Monday, September 26, 2016

'Round Midnight Turns 30

Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight is a densely atmospheric tribute to the American jazz musicians who fled second-class citizen status in favor of the enthusiastic and adoring audiences of Europe. While a fictional work, the film features many real life musicians portraying thinly disguised versions of themselves; avoiding the sanitized artifice that plagues so many films about jazz. Tavernier does not ask us to accept Sal Mineo as Gene Krupa or regal Diana Ross as used-and-abused Billie Holiday. The expat musicians here huddled in a seedy Paris hotel are played by real life jazz stars; names like Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin. And what they may lack in dramatic polish is more than made up by a convincing off-center sensibility. Jazz musicians live in a deeply introspective world, and the character interactions in this film quietly sizzle with just the right touch of awkwardness.

In a squalid New York hotel room, Dale Turner, an aging saxophonist, says goodbye to his dying musical mentor Hershel (Hart Leroy Bibbs) and departs for Paris, where there is still a growing audience for bebop. Turner is played by Dexter Gordon, a real life tenor sax great and Grammy winning recording artist. Art often imitates life in this film and Gordon made a similar exodus during his own career, spending much of the 1960s based in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

The hulking Gordon consumes the role – there is no other word for it – with the same improvisational verve found in his sax solos. He delivers his lines of dialogue with long, loopy pauses peppered by occasional bursts of verbal 16th notes. He affects the gravelly voice of the classic burn-out; a life lived on a steady diet of whisky, heroine and Gitanes. Gordon’s vocal tonality here is reminiscent of the impossibly low, hair-raising notes he often achieved on his tenor sax – notes previously thought beyond the instrument’s capability and a hallmark of his best recordings.

Once in Paris, Turner becomes a virtual ward of Buttercup (an outstanding performance by Sandra Reeves-Phillips), a sort of potty mouthed version of Mother Teresa for wayward musicians. Buttercup leases out hotel rooms to expat jazzmen and keeps them fed, punctual for club dates and, most important of all, off the junk. Turner spends his evenings performing at the Blue Note, a smoky, low ceilinged hipster warren. There Turner regains and refines his improvisational chops, while the bar’s crusty proprietor (the great John Berry) keeps an eagle eye on Turner’s glass, insuring that nothing stronger than Perrier finds its way in.

Production designer Alexander Trauner and set builder Phillipe Turlure do outstanding work here recreating the small club and the adjacent side street. The rhombus layout of Paris lends itself to convincing and playful exterior sets, but here the men show admirable restraint. They resist the temptation to lard the tableau with neon signs and traffic, offering instead a placid neighborhood of second tier watering holes and bakeries; exactly the kind of low profile venue a wounded spirit would go to regroup.

As Turner’s audiences steadily grow, his performances attract a struggling young illustrator named Francis (Francois Cluzet), who huddles by a basement window, happy to absorb the music for just a few muffled minutes. Francis’s flighty wife (Christine Pascal) has deserted him and their 12 year old daughter (Gabrielle Haker), and the financial strain has made an evening at a jazz club an unthinkable luxury. One night between sets, Francis works up the courage to approach this god of the saxophone, who gravelly asks, “Hey man, can you buy me a beer?” Francis eventually realizes that this is not the indomitable Dale Turner he grew up idolizing, but a penniless, desiccated husk whose talent has gone to seed.

As an unlikely friendship develops between these two lost souls, Tavernier elects to present without a shred of sentimentality. And there’s ample opportunity, for Francis soon experiences the many worries and frustrations wrought by a personal relationship with the self-destructive. But these two men, utterly dissimilar and from different sides of the world, manage to find their missing qualities in each other. Francis puts aside his self pity and rediscovers the inspiration to pursue his artistic career, while Dale realizes that musical exploration need not be a fearful and lonely endeavor.

But there are no climactic, cathartic moments where all is made right and the principals find themselves on the fast track to success. Tavernier is too smart for that and, fortunately, he knows his audience is as well. The creative life, while full of exhilaration and despair, is above all a long tough slog. Eventually Dale will seek to return to the scene of his former glory and, in the process, his new found strength will be severely tested. And this time, the stakes are a lot higher for the saxophonist than merely his musical reputation.

