Tuesday, January 15, 2013

some Overlooked a/v: NOTHING PERSONAL (2009 feature), ONE MORE TRAIN TO ROB, several podcasts, etc.

Nothing Personal, the first feature by Polish-born Dutch writer/director Urszula Antoniak, seems to encourage people to project upon it, filling in details that are not actually provided nor really necessary to enjoy this beautifully-shot, if dramatically somewhat slight, film. It begins with Anne (Lotte Verbeek) watching from (presumably) her emptied (Amsterdam?) apartment as various folk go through her household possessions out on the street below; divorced, widowed or merely leaving (various sources assume one or another of these, though the film doesn't confirm any), she pulls a wedding ring from her finger as she leaves the empty apartment. We next see her hiking/hitchhiking down what turn out to be coastal highways in Ireland, stopping at a picnic spot to retrieve a sandwich from the garbage, to the discomfort of an Irish family at a nearby table. She somewhat brusquely greets them and asks them for a lift, in English that sounds slightly Irish- as well as Dutch-accented (later, she will speak a few phrases in Gaelic); the mother of the family refuses, given their children. Anne takes this in stride, and gets a lift from a truck-driver who eventually begins to unzip his fly, causing her to throw her backpack out of the truck and take a dive after it; when he stops, shouting at her, she simply wordlessly shouts back at him till he leaves, flustered. And, not long after, she spots a little house nestled on a peninsula, from which a small motorboat is leaving...and she wanders down, breaks in, and makes herself briefly at home, rearranging the hanging coffee mugs in the kitchen so that they all face the same way, and rolling around in the large bed naked, careful to leave it after a night's sleep much the way she found it except for a long red hair from her head nestled among the sheets. 

This turns out to be the home of Martin (Stephen Rea), a widowed man of not quite apparent occupation, though he might be primarily a lobsterman, as he has a few traps near his house, and goes off for daylong trips or so perhaps to check and harvest more distant snares. He returns to his house to find Anne sitting on a bench outside; she snarls at him when he asks her name, and in sudden anger he kicks the bench hard enough to knock her off it, suggesting she needn't be so rude. That bit of pleasantry aside, they soon fall into a mutual agreement, that he'll feed her if she helps him with his garden. A garden full of vegetables that must be very tolerant of salt not only from the sea air, but from the masses of seaweed he uses as mulch, which the film takes special care to display being shifted about by Anne's hands. Since neither party is as much a conversationalist as a music lover and reader, they agree to have a relation in which they ask Nothing Personal of each other, nor tell...whether it be personal history nor emotional support. But Martin can't abide Anne's living out of her tent on a patch of his fields for long, and installs her in a guest room in his house; he also seems to be afflicted by something that at first looks like it might be simple drunkenness, but quickly is revealed to be an unspecified medical condition, controlled to some extent by prescription drugs, but which could kill him. After their first breakthroughs in cooking for each other and beginning to chat each other up at meals, he asks her to watch over him one night, for fear that he might die. She agrees...they spend the night in bed together, but it is purposefully left vague whether they engaged in actual sexual activity at any time during the night.

The film continues, thus, often wittily and always picturesquely limning their ever-more intimate relation, as they have a night on the small town nearby and continue to grow more domestic...and they learn about each other, both breaching the other's trust a bit in doing so. (The film has chapter headings that work in theoretically reverse chronological order in relation to the events portrayed, so that their first meeting occurs in the chapter entitled "The End of the Affair.")

***[Climactic events described below; though plot is not the strength of this film.]

After a brief incident that leaves her slightly frightened of him, and him apparently a bit disturbed at his own aggression toward her, they approach the likelihood of a long-term romantic and sexual affair, at which point he somehow (overdose? underdose?) commits a quiet suicide, leaving his house and possessions to her with a note that he'd made it all legal before offing himself. She then takes her leave, and checks in to a Spanish hotel in the closing scene, alone again. 

Meanwhile, One More Train to Rob is not nearly an allusive, mostly two-person drama, but instead a very boldly-stated, at times overstated, large (and impressive) cast going about various sorts of frequently illegitimate business in Gold Rush California. A crew of ambitious and devious train robbers (led by George Peppard's Harker Fleet and to some extent by John Vernon's Timothy X. Nolan and Diana Muldaur's Katy) have made an impressive haul, only to have Fleet caught off-guard by a young woman claiming he'd impregnated her, and her two brothers ready to make sure Fleet marries her. This leads to Fleet almost inadvertently assaulting a police officer, and sentenced to a chain gang for three years...of which he serves slightly less for good behavior. On his way back to the town where Katy, his girlfriend, and Nolan are likely to have his share of the proceeds stashed away, Fleet comes across deputies from the town attempting to steal gold from a Chinese immigrant Tong mining camp; Fleet helps the Chinese miners foil the robbery and a kidnap attempt, and with them takes the deputies into town under citizens' arrest; this attracts considerable attention from the townsfolk, including a young woman prostitute, Ah Toy (France Nuyen), who seems startled to see the Chinese men in town, and the utterly unappreciative sheriff. It turns out that Nolan and Katy have wed, and are the town's aristocracy now, employing among others the brother of one of the arrested deputies. Fleet determines that Nolan engineered his confrontation with the brothers and the lawman that led to his chain-gang sentence, and does his best to figure a method of revenge against Nolan that might get Katy back...and finds that making common cause with the Chinese miners while pretending to betray them for Nolan's benefit (and getting Ah Toy out of the prostitution contract she sold herself into with her madam, Marie Windsor, to finance her family's return to China some months before) are means to that end.

