Monday, October 20, 2014

Recently Viewed October 2014

Little White Lies (2010) ✭✭✭

After an excellent long take opening scene that will leave you stunned, the film gradually slides downhill then totally falls apart with an overly dramatic ending. Worth watching for Marion Cotillard and Francois Cluzet and a few very funny bits. Yes, it’s a rip-off of The Big Chill but, being French, it takes place over a few leisurely weeks rather than one weekend. Damn Socialists.

A Birder's Guide to Everything (2013) ✭✭✭1/2

This modest comedy/drama is a pleasant surprise. It’s all about a group of refreshingly unhip and unironic teens who are genuinely excited about the chance to see a rare species of bird. Ben Kingsley shows up and does just enough to get a check. Suitable for all ages, this movie actually gives you a some hope for the future.

Goats (2012) ✭✭✭½

Here’s another very entertaining comedy in which an earnest young man (Graham Phillips) is tasked with sorting out the messes his elders have created. Vera Farmigia is great as a New Age drama queen while David Ducovny kind of steals the movie as one of the world’s last surviving hippies. Made by the producers of The Kids are Alright with similar feel and pacing.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The French Line (1954) ✭✭✭½

The French Line is a zany (in all senses of the word) Jane Russell vehicle from 1954, and the legendary star and her prodigious chest are in just about every scene. The plot is so over baked and goofily complex it would be hard to explain in less than a thousand words, so we’ll just concern ourselves with the high points, pardon the pun. Russell portrays a Texas oil baroness and one of the world’s richest women, but her fortune can’t buy her a lasting relationship with a man. They're all either intimidated by her money or two-bit chiselers looking for a meal ticket. She embarks incognito on a French ocean liner in hopes of meeting a romantic soul interested not in her bankbook, but her considerable personal charms.

Accompanying Russell is her childhood friend Annie (played with twangy pluck by Mary McCarty) and the two of them have rapid fire conversations that consist entirely of corny, Texas-inspired cowboy metaphors. At sea, Russell gains the affections of a famous French actor (played to the hilt by Gilbert Roland, whose French accent never quite shakes the tonalities of his real-life hometown of Juarez) and the two begin a whirlwind romance that rarely advances beyond a little light necking.

Along the way, there’s plenty of singing and dancing, and even Mr. Roland gets in on the act. And while he’s a credible singer, we understand why he elected to play banditos for the remainder of his lengthy career. Comedic relief, as if such a thing was actually needed, is provided by veteran character actor Arthur Hunnicutt as Russell’s partner in the Awl Bidness: a grizzled wildcatter named “Waco”. Hunnicutt’s baroque homespun monologues are so full of references to polecats, sidewinders and varmints you half-expect Jack Elam to bust in any second with six-shotters ablazin’.

But the big finale takes place at a Paris fashion show, where Russell is pressed into service as a model. Apparently the hot look in haute couture that season was skimpy burlesque bustiers, and Miss Russell shakes her feathers (and other parts) in a rousing production number that brings down the house. To boot, all mysteries are solved, all misunderstandings cleared up and happiness once again reigns on both sides of the Atlantic. And we, like Mr. Roland, are left to marvel at Jane Russell and her “wonderful, great big......brown eyes”.

TCM Page


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Darling Clementine (1946) ✭✭✭✭½

John Ford’s My Darling Clementine is a prime example of the Great American Western, embodying all that is good and right and just about this once dominant cinematic genre. Now available in a beautiful new hi-def burn by Criterion, this 70 year old horse opera gleams with new life and luster, preserving in minute detail the sweep and grandeur of Ford’s bedrock moralist visions. My Darling Clementine stands as a testament to Ford’s unique ability to balance the mundane with the monumental in perfectly proportioned tension; his laconic cowpokes equally imperiled by a parched, unforgiving wilderness and the dark designs of its human intruders.