But the trials of Dale Turner serve only as a narrative background wash, for ‘Round Midnight is really a film more about music than musicians. There are a number of wonderful performances here, and Tavernier integrates them so seamlessly the film avoids any sense of being a biography occasionally interrupted by music. From the opening strains of “As Time Goes By”, it should be clear to audiences that these extrapolations by Turner are the last remaining links to his dissolute past.

Dexter Gordon’s solo technique heavily exploited intentional lateness – he was always slightly behind the beat – but the result is an exciting expansion of the melody; making familiar tunes refreshing and new. This musical reimaging was the stock-in-trade of bebop; its practitioners were to jazz what the impressionists were to painting. And while the film alludes to critical favorites like Charlie Parker and Lester Young, no one was better at it than Dexter Gordon.

This film was made 25 years ago, and Dexter Gordon has been dead and buried for 20 of them. Whether anyone will even be playing bebop 25 years from now is an open question. Sadly, I suspect the answer is no. But if some future musician should attempt a revival of this uniquely American style, it will probably be a result of seeing this film. ‘Round Midnight is unquestionably the greatest film ever made about jazz. I submit it’s also the greatest film ever made about music, and the frail human souls who create it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Big Night Turns 20

Big Night (1996) is a fun and fabulous film for foodies. In fact, you’ll probably gain a pound or two just watching it. It’s all about a struggling Italian restaurant at the Jersey shore during the free-wheeling, optimistic days of the 1950s. At this humble trattoria, two immigrant brothers: Primo (Stanley Tucci) and Secondo (Tony Shalhoub), offer an array of exotic and authentic recipes from their native Italy. Actually, the fare is a little too authentic for this working class neighborhood, as the brothers find their customers would prefer familiar pizza and spaghetti. With their clientele staying away in droves, the brothers decide to risk it all by throwing a ruinously elaborate dinner party for bandleader Louis Prima, who is performing in the area. What transpires will be an unforgettable night with ancient scores settled, secret perfidies revealed, old romances rekindled and new loves blossoming, all while chowing down on an eye-popping, belt-busting bacchanal for the ages.

If Big Night doesn’t feel like the typical focus grouped, dramaturged to death Hollywood feature, that’s because it isn’t. Filmed on a low budget over 32 days, the movie was a labor of love; intended by writer and co-director Tucci as an homage to his childhood. Many of the dishes in the film were actually prepared by Tucci’s mother Joan, using old family recipes from Calabria. The film was also a boon to Tucci’s acting career. He had gotten pigeonholed as a cruel gangster drug dealer type, and Primo’s sincere, lovably neurotic character showed a new range in his persona. He and Shalhoub have an impressive comedic chemistry, born of years of experience. Shalhoub’s superb timing was hardly a surprise - he was a regular on the NBC sitcom Wings (1991-1997) - but here he proved himself capable of stepping out of the supporting actor shadows, and carrying a film on his back.

For all its astonishing culinary fireworks, Big Night is actually a film of small moments, played to perfection. The scene where the brothers discuss replacing the seafood risotto on their menu with a hot dog never fails to get a big laugh. Another memorable moment occurs when Shalhoub describes to his would-be girlfriend (Alison Janney) a lasagna so good he wanted to kill himself. Not only is the scene hilarious, it’s a classic example of the wide gulf between Latin and Anglo-Saxon temperaments. But it’s the film’s final three minutes that - like a slice of Secondo’s ultra rich timpano - will stay with you a long time. Filmed in one take, Tucci makes fried eggs for the exhausted, and mightily hung-over, restaurant staff. Though nary a word is spoken, we know that somehow, despite their depleted savings, despite their dwindling prospects, despite their family squabbles, the brothers will find a way to venture on; their bonds of love unbreakable.


Monday, September 12, 2016

The Battle of Algiers Turns 50

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) has the look and feel of a distant time and place, yet it depicts harrowing events that could have been torn from today’s headlines. It’s the story of the early days of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France, and the deep seated anger and resentment that simmered within the city’s muslim population against their French occupiers. When a group of disaffected young men led by Ali (Brahim Hadjadj) begin a series of random shootings of police officers, their campaign of terror rapidly escalates to well-planned bombings of crowded cafes and government offices. Eventually, a highly decorated French colonel with a reputation for ruthlessness (Jean Martin) is brought in the quell the violence, and all hell breaks loose.

