Saturday, June 25, 2016

Murder by Death Turns 40

Fans of classic mystery novels will enjoy Murder by Death, a star-studded Neil Simon romp from 1976. Here viewers will find thinly disguised versions of some of the greatest detectives from popular fiction, all gathered in a creepy old mansion to solve an absurdly convoluted murder case. Appropriately, these storied figures are portrayed by some of the era’s most notable comedic talents, who bring Simon’s droll script to delightful life.

Peter Sellers, David Niven, James Coco and Eileen Brennan lead the stellar cast, leaving few set pieces unchewed in the process. The film also features a brilliant turn by a young and sexy Maggie Smith, who delivers her double-entendre laden dialogue with a dirty minded panache. Also of interest is an impossibly young James Cromwell as the assistant to Coco’s ersatz Poirot, complete with a campy French accent. But it’s Peter Falk as an in-the-closet revision of Sam Spade who ends up stealing the movie, and ultimately bringing down the house.

Murder by Death is a bit uneven - each luminary is given a chance for his or her own comedic mad scene and the pacing suffers as a result - but when Simon’s jokes are on target it’s hilarious. But enough of my prattling. I’ll let Mr. Simon’s own razor wit do the heavy lifting:

Falk: “Who would steal a dead man’s clothes but leave the body?"
Niven: “Perhaps some deranged dry cleaner.”

Sellers: “No pulse, no heartbeat. If condition does not change, this man is dead.”

Smith: “Is he dead?” 
Falk: “With that knife in his back, in the long run, he’s better off.”

Thursday, June 23, 2016

New on Netflix: July 2016

July 1
41 on 41 (2014)
A Long Way From Home (2013)
Back to the Future (1985)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Bad Boys II (2003)

Batman: The Movie (1966)
Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996)
Between: Season 2 - Netflix Original
Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Blade II (2002)
By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009)
Catwoman (2004)
Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)
Cinderella Man (2005)
Conflict (2015)
Death Race 2 (2010)
Death Race 3: Inferno (2013)
Deep: Season 1 - Netflix Original
Dreamcatcher (2003)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011)
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
Gladiator (2000)
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
Hey Arnold! The Movie (2002)
Honey (2003)

Insomnia (2002)
The Italian Job (2003)
Jackass: Number Two (2006)
Jim Jefferies: Freedumb - Netflix Original
Lalaloopsy Ponies: The Big Show (2014)
Lethal Weapon (1987)
Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)
Lethal Weapon 4 (1998)
The Longest Yard (2005)
The Lovely Bones (2009)
Making the American Man (2016) - Netflix Exclusive
Marcella: Season 1 - Netflix Original
Marco Polo: Season 2 - Netflix Original
Mean Girls (2004)
Nevada Smith (1966)
Nick of Time (1995)

The Painted Veil (2006)
Pandemic (2015)
Phenomenon (1996)
Raiders Of The Lost Art: Season 2
Rumor Has It (2005)
Scooby-Doo (2002)
The Shannara Chronicles: Season 1
The Sting (1973)
Stomp the Yard: Homecoming (2010)
Talhotblond (2009)
Terminus (2016)
Turner and Hooch (1989)
Twisted (2004)
Watershed: Exploring A New Water Ethic For The New West (2012)
Well Wishes (2015)
Working Girl (1988)
Yours, Mine and Ours (2005)

July 4
Kuromukuro: Season 1 - Netflix Original

July 6
The Big Short (2015)

July 7
A War (2015)
The Armor of Light (2015)
Brahman Naman (2016) - Netflix Original
NSU German History X: Season 1 - Netflix Original

July 8The Invitation (2015) - Netflix Exclusive
Word Party: Season 1

July 9

Mustang (2015)
Mystery Files: Season 1

July 10
The Last Kingdom: Season 1

July 12
Rolling Papers (2015)

July 14
Gridlocked (2015) - Netflix Exclusive
Magi: The Adventures of Sinbad: Season 1 - Netflix Original
Todd Margaret: Season 3

July 15
The Adventures of Puss in Boots: Season 3 - Netflix Original
Ghostheads (2016)
Holidays (2016) - Netflix Exclusive
Rebirth (2016) - Netflix Original
Stranger Things: Season 1 - Netflix Original
Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru (2016) - Netflix Original

July 16Fighting (2009)

July 19
Liv and Maddie: Season 3

July 21

Internet Famous (2016) - Netflix Exclusive

July 22
BoJack Horseman: Season 3 - Netflx Original
Degrassi: Next Class: Season 2 - Netflix Original

July 24
Popples: Season 3 - Netflix Original

July 27
The Wave (2015)

July 29
Home: Adventures With Tip & Oh: Season 1 - Netflix Original
Last Chance U (2016) - Netflix Original
LEGO Bionicle: The Journey to One: Season 2 - Netflix Original
Tallulah (2016) - Netflix Original

July 30
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Season 6: Part 1

July 31
Hit Record on TV with Joseph Gordon-Levitt: Season 2

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

New on Amazon Prime: July 2016

Best in Show (2000)

