Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Passenger Turns 40

Released 40 years ago, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger stands as one of the director’s most accessible films, and after Blow-Up and Zabriske Point, serves as a fitting conclusion to his flirtation with English language cinema. Based on a script by Mark Peploe, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Last Emperor in 1988, on paper The Passenger resembles a fairly conventional thriller, equally suitable for Hitchcock or Lumet. But, just like Polanski had done a year earlier with Chinatown, Antonioni’s unique vision lifts the film beyond its potboiler origins and into rarefied aesthetic air.

The Passenger deals with a case of identity theft, long before such practices were common, as a disgruntled reporter (Jack Nicholson) steals the passport of a deceased colleague in hopes of disappearing from society. But as Nicholson learns more about the mysterious man behind his new identity, his reporter’s instincts kick in and soon Nicholson finds himself in the middle of a deadly ring of international arms smugglers. With an equally mysterious young beauty (Maria Schneider) in tow, Nicholson’s pursuit of the truth leads him from Saharan Africa to Germany to Spain, where the hunter ultimately becomes the hunted.

Throughout the film’s globetrotting shifts, Antonioni’s signature ability to evoke lonely atmospheres remains a constant. Whether it’s the parched landscape of Algeria or the whimsical Gaudi structures of bustling Barcelona, viewers will find the same sense of loss and alienation that pervades Antonioni’s Italian films of the 1960s. In much same way that Orson Welles transformed Touch of Evil from crude to classic in 1958, Antonioni’s flourishes bestow The Passenger with a beauty and sophistication beyond its pedigree.

Ironically, when The Passenger was conceived Schneider was a much bigger star in Europe than Nicholson, and the film’s original title, Professione: Reporter, was changed to imply the young starlet had a beefier role. Two years earlier, Maria Schneider caused a sensation when she bared her soul - and much more - in Bertolucci’s erotic masterpiece Last Tango in Paris. Nicholson had just stepped off the set of Chinatown, which was in post-production during the filming of The Passenger. As Nicholson sweated in the African sun, he had no idea of the Oscars and accolades that would greet his return. From this point on, the two actors would move in polar opposite directions, with Schneider’s blossoming career ruined by drug abuse and outrageous public behavior, while Nicholson would go on to be the most sought after talent in Hollywood.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Homesman (2014) ✭✭✭✭

Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman (2014) ✭✭✭✭ is a weirdo Western that shakes, sputters and quivers its way to a rewarding entertainment. It has a concept ripe for soapbox musings on the politics of pioneer feminism. But it never really goes there, opting instead for an adventure yarn laced with an odd sense of dizziness. The Western has proven over the years to be a highly pliant genre, equally suitable for singing cowboys, breathless shoot’em ups or eccentric existentialism. The Homesman has moments that run this gamut of narrative styles and possibilities, making it a difficult film to pigeonhole and categorize.

Parts of it are also difficult to take seriously, as the script requires us to believe that Hillary Swank’s Mary Bee Cuddy, a successful lady farmer on the weedy desert of the Nebraska territory circa 1850, is just too “plain” to get a man. Bear in mind this is homesteader country we’re talking about, with livestock being about the only other romantic option for local sodbusters. Adding to her charms, Ms. Cuddy still has her wits about her, whereas the same cannot be said for three young wives in the community (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto and Sonja Richter) who have been driven mad by the hardships of frontier lifestyles.

Cuddy embarks on a journey to haul these deranged souls to civilized Iowa, where various do-gooder outfits have agreed to care for them. Along the way she encounters George Briggs (Tommy lee Jones), a suspected claim jumper and recent victim of vigilante justice. Having no other options, Briggs joins Cuddy on her fortified wagon for a trip from one type of madness and into another. Once The Homesman finally settles into a road movie - or a rutted trail movie to be precise - it casts a hypnotic rough hewn web, weaving the dried scrub brush of the plains into a stage for Jones and Swank’s erratic relationship.

Jones’ previous directorial effort, 2005’s The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was also a horse opera with esoteric edges. Although set in the present day, that film was a mixture of wonderful moods and moments occasionally interrupted by strange narrative inconsistencies that nearly ruined the movie. The Homesman too has its share of awkward scenes, but eventually coalesces into an engaging harmony. At this point in his directing career, Jones is like a slugger who either strikes out on three pitches or hits a home run. But here he shows flashes that he can learn to hit for average, at least in scenes where he directs himself. The Homesman runs into trouble with scenes that involve the three crazy women - who never seem sure of how far to push the envelope - and a hammy performance by James Spader (am I being redundant?) as a mysterious entrepreneur with an equally mysterious accent.