Filmed in stark tones of black and white, The Battle of Algiers offers the viewer a stunning, immersive experience. In the sequence that ends act two, the terrorists decide to execute a ghoulish series of simultaneous bombings. As we see their meticulous planning and perfidy, nail biting tension builds to nearly unbearable levels. But Pontecorvo is careful to be even-handed in his presentation, and we see that both the police and the rebels are capable of despicable acts leading to the slaughter of innocents. The film was screened at the Pentagon by the Iraq War braintrust in 2003 as an illustration of how to put down a civilian rebellion. Its lessons may have been learned too well, as the film’s graphic depiction of torture techniques - including waterboarding - soon became standard practice for the American occupation. The other side may have been inspired by the film as well, as the recent truck bombing in Nice looks a lot like an attack in the film’s closing minutes.

In an interview in Rolling Stone in 1975, Marlon Brando described Gillo Pontecorvo as “the best director I ever worked with,” (the pair had teamed on “Burn!” in 1969) placing the filmmaker in heady company. The Battle of Algiers is rife with beautifully constructed sequences that rank with the very best thrillers, stirring deep wells of suspense and dread within the viewer. It is a film that will leave you emotionally exhausted, not only from the violent struggle on screen, but from the realization that the conflict between Islam and Christendom has made so little progress over the last 50 years. In fact, it’s only gotten worse.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Jean de Florette Turns 30

Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette is part one of a sprawling Shakespearean-style tragedy; a multi-generational tale of parched, flinty soils and equally barren human souls. Set in the blinding sunlight of Provence circa 1920, it’s the story of the last surviving members of the Sobeyran family (Yves Montand, Daniel Auteuil), a once flourishing clan laid low by decades of petty squabbles and shady dealings. To rescue the Soybeyran name from its death rattles, Montand and Auteuil devise a scheme to virtually steal a neighboring farm rumored to have a hidden spring, thus providing an endless supply of water for their lucrative cut flower enterprise.

A wrench is thrown in their plan when the land is inherited by a hunchbacked Parisian accountant (Gerard Depardieu) with designs on building a life there with his family. Their foul machinations threatened, Montand and Auteuil resort to vandalism and sabotage to ensure the naive Depardieu’s failure. But in pursuing their cruel strategy, the smirking Soybeyrans unwittingly seal their own disastrous fate, opening a Pandora’s Box that will eventually unleash upon them a ruthless justice of recrimination, regret and abject misery.

The film works both as an engrossing rural melodrama, and as a tactile evocation of time and place. Cameraman Bruno Nuytten’s glowing frames are filled with the rocky cliffs, dusty trails and azure skies of the Vaucluse district. It’s a landscape as beautiful as it is unforgiving, and those who attempt to scratch out a living from its hardscrabble wastes must fight and conquer the hostilities of nature. But equally harsh is the bedrock of arrogance and narcissism that lies just below the surface of the Soybeyrans. Berri cleverly makes the family’s odious history visually manifest in Auteuil’s gap-toothed, squinty-eyed portrayal of the appropriately named Ugolin. Looking like a French peasant version of Alfred E. Newman, this role made Auteuil an international star; his embodiment so convincing audiences were shocked to later learn that off screen he was actually a handsome fellow.

But this is truly Gerard Depardieu’s movie. His energetic capture of the urban innocent with dreams of a simple life in the country still rings true today. His attempt to learn farming from musty textbooks is a classic miscalculation that initially amuses, then turns dangerous and deadly as his fruitless toil damages his body and psyche. Depardieu dominates his scenes, emitting a foolhardy passion that seems to jump from the screen. And as we will learn in the sequel Manon of the Spring (1986), underneath Depardieu’s infantile enthusiasm lies an arrogant streak of his own, and he comes by it honestly.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Notorious Turns 70

Those looking to curl up with a sleek and stylish thriller could do a lot worse than Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious from 1946. Now celebrating its 70th birthday, Notorious is an engrossing and - at 101 minutes - efficient piece of moviemaking that artfully avoids spelling out every iota of backstory; often substituting mood and nuance for conventional plotting. It’s a film that feels very modern, despite its shaggy vintage, and incorporates enough noir elements to remain true to its lineage, while charting a narrative course for the legions of spy flicks that followed.