While most scripts strive for reduction, My Darling Clementine is a case study in art of narrative inflation. The film takes a relatively minor incident in American history – a violent misunderstanding between two shady factions popularly known as The Shoot Out at OK Corral – and imbues it with a roiling backstory worthy of a Verdi libretto. Its perfect opening scene; a pristine panorama of Monument Valley sullied by the sudden arrival of hundreds of cattle as they climb over a ridge, simultaneously evokes man’s ejection from paradise and his foolish attempts to master the natural world. With undeniable logic My Darling Clementine, like Kubrick’s 2001 or Malick’s The Tree of Life, begins at the Beginning; the only rational place for a story driven by man’s primordial instincts.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Oyster Framer (2014) ✭✭✭½

A charming quirkiness oozes from the sprocket holes of this relaxed Australian production. The quite fit Alex O’Loughlin stars as a seemingly aimless young man who manages pull off a very clever robbery, and then high tails it to a remote area of New South Wales to let the heat die down a bit and to await the delivery of a very important package.

From his redoubt on the Hawkesbury River, O’Loughlin becomes involved with an earthy and only semi-legal community of sun baked oystermen, the deep ruts on their faces filled with a black, gritty sweat. We learn much about the techniques of oyster farming, and the back breaking toil required to supply the world’s demand for these tasty bivalves.

And although O’Loughlin has wandered into an area of excessive testosterone, there are two female inhabitants who capture his interest. First, his boss’s estranged and sensual wife (Kerry Armstrong) who cleans his wounds after a dog attack in a scene brimming with eroticism, and a slightly nutty postal clerk (Diana Glenn), who he finds both suspicious and irresistible.

Writer/director Anna Reeves does a fine job of managing both the pacing of the film and keeping a consistent tone to the performances. The cast features a wide array of character actors, including the familiar faces of Jack Thompson and Jim Norton. The film is permeated with a calm, easy going eccentricity, and in many ways is reminiscent of a National Film Board of Canada product. Recommended to those seeking an involving film, but aren’t in the mood for a challenging one.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Branagh's Henry V at 25

In 1989, Kenneth Branagh leapt into the breach with this bold and brilliant adaptation. Rarely had a Shakespearean property been presented with such hyper-real immediacy; neither losing the story in a sea of excessive art direction nor alienating viewers with snooty pretensions. Though his script was highly edited from the original play, Branagh refused to dumb-down the Bard’s eloquence or present the world with a modern, mumblecore version of Harry. Branagh reveled in the splendor of Shakespeare's language, with the film’s dour atmosphere of grime and sweat only enhancing the sparkle of his perfectly forged line readings.

One could certainly make a case that Branagh’s styling of the Band of Brothers speech - a pep talk so rousing it would make Knute Rockne envious - is the greatest Shakespearean scene ever filmed. Infused with fire and passion, the speech stands as one of those transfixing cinematic moments that crystalize the power of the medium. While this performance would make him a star, Branagh’s subsequent career has had its ups and downs, and his hammy inclinations have sometimes gotten the better of him. At London in 2012, he managed to overact during an Olympic opening ceremony, a feat previously thought impossible. But on this occasion, Henry V represented a perfect melding of material and réalisateur, and it is for this astonishing embodiment of Good King Harry that Kenneth Branagh shall always be “remember-red.”

Friday, October 3, 2014

Quickies for October 2014

The French - and film festival judges - are fascinated by stories of barely legal girls from affluent families who turn to prostitution for fun and profit. François Ozon’s Young and Beautiful (2013) ✭✭✭ is a recent addition to the genre, serving up the requisite cautionary tale laced with plenty of titillation. This time it’s fresh-faced Marine Vacth as a high school student who manifests her new feelings of rebellion by embracing an old profession. It’s all good, dirty - and profitable - fun for a while, but as Vacth’s client list grows, so do the risks, and eventually it all goes terribly wrong. Young and Beautiful is well made, with good performances and pacing, but it’s all a bit pro-forma and expected. The film was nominated for the Palme d’Or and Marine Vacth earned a Cesar nod. It’s worth the watch, but I hoped for more from Ozon, who seems to be phoning it in these days.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) ✭✭✭ is a fair to middlin’ entertainment for older folks that’s a little too Disney-fied for its own good. Nominally set in the south of France, although much of it was filmed in NY state, the film is all about a family of restaurateurs from India who decide to open a loud and festive curry palace across the street from a chic, Michelin-starred bistro run by the snooty Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). At first Mirren and her new neighbors engage in a bitter rivalry, but when Indian cook Hassan (Manish Dayal) displays a talent for French cuisine, she decides to enter him in a competition that can earn her a second Michelin star. From there The Hundred-Foot Journey becomes another Rocky in the Kitchen movie, with spiffy montages of vegetable chopping and steaming water being poured into colanders. From there, virtually nothing unexpected happens, and most of the principles find a bit of romance along the way. Certainly no reason to rush out to the theater for this one, but a perfectly good candidate for your favorite streaming platform.