The film’s final act is its best, as Jones toys with the idea of reinventing himself after being seduced by the splendors of small town life. The Homesman becomes a sort of anti-Western, as Jones warns a blasé young chambermaid (Hailee Steinfeld) about the perils of the plains. Briggs has seen a lot of heartbreak and shattered dreams on this mortal coil, and has recently witnessed and made his own contributions to the ongoing misery. But dreams - sweet or nightmarish - are nothing but illusions and soon he is back in his hardscrabble comfort zone, with the meandering Missouri serving as a suitable stand in for the River Styx.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur at 50

Released in February 1965, this early work by Agnes Varda is ostensibly a cheery movie with bright colors, dappled sunshine and a beautiful, loving family. Yet behind this Monet-esque revery are ideas that may have you questioning some of the basic moral principles of modern society. The story centers on Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), a square-jawed cabinetmaker who gladly spends every spare moment with his lovely wife and adorable young kids (played by Drouot’s real life family).

Much time is spent establishing the family’s idyllic existence in suburban Paris, as we see them engage in relaxing country picnics and nature walks, as well as exploring the deep bonds of affection and sexuality between Francois and his wife Therese. One day, Francois emerges from his mountainous sawdust pile to send a telegram, and a chance encounter with a postal clerk (Marie-France Boyer) launches a series of profound and strangely disturbing events. There is little else about the plot that can be disclosed, but suffice to say that some very controversial sexual politics are presented. So controversial that if the film had not been directed by a woman, Le Bonheur probably would have ended up on the scrapheap of misogynist cinema.

The bonus material offers a number of interesting interpretations of the film, and is quite thought provoking. The disc itself is beautifully restored thanks to Thomson’s HD Spirit Datacine, a new generation film scanner that makes possible nearly perfect recovery of even badly degraded negatives (which was apparently the case here). In all, this is a film that sticks with you, albeit in a very odd and unsettling way.

Surprisingly for a film of this vintage,  2015 finds all of the principles alive and kickin'. Agnes Varda - who has truly seen it all - is a couple years shy of her 90th birthday. The dashing Jean-Claude Drouot is pushing 80 but is busier than ever, having become a virtual fixture on French TV in recent years. Madame Drouet and Boyer are among the living as well, although their acting careers have taken a backseat to other interests. Wouldn't you love to sit at a Paris sidewalk cafe with this lot? Oh the stories they could tell….

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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

TCM for March 2015

Cheer up folks, it's almost spring! TCM makes it official with some fine cinematic offerings sure to lift those winter blues. My picks below. All times Eastern. Full Schedule HERE

3 Wednesday

12:30 AM
A poacher has to elude the Texas Rangers and the mob after stealing drug money.
C-122 mins, Letterbox Format

7 Saturday

The first Batman serial, complete with racial slurs, begins on the 7th

10:00 AM
The Caped Crusader battles a Japanese scientist turning people into zombies
BW-26 mins,

4:15 PM
A woman on the run gets mixed up with a repressed young man and his violent mother.
BW-109 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8 Sunday

10:00 AM
Documentary of a reclusive mother and her daughter who created their on own world in their mansion known as "Grey Gardens."
C-95 mins,

6:15 PM
A flamboyant star throws a TV comedy show into chaos.
C-92 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:00 AM
The French Riviera comes to life only after the tourists are gone.
C-12 mins,

3:00 AM

All is not happiness in Le Bonheur

A married young carpenter tries to make his mistress part of his family.
C-79 mins,

10 Tuesday

8:00 PM
An ambitious young man wins an heiress's heart but has to cope with his former girlfriend's pregnancy.
BW-122 mins, CC,

10:15 PM
A black woman uses her late husband's life insurance to build a better world for her children.
BW-128 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

12 Thursday

5:30 PM
An American pioneer raised by Indians ends up fighting alongside General Custer.
C-140 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
A washed-up prizefighter tries to free himself from his ruthless promoters to build a new life.
BW-85 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

9:45 PM

Piper Laurie and Paul Newman get real friendly in The Hustler

A pool shark falls into the clutches of a crooked gambler.
BW-135 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

14 Saturday

10:00 AM
The search for a kidnapped reporter leads the Dynamic Duo to a rooftop chase.
BW-17 mins

5:45 PM
A defrocked priest surrenders to the sins of the flesh in a Mexican hotel.
BW-118 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM
The World War II housing shortage brings three people together for an unlikely romance.
BW-104 mins, CC,

10:00 PM
Two aging gunslingers sign on to transport gold from a remote mining town.
C-94 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

3:30 AM
Two vagrants try to outrun the police after committing a savage crime in this real-life shocker.
BW-134 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

5:45 AM
This short safety film looks at carelessness in the home that can lead to fires.
BW-10 mins,

15 Sunday

9:45 PM
In this episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Walt takes a trip to Ireland in search of actual leprechauns.
BW-49 mins,

Visit Disney's Wonderful World of Color on the 15th

10:45 PM
Two children stumble on a clearing in the woods where they encounter gnomes and an evil witch.
C-8 mins,