Written by the legendary script doctor Ben Hecht – winner of the first ever screenwritng Oscar for Underworld in 1927 - Notorious is as lean and spare as a haiku. Through just a few laser focused scenes, Hecht and Hitchcock establish their characters’ histories, tendencies and motivations without a single wasted word or gesture. The sprawling plot will involve complex schemes with international implications, yet not a moment feels false, rushed or over simplified. The story gives us only the necessary and savory tidbits, perfectly reduced to the elemental, and Hitchcock commits nary a fumble in its deceptively simple execution.

Set in Miami, Notorious is all about Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), daughter of a convicted Nazi spy, who has decided that oblivion drinking and easy virtue are fine methods of forgetting her troubles. During a sloppy party one night at her beachbox bungalow she meets a handsome friend-of-a-friend named Devlin (Cary Grant) and, several bottles later, Alicia finds herself reeling, both from lust and too much wine. But Devlin has designs greater than a quick roll in the hay. His employer, a nameless U.S. spy agency, has determined that Alicia has the perfect resume for a secret mission to save the world from nuclear destruction, and it’s Devlin’s job to transform this hollow-legged floozy into a competent spook.

Notorious features a cast of such stalwart talents its reductive story takes on larger and richer dimensions. Claude Rains is fun to watch as an architect of evil undone by his own mushy lapses, and makes a superb foil for Grant. The great Louis Calhern, as Devlin’s boss Prescott, reprises his sleazy diplomat role from Duck Soup - and a dozen other pictures – and it’s a joy to watch this consummate character actor ply his craft. Bergman’s apparent effortlessness is impressive, and few leading ladies could pull off her transformation from Florida party girl to reserved hausfrau as convincingly. And Grant, despite the gravity of his role, glides through with his patented elegance and beguiling sense of imminent wit.

In the Hitchcock filmography, Spellbound precedes Notorious by a year, but the stylistic differences between the films seems like decades. Spellbound, a Selznick production, feels stogy and stagebound, its sets clunky and overdecorated; brimming with an insecure person’s idea of good taste. Notorious, produced by Hitchcock himself, feels fresh and contemporary and it’s a fitting battlefield for this tale of entrenched European privilege versus the ideals of a New World. While Spellbound wallowed in shadowy plot contrivances, Notorious attacks its narrative with straightforward, determined vigor. Here, Hitchcock tells a tight, muscular story in a tight, muscular style, and provides both a model and a standard for countless Cold War spy thrillers still to come.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Little Miss Sunshine Turns 10

Little Miss Sunshine is a lively ensemble comedy that launched and augmented a number of careers on both sides of the camera. For the directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it marked a successful transition from the dwindling music video market that first brought them notoriety, to the world of mainstream Hollywood features. The film quickly catapulted unknown writer Michael Arndt to the A list, where he eventually added such hits as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Inside Out to his illustrious filmography. For young actor Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine drew his unique vulnerability out of the shadows, and made him the industry’s most sought after brooding presence. And for veteran character actor Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine finally brought him a well deserved Oscar, after three failed nominations dating back to 1969.

The film is all about the hectic, struggling Hoover family of Albuquerque headed by Richard (Greg Kinnear) and Sheryl (Toni Collette). Also under roof are a snarling, heroin addicted grandpa (Arkin), a gothy teenager who has taken a vow of silence (Dano), a Proust-scholar uncle who has recently attempted suicide (Steve Carell), and Olive, a chubby 9 year old daughter with dreams of stardom (Abigail Breslin). When Olive is invited to compete in an uber-tacky kid’s beauty contest at the last minute, this motley band piles into an aging VW bus for a poorly planned road trip to Redondo Beach. Through a series of misadventures, virtually everyone in the family has their hopes and dreams crushed to dust, in ways that are both hilarious and disturbing. Yet they bravely venture on, pursuing a dream that always seems to lie just beyond the horizon.

Little Miss Sunshine is a movie that’s more than the sum its parts. Like the films of John Hughes, it’s a lightweight comedy that manages to reach deeply into the zeitgeist. This story of illusions shattered by reality was a unique and resonant reflection of its time. Bogged down in a war launched for illusionary reasons, reveling in an economic prosperity that would also prove to be an illusion, Little Miss Sunshine was a fitting allegory for post-9/11 America. The battered, rag-tag Hoover family, united by bonds of love that bend but never break, traverse the Continental Divide in their sputtering microbus; its rusty muffler belching acrid whiffs of The Grapes of Wrath for a new millennium.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Today in Bunched History: Luche Libre Starring Blue Demon (1970)

Originally Posted July 10, 2009

I've been a fan of flamboyant Mexican wrestlers ever since my Dad and I saw Mil Mascaras beat the snot out of the villainous Greg Valentine at the fairgrounds 30 years ago. Yeah, yeah I know wrasslin' is fake, but I would think a 250 lb man jumping on you from the top rope would have to smart at least a little bit. Mexico holds its heroic grapplers in high esteem, featuring them in magazines, advertisements and, naturally, action films.