We are the Best! (2013) ✭✭✭½ is not a great movie movie by any means, yet it emits a charming vibe that will keep viewers entranced for the duration. Set in the 1980s, the film is all about two geeky 13 year old girls from Stockholm (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin) who decide to form a punk band  despite not having the slightest modicum of musical talent. Directed by Lukas Moodysson (Together, Lilya 4-Ever), the film manages to build off-beat, hilarious scenarios in the most unexpected of places, and you’ll find yourself laughing out loud at the film’s delicate eccentricities. This is a tale of slow-motion teen age rebellion, told in an uplifting and enjoyable manner. And you may even recognize your own young, innocent self among the wacky, self-inflicted turmoil. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sundays and Cybèle (1962) ✭✭✭✭1/2

Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1963, Serge Bourguignon’s Sundays and Cybèle has finally been issued in an official North American digital video edition by Criterion. For decades Sundays and Cybèle was only available to NTSC markets through imported discs of dodgy provenance and a few murky, widely scattered VHS copies. While half a century is certainly a significant delay, the high quality of the film and this superb pressing will make most cinephiles agree it was worth the wait.

Sundays and Cybèle is the story of Pierre (Hardy Krüger), a 30-ish former fighter pilot who now aimlessly wanders the quiet streets of Ville-d’Avray on the outskirts of Paris. Pierre suffers from a severe case of what would now be called PTSD, squarely blaming himself for a tragic accident that occurred during the heat of battle in Vietnam. Reeling from amnesia and nightmarish visions, Pierre finds a bit of solace one night when he encounters another lost soul, a young girl named Cybèle (Patricia Gozzi) abandoned to an orphanage by her runaway father. The pair begin an innocent liaison every Sunday afternoon, with long walks in a nearby park and visits to local shops. These strolls may be therapeutic for the damaged Pierre, but to the prying eyes of the citizenry this unlikely friendship raises unsavory questions, which morph into deadly serious accusations.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

TCM for October 2014

A wide range of the weird and the wonderful this month on TCM. My picks below. All times Eastern, full schedule HERE

10/4 Saturday

5:00 AM
This short industrial film focuses on the making of Tupperware.
C-29 mins,

5:00 AM
Educators attempt to raise the level of living in an Appalachian community in this short film.
BW-13 mins,

Wild at the Wheel. Driver's Ed films used to traumatize me.

5:00 AM
This short film looks at the importance of traffic rules to avoid serious automobile accidents.
C-10 mins,

10/5 Sunday

10:30 PM

Interviews and classic clips trace the career of one of the screen's greatest cinematographers.
C-86 mins, CC,

12:00 AM
Families from opposite ends of the economic scale are drawn together.
BW-91 mins,

2:00 AM
Inhabitants of a Bangladeshi fishing village endure life in one of the world's most poverty-stricken areas.
BW-158 mins,

10/7 Tuesday

8:00 PM
A man's efforts to save his friend's marriage lead to infidelity.
BW-84 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

You have to see Network

9:45 PM
Television programmers turn a deranged news anchor into 'the mad prophet of the airwaves.'
BW-121 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/9 Thursday

4:15 AM
A samurai's wife returns from the dead for revenge.
C-77 mins, Letterbox Format

10/12 Sunday

2:00 AM
A medieval girl struggles to grow up in a world of eccentrics, monsters and temptation.
C-76 mins,
3:30 AM

An aging housewife seeks direction when she catches her husband in an affair.
C-137 mins, Letterbox Format

10/13 Monday

Nights of Cabiria.  One of Fellini's best.