This 1971 release, written by William Roberts, Don Tait and Dick Nelson and directed by journeyman Andrew McLaglen, is a curious mix of elements, beyond its impressive cast. Early on, particularly, some of the humor involved in the robbery caper, and the events around it, is almost childishly broad, but that's leavened with a knowing concern with the uglier aspects of life as the characters live it, treating with racism, rigid social roles, and petty thuggishness in a relatively unblinking way. I saw it on Encore Western, with an almost "standard" "windowbox" 4:3 aspect ratio, and it didn't look too cropped, if at all, suggesting it was made with television showings in mind, even though it was given a theatrical release. Certainly the Chinese-American characters are portrayed in a positive light, without making them into plaster saints; the sexual components to the principals' interaction isn't slighted nor even oversimplified, once past the opening attempts at easy jokes, and even the strained camaraderie between Fleet and Nolan is given some depth.

And what makes these two rather good, not quite excellent films an interesting contrast is the degree to which they embody the yearnings of a lot of women and of men, in ways that are not so very often laid out thus. Anne, in Nothing Personal, seeks to be a free agent, unencumbered by her previous life or anything else, if she can help it...she's a pretty young woman, but also autonomous and proudly so, not about to take guff from anyone, ready to make her way on her own or in as equal a partnership as possible with a compatible spirit...and when she finds such a spirit, she's both willing to make a life with him, or not, as he chooses (it doesn't hurt, from the point of view of the identifying audience, that she could enchant a man and also have done so with one willing to sacrifice for her benefit). Ultimately, she remains her own woman, not caught in the interconnections that stereotypically define a woman's role in nearly every society, even more than they do a man's. Meanwhile, in One More Train, both Nolan from the outset and eventually Fleet see that what will bring them contentment is not the itinerant life of confidence trickstering and related sorts of theft, but settling down and establishing domestic and communal roots, taking a permanent place in society...something the Chinese men, and Ah Toy, are also striving to achieve. While the latter story is a bit more common than the former, particularly in film neither is the usual trend, where men are questing and women are nesting, entirely too often. 

Janet Varney and Alison Rosen
Ophira Eisenberg
Adding to the long (and still reasonably accurate) list of (mostly comic) podcasts and radio series I listen to, I'll slip in a citation here for Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend, the personal podcast of collaborator on, and news anchor for, the Adam Carolla series, Alison Rosen. I first heard Rosen in conversation with comedian, actor, HuffPostLive newschat anchor and comedy festival organizer Janet Varney, who has a podcast, The JV Club,  on the Nerdist network, devoted to quizzing women who've met at least some of their lofty goals...about how they managed to do just that, and how they managed to survive their teen years and young adulthood to do so. And NPR decided they wanted another comedy quiz show--hey, if the BBC can have several--so added the rather charming and certainly geekish Ask Me Another with Ophira Eisenberg as host to their lineup. Worth a listen. 


Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, thanks very much for the link and the poster display. Your review of NOTHING PERSONAL reminds me that I should watch more foreign films, as I have been meaning to at the various film festivals being hosted by country consulates in Mumbai. The French and German consulates are active in this area.

pattinase (abbott) said...

NOTHING PERSONAL sounds very good. I will check for it at my library when I get back.

Todd Mason said...

There are definitely certain cultural advantages to life in certain cities, Prashant! And thank you.

NOTHING PERSONAL is a good film, Patti, though not quite an excellent one, as I suggest (and one a bit more fully-realized than the older western, which itself isn't too shabby). The withholding of vital bits of information is a bit overdone, as is the resolution, but the leads are pretty charming as much as and when they choose to be. Inasmuch as it's the second film from the last three years called NOTHING PERSONAL I've reviewed in this roundelay, I think that's a film title that might need retirement, much like X, but it's notable how many rather good films are popping up of late, such as this one, on Showtime W, their artier answer to Lifetime Movie Channel.

Ron Scheer said...

I really enjoy watching Stephen Rea in films. I think he'd be very good in the film you described, where much is conveyed without words. Just saw him in an episode of SINGLE-HANDED, an Irish cop drama. He plays the adult survivor of a brutal boys school and just breaks your heart. Thanks for posting the pic from THE CORNER. Two fine actors there, too.

Todd Mason said...

The cast is pretty uniformly good in NOTHING PERSONAL, Ron. I wonder if I overestimate the obscurity of ONE LAST TRAIN TO ROB...and, indeed, I am a fan of THE CORNER and particularly have enjoyed Khandi Alexander's work since at least NEWSRADIO as I've come across it...she wisely ducked out of CSI MIAMI early on...