July 1

July 2

July 3

July 5

July 12

July 13

  • 13 Sins

July 15

July 19

  • Embrace the Serpent

July 22

  • The Vatican Tapes

July 23

  • Z For Zachariah

July 25

July 26

July 30

  • Mr. Holmes

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Decline of the American Empire Turns 30

The Decline of the American Empire (1986) was the first French Canadian production to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s a talky, largely sedentary movie that feels much like a hybrid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Big Chill (1983). Directed by Denis Arcand, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Barbarian Invasions (2003), The Decline of the American Empire is all about a group of academics in their late 30s who gather with their spouses for a dinner party at a rambling country estate. But under a veneer of wine-fueled bonhomie, long held dark secrets and grievances begin to bubble to the surface. And before the night is over, every one of those slights, disputes and betrayals will be given a full and thorough airing.

Viewed today, The Decline of the American Empire  s like a 1980s time capsule unearthed by archeologists and filled with the impedimenta of a generation. The quasi-mullet haircuts, big shoulder dresses and Jane Fonda workout clothes are nothing short of a hoot, along with the characters’ rampant materialism caused by the era’s illusions of prosperity. There’s even a closeted gay character (Yves Jacques) who has long lived a promiscuous secret life, and may be developing symptoms of AIDS. And speaking of sex, every character in this film, regardless of orientation, is utterly obsessed with it. These former hippies may have given up notions of political revolution, but the idea of Free Love still resonates. And you thought the only things French Canadians cared about were hockey and poutine.

The Decline of the American Empire is a modestly pleasurable watch - its sexual frankness no longer the least bit shocking by today’s standards - but its real value is as a piece of film history. Its Oscar nomination put the Quebec movie industry on the map, and served as an inspiration to area filmmakers who refused to fully assimilate into Canada’s dominate anglophone culture. Directors like Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan owe a debt of gratitude to The Decline of the American Empire. It brought attention and international acclaim to Quebecois cinema, helping to blaze a trail for their later success.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Midway Turns 40

Midway is a big, honking Hollywood WWII movie that’s quite dated by today’s standards. In fact, it was dated when it was first released in 1976. Its special effects - and they’re special in name only - consist of some fairly unconvincing rear projection interspersed with grainy footage of actual battles blown up from 16mm. It has a cast of aging Hollywood beefcake rippling their jaw muscles to show they’re under enormous stress while pushing toy boats around on giant maps. It has legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, but every time he opens his mouth he sounds like Boris Badenov because actor Paul Frees overdubbed his voice. Despite its plethora of weaknesses and really bad production decisions, Midway remains an absorbing watch, and is considered by military scholars one of the most accurate dramatizations of a crucial battle ever filmed.

The Battle of Midway was the turning point of the war in the Pacific. This unremarkable but strategic atoll, roughly halfway between Tokyo and San Francisco, was an important staging area, and had been coveted by the Imperial Navy since its attack on Pearl Harbor six months earlier. Under the command of Admiral Nimitz (Henry Fonda), a daring scheme was hatched to defend the island, risking virtually the entire U.S. Navy Pacific fleet in the process. If successful, the plan would be a stunning victory for the Americans; if it failed, the west coast of the U.S. would be left defenseless against Japanese attacks.

Unlike most war movies, Midway focuses more on the braintrust than the grunts. Surrounded by his trusted advisors (Charlton Heston, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook and James Coburn to name a few - the testosterone in this film is off the charts) we see Nimitz and his cohort calmly and cooly tighten a noose around the Imperial Navy. We see the other side too, as the Japanese commanders, led by Mifune, suddenly find themselves on the other end of a surprise attack and are caught flat-footed. The Japanese military traditions of deep deference and ultra formality work against the Imperial Navy here, causing the slow implementation of crucial decisions and eventually leading to catastrophic losses of men and materiel.

Midway also has a silly romantic subplot - you can’t make a war movie without one - involving Heston’s son (Edward Albert) and his Japanese-American girlfriend (Christina Kokubo). The fact that Midway survives its frequent hokey lapses is a testament to its compelling subject. It’s easy to dismiss a film like Midway as Greatest Generation kitsch, but at its core there is a much larger story that still impresses with its true-life heroics and iron willed audacity. Midway is not in the pantheon of great American war movies, nor does it deserve to be. But, unlike many of our recent conflicts, it dramatizes a war that was just and noble. And thanks to the brave servicemen depicted in this film, we live to tell the tale.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

News and Notes: June 2016

To commemorate the Champ's passing, Michael Mann's 2001 biopic Ali will return to select theaters this weekend.

Democracy comes to television! A new site called I'd Watch That gives us ordinary folks a chance to watch TV show pilots and vote for what we'd like developed. You can even upload your own content for consideration.

The new TCM/Criterion joint venture FilmStruck will feature essays and behind-the-scenes content produced by Film Comment magazine.  The streaming service will launch this fall and is shaping up to be a cinephile's dream.

Finally. check out some wonderfully graphic views of America from Japanese artist Hiroshi Nagai

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Today in Bunched History: Movies I Watch at Least Once a Year

Originally Posted June 7,  2012

Here’s my list of personal classics. These films have stood the test of time for me, and on each viewing I experience new moments of joy and wonder. This is not a “Greatest Films” list by any means. They’re just my personal favorites that I keep coming back to again and again.

