of “Half Nelson” is how director Ryan Fleck, who co-wrote it with Anna Boden, consistently defies audience expectation. It would have been easy to serve up yet another story of an inspiring teacher and ghetto children, and it would have been nearly as tempting to make Dan a flawed man saved by a young girl’s life-affirming grace.

But the film avoids either route. “Half Nelson” doesn’t trouble itself with the root causes of Dan’s addiction or hinting at a salvation that viewers hope will arrive. Like Drey and Frank, Dan pulsates with the complexities of life. And yet in spite of the often-brooding universe these characters inhabit, the film’s humanity and understanding spur its own sort of uplift.

The filmmaking is self-assured and respectful of its audience. Boasting documentary style, “Half Nelson” employs a narrative that feels elliptical. Director Fleck does not always spell out the characters’ actions -- much less their motivations -- but rather he allows their truths to unfold with a seemingly uncalculated randomness.

Ultimately, a movie as subtle and sharply observed as “Half Nelson” stands or falls with its acting. No sweat. Mackie is sheer charisma as Frank, and newcomer Epps is terrific as Drey, conveying a fierce intelligence in the most subtle of expressions. Both are excellent, but in the end this is Ryan Gosling’s movie. In a commanding and nuanced performance, he proves himself to be among the most promising great actors of his generation.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The "A" List - White Heat (

Every so often I'll glance back at films of which I never tire, films that are to me must-sees. Let me start with my all time favorite.

Although he considered it just another throw-away gangster movie, James Cagney put everything he’d learned about acting into his performance in “White Heat”. If you’ve ever seen anything else like it in an American film, you must have been watching a movie made after 1949. “White Heat” is a black comedy for the ages.

By the time he made “White Heat,” James Cagney (1899-1986) was fifty years old and was sicker than ever of gangster and tough guy roles. He’d begged his home studio, Warner Brothers, for a greater variety of characters to play (they gave him a few—Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” zany screenwriter Robert Law in “Boy Meets Girl,” and hoofer Chester Kent in “Footlight Parade), but he’d washed his hands of Warners and walked away from his contract twice, the latest time being in 1943.

Working as an independent producer, he made four films between ’43 and ’48. None of them are spectacular, but three of them are worth watching. Avoid “The Time of Your Life.”

So by 1949, Cagney was back at Warners with a new contract in hand and a commitment to make yet another gangster movie.

He liked to hang out with the writers and the story is that he dropped by the office of scripters Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, stretched out on the couch and asked, “Okay fellas, what’s it gonna be this time?”

Goff and Roberts, working from an original screen story by Virginia Kellogg and borrowing mobster lore from the careers of Ma Barker and her brood, fashioned Cody Jarrett, easily the most brutal gang leader in Cagney’s repertoire since Tom Powers in “The Public Enemy” (1931). And Cagney, thinking that the entire enterprise was nothing but a pumped up “B” movie, added some touches of his own to the character. The result is the most stunning performance of Cagney’s career and a screen villain that still has the power to make jaws drop open over 50 years later.

The opening sequence gives us the Jarrett gang holding up a train. Cody is not a big city gangster, but an outlaw of the open road. Criminal gangs had moved to the Heartland during the Depression. Think John Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde. During the robbery, a member of the gang slips up and calls Cody by name, necessitating the cold blooded murder of the engineer and fireman. No time is wasted in letting us know that Jarrett is no decent guy forced into a life of crime, a la Eddie Bartlett in “The Roaring Twenties.” Jarrett has “thug” written all over him.

Cody travels with his “Ma” (Margaret Wycherly) and his wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). Big Ed (Steve Cochran) is the most vocal member of the gang and the only one Ma and Cody suspect wants to take over—and that includes taking over with Verna.

To avoid going to prison on the train robbery and murder raps, Cody confesses to a hotel robbery in another state that occurred at the same time as the train caper went down. The authorities know he’s guilty of the more serious offenses, but they can’t prove anything. Hoping that Jarrett will let some self-incriminating word slip, they plant an undercover agent named Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) in his cell. Fallon insinuates himself into Cody’s good graces, and when Jarrett breaks out he takes the spy with him.