11:00 PM
This episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color takes a look at the history of animation and animation techniques throughout the ages.
BW-60 mins,

12:00 AM
With his friends Jose Carioca and Panchito, Donald Duck discovers the joys of Latin American life.
C-71 mins,

1:30 AM
Walt Disney leads his production team on a good will tour of Latin America during World War II.
C-106 mins,

3:15 AM
British colonists kidnap a rebel Irish prince.
C-110 mins,

19 Thursday

9:30 PM
A scientific expedition discovers a 25-foot tall mutant.
BW-65 mins,

4:45 AM
Delinquent teens ingest a substance and grow to 30 feet tall, then proceed to take over a small town.
C-81 mins, Letterbox Format

20 Friday

1:30 AM
A small-town girl hits the big city in search of romance Roaring Twenties style.
C-152 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:15 AM
An unemployed female singer poses as a female impersonator and becomes a star.
C-134 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

21 Saturday

10:00 AM
Batman races to stop enemy agents from destroying a supply train.
BW-17 mins,

2:00 AM

The tragically hip life of Edie Sedgwick is chronicled in Ciao!Manhattan

A one-time underground film star goes home to her mother to recover from years of drug abuse.
C-90 mins, Letterbox Format

3:45 AM
Cameras capture the backstage drama as acting students audition for a film.
C-75 mins,

5:00 AM
Technicians herald the arrival of a new car that "delivers the goods as no other compact car can" in this short advertisement.
C-6 mins,

5:00 AM
An education short film that exposes drug use and drug culture.
C-22 mins,

5:00 AM
Filmmakers trace the history of opium and its role in today's drug trade in this short film.
C-22 mins,

22 Sunday

8:00 AM
A gambler discovers an old flame in South America, but she's married to his new boss.
BW-110 mins, CC,

10:00 AM
When he inherits a fortune, a small-town poet has to deal with the corruption of city life.
BW-116 mins, CC,

12:00 PM
A veteran returns home to deal with family secrets and small-town scandals.
C-136 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

8:00 PM

MacLaine and Lemmon in Irma La Douce

A Parisian policeman gives up everything for the love of a free-living prostitute.
BW-143 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:30 PM
An old waterfront character tries to help his daughter when her lover leaves her pregnant.
C-134 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

25 Wednesday

10:00 PM
BW-91 mins,

26 Thursday

2:00 AM
A pulp fiction novelist fights to survive an assignment to ghost write a controversial star's memoirs.
C-95 mins, Letterbox Format

4:00 AM
A would be private eye gets mixed up in a smuggling case.
C-86 mins, CC,

5:30 AM
Celebrities reveal the classic movies that influenced their lives in interviews with acclaimed film critic/interviewer Elvis Mitchell.
C-29 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

27 Friday

10:30 AM

More than crocuses are blooming in Ozu's Early Spring

A young salary man and his wife struggle within the confines of their passionless relationship while he has an extramarital affair.
BW-145 mins,

1:00 PM
A fading stage star gets caught up in the decadent life of modern Rome when she hires a male companion.
BW-104 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

3:00 PM
When her husband moves them to a small farming town, a woman falls in love with a married neighbor.
C-98 mins, Letterbox Format

28 Saturday

10:00 AM
Batman investigates a fake fortuneteller working with Japanese spies
BW-18 mins,

3:45 AM
In this short film, children learn about the world of fun that awaits them when they grow up and go to work.
C-11 mins,

29 Sunday

2:00 AM
A young girl's guardian falls in love with her.
C-98 mins,

4:00 AM
Random scenes -- including the famous eyeball-slitting, a bicycle race and a hand crawling with ants -- capture the insanity of dreams.
BW-16 mins,

4:30 AM
A religious sage fights temptation from Satan himself.
C-45 mins,

20 Monday

8:00 PM

Nuclear power is not your friend in The China Syndrome

A television newswoman stumbles onto deadly secrets at a nuclear power plant.
C-122 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:15 PM
A news producer is caught between a committed journalist and a flashy anchor.
C-133 mins,

12:45 AM
Television programmers turn a deranged news anchor into 'the mad prophet of the airwaves.'
BW-121 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

31 Tuesday

8:00 PM
A little brat turns Paris upside down during a two-day visit with her uncle.
C-93 mins,

10:00 PM
A French boarding school harbors Jewish children during the Nazi occupation.
C-105 mins, Letterbox Format

12:00 AM

Lacombe, Lucien is part of a Louis Malle festival on the 31st

A French teen collaborating with the Nazis falls for a wealthy Jewish girl.
C-138 mins, Letterbox Format

2:30 AM
A 15-year-old comes of age despite his father's neglect and his mother's smothering love.
C-118 mins, Letterbox Format

4:30 AM
A businessman kills his boss to cover up his affair with the man's wife.
BW-91 mins, Letterbox Format