Pauline at the Beach (1983)

It’s not summer until I visit with Pauline, Marion, Pierre and the gang. This movie captures the sensual highs and lows of summer romances in light hearted ways and  stills feel fresh, even though I’ve seen it at least a dozen times.

Withnail & I (1987)

Marwood: It takes away your appetite just looking at it.

Withnail: No it doesn't. I'm starving. How can we make it die?

Marwood: You got to throttle him. Listen, I think you should strangle it instantly in case it starts trying to make friends with us.

Withnail: All right, get hold of it. You hold it down, I'll strangle it.

Marwood: I can't. It's those dreadful beady eyes, they stare you out.

Withnail: It's a bloody chicken! Just think of it with bacon across its back.

'Round Midnight  (1986)

I love Jazz. I Love Dexter Gordon. I love Paris. This movie hits my personal trifecta.

 Duck Soup (1933)

68 minutes of bliss. Gets funnier every time.

A Day at the Races (1937)

The Marx Brothers’ most underrated picture, and a perfect double feature with Duck Soup. I could live without some of the musical numbers - in fact I usually quick scan through them - but the comedic set pieces never fail. The scene where the brothers make a shambles of the clinic examining room is pure insanity.

Amarcord (1973)

Fellini’s comedic memoir is so densely packed that after 20 years of viewing I’m beginning to scratch the surface. A little bit.

Harvey (1950)

I want to be Elwood P. Dowd when I grow up.

A Summer’s Tale (1996)

The second Rohmer film on the list and a sort of bookend to Pauline at the Beach i.e. more hypersensitive young people creating their own romantic problems while ocean waves crash in the background. The last young romance Rohmer ever made, and by 1996 it was a style he’d perfected.

Touch of Evil (1958)

My favorite Welles film (yes, even more than you-know-what) and filled with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver and Marlena Dietrich against a backdrop of textbook film-noir sleaze. The long, highly choreographed takes in this movie are breathtaking, as is Welles’ embodiment of small town corruption.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Summer's Tale Turns 20

Eric Rohmer closed out the 20th Century on a high note, creating two of his best films back-to-back. Autumn Tale, produced in 1998, was a frank and poignant look at the cold realties of searching for love at middle-age, and A Summer’s Tale from 1996, which marked the last time Rohmer would ever deal with his signature subject: modern youth overcome by ennui.

Young Gaspard (Melvil Poupard) disembarks at the town of Dinard on the Britannic coast, for a few weeks of fun in the sun before he begins a new engineering job. Gaspard has tentative plans to link up with Lena (Aurelia Nolan), his nominal girlfriend; a high maintenance beauty summering in Spain. Rohmer dispenses the exposition with an elegant economy, and in a few short, virtually wordless scenes, presents Gaspard slowly adjusting to the relaxing pace of life at the shore.

At breakfast one morning, Gaspard gains the attentions of a brainy waitress named Margot (Amanda Langlet), who also happens to have a PhD in Ethnology. It is a credit to both Rohmer and Langlet that this character layer doesn’t play nearly as far-fetched as it sounds.

Margot also has a lover who’s far away, and she and Gaspard strike up a low-key friendship, consisting mainly of long oceanside walks during which the pair expound on their favorite topic: themselves. Langlet is a bit of a tease here, as she pushes the friendship to its platonic limits. Rohmer is guilty of teasing as well, as he makes us want Gaspard and Margot to forget their absent lovers and double-down on their instincts.

But there are many fetching young gals roaming the beaches of Dinard, and soon Gaspard finds his head turned by a leggy brunette named Solene (Gwenaelle Simon) whose claims of high moral fiber are belied by her seductive actions. One lazy afternoon - in Rohmer films, all afternoons are lazy - she performs a song Gaspard has written and before long, he imagines them making all sorts of joyful noises together.

However, Gaspard’s dreams of whoopee are short-lived, for there is another shoe to drop, or in this case another beach sandal, and soon Gaspard is juggling women the way a circus performer juggles chainsaws…and with the same high degree of peril.

A Summer’s Tale may well be Rohmer’s best-paced film. It moves with an engaging and spirited jauntiness and never gets bogged down with the incessant yakking that marred many of his films of the 70s and 80s. He didn’t really do anything different here; the film has the same loose-leaf scrapbook feeling of his earlier work, the same long take vignettes, the same lack of editorial time-compression. Yet the film is so well conceived that it organically and hypnotically flows, like the relentless ocean waves that serve as the backdrop to the film’s most important scenes.

The film ends with Langlet standing on a dock, waving goodbye to a departing ship. Once again she’s channeling the director, for he was waving goodbye to a genre; a genre he arguably created. Eric Rohmer would live another 14 years, and during that time he would make 4 more films - not bad for a man in his 80s - but he would never again revisit the romantic foibles of the young, privileged and bored. Eric Rohmer, having perfected The Eric Rohmer Film, proudly turned and walked away.