On the outside, Big Ed has killed Ma Jarrett and taken up with Verna. Cody returns to settle the score and during the climactic robbery of an oil refinery Fallon is recognized by a hood he once arrested. In a fruitless bid to escape, Cody climbs a gasoline storage tank. As flames shoot up around him, Cody, wounded and hopelessly insane, shouts the Jarrett family motto to the ghost of his mother, “Made it, Ma. Top of the world!”

I know. Just looking at the plot synopsis it’s hard to see just how different the character of Cody Jarrett is from Cagney’s earlier mobsters. He’s more savage, and we get the feeling that even if he were not involved in crime, he’d still be a sadistic brute.

The surprises on screen come from a post-war atmosphere of despair—“White Heat” isn’t purely film noir but it’s frequently cited with films noir—from Cagney’s disgust at being given what he saw as the same old same old, and from director Raoul Walsh’s willingness to go along with his star’s crazy ideas for character development.

Cagney decided that if Jarrett was supposed to be crazy, by God, let’s make him crazy. He snarls, he growls, he pounds his forehead with his palms as he drops down with debilitating headaches. (To gain Ma’s attention when he was young, he pretended to have skull-splitting migraines, and as an adult the fantasy has become real.)

One of the film’s four unforgettable moments comes with the first headache. Out of reach of the law in a mountain hideout, Cody’s head begins to throb. He goes into the bedroom so the rest of the gang won’t see him in his weakened condition (Ma’s suggestion). As the pain recedes, Jarrett sits on Ma’s lap as she rests in a rocking chair.

It’s momentarily difficult for the audience to accept what it’s seeing. A 50-year old man, beginning to grow stout, sitting on his mother’s lap with his arm around her shoulders. What’s the reaction? Do you wince at the infantile pitifulness of the character or celebrate at the audacity of the actor?

Cagney later wrote that he didn’t tell Margaret Wycherly what he intended to do. Cinematographer Sid Hickox knew, as did Walsh, who approved. I don’t know what audiences in 1949 thought they were seeing, but I think it was the first step on the road to Norman Bates.

Another of the great moments comes in the prison mess hall when Cody first learns that Ma Jarrett is dead. Again, Cagney didn’t tell anyone but Walsh what he intended to do. He just asked that the biggest extras be dressed as prison guards and situated at the end of the dining table. Then, on having the bad news whispered in his ear, Cody emits an agonized, feral wail. He grabs the shirts of the men near him. He crawls up on the table and rushes toward the guards, kicking plates and bowels onto the floor. He leaps onto the guards and begins thrashing around like a starving coyote in a hen house. They carry him out of the room as he howls, “I gotta get outa here!” over and over again.

Sometimes when I watch this scene, I laugh. Sometimes I’m scared shitless.

My favorite Cagney moment comes after the prison break when the gang is leaving its hideout. A prison rat who tried to kill Cody at Big Ed’s behest has been brought along in the trunk of Jarrett’s car. The script called for Cody to shoot the man through the trunk lid, but that wasn’t macabre enough for the star.

On the day the scene was shot, Cagney had seen one of the crew members gnoshing some fried chicken for lunch. Cagney asked the man if he had a drumstick and, if so, could he have it. The fella was willing to oblige one of the nicest and most decent actors in the business, so Cagney got his drumstick. He saved it for the cameras and is seen nonchalantly gnawing away on the meat as he blasts a man’s life away.

The final scene, with Jarrett atop the gasoline storage tank, is the film’s most celebrated. It’s the culmination of the lead character’s rampaging insanity. There’s hardly anything human left in Cody Jarrett as he laughs hysterically and rushes doom so he can be with Ma once again.

But behind Cagney’s last bravura moment in the picture is Walsh’s genius in setting the scene on top of the tank—one that is round, like a globe. A murderous madman stands “on top of the world” as it is engulfed in an inferno of apocalyptic proportions. The atomic bomb imagery couldn’t have been lost on the post-war audience.

Do I sound like a fan of “White Heat”? Uh, yeah. It’s my favorite film and I never tire of it. Cagney’s performance provides the greatest delight for me. I know I haven’t mentioned those of any of the rest of the cast, and I don’t mean to disparage them, but if they are solid and believable, that of the star is astonishing. If you want to see a brilliant example of what can happen when script, direction and acting merge perfectly, this is it, Ma. Top of the world!