In this silly diversion, a group of luchadors enmascarado attempts to protect some beauty pageant contestants from the evil designs of a mad scientist and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of midget wrestler henchmen.

Our barrel-chested heros get themselves in a variety of pickles, but are saved by teamwork, agility and the fact that the mad scientist's various contraptions always seem to go haywire at critical moments.

The action is accompanied by a twinkly cocktail party jazz score that makes no sense whatsoever. The filmmaking is sloppy, amateurish, riddled with continuity errors and I adored every minute of it. Alain Resnais did not direct this film.

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Saturday, July 9, 2016

Climates Turns 10

Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan (last name pronounced JAY-lin) has become a fixture at the Cannes Film Festival in the past decade. During that time, his work has won numerous Critic’s Awards and Grand Prizes, culminating in the prestigious Palme d’Or for Winter Sleep in 2014. While his films have tackled a wide range of situations and subjects, his unique, singular style of filmmaking has created a body of work unified in look and feel, and consistent in its excellence. To describe Ceylan's aesthetics, one must look to the somber, deliberate tomes of his idol Andrei Tarkovsky as a heavy stylistic influence. But Ceylan adds his own subtle comedic flavoring to the mix, with sharply observed details of flawed humanity that will have you marveling at their universal truths. Ceylan’s films manage to be both morose and life-affirming, and that’s a pretty neat trick.

Climates from 2006 is a beautifully photographed contemplation on the perils of romantic relationships, and the capricious nature of dependency. It’s about a middle-age college professor and his younger girlfriend (played by Ceylan and his real life wife Ebru) who find the glow of their long term love affair fading. During a vacation amid ancient Roman ruins - a symbol for the couple’s subtle, gnawing bitterness - they eventually decide to split up. But the sense of loss and recrimination that ruined their love continues to fester, as the couple realize they can escape each other, but not themselves.

At heart, Climates is a very simple film that stands on the strength of its stark execution. In many scenes the only audio is the sound of a character breathing; the only action an intense stare. Yet out of this rawest minimalism emerges a love story that will haunt you for days. With settings ranging from sunny Mediterranean beach towns to snowy mountain villages, Ceylan maps an ever changing emotional landscape through the volatile natural splendors of his native land. Climates is not a story of humanity vs. nature, but humanity vs. human nature.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Page Turner Turns 10

Despite its elegant, understated atmosphere, The Page Turner (2006) is a powerful French thriller that delivers plenty of nail-biting tension. It’s a tale of slow-simmering revenge, as a former piano student from the wrong side of the tracks (Déborah François) hatches a subtle scheme to get even with a famous concert pianist (Catherine Frot), over an insult suffered many years ago. In a manner reminiscent of All About Eve, François slowly weaves her way into Frot’s household and eventually makes the whole family dependent on her. Her trap set, François proceeds to quietly dismantle the lives of her benefactors one by one, leaving her victims hollow emotional ruins.

Directed with brooding Haneke-esque formality by Danis Delcourt, The Page Turner is constructed with the delicacy of a spider web, and with equally deceptive strength. As François patiently and methodically pursues her goal, her true aims are often unclear to the viewer, which only makes the end results more satisfying. While most thrillers require some suspension of disbelief, here every chess move of the plot feels genuine and logical. And chess is an apt metaphor, as clearly François is thinking at least three moves ahead of her unsuspecting and hapless victims.

The Page Turner also owes a stylistic debt to the work of Hitchcock and Chabrol in the way it unleashes deep personal destruction with a minimum of conflict and violence. The thrills and chills occur in the mysterious landscape of the human mind, with fears cleverly manipulated, weaknesses exploited and false vanities crushed. It’s a film that entertains and surprises and, like its namesake, will keep you enthralled from the very first frame. It’s also a cautionary tale of why you should always try to be nice to everybody. In the long run, it’s really the best policy.