2:00 AM
A streetwalker dreams of a better life.
BW-118 mins,

4:15 AM
A traveling strongman buys a peasant girl to be his wife and co-star.
BW-108 mins,

10/18 Saturday

10:00 PM
An Indian-hating Civil War veteran tracks down the tribe that slaughtered his family and kidnapped his niece.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/19 Sunday 

4:00 PM
A man must come to terms with his own "high anxiety" in this loving parody of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
C-94 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

2:45 AM
A young girl living in an isolated Spanish town tries to uncover her father's secret.
C-94 mins,

10/23 Thursday

In 1972,  giant rabbits terrorized Arizona in Night of the Lepus.  Now our politicians do.

6:00 AM
Husband-and-wife scientists unwittingly unleash a horde of giant man-eating rabbits.
C-89 mins, Letterbox Format

2:30 PM
A man falsely suspected of killing a spy races across Scotland handcuffed to the beautiful blonde who turned him in.
BW-86 mins, CC,

10/24 Friday

5:45 PM
Wealthy passengers fogged in at London's Heathrow Airport fight to survive a variety of personal trials.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10:45 PM
Nature lover Dian Fossey risks her life to study and protect gorillas in the wild.
C-129 mins,

1:00 AM
A man dying from third-degree burns remembers a tragic wartime romance.
C-162 mins,

10/25 Saturday

Somehow The Birds manages to be both tacky and terrifying

5:45 PM
In a California coastal area, flocks of birds unaccountably make deadly attacks on humans.
C-119 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

4:00 AM
Director Orson Welles examines the career of a notorious art forger.
C-88 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/29 Wednesday

6:45 PM
Alfred Hitchcock appears in an episode of The Dick Cavett Show that originally aired June 8, 1972.
C-65 mins, CC,

8:00 PM
A woman on the run gets mixed up with a repressed young man and his violent mother.
BW-109 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

If you've never seen Touch of Evil you're a jerk.
10:00 PM
A narcotics agent risks his wife's life to investigate a crooked cop.
BW-111 mins, CC, Letterbox Format

10/31 Friday

4:45 PM
After surviving a car crash, a church organist is haunted by the undead.
BW-83 mins, CC,

6:15 PM
Strange dreams haunt a beautiful young woman left alone in her apartment.
BW-105 mins,

8:00 PM
A space probe unleashes microbes that turn the dead into flesh-eating zombies.
BW-96 mins, CC,

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Manhattan at 35

With 1979’s Manhattan, Woody Allen completed an unofficial trilogy of sorts. Along with preceding releases Annie Hall (1977) and Interiors (1978), the three films announced Allen’s arrival as a formidable cinematic force. No longer concerned solely with delivering jokes, each film represented a significant creative advance for the director. Annie Hall saw Allen seamlessly integrate experimental and European influences to create a delightful film as inventive as it was entertaining. Interiors, a grim and boldly unapologetic homage to Ingmar Bergman, proved Allen’s chops at skillful direction and the evocation of icy, angst ridden moods. Manhattan follows as a stylistic hybrid, returning to Allen’s comfort zone of satirical wit and sight gags, presented in a visually poetic package.

Manhattan aesthetically ups the ante by incorporating formal elements that conjure the dynamic muscularity of the American experience. From the intensity of the Gershwin orchestral pieces that adorn its track, to the raw, biting textures of DP Gordon Willis’ black-and-white images of the city’s bustle, Manhattan celebrates the energy and drive that carved the world’s most famous skyline out of sweat and dreams. The leafy environs of Central Park surrounded by an Art Deco canyon, a determined delivery truck on a narrow street covered in new fallen snow, and the misty splendor of sunrise at the Brooklyn Bridge all serve as visual couplets in Allen’s epic tome. While Interiors is a descendant of Bergman, Manhattan evokes the legacy of John Ford; its exultations a steel and brick cognate to Ford’s magnificent western vistas from films like The Searchers.

But today Monument Valley is inhabited mainly by cheerful Navajo tour guides, while Allen’s New York City has been overrun by a neurotic creative class, and Manhattan’s razor sharp narrative is all about their fallacies and foibles.  Allen stars as a comedy writer named Isaac Davis who, in a brief fit of artistic integrity, quits his cushy job on a hit TV show and is immediately hip-deep in regret and financial insecurity. Adding to Davis’ woes is his ex-wife (Meryl Streep), who is about to publish a nasty tell-all book about their dysfunctional marriage. Meanwhile, Davis’ best friend Yale (Michael Murphy), a deluded academic permanently lodged in his ivory tower, is cheating on his devoted wife (Anne Byrne) with an unstable, high maintenance book editor (Diane Keaton). Davis’ only solace is in the barely legal arms of his girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), a 17 year old high school student who ironically seems the most mature of the lot.

Through vignettes laced with bull’s-eye observational humor, Allen skewers the misconceptions and warped priorities of the self proclaimed intellectual elite. Contrasting the impressive achievements of New York’s builders with the wobbly self absorption of its current residents, Manhattan is a full immersion in the cloudy rivers of Solipsism. While Davis and his friends wallow in self aggrandizement and chimerical crises, Allen fills his frames with constant reminders of man’s ultimate miniscule ranking in the universe. In the film’s most memorable scene, shot at the old Hayden Planetarium, Allen and Keaton discuss their romantic complications while wandering amid surreal heavenly grandeur. In a hilarious metaphor, Allen’s friends drip with cultural sophistication, but they are easily undone by the mysterious dingy brown water that drips from his rusty faucet. In a scene that builds to the film’s climactic confrontation, Allen tries to catalogue real things of transcendent permanence, a lofty process rapidly derailed by memories of his romance with young Tracy.

Current knowledge of Allen’s controversial personal proclivities adds a layer of ick to the Isaac/Tracy relationship not present – or at least not as pronounced - in 1979. The degree of distraction will vary from viewer to viewer, but suffice to say Allen’s subsequent issues with adopted offspring will likely prevent the full appreciation of Manhattan’s brilliance by today’s audiences. But also there are reassuring reminders of society’s advancements in shielding children from sexual situations. In a scene at the Russian Tea Room, Isaac jokes in a hushed tone about picking up a couple of girls with his 5-ish son (Damien Scheller). This exchange was innocently amusing in 1979, but today it seems wildly inappropriate, even for an actor without Allen’s tortured history on the subject.

In more recent films, Allen has shown an annoying tendency to make his actors all Sound Like Him. Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson and Judy Davis are but a few examples of gifted talents who have abandoned their personalities to the staccato allure of Allen-esque line readings. In Manhattan, Michael Murphy does a fine job of retaining his persona amid a sea of whiney hemming and hawing. Murphy’s neurotic naturalism is a display of exquisite control, both of timing and timbre, and he interprets rather than parrots. The scenes with Allen and Murphy rank as the film’s most effective and believable, and it’s both unfortunate and puzzling that Manhattan stands as their only collaboration.

In 1979, it had been a generation since anyone had seen a new black and white film in 2.35:1 and Manhattan’s starkly glorious imagery was a revelation.  Gordon Willis’ compositions still resonate with beauty and superb balance. His effective use of the frame’s challenging width has never been surpassed, and this film features several skillful examples. A night scene in Isaac’s apartment essentially features two pools of light – one on a sofa and another illuminating a spiral stairway – on opposite edges of the frame, creating a perfect tableau for the scene’s casual intimacy. In a day exterior, a discussion of car buying between Allen and Murphy is staged uncomfortably extreme camera right, but trees and an antique Porsche provide perfect visual counterweight. 

Despite the modern day infliction of Allen’s personal baggage, Manhattan remains an artistic triumph, and deserves its ranking among Woody Allen’s best films. Manhattan’s clever contrast of gutsy Greatest Generation aesthetics with Me Generation navel gazing creates an entertaining and thought provoking cinematic meditation that can be appreciated on a number of levels. While Allen is hardly a conservative moralist, his film shines a light on the creeping decay in the American psyche, and humorously reflects a growing national uneasiness that would manifest itself with Ronald Reagan’s election a year later. The brave and industrious visionaries who built New York have been replaced by a pampered, self absorbed set, concerned only with sex and fashionable places to have lunch. And ironically, in the years hence almost nothing has changed. You may not agree with Allen’s thesis, but Manhattan’s flawless execution makes for a